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The Magic of Armenian Architecture

Last month I had the privilege of returning to majestic northern Lori and visit some touristic sites I hadn’t seen in several years. One of my companions, a close friend from Boston, had never been to the region, while the other chap hadn’t visited the area in decades.

Haghpat and Akhtala are two of my favorite spots in the entire country, both of them being divine architectural masterpieces. Akhtala is one of the few churches in the country where the frescoes on the interior walls are still preserved–only Samoghsavank and St. John the Baptist church down in Meghri come to mind as other examples. Haghpat was the monastery where famous troubadour Sayat Nova served.

I’ll let the images speak for themselves.

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Surviving Yerevan’s Sizzling Summer

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It’s been a nasty summer in Yerevan, with temperatures hovering at 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) or higher for at least two months straight, with an occasional dip to 85-90 degrees now and then. The 10-day forecast according to Yahoo Weather shows that the trend will continue through the middle of September.

In my 10 years (can hardly believe it’s been that long) of living in Armenia there has never been such a brutal summertime, a relentless heat wave from the boroughs of inferno. And thanks to the stone buildings in my neighborhood walking down the street in late afternoon often feels like strolling through a brick oven. The only thing missing was the treat of a fragrant, rich fresh mozzarella and cherry tomato pizza waiting at the far side.

My boys, Areg and Shant, and I would often take strolls in the early to mid evening, the only somewhat tolerable time to go out with them. Naturally we’d almost always make it to a water fountain — one of at least a dozen in the city center — to cool off in the refreshing, kissing mist. Charles Aznavour Square seems to be the least chaotic in the evenings for fountain lovers and very appealing to toddlers as well as babies who are stroller or carrier bound (I use either/or, but I rather favor my Baby Bjorn “kangaroo” as carriers are called here). The often breezy Cascade steps were always a nice getaway from the apartment, too.

Being the proud father that I am, I thought I’d post some photos of the boys from the last two months,  loving every moment that life brings, damn the heat.  They indeed always make me feel refreshed whenever I’m with them, their sublime smiles pleasant breezes to soothe my soul.

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Serenity in Dilijan

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All the stresses in my personal life instigate havoc in my intestines. I find it hard to breathe and my heart is beating faster than it should. The intense heat produced by the unforgiving sun penetrates my hairless head and makes me feel unusually tired, as I find myself dragging my feet behind me while I make my way home from the cafe where I work part of the day. Even a 10-hour stretch of sleep during a single night does nothing to curb the listlessness, the emptiness I feel in my chest, the restless, discontented mind puckered like an unripened watermelon shriveled by the ardent sun permeating the Ararat valley. A sojurn to Dilijan is the answer.

I carefully pack an overnight bag with pants, three pairs of underwear, polo shirts, a long-sleeve dungaree shirt if the temperature turns nippy, a couple of V-necks and a few Band-Aids to cover the small wound just under the base of my fingernail on my left middle finger. I’m reading In Search of the Miraculous, a book describing the teachings of Gurdjieff, which rests on top of the clothes in the bag. I pack a small bag of dry dog food and bring Chi Chi the Chihuahua from Erebuni along. She’s a bit restless on my lap at first but she learns how to settle down. It’s her first long trip from home.

We arrive at a secluded B&B on the cusp of the Dilijan wilderness but are quickly turned away despite the place being deserted. I’m told a bus of tourists is being expected any minute. I leave offended, not believing the proprietor, a poet, who suffered no pain at rejecting us.
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We pull up beside the Magnit (sic) B&B situated on Kalinina Street, the road that leads out of the town towards Vanadzor. I ask if they will take us in and they agree instantly. We’re shown a tiny, nevertheless sunny room on the fourth floor with a narrow balcony overlooking the neighborhood and an extraordinary view of the rolling forested hills in the distance. The cost is 5000 dram a night plus 1500 for breakfast. After I close my gaping mouth I hand over the cash. I soon learn that the lock is finicky and takes some jittering and persuading to open the flimsy wooden door. Vochinch I say to myself. So long as I can recharge the battery. Chi Chi is a little nervous, still wondering what we’re doing there and where she’ll sleep. I unfold an old towel I brought along for the purpose on the parquet floor and tell her that’s bed. Problem solved.
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In the evening as we walk we stumble upon an old man sitting on a step, ashen beard several days long, dark tweed newsboy cap. Turns out he’s aged 75 as he reveals in conversation. I sit beside him to listen and learn. The meeting with the mysterious miniscule dog is love at first sight. He chats, mixing Armenian phrases with Russian, expecting me to undersand. I tell him my Russian is very weak so he takes the hint. He doesn’t and answers what I tell him in a language that has never spoken to me. He reveals that he loves animals, especially dogs. He wants to know where she came from, who sold it to me. He’s from Dilijan, has lived here all his life. He has two homes and his son operates a tiny grocery store street side. He jabbers on in Russian, and I find myself giving monosyllabic answers in English. We continue on into the darkness, searching for the right spot, then cross the street and descend the hill to keep looking. She sniffs then stops to investigate. She looks up at me for approval. I tell her again to do her pee-pee. No matter where we walk Chi Chi delights. Everyone seems to get a kick out of her, some approach, others chuckle from a distance. I’m proud of my blond 8-inch high Mexican buddy.
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Waking refreshed the next morning I decide to stay another night and make the necessary arrangements. Breakfast is a little meager, three small pieces of salty white cheese, five slices of greasy salami I don’t touch, a generous pile of matnakash bread, an ounce of apricot jam, a dab of butter and a single boiled egg.  Given the uninspiring portions it’s a bit pricey at four dollars. Then again, I’m not there to feast.
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We decide to walk for a few hours throughout down. Everyone gawks at Chi Chi, either in amusement, shock or disgust. Chi Chi stops every twenty feet or so to have a good sniff, still getting used to her surroundings. Near the nameless square in the middle of town is a pond that I’ve never noticed before. I can’t tell if it’s manmade or not. We sit on a bench built round the trunk of one of the twin weeping willow trees. After a few minutes a man around 50, surprisingly svelte, sits on the adjacent bench and starts asking questions about Chi Chi, what kind of dog, male or female, where did I get her from, how old. He asks me whether I’m from Iran (getting that a lot these days); I disappoint when telling him I’m from Boston. He says he’s going to Fresno in a couple of weeks to visit a close friend, then from there the pair is off to Miami for some R&R.  Then it’s back to France, where he works half the year doing who knows what. He asks me how I got there, and he’s surprised I like to drive a Niva. He tells me he had one once, expensive to maintain (others have told me the same, mine costs next to nothing to fix, assuming something goes wrong). He tells me he’s driven a few cars back to Armenia from Europe. He once bought a 1993 Mercedes that had been left for junk draped with dried leaves and other dusts of nature in someone’s driveway, with 170,000 kilometers driven. Claims to have paid only 300 euros for it, and that all he had to do was clean it up of course, change the fuel pump and install a brand new battery. Ended up selling it in Yerevan for several thousand dollars. Only Armenians can pull off these kinds of zany business transactions. On the way back to the hotel I decide to finally replace the passenger side window crank that broke about four years ago. The parts store owner tells me it’s a good one, with a metal frame. Feels solid in the hand. For some reason it takes me nearly an hour to figure out how to slide the old one off the door panel. Soviet technology is so simple it’s nearly impossible for a novice to decipher.

That evening is restless;  I toss and turn the entire night, finally falling asleep around 4:30 am. My flailing marriage is on my mind. The communication breakdown is as perplexing as the mid-April deep freeze that devastated the coveted grapes and apricots throughout the Ararat plains. I worry about my sons.
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Time to return home, to the dust and heat haze of Yerevan, to the insecurities of the loitering portly and scrawny self-conscious young men sporting fake Versace sunglasses, the boisterous beckons for the return of owned monies bellowed into shiny gold iPhones by middle aged mammoths, the neon pink stiletto high heels on the verge of snapping between the seams of stone tile sidewalks, the parade of tanned, voluptuous women abound, breasts heaving from their low-cut snug-fitting summer dresses. I already pine for my domicile in the cool alpine hills of Dilijan, my therapeutic paradise.
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The Yerevan of Tomorrow

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Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a discussion called Yerevan Spring sponsored by Yerevan Productions at the Armenian University of Armenia (AUA). Although the event was poorly attended, the invited speakers gave considerable insight as to what Yerevan currently offered to the global community, and the general consensus to summarize was “not much.”  But the one thing that troubled me was that in reference to Yerevan through words and images they seemed to be talking solely about Kentron, specifically its hub, ignoring its other thriving districts altogether.

There is nothing particularly spectacular about the architecture of the new monolithic, styleless buildings that have been constructed during the last decade and continue to go up. The history of the city has all but been erased, only slivers remain of the city I fell in love with in 2000. One of the speakers, an artist who lived outside Armenia for many years, described the free-for-all urban development, some of which involves the destruction or careless renovation of historical landmarks as we saw last year with the “Pak Shuga” on Mashtots Street, as “anarchy.” This term is appropriate I think since zoning of any kind is clearly not being enforced, especially when you consider that strip bars exist in residential neighborhoods.

And when you look carefully at the construction of these high-rise buildings you’ll notice that the reinforcement rods they are using for these concrete buildings of dubious quality are already rusty, and the cinder blocks used for walls are poorly formed and literally crumble in the hands. Needless to say most of these dozens of new apartment buildings, some of which are lacking inhabitants,  have gone up in Kentron, especially the smaller center of Yerevan where the city’s famous tourist sites and the business district are found. And let’s face it — most of Yerevan hasn’t seen major development of any kind in the last 20 years, save for occasionally repaired roads that begin to crumble again before long.

Rather than figuring out methods to make more people smile as one woman pondered during the Q&A session, viable ways in which to improve districts of Yerevan beyond the confines of emblematic Kentron should be explored. Here’s a few thoughts:

1. Establish other centers of commerce and entertainment. People, especially tourists, want to be lured to other integral parts of any city they visit. Yerevan already has sites that can have immense appeal if only they were transformed into hip, attractive alternatives to the posh and sporadic pretentiousness of Kentron.

Karekin Nzhdeh Square located in the “Yerort Mass” neighborhood of Shengavit is a shining example of an area that can be a lot more if the vision and determination was put into action. Virtually all of the Stalin-era architecture, similar to what you find downtown, is intact and storefront property abound. With invested creative talent and capital  Karekin Nzhdeh Square can become a place where professionals weary of the bustle of Kentron can meet in bistros and cafés (the likeness of The Green Bean, Caffé Vergnano or Louis Chardin). Open some high-quality art galleries, eclectic gift and clothing shops and you have yet another attractive tourist destination that people will flock to — a 10-minute metro ride away from Republic Square.  It’s a goldmine of opportunity and creative output that earnestly needs to be explored.  The same can be done in Nork, a lovely hillside community a five-minute drive from Kentron that’s dying of stagnation and neglect.

2. Build a brand-new designated district for artists to create and live. This is not an original concept but it’s urgently needed. Just as Boston has its Fort Point Channel and New York City its Soho district, Yerevan likewise needs an area where artists can congregate in a common location to create, inspire and interact with one another. In turn, galleries, theaters and restaurants will open that cater to appreciators of the arts and artists themselves. It would be a center of performance art, living art, painting, sculpture, independent filmmaking and modern music, and would attract peers from around the globe. There are plenty of run-down and abandoned industrial parks that can be rejuvenated. Shells of former manufacturing plants can be revived and serve as loft space to the countless emerging artists that need the right work environment. To get there, you offer a dedicated bus route from a central bus stop in Kentron or hop in a taxi and pay a few bucks for a one-way trip. Better still, build affordable lodging that caters to visiting artists living on a tight budget.  Sure, loft space does exist in Yerevan, there are a couple of Soviet-era buildings on Hrachya Kochar Street  that thankfully were built to accommodate Armenian artists.   But a district dedicated solely to the arts is something that will establish Yerevan as a world center of creative innovation.

3. Make things. Investment in the manufacturing sector is weak. The IT sector needs to expand four-fold to encourage software engineers and innovators to stay put instead of fleeing to Silicon Valley or Canada.  According to official statistics the IT sector saw 23 percent annual growth from 2008-2012, with $244 million in total revenue for 2012. Ideally Armenia should see close to $1 billion in annual revenue, it should not be perceived an unrealistic feat. There is boundless potential and untapped talent starving for opportunity and the chance to prove themselves. And instead of outsourcing to China to make widgets, why not choose Armenia as an alternative manufacturing hub? Granted, Armenia is currently lacking direct access to ports, but the Black Sea is not inaccessible. On the contrary, international commerce has been conducted in Batumi by Armenian businessmen for years. Issues regarding the cost of freight and duties could be worked out with the government, if only there was the earnest of the business world’s desire to consider Armenia as a conduit for prosperity. Entertaining the notion isn’t foolhardy.

4. Beautify legendary sights. Victory Park perched high above Kentron is one area that seriously needs TLC. There’s the amusement park area, and that serves its own purpose. But the entrance and green space flanking the sidewalks leading to it are neglected. The vendors selling cheap toys, pinwheels, sunflower seeds and ice cream have to be relocated to the carnival venue, they shouldn’t be selling their junk in the actual park. In the central area where a stone sculpture of a clenched fist stands lie a string of claw machines filled with all sorts of crappy things, from cheap stuffed animals to packs of cigarettes. Last year when I took my son there early one evening parts of the sidewalks were crumbling and some gaps were impassable. On top of that we had to be vigilant of maniacs speeding around the park on four wheelers. The park is downright ugly and there’s endless ways to tastefully restore its tarnished magnificence. This is the ideal project for two young and dynamic landscape architects I know, brothers no less, who I hope are reading this post.

In the days to come I hope to visit some areas of Yerevan that I mention and document the unbridled potential in photographs. In the meantime, the images at the top and bottom of this post are before and after shots of the intersection where I live. I’ll let you be the judge of what scene is more attractive.

 

Welcome to the new home of Footprints

We’re please to announce the relaunch of Footprints, Hetq Online’s English-language blog.

This year will be Footprints‘ fifth anniversary. We’ll be focusing more on stories about people in your neighborhood—perhaps they’re people you’ve heard of but didn’t know much about. We will focus on the bright side of life in Armenia and Artsakh, not only in the capital but also in the regions, from Lori to Syunik, and we’ll describe sides of the Armenian experience that reveal authenticity of the soul and hearth. Expect lots of photography and short films documenting the visual cornucopia that Armenia has to offer, from rustic scenes of country life to the hustle and bustle of Yerevan’s distinctive streets. You can also browse the archives to read musings about Armenian politics, social issues and environmental protection initiatives, among several other stories related to Armenia as well as Artsakh and its citizenry. We value your suggestions, so if there’s something you’d like to know more about that hasn’t been documented here, please tell us.

Welcome back.

Mt. Ara