Category Archives: Culture

Home Renovation in Yerevan

The paper-thin linoleum floors had finally given out in my rental apartment. The material was so flimsy that it could be torn effortlessly with bare hands. In some places the floor began to buckle or literally come loose at the seams — I had to keep the vinyl together using clear tape. And although the foyer and kitchen adjoined, the flooring in each didn’t match at all–completely different colors and patterns.  I discussed the possibility of changing the floors with my landlord in the spring of 2014 with no success — he refused to consider replacing the linoleum on the grounds that 2.5 meter wide flooring was no longer available on the market (not true), and that the kids would end up destroying the replaced floor anyway. At the time I had the mindset that since the home wasn’t technically mine I would not pay to have the floor redone. That was until a few weeks ago, when a corner of the floor came up after opening both the twin front doors. That was the last straw. It was time to go floor shopping.

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But before I could go anywhere upon recommendation I asked a flooring guy over  to suggest options and give an estimate. His name is Edgar, and he recommended either ceramic tile or linoleum replacement. I chose the latter since the tile installation was not cost-effective plus the floors are actually uneven — there’s about a quarter inch step-up into the kitchen. I wasn’t about to pay umpteen dollars to even it all out.

The challenge was finding the linoleum. I wanted a light color, similar to the faux parquet beige pattern that was in the kitchen (see photo). I decided to have the flooring installed last weekend, on Saturday. Edgar insisted that we could find something at the “Knuni” home improvement market right down the street from where I live, but we only found one store that didn’t have the required length of flooring we needed, which was 9 meters. Our trek on foot led us down to Nar-Dos Street, which proved fruitless. We only found stores specializing in wood or ceramic flooring.

One shop keeper recommended that we visit some stores on Tigran Mets Street, on the block between Nar-Dos and Kristapor Streets. Some of these stores are known for selling  low-grade Iranian and Turkish home goods, like plastic storage containers, rainbow-tinted feather dusters and flimsy aluminum cookware. But, as it turned out, there are shops that sell reams of flooring of all different shades and patterns. After visiting three stores I settled on a vinyl flooring with a cappuccino colored oak wood pattern.  It was perfect — the required width of 2.5 meters, gorgeous pattern and over three-times thicker than the other flooring, which was put down as a fast and cheap short-term solution to begin with (at today’s rate, that junky flooring costs about 3,000 dram, or $6.20 a meter). The flooring I chose was manufactured by a Slovenian company called Juteks and claimed to be doggie proof, meaning that I should’t have to worry about my pet Chihuahua having occasional (okay, daily) accidents. That set me back about 57,000 dram, or $118. I remember having to wait about five minutes for the shop owner to run about attempting to make change for 60,000 dram — he didn’t have three 1,000 dram notes to give back in the till (if one even existed). He ended up taking out the cash from his own wallet.  Strange that literally nothing has changed in the last 15 years since I first stepped foot in Armenia with reliably and consistently having small change returned in a cash transaction. Somehow, it’s worse than ever.

Next came the purchase of wall boards — the decorative band made from wood or vinyl that hugs the base of the walls where they meet the floor. We found a vinyl one that supposedly matched the color of the floor perfectly, but it was sitting in a warehouse nearby. But instead of picking the boards up in the store I actually bought them from, we were sent to a different store. It took 45 minutes for the boards to arrive, only to see that not only were they the wrong color, they were not produced by the same manufacturer and I had to get my money back, which meant a trek to the shop we were just in. That fiasco led us on another search inside the labrinth-like “Knuni” market, which is essentially rows and rows of merchants selling all sorts of hardware, from power tools to door locks to wrench sets. It turned out that most resellers all depended on the same distributor and would only offer us the very same wall boards that we rejected. Miraculously, we somehow found another seller that had his own inventory and he had exactly what I was looking for. Another visit to a warehouse kept us waiting an additional 20 minutes. Both of us were completely fed up at that point, and I promised I would buy anything the guy found in there, so long as it wasn’t blue. But Edgar refused to install the flooring that afternoon claiming that he wouldn’t have been able to finish by sundown had he started work at 12:30 pm when we returned home. I didn’t understand why that was so important to him, but the job was deferred to Sunday.

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I should emphasize that Edgar is great at what he does. He doesn’t have an excellent eye for detail and his logic for doing things, like stapling seams together instead of using an adhesive, was a bit odd. Luckily, a friend lent me some nail polish that perfectly matches the floor shade so I’ve been successful in concealing the staples. Now I have to be extra careful about where I step since my dog is bizarrely perfectly camouflaged. I didn’t realize she would blend right into the floor until she took her first few trepidatious steps on the virgin surface. She took a pee a couple minutes later.

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Reflections on April 24

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Now that some time has passed since the commemoration events held in Istanbul, I can finally freely post some photos and also part of the journal I was keeping at the time.

Firstly, I should say that the events planned by Project 2015 were phenomenal. They were brilliantly organized and executed. The organizers were gracious and caring to all the attendees, and they were well prepared for the days’ events. I unfortunately was not in Istanbul to attend the legendary memorial concert on April 22 featuring Onnik and Ara Dinkjian among other fine musicians, but from what I understand it was a moving performance (and apparently is on YouTube).

It was my first trip to Istanbul, and it was without a doubt one of the greatest adventures of my life. As you’ll see in photos I will post soon, Istanbul is a colorful, dynamic city where nothing seems to be impossible. Although I primarily spent all my time there in the Beyoglu district  and also the Golden Horn, I felt a peculiar, indescribable bond with the city, as if I had been away for several decades. For many years I vowed to never set foot in Turkey, not until the government recognized the Armenian Genocide. But some time ago I started getting over that. I realized that regardless of anything, Turkey–Western Armenia–is the home of my ancestors, and whether the Turks acknowledge the genocide or not, my roots are still there. That land is awaiting me.

I did not feel that there was anything relevant for me personally in being in Yerevan for the 24th. Nothing compelled me to march up Tsisternakaberd once again, droopy tulips in hand. The centennial was an event, it was a milestone, and for countless others like me, something had to be done differently this time around. I had heard one argument that by choosing to commemorate the centennial in Istanbul people were looking back in time instead of forward. I disagree. There was no other place on earth more symbolic for holding Armenian Genocide commemoration events than Istanbul.

Below are my notes recorded at the end of that day.

April 24, 2015

The day was an emotional one. It wasn’t depressing for me, however. Perhaps that’s because I was caught up in the shock of being here.

Yesterday as I debarked the airplane at Ataturk Airport a strange thought came to my head — was I home now? This musing was ironic since I had arrived from Yerevan, my home for 10 years. It’s where my children were born. But my roots are in Anatolia, not the South Caucasus. So was I home? Does it matter that I have no family ties to Constantinople? How does my identity as an American factor into this?

This question was reinforced by other feelings, emotions that I wanted to subdue yet they were there, cacophonous in the soul but somehow latent. It started late in the evening and continued this morning. I contemplated that I was looking for a connection with my past in the wrong place all these years. It’s as if I was deceiving myself. My ancestral home is indeed Anatolia. It’s not Yerevan, it’s not anywhere in the Armenian republic. I still feel the need to go home. Yegheki is waiting. Sousoury is waiting. Urfa is waiting. These places are all expecting me, I sense it, I can even taste it. I’m almost there. I’m looking for the right time to go, with the supportive companionship I will undoubtedly need to have. I can’t take that trip home alone, not the first time there.

It was a full day of visiting historic locations from mid-morning to late afternoon, from the site where Gomidas Vartabed once resided in Istanbul (the original building having been raised decades ago), to the jailhouse where the arrested intellectuals were detained (which is now called the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art) to the Haydarpasa train station via ferry from where these same intellectuals were sent by railcar to their doom.

At 6:30 pm I set out for the site that is sanctioned for the protest adjacent to Taksim Square on Istiklal Street, but I decided to bypass it and walk up Tarlabasi Street instead, then left onto Zambak. At the Zambak-Istiklal intersection I met a barricade of police. Men and women in full riot gear were on the sidelines, preparing for the worst. There was a rumbling chant in the distance coming from far down Istiklal Street. What appeared to be hundreds of people (close to 5000 protesters assembled that evening) were already gathered for the protest but there was no way of getting to them; the policeman told me the area was “closed.” I walked all the way around the block via a side street I luckily managed to discover only to be told on Taksim Square that the area was blocked off—the same secure police barrier was there as well. I told a policeman that I wanted to join my friends, that I was an Armenian. He told me to go back to the other side, where I had just been. I rushed back, weaving in and out of the chain of random pedestrians strolling about, clueless of the protest that was about to formally start. When I finally returned the chants were now louder because marchers entered the protest area walking right past me. For a moment I stood in fear thinking that Kemalists had managed to enter the area sanctioned for the protest. Then I saw the placards that people were holding and I was relieved. The signs told us not to forget Sevag Balikci, the soldier serving in the Turkish military who was murdered on April 24, 2011. They demanded that the genocide be admitted. I saw familiar faces, close friends nearby. There was a call and response method to the chanting. The power it transmitted was overpowering, exhilarating. It was unlike any protest I have ever participated in—the emotions, the intensity of the moment, the energy transmitted from person to person as if a rolling wave in a calm sea. The chanting continued for several minutes before the mass sit-in protest officially began. Thousands sat on the brick pavement, listening to speeches being read in Turkish, Armenian and English. Amongst us were Turks, Armenians from Istanbul and across the Diaspora, French, Darfuri. Occasionally recordings of spiritual music performed with modern arrangements were played on the loudspeakers. The mood was solemn; I discerned one woman in particular holding back tears.

I wanted to weep but I couldn’t. The chants of the oppositional anti-Armenian protests in the distance kept breaking the mood to mourn. I yearned to weep for my great-grandfather Nishan Guetchudian, who never watched his daughter Clara grow up. There are no photos of him, no traces. It’s as if he never existed. I wanted to imagine my grandfather Hagop surviving on the streets of Aleppo, compelled to eat weeds, picking through gravel and dirt in search of nails or anything made of metal to sell to a blacksmith so he could buy a loaf of bread—or perhaps two loaves, one being a distraction for the dozens of other starving children hovering around him, begging for a morsel. I wanted to imagine how infant Lusine Mahakian, comforted by her mother and her siblings managed to flee Urfa for Syria, sheltered from time to time by acquaintances. But I can’t. How can anyone possibly fathom having to survive an inferno of devastation, slaughter, rot, famine and filth? How do you begin to imagine it all? It’s not possible. You can stare all you want at the photographs of decapitated heads piled up in pyramids of evil, bewildered women roaming while clutching their babes, the gallows where dozens of devastated men sway, emaciated, decomposing children laid tightly beside one another in rows that never seem to end. It’s simply not possible for us to in any way to visualize that hell as if we were there in the moment. And we are better for that. Our martyrs would not want us to imagine it. One hundred years later they beckon us not to forget them, while imploring us to move on.

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Haydarpasa
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Haydarpasa protest
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Haydarpasa protest
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In front of the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, previously known as the gate to hell a century back
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Taksim Square Protest, additional photos below

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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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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.