Any person who has spent time in Armenia will have a story—or seven—to recount. I find that, in all my years in the country, I have come across some pretty interesting occurrences. All right, maybe “interesting” is too broad a word to use, but such mini-adventures in the Homeland can be anything from simply funny to downright surreal.
There was a blog once upon a time to document such stories, like the time I was stuck in an elevator. There was fortunately somebody in the corridor of the building who shouted at us that we were too heavy, and that we needed to lift and balance ourselves on the handles inside. Sure enough, once we got our feet off the ground in a performance of pretend gymnastics, we started to move again. Note that the mass within was entirely conserved. Apparently, the mechanism that determined the weight limit of the elevator needed to be fooled.
Or the time my brother ordered a cheeseburger at a restaurant. What did he get? A bun, with cheese. Just cheese. When asked, the waiter patiently explained to us, “‘Cheese’ Anglerenoum ‘paneer’ e nshanakoum” (“‘Cheese’ means ‘cheese’ in English”). So, clearly, that’s all there was to a cheeseburger. What were we complaining about? Fast-forward a few years to that very same restaurant, and the menu contains a pizza “quattro formaggi”—with five kinds of cheese.
And who can ever forget that first ride down from Zvartnots Airport into the city? What is with all those casinos? The last thing anyone would expect. There’s a new one now, past the other edge of town, which consists of two buildings that look like they are mimicking Ararat. That design seems like a gamble all right.
I took a long-distance marshrutka (mini-bus) ride recently. The van came with a television, and the driver had put on a DVD that blasted one rabiz music video after another. I didn’t know that genre of music was such an immense industry. So many songs, so many clips! And their technical quality was outstanding. But Armenia is missing out. It appears by the shooting locations and all the concerts and awards ceremonies that Los Angeles is the major rabiz music hub of the world. How’s that for surreal?
And then there was my first time in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabagh). (That in itself is a thought-provoking experience.) One day, we were offered a ride from Shoushi to Stepanakert in the local hospital’s ambulance. The men who worked for the hospital were doing us a kindness, and I readily hopped onboard, when suddenly one of our party asked, What if the ambulance were needed then? Indeed, it hadn’t occurred to me. So I guess the surreality starts to grow on you. Or maybe you grow into the surreality.
There are so many of these stories. So many.
I happened to be walking past the U.S. ambassador’s residence one evening (additional side question: In how many places in the world can one randomly walk past the presidential palace, the parliament, the American or any ambassador’s residence?) and the house directly across from it—the house of just a regular Armenian family—was playing loud hip-hop gangster music. I don’t know what Her Excellency thought of this scenario, but I found the juxtaposition to be quite hilarious.
There are many things, big and small, to laugh at and to complain about in the Homeland, as well as things that, simply put, cause a double-take. Every place in the world, admittedly, has its own idiosyncrasies. However, even though I can’t say I’ve been everywhere, Armenia seems to have much more than its fair share of quirks that make an impression.
Like the way roads are maintained around here. What is up with the cutting off of squares of asphalt? They never re-do entire roads; quadrilaterals of asphalt are drilled into and filled. In between the slicing off and filling, though, they are often left to be added to Armenia’s burgeoning pothole collection. We have the neatest, most rectangular potholes in the world.
Now, for the cold, calculating, Western professional, these sorts of things are just plain bad for business. And, indeed, many negative practices are being recognized as such and are being done away with, slowly but surely. This is presumably for the better. And yet, it is undeniable that there is something sweet, down-to-earth, and outright cozy about these sorts of things.
I was going in the Yerevan metro the other day, and a stranger one turnstile over put in a metro token for me. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “What? Go on.” I replied, “Why? Why are you paying for me?” He got upset, turned over the turnstile (thereby wasting 50 drams), and said, “Fine! Whatever! I was trying to be nice!” and walked away in a huff as I called after him in vain, “But why? You didn’t have to do that…”
I fear we are going to lose this personal touch in Armenia over time. Already, the difference is evident in social attitudes when comparing the way people conduct themselves in Yerevan, for example, and elsewhere in the country. Perhaps it is a good thing, perhaps not in some ways. Meanwhile, frustrating though it may often be, there can be very memorable moments—one way or another—in our very special Homeland.