By Aida Kouyoumjian
Mercer Island, WA
Living in Yerevan for nearly four months was a larger – than- life experience which consumed my whole being from the moment I put foot on the Armenian soil. And one cannot leave Armenia unchanged.
Let me say that “It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times”. I am returning to Armenia in March – thatís the good. And so was the self -discovery – that I was spending the second half of my life re-living my youth. Lifestyle, culture, social mores in Armenia replicated my lifestyle in Baghdad, Iraq, some 45 years ago, especially the close ties among family members. Who said one cannot go back in time! Life was VERY difficult, but I was and am nostalgic to that part of my background
I owe the wondrous opportunity of going to Yerevan to Professor Barlow Der Mugrdechian of California State University, who orchestrated my assignments at Yerevan State University and my contacts with USDA. I worked with: first- year and fifth- year students at YSU; the faculty and the staff at the Agricultural Academy; the employees at AgroPress; and drivers hired by USDA. All in all, I was involved in 12 classes, 120 students, in four different institutions. I want to thank Barlow in this open letter for being the impetus for these life – enriching experiences.
The appreciation expressed to me by the Armenians and the sacred stature of Mt. Ararat beckon me back. Being looked at as a mentor, teacher, inspirer, is quite humbling. I am compelled to return, hoping to pass on the benefits of volunteering, although what I can offer to meeting their needs is infinitesimal. The teaching projects in which I got involved need to be developed, and I hope to delegate the continuation of these classes to local teachers before I resettle in Seattle and settle just for Mt. Rainier
The following is an excerpt from a newsletter that I sent to my friends in October. I hope it will humor you. Impressions of Yerevan (October 1, 1997).
After several trips into Yerevan, on my own and without a Yerevanite as a guide, Iíve acquired the distinct impression that Yerevan is not Paris. I have come from the cleanliness of Seattleís passive greenery into the bombast of a swarm of crowds traversing on unkempt streets of a gigantic garage sale that must have been the ancient system of order Yerevanites thrived in. Every vendor and every beggar, bar, bus tour, businessman, mulls through shrill sounds, impatient horns, make-your-own-rules crosswalks, wild aromas of khorovads (BBQ, or shish-kebabs), and women….and men…..in throngs, packed in buses, hanging from trolleys, standing in trams, jammed in the underground Metro, but mostly on foot in broad daylight and at night.
Ah, the way they dress! The first thing that hit me about the womenís attire was in the prevalence of contrasting brilliant solid colors: glistening red on black, jarring yellow with black, brilliant chartreuse and black, glittering salmon in black. The styles are grabbers too: hot pants, micro-shirts zippered to the hemline, long tight skirts slit to the upper thigh, lacy see-through, all in stark view in this perpetual clear skies of the glaring sun. The coiffeurs and the make -up can easily put soap-opera stars to shame. And, I havenít met a short Armenian yet. How they walk in those stacked-high-heels along the cracks of dusty and unmaintained sidewalks is beyond me! I thank Nordstromís Easy Spirit for sparing me the agony of juggling heels on chips of concrete.
Not only how they walk, but how much they walk! Errands are done on foot. Visiting friends is done on foot. Going to work or school is done on foot. Women drivers are a rarity, and I was told that ìNice girls donít driveî All this glamour in broad daylight and a bag to carry too -a cellophane bag, that is. And I used to pride in my uniqueness of being the Bag of Baghdad.
The male gender on the other hand is a unique race of his own- a cross- breed between Omar Sherif and Anastas Mikoyan. They, too, are dressed for success, mostly in silk suits and Nehru shirts with embroidered cuffs and collars. They smoke incessantly, and gulp down bottles of Coca Cola and Fanta in humongous quantities. They drive the small Russian two-door Neva and do they show off for a walker they fancy-burning rubber and making illegal U-turns (but then everybody makes his own driving rules, anyway). Iíve had my share of admirers-a 20 year Omar Sharif-type with healthy mustache, who doesnít drive at all and is retired on $7.00 per month ( thatís not a typo). Obviously, Iíve left them in their respective niches, and …and…continue to look for a better match.
So much for impressions, as I know youíd like to know about my life. Let me tell you what I miss most-a shower. The last real shower I took was in Amsterdam, on August 23, 1997, where I spent a night in a five-star hotel because Dutch authorities grounded the Armenian Airlines overnight. Since then, my living conditions at the Yerevan State University dorms have not differed from that of a camper. I have a good sized room with 12 foot ceiling, a tiny bulb hanging from it. We have running water three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening. The piled up washing chores receive priority at those hours. Iíve had to decline a dinner engagement, and Iíve had my neighbor dash out of my room because he heard the running water in his room.
So what do I eat? Never fear – the American Embassy is near. After 6 weeks, though, I am tired of their cooking – itís neither American nor Armenian. Iíve been lucky to have a plethora of khorovadz, stands in my neighborhood. Pork khorovadz, lamb khorovadz, ground meat, liver, lungs – each rolled in lavish bread with parsley, tomatoes and onions – so aromatic and tasty – in spite of flies and bees, and the dire need for Imodium AD. Everyday, cafe-like restaurants pop up, such as Yum – Yum Donuts, Pizza de la Roma, and Queen Burger ( not Burger King).
I must confess that the tomatoes, vine- ripened and juicy, are delicious. So are all fruits and vegetables, though strictly seasonal. Iíve been eating eggplant everyday, prepared in a thousand and one ways. Do you people out there want a recipe book? I should mention the bakeries and pastries. My, Oh my! I used to think that Vienna was the capital of pastries. Yerevan puts it to shame. Yes, the pakhlava and choreg (nazook) are available at many bakeries within a block from each other, but you ought to see the trays of Napoleons, cream puffs, and giant- size tortes- itís fabulously European and pricey.
When I first arrived, I was assigned to 60 female and 3 male 5th – year English major students at Yerevan State University. They are smart and fluent in British English. So I am orienting them to Americanism, the culture, lifestyle,idiomatic expression, and US history-my own devised curriculum. The students come to class dressed to kill, that is when they do actually come to class- absenteeism is like 70% each session. Iíve been told that students attend classes at whim. My job with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is truly gratifying. The studentsthere are the professors of the Armenian Agricultural Academy- better known as AAA, and under my tutelage pronounced Triple A-no puns intended. Some of these professors donít know any English and others have a smattering of it. I enjoy them immensely. Unlike the University students, these are highly motivated and serious about taking time off their duties to attend my sessions. Above all, they are fun and funny – and most of them are men-quite a contrast from YSU.
So how do I get around? I walk for personal needs. But I have two, not one, chauffeurs who drive me to work. One is provided by the USDA for the Academy sessions, and the other one Iíve hired for $10 per week, to take me to the YSU, and occasional shopping sprees. I set the rate myself and Iíve been told thatís too generous. What the heck – the guy hasnít had a job in two years, and supports three daughters, a wife and his mother.
As I write this last paragraph from Seattle, I suddenly realize that there is no conclusion for Armenia, but one peerless continuous memory – Armenia has become my ìShangri-Laî. Unlike James Hiltonís heroine of Lost Horizon, I havenít suddenly aged upon my departure. Instead Iíve discovered that my intellect is imbedded in Americanism, my heart lingers for Baghdad, and my soul hovers at the foot of Mt. Ararat.