03 March 2009

Dichotomy

Although Yerevan was founded over 2,700 years ago, most of the buildings standing today were constructed during the Soviet era of the 20th century, which is very recent in comparison to other European capitals (even Paris, for example, has remained relatively unchanged since 1860, at least within the city limits). So while the majority of structures, trends, and attitudes in this city are quite new, everywhere you look, traces of the past remain, stubbornly refusing to fade away. As a result, one might say that Yerevan has a split personality.

The new overshadows the old: this heap of trash and rubble was clearly once someone's home; it's directly across the street from a Schwartzkopf professional salon, and steps away from brand new luxury apartment buildings on Northern Avenue.


Walk down a street lined with expensive restaurants and shops selling cutting edge electronics or hot-off-the-runway Italian fashions; turn a corner and you may find yourself in a time capsule, face to face with a centuries-old church or mosque, or the barely-preserved remains of a neighborhood comprised of mud-brick homes without modern conveniences, many still occupied by the descendants of those who lived during the Persian and Ottoman rule of Armenia (16th-19th centuries).

Just this past Saturday, as I was strolling down our street past the home of the U.S. Ambassador on my way to the metro station (which is currently undergoing a long-overdue technological facelift), I heard a rooster crowing from someone's backyard. I was hardly surprised...that makes two families I've counted in our urban neighborhood who keep chickens; several others often hang freshly shorn wool from the clotheslines outside their high-rise apartment buildings. Another paradox we encounter frequently is the sight of an old woman in tattered clothes sweeping the sidewalk with a handmade straw broom in front of an upscale designer boutique downtown. And when we hail a taxi, we never know what kind of cab might pull over for us: a clean, late-model Chevy or Toyota with a great sound system and an American flag Pine-Fresh air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror...or a rusting, boxy, Soviet relic with a traditional Armenian carpet covering the seat and evil eye stones adorning both the rear view mirror and the superstitious driver's keychain, presumably to ward off evil spirits -- but maybe also to keep the whole car from falling apart!

A Zoroastrian-style bas-relief on the exterior of a building that houses a Eurofootball bookmaker, while at far left a woman sells vegetables to passersby along one of the city's busiest streets.


Despite the numerous strange (and sometimes sad) ironies and contradictions that surround us every day, we enjoy living here. Armenia lies at a unique crossroads of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, whose culture we continue to experience with the awe and astonishment of newcomers, yet its people desperately seek recognition as members of the the modern western world. Notwithstanding the technological and scientific advances of the last few decades, their country retains an old-world charm, even in the capital city. It's a place where children needn't fear strangers; where you can buy home-grown flowers, culinary herbs, or a snack of roasted sunflower seeds on the street corner; where you can ride the subway to any stop for just 50 dram -- about 14 cents! It's a place where food is really fresh, delivered to stores from local farms every morning; where there's no Wal-Mart to muscle out the small business owner; where even beggars have the dignity and work ethic to ask foreigners for employment, not money. (We were once approached by a older gentleman who spoke English -- he had lived in the States for some time -- he very politely asked if we needed someone handy to do any work around our house; on another occasion, a kindly grandmother offered to knit some clothing for Nathan.)

At the end of each day, Nathan likes to watch the sun set across the gorge and wave goodnight to the birds flying past our balcony.


I was reminded of Florida most unexpectedly today when I walked down to the corner food store with Nathan to buy a long-distance calling card. I was standing in line at the register when something caught my eye: there in the deli case, among the sausages, blocks of cheese, and vacuum-packed meats and fish was a lone package of Publix brand 'Freshly Frozen Tuna Steaks.' I literally did a double-take! How did that get here? Talk about weird! As we left the store and headed home, snowflakes began to fall, and my mind zoomed back to the present...we're not in Florida any more!

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