29 January 2012

Thoughts on Yerevan's Gyms

Going to the gym in Armenia can be a funny experience.  First of all, you have to understand that for most people here, who are barely eking out an existence, exercise, in the Western sense of the word, is a luxury – think Back to the Future Part III, when the old-timer in the saloon says, “Run for fun?  What the hell kinda fun is that?”  If you're one of the lucky Armenians with a stable job, you are in the honored position to be able to support your family, your parents, and yourself; unfortunately, you probably still do not make enough money to throw any part of it away on something as frivolous as gym membership (or even sneakers, for that matter).

As far as I am aware, there are no public health clubs outside Yerevan, but here in the capital city, there is enough business to support several; of these, we have experience with two distinct types.  When we arrived in Yerevan in 2008, Jarred started going to one near our apartment called Hayastan Gym, which represents the first type: the amateurish, unhealthy kind.  While it was nice to pay only 1500 dram (US $3.75) per visit, no membership required, it was nearly impossible for him to overlook the gym’s myriad problems (though I’m sure no one else there saw them that way):
  • Dark, damp locker rooms with rusty metal lockers
  • Perpetually broken cardio machines
  • No one wearing sport clothes – women exercising in high heels
  • No lane ropes in the pool, so people swim any way they want, including the short way across the pool’s width
  • A full bar on the pool deck
  • People smoking on the pool deck
After putting up with this for a few weeks, Jarred decided it would be worth it to join the relatively new Gold’s Gym in our neighborhood, which is one of a growing number of the second type of gym: the kind that aspires to world-class, but in reality is little more than superficially superior to the first type of gym.  Here are a few of Gold’s at-first-glance advantages:
  • Well-maintained, well-lit locker rooms with dark wood lockers
  • Spacious, bright child care room
  • High-quality machines and equipment
  • Large variety of group classes
  • Appropriate workout attire requirements, plus a shop selling name-brand gear
  • Olympic-size pool, lane ropes, diving platforms, viewing areas
  • Personal trainers for hire
  • No smoking
Yet even at Gold’s, where individuals pay close to 540,000 dram (US $1,350) for an annual membership (we pay significantly more for family membership), the quality of service often does not meet Western standards.  For example, though all the treadmills, stair-steppers, and elliptical machines have TVs, the sound doesn’t work on half of them, and there are frequent issues with satellite service, leaving gym-goers with nothing to watch besides Armenian soap operas and talk shows.  In fact, there have been almost no satellite channels available for the past two weeks, with no end in sight.  The other day, the best I could manage for my cardio session was a Russian-overdubbed National Geographic program about a woman who was pregnant and gave birth – all during her time in prison.  To be fair, that show did make me want to run really fast...in the opposite direction!  MTV Dance, I miss you.

Another issue is sexist trainers.  Ok, they’re not all sexist, but there is one guy in particular who, while assisting a female friend of ours, told her she couldn’t lift weights a certain way because that was how men did it, and women should do it differently.  Hmmm...

Jarred frequently schedules massages in the in-house spa, but the masseuse is terrible about keeping her appointments.  Sometimes she’ll schedule clients without telling the front desk receptionist, which obviously leads to problems.  And last week, Jarred was signed up for a one-hour massage, but as it turned out, the person scheduled before him had arrived 20 minutes late (the masseuse took him for his full hour anyway), and there was another person in line after him, so she gave Jarred only 30 minutes.

The thing that probably annoys me the most is the child care room.  It’s a clean, fun place for Nathan to hang out while we exercise, but depending on which teacher is on duty, I may decide to have a quick workout and get him out of there as soon as possible.  There is one teacher we really like; she’s friendly, patient, energetic, speaks English well and tries to help Nathan learn Armenian, and she allows him to bring a snack to eat while he’s in the child care room.  The other teacher moves slowly, rarely smiles, never allows food or drinks, can’t understand Nathan’s English even though he’s been going there for years, and once, she got so fed up with Nathan’s antics that she smacked him on the arm.  (Imagine if that happened in the States!)  We were pretty pissed when Nathan told us about this and reported the incident to the manager, and it hasn’t happened again, but I still get nervous dropping Nathan off with her.

I would probably have a lot less to complain about if the American contractor who helped to build and manage the gym during its first few years (whose name, coincidentally, is Jim) hadn’t left to open another Gold’s in Dubai in 2010.  When he was around, things ran smoothly.  If they didn’t, he handled it.  Like the time I told him that two male maintenance workers had walked into the women’s locker room without warning to repair something, catching several ladies, including myself, off guard.  After hearing my story, he ordered gym employees to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again by providing a couple minutes of advance notice to everyone in the locker room so that they could finish their showers and/or cover themselves up before male workers were to arrive.  When one employee tried to protest that it wasn’t always possible to give advance notice or make multi-lingual announcements, Jim reminded her of his oft-repeated lesson, a concept staff members were apparently having a difficult time grasping: “The customer is always right.

Honestly, the reason I started this post was to discuss the most uniquely amusing (or amusingly unique?) aspect of being a member of the Gold’s Gym in Yerevan, and that is the clientele.  Because of the cost, only well-to-do Armenians and members of the international community can afford to join.  This means that, as representatives of QSI, we have to be prepared to network at any given moment – on a bike, in the pool, or in the nude.  I've been in the awkward position of meeting a Delegate of the European Union, whose children attend our school, in nothing but a towel.  Jarred has seen the ambassadors of certain nations in nothing at all.  (Why are we Americans so prudish?)  And like anywhere else in Yerevan, people come to Gold’s dressed to impress, and don’t leave the locker room until they return fully to that state, hair styled, lips painted, and stockinged heels a-clicking.  Unless you want to stand out like a sore thumb, you’d better do the same.  Heaven forbid you should leave the gym in your sweats!

Speaking of impressions, I mustn’t neglect to mention the fact that some people are there more as a display of status than actually to get in shape.  How do I know this to be true?  Why else would a big, fat man who goes to the gym every day and sits around ogling women never get any thinner?  Why else would these same women, wearing the cutest, most form-fitting leotards and leggings and the trendiest little Reeboks do only minimal amounts of exercise (usually involving a hula hoop)?  Why else would we see men and women speedwalking the treadmills at maximum incline, hanging onto the machines with their entire body weight?  Why bother to go to the gym at all?  The answer lies somewhere in this, my final anecdote, as it was told to us by one of the Gold’s sales associates, who is also a friend of ours:

A wealthy Armenian man went to Gold’s Gym to get some information about membership.  After taking a tour and discussing the price, he happily agreed to come back at the end of the month to sign the contract.  When he returned, the sales associate informed him that there was a special promotion for new members, so the cost would be lower than what he had previously agreed to pay.  The man refused to accept the sale price, and insisted on paying the higher price they had discussed.  The associate tried in vain to convince him to take the better offer, until the man finally explained his reasoning.  He had just purchased for his automobile custom license plates bearing a pattern of lucky numbers that matched the membership fee he had expected to pay.  Unable to argue with this logic, the sales associate signed him up and took his payment.  It seems the wealthy Armenian man was only interested in exercising his wallet, for he has not been seen at the gym since that day.

26 January 2012

Attention, Keats fans!

It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  Therefore, I have composed the following original poem in the style of “Bright Star, Would That I Were Steadfast as Thou Art,” a Shakespearean sonnet written by British romantic poet John Keats as he was dying of tuberculosis in 1819.  "O, Cypress Tree of the Sultana's Court" was inspired by my 1999 visit to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, and the gardens surrounding this ancient Moorish palace.  In a section of the garden known as the Sultana’s court, there stands a cypress tree, which, according to legend, is nearly 1,000 years old.  You can see a picture of this garden below the poem.

O, cypress tree of the Sultana’s Court,
How much you’ve seen in these past thousand years!
Why must this life of mine remain so short,
So filled with hopeless dreams and mortal fears?
The seasons, years, and ages that have passed
Beneath the cooling shade of your green boughs —
Reflected in the droplets sprinkling fast
Beside the wall which ivy overgrows —
Have seen the lonely tread of aging kings,
And artists whose romantic, pensive strokes
Have mem’rized flower petals and birds’ wings,
And heard forbidden wisps from lovers’ throats.
And tho’ I won’t live half as long as thee,
I pray such fantasy perchance to see.

Angela Infante Blackmer

21 January 2012

Impressions of Georgia

In October 2011, the Blackmer family drove a few hours north to Tbilisi for a relaxing long weekend, and only now have I found time to post a little bit about it.  Though we stayed for just 3 days, here's what I can say about our experience.

First of all, the Armenian landscape is more diverse and visually dramatic.  While the parts of Georgia we visited were certainly pretty, particularly the forested areas, much of the terrain we observed pales in comparison to the breathtakingly beautiful mountains, gorges, river valleys, grazing land, and historic sites throughout Armenia's countryside.  
A lovely forested road on the Georgian side of the border

On the other hand, I find downtown Tbilisi, built along the banks of the Mtkvari River, a more aesthetically attractive city than Yerevan.  From the charming and well-maintained Old Town to the European-style Freedom Square, from the broad Rustaveli Avenue to the romantic hillside Narikala Fortress, it was nice to get away from the dreadfully artless Soviet architecture that permeates Yerevan's neighborhoods, including the city center.  One of downtown Yerevan's advantages, however, is its navigability and easy walk-ability.  Central Tbilisi, spread over a larger area with rugged terrain and poor street signage, is not as easy on the feet as it is on the eyes.

 The old (from left to right): Metekhi Church (13th Century), Church of St. David, and Narikala Fortress (4th Century) watch over Tbilisi.

The new: standing on the Bridge of Peace (2010), with the 900-foot TV tower (1972) behind us on Mtatsminda.  Both  are illuminated with sparkling lights at night -- rather garish, in my opinion, yet clearly adored by many locals and tourists.

Enough about appearances.  What about the food?  Georgian cuisine heavily influences the menus in Armenian restaurants, so we had an idea of what to expect, yet still we were pleasantly surprised by many new and delicious tastes.  For example, I never knew there were so many types of khachapuri, freshly-made breads topped with regional cheeses, eggs, and sometimes vegetables.  The type known as adjaruli, common in Armenia, is Nathan's favorite. As for me, I fell in love with lobio, a flavorful bean stew often served in a clay pot, and the vegetarian varieties of khinkali, juicy boiled dumplings.  Jarred has always enjoyed Georgian wines, so he sampled some whenever he got the chance, and we came home with at least 4 bottles -- not bad for 3 days!

Lunch on the terrace of our favorite cafe in Old Town.

Georgia, as I learned during our visit, is a land of legends.  I never heard so many stories about a place in such a short time.  One of my favorites is the folk tale of how the nation of Georgia came into existence, which says that when God was dividing up the earth among all its people, the Georgians, for whatever reason, did not come to claim their country, and so did not receive any territory.  God distributed all the lands, and kept only a small portion, the best, for himself.  Later, when the Georgians finally arrived, they asked God for their share.  Although at first God refused, the hospitality and charm of the Georgian people won him over, and he gave them the beautiful land he had saved for himself.

Legend also surrounds the founding of Georgia's capital city.  According to Lonely Planet, "Despite evidence of settlement in the area stretching back to the 4th century BC, Georgians prefer the legend that King Vakhtang Gorgasali of Kartli founded Tbilisi in the 5th century. The story runs that when the king was hunting, a pheasant fell into a hot sulphur spring and was conveniently cooked for dinner. Another version has it that a wounded deer fell into the hot sulphur spring and was miraculously healed. Either way, Tbilisi takes its name from the Georgian tbili (warm), and there seems little doubt that the magnificent hot springs, which still lure visitors today, attracted the king to the spot."  It seems that Georgians favor the first version, as the king's hunting falcon and pheasant are represented in a decorative fountain near the sulfur baths, as well as in the city's official seal.

Another interesting tale deals with Georgia's early Christian traditions.  It is said that following Jesus's crucifixion, his robe (though some say it was his tunic, others his mantle) was purchased from the Roman solider who had won it by lottery.  It was brought to Mtskheta, a town in Georgia, and buried with a woman who died from the passion caused by touching it; the spot where it was buried became the site of miracles, and a church was built on top of it in the 4th century.  The church, rebuilt in the 11th century as Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, now stands as one of the holiest places of worship for Georgian Orthodox Christians, and has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The pillar in the below photograph supposedly shows the precise location of the buried garment.  To read more details of this legend, check out Wikipedia's article on the subject.

Frescoes on the pillar have been rubbed away by the touch of generations of faithful hands.

Although countless other fun and fascinating tales abound in Georgian folklore, there is one legend whose cultural influence is most clearly visible, and that is the legend of Georgia's revered patron, Saint George.  Obviously, the country's English name is a testament to its people's devotion to this martyred Christian soldier of the Roman emperor Diocletian.  Additionally, St. George's cross features prominently on the Georgian flag, and depictions of his famed dragon-slaying heroics appear in every church, in the national coat of arms, and on souvenirs, postcards, tombstones, and monuments throughout the country.  His image is so ubiquitous, I was inspired to put together the following humble photographic collection.

Mamadaviti Church, 6th century

Armenian Cathedral of St. George, 13th century

Norashen Church, 15th century

Also at Norashen Church

A souvenir plate

A souvenir metal icon

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, Mtskheta

I love the look of these flags, which feature the distinctive St. George's cross (red on a field of white), next to this medieval-style defensive wall around Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.

The gold-plated Freedom Monument (2006) in Tbilisi's central square

I am anticipating at least a couple more trips to Georgia in the near future: one is tentatively planned for this spring, when I will attend a seminar at QSI Tbilisi; the other scheduled for next October, is a professional development event for all regional QSI teachers and directors, also to be held at the Tbilisi school.  We are excited about the opportunity to explore more of this legendary land and its captivating capital.

To view all the photos from our visit, click here!

06 January 2012

Christmastide comes to a close

It's January 6 -- some people call it the Epiphany, some call it Three Kings' Day, but here in Armenia, it's Christmas day!  Although we really miss our friends in Stockholm already, we're glad to be home, too.  As a present for you, dear reader, here are links to all the best pictures and videos from our trip.

As a New Year's resolution, I've decided to spend more time blogging and writing, and Jarred has agreed to help me make it happen by declaring each Saturday to be an exclusive father-son day.  He'll take Nathan to pottery class, swimming at the gym, and basically stay out of the house so I can have a few uninterrupted hours to concentrate.  Looking forward to a very productive year!