I've lived in Armenia for 100 days already. I thought I’d stay two months, but I’m pushing on four now and the days are flying by faster than a speeding GG driver. Here are some personal observations I've made about this ancient post-soviet country that happens to be my ancestral home.
1. No means yes. For better or worse, whether your host family is offering you food or, as a woman, a strange man is insisting on escorting you home at night, no is never the end of the conversation. We're pretty hard-headed.
2. Old people here are tough as nails. They've lived through the Soviet era, its collapse, a devastating earthquake, war and poverty. Their faces are withered in a striking, beautiful way. Their wrinkles are deep. Their resilience still deeper.
3. Honesty is the best policy. "Everything is terrible" is an acceptable answer to "how are you?" and if your boss isn't happy with you, he or she will tell you without reservations.
4. Your hair will always smell like cigarettes whether or not you smoke. So will your pillowcase. And your clothes. Accept it and bathe often.
5. Say it with flowers. Flower shops are literally at every corner. Whether you're trying to woo a lover or show appreciation to your mother, a bouquet is a big part of how Armenians show their love.
6. PDA. When you combine a conservative society with hot-blooded people, you get Yerevan Cascade at night. Tucked away between the bushes lining the steps of this landmark are couples expressing what flowers (above) cannot. For a change of scenery, Lovers' Park is another go-to for stealing kisses away from mayrig’s (mother’s) protective gaze.
7. Touchy feely. Men hold hands with men. Women hold hands with women. Mothers and daughters walk arm-in-arm. It's chill and not sexual at all. Putting your arm around your bro is not gay – not that there's anything wrong with homosexuality, but...
8. Homophobia. Strict adherence to gender roles. Armenia needs to relax about sexuality and gender, in my opinion. Luckily, there are great organizations and groups working hard to change societal perceptions, like PINK Armenia and Free the Needle.
9. School is cool. The young people I meet in Armenia are educated, cultured, informed, artistic, and enterprising. They're real hustlers working overtime to improve their lot in life and it's inspiring, to say the least.
10. Eating seeds is a pastime activity. System of a Down was right. Semouchka (from the Russian word for sunflower seeds) are eaten anytime, anywhere. Their little seed carcasses often litter the sidewalks and it's a good thing the old sweeping ladies come to the rescue, materializing out of nowhere, vigorously sweeping the streets at night. Nobody knows where the dirt they collect actually goes, but these ladies are seriously under-appreciated.
11. The Rabiz/Kiartu. Seen as "low brow" Armenians. Bougie Armenians love to hate on this breed of unambitious or uneducated Armenian, whose men invariably wear black, blast loud music from their cars, and sport identical, unflattering haircuts. Clubs enforce "face-control" to keep them out. The whole thing is strange and I'm unsure how I feel about it.
12. Late to bed, late to rise. Nothing opens before 10AM here because the shop-owner was probably busy playing nardi (backgammon) and munching sunflower seeds with his friends the night before.
13. Counterfeit goods. Disney, Nike and Gucci won't catch copyright infringers here! Wear that fake Adidas with pride. No need to hide behind those $4 Ray Bans.
14. Hitting the breaks is an afterthought. Cars never roll to a slow stop. After convincing you, the pedestrian, that you will probably die now under the wheel, drivers come to a screeching halt – but it's too late, you've probably already soiled your pants.
15. All in the family. Whereas I thought I had only one sister back in Canada, I’m kuyrig jan (dear sister) to everyone I meet here, from the shop-owners to my menu.am delivery guy. When I get into a taxi with a male friend though, the brotherly love is palpable. Amidst the aghper jans and tsavet danems, it’s easy to feel like the third wheel.
16. Syrian restaurants. It’s understood that Syrians saved Armenian cuisine in Yerevan. The diasporans know it. The locals know it. 70 years of communism did a number on the local palate. Syrian have endured a harrowing plight but we’re extremely grateful they’re here and infusing Armenian kebabs with some Middle Eastern spice. Some favorites include mante at Anteb, fatoush at Derian, sandwiches made by Vahram at his Republic Square metro station kiosk called Spitak, and the best fool you’ll ever have made by Hovig at his little underground shop near the corner of Vartanants and Khanjyan, at the end of Vernissage market.
After all is said and done, I am deeply in love with this country and happy to call Yerevan my second home. I’m looking forward to the next 100 days here – maybe not during this trip, but when I inevitably return.