As an expat, have you ever wondered what you got yourself into after you arrived in a new country? No? Then you’re a better person than I am. Let me tell you about our move to Armenia. Armenia? Yes, I know, I had to find it on the map myself, and as a globetrotting person I should be ashamed of myself. Armenia is located in the Caucasus Mountains, east of Turkey, north of Iran. Go look it up. And after you read the story below, do take note of the comments at the end.
Died and Gone to Armenia
We’re going to Armenia! We’ve read and heard wonderful things about the country. The mountains are majestic, the wildflowers spectacular, the fruit yummy delicious. The photographs we’ve seen are stunning. I’ve heard other things too, regarding public toilets, cow-feet soup and winter, none of these majestic, spectacular, or yummy delicious. I ignore these tales of doom. I’m an optimist and why allow negativity to interfere with my happy expectations?
Besides, I should worry about public toilets? Please, I’ve been places, seen things. And cow-feet soup? I’ve eaten, well, never mind. And winter? I just spent three-and-a-half years in the muggy tropics; I want winter!
Going to Armenia is an interesting new adventure. It will be. Just think about it: I’ll be living in the former Soviet Union! Armenians used to be bad guys: Soviets. Now they’re good guys: Armenians – magically transformed by independence in 1991 after Soviet communism collapsed around them. Now, years later, there’s still a lot of work to do. Democracy and capitalism are wonderful. Just not right away and instantly. First you have to crawl out of the mess you’re in before you can see the beauty beyond. My spouse will be of assistance in furthering the Armenian businessman’s grasp of the joys of capitalism and consumerism. The fine points are not always easily understood, we’ve been told. Things like competition, labeling, advertising. In communist totalitarian times there were no such things to worry about. A product was either available or it was not available. This does have a certain appeal: It makes life more simple that way. No coupons to cut for one thing.
So, one Sunday in the middle of January we find ourselves on the last leg of our journey to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. The small plane is full of people who look like former communists, swarthy men wearing heavy black coats, huge fur hats, and no smiles. There are some others as well, foreigners like ourselves. We don’t smile much either: The emergency exit rows are stuffed with luggage, the fur hats are smoking forbidden cigarettes and the aircraft has seen better days, like in 1965.
But not to worry. The plane lands safely at Zvartnots airport, then ejects us straight into a moonless, arctic night onto what appears to be a cracked and uneven tarmac surface with patches of frozen snow tempting us to stumble and break a few bones. Shocked by a blast of polar air, we follow a vaguely visible uniformed person into a dark tunnelish corridor like sheep to the slaughter. I don’t know where that image came from, but there it is.
All I see is dark stone, dirty cement, grimy black glass, and the ghostly shapes of the other passengers. Nobody says anything. Perhaps I’m merely having a Kafkaesque episode. These things happen. I look at my husband, or at least I think it’s him. It could be a former KGB agent turned kindergarten teacher for all I can see in the dark.
Why are there no lights? Why is there no heat? Where are we, really? Siberia? Apprehension creeps through me as I drag myself deeper into the tunnel, breathing cold dead air, shivering in my down coat. Sinister scenarios slither through my head. I’ve seen movies. The chilly kind. You know what I’m talking about.
I’m gripped by an odd, primal feeling. Is this death? But no, it cannot be: there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
Armenia is at the end of the tunnel
We finally emerge into a frigid, lugubrious dungeon lit by one and a half light bulb. We line up in front of a glass cubicle where two grim men in uniforms check our passports and visas. They do not speak or smile, wishing us a warm welcome to their icy country. Their frozen faces would crack. So I forgive them.
We descend further into the stone bowels of the cavern, to a claustrophobic, gloomy area to claim our luggage. I know good writers don’t use too many adjectives, but in this case, trust me, no amount of adjectives is enough to describe this creepy catacomb.
We have six suitcases between us, packed with things to help us get going in Armenia before the rest of our stuff arrives from warm, cheerful Ghana. Which may take a while, especially if the shipment has been mis-routed through Shanghai. Don’t think it can’t happen.
Let’s not panic
What to do if we don’t get our suitcases? Our thermal underwear is in them. Just being here has plummeted me into instant pessimism and I must apologize.
All six suitcases come rolling down the belt. But not until we’ve stood around for one hour, twenty-two minutes and fifteen seconds, slowly freezing to death. Almost.
Love is a wonderful thing, life-affirming really. It makes it possible to cuddle under the covers with your mate so you can keep each other from freezing slowly into the afterlife. We’re wearing thermal underwear under our sweat suits, two pairs of ski-socks and wool stocking caps. (Not conducive to romantic dallying, but we’ve heard rumors of summer, six months from now.) Two little electric space heaters formerly owned by Marco Polo make a valiant effort to heat our hotel room and set the place on fire if given half a chance.
We are the only guests. The only guests in a cavernous barely-heated Soviet-style hotel of three hundred rooms.
We try to sleep so we can stop thinking. Thinking what, you ask?
This: Oh, God, what have we gotten ourselves into this time . . . .
NOTES: In the last few years the Zvartnots Airport has been renovated and enlarged and is now a super modern affair. We ended up living happily in Armenia for a number of years, a fascinating experience. The mountains indeed are gorgeous, as are the wildflowers in spring. There’s more, but I’ll keep that for other posts.
I was reminded of a comment from my Intl Rel prof back when I was in graduate school in Poli Sci. He said, “some like the Russians. Some hate the Russians. But nobody likes the Armenians .” Or was that Albanians? Which do you think? How were the people?
I haven’t heard that expression, so don’t know. The Armenians are lovely people once you get to know them and you’ve been accepted as one of the “tribe.” It is very hard to get to know them. They’ve got a troubled history with everybody from Genghis Khan on conquering and pillaging their people. Decades of communism didn’t help make them more trusting of outsiders. I’ve been to Albania a couple of times and found the people there very nice and more open and eager to get to know foreigners. It’s an interesting world.
I feel that way every time I arrive anyplace, but you describe it more charmingly than I ever have.
Oh I can WELL relate to that feeling of “what HAVE I done in moving here?”. I loved your description and I don’t think you used too many adjectives at all–I could perfectly picture it!
It was quite the arrival! It’s different now with a beautiful new airport, which was — as you can tell from the story – sorely needed!
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I loved hearing about Armenia. You have a great way of making me feel the long, cold, dark tunnel and it reminded me of when I visited East Berlin, 31 years ago.
So glad you’re back! But I’m loving reading about all the experiences in Armenia — and elsewhere!So glad you’re back! But I’m loving reading about all the experiences in Armenia — and elsewhere!
how about daily life – shopping?>living standard – like in former Soviet U country? >cars, buses – how old? >roads – their condition?>and of course people, >happier and more smily after some time living in a country?>>In Tallinn, Estonia, it was quite a long period it was like in Soviet U but now it’s more modern but in a countryside life is still more or less like in the old days….
Gutsy Writer,>>Thanks for your comment. Fortunately the Yerevan airport is beautiful and welcoming these days.>>Anne,>>Hey, you found me! Great to see you here!
Blogitse,>>Daily life, shopping, these were not so easy in the beginning but in the last few years things have improved in the city with big supermarkets and new buildings. In the Armenian countryside life is very hard and people live very basic lives.>>The roads are being improved and there are nice new taxis and buses now in Yerevan, but old ones still are used as well, especially out of town. Thanks for asking!
Fascinating! So descriptive! I recognize the plane and the cold … and the sleeping with lots of clothes on!>>I can’t wait to hear more! MORE! I tell you… please?
Glad you enjoyed the story! I know it gets plenty cold in Sweden, but I imagine your heating system works well. Yes, more stories on the way!
Our houses in Sweden are hot inside! I expect Armenia was a bit like China…
Where are you living now then? Dying to know…
Ha, this is soooo true, the sad part is that though the new building is nice and comfortable, people with frozen faces are still there… Perhaps, that expression of face comes with the uniform.