Living as a Stranger in Armenia
Armenia is a country of great contrasts. For a Czech many things could seem incomprehensible, but there are a lot more which are so close to us. It is said, that you can´t understand Russia by reason. In my opinion, you are not able to understand any country by reason, not even the Czech Republic, where I come from.
Presently I live in Vanadzor, Armenia´s third biggest city and I am here as a participant of a European Voluntary Service project. I work for Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Vanadzor, which is focused on human rights and providing legal help. I participate in the organization´s projects and in writing reports, articles for journals and policy articles for Czech readers. I have been living here for a month and throughout this time I have made some findings about the Vanadzorian lifestyle.
Vanadzor is not a city in the classic sense; it is more like a long populated street, where practically everybody knows everyone. Actually, that means that everybody already knows us – all the three foreigners in the town. During the first week locals were turning back to look at us, but after a while they even stopped charging us double in the market, because they had started considering us as a part of Vanadzor’s stock list.
One of the first things I realized was that there is a system that works in Armenia which I call the culture of asking. There are practically no signs, notices, headings and definitely no timetables! You need to ask somebody where the bus terminal is (because even if you are staying in front of it, you probably don´t realize that). You also have to ask which marshrutka (a minibus of really old origin in which you have the importunate feeling that the whole vehicle must fall into pieces in a minute, but it somehow seems to you more trustworthy on these Caucasian switchback roads than a shiny new Mercedes, just because the marshrutka has been travelling along these roads for many years and it means it has already proved itself) goes to a certain place, and it’s hard to realize whether it’s a means of public transportation or a private van unless it’s clarified. Where to buy a ticket and at what time it starts and stops leaving is another question you have to ask, let alone the request to the driver to stop at your station, or to tell you when you should get off.
This necessity of asking all the time seems like incompetence to a European who is used to rely on self-help or Google. On the other hand, the need to ask brings you in contact with people, who are not bothered by your questions at all! On the contrary; if you are trying to solve something on your own, they rather wonder why you don’t simply ask, especially if you are fluent in the local lingua franca, i. e. Russian. Besides, the most pleasant conversation may spring up from a single question, which leads you to find out which sights should definitely not be skipped (you need to ask somebody anyway; otherwise, you will never find it out from other resources). You might also receive recommendations on local specialities or restaurants (which you are not able to find without a question and will be looking for with the aid of at least three other questions); or they might provide you with transportation on the spot. Armenians are very kind and really helpful, especially to strangers. They love their country and they are proud of it (the most common sentence you can hear is “Armenia has the best…” fill in with anything that comes to your mind) and they would really like to pass this thought on to visitors of their country, so they should bend over backwards only to show you all the possible hospitality, because you are a guest in their country!
As a conclusion, I would like to present a small story from my everyday life here:
My watch battery needed replacing. In the Czech Republic it is usually a matter of 10 minutes and 2200 AMD. It is hard to believe how big of a deal this could be in Vanadzor. First, I had to ask somebody on the street where the watch repair shop is. Then, I had to ask other questions about how to get there and another question to make sure that the building with the dirty non-transparent window of the shop without any sign or name on it was really the shop. Inside there was a bunch of people, who had obviously dropped by to have a chat with the money exchanger (because the watch repair shop shared not only the room, but also the same counter with an exchange office). So I needed to ask who is who. The watch repairer who was absent, came back from a smoke break in 10 minutes, and after he shaked hands with literally everybody in the shop and asked them about the health of their wives, mothers, dogs… he told me he didn´t have any battery (why would he have one if he repairs watches, right?). But he recommended me another watch repair shop. It should be near, about 5 minutes walk.
Once upon a time there were 7 questions, and I lost my way seven times and at that very moment I started to feel like the biggest idiot in the town (which I probably was), I suddenly saw a kind of box without any sign, of course. Inside a really small and dusty room that was about to cramble there was a man sitting on a stool on three legs and holding a watch in his hands. So I asked if he would replace the battery in my watch and he agreed. A big flood of hormones of happiness! The old Caucasian man asked me which battery I wanted – the one that cost 100 AMD or the one that cost 200 AMD. For a Czech it means almost nothing for this king of job. But you don´t want to seem like a pinchpenny as a stranger; nor do you want to seem like a big spender because you are a stranger. So I shrewdly tried to buy some time and asked what was the difference between the two of them. If there wasn´t any difference, he would not have even asked about it…But in the meantime, he had started to do the repairing and then he asked (mark that it was the first time that I wasn’t the one asking the question), if the cheaper one would suit. So I nodded silently in agreement. He looked at me from under his thick eyerbrows and said, “ But you are not from Russia “. Another flood of happiness! It was the first time since I came here that somone did not consider me to be a Russian. We had a nice ten-minute converastion about Armenia, about what for God´s sake I am doing here in Vanadzor and why I am not married at my age – I am constantly asked these questions throughout my internship here. He replaced the battery and didn´t even want to charge money for it, because I am a guest in his country, and the guests deserve all the best. So this is another face of this beautiful country.