I am walking down the aisles of the Vernissage, central Yerevan's weekend outdoor market. A t-shirt catches my eye. The graven image of Lenin is stamped upon a Bolshevik red field. Lenin is pierced through the skull by the golden arches. The caption reads, "McLenin's"
"Look at that." I catch Kristan's attention and point. My "significant woman" as translated by one of my Armenian hosts, lifts the shirt and says something about needing to have it.
The vendor is a smartly dressed, middle-aged woman who says in near perfect English, "On the back it says, 'The Party's Over.'" She utters a coaxing laugh which is funnier than the shirt in its stereotypical post-Communist pastiche. I'm thinking: Saturday Night Live.
How utterly fucking western. Clear the head. It isn't a case of being PC, it's a case of despising my own unconscious disrespect. It takes energy to be courteous. How can I understand this culture if I can't stop thinking that we're surrounded by people who want to obliterate us and the Iranians would be my best hope for survival in a military action?
"It's wonderfully funny. How much?"
"It's a very funny. Two thousand drams." At 350 drams to the dollar, we're talking about 6 bucks. Though if I wait a few hours I may get it cheaper. The rate fluctuates 10% a day, depending on what W utters on Fox.
Our host catches up to us and politely shakes his head. Says, "Too much. They know you're western tourists," and moves us along while I'm thinking that the shirt alone would cost twelve bucks back in the states.
I decide I want a silver vodka flask that has the raised seal of the KGB on its face. We passed it four or five tables back. Our host proposes that we walk farther and when we're out of sight he'll buy it for half what the vendor will charge. I tell him not to worry. I'll come back tomorrow and pay the full sixteen dollars.
"What will you do with a Russian hip flask?" asks my significant woman.
"It says KGB on it."
"They put KGB on anything here. Back there they're selling women's underwear with the insignia."
"You got them, right?"
As we ply the throngs of weekend shoppers we're accosted by old women who offer us their handmade lace doilies and table runners. Some simply hold out their hands and say the English word that makes the world go round: money.
I hand out all my small change. And when I'm out of small change, my host hands out his, and then we ignore the rest of the beggars and I'm thinking this country was Christian when there was still a Roman Empire, and would Jesus have stopped handing out money when he ran out of small coins.
How far would he have gone? When would he have stopped?
When the wall came down the west rejoiced and Armenia lost its electricity for a decade. Plumbing. Medical. Dreams.
We do business in Armenia because it is cheap. Because we pay them so little. And they do not pass the old women on the street without putting a coin in their outstretched hands.
I'm wearing my yellow North Face rain jacket and it seems to me I'm the only person in Armenia wearing a color other than brown or black. Every male sports a simple leather jacket, short hair, black leather shoes that are completely inappropriate for the torn up concrete and puddles we have to ford to traverse the bazaar. No one wears glasses. Do they all have perfect vision?
"I can see your shape, but not your face," someone said to me. I thought it was a sort of encoded Russian I couldn't suss. I thought what I thought because I am from America.
"In America, you have everything," said my host.
A smoldering cigarette hangs from between every set of parted lips. It seems to me that every guy loitering on the corner is the perfect candidate to play the role of the Soviet secret policeman, the Eastern European drug runner, or the merchant thief. I can't purge my mind of the image. The Odessa File. Gorky Park.
On the weekend there are knots of young and middle-aged men standing in groups, all similarly shod and clad in leather, crew-cut heads, yellowed fingers holding the twentieth cigarette of the day by eleven AM. Russian mafia. KGB.
One of my colleagues told me the night before, "I can drink so much vodka one of my KGB friends is certain I have a pill that prevents me from getting drunk. He's sure I'm CIA."
He doesn't answer when I ask, "Well, are you?" which is something I'd do, too, just to keep myself inside an aura of mystery.
Yerevan doesn't wake until 10AM when the empty streets suddenly fill with Russian Latas and Zils for which the idea of emission control is as ludicrous as wings on herring. Among them is the occasional BMW and Porsche. I think I see a Lexus SUV between a group of Soviet-era cargo trucks, but it's not there when the trucks clear in a cloud of diesel smoke that would kill small children if the population were more dense. As it is, more Armenians live outside the country than within, and I'm told that half of them are looking for ways to get out. Most people live in the capital city of Yerevan. Everywhere else is open country, dotted in the ruins of occupying forces: Romans, Greeks, Persians, Turks, the Soviets, and whoever wants to step up behind them.
Mother Armenia stands on a hilltop overlooking the city. A graven angel in the form of a Stalinist Propaganda poster, she holds a sword in her hands, the spirit of each Armenian who is ready to protect the populace from the next invader.
"She was built in Soviet times," says Haik, our host. In fact, everything we see was built in Soviet times. The building for the ministry of internal security. The KGB building. The police building. In the worst condition of them all, the hospital.
It has taken nearly a decade to reconstruct the semblance of an orderly existence we see here. Reconstruction was funded by a massive, financially successful Diaspora sporting the likes of Kurt Kerkorian and K. Hovnanian. People were granted their Soviet-issued apartments and housing prices have gone up nearly 10x in Yerevan. There's a building boom. But Armenia has a way of initiating projects that will never be complete. The shells of massive skyscrapers stand unshod of the bright glass planned in the computer drawings. Tall construction cranes define the skyline. I've been here a week. Not one has moved.
It's going to take a more than a pile of money to repair Armenia.
Of their neighbors only the Iranians haven't recently massacred thousands of them. They commit their fiscal trade with Iran through a Muslim/Christian veil of tolerance they do not share with the Azerbaijanis or the Turks. The wounds are still fresh. Armenia was an empire in the time of Constantine, and so the constructions of that great state still survive in the surrounding nations who through centuries of geopolitics have moved the Armenian borders inward. Recently, an independent European aid agency uncovered the obliteration of a 1500-year old Armenian graveyard in a neighboring country. Thousands of religious stone carvings called khachkars from the fifth to the twelfth century have simply disappeared or were obviously destroyed. The president of that nation shrugs. The Armenians wonder why the rest of the world isn't taking notice.
And then there is the controversy of deniers of the most recent Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks around World War I.
My host's mentions these things in passing. He's not looking for a convert to his point of view. He's commenting on observable truths, shifting the conversation seamlessly from current affairs to biblical history as if King Narek walked the earth yesterday. As if we hadn't accidentally walked into his open grave yesterday.
"I imagine him standing here. My feet where his feet have walked," said Hovik, a young protege of the Armenian management I'm here to meet.
I say, "Yes," even though up to that moment I'd never heard of the great king who ruled over an empire.
In our host's car we pass a statue of Sakarov in one of Yerevan's squares.
"He invent the Soviet bomb, but then he turn to -- you say, human problems?"
"Yes, to help people. It is good, che?"
"It is good."
This man who drives our car is called Haik, as are most Armenian men who aren't named Armen. Haik and Armen were great-grandchildren of Noah, and the progenitors of this tiny society that speaks a unique language for which a specific alphabet was commissioned in the fourth century. There's a big debate - how many letters compose the Armenian alphabet? Three were added to the original thirty-six, which had no symbol for what we call the "o" and "f" sounds in English. And then there's "yev" which is sort of a verbal ampersand.
"In Soviet times we didn't come here much," he says of the cathedral we see next.
And I can't help thinking that these were the people we feared in Soviet times. They were going to drop the bomb on us to protect their cinderblock apartment buildings.
And yet I can stand with them and raise a glass of vodka over dinner. "To our children," we toast. "To family." We drink.
Then Haik's kid is in the car sitting next to Kristan. Sonja is "chors" - which is the way you say "four" in Armenian. Another way is to hold up four fingers, which any kid gets, anywhere. If she had been born in California, her mom would have Sonja in commercials. She's too cute to be unnoticed among the sheep and goats the kids are selling for roadside slaughter.
Sonja pets a condemned lamb while Mother Armenia protects her children from American invaders.
Yet, here we are this morning, American invaders driving down roads forbidden to us for decades. The byways of Reagan's evil empire are traversed by people who love their little ones.
Kristan's blowing soap bubbles Sonja chases. "Wherever I go I carry them. To break the ice with kids. I got the idea in Nepal."
"Good idea," says me, who has never been to Nepal and doesn't get the connection.
Sonja says something we don't understand. Haik translates his daughter. "She say more bubbles. She confused because you're an adult."
In Sonja's world, all adults understand her. She says something different, and she looks at her father, perplexed.
"She say more bubbles in Russian this time."
In a cathedral museum I touch a wooden cylinder within which is an arm bone belonging to John the Baptist. Next to it is the spear tip that penetrated Christ's side while he hung from the Roman cross.
"We are the first Christian state," says my host, pointing to a stone cross carved in the 4th century. It stands next to a Hellenic temple dated to five hundred BC. The place is called Garni. The temple is on a precipice overlooking a small river. In the distance is mount Ararat, final resting place of Noah's ark and consequently the origin of all of us of genetic European descent.
It looms over us as we make our way toward Geghard, a 7th century church carved into the side of a mountain. Ararat is sacred to the Armenians but is on Turkish soil, "Unfortunately," says Haik as we drive a rutted Armenian passageway that resembles a modern road in that motorists attempt to follow it in modern vehicles. Horseback would be a more appropriate means of traveling these dirt paths.
We go through a small village where two teenage boys wrestle next to a pen of sheep. Haik tells us if we want lamb for our mountain barbecue he can stop. Apparently, they'll slaughter and dress the mutton while we watch.
The Armenian word for "good" is "Luv"
We pass a group of middle-aged men in leather coats who turn and stare as if we've interrupted an important conversation that was occurring out here, so far from anywhere, so close to the closed Turkish border.
Later, we ascend the snowy cliffs and enter a cave beside Geghard monastery. The men start a fire and begin to barbecue some pork they brought. This is horovatz, traditional Armenian fare. They bring out bottles of good Russian vodka and we proceed in the sequence of toasts. To friends. To our work. To our women.
I've now done the sequence many times. We will toast our team. Our families. Our cooks and our food. By then my head is swimming with alcohol and the smell of roasted meat. Someone hands me some horovatz, cooked meat wrapped in the traditional lavash bread. He leads me to the back of the cave where with some outrageous degree of precision a cross is carved into the wall.
He invites me to touch it. "Make a wish..."
Ok. I think, OK. The stone is cold and the sinuous carving is smooth. Almost two thousand years ago someone spent a long time making his mark upon this mountain. How could he know I'd be here admiring his work, following the lines with my fingertips wondering why we are granted these experiences.
It begins to snow. One more toast. Last in the traditional sequence. To parents.
"I am missing one parent," I say, raising my glass. "I have only a mother."
"Me too. I have only mother," says Armen.
And then from another, "I have both mother and father -"
"Well, that's good. Let's drink to them. You are lucky to have them."
"I mean, I have not a mother or father. My father has died two years ago, and then my mother, just some months ago, in the last October."
"Oh," is the inadequate thing I say.
"Yes," says this man, named Vahe. Typically short hair and iron gray sweater. Square-toed leather shoes. Now he's an orphan.
"I am no parents." His eyes become glassy. He looks toward the snowy mountains, then squints with purpose. Out there Kristan is quenching her cabin fever by climbing the mountainside. She's a black dot on the white mountain. In a land where women don't run off alone, most of the men are distracted to the point of near insanity. They gather round. If I don't say anything they'll form a posse and bring her down, perhaps forcibly. For her safety. This I understand. The prehistoric need to protect, especially strong here.
"Toast to the climbers," says Vahe.
"Toast to our climbers," says Armen.
And we refill our glasses. "She will get down okay," I assure them.
"Are you sure?" Haik asks me.
"I think so. Yes. Actually, she'll be okay."
"How do you know?"
"I have faith," I say. "I believe."
"Ok. We understand faith," says Haik. He refills our cups with Standard Russian vodka.
"In the churches we visited we lit candles." This is me. I am still thinking about Vahe. "When I was young my grandparents took me to church and we lit candles for our family who was no longer living. Is it the same for you in Armenia?"
"Sometimes. Yes. We light for the ones who are died, but also for our hopes. We have many hopes."
"I think we have another toast," says Haik. "To many hopes."
Today I am home in California, but yesterday I was in a cave in Armenia next to an ancient Christian church in a valley beside snowcapped mountains, by the fire with people I'd just met, drinking to all the good things we wished for each other.
There is still hope.