"There you are surrounded by your enemies," one of my managers said to me over the phone about Armenia. He'd just come off a two week stint at our office in Yerevan and I was in the midst of mine.
"There's nowhere you can go," he said. "All the roads lead to places where they'll shoot you."
I'm thinking about that now. When I lived in Juneau, Alaska, the only way in or out was by boat or plane. Armenia is very much the same, though being landlocked the only choice is air. Then you hope that by the time you hit the Turkish border you've gained enough altitude to be out of reach of a shoulder fired rocket. And certainly, the Turkish Air Force is not going to shoot down an Air France or British Airways passenger plane -- not when they're vying for entrance to the European Union.
Tensions are building with Iran. They're on the southern border. I'm only a couple hundred miles from there. To our east is Azerbaijan, with whom Armenia has genocide memories along with their eastern neighbor. To the north is Georgia and Chechnya. Good fun, everywhere.
I really never wanted to go to any of these places. I was only looking for a job. That simple quest brought me to the table of a man who once in his life had been one of the Soviet Union's "High Ranking Party Officials" of which we joked in America.
He lives with his family in a three-story apartment overlooking Marshtots street. Twelve of us sat at his dining room table, sipping vodka and eating dried figs after a long meal. At the table were several of our company's senior Armenian management, our CEO, and a few Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who had made significant investments in Armenia. And there was me and the blonde haired girl.
We got to talking about progress in Armenia, when one of the Armenians said, "Twenty years ago I would have been jailed for sitting at this table."
After hearing the comment a westerner thinks: "How wonderful for you now to sit here with us free people."
Several days later the blonde haired girl wanted to hang with the women, to make a point, I think, or maybe to strike a blow in a small way in this terribly male dominated society -- a society in which at a business dinner one of our most experienced male Armenian managers proclaimed, "I would never let my daughter become a programmer. It would keep her from making dinner for her husband."
So we walked the lighted streets of Yerevan with a couple of our senior female technologists after a few hours of dancing at a night club. Yerevan night clubs are populated mostly by women. Single men are in short supply. Those of age are conscripted, and those past conscription age are dead or married, and the population demographics are stilted heavily female.
"For many years we could not walk in the city at night," one woman said. "There were no lights at all."
"What did you do?" asked the blonde haired girl.
"We stayed home."
"For how long?"
"Five years, I think," said another. "I remember the first year I went to university we could not have classes in the winter because it was too cold and we had no light. So we had only school in the summer. It was terrible. It was cold everywhere. You could not go out."
"How did you keep warm?" I asked them.
"The old way," one said.
"We burn-ed things," said another.
"We burn-ed everything," said the first. "And then there was nothing left to burn so we would sometimes look for petrol."
"It was terrible. We had one day, light. And then one day we had no light, no heat. For five years."
In January 2005 we lost the power at my house in Los Gatos. We had no light for five days. I had to get my Honda generator running to keep a space heater and lights burning in my living room. I used the same generator after Hurricane Fran decimated our neighborhood in Cary, North Carolina nine years before. The fuel transfer switch was gummed up with old gasoline, so I had to take it apart to get it to work again.
I tell that story every time I want to impress upon people that things have been hard.
Our office is the center of capitalistic progress in Armenia. We employ more technical people than any other enterprise in this country of three million souls. Our local CEO is on television here regularly. One of my employees said, "Even my mother knows what is optical process correction."
This is true thanks to the technical training courses we have held on Armenian television.
The president of Armenia visited our office last week. His security men locked down our building an hour before he arrived. We all went through metal detectors and were searched. Our offices were scanned. They confiscated the butter knives we had in our galley.
They arrived in our area half an hour before the appointed time, one presumes, to follow the Sun Tzu practice of surprise. My office manager and I found ourselves flanked by two suited gentlemen the size of American football linebackers, talking into their sleeves. Unconsciously I moved to take my glasses from my shirt pocket, and was immediately frozen by the look one gave me.
I showed him the glasses, slowly. He looked away without acknowledgment.
President Kocharian approached one of my engineers who suddenly found himself surrounded by security men, television cameras, PR people, and the president of our own company.
"What are you doing here?" said the President.
The fact this question sounded more like a threat than a friendly inquiry was not lost on my engineer who was schooled by the former Soviet state. So he said what any young person would say in the same situation.
"You must be doing something," said our company President, west clashing with east, inquiring for what was he paying this man's salary rather than the political implications of an engineer saying to a President concerned with his country's economic progress that he was taking a paycheck from America for doing "nothing."
"I am writing programs."
"What is your background?" asked President Kocharian.
The President brightened at this response. He himself has a background in math, and so there might be a toehold for a technical conversation.
"What area of math are you working on?" said President Kocharian.
"We do no math for our work here," said my programmer.
"Go on with doing nothing, then," said Kocharian, at which point he led his entourage to the galley where he would fear no knives and asked, "What types of coffee do you have here?"
One of the security personnel asked my office manager something in Armenian, who then turned to me and said, "He wants to know his name."
And then our company President who was standing nearby asked me, "What's that engineer's name?"
"William Saroyan," I said, smiling.
"When we get home you'll tell me his name," said our President to me, sotto voce. And then he said to the security guard, "Roger Clemens." The entourage departed.
"I am winding up in KGB jail," said my office manager when everyone left. "Or maybe fired."
I wanted to say, "Aww, come on, no you won't," but I had no ground upon which to base my optimism. Who knew how things worked here.
"Probably both," I said to him.
As a vice president it's my job to keep people on their toes.
When I was young I wasted my time writing science fiction. One evening I wrote thirty pages for a novel to avoid lying in a roach-infested bed at a roadside inn outside Ile d'Beau in France. I wrote a short story in a loft in Paris, imagining I was following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway.
I did these foolish things before I realized that the madness of real life exceeded the impact of anything I could summon through youth and imagination.
For instance, to celebrate closing a large deal with Oki Semiconductor, our Osaka-based sales team took us to the Scandal Club in Abeno. There I witnessed two naked women run in the opposite direction after inserting tampons that had been chained together.
Generally speaking, when your mother asks you how your business trip has gone you don't mention you'd watched your colleagues in the electronics industry shining maglites up a woman's privates.
And so on.
"When we had no power, I and my friends who know chemistry made acid so we could construct batteries for light, yes? It was quite dangerous, especially if children were around, but after so many years, we were trying anything."
Meanwhile, I was learning the finer points of Microsoft Excel and how to avoid buying champagne cocktails at Japanese hostess bars.
While I was working at the Armenian office the blonde haired girl traversed Yerevan on foot and found a branch of the Peace Corps. She joined for the two weeks of my business trip. As it turned out we were already in an area served by the Peace Corps; she didn't have to worry about being shipped off.
"I'm teaching English," she said. "I got this book." And then she handed me an Armenian / English phrase book which I began to peruse.
I've had occasion to peruse many phrase books. They're all nearly useless, of course. If you can't understand what someone is saying to you, of what use is the phrase, "Are you recently divorced?" or "What is your political affiliation?"
However, phrase books I've seen for Italian and French and Japanese have useful items like, "Where is the train station?" which can be answered in sign language by the non-English speaker.
The Armenian / English phrase book had many incomprehensible items in it. It made me wonder about the nature of the Armenian culture.
A phrase which had prominence in the book was, "Don't be offended, it is not my fault."
One wonders about a culture in which you have to ask, "Where is my passport?" followed by, "I demand to speak to my consulate," often enough for it to be on the second page of a tourist's language guide.
"What kind of place is this?" I asked the blonde haired girl.
"It's a third world country."
"Gimme a break," I said. "We're living on the concierge floor of the Yerevan Marriott. Third world countries don't have concierge floors."
"You need to get out more."
Later that day we were at the apartment of an Armenian family, all of whom were trilingual, including their 4-year old daughter who seamlessly alternated between English, Armenian, and Russian, and couldn't figure out why I couldn't follow her conversation. It is always true in Armenia that "The heavy drinking will soon begin," and after it did we brought out the book to get the true dope.
"It is not my fault. I demand to speak to the American Ambassador," I quoted from the book in an attempt at Armenian.
"What are you saying?" asked my host.
I repeated the phrase, being careful to annunciate the phonetics as closely as I could.
The Armenians rolled in laughter.
When they could breathe again, they said, "It is something we say all the time."
"You need to speak to the American Ambassador all the time?"
"'Please, I am not guilty.' This is so funny. Can we have this book?"
I handed it over and they began to flip through it, alternately peering with utmost focus, and then rolling backward in their chairs in laughter induced apoplectic shock.
An Armenian said in English, "Listen -- English: Clock. Armenian: 'Big Wall Watch'"
"You don't call it a big wall watch?" I said.
"We call it a 'clock'," he said.
I remembered a skit from a Monty Python episode where a writer was on trial for publishing an English/Bulgarian phrase book that translated the English, "Which way to the train station?" to Bulgarian, "I want to sleep with your wife."
And visa versa.
Because I had helped to finish three bottles of Ukrainian vodka, I could not organize my words in a way that allowed me to explain the skit. First I'd have to explain Monty Python, and British humor, and then I'd get to the skit long after my Armenian friends would decide to make a toast to the life and health of our children.
Which is in fact, what happened. I drank to my three daughters.
"I want to cancel my order," said an Armenian, reading from the book in gasps.
"When would you use this phrase?" I asked. "I mean, the typical American walking down the street isn't going to have the occasion to say this."
"But it could come in very useful. For instance, once I made a telephone order. My friends recommended against this, but anyway, I did. I requested some pants. But it took them many months to send my pants and during that time I could not eat so I became thin and these pants would no longer fit even if they arrived."
"You could not eat?" I said.
"We had no food for some weeks. And so I canceled my order. But I'm now remembering the money has still not come back."
"You had no food?"
"I should tell them this one - 'It is not my fault, I was very hungry,'" he said, laughing again so hard his face turned red. He filled my glass and reached for his.
Then raising it, "I must toast to all of us and to life and our friends."
And so on.