Ok, Armenia is an odd choice for a weekend trip from Boston.
Thursday: Somewhere high above South East Europe
My phone clearly indicates that at home in Boston it’s 12:04pm and that it’s 06:04pm in Paris where I have spent the morning, at Charles de Gaulle airport. Where I’m flying to it’s 08:04 pm. I’m trying to ease my brain into Yerevan time. It’s definitely either 12pm or 6pm or 8pm, but I’m not sure which.
I’ve been traveling since yesterday afternoon on my way to Armenia for a two-day conference on media literacy. It’s an 11,000-mile round trip, give or take. I will have about sixty hours on the ground.
Below us is the Black Sea, and to my immediate right is a very nice French woman of a certain age, part of a travel group wearing fluorescent orange bandanas. She’s patient with my inadequate French, and explains she and they are on a hiking pilgrimage to ancient Armenian monasteries.
I realize too late that I should not be attempting to describe the book I’m reading inflight as she seems respectfully religious. A book about corpses, it’s Stiff by Mary Roach. My schoolboy French doesn’t equip me to describe it well nor why it’s often laugh-out loud funny. This awkward conversation about dead bodies lasts way too long as I try to explain it.
I think I am the people she has been warned about in Sunday sermons, the corpse denigrators.
She explains, as we arrive over the massive mountain range for a descent, that we are in a short-range aircraft. And Yerevan is at its maximum permitted flight range, she tells me.
I think this is her passive retaliation, a mind-game for my being a cadaver-laugher-atter.
Repeated turbulence warnings are now being issued on the public address system. Maybe this also explains the burst of applause in the cabin when we are finally wheels down.
Late Thursday Night: Yerevan
It’s only about 10 minutes since deplaning and I’m already in a car, shuttling at speed downtown. The Ride of the Valkyries is boom-boxing out of Republic Square as we screech past. This is the city center and site of recent government-toppling demonstrations. My hotel is a block away.
At the check-in desk, I attempt my first Armenian — Thank You — which looks on paper like shnorakaloot’yoon. But it doesn’t sound anything like it by the time I am done. It comes out more like a noise that would prompt someone to offer you a glass of water or a slap on the back.
But with that behind me I check in but wander right back out into the very warm night.
There are lots of couples and young kids gathered around the musical dancing fountains in Republic Square. The soundtrack has now switched from Wagner to What a Feeling from Flashdance, the seminal 1983 movie that firmly established the disco-dancing-welder genre.
Armenia is only a few weeks past overthrowing its government in a bloodless revolution but you wouldn’t know it tonight.
I see a couple of possibly-army guys in scruffy uniforms but mostly the Square is populated by families, sellers of cotton candy and purveyors of illuminated crap, and guys in cut-off t-shirts smoking.
A few people are gathered around what we Brits call car boots, selling tours or coffee from full-scale espresso machines. I’m in a former Soviet Republic but this feels open and friendly.
I grab some photos here and there, wander back to the hotel for a $2 beer at the bar where I fail to pronounce the word for Cheers (which is Kenats’y but doesn’t sound like that when I say it) and I tuck in finally for a long sleep.
But I am, however, awake again 3 hours later. I’m on Boston time and it’s 7pm there.
Wee Hours of Friday Morning: Yerevan
I’m now wide awake and it’s 4am. But what’s staggering is how devoid of noise it is. The population of the city is the same as the tenth biggest in the US, which I think is San Jose CA. And by “think” I mean I found this on a random website which says both cities clock in around 1 million. It’s really quiet, especially for a capital.
Normal Friday Morning: Yerevan
I embrace my awake state and venture out on a trip up to the arty Cascade Complex and its hillside climb to get a sunrise view back across the city and its mountains. As always, I have a camera or two with me.
Yerevan is dominated by Mount Ararat, where Old Testament scholars will tell you Noah landed his ark. This landmark is apparently named after the popular Ararat cigarette brand or Ararat cognac, both of which are found everywhere across the city.
I join my conference and it’s still only 10am. As Margaret Thatcher noted, you can get a lot done if you only sleep three hours a night.
There is a terrific mix of participants here from Armenia, Germany, Russia, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the US. Reporters, activists, broadcasters, fact-checkers, academics, and film makers. And someone whose crowning glories include creating a fictional detective agency run by a chicken, a penguin and a hamster. But every conference needs some balance.
The motif for this event is the daisy, and daisies are everywhere, including, cunningly, in the camomile tea. I have deliberately worn my daisy tie and am appropriately accused by a co-presenter of pandering.
The interpreter, from his commentary box, is very confident of his own abilities and says I can challenge him with words like persnickety if I like.
I could try to seed in the word pandering, I suppose, but decide to stick to my script.
But he is good. When an Armenian presenter drops his book, I hear the word “Oops” in my headset.
After the conference sessions, I return to the streets:
Friday Evening: Yerevan
Dinner offers us a variety of local dishes, including trout. This landlocked-and-surrounded-by-mountains country is somehow famous for its fish. Some questions must be left unanswered.
The rock-star Russian journalist opposite me is one of the more cheerful people I’ve ever met, despite, it seems, being someone who knows his vocal opposition to his government carries some not-inconsiderable risk.
He has brought his wife along as her birthday treat, a two-hour journey from their home in Moscow.
I ask if, in his description to her of this birthday gift, she knew he’d be discussing their possible unexpected or untimely demise (as this is exactly what we have been discussing). He says Yes: it’s apparently a common topic of conversation for them. He laughs heartily as I dig into my enigmatic land-trout.
Strangers recognize him as we walk through busy streets, and give him hugs and kisses.
Our after-dinner activity is a classically European affair with a group of us wandering from one outdoor venue to another, plastic cups of watery beer in hand — even, at one point, taking a taxi and trying not to spill — as we watch Portugal tie 3:3 with Spain in the first World Cup round.
There are World Cup screens across the city and in every bar.
I’m not sure why we go to four different venues to watch just one match but given that the theme of our conference is fake news, we speculate whether different screens show different outcomes. My Dutch colleague is hoping to find a TV in which the Netherlands have not already been eliminated in the qualifying rounds - but four screens do not prove enough for that.
Soccer, or football, as it is known in the world outside of the US, is a uniting force, mostly uniting us against the Germans, but, uniting us nonetheless.
And a midnight walk to the hotel ends the first of my two full days in Yerevan.
Another Very Early Start, Saturday Morning: Yerevan
Today feels a little more Soviet to me as I head away from the touristic part of town. And to the market.
And then I find my chosen destination, the market on Tigram Mets Avenue.
In the photos below, I’ve spared you the severed cow heads piled in the road and the crate of hedgehogs. You’re welcome.
I’m definitely not at Wegman’s or Waitrose.
Later on Saturday: Yerevan
I make it through a great morning at the conference. I learn how citizen journalists helped keep up the pressure and helped bring Armenia’s very recent Velvet Revolution to its ultimate success.
But I hit a wall again with the jet-lag: it’s Saturday and I think I’ve only had 14 hours’ sleep since Wednesday.
I reboot at the hotel and head back out for one last foray.
At the souvenir market near my hotel, my haggling skills are at an all-time low. I think I have offered one seller about 25% more than she asked for. I hurry away, instead buying what appears to be a wooden statuette of Putin’s nose.
I find another park where there is yet more World Cup and a Kardashian-free display of famous Armenians.
Saturday Evening: Yerevan
Our last social event takes us out to a restaurant complex of cabins in the hills overlooking the city. A wedding reception blasts out the Macarena as swallows dive-bomb against a backdrop of a red and blue sunset.
Our dinner conversation ranges from the role of police in the Republic of Georgia, to the dangerous work of the International Committee of the Red Cross, to vegetarianism, to virtual reality, to Robbie Williams, to walnuts.
In other words, it’s a perfect end to a weird but wonderful weekend, five and a half thousand miles from home.
c. 2018 Bill Shribman