First impressions can change so easily. That’s why it’s important to remember them. At least to know from where you came. So here are some first impressions:
The Airport: Last time I came, it looked like a gulag processing center. Now it puts LAX to shame. OK, that means nothing because LAX is the worst airport I’ve used besides the tent that doubles as the Paris terminal for RyanAir. Nevertheless, very nice. I even had the pleasure of encountering a smiling cop who offered to help with my visa paperwork (which entailed giving me the form and telling me I needed to fill it out). The sign as you enter the customs line which says, in English and Armenian, that it’s illegal to give or take bribes was a nice touch. Gotcha, Armenian government ;).
Last time, the taxi drivers just picked up your bags and tried to coerce you into their cab. I guess someone realized that might not leave the best first impression on visitors so they scrapped that plan. This time, we took AeroTaxi which are these Cube-looking cars that have a flat rate to downtown Yerevan, about 4500 AMD (i.e. ~$11). It was the most advanced automobile I’ve ever sat in because it offered free WiFi during the ride. Ya, in the car. And the car was brand new. There was also free candy which went uneaten. Nice touch though. The drive to town still felt like a makeshift rollercoaster ride but the idea that there was WiFi in the car kept my mind occupied until we got to the destination.
Vast, welcome differences at the airport. After all, you know what they say about those first impressions.
The Road: Casinos. More of them and bigger. On the ride to Yerevan, you’re flanked by sleazy-looking casinos reminiscent of a prepubescent Atlantic City (i.e. the place New Jerseyans and New Yorkers go until they discover Las Vegas). I could take the view that these are also where residents of Armenia go to donate money to the oligarchs who they lament for taking peoples’ money. Gambling is a waste of time, money, and mind but it’s a person’s own business if they want to piss their money away. I just wish they would spend more money and make them a little more classy so that their clientele could be some of the visitors to Armenia rather than the poor suckers in the country looking to get rich with money they probably can’t spare. Maybe they will – business looks like it’s doing well.
I have to confess that as we passed Lake Yerevan and our cab driver seemed to think he was driving Formula 1, I was hoping that Shavarsh Karapetyan was somewhere near in case the race we were in ended somewhere in the water. Thankfully, his heroism wasn’t needed – not like he needed any more godlike acts on his resume.
The City: We arrived into the hustle and bustle of a typical…Wednesday night. There was so much traffic you would think the clubs had just let out. No, just people shifting (no, not shift it and don’t act like you didn’t think that) about in the poppin’ cafe hoppin’ scene. Like good Diasporans, our destination was Northern (Հյուսիսային) Avenue. To compare again to the last time, Northern Avenue was just a big hole in the ground with a bunch of cranes surrounding it and now it’s a relatively bustling place.
Side note: I’m not going to make any arguments about whether the money spent to create Northern Avenue could have been better spent elsewhere. That can easily turn into a circular argument where the question of which sort of investment is preferable is tiredly discussed and, in reality, there will be no conclusion. Rather, I’m surprised so much money was spent on such an unspectacular property. Leading from the beautiful Hraparak/Republic Square through quaint Abovian Street to the majestic Opera, Northern Avenue hardly distinguishes itself in any way for such a central feature in the city. It seems to me more a manifestation of the undying need to emulate things European – nearly every European city has one of these pedestrian shopping boulevards – than to rediscover (discover?) a uniquely Armenian design befitting the location the Avenue commands in the center of the Armenian world. Architects and urban planners can feel free to destroy my purposeful neglect of the Soviet-style grandeur of Republic Square and the Opera but I think they could still agree that at least those have some Armenian character. That said, I like the clear view of the Opera from the Avenue so, at least, +1 for that.
After settling in, dinner was at Kavkaz (I hear the name is used by many eating establishments) where I had khnkali and fried sulungi which are both apparently Georgian. I also had Adana kebab as my main dish so I didn’t feel totally bad that I was having non-Armenian foods the first night I was in Armenia. The highlight, though, was նռան օղի (pomegranate vodka). It was delicious, like candy, but without forgetting that it was a vodka.
The waiter was more pleasant than many I’d encountered in the past. I try not to think much of it when a waiter outside of the U.S. is not like the overly attentive, oftentimes annoying waiters whose smiles and attention are at the expense of them incessantly hovering over your table and trying to get you to leave (is it just me or does every waiter in the U.S. get off their shift while I’m having dinner thus forcing me to pay before they leave? Though I’m not sure how their leaving is relevant). Anyway, he cracked a few rare smiles and that was that.
By the way, how you order food is a dead giveaway that you’re not a local. I don’t fully understand it but the way locals order food is one of the most fascinating things and I haven’t been able to wrap my head around it. I was awed last time and I don’t think much has changed this time. Orders at restaurants are made as commands such as, “you will bring this, this, and this.” For someone used to the meek western style of ordering food where you have to kiss the waiter’s ass to ensure that the food’s not late and didn’t touch any otherwise covered body parts or bodily fluid, this is a shock if there ever was one. In the past few days (because it’s already been a few days), I’ve heard people talk to waiters like what you see in movies about the Deep South during the Reconstruction. Actually, no. This may be more akin to how I imagine Xerxes from 300 might order food. One guy who looked like a grandpa seated with his grandchildren told a waiter that in order not to waste his or his family’s time to bring out the food at once. Not only is this a foreign concept to me, I absolutely refuse to become accustomed to what I feel is an unjustifiably discourteous way of communicating with another person. So, I out myself as an outsider every time I order food by asking for a menu item or, if I’m feeling audacious, by saying “please.” At least my conscience can rest easy on this front. And you know what, I’m going to believe that the waiters appreciate it.
First day. Lots of good. Some of the same old. All things considered, happy to be here. There is no place like it.
By: William Bairamian