Sunday, August 15, 2004

Hospitality, an Armenian village meal, and the Vernissage 

Not only am I studying remittances here, I'm part of them. Like almost any diasporan coming over here, I brought gifts for people who live here. In a village not too far from Yerevan is a family who arrived here from around Beirut after World War 2. The mets mayr, or grandmother of the group (also called der geen, or head woman), was my grandmother's older sister. Her oldest son is now the head of the family along with his wife, now the der geen and with the same name as his mother. Here is a picture of me with them (the older couple to my right), two of their sons, their daughter, and assorted grand and great-grandchildren from my visit to them yesterday.

An average pensioner in Armenia gets a check for about $15 a month, when the government does send them. They don't always come on time, and sometimes governments fall in arrears. The family trade is building, and all three sons -- the third is also a remitter, working in Russia -- provide for all of these people. Driving back from their place last night we had to slow to let cows cross the road, incongruously in front of an old factory also built by Stalin at the end of WW2. It has not been opened for years.

Village hospitality being what it is, I was treated to a feast unlike anything you will experience in America. I arrived mid-afternoon and as I came through the door a table was spread with food and drink. Knowing that many toasts were coming, I prepped with tahn, a thinned yogurt with some mint and salt. Lining the stomach helps. It also helps to provide them an alternative to vodka, which they are surely going to offer and on which I am not going to survive, so I brought out the 12-year-old Jameson's. Many toasts were made, much family history was shared, photos of our families were exchanged, and a few Franklins.

Another thing that happens when you go abroad is the shopping for souvenirs. A very good friend, a professional translator trained in business, helped today to shop for the list my wife sent me with. Here the local weekend bazaar is called the Vernissage. Someone explained to me that this French word is often used to describe one getting a private showing in an art gallery, but the experience here is anything but private. It is like a flea market with aggressive sellers; there are not many antiques but loads of crafts and some really cheesy tourist whatnots. The usual begging hands were there as well -- there is still some here, but I must add there is much less now than two years ago, and nothing like the begging in the bazaars in the Middle East -- and often a woman or man will be walking with something to sell as well. Last time here I had focused on the many fine pieces of jewelry, because the stones here are remarkable. On this trip I looked instead for some embroidery and lace for family back home. The prices were remarkable and the ladies selling them were clearly offering me weeks worth of work for $50 or less. My parents are in the antique business and I've been known to dicker furiously around the world, but it was hard to do with these women. And one woman who had chased us around with her lacework, too small and not really what I wanted, caught us buying from someone else and scolded us in Armenian. Vernissage is an experience for those who think they've seen it all in the Turkish bazaar. It's different, more laid back and at the same time more demanding.

More friends to visit tonight and then a set of exit interviews tomorrow. See you then.