Friday, August 13, 2004

Soorj meditations 

My wife sent to me a link from a webcam about three blocks from my hotel room Live From Armenia that you may enjoy.  It has been blistering hot here for most of the week and the smog had developed over the week.  I can't tell you exact temperatures: There's a law that says if it is over 40 degrees Celsius workers must be allowed to go home.  So the thermometers here seem to be stuck on 39.  But last night as we were going to dinner a huge wind kicked up out of the west and cooled things off.  I was sitting with my back to a window that faced the wind, and I was a little concerned.  But by the time we left the restaurant the wind had stopped, and all of a sudden you could see Ararat, just as you can from the webcam this morning.  Enjoy!

We left the restaurant early because we were annoyed with the lack of deserts at a restaurant that prides itself on sitting around with coffee and a sweet, followed by a cigar and brandy.  Armenian brandy has been one of my means of plying my way into the good graces of the NARN, as the Elder is ga-ga for the stuff.  Be sure to buy the brands from the Yerevan Brandy Factory, the oldest in the country (bought several years ago by Pernod-Ricard, the French company -- I guess the French needed to learn how to make good brandy.)  But the experience isn't quite the same without some good paklava or kadaif, and there was none in the restaurant.  We went back to the hotel which has a Viennese-style cafe and a passable Sacher torte.

Soorj haigagan, or Armenian coffee, is probably known to most people as Turkish coffee or Arabic coffee, but there are differences.  Arabs often include cardamom in their coffee as a carminative, to relieve the bloat after a big plate of kebab and kufta, etc.  Unfortunately the spice works on me a little differently; suffice to say I should not use it in polite company.  Turks like more sugar in their coffee than Armenians generally.  I prefer none, particularly if I'm having all the honey in good paklava or kadaif.  Paklava (you call it baklava most likely) and kadaif are similar in taste, but the pastry for kadaif is stringy, like a soft angel-hair pasta noodle but made of the same dough as fillo.

Anything that one does in Armenia with talking to people comes with soorj.  Last night while having the coffee and torte a priest walks up and starts looking over my friend's copies of the IHT.  Amazingly, he does not seem at all concerned that they were next to my friend, who loves to keep the back copies for the NYT crosswords.  He starts to ask the priest something and the priest answers in English with a noticeable Boston accent.  It turns out the man has lived here for five years, teaching at the seminary and leading a youth group.  We ended up talking over soorj for an hour about Armenia, America and the Boston Celtics.  (He had not heard we got Gary Payton.)

Most people are remarking on two things these days.  First, there are loads of cafes here, much more than when I was here in 2002.  Locals are complaining that there are too many, but that all are full.  Well, I say, how can you have too many cafes and not enough seats at the same time?  Secondly, in a related point, the price of apartments has gone up substantially.  When I lived in Kyiv several years ago my flat was $3000/month for 110 square meters (a little more than 1100 sq.ft.)  Here a similar apartment two years ago went for $2000.  One of my counterparts, a US government contractor, was in such an apartment and the landlord wanted to raise his rent.  He refused and moved.  The apartment rented within a week after he moved out, to an Iranian Armenian -- most likely for much more. 

The priest last night told us two other stories that match the increasing economic activity here.  First, he used to lead retreats for youth on any day of the week and had no problem getting them to come.  (Armenia is the opposite of the U.S.  -- here, teens rebel from their parents by going to church.)  Now he must schedule on the weekends because the youth cannot come during the week -- they are working.  Second, in Soviet times apartment blocks were built as one big block facing the four streets, but the center of the block was left as a courtyard.  You enter apartments by walking into the courtyard first then into the door and up to the flat.  The courtyard was a social center, and kids could play there under watchful gaze and without traffic.  Land values have risen enough now, however, that new buildings are going up in the courtyards, filling the hole of the donut as it were.  And traffic jams abound now, and parking is far more difficult. 

William Saroyan once said that it didn't matter where you scattered the Armenians, that anytime two or more met they would just build a new one.  Here, in a country in which a little more than three million Armenians live (out of near eleven million Armenians worldwide -- 1.4 million in the USA), there are signs Saroyan is being proved right.  I just looked outside my window and there are six construction cranes.  I'll drink to that!

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