May 1, 1992 | Magazine Archive

THE LIGHTER SIDE OF LIFE IN YEREVAN

by Louise Manoogian Simone

Arriving in Armenia one hour early from Sofia, Bulgaria, all passengers were escorted to the “newly decorated” reception area in the basement of the Intourist airport building. Dusty, dirty and with only broken furniture (no doubt the contract was given to a top local designer) we were locked into the room and abandoned. After about ten minutes, getting impatient, we discovered a staircase leading to the customs control (still under Soviet or Russian or whatever it’s called Army). Reaching the top we were quickly told, “You’re early! Go back, we’re not ready!” I guess they have no communication with the air control tower.

Party conversation among Americans in Yerevan is beginning to resemble New York. “I found a rental for $150 a month.” “Did you see the three-bedroom for $400 on Mashtots.” “I’m thinking of buying (still illegal, you have to register it in a local’s name) an apartment fully furnished for $25,000.” Prices are going up, up, up.

A Bostonite, working in the Ministry, has made good friends with the hamsters in his room at the Ani Hotel. (They used to be called mice).

Deciding we might cook breakfast in the kitchen adjacent to our hotel room we bought two dozen eggs at a street corner for 120 rubles. The eggs, placed in a flimsy egg carton with no sides and no top, were gently placed in the trunk. Several times while on appointed rounds we took a peek worried they may have broken when driving on pot-holed streets. Arriving back to the hotel at four, the driver gently lifted the eggs ……only to drop them at the door as the paper-thin carton gave way. One week’s salary down the drain or one U.S. dollar depending on where you live.

Every local Armenian organization or cultural group is looking to move. It’s like musical chairs as people frantically search for available space. Freedom, you know. Walking into one building with the Minister of Education, we were immediately swamped with people from a drama association asking the Minister, “Did you find us a building yet?” Very sweetly he replied, “How about the one on Toumanian Street?” “Toumanian Street, Toumanian Street, are you kidding? That building resembles the rubble of Berlin after World War II!” exclaimed the director. “Well,” replied the Minister, “We will definitely find you something.” A nearby professor approached, “Are you sure?” “We live on hope after all, don’t we?” explained the Minister with a smile. “Yes,” said the professor, “But is this real hope or just fantasy?”

Eating breakfast in the hotel is a great way to start the morning. It’s not unusual to bump into a livid foreign businessman at the door on his first trip to Armenia who expects the restaurant to open at 8:30 a.m. when the sign clearly reads “Open at 8:30 a.m.”. When it does open, you first have to get the attention of the waiters who are always sitting around the table having a coffee break or counting their tips (even in the morning). Of course, it gives you time to find a table with a clean cloth (there really is a shortage of soap and no washing machines). Then you’re told there are no eggs, even though they are sold on every street corner. Actually it doesn’t matter whether you have eggs or just tea and toast, breakfast still costs 50 rubles. Actually it’s not always 50 rubles. The same breakfast is a different price each morning, sometimes 35, other times 45 and often 50. There are no listed prices and no menus.

The main building of the Armenia Hotel is still under construction. No matter when I have asked the desk clerks during the last year and a half, “How soon will it be ready?” the answer is always “Next month.” Rumor has it that the renovation was a joint venture with the Yugoslavs. And you know what trouble they’ve been having lately! There isn’t a workman on the site.

A friend of a friend from California refused to pay his last night’s lodging at the Armenia Hotel because of all the noise that kept him awake. “You have to pay, ” said the desk clerk. “I’m not paying,” he said. “We don’t have such rules, you have to pay,” she said. “I’m not paying,” he said. She ran to get the supervisor. He didn’t pay.

It’s not unusual for strangers to hand me letters asking me to mail them in the United States. One afternoon an elderly man in Etchmiadzin approached me and asked just that. “No problem,” I said. Taking the letter, I noticed there was nothing written on the envelope. “But you haven’t addressed it,” I said. “Oh, you can find it,” he replied, “it’s to George Bush.” (Written in Armenian).

One morning a man knocking on the door announced he had come to hook up CNN. “Hook up CNN,” I said, “none of the televisions work!” “Well, which one works the best,” he asked. “You can try the room on the end, it at least has a fuzzy picture,” I said, adjusting to the circumstances.

A new cigarette is for sale in Armenia: Japanese made, it’s called “Gorbatchow” with a statement on the box claiming “Freedom has a taste of its own.” Taking his first puff, a government official commented, “It’s weak.”

I always ask for my hotel bill a day before I leave so I can be sure I have enough rubles. The housekeeper brought the bill during my absence. When my daughter saw the bottom line, $3600, she must have looked hysterical because the housekeeper quickly said “Gam, gam (or, or) 26,000 rubles” which translates to about $230. It’s not possible to fathom the logic. At the bank you can get 120 rubles to the dollar but the hotels, still operating Soviet style, charge 60 kopecks to the dollar. Oh well, we’re only seven months into independence.

Last but not least a joke from Yerevan. A housewife gets up in the morning to find the apartment warm. She rushes to turn on the lights, they work. She turns on the stove, there is gas. “Oh, my God,” she says ” the Bolsheviks have returned!”

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