Monday, March 30, 2009

Eating in Yerevan

Eating in Yerevan was very similar to eating in any place you don't speak the language--you do a lot of pointing and laughing, and sometimes you just flat out guess and get lucky. On the flip-side sometimes your points result in a not-so-appetizing bowl of goo.

Due aforementioned issue with the Armenian alphabet we did most of our ordering off the English menu. What was comical was that the waiters and waitresses usually didn't speak much English. If Matt and I were on our own, it could be interesting. After a few days we sorta learned to get both menus, and then find the corresponding menu item (and hope it was in the same place, haha), and just point and say "Yes ozoum ___" and point at the item. Worked pretty well. "Yes ozoum", FYI means "I would like". I learned this phrase the first week and never let go of it, haha.

Some things that translate in all languages:

1. Vodka -- we're basically right next door to Russia, DUH.
2. Pizza Magherita -- universal for cheese pizza. Threw Hayk for loop however when we visited the Mexican restaurant and Jay ordered a Margarita and it came in a glass and had a greenish hue, haha. Hayk had never been to a Mexican restaurant, and yes, there was a good one in Yerevan (who knew, eh?)
3. Coke and Fanta. Say no more.
4. Tomato

As we were basically smack in the city center there were plenty of restaurants all around us. Down the street and a block over was a good pizza restaurant. There were several Italian restaurants scattered throughout. Down the street was a Thai and Indian restaurant, but I don't think we ever went there. Half a block down from our building was a decent Chinese restaurant, and the owner was delighted to have us there and introduced herself. Apparently the restaurant was new.

Our favorite Armenian restaurant was called Kavkas, which I think is a loose translation for "Caucasian" or "Caucasus" the mountain region which defines the area. Anyway, the food was great! A lot of fresh fish (which I love) and excellent taboule. It was located just one block away from our apartment.

A few times we ate at a REALLY good French restaurant just off Republic Square. The food was outstanding. Matt speaks French so we also had a complete understanding of the menu (for once, haha). The food was pricey for Yerevan, but we would've paid easily twice as much for the same meal in Paris so wins all around, no?

Shopping for food was a different story, haha. Grocery stores are much like European ones: every square inch of space crammed stuff. Add into that tight aisles and slippery slushy floors, and it can be interesting! The chain market for the city was called SAS, and the biggest store was a few blocks away from our apartment, so we went there for things like snacks and drinks and small items. Searching those out was relatively easy because most vegetables are self explanatory and snacks have a picture on them 90% of the time. Interestingly enough, most of the items were either German, French, or Russian. Very few things are apparently packaged for the Armenian market. We didn't cook cook very often (only twice IIRC) because:

1. There were so many great restaurants around us that we couldn't pass up -- probably the biggest reason
2. We had no dishwasher -- I hate washing dishes
3. The water situation we mentioned before not necessarily ensuring we could finish said dishes and get food glued onto bowls/plates/pots, though it was too cold for bugs
4. The water was FREEZING coming out of the tap
5. We didn't really have the utensils to cook the type of food we were used to cooking .

Friday, March 27, 2009

Morning Routine

After Dr. B and Dr. G went home things started to settle down and we settled into a daily routine. We would usually get up between eight and nine, shower first thing, and then make our way to the lab. That was usually an adventure in itself!

For starters, in Yerevan (I can't speak for the rest of Armenia, haha) the water only physically runs between 6 and 10 in the morning and evening. Now, according to our friends there was supposed to be a tank that held water so you could use it throughout the day. This mystery tank however never seemed to make a worthy shower or water pressure in the sink, though we never had trouble using the washer. WTF mate. To add to the ridiculousness of our plumbing, whenever we did take a shower the toilet room (remember it's next door) would flood, badly. So either way we were SOL. You either got a cold drippy shower between 10 and 6, or flooded the next room between 6 and 10 and then froze to death when you got out of the shower. Well Sheisse!

Once we had showered and layered (I consistently wore at least four layers of clothing) we head out the door. Ok, this was always interesting because sometimes the elevator just did not want to work. We had two elevators at our use up in the nosebleed seats on the twelfth floor. One just outside our door, and one in another "half" of the building we had a crosswalk to. Since ours never wanted to work we usually took our chances with the one across the way. More than once we ended up schlepping down the stairs.

At first we were taken to the lab by Tigran, who lived just down the street, but that only lasted a few days, haha. After that we were on our own to get there. Nare was kind enough to meet us our first day and go with us. She gave us a crash course in minibuses, which are basically large minivans that criss-cross (no, not the kid rappers) the city. Thankfully they are all numbered because otherwise we would have been SOL. Our stop was the sight of at least fifteen routes, but only four or five took us where we needed to go. Now, each of the routes has a list of stops, but I could never decipher the Armenian script. It is an alphabet, but to me it looks like scribble and even after five weeks the letters still looked the same. Compare that to the Cyrillic Russian alphabet I had down after a day. Ahhh, if only there had been Russian on there as well. But, that added to the adventure.

The bus would only stop if somebody hailed it, that of course was easy. Once on the bus you sat about this close to twenty of your closest friends who all had coats as big as yours on. The floor was usually wet and the air stale with cigarettes. 90% of the time somebody was getting off at our stop "Armentel" which was a telephone company. The other 10% of the time we tried to be as discreet as possible about the fact that we spoke very little Armenian and quietly ask the drive for "Armentel, khndrem." (Armentel, please). And then "Shnorakhalutsyun" or "thank you very much".

I'm not really sure why I was trying to avoid drawing attention to myself. I was the only fair skinned, blond headed person in the city (an exaggeration I'm sure but not by much! haha). Initially I thought I stuck out like a sore thumb. As it turns out often times when I was on my own I was addressed in Russian very often and once or twice in German. Once I started speaking the guessing game was over as to my nationality, but everybody was so friendly I never felt uncomfortable.

Sometimes I took the bus back alone because either Matt or I were staying late and the other was heading back. Once it was dark and I missed my stop and basically just said "stop". Incidentally "Stop" is the same in Russian or English so a simple thank you and I was on my way.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Astghik, myself, and Nare in the lab.

Astghik and Susanna during one of our coffee breaks.

The monastery we visited before having to push the car home ;)

The Hadjkahs.

The genocide memorial.

I'll post more pictures as I go along!

Sight Seeing.

Since we were there in winter some of the sights were slightly more difficult to see due to weather and road conditions.

The day after we arrived Nare took me, Matt, and Dr. B on a tour of Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. The first thing we went to was the Armenian Genocide Memorial. Similar to Arlington National in Virginia, it has an eternal flame. The flame is surrounded in a circular fashion by several concrete slabs that taper from bottom to top. We also toured the on-site museum. Very sullen atmostphere (though what would you expect, Mardis Gras?). Once there we got our first good look at Mt. Ararat. BIG, HUGE, IMPRESSIVE, HUMUNGOUS. I think that's enough adjectives. Yerevan is only 40km away from Mt. Ararat, which is actually in Turkey, so when you can see it it takes up 2/3 of the panorama.

The weather was very nice the first week so we took a few side trips. First (and most memorable) was a trip to Dilidjan, a little town oh, I guess about an hour from Yerevan. Interesting fact about Dilidjan is that its elevation drops 400 meters in less than a mile (yes I do know I'm mixing units here, haha). I thought I was back in San Francisco on Lombard Street for a minute. There was a very old monastary nearby and we were told by Tigran that it was a must see. He was right. The monastary itself is reached by a very winding road through a mountain/valley region. We couldn't drive all the way up to the monastary because there was a large patch of ice that the car couldn't pass, we walked the last 1/4 mile. It was FREEZING, I guess -2 Celsius (about 28 F for the Imperial folks). It was very impressive, and so isolated one feels like stepping back in time.

After exploring the monastary and "hadjkahs" (phonetic spelling here) it was time to head back because the weather was starting to turn. It had started to snow before we got back to the car and oh goody, THE CAR WOULDN'T START! So, with that in mind we proceeded to push the car up and down(??? yes down!) the mountain which by now had a nice layer of snow and ice on it. Tigran must have been embarassed, but we really didn't mind because the scenery was so beautiful and I'd never really seen a good snow (remember, Georgia boy here), so I was content to enjoy the moment.

After, oh I'd guess about an hour of pushing the car up icy slopes it finally decided to start. I'm guessing the altitude had some effect on it. And then we had a pretty uneventful ride back to Yerevan. All in all, more than enough adventure for the day, haha.

The next morning the ground was covered in snow -- at least four inches.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Getting settled

Airports get me going because they're so full of energy and mild chaos, so after leaving the Yervan airport I was wired. The city was very dim as apparently even most of the street lights are turned off after a certain hour.

We were taken to the apartment we'd be staying in for the next month and got there around 530 and collapsed into bed. The apartment was a modest affair, though very nice for Armenian standards, and more than adequate for our needs. It had a rather large entry way that served as the main hall. I felt this was wasted space as you could easily have turned half of it into a small bedroom. Branching off this main room were a bedroom, kitchen, the main living room (which was about the size of two and half normal rooms I would say) and separate room each for the shower and toilet. So a standard city apartment, I guess. There was a washing machine in the room with the shower. Oh, and did I mention it was on the twelfth floor? Did I also mention there was only one elevator that did not do multiple stops? And did I mention it only held about three people before it became claustrophobic?? My one issue with the apartment!

The building itself was in downtown Yerevan, almost at the corner of Sayat Nova and Abovyan Streets. From our twelfth floor balcony we had a nice view of the city, especially at nite. Unfortunately Mt. Ararat was on the OTHER side of the building, lol.

Around 1300 (after going to sleep at 530) we were picked up and taken to meet the people we would be working with. Let me say Armenian hospitality is on par with the old time Southern Hospitality I grew up with. We were IMMEDIATELY taken in, welcomed, hugged, kissed, and I've never felt so welcome with total strangers, though only a few spoke English, and I spoke no Armenian.

Armenians like to toast, A LOT, and they like cognac and vodka (I'm not a huge fan of hard liquor). So, when we first arrived with the lab crew, they had graciously prepared a feast for us, with about as much alcohol and food, haha! Before we even sat down to eat they raised a toast to our arrival, and gave us all double shot glasses full of STRONG cognac. It tasted great, and went down smooth, but my stomach didn't quite care for being soaked with strong alcohol with no food in it, haha. After two shot of cognac in ten minutes I could see where this was going , so I grabbed a bottle of wine and prudently kept my glass full as to avoid a very unpleasant encore of cognac, haha.

The initial moments of the conversation were a bit awkward as we all took each other in, the language barrier initially being something we had to feel our way around. A little time and a lot of toasts ;) later we were a lot more comfortable with each other and began to get to know each other.

Side note, this initially through me for a loop. I noticed that people 40 and up tend to speak a lot more Russian in conversation, and 30 and down Armenian, (the in between crowd was a mix) and they would do this with each other! Add our English and some Georgian (not mine) to the mix and there were three and four languages floating around the table. Also, my Armenian friends got a kick out of telling people I was from Georgia. I would then get spoken to in Georgian. I was tempted to talk MY Georgian back just to even the playing field! No, I don't have a stereotypical Southern or country accent (there is a difference) but I grew up hearing them and can mimmick them if I want to. I have though been told that there is a trace of a Southern accent when I speak, so who knows.

Many people were there to welcome us, but we would mostly be working with three of the students there: Astghik, Hayk, and Nare.

Astghik (the closest English pronuncian is Astrick, like the *, but that's not really it, the name means "Little Star") is very quiet, reserved, very sweet, and very smart. We spent a lot of time working together in the lab and I learned a great deal from her.

Nare is very outgoing and bright. She is very open to new experiences and ideas. Nare took us around Yerevan on our first day and showed us what her city had to offer, which we found was a great deal.

Hayk is a normal 20-something guy. He is VERY proud of his Armenian heritage, but very eager to learn about America. He was the only one of the three to never have been "abroad." But he didn't mind at all. He loves Armenia and his family.

So those were the students. We also had the pleasure of working with :

Susanna, who ran the IR. It took me a while to stop pronouncing it the American way, "Soo-zannah." She was a very sweet, loving lady who was sort of a surrogate mother for us while we were there. She spoke no English other than "good morning." Being Russian-educated, she used mostly Russian in the Russian-Armenian tennis matches at the table. I learned a few phrases. Matt and I were usually called "Miela" which means "darling" in Russian. We were often told "Maladyetz" in response to whatever helpful/useful/insert good adjective, which means "well done/good job." Susanna made our coffee several times per day and would sometimes tell our fortunes using the grains.

Gohar. A middle-aged lady who ran the UV/Vis instruments in the lab. She used mostly Russian as well, but could understand English better than she let on.

So that was our little family for a month. Dr. G and Dr. B were only there a week, and Tigran left after two to spend Christmas with his daughter in Germany.

Getting there!

So a little background to my trip. Please bear in mind pieces of this are excerpts from postings I made on a travel forum, so if it seems heavy on the travel details that's why.

I was travelling to Armenia for a month to participate in an international research collaboration hosted by an undergraduate institution with which my research advisor has connections. I was VERY fortunate and blessed to be selected for this project and ended up doing almost a year's worth of work in about three months, on top of my other studies which included PCHEM (aka Sadism 101). But I digress. Since I didn't purchase the ticket and was meeting a crew from Myrtle Beach, I had to double connect. If you ever have the choice, pass on that BTW. If I had been booking I would have purchased a single connection in Paris or Amsterdam, but since I didn't purchase or book, I didn't complain. Not really much to complain about, because I was getting there either way, no?!?!

13 Dec. 2007

I had wrapped up my Fall Semester Finals and celebrated an early Christmas with my family. My mom took me to the airport in a balmy ATL. It was 80 F (~26C?), unusually warm even for us in December. I had a little difficulty checking in because I had a paper itenerary all the way through (pass on that too), but the gentleman at the US counter--a black man probably in his fifties--was incredibly friendly and helped me out. I paid my baggage fee and skipped through Security at the T-Gates (DO take advantage of that!) I meandered my way down to Concourse D, I almost always walk, where a US Airways 737 was waiting to take me to Charlotte. The interior looked rather worn, but for the short flight it was ok. Despite all the horror stories I've read about US the crew (CLT based) were very friendly. My seatmate struck up a short conversation with me and did a double take when I told her where I was headed. In short, about an hour later we landed in CLT. I met up with my crew in Charlotte, bear in mind I've only met them once! We grabbed some food at a Chili's before heading down to where the Lufthansa A343 was parked. While eating I got the first real chance to talk to the person I'd be living with for the next month.

There was VERY long line to check in at the counter, but it moved relatively swiftly. I bantered with the agent with my limited German, actually getting a smile out of a native German! Whodda thunk! I asked for an exit row but unfortunately there were non available, so I stuck to my aisle seat in the back. Originally they had placed me in the middle, but I had that rearranged VERY quickly. We settled in for our haul and I already knew it was going to be a long flight. Lucky me gets to sit next to Chatty Cathy visiting her son in Munich for Christmas. Oh goody, nice lady but she talked the ENTIRE way across the Atlantic. Lucky for her I don't sleep well on Eastbound Redeyes. Meal service was nondescript and decent, though the LH crew (including an incredibly cute blonde) came around frequently with drinks and whatnot. I'm not a fan of overhead movies because I get a crick in my neck and I didn't really care for the movie selection (don't remember what it was sorry).

We arrived in Munich while it was still dark and decided to explore the city. Having been to Munich the previous July I was excited to relish this unexpected opportunity to gorge myself with Kaessenkuchen, Hoffbraeuhaus Bier and a nice juicy Doener from an Imbiss near the Hauptbahnhof! For anyone who cares we stayed at the Hotel Dolomit on Goethestrasse in July. Luckily for me the Glockenspiel that I didn't get to see last time because it was covered in scaffolding was fixed! We enjoyed about four hours in a very cold Munich before our jetlagged selves schlepped back to MUC. We proceeded through security ohne problem. We found our gate and I fell asleep for probably two hours, and then checked my email. I wandered around the terminal (2 I believe) and saw flights to Breslau (Wroclaw) and Shanghai. Finally it came time to board, and we were herded onto a bus and driven out into what seemed like the Bavarian countryside where we boarded a CR9. The plane was relatively comfy and I had a pair of seats to myself. I fell asleep soon after takeoff (which was around 2200). I awoke a few times during the flight, we were flying over what I can only assume to be Istanbul, Bucharest, or Budapest, and I ate some interesting looking pasta.

We landed in Yerevan at around 0400 local time on Saturday morning. After landing the flight attendants had to repeatedly tell people to sit down because people were already getting up out of their seats and gathering their belongs on taxi. We breezed through customs and immigration which including purchasing our visas on arrival. We should be so lucky here in the states. Our party met us and we trugged into the cold Yerevan morning. Apparently, Tigran's transmission was acting up so we literally pushed the car out of its parking space in a very cramped, hectic parking lot! The adventure begins early!