Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I work in a room

I work in a room. That is my workplace — a room. There are white walls (at least the ceiling is high), fluorescent lights, one small window, a heater. If we keep the blinds open, a lot of sunlight can get in through that one small window.

In that room, there are 4 long boardroom-type desks, 11 computers, a small table and chair for eating one’s lunch, 2 cupboards. There is a water cooler that provides both hot and cold water. A small electric jazzve for making “Eastern” coffee (also known as Armenian/Arabic/Turkish/Greek coffee) though no one uses it.

There are 2 types of coffee available. Instant and “Eastern” (which very few drink here and when they do, they don’t make it with the jazzve, they make it like they would make instant coffee). I don’t consider instant coffee, coffee, yet what other choice is there? No café or restaurant nearby offers coffee that’s neither instant nor Eastern. The automatic machine downstairs offers cappucino (which is as good as it gets) except it, too, is made from a mix.

I’m not a fan of Starbucks, but oh how I wish sometimes I could just pop downstairs and get a latté (I’m not even asking for a soy latté or a chai or a matcha green tea latté) or some sort of forthy milky real coffee beverage (preferably made with fair trade, organic coffee beans).

But I digress.

In that room, there’s no kitchen, no microwave, no toaster oven, no electric kettle (the hot water from the water cooler will have to suffice). There isn’t even a separate room in which to enjoy your lunch break in peace (but do you even get a lunch break? Let’s start there).

Most people here begin their workday at 9 am, leave after 6 pm (sometimes 7 or 8 pm). The newer staff, eager and dedicated, but also in charge, don’t even take a lunch break. Most of us eat at our desks. Can you imagine working 9-10 hours a day without a break, barely leaving your seat, glued to your computer, not eating more than a salad or a sandwich all day and then coming in on Saturday to do it all over again? I don’t agree to these conditions. I don’t accept them. And unlike most everyone else, I don’t have to. Being a native English speaker in a country whose main language is not English, I have more options available to me. Being a citizen of a “developed” country, I can set my terms. They know that I’m neither used to nor accepting of such workplace conditions.
I can’t say for sure, but I probably get paid more than they do — and I work less hours. It’s enough to make you sick.

Today is February 23. We have not yet gotten paid this year. We have worked nearly all of January and February is almost over. As a general rule, pay is monthly and often paid for the month worked before. We should have received our January pay cheque earlier this month. But we all know (from experience) not to expect to get paid for January till nearly the end of February. How do they do it? How do we survive?

Under these conditions, we should be happy we have jobs. We work (and supposedly we get an income). There are far too many who are worse off. But again, I ask: how do we do it? One begins to act cautiously, carefully, sometimes in fear of losing their jobs: we don’t even demand our pay cheques anymore. We simply ask, kindly, politely, please, boss, might you be so kind as to let us know when you will be paying us?

I asked him yesterday. He said either today (yesterday) or tomorrow (today). I knew from experience not to expect to get paid on the same day I asked (even if he did say so). I think that if we get paid today, it’ll be a miracle. It’ll mean he was true to his words. Which, as experience has shown, has never been the case.

But we wait. I wait. And when I see him today (he has a habit of not always being around, not coming in every day), I will ask him again. And again, and again. But it gets tiring sometimes.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Monsanto? Improving Farmers' Lives? Gimme a break

It's about four months too old, but I happened to find this Monsanto ad in the October 12, 2009, issue of New Yorker magazine (which I borrowed from the American Corner resource centre in Yerevan; what can I say, I get my English-language news however I can :)
I was about to turn the page after simply rolling my eyes at the layout (and of course, the overall message) when I saw the words "Improving Farmers' Lives" (shown at the bottom of the photo below) which caused me to nearly choke on my sunflower seed.

Whatever Monsanto might say about Food Inc. (the film on the U.S. food industry which heavily criticized the multinational agricultural corporation), the truth is the company did sue small-time Canadian farmers whose crop happened to be contaminated by Monsanto seeds. How can you control where your seeds pollinate? How can you call this "improving farmers' lives"? Oh and did I mention that farmers have to pay to plant Monsanto's genetically engineered products which can only be planted for one year? Farmers who wish to plant Monsanto seeds have to purchase them every year (unlike other seeds that can be re-sown) and this becomes a high cost for farmers. Not to mention that they're genetically modified. Tell me again: how does Monsanto improve farmers' lives? 

Monday, February 15, 2010

My horoscope this week (Feb. 15-21)

From: astrobarry.com

"When I tell you 'love is in the air' for you, plenty of you simply won't want to hear it. When I report your rivers of personal creativity are gushing forth at unusually high levels, the more disgruntled among you might quip, 'Yeah, but what's that 
doing for me?' And when I insist, Scorpio, that no matter how grueling your present battle against that unsightly lack of recognition, outer-world opportunity and/or unjust power-structure may presently be, you're standing on the shores of more pleasure and joy than is imaginable by many… well, I just can't allow you to shut down my upbeat spin on your life, even if it requires arm-wrestling you into submission. 

"I have repeated a similar message for you over the past few weeks, not because I'm running out of things to say (please: I'm 
never in short supply of words) but because (1) what I'm telling you is true and (2) you have enough justifying evidence to disbelieve me that this truth begs a continual drilling-in. So, have I drilled deep enough yet? Have I gotten you away from those hollow want-ads, the angry emails to disrespectful supervisors, your perpetual microscopic focus on where your best efforts don't appear to be leading you? Let's just put it this way: If I were there with you right now, I'd start tickling you until you couldn't help but giggle… and once that giggle slipped out, there would be no going back. Please don't make me come over there. Coax that giggle out from its hiding place now."

I love it. What a great way to start the week.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Yerevan Bicycle Action (December 2009)

I participated in this ride in Yerevan on December 6 to promote cycling as an ecological, safe, and fun method of transportation. The organizers behind the event (Tom Allen, an English guy living in Yerevan; and Bicycle+, a local NGO) filmed the event then sent it to Copenhagen to be screened on the sidelines of the much-publicized UN Climate Change Conference.

As an avid cyclist, I very much support the idea of cycling as a safe and empowering form of transport. Though folks interviewed in the video say it's not safe to cycle in Yerevan, I think that if more people would, then drivers would become more familiar with cyclists on the road, thus, making it safer for all.

I bike just about every day (from home to work and back again), though lately I've been walking or taking public transport as, I admit, the snow and cold can be a bit of a deterrent. Plus, I need to take my bike into the shop to get my gears looked at (the chain keeps jumping). But I can't wait till I'm back on the saddle and feeling the (albeit, cold) wind on my face again...

Ride Planet Earth Messages - Yerevan, Armenia from Tom Allen on Vimeo.

On the 6th of December 2009, Yerevan joined cities around the globe in a bicycle action to call for a fair and effective agreement to be made at the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen, starting the following day.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Candlemas or the celebration of Pagan traditions or simply a co-opting of St. Valentine’s Day?

Photo by Kenneth Hawes (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Tonight, in Armenia, the tradition of Tyarn'ndaraj (Տյառնընդառաջ, also known as "Ter'ntez") is celebrated. This religious holiday goes by many other names: Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, the Meeting of the Lord, or Presentation of the Lord — all quite serious-sounding names, the sound of which would be enough to turn many away (including yours truly).

However, from what I’ve found out over the past couple of days, the holiday in Armenia is celebrated with a little something extra: with lighting of bonfires and well wishes for newlyweds (the former appealing to me more so). Of course, in line with the Christian holiday, the devout go to church this evening where they will light candles that they will then take with them and light in their homes. Oh, and the forementioned newlyweds get to be blessed by the priest.

 But along with this — more typical —celebration of the Presentation of the Lord, is the other, pagan, tradition: young newlyweds jumping over bonfires in their backyards, in front of their homes, and in Lovers’ Park, perhaps? From what I’ve been told, this is to ward off evil in the couple’s relationship, but a Wikipedia entry says women jump over the fire to purify themselves before conceiving, while men, apparently, come along for the ride :)

The bonfires also signal the end of winter and the coming of spring, though, it being February and there still being snow on the ground, I’m a bit skeptical.

Oddly enough, the celebrations begin on the eve of February 13, apparently 40 days after the birth of Jesus. That got me stumped because I was doing the calculations from December 25, and also because elsewhere Candlemas is noted as being celebrated on February 2 to 3. Then I realized the calculation should be done from January 6 (Eastern Orthodox Christmas, or Epiphany), though that would mean the holiday would fall on February 15, non?

In any case, celebrations begin tonight, but the actual holiday is considered to be tomorrow, February 14. Funny coincidence that is, don’t you think? Is it perhaps the Armenian Church’s attempt to take back sacreligious St. Valentine’s Day and make it a day for couples albeit with God’s approval and under Jesus’ watchful eye? According to this one priest, St. Valentine’s Day is nothing but a holiday invented by business owners and there is no such saint named Valentine in Armenian tradition. Besides, Armenians get to celebrate another day for lovers: St. Sargis Day. And what’s the harm in that?

But this evening, I’ll make sure to keep an eye out for bonfires across the city. I wonder what happy revelers would say if my partner and I held hands and decided to jump over the fire? I wonder if they’d ask us if we’re married first? :)

In any case, all this lighting of candles and bonfires is sure to make the city a little warmer tonight…

Monday, February 8, 2010

Just Dance

Yesterday, I had a chance to participate in a what-I-know-to-be-a-first-in-Yerevan event called Yerevan Online Party. Organized by Deem Communications and DJ Tsomak, the idea behind the party was that anyone, anywhere could request songs to be played at the party and join in on the fun. 

A couple of days before and even during the event, you could send your requests (including YouTube video link) by email or SMS, or post them on the event Facebook page. Then, during the party, Tsomak played the songs (in the order she received them), projected the videos on the wall, and had a webcam going so that those who wanted to join in on the fun could see the event via webcam, connected through Skype.

Can you imagine the technology and coordinating involved in pulling off an event such as this in a country where internet connection isn’t always reliable? To be honest, I thought there would be more technical glitches than there actually was. The only downfall with Skype is that only one user at any one time could actually view the event through webcam (since, if I’m not mistaken, you can’t have video calls with more than one user at a time).

So Tsomak had to not only DJ the event, keep track of the songs coming in (with Raffi’s help, of course!), but also juggle between various Skype callers. There was constantly an incoming call and we just couldn’t answer them all at the same time. So if you were one of those people who called, you might’ve gotten through, maybe even saw some precious webcam footage, only to be cut off a few seconds or minutes later. That was probably because we answered another video call and had to put you either on hold or cut the video (in which case you would’ve heard the music but lost the image).

In any case, it was totally fun and the 2,000 AMD entrance fee was worth if you consider that it included a drink ticket and a performance at the Hamazgayin Theatre (tickets for theatre productions at Hamazgayin normally cost 1,000 AMD).

A couple of drinks, some amazing tunes, a handful of great friends and dance partners, and videos projected on the wall (including the occasional view of a Skype caller) made for an amazing, memorable, and pretty innovative evening in downtown Yerevan on a Sunday night.

And most important of all for me was that it gave me an opportunity to reconnect with this city and with my place here.

It had been a long time since I went out dancing and let loose. In a way, the space and, as Paulo pointed out, the plastic cups of alcoholic drinks with “yerevan online party” written on them, reminded me of highschool parties, but so what? Last night, for me, was more about reliving those brief periods when nothing else mattered except dancing.

And that is why, the soundtrack to this blog post, without a doubt, is Lady Gaga’s Just Dance.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Ruminations on a Friday morning

When I decided to move to Armenia, I was clear and focused. I knew I was coming to live with my partner, that I would find a job, and that we’d take it one day at a time. Until then, we hadn’t lived together in the same continent, let alone the same city. And, of course, we had to give it a go: we had to see how our relationship would grow, what directions it would take, once we were in regular, live (not live as in with a webcam through Skype) contact.

Since I’ve been here, I find that I’m less focused, less clear — not in terms of my relationship (the one very solid, very real thing in my life), but in terms of work, future plans, hell, even current plans. The routine of a full-time day job (including Saturdays, can you believe it?) takes away time and energy to think of more creative, or even future, pursuits. I find it’s easy to get sucked into the everyday, the mundane, and lose sight of the bigger picture. And I like to think of the bigger picture.

I’m considering post-grad studies, but not in Armenia. I haven’t even been here that long, but I’m already thinking about leaving. At least, temporarily. It’s just that the more I think about it, the more I find my options limited here. Perhaps I haven’t found my niche. Perhaps I haven’t found my place in this country, in this city. And though it’s important to remember the past, I believe in living in the present. But one still has to be able to make plans for the future. And living in a country where most people I know live hand-to-mouth, where you can’t trust the state to provide for you, where you don’t know what the future will bring (because it can never be relied on anyway), I find it harder to think ahead.

In Toronto, I would most likely be making plans for the summer by now. But somehow, it seems out of place to mention the summer in the middle of winter. In my experience, people don’t advertise events more than a week (or two at most) in advance. You would forget the date, the details. And organizing for an event? Unlike what I know to be true in Toronto, and I assume other North American cities, you can begin organizing maybe a month ahead, but not a year. It’s like that anecdote my mom said: when she was visiting Armenia a few years back, she inquired about booking a restaurant for my sister’s wedding when she was thinking about having the ceremony in Yerevan. She asked all sorts of details from the restaurant (or banquet hall, can’t remember which) manager: price, number of people they can seat, and so on. When he asked when the wedding was to take place, she said next year. He, taken aback, pushed his calculator aside (ostensibly, for doing all those calculations for the cost of the affair), looked at her and said “Do you even have the groom?” Then proceeded to tell her that by next year, the space would look different, he would renovate everything and the prices would change. Next year, there were no guarantees. But next month? Well, that we can do.

And therein lies a perfect example of diasporan Armenian meets local Armenian. Of living in Toronto vs. living in Yerevan. Perhaps here I am living in the present. That which all the self-help books tell you will keep you sane, keep you grounded, keep you focused. But here, it takes on a whole new meaning…the more I live here, the more I find that one can’t only live in the present. That it’s all about balance. Too much rushing headfirst into the future, constantly planning ahead, and not fully appreciating what you have now doesn’t work (or as they say here, «չի ստացվում»). But too much living in the everyday and not thinking ahead doesn’t work either.

It’s all about balance. And right now, I’m trying to find mine.