Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Is Living in Armenia Financially Sustainable?

Lately, I’ve had doubts. Doubts about living here, surviving here, settling here. For let’s be honest, I’m still not quite settled. I remember the big question I had before I made the move to live here: is it sustainable? By sustainable, I don’t mean is it environmentally or ecologically sound to live in Armenia; I mean, can one live and work in Armenia without any outside support (financial or otherwise). Are the resources inside the country sufficient to make a decent living?

To elaborate further: I know that those who have savings and investments built up from a life abroad, those who work for international agencies in Armenia where the money comes from outside the country and those who’ve established businesses in Armenia, but their sole (if not the majority of their) earnings come from clients outside the country — all these groups of people can live in Armenia quite comfortably, but it doesn’t solve the equation: the money is still coming from outside.

The more I’ve looked into this issue, the more depressed I’ve become. Because, if only by surveying the many, many others I know who live and work here, I’ve come to the conclusion that no, living in Armenia is not sustainable.

And that’s what’s gotten me depressed over the past few days.

Conversations with friends and acquaintances have also made me realize that I’m not alone. Perhaps it’s the changing of the seasons, the first signs of winter in the air that’s getting us down. But I think it has to do with more than that.

For instance, a good friend of mine Artur recently published a post on his personal blog that resounded with me: he, a young man in his thirties, married with 2 kids, is finding it more and more difficult to justify staying in Armenia. He works hard (he knows he does — and I know he does too!), he has a fairly good job working in media and he’s quite active online and in the journalistic community. He has offered and attended many trainings and continues to improve his skills/trade/craft by being involved in new projects and continuing his education (in a broad sense).

He is a professional in his field.

And yet he sees no hope in this country. Or, more specifically, he sees no future for his children. To be honest, Artur blogs a lot about local politics and events and, working in news media myself, I too follow the numerous opposition rallies, the struggles for freedom of the press, Armenia’s relationships with its neighbors, the Azerbaijani film festival in Yerevan that seems as if it might never happen, the latest racist remark that either Sargsyan or Ter-Petrossian and his supporters made. I too see no true alternative voice in politics, which really only adds to the bleak picture.

Because as much as I am frustrated at how much importance Armenian citizens put on good government, I understand the need to have good, honest, educated people running the country.

In an earlier post, I had been critical of this and said it was a “leftover Soviet mentality,” and I still think that’s partly true. I argued that revolution never came from top-down: one only needs to examine countless other countries’ histories to know that revolution comes from the people. But I also understand what change — much needed change — could come from having good government in Armenia. And until one sees even a glimmer of hope in this issue, the situation in the country paints quite a depressing picture indeed.

But back to my original point: sustainability. I still don’t see it and even if an ideal government were to be established in Armenia tomorrow, I think that it would take a long time for the country to stand up on its feet and for its citizens to be truly independent.

If only because I like to end on a positive note (!), if there’s any “glimmer of hope” that I see in this country it’s the people. I have met such talented, amazing people while living here that if it were not for them, a lot of the change (even if it’s a drop in the ocean) wouldn’t be happening and the hope that some of us keep would be non-existent. People like Artur, and the countless others whose presence does give me the hope that maybe, just maybe, change will come sooner rather than later.

P.S. I would just like to add shout-outs to fellow blogger Lori, who I met for the first time yesterday, and Kirstin, working in Armenia on contract, who I also met yesterday. Learning that there are people who I don’t know who follow my blog, and knowing what I throw into cyberspace is actually received by someone somewhere, really made my day. Thanks, guys ;)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Ode to Yerevan Nights

I had forgotten. I had forgotten how this city changes at night. How the expression “as different as night and day” takes on new meaning in the Armenian capital. And I have missed it. Oh, how I have missed you, dear Yerevan night.

Walking the streets of this city at night, you see the queers, the foreigners, the misfits. If you never went out at night, you would think that Yerevan is “proper” Armenian girls, young boys laughing in groups, schoolchildren, and older women buying produce, while older men talk politics. During the day, you see the mountains in the distance, parents taking their children to ride 200-dram toys in the square, men in groups in dark-colored clothing talking politics in the park.

In the early evening, you see young pregnant couples strolling the streets, people — young and old — sitting at outdoor cafes (until it gets too cold and the cafes move indoors), young men with fast, flashy cars and gaggles of girls dressed up to go out for the evening.

But it is a night — even better, late at night —, when the “proper” Armenian girls have gone home (after all, they’re not allowed to stay out past midnight), when the young men with their flashy cars have possibly retired for the evening, and when families are fast asleep, that Yerevan wakes up and shows you the possibilities of what this city can be.

I hear more languages at night than I do during the day. I see people I didn’t know live here, doing things I didn’t know people in Yerevan do. I see all manners of people being accepted because the night is different: it allows for certain freedoms (most likely aided by certain amounts of alcohol) that would simply be frowned upon during the day.

Of course, it’s not all rose-coloured glasses: the stereotypes and the conservative opinions are still there, but I suppose they’re not felt as much, or perhaps they simply lose their potency at night.

And I guess I can understand why the foreigners and the diasporan Armenians here on volunteer stints go out at night, crawling the bars, drinking more than they did back home and becoming all manner of silly. It’s their small dose of freedom in a society they haven’t fit into yet (and perhaps never will in the short time they’re here) and it’s a bit of the familiar, surrounded by their diasporan and foreign friends, speaking English and making their foreign-ness known more loudly than they would allow themselves during the day.

And though this might read like I’m painting a negative picture of foreigners and diasporan Armenians in Yerevan (of which I am one), it’s not. I had missed being out in Yerevan at night because I had been too busy working, conforming, living my daytime life, and seeing friends in the early evening in intimate settings, before retiring to bed with my partner (who, by the way, works more than I do!).

This might sound odd, but Yerevan at night reminded me I’m queer. And that I love my queer brothers and sisters. In the past couple of nights, I met many more new misfits and came to the following revelation:

The ratio of queers to straights in Yerevan is probably higher than in Toronto, and maybe even London and New York.

You might find this hard to believe, but trust me: just come to Yerevan. And go out at night. Yerevan is a small city compared to many other capital cities around the world, but it has an infinite amount of possibilities.

For all the stresses of the day, the anger over the nationalism and xenophobia that exists when someone tries to organize an Azerbaijani film festival in Yerevan, the fact that in the Nagorno Karabakh “frozen conflict” there are still dead bodies and prisoners of war, that the price of natural gas to heat homes and food has gone up and now the price of local cheese, and the lack of any proper or legitimate government, it is the night that saved me.

Yerevan at night reminded me why I love this city and its people, and brought to mind this quote:

“With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”