Sunday, December 19, 2010

It’s Cold... But Not in Yerevan

It’s cold in Toronto and not just physically or literally. People are cold. I want to knock on my chest like Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love and say “Empty!” it’s empty in here, there’s no life here. I am reminded of a blog post I wrote two years ago when I came to Armenia in the summer of 2008, when I met my partner and a whole host of amazing women, and when I decided to try to make the move to live here. I wrote “There is so much life here.” And coming back to Toronto has reminded me why I decided to move thousands of miles across the ocean to another country, not just to be with my partner, but to experience life, with all its hardships and joy.

I am surprised by the level of consumerism in Toronto, how much it permeates people’s lives. I walk down Queen St. West and the word that comes to mind is “hipster.” But Queen St. West has always been hipster, so why should I be surprised? I assume it’s because I’ve been away so long, because I’ve been living another life, a different life, and I am surprised at how much consumer culture defines Toronto.

I ride the subway, overhearing conversations that seem so superficial to me. Maybe it’s because it’s the subway and people don’t want to get into intimate conversations, even with those they love and are close to. But even though couples hold hands and stand close and are comfortable enough on the subway to lock lips for periods of a time, I don’t hear the love. Conversations between friends about the latest gadget or comparing different products, where to get something for the best price really depressed me. Is this what Toronto is? Or is it what it seems to me, being here for a little over two days?

Again, I am reminded of Eat, Pray, Love (not that I thought it was a great film; it’s just the references it brings up): what is the word that describes Toronto? I toy with money, business, grey, cold, lacklustre (another word for grey?). None of the words paints a positive picture of a city that is supposedly the “most multicultural city in the world” and that is the engine that runs the country (i.e. financially).

The roads are so wide, the cars so big, the dizziness too much. I can’t help but feel as if I’m looking at this city through the eyes of someone else. Someone who never lived here, who came here from Europe (“Oh! Un vrai camion américain!” as one French-speaking European once said during his first visit to North America, when I picked him up from the airport and drove him on a highway that he described as being straight from Hollywood films), or from a smaller country such as Armenia.

But I have lived here and if I dig deeper, I will find that the city has never changed, it is what it has always been, it is I who has changed. Or maybe it’s a bit of both?

I was so excited to come back, to taste food that I have missed, the cultural diversity of this city which is one of its best assets. And yet I find the food tasted so much better in my memory than it does in real life and I see the change in my family’s diet, how my mom eats chicken now and avoids all carbs. The way the dishes are prepared with the addition of processed foods, something she swore off years ago and still mostly avoids. But it’s easier you see and adds flavor, she says, and I realize that my palette and hers have become very different. An analogy of our lives.

Artifical. Perhaps another word to describe this city. Superficial — somehow related. Stuck. Speaking to friends and former co-workers over these past two days, I’ve realized the number of people who confess to feeling stuck, the number of people who have decided to make Toronto their home not because they love the city, but because it has opportunities (financial, career-wise). Because they need to be here, not because they want to.

The majority of people I’ve spoken to have confessed to this, have complained about things getting worse in the city, in the country, so much so that it starts to sound familiar. This, however, being only a handful of friends and acquaintances and by no means a conclusive assessment. However, between observing people on public transport and speaking to friends and family, I have been left with a feeling of sadness, of feeling stuck and obsessed with buying all those things that I don’t need but want just to surround (protect?) myself with my “mountains o’ things” (don’t you just love Tracy Chapman?).

And I can see why people go mad. It is insane to live in Toronto. It is insane to live this life, to constantly be chugging ahead, not knowing why you’re going so fast, where you’re even going exactly and why you have to keep moving with the current. You think you’re doing the best thing for you and your family. You think you need this. But the more you move ahead, the faster you go, the more you realize you need more. That what you thought would be enough is not enough. And in the center of it all is this wide, gaping hole of emptiness.

And I am reminded again of my blog post two years ago. What had affected me so deeply in the three weeks I was in Yerevan, the bug that I caught that I have seen so many others catch too, those who decide to move to Armenia: There is life here. Yes, I complain, yes, there is so much that doesn’t work (չի ստացվում :), yes, there is discontent. But we have each other. All of us are in the same boat. None of us (among my friends and my family anyway) are better off than anyone else. We’re not running to the stores to spend all our money on useless things because we don’t have money and there aren’t really THAT many things to buy (well, of course, now there are, but in no way can you compare the small shops of Yerevan to the megastores and shopping malls of North America).

Yes, we want lots of things that we don’t have. But we are not empty inside. I have met some of the most amazing people in my life in Armenia (and I know I’ve said this before). I realized long ago that people are more important that products, that making meaningful connections with another human being(s) is more important than making a connection with your computer or your job, that living life to the fullest means never feeling “stuck,” but feeling passion, what it means to be alive.

I don’t want to delude myself, or you, dear reader: I’m sure there are people who feel stuck in Yerevan, just as there are people who feel alive in Toronto. This cannot be a generalization of two cities. But it is a generalization of experiences, at least my experiences, and maybe my outlook on life. I don’t know if I’ll live in Yerevan forever (in fact, I have dreams of travelling to other places, of living briefly in other cities, in other countries), but I don’t want to live in Toronto forever either. It’s a familiar city, where I grew up, where I lived most of my life — but it’s not my city. I don’t know where I’ll be five, ten years from now, but wherever that may be, I will make sure to remember to live life to the fullest, to at least try not to feel “stuck,” to see the beauty wherever I am.

“Whatever [or wherever, I'd add] you are, be a good one” is the name of my friend Arpik’s blog. A fitting line, I think, on which to end this post.

P.S. I’ve been wanting to change the name of this blog for quite some time now. Yesterday, the phrase “Here is Life” came to me. What do you think, is it too vague for the title of this blog? I like the line, but think perhaps the blog should include “Armenia” or “Armenian” somewhere in the title since it is who I am and where I live. What do you think?


  1. Hi Adrineh? I enjoyed reading your blog because having lived in different cities I can associate with it. I grew up in Lebanon and because of the war moved to Dubai where I lived fr 22 years before settlingin Montreal four years ago. It never felt like home even though I had everything money could buy. And now that I am in Montreal because I have to, it's a different feeling. I guess this sense of belonging that we have lost will stay with us no matter where we are and what we do. Thanks and hope we stay in touch
    Choghig Kazandjian Hanssian

  2. Thanks, Choghig, for your comment! I think this is the first time you've left a comment because I don't think we've "met" before ;) I agree with you: it is a sense of belonging, but maybe it's better to say "senses" of belonging, since I feel it on so many different levels. I feel there are some aspects of me that belongs in Yerevan and some that belong in Toronto. I don't see myself as being one being, but many beings and so often, different places, experiences, people affect different aspects of ourselves. So I'm sure there are parts of Lebanon and Dubai and Montreal in you and perhaps we should celebrate all of these as being parts of us and having an effect on our lives ;)

  3. So Adrineh, what's it to be: a soulless but comfortable life in the West, or an insecure but vibrant life in Armenia?

    As for the title of your blog, how about: 'Here is my Big Fat Armenian Life' :).

  4. Armenian in Canada, Canadian in Armenia?

    this is a comment to what you wrote, but it might just as well be a suggested title for you blog ;)

  5. @Richard: ha ha! but no thanks. It reminds me of the film "My Big Fat Armenian Family":

    @Observer: that's it, isn't it? However, I was speaking to a friend yesterday and she said since this blog has changed (and may well change again in terms of its focus) it might be best to make it more of a personal "brand" and have it be more about me and less about where I am (Armenia or Canada or elsewhere). That of course means I have to keep brainstorming for a new name... *sigh*