Before I left for Armenia, I was subjected to constant questions from friends and family asking me if I was really ready to spend nine weeks in Armenia. I began to wonder if I would have been asked all these questions if I decided to spend nine weeks in Italy or Spain instead, the questions seemed oddly Armenia specific, as if they couldn’t fathom the idea of staying there past the traditional two-weeks…
This was my third visit to Armenia. I felt it safe to say that I wanted to see more then just the tourist-friendly sites that left you with that easy, superficial, optimistic opinion that when you left, everything is still alright. My goal for that nine weeks was to get some insight past the relatively shallow one I already had and to see if I could actually live in this land. This time in Gyumri allowed a glimpse into the lives of a people living in what is the largest city in Armenia, second only to Yerevan, but with a standard of living, attitude and way of life that is completely different to that of the capital city.
Gyumri turned out to be a city that I became strangely obsessed with, the buildings, the culture, but mostly the people. Anyone who tells you that Gyumri is perfect and on its way to becoming a cosmopolitan city similar to Yerevan is lying. But it was in fact all its eccentricities, quirks and dissimilarities to Yerevan which made me love Gyumri, probably the same reasons why so many people choose to live in the capital city over Gyumri.
I was fortunate enough to be only the second volunteer working for the “Margartatsaghik” NGO, dedicated to aiding broken families of the earthquake of 1988. Whereas I would hear my fellow volunteers talk of their work sites bustling with people coming and going, I worked with only one older woman whose entire family and life was lost by the events of ’88. There was perhaps no other person who influenced my nine weeks more then she did, she was the proof that Gyumri is still living in the aftermath of the earthquake. Our relationship grew to such a level that she became convinced I was sent here through some divine intervention since her daughter died and I was born in ’88. This was just one way in which Gyumri left an indelible impression.
However, as I stated before, there are just as many frustrating aspects as there are encouraging. Living there for an extended period of time allows a glimpse into a city strewn with baffling contradictions. Gyumri is a city where a woman is queen of her home but is still a de-facto sub-citizen, “takoohi es payts mart ches” they say, a city where education is revered yet is deemed unnecessary as it brings no fruitful change in people’s lives, where the people are constantly speaking of the past yet pine for a better future, people who are supremely patriotic yet desire a more comfortable life anywhere else, who know there are problems with their government, offer solutions, but are afraid to have them publicized for fear of repercussion, and a place with a nightlife consisting of cafes that close at 10, 11 if you go to the trendy one, but it doesn’t really matter because at 9 everyone is home watching Anna, the curiously addicting soap opera.
With all these elements taken into account, I would not have changed where I lived for anything. Yes, Gyumri seems to be stagnant in comparison to Yerevan, but it is changing. It is changing because of the youth who are on the vanguard of modernity, such as Bambir, an eloquent, beautiful rock band composed of Gyumri youth who recently played in Greece. It is changing because of the women who are beginning to refuse the role of subservience to drunken husbands and leering strangers. Finally, Gyumri is changing because of the diasporans who come to Gyumri and see both the utter allure and homeliness of the city and allow themselves to become enraptured by all its intricacies and contradictions and work towards a Gyumri where the people don’t yearn for the days of Soviet rule and can finally see the charm of this city just a mashrutka ride away from Yerevan.