Friday, November 10th was the big day we’d been waiting for since September. I chose that date because I wanted to have an extra Saturday in Armenia. I had big aspirations of finding new art for our home, and I knew that the Vernissage would have more people there on the weekend than during the week. It also turned out that Stepan had a work project he had to attend to over this past weekend, so it was a lucky thing that we opted to leave on the 10th.
Right now, Bill and I have the good fortune of living in Germany, which makes getting to Armenia comparatively easy. One can fly directly to Yerevan from several European cities, including Frankfurt, which is just 20 minutes or so from where we live. However, Lufthansa currently only offers direct flights from Frankfurt to Yerevan once a week. If we wanted to fly there directly from Frankfurt, we’d have to leave on Saturday, the 11th. So we flew to Vienna on Friday night, enjoyed a few hours in the Lufthansa lounge, then flew Austrian Airlines to Yerevan. That was an interesting experience!
It wasn’t the first time we’d flown on Austrian Airlines. When we lived in the Stuttgart area, we’d had layovers that involved flying on Austrian and Swiss Airlines, as they are code shared with Lufthansa. It had been several years since our last experience with Austrian Airlines, but I did remember that all the ladies working for them wore bright red tights!
Since we were in business class, we got a somewhat elaborate dinner service… for being on an airplane, that is. They brought out “tablecloths” for our tray tables. The food was relatively decent, too. Below are a few photos from our visits to the Lufthansa lounge in Frankfurt and the Austrian Airlines lounge in Vienna. You’ll notice a certain theme… Free beer and wine is a nice perk of flying business. Of course, it’s not really “free”, is it? Our usual lounge in the Frankfurt airport was closed, so we had to go to a different one. It was pretty busy! Travel is definitely back in full swing, post pandemic.
I was very excited in Vienna when we went to our gate. After 26 years, I was finally going to Armenia, and it was a treat to hear the language again. I looked around at the other passengers, many of whom looked like they might have been coming from the United States. I also saw a few Americans, at least one of whom was traveling with an Armenian. I wondered if any of them were fellow RPCVs… or maybe even a current PCV. One American guy must have noticed our blue passports, because he came up and asked us in English if we were in line.
Then we were called up to the desk by the Austrian Airlines rep, a pretty young woman wearing a bright red Austrian Airlines approved hijab. She told us that she needed more information. I wasn’t surprised, since Lufthansa’s Web site hadn’t let me properly fill out our profiles. We handed over our passports, and she took care of it quickly. Soon, we were on our way.
We enjoyed an uneventful 3.5 hour flight to Yerevan, making our landing at 4:40 AM. Before we left Germany, Stepan sent me a private message asking for our flight details. I had never managed to get ahold of our hotel before we arrived, so he called them for us to ask about hotel transfers. Then he decided he’d just pick us up, which was very kind and generous of him! Stepan is the bomb for doing that for us! շնորհակալություն, Stepan jan!
I braced myself on arrival to Armenia, remembering what it was like to arrive in Yerevan via Paris, France in June 1995. At that time, the old Soviet era airport was still operating. I remember getting there at about 3:30 AM, and there being very few lights anywhere. Our flight was courtesy of the now defunct Armenian Airlines, which was still flying 70s vintage Soviet planes.
My 1995 Peace Corps flights were my first flights anywhere since I’d moved home from England with my family in 1978. Whenever my parents traveled by air after that, they left me at home with my sisters or a housesitter. So while the United Airlines flight to Paris was more modern, the Armenian Airlines flight was a lot like what I’d remembered from my last flight from the 70s.
Looking around that Armenian Airlines plane, it really felt a lot like 1978, complete with people smoking the whole time and standing in the aisle. The day prior, we had flown from Washington, DC to Paris, and then spent twelve hours in Paris. Actually, I stayed in the airport for twelve hours, while braver and better traveled souls went into the city. I was in a pretty exhausted, frazzled state by the time I first laid eyes on Yerevan in 1995. I left Charles De Gaulle airport swearing off another visit to Paris… Of course, I have since learned that one should never judge a place or its people by its airport(s). I love Paris, now.
When my Peace Corps group got off the Armenian Airlines plane in 1995, we got off on the tarmac, and then walked through an old, dimly lit office, which I guess was passport control. I remember the airport itself was crumbling a bit, and there were few lights on in the terminal. The restrooms were a nightmare. You could smell them much easier than you could see them. If you’d like to see some photos of the airport, click here. It didn’t look nearly that bad in 1995, of course… but those pictures do bring back some vivid memories.
Volunteers from A2 (the second Peace Corps Armenia group) had come to greet us, and were passing snacks over a barrier. It took about three hours for our group of 32 to get all of our luggage because the airport lacked the modern equipment to unload the aircraft expeditiously. Then we all had to get through customs. I remember we were all loaded on a bus with curtains on the windows several hours later. I think it was about 8:00 AM when we finally got out of the airport. I remember staring at the half built buildings in the area near the airport, people’s laundry billowing from their balconies. The landscape was so different. I could see Mount Ararat, as it was a bright, sunny day with relatively low air pollution.
Our group soon arrived at what was then Hotel Armenia, and is now the Marriott in Republic Square. We had a brief meeting with our training director; then we were allowed to go to our rooms on the less expensive “old side” of the hotel. I remember the rooms were very Soviet, with no hot water except in the early hours of the day, twin beds with wool blankets, and linoleum floors. There were ladies in uniforms there who “guarded” the halls and made sure we turned in our keys before we ventured out anywhere.
I remember chandeliers in the conference room, with long tables that had bottles of sparkling Jermuk mineral water, Pepsi, and juice. I distinctly remember thinking the water tasted like Alka Seltzer… and so did the Pepsi, which probably came from a Russian bottler. The chandeliers only had a few light bulbs in them. We were presented with borscht and smoked fish… and I remember a lot of sour cream, which I don’t really eat. I wondered what in the world I had gotten myself into.
By contrast, in 2023, getting out of the much newer airport was a breeze. We went to passport control, where a rather dour man asked me if it was my first time in Armenia. I smiled and said, “No. I used to live here.”
The passport guy was obviously not as excited as I was. He gave my passport an aggressive stamping as he grunted a disinterested welcome and sent me on my way. Bill and I rounded a corner, where our bags were already waiting for us. I could feel the excitement welling as we walked out of the secure area. There was a small group of Armenian men standing there, obviously waiting for new arrivals. Some of them held up signs.
Then I saw him… Stepan jan was there, holding a huge bouquet of flowers and wearing an ear to ear smile! We were easy to spot, especially since my hair has turned platinum blonde in my middle age years.
“Jenny Jan!” he exclaimed as he handed me the flowers.
I let out an emotional cry as we shared a warm embrace. The Armenian men loitering in the arrivals hall kind of stared at us curiously. It was obvious Stepan and I were very excited to see each other, and they probably wondered why… I’m clearly not a local!
The scene kind of reminded me of when Bill came home from the Iraq War in 2007. I had come to what used to be called National Airport in Northern Virginia to pick him up, and I will never forget how he came charging toward me, still in his ACUs (uniform), walking just behind his narcissistic war boss from Hell. Bill almost knocked me over with a huge hug, so relieved was he to be done with that particular patriotic chore. Bill and I shared a kiss and a long hug, and people looked on, smiling at the scene that was unfolding. It was like a movie moment.
Think of our first meeting with Stepan as kind of like a much less romantic version of meeting Bill, as he came home from war. It was dramatic and exciting, but also kind of heartwarming and sweet. I remembered Stepan as a 15 year old kid, and I’m sure he remembered the 24 year old version of me. Now, we’re both a lot older… but Stepan graciously said, “You didn’t change!” And neither did he!
Stepan took my bags and we ran into Naira, the Peace Corps doctor, who had come to the airport to see off her brother. We said hello to her, and Stepan loaded our bags into his car. We chattered excitedly as we headed to the Paris Hotel in Yerevan. It’s located on Amiryan Street, very close to Republic Square and just steps away from Hotel Armenia/Marriott.
I remember being flabbergasted by the drive into the city, as everything was lit up. I can’t belabor this point enough… in 1995, there was an energy crisis in Armenia, so there were very few lights then, even on the streets. By contrast, in 2023, Yerevan is a city that doesn’t really sleep. There are a number of businesses that operate 24 hours. Bars and restaurants stay open late. And there are colorful lights everywhere!
A smiling man was waiting to welcome us at Paris Hotel Yerevan. He spoke excellent English. I had made the mistake of not booking our room for the 10th, which would have allowed us to check in immediately upon arrival. Or, maybe it was Expedia.com’s doing, since we weren’t technically arriving until the 11th. Our deluxe king room wasn’t ready for us to check in early, but they did have a lower grade room available. Bill and I agreed to that arrangement, since we were both so tired.
When Bill went to pay, the transaction failed. Stepan paid for the temporary room with his card, and after a chilly shower, we gratefully went to bed. We later learned that the transaction failed because of the WiFi system. Once we learned to use the chip on our credit cards, we had fewer problems with failed transactions. I think the room they gave us was one the hotel staff uses for situations like ours. Its condition was not nearly as good as the room we’d booked and moved to later that afternoon. But honestly, we were both so tired, we didn’t care. Below are pictures of our temporary digs. The room was fine for what we needed it for.
A few hours later, we got up for breakfast in the hotel, which is included in the rate. Paris Hotel has a great spread in their rooftop restaurant, Montmartre, which as you can see in the above photos, is also beautifully decorated. I enjoyed the relaxing jazz music that played as we enjoyed views of Yerevan. Yes, I still recognized it, as there are still a number of familiar Soviet style buildings and cranes in the landscape. Mount Ararat was tucked behind the clouds. It was so great to be back!
Stepan had said he wanted to take us to Garni and Geghard, a place that everyone who visits Armenia should see at least once… More on that in the next post!