Sunday morning, we were still a bit jet lagged. We didn’t get up until about 9:00 AM (Armenian time). That’s unheard of for us, although it was 6:00 AM in Germany. After we got dressed and I put on some makeup, we went to the rooftop restaurant and sat outside again, mainly because the sun was very intense inside the restaurant. A tall, broad shouldered, European looking Armenian waiter was very attentively maintaining our table and seemed surprised when I asked him for “shakar” (sugar).
We had plans for Sunday evening. Stepan had bought tickets to see Mexican tenor, Rolando Villazón, and harpist, Xavier de Maistre. We would meet him and his wife, Lilit, that evening. To be honest, I wasn’t that sure about the concert. I had never heard of Rolando Villazón or Xavier de Maistre, and I’ve never been particularly excited about harp music. However, I am a music lover and a singer myself, and I know Armenians have great appreciation for the arts. I had a feeling it would be a good concert, and in the interest of wanting to do something new and unique, we agreed to attend. Stepan later told me he hadn’t been sure about the concert either, since he also wasn’t familiar with the musicians.
With our evening plans set, Bill and I decided to walk around a bit. We headed down Abovian Street, which is a major Yerevan location. In the 90s, it was the place one was most likely to find shopping or a decent cafe or two. I’ve always liked Abovian Street, as even in the 90s, it was tree lined and kind of elegant. In 2023, it’s still a hot spot, with a whole lot of restaurants and hotels, including The Alexander, which Stepan says is the best hotel in Yerevan. I see it’s owned by Marriott, and is considered “luxury”. Personally, my idea of luxury is less about posh looking properties and more about good service. But it did look like a very nice hotel when we passed it.
A little ways down Abovian Street, we ran into Northern Avenue, which is a street that didn’t exist in the 1990s. Stepan told me that there were some “shabby houses” that were demolished in order to create this very posh shopping district. My mouth dropped open as I took it in… Yerevan has come a long way since 1997, but this “walkplatz” is all new construction that definitely doesn’t match the many Soviet era buildings that are still in Yerevan. I noticed that there were quite a few new buildings constructed and little by little, they were replacing the ugly, cookie cutter Soviet buildings.
I did wonder about what happened to the people who had been living in the “shabby houses” off Sayat Nova Avenue. I also wondered how much it cost to live in one of the apartments on that avenue. No doubt Northern Avenue is an address for Yerevan’s wealthiest. But it’s also very handy, as that’s where we found a place to buy new SIM cards for our phones. It also makes it quicker and easier to get to the Opera House.
VIVA-MTS is a chain in Yerevan where you can get a new SIM card and pick up any accessories you might need for your phone or computer. I actually did need a new USB-C cable for my computer, but as soon as we walked into the store, we were summoned to sit near a young woman who set us up with new SIM cards. We just had to present a passport– one was enough. I should have bought a cable while I was in there, but it slipped my mind.
We walked out of the VIVA-MTS store and continued on to the Opera House. I showed Bill where I used to go when I attended rehearsals with the Opera Choir back in the 90s. That was a rather weird situation that developed when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. My second Peace Corps Armenian teacher, Rousanna, had once been a ballet dancer at the Opera House, and she knew people there. She declared that I had singing talent.
In those days, I did sing opera songs a lot, because I had studied voice (for fun) in college and those were the types of songs we sang in our studio. Anyway, I met the conductor of the opera choir, whose name was Karen (in Armenia, it’s a man’s name). He said I could come to rehearsals and sing. So I did. In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have let Rousanna introduce me to Karen, because I think it caused some problems with the school where I was working. It wasn’t really why I’d come to Armenia, either. Rousanna insisted, and I was genuinely interested… and at 23 years old, I wasn’t all that assertive.
On the other hand, it was a golden opportunity to get involved with the arts in Yerevan, and I did end up meeting some interesting and very talented people. I learned new music, too. Maybe with a little more engagement, I might have been able to help the opera choir with some grants. I did learn a couple of new operas, thanks to that experience. I can’t say I’m sorry I worked with the opera choir in Yerevan, although I am sorry for any issues it caused at my school. But then, I usually had to “wing it” at the school, anyway. Many times, I would show up expecting to teach one class, only to be sent to a different one. So maybe it didn’t matter that much, in the long run.
During that same visit in 1995, Rousanna and I also visited the then conductor of the Armenian Philharmonic, Loris Tjeknavorian. Mr. Tjeknavorian surprised me by knowing who I was. He even knew where I lived! Back then, there weren’t many Americans in Armenia, and I stood out with my blonde hair. He knew my name was Jenny, that I sang, and that I lived in the part of Yerevan called Zeytoun (although I didn’t live there for long).
Mr. Tjeknavorian is apparently still living; he’s 86 years old and now retired from the Philharmonic. In retrospect, he might have heard about me because I was in the AUA Choir during training, and that choir had an honest to god maestro. But there wasn’t enough money for sheet music, so we were singing Christmas carols in July! We also did a few Armenian nationalist songs, and a folk song named “Im Chi Nare Yare.” I was supposed to do the solo for that song. The Philharmonic conductor might have also heard of me because of the accompanist for the AUA Choir, Anahit, who was one of the very best pianists I’ve ever met… and I’ve met quite a few. She was a graduate of the Yerevan Conservatory, and she even got me hooked up with a Russian voice teacher there, who later introduced me to her Armenian protege. Who knows? Anyway, it was an interesting experience at the time, meeting and working with real, professional musicians in Yerevan.
Today, next to the Opera House, there are a few cafes and other amusements. As we were passing, we noticed little kids driving toy cars around the grounds. There was also an electronic game with a punching bag. A couple of young lads were amusing their friends by seeing how hard they could punch. They were trying to beat the record. Although the young man who threw the punch was impressive, he fell far short of the record. I guess that’s one way to keep people pumping in drams. They pay for another chance, even though they’ll probably just hurt their hand and fall short of the goal. It was fun to watch the guy’s friends cheering him on, though. He was one of a few young guys we saw punching that bag as we passed the Opera House over the course of the week we were there.
We crossed Mashtots Avenue. On the other side of the street, there’s a tree lined park where people sell art. When I lived in Yerevan, they only did it on the weekends, but now they do it every day. I wanted to see what was available, because I wanted to buy new paintings for our house. I never had the money to buy art in Armenia when I lived there. It’s also a cool place to visit, because you’re sure to see old guys sitting around playing chess or nardi (backgammon), drinking coffee, smoking, and holding court. That was as true in 2023 as it ever was in the 90s.
There was some stuff there that was either not my taste or kind of “cheesy”. Some people had signs up requesting no photos to be taken. The funny thing is, the artists who made that request were selling art that I wouldn’t have been interested in, anyway. One guy had what looked like black velvet art, which I’ve just learned actually originated in Kashmir and usually depicted religious icons from the Caucasus region. I’m sure there are some beautiful black velvet creations, but whenever I see them, I just think of Elvis Presley.
Toward the end of our stroll through the park, I spotted some art that made me pause. The artist cautiously approached. I didn’t want to start talking to him until I’d seen everything, so we walked away. But a few minutes later, we came back and struck up a conversation. The man said he is a printer who lives in Ashtarak, a village northwest of Yerevan. I knew some Volunteers served there, and had visited there myself. I could picture where he lived.
When he asked me why I could speak Armenian, I told him about how I’d lived in Yerevan 26 years ago and taught English to kids in an Armenian school. I apologized for not being able to remember a lot of the language, but we were able to carry on a conversation. He told me his son lives in Switzerland as I admired two similar paintings he was selling. One was a church in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city in the northwest, and the other was a landscape of Yeghegnadzor, which is a city to the south of Yerevan. We decided to buy both paintings, which really excited the guy. He offered individual prices, but came down when we offered to buy both. I could tell he wanted me to haggle, but I hate haggling. So he kind of haggled for me, and we ended up settling on a price of about 110,000 AMD for the two paintings… Maybe an Armenian would have paid less, but I know a lot of work went into that art. And the conversation was also worth something.
Bill went to get some drams from an ATM, and I stayed and talked to the guy some more. He had a beautiful painting of Mount Ararat that was very unique. I wish I’d bought it, because I later decided I wanted a painting of the famous mountain, but most of the ones I saw were kind of representative of “bad art”, or there was nothing interesting or unique about them. Unfortunately, we didn’t run into the guy again before we left. But we did buy two very nice paintings from him, which he put in a rather well used plastic bag. This really distressed Bill, who spent the rest of the week worrying about how we were going to get the paintings home to Germany. More on that, later.
After we bought our paintings, we headed back to the hotel to drop them off. We walked down Mashtots, and I showed Bill some places of interest. Mashtots is one of the most important avenues in Yerevan. Back in the Soviet era, it was known as Lenin Avenue. At one end, the Matenadaran stands– it’s a museum full of some of the oldest books in the world. At the other end is the overlook to the Hrazdan Gorge. It’s where you’ll find the entrance to the Blue Mosque, the one mosque in Yerevan, and what used to be the Pak Shuka and is now, sadly, a supermarket.
After we dropped off the art, we took another walk, and I took more photos…
After all the walking, we were a bit hungry. I was a little unsure about my restaurant skills, though. I speak decent restaurant German, but I never had the ability to do the same in Armenia. We went to a place very close to our hotel, Кавказская пленница (Caucasian Captive– apparently named after a 1967 Russian film). It was a nice place that offered a lot of different options. It was also a bit campy in its decor…
Our waitress, name of Arev (sun), was surprised by my Armenian skills. Then she offered us “Khash”, to which I blurted out was “disgusting” and I didn’t like it. Amot indz (shame on me). Khash, for your information, is a very garlicky soup that is made with boiled cow or sheep parts, including the head, hooves, and stomach. It was a food historically made by poor people, who used all of the least desirable parts of an animal to make themselves a nutritious meal. I did try it once, when I was in training, even though it’s something that is usually only served during the “ber” months. Most people eat it in the morning with a lot of lavash and vodka. It’s supposedly a good hangover cure.
I ended up having chicken and fried potatoes that were absolutely delicious. Bill had some kind of stew that he loved. I don’t remember what he had… but he’s a more adventurous diner than I am.
After we ate, we went back to the hotel for a rest. We had plans to meet Stepan and Lilit at about 7:00 PM. We had purchased a couple of gifts for them, both because they were so kindly hosting us, and because it was Stepan’s birthday on the 15th. I said I thought it would be good to give them the gifts at the concert. Bill, being the consummate overthinker, worried that we wouldn’t be allowed into the concert hall with them, because they were wrapped. I had to laugh at that… He’d forgotten that the night previous, we had just walked into the school where I used to teach. I said, “Stop overthinking this. It’ll be fine.”
So we walked to the Opera House and met Stepan, then enjoyed the concert put on by Mr. Villazón and Mr. de Maistre. I found out that Rolando Villazón is my age. He was very entertaining, and I have a feeling that if we’d known each other as kids, we would have traded fart jokes. He and his wife now live in France, and my friend Susanne says he speaks excellent German and is often on German talk shows. She was impressed that we got tickets to the concert. Stepan, of course, was greeting his many friends. I swear, he knows so many people in Yerevan! More on that, later. Below are some photos…
And a video…
We had a wonderful time at the concert, and being exposed to the talented musicians would have made the evening special enough. But something else happened that really made our night forever memorable. During intermission, Stepan went outside to smoke a cigarette. While he was out there, he ran into his classmate and another of my former students, Sima. He told her she needed to come inside to meet someone.
Sima blurted out, “Is it Jenny?”
Stepan said yes, I was indeed in the house. Sima said she’d actually recognized me outside, but was sure it couldn’t be me, back in Yerevan after so many years. She didn’t approach me. That was probably a good thing, since I would not have recognized her. The last time I saw Sima, she was about fifteen or sixteen years old, and she had long, brown hair. She was very glamorous, and reminded me a little of a young version of the actress, Fran Drescher, who was very popular in the 90s.
Since then, Sima has cut her hair into a very short, spiky haircut, and it’s now jet black. Sima is still very beautiful and glamorous, but she looks quite different now than how I remembered her. However, she’s still very tiny, and I felt like a mama bear when I gave her a hug. I was so moved that she not only remembered me, but actually recognized me, after so many years. I seriously wanted to cry! It was more validation that my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer wasn’t a waste of time. I was finding out that what I did meant something to people besides myself. It wasn’t unlike seeing the end results of planting a seed and coming back years later to find a fruit bearing tree in its place.
After the concert, Stepan, Lilit, Bill and I went outside. We were trying to decide what to do next. Lilit wasn’t feeling well, but Stepan was still trying and succeeding in being an excellent host to us. I decided to make politely parting easy by asking Bill if he was tired. Bill, trying to be a good guest, said he was “okay”. And I said, “Do you mean it, or are you just being NICE?” Then I turned and smiled at Stepan, who laughed. He asked if I minded if he opened the gifts at home, so his kids could watch. I was fine with that, and we parted ways… after I, once again, expressed shock at all the lights on in Yerevan!
Below are a few photos from our walk back to the hotel…
Sunday was a full day, and we were tired… so after our concert, we decided to enjoy some wine, watch a little TV, and go to bed. However, there was a lot of noise outside from traffic and a nearby nightclub, so actually falling asleep was an entirely different matter. More on that in a later post. 😉