yerevan letters #1: landing

i live in a big one-bedroom apartment at the foot of kaskad, an impressive, larger-than-life staircase that sits on the city like a crown. the monument is split into five levels, each with its own oversized sculptures. from my balcony i can see a large eagle carved into the fourth and, inexplicably, two plastic men in colour-changing lights seated on tall pillars. the landing of this monument is a long strip that flaunts art. it is impressive but the display seems awkward: like someone planned it the same way they might plan a résumé, boasting achievement after achievement.  

from virtually anywhere in the city, when the light is right, you can see the majestic mount Ararat. it presides over the city from a distance in a way that, unlike everything else here, is almost humble: it has the type of confidence that large dogs have, the knowledge that it is simply so momentous that it must make no effort to have authority. but even if you managed to avoid the mountain, you’d be hard-pressed to forget it – its name is everywhere. it is the name of the cognac, the name of the wine, the name written on the cigarettes you get offered in bars, the name of the bars themselves. always written in capital letters: ARARAT has a pleasing symmetry, and this is a city that likes symmetry.

in two words, i would call yerevan stately and kitsch – a combination that, like the city itself, doesn’t make much sense until, very suddenly, it does. its map is circular, and it is somehow planned on both a grid and a gradient system so that every few blocks, you happen upon a square with some grand round building. they are not ornate but they are symmetrical, and they would almost look roman if it they didn’t look so soviet. it is a circular city with no real epicenter – or rather, a circular city with a thousand epicenters, competing for attention.

everything here competes for attention. the Armenian alphabet is rounded, friendly and elegant. to the foreign eye, it looks mysterious and magical, like something that might be used to illustrate fairy spells in a children’s book. the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets are also ubiquitous, so that at any given time you might be trying to read three things at once. 

and there are lights everywhere. in every colour, on every corner. flickering lights, bright lights, dim lights, large neon lights, strings of small lights with the yellow-white tinge of Christmas lights. they, too, compete for attention. 

i’ve been mesmerized, also, by the way the crowds move here. when crossing the street, people walk so close to the edge of the sidewalk their toes are dangling off; and then, after receiving a signal i haven’t quite understood, they jump out into traffic, cars slowing for them as they cross. men, when they walk together, sometimes walk in large bands, arm in arm in arm in arm. it is almost choreographed: it is not uncommon to watch four men, shoulder to shoulder, turning a corner like the arm of a watch.

everything here is designed for attention. the way things intersect here seems too mathematical to be real - but not in a way where they are lifeless or automated. rather in a way that seems second-nature to all but me. i, uninitiated and grotesque in my cultural illiteracy, consistently collide with it. over the days since my arrival, however, the collisions have been fewer and softer – perhaps over time i will dissolve them altogether.  

today i learned that the word for “water fountain” here is pulpulak, after the sound the water makes when it falls back onto the dish. i wonder how they would describe the sound of a cat when it lands on its paws.