yerevan letters #4: speaking

often when i go to bed here, sometime between midnight and two, the birds are singing, and it seems like it is almost dawn. it helps create the feeling of surreality that i find myself immersed in here, the intangible way in which time and space seem to follow different rules here. i’ve written before, hesitantly, that magic is real in armenia - but the thing i’m trying to describe is something both stranger and more human than that. everything here is always both more and less complicated than it seems from the outside.

            living here as a foreigner is living two lives: one where my feet are planted, and the other in the eyes of my loved ones abroad. this second life is always a caricatured reconstruction of the first, a collage of anecdotes that i’m sure, from the outside, seem disjointed and fabulated.

            every story here requires a meticulous setting up of scenes. for my favourite revolutionary anecdote, you must understand the haraparak, the main square. people gathered there for rallies every night, running into each other like campers around a bonfire. then you must know that at night-time, the square is aglitter: a big clock that shines as bright as the moon; the lights of the city; a great fountain with a nightly light show and ripples that reflect the scene as if it were covered in tiny diamonds. if you were to step into the fountain at that time, i suppose it would feel like being inside a firework. finally, you must know that in times of celebration, the square is filled with a mix of eclectic salespeople: small toy dogs! cotton candy! apples! fruit! coffee! small toy cats! popcorn! actual dogs dressed up as village girls! small figurine clowns! actual real-life clowns! bobbing electric light-up balloons!

            in this cacophony i am darting around haraparak with my camera. a large group of people is playing volleyball in a large circle. in a moment, i am surrounded by chaos: the ball has gone over my head; i duck to protect my camera; suddenly there is a clown holding a light-up balloon; a child blowing bubbles has somehow stumbled into us. i try to shrink and give people their space. suddenly i am being ushered into the volleyball circle. uncoordinated and one-handed, i try to gesture that i can’t play; the ushering doesn’t stop, and i am now in the centre. suddenly the volleyball circle has become a dancing circle, an armenian song has come on, and people are waiting on me to dance. i’m slow on the uptake and i am surrounded by men showing me how to dance my part and kneeling, clapping, encouraging me to start off the circle. as i start moving, the ring of people around me starts dancing as well, linking arms and circling in a miraculously coordinated thrash of arms and legs. if ever an armenian reads this, i imagine this entire description will seem, at best, endearingly uninitiated, and at worst entirely superfluous.

            here’s another small miracle: armenia chose the time of the revolution to fall into summer. almost overnight, the streets are now full of women in sundresses and shorts and children eating ice cream. but the weather is volatile: since the end of the revolution, the sky has spent its days building these dark, heavy clouds, and there will be just a few moments of silver clarity before it starts raining. it will rain lightly for a few moments, as a sort of warning, and then the skies will open onto you in a springtime hail storm. i often watch these thunderstorms roll in from my balcony: i watch the lightning creep from one side of the city to the other, and it reminds me of when, during the week or two after may 8th, people set off tiny fireworks show throughout the entire city. it is almost like the earth itself is saying shnorhavor, the word for ‘congratulations’ that bounced back and forth between people for days after the revolution succeeded. it feels like maybe the city itself soaked up the word and was now throwing it back at us.

            the city has mostly recovered from its post-revolutionary hangover. everyone who was here during that time has vivid memories of the time: everyone has an anecdote like my volleyball story. but ever since the beginning, the revolution has been incorporated in our day-to-day lives: in april, it affected whether we could take the metro to work, whether our workplace was open at all. today, the people have their ears to the ground, listening for foundational shifts in the country: what will the government change? what about taxes? what about the police? what about gender issues? what about? what about? what about?

            at the same time, the bombastic, kaleidoscopic nature of the revolution has now been locked away, so distant now it is almost like a dream. in fact, it’s almost strange to talk about it now in large abstract terms - besides good party anecdotes, how do you explain what the revolution is like? you could say “crazy,” but then “crazy” is what i used in university when i had four essay deadlines in a week. i think i would have to say that it happened like one of yerevan’s many flash-floods: a short buildup, a flash flood, and then a knowing silence. describing it doesn’t make much sense unless you’ve ever gotten as wet as armenians do in the spring.

            on the day the revolution started, i was on my way back to yerevan from tatev, a small city high up in the mountains where it was still winter at the time. i don’t really believe in god but i on that drive i understood why they call this land holy. it is hard not to think  of the mountains as intentional. the summits are that look soft and sharp, and they wear lines like a topographical map, telling you how they grew, where they came from. the softness makes them look like dough, after it has been balled up and smoothed out and laid to rest.

it makes me think of giant hands working the earth here: smoothing some mounts, pinching others to make some ridges, pulling here, tucking there. i don’t really believe in god but here in the middle seat of a van i wonder whether she would call herself an sculptor or a baker. that day, i learned that when the clouds open to let through a spot of sunlight, it is called a “crepuscular ray.” but the person who told me that described it first as a “god light” and i think i like that better. here, at least, i like that better.

            a friend here taught me “ehtkahn el djisht,” an expression which literally translates to “that much is true.” it is used when someone sneezes mid-conversation, and it kind of means something similar to “God agrees” – God has manifested through your sneeze to prove you right. how do you describe life in a place where even sneezes have a purpose?