A Few of my Favourite Things

Life is very sad according to Hranush Kharatyan, or so the title of her book goes. It is an economic and social commentary examining life in Armenia since this small but proud Transcaucasian republic regained its independence from the Soviet Union, an event that was marked by celebrations of its 24th anniversary last week.

The book focuses on the living standards of Armenians, one in three of whom live in poverty, and the obstacles facing a young nation that is trying to rebuild its economy. During the 1990s, Armenia witnessed the collapse of state-owned industries and a consequent surge in unemployment. Ill-judged economic reforms enabled a rise in inequality whereby a select few inherited state assets while the vast majority found themselves with lower wages and vanishing social services. Still today, job opportunities are scarce and many people in rural communities are left to fend for themselves through small-scale farming. But without proper state-led investment and governance, this provides little more than a basic food supply and the population remains vulnerable to poverty. Sadly, Armenia’s youth recognise this and increasingly opt for emigration which places additional constraints on the country’s development.

It’s challenges like these that underline the importance of Kiva’s presence in Armenia. But I’m a glass half-full kind of guy and with two weeks left of my fellowship, I want to sign off on a positive note by sharing just a few of my favourite things about life in Armenia.

Armenians are passionate about their coffee and so am I. You’ll hear claims of the first brew being made in these lands and certainly their copper pot, known as a jazzve, is reminiscent of ancient times. In fact, so too is the preparation method whereby the jazzve is heated in a sandpit above an open fire. The narrow neck of the jazzve allows the water to boil without evaporating and you know it’s ready when the foam starts to rise to the top. Quite wonderfully, Armenians use the same word for foam as they do for love and they call this process building the love. When serving, be sure to give every cup a little bit of love by adding a teaspoon of the foam before pouring.

Speaking of the Armenian language, it is peppered with endearing phrases such as cavt tanem which roughly translates to “let me take your pain away”. Armenians are an emotional bunch with hearts bigger than themselves and so such passionate phrases are as ubiquitous as the coffee. Even if the cause of your despair is simply a Monday morning, you can rely on your akhper jan (“dear brother”) to get you through the day. To better illustrate the warmth behind such words, Samvel, from Kiva’s Field Partner SEF International, has kindly offered himself up as a meme.

When going from A to B in Armenia’s capital city Yerevan, the public transport system presents you with several options but I find the following line of questioning helps me make the right choice every time.

Is the metro line nowhere near where you actually need to go?
Too broke to take a taxi?
Is the bus just too slow and boring for you?

Answered all of the above Yes? Then hop on board a marshrutka!
This is a (vintage) minibus modelled on the shared-taxi concept and is popular among many ex-Soviets states. With an average of ten seats, it would appear to lack scale but you’d be amazed how many more you can fit in between all the remaining spaces. In fact, it’s a great place for anyone looking to come up with new yoga moves. Quick and nimble in the traffic, cheap and reliable, it really does the job. And if you just missed one, worry not, there’ll be another barrelling down the road in no time.

Keeping with the motoring theme, I have found myself charmed by the old Soviet-era cars that cruise cheerfully around the city streets and country roads. I'm no car nut and they probably have their technical limitations but they possess a character and an aesthetic that has seduced me over these past four months. I’m not sure if it’s the shark nose front, the pop-out windows or the way they appear to glide effortlessly but whenever I see one coming round the corner, it’s a welcome reminder that I’m firmly in the Caucasus.

Yerevan is a smartly designed city and I’m not sure its planners get the credit they deserve so it’s going on my list. The streets tend to follow a block system and within all the small square spaces this creates, you have cosy residential areas. Despite lying in between busy commercial streets, this urban layout provides calm oases for Yerevantsis young and old. However, the jewels in the crown are the quaint little alleyways that lead you off the main streets into these quarters. Thanks to an artsy agenda by the city council, these have been brightened up with playful colours turning each backstreet into its own public art gallery.

Last but not least, perhaps my favourite aspect of Armenian culture is the prominent role that the country’s more senior sector of society plays in everyday life. Maybe it was the good summer weather, but I was impressed to see how elderly folks actively fill the streets and parks throughout the day until late into the night. I can’t say that I’ve experienced this to the same degree in other countries but I think it’s a fair reflection of the civilised social order that prevails here. One thing is for sure,I will miss my strolls through the parks, watching a group of old friends huddled together in a gazebo where it seems like everyday is the backgammon Olympics.

If this blog has you craving an Armenian experience but you’ve used up all your vacation time already, start your journey on Kiva today by lending as little as $25 to one of our Armenian borrowers.

About the author

Mark McDonagh

Born and raised in Dublin city, Mark caught the explorer’s bug as early as eight years old when he made his first trip abroad without his parents - a cub scout's trip to the Isle of Man! While studying business with a Master’s degree in Finance, Mark’s university years took him to Italy and the Netherlands where he soon realised his passion for working with people from different cultures. After graduation, he joined HSBC which gave him the opportunity to work abroad in places such as Malaysia, Canada and Poland before coming back to Ireland in a role managing corporate lending relationships. However, a recent vacation to Sierra Leone opened his eyes to microfinance and its importance as a tool for development. Mark has been eager to learn more ever since and is really looking forward to working with Kiva in Armenia.