Tuesday, October 23, 2007

eench kooz es?

The ‘up-sell’ is a staple in most developed economies. In stores, shops and restaurants all across the great liberty filled expanse of America things like; “would you like fries with that”, “buy two more and the fourth will be free”or “for just 2 more dollars you can buy the higher quality version or this or that widget” etc… are uttered nearly every second. Just the thought of employees who are willing to consistently attempt to wring the last few pennies out of malleable customers brings a certain comfort and warmth to this young capitalist’s heart.

This sort of enterprise does not generally apply in Armenia… At least not where I live.

At times this lack of assertive capitalism is appreciated. The lady at the store who tells you that the bread you asked for is actually not fresh and thus you’d be better served to try this or that loaf instead is great. It smacks of some 1940’s mid-western general store, of which stories I was raised on by my mother. It’s nice to have shop keepers who are looking out for the customer and not always the bottom line. It is when this sort of ‘thoughtfulness’ is combined with the assumption (of seemingly all shop keepers in my city) that young men (especially Americans) cannot take care of themselves, that it adversely affects my life and becomes a real pain.

There are so many examples that pop up in my life that I will merely lay out a few to give my readers a basic idea.

I went into a store the other day to buy an umbrella. A simple task one would assume. Not so. I approached the lady behind the counter and asked to see the umbrellas. She brought out an odd assortment of umbrellas. I, not being much of a shopper or overly concerned with fashion, pointed to the first medium-sized black umbrella that I saw. The shopkeeper told me firmly that, “certainly I didn’t want ‘that’ umbrella”. She punctuated her statement with the all too familiar tongue clicking (somewhat akin to our ‘tisk-tisk) of Armenian women when they are disgusted with the lack of knowledge of foreigners. She reached beneath the counter and produced a pink umbrella with pictures of circus animals dancing on it. Seriously, it was one of those long skinny numbers with a curved wood handle. I thought she was joking (obviously) and laughed a bit. She looked up a bit confused and proceeded to extol the value of this umbrella as opposed to my initial choice. The conversation continued;

Me: thanks, but I would really just prefer the black one

Her: but the black umbrella costs 250 dram more (which is the equivalent of $0.75)

Me: Oh I realize, thanks for your concern, but I’d like to purchase the black umbrella. Here is my money (thrusting forth the proper amount).

Her: I’m sorry but I don’t think you understand. Where are you from?

Me: I’m from America, here is the money please give me the black umbrella.

Her: America? You don’t understand. Are you married?

Me: I’m not actually married.

Her: (again the reproachful tongue clicking) well then let me assure you from a mother and a wife that certainly you want this one (pointing to the pink dancing circus animal covered umbrella).

Me: thanks so much for your help, but I’ll just take the black one. Here, here’s the money… take it!

Her: I’m not selling you the black umbrella. You must trust me, this one is better. Do you have a mother and a father in America? What city are you from?

Me: Really…please… this is how it works. I give you money and you give me what I ask for. Seriously, just give me the umbrella… Take the money…. TAKE IT!

…This verbal jousting continued for sometime. Finally as other patrons piled up behind me (all adding their own opinions), they collectively came to the conclusion that the pink umbrella was a no-brainer for a no-brainer from America. I realized it was a loosing cause and walked out, uncovered into the down pouring rain, returning to my apartment soaked and once again emotionally battered.

Another favorite was when I needed super-glue for an important task. Really if you’re going to the trouble to buy super glue it must be an important task that calls for some hard-core adhesion. I went to the hardware stall in the market and asked for the name brand super glue prominently displayed on the wall. The guy of course reaches beneath the counter and produces some knock off brand and brags that it only costs 100 dram (about $0.33 cents) for the whole tube. I asked if he had anything of maybe more reliable quality and maybe a little more expensive... like say, that one I just pointed to prominently displayed on the wall. He replied in the affirmative, but told me that this one only cost 100 dram so there would be no reason to pay the extra $0.75 for the name brand trustworthy stuff. We went back and forth for sometime (reference above ‘umbrella’ conversation, but replace the questions about marriage with more unseemly inquiries). This time I bought the cheap glue, and needless to say I was disappointed with the results.

But these are almost understandable, as price considerations, combined with concern for hapless foreigners leads shopkeepers to be overly fretful and protective of proper purchasing. It’s when obvious matters of taste come into play that I am just baffled.


I am a huge fan of the peaches here. They are leaving the market soon (as winter approaches) so I am attempting to consume as many as humanly possible while I still can. I often buy from this nice lady who sells fruit by my house. That was until last week…

Me: Hi. Nice to see you again. I hope your family is well, and that your life is going well. My family both in America and in Armenia are doing well. Also my work and life in general is really great. I’m still not married, but I did enjoy meeting your daughter the other day. I agree that she is wonderful and will obviously make a wonderful wife someday. You should be very proud. (I always try to shorten conversations by preemptively answering the obligatory and chronic questions, before they are inevitably asked.) May I have 2 kilos of your peaches?

Her: ah Dominic Jan, I have these wonderful pears now. How about I give you 2 kilos of the pears… or what about 1 kilo of the pears and a kilo of these lovely blood oranges. They just came in today and are so fresh. My cousin grew them in Varamaberd village… Do you know where Varamaberd village i?(beginning to fill my bag with pears and blood oranges.) Dominic jan, you aren’t still living alone are you? You really need to find a wife. How old did you say you were?

Me: Varamaberd is a lovely place… but actually, though the pears look great, I’d really just like the peaches. You know how much I love peaches, and I want to eat as many as I can before they are gone for the winter. So I’ll take 2 kilos of the peaches. Here is my money (thrusting forth the proper amount).

Her: Dominic jan, you eat far too many peaches. It’s not healthy. Why don’t you come to my house tonight and I’ll cook you up a nice meal. You really are far too skinny. Women don’t like skinny husbands. They don’t provide as well for their families. It’s decided then! You will come to my house tonight and we’ll eat fresh blood oranges. I’ll call my cousin from Varamaberd. He grew the blood oranges you know. Did you know that Varamaberd is the name for the great fort that our great Armenian king Varam helped to defend?

Me: Wow. I did not know that. I would love to come to dinner, but I have to teach a class tonight. Maybe another time. Actually I’m kind of in a rush to get to said class… so can I just get the two kilos of peaches. Here is the money.

Her: Eating so many peaches is not healthy. Peaches make you skinny. It’s not safe to be skinny with the winter coming. I’ll give you a kilo of pears and throw in the blood oranges for free. They’re really quite fresh.

Me: (realizing that I was hopelessly outmatched partially conceded defeat) How about I take 1 kilo of the peaches and then I’ll also buy 1 kilo of the pears. I’ll take 1 blood orange to try and if I like them I’ll come back and buy more. With my health and future nuptial prospects in mind I promise to share the peaches with my class tonight, so I won’t be eating them all myself. Deal?

Her: Well I suppose. I don’t like it, but if you like the blood oranges you have to promise to come back…

The conversation concluded with some discussion about the health and girth of married men in their mid-twenties in relation to those who remain single.

Though these episodes (and many others like them) might give the impression that the market economy at the street level in my town is a bit immature, I tell you there is hope. I was relieved to walk to the fruit stand on the next block and have the lady there not only sell me all the peaches I wanted, but attempt to charge me a higher price because I was from America. Now comfortable in the knowledge that capitalist greed was at least beginning to take hold here, I gladly paid the premium.

Monday, October 01, 2007


I just returned from my first real vacation during the Peace Corps. A few friends and I climbed Mt. Ararat and visited eastern Turkey. All in all a really cool trip.

The symbol of Armenia is Mt. Ararat. The only thing is that this coveted mountain sits just over the border (closed due to a war in the 1990s) in Turkey. This perceived denial of land, especially the ultimate symbol of Armenia makes this mountain a huge part of the national consciousness. With our American passports in hand we were able to make this trip, and fulfill the dream of many Armenians. Needless to say upon our return we have acquired a huge store of “street cred” with Armenians.

I’m no climber, but the mountain is kinda tall. Almost 17000 feet. All the guide books claim it is “the tallest mountain in Europe”. But if eastern Turkey is in “Europe” then I’ve got hopes that Mongolia will be an ascension country to the EU in no time. We had been warned about altitude sickness and the like, but our group seemed to do ok. There were certainly a few headaches at the top.

So below you'll find some pics of our vacation, if interested.

This is a photo of Mt. Ararat from the capital city of Yerevan.

The 5 days spent climbing the mountain were fairly uneventful, as there's not much to look at nature wise, as evidenced by this picture.

Our summit hike began at two in the morning so we could reach the top at sunrise, which we accomplished. This was the view out over Armenia from the top of the mountain as the sun was rising. Unfortunately it was hazy and we couldn't make out the capital city in Yerevan.

This is the group of us that made it up to the top of the mountain. It was very, Very, VERY cold on the top of the mountain.

I lost a bet to a buddy of mine from Boston and have been wearing a Boston Red Sox hat ever since. Go Giants!

On our trip we were also able to see a bit of Eastern Turkey, which is really quite a beautiful and developed place (reletive to what I was expecting). It was certainly the most militarized place I've ever been, as 4 pretty hot borders meet in a small area and the Kurdish inhabitants of this part of Turkey are a bit restless. There were tanks, armored vehicles and men with automatic weapons everywhere. I d

My favorite place that we went was the abandoned ancient city of Ani. In short (and this does the history no justice) it was the capital of Armenia when the culture was at its Zenith in the mid 10th century. It was a great walled city that has since sat untouched, except by earthquakes and time. The Turkish government doesn't keep it up really at all so it is this crazy eerie ancient city where the churches are the only things still standing. At one time it was known as the city of a thousand churches.

This church was damaged in an earthquake in teh 14th century and then struck by lightning in the 20th century, which caused half of it to fall down.

Another example of an Armenian church in Ani fallen into disrepair.

We also stopped off at an old Turkish fort on the way. It was interesting to compare the two architectural styles.

All in all it was a good trip.