In a far-flung corner of London Heathrow Airport—beyond the reassuring glow of McDonalds and the aseptic comfort of Starbucks—I waited for my connecting flight among veiled women tugging at their children’s hands and swarthy men clutching passports. A sign—ominous to an American journalist with no intention of going there—read “destination: Tehran.”
Onboard the plane, the woman sitting next to me, a black veil covering her head and shoulders, smiled. “Are you visiting Tehran?” she asked.
“No,” I shook my head emphatically. “Yerevan.” I checked my boarding pass for the third time. Yerevan, the capital of Armenia and the first stop of the flight, was printed clearly in black ink. I wondered again whose idea it had been to set off for a two-month Caucasus adventure as an Italian-American journalist. The idea was mine, of course. What better way to dispel the post-graduate Great Recession doldrums than work as a correspondent for ArmeniaNow?
“So you’re going to Romania?” my friends in Chicago had asked in the weeks leading up to my departure. “Armenia,” I would invariably answer, as my baffled well-wishers sniffed goodbye with the stoic acceptance one reserves for soldiers heading to the front or for the terminally ill. To this day, I suspect many of my friends believe I am lost somewhere in the Transylvanian wilderness. The rest envision me dodging bullets on my way to work, in a geographical hybrid between Kabul and a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
At Yerevan’s Zvartnots International Airport, I handed my Italian passport to a bored-looking customs official. A flicker of a smile spread across his face. “Ciao,” he said, waving me on. I stood amidst a throng of unfamiliar faces until met by my new colleagues.
The taxi headed toward the city center, speeding past the imposing concrete U.S. embassy, darkened Soviet-era buildings, and a long strip of casinos, whose gaudy neon lights glowed in the darkness like a miniature Las Vegas. In downtown Yerevan, the nightlife continued as people ambled about in the balmy night air or spilled out of cafes into the lighted roads and squares. The taxi came to a stop along a busy street.
I groped my way up a flight of dank, pitch black stairs. After a series of failed attempts to rent an apartment via the Internet, I had finally stumbled upon what appeared to be a reliable real estate agent in Yerevan. The man spoke good English, replied promptly to my e-mails, and assured me I couldn’t possibly get a better deal. Though the high price made me pause—this wasn’t New York after all—I accepted the online contract and clicked away a good part of my savings.
At the top of the dilapidated stairs, the agent swung open a battered, metal door. We squeezed through a narrow hallway before spilling into the living room of my new home.
A small, wiry middle-aged man sat sunk in an armchair, absorbed in the unintelligible sound bites emitted by a clunky TV, a cigarette dangling from his fingers. His eyes flickered in my direction. A plump woman perched on the sofa and puffed smoke across the room. She pulled an ashtray closer. Her cigarette balanced precariously on the edge, next to the stumps of its predecessors. “Sit down,” she said giving the threadbare sofa a businesslike pat. The room smelled like mold and, in my mind, the first stages of lung cancer.
The husband and wife continued smoking as if they had slowly petrified into obsolete fixtures in the room. For a panicky moment I went over what I could remember of the terms of my contract. It didn’t mention sharing the apartment with the owners, did it?
A tour of my home failed to dispel my sense of foreboding. The landlady led the way into the kitchenette, complete with an old fashioned sink, yellowed with age, and a series of rickety shelves. I hesitated in front of the prehistoric single gas burner. Lacking Girl Scouts training I wondered whether I would ever figure out how to use it. Bread and cheese appeared to be the safest option for the foreseeable future.
The bathroom was next. The landlady proudly displayed a complicated series of handles and cranks along the cracked and peeling walls. She turned a lever and steaming water trickled out of the shower head. “Hot,” she explained. She turned the level further. “More hot,” she said. Apparently anything below scalding was not an option.
By the time we turned into the bedroom, I was pondering the wisdom of buying a one-way ticket to Armenia. My editor, who had met me at the airport, looked aghast. “This is a rip-off,” he said, mumbling something about finding me a nicer apartment—and cheaper too. “We’ll sort it all out tomorrow,” he said. I nodded numbly as the owners handed me the keys.
The decrepit air conditioner gasped and wheezed as I sat alone in the living room surveying the eclectic assortment of furniture and carpeting, whose common denominator appeared to be a Soviet-era color palette of tired grays and browns. As the drowsiness of a 20-hour trip set in, I wondered what I would come to think of the small country that was to become my home for the next few months. In my mind, a confused jumble of sights and sounds rushed together, like the broad, colorful strokes of an impressionist painting. I was ready for the adventure to begin.
Chicago-based journalist Sigrid Lupieri is spending her summer in Armenia and will periodically be sharing her impressions.