Get to know: Armenia
Whenever I mention to someone I live in Armenia, there’s first a long, silent pause. This most commonly happens when I’m in the U.S. after a casual interaction with say a cashier asking for an email address for a mailing list… or ya know, the like.
I say, no thank you, I don’t live in the area. They say, oh, where do you live?
Oh. There’s the long, silent pause. Their brow furrows. And then I’m sheepishly asked, where the heck is that?
I don’t blame them. I didn’t really know anything about the country I now call home until we were about to get our first overseas assignment. The only resources I had to make my decision of where my family was going to live for two years were Google and old “post videos” which are made by the embassy for prospective foreign service officers.
When the announcement came, all I knew about Armenia was that it was safe and kid-friendly. Great! Let’s go!
Little did I know then how much hold this small, captivating country would end up having on my heart.
So… where is it exactly?
Look at a map. Find Turkey. Keep sliding your finger to the right and that tiny country right there is Armenia. This grouping of countries between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea is known as the Caucasus.
Armenia is smack dab in the middle of it. Landlocked, it is surrounded by Turkey to the west, Azerbaijan to the East, (the country of) Georgia to the north, and Iran to the south. And while two of its four borders are closed for all kinds of reasons, another is closed to Americans and also heavily sanctioned, leaving the northern avenue through (the country of) Georgia the only truly viable land route.
Armenia is broken up into ten “marzes” or regions plus the capital city of Yerevan. When I say it’s small, I mean it. It’s small. About one third the size of (the state of) Georgia, Armenia is home to just fewer than 3 million people, one-third of whom are centered in Yerevan.
Wow! Is it safe??
There’s a perception that that since Armenia is close-ish to the Middle East and straight up shares a pretty large border with Iran that its unsafe or there is a risk for terrorism. I would strongly argue that this is a false perception and that you are more at risk in more popular Western European countries.
As far as crime is concerned, the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security has assessed Yerevan to be a LOW threat location. Crime rates in Armenia are low, even below that of the U.S. and Europe. Pickpocketing and small thefts are uncommon but always a risk in any city. Take your normal precautions and you’ll be just fine.
The biggest hazard you face is actually driving in a car. If you’re coming for a visit, my recommendation is to skip the rental and hire a driver instead. There was a rumor data-point going around for a while that Armenia has one of the highest per-capita motor vehicle crashes in the world. (If someone can find me a source on that, it would be great!) In this data table from the World Health Organization, it shows that in 2013, Armenia incurred 316 road deaths, equating to 18.3 deaths per 100,000 people per year.
Numbers aside, driving here still scares the crap out of me. I do it because I have to, but I try to be slow, deliberate, and as predictable as possible. Many drivers (but not all) are reckless, unlicensed and/or don’t think the rules apply to them. Children’s car seat usage is low and my American-mother heart rages every time I see a small child unbuckled in the front seat of another car. Many cabs do not have seat belts, so if you find one that does, fortheloveofgod, please wear it.
The roads outside of Yerevan are hazardous as well. You will get stretches of highways that are suddenly unpaved, or cliffside passes without a guardrail. And most don’t have streetlamps. My recommendation is that it’s best to avoid driving outside the city during night hours.
So what’s it like??
Because Armenia’s history is so deep, the culture is incredibly complex. For the larger part of the 20th century, Armenia was part of the former Soviet Union. And while independence is revered today, many influences, both economic and political, still exist. I could best describe it as sitting in a gray zone: not quite Asia, not quite Europe, steeped in traditions from the East but being pulled into Western culture through globalization.
On the surface, it is most describable as “post-Soviet”. Much of the infrastructure is crumbling and poorly maintained, but many Armenians are trying desperately to rebrand. Having just celebrated its 2,799th birthday, Yerevan is an old-world city that is quickly modernizing. In just two years, I have witnessed microbreweries, trendy cafes, fitness studios, and the first American fast food chain open. (It’s Burger King, by the way.)
In fact, Armenia has a fast-growing and vibrant tech scene and would make a great destination for a digital nomad. Cost of living is low, accessibility is high, and new shared-spaces and resources for digital business are opening all the time.
Armenians are warm, generous, and extremely willing to go out of their way to open a door or carry your bags if it will help you out. Local life is centered around the family structure with many generations living together in the same house. Family celebrations are large, involving huge meals of khorovats (or barbecued meat), olives, salads, lavash bread, cheese, fruit, and vodka. Lots of vodka. Or brandy.
Seriously, if you are fortunate enough to have a meal with local Armenians, bring your drinking pants. Be prepared to toast a lot.
History buffs, Armenia is for you!
If you enjoy ancient history, particularly religious history, then Armenia should definitely be on your bucket list. Armenia prides itself on being the first country to formalize Christianity as a state religion and is very proud of the many beautiful and ancient churches, monasteries, and temples scattered across the country. Each has their own story and magnificent landscape views.
It’s impossible to be in Yerevan on a clear day without noticing the twin-peaked giant towering over the city. The scene is absolutely breathtaking and it’s striking to see just how big it is. Mount Ararat is undoubtedly a symbol of Armenia and adorns everything from artwork to the local brandy factory and was even the symbol of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1921 to 1992.
Fun fact: According to Armenian history, after Noah’s ark settled on the peak of Mount Ararat, he came down from the mountain to settle in what is know present-day Yerevan. There is even a scrap of wood on display in the holy church Echmiadzin which they claim to be a piece of the ark.
How do the kids like it?
I’m pretty sure our parents thought we were crazy for bringing our (then) 1.5-year-old son halfway across the world to live in Armenia. But in all honesty, we couldn’t have picked a more kid-friendly city. My son is now 3.5 and has a sister closing in on 1. Armenia is really all he’s ever known. He genuinely enjoys living here, has an Armenian best friend, and gets excited when he sees the Armenian flag flying.
In addition to that, Armenians adore children. I usually can’t go out with my kids without them being fawned over. They are always completely welcomed in restaurants. In fact, don’t be surprised if someone walks right up to you and just takes your baby from your arms. (It definitely freaked me out the first time it happened.)
There are also TONS of kid-friendly things to do in the city! Play parks, puppet theaters, elaborate playgrounds, amusement attractions – all very affordable and accessible.
Despite the friendly attitude and an abundance of things to do with your kids, there are still a few things that make it a little more challenging. Yerevan is an old city, which means that it wasn’t built with strollers in mind. Ramps were an afterthought and in some places seem haphazardly added. Sidewalks are uneven and narrow if they exist at all. But despite that, it doesn’t stop the locals from rolling their elaborate strollers around town, which actually seem to be a bit of a status symbol.
The other thing I’m not too thrilled about living in Yerevan with kids is the pollution. Yerevan sits in a bowl-shaped valley without great airflow, so all the gunk just tends to sit above the city. Cars and buses have no issue belching out giant clouds of black smoke seemingly without concern for air quality. In the winter it gets worse; many Armenians have to rely on burning wood fires (or trash fires) for heat which gives the whole city that nice smokey smell we all love (read: I don’t love it.) It’s not to Beijing levels yet, but I do remember days after we had just brought our newborn daughter back to the country, in which I didn’t want to bring her outside.
Yerevan wouldn’t have been an obvious choice to bring a family, but it’s certainly been interesting to watch my son grow here. I’ve been able to witness what he sees in the world by noticing what he makes of his surrounding environment. Which has led us to conversations I don’t think I may have had with him living in Washington D.C. He asks about stray dogs and abandoned buildings. We talk about poverty and privilege in ways he’s able to understand. Because he sees it in front of him every day.
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