Intersections: A place best understood up close

“The motherland is best loved from afar,” I was told several times en route to Armenia late last month.

When I arrived in Yerevan, the country’s capital and its largest city, this cautionary advice lingered in my mind as I rode by blocks of flashy casinos, my taxi zipping through the center of a city that's said to be 29 years older than Rome.

My driver, a chubby man who chain-smoked and yelled out to other drivers at various stoplights, begged for more money as I handed him the fare.

“Give me more so I can go pass time at a café,” he said, knowing from my melodic accent that I was a foreigner.

The next day I woke up to a balcony view of a massive block of Soviet-era apartments, stacked on top of each other to the sky like dominoes, dilapidated and rusty, yet equipped with satellite dishes. I knew the time I spent in this landlocked country in the Caucasus would only be described as unpredictable.

I had come to Armenia in search of stories — stories I couldn't tell 7,000 miles away from my home base in Glendale.

I had spent the last several years as an editor and freelance journalist, reporting on matters concerning Angelenos as well as the large Armenian Diaspora. In the midst of my journalistic career, I had ended up creating an online magazine called Ianyan, unearthing and reporting on issues rarely discussed. In the process, I created an unexpected bridge between the fragmented Diaspora communities and Armenia. The connections I made by working to create an independent multimedia resource for this particular community, free of political or religious affiliation, enabled me to nurture dozens of relationships in and around Armenia itself, ultimately inspiring an extended stay in the country, which took a year to orchestrate.

And now I'm here, amazed at the skill with which women walk the cobblestone streets of Yerevan wearing the highest of heels, delighted to see the city full of Iranian tourists using Armenia as a vacation spot, and practicing my Armenian-language skills more than I ever have before.

This city is raw and charming at the same time. It makes you work hard to like it, and in this sense, it reminds me of Los Angeles. The cafés are bustling on every street corner, yet the streets are in desperate need of repair. The Western influence on the city is obvious — a Pizza Hut, a Beatles Bar dedicated to all things John, Paul, George and Ringo, and, of all things, a Crocs store.

The cafés play full-length Elton John and Eric Clapton albums, yet much of the products in local grocery stores are Russian.

Armenia has its fair share of problems and more, but initial impressions can be summed up by the thunderous roars spilling out on the streets during a soccer match between Russia and Armenia, teenagers carrying melting ice-cream cones down the street, and the laughter and passionate conversations that go on until the wee hours of the night in the underground bars. Life is burning here, and if there's one thing people enjoy, it's having a good time.

As I occasionally stop to feed the cautious, yet sweet, street dogs of Yerevan, I hope to bring more dispatches from an ancient city now attempting to catch up to the rest of the world. The motherland might be best loved from afar, but to understand it and the psyche of its people, distance is not an option.

A native Angeleno, Liana Aghajanian is a freelance journalist based in Armenia for the summer. She has written for LA Weekly, EurasiaNet, New America Media, and Los Angeles Times Community News

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