BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
As Frank Sinatra left his heart in San Francisco, I left mine in Yerevan when for the first time I visited Armenia in 2001. My husband and I were traveling with a group from California. For most of us, it was our first visit to Armenia.
After a layover in Paris we were flying an Armenian airline to Yerevan. The flight attendants, young Armenian women with over-sized figures, wore white outfits with black trims and pleated skirts, which added to their size. They all had heavy makeup – a hallmark for Armenian women.
The flight was scary. The airplane seemed in disarray, with loose seats and water dripping from the sides. However we were impressed that Armenia had an airline.
It was late evening when we arrived to Yerevan. The dimly lit airport looked deserted. Like Soviet-era government buildings in movie scenes – it was cold, unimpressive and outdated. The interior walls with pink and grayish marble looked very tired and gave us an inkling of what to expect entering Yerevan.
After a woman officer stamped our passports, my husband asked to take a picture with her. To my surprise she accepted and got up from her chair and came out of the cabin to take a picture. I still cannot believe that a government official accepted to take a picture together. The snapshot shows my teary-eyes and how I’m holding back emotions. I grew up in Iran with a sense of “Garod,” or yearning for our homeland. Because Armenia was a forbidden destination, under Soviet rule.
The young woman was not over-sized as the stewardesses were, but same as them she was wearing a lot of makeup and nicely coiffed. She looked more like the young women we encounter in the streets of Yerevan and marvel at their beauty. Seeing those charming young women in the streets of Yerevan, walking on high heels, we realize the reason a popular song had been created years ago. Where the crooner praises: “The beauty of a Yerevanian girl” – “Yerevani Siroun Aghjik.”
As we were exiting the airport, we had to work our way past a crowd that had come to welcome their relatives. I haven’t forgotten the bouquet of flowers they had brought. It was the largest bouquet I ever remember seeing – maybe 30 inches in diameter. Tearful relatives gripped the arriving passengers with warm emotional embraces.
We arrived at Hotel Ani, just before midnight. The hotel was totally refurbished and tastefully decorated with Armenian-themed furnishings and interior design. The spacious lobby and the elongated check-in granite counter put us in awe. I was not expecting to see a swanky hotel.
After we got situated in our room, our tour director told us we could have a bite at the café next door. The street was again dimly lit, but it didn’t prevent us from noticing the extremely wide sidewalk. It was another jaw-dropping experience. I could not believe how wide the sidewalk was. It brought to mind the wide sidewalks of “Champs Élysée” boulevard in Paris,
The café was a prototype for today’s ubiquitous café-culture of Yerevan. It had a very primitive disposition: a few metal round tables with Coca Cola umbrellas, and again dimly lit. Their selection of food was limited. At that late hour all they could offer were hot-dogs and sodas.
While we were sitting there waiting for our food to come, I noticed a shop next door selling outfits and accessories. The store was still open. Mind you it was passed midnight. The shopkeeper was about to close when a friend stepped inside and they started a conversation. The shopkeeper finished closing the doors, but then they stood in front of the store for about half an hour continuing the conversation. I thought, “Maybe Yerevan is a city that never sleeps.” But later I learned that Yerevan is known as the laid-back city – of course no one is laid-back when driving a car
The following morning, our first day in Yerevan started with a visit to the Genocide Museum, and from there to Victory Park to see the statue of Mother Armenia and the military museum. On the way back from Victory Park, we were ushered to Matenadaran (the manuscript museum). Our last stop was “Grand Candy,” a kids space, where we had “ponchik.” The place was packed with parents and their kids nibbling on their ponchiks. It was another aspect that was beyond me. I thought people are so poor that they cannot have those kind of treats.
Growing up, I had heard so much anti-Soviet propaganda and how our homeland Armenia had suffered under communism. But now in Yerevan I was seeing things that were against my expectation. It seems there was a gap in my education. I was not aware that under Soviet Union, Yerevan was reconstructed with an urban plan close to European cities like Paris or Vienna. It was hard to believe that Yerevan owned all those architectural gems, built during Soviet times.
Visiting all those monuments and traveling through the streets of Yerevan and seeing the multitude of stylish buildings – although in dilapidated condition – made from special salmon-color Tuffa stone put me in awe. The wide sidewalks and public art dotted through out the city was overwhelming. I learned that Yerevan is called an open air museum.
So, on my first visit to Armenia same as many other Armenians from diaspora, I became enamored with the country. Armenia gave me an itch. I thought we should roll-up our sleeves, and stand shoulder to shoulder to our Armenian brothers and sisters, and rebuild the country.
I went home to Glendale, but a voice was calling me back. During the following years, I visited Armenia several times. But never had the chance to roll-up my sleeves until last year when an opportunity came my way to contribute in a small way to my homeland.
Few of my non-Armenian friends expressed desire to visit Armenia. That was a great excuse for me to jump on the opportunity and organize a group tour to Armenia. My group consisted of four well traveled people – Roger in her 80s, Yaffa and Chalom in their 60s and Don in his 50s. We arrived in the newly built Zvartnotz airport – a far cry from the old dilapidated one. Within the last decade Yerevan has received a face lift. And everything looks much clean and refurbished. The experience of taking a tour was palpable. My friends were so excited to discover Armenia, that’s how I got the idea to parlay my passion into a business.
Fall is regarded as one of the best times of year to visit Armenia. For this reason we have organized an excellent tour for the second week of October that also coincides with the citywide celebration of Yerevan’s birthday. We’ve secured a great price with a local travel agency. Round trip airfare from Los Angeles with airport transfers, hotel and guided tour is only $2375. Tour dates are October 8-19, 2014. Please take a look at our flexible itinerary, which also includes an option to visit Georgia.