A trip to the shops…notes from Yerevan, pt. 2

You know those people who take acid, the ones who take acid and can’t stop talking about how they took acid and had the most transcendental experience, and saw the world with new eyes, and everything that was drab and boring was now magical, and you say, magical how, and they say, well, I was sat in my room, listening to flute music, staring at my shoe, and you say, that shoe, and they say, yes, that shoe, I looked at that shoe for eight hours, just looking at it, the eyelets and the stitching and the leather upper, and I saw that even this shoe, where did you get it, you say, and they say, it doesn’t matter where I got it, and you say, okay, even though you think it does matter, and they say, if you must know, these are Clarks, and you say, I thought they were Clarks, I’ve always thought Clarks shoes could change your life like that, and they say, you’re not taking this seriously, are you, and you say, no, you’re not, and then they tell you to fuck off and that’s one less boring cunt in your life

well, the point is, those people, the boring LSD people, have a point. When I’m on holiday, I do as little as possible, and am fascinated by everything. This is how I enjoy myself. On my first day in Armenia, I went to the shops and bought some bread and cheese, and other bits and bobs like that. And it was the most interesting thing I did all day. It was also the only thing I did all day.

I was somewhat nervous going in there, despite it being quite a westernised supermarket, because I can’t speak Armenian, and they have their own alphabet, (some wise chap dreamt it up in the fifth century), so I was hobbled when it came to knowing what is what. Moreover, I haven’t got the shopping stature of one of those old women who can walk into any shop anywhere in the world and start feeling the produce to see what is fresh and haggle mercilessly with the shopkeeper until they end up paying below wholesale price for their vegetables, and the shopkeeper thanks them for it. I’m not like that. When shopping, I’m timid, yet curious.

Despite these reservations, I got my trolley and trundled into the shop. First section, vegetables. Which, being a vegetarian, is my domain. (Like the Americans so endearingly say: “I GOT THIS!”) I picked up tomatoes, onions and carrots, which a shopping assistant weighed and put into bags for me.

Next, I went down an aisle which could be described as: tins/jars. I found myself staring at tins of kidney beans, wondering if I needed kidney beans (does anyone ever need kidney beans), and if 720 dram was a reasonable price for them, when another shopping assistant appeared and asked in Armenian, then Russian, then English, if she could help.

First of all, coming from London where you can go to the supermarket, fill a basket and pay for everything without speaking to a soul, I was astonished to be asked. Getting to the question, however, the truth was, I am beyond help. What person gets transfixed by cans of kidney beans and stares at them for several minutes wondering if they want them or not? What kind of help could she provide? A week in a sanatorium, perhaps? Thinking the truth somewhat beyond the language barrier, I politely declined and shuffled off

to the dairy section, where another jovial shopping assistant was handing out free samples of President butter. Which is just the kind of free sample the right-thinking supermarket shopper wants to have. As an endorsement of the promotion, I plonked a block of the good stuff into my basket, which, in an Armenian supermarket dairy aisle kind of way, made me quite the Billy Big Bollocks.

Then there was the 33.3% of the supermarket devoted to pig. On my flight from Moscow, I had noted several men with extremely generous waistlines and wondered how they had acquired such impressive physiques. Here was the answer. Sausages, bacon and hams ran across several counters, all attended by larger shopping assistants than were found on the aisles, as if to suggest: “if you buy this, you could end up looking like this!”

After buying bread and picking up a selection of the local ales, I went to the till to pay, where a woman took my money, and a man packed my bags and wanted to carry them to my car, until I explained I didn’t have one. So, despite my complete lack of Armenian, I had a supermarket shopping experience which is not possible in England, due to improvements. And with those cultural differences to reflect upon, I took the rest of the day off.

Meeting the neighbours…notes from Yerevan pt. 1

Tpagrichneri, str., Yerevan, Armenia

I am woken by the door bell being rung repeatedly, the same bell I had ignored on my first morning in Yerevan. Today, I scramble into t-shirt and trousers and answer the door, to find a small, severe, grey-haired woman, all handbags and narrow eyes, stood there. She speaks in tones equal to her appearance, first in Armenian, then in Russian, at which point I declare that I am English and, consequently, haven’t a clue.

She takes my lack of understanding as a ploy, and not a very good ploy, and we are both talking across each other, she jabbing her finger at me, me lifting my shoulders and showing the palms of my hands, Larry David-style, when an elderly gentleman appears from across the hall and asks, in English, if I am English.

“Yes,” I confirm.

He gives a wave of the hand, as if to say, leave all this to me, and picks up the thread with the old lady. After a few moments he reveals that she is a tax collector, which doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. If ever there was a woman who was purpose-built for scaring people into handing over their hard-earned, this was the woman. I give her a phone number, and she retreats down the stairs, displeased but, temporarily, defanged.

I turn to the old man, suntanned, baldheaded, charming, and after exchanging names and handshakes, he says, “I am leaving Armenia…I have a brother in California…the Russians, they are coming…I remember the Soviet days, not good…they want to build another empire, they are too strong…we cannot stop them.” I agree in a noncommittal way (just in case there are any Russians lurking on the stairwell, taking notes), before we return to our respective flats.

***

Later that day, the doorbell rings again, and once again I am woken by it, despite it being early afternoon. (I’d had a late breakfast, and subsequently gone to bed to read, and – would you credit it, I mean would you?? – dozed off.)

It is the suave old man from across the hall. He invites himself in and sits down delicately on the sofa.

“You are tired, maybe?” he asks, and I deny it, although I can feel that my face is red and blotchy from sleep. I sit up, cross-legged on a chair and look attentively at him, in his old man summertime clobber of polo shirt, khaki trousers and tennis shoes.

“Perhaps you would like some work…smuggling?” he says to me, enquiringly. “My friend has an Iranian passport and it is very easy.”

I look at him as if he is a character in a Graham Greene novel, which, given his vintage, isn’t impossible.

“I am on holiday,” I say, which he ignores.

He proceeds to talk in a casual, elegant, if mildly intimidating fashion about The Russians, Iran, the Twin Towers, The Russians again, Edward Snowden and British spies of yesteryear, the Taliban, a forthcoming terrorist attack in London, which will happen, very soon, The Russians yet again, before waving his hand and summarising with, “these things, they are connected.”

I wonder if I should ask some questions about the type of smuggling he had in mind, and what the pay might be, but think better of it as it might encourage him, or, worse, make me laugh. Either way, I keep quiet.

Eventually, he asks, “Why are you in Yerevan?”

“I am on holiday,” I say again. “I might go to the museums and galleries.”

“Museumgallery, yes you might go,” he says, dismissing this as implausible. “And what is it you do?”

“I work in PR.”

“Public relations?” He muses upon this for a while. “Well, if you want to earn some money, you know where I am.”

And with that, the elderly gentleman rises, shakes my hand, and leaves the flat.

Yerevan's lovely central square. My flat, me and my neighbour are just off to the right somewhere.
Yerevan’s lovely central square. My flat, me and my neighbour are just off to the right somewhere.