Frank O'Hara in Armenia, November 1999

Frank O'Hara
Frank O'Hara at the CESO office in Yerevan

I sent an email to my cousin Jane Coté that I was going to Armenia via London and was going to have ten hours stopover. With her knowing London so well I figured she could give me a few pointers on spending a few fruitful hours in London. It turned out that Jane was going to London on precisely the same Canadian flight as mine. (The plane started from Toronto, with a stopover in Ottawa where Jane lives.) We arranged to get adjoining seats. Jane was staying in London for a month and had rented a flat in the theatre district, a short walk to the British museum where I could spend a few hours. I left my notebook computer, new digital camera, new shortwave radio, sunglasses, umbrella, etc. at Jane's apartment and left myself more than ample time to pick them up and catch the "tube" to Heathrow airport.

I had a very enjoyable several hours at the museum. I was very sure of Jane's address and had even made a mental note of exactly what the entrance looked like, along with the number, 30. You guessed it; I couldn't find her apartment; I had the wrong street name and I didn't have her phone number. I spent about two hours scrambling up and down one street after the other in the area I knew for sure was where the apartment was located. Increasing panic. I finally had to give up and head for the airport. (Fortunately, at least I had my ticket in my pocket.)

When I got to the airport, with 25 minutes to spare, they told me I had missed my flight. Weeping and wailing did no good so I followed their directions to go to a far corner of a very large building to re-book a flight. The fellow at the "lost souls" wicket was somewhat more appreciative of my plight and to increase the possibility of his helping me, I said that they had better get my 2 bags off the plane, checked through to Yerevan from Toronto. I guess he figured this was more trouble than getting me on the flight, now with only ten minutes to spare. So he prepared a boarding pass and told me I could catch the plane if I could get to the gate before the plane took off. Heathrow is a BIG airport. I was slowed down at the x-ray gate. (I guess the x-ray people figured mine was a good ruse to board a plane with my pockets full of explosives.)

In any event, entirely out of breath I did catch the plane. I missed my new (and expensive) shortwave radio. I am a news junky and I have found an inexpensive radio inadequate. My computer only prevented me from doing some work and preparing emails on my own time. (Fortunately, the local CESO office was within a block of my apartment and Mikayel Baghramyan, the local representative, thoughtfully provided me a key; so I could access a computer.)

Mikayel also loaned me a camera - hence the photos.

Some of staff at Algorithm ServiceI worked with a multimedia company that produces CD-ROM language training programs and computer literacy courses. Most of their business was in Russia but in the last several years they not only had their programs pirated but the Russian market is in dire straights. So I advised them to produce some language training programs specifically geared to the U.S. market and market directly through the Internet . I helped them to produce an e-commerce web site to do the job. I also helped them prepare a business plan and proposal to garner a grant from an EU organization and also a proposal to the Soros Foundation to do some computer training programs for use by the Armenian school system.

I found out later that they got $90,000 from the EU organization and that it saved them from bankruptcy.

Cognac Tasting I took a Friday afternoon off and was taken on a tour of a cognac factory. It was an interesting combination of the old and the new. There were three of us, the local CESO rep, Michael Baghramyan, myself and another Canadian CESO VA (volunteer adviser) - Hendrik Weiler. We were shown around by the president of the company, Dr. Zaven Guirogossian. Interestingly, the president is a nuclear physicist from the U.S. He came to Armenia (along with others from the diaspora) to help get their nuclear power station going, following a major earthquake. The country was without electrical power for two years! Now Dr. Guirogossian owns 25% of a wine and brandy factory. Quite a switch in careers.

We sampled some dessert wines and then three bottles of cognac/brandy - 10 year old, 15 year old and 30 year old. We made a good dent into the first two bottles and almost polished off the 30 year old. The latter was really excellent. Oh for the life of a CESO VA!

My apartment was quite satisfactory. Some of the features we take for granted in Canada, like water always available, a warm bathroom and enough hot water to take a good shower are not to be relied upon in Yerevan. For example, one day I took what might be called a SITS shower. There was no shower curtain, no plug for the bathtub and the shower is one of the "snaky" European variety. The water just drizzles out of the nozzle and, unwilling to splash too much water on the floor, I sat in the bathtub. However, the bathtub narrows down at the bottom (no sexy design here) so that my derrière just managed to squeeze between the sides. Not easy to take a quick shower in such circumstances, even if the room is chilly - but I managed it.

The driver from the company where I worked picked me up each morning and took me home each evening. Believe it or not, I picked up my dinners each evening from the American embassy's cafeteria; so the food was more or less western. On the way home the driver would run in to pick up two plastic bags - one with my dinner and one for Hendrik. The food was still somewhat warm when I reached my apartment. Of course I could warm it up but then I'm too lazy and too suspicious of a propane oven. The stove worked fine though for making coffee or tea or boiling an egg.

To add some sparkle to my meal I bought a bottle of wine one evening. However, I wasn't strong enough to get the cork out of the bottle. The next night I had the driver come in with me. He's young and powerful. He couldn't open it either. So he held the corkscrew and I the other end of the bottle. After much tugging and tooing a frowing we did manage to yank the plug. And the wine didn't taste of glue at all. This great photo opportunity was missed.

Flea MarketOn a Sunday, Mikayel (the CESO rep.), Hendrik and I went shopping for a few hours at a very large flea market in the middle of the city. Lots of bargains and lots of things that are totally inappropriate for visitors to take home - like large paintings and interesting "pieces" made of heavy stone. At one point a grizzled character, figuring I was American, tried out a few words of English, to the effect that Clinton is a fine man. I told him that I was Canadian and his story changed. "Clinton fascist", he managed in his basic English.

It's wonderful what only having Russian and Armenian on the TV and no radio can do for one's reading. I brought a lot of magazines with me, copies of Saturday Night, Macleans, Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and others which I normally never find time to read thoroughly. An article in Harper's dealt with the island of Cyprus and the partition between the Turkish and Greek communities. No mention of the Canadian soldiers who have been there for 30 years but an interesting article nevertheless. Each side elaborates on the failures, massacres, etc. of the other. They also go on at length about ancient (or at least old) history. The article saw no possibility of a resolution and pointed out that 30 years of guarding the no man's land had cost about the same as two days of the war against the Serbs re Kosovo. Maybe this is the solution to many problem areas in the world. Certainly the Armenians vividly recall the reasons for their enmity toward their neighbours. When I asked Mikayel how they would handle the potential return of an adjacent territory that the Armenians regard as theirs but is now populated by Kurds, he gave me a sardonic look but no answer.

Inexplicably to me, too, is the fact that all of the Armenians, with whom I discussed it, supported the Serbians versus the Kosovars. It seems to me a knee jerk reaction to a fear of American hegemony. The idea that the bombing was to prevent a repeat of the massacres that occurred in Bosnia does not seem to register. So I am learning to keep my mouth shut. Pretty late at my age to learn that but then I only intend to do it on a hit or miss basis. In other words, I am afraid of being hit!

I met a charming Armenian from Lebanon who was said to be an ex-terrorist. He now runs an intimate and charming little bar. Nice guy, at least without a gun in his hand. He gave me good practice with my French and I did keep my mouth shut a good deal of the time. Of course, mostly because my French didn't match his.

On my last Sunday in Armenia we visited Lake Sevan, an historic place (as what isn't in this country) and quite interesting. On the way the car broke down. Fortunately we had stopped on an upgrade. So, when the battery failed, we had to push the car downhill (backwards). After several tries and many looks of consternation from other car passengers we got going again and had no more problems.

Lake SevanAt Lake Sevan we checked out a couple of seventh century churches, heard lots about the Armenian wars with the Arabs and had a great lunch.




Lunch at Lake SevanThis country really does have outstanding vodka, made from mulberries, I hear. And only $2 U.S. a bottle. I hasten to add, the lunch was substantially but not entirely liquid.


(Left to Right: Hendrik Weiler (another CESO VA) yours truly, Mikayel Baghramyan (local CESO representative) and Vladimir Hakobyan (my host/client)

To make book-ends with my travel challenges, the flight that was supposed to leave Yerevan at 8:30 AM actually left at 11:50 PM. However, this was not entirely an untoward happening. Mikayel had been planning to go to his 11 year old nephew's birthday party in the evening so he had no choice but to invite me along.

Mikayel's sister lives on the 8th floor of an apartment building and the elevator wasn't working. Nothing like getting natural exercise. This was not just a children's birthday party but an opportunity for the extended family to get together - about 20 people. Mikayel's parents don't speak any English but, other than the youngest children everyone spoke quite good English. A very hospitable group. I soon felt right at home. (Of course, their excellent vodka assisted in the process - to say nothing of the great food.)

After we had eaten and drunk our fill, Mikayel's parents and a couple of others had some questions for me:

What differences do you find between Armenia and Canada?
"Of course there are many differences", I told them, "but one thing that really stands out is that Armenia is a very homogeneous country - even to the degree that almost everyone's name ends in yan (or ian). In my neigborhood the local public school has children who speak 37 different languages and most of them start school unable to speak English at all. I explained how Canada is a country of immigrants, admitting approximately 200,000 new people yearly from all over the world of every colour and creed imaginable. Also in my neighbourhood is a Greek Orthodox church, a mosque and a Christian church that shares the facility between a Roman Catholic and Protestant (United Church) congregation.

Another big difference is the attitude towards smoking. In Toronto it is illegal to smoke in a place of work or any public building. The majority of people, especially adults, don't smoke. The opposite is true for Armenia.

Why did you volunteer to help out Armenia?
Actually, I think of myself as a citizen of the world and I would like to give back something of my good fortune in being a Canadian. So I have worked in Armenia but also in China and hope to visit and be of some assistance in many other countries. I also have a purely selfish reason: I like to experience other countries and to get to know other peoples. I have had extremely pleasant experiences with the people I have been fortunate enough to meet in widely disparate parts of the world. Furthermore, despite the evident differences between peoples I have found more similarities than differences. I believe that is a message that is worth spreading and I intend to do what I can. I doubt if there is a better way than as a CESO Volunteer Adviser.

A final note

My plane took off at 11:50, as I mentioned previously, and then flew about a 1/2 hour to Tblisi in Georgia where it parked till 4 AM, leaving us to wander around a singularly uninteresting airport. Because of a noise bylaw, the plane couldn't land at London's Heathrow until after 6 AM, local time. Can't air travel be convenient and fun!

Following my phone call from Heathrow to Jane in London, she managed to get out to the airport just in time for me to sprint to the departure gate - and Heathrow is a sprinting challenge. I reached the gate just as the last passenger was boarding. A double scotch was in order.

Another memorable and enjoyable CESO experience.