See more Living in… posts by Bruce Haring.
The Armenians may be viewed by outsiders as a somewhat melancholy people. You'd be, too, if you went through what they did.
It's a country that's been invaded multiple times, and occupied more than a half-dozen times. Its people were victims of a genocide, one that bureaucrats around the world refuse to recognize —and a large group of its people have scattered in one of the world's great diasporas.
Yet for all those tribulations, the Armenian people have managed to sustain a country that's doing okay on the world stage. And over here, despite a strange fondness for Glendale, California (which has more Armenians than any place but the Armenian capital), a love of reckless driving, and endless chain smoking, the ex-pat Armenian community has carved an impressive and stable niche.
Because there are large Armenian communities throughout the world, many ex-pats who decide to explore or settle in Armenia are already familiar with the culture. Yes, they love New Year's, celebrating it for over a week. And the date of Christmas is kind of foggy to them, typically celebrated in January, although there's a rumor it's more about taking down the lights than any firm belief. Overall it's a culture that, given its history, may be initially wary. But soon you'll be contemplating adding "ian' to your last name and will fit in just fine. If you've visited the bordering countries like Georgia and Iran, you'll be familiar with its ways (and the US State Department will likely want to speak with you). It also is influenced by Greece and Cyprus.
The good news is you're eligible for the same social services as an Armenian citizen, including a state pension.
The largest city in Armenia is Yerevan, with a population over a million. After that, things drop off a cliff, to several cities with populations of 100,000, so if it's the big city life you crave, Yerevan is the only real choice. Despite its popularity, the prices are more on the Jersey side than Manhattan-esque — an apartment in the city center is under $500, food is cheap, booze is plentiful, and generally your cost of living in high style will be under $1500 per month.
Of course, with that comes some problems. The economy is a bit rocky, and finding work as an ex-pat may be difficult.
Despite a long list of Western allies that do not need a visa to enter Armenia, United States citizens will have to obtain one. The visitor visa is good for single or multiple entries, and is valid for one year. You can also get a diplomatic visa if you're a government worker, an "official" visa if you're invited by Armenian authorities, or a transit visa if you're going to be in the country for no more than three days. Despite all the red tape, at least the US is not on the somewhat long list of countries that need an official invitation, which generally indicates there's a snowball's chance in hell that you'll get in.
Day to Day Living
There's one thing you should be wary of if you go to Armenia: don't get sick or injured. Medical services are poor, and even those facilities that are available will be looking for an "informal" payment, even on so-called "free" services. Cash only, please.
The good news is you're eligible for the same social services as an Armenian citizen, including a state pension. It's complicated to obtain, and you can't be receiving another state's subsidy, but hey, you are being subsidized to live in Yerevan. What a country! (of course, a Russian comedian said that.)
Checks and credit cards are not generally accepted in Armenia, so waiving that gold card around won't mean diddly at the corner market. You will often be quoted prices in US dollars, but will have to pay in the Armenian dram. So instead of "don't leave home without it," the Armenian merchants have adopted a page from Frank Sinatra, urging you to "just remember that dram." You know the song, "High Hopes?" It's about a ram and a dam that…
So, turning to the age-old pursuit of the opposite sex: prostitution is legal in Armenia. However, pimping or running a brothel will get you ten years. So just deal with the locals one-on-one, should you chance an encounter. Strangely, there is no legal drinking age in Armenia, so belly up to the bar and talk freely about sixth grade with one of the locals.
Of course, you may meet a local and fall in love. Ancient custom dictates that most marriages were arranged or via a matchmaker, so be prepared for the khosgab, a kind of version of the Mafia "sit-down.”
When it comes to the actual marriage, some old traditions may apply in certain circumstances, so brush up on the wearing of lavash (yes, draping yourself in bread), the best way to break a dish, and other quaint customs. Oh, and make sure you get along with your in-laws. You'll be seeing a lot of them. In the grand tradition of "extended families," they're not only your in-laws, but your new next-door neighbors and best friends.
That's Armenia. We'll see you in Yerevan near the Esso station.