Mount Ararat is to Armenia what Mozart is to Austria: dozens of products are named after them. The bizarre thing is that Ararat (biblical Noah’s landing place) is situated just across the border in Turkey. Still, as a brand name it is ubiquitous in Armenia.
On a recent visit to a micro-financing institution’s rural client, who has used a half-year loan of 2000 $ at a staggering 2.3% interest per month, the country’s abject poverty became shockingly visible: people living in shoddy old metal train container carriages, set on cinder blocks in ankle-deep mud, dirty children with snotty noses milling around our minivan, not a single agricultural machinery in sight (apart from a couple of broken-down car carcasses), sleeping quarters in the cow-warm stable, above the cows; the emaciated farmer himself presenting proudly the new cows he had purchased with the loan, all of them chomping hey in an ancient, but cleaned barn. The whole scene a good example of what much-maligned microfinance can do for people whose access to “regular” bank loans is zilch. The observer can just hope that the borrower will be able to repay his loan on time and thus make the burden of his poverty a little less pressing.
Three hours later in spic-and-span downtown Yerevan, a performance of Verdi’s La Traviata at the Opera House. Many, many children and youths in attendance, playing throughout the opera with their cellphones, taking flashlight pictures, whispering, laughing, but also listening. And it was very much worth listening to: a remarkable performance for a country of around 2.5 million people (with 8 million Armenians living abroad) with a per-capita income of less than 3.000 $. Excellent singers, especially the men, with handsome Alfredo singing the highest tenor notes without seeming effort and a stunningly intonating Father; less convincing the ladies, with a bulging Violeta initially too loud and shrill, but later with great emotional and vocal authenticity until her death. A massive choir, a ridiculous ballet routine, a very convincing orchestra performance. The whole affair worthy of a very good mid-city European opera house – most likely one of the more positive vestiges of Soviet culture.
Next evening, a marvellous jazz club event, where smoking is not only permitted, but promoted (cigars, cigarettes and an occasional shish). First an excellent blues band intoning songs by Bessie Smith and others, with outstanding musicians, and at midnight the long-awaited main act, a thrilling classical piano jazz act by the bar owner himself, a sixty-year old, very cool gentleman who managed to play exhilarating riffs while switching his burning cigarette between mouth, right and left hand. A memorable evening, enhanced by mucho Ararat brandy and Russian vodka.
How much more contrast is imaginable between the cow farmer and Violeta?