When I was a teenager my father worked in Armenia for three years. Every summer we went to visit him. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before. The last few days I’ve been reminiscing about that experience, especially the first night we got to Yerevan.
In the summer of 1996 we flew from Paris (I very very much dislike France due to a whole list of reasons, but that is a story for another day) to Yerevan. The plane itself was an experience. It was an OLD plane. Armenian airlines must have bought a plane from some other airline after they had finished with it. When we were getting ready to land and the landing gear was lowered everyone on the plane, sans us Americans, clapped. I was extremely confused by this but didn’t really have time to wonder too much because when we touched down everyone cheered and shouted for joy. This was a cause of great concern for me. “Did they not always land in once piece? Or are they just happy to be back in Armenia?” I wondered all this and more in my head as the stewardesses walked down the isle re-closing all of the over head bins. The landing caused them to pop open. Luckily, very few bags fell out on people’s heads.
We struggled off the plane amid the continued chatter and cheers where we walked down onto the tarmac (only one other place have I had to do that) and into a large cement building. I say cement because that was all you could see. Many buildings are made of concrete or cement but usually they cover it up and make it look like, you know, a building. Not so here, just bare cement with a few signs here and there to tell you where to go.
Next we got to the border people. I entered this skinny metal box with a VERY bright light shining down on me from behind a man behind glass and metal in the other half of the box. He was up on a tall stool and was doing his best menacing look at me from under his KGB hat*. I think the impression they were trying to give was they same as in a movie where bad guys are interrogating some spy they have locked in a dank basement and you were the spy they had locked up. I’m sure movie makers got the idea from them.
With a very thick Russian accent he said, “Give me your passport!” and I of course complied. As he scrutinized my photo and then scrutinized me, I beamed back up at him. Then the part of my brain that gets very silly when it gets no sleep, (it was 2 ‘clock in the morning and I’d been on at 25 hour flight) very much wanted to laugh at him. And being 16, I almost did.
“You may go!” he barked at me as he boldly stamped something in my password and tossed it back through the slot in the glass.
I walked out of the box.
Next we moved on to the customs area where my parents spent a good deal of time trying to avoid having to bribe the customs guy and still have my mom keep her wedding ring. Just as things were getting hairy a little man pushed he way though the crowd behind a barrier that kept back those waiting for passengers to arrive and started profusely apologizing to my father that he had not been there as soon as he arrived. He said something to the customs agent and we were lead away to the executive customs lounge.
The executive customs lounge was different from the rest of the airport in the fact that it had furniture. A couple of black leather sofas and a coffee table to be exact. We were then plied with drinks (and this is where I got to refuse Vodka for the first time) as the little man filled out some paperwork.
Once he finished we and all of our luggage were crammed into a very small, very old van. We drove for I’m not quite sure how long. It was dark and there were very few streetlights. We drove over lots of potholes. I am convinced that the roads in Armenia are more pothole then road. Finally we drove down a little alley and stopped in front of a small grey apartment building.
We all got out of the van, got out luggage and walked into the stairwell, which was open to the outside. As I looked around and saw the dirt, the broken lights, the trash, I wondered where my parents had taken me and how was I going to survive three months here. As we walked up to the fourth floor via seven flights of steps (don’t ask me how that worked, I really can’t tell you and I wondered that every day) I accepted that I was going to get sepsis or some other horrible illness and die far from home.
Then my dad opened the door and I knew I was going to live.
*He wasn’t actually part of the KGB, apparently all the cops and boarder people kept their KGB outfits and kept wearing them after they were free from the USSR. They had been free for five years by this time. He probably USED to be part of the KGB. I’m sure that’s where he learned to scowl like that at 16 year olds.