Yerevan, Armenia Report of what it's like to live there - 07/26/08
Personal Experiences from Yerevan, Armenia
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
No; With Foreign Service: Vilnius. Prior to Dept. of State, I spent 5 years working in Chisinau.
2. How long have you lived here?
3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
USG Diplomatic service.
4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:
Travel time to Yerevan from DC is anywhere from 14 to 24 hours. If you are looking for a Western carrier, then routing through London, Paris, Munich, Vienna or Prague is best. Those traveling from the U.S. tend to prefer London and Paris given the often very lengthy layovers from the Munich and Vienna hubs, though both Heathrow and de Gaulle have well documented problems with baggage.
Those traveling out of Yerevan, particularly those with kids, also seem to prefer the mid-morning departures to London (11am) and Paris (9am).The Munich, Vienna and Prague flights depart Yerevan sometime in the 2-5am range--good for getting to the East Coast of the U.S. in time for lunch (or to Los Angeles in time for dinner). Though Istanbul is technically an option this is a hit-or-miss charter flight that often does not stick to its schedule; there were several instances where travelers stranded in Istanbul had to purchase tickets out of pocket through Vienna when the Turkish flight was cancelled with no notice. Moscow, Amsterdam, Sharjah, and Dubai are other possibilities, though on Armenia's national carrier (Armavia) or a regional Middle Eastern company. Standards in service on these routes often leave something to be desired. ALL flights but Moscow run but 2-4 times per week (i.e. no daily service) thus limiting your possibilities if you absolutely positively need to be somewhere on a particular day.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
The Embassy has apartments for singles and couples, and stand-alone single residences for more senior officers and those with families. Housing is generally generous, as Armenia is in the largest category, Tier Two, for Posts (20 percent above DC standards). Most stand alone homes have gardens with grapes and fruit trees (fig, apricot, pomegranate, apple, cherry). Armenian architecture is very interesting--they love large foyers with very high ceilings but cannot seem to grasp the importance and utility of closets. In most homes, therefore, the large interior landings in the homes are covered with Embassy-provided wardrobes. Embassy housing is clustered into approximately 6 districts in town. Yerevan is a very compact city. At worst, Embassy folks have a 12-15 minute commute; most folks get into work in less than 10 minutes.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries are expensive and becoming more so. The Cost of Living Allowance has gone from 15 to 30 percent during my tenure and it is not keeping up. You can often grow or pick fruit in your backyard or balcony and canning is big. I recommend heading to GUM--the old Soviet 'mall' turned produce market to get the best fruits and vegetables. You'll still pay the foreigner surcharge, but the quality will be better. Bring small change and a willingness to buy things by the kilogram; Armenian vendors don't sell bananas or apricots, for example, by the single item. Though there are some decently sized Western supermarkets like Galaxy, SAS, and Star, you'll probably find yourself going to more than one place to find what you need. I'd strongly recommend shipping household supplies you know and trust--or buy from the Commissary or through ELSO.The local stuff is indecipherable and of questionable origin and safety to those that will be exposed to the products. For pest control, for example, the Embassy's Safety Officer recommended exactly nothing available on the local market for use against ants; the local solution was to spread kerosene on the floor.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Any and all items related to baking (chocolate chips, yeast, coconut, frosting), over the counter medications like NyQuil and sunscreen and particularly contact lens supplies, and anything to do with kids given the high price, suspect quality, and hit-and-miss availability of diapers, clothes, activities, DVDs, car seats, and outdoor games. Also home cleaning supplies, laundry detergent, sports equipment, and any snack, food (particularly ethnic) or other item that you would really need or miss. The Embassy Commissary is pretty well stocked, and restocks quarterly, but you have to check the expiration date.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
There is little to no Western-style fast food in Yerevan. The only game in town in fast food is chicken, with Southern Fried Chicken and the newly opened Rostoks (Russian KFC) on the market. If you want McDonalds, it is a 5 hour trip to Tbilisi. There are generally a couple of decent places to eat within the major ethnic culinary areas. Chinese places are very much hit or miss (and open and close) but we enjoy Beijing. There are more decent options available in Italian food--with Ankuhl, The Club (good pizza), and La Cucina at the Marriott among others solid selections. A sushi place opened recently near the Opera. Expect to pay U.S. prices for a decent meal--usually $15-30 per. The restaurant scene has improved dramatically over the last several years.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
I understand the Dutch have bought into the Armenian postal system and are working to improve standards. DHL and FedEx, I believe are in Yerevan. The Embassy has pouch, delivered weekly. Transit time from the U.S. is 2-3 weeks. Transit to the U.S. is about a week.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Help is readily available; good help much less so. Word of mouth is important in finding good help, although we found that the help didn't always grasp that expectations and duties would vary, sometimes greatly, between families. Many Embassy families employed a part time gardener (US$60/month), full time nanny/housekeeper (US$300-$500), and part time driver (US$200). Turnover, particularly in gardeners seemed high. I found that Armenian landlords cared more about their fruit trees than about their homes and would have their preferred 'specialist', usually a relative, lined up for an incoming family. Families that required English from their domestics paid more--something like a 20 percent premium on the prices noted above.
3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Most folks use credit cards sparingly at places like the Marriott or at the Embassy's in-house travel agency, Globe Travel, to purchase plane tickets. Armenia remains a predominantly cash based society. ATMs are popping up--I think the Embassy has three or four machines from different banks (HSBC, Cascade) on compound. Both FSOs and local staff use these ATMs to no ill effects that I know.
4. What English-language religious services are available locally?
I understand there is a non-denominational international church, as well as representatives of the Roman Catholic, Methodist and Mormon churches that had English services.
5. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
International Herald Tribune is around, but pricey. Ditto for the international versions of major news magazines. Embassy personnel utilized either AFN or a rather pricey local cable platform called Super System which provided CNN, BBC, Discovery, National Geographic, Eurosport and others which, I believe has a US$200 set up fee and a monthly charge of something like US$35.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
In Yerevan, most everyone spoke both Armenian and Russian, with English popular with the young. Outside Yerevan, the staying power of Russian is much less pronounced. All street and nearly all business signs are written only in Armenian. A few places here or there in the very center of Yerevan had English.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Immense. The infrastructure in central city Yerevan is terrible--the provinces are only worse. Ramps, designated parking spaces and the like are basically non-existent. Sidewalks are generally torn up and there are very few crosswalks--and those that exist aren't respected by drivers.
1. Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left?
Technically, on the right as in the U.S. Factually, wherever there is a free inch. Most folks like to go left into the oncoming left lane waiting at a red light around a line of cars to try and time the light and scoot to the front of the line at speed when the light turns. Fender benders are common. Also know that neither cars nor pedestrians follow the rules. Pedestrians, usually dressed in black even on the darkest night, will jaywalk across busy, fast-moving traffic. Folks exiting public transportation on the far right often will exit, go around the front side of the vehicle they just left (blindside to traffic following them), and try to dash across the street before the vehicle they exited has filled up and moves on. If you are not an experienced driver with nerve, do not drive--taxis are plentiful and cheap. For those that do, make sure your insurance, including local insurance, is up to date; corruption is prevalent in law enforcement.
2. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
I know of no one who has taken a train. City buses are iffy in terms of schedule reliability and safety. Taxis are also hit or miss; there are a couple of good firms that drive modern vehicles with seat belts and air conditioning, but these western vehicle staples are by no means the norm. Taxis generally charge US$1 to show up and wait for you to get in and then charge a fee of about US$1 per mile.
3. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Most Embassy folks seem to prefer SUVs like Honda CRVs or Toyota's RAV for the clearance, driver sight line, safety, weight and traction in winter. Others like to drive hand me down old Soviet Nivas--since parts are plentiful and the basic motor is easy to repair with usually nothing more than a hammer and a screwdriver. Whatever car you bring, you should bring filters and spare parts (tires, windshield wipers). An oil change of synthetic oil costs US$150. Locals drive a mix of Soviet cars, late model German BMWs and Mercedes. The Mafia and oligarchs seem to prefer new Lexus models and Hummers. I believe there are Ford, Kia, Volkswagen and Toyota dealerships in Yerevan. Most Embassy folks, whatever their car model, seem to use the same 'international' service center. Labor in Yerevan is cheap, parts are not.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Higher speed internet is available through the state monopoly. Embassy residences could sign up for high speed internet through the Employee Association/Commissary for US$35 per month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
All Embassy personnel are issued cell phones. Spouses and others on the general market may find a variety of phones and plans to meet any need. The two vendors in this area are ArmenTel, the state run telephone company, and Viva Cell. I understand a third vendor is entering the cell phone arena.
3. What is the best way to make phone calls back home?
Internet has gotten better, particularly within the Embassy housing pool, so folks use Skype, Vonage, and their sister systems. Others use the IVG line from work, or connect to it through the Marine watch standers. Traditional land or cell lines are very expensive.
1. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
Given the packs of feral animals roaming the town, veterinary care is not widespread. There was one vet who will get you the necessary paperwork ($25) to export your animal to the U.S.Most folks who went away on vacation had their household help or Embassy neighbor tend to their pet while they were away.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
No. If one were able to secure a job with a local company, I would suspect the pay and working/office conditions might not be worth the trouble. The Embassy is part of a pilot program through DC’s Family Liaison Office to establish a ‘SNAP’ coordinator to Post to assist spouses find jobs on the local market. Given the almost universal necessity for strong Armenian language ability, there have been few success stories beyond one or two to have found a home with an NGO or at the Marriott. The Embassy has 6-10 family member positions, though almost all are full time and most require a security clearance. One might develop some at-home work like English language tutoring or music instruction.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Formal. The locals we meet, including those that struggled to make ends meet, put their money into looking good. I agree with a previous poster--micro skirts, 3 inch heels, and low cut tops were prevalent.
Health & Safety:
1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?
Generally good. Armenia reminds me very much of Arizona, including the dusty haze that can settle over Yerevan in between bouts of precipitation. Fog is prevalent from mid-December through mid-February in Yerevan.
2. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Tough in a difficult neighborhood, I find there aren't many security issues with Yerevan. I know of a couple of instances where folks who left a laptop or other valuables in plain site in the back seat of their car were victims of smash and grabs. The Embassy keeps a close eye on its residences by clustering most of its housing and through RSO's mobile patrol. Urban common sense sees most through fine. At the macro level, there is occasional sniper fire across the Armenia-Azerbaijan border; though I understand a good number of diaspora travel back and forth each summer, Nagorno-Karabakh is off limits to USG personnel.
3. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Sunburn, scorpions, and stupid drivers. Yerevan is at altitude, so some suffer from altitude headaches within their first week of arrival. With temperatures commonly 15 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and 105 degrees in summer, there were weather-related health and safety concerns. Armenia was traditionally a hotbed of science and medicine in Soviet times--most have left for sunnier employment opportunities since independence. You may have to go to different clinics to find the technology, but it is there. Ironically, the issue now is the quality of specialists. In one case I know of, there was an MRI taken in Yerevan but no one of local standing to give a good read of the film. There is apparently only one endoscope machine in the country. The generally substandard medical care available on the local market is one significant contributor to why Yerevan is a 25 percent hardship Post and why the State Department deemed it necessary to begin stationing a FS Heath Practitioner at Post beginning in 2005.Medevacs to London are common, though the Embassy sends folks to good, often English speaking, specialists or handles most things in house. A local heart surgeon, internist and registered nurse augment the FSHP in the med unit. Armenian medical experts rarely go into great details about ones condition or treatment--they have the MD and expect you to listen to their learned advice. Be prepared to ask lots of follow up questions if you are used to the freer give and take of information with U.S. medical professionals. Dental care is top notch with English speaking specialists using the latest Western technology. A cleaning costs US$55, a crown US$250.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
There are generally two seasons--really hot and really cold. In summer, Yerevan is like Arizona--lots of scrub brush, grit and dry heat. In winter, expect either extreme cold or lots of snow, which the locals cannot or do not clear off many roads. Winter is very gray for weeks on end.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
My children were too young for QSI (www.qsi.org), the only real Western show in town. My impression is that several Embassy families homeschool their children. I understand the school generally gets passing marks for the younger grades, but students and support tends to peter out by those of junior high school age. QSI is currently in the process of breaking ground and building a new facility; I understand the current facility shares space with a furniture factory. Embassy Yerevan is fast becoming a family-friendly Post and should continue to see a proliferation younger children--whether QSI will see a rise in its student population is an open question--most locals are priced out, the international community is shrinking, and USG personnel elect to home school.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
To my knowledge none--though I know of no school age special needs child. I understand that the wife of the new FSHP (Health Practitioner) is an accredited pediatric special needs therapist who might look to volunteer.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Embassy families tended to band together to create their own daycares or to hire nanny support to tend to their children. There were one or two daycare center operators available on the local market. Our experience was that Armenian moms and grandmoms stayed at home and looked after the children while the fathers were at work.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Small but variable. In the summer, thousands of Armenian diaspora return and flood the hotels and center of Yerevan. For the balance of the year, there aren't many casual visitors. The U.S., U.K., France, Italy, and Germany are the sizeable Western Embassies. Many diplomatic missions to Armenia are resident in Tbilisi or Moscow.
2. Morale among expats:
Poor to apathetic. Those that came here hoping to make a difference promoting development, democracy, or anything Western seem to become disheartened rather quickly. The United States has poured US$2 Billion in direct assistance into Armenia in its 16 years of independence; billions more have been Western Unioned in via the diaspora all while the Yerevan leadership continues to seriously backslide on 'democracy'.Those in power, it seems, couldn't care less since the Glendale, CA-Yerevan money train and strong Congressional lobbyists pretty much ensures that any threat made about yanking development money rings hollow.
Corruption, the Mafia, and oligarchs colors everything. That three of Armenia's four borders (Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Iran) are closed (or closed to USG personnel) and that Soviet planners placed the international airport in an area that regularly fogs in during winter, coupled with the fact that the single road to Georgia is often closed due to weather during the four month long brutal winter leads to a pervasive 'island' feel which grinds folks down. I find no great sense of community or camaraderie within the Mission, perhaps a reflection that there hasn't been an Ambassador in Armenia for two years and that folks are necessarily 'pulled up'.Those that do best here are those that are generally apathetic to their external surroundings--those that are in Yerevan for the hardship and SND differentials--and head home to family immediately after work. It is a safe, quiet Post.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
I find Yerevan to be very much a place where you needed to make your own fun. We socialized with folks at restaurants and entertained at home. The Congress Hotel's and Vahakni Country Club's pool is a 'place to be seen' for Embassy and affluent Armenian families. Hitting the Hash seems like the main group sports activity after interest in a weekly softball game waned. Going out to eat is probably the most popular form of entertainment. Making the five hour drive to Tbilisi through some of Armenia’s most scenic areas is the most popular regional get away.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Post is becoming an increasingly family friendly post. It is generally safe and quiet and the locals love children--though you'll probably need to adjust to complete strangers coming over to touch the hands and face of your child. There are a couple of local parks with good playgrounds. The Embassy is completing an 8 acre recreational facility that should be on line in late 2008 and will have ball fields, tennis, basketball and volleyball courts, and a building with interior bathrooms and a small kitchenette.
Overall, I believe this is very much a post where you need to create your fun and activities; there is little to nothing within the Embassy community in terms of social gatherings in any broad sense beyond an occasional Marine House event, the Hash, and perhaps a floating poker game now and again. There is an opera, some movie theaters (no English) and a tennis club. Some folks join the Vahakni country club for the pool scene--but $250+ per month in the summer, even with the Embassy group rate discount, is steep for most. Let me put it this way, this is the first post I've been where I've heard the Marine watch standers complain about a lack of things to do and the local dating scene.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Armenia is a very traditional society. Though you'll often see same-sex friends within the younger crowd holding hands and men greet each other with kisses to both cheeks, this should not be confused with an open acceptance of anything more progressive than a 1950s mindset. That said, I know of two male officers who found partners.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Reflecting their friendly relations with countries such as Iran and that there are more Armenians that live outside Armenia that within its borders (very large groups in the U.S., France, Russia, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, etc), I found Armenians to be generally respectful of others. Those of color might receive some longer-than-comfortable-looks, particularly outside Yerevan. Everyone it seems, is followed around when entering a store. The most glaring prejudice I noted was again what I call the 1950s mindset--namely that a woman's place is in the home tending to the kids; it seems to be perfectly acceptable grounds for divorce if a new wife didn't 'produce' a child within a couple years of marriage. I also know of instances where local women were literally forbidden to work by husbands who looked upon it as a matter of pride to be the sole provider to his family.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
There are several well-run tour organizations in Yerevan. All offer the same fare--trips to churches (Garni, Geghard, Etchmiadzin) or ruins in the hills or a BBQ at Lake Sevan. While these day trips are usually worth the US$25, be forewarned--most of the churches you will see are totally devoid of any interior decorations. Though folks should see the big 3 or 4, if only for their often breathtaking mountaintop views, after a while seeing similar old, partially crumbling, stone buildings with umbrella tops with stark interiors might not be worth the three hour one-way kidney-punishing trip on unpaved roads. For those within the Embassy community, the Language Lab will take field trips to the major sites.
For folks looking to get away from Yerevan, there are a couple of 'resorts'. One toward Lake Sevan, where folks can ski in the winter, was where the USSR Olympic teams trained at altitude. Another near the Georgian border, lends itself to rural tourism--hiking and the like. There is some theatre, some sports. For collectors of things Soviet there is Vernissage, an open air flea market on the weekends. There is also the water park, Genocide memorial, Victory Park, and the Cascades. Regional air travel, though not cheap, is popular, with folks usually hitting UAE at least once during their tour. Yerevan remains a 2 R&R Post with Rome as its R&R point.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Rugs, art work, both paintings, ceramics and wood carvings of Armenian churches, Mt. Ararat, and pomegranates. Soviet trinkets.
9. Can you save money?
No. The dollar depreciated 30 percent against the Armenian dram in my two years. The COLA didn't keep up. Gas is $5 per gallon for the cheap stuff. Tickets out of the country, even to nearby UAE runs $350-$800 per person only to as far as Paris or London.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
No. Yerevan can be a pretty city in the spring and fall and it is an easy hardship Post. That said, I didn't find the experience particularly rewarding from either a professional or personal point of view. My perception is that this is a check the box (hardship) or maximize my earnings instead of a we can (or should at least try to) make a difference sort of Post. Previous posters are correct--there were a number of contractors and those with family issues that extended; I felt like the entry-level and newer mid-level officers who were looking toward promotion were eager to move on to more rewarding opportunities.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Soviet trinkets, carpets, art, your watch since nothing really runs on time, belief that what happened 90 years ago isn't important today, your Rand McNally Atlas, since the national symbol of Armenia, Mr. Ararat (of Noah's Ark fame), isn't in Armenia.
3. But don't forget your:
Sunscreen, anything that is entertaining, particularly for your children, patience, your crash helmet should you take to the roads, sports equipment, your DVD/VHS collection and AFN decoder, snow tires and other car parts, your sense of humor in the face of corruption, arrogance, and Byzantine bureaucracy, your English/Armenian dictionary so you can read business and street signs. Sturdy winter gear. Your canning supplies.
4. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
Though perhaps not specifically related to Armenia, Borat's stocky producer is Armenian and speaks Armenian during the movie.