Happy Birthday, Yerevan!!

What’s the oldest city in the world? What’s the first thing that pops into your head? If you said Rome, today is your lucky day because you’re about to learn something new! Yerevan is 29 YEARS older than Rome. Take that, Rome! Ha!

Serious decorating…

Yerevan is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, right next to Babylon. It got its start in 782 BC when King Argishti I founded the fortress of Erebuni. I guess you could say that the rest is history… 2799 years of history, to be precise. Today, unfortunately, most of the historic buildings have been replaced with newer models. In 1924, the architect/urban planner Alexander Tamanian (the same guy who designed the opera house) made a new master plan for the city center, and a lot of the historic streets and structures were destroyed to accommodate his plans. You can still visit the remains of Erebuni fortress, though, about 7 km southeast of the center.

There was also a chalk party for kids earlier in the day where they shut down the street and kids got to chalk it up

Yerevan’s birthday is celebrated every year (since 1968) on the second Saturday in October. Believe me when I say that this birthday party is like nothing you’ve EVER seen before. Word of the day: ridiculous. I’m going to try not to overuse it in my descriptions of the happenings, but I can’t make any promises because well, it was ridiculous.

There was an extensive schedule of events for the day, and I didn’t make it to even half of them. How could I? You would have to be in 100 places at once. The exciting festivities started with a street cleaning and the washing of Yerevan monuments… don’t want to miss that! Those were the only events that started before noon because this is Armenia and “morning” here means like 12-3PM.

I decided to make a loop around the different areas where things were happening. My timing is apparently impeccable because I made it to Republic Square right at the end of the “Opening of the International Balloon Festival” which means that I was there just in time to see the hot air balloons take off. Oh yes, hot air balloons. Twelve of them. Did you think that “balloon festival” means those dinky latex balloons? This isn’t MY birthday party we’re talking about. This is YEREVAN!

One small example of the balloon arch craziness… now just picture this literally everywhere

On the topic of balloons though, it looked like a balloon festival threw up all over the city. You couldn’t look in any direction without seeing a balloon arch or balloon column… or 100 of them. Tons of businesses had balloon arches surrounding their doorways, colors perfectly coordinated to the business’s colors or defaulted to Armenian flag colors. I don’t even know how they managed to accumulate that many balloons. Trust me, I am NOT being dramatic. I’ve seriously never seen anything like it. Balloon factories around the globe probably worked overtime for months to fill the city’s order. Okay, maybe slightly dramatic, but we’ll say 5% drama and 95% completely warranted commentary.

Anyway, the hot air balloons. It was like something straight out of a movie. The twelve of them took off one after another and floated around the square. It was awesome. Don’t think that when I say “ridiculous” I mean it wasn’t awesome because it definitely was that. It was also just completely over the top.

All lined up and ready to launch

Airborne!

Doesn’t this look like something straight out of a movie?

The streets were PACKED

Prepping for their festive ride

I took a stroll down to City Hall and was there just in time to see the “Festive cycling” participants (aka people on bikes, carrying Yerevan flags and wearing matching t-shirts) depart. So incredibly random. From there, I headed back towards the center and the opera house. One of the best things about the day was that most of the streets in the event areas were closed. How fun is it to be able to walk fearlessly in the middle of a usually busy street? (The correct answer, by the way, is VERY fun.)

There were also approximately one million stages with ongoing performances all across town. There were stages in Republic Square, the park near Republic Square, the opera house, two of the parks near the opera house, two on Northern Avenue, and at Cascade. And I’m probably missing some, honestly.

The taglines of the day: “feel Yerevan” “love Yerevan” “see Yerevan” and “hear Yerevan”

Flags over the street.. leave no corner undecorated

Northern Avenue

Me, Liz, and Gagik

I spent the day marveling at the fact that we literally searched the entire city on Independence Day, trying to find something going on and failing miserably. Now I understand why because with plans in the works for Yerevan Day, how could the city afford to do anything? Better question, how could the city afford Yerevan Day? I would bet that’s a sensitive topic… there are so many things here that could benefit from even a tiny fraction of the probably millions of dollars it took to pull everything off.

This makes Armenia sound like a country with confused priorities, and I won’t argue with that. Before you start judging though, think about the fact that it happens everywhere. I’d bet there are zero countries that aren’t guilty of doing the exact same thing. I’m not saying it should be excused because everyone does it or that I didn’t think the day was a ton of fun… It’s just something to think about.

Cascade during the concert!

At night, there were simultaneous concerts at a few of the stages. I went to the one at Cascade because it seemed like the biggest deal. I had heard about previous concerts there and wanted to see it in action. They put up a stage facing Cascade, and people stand on the stairs like they’re bleachers! It’s brilliant. I somehow ended up right in the front, maybe because I was by myself and it’s much easier to wiggle your way through a crowd when you’re solo. The concert was an orchestra with a revolving cast of singers. Each singer came on for one song, and sometimes it was just instrumental so they brought out dancers. I enjoyed the music, and it was also cool that the crowd was a huge mix of ages, from babies to grandparents. It’s always fun to be a part of something that brings together a diverse group of people.

In conclusion, Yerevan Day was ridiculous. Everything was done to the extreme. I think my jaw was dropped for 80% of the day. People looked like they were having a great time. I had a great time. I feel like I can confidently say that I will never experience a day like that again. I just have one question left… if that was how 2799 was celebrated, what on earth is 2800 going to look like?

The opera house

Insanity

During one of the instrumental pieces

Fireworks!

Look at how close I made it to the stage!

Can you find me? Also, how sad looking is that heart?

Armenian Independence Day

Happy Armenian Independence Day!! Okay, so I’m a couple days late, but it’s close enough. Armenian Independence Day is celebrated on September 21st each year. In 1991, that’s the day when Armenia held a vote on a referendum to declare independence from the Soviet Union. The decision was an overwhelming yes, with about 95% of eligible voters participating in the vote and 99% voting yes.

 

Me and Talene

This vote didn’t actually change anything. It just meant that Armenia was going to start going through the not-so-defined process of petitioning the Soviet Union for independence… so basically the same as Independence Day in the USA. It’s just the day when the people decided they were free.

 

Luckily for Armenia, they didn’t have to fight a war to achieve independence. The Soviet Union collapsed just a few months later, and on December 26, 1991, the second Republic of Armenia became a reality.

“The second republic?” you ask? Yes, the first Republic of Armenia existed for a solid three years, from 1918 until 1921 when it became part of the Soviet Union. “Republic Day” aka the first Armenian Independence Day is celebrated on May 28th each year.

You might be wondering how people celebrate. Like at home, Independence Day is celebrated with a lot of flag apparel, parades, barbecues, and fireworks. Here… well, I lived through it, and I still couldn’t tell you exactly. It seems to me like something different happens every year. Last year was the 25th anniversary, so that was probably a bigger deal than this year.

Swan Lake with various vendors surrounding it and some sculptures in the middle that we’re not really sure when they appeared

We did at least get off from work, but beyond that, I’m not completely sure. I assume that maybe there was information somewhere on the internet but that I couldn’t find it because it was in Armenian? I don’t know. We wandered around a bit trying to see if anything was happening, and besides some vendors set up around Swan Lake and random hordes of teenagers wandering the streets and painting Armenian flags on people’s faces, there wasn’t much.

Another new addition at Swan Lake… random carpet mosaic because why not?

There were rumors floating around that some march or something was going to start from Republic Square at 7PM, so we went, and all we saw were like 30 people on mildly decorated bicycles who rode out of the square at 7. We thought that maybe they were the beginning of the parade or whatever it was, but it would appear that they were it. Hm. A little later, there were some fireworks for maybe 5 minutes that I think were set off from Republic Square (but maybe not) and then, of course, every Aram-shmaram (that’s my Armenian version of Joe-shmo) has some fireworks of his own, so those were randomly going off throughout the night.

In conclusion, who knows what happened, but I came out of it with a day off of work, a tri-color headband, and a sugar high from too much ice cream. Success.

Vardavar

Last Sunday was Vardavar, aka my new favorite festival. It’s been celebrated in Armenia since before Christianity was declared the state religion in 301 A.D. I don’t know when it started originally, but that puts it at a minimum of 1700 years ago which is kind of insane.

Pre-outside dryness. Me, Arin, and Ruth

Back in the country’s pagan days, Armenians were sun worshippers. Originally, the Vardavar festival was dedicated to the goddess Astghik. For those of you familiar with Greek/Roman mythology, her closest equivalent would be Aphrodite/Venus. She was the goddess of fertility, love, beauty, and water, and the legends said that she brought love to Armenia by sprinkling the land with rose water. To celebrate her, people would release doves and sprinkle water on each other for good luck.

Like so many other things, after the country became Christian, the tradition remained, and the reason was modified to fit the new state religion. Now, it’s celebrated 14 weeks after Easter and is a celebration of the Transfiguration of Christ, when Jesus became divinely radiant on top of a mountain, was joined by the prophets Moses and Elijah, and was claimed by God as His Beloved Son. Don’t ask me what connection that has to people dumping water on each other’s heads… Some say that it’s a celebration of the end of the flood from the days of Noah which seems to make more sense considering the water connection, but either way, it was an attempt to fit new beliefs into old traditions.

Ruth, creeping on unsuspecting passersby

It’s celebrated all over Armenia, and I joined the fun in Yerevan. I’ve heard that things get pretty crazy in the villages too, so I’ll have to check that out if I’m ever in Armenia for Vardavar again. Yerevan, especially in the central part of the city, turns into a bit of a water war zone. Don’t even think about leaving your house if you’re not prepared to get wet! It seemed like, outside of the city center at least, people were a bit more discriminating when it came to picking victims. Older people, people with kids, and people clearly not interested in getting wet were mostly left alone from what I saw. As soon as you look like you’re participating in the festivities, though, you’re a target (though even there,  I had people considerately ask me if my phone case was waterproof and if they could get me wet. Super nice!).

Craziness. Note the fire truck

The fountains in the city are the main war zones, which makes sense because that’s where it’s easiest to refill your bucket/bottle/water gun/etc. I spent the day with my friends Arin and Ruth, and we decided to meet up with some other volunteers who were planning to go to Republic Square (the fountain where there’s the nightly light/water/music show). First though, we spent a little time chucking water out of Arin’s window at innocent passersby (but only the ones that we deemed acceptable targets). If he was in a location with more foot traffic, I would have just said that we should stay there all day. It was hilarious! But no, we had to leave to get the full experience.

Refills from our new best friend

For our makeshift buckets, we cut the tops off of some big water jugs and then filled them up and hit the road. Ruth and I literally got one foot out the door of the apartment building before we were spotted by a bucket-wielding group of guys, and like I said, as soon as you’re holding a bucket, you’re a target. We managed to dodge the worst of it but also threw away all of our water in the first 15 seconds of being outside. Luckily, we passed a man soon after who waved us over and refilled us from a secret water supply. Back in business.

I felt like a spy walking down the street. You couldn’t trust anyone! I started to perfect the technique of walking past someone, letting them think they were safe, and turning around to drench them from behind. Once we got to Republic Square, it was a whole different game. There was a fire truck spraying people with the fire hose. Arin and I decided to just go for it and jump into the fountain because getting completely soaked was inevitable, and when else were we going to get the chance to go into that fountain? We hung out there for a bit before deciding to hit the streets again in the hope of finding some still dry people to attack. Okay, that sounds bad, but that’s the way it works!

My main emotion for the entire day

We passed some parents holding their babies up under those misters that some restaurants have. I thought that was hilarious. Baby Vardavar!

I started perfecting my water dumping technique… I would creep up behind people and pour just a little bit of water down the backs of their necks. It made everyone jump, and then they’d whip around, see me, and give me the “yeah, you got me” laugh and shrug. I thought it was perfect because I wasn’t trying to make anyone mad, and who can get mad about just a little water like that?

Swan Lake chaos with gross brown water

We stayed far away from Swan Lake, one of the other big pools in the city center. Apparently things get kind of violent and especially not fun for girls, so I wasn’t really interested in finding that out for myself. Some of our friends came out with unpleasant stories which is too bad… it stinks when people take a fun, innocent thing and make it into something else. I was just content to roam around and gently pour water on people.

After some time in the streets, we decided to head back to Republic Square because it was much easier to refill our buckets with a fountain in the vicinity. I stuck with my same strategy of sneaking up behind people and pouring water down their necks, but I started doing it with a full bucket. I perfected the dump-and-turn technique. It’s a protective strategy because sometimes after you gently pour water on someone (males especially), they choose to retaliate by throwing water knives at you (my made-up terminology for “whipping water as hard as possible in an attempt to make it hurt”). Another case of people trying to ruin a fun thing. I was happy to have Arin and a couple other guys with us who could yell at people in Armenian if they were getting too aggressive.

I luckily had a waterproof case for my phone, so I didn’t have to worry about keeping it dry. That case is seriously the best thing I own.

Proof that we were in the fountain!

Loving life

Post-fun drenched

For the last hour or so of our time outside, we found ourselves a quiet corner of the fountain and mostly battled with little kids who, like us, were just trying to dump water on people and have some fun.

All in all, the day was super fun. A couple days later, I found out that I got an eye infection probably from the water getting trapped behind my contacts, so that’s good. Souvenirs from Vardavar! No regrets! Except maybe my one regret of not taking out and throwing away my contacts right after. Live and learn, I guess.