It’s no secret that I love living in Armenia. Wonderful people, interesting history, fresh food, low prices, sunny weather, and the slower pace of life are some of the reasons I really enjoyed the year I’ve lived here so far and make me look forward to the one to come.
But no place is perfect. Armenia is remote, the economy isn’t doing good, there‘s a war with Azerbaijan going on, and not everyone is free to express themselves or have (equal) opportunities. So let’s get into it!
5 PROs of living in Yerevan, Armenia
1. MILITANT HOSPITALITY
Armenian hospitality is legendary. It may sound cliche or exaggerated, I mean, I’ve met plenty of hospitable people elsewhere—Ghana, Thailand, and Ibiza–to name a few places, but nothing that compares to Armenia.
Some might call it “militant hospitality”. Almost any spontaneous interaction with an Armenian leads to a lengthy conversation, an offering of free candy, gifts, or services and, if you just wait for it, an invitation for your whole family to visit their house.
Visits follow a familiar pattern: there are abundant amounts of drinks, treats, and smiles; freshly prepared food comes rolling out of the kitchen; kids are dressed, fed, and entertained; family members may be sent to the store to buy extra drinks or toys. Resistance is useless.
And it’s not just Armenians in Armenia; I think this type of hospitality is true for Armenians everywhere. My husband speaks the language pretty well, so any country we visit where Armenians live we go through the whole thing all over again.
“Armenia is so safe,” a taxi driver told me once, “that if there would be a little kid standing next to the road right now he’d be fine because someone would take care of him.” I believe him, although his driving, and road safety in general in Armenia, is a different matter.
Armenia is homogeneous. People here act like they're one big family, sharing the same identity and troubled history. Arguably, they really do need each other to survive. Maybe that's why Armenia is such a safe place, devoid of the kind of petty crime, scams, and street violence that make most other countries feel a bit scary.
Armenia is one of the last truly cheap countries out there. Armenians don’t necessarily agree (if you don’t have money, everything is expensive) but compared to other countries—many of which are much less pleasant to live or work in—prices are low.
For example, a bag full of fresh veggies costs maybe three dollars. My phone plan has unlimited calls and internet and costs five bucks a month. Dinner for two in a good restaurant will set you back only $30.
Even better, in my opinion, is that it doesn’t matter much where you go. There’s not a huge difference between shops and restaurants. Sure, there are a few malls and "oligarch" hangouts that are too pricey for the average Armenian, but overall there is no big difference between economic classes.
Also, products and services are typically priced according to their cost and value, not according to hype or status, which is refreshing.
4. IT‘S ALWAYS SUNNY IN ARMENIA
I once heard that Armenia has over 300 sunny days a year and I think that’s true, although some diplomats who experienced the winter of 2016 doubt that because it was dark and icy for four months, apparently. The two winters I've experienced (2015 and 2017) have been very mild and very sunny.
All this sun is not only good for my own mood, but also for the produce: apricots, grapes, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, melons, and pomegranates all grow marvelously in Armenia, as do tomatoes, zucchini’s, peppers, onions, carrots, potatoes, eggplants, cabbages, and pumpkins. Seasonal vegetables taste amazing and cost little.
5. HISTORY & CULTURE
History has not been kind to Armenians: think massacres, earthquakes, and economic devastation. But Armenians have been around long enough to be involved in several of the worlds great empires, like the Ottoman, Persian, and the Russian ones. They’ve produced some of the best paintings and music–think Aivazovsky and Aznavour. And they even have claims to the oldest winery and brewery.
The soil of present day Armenia is a geologist’s dream; a few years ago one of them stumbled on the world’s oldest shoe (5,000 years old, Size 37). And of course: Armenia is the first country in the world to become Christian and has beautiful old monasteries and churches to spare.
5 CONs of living in Yerevan, Armenia
Armenia is located in the middle of the world map, but getting to and fro is a huge hassle. The country is landlocked and mountainous. Direct flights are limited to a handful of European cities, Russia, and the Arab peninsula. Most flights leave in the middle of the night.
And you can hardly drive anywhere from Armenia, either: Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed off; Iran is not a good idea; and going to Georgia, although possible and not too far, is hard on your car due to long stretches of rocky and unpaved road.
Conversely, it’s hard for stuff to get into Armenia. The only supermarket that sells soy milk and Cheerios runs out of it all the time. If you want tortillas, hoisin sauce, or saltines: tough luck. Yes, there’s a Zara and a Mango, but clothing stores carry only a few collections each year. Import tariffs are high, so a stroller/crib/car seat costs double what they cost in the US.
2. IT’S THE ECONOMY
Armenia isn’t boring, but it lacks a sense of real progress (although the April revolution shook things up). I can’t help but notice the many ways in which Armenia lacks economic opportunity and growth: the population is shrinking and many young people prefer to move abroad; there’s corruption; the war with neighboring Azerbaijan continues and the border with Turkey remains closed. I hope Armenia will always remain friendly and safe, but I sure wish them some economic progress, too.
3. THE LANGUAGE(S)
Armenians have their own unique language, which is great. But the effort one has to go through to learn it is kind of crazy. There are seven conjugations, for example, and the grammar isn’t the only problem; Armenian has its own word for everything, so any other vocabulary you have from different languages is useless.
When Armenians realize you’re not Armenian they usually understand that you don’t speak their tongue. Unfortunately, they immediately assume you speak Russian, which is the shared second language of all former soviet republics. English doesn’t get you very far here. In stores, I often notice people going out of their way to avoid talking to me once they know I’m an English speaker, or anxiously look around to find that one colleague that speaks it a little bit in case I ask something.
4. AIR QUALITY
What’s going on with Armenia’s air quality? Yerevan is not very big and since the industry sector is small I hadn’t expected it to be bad. But one year in I’m starting to be concerned about the many “colds” my kids have and my own allergy-like reactions.
Is it because of the many wooden stoves that Armenians use all winter long? Is it the excessive amount of traffic that appeared on the road in the past decade or so? I’m still looking for reliable information, but for now my conclusion is that, whether it’s dryness, smog or a combination of the two, Yerevan’s air bothers me.
5. GENDER ROLES
Armenia is a modern country and at least in Yerevan women appear to act, dress, and study how and where they want. But that’s not the whole story. Women and girls are not as free as they could be–and they’re not doing all the same things as their male counterparts.
You’re far less likely to see women out and about, especially at night. Women also do the vast, vast majority of cooking, cleaning, child rearing, and so on. I’m not totally sure why, maybe cultural norms, or perhaps because of the general lack of financial opportunity and independence in Armenia (and I’m not even talking about some of the other gender issues!).