BY MARIA TITIZIAN
I drive in Yerevan. This fact alone should warrant some kind of medal for anyone who has learned how to drive anywhere else. To be fair, driving in Yerevan has improved beyond measure although that always depends on whose measure we’re applying. Compared to Tehran, driving in Yerevan is bliss. Compared to Beirut, we have traffic lights that actually serve their purpose. The entire region drives the same way it lives – chaotically, emotionally, and without many logical constructs. It’s like playing a video game except that you’re sitting behind the wheel of a pretty heavy machine (I’m not a guy, I have no clue how much cars weigh and I am NOT going to Google it) and you’re navigating through heavily congested streets teeming with angry and frustrated drivers. Or those drivers who never got a license the normal way, i.e. a written test or a driving test. Or those drivers who have no idea that you’re supposed to drive in the lane as opposed to ON the lane. Or those drivers who are hell bent on bending the rules, hence causing accidents…just ask me, I was in a taxi the other day (a Russian made Lada) that slammed into the car in front of us (a very expensive black SUV) with special plates who braked suddenly because one other car decided it wanted to make an illegal U-turn.
As with everything else in Armenia, driving therefore is an experience about which it is possible to write endlessly. Additionally, we are still in the height of the holiday season here (we return to work January 8) and thus you can imagine the possible scenarios of extreme driving experiences.
Now imagine being a taxi driver who must navigate through streets designed at a time when the population of the city was not projected to be over a million people, where rich fathers have given their inexperienced sons expensive cars which makes them feel and act invincible, where new drivers (including thankfully more women) are trying to negotiate errant pedestrians, the occasional stray dog, angry public transportation drivers, etc. They are the ones who deserve medals, seriously.
For many years I would hear stories from Diaspora Armenian tourists to the country about their conversations with taxi drivers. If a driver made an impossible declaration of falsehood, it was taken at face value and then recounted wherever said tourist went. It was unnerving especially when most of the time their only contact with the locals was through conversations with taxi drivers. It upset me and sometimes made me crazy that tourists would take a comment by a driver and hold it to be the absolute truth about the country especially when taxi drivers are notorious for their cynicism.
There are many conflicting truths and realities in Armenia. For me, Armenia is an absolute truth and a reality: it is the guarantor of our identity, no matter how flawed it may be, it is the beacon of all that it means to be an Armenian, the place we came to because we believed in the dream. People can accept or deny her, can love or hate her, can cherish or denounce her. Armenia is what you want her to be for you but it should never be simply a destination where a chance encounter with a taxi driver determines your opinion about the country.
Lately however, I’ve come to appreciate, not believe mind you, but appreciate that taxi drivers might just have their finger on the pulse of the nation. I’ve been taking a lot of taxis lately due to the fact that we have three drivers and one car in the household. Every morning as I walk down our street to hail a cab, I promise myself not to engage in any conversations, but as most things in my life go, I hardly stick to any resolution. Thus, try as I might, I engage not always because I want to or because I initiate but because circumstances force me to.
For the past month and a half I have been battling a nagging, unrelenting cough. So, if anybody wants any homemade remedies to alleviate coughs, just write and I will be more than happy to send you a list because all of the cab drivers have given me their unsolicited opinion on the best concoction to remedy the cough. Those include sticking a carrot in honey, waiting three days for it to decompose and then eat it or boiling three apples and drinking the water. The funniest was when one driver suggested we make a pit stop at a drugstore so that I could pick up some cough medicine. This was followed by another kind soul who said that he knew a great doctor and that I should definitely get my chest x-rayed. When I said, no thank you, I don’t like going to doctors, he turned around and said, “Sister dear, no problem, he won’t charge you, just tell him you’re a friend of Vlad’s.”
Aside from the suggestions to improve my health, I have had to engage in conversations about the condition of the country, the upcoming presidential elections, the past parliamentary elections, the price of gas, how Levon Ter Petrossian was a scourge on the country to what a savior he is for the country, why Artashes Geghamyan insists on talking when nobody wants to listen to him anymore. While some theories are questionable, most of the time these drivers are spot on when it comes to the political condition in the country.
A few days ago, one particular driver put me in my place. Although he instigated the typical session of complaining about double-parked cars in front of Yerevan City on Tigran Mets Street, by the time I got home, he said, “Sister dear, I love my country. My forefathers, my grandfather and father were born here, created a life here, I have a job, a family, an income and this is my country. We should stop complaining.”
His impression of me was probably one of the typical Diaspora Armenian, one who complains about everything, what he didn’t know was that we’re here for the long haul; this is not a temporary pit stop in the journey of our lives, or an exotic adventure. It’s real life for us as we struggle to make a living, to raise a family, to try and find joy and contentment. So, while I may complain and highlight the shortcomings of this place we call the homeland, (and I will continue to complain) I do so because for all intents and purposes it is my home and because I feel the weight of responsibility on my shoulders like all those who live here by birth or by choice.