- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
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 August 1, 2003 

Early Birds in a Sleepy City: A visitor finds life in the quiet of Yerevan mornings

It is never too early for meat, in the land of khoravats.

It has been said of many places, most famously New York City: "This is the city that never sleeps".

Such a reputation usually comes because of a nightlife in which streets stay alive after dark, where clubs are open till dawn and tired shopkeepers stare from behind counters around the clock.

It could be argued that Yerevan is the city slow to wake up.

It is not the fervent powerful young professionals that get up earliest; they certainly don't show up before 9, and besides - you will hardly see them walking to work. Even the policemen don't show up before 7.30 - of course as long as there aren't any cars on the streets, there is no money to earn. About two or three in the morning is the latest you can see them gracefully waving their sticks, grabbing all the drunk drivers and depriving them of the last drams they didn't spend on alcohol or girls.

While the city hardly stirs before mid-morning, light sleepers can witness the first signs of Yerevan coming to life. It is heard in the voices rising from the streets and sidewalks, talking about the latest increases in the price of bread or the merciless policy of the Italian-owned water company. And the conversation rides upward from a constant "Shhh, shhh, shhh…"

It is almost 5 o'clock, and the cleaning squads of Yerevan with their old-fashioned brooms made of a big stick and a bundle of twigs at the end get ready to tidy the city for a brand new day.

"There is nothing you don't find," says Nazik. "All kinds of plastic, limbs of children's dolls, ID-cards, indecent things made of rubber. However, money you can find rather rarely."

The 64-old woman with the bandanna starts to laugh in a lively manner. Nazik has swept a lot of asphalt in the last 30 years, getting up every morning at 4, waiting for the special bus that collects the street sweepers and working for two or three hours while others sleep. Proverbs like "The early bird catches the worm" don't bring more than a tired smile on her face anymore. "People who say that certainly don't get up every morning at 4." And then Nazik becomes a shadow, leading her regular "Shhh, shhhh" in the direction of the opera.

The hunt for morning life in Yerevan is fruitful, if the hunter knows where to look . . .

On our way to the market the dawn breaks and the birds start to sing with full power. Mount Ararat is greeting from not very far away - today with a somewhat light pink touch on its snow-covered front slopes. A lonely street sweeper is dragging a bathtub on wheels along Tigran Mets Avenue.

6.45. We have lost the early birds hurrying to the market, but we find ourselves on the butcher's market near Cinema Rossiya, where packs of dogs roaming around show that something is going on. Whole skinned cows are lying on the ground, a sweet smell of fresh meat is coming through the air. Next lie the cows' heads, whose eyes seem to be a little astonished looking at the rest of their body lying about separated from them.

The busy helpers of the butchers carry the big chunks into the shop. Butcher Artur, a big baldheaded guy with strong forearms who certainly fits the stereotype of a butcher, drinks his first coffee while having a tight look at the meat he got from Yeghegnadzor today.

"I order about 200 or 250 kilos a day, which is a joke compared to the Soviet times. Back then, each day I would sell about 2½ tons." Now, of course, there's more competition: you can see about 20 little butcheries in a row. "Back then, there was a lot more to do, so the people would get up earlier." However, the butchers still belong to the species of the early birds, receiving the peasants from the villages around Yerevan as early as 2 o'clock.

7 o'clock. We arrive at the monument of David of Sasoun, who majestically leads the way into the future with his sword. Behind his back, the place nearby the train station has already turned into an anthill. Cars and buses are arriving and leaving, porters are carrying away baskets filled with fruits and vegetables.

The train station is the reloading point for tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, apples, cherries - practically everything farmers around Yerevan produce. And it's cheap. That's why all the little businessmen selling vegetables and fruits all over Yerevan try to be here as early as possible.

Sarkis, a tired-looking guy in his 30s is walking around the market like a king watching his subjects. He's just the nephew of the market's owner, but he has the duty to rent the precious square meters of the market.

Only the hearty get out early in Yerevan.

"A check (which gives the right to sell) costs 300 to 500 drams a day", says Sarkis, sitting on a sofa in the little shack from where he can overlook the goings on. Sarkis takes a sip from his coffee cup, then notices something and roars instructions to his helper, hinting with his arm to someone who apparently hasn't bought a check yet. His uncle certainly did a clever job buying the market in the beginning of the 90's. But although now there seems to be big hustle and bustle, Sarkis is not satisfied.

"There are fewer and fewer people every year. And even worse, the stupid government has introduced a tax for importers from Georgia." The Georgians bringing all kinds of food goods on the Tbilisi-Yerevan train, since two months ago have to pay a high tax, which has made the route unprofitable for commerce.

And while in downtown Yerevan people are trying to grab the cheapest tomatoes, high up over the city in the "Victory Park" people who don't have to worry that much about their living anymore are trying to get rid of their unnecessary kilos. Guys from the civil service or the police, or maybe even businessmen exposing their remarkably hairy chests and bellies are panting around the little lake, then via "Alley of Marshall Baghramyan" to the "Alley of the Russian border guards" and back. While the old Soviet tanks peacefully stand on their places, Mother Armenia watches the teenagers at her feet who are trying to impress their friends with their swirling nunchakus. More peaceful is the worker of the gas station on Azatutian Avenue, sitting next to a petrol pump in his blue overall and taking a peaceful nap.

Market life stirs early, in hopes of making a clean sweep of business.

Returning from paradise at 8:30, there is something like movement in Yerevan. A tired cashier at a money exchange bureau replaces the last numbers of the Euro exchange rate: still rising. The shop owners on Abovyan Street are opening their jalousies. The construction workers are cranking up their old machines, and for the ones paving the sidewalks of the center, another day of crawling from square meter to square meter begins.

Near Republican Square a seductive smell demands attention leading passersby by their noses to a small bakery, not bigger than 40 square meters. But the hot and sticky air inside is far from seductive. People working here are doing extremely hard work.

"In summer it's really horribly hot, while in wintertime it's sort of cosy," says Arev. She is the mother of most of the family working here: they come to the bakery at midnight and sleep there, because in the morning there are no minibuses.

Arev's 25 year old son Sergey gets up at 2 and starts preparing the dough, pouring salt, yeast, water and flour from a huge sack into the big old Soviet machine that stirs the dough with slow, somniferous movements.

"Of course I fall asleep sometimes," says Sergey. But at 5 he has to wake up the others: his mother, the second baker Narine, and Mher, who does the hardest work: putting the loaves into the oven and pulling them out again. He looks very tired. "We work from 5 in the morning until 6 in the evening, 3 days in a row and then one day of rest. But he works all around the clock." The women laugh. Generally, there's a lot of joking and laughing going on. Maybe it's their way to stay awake - the stereo alone wouldn't do it.

In the bureau where the Yerevan bakers meet for their little breaks to smoke a cigarette or have some revitalizing coffee, there's a dirty mirror on the wall. Long ago, someone has put a sticker from a German radio station on it saying "Guten Morgen Berlin." Greetings to the early birds of Berlin, who certainly don't sleep much longer than their Armenian fellow sufferers. Bakers get up first. No matter if the city around them is sleeping or not.

Editor's note: Moritz Gathmann, from Berlin Germany, is participating in a journalism training program at Caucasus Media Institute in Yerevan.


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