An American Dramaturg in Armenia

Reflections on a 5-month sojourn as a Fulbright Scholar to the Yerevan Institute for Cinematography and Theatre

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artistic director of Active Cultures, the Vernacular Theatre of Maryland

Friday, February 10, 2006

Travelling to Georgia

If you are living in Armenia and you want to visit another country without resorting to flying, you have two choices--you can travel north to Georgia or south to Iran. Travel to Iran with its world-class city, ski resorts and wealth of historic sites conjuring up Ancient Persia tempts. But for the casual American traveller, Iran holds the promise more of danger than of simple pleasure.
Georgia, Armenia's kissing cousin, presents a more likely vacation destination, a less abrupt change of worlds. Linked by the Caucasus mountains, a shared history, and the Russian language, the Georgians and the Armenians have become flip sides of the same coin. The southern cousin Armenia, to its cultural detriment, is quite amazingly ethnically homogenous. The northern cousin, Georgia, to its political and economic detriment, is ethnically diverse. Georgia's capital Tbilisi--charming, cosy, historically rich, alp-like--perches on the cliffs and banks of a scenic river. Armenia's capital Yerevan bustles with modern energy, constantly challenging itself to become ever more cosmopolitan.

The route between the two capitals is slow and hazardous, particularly in winter. The main road connecting Yerevan and Tbilisi is a winding, two-lane, black top which weaves its way up and down the peaks and valleys of the Southern Caucasus. Snowfall is frequent, snowplows less common than mountain goats, and public rest stops unheard of. A train runs between the two cities once a day but, for unknown reasons, it stretches the 5-7 hour car drive out to 14-20 hours. The train compartments are snug but the restaurant car serves only vodka, beer and coffee.

Any trip between Yerevan and Tbilisi may be further complicated by violent unrest in Georgia which results from time to time in skirmishes, kidnappings and power outages. Public officials on boths of the border demand bribes from randomly selected travellers. But every journey also holds the promise of being lightened by the great friendliness, generosity and inquisitiveness of the Georgian and Armenian people. The bathrooms along the way may be filthy or holes in the ground, but the food will be tasty, the laughter will be frequent and the good wishes and blessings many.

Once, when travelling through western Europe with a friend, he said that Europe reminded him of a well-laid out amusement park. Everything was so cute, clean, and toy-like. You could go from "France-land" to "Switzerland-land" to "Germany-land" on fun, brightly-colored trains, eat tasty, high-fat and expensive snacks, and buy tacky souvenirs mass-produced in China, all the while speaking English and walking past McDonalds, Burger Kings, and Starbucks.

Armenia and Georgia would not be in that amusement park. They are still rough enough, unique enough and remote enough to retain their own authenticity, their own reality, one unlikely to be duplicated by consumer culture in this experience economy.


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