Why I Can’t Live In Armenia (I’m Too British)

My life is boring. My daily routine consists of getting up an hour before sunrise, going for a run, jumping into (and rapidly out of) a cold shower, having breakfast and then sitting down for an 8-to-12-hour stint in front of my computer screen. I am making websites for a living these days. It puts money in the bank for travelling, the prospect of which is starting to inch within visible range. But it bores me to tears.

It could be worse. Much worse. There’s a big, empty park on a hilltop 15 minutes walk away, which I share in the mornings with a small crew of old men who patrol the big wide promenades at night, so I’m lucky for that. I live in a country which might not exactly fit the definition of utopia, but I have all of life’s essentials, and nobody’s starving, so I’m lucky for that. I have a skill – that I can use anywhere on the planet with an internet connection – to earn a half-decent Western wage, so on a global scale I’m exceptionally lucky for that. But most of the time, I’m bored out of my mind.

That’s why I haven’t been writing enthusiastically about life in Yerevan or Armenia. The truth is that I’m completely uninspired by living here. I suppose that my sole motivation for living here was and still is Tenny, now my wife, who I happened to meet here as I was passing through all that time ago. Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy to be disillusioned with these surroundings.

Or maybe it’s the fact that I grew up in a country where words like ‘entertainment’, ‘hobbies’, ‘interests’, ‘sports’ and ‘activities’ actually have a meaning. I’ve realised that I can’t escape from the mindset that life is for making the most of, not just for making it through. Being away from the developed world for years, with no access to what we take for granted, results in a very clear concept of what defines you as a product of the society you grew up in. Nobody goes out of the way to ‘define themselves’ in Yerevan. Fitness as a commodity is unheard of unless you’re ultra-rich and want to pretend to be European. The act of wearing running shoes here is enough to turn heads in the street.

If I want to go mountain-biking – something I didn’t do until last summer – I have to build the institution from the ground up. There is nowhere to buy a mountain bike in Armenia. There are no mountain-bike trails in Armenia. There are no maps of the off-road tracks in Armenia. There are no mountain-bikers in Armenia.

I very much doubt I would have ever done any mountain-biking at all, had I not been flagged down while cycling in central Yerevan by a passing driver who turned out to be Tigran, a 30-year-old Nissan mechanic who had diligently mapped an impressive selection of Armenia’s dirt roads and shepherds’ trails. He’d spent years collecting routes – on foot – using his imported GPS unit, and he was looking for a mountain-biking partner.

I’ve been trying really hard to spend my free time in a worthwhile manner, and this is succeeding much more now than ever before. Daily training runs in the week, Saturday off and an epic bike ride somewhere new every Sunday have become the antidote to the hours spent with my eyes glazed over, churning out an endless succession of near-identical websites for a variety of British manufacturing and engineering firms (for some reason).

Actually, since I took on a new contract at the end of last year, I’ve been designing web applications for a great company in the field of sustainable tourism development, which has been much more interesting as well as offering a lot more freedom in terms of concept and design. I don’t know what I’m complaining about really, because things aren’t half as bad as they were!

I guess I’m trying to justify the last few months of rather fragmented writing. Since I paused my cycling trip last summer I’ve written a number of articles I’m really pleased with, such as the guide to filming a bike expedition and the guide to a free night’s sleep anywhere, but do they really belong in the flow of a story about life away from home?

This is something I was discussing with Andy the other day. As you might know, Andy and I originally set off together from the UK with the idea that we’d be primarily conducting a two-man bike expedition round the world. It’s now two years since we last travelled by bike together, and neither of us are interested in a linear lap of the planet any more. I’ve written about this before, and it’s still difficult to explain to newcomers to bicycle-adventuring that a worthwhile adventure doesn’t have to involve a huge target distance, a vast number of countries or continents, or a pre-planned itinerary. But reaching that conclusion is part of the process – I don’t think it can be taught. A truly independent journey into the unknown is an intensely personal experience, no matter where to, how far, or for how long.

The concept of ‘cycling round the world’ is ideal for those who are interested in feats of human-powered endurance, like Mark Beaumont and any number of record-breaking circumnavigation attempts that have been made since or are planned to begin very soon. The intrinsic value of a bicycle journey is the freedom it gives the rider to move and explore independently, with very few restrictions on speed or route – the exact antithesis of a record-attempt or circumnavigation-for-the-sake of it. (Of course, someone travelling like this might one day find that they’ve practically circled the globe as a result.)

Fearghal and Simon, at the time of writing on the last leg of their circumnavigation, were in complete agreement when I talked to them about this, themselves having ridden 20,000km in a more-or-less straight line over the last year and a bit, and having had plenty of time to think about it!

Slowing down and stopping to smell the roses seems to be at one end of a scale, the other end of which is the bite-sized, rapid-fire, quick-fix solution or action. That brings me to another point. I know very well that I have a habit of producing essay-length blog posts. Current wisdom suggests that in order to accommodate for the twenty-first century attention span I should try and whittle things down and produce frequent, bite-size articles instead. As I browse the web during occasional moments of procrastination, all I seem to find is exactly that – endless mountains of interlinked, cross-referenced, continually-updated, bite-sized articles, lists of bullet-points, lists of lists, numbered lists of things I should see or do or think about, each of which will blow my socks off, each appended with huge lists of bite-sized comments.

Well, bollocks to that. In travel writing, I want to read something substantial, something personal and provoking, something in front of which I can sit down with a cup of tea and spend half an hour reading and thinking about and agreeing with and disagreeing with. If the so-called twenty-first century attention span isn’t long enough to read, digest and consider a complete thesis, then so be it – I’ll spew writing into thin air. At least I’ll be doing what I believe in.

But I don’t think my long travelogues have turned all readers off – the largest collections of comments I’ve had here have been in response to extensive, detailed pieces. As much as the visitor numbers and pretty graphs in Google Analytics appeal to the instant-gratification part of my brain, they’re meaningless if my writing isn’t saying what I want it to say.

I’m all for simplicity and focus, but it doesn’t equate to a self-imposed word limit. The blog has evolved into a complex story which I have great difficulty getting my own head around as a writer. I think it’s going to take more than three paragraphs-per-post to continue to tell it in a simplified and focussed way.

30 Responses to “Why I Can’t Live In Armenia (I’m Too British)”

  1. Awesome Bicycle Stunts | Bicyle Now

    […] Why I Can't Live In Armenia (I'm Too British) | Ride Earth – Tom's … […]

    Reply
    • Raquel

      I love you. In the way of ‘you just clearly, articulately and honestly’ put into words what many of us feel and think yet don’t have the attention span to write, yet, when we read pieces like the above, feel grounded. I don’t know you from a bar of soap but appreciate this article immensely. I also hope your inspiration has been re-ignited.

      Reply
  2. Carina

    Hi Tom – I laughed out loud when I got to the end of this post, and the cup of tea I sat down to drink whilst reading it! I'm in complete agreement about the 21st century attention span. Short blog posts are great for people who want that, but sometimes some of us crave a bit more depth or detail.

    You're not spewing into thin air… I read your posts to my flatmates too, we're hooked! Please keep on writing.

    Reply
  3. oanh

    Hear! Hear! I agree with Carina. I much prefer the lengthy posts of substance, personality and interest than bite sized chunks of nothingness. I like lists as much as the next near-OCD person, but unless it's balanced with something worth reading, I don't hang around long.

    I've been reading your blog for a while now. Sometimes I don't have time to read your lengthy posts, so I skip them or make a note to return when I do have time. Haven't commented before because I don't have anything to add to what you are saying. But here's a comment of encouragement!

    I'm a burgeoning cycle-tourist, with Big Plans hatching but also just enjoy armchair travelling!

    Reply
  4. Rob Symington

    Hi Tom,
    I had the pleasure of meeting Andy for lunch last week back in London (with his cousin James). Had a great time picking his brain about long-distance cycle adventures (both with someone and solo). No doubt the same questions he has heard a thousand times before but he was very patient with them! He is hopefully coming to our launch party next week – http://www.escapethecity.org/launch.html – where another cyclist (this one had a big mileage target) Al Humphreys is talking.
    Really enjoyed this post as well. Fascinating contrast between your expectations for living your life and those of the people who are actually from the place that you're living. Good luck with everything and look forward to reading more as the story develops (in whichever way makes sense to you!).
    Cheers,
    Rob

    Reply
  5. Ben A

    Bro, sounds like when the time comes you should consider Canada then. Any thoughts on that?

    Reply
  6. Tim Moss

    Tom,

    That is a great post.

    I certainly have one of those twenty-first century attention spans you mention but I read this through to the very end.

    The statistics are indeed meaningless if you're not saying what you want to and perhaps those who tend to be turned off by longer articles are less likely to be those with whom your messages will ring true?

    Keep up the good work (and I'll try harder to give longer blogs the attention they deserve).

    Tim.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Maybe you're right. I do think it's easy for anyone to slip into the habit of skipping over anything more than a couple of screen-lengths long. I know I do it during really busy times! And I still find it hard to make time to sit down and read one of the books on my growing pile of must-reads. I find cycle touring gives me loads of time for this – extended lunch breaks and long nights at camp. So at this rate I'm going to need an extra pannier just for carrying reading material!

      Reply
  7. Darby Flynn

    I found your blog through the CS website (http://www.couchsurfing.org) and was delighted to see a Westerner's perspective on living in Armenia. I'm inspired by your example of traveling untethered, and would love to find a way myself to make a living while traveling…

    I lived in Yerevan for two years from 1999-2001 (right out of college) and really had a wonderful (though not easy) experience. However, I was not stuck in front of the computer screen for 12 hours a day and really had a chance to integrate into the local culture and meet a ton of local people that were super hospitable and friendly.

    Unfortunately, there is still a very heavy palor of despair left over from the Soviet era that is particularly evident in the public persona. Outside at the markets, in the stores, even at parks people are hardened with stone-faced expressions, unashamed to stare unblinkingly at the "strange foreigners." I too would get unabashed stares while going for runs or even just wearing a backpack (so "Western"). At first I would count on expected shame from staring and look then straight in the eye and say "barev (hello)," but would get no response and nary an averted eye. I found this unwanted attention very emotionally draining and often avoided unnecessary excursions from my house. I was a specimen to be studied and vaguely felt the "differentness" of what being a minority must feel like for the first time in my life (Armenia is like 99% ethnic Armenian and most foreigners are expats of Armenian descent, and I'm an American girl of Irish descent).

    All in all though, people were delighted that I dained to learn their language (which is no easy undertaking), humoring my ill attempts to ask for bread or get directions. Once I learned to blend in a little better (hint: drop the backpack, athletic shoe, casual jeans, anything short and convert to all black) many merchants assumed I must be Russian with my light complexion. They were startled when I would interrupt them to say "I'm sorry I don't speak Russian, only Armenian." People were curious too, as most Armenians had never met an American. My tell would be a smile or a laugh which once prompted a market conversation about whether or not my teeth were fake (they're not), because they were to white and straight to be real!

    In contrast, the Armenians I met transformed to the very portrait of hospitality upon entering their houses! Tea, coffee, fruit and pastries were set out and my friends and new acquaintances alike always wanted me to stay for tea, stay for dinner, stay the night so that the party could continue! It was not uncommon for a friends get together to end in piano playing, singing, and dancing! My American friend and I used to laugh at how funny it was to see expressions instantly change from smiling to harsh straight expressions if one of us whipped out the camera (another Soviet relic represented in the public appearance to be maintained). We were often shushed by our friends in public too if we laughed too loud and we were chided with "amod kez (shame on you)," which I have to admit I heard much too often for my liking!

    I have to say that those relationships and that experience made an indelible impression on me as a 21-23 year old that really shaped my perspective on the many things I am lucky to take for granted as an American, and I think my being there likewise made an impression on my friends' outlook on the world as well.

    […speaking of the shortness of the 21st century attention span…there's my unsolicited guest blog in a comment box!]

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Thank you so much for this comment – it was very interesting to read and you've inspired me to write a more detailed blog on how I perceiveArmenian society. What were you doing in Armenia?

      I think you would find that quite a lot has changed (superficially) in Yerevan and elsewhere, although the underlying attitudes you mention are very familiar-sounding. I'll be doing a few interviews and I really need to collect my thoughts on a lot of things before publishing what I expect is going to be another essay-length blog, so watch this space. Thanks again!

      Reply
      • @sacfunraiser

        Thanks Tom, I'll look forward to that blog.

        I was in Armenia teaching English and volunteering. I've heard from my friends that I still keep in touch with in Yerevan that things have changed a fair amount….I'm sure I would be shocked a bit! And I'm sure it's much easier to find Western luxuries like Peanut Butter than when I was there!

        Reply
        • Adrineh

          Tom Allen, @sacfunraiser and Darby Flynn: you might be interested in this American journalist/blogger’s thoughts on living in Yerevan:

          And yes, I’d say Yerevan has changed a lot since the 90s, though yes, the underlying attitudes are still the same. In any case, there are definitely more foreigners (expats, repats, tourists and immigrants) and I’d no longer say that Armenia is 99% ethnically Armenian. I don’t think wearing sneakers gets you looks, but being more fair-skinned and fair-haired might! There are lots of folks living here who are not from here or are not Diaspora Armenians (though there are plenty of us too!) and many keep blogs. I’ve met lots of Fulbright scholars and US Peace Corps volunteers, for instance.

          In any case, it’s interesting to read different people’s perspectives, especially since I made the move from Canada to Armenia last summer 🙂

          Reply
  8. @sacfunraiser

    I found your blog through the CS website (http://www.couchsurfing.org) and was delighted to see a Westerner's perspective on living in Armenia. I'm inspired by your example of traveling untethered, and would love to find a way myself to make a living while traveling…

    Reply
  9. Darren Saunders

    Hi Tom,

    Just come across this site whilst looking for information on traveling the world by bike. I have read some of the articles you've posted with great interest and will continue to gather as much information from this site as I can.

    A question if I may – from the outset, was it always going to be by bike or was it the circumnavigation that was more important? I have the desire to circumnavigate the world but by which means I'm still not sure of. I have considered: sailing (i did a trans-Atlantic crossing for some experience); motorbike – I think this is more complicated where paperwork is concerned, expensive and everything rushes past too quickly; mountain bike – looking at your site for more information and finally by foot/hitch hiking. In any case, I'm in no rush. It's something I'd like to achieve but will not give myself a deadline to achieve it by.

    Thanks,

    Daz.

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      There are as many ways to travel as there are travellers, I guess. For me, the important thing at the outset was to see some of the world and have a great adventure on a mountain bike, for the sake of adventure itself and for the freedom to go anywhere at any speed from 20 to 200km a day. Round-the-world per se wasn't the focus, but it seemed to be a good way to explain the idea to media/sponsors.

      I think it's good to have a goal of some sort, not necessarily for the final achievement but more because it can help give a direction to a process which can easily become lost and unfocused. I never intended to let the goal dominate my experience and attitude to the day-to-day act of travelling – I set no time limit and am very glad to not have done so. I know of plenty of people who did so and regretted it!

      I think a variety of modes of transport would be great fun – walking and sailing are really appealing, and hitching is always an experience. Motorbiking's probably not for me – too fast and I suppose not quite challenging enough at this age!

      Reply
  10. Alex

    “There are no mountain-bikers in Armenia.”

    Well, I wouldn’t be so categoric))
    There are some…ok, at least, one! Funny, I’m a bit confused, how come, we never met in Yerevan…
    If you like, we could organize a kind a trip together on one of coming weekends!

    Check this out man: http://comte-de-varand.livejournal.com/413807.html
    I’m in a helmet. Sorry, it’s in Russian.

    P.S. Is the exhibition still open?

    Reply
    • Tom

      I would have written ‘practically no mountain-bikers’ but it didn’t flow so well 🙂

      It would be good to meet and organise some trips. I do know one other mountain biker here – funny you haven’t met him also.

      The exhibition is open until 1st April. Let me know if you’re going and I’ll try and go down there to meet you. My number is 099 496914.

      Reply
    • Ara

      Actually, mountain biking is a growing activity in Armenia.

      Reply
      • Tom

        If that’s true, I have yet to see much evidence of it. A group of guided Israeli tourists with video cameras and flashy bikes doesn’t mean that mountain-biking is a growing activity. I wish it was, because Armenia would be a fantastic country to explore by mountain-bike, as long as it was done with due respect for nature, using established trails rather than charging across virgin meadows as seen in this video. Sadly, respect for nature is not something that Armenian society in general is known for.

        Reply
  11. Scott

    Hello Tom.

    I live in Yerevan and I’m a foreigner. Have you ever seen foreigners in Armenia?

    Reply
  12. Cold Showers | fearghal o'nuallain.ie

    […] I am not out in the cold on this. […]

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  13. Gevor

    Hey Bro,

    I came to this site by accident. I am an Armenian born American currently living in Los Angeles. I have been living here for over 10 years. I felt like you when I came here. Armenians are cool but closed minded people. People wear black, because Armenian and Russian soap operas portray the gangster wearing black, and everybody are trying to show, that they are all gangstas and dont like the law. Thats why there is never an order in that country. Since most people are told about shame, people want to be taken seriously in order to have respect. That is armenians dont wear back packs, tennis shoes and the camera. They all refuse to play by the law. Its kinda like a silent protest. Thats all. Western life is coming to Armenia and very soon they will be a mcdonalds and wallmarts and in Armenia too. You need to find people with more intellect, so my suggestion will be to hang out with the medical university or other university people. They seen more, they are well traveled, and most are much more cooler that the old school criminal black wearing wannabe gangsters.

    Good Luck To You

    Reply
  14. Doug

    Hey Tom, my names Doug and I will soon be travelling to Armenia for an extended and indefinite stay in Armenia, I have been many times before for up to 4 months but this time I am looking to spend my time much differently. I am and have been an avid rider and was wondering if you have made any impasses when it comes to mountain biking in Armenia. Any information would be helpful as I am trying to form some sort of loose itinerary for what I want to do when I get there. I want to see the country in a different way and not the usual “touristy route” which I have always made it a point to stay away from, I speak the language fluently am basically looking for someone to help me or possibly even a travel companion. Any information would be helpful, cheers.

    Reply
  15. Dee

    Hi Tom, came across your page just now when searching the web for a bike mechanic in Yerevan. We arrived last night off the plane from Crimea and my friend has a buckled front wheel from transit. We are touring, but only have a couple of weeks left before flying back to the UK from Georgia. Short notice, but if you fancy a beer or a coffee tonight or tomorrow morning, give us. A shout. Anywhere we can get a wheel trued!?

    e UK, only have a couple of weeks to get to T’blisi

    Reply

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