Armenianization. Let the process begin


Armenian launches a new project – Arianne & Armenia. The chess player of Philippine descent is known to Armenians as the girlfriend of Armenian Grandmaster, Olympic and World champion Levon Aronian. But few people know that she now lives and works in Armenia and can even be more frequently seen in Yerevan streets than her celebrity boyfriend. Every Friday Arianne will share her impressions of Armenia and tell about the difficulties and charm of living and working in our country as a foreigner in love with Armenia.

Arianne Caoili’s short bio:

Of Filipino and Dutch descent, Arianne is an Australian economist, Olympic chess player, entrepreneur and jazz enthusiast. As a management consultant she works in both private and public sectors, with professional and academic interests in the crossroads of business and public policy. Born in Manila, Philippines, Arianne has travelled the globe extensively and lived in Germany, France, Australia, the US and the Philippines for family, work, study or chess. Topics she enjoys are Russian foreign policy, competition policy, behavioral economics and political philosophy. In her free time, Arianne enjoys ballroom dancing, martial arts, cooking, and wine.

Armenianization. Let the process begin

“You’re what?” – exclaimed my mother in disbelief, as I very casually informed her during a recent telephone call that I will be spending this and next year in Armenia to work and live, and that I have postponed the arduous academic journey which should be starting this Octoberat Oxford. My decision was met with similar skepticism (and at times, sheer repulsion) by friends and colleagues, who can’t understand why I would leave Australia – the world’s happiest country (according to the latest OECD Better Life Index) and ranked 2nd by The Economist for The Best Place to Be Born in 2013. Although these indicators can’t be taken too seriously, they do have a point that seems to resonate with foreigners and Armenians alike.

Levon’s family are also trying to understand whether I have gone mad, and my work colleague here in Yerevan thinks I may very well be immortalized in the annals of history as the first person ever to choose working in Yerevan over studying at Oxford University, and Armenia over Australia. Several of Levon’s friends have unashamedly made bets on how long I will last. I for one cannot lend myself to this shallow consensus.

Martin Luther King once said, that “if a man has not found something he will die for, he is not fit to live”. There is a unique pulse to be detected in Armenia: and it’s a very strong one. It is a passion for a higher cause, a bigger purpose that infiltrates society from the very top to the very bottom. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I certainly want to catch whatever it is Armenians have. When in Yerevan I feel that people hold a hope for something that Armenia could be; it is this hope that gives their living a sense of purpose.

I recently saw Djivan Gasparyan live in concert, and it is hard for me to recall anything that powerful (although, being present at the raising of the Armenian flag in Istanbul at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Chess Olympics where the Armenian team reigned victorious was quite extraordinary, and I am tempted to say, would reduce most Armenians to tears). One only needs to hear a few notes from a duduk to feel a tremendous sense of mandate to bring into fruition the hope stamped on the heart of most Armenians.

Living in a city like Yerevan that is constantly alive is exhilarating, especially at night. But it’s not only for the parties or the usual ‘city-living’ attractions, where one works to the end of themselves to enjoy but a few sprinklings of enjoyment, usually crammed into a single Saturday and accompanied by over-priced cocktails, artificial conversations and a hovering cloud of stress (Sydney and New York do that very well). Nor is it for the relaxed, beach lifestyle common to Queensland, where I spent some of my childhood years. Queensland boasts lazy days of sunshine and sea, with tanned, tattoo-clad beach bodies parading around, smiling a tad too much because life is so great. No, people in Armenia have a certain element of rage pulsating through them – hoping for the future and driven by its past. It is energetic and motivating, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

To my conscious knowledge, my very first encounter with anything Armenian was way back in 2000 – when I was grass-hopper height and representing the Philippines for the first board and playing against Armenia’s Lilit Mkrtchyan in the Chess Olympics in Turkey. The game ended in a draw: not so bad for the pint-sized ankle-biter that I was, but probably not the most desired result for the great and powerful Armenian chess team! And of course, I encountered Armenia academically (with immense pleasure) in the works of historians such as Ronald Grigor Suny, David Marshall Lang and George Bournoutian.

I first visited Yerevan in the spring of 2007, when Levon won his match against Vladimir Kramnik at the Opera House. Above all, I remember the toasts: passionate, lengthy toasts that ranged from the simplest of well-wishes to friends and parents, to rejoicing in the future of Armenia itself. My early Armenian toasting experiences have made all non-Armenian celebrations after them seem lacking for spirit and charm.

First impressions of Armenia conjure up images of a dismembered human body. It’s very heart is dispersed around the globe – pumping blood (and money) into the homeland with terrific force, and Yerevan is its brain – steering the country economically and politically. Armenia’s veins have been spawned by its great artistic and intellectual giants, carrying its historical narratives, which are the beautiful and tragic instruments used to transmit the essence of its energy and hope. But Armenia’s soul – that can be found around the country side, in long forgotten villages well outside of Yerevan, in the cuisine and nature of regions too often ignored by tourists.

My first experience of Armenia’s country side was travelling in a broken down 1981 Volga, with a hint of Khachaturian’s glorious Masquerade Waltz wafting through the air, interrupted by sporadic jolts as my driver friend stopped to avoid groups of slothful cows becoming the village’s next feast.

I have been in and out of the country for 7 years: celebrating the Armenian National Chess Team’s multiple gold medals, writing a thesis on post-Soviet Armenia’s economic relationship with Russia, and eating my fair share of khorovatz and rak (undoubtedly several kilos worth!). I’ve even gone a little deeper: I took taekwondo lessons at some gym in Charbakh with a class of Armenian teenagers, drank tan with hovivs in remote villages, and heard enough rabiz classics to finish the lyrics of most songs after a few notes. In a recent wedding, a close friend of Levon’s asked, “how can she not be Armenian when she can dance to rabiz like that?”

However, to live and work in Armenia will be a completely different story. It is not the same as travelling from Glendale, Paris or Sydney for the summer – I also have to last the winter! The truth is: I am absolutely terrified, having read the horror stories of the crisis years in the early 1990s, and harboring a justifiable dose of fear generated from a body acclimatized to the scorching heat of the Pacific.

The process of my Armenianization has begun. Although I’ve travelled to over 60 countries and lived in a variety of places, I have never felt more at home than when in Yerevan. As a management consultant, I can’t think of a more interesting place to design, develop and implement smart public policy, and learn the nitty-gritty of development from a truly regional perspective – and one that is as peculiar as it is stimulating due to Armenia’s unique geographical and political limitations.

Armenia offers infinitely fascinating lessons on history, culture, family, and most of all, the urgency and importance of hope –a sentiment I credit with elevating my heart rate like a daily dose of inspiration. As for the much-touted impending doom and gloom of the winter months, hopefully the Armenian people and their passion will keep me warm enough (and the heating will work).

Arianne Caoili


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