Day 0–Calm before the storm

26/09/2020

The day started as a lazy Saturday filled with existential thoughts and attempts to digest the last book I read: “The Notes from the Underground” by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Human irrationality, the meaning of life, the inevitable failure of any utopia, the illusion of freedom and the bittersweet dark chocolate of Russian literature. At some point though, I felt the urge to do something productive to season my own existence with a pinch of meaning: one must imagine Sisyphus happy, right?

A good way out was to contemplate my plans of opening a small Airbnb business in my home town of Gyumri, Armenia. We have a small property at the heart of the city: too small to live in but great as a temporary stay. It felt really good to play with this idea not only because I like new projects (and this one made me feel like a real adult) but also because an Airbnb business is inherently optimistic when it comes to my home town. Why?

The Church of the Holy Savior (19th century) inspired by the historic cathedral of Ani, 10th century Armenian capital

With a population of only 118.000, Gyumri is the second largest city in Armenia. During the Soviet era it was a vibrant city of proud citizens known by their unique sense of humor and an inclination to brag (oh well, who’s perfect?). Little did the citizens of the “laughter and humor capital” know that a disaster was lurking, which would derail their lives forever. In a sunny December morning of 1988, a devastating earthquake hit and in less than a minute the lively city turned into rubbles with around 25.000 people dead and many more injured or homeless.

The devastating effect of the 1988 Spitak earthquake (Source: shorturl.at/sHT57)

The Soviet government promised to rebuild the city in two years but it wouldn’t take long before the empire itself would collapse under its own weight. The economic stress coupled with a war with the neighboring Azerbaijan made the recovery painfully slow and as of today, there are still some people living in the so-called container-houses, which were supposed to be temporary accommodation.

Despite the objectively depressing reality, people lived on. Born in 1994, I neither saw the city at the peak of its prosperity nor the direct effect of the earthquake itself, but the flavor of the shaken pride and nostalgia were always there. As of the famous sense of humor, it did not vanish but turned into a keen sense of tragicomedy, a seemingly endless source of resilience.

I have fond memories of jumping into the puddles of the unpaved streets, adventurous games, the comfy evenings with candle light when the electricity shut down after heavy rain and the rewarding experience of feeding stray dogs in the streets (I know this sounds terribly unsafe but it was one of my well kept secrets). Even in those years, my school had a subscription to the city theater and there were regular cultural events.

Another view from Gyumri (Photo: Facebook/Humans of Gyumri)

In the recent years, the town started developing at a faster pace. The historic old town is being restored, multiple pubs are opening, festivals and concerts are taking place. More and more people from inside and outside of Armenia come to see the juxtaposition of old and new, and the self-confident youth is coming up with a lot of creative projects. In addition, the city aspires to become a hub for innovation and technology with the opening of Gyumri Technology Center and TUMO, a center for creative technologies, where schoolchildren learn programming, robotics, 3D modeling and much more, completely free of charge.

Gyumri Theater of Thoughts Photo : Facebook / Գյումրու մտորումների թատրոն

With the comforting thoughts of being part of this development and creating a cozy little place for the guests of my city, I feel asleep, determined to make a step-by-step plan towards my goal. But the next morning hit like a cold shower as Armenia woke up to a war.

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