Here's a brief sketch of where I spend my days.
I'm Chief of Party (COP) of a USAID project. What the project does is a story for another post. The project office is not inside the Embassy, but in an office building on the edge of downtown.
The project employs about twenty-five people. There are two Americans: me, and Bill the telecoms guy. Everyone else is Armenian. All the Armenians are fluent in English, though, so my Armenian hasn't improved much.
I've been here about twenty months. The project is about four years old -- I took over from the first COP a year ago March.
The project will last about six more months. It was originally supposed to last for five years, which would have kept it going until October 2008. But the dram-dollar exchange rate is just killing us. When the project opened its doors, back in 2003, the Armenian dram was around 550 to the dollar. Today it's 325 to the dollar. Everything we buy in Armenia -- rent, office supplies, payroll -- has become about 60% more expensive. Part of this is because the dollar has fallen generally, but part is because the dram has strengthened. Why the currency of a small country with a big trade deficit should have appreciated so much is, again, a story for another post. Key point: the five-year project has become a four-year-and-seven month project.
Our office is a nice three-story building near Baghramian square. I can walk out the door into a busy urban neighborhood; there's a green market just down the street, and a supermarket around the corner. Right across the street are a lot of little kiosks: a tailor, a barber, shoe repairman, watch fixer.
(Last year I bought an old Soviet alarm clock from a guy on the street -- 1500 drams, which was about $4 then. It's an ugly shade of institutional green and loses about ten minutes a day. But it has an incredibly loud and grating alarm, which in my world is a good thing... I don't always wake up easy. Claudia utterly hates it. Anyway, after I bought it, I had it taken to the watch guy across the street for maintenance. The guy -- an old man with a lot of wild white hair and a table full of little sharp tools -- warned me that fixing the clock would be "expensive". It cost 1000 drams. I haven't yet dared try the barber...)
Our building, like pretty much everything else in this neighborhood, is Soviet-era. So it has some peculiarities. There's a leak in the roof which is slowly destroying the ceiling of the lawyers' office. The acoustics are very strange -- I can't hear anything from across the hall, but I can clearly hear conversations in the lobby, two floors down. Still, by local standards it's an excellent building, and we have no real complaints.
Behind the office is a narrow yard. Like most yards in Armenia, it's covered with an arbor of grape vines. The vines are home to doves, and they're constantly fluttering about. I don't know why doves should seem so much more agreeable than pigeons, but there it is: they do. My office has a little balcony, and on a clear day I can see Mount Ararat. When the weather is fine, I like to step outside for a few moments with a cup of coffee; although I'm only on the third floor, there's a pleasant sense of floating above the city.
From the office it's about 2.5 kilometers, or a mile and a half, to our house. I have walked it a few times, but part of the walk is along a section of busy road with no sidewalk. So most of the time, I have a driver pick me up. I pay the driver 10,000 drams a week for this, which used to be about $25 but is now more than $30.
The biggest problem we face right now is traffic. As Claudia has mentioned, there's construction all over Yerevan, but there's a particularly nasty clot of it near our office. On a bad day, a couple of the local intersections go into complete gridlock, and it can take half an hour to get from the office to our house, or nearly an hour to reach downtown.
Oh, and there aren't a lot of good places to eat nearby. Armenians don't really do fast food. There are sit-down places, but you won't get out of one of those in less than an hour. Otherwise, it's barbecue stalls, which is not really my thing. There was a place down the street that sold decent hot sandwiches, but one day I got pretty sick after eating there. I don't know if it was the sandwich's fault or not, but it left me biased. So most days Bill and I order out.
Our employer does provide us with coffee and soft drinks, and therein lies a small tale.
We used to get Coke and mineral water. I don't like Coke but I'll drink Diet Coke. So, soon after I took over as COP, I asked the staff (assembled for the weekly meeting) if anyone else drank Diet Coke. The response was silence and the Armenian Blank Look (TM). Well... what the hell, I was the Chief of Party. So I asked, no, I ordained that we get a few Diet Cokes every week.
So once a day, I'd go down to the fridge and snag a Diet Coke. This went on for a few weeks. Then I started opening the fridge and finding a lot of Cokes and... no Diet Coke.
Next staff meeting: blah blah blah, and oh by the way, is anyone else drinking Diet Coke? Blank Looks. Well... what the hell. I had the office manager order more Diet Cokes (and fewer Cokes, since our beverage budget is fixed).
Months pass and... the cycle repeats. Diet Cokes disappear, faster and faster. I can't find any, so I have the order increased again. After a while a quarter of our Cokes are Diet. Then half.
I do start spotting Diet Cokes around. First I see K-----, the lawyer, drinking one. A ha! So she's the culprit? No, she says, she only drinks one now and then... A few weeks later I see one on the desk of F----, the translator. Is it her? No no, she says, she's just trying it to see how it tastes.
It takes more than a year for the truth to emerge: the entire female population of the office will, given a choice, drink Diet Coke. But they don't want to admit it.
We're currently running about 3-to-1 Diet to non-. And I don't think I can push it higher without making the remaining Real Coke drinkers unhappy.
But about half the time, when I go to the fridge, there's still no Diet Coke.
Oh, well: such is life in management. On the whole, I like my office just fine.