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Life in Armenia

 Life for many ordinary Armenians is still far from easy. Many, perhaps even most, people in what was in Soviet times a fairly heavily industrialised country have either reverted to subsistence agriculture if they live in rural areas or else have sought to become small-scale vendors of some kind of goods or other if they live in towns. For parents it is their hope that education will help their children to escape the widespread poverty. The population has fallen by about 20% since the 1980s as a result of emigration in search of work, and the low birth rate. Yet it cannot really be said that Armenians look either despairing or unhappy. They cope with the problems and family members help each other out. It has to be said that the vast majority of those old enough to have worked in the Soviet era look back on it as a golden age - they are generally too young of course to remember Stalin's terror and overlook the failure of the Soviet Union to deal with the civil war which broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1989. Younger people see things differently and to an observer their preoccupations appear much the same as their contemporaries in the West, their mobile phones in constant use. However, they are also to be seen lighting candles in churches and on Genocide Memorial Day it was striking to see the large number of young people joining the commemoration in Yerevan.

One of the big changes has been the improvement in the water supply. Five years ago it was a significant problem. Leaking mains meant that the water supply in most towns and cities had to be restricted to a few hours a day to prevent large quantities running away to waste. Sometimes it could even be cut off for days and in both urban and rural areas water had to be stored in quantity for use when needed. Now in the towns, at least, there is usually running water 24 hours a day, although in summer there can still be supply problems, even in Yerevan. The situation in villages has also improved but in rural areas water still has either to be obtained from the village spring and carried in buckets, or else there might be a well in the garden (or even in the kitchen).

Virtually every family except for those living in flats grows as much food as it can with all the family members, children included, working hard planting and harvesting potatoes and other vegetables by hand. In late summer, women can be encountered in the villages winnowing grain, preserving fruit for the winter by drying it in the sun, and making fruit juices and homemade vodkas to last through the winter. Throughout the year they also join their neighbours in the baking of lavash, Armenia's classic flatbread (see box, page 83). Keeping the home clean is difficult for women as few have domestic appliances. The level of dirt is increased by the wood-burning stoves which are very common and the seas of mud which almost engulf villages particularly in late winter at the time of snow melt and which are aggravated by the numbers oflivestock kept in the villages.

Very many families keep their own livestock and even in towns cattle and sheep can often be seen being tended by a family member. (Unlike western Europe even sheep have to be taken back to the house at night because of the danger from wolves.) In some areas free-range pigs wander through the village foraging for food. Armenians are very hard working, even more important now when so much work has to be done by hand because machinery, fertilisers, weedkillers and pesticides are all unaffordable. (This has the incidental benefit of making much Armenian food organic, albeit unofficially.) Even so, lack of suitable land results in Armenia being a net importer of food, which results in a permanently adverse trade balance.

For well-educated Armenians, life is not necessarily much easier. Salaries are low, there is serious underfunding of education and health, and career prospects are limited. Many such people seek work abroad, mostly in Russia, although the global economic recession of recent years has made even this option less available.

The Christian faith is important to very many Armenians, their Church binding them together as a community as it has for 1,700 years while simultaneously uniting them internationally with Christians elsewhere. It is the Armenian Christians of the diaspora who pay for most of the very necessary infrastructure investment in Armenia. Few countries are so heavily dependent on help from abroad. Yet despite all these difficulties, Armenians are generous to a fault. Desperately poor people welcome you into their homes and provide refreshments, often unintentionally embarrassing Western visitors who feel awkward about accepting from those who obviously have so much less. Especially in rural areas, people are fascinated by the few Westerners who appear and are genuinely touched that people from so far away could even have heard of Armenia let alone be interested enough to come. Having said that, pride in the country's history and language is intense, with Armenians well aware of the artistic and spiritual achievement of their great monasteries and of the contributions made by many distinguished Armenians in history.

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