Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Getting Sheared In Armenia

by Karen van der Zee

If you’re a globetrotting expat you know all about moving from one country to another and what it takes to get adjusted to life in a foreign environment. Let me tell you about the second day of my new expat life in Armenia, a former Soviet republic. It’s an arctic January day and since I’ve just moved from tropical Ghana, I’m in climate shock as well as culture shock.

While my man labors away at his office, I’m scouting around Yerevan, the capital, on my own, walking very carefully in my new boots, shivering in my also-new down-filled coat. The town is blanketed in old dirty snow. The ice-covered sidewalks are treacherous, the buildings grim and gray, and why is everyone dressed in black? I asked one of the office girls this question this morning and she gave me a blank stare for a moment, as if she had never noticed or thought about it. “Because we like it,” she said finally.

Not surprisingly, I notice Armenian words everywhere, on road signs and billboards and shop windows. Written in the Armenian alphabet, which is unique in the world and completely indecipherable. There is no way to even make some educated guesses. Having grown up European, I’ve learned a couple of languages here and there, and usually I can fake my way around the continent, but not here. The Armenian language itself is also unique, not related to any other languages in the universe. There's Russian on signs and buildings as well (Russian was the official language in Soviet times), but that doesn't do me much good either.

So, I am not a little bit ecstatic when in the center of town near Independence Square I spot the English words hair saloon on a sign with an arrow pointing into a courtyard. This gives me great hope for an English speaker inside. And because I really do need a haircut and because maybe it's warm inside, I'm thinking I might as well give this a try. I find the “saloon” and push open the door.

Illusions are there to be shattered. It's only just above freezing inside the tiny space and none of the three girls (all wearing serious party make-up) speaks English. They try Armenian on me, and then Russian. Then they give up. They know no English. I've never felt such an illiterate in my life. But next week I still won't speak either language and hey, a haircut is not rocket science. I indicate a couple of centimeters, about an inch, between my thumb and forefinger and the fake blonde goes for it while keeping up a running conversation with her buddies shivering in their shabby fur coats. I don’t want to sound paranoid, but I suspect they’re discussing me by the way they’re checking me out -- my funny light-colored coat, my in-elegant flat-soled boots. All three are wearing boots with 4-inch spiky heels.

Some time later my stylist is finished with me and I look really interesting.

What I meant when I indicated the inch or so was to have that much hair cut off, not to have that much left. And just in case you didn't know this, hair keeps your head warm, if you have it.

My stylist writes down the amount I owe her, in standard numerals, the gods be thanked, and I pay it. It's only three times as much as I should have been charged someone tells me the next day. My sincere hope is that these shivering girls get enough suckers like me to be able to save up for a functioning space heater.

Ah, but spring and summer do arrive eventually, and so do the tourists. The town turns cheery with flowers blooming in the many parks and gardens. Open air cafés and outdoor restaurants spring up like mushrooms. The men still wear black, but the younger women dress in brighter colors. And yes, I’ve found an English speaking hair stylist and I now know the right price for a haircut. Things are looking up!


Karen van der Zee is the globetrotting author of 34 romance novels as well as the humorous non-fiction e-book You’re Moving WHERE?! She blogs about her (mis)adventures abroad at LIFE IN THE EXPAT LANE.

No comments: