Thanks to Wikipedia user Gerd Eichmann, who has made today’s featured photo of Yerevan’s Cascade Steps available for public use. I actually have my own photos of the Cascade Steps that date from the 1990s, but they’re currently in a storage garage in Texas, where they’ve been since 2014. I don’t know if or when I’ll ever see my stuff again. As usual, the future is a mystery.
Today’s featured photo is a lovely shot of The Cascade Steps in Yerevan, Armenia. That photo does not show the steps the way I remember them. The last time I saw the Cascades (as we Peace Corps Volunteers referred to them), they still weren’t quite finished. According to Wikipedia, construction on the Cascades began when I was still in utero, back in 1971. They were completed in 1980, when the Soviet Union was still very much in charge in Yerevan. However, even though the steps were technically “done” in 1980, there were still renovations going on in 1995, when I first laid eyes on this massive staircase up a hillside. They are a lot prettier now than they were in those days.
In 1995, there were no bushes on the steps. The fountains didn’t work, mostly because there wasn’t much electricity or running water in the 90s. At the very top of the steps, there was another, metal staircase that led to the very top of the hill, where a monument to fifty years of Soviet rule was erected. But to get to that staircase, you had to walk through a construction zone.
The landscaping in front of the Cascade steps wasn’t completed, so there were no flowers or shrubs, benches, or any other decoration. There weren’t even many streetlights. The lamps that were there didn’t always work, again, because there wasn’t much electricity. There were escalators to the left of the steps, and I want to say it cost 20 drams or so to use them to get to the top of the steps rather than climbing them. For reference, in 1995, one US dollar was equal to about 425 drams. 20 drams was also how much it cost to ride the metro (subway), and they used plastic tokens. I’ve heard that the tokens have since been retired, and I’m sure it’s now a lot more expensive to ride the metro.
The Cascades have changed a lot since 1995. They look very nice now, with the landscaping and fountains, but I have fond memories of the way they were in 1995, especially during the summer. The summer of 1995 was when A3– that is, my Peace Corps group– arrived in Yerevan for training. In those days, Yerevan was dealing with some pretty tough times. There was no 24/7 electricity, and some people didn’t have running water. There was no hot water. I had to heat up my bath water in a metal bucket, either with an immersion heater or by placing the bucket on a propane stove or kerosene heater. I’d then put the bucket in the bathtub and use a smaller container to pour water over myself. A shower, the way most of us enjoy them, was a true luxury. I even remember paying for the privilege a couple of times.
During training, I lived with a rather well heeled host family. The mom was an ear, nose, and throat doctor named Nelly. The father was an architect named Gevork. He worked at the airport. I remember liking Gevork. He liked to sing and had a nice voice. Nelly was very money oriented and concerned about the $7 a day she was getting to host me. I lost a lot of weight during Peace Corps training. I don’t know exactly how much, but I would guess about 25 pounds or so. You can see by the photos… I remember actually being able to pull on my jeans without unbuttoning them. I remember Nelly didn’t like that I’m a bit of a slob. I’m not a “dirty slob”– but I don’t keep things organized and tidy. I never have been one for being neat. She also expressed concern because she said I didn’t eat much. It was true that during training, I didn’t eat a lot. I remember eating fried Iranian pasta for breakfast, which wasn’t very appetizing. Sometimes, she even gave me fish! I didn’t mind the fish so much, but I couldn’t stomach Armenian beef or lamb. The lamb would pretty much make me want to throw up and, to this day, I can’t eat it.
After that sudden weight loss, I got sick, and it took me forever to get over the bug. The weight came back when I moved into my own apartment. That was a shame. I lost a lot of weight again when I waited tables. I probably never should have given up that gig, although I don’t have the best personality for it. I’d probably be better as a bartender. 😉
On Friday nights, many of the Peace Corps trainees would gather at the Cascades, where we would sit on the steps and play music. Three people in my group played guitar, and I, of course, would join in with singing. I remember we’d drink beer and sing Tom Petty and Bob Dylan songs. Locals would gather around and watch us. Sometimes, they’d join in. Other times, they might harass us a bit. It was a lot of fun, although I remember coming back extra late one night and getting bawled out by my “host dad”, Gevork. Using my new Armenian skills, I apologized and said, “Yes hooligan em.” (I am a hooligan.) Gevork laughed, and asked me if I was hungry.
Sadly, once training was over, so were our Friday night hootenannies at the Cascade Steps. My colleagues and I spread out all over the country. In 1995, Yerevan was still rough enough that several of us were placed there. I was among those who stayed in Yerevan. I really missed not being able to hang out with them on the steps on Fridays.
For about three months after I finished Peace Corps training, I lived pretty close to the top of the Cascades. I used to walk up and down those steps, often in very hot weather, to get around in Yerevan. It took me a long time to start using buses. I moved after three months because that living situation involved living with an Armenian woman who worked at my school. She and her much younger brother were nice enough, but I never felt like I could relax in that environment. We had incompatible lifestyles, plus her brother had an annoying habit of raiding my stuff when I wasn’t there. Once I moved, I didn’t need to climb up and down the steps so much. I didn’t mind stopping the stair climbing, although my fitness level took a hit.
Nowadays, they don’t put any Volunteers in Yerevan, even when they are in training. Looking back on it, I kind of wish I hadn’t stayed there myself, although staying there did afford me some unique opportunities that I otherwise wouldn’t have had, particularly given my affinity for music. For instance, I got to rehearse with the Yerevan Opera Choir. I also got to take some voice lessons at the Yerevan Conservatory… and on a few occasions, I would go to jazz clubs and sing with the band. These are all precious memories to me. I often miss those days, although I’m not sure I miss the tough living.
It’s funny to see the newer photos of the Cascades. They are so much nicer looking now. In 1995, they were kind of shabby, like much of the rest of Yerevan was. I do remember they were starting to be worked on as I was leaving in 1997. I recall one night, there was a night club opened in one of the levels. I had never been “inside” the steps before. They had always been closed, and a bit trashed looking. But someone did open a club where there was dancing. I distinctly remember hearing a truly wretched dance version of Olivia Newton-John’s song, “Have You Never Been Mellow”. Dolly Parton’s song, “Jolene”, was also made into a bizarre cover of dance music. I can’t find the 90s era techno version of “Jolene”, which could be a blessing.
I remember back in the summer of 1995, it was not uncommon to hear Russian pop songs blaring everywhere, along with music by Michael Jackson, The Beatles, and Sade. To this day, I can’t listen to Sade and not think of Yerevan. Or when I hear “rabiz” music, it reminds me of being in Armenia in the early days after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Tonight– or it will be nighttime where I am, anyway– we are having an online memorial for Matt Jensen, who was tragically killed two months ago in Brooklyn. Matt was in my Peace Corps group, and he was very much a leader. I suspect there will be some reminiscing among us, although I’m not sure how many people will show up. I wouldn’t say our group was particularly close-knit. I did get to know Matt pretty well, especially during our second year, when he came to Yerevan to work. He had previously been in Vanadzor, which is a city up north. It’s been a long time since I last hung with some of the people who will be involved in this reunion. I hope it will be like our Cascade Steps concerts, where we mostly all got along and got together in song on Friday nights, relaxing after another grueling week of training.
I see that now, the Cascades is a focal point in Yerevan. I doubt we could go to the Cascades and jam now, like we did back in the day. Now, even the actor, John Malkovich, has visited there. Funnily enough, back in 2008, we stayed in a tiny B&B in the Piedmont region of Italy where John Malkovich also stayed. In fact, we even stayed in the room where he and his wife, who is from the area, slept. They had come to the Pinasca area to see the wife’s family… Maybe someday, I will actually cross paths with John Malkovich. It wouldn’t be unheard of. After all, two years ago, I ran into Mark Knopfler in a bar after I attended his concert. I have a knack for running into people.
It’ll be interesting to see who I run into tonight… and hope I don’t embarrass myself, the way I sometimes did back in the day. I almost wonder if we shouldn’t have a backdrop of the Cascade Steps as we remember the time… 26 years ago! I can’t believe how long ago 1995 was, and how fast the years have flown by.
On an entirely unrelated note, yesterday, Bill got a lovely birthday card from his younger daughter. She even wrote “Dad” on the envelope. I really think younger daughter is Bill’s kid in so many ways. She looks like him and acts like him, and she loves mushy cards. So does Bill. He is the king of sentimental greetings. It’s so nice to see him being remembered on Father’s Day and his birthday after so many years of no contact.
Yesterday, I happened to see Jon Gosselin on Dr. Oz– the clips were uploaded to YouTube. I listened to what Jon Gosselin has been going through, as he’s been completely estranged from six of his eight children with Kate Gosselin. I never watched their show, but I really feel for him. I think he’s been painted as someone he’s not. Parental alienation is not a joke, and I think he’s definitely a victim. I hope his kids pull their heads out of their butts someday, but as they’re pretty much grown now, that’s really up to them.
Also… I mistakenly booked four nights in Zurich instead of three. I think we’re going to do the extra night, anyway. Bill needs the break. So do I. And it might be the start of a path in a new direction, especially for Bill.