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Pulsating Armenia at crossroads of modern silk route

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Record: between 2010 to 2020, Armenia’s annual tourism grew nearly 15 percent

Armenia’s Christmas lighting extravaganza started early this year since the capital city, Yerevan, hosted the 20th annual Junior Eurovision Song Contest. Armenia was designated host following the 2021 first place win by the  Armenian contestant, Maléna.

Under the magnificent light shows and towering Christmas tree centering Yerevan’s Republic Square that brought thousands of holiday revelers, Armenia remains wounded under the aggression cloud from its two neighboring countries: NATO-member Turkey, and Azerbaijan in 2020 unleashed a full-scale war over the disputed, Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh (NK), or Artsakh as it’s known to the Armenians.

Remanence of the war against the 300,000 NK inhabitants in 2020, and over 5,000 Armenian casualties, reflects on the veterans undergoing rehab at Yerevan’s Zinvori Tun (Soldier’s Home)–scared by disabilities, PTSD, and a wide range of other psychosocial problems. There are some 100,000 displaced NK Armenian residents. Those housed in make-shift homes across bordering communities in Armenia are once again traumatized by the September Azerbaijani invasion of 10 kilometers into the Republic of Armenia’s territory. With 100 civilians killed and civilian infrastructure destroyed, there are still no sanctions on Azerbaijan for its well-documented 2020 war crimes.

Armenia’s Winter of Discontent

Armenia’s winter of discontent started with warmer weather. With the enemy only miles away, there are daily casualties of Armenian civilians in both the NK region and in Armenia’s border communities. Azerbaijani civilians, and “environmentalists” continue to disrupt passage through the only humanitarian corridor between the two countries.

But all this doesn’t seem to deter the buoyant, fun-loving Armenian populace from celebrating life.

Complaints of high price tags on everything don’t seem to deter Armenians–and the over 30,000 Russian and Ukrainian emigres from spending at local retail shops, restaurants, beauty salons, cafes and bars. The number of cars on Yerevan’s streets has multiplied–causing continued traffic and high pollution levels. 

The newcomers, mostly financially secure IT professionals, spiked rental fees, pushing Yerevan’s apartment rental prices to 109,000 drams (about 273 Euros) per square meter. The high rents have leveled up after greedy landlords pushed out their lower-paying tenants to accommodate the newcomers. Prices in Armenia are nowhere as high as in Moscow or Kyiv.  Some newcomers, employed at Yerevan’s countless eateries and retail shops, use their Russian and English language capabilities with expats and tourists–as they slowly pick up the Armenian language. Armenians remain, for the most part, gracious hosts allowing Russians in without visa requirements. Mostly, the Russian newcomers keep to themselves; work on their laptops, frequent retail shops and restaurants, and Russian schools and churches.  

The underlying resentment among some Armenians stems from an innate distrust of their previous landlords (the Soviet Union ruled Armenia for 70 years). Moscow’s failure to stop Azerbaijan’s attacks in 2020 is a fresh wound. One taxi driver says the Russians lack loyalty to those who extend a helping hand–having lived with the Russians for years. 

In late November, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan refused to sign the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization declaration as a protest against the members failing to take a stand against Azerbaijani aggression. Some Armenians cheered the action, others wonder if this leaves Armenia even more vulnerable to attacks by Azerbaijan, backed by NATO-member Turkey and with Israeli weapons.

Minorities and New Comers Are Well Integrated

At Yerevan’s Paplovok Park a monument with inscriptions “To Live and Never Forget” honors the Genocide and Holocaust victims.

Interestingly, while Turkey, Azerbaijan and Israel do not recognize the Armenian Genocide of 1915 perpetrated by Ottoman Turks, in Yerevan’s Paplovok Park a holocaust monument with inscriptions “To Live and Never Forget” honors the Genocide and Holocaust victims. There are other memorials, including one honoring the martyrs of the Assyrian genocide of 1915.

Armenia’s Russian, Jewish, Bahai’, Yazidi and Assyrian communities freely practice their religion and language. With 35,000+ Yazidis in Armenia, the country is now home to the world’s largest Yazidi temple–Quba Mêrê Dîwanê.

Some 10 years ago, the newcomers were the Syrian and Lebanese refugees of Armenian descent, fleeing wars and resettling in Armenia. These Western Armenian dialect speakers are still getting used to Armenia’s Eastern dialect which is primarily spoken in Armenia and Iran. But now, fully integrated into the local fabric, even Western Armenian dishes such as hummus, muhammara, tabbouleh, fattoush, labneh and others are part of the local cuisine. 

Sherep restaurant - Yerevan, Armenia
Sherep Restaurant decks up its ladle wreath decorations.

Armenia’s Culinary Delights

The expats, tourists, the nouveau riche, and the IT sector workforce are the frequent diners at Yerevan’s posh restaurants. Among countless eateries are the Collective, Mayrig (mother), Tavern Yerevan, Sherep (ladle), Lavash (leavened bread)– the last three are among the Yeremyan Projects empire founded by restaurateur David Yeremyan. His culinary empire includes over 10 restaurants, cooking shows, a culinary academy, gastro tours, social impact projects like food for the military, and Yerevan’s Christmas market, among others. The local eateries also serve a wide selection of seafood choices, delectably prepared and devoured within this land-locked country. A variety of seafood is cultivated, or naturally available in Armenia’s majestic Lake Sevan–the largest freshwater, high-altitude lake in Eurasia. 

With over 100 wineries in Armenia and Artsakh, Armenia’s thriving, reinvigorated cradle of wine industry reflects on most restaurant’s wine lists offering a rich collection of domestic wines, harvested and produced in Armenia’s wine country. One of the local favorites is Qirs–made and manufactured in Artsakh. The bottle label design of the 2,724.6 meter-high Mets Kirs mountain–one of the highest peaks of the southern branch of the mountain range– is known to the locals as the Artsakh fist.  

Paying high prices, the clientele at high-pulse quaintly decorated café’s and charmingly designed restaurants and eateries expect only the best service and food quality–and fully trained culinary artists serving their meals. Last minute dinner and lunch reservations are hard to secure–regardless of the day of the week. For now, the exiled, and the locals, are living it up, untainted, it seems, by their countries’ volatile state.

Complaints of Unemployment Don’t Reflect in Shoppers

Oddly, the tropical kiwi fruit is a constant in the fully stocked shelves of countless supermarkets around Yerevan. Some of the mom-and-pop produce shops in hayats (Persian word for yard) still accommodate old timers in Soviet-era apartment complexes that circle backyards that provide residential parking space and dilapidated metal playgrounds for the young who haven’t yet discovered screens. 

Most folks in Armenia complain of the unemployment rate, which since 1998 has averaged around 12 percent but reached over 21 percent in 2019. Employers are searching for good workers–but as one retired businessman turned taxi driver who doesn’t believe there’s much of an unemployment problem in Armenia, says “there’s always work for those who want to work.” An engineering supervisor can’t find new hires since the young, recent graduates she interviews demand monthly salaries as high as hers. “I have 30 years’ experience, they’re new graduates with zero work experience and very high expectations.”

The hospitality industry is one of the high employment sectors. Between 2010 to 2020, Armenia’s annual tourism growth rate of nearly 15 percent set it as one of the world’s fastest growing tourist destinations. In 2019, there were nearly 1.9 million tourists who contributed some three percent to Armenia’s GDP, pumping over $300 million into the country’s economy. Another top employment sector is the IT industry. With over 65 technology companies calling Armenia home, the country is the main Caucasian hub for software development, industrial computing, and electronics.

Yerevan’s famed Vernissage open market’s unique handmade souvenirs by local artisans are replaced with mainly mass-produced items. There are handmade, locally sourced items available, beyond the tourist trap chachkies, but mostly not at the Vernissage. Armenian women designers, artists and agronomists lead the way, masterfully incorporating modern techniques with ancient Armenian practices and motifs as Piafchik Handmade’s brass, needle painted, one-of-a-kind jewelry, or Ornamen’t paintings turned into silk scarves–and organic, locally farmed and raised products by Green Lane which empower rural women agronomists.

Walking away from Yerevan’s mesmerizing winter wonderland and Christmas market’s holiday spirits, the thousands of mesmerized revelers gathered at the Republic Square fail to notice their tightly guarded Prime Minister, Pashinyan, taking an incognito walk down Abovyan Street around the square’s festival of lights.

The glittering Yerevan is a stark contrast to the Armenia that went dark in 1992 as the Turkish blockade cut off electricity, power, and petrol to the three million populace. But today, as in 1992 at the crossroads of the modern silk route, Armenia perseveres, pulsating with a feverish zest for life, once again putting a stake on the ground of its existence. 

Jackie Abramian is committed to amplifying the work of women peace-builders, change makers and social entrepreneurs. She is a social enterprise advisor and the founder of Global Cadence consultancy.

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UK May bank holiday set to be busiest since Covid

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A busy motorway in the UK during the sunset
More than four million journeys are planned on Friday, May 24th, for the long Bank holiday weekend in the UK

More than 20m leisure journeys are expected to be made by car this late May bank holiday as traffic returns close to 2019’s pre-pandemic levels, according to a new study of drivers’ getaway plans from the RAC and INRIX.

Analysis suggests the worst day to travel will be Friday 24 May when more than 4m journeys are planned, as this is not only the start of the long weekend but also the beginning of half term for many UK schools. Traffic volumes look set to remain consistently high throughout the long weekend as 3.7m trips are expected to take place on Saturday 25 May, while 3.4m journeys are anticipated on both Sunday and bank holiday Monday.

With a further 5.7m leisure trips by car planned at some point throughout the long weekend, traffic could be at its worst since 2019 when over 22m drivers hit the road during the same period – meaning the volume of getaways this year could reach 90% of pre-pandemic levels.

The data also indicates that day trips are top of many drivers’ itineraries for the late May bank holiday. Twenty-two per cent said the main reason they’ll use their car will be for a day out with friends or family, while 8% intend to spend a day in the countryside or by the beach. Staycations rank third on the list as 7% said they are planning a short break, while a smaller proportion (3%) are heading to an airport or ferry port over the long weekend.

Traffic is predicted to build through the day on Friday, with transport analytics specialists INRIX advising motorists to delay their departures until 6pm to miss the worst of the queues when both commuter and leisure drivers are sharing the roads. The M25 clockwise between J7 for the M23 and J21 for the M1 is expected to bear the brunt of the traffic with those travelling on this stretch suffering delays of more than an hour and a half in the late afternoon.

On Saturday, traffic is expected to peak between 3pm and 6pm, with motorists advised to start their journeys as early as possible in the day to be in with the best chance of avoiding traffic. With day trips expected to be particularly popular, and even more so in those areas which see the best of the sun and warmth, INRIX is expecting routes from cities to coasts to have some of the worst delays as drivers head to the seaside. In the middle of the day, the M5 southbound – a major holiday route – is likely to suffer major hold-ups with journeys on a 45-mile stretch between J16 north of Bristol and J25 for Taunton in Somerset expected to take over an hour longer than usual.

Elsewhere, snarl ups are also anticipated on Saturday afternoon on the M25 anticlockwise towards the M23, the A14 eastbound towards the east coast, as well as on the M3 and A34 that funnel large volumes of leisure traffic towards resorts on the south coast.

Meanwhile the clockwise M25 is expected to again be the busiest route for traffic at the end of the school half term on Friday 31 May, with journeys between the M23 and the M1 likely to nearly triple in duration to three hours.

“Our research suggests this weekend could be the busiest of the year so far on the roads, with millions of people embarking on getaway trips to make the most of the three days and, for those with school age children, the start of the half-term holiday,” says RAC Breakdown spokesperson Alice Simpson.

“In fact, we’re looking at possible leisure traffic volumes returning to levels similar to what we last saw in 2019 before the coronavirus outbreak, as drivers’ desire to make the most of the UK increases. And, in those places where the warm spring sunshine makes its presence felt, the number of people deciding to get behind the wheel and head for the coast or countryside will only go up, swelling the overall volume of cars on the roads.”

Met Office spokesperson Stephen Dixon said: “While there’s still plenty of detail to work out for the Bank Holiday weekend, signals are suggesting there’s a chance of some dry and fine weather developing in places for the UK, though periods of showery activity will still influence some of the weather. Temperatures should above average for the time of year, though will be slightly subdued where those showers do develop. There remains a chance for the development of some thundery showers in places through the weekend, which is something we’ll be able to add some more detail to as we get closer to the time. It’s important to stay up-to-date with the forecast through the week as the details become clearer.”

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27 artists illustrate the power of voting ahead of EU elections

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A woman and a child checks an exhibition in EU about voting
Pan-European online initiative also has pop-up exhibitions | Photo: Mihail Novakov

Ahead of the forthcoming European elections, 27 illustrators, one from each European Union member state, designed posters on the topic of democratic participation. 

This happens as part of Get Out & Vote – an initiative by Fine Acts, a global nonprofit studio for social impact.

All works are published under an open license, so that citizens, nonprofits and activists can download and use them non–commercially to spread the message of the importance of voting for the future of Europe.

“It is so incredibly important to vote, as our elected officials shape our societies for us. I think a lot of people find the elections hard to grasp and overwhelming – especially the European Parliament elections. And I get it, it’s complex. But if you don’t vote, others will decide for you! These are big decisions, like climate, immigration, AI and we get to shape those choices together,” says Sidsel Sørensen, an illustrator and animation director based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Between concept and development, Sørensen spent several days to finish her participant image.

“Usually I spend fairly long at the ideas stage, sketching things out. Often jumping in and out of the process over a couple of days. With this election, there might be a right-wing shift in the European Parliament. I hope not, as it would be very bad for European climate policy. The inspiration for the image really came from focusing on the positive, and instead imagining how much legislation at EU level could help guide green policies across Europe – if we all vote more green,” says the artist.

For Italian illustrator Mattia Riami, who attended the Visual Communication Bachelor at IED in Milan on a scholarship and went on to be part of the team of graphic designers and illustrators at global fashion brand United Colors Of Benetton, voting is a civil exercise that should not be ignored.

“Voting is not just a right, but also a civic duty that strengthens the foundations of democratic society. Through voting, every individual has the opportunity to voice their ideas, values, and concerns, thus contributing to the creation of a more inclusive and representative political environment. Ignoring this process means abdicating the responsibility to shape one’s own future and that of future generations,” believes Riami, who spent a total of three days to create his illustration for the project.

“Today we find ourselves faced with a set of challenges that threaten to undermine democracy in Europe, and erode common values such as equality and justice. Our poster voting collection targets young people and aims to inspire hope, optimism, and enthusiasm about the potential impact of voting,” says Yana Buhrer Tavanier, Executive Director at Fine Acts. The initiative, supported by the Culture of Solidarity Fund, is part of Fine Acts’ larger campaign in support of European unity and values, which also includes art interventions across several European cities, an AR exhibition, and a vast online activation to build momentum before the elections in June. 

How the European Elections work

Voting in 2024 starts on Thursday 6 June in the Netherlands, followed by Ireland and Malta on the following day and Latvia and Slovakia on Saturday. This year Many EU member states vote on Sunday 9 June.

Most voting takes place on one day although Czechs have Friday and Saturday to cast their ballots, and Italians vote on Saturday and Sunday.

Besides voting in European elections on Sunday, Belgians will also spend time voting in national and regional elections.

By the end of 9 June, it will be clear which parties have won the Parliament’s 720 seats, 15 more than in 2019. The UK took part in the last European elections before leaving the EU, and some of its seats have since been redistributed or kept in reserve if the EU expands.

Who can vote in the European Elections

In most EU countries you have to be 18 to vote, but if you’re 16 you can vote in Germany, Austria, Belgium and Malta, while in Greece the minimum age is 17. In a handful of countries including Luxembourg and Bulgaria, voting is compulsory.

You should bring some ID such as driving license, PPS card, or passport. A full list of acceptable ID is available on electoralcommission.ie. Acceptable ID is also listed on the back of your polling card and includes passports and driving licences.

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Cannes opens with French comedy and honorary award for Meryl Streep

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Actress Juliette Binoche hands an award to Meryl Steep
Meryl Streep receives a honorary Palme D’Or from Juliette Binoche | Photo: Andrea Rentz

The 77th edition of the Cannes Film Festival officially opened last night with Quentin Dupieux’s Le Deuxième Acte (The Second Act), and an honorary Palme d’Or awarded to American actress Meryl Streep.

Presented Out of Competition as a world premiere on the Croisette last night, May 14, this four-part comedy was also released in all French cinemas on the same day. The film stars Lea Seydoux, Vincent Lindon, Louis Garrel and Raphaël Quenard playing squabbling actors filming a movie produced and directed by artificial intelligence.

The opening ceremony of the 77th Festival de Cannes, hosted at the  Grand Théâtre Lumière, also had American actress Meryl Streep as a guest of honour.

Streep received the Festival’s Honorary Palme d’or, 35 years after winning the Best Actress award for Evil Angels, her only appearance in Cannes until last night.

“My mother, who is usually right about everything, said to me: ’Meryl, my darling, you’ll see. It all goes so fast. So fast,″ added Streep. “And it has, and it does. Except for my speech, which is too long,” said the three time Oscar award-winning actress.

Last year French Film director Justine Triet won the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or for her murder mystery film “Anatomy of a Fall” becoming the third female filmmaker ever to win the prize, which was first awarded in 1955. 

The 77th Cannes Film Festival is set to run until May 25th, when the Palme d’Or winners will be revealed, 2024.

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