Nikola

French Echoes in Armenia: A Tapestry of Experiences

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By Victoria Ren

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN — The relationship between France and Armenia is a compelling narrative woven from threads of history, culture and shared values. This friendship manifests itself in various forms and locations, from using common words such as “merci,” to the construction of remarkable buildings like the Paul Eluard Francophone Center in Stepanakert, where a visiting European chef brought their expertise in French cuisine, or small yet significant places such as the restaurant Aux Délices Arméniens near the central train station in Cannes.

The geographical reach of this relationship is as extensive as the investments made by France throughout Armenia. According to the analytics firm CEIC Data, French foreign direct investment (FDI) in Armenia was at its lowest in 2019, amounting to 99 million drams ($256,000), down from its peak in 2016 at 461 million drams ($1.9 million); currently, it averages at around 128 million ($330,000). Previously, France had been the second-biggest investor in Armenia after the Russian Federation. Statistics show that the United Arab Emirates has now taken the leading position.

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) France Arménie reports that more than 100 French companies have launched operations in Armenia since its independence. These include major players like CBA Bank (Crédit Agricole), Amundi, Yerevan Brandy Company (Pernod Ricard), Veolia, and Bureau Veritas, among others, each contributing to the French influence there while bringing their unique expertise.

Beyond economics and politics, the bond between France and Armenia is sustained by a web of educational, cultural and humanitarian efforts. Institutions such as the French University in Armenia (Université Française en Arménie) and the Anatole France French School (Lycée Français Anatole France) offer students a unique education, encouraging bilingualism and expanding their cultural horizons. Organizations including Erasmus+ and AVC (Armenian Volunteer Corps) facilitate exchanges and volunteer programs, fostering deeper connections between the two nations. Currently, there are 17 AVC volunteers of French origin residing in Armenia, spanning a wide age range, from 20 to 70.

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The French footprint in Armenia creates a sense of home for some visitors. At the restaurant Avenue de France on Abovyan Street 23, the melodies of Charles Aznavour serve as a comforting reminder of shared cultural roots. At Café D’Angelo, reminiscent of Paris’ iconic Café de Flore, visitors find solace in the familiar, embracing the warmth of Armenian hospitality and the allure of French-inspired cuisine.

The French presence in Armenia not only enriches the cultural landscape but also attracts individuals from diverse backgrounds, drawn to the unique blend of traditions and modernity found in this vibrant land. Of course, there are many French Armenians in Armenia, but this journalist spoke to some French citizens of non-Armenian background.

Nikola

Among the French citizens here is Nikola, born in Paris, who, at first glance, may appear Armenian, but he is of French-Serbian and Italian heritage. Having studied at the London School of Economics, he identifies as an “advocate.” Despite his unconventional appearance — bright green pants, a funky, oversized scarf draped in the most artistic French manner, and long, thick, dark hair — Nikola confidently navigates the streets of Yerevan. Nearly ten months after his initial encounter with the country, he remains unfazed by the curious stares of conservative locals, who often favor more subdued attire.

Initially, Nikola’s was to stay in Armenia as part of an internship program by the Service Civique Programme [Civic Service Program], focusing on peacebuilding. Given the turbulent global climate, the French advocate could have opted for any other location, yet he chose this specific country. Prior to this, he had worked in Tunisia.

During the interview, Nikola humbly recounted his childhood, noting that while he wasn’t directly involved with the Armenian community in Paris, Armenian culture had been a part of his life since the age of 8.

“I remember watching several Armenian movies, like ‘Mayrig,’ which gave me valuable insights into Armenia,” he reminisced. “My father’s restaurant was located between the Jardin d’Erevan and the Komitas statue in Paris, with an Armenian church nearby,” he added, reflecting on the cultural influences that shaped his upbringing.

Nikola fondly reminisces about his first encounter with an Armenian at the age of 20, which created in him a strong desire to ask them many questions. Little did he know that approximately four years later, he would find himself sent to the mysterious country of Armenia, to settle for a year in the small town of Vanadzor, in Lori Province. His mission was to lead various initiatives aimed at raising awareness against all forms of violence.

Nikola vividly recalls an early encounter at the airport while he was with his mother. “We saw people with a lot of bags, youngsters speaking Armenian,” he recounted. “I told my mum that they seemed like nice people, because Serbians are similar in that sense. Every time they travel home, they have a lot of packed bags, something I have witnessed throughout the years,” Nikola added.

Almost immediately after landing, Nikola started to feel at home, a sentiment he recalled during our conversation. He noted that in Yerevan, he was quickly introduced to young Armenians, whereas in Vanadzor, his only friend initially was the landlord.

However, after 10 months of living in and developing a deep affection for Armenia, Nikola succeeded in forming a substantial circle of friends. Still, of course, he is an outsider; he recalled an incident in Vanadzor where a child referred to him as a tourist while he waited for a friend next to a shop where he was a regular, underscoring the feeling of being labeled an outsider despite his extensive immersion in the country, efforts to grasp the basics of the Armenian language and exploration of its rich history.

In Vanadzor, Nikola was referred to as the “handsome French guy.” When questioned about the French community in Armenia and his interactions within it, he emphasized his inclination to communicate more with the locals to gain a deeper understanding of Armenia. On his final night before departing the country, he found himself at a folk party in the heart of Yerevan, immersing himself in the vibrant rhythms of Yarkhushta (a war dance that belongs to a wider category of Armenian “clap dances”).

Darya

While Nikola advocated for peace through common practices, Darya, a French-Iranian art therapist, does similar work, but with brush and paints. After spending her formative years in the Brittany region of France, she has risen to prominence as an established artist in Yerevan. Currently, Darya exhibits her works at ArtKvartal, a gallery located, coincidentally, near Charles Aznavour Square.

Darya

Darya’s journey to what she fondly refers to as “beautiful Armenia” commenced in 2019, a time when everything appeared notably brighter. Her arrival was part of a project aimed at integrating refugees from Syria, Iran and Afghanistan into Armenian society. “Back then, I read that Armenia was the best place for welcoming refugees,” she noted. “I was surprised to find out that many refugees from Syria knew Armenian and shared a similar culture. However, for refugees from other countries, they were primarily asylum seekers.”

Darya’s parents underwent a similar experience, leaving Iran after the Islamic Revolution. With the current state of the country, it’s challenging for Darya to visit her ancestral land. However, she maintains a connection to it from a distance, as Armenia has been her home for the past four years.

During her time in Armenia, Darya has witnessed significant changes. The country transitioned from a state of complete peace to enduring a never-ending war, which ultimately altered not just its physical landscape but also the mental state of its people.

“The 44-day war started a few days prior to my departure to see my family in France. I remember soldiers walking on the streets, people packing aid, and having a final dinner with friends who would later fight on the battlefield. I felt like I was in World War II,” she said.

Just like many diaspora representatives, Darya also experienced the challenge of communicating with people outside Armenian culture. She spent some time in France, which she later referred to as “the new country,” where strict COVID restrictions were imposed at that time. Despite limited flights and the inability to return, she firmly decided to come back to her troubled home. “I felt the urge to return as soon as the airports allowed travel. I hopped on the first flight to Yerevan. This time, I didn’t have a fixed plan but was determined to stay.” The artist later would remember the blur of post-war Armenia and, as she would frame it, “body and mind were out.”

Darya has been involved with an NGO called Frontline Therapists, aiding local soldiers in recovering from trauma. Even in the never-ending war setting, she managed to make many Armenian friends of different origins: Iran, Lebanon and other diasporas. Intentionally avoiding French because of her simple desire to be fully integrated into the community, perhaps stemming from her work experiences, she has gained a basic understanding of Armenian and can communicate in the language to some extent.

Despite the constant barrage of negative news surrounding the city and the country, Darya still affectionately refers to Armenia as a beloved place, often with a gentle smile on her face reminiscent of someone deeply in love.

Juliette

Juliette, like her two French compatriots, had little exposure to Armenian communities while growing up. Furthermore, she was unaware of the longstanding friendship between France and Armenia. Her introduction to the country came primarily through architectural typology she was conducting a few years ago.

Juliette

Originally from the north of France, Juliette spent a significant portion of her formative years there before pursuing her academic degree in Switzerland. Eventually, she relocated from the orderly and quiet city of Zurich to the chaotic streets of Yerevan. Following her studies in architecture, she received a job offer in Armenia, focusing on the restoration of archaeological sites in Vedi, a town along the Armenian-Turkish border.

Initially, Juliette didn’t have any issues communicating with locals. She mentioned, “I had Armenians at my university who told me a bit about the country; they were diasporans. When I first moved here in November, I started to learn the language and slowly began to get to know people.”

Although the fashion scene in Armenia is rapidly shifting towards a more European-oriented style, possibly aligning with the country’s political direction, those originating from Europe still stand out. Juliette is no exception in this regard. With long blonde hair adorned with sectional highlights arranged in a creative circular manner, dental crystals are the perfect extra touch to show her funky character. She opts for simple attire yet manages to exude French chic. While this style may blend seamlessly in urban settings in Armenia, the countryside may not be as receptive.

“While working in Vedi, I am often advised to engage with local women as communication with men can be more complex,” she remarks. “Men tend to shield their female counterparts from perceived external threats, hindering their ability to handle various life scenarios.”

One episode that left Juliette astonished during her initial exposure to countryside culture was when the local driver refused to let her take control of the car because she was a girl. “After that incident, I felt like I couldn’t do anything on my own here. There’s this pervasive sense of fear, but it’s uncertain whether it’s truly warranted or just a perception passed down,” she reflected.

Despite the restrictions imposed by the driver in Vedi, Juliette eventually found herself behind the wheel of what she refers to as the Armenian “dream car” — a black Lada Niva with rear suspension. Surprisingly, she enjoys driving it not only in the countryside but also on the upscale streets of Yerevan’s center.

While posh Yerevan may seem safe to many locals, the looming threats from neighboring countries pose a constant concern, evident from the warning flyers on entrance doors, mentioning shelters in case of an air attack. Despite this, Juliette chooses to remain in the city: “My parents were unaware of the conflict before my move. However, afterward, they became more apprehensive, a common reaction in such circumstances.

Juliette’s project is situated in close proximity to zones not recommended for French tourists or visitors. When asked about her feelings regarding the conflict, she admits, I try not to dwell on it too much. It’s more concerning for others in my family, like my cousin, who lives far from the conflict zone.”

While the fear of yet another war in the country does not consume much of Juliette’s attention, she tries to focus on more positive things, such as enjoying crêpes at the Parisian-style café located on Tumanyan Street or making local friends at her boxing classes. She is focusing on learning the language, which, to be fair, she knows quite well for a newcomer, allowing her to freely interact with staff at restaurants.

These narratives highlight only a portion of the French community here. With the Armenian Embassy in Paris acquiring a new prestigious building, formerly owned by the former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, it seems that the cooperation between France and Armenia will only grow, opening new doors for educational, cultural, and diplomatic opportunities.

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