Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Armenia, an outsiders view.

Armenia, an outsiders’ view.


Over the years my thoughts have often dwelt on Armenia and my desire to visit strengthened over that time. This interested goes back to my paternal grandmother, father’s mother who never learnt to speak English and I suppose for cultural reason never really got on with my mother, or for that matter members of her family. My father at the time of his death possessed in his library a book written by his brother Petros Creet about George V. After his death a few weeks before end of the second world war, my Mother’s decided to migrated to Australia, so that I lost contact with the Armenian side of our family. Apart from the   occasional letter from his elder brother Leo and my grandmother,  I would never have realised that I had any Armenian heritage at all.  Later I discovered that the book about George V, who was the Supreme Catholicos of All Armenians, from 1911-1930, during that dark stain on Armenian history the 1915  Genocide. He attempted to aid and organizes relief for the thousands of people driven from their homes, no small task.  As an added bonus he was the person who appeared in our family photo album,  naturally I felt curious about his life. When I decided to visit the country I had no idea who he really was or why my Uncle had written the book.

                                                           George V and Uncle Petros.

 During my recent visit I decided to attend a High Sung Mass held at St. Echmiastsin Cathedral outside of Yerevan Armenia's Mother Church,  the service was wonderful, both the male and female parts lead by great singers was an experience in itself. After the service, I decided to  show the photo in my uncle’s book to a priest asking whether he knew who this person was, and it was only then that I discovered his true identity.  Much to my surprise he told me he was buried right next door to the Cathedral entrance and showed me the grave. He was a much loved bishop and as Supreme Catholicos during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 had the task of organizing relief for the refugees and wounded soldiers and their families.


                                                    His grave is the second on the left in the front row.

The city of Yerevan itself proved to be an even greater surprise, not the typical grey Soviet style city suggested in guide books, but instead I was confronted with what seemingly on the surface at least was a modern city of wide tree lined boulevards, smartly dressed citizens, and extremely attractive young women searching the shop windows for the latest Parisian fashions. All this did not equate to the guide book description of a very poor country with a very low wage structure, nor did the description equate with the packed street café and restaurants. It would appear that the city has somehow reinvented itself since the collapse of the USSR. New building everywhere in the soft pink Armenian stone embellished with relief sculptures for which the country is famous. An abundance of parks, squares and fountains all created a very pleasant experience. One of the most satisfying aspects was the recognition of Armenian song birds, the poets, artists, composers and creative former intellectuals with the erection of memorial sculptures and statues to pay homage to them.

                                                        Heather relaxing at a street café.

                                                         Public Sculpture, Yerevan.

                                                               City Fountain.

Over the next few weeks I was able to explore this inner city and its many surprises. I have been lead to believe that a lot of this development is due to the Diaspora Armenians living all over the world who offer financial support. The development of the Cascade an extraordinary construction of galleries and Centre for the Arts built by Gerald Cafesjian offers a good example of this generosity, this American diasporan philanthropist has set  a high standard. Not only did he complete an abanded project at the time of independence in 2001, but contributed many of the art works. At the foot of this structure is a large plaza with several dozen sculptures running down each side. Fernando  Boleros’  Cat and Roman Warrior being two.




                                                   Lower Fountain Cascade. Yerevan.


Yerevan is blessed with many fine restaurants, both indoors and out, while its parks and squares provide many sites for fountains. I was privileged to attend several concerts at unbelievable prices. On a more critical note it is hard to understand why Russia striped all the factories of their equipment at the time of the collapse of the USSR. When you drive out into the country side the onlooker is confronted with rusting buildings and machinery that no doubt was too heavy to carry way. In order to overcome unemployment many government institutions are over employers. At the airport some twenty girls were on duty to look at a hundred odd passengers’ passports . Armenia not being blessed with oil is a somewhat poor cousin in this part of the world. Having no land corridor to the outside world other than Iran and Georgia has made exports difficult. Much to their credit the Armenians are developing a medical tourist industry. The general option in the street is that a lot of corruption still exists.  A few years ago I think around 2003 a gunman walked into parliament shot three members of parliament  and casually walk out how is beyond reasonable explanation!


There are many issues that I shall try to explore over the next few weeks, but one of the greatest qualities of the Armenians is the glue that binds them together. Their culture, language and religion seem deeply entrenched. Whether the ability of the six to eight million Armenians living aboard will be able to hold together over the coming years as their descendants grow up in other cultures remains to be seen. Many modern day Armenians feel the Genocide has bounded them together in a new way. For the moment I shall leave further comments for a later blog as there are so many issues that need examination.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Parisian Apartment.

Parisian Apartment.

There is always something mysterious about attics, whether they be places of storage or accommodation inherited from childhood. That sense of hidden treasure or old forgotten toy from some distant past. I have always had a fascination about attics; they give you that sense of superiority to look down on the world, something that is impossible if you happen to live in a basement. Years ago when I first married we lived in a basement apartment in Rome with all its attendant problems. On one occasion a large slab from the concrete ceiling came crashing down into the middle of the living room, luckily no one was hurt. The most amusing event arising from the experience was watching the Italian workman carry out the repair.

After loading up his trowel with fresh soft cement he would casually throw the mixture over his left shoulder in the general direction of the hole in offending ceiling with mixed results. Somehow he was able to deposit cement on the outside of the door even   though it was shut. Being a basement it was bitterly cold during the winter months, so much so that we rigged up a make shift gas fire that one night nearly gassed us.


Naturally in our latter years with these experiences behind us an attic apartment in Paris appealed, at least we could claim to have moved up in the world. Rome and Paris have always been two of my most favourite cities and to have the opportunity to live in St. Germain Des Pres proved too much to resist. One of the great advantages of attic apartments is the view they offer of Parisian rooftops in a wonderful assortment of shapes, textures and colour.  This new vantage point offers many exciting visuals and I set about drawing some fifty odd watercolours over the next few weeks. I decided to develop these sketches into surrealist paintings with the views spilling in through the window and then dribbling down the wall.

The windows themselves come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and offer a view
of the nightly activities of the neighbours. No matter what the hour there  was       always some sort of festivities in the street cafes below, so much so that you could never feel Isolated. The apartment itself was some  three metres wide and about twenty metres long, very comfortable and cosy. The only drawback to life being the likelihood of banging your head several times a day on sloping walls.  


Over the weeks that followed I extended the area of roof tops  drawings to take in St. Germain, Paris’ oldest church and St. Sulpice and onto the Luxembourg Gardens. There were times that I felt that I could spend the whole year here drawing without repeating myself. That is one of those wonderful things about the city of Paris its endless visual variety.


Friday, November 15, 2013

Penang, revisited, a second look.

Penang, on a more positive note is renowned for the quality of it's kitchen. The large and varied menus available would satisfy most food fanatics .Restaurants, cafes and many food markets offer many specialist and personal dishes. The " old town" which is still mainly in tact is unfortunately in a state deterioration and in need of some serious maintenance. I was told by a local that they did not want renovation, but rather restoration, an entirely different outcome. The last thing they wanted was a Melaka make over were the tourist is king. Much renovation results in a façade with a new building behind. To restore something you need to use original materials and techniques, not new plastic or incompatible material laid over the old. The Blue Mansion should be the model.

This central old town classified as heritage badly need attention. I believe rent controls and other unhelpful government measures, designed to stop demolition are a major draw back. Unfortunately this results in a total lack of maintenance by owners that naturally results in run down buildings. Given that this area is now classified as protected, and provided there is no political corruption there must be some way to encourage owners to repair and paint these structures and not demolish them if given the chance. It could be some tax incentive is required.

This is not a unique Penang problem, excessive greed is world wide, but it does offer the opportunity for some creative thinking on the part of the government in addressing the problem. Strong and honest government should be able to solve many of these difficulties. The city is more than worth the effort, so Penang can truly call itself the Pearl of the Orient.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Penang Island, Malaysia

We are finally on the road home after some three months of travel. I'm not sure if it is old age, but I am starting to look forward to that last air journey. I last visited Penang in the early 1950's during the time of the political struggle by the communists, when the survival of Malaya was very much at stake. I was quite young then and everything was an adventure. It was not hard to see that life here and in Singapore was hard for the local population. How have things changed? Well Singapore speaks for itself, a first world economy and continually goes from strength to strength. How about Malaysia, has the same progress been made. I can only speak as an outsider and express a view as such. there is no doubt much has been done, but I am not sure enough focus is being directed to improving services. I'm talking about tourism now as I am not qualified to discuss the Malaysian economy in general terms. Tourism should be a strong focal point to draw in foreign exchange, but I have found too many people intent on the selling and not enough on service. Penang has many attractions, but they are too often poorly developed, often sit in what to some may be described as a garbage dump. You would think that the Botanical Gardens would have a proper cafe to have lunch. That restaurants would be more interested in selling their food than beer, that  money travel cards would be an accepted means of payment and cash withdrawals from banks would be possible. Such facilities are available in Armenia hardly an economic power house. Sadly not in Malaysia, I have tried several banks to no avail, often spending a day to retrieve my card after the ATM machine has swallowed it. Tourists all over the world use debit cards why not Malaysia. I could go on, but if Malaysia wants a tourist industry they need to improve their act. Luckily I had some euros in my pocket as otherwise I would have been stranded here without any cash. There are however some bright spots, people are trying to preserve their heritage and I wish them well. I do not wish to sound negative, but Penang has been a disappointment.  Hopefully things will improve.