Setting the Record Straight about My Supposed “Difficult Personality” and “Integration Problem” with Kalavan


Recently, I was publicly accused in a article of having "serious problems with integration" in Kalavan due to my "difficult personality." This was part of a denial about a claim I had made about having sent this man $500 at his request upon buying my house here so that he could send workers to install plumbing and electricity in my house, enabling me to move in. This work was never performed, and it took me nearly a year to get my money back from this man. Worse still, the false promises to help greatly delayed progress on my house and significantly reduced my quality of life for the first several months of living in Kalavan.

I'm not sure if this man forgot that conversation and bank records existed or simply hoped that I did.

If the idyllic narrative put forth was, indeed, what my introduction to Kalavan village had been like, I'd have been happy to report it on this blog, to any reporters I've spoken to, and to anyone who would listen. Why wouldn't I want to share such a happy story about the place I've chosen to live and the "community" that welcomed me in and made it easy to integrate with them? That's what I would have written 300 pages about for my book Everyone Is an Entrepreneur (Ամեն Ոք Ձեռներեց Է) instead of the lessons I've had to document for the edification of others who care about cultural and economic development in Armenia and similar emerging markets.

Contrary to this man's claim that "the whole village helped (me) with everything and installed both water and electricity," I spent the first few months in Kalavan with only a single electrical outlet and lightbulb. I had no running water, no toilet, no sink, and no shower. Why did I live this way? Out of some wild desire to live a stoic, ascetic life devoid of modern conveniences? Because I could not afford these luxuries?

Not at all. It was simply because, for months, neighbors I tried to hire kept promising they would come work on my house and never showed up. The man I sent money to specifically for this purpose kept feeding me lines about how materials had already been purchased for the job and that it would be done soon. This never happened, and nothing was ever purchased for my house, despite the squalor I was living in and despite my constant reminding of his promises and the fact that he still had my money nearly a year later.

I only survived by building my own dry compost toilet that used sawdust to encase my fecal matter in a 60-liter plastic container with a toilet seat on top. I can't tell you how many glass bottles I filled with urine during what I now refer to as the "camping" phase of my time in Kalavan due to lack of utilities.

At last, a friend from Dilijan found a contractor who was willing to drive an hour out to Kalavan and stay a weekend at my house to get this basic work done. I cannot understand how importing labor was a more tenable solution than simply hiring my neighbors who lived within walking distance and could have used the paying work. But at last, I had electricity in multiple rooms and a running tap I could at least wash my hands and drink and cook from, though I wouldn't have a proper shower installed for some months yet.

It wouldn't be until I met Samvel Esayan, the man I would come to rely on for the majority of the construction work on my house and several other important tasks, about six months after moving in, that any serious work would begin to be done. Samvel was grateful for the work, and I was grateful to finally have someone competent to rely on. Samvel started working just in time to install a wood-burning furnace, put in insulation, and close the countless gaps in my home before winter came and I froze to death. It's very telling to me that none of the people who claimed to be so helpful and accommodating bothered to check on whether the newcomer to the villager was prepared to be comfortable during his first winter here, especially since the village lacks a gas connection for heat.

It seemed especially strange that in six months, no one in Kalavan thought to introduce me to Samvel. They all knew I needed work done because I constantly talked with them about it and posted publicly on social media about my situation. They probably could have surmised that someone like Samvel would be glad for the opportunity to earn a good income locally. It just seems like the kind of obvious mutually beneficial connection that should have been easy to make happen in a true "community."

But my lifestyle problems were far from over just because the material state of my house began to improve with Samvel's help. For the first three years in Kalavan, I was subject to a rather peculiar social problem I could not have anticipated. In fact, my fellow Armenians in Yerevan or Americans abroad still think I am exaggerating the severity of this problem or wholly making it up when I mention it.

Every once in a while, without warning, a neighbor I had interacted with casually before would suddenly barge through the front door of my house, usually while shouting a Rusified version of my name, "GGGRRRIIIIIIGGGGOOOOGGGOOORRRR???"

Naturally, startled by this loud intrusion into my home, I assumed he must be bringing news of some emergency that required my immediate attention. Was my house on fire? Was someone dying? Had my dog been hit by a car? No, none of those things. Actually, he just had a question for me about something trivial.

Ok, that was weird, I thought. This guy must just have some personal boundary issues or act a little too impulsively at times.

Then, similar spontaneous and disruptive intrusions into my home continued, often multiple times a day. Sometimes in the morning. Sometimes in the afternoon. Sometimes at night. Sometimes when I was quietly reading. Sometimes when I was on an important business call or teaching an online class—to the point that I began warning the people I was talking to that there was a chance one of my rude neighbors might burst into my house and interrupt us while we talked. Sometimes when I was focused on writing or editing a book, interrupting my flow and sabotaging my progress for hours. Sometimes when I was on the toilet or in the shower. And at least a few times while I was sleeping or trying to fall asleep in bed. Without warning, a Kalavanian neighbor was in my house, even though I was sure I had left every door closed.

It was somehow even more disturbing when they managed to get inside my house and sneak up behind me without announcing their presence, though. I came to prefer the loud version of this dirsuptive even to the quiet, covert one. I purchased bells to hang from all four doors to my house so that I would hear whenever someone entered. But even then, seemingly with precise intention, someone managed to open my door slowly enough to avoid making the bells ring and still sneak inside.

No matter how many times this intrusive behavior visually upset me, no matter how many times I explained as calmly and respectfully as possible (in both English and Armenian) that I didn't want anyone coming into my house without knocking on the door or ringing the doorbell, and, eventually, no matter how many times I began shouting at my neighborly intruders and threatening physical violence against them for trespassing, their behavior never seemed to attenuate. They understood what I said and what I wanted. They demonstrated that they could read and understand the signs I posted on my doors explicitly informing visitors to wait for me to answer before entering. But none of it seemed to matter for more than a few minutes. Almost without exception, the same people would fall back into the habit of barging into my house against my demands about how I wished to be respected on my own property.

There were other consequences to this negligent behavior as well. Sometimes, my gate was left open without my knowledge, and dogs came onto my property at night to kill my rabbits or ducks. Sometimes, my tools or supplies would mysteriously disappear, and I wouldn't figure out whose house they were at until months later by accident, never because the offending party willingly confessed to me that they had "borrowed" my property without my permission. To this day, I still don't know where the chainsaw I haven't seen in two years is. I told those neighbors whom I personally knew that I was generally happy to let them borrow my tools (as I was one of the only people in the village who seemed to own any), but that I insisted they ask my permission first in case I happened to need that particular tool at that time and so that I would know where they were when I needed them again (and who to hold accountable in case they should become damaged or go missing). A few finally adapted to this process of asking permission and showing respect for the property of others. Most did not.

On several occasions, it was a complete stranger who showed up inside my house. A man I had never met before was suddenly within my walls, demanding something of me without even introducing himself. When I asked him if he saw the sign instructing him to knock, he said yes. I asked him why he elected to ignore it. He stared at me with blank eyes and disregarded my complaint, like the cows in the road who can't seem to grasp the concept of a large vehicle trying to maneuver around them and why they shouldn't just stand there.

Once, I was quietly drinking coffee in my underwear early in the morning, only to be startled by the sound of someone rummaging through and using my power tools on the bottom floor of my house beneath me. When I confronted my intruder with shouting and chastizing, he responded as though I was the rude one in this exchange for daring to be in my underwear in my own goddamn home at 7:00 in the fucking morning. Obviously, I should have anticipated his presence and been decently dressed to greet him. And why hadn't I offered him a cup of the coffee I was selfishly hoarding?

However, to their credit, I did notice that none of the children of the village ever committed this faux pas when they came to my house. Without me ever having to instruct them, everyone under 15 or so knew to knock on my door and wait for me to answer before coming in. They did this every time they showed up at my house to play music or ask me a question. I suspect that this is because they have been taught to respect the property and wishes of their elders. My adult neighbors, however, failed to carry over this basic respect to a peer. They saw my property as part of their domain to do with as they wished.

Upon noticing that visitors would always asked if my dog Popoke was dangerous or would bite them, I resorted to posting signs outside warning the neighbors that she would attack intruders. This isn't true. Popoke is the friendliest dog in the village and has never hurt anyone. But introducing the fear of getting bitten for intruding where they aren't welcome was one of the only effective ways to begin changing their behavior. I also installed security cameras at my doors and overlooking my stored tools and supplies, also with signs indicating they were there. I realized I had to stop trying to reason with these people and instead appeal to animalistic survival mechanisms when all diplomacy failed.

One neighbor in particular would come to my house multiple times a day (at his peak, five times in a single day) to ask to borrow money or transfer money to his account via my phone. I had been hiring this man to work on my house and made the tragic mistake of giving him a small advance on his daily paycheck out of courtesy and to build good relations. As soon as he knew I was willing to provide financial help, he saw it as an open invitation to exploit my kindness any time he needed something. I became seen as the village bank lender. I told him repeatedly not to come to my house, especially at night, ever again unless there was a legitimate emergency requiring my attention. "Leave me alone unless someone is dying. Do you understand?" He always said he understood me and would listen to my requests, but his compliance never lasted more than a day. It's like he instantly forgot every conversation we had had the moment the triggering urge in his brain to exploit me kicked into effect. Once you feed a stray dog, he never stops seeing you as a source of food.

I later found out that this man was forced to move to Russia for work as a day laborer once he lost his good graces and employment with me and could no longer support himself in oh-so-supposedly "entrepreneurial" Kalavan, where every resident "owns their own business." But at least he was no longer present in the village to continue pestering me.

Later, when one of the neighbors I actually had good associations with asked if he could borrow my car for a quick, unexpected trip, I regrettably had to deny it to him. I wanted to help. I really did. But I knew from experience that if word got out that I was willing to let Kalavanians use my car, I would never stop being inundated with requests for it. It might even get to the point that they could silently walk into my house, grab my keys, and drive off in my car without informing me. I might simply walk outside one day, ready to drive into Dilijan for errands and meetings, only to realize my car had been stolen by someone who heard what a generous neighbor I was. I wouldn't put it past some of them.

Eventually, I fired this man and forbade him from ever talking to me again. Not because I was unhappy with our working arrangement. He did fine work on the house, as far as I was concerned, and I was comfortable with the rate I was paying him. But he simply would not stop coming to my house and disturbing me after working hours, causing me to lose time, money, and peace of mind in my own home. Associating with him was too big a liability for me. And he was so arrogant about his apparent right to assert his presence anywhere he wanted in "his" village that he was willing to lose a good job and his only consistent source of income to continue doing it. Literally all he had to do to remain employed was stop annoying me, but that was apparently too much to ask.

In the more than 50 countries I've traveled to, I've never encountered a situation where knocking or ringing before entering someone's home, especially a stranger's home, was not common, expected, and courteous behavior. It's virtually a global cultural norm. I had no reason to believe Kalavan would be a glaring exception to this rule. I know that these same people who so readily intruded into my house are certainly not doing the same thing with strangers in Dilijan or Yerevan. They adopt a completely different set of rules regarding the sanctity of the autonomy and privacy of others once they are at home, though. They treat me like I am obligated to let them do whatever they want to me and my property because I am an outsider here.

The only exception, when the previously intrusive adults of Kalavan suddenly seemed to gain an understanding of the concept of privacy, was when they knew I had a female guest staying in my house. I didn't say or do anything differently, but it was as though they were now intuitively aware of the possibility of one of the house's occupants being alarmed at their unexpected presence, as though seeing a woman in her private moments is some kind of horrendous social crime, but, hey, fuck that Gregory guy. He doesn't deserve the opportunity to live his own life the way he wants. We can do whatever we want to him. I started seriously considering that the only way to permanently change my neighbor's behavior would be to have a female friend come stay in my house full time so that she could unconsciously emit some kind of feminine privacy field around my house with her presence.

I'm told that the Armenian language lacks a word for "privacy," which perhaps explains why it is so difficult for Armenians to understand why this non-existent concept is so important to me. Perhaps this is excellent evidence to support the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or linguistic relativity, which suggests that the way we use language influences how we perceive reality. Or perhaps my lifestyle of introversion, high concentration, study, and working from home is completely alien to and beyond their comprehension. Perhaps they have never interacted with someone who has different lifestyle preferences than they do and so never developed the capacity for this type of empathy.

As strange as it may seem, some Armenians defend this behavior and insist I am at fault for expecting my neighbors to act differently than they are accustomed to in "their" village. Some of these people insist that it's my responsibility to keep every door of my house deadbolted 24/7 if I expect people not to enter without permission. They say that the only viable strategy is to make it physically impossible for them to enter, no different than constructing a fence to keep wandering livestock or nefarious predators and malicious criminals out because they will always come in if there is even the remote possibility of doing so. This, apparently, would be easier than conscious, intelligent adults simply learning to respect my boundaries and slightly modify their behavior toward me.

As far as I can tell, the only reason things finally started to change about a year ago is public shaming. I started posting regularly on social media whenever strangers would invade my property. I started posting photos of gates left open, killed animals, and missing tools, verbally shaming my inconsiderate neighbors each time for all the world to see and begin to associate the reputation of Kalavan with. Eventually, word must have gotten around to them that they were now publicly accountable for their neglect and abuse toward me, their American neighbor who previously existed as just a resource to exploit.

In America, we say that a man's home is his castle. That means that to be a good person, a respectful and considerate person, you honor the wishes of the person who owns the home during the time he allows you to be a guest there (if he does at all). If you want to keep walking into your friend's houses at will because that's the type of reciprocal relationship you've forged with them, that's great. I won't stop you. But I have now invested tens of thousands of dollars of my hard-earned money and four years of my life into creating this place to live life on my terms, and I insist that the "community" around me respect my terms in exactly the same way I respect theirs when interacting with them in their own domain and regarding their property. The moment I bought property here, it became "my" village too. And if the locals didn't want to have to deal with outsider influence, they should not have promoted this place as such and explicitly welcomed me to move here and helped me purchase the property in the first place.

"Culture rapidly changes in places with access to media and education from the rest of the world. As societies become more educated and affluent, they prioritize self-expression, autonomy, and personal fulfillment over traditional values like obedience, conformity, and social order. The local populace starts thinking differently because it has new influences to contribute to its sense of what exists, what is possible, and what is desirable. It has a wider array of inputs to rearrange and pick from. The newer generations become aware that there is more than one way they can think about something… more than one way to build their lives and act instead of defaulting to the same values as the generation that preceded them. This enables and expedites the process of self-actualization for each individual. [Inglehart, R. (1997). Modernization and postmodernization: Cultural, economic, and political change in 43 societies. Princeton University Press.]"
From my new book, Our Global Lingua Franca

What do you suppose the appropriate, integrative thing for me to do in this situation would have been? What would a "less difficult" person have done? Allow full free access to my house at all times to all people simply because they expect it? Should I thank them for repeatedly waking me up in the middle of the night? Should I relish in the opportunity to have my work and study disrupted throughout the day? Should I be glad they "borrow" and break my tools and let my animals die because that's what a good neighbor does?

I have to wonder what the public response would be if I began treating all my neighbors with the same callous disrespect they show me instead of merely speaking out against it and being willing to condemn it for what it is. Respect is a two-way street. Relationships are reciprocal. Integration is a mutual process. Anything less is parasitic, with one party always gaining at the other's expense. I guess that means we should ask ourselves which side of the interaction is gaining and which is losing every time my neighbors have treated me like a bank, a resource to exploit over the last four years, and why it was only the fear of public accountability that got them to stop. Cui bono in this systemic crime?

To my neighbors (and anyone who willingly enters my life), I pledge to never disrespect your wishes for how to be treated in your home. I promise that I will never take, use, or damage the things you own without your permission. I promise I will never lie to you about the help I can offer you or backtrack on any agreements I make with you. And if, by accident or negligence, I do cause harm to come to you, I will take efforts to rectify the situation and make it up to you to the extent possible.

I always pay my workers on time. I always keep my agreements and obligations to my friends and acquaintances. On the rare occasion that my negligence has been the cause of material loss or emotional distress to someone in Kalavan, even one I didn't personally know, I was quick to take responsibility for it, apologize, provide recourse if appropriate, and take measures to prevent it from ever happening again. I'm not sure what more anyone could reasonably ask of me. And this is all in addition to the countless time I have volunteered to offer my educational influence and entrepreneurial development skills for free to anyone in the village interested in benefiting from them. If only they were as eager to exploit the resources I freely offer as the ones I carefully guard from abuse and theft.

"Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess."
Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man

Sometimes, when it seems like someone is just a grumpy old man, a curmudgeon who hates people for no good reason, maybe consider asking if, in fact, there might be a good reason you're just not paying attention to. If the most difficult thing you can claim about me is that I demand the same level of respect I extend to others, I will take it as high praise.

Now get off my lawn.

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