How to Make Khorovats

This really begs for pictures (just a month and change ‘til I have my own fast internet), but I recently joined my host family to make Khorovats, the delicious and rightly famous Armenian barbecue. Below I summarize the process in several easy steps so that you too can make your own, provided you have a lot of sword-like kebab sticks, your own Peace Corps trainee, and an in-ground ceramic oven big enough to cook Oscar the Grouch in-can.

  1. Marinate a giant pile of potatoes and chicken in a variety of spices in the kitchen sink.
  2. Thread the meat and potatoes onto the big metal sword-sticks, ideally showing off some Armenian dance moves as you do so.
  3. Make a giant fire in the tonir (the afore-mentioned oven) and wait for it to burn down to coals. In the meantime, climb a rickety ladder up onto the roof to inspect the process from above through the chimney. Throughout the process, do not under any circumstances sit on the ground or you WILL get a stomachache or some other illness.
  4. Once fire burns to coals, hang meat sticks perpendicularly on larger sticks in tonir. Cover with old manhole cover and pile high with a dozen old coats.
  5. Amuse yourself for 35 minutes: teach the American Armenian dances, lounge on the old couch swing, smoke a few cigarettes, and say a few words of basic English. When the American compliments you on your language skills, confuse him by jokingly yelling “Heil Hitler!” but throwing up the Black Power salute. Never mention this exchange again.
  6. Remove coats and manhole cover, excavate meat. Transfer meat to plastic tub using lavash.
  7. Carry meat to kitchen table and consume with a mix of the following, all homemade: tomato sauce, salsa, copious lavash, cheese, and vodka.
  8. Upon reaching satiety, sit and stare at kitchen table for several minutes muttering “whoa” under your breath.
  9. Retire to living room and digest for several hours, either watching soap operas or playing backgammon.
  10. Ideally repeat as frequently as able, to maximize the American’s happiness.

Bonus: this week’s language-learning tidbits

Two items: first, the word for weird is tarorhenak, which is literally “different example”, as in, “Oh, he’s a different example”; I plan to start using this directly translated into English. Second, whoever came up with the word for train is seriously lazy, as it is gnastk, literally “go-er”. Total cop-out.

 

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Ups and Downs of PST

Not surprisingly, PST has been a whole mix of things so far, though in aggregate positive and very helpful. To finish on a high note, I’ll begin with two of the largest challenges of PST to this point.

Re-learning my Body

After a couple of weeks with my host family I’ve realized that not only am I learning a whole new culture and way of life, I also need to completely re-learn how my body works. As with most any traveler, I’ve had my gastrointestinal issues, though those have been blessedly minor so far; I’m referring more to daily upkeep. I’ve always had a hearty metabolism and keeping myself well-fed even in the best conditions back home could take a lot of work. Now with my limited vocabulary I have most of my food decisions made for me, which is simultaneously delicious and stressful. In retrospect my first week was so difficult in large part because I hadn’t figured out how to adequately eat yet – with so much else on my mind I was taking my cues as to when and what to eat from others, which is not sustainable for a metabolism like mine. I’ve gotten better about requesting the right food (and the right amount!), but I imagine eating the right things will take work throughout my time living with my host families.

On a related note, I’ve also had to reevaluate my physical limits. With completely different food, poorer air quality, and higher elevation, hikes that back home I could tackle without a thought here require more careful consideration and planning. This will certainly improve in my time here, but in the meantime holds me back a bit from doing as much running and hiking exploring of our area as I’d like.

Lack of Control/Independence

I’ve always savored my independence and ability to plan out my own time. During PST, we have effectively two windows of choice during the day: from 7-8 AM (sleep or run/walk in the morning while it’s quiet and your only street companions are chickens and stray dogs) and 5-7 PM (walk or run or play soccer or volleyball with the locals before dinner and studying). All of our language classes and technical training are great, but it’s an adjustment coming from independent living and a job with no micromanagement. All this said, I can also imagine missing the structure and pacing of PST when I get to my site and am likely spending the first several months just settling in and building relationships (read: drinking endless coffee and eating kilos of sweets).

This loss of control also shows up in my homestay – I will obviously not complain about someone feeding me several delicious meals throughout the day, but I dearly miss cooking and generally having my run of the kitchen. In most other domestic ways, I’ve been similarly reduced to a little kid again. That said, I know the training wheels will come off before too long, as I understand that most CYD volunteers move out of their host families at site not long after their three-month stays.

On to the better/less challenging aspects!

Getting to Know the Locals

The people so far have been the absolute best part of Armenia. I’ve already talked about my excellent host family, and everyone else in the town has been just as welcoming and friendly. I realize that as the first Americans placed in Aralez we are also simply a spectacle in a small town, but it definitely goes beyond that. Beyond the locals I’ve gotten to know on a low verbal level (i.e. basically just eating and laughing with them over our difficulties communicating) I’ve particularly enjoyed spending my time with a pair of brothers, 16 and 20, who both speak good English. The former is eloquent beyond his years and discusses everything from American classic rock to the Armenian political climate with us, while the latter is an economics student at university in Yerevan who has filled me in on Aralez’s economics prospects; huge numbers of Armenian men from all around the country spend about half the year working construction and other manual labor jobs in Russia. He’s also teaching me Nardi (backgammon), and it seems we’ll be having regular Sunday evening chess/Nardi games. (Bonus point – the Armenian word for chess is Shahkmat. You should be able to figure out the etymology without too much trouble).

Local Food

It feels absurd to even specify that food is local. I just had one of my favorite meals so far here – chicken over pilaf, sautéed spinach with scrambled eggs, lavash, and pickled tomatoes and cucumbers. Apart from the rice in the pilaf and the wheat in the lavash, everything came straight out of the backyard – yes, I checked, we’re now down to seven chickens, having started with either eight or nine a week and a half ago.

Learning the Language

Learning Armenian has been a blast. So far, the grammar has come fairly naturally to me while the vocab has been more difficult, largely because there are so few cognates or common etymologies with English that I can see. To help our retention my language class likes to make up silly and/surreal images – some examples:

  • Varoong: cucumber. I imagine a cucumber flying by me at high speed, making a “varoooong” noise.
  • Bazook: beet. To continue the projectile theme, I add the definite article, making it bazooka, and just imagine a beet shot from a Bazooka.
  • Artnanal: to wake up. I imagine someone asking me whether I want to go to a gallery early in the morning and while in bed I respond, “Art? Nah.”
  • Bahsheeshk: doctor. If someone is baaahing a lot and acting like a sheep, naturally his friend will say, “sheesh, you need to see a doctor.”
  • Karotal: to miss (a person/place). Easy, I miss eating carrots.
  • Hamburnel: to kiss. I imagine someone kissing a hamburger. This one is also great because ham is “taste” and bur “fragrance”, so kissing someone is literally tasting their fragrance. Not sure how I feel about that.

Additionally, Armenians use a lot of Russian words, such as masheen (car), sokh (juice), and divan (sofa – that’s an easy one), which further complicates things. Finally, the direct article, usually expressed with a -a or -n suffix, is much more heavily used in Armenian than in English, for instance every time a possessive pronoun is used. E.g., in literal translation you’d say, “this is my (the) dog”. It’s also used for all proper nouns, so you say things like “I am (the) Nick” or “I love (the) Armenia”. The difficulties clearly go both ways though, as I sometimes catch our language teachers, who speak excellent English, misusing definite articles in our language (e.g. saying “I’ll come to the school tomorrow” in a case where most native speakers would omit “the”).

First Week of PST

One week of pre-service training (PST) is in the books! I still don’t have good enough WiFi to post pictures unfortunately (and not sure I will until I get to my site in two months and set up my own WiFi), but here’s a quick rundown of my town, my family, and what we’re up to.

Aralez

Aralez is a small town of about 2,000 an hour south of Yerevan in Ararat marz (region). It’s pretty quiet here – town has a half dozen khanootsner (convenience stores), a nice little cultural center, a school with adjoining soccer field, and not a whole lot else apart from some of the nicest and most welcoming folks I’ve ever met. The town is full of fruit trees and many folks keep large gardens, and on a clear day the views of Ararat to the west are absolutely mind-blowing. My only issue is air quality, as the town is mostly dusty dirt roads, there’s a lot of cigarette smoking, and people burn their organic waste. I’ll get used to it.

Additionally, for those who’ve seen the news about the flaring up of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, rest assured that we’re 150 miles from there and Peace Corps is carefully monitoring the situation.

My Host Family

My host family is awesome – mom and dad, host brother about my age, and host sister just a bit older who is in Russia with her husband (a huge number of Armenian men spend most of the year in Russia, as jobs are fairly scarce here). Across the street is our tatik (grandma), who lives with one of my host cousins and her two small children. They’re over pretty much every night, and the four-year old in particular loves hanging out and teaching me every word he knows, running around the living room and very seriously shouting (in Armenian), “THIS! This is a TABLECLOTH!”.

There’s a lot of TV here – it’s pretty much always on in the living room from early afternoon through midnight. Mostly I’ve seen Armenian news and soap operas, but last night we got to watch a solid portion of Forrest Gump dubbed in Armenian, which loses something without Tom Hanks’ drawl.

On an unrelated note, apparently many Armenian NGOs do almost all of their communication and promotion via Facebook, and many kids in Aralez have already asked me if I’m on Facebook, so now might be the time I break down and get it for use over here.

Daily Schedule

Every morning from 8:30 to 12:30 we have language class, led by one of our two language and cultural facilitators (LCFs), Armenian Peace Corps employees who live in the town full time with us. Beyond teaching us language and culture, they’re also our resource for say, when we need to communicate to our host families that we’d like breakfast a little earlier so that we can run in the morning before class, but don’t have the language yet to do this. Just get Rima or Hasmik on the phone.

After lunch (described more below), we have three or four hours of technical training with our excellent program manager Stepan and trainer Artak, and a wide range of local experts they bring in. Our first week was split between learning and applying some of the community mapping tools we’ll use and lectures on the state of Armenia’s economy and NGO sector. Down the road we’ll be making mock NGOs for activities and going to Yerevan regularly for networking and practicum with local non-profits.

Evenings after training I generally go for a run (often aiming to go alone for a bit of Nick time, but I inevitably get followed and joined by a group of the local boys, which is always a hoot) or play soccer behind the school with the other volunteers and a big raucous group from the town. After this it’s dinner with the host family, then working on language or technical training homework in the living room, while the rest of the family watches soap operas. In my studying I’m usually joined by the above mentioned four-year old, who curls up under a blanket with me and “reads” his own book. Some evenings we’ll go to someone else’s house, where I’m stuffed to bursting with sweets and local fruit and preserves.

Food

The cuisine in my family is delicious and heavily lavash-based. Most things I eat are wrapped in lavash, which we volunteers call lavacos (lavash tacos). My family has a huge garden and orchard out back of their house, which is already starting to provide some tasty greens and I’m sure will just provide more deliciousness as spring turns to summer. Anyway, a typical day of my food looks like… Breakfast: oatmeal, two or three honey and cheese (the former extremely local, the latter homemade) lavacos, Haykakan Surj (small, strong cups of coffee that in the States we’d call Turkish coffee but here is obviously not called that). Morning snack at school: two apples, two lavacos filled with whatever was for dinner last night (tabbouleh, fried potatoes, hot dogs with tomato sauce, etc.). Lunch: more lavacos, plus whatever other volunteers bring, as we do a lot of trading – stuffed grape leaves (dolma), pickles, more fried potatoes, etc. Afternoon snack at school: a whole ton of fruit, various sweets, instant coffee. Dinner: all sorts of things – some nights tabbouleh wrapped in greens from the garden, some nights potato and tomato soup with a ton of lavash dipped in it, last night lentil and macaroni soup. I’m always happy when dinner includes my host mom’s homemade tomato sauce, which is the absolute best I’ve ever tasted.

Pets/Animals

Indoor pets are very much not a thing here. There are a lot of stray dogs and cats roaming the streets, and most folks simply ignore them, while a minority throw pebbles at them and the like. My host family, however, has a tiny cat that’s very much a pet – she never comes inside, but is always on the premises, and the family feeds her daily. Additionally, I’ve seen my host dad pick her up and cuddle her, though when I asked what her name was I got a funny look (I’ve been told it’s even considered an insult here to name a pet after someone you don’t like).

That’s all I’ve got for now – will update more throughout PST as I’m able.

What I Most Look Forward To

Below is a list I began before leaving of the things I most look forward to about going to Armenia. A week into PST, my predictions are proving accurate.

  1. The people, their hospitality, their history – I’ve heard countless times that Armenians are an intensely hospitable people who will love sharing their homes, food, and stories with a friendly foreigner who can’t pronounce խ or ղ to save his life. Coming from the relative melting pot/salad bowl (depending on your take on the realities of ethnic integration) of Boston I’m intrigued to live in such an ethnically and religiously homogenous society with what I understand to be a very strong concept of shared history stretching back more than 2,000 years.
  2. The food – Have a look around the cuisine’s own Wikipedia page. Anyone who knows me can confirm that I’m a healthy eater, so the delicious foods were a big draw for me to apply. As a bonus, I’ve been able to visit some of Watertown’s Armenian markets to both sample the food and practice my reading. [update: I expect to eat my body weight in lavash several times over in my time here].
  3. The scenery – I’ve always loved mountains, and the Caucasus promise to not disappoint. From the pictures I’ve seen Armenia appears to have a pretty cool range of scenery for such a small area (roughly the square mileage of Maryland) – mountains, forest, steppe, a large lake. And the ancient monasteries such as Khor Virap scattered around the country look incredible [update: went to Khor Virap yesterday and it was absolutely incredible. Probably also the closest I’ve been to a contentious border, about two hundred yards! The watchtowers were fairly menacing].
  4. Learning the new language – I’ve always loved languages, and had been looking to branch out from Romance languages. As its own branch of Indo-European, Armenian feels fresh to me in many ways, especially when it comes to vocabulary, though still familiar in others. Additionally, it has its own unique alphabet that has been quite fun to learn (though as far as I know there is no soft “i” sound, so I will be Նիթ [“Neek”]). Finally, I can actually use my Armenian a bit in the area after I return, though I’m not sure how different Western Armenian (spoken in most diaspora communities) is from Eastern (spoken in country).
  5. More solo time to relax – there are so many people I want to see in Boston all the time that if I don’t intentionally block out solo time throughout the week my schedule can easily fill up. Obviously this is a great “problem” to have, but I’m also looking forward to more enforced alone time that I think will naturally happen overseas, even if it’s just a result of me being too tired to keep speaking Armenian and retreating to my room at 8:30. I plan to get back to journaling daily, tackling the stack of books on my Kindle (A Song of Ice and Fire, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 50 Shades of Grey, etc.), and generally just hurrying less between things.

[Below finished in-country]

  1. More random in my life – I had fairly comfortable routines back home, that in some ways reduced the amount of random hilarious things in my life. There have already been too many to count here, and the future promises to bring many, many more.
  2. Being constantly out of my comfort zone – while I’ve loved all the time I’ve spent in Boston throughout my life and would love to settle there long-term, it was time to get out of my comfort zone and adventure for a bit. I’m hoping (and expecting that) my experience here is as my uncle Don described his time in the Peace Corps in Kenya and Bangladesh – that even if at a given moment he wasn’t feeling great or wasn’t happy to be there, he was always learning and the wheels in his head were always turning. So far this has proved accurate, through a fairly emotionally up-and-down first week of pre-service training.