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).
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”).