One of the More Adorable Things That’s Ever Happened to Me

Armenia with all its three million citizens often feels like a small town. One place this shows up is in transport –  you can send pretty much anything informally via marshutni (the ubiquitous vehicles somewhere between a minivan and bus); on longer routes drivers will frequently stop roadside to hand off letters, packages, and the like. I’m fairly confident that if I gave a parcel to a random person in Sarnaghbyur boarding the morning marshutni to Yerevan and said, “this is for Kelsey, the American in Meghri [ten hours south]”, that it’d get there somehow, probably as the object of great fascination of all aboard. Today I got a call from my host mom in Aralez (three hours south of here) saying, “here’s a phone number, her name’s Frida, she’s from Sarnaghbyur and is bringing you fruit”. Frida told me to meet her in ten minutes by the school (near Karen’s house), but apparently got tired of waiting because Karen told me someone he didn’t recognize showed up at their house with a heavy box and just said, “this is for Nick”. See pictures below – on the box is written in Armenian simply “please give this to Nick”. Just in time for sharing with the visitors this weekend for Vardavar!



The Domestic Sphere

My second week in Sarnaghbyur has been pretty mellow – my counterpart Karen is currently hiking with Border to Border for a spell, trekking from Sevan to Yeghegnadzor and teaching classes to youth along the way. With him gone I’ve continued to catch up on my sleep, work on my Armenian vocab, and hang around the house a lot and get to know my host family better. With this in mind, here’s a description of my host family experience here so far. Half of this post will be about food, naturally.

As I noted in a previous post, my host parents here are Jonny and Yelena, both 60 years old, and quite goofy and talkative (they’ve opened up a lot since my site visit). They have five daughters, three of who live in town and between which they have 12 grandchildren; I’ve met most of the extended family at this point and have been warmly welcomed by all (funny sidenote: they must’ve wanted a son pretty badly because the third daughter’s name is Armenian for “enough”). Jonny goes to the nearby small city of Marilik most days for some kind of manual work (my Armenian isn’t yet good enough to figure out exactly what), while Yelena cooks, cleans, tends the garden, and milks the cows. Compared to other families they seem progressive in that Jonny hops up to help out with the cooking if Yelena is busy with something else.

Kitchen/breakfast nook, from entryway.
Living room, from entryway. Door on the right (actually the middle of three doors) is my bedroom.
My room!

Their house is small but well-kept, and very cozy; I imagine it’ll be quite warm in winter as far as rural Armenian homes go. There’s a modest entrance way that leads to the kitchen/breakfast nook and bathroom, while through double doors the other way is the living room/dining room, off of which are three small bedrooms. I can only imagine the commotion when the house was filled with five daughters aged approx. three to thirteen. Outside we’ve got a mini-orchard of fifteen trees (type not yet determined); a rustic yet comfortable outhouse; a chicken coop; mini cow barn (four adults, two children); and a garden full of potatoes, cabbage, potatoes, garlic, potatoes, green beans, and potatoes.

Looking Northwestish from our front porch. Outhouse on left, chicken coop on right.
Looking West, the garden.
Looking South, our little orchard.
The two young cows, being shy.

After three months PCVs are free to find their own housing if they wish, and a solid majority do so, about three quarters by my reckoning. While I do miss living independently, I’m planning to stay through the winter with Jonny and Yelena if they’ll have me. In part this is pragmatic – the only other housing options I’ve seen in town so far are the vacant homes of families now living permanently in Russia, which I imagine in winter would be both lonely and impractical to heat. Apart from this, staying here will be great for my Armenian and as I said I’ve been enjoying living with them, and they seem to like me as well. Finally, Yelena seems happy to let me help around the house and cook some of my own food, so I should be able to get my domestic fix.

The food so far has been tasty if a bit repetitive (variety in my diet is one of the things I miss most about living in a big city with every type of restaurant imaginable). Right now at every meal there’s lavash, cheese, tomatoes, and cucumber. Apart from that we’ve had fried potatoes, hot dogs, fried potatoes, cabbage and potato soup, yogurt, stewed eggplant, mashed potatoes, and fried potatoes. While I don’t like to generalize, drawing on my own observations and those of several dozen other PCVs, Armenians tend to cook with impressive quantities of sunflower oil and butter. An aggressively sizzling frying pan is common background noise here.

I’ve also partially learned a new method for determining whether a hard-boiled egg is done. I wasn’t sure how long to boil them up here at 6,000 feet, so I asked Yelena. Instead of rattling off an answer, she just grabbed an egg out of the boiling water without flinching, spun it on the ground, observed for a moment, and said, “nope”. My working theory is that the egg is ready if you spin it with its long axis parallel to the ground and it rotates so that this axis is parallel, but I obviously need to carry out further research.

Finally, I’ve tried some interesting new meats in the last week. First off was what I believe was fried pig liver, though if I can trust my language skills I’m pretty sure there were also pieces of lung in the bowl, so I’m not completely sure what I ate. Next up were what I thought were mushrooms but turned out to be chicken gizzards. Taste was OK, texture another story. The week wrapped up with pigeons that Karen’s brother Kamo had shot while tilling their potato field. Boiled then fried, they tasted like chicken. City-dwellers, bear in mind how much delicious meat is out there on the wing.

Language fun facts

The words in Armenian for “east” and “west” are the reverse of what I’d expect. “East” is արևելք, (arevelk – “sun exit”), while “west” is արևմուտք (arevmootk – “sun entrance”). Seems that the point of view is the Earth’s instead of our own.

I have no way to confirm this number, but Karen tells me that Armenian and Hindi share one thousand words. Two of the most important I learned before even arriving: պանիր (paneer – cheese) and տոնիր (tonir – the clay ovens lavash is made in).


One Week in Sarnaghbyur

This first week has been a lot of PST detox; training was such an intense experience that it’s felt great to spend most of my time so far going on long solo walks in the hills around town and sitting around various kitchen tables just drinking coffee and sharing food with my host family, neighbors, and Karen and his family.

Congrats to the CYD team on swearing-in! Back row, l to r: Pat, Garrett, Stepan (our program manager), myself, Darryl, Stephen, and Oleg. Front row: Gwen, Emily, Kate, Sarah, Naomi, Anne, and Thong.

Saturday’s hike deserves particular mention – Karen, Dan (a fellow A24 PCV, teaching English down in Artik), and I hiked up into the hills east of town, where we came across a natural spring in the hills (called “milk spring” by the locals), then walked back into town through a gorge as a thunderstorm menaced overhead (and eventually broke over us our last fifteen minutes of walking). We were joined for the hike by Pumpkin, an adorable stray who lives somewhere in Karen’s yard and has taken to following me all around town. Pumpkin might have regretted joining us, as our descent into the gorge required a lot of portaging to get her over and around rocks that her little legs couldn’t handle.

Up in the hills east of town.
Portaging Pumpkin. Photo credit: Dan.
Hiking back to town through the gorge.

Additionally in my hikes I’ve met several gamprs, beautiful sheep dogs native to the Armenian highlands. They’re said to be a gentle and inquisitive breed, and the ones I’ve met out herding have backed that up. On the other side of the coin, I witnessed (from afar) my first dog fight in town the other day, between two gamprs on the soccer field – I didn’t get close, but saw a group of fifteen or twenty men standing in a circle shouting as the two dogs went at each other. Apparently it’s a big thing in town, though I’m not sure how widespread it is throughout the country.

Poor-quality phone shot of town from an overlook in the hills west of town, where I often walk in the morning.

The climate up here is just my cup of tea so far. Most mornings it’s in the high 40s or low 50s and sunny when I head out for a walk, and we’ve had a number of exciting afternoon thunderstorms. I’ve heard it doesn’t get much hotter than the 70s in the summer (which only lasts two months!), and while winters will be hard I feel prepared for them. Additionally, the air quality is better than it was down in Aralez; it’s a lot less dusty and there’s less burning organic matter, simply because there’s less growing (crops and weeds alike grow profusely down in Ararat marz). Finally, it’s quiet – generally you can hear a car somewhere, but this is usually drowned out by the town’s collective flock of birds, chickens, sheep, and cows. In sum, every morning as I step outside to use the outhouse I look around and appreciate how lucky I am to have ended up in such a beautiful place, surrounded by such kind people.

Other random thoughts…

I have a mailing address here now! Shoot me an email if you want it.

Also, because this is the first thing that EVERYONE asks about when you bring up Armenia, yes, Armenia TV is currently airing a Full House remake:

Today’s fun language facts:

When someone is lazy/doesn’t like to work, they’re called մուկ տշող (mook tshogh), or “mouse-kicker”. Apparently the etymology is you’re doing nothing more than sitting at home and kicking mice. Will definitely be using this one in English literally translated.

Armenian is rich in compound words that on their face are daunting, but lead to both extra language learning opportunities and oftentimes whimsical translations. For instance, the formal word for fork is պատառաքաղ (patarrakagh), which sounds like a mouthful. However, I was told that պատառ is “piece” and քաղել “to pick”, so in learning this word I picked up two others and enjoyed the funny literal translation “piece-picker”. Finally, this being Shirak marz, people also use the Turkish word, չանգյալ (changjal), which adds another layer to language learning.


Photo Duuuump

Now that I’m at site with reliable internet, have some photos! Will wrangle a more coherent text-based post about life so far here after I’ve settled in a bit and caught up on sleep post-PST.

Sidenote: I’ve apparently just accidentally deleted all previous photos I’d uploaded (not many, mostly of the states), so now I know how to not do that, I guess.

At swearing-in with Paytsar, my host mom (who is in general an incredibly smiley person, here caught in a serious look).
Waiting period during khorovats preparation – l to r host cousins Tigran and Garo (no clue where he got a New England Revolution jacket) and host brother Saco.
Liberating the khorovats from the tonir.
With an old butter churn and little host cousins Israel and Mariana.
Food preparation at Israel’s birthday party.
Host cat in Aralez – she hung around the bathroom a lot, so I called her Barf, after a popular Russian brand of cleaning products.
Standing on a rise overlooking Sarnaghbyur, my new home!
Karen fishing in the beautiful lake at the northern edge of Sarnaghbyur.
Sitting on the balcony of the village cultural center, the new location of Karen’s NGO. Working with four local young folks and PCV Olivia from the next town over (in epic hat).
Taking the old Soviet train back from Gyumri to Yerevan with Sarah, Thong, and Mary (not shown). It smelled like an old New England sleep-away camp.
With Karen post-swearing in!
Most of the men of the A24 group. Back row, l to r: Steven and Dan. Seated/laps: Me, Pat, Ben, Thong, Garrett, Oleg, Chibu, Chris, Stephen, and Justin. Front on ground: Mark.
And most of the women. Standing, l to r: Catherine, Kelsey, Sierra. Seated on bench/laps: Arielle, Alia, Emily, Naomi, Gwen, Tova, Holly, Mary, Sarah, and Melanie. Ground: Marie, Anne.
Garrett enjoying the views of Ararat from near Khor Virap.
Khash. Look it up and come to your own conclusions.