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.
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.
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).