Having had no particularly outlandish travel or events in the past couple of weeks, I figured a miscellaneous post of funny stories and cultural tidbits would be appropriate. As a disclaimer, I realize many of the cultural things I mention are generalizations and might not be accurate outside my village/marz.
-First Bell: school started on September 1st, the highlight being the “First Bell” ceremony in front of the school, where the recent kindergarten graduates showed up to be sorted into classes on the spot; they will remain in these classes, with the same classmates, for their entire twelve years at the school, so First Bell is sort of like Hogwarts’ sorting without the talking hat. The kids dress to the nines for the whole first week; to escort his older brother to school, my four-year-old neighbor Manvel wore a formal vest, black slacks, bowtie, and white polished fake alligator-skin shoes.
-Animal drama: one of my favorite things about village life is keeping up with the lives of my favorite local animals. Pumpkin, our favorite stray, just had a pair of puppies! She had foolishly stashed them in an old shed right by the road, so was chasing every passing car and barking like a maniac. I was certain she’d be run over, but thankfully Karen transplanted her and the pups to a bucolic hay-filled shed behind his papik’s house. In other news, Pushok (Karen’s family’s cat) is now a grandmother, as her daughter had a litter of four kittens who congregate around the family’s door and dash away as soon as you approach.
-Saying hello: one of the smaller cultural points that most interests me is that you only say “barev” (hello) to someone once a day, when you first see them – in subsequent meetings you either ignore them if just passing in the street, or dispense with the greeting if you’re having a conversation. I’ve had a hard time adapting to this, but everyone keeps saying “barev” back to me when I forget and greet them for the fifth time of the day; according to Karen no one cares much, they just think it’s slightly goofy. My host family and I have settled on the custom of using an English “hello” for greetings later in the day.
-Naming conventions: family names don’t pass directly between generations here, but rather skip one. For instance, Karen’s mom and his niece are both Anna.
-Notable fashion items: Yankees hats are everywhere in my town, and plenty of other places I’ve been to. I’m always wearing my Red Sox hat and tried to explain to the apparent Yankees supporters that our teams are bitter enemies, but I don’t think I got the point across. No one seems to know about baseball, it’s just an American culture statement along the lines of wearing a Los Angeles shirt, which you also see a lot of. In the bigger cities, Jack Daniels shirts for men are absolutely everywhere.
-Comparison/competitiveness: an extremely common question as soon as people find out you’re from America is “is here or there better?”. Usually I respond with a simple, “they’re both good, just different”. Also, I’m not exaggerating when I say that maybe 75% of initial conversations include getting asked “Hayastana lav na?” (literally “is Armenia good?”, which I’d translate less awkwardly to “how do you like Armenia?”). There’s obviously no proper response but, “It’s great, the fruit is the best in the world, the churches are beautiful, etc.”.
-Exciting air traffic: being less than 25 miles from Gyumri and 60 or so from Zvartnots (Yerevan’s airport, which I recently learned means “celestial wings”), we get a lot of planes overhead. Every day we have standard commercial civilian air traffic, but randomly a couple of times a week we also get Armenian and Russian fighter jets flying low overhead from their respective military bases outside Gyumri. Anyone outside generally stops and watches anytime this happens (and it is pretty cool, as sometimes they’ll fly over in groups of four to six in tight formation); there’s also a pilot from our village (naturally we’re relatives – I think he’s my host brother-in-law’s cousin) who likes to fly extremely low to say hello; the first time I experienced this it was so loud I thought we were being bombed or shelled and ducked inside the doorway of Karen’s house for cover. Naturally as I finished this sentence four more jets flew over.
-Car safety: seatbelts, especially in older cars, are pretty rare, and almost unheard of for back seat passengers. A common setup in the villages is husband driving, wife in back seat holding baby, and anywhere from one to three little kids standing on the floorboards in front of the front passenger seat with their faces pressed to the window and windshield. I’d be curious to see if carseats are a thing in Yerevan.
-A very Armenian afternoon: after a great weekend visiting my friend Mary up in Torosgyugh (a bustling metropolis of 250 on a good day), we hitch-hiked into Gyumri, the only way out of her village if you’re not carpooling with someone you know, so that I could catch my marshutni home. We got picked up by an older man who proceeded to whip out his smartphone to show us pictures of his grandchildren while weaving back and forth in the road down the treacherous mountain pass into the plains surrounding Gyumri. Later, after exiting a bookstore in Gyumri, a young blond-haired man followed us out; my first thought was, “wow, that guy’s jacked”, my second, “wait a minute, that’s Armenia’s first gold medalist since 1996, Artur Aleksanyan”; pictures naturally ensued. Finally, I got into a good conversation with some older guys at the Gyumri bus station later that afternoon. After the usual discussion about family, are you married, where is your son serving in the military, etc., one of the men asked me simply, “do you like old things?”. When I responded that yes, of course I like old things, he climbed up into his shortly-departing bus, rummaged around in his bag, and came back with a beautiful old mini-jazzve for me (see picture below). I promised I’d take it back to the States for single cup coffee-making and think of him whenever I brewed up a cup of Armenian coffee.
-Holidays with little warning: yesterday, on the 9th, we received an email from our country director: “You are all probably already aware, but we wanted to make sure that you knew that it was recently announced by the Armenian government that Monday, Sept 12 will be a national holiday and all schools, banks, etc. will be closed on this day. Schools will be expected to ‘make up’ this day on Saturday Sept 17.” Apparently this sort of thing is quite common, and luckily for TEFL volunteers they are not expected to work on Saturdays, so they get random three-day weekends.
Armenians are generally more direct in speech than Americans, not hesitating to say “I’m bad” when you ask them how they are, and preferring to say “I am sick” over the less definite English “I feel sick”. I was fascinated to learn the word զգալ, zgal, “to feel”, the other day – you can only use it to say “I feel bad” or “I feel good” – it’s a binary with no other allowed usages. I have nothing profound to follow this, I just think it’s fascinating that those are the only two adjectives you can use with this verb.