Before leaving for Armenia nearly a year and a half (!) ago I wrote this list of what I looked forward to most about my time here. Below I reflect on this. Let the rambles begin!
- 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.
This has been without a doubt the most positive aspect of my time in Armenia so far. Armenian hospitality has been as advertised, and the family/group focus of the culture here has impressed me from day one; I know this is one of the things I’ll miss most back in the States. Likewise, the feeling of shared culture and history here (while naturally having its own downsides of cultural homogeneity) is powerful.
A couple of cultural anecdotes:
One of my friends was looking for an apartment in her city to move into after the required three-month stay with a host family. She found an apartment, came to view it, and was warmly invited in for coffee and conversation for a half hour. Asking about the rent, she met blank stares. Turns out the apartment for rent was next door. But no problem, these people had seen a random foreigner show up, and their reaction without a second thought was to invite her in for coffee and hospitality, no questions asked.
In a neighboring village during pre-service training, a beat-up old Lada approached a group of volunteers, driven by an old man none of them recognized. He welcomed them to Armenia and forced a handful of candy on them. In America we avoid candy-bearing strangers, but here? No, you take the candy, thank the person, and eat it. Nothing to worry about.
- 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 as of last April: I expect to eat my body weight in lavash several times over in my time here].
This has been an interesting one, mostly because I learned very quickly that diasporan and local Armenian food are fairly different; with many American diasporan families having found their way to the states via the Middle East, in retrospect this shouldn’t be surprising. I think the majority of people in my village wouldn’t know what hummus is; that said, there are a lot of diasporan restaurants in Yerevan, so I can easily get my falafel fix.
Another contrast I hadn’t counted on is that between traditional Armenian and Soviet food. Especially on the carbohydrate front, a lot of staples here are cheap and filling holdovers from the Soviet era, such as boiled macaroni stir-fried in butter. This said, traditional in-country Armenian food is delicious. My lavash consumption has slowed a bit since my village doesn’t have any of the in-ground tonirs traditionally used to make lavash, and ours thus comes less tastily out of the modern electric ovens of Vanadzor, but I still put away a fair amount of it. In the meantime, at every opportunity I eat dolma and khorovats, the Armenian barbecue. Top this off with the tangy local cheese, delicious juices, and a variety of canned pickles and other vegetables still left over from the winter, and I eat quite well. I know one of the hardest transitions back to American life will be the comparative anonymity of the food I eat. Especially this time of year all fruits and veggies come from within 100 miles, and all of our meat is from within the village; it takes a lot more work to eat this way back home.
- 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 as of last April: 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].
I got lucky in this regard. My first site outside Gyumri was pretty in an austere, windswept sort of way, and now I live in arguably one of the most beautiful villages in the country. I could have easily lived in the baking, flat Ararat valley or the rocky hills of Armavir marz where you can’t drink the water because of all the heavy metals left over from the Soviet era. Thanks to Border to Border and Kim’s visit I’ve also gotten to see large swathes up and down the region and been consistently impressed with the beauty and variety here, especially within such a small country.
- 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).
This has been without question one of my favorite parts about my time here. I work hard at regularly improving my Armenian, from making daily word flash cards to diving into the local poetry and newspapers to discussing nerdy grammar topics with my Armenian friends over Facebook. I’m definitely conversationally fluent at this point, and “professionally” so in the right contexts.
Armenian grammar, while difficult, has come to me fairly naturally (aided, oddly enough, by my previous Latin study, especially with regards to noun cases and their usage). Expanding my vocabulary has been harder, mainly because of the lack of obvious cognates with English; each word takes up that much more mental space and energy to learn and retain (for instance, it’s a lot quicker to learn that “escuela” in Spanish means school; “դպրոց [dprots]” in Armenian takes longer to stick in there). My Armenian ability also varies a lot throughout the day based on fatigue, caffeine levels, stress, etc. Another interesting and minor difficulty is that because of how few foreigners speak Armenian, very few people here are used to regularly hearing their native language spoken with an unfamiliar accent (whereas we of course in the States are quite used to hearing English spoken non-natively), which adds another small barrier to mutual comprehension.
Beyond the fun of diving into the national poetry and pulling tidbits out of the local newspapers (how else would I know with any authority when the potholes will supposedly be fixed?), the most rewarding part of learning the language is the response it elicits in Armenians. Given that Armenian is not exactly a globally influential language, there’s little reason to learn it beyond simply wanting to communicate with Armenians. Additionally, over the country’s centuries of subjugation to stronger regional powers, the language and the Church have been two of the main pillars of Armenian-ness, so the language carries more cultural and historical weight than in other countries. All this adds up to beaming smiles when you so much as introduce yourself in Armenian. Very rewarding!
- 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.
This has largely been the case, though a bit less so given that I’ve ended up living with my wonderful host family the whole time here apart from my ill-advised two months alone in the middle of winter; I exchanged some solo time for watching Indian soap operas dubbed into Armenian together and lackadaisical coffee sessions with a slate of entertaining family and town stories (for instance, this week I found out the back stories behind Emilia’s and her siblings’ names).
I still have a fair amount of alone time, given that I wake up earlier than my family and aim for near-daily walks in the hills around the village. I’ve been (by my standards) burning through books, especially since the end of Border to Border. Recently I’ve read the Fellowship of the Ring, am working on a book about Turkish-Armenian relations post-Genocide, and am nearly done with A Handmaid’s Tale.
While in general I appreciate this solo time, sometimes it gets to be a bit much and I find myself slipping into negative mental and/or emotional patterns, such as fixating on and stewing over certain stresses in my life. Luckily I have a wonderful new sitemate, Lauren, and hikes and baking sessions with her have been a great way to hang out and break out of some of these patterns, which to me feel inevitable living abroad in a foreign culture. All you can do is come up with and follow your coping strategies, which I’ve gotten better at in my time here.
- 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.
I don’t even know where to begin with this one – the amount of random in my life has increased by orders of magnitude over my desk job life back in Boston. Part of this is a natural result of our work schedule; because Emilia has so many other demands on her time (including being a mother and a member of the village’s board of elders), our work schedule is extremely varied, so it’s a lot harder to get into a daily routine, which has been hard for me in certain ways, but overall is healthy and keeps life here more interesting.
In the social sphere Armenian culture also relies much less on advanced planning, so essentially at any moment between 8 AM and 10 PM neighbors, friends, and relatives can (and will) show up at the house for coffee and conversation. Naturally also not speaking the language fluently inhibits my understanding of any plans and thus increases the feeling of randomness for me, though a popular pondering question among volunteers is whether we’d actually know what was going on any more if we fully spoke the language – like, is it just us not comprehending what’s being said, or is there actually no real plan for this afternoon and everyone is just going with the flow and not worrying about that?
In reaction to this I’m a lot more flexible and easy-going when it comes to plans and time than I was in the States, a welcome change. Volunteers love to discuss the extent to which personality changes here are “permanent” or simply cultural – i.e., are we just temporarily conforming to local culture with our flexibility, or is this some meaningful internal change that we’ll carry back to our lives at home? I certainly hope the latter in this case.
- 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.
This has without question been true. I wouldn’t change a thing about my host family, but it’s a constant low-level stress to live immersed in a different culture, as every action and communication requires more care and thought; when I spend time in Yerevan with other Americans, I feel the weight of the emotional and mental armor I wear lifted. I don’t mean this at all negatively; this is what I signed up for and wanted. As my uncle Don said, the wheels are always turning; I can feel myself growing, mentally and emotionally, so much more rapidly than I ever have back home, in response to the constant challenge of living in another culture. As I see it, the greater the challenge, the greater the opportunity for growth; embracing this mindset has been vital for staying healthy and happy here.
That’s all for now – next week I’ll revisit my pre-service post of what I expected to miss most during my time here.