The parents recently (and by “recently” I mean a month and a half ago, I occasionally procrastinate writing blog posts) visited for an action-packed ten days of sight-seeing, meeting the Armenian family, and trying every food under the Armenian sun. I’ll keep the description short and let the pictures do the talking.
We began the visit with a restful day in Yerevan – recovering from jet lag induced by an eight-hour time difference, eating at some go-to spots (e.g. Green Bean, Yerevan’s most western-style café but still boasting some tasty Armenian dishes, so a good transition for newly-arrived folks), and putzing around to the required beautiful Yerevan sites such as the Cascade. We were lucky enough to have a clear day, providing great views of Ararat (see picture below – many major streets, and the steps of the Cascade, are oriented to point towards the sacred mountain).
From Yerevan it was south to Goris, where with our excellent local guide Ara we saw a variety of sites, including but not limited to: Karahunj/Armenian Stonehenge; Shaki waterfall; Vorotnavank monastery; the cave city of old Khndzoresk; and of course, beautiful Tatev monastery. I appreciate every opportunity to feel like a tourist in Armenia, especially in an area so beautiful and full of fascinating old sites as the Goris region. As when Kim visited back in May, we stayed at the “barrel houses” near Tatev, and were lucky enough to have Mary taxi up to join us for a dinner overlooking the gorge.
From Goris it was up to Margahovit, where we had a very accurate Armenian village experience: day one was spent entirely at a barbecue up in the valley overlooking the village, and day two was spent mostly paying house calls to my important Margahovit people – Emilia, her in-laws (fellow volunteer Lauren’s host family), and Lena. We also went on a different beautiful hike everyday, and on our last morning before departing ate khash, the classic and very polarizing Caucasian broth of boiled cows’ hooves.
Finally, we paid a visit to my PST host family in Aralez, with lots of getting to know each other, strolls around the expansive garden and, you guessed it, more tasty food.
So, all in all, a very full and wide-ranging visit packed into ten days. I head to Greece next week to see Kim, then will be home for two weeks at the end of January. Next blog post will be about our ongoing work in the village, including our plans for a very cool camp for local girls coming up!
A lot of Peace Corps volunteers midway through service reflect on their original packing list, what they shouldn’t have brought, and what’s been invaluable. I’m too lazy for a full census, so I’ll just list a few of my Peace Corps “MVPs”, items/clothing/less tangible things that have been key parts of my service. Not trying to sell you anything here, just giving credit where credit is due.
Laptop: as I’m writing this blog post on it, might as well start here. Right before leaving I bought a Lenovo X260 for $800, and have never regretted it. It won’t win any speed awards and my music skips if I pick it up too suddenly, but it’s simple, light, and compact. And while some understandably view its black, angular aesthetic as boring and decidedly unsexy, I appreciate the lack of flash in that it doesn’t draw attention to me in a place where an iPhone can get a volunteer a lot of generally unwanted attention from kids.
Kindle: I’ll just keep going with the electronics. As a Luddite and lover of paper things of all sorts, I was skeptical of the Kindle at first, but its served me faithfully since my cross-country Amtrak journey. While it certainly does feel better and more “right” reading an actual paper book, I love that I can carry my Kindle anywhere, read easily without holding a book open (yikes, life is difficult), and buy new books whenever I want. I also appreciate how easy it is to take notes and save them to my computer for later when I want to look back over what I’ve read.
Skype: Skype is a miracle. Being 8,000 miles away from friends, family, and girlfriend is still difficult, but every Skype session is a huge mood boost. Sometimes I wonder whether integration in my community would be easier or deeper without the internet and the connection of Skype (and email, Facebook, etc.) to the wider world, but you know what, if that’s the price of easily talking with loved ones back home, it’s worth it.
Quality windows: Armenian apartments in the old Soviet buildings are generally pretty identical from the outside, but you can tell a lot about a family’s socioeconomic status from the quality of their windows. In a country where winter can last six months, if you have the money, you buy good windows. The house where I lived solo for two months last winter had single-pane windows with a few cracks here and there, and occasionally on a cold night I’d hear the wind howl outside and shortly after feel a light breeze across my face; not so great. My host folks’ house has double-pane European windows, ensuring a cool house in the summer and a toasty one even in the depths of winter. I never thought I’d have such strong opinions on windows, but Peace Corps is truly a life-changing experience.
Giant winter coat: sort of like a well-insulated, high-quality window you wrap yourself in. I picked up my winter coat in Tbilisi at Zara while on vacation, and it kept me warm and toasty all winter, and lurks in my closet, waiting for the arrival of, well, probably mid-October. While living on my own last winter, I frankly felt warmer outside in my giant coat than inside, even with my wood stove roaring. When wearing this coat I feel like a snuggly little penguin hiding inside a battle tank.
Dark Clothing: Armenian culture places a higher value on cleanliness and neat clothing than American, and I can be a pretty uncoordinated eater and holder of dirtying things. So, dark clothing as much as possible. For all you know, the clothes in the below picture might be covered in stains. Let’s be real, they probably are.
Salomon trail running/hiking shoes: my second pair of XA Pro 3Ds is nearing the end of its life, and I’ve already got a third pair stashed for the rest of my time here. I wear these all the time – for hiking in the hills around town, walking Border to Border, and for going essentially everywhere in wintertime as long as there’s less than a foot of snow on the roads.
Journal: Peace Corps pushes you to develop stronger personal coping mechanisms for the variety of daily challenges volunteers face (indeed, this was a big draw for me). I’ve always been a healthy journalier, but being over here has pushed me to write at least a half page a day to both stay mentally/emotionally healthy and, perhaps just as importantly, to log funny and exciting things. I look forward to revisiting these journals over the years to reflect on the challenges I overcame here and revisit the daily hijinks.
Armenian coffee: Հայկական սուրճ (haykakan surj), traditionally called Turkish coffee back home, often diplomatically called Eastern coffee in certain restaurants here. Standard “American” coffee (i.e. drip) is pretty strong for me, so while I need the morning coffee infusion it often leaves me jittery and anxious afterwards. Armenian coffee has enough caffeine to properly wake me up, and little enough that I can drink three or four cups of it a day without negative effect. While a lot of the beauty of the Armenian coffee experience is that it’s traditionally shared instead of drunk alone, I hope to convert friends, family, and coworkers back in America to it. My current plan back in the States is to grind and brew Dunkin’ in the Haykakan style, a perfect blend of various significant life influences.
Before coming to Armenia I wrote this list of people, places, things, and abstract concepts I thought I’d miss. Let’s reflect!
Family, friends, girlfriend, other myriad loved and liked ones – pretty straightforward and fundamental. Having spent more than 20 years in Boston, I’ve got a deep social and support network of the old and the new.
This has definitely been difficult, though frankly, Skype and email are a miracle. Since coming here I’ve gotten both Facebook and a smartphone, so in some ways I’m actually more connected to people than I was back home.
I’ve also been lucky that I’ve gotten to travel to France to see Kim (we’re currently planning a trip to Greece in November) and been able to show her Armenia. My parents are also coming in a couple of weeks for a ten-day visit. I’ve also gotten to see members of the Zarougian/Saryan family multiple times, a nice reminder of home. One of the harder things has been not meeting my now 15-month old niece in person, only over Skype, though I’ll meet her in person for the first time on a trip home in January.
In sum, this has been difficult, but thanks to modern technology and a range of visits it’s been completely doable.
The Northeast, and America in general – I’ve had the privilege to see a lot of this country, and I’ll miss it in the two years I’m gone (assuming I don’t visit at some point), particularly my stomping grounds throughout the greater Boston area, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
In general I miss the size and diversity of America. Armenia is roughly the size of Maryland, with two long closed borders (Turkey to the west, Azerbaijan to the east), so it can start to feel claustrophobic after almost a year and a half here. As I wrote in my previous post, Armenia’s geographical diversity is impressive, particularly for its size, but I still miss the American landscape. I particularly miss the ethnic diversity of the United States – Armenia is more than 97% ethnically Armenian (which is actually a fairly recent phenomenon, due in large part to big population movements following the breakup of the Soviet Union – at the start of the twentieth century, the world’s two biggest Armenian centers were Tbilisi and Istanbul), while I come from a fairly diverse city back home.
My bicycles – from what I’ve heard, cycling in Armenia is either dangerous or pointless (i.e. it’d be faster to walk up that rutted dirt road than to ride it). My bikes are both inanimate objects and dear friends, and I anticipate missing them quite a lot while gone.
I definitely miss my bikes, though not nearly as much as I’d expected to, in large part because the hiking in my region is so great that I never lack for outdoor adventure. We see a fair number of touring cyclists in Lori marz in the summer, but I’m not terribly jealous, as I’ve been able to explore the country extensively in other ways.
The Red Sox – I’m a bit bitter over having to leave right at the start of baseball season. It’s also a shame to miss Ortiz’ last year and what will likely be the best years of David Price. It’s possible that I’ll have good enough internet to watch some games on my laptop (and certainly stream the radio feed), but a 7 PM East Coast start time equates to 3 AM in Armenia. We’ll see how dedicated/crazy I am.
First of all, replace “David Price” with “Chris Sale” (though Sale is with us at least through 2019!). With early wakeups in the summer I’ve been able to catch the end of plenty of games on the radio, with an inordinate number of thrilling walk-off wins lately. West coast games start at 6 AM Armenia time, so I’ve also been able to hear some full games in the right circumstances. A long playoff run this October, which would necessitate a whole lot of 3-4 AM wake-ups, could test me.
Being generally understood by others – obviously more complex conversations will be necessary to make friends with Armenians and understand them on a deeper level, and in the beginning I anticipate feeling more isolated when all I can say is, “No, I don’t like walnuts”, or “This is our cat Rose, she is fat and angry”.
On the linguistic side this is no longer a big stress, as I speak pretty decent Armenian; that said, speaking (I like to think) comprehensible Armenian still takes a lot of work, so sometimes I’m just too tired, stressed, etc. to be able to communicate effectively in the language as I would like. Frankly, sometimes it’s fun to not understand the conversation, plans, etc., because then whatever happens is a fun surprise (with the proper mindset, of course, which isn’t always possible to hold).
Anonymity – especially if I’m in a smaller town/village, but even in bigger cities, I imagine it’ll be hard to blend in for those times when I just want to go for a walk to the store or a hike in the hills without saying good afternoon to fifteen people and being invited inside for coffee by most of them. I realize that I’m complaining about the level of hospitality and kindness I expect to find in Armenia, but as someone in the middle of the introvert-extrovert spectrum sometimes I just want to walk with my thoughts.
This can definitely be difficult, especially living in a village. While most of the time I love that the kids, shopkeepers, and tatiks all know me, sometimes I miss the anonymity of living in a big city. Living in a village as one of only two Americans can feel claustrophobic, but it’s easy for me to go for errands into the nearby cities of Dilijan or Vanadzor, where I have more anonymity, or for a walk in the hills above town, usually quiet but for the shepherds and their flocks. And I’m sure that as soon as I move home I’ll miss saying hello to everyone in the street and on the bus.
Familiar liberal gender roles – having lived in extremely liberal places my entire life, I expect to have some trouble with what I’ve heard are strongly defined traditional gender roles in most Armenian households. Beyond the difficulty of seeing what I might consider to be forms of oppression, I imagine I may have to cut back on some of my more traditionally feminine hobbies, such as cooking, cleaning, embroidering, and painting my toenails.
This has definitely been hard in certain ways, living in a patriarchal culture. That said, I live with a liberal family; for instance, my host dad was a cook at the village restaurant during the Soviet era, and so when my host mom had to go to Yerevan for an extended period of time in April to help with a sick family member, my host dad did all the cooking (he made the most delicious chicken noodle soup I’ve ever had) and he and I split the dish washing. My host mom doesn’t bat an eye when I want to cook something. And while I haven’t given anyone here a cross-stitch present yet, I know the response will not be, “this is women’s work and shameful that you did it” but probably, “OK, this is kind of weird, but thanks, I guess”.
Pets – various cats and dogs are an important part of my life. I have no idea if household pets are a thing in Armenia, and if so how they are treated. On a related note, this is a fantastic public Facebook page of photos and stories about their pets submitted by volunteers over the years.
In general pets are not as much a thing here, and I’ve never known an Armenian family with an indoor cat or dog outside of Yerevan. I’ve been lucky, though, as my Aralez host family had a sweet cat, my host family here has an awesome dog, and Emilia’s family has both a dog and a cat.
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.
So I’ve been too lazy to write this post for several weeks, but I figured I should before my next international travel (headed to Germany in a week to see Joe, my brother-in-law!). Because there’s still plenty of laziness in my system, I’ll give the briefest of textual overviews of this trip, then let a slew of pictures do the talking. Whew, time for a coffee break after all that writing.
I spent five days in Paris with Kim, where we stayed at an Air B+B in Montmartre and spent our time putzing around the city, seeing approx. one important landmark per day, and eating all the food. Obviously it was moderately nice to see her after almost ten months apart, and I’m psyched that she’ll be visiting Armenia in less than two months! From Paris I took the speedy train to Marseilles to spend a few days with our dear family friends Martha and Francois, who showed me around their lovely city and stuffed me full of delicious food and personal warmth.
Naturally it was pretty hard coming back from vacation to mid-winter Armenia, but as I said in my previous post I quickly moved back in with my old host family, which proved (not surprisingly) a fantastic decision. I’ll likely move back out for the spring-fall in about a month, assuming spring arrives more or less on time.
Whew, I’m exhausted from all that writing. Look at some pictures now.
One of these days I’ll catch up with my blog so that I’m not always posting about things a month after they happen…
The winter holidays in Armenia are quite different from back in the States, and I’d been hearing about them since I arrived nearly a year (!) ago. First of all, Christmas (Սուրբ Ծնունդ, Surp Tsnund, literally “holy birthday”), is celebrated January 6th, and is a much milder affair than American Christmas, usually just involving a trip to the village church. Nor Tari (new year) is the main event, running from midnight on New Year’s Eve (when the town’s citizens with their own money put on one heck of a fireworks show) more or less all the way to Surp Tsnund.
At the center of Nor Tari is the dining room table, piled high with food and drinks. People pull out all the stops, serving caviar, pork thigh, expensive cognac, and crocodile meat (if you’re an oligarch). Additionally, family members exchange small gifts – my host folks gave me new slippers, I gave various family members framed family pictures and maple syrup sent from home, and Emilia gave me an impressive switchblade (this was definitely Alik’s idea, see below).
All week, people are out and about, visiting their friends, neighbors, and family, dropping in to eat and drink. All of this visiting was simultaneously lovely and exhausting; it was a great way to get to know my neighbors better and share an important Armenian experience with my friends and family here, but by the end of the week those volunteers who had stayed in our villages for Nor Tari (many, particularly English teachers, vacation abroad during Nor Tari) agreed that the first verse of “Who Can It Be Now?” accurately captured our mindsets. Nor Tari is also notorious among volunteers for provoking gastrointestinal issues, and I’ll just say I found this accurate and leave it at that.
Nor Tari also includes visits to the town cemetery on what seemed like everyone’s part, either on the 2nd or 7th (there’s a debate which I don’t fully understand about which is the proper day to visit). Additionally, families who have had a death in the previous year do not put up the generally lavish Nor Tari decorations (though they still set a full table), nor do they make wide social circuits during the week, but rather stay at home to receive visitors. I’ll try to remember to take and post pictures of the cemetery at a later date, as it’s one of the most beautiful spots in town with some of the best mountain and forest views; Armenian cemeteries also differ from American ones in that detailed portraits of the deceased are carved into the gravestones.
While Nor Tari is a treasured Armenian holiday, I heard a wide range of opinions on it from folks I talked to. Teenagers and younger kids expressed pretty unanimous love for it, but older folks, particularly the women, who end up doing most if not all of the food preparation and cleaning (which is an all-day task, as people can come over pretty much anytime between 10 AM and PM), expressed mixed views. The main critiques were that everything took up so much time, everyone has the same things to eat on their table every year, and that some people go into debt to set a suitably extravagant table (my table, pictured below, was a comparatively modest affair).
Another interesting aspect of the holidays was seeing how into the Chinese Zodiac Armenia gets. 2017 is the year of the rooster, and such decorations abounded. My favorite manifestation of this is the calendars sold everywhere leading up to Nor Tari, featuring chickens and roosters photoshopped (and photoshopped well, these are no amateur jobs) into a variety of humorous situations: soloing on guitar in front of a roaring crowd, watering a money tree, etc. You really can’t afford not to pick up one of these calendars for the roughly fifty cent going price.
Finally, as a sidenote, I moved back in with my host folks after I came back from France (which will be my next blog post whenever I get to it) in the middle of January. I anticipate living with them through the end of March, or whenever it gets a bit warmer. I love the house I was living in, and it’ll be perfect the rest of the year, but it’s just too cold and lonely in the winter; Emilia’s response to my wanting to move back was a patient, “we told you it was hard to live alone in the winter”, which led to a great discussion of American individualism v. Armenian collectivism. I’m incredibly grateful to my wonderful host family for taking me back in and continuing to feed me so well and keep the house comfortably heated (and my moving timeline was ideal, as three days after I moved it snowed almost two feet). So rest assured, anyone who was understandably worried about me freezing to death this winter, I’m warm again.
Emilia’s daughters were being a bit raucous recently, and to get them to quiet down Alik shouted something like, “Ձուացել!” (if I heard it right – dzuatsel). Chickens are extra talkative before they lay an egg, then quiet down, and I’d translate this phrase roughly as, “go lay an egg already!”. Love it.
“Nick, they’re killing the pig now, come quick!” Never a dull moment here – weeks ago I’d told my counterpart Emilia that I wanted to help out killing the family’s pig for the upcoming Nor Tari (New Year) celebrations, and I got the call out of nowhere at 2 o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon. I’d wanted to help with slaughtering as well, but by the time I arrived the pig was just about dead.
The first step of the butchering was to remove the pig’s hair and upper layer of skin, first by lightly blowtorching all surfaces, then scraping them down with a knife. This accomplished, we charred the pig’s body a deep black and let it sit for fifteen or twenty minutes. At this point, we covered the carcass with a cloth and dumped water over everything, then scratched off the rest of the pig’s skin with the knives. Then things really got going, as Artur, Emilia’s brother-in-law, disemboweled the pig and separated everything out while we held the body upright on the table. We then carried the pieces back into their house and separated them out further, part held aside for later, part put immediately over coals to khorovel (grill).
The khorovats was absolutely delicious, but the experience was not surprisingly extremely visceral (literally, viscera everywhere). Following this dinner we went over to Emilia’s folks’ house to celebrate her brother’s birthday, where we were naturally greeted by more pork khorovats. Again, all meat consumed was very tasty, but I think at this point I need a little break to get the pork out of my system, physically and emotionally.
Other random thoughts below…
Throughout the process the other animals were naturally quite interested as well – the family’s ducks, geese, and chicken quickly came over and started pecking through the gore for I don’t know what exactly. The nearby dogs got the unwanted viscera free of charge, but Vazgen, Emilia’s family’s cat, showed no interest in the proceedings after Alik carried him over for a look.
Once or twice I thought, “well, if I injure myself grievously in Armenia it’ll be while working side-by-side with two 13-year old boys wielding blowtorches and knives whose language I know alright at best”, but Hayk and Narik (neighbor or more-distant relative, not sure which, likely both) definitely knew what they were doing and we all worked well together.
Finally, I had interesting conversations with Emilia and her family before and during the butchering process; I worried that people thought I was morbid or extra odd given that I specifically requested to help with the pig take-apart, but I explained as best I could how separate animal and meat are in (especially urban) America and how I wanted to better understand and feel the connection, and I think I got my point across.
About a month ago I moved out on my own, into my host family’s old house. It’s been a bit of a struggle so far against the winter, as the house feels (and retains heat) like a rustic old New England lakeside cabin. That said, overall it’s been a positive experience and I’m getting more and more comfortable with the space every day. Some details below on the realities of independent living, in descending order of importance.
I’m choosing to be a woodsy grouch and heat just with wood for as long as possible (I ordered what I was told is enough for six months, but I’ll stress about that until it’s late April and I still have a giant pile of wood left). I have gas and electric heaters I can use, but they’re more expensive and don’t fit as much with my image of what I wanted my independent Peace Corps living to be (which is certainly to my detriment on the evenings when my stove takes a half hour to get a good burn going). I’ve been spending a couple hours three or four mornings a week chopping and am almost halfway through; I’d forgotten how much I love chopping, and am looking forward to doing it under more comfortable conditions next year when I’m able to buy my wood before November.
My living/sleeping space is naturally the room with the stove, and I spend at least 80% of my indoor waking hours at home within four feet of it. It can be a little frustrating to light (though I have a handy wood chips and kerosene mixture supplied by my host dad), but once going puts off great heat and folksy noises. Plus, Lena (our village’s awesome karate teacher) taught me and Kelsey (in town last week) how to make stove-top grilled potatoes, which I’m sure will become a winter staple.
I’ve also resigned myself to wearing long johns at all times for the next four months, and I never have fewer than three layers on up top. The recent shipment of Darn Tough socks from my parents have been a godsend, and I’m considering a hot water bottle purchase. So in spite of some grumbling, I’m staying warm enough.
Food and Cooking
This has been one of the harder transitions, in part because my host family here fed me so well, but moreso because the kitchen is not practical to heat, so cooking and washing dishes can be… invigorating. Most mornings my sunflower seed oil is frozen and I’ve almost wiped out several times slipping on ice on the floor, but on the upside I don’t need to plug in my fridge! And whereas the living room is where I spend 95% of my waking hours right now, I expect the kitchen to take over that role in the warmer months, as it’s a great room apart from the chill.
My cooking so far has been pretty basic – a lot of oatmeal, eggs, bread, and cheese, though I’ve also made a giant pot of beans which kept me going in style for nearly a week. And while I like living alone as a man in part to show that men can cook adequately for themselves, there are definite upsides to the community assumption that I’m incompetent in the kitchen – I’ve already gotten a ton of free food and had multiple people come over to teach me certain dishes (though I should add that volunteers have this experience regardless of gender, so maybe it’s purely hospitality, not doubts about my abilities).
This is where things get a bit dicey. My shower is a water tank with a spigot at the top and a space underneath to build a fire, outdoor in a shed, so it’s safe to say I won’t be testing that for a while. I shave and shampoo a couple of times a week with the water I heat up on my stove, but full-body showers in my house will be limited to baby wipes for the winter. That said, at most every two weeks, generally every week, I’m visiting a place with a shower I can use, so I’ll never go too long, and most Armenians I’ve talked to say they shower once a week in the winter, so in the relative scheme I’m not doing too bad.
Clothes are no problem – I have a washing machine, though the output hose freezes in colder weather, so more often than not I just wash by hand on a sunny morning and throw the clothes out on the line, hoping the sun dries them out before the air freezes them (this time of year it’s a toss-up, I’m sure the air will win out later in winter).
My main worry about solo winter living was getting lonely, but this doesn’t look like it’ll be a problem. Most days Emilia and I work out of her living room (our top priority at this point being renovating a space for the NGO, more on that in a later post!), so I get plenty of goofy time with her and her two awesome daughters and the various relatives who wander in and out throughout the day. I have coffee or a meal with my host folks once or twice a week, almost daily English clubs with kids and adults, and have coffee invitations from all my neighbors that I need to follow through on. And since having my own space I find I have more social energy when I’m out, so the time I spend with folks in town is more meaningful.
As I said above, I have no regrets about moving out on my own, but living alone in an Armenian winter is giving me much more appreciation for the Armenian collectivist/family-centric culture and more insight into how my American tendencies, particularly preference for independent living, can make my life a lot more difficult. That is, part of me wishes I didn’t have the urge to “prove myself” by living alone here through the winter, though I know my desire to live alone goes beyond that to encompass my preferences for how I spend my time, getting to cook for myself, etc. I just keep telling myself that this house and living setup will be perfect April-October and try not to remember that 2/3 of my remaining time in Armenia falls outside those months.
We got somewhere between a foot and a half and two feet of snow in the last 36 hours. Some pictures below!
I’ve yet to knowingly eat it, but I was just told about an Armenian soup, աջապ սանդալ (ajap sandal), that sounds like whatever you’ve got in the fridge thrown into a pot – some meat, a bunch of veggies, some kind of carbs, etc. More interestingly, if you’ve got a lot on your mind (though not necessarily in a bad/stressed-out way) you can say, “there’s ajap sandal in my head”. Keeping the food theme I’d translate this as, “I’ve got a lot on my plate”.
Another great pickup recently was բիզբիզ (beezbeez) which, at least when applied to hair (not sure if you can use it for other things), means “in disarray”. I do my best here with the comb, but this word is still useful for me on a daily basis.
Note: some photo credits to me, some to Kelsey, some to Tiana. Sorry guys, I have a hard time remembering which to whom.
I recently got back from a week and a half of work travel and much-needed vacation to Georgia with some friends; I’d been planning to take a leisurely trip down south the first week of October, but instead found myself changing sites, a naturally stressful experience in spite of the awesomeness of my new site, counterpart, host family, etc. Before heading north to Georgia, Kelsey and I ventured down to Yeghegnadzor (which volunteers understandably abbreviate to “Yeg”), to meet with Syunik NGO, our partner organization for the Border to Border project, for which Kelsey and I were recently named this year’s program managers (more on Border to Border in a subsequent post!). We then spent a day in Yerevan getting massages and meeting with Peace Corps staff about the project, specifically how we can integrate it with Peace Corps Armenia’s 25th (!) anniversary in the country next year.
The trip to and from Tbilisi is very manageable, and I’ll recommend everyone who visits add it to their itinerary. The five-hour shared taxi ride will set you back less than $20, though you’ll have to be fairly insistent with the driver to take the slightly longer central route via Vanadzor to avoid the eastern route through Noyemberyan, which occasionally takes some small-arms fire from across the nearby border with Azerbaijan. We didn’t investigate hostel or hotel options in the city, but opted for an Air B+B that worked out to $10-$15 per person per night.
Tiana, Steven, and Mary were only able to stay a few days in Tbilisi before heading back home, and we spent those days taking long walks through the city, eating surprisingly cheap and delicious food, and making daily pilgrimages to Dunkin’ Donuts. We explored the beautiful botanical gardens, took the cable car down from the old fortress overlooking the city, and ate way too many khingali, the classic Georgian dumpling (and which in Tbilisi you can easily make a meal of for only $2). Evenings were generally low-key, with movies and American junk food back at the Air B+B. My and Kelsey’s subsequent days followed a pretty similar trajectory, though we generally spent our mornings at a heavenly coffee shop with Border to Border work (best coffee I’ve had since leaving the States, and we took its name Double B as fortuitous for Border to Border productivity). We also took the funicular up to the sprawling and slightly bizarre amusement park overlooking the city, where we rode the biggest, slowest ferris wheel I’d ever seen.
Tbilisi is a gorgeous city; Yerevan’s buildings tend to blend together to me (in large part because such a huge percentage of them are made of tufa stone), but Tbilisi has a more varied look. Tbilisi is also definitely more demographically diverse and globally connected than Yerevan, which I saw in the greater presence of American fast food (all chains instead of just KFC and Pizza Hut in Yerevan), impressive supermarkets (rivaling those in the US), cars (far fewer Ladas, way more Subarus, a number of Priuses, which I’ve never seen here), lower food prices than Yerevan, and general feel – there’s not a whole lot of new construction happening in Armenia, while around practically every corner in Tbilisi a new hotel or apartment complex was popping up. The flipside of this is that traffic and exploding car ownership is clearly a huge problem in the city. Traipsing around the city we constantly wondered why Peace Corps is still in Georgia, but we all reckon that the reality of daily life in rural Georgian villages is fairly similar to that in Armenia, with a lot of the same problems and needs.
Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, the transition back into life in Margahovit was emotionally rocky at first. Honestly, the first two hours transitioning from vacation with a bunch of Americans back to being the only American in small-town Armenia was one of the most jarring experiences I’ve had yet in country, even more so than getting off the plane in Yerevan back in March. Within a day of course I’d settled back in nicely, but this transition made me reflect more on the ways in which volunteer life, even in a lovely and very supportive environment, can be so difficult, and what I need to do to properly take care of myself.