French Lesson #1: Bienvenue en Francophonie

Bonjour. Je m’appelle monsieur Davis. Je suis un Américain. Je suis un professeur d’anglais. Je ne parle pas francais Parlez vous anglais ? Non ? Bien, au revoir. That’s about the end of my French. But this week, I went to an international francophone summit, and I didn’t even have to leave Armenia.

The summit was the Organisation international de la Francophonie, the global congress of francophone (French-speaking) states. Francophonie isn’t something that you hear about very much in the United States. The closest analogy that we anglophones have would be the Commonwealth of Nations, except the world’s largest English-speaking country isn’t part of it. Like the Commonwealth, Francophonie pays lip-service to being more than just a club for France and its former colonies, meeting every two years to promote values like women’s rights, safeguarding the environment, and sustainable growth in developing economies. For 2018, the summit was held here, in Armenia.

Francophonie. From Wikimedia Commons.

I can see all you experts on French postcolonial history looking confused: why is Armenia, never colonized by France or home to a significant French-speaking population, hosting a Francophonie summit? Why is it a member? Continue reading “French Lesson #1: Bienvenue en Francophonie”


English Lesson #4: Hit the Books

Jens und Berta Are Always Still Enraged

            There are few obstacles as pernicious to the language learner as misprints, typos, and errors. A bit of bad language is nothing to a native speaker who knows the territory, but new arrivals are likely to take it in as part of the scenery. There’s a cost to this.

Die Taube
Cover, “Die Taube und die Ameise”. 2004. Fabelhafte Febeln.

Let me give an example: I have a German children’s reader, Die Ameise und Die Taube, in which an anthropomorphized ant (die Ameise) and pigeon (die Taube) go from being bad neighbors to gute Freunde after a few illustrated adventures. In the early goings, when the two are still enemies, Jens the Ant falls (this is a children’s book, so we are in the present tense) into a river and Berta the Pigeon comes to his rescue. She brings Jens back to the barn where they live, and then something odd seems to happen. I’m going to give it in both languages:

“Danke, Berta”, sagt Jens, aber er ist immer noch wütend!

“Thanks, Berta,” says Jens, but he is always still enraged!

Surely I had misread that, I thought, so I looked up all the words again. I checked to see if I was missing out on some kind of prepositional phrase. No luck. Later on, I ran it through Google Translate, but no, Google also informed me that Jens is always still enraged! Continue reading “English Lesson #4: Hit the Books”

Shipping Lesson #1: Caring for Your Care Package

When you’re in a slump in your service, as I am now, it helps to remember the more meaningful things in Peace Corps life: the new cohort of volunteers who look up to you as they navigate the terrifying unknowns of early service; the smile of a child in your community who refuses to let you pass his intersection before you teach him a new English word; the old ladies at the marshrutka stop who jokingly chastise you for getting thin; the satisfaction derived from a hard days’ work making your site a better place; the immaterial satisfaction from knowing that these hardships in service of a greater good make you a better, happier person in the long term, which is what really matters; and, best of all, getting a big, bulky box of crap from America.

I speak of care packages—one of the great delights of service, and a topic that could fuel hours of conversation between volunteers, hours of tales and theories, opinions, and philosophies about the correlation between these mysterious boxes and our happiness. To be sure, there are volunteers who make do without care packages at all—then again, recognizing the saints among us doesn’t mean we have to live like them. Service teaches that you like American coffee too much to have high-minded principles. Continue reading “Shipping Lesson #1: Caring for Your Care Package”

English Lesson #3: F-I-R-S-T B-E-L-L

Last week’s post will probably be my last essay on history for a while. For one thing, I just don’t know very much about Armenian history after 1300 and before 1800, and for another, these rambling history pieces were a lot easier to write in the long, slow, workless days of August. September is here, and in Armenia, that means school.

September actually means school all over the former Soviet Union—the 1st of September, in fact, always and without variation, as it was decreed International Knowledge Day, a day to begin the school year and celebrate the hardworking educators building global communism. Knowledge Day (or First Bell, as it’s colloquially known) was a universal touchstone of life back in the USSR, along with other trappings like those big red posters of Lenin commanding students to «учиться, учиться, и учиться!» (“Study, study, and study!”) Today, educators across the old USSR are still celebrated on 1 September, albeit for building national character, and school still starts on this day.

Uchitsa Uchitsa i Uchitsa
Lenin exhorting students to “Study, Study, and Study.” Posters like this adorned every school in the Soviet Union.

Continue reading “English Lesson #3: F-I-R-S-T B-E-L-L”

History Lesson #4: Never Trust the Bagratunis, and Always Bet on Mongols

When we last met the Arshakuni dynasty, they were in the middle of a cultural renaissance brought about by the invention of the Armenian alphabet and the birth of Armenian literature. And this renaissance, you may recall, was spurred on by the imminent collapse of the country.

In the AD 380s, the country was partitioned among the invading Byzantines and Sassanid Persians. The Arshakunis were still in power, but by this point the Kingdom of Armenia only existed on paper: on the ground, the real power was with the nakharars, or provincial noblemen. I’ve kept the nakharars out of this history so far because we hardly need more complications and obscure names, but they’ve been a constant presence in the kingdom’s politics since the beginning. But after the partition and through the periods of invasion and occupation discussed in this post, the nakharars are the most powerful local force in Armenian politics: nothing happens without their support. Continue reading “History Lesson #4: Never Trust the Bagratunis, and Always Bet on Mongols”

History Lesson #3: The Most Armenian Thing That Ever Happened and Other Tales From the End of the Classical Era

Welcome back to my ever-expanding set of posts on Armenian history for people who don’t know anything about it. Following parts one and two, this is the third part, or more appropriately, the second part of the second part because I can’t stop myself when I’m talking about Classical Armenia, the period running from 500 BC to AD 500. We left off around 55 BC with the end of Tigran the Great, whose brilliant career of expansion and conquest ended with the rapid collapse of everything he’d spent his life building. We’ll start from there and make our way through the end of Armenia’s second dynasty, the Artaxiads, and see how the next dynasty fares (spoiler: there are only three Classical Armenian dynasties). Continue reading “History Lesson #3: The Most Armenian Thing That Ever Happened and Other Tales From the End of the Classical Era”

History Lesson #2: Classic Tales of Classical Armenia and Getting Drunk With Xenophon

This is the second of my four-part crash course on pre-modern Armenian history for people who don’t know anything about it from a guy who knows marginally more about it. If you haven’t read the first part yet, where I took 1,000 words just to get to the actual history, you can find it here. The next two parts will cover the thousand or so years between 500 BC and AD 500, give or take a century on either side. This is called the Classical period of Armenian history, a time when Armenians emerge as a unified culture with their own state, assert themselves as a confident, competent player on the world stage, and cross a few thresholds that still affect every Armenian living today. Continue reading “History Lesson #2: Classic Tales of Classical Armenia and Getting Drunk With Xenophon”

History Lesson #1: Introduction to Armenian Prehistory & Pre-Armenian Post-Prehistory

Every year, as Peace Corps Armenia prepares the intensive 10-week training program for the year’s crop of little volunteerlings, two current volunteers are picked to give a lecture about the history of Armenia. This year, I was one of those volunteers, which only makes sense: I’m such a dork, I read history for fun and voluntarily give history lectures. The Peace Corps was interested in my take on Armenian history, and in passing, friends and family also wanted to see. Seeing as my lecture notes, in their early draft, usually take the form of a rambling screed before they get trimmed into elegant bullet points, I was already halfway towards having a workable essay, so I’ve expanded my notes, cleaned them up, and put them here.

I should say that this project is very obviously and unequivocally doomed. Armenian history is long, strange, and irreducible. Realistically, a history of premodern Armenia should take at least 400 pages, and 4 volumes would be even better. My job is to teach you the basics of Armenian history, but even covering all the basics would take twice as much space as we have. So, I’ve created this radically simplified version of Armenian history, selecting events and eras according to a simple test: would you reasonably expect to find this on a poster at an Armenian school? It’s a surprisingly robust test, and has the added benefit for Peace Corps Volunteers of only focusing on things that every Armenian is supposed to know.

One last caveat: I am not an expert in Armenian history. I’m not an expert on anything, actually. This essay reflects my opinions and limited understanding of the subject, along with a fair amount of riffing based in my unsystematic readings around ancient history and archaeology. Any part-time professor or full-time Armenian might contradict me; if they do, go with them. Until then, you’ll have to take my word. For the sake of breaking up long posts, I’ve spread my notes out between early Armenian history, classical Armenian history, and early medieval Armenian history. This post is about Armenian history up to the 6th century BC.

Let’s start with maps, because geography is destiny. The historic boundaries of Armenia coincide for the most part with the Armenian Plateau. We’ve got the Caucasus mountains to the north and east, the Iranian Plateau to the south, and the Anatolian Plateau to the west. The plateau itself is best characterized as a series of long, rolling, and highly fertile valleys ringed with big, nasty mountain ranges. Both of these things are ideal: long, rolling, and highly fertile valleys are the cornerstone of building a civilization–you can’t have an advanced society of specialized, non-agricultural labor unless farmers can grow enough food for the specialists who don’t grow food; and if your advanced society is sufficiently stable to build infrastructure and accumulate wealth, you want big & nasty mountain ranges to keep out that classic threat to civilization, big & nasty barbarians on horses who take all your stuff and cut your head off. So Armenia, as a place with fertile valleys and imposing mountains, was ideally suited for large-scale human habitation.

The Armenian Plateau

But before we can get large-scale habitation, we need any-scale habitation, and that begins in the fog of prehistory. Armenia has been settled by people for a very, very long time: the earliest signs of habitation are stone tools in the Hrazdan Valley dated to around 300,000 years. Moving forward a bit, we start seeing evidence of larger, more organized settlements with fixed mud-brick architecture and agriculture with the Shulaveri-Shomu culture, which flourished around 7,000 BC. The Kura-Araxes culture was active about two thousand years after that, with evidence of metalworking, pottery, and viticulture. In fact, Armenia is one of the first places in the world—maybe the very first, but don’t say that to Georgians—to cultivate wine: an area of the Areni-1 Cave in Vayots Dzor Marz set aside specifically for producing wine as much as 6,000 years ago is the world’s oldest known winery. Incidentally, that same cave complex is home to the world’s oldest-known shoe, a leather loafer that was all the rage back in 3500 BC. (And yes, The Shoe, as it’s known, passed my school-poster test.) There is also abundant evidence of trade in the region by this time, and when pottery and textiles are traveling, we can be sure that languages and ideas are, too, creating a growing sense of the world and its people.  We still don’t have “Armenians” at this time, but it was probably at some point in this history of settlement that a group–or several groups, over time–arrived who spoke an Indo-European language that would become Armenian. These are the “ancestors” of Armenians, although of course they intermarried and mixed significantly with local populations, too.

The Shoe!
A 5,500 year-old shoe, the oldest in the world. From present-day Areni, Vayots Dzor, Republic of Armenia

We’ve gotten up to the last few millennia BC, but it’s only around 1000 BC that history in Armenia properly begins. We’ve talked about geography and archaeology so far, but not history, which is stuff that happens to people over time, in written records. It’s only around this time in Armenia that writing becomes a part of the landscape—often literally, in the form of inscriptions in stone left to stand in conspicuous places. Writing had existed in nearby states for thousands of years, and its transmission to Armenia is far from clear. But we do know that the culture which introduced it was Urartu.

Urartu, the primary player in Armenia from the 10th to the 6th century BCE, was centered in Lake Van (they called themselves the Kingdom of Van, in fact) and they spread out from there to cover much of modern Armenia, absorbing many cultures through imperial conquest. The Urartians had their own records, written in cuneiform script and impressed on tablets and stones, a few of which are extant today. Still, we don’t know very much about the Urartians—as the only literate society in the area, we only have the scarce records they left behind and a few references in more distant literatures. Most famously, through a corruption of the word via a game of cultural Telephone, ancient Urartu is known to us as the Biblical kingdom of Ararat. (Which, in turn, makes Armenia a Biblical land: the site where Noah lands his ark after 150 days of flooding, and thus the place where all life can be said to begin again, is Mount Ararat–the center of Armenia.

Kingdom of Urartu at its peak, c. 8th-7th c. BC. Lake Van, in the center, is now part of Turkey; Lake Sevan, near Erebuni, is in modern Armenia, and the third lake, Urmia, is in present-day Iran.

Most importantly for our story, in 782 BC an Urartian king by the name of Argishti I built a fortress on the Hrazdan River. He called it Erebuni—today, exactly 2,800 years later, people still live there, although the word has since changed to Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

This concludes Part One of my Armenian history series. Part Two, in which the Armenian people actually appear, will be up next week.

German Lesson #1: The Peace Corps Abridged German-Armenian Dictionary of Terms for Existential Befuddlement

Bier: N., neut. Fermented beverage made with hops, barley, and yeast. Reputed to be very, very good around Germany and its vicinity. Living in Armenia, where the bier is, to put it mildly, nicht gut, you often wonder if going on a trip just to drink foreign beer can be admitted in polite company.

Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft: N., masc. lit. “Association for Subordinate Officials of the Main Maintenance Building of the Danube Steam Shipping Electrical Services.” Frequently-cited example of German compound words taken to ridiculous extremes. There’s no direct evidence that such an office ever existed, but if you spend enough time looking into traveling on or around the Danube River–a beautiful and interesting place that also happens to pass through the heartland of good beer– der Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft has a way of coming up. Continue reading “German Lesson #1: The Peace Corps Abridged German-Armenian Dictionary of Terms for Existential Befuddlement”

English Lesson #2: English English

At the time of this writing, English is the most widely-spoken language in history. Mandarin Chinese and Spanish have more native speakers than English’s 400-odd million, but no other language has as many L2 speakers, and it isn’t even close. According to Ethnologue, by way of Wikipedia, nearly 750 million people speak or study English as a second language. Wikipedia is unreliable, so let’s make a more conservative estimate and cut that number in half: at 375 million it would still rank as the largest L2 language in the world. There are reasons. Hollywood movies play all over the globe; books in English, or translated from English, are sold everywhere. There is the sheer usefulness of the language: in science, business, and diplomacy, English is the indisputable lingua franca (or lingua saxonica, if we want to annoy the French). These are booming times for TEFL, with teachers on every continent making a living from the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language. And here I am, doing it for free like a sucker.

Continue reading “English Lesson #2: English English”