Armenian Lesson #8: Me Learn Armenian Writey Speak

I realize I haven’t done any Armenian Lessons in a while. It’s not because I’ve been neglecting to keep you in the loop on my fabulous progress with the Armenian language, because I haven’t. In fact, I’ve avoided studying for the better part of five months. I have plenty of excuses, but if I’m being honest, only one real reason: I passed the half-way mark in my service. Plenty of volunteers fall into this trap: if you could get through the first year of service with the Armenian you had then, and your language improves from immersion anyway, why make a big deal of it with exercises and readings? The world will be my study buddy!

Five months later, and my Armenian seems to be five months worse. The world, as it turns out, isn’t such a good study partner, at least if you’re lazy like I am. If you’re not careful, you’ll wind up doing the same things every day, going to the same places to see the same people and having the same conversations, learning nothing new. And learning Armenian is the same!
Continue reading “Armenian Lesson #8: Me Learn Armenian Writey Speak”


Special Lesson #1: Letters to a Young PCV

As of this writing, there’s a little over six months left in my Peace Corps service, which wraps up in June. My cohort’s countdown to the end of our rotation recently passed 200, and is moving rather fast towards 100. Registration has begun for our Conclusion of Service (COS) conference, where we gather in a hotel and talk about the baffling prospect of life after Peace Corps, which has been so hard to imagine these last 600-odd days. For some of us, that means getting into the mad scramble for graduate school, which has already started; others have started thinking about employment, and at least one has signed up for another Peace Corps rotation. At least when the post-PC talk gets too dour, we can always talk about our COS vacation plans and the more frivolous things we’re going to buy with our service bonuses. And forward-thinking volunteers are already scheming to dump their extra stuff on new volunteers.

I mean the new new volunteers, not the ones who arrived earlier this year, but the ones who are still getting ready for service. Nothing makes the end of service feel more imminent than the arrival of the newest cohort, the A27s (A as in Armenia, 27 for the 27th annual cohort; I’m an A25). Around this time of year, one of the stranger things to think about as a serving volunteer is that the next cohort has been chosen to serve, and somewhere back in America is going through the arduous process of service prep. Continue reading “Special Lesson #1: Letters to a Young PCV”

Cooking Lesson #2: Family Dinners for Beginners

As I write this, we’re a few days away from Thanksgiving—the definitive American holiday, the one that gave us the greatest American movie (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, obviously) and plays host to our greatest paradoxes. Between breaks from school, the wafting smells of early food prep, the turkey-hand cutouts and clear-eyed reappraisals of colonial American history, and all of it scored to the soundtrack of dead leaves blowing in November gusts, it’s a great time to be in the United States, unless you’re a turkey, a motorist, or a Peace Corps volunteer.

Sure, we try to make Thanksgiving happen during service. Some volunteers go home for the holidays. Some just go to Yerevan and splurge on a fancy meal, possibly with one or two holiday staples. And many of us get together in our regional hubs, chip in a certain amount of money, and make a proper Thanksgiving meal.

“Proper” is a relative term, here. There is a problem in making a Thanksgiving meal abroad immediately obvious to anybody with passing knowledge of the feast between the Pilgrims, old Squanto, and his friends: the very thing they were celebrating was a successful harvest of American foodstuffs. That was the whole point, and it still is. Of course there are turkeys in Armenia. Here they are called hndkahav, or “Indian Chicken,” a name that will always make me giggle (if you’re curious, the name of the country Turkey came before the bird). And yet, very few farmers actually sell their turkey meat, making it difficult to get a hold of in provincial towns like Sisian. And in the bigger cities, where it is available, it tends to be expensive. Then there is the difficulty of cooking an entire bird: most Armenian ovens are too small and flat for turkeys. Continue reading “Cooking Lesson #2: Family Dinners for Beginners”

Cooking Lesson #1: For God’s Sake, Don’t Look Into the Saucepan

I don’t cook much at site. Or in Armenia, generally, even though I enjoy making food and I’m not bad at it; as a young man of scanty means living on my own in Oregon, I didn’t eat out more than once or twice a month, so I cooked. The discipline required for budget cooking was good for me, teaching me how to make one-pot wonders that could fill a bowl five times for under five dollars and scale most of the food pyramid at the same time. Like any good bachelor, I experimented with adding a well-fried egg to things that needed protein, and I could conjure up a perfect scrambled egg in my sleep—I nearly did that, in fact, when I was working a job that required getting up around 5:00 AM every weekday. Much of my home routine before Peace Corps looked like the beginning of a Murakami novel, the part where an aimless young man spends a lot of time making pasta and whistling Thelonious Monk tunes.

Of course, now I’m in the Peace Corps, and my life looks more like the rest of a Murakami novel, with disappearing animals, circular conversations with eccentric strangers, and precocious teenagers. The cooking has almost completely disappeared from the picture. In fact, I don’t think I’ve cooked more than a dozen times since I arrived in country twenty months ago. The last time I tried to scramble an egg was February. It was not good. Not that I’m going hungry. But as a foreign man living with a village host family, I don’t cook much. Continue reading “Cooking Lesson #1: For God’s Sake, Don’t Look Into the Saucepan”

Etiquette Lesson #2: Marshrutkas for Beginners

I’ve had marshrutkas on the mind lately, probably because I’ve also been spending a lot of time on them in the last month. A marshrutka, for those who don’t know, is any kind of large van or minibus used for public transit across the former Soviet Union. The word is derived from the Russian term marshrutnoe taksi, or routed taxi, with a Russian diminutive suffix tied onto the end. Many Armenians prefer to use the equivalent -ni suffix from their own language, putting an Armenian particle on a Russian contraction of a German word (marschroute, marching route). But whether you call it a marshrutka or marshrutni, or whatever other suffixes the many linguistic communities of the former Soviet Union have settled on, they all mean the same thing: crowded, smelly, minibuses hurtling along the wild roads of the former second world.

Except for a lucky few who live along Armenia’s only functional railway, and those who prefer to pay a little extra for a shared taxi, most of us do our long-distance travelling on marshrutkas, which become an endless source of anecdotes and incidents. Continue reading “Etiquette Lesson #2: Marshrutkas for Beginners”

Etiquette Lesson #1: How to Drink Moonshine Like a Gentleman at Children’s Birthday Parties

(Author’s note: in the following article contains some generalizations on rural Armenian culture. All of this is true to my experience here, but none of it should be taken as universally true of all people in Armenia, or Syunik province, or my host village, or even all the people on my street. Rather than explode my wordcount by filling this essay with qualifiers, dithering, equivocations, and clarifiers which envelop so much modern writing like a fog of imprecision, I’ve stuck this note at the front. Thanks for reading.)

I woke up late on Monday morning, after a lousy night of sleeping in fits and starts, tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth from dryness and an ache lodged somewhere on the inner wall of my skull. I needed a shave, a hot breakfast to fill an empty stomach, an aspirin, a change of clothes, and a cup of coffee big enough to drown a rodent before I started classes in an hour. I managed to get three out of those five things done, then set out for my half-mile walk to school while what seems like the entire village conspires to get in their cars and drive past me so that their greeting honks can grip my spinal cord like a tassel and ring my brain like a bell. I arrived only ten minutes late, at 8:40 AM. I didn’t mean to be out late on a Sunday night, and I certainly didn’t mean to trash the antemeridian half of my Monday. I didn’t mean to eat so much questionable food, either, or drink so much hard liquor, but the choice wasn’t mine to make, because on the night before I went to a child’s birthday party. Continue reading “Etiquette Lesson #1: How to Drink Moonshine Like a Gentleman at Children’s Birthday Parties”

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”