Armenian Lesson #5: Creative Writing for Beginners

[I am a man who keeps his promises. Because I promised my advanced English club that, if they would at least try to write a short story incorporating certain vocabulary and grammatical constructions used in that week’s lessons, I would also write such a story. In Armenian. Then I translated it into English. This way, my story would be at a level of English much closer to that of my students. In keeping with the fairy-tale nature of the story, I have accompanied it with my own artistic compositions. Critical observers might notice that the illustrations are poorly drawn and incompetently photographed. Critical observers might be asked to write their own damned short story in a foreign language, illustrate it with a set of dollar-store colored pencils, and photograph it in a dimly-lit village house. Anyway. What follows is my second ever short story written in Armenian, translated as fluently into English as possible while remaining faithful to the atrocious Armenian beneath it.] Continue reading “Armenian Lesson #5: Creative Writing for Beginners”


Six Months and Six Moments in Armenia

Old Sisian Factory.
Old factory in western Sisian. Author’s photo, August 2017.
  1. It occurs to me as I cut my chin shaving in the concrete shower/bunker under my house that I’ve now been living in Armenia for six months. I can barely see my chin in the old mirror—despite being exposed, the lightbulb in here seems to cast more shadows than illumination. I’ve been shaving like this for months and somehow haven’t pricked myself to death, although I certainly seem to be trying. My shower room is an empty stone room with rusting pipes and a door made of scrapped plastic, attached to the house but only accessible from outside. Even in the heat of early August, shower room is always cold and damp, and that’s before the faucet comes on. As far as I can tell, the water temperature is controlled by the whim of occult forces out for mischief. On a lucky day, I get several minutes of hot water; usually, I don’t get any. You get used to it after a few days. You get used to the spiders, too. When I first moved here, I would slip off a shower sandal and take out as many spiders as I could. After a few weeks, I’d only go after the most active ones, reasoning that I could instill some kind of discipline by making an example the troublemakers. But spiders are lousy students, though, so I stopped going after them at all. My mood has changed, too and now I praise the spiders as much as I can—that’s because I’ve realized the spiders are my comrades in the fight against the housefly—a densely-packed cow-farming village is perhaps the finest environment Musca domestica can hope to find, and so can always be found in your food, or sitting on your arm. You get used to them, too. A lot can change in six months.

Continue reading “Six Months and Six Moments in Armenia”

Armenian Lesson #3: Armenian Poetics for Beginners

David of Sassoun. Hakob Kojoyan, 1922. C/o Wikipedia

My job as a TEFL instructor in Armenia is to teach my students sturdy, practical English. They must be able to express themselves and understand others with language that is clear and direct, the language of business, development, science, international trade, and TED Talks. We call it the communicative approach because it’s rooted in the primary function of language: communicating in English. A student who can carry on a conversation in English, errors or not, is a successful student from our point of view.

I may not be the right person for that job: all of my experiences in other languages is stupendously impractical. Continue reading “Armenian Lesson #3: Armenian Poetics for Beginners”

Here in the Garden

Here in the garden, I throw rocks at stray cats. I don’t throw to hit them, but I try to aim near enough to scare them away. We have a dog, but he’s on a chain, and stray cats in all their tough-won, Hobbesian wisdom know that a dog a chain is a solved issue. So the cat problem falls to me. The cat problem is that when cats get into the garden, they eat my food. I mean this literally: every chick that they steal is a chicken that I don’t eat. A chicken is valuable. Its eggs are valuable. Protein is valuable. So, I throw rocks at cats. My aim is getting pretty good.

Admitting it makes some of my friends back in the United States uncomfortable. I can only ask them: have you ever lived on a farm in southern Armenia? Continue reading “Here in the Garden”

Armenian Lesson #2: Introduction to Conversational Armenian


I was once able to contemplate the shapes of the Armenian alphabet with the scholarly sangfroid afforded by 8,000 miles of distance. That gap closed with the bewildering speed of a jetliner from Paris, and now I find myself stranded among those same shapes, forced to scale them for every meager request and every humdrum encounter. Armenian is the language that I will use to buy groceries, pay bills, receive directions, ask for medicine, go to the bank, introduce myself, find the bathroom, apologize, interrogate, tell stories, understand jokes, find out which streets to avoid, figure out which bus goes where, and to refuse a glass of tan—I make my living with English, but it’s Armenian that will keep me from dying.   Continue reading “Armenian Lesson #2: Introduction to Conversational Armenian”

Here and There in Aghveran

Stray cat and resort restaurant at Aghveran, Kotayk Marz, Armenia, March 2017. Author’s photo.

Aghveran, in the province of Kotayk, is a mountain village known for its resorts and natural beauty. It was my introduction to Armenia. My Peace Corps cohort (A25: A for Armenia, 25 for the 25th year of Peace Corps Armenia) was taken to Aghveran after a frazzling series of nature-defying transcontinental flights had dropped us in Yerevan in the middle of the night. Our four-day orientation was held here: 9 hours of sessions a day, and freedom during whatever hours you could squeeze from either side of that training that weren’t already given over to exhaustion.

Resort at Aghveran, Kotayk province. March 2017. Author’s photo.

There are trees in Aghveran, and plants and birds and mountains and everything else a good mountain resort should have. And if I was going to be in a place as pretty as this, I figured that I might as well hike it during the few hours of sunlight available to me. We had four days to spend at this resort, and many of us spent our free time walking around and seeing what was there to be seen. And for legs and minds weighed down by nine hours of sitting and  policy discussion, all this rambling about in unknown woods was a welcome digression. Continue reading “Here and There in Aghveran”

Ape Brain Goes Transatlantic

Aeroporte de Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle, March 2017. Author’s photo.

The human mind has yet to catch up to the realities of modern travel.

Speed, for instance: today’s traveler, riding coach on a budget airline, might travel two hundred miles in twenty minutes; to her ancestors, doughty hunter-gatherers of noble bearing, this is a world and a half, the kind of long journey through peril, mystery, and alien nations that becomes the epic poem of the tribe. (Our modern traveler’s trip might get a blog post.) A human in motion, unassisted by vehicles, might walk at a rate of three miles per hour and run somewhere in the neighborhood of ten. World-class sprinters get up to the mid-twenties. A falling man, given enough space, might reach terminal velocity, somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred miles per hour. (Wikipedia tells me that a person in a perfectly vertical position can get up to around 180 miles per hour.) That fall is the speed limit on unassisted human motion; a seated woman on a budget jetliner could outpace the falling man by a factor of three without spilling her complimentary mineral water. We, drinkers of complimentary mineral water, have to remind ourselves that this is happening. Nobody really feels the speed of a jetliner in motion. We can’t: planes wouldn’t work if they did, and we wouldn’t want a ride in them if we could. If it wasn’t so boring, flight would still be the exclusive domain of aristocratic dopamine jockeys, like it was a century ago. Continue reading “Ape Brain Goes Transatlantic”

Armenian Lesson #1: Alphabet

Mesrop Mashtots creating the (partially correct) Armenian alphabet. Detail, fresco at Wurzburg Palace. G.B. Tiepolo (1696-1770). C/o WikiMedia Commons.

1. Sun, Mountain, Donkey, Knife

I’m learning Armenian. As part of my pre-service training, the Peace Corps has offered me free introductory lessons in the Armenian language. For a few hours every week, I study handouts, watch videos, memorize dialogues, and have short discussions over Skype with a teacher in Yerevan. The emphasis of the program, the Peace Corps says, is on the alphabet: a solid grasp of the alphabet is necessary to learn Armenian; learning Armenian is necessary for integration at your site; and integration at your site is necessary for a successful project. So I need to learn the Armenian alphabet.

2. One, Pomegranate, Eight, Strawberry, Nine

An early version of the Armenian alphabet on display at the Melkosian Educational Institute in Cyprus. Photograph by A.M. Hadjilyra, c/o WikiMedia Commons

The Eastern Armenian alphabet has 39 letters: 8 vowels and 31 consonants. The alphabet was originally ordered to move from Ա for Աստված (God) to Ք for Քրիստոս (Christ), although two letters were added in the Middle Ages to represent foreign sounds. Soviet reforms removed one letter, but created two more, bringing the total to 39. Continue reading “Armenian Lesson #1: Alphabet”