Housekeeping Lesson #1: Journey Around My Room

My room must be on the most well-equipped rooms in my village—not because I’m fabulously wealthy or anything, but because for most people here, a room is a place to sleep, and that’s about it. My host family was actually shocked at the amount of time I spent in my room in those first weeks at site; they thought I was depressed or offended at something. The real problem, of course, was that I’m an American.

Maybe it was different in the past, but going back several generations we Americans love our bedrooms, spending much of our waking hours in them, giving great thought to decorating them and using them to showcase our tastes, values, and fascinations even when there’s no real chance or intention of showing it to strangers. Like many Americans, I spent an inordinate amount of my adolescence in my room during the long and treacherous path to becoming an adult person, practicing guitar, listening to sad indie rock, and reading cheesy fantasy novels about small-town boys with swords who slay dragons and lay sexy witches. Within the house where I lived, my room was my real home. Here I could be alone, and thus myself, rather than a dorky, hormone-crazed nerd who’d upend his entire personality to impress a girl. Even after high school, when I often had a place of my own, I still spent free time in my room.

Now I’m in the Peace Corps with a host family, which is much like regressing to adolescence: I go to school every day, I’m on a curfew, my body is going through constant and uncomfortable changes, I don’t know how to explain or express my emotions to anybody, and I spend a lot of time in my room reading old novels, playing guitar, and yearning for the day when I can leave this little village behind me and strike out for a big city and get a place of my own with a car and a career and a girlfriend. Twenty-six has turned out to be a lot like 16, so far. Continue reading “Housekeeping Lesson #1: Journey Around My Room”

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Armenian Lesson #9: The Sound of Silence

My Armenian is getting worse. The culprit, of course, is the end of my Peace Corps service, a four-month shadow looming over everything. Not everybody puts up with this volunteer senioritis—an old site mate of mine was adding new words to her Armenian journal at the farewell party we threw for the end of her service—but it’s common enough at this point, when the weather is too lousy to go out and work routines are familiar enough to get through that there are no new conversations to have, no new words to look up for getting things done, that a volunteer’s Armenian skills stop improving, and even backslide as more complex skills are ignored. This time last year, I used to look at my old training notes and laugh at how simple they are; now, I’m thinking of looking them over again in order to brush up on a few things.

But just as losing your sight improves your hearing, as I get worse at communicating in Armenian, I get better at communicating without words. Not content to say more with less, I’ve been getting better at saying more with nothing at all. My Armenian keeps getting worse, but my self-expression remains the same. I am becoming fluent in Armenian silences. Continue reading “Armenian Lesson #9: The Sound of Silence”

Health Lesson #1: On Sickness

Note: this post is concerned with the inputs and, um, outputs of the human body during illness. If that’s not for you, that’s fine, no hard feelings. Here’s an orangutan watching a magic trick, so that you don’t feel like you’ve wasted time clicking on this post.  

This week’s post was going to be another essay on language, but that draft, as well as the better part of my daily life, was thrown off by a calamitous illness, a sustained fever with loss of bowel control that sustained itself for five long, agonizing days. So, I propose to talk a bit about getting sick in the Peace Corps.

You get sick a lot during service, and it’s not hard to see why. The constant trash fires and exhaust of ancient Soviet cars fill the air with particulates and pollutants that make your head throb and your sinuses foul—my snot takes on a particularly dark, filthy tinge in the winter from all the extra burning. Raw meat is often cut, ground, and cooked in spaces that haven’t been washed with anything stronger than cold water. Leftovers—soups, cabbage, butter, ground beef, yogurt, rendered fat, potatoes fried in sunflower oil—are left in cupboards or the pot they were cooked in, reheated, and re-served. You have to check the expiration date of everything you buy in stores, from crackers to chocolate to beer. Men, who in villages spend much of their day working with animals, vehicles, or both, still greet each other by shaking hands. If you’re a teacher, many of your students that you’re around all day can’t bathe more than once a week, even less often in winter, and you’ll have your own troubles with hand-washing using scummy bar soap and icy water in a bathroom that’s so cold you can see your breath. In the summer, flies take turns rotating their squadrons between piles of cow dung and your eating utensils. Meanwhile, every doorknob is crawling with exotic bacteria and viruses that a North American immune system has no protection against. So, you get sick a fair amount. Continue reading “Health Lesson #1: On Sickness”

Ukrainian Lesson #1: Welcome!

Ukrainian Lesson #1: Vitaemo!

Thanks to the inconsistencies of Ukrainian public television, in a span of two minutes I marked the start of the new year no less than three times. Watching on my hostel room’s television, I saw the little countdown marker on the bottom of the screen reach zero at 23:58, according to my phone. Then, the little variety-show livestream cut to a suited man, speaking in Ukrainian for a minute, and then the feed cut to a contextless clockface counting down the last half-minute until the clock reached zero, and little fireworks erupted on the screen; it was a good twenty seconds into President Petro Poroshenko’s televised address to the nation before my phone’s internal clock came into the new year. And it was a full minute after that, I heard real fireworks, exploding somewhere over Kyiv to ring in the year. 2019 had arrived, although it was hard to say exactly when.

I came to Kyiv on New Year’s for a few reasons. The first one, speaking frankly, is that I wanted to get out of Armenia for a while. The Armenian New Year, or Nor Tari, is a grueling, nerve-wracking, and occasionally dangerous celebration of hope, love, and goodwill that involves a good five days of constant feasting and drinking hard liquor with your community. As much as I love Armenian culture, it’s a difficult holiday for a foreigner, and as I’ve already survived one Nor Tari, I could afford to skip one. I also wanted to see a New Year’s celebration in another former Soviet country: in the Soviet Union, religious holidays like Christmas and Ramadan were quashed in keeping with Leninist orthodoxy, forcing New Year’s to cover this winter jubilance deficit. And so from Tallinn to Tashkent, New Year’s is still one of the most important holidays on the calendar. And Ukraine seemed like a good place to do it, as it’s cheaper than Russia or the Baltic states, more comfortable than Belarus, and a lot closer than Kyrgyzstan. So: four days in Kyiv. Continue reading “Ukrainian Lesson #1: Welcome!”

Music Lesson #2: Actual Music Lessons

Norits! Again!” I shout. My students, about a dozen of them, giggle at their mistake. I count them off: “A-one, and a-two, and a-one, two three, four!” And immediately, we’re singing in a round, one group lagging two beats behind the others like we’re 12th century Kentish peasants. “Stop!” I say, raising my voice, “Stop!” More giggles and glances. I try to explain to them that I will count off two measures, and then they come in on the first beat of the third measure. I explain all of this in Armenian, and I explain it badly, because I don’t know how to say measure or beat.

As is usually the case when I explain something in Armenian, my students are usually more confused at the end of my explanation than they were at the beginning. They look at me helplessly. “Fine,” I say, “I will give an example. Watch carefully: one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four—Holiday lights, shining so bright, oh what a joy this Christmas season no, no,” I say, “no, we’re not singing, I’m singing, you’re listening, stop singing, please, that was an example, we’re not—oh, bother.” It takes another measure to stop everybody from singing. The good news is that they’ve got the melody down. The problem is that we can’t sing it together. “Look,” I say, I ask them to crowd around because I’m stuck behind my guitar, wedged between a desk and the corner of this freezing 4th grade classroom. I clap out the rhythm and sing along: Ho-li-day lights, shi-ning so bright…and they start singing again, unprompted. I was beginning to have my doubts about this Christmas show.

Continue reading “Music Lesson #2: Actual Music Lessons”

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”