Armenian Lesson #10: Yerevan

Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime,

A rose-red city half as old as time!

-William Burgon, “Petra,” (1844

I first saw Yerevan at midnight through tinted windows. I was on a bus going from the airport to our staging conference, resisting the pull of jetlag to get my first glimpse of the country. But looking at darkness through a dark window, all I could see were electric signs, the only ones still lit at midnight: strip clubs and gambling rooms on the airport road at the edge of town. The Armenian letters flew by too fast to read, but the buxom silhouettes and neon dice were clear enough.

This is the introduction most tourists get to Yerevan. In two years, I’ve never heard of a flight arriving at or departing from Zvartnots Airport before seven in the morning or seven in the evening, the airport road the only way into town, and the windows are always tinted—invaluable in the daylight of the Armenian sun, useless when it goes down. Night drives are a poor way to see the city.

My second visit to Yerevan was passing through a few days later, on the way to my training village. It was a drizzly day in March, the marshrutka coming out of a landscape of dirt, scrubland, and power pylons into a city that looked like a heap of bricks held together with highways of spackle. Up close, it was all Soviet apartment blocks, repair shops, and carwashes. We sped through the city in twenty minutes, skirting around the edge.

Although it was built around a cluster of hills, Yerevan is a city of the plains, broad and flat. From a small, orderly center, the city sprawls out for miles, boxy apartments giving way to meandering dirt roads and mazelike shanties. Like most cities in the developing world, Yerevan sucks in more life and capital than it gives out, with waves of villagers from every corner of the country accreting to the edge of town, looking for work and a better life. Few tourists or volunteers spend time in this part of town; passing through it to reach the center is enough. Continue reading “Armenian Lesson #10: Yerevan”

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Etiquette Lesson #3: Telephone Etiquette for Your Broken $20 Phone

When I was getting ready to deploy to Armenia and making difficult decisions about what to bring and what to abandon, I gave a lot of thought to the question of cellphones. Peace Corps recommends trying to stay close to the standard of living for your community, and I don’t know exactly what I was expecting of Armenian telecoms, but if pressed to answer, I think I would’ve said somewhere between rotary dialers and brick-sized car phones. As it turns out, Armenians prefer iPhones, but will settle for Android. Yes, the ultimate first-world gadget, with the help of second-world manufacturers like Huawei, have arrived in third-world countries. This isn’t surprising when you look at the numbers: there are more than two billion smartphones in the world, after all—they can’t all be in OECD countries. In fact, quite a few of them are in my village, even in the hands of my students. In a situation that few Peace Corps volunteer expects, I have had to deal with my students making fun of my crappy old dumbphone. Continue reading “Etiquette Lesson #3: Telephone Etiquette for Your Broken $20 Phone”

History Lesson #5: An Armenian Bibliography

Remember last year, when I wrote a bunch of posts based on my notes for a history presentation that I gave to incoming Peace Corps volunteers? Well, I gave that presentation again this year to another incoming cohort, which is why I haven’t posted anything new here for a few weeks: I was too busy re-learning things that I (ostensibly) already knew and didn’t have the energy to write about school, or farm animals, or the barn cat I’ve befriended . Since I’ve already written posts about history, I didn’t know what to say on the blog. But then, I thought that anybody interested in my old history posts who wants to know more about Armenia would almost certainly be better served reading books by experts, or at least actual Armenians. So, I’ve put together my own personal Armenian reading list. These are the books that have informed my own work and opinions on Armenia, along with my own commentary on them.

Also, I don’t really have any new pictures to break up these lists with besides the barn cat I’ve been hanging out with, so I’m just going to use those. Continue reading “History Lesson #5: An Armenian Bibliography”

Georgian Lesson #1: Hello, Tbilisi! Hello, Wine! Hello, Dog!

Puzzling, once, over a street sign in the Georgian script in a little Tbilisi alley, I thought of this Armenian joke: the Georgians, having heard that the Armenian priest Mesrop Mashtots has invented a special script for his country’s language, send a delegation to ask if he could make one for Georgian, too. Mashtots says that he can, promising to whip up a few designs that they can decide on over a lunch meeting.The Georgians meet the Armenian saint at an Italian restaurant (naturally), and one by one, Mashtots walks them through the various scripts he’s designed, discussing the advantages and disadvantages of each. At every instance, the Georgians find something wrong: this one looks too much like Greek, that one’s too complicated, that one has too many letters, and so on. Now, Mashtots is a saint and all, but even holy men have their limits; when the Georgians dismiss the last design, the Armenian hurls his plate of spaghetti against the wall, points to the noodles stuck to the wallpaper, and shouts “There’s your alphabet, then, you ingrates!” and storms out of the restaurant. The Georgians sit in stunned silence, staring at the chaotic whorls of pasta on the wall. Then, after a beat, they turn to each other, smiling; there is the script.

Mkhedruli
The Georgian Mkhedruli script, used to write modern Georgian. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Obviously, Georgians don’t tell this joke, and I doubt they appreciate it. For one thing, Old Georgian actually has had three different scripts, related but distinct, and it was only in the modern era of mass literacy that the noodly Mkhedruli script became the standard, “Georgian” alphabet. For another, it’s highly unlikely that Georgians would ever go to the Armenians for help with, well, anything (or vice versa). They also don’t care for the joke repeating the old Armenian myth that Mashtots designed the Georgian alphabet. They also think—rightfully, in my opinion—that their alphabet is beautiful and captivating. Then again, when you’re trying to make sense of it, as I was in that Tbilisi alley, it does look a bit like pasta. Continue reading “Georgian Lesson #1: Hello, Tbilisi! Hello, Wine! Hello, Dog!”

Cooking Lesson #4: Coffee

One of the first things Armenians will tell you about their country is that Armenians have an adoration for coffee greater than anybody else in the world. I’m not so sure that this is true. If we assume that “love” for something involves a great deal of attention and affection, I’m not sure most Armenians love coffee at all. The relationship is deeper than love: in Armenia, good coffee simply exists, like air or water, and it’s drunk in constant, stupefying quantities because, well, isn’t that what you do with coffee? Continue reading “Cooking Lesson #4: Coffee”

Cooking Lesson #3: The Meat that I Eat

(The third section of this essay contains an extended description of a pig slaughter on the farm, accompanied by photographs. Some readers may find these images upsetting. While I do take animal welfare seriously, I ask all readers to reserve their judgment of my community and its traditional practices; and if it is absolutely necessary to comment on it, then please do so in a respectful and reasonable manner. As always, the views expressed here are mine alone, and do not represent the position of the United States Peace Corps in any way.)

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Like most Americans, I’ve been eating meat ever since I had teeth. I never gave much thought as a child to the food that appeared on my plate, nor did I worry much as an adult about how my meat went from being an animal on a farm to a fillet in a freezer. The American food industry, which isolates food from fields and meat from its animals, in which hunting and foraging takes place in supermarkets, spearing catches with credit card and digital coupons, and which presents us with more sugar, salt, and donut hamburgers that our primate brains can comprehend,  is surely the most baffling ecosystem that nature has yet produced, but it’s what I grew up with.

Since I joined the Peace Corps and uprooted my urban American life to a farming village in rural southern Armenia, though, my relationship to food and especially meat has changed. These days, the meat that I eat comes from my backyard. I’ve personally met most of the animals whose flesh winds up on my fork. Continue reading “Cooking Lesson #3: The Meat that I Eat”

COS Conference: The Beginning of the End

 

Swearing In
A25 Swearing In, June 2017, at the Arno Babajanyan Concert Hall

As of this writing, I have served the Peace Corps for about 710 days, and I have 93 days left. I don’t normally keep a count, but seeing as I’ve just come back from my Close of Service (COS) conference, it seemed appropriate to make a note of it. There are a number of milestones in Peace Corps service—staging, training, swearing-in, First Bell, New Year’s, Last Bell, the mid-service-conference, to name the big ones—and I’ve passed them all, up to the COS conference. The only thing left is COS itself, on the 30th of May—93 days from now. This puts one in a reflective mood, which is amplified by the conference being in the same resort we stayed at for our first days in country, almost exactly two years ago. For a long time, I thought of my service as being at some nebulous point past the half-way mark, but now, with less than one hundred days, we’ve officially reached the beginning of the end.

COS follows the same schedule that all our conferences do: meetings and sessions of every kind from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM with breaks for lunch and coffee, dinner at 7:00 PM, and extracurricular meetings and bull sessions of every kind, conducted from 8:00 PM to, well, 8:00 AM, judging by the habits of some volunteers. But whether we’re sitting around a café table with a cup of instant coffee and a bowl of fruit, or slumped together on a hotel-room couch with a glass of cheap wine in hand, the conversations are pretty much the same: What are you up to at site? What are you doing after service? And how the hell did we all get here? Continue reading “COS Conference: The Beginning of the End”

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”

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”