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.

View From Sevanavank
View from Sevanavank Monastery, Lake Sevan. Author’s photo. August 2017.

2. My host father barges into my room holding a bowl of apple vinegar and shouts “Take off your socks!” It’s late summer, and I am under the thick covers of my bed with a temperature of 38 degrees (don’t worry, I had to look it up, too) chilled to the bone while sweating out mineral water as fast as I could drink it. Being sick in a foreign country is never fun and often strange, although usually not quite as strange as an Armenian farmer in his mid-50s coming through the door with a bowl of apple vinegar and a command to denude your feet. But a Peace Corps Volunteer is nothing if not agreeable, so I complied and received a foot-washing stranger than any the Pope’s ever given. I have my doubts about Armenian folk medicine, but I was in a rush to get back into teaching shape: my illness had come, unannounced, on the first day of September, which around these parts is a holiday known as First Bell. First Bell marks the beginning of the school year, and I had wanted to see it for two reasons: first, because First Bell was a Russian import from Soviet times, and as an incorrigible student of the USSR who endured several dialogues about First Bell in Russian classes over the years and wanted to see it for myself; and second, to witness this unabashedly bizarre and senseless public ceremony of devotion to one of the most obscure and unloved tribes in the world—teachers. And because I happen to be a teacher, this holiday, like all the best ones, was about me. As a teacher coming from a family of teachers, this would be my for real, no-going-back baptism into the world of education. But I missed out on that baptism for another washing ritual, and in that one I was only submerged up to my feet. In apple vinegar. I got better, though.

Goris, August 2017
View of Goris from a friend’s apartment. Author’s photo. August 2017

3. Armenia must be one of the few countries in the world where you have to argue how and why you don’t like a particular food. In Armenian, “You’re hungry” is an accusation.

Garni Temple, Rear View
Rear view of Garni Temple. Kotayk Marz. Author’s photo. May 2017.

4. A guitar is a good and useful thing to have for any volunteers with the interest and the aptitude. I have plenty of the former, and little of the latter. Fortunately, I have few listeners apart from my host family who, in addition to being kind and loving people in any situation, also happen to be Armenian, and therefore enthusiastic supporters of any music in any situation at any time. Sitting alone in my room, I have been cheered on through the very thin walls of my home just for tuning my guitar. Not that they don’t have standards: songs without lyrics are inferior to songs with lyrics, just as songs in Russian are better than songs in English, while songs in Armenian are best of all. But I only know songs in English, and my host family isn’t familiar with the smattering of songs by David Bowie or the Kinks that I know by heart. They were quite taken with my cover of “Beyond the Sea,” though, even though I happened to be the one singing it instead of Bobby Darin. I like playing in the garden best, where I have a larger audience that tends to bleat and cluck rather than clap. Different animals react differently. The sheep are curious but not in a particularly active way, and they don’t like more aggressive songs, which is only appropriate for sheep. The cows moo constantly while I’m playing, but they moo a lot no matter what, although they seemed to moo slightly more at “Space Oddity,” which has tantalizing implications. The chickens are the strangest fans—sometimes they run in terror when they see my guitar approaching, which must appear to them as some kind of unfathomable instrument of torture (a lot of things look like unfathomable instruments of torture to a chicken), but at other times they actually come closer than usual when I start playing. I was playing “Blackbird” and a chicken seemed particularly interested in hearing Paul McCartney’s delicate airs as squawked by the new American in town. You can guess what color the chicken was. As far as I know, my music has only one hater, a vocal opponent who never hesitates to voice his displeasure: the family dog, who always barks at me whenever I bring my guitar outside, and doesn’t stop until the last note plays. You can’t please everybody.

Zorats Karer.
Zorats Karer monuments and Ughtasar Mountain. Author’s photo. June 2017.

5. Why are there crickets living behind the stack of Armenian maps at the back of the eighth grade classroom? Why does the world map on the wall use the same color for the ocean as it does for Russia and Brazil?

Cafe & Gallery, Abovyan Street, Yerevan
Small seating area in a gallery off Abovyan Street, Yerevan. Author’s photo. May 2017.

6. I’m in the backseat of a red 1974 Niva (the Soviet Union’s answer to the civilian version of the Jeep) that’s driving up a mountainside at an angle steep enough to discredit Newtonian physics. Next to me is my 6 year-old host nephew, a shotgun, and a pile of dead birds. We’re bird hunting in the hills at the very northern edge of Syunik Marz. I say “we,” but let me emphasize here that I never so much as touched the shotgun at any point. Peace Corps Volunteers can’t use or own guns, which is fine by me.) My host brother takes his hand off the wheel and points to a patch of a grass; “There!” he says. The passenger door opens and out steps my host brother-in-law, shotgun in hand. He leans over the hood of the Niva, and through the dirt-caked windshield I hear the strangely quiet report of a 12-guage shotgun as bits of buckshot tear through a flock of birds. The flapping noise of the flock quiets down as the startled birds get away, but one stubborn pair of wings keeps going irregularly, somewhere on the ground nearby. My nephew crawls over me to the door and slips out, runs into the tall grass, and emerges a moment later with a bloody bird in his hand, holding it by the neck. I hold the door open and my nephew tosses the bird onto the floor behind the driver’s seat, next to four other birds. They all have at least one red stain on their brown and gray plumage; a couple aren’t actually dead yet, breathing rapidly and staring up at the ceiling of the car, blinking in confusion. Periodically, the blonde head of an American man—me—looms into their wavering field of vision, and we make eye contact, this dying bird and me. Within an hour, he’ll be dead; within two, he’ll be cooked. But before any of that, there’s just me and this bird, both wondering at the long chain of happenstance and buckshot that puts the two of us in the back of this Brezhnev-era Niva on the side of an Armenian mountain on a late summer evening.

Author's Host Father's Red 1974 Niva
Author’s host father’s red 1974 Niva during one of its many pit stops for emergency maintenance work. Author’s photo. September 2017.
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