Archive for November, 2010

Shnorhakalutyunner Talis (Thanksgiving)

November 22, 2010

I have to admit that it doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving time at all. It just hit me today that the holiday might be approaching, and that’s after we had a local Thanksgiving celebration in our marz.

Saturday everyone in our marz gathered in Martuni to celebrate Thanksgiving. I was a little concerned over this gathering, as it meant I had to cook something for the first time in Armenia (I’ve been making myself breakfast, but that doesn’t count really) as well as transport it to another town. I went for a simple butter cookie recipe in our PC cookbook. I bought the ingredients. I asked if I could make something in the kitchen. I was all ready to go. Then I actually made the cookies and I remembered why I used to buy cookies so often back home. It was a lot of work for little yield! But they were pretty good, and the other people gobbled them up fast.

There was some great food at this event. It felt so good to just pig out and overeat in true American fashion. There was turkey, garlic mashed potatoes, cornbread, vegetarian dolma, Polish dumplings, stuffing, macaroni and cheese, pasta salad, beer battered pickles, biscuits, potato salad, apple pie, squash pie, and walnut pie. My favorite was probably the walnut pie. I didn’t know such a thing existed. It was delicious.

I also realized my tastebuds are either desperate, or have fully matured, because I can now pretty much eat anything. On top of eating pies that I would never try when I was a kid, I also thoroughly enjoyed what was basically a terrible piece of turkey. I was chomping down despite its toughness, until Ulla commented, “Your turkey…is bleeding…” Sure enough, her analysis of my medieval sized turkey leg was correct. That was enough for me.

I must also mention one of the funnier conversations I’ve had with Armenians to date. I hitchhiked to Martuni. I got picked up by a couple of 20-30 something guys with a little boy in the backseat. They were incredibly nice and asked me questions the whole way. As the basic questions (where are you from, how long are you staying, what do you do, how old are you) subsided, the conversation drifted to other topics. The driver made a gesture with both fists clenched and extended his arms out, asking me something I didn’t fully understand. It must be skiing. Yeah, I’ve been skiing twice. In Armenia? No, not yet. It was in America! He then smiled and clenched one fist while slapping his other open palm against the fist. Oh shit, they’re not talking about skiing. They’re talking about…yeah. The passenger then turned with a huge grin and made the unmistakable, universal hand signal that we all understand, and at this point I was trying not to laugh about me telling them I had done this twice in America. I finished the rest of the ride politely declining their requests for me to skip thanksgiving and go with them to Yerevan to find prostitutes, then walked into the village smiling at this ridiculous conversation.

With that said, happy Thanksgiving everyone! If you have pumpkin pie, eat an extra piece for me. I’ll hope to find some at our All-Volunteer conference this weekend, where there is a Thanksgiving dinner for us prepared by PCVs. Enjoy your time with family and friends, and know that I am thinking about you from the other side of the blue dot that is Earth.



November 19, 2010

The people here aren’t the only ones who confuse me on a regular basis. Some of the products and marketing here are just bizarre, or to me, strangely funny.

One of the worst abbreviations I've ever seen

Careful, it's an automatic

The amorphous heart/lips scream manliness! What you can't see is the crossed out icon of a woman on the chocolate

Pretty sure Nintendo doesn't know about this

Not only does it cut well...

Homecoming Weekend

November 14, 2010

You know that feeling you get when you go somewhere you haven’t been for a while? Excitement is mixed with a whirl of memories and the passage of time. I got a great rush of that feeling on Friday night when I visited my training village, Solak.

It had only been 3 months since I had been in Solak, yet it felt like much longer. As I hopped out of the Hrazdan marshrutka on the highway, to the surprise of the driver and everyone else aboard, I was suddenly hit with the excited nervousness that only a homecoming can offer.

On the walk into town, I stopped and paused to take in the rolling hills and the nearby mountain. It was just as beautiful as I remembered. As I walked down the main road, the school burst into view. It brought back a rush of memories of language school and other activities we hosted there, like the 4th of July and the Prime Minister’s visit. The yard was serene. It made the Vardenis schools look pretty bad. The only thing I disapproved of was that they hacked all the branches off of the 2 shade trees. I passed the school maintenance worker on the road, and he remembered me. He was a quiet guy, but we said hello and he gave me a huge grin. I told him the school looked beautiful.

The longer I walked through town, the more it felt like I never left. The feeling culminated when I walked in the gate of my host family’s house and greeted the younger brother as he was shoveling masonry dirt (not sure what else to call it). The dad quickly appeared and he was extremely happy to see me. Again, maybe I missed it during training, but I thought he was indifferent towards me. I guess I was wrong. He gave me a hug, asked me some questions, then smiled and said “Kevin jan!” before giving me a big bear hug.

I was definitely apprehensive about going back to Solak for some reason. Maybe it was because I live somewhere else now. Maybe it was self-consciousness about language ability. Maybe I was nervous that I wouldn’t know what to do when I got there. Maybe I wasn’t sure how they would react. But all those fears were blown out of the water the minute I got there. I was received as if I was a family member. I was fed like a king. And most of all, it felt like home.

It was also a victory in the eternal struggle to learn this language. Not only had my language lessons gone well that week, but when I came back to Solak it made me realize how much more I can say and understand. I definitely didn’t understand everything or even close to it, but I understood so much more than I did during PST. I also realized how much clearer they speak than the people in Vardenis. It was like when you’re playing an RPG and you go back to the beginner area after you’ve leveled up a few times – it was easier! I have leveled up in Armenian…

So I departed yesterday afternoon in great spirits. They were already asking when I was going to come again and that I should come quicker next time. I don’t know when it will be, but I would love to visit for Nor Tari (New Year’s).

In other news, I weighed myself for the first time in Armenia. I was 176 with all my clothes and shoes on. So maybe I’m like 170, which to me seems low. I am normally around 180ish. I was expecting a loss so I wasn’t surprised. But then my Solak family said I had gotten fat. So the quantitative evidence did not fit the qualitative evidence. Anywho, I plan to pack on some pounds this winter after I move out, if for anything to give me some added protection against the cold!

Speaking of that, I am currently looking at apartments. On Thursday I visited two houses, but neither one was a great fit. I need to find a place soon so I can get approved to move out in December!

To cap off this post, I would like to congratulate Jim and Tanya on their baby Nora! Congratulations are also in store for Dave and Lauren’s engagement! Well done everyone.

Noyemberi Norutyun (November’s News)

November 7, 2010

Happy Non-Daylight Savings Time! We switched the clocks back last weekend, but most of my audience here did so last night. I always enjoy that switch, except for the earlier darkness. But you can’t complain about a 25 hour day. It also is the harbinger for the change of seasons. With that said, it’s been pretty cold here except for the last 2 days. Let me rephrase that – it’s been cold inside. I spent several hours this weekend reading outside in the sun to warm up. I took my long underwear off for the first time in like a week today. Yes, I know that’s not good hygiene, or even something you probably want to read about, but the truth is disgusting sometimes. When it’s 45 in your room, the idea of changing clothes just doesn’t sound as good as normal.

Before I get rambling too much, I want to comment on the sports world. I am quite proud of the Fighting Illini football team, despite their loss to Michigan. They are having a nice season that was unexpected by about everyone. Hopefully they can finish strong and reach a bowl game, which would be a great way to start the new decade. If we look at the last decade, they were one of the most hot and cold teams in the nation. They played in 2 BCS games, but also had mostly losing seasons including one 1-9 season I believe. I don’t think you’ll find another team that had such a wide range of success and failure in a 10 year span. So it’s good to see some winning again.

I am also pumped for the start of college basketball season. One of my favorite winter pastimes is attending Illini games with my dad. It’s something we’ve done since I was a little guy, and I love it. Parking on our secret street that allows for a quick getaway, sometimes waiting way too long for Garcia’s pizza, and of course making the cold trek to the concrete spaceship known as the Assembly Hall. Plus the team is usually good and fun to watch. This year they were shaky in their first two games, so we’ll see what happens. But I know missing those games this year and next will be one of the harder things for me.

Finally, SLU. What the hell happened? I was looking forward to a great season, after they nearly made the NCAAs last year. My dad and I attended the amazing game against Dayton last year, and I thought it converted us both into caring fans. But then the two best players got caught up in a sexual assault scandal. Not sure if they are guilty or innocent, but it’s a shame either way. A very stupid situation and disappointing for this alum. I feel I will never care about SLU basketball as much as I do for Illinois, but I still want to see them do well. Oh well, maybe they can overcome the self-imposed challenge.

I would like to thank everyone for making great efforts to stay in contact with me. It really means a lot, and as winter gears up and I prepare to move out on my own, the loneliness is likely to increase. So your continued friendship and support is much appreciated, as always. I will do my best to give back what you gift me with, via this blog and emails. I know the blog is more of a sweeping coverage of my activities, and an email is much more personal.

So what is new here? Well, a couple things have been on my mind. First, I need to find an apartment soon. I have seen my counterpart’s place, which is nice and close to work. But I don’t know what her price is. I asked and she didn’t know. Plus it might have some mold, which is a nicht nicht. She claims it needs renovation, and it might, but to me it looks pretty damn good for a PC apartment. We are supposed to look at another house soon, but I really want to see more apartments. She keeps saying that the ones available are no good, but I’m not sure she understands my budget and that I might have to settle for something that is not up to her standards. It is up to the counterpart to help us find an apartment, but since she has her own available for rent, it’s a bit of an awkward situation. But I do think I’ll wind up in her apartment.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about is a HIV/AIDS flash mob I’m helping to organize. This activity is part of the HIV Initiative, which is like an extracurricular club within PC. I kind of signed up just to try to be active and ended up being semi-in charge of this big event. It will be Dec 1 in Yerevan. As the date is quickly approaching, I am sending out emails and trying to drum up some support from other orgs. So far, no dice. I still think it will be successful because it is the same time as our All-Volunteer conference, so many PCVs will participate. But it will be better with some outside support. We have a meeting Friday in Yerevan to cover everything since the date is quickly approaching.

And that brings me to my next point: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about visiting my PST village. My internal shot clock expired in about October. It feels overdue at this point, and after calling them several times for birthdays, they were getting anxious too. I finally made the awkward phone call yesterday and arranged the thing with my old host mom. I always dread these calls because talking on the phone in Armenian is a challenge, and then on top of that I don’t like calling someone up to ask if I can visit.

M: Anna, barev! (Hello Anna!)
A: Kevin jan, barev!
M: Vonts es? (How are you?)
A: Lav, du vonts es? (Good, how are you?)
M: Lav em merci (I’m good, thanks)
M: Yes uzum em aytselel dzez (I want to visit you)
M: Myus urpat yes kleenem yerevanum yev yes karogh em aytselel(Next Friday I will be in Yerevan and I can visit)
A: Yeghav! Spasum enk kez (Deal! We will wait for you).
M: Lav, yeghav (Good deal)
A: Yeghav
M: Yeghav
….a couple more yeghavs…
M: Hajogh (Bye!)
A: Hajogh (Bye)

As you can see it is like a 6 year old’s phone conversation. But it got the job done and I will soon be in my first family’s home eating delicious food, getting jan’d, and hopefully drinking milk, as I think my bones are screaming for it. Okay, I could buy milk here if I wanted, but I haven’t. For a guy who easily went through a gallon a week, it’s been a tough adjustment. But they have homemade milk which is quite good. So yeah, I’ve been thinking about the Solak visit and it feels good to have it arranged. I am no longer a bad host-son.

The last thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is work in general. I must admit that it has been slow, although I’ve done a few things. I’ve created a newsletter, helped with some English project descriptions, and pitched in with the odd advice/job here and there. But it is nothing on the scale that I did at previous jobs. So after a while that kind of eats at your sense of worth I think. I have some ideas for the future but it is a slow process here and I am still becoming acquainted with the organization. There is a reason that PC tells you to aim low and be patient. Grass roots development, I’m painfully learning, is a much different beast than working at a Fortune 10 corporation. The work environment is so different here. I know I’m not the only one going through these feelings. Actually, almost everyone is in the same boat I think. But still, it is hard to get used to the concept of not doing that much. I’ve heard a thousand times how the second year is when you really start getting things done. It takes the whole first year to adjust and figure things out. Maybe that’s true. But I think I can get some things done this year and be helpful. In fact, the reason I spill my guts here on this topic is because tomorrow I will be teaching my first English class, an inevitable event for most volunteers here, regardless of sector. I am excited because it will be an adult class at the Y, which will be similar to what I did in STL at the International Institute. The main difference is I will be teaching a larger group, will be much more in charge of lesson planning, and can also communicate with them some in their native language. I will be teaching with one of our Polish volunteers until she leaves in January, then taking over the class solo. So I’m excited to have a scheduled task and a new challenge.

Sorry this is a big lengthy entry. If you want to stop, now is a good time because I’m going to crank it into a different gear now.

Last night I met up with my Polish friends at the local café. They were hosting other EVS volunteers from Vanadzor and Stepanavan. There was a Belgian girl, a Latvian girl, a French guy, and Australian and Armenian couch surfers. What began as a quiet conversation quickly turned into an impromptu toast-fest when the café owner decided to descend upon our gathering. He started producing bottles of vodka. By now I’m kind of used to this sort of thing, but it’s still kind of fascinating when it happens. Of course he was probably just doing it as an excuse to try to dance with the girls. None of them wanted to dance. Actually, they made it painfully obvious that they didn’t want any part of dancing with him. If I can pick that up, and I usually can’t read women worth a damn, then it is about as obvious as it gets. Sometimes I think some men in this culture either can’t tell what a woman wants, or more likely, don’t care. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely don’t think all men here are that way, but I have on more than one occasion seen men get pushy and insist that women dance with them, take a picture with them, etc. I turned to the Australian and mentioned how it was like we went back 50 or 60 years, and he quickly agreed. Just one of many differences to observe.

Today we went for a walk together, sans-couch surfers. We found a hilltop cemetery overlooking Vardenis and its neighboring village, Akunk. There was a little boy there with a giant pencil walking around. I couldn’t understand what he was doing. Then he went off to chase a dog out of a graveyard by throwing rocks and snowballs at it. He proceeded to scurry around the area. The Europeans were busy building little snow people as I decided to soak in the great view of the city. Then we kept walking and saw the boy again up ahead. He was with some cows this time, and had the aura of a mini shepherd. All of the sudden he sprinted off ahead. Again, what is he doing? Next thing we know, we arrived at the village church and he was inside. We slowly filed in and admired the empty church (literally empty, no pews, just some idols left near the front altar and burning candles). After we exited, he locked up the church. For a little 8 year old, he seemed to be shouldering some decent responsibilities. I was impressed.

Then we were trying to make our way back to the main road through the village that would take us to Vardenis. The locals were quite intrigued by our group of outsiders. The French guy had studied Armenian as well and was much more outgoing than I normally am. So we stopped and had several conversations with the villagers in broken Armenian. As we made our way back to Vardenis, the Armenian hospitality shined its spotlight on us, as it so often does. First, one of the girls went into a shop to buy matches for her cigarettes. The shop owner wouldn’t let her pay since it was a single box. Then, we were making our way down the street when we realized we had lost Frenchie again. There he was, chatting up a family that had been watching us from its driveway. Next thing I know they are inviting us in for coffee.

We again filed in, took off our shoes, and sat down in their living room. There were 2 brothers, their mom, one of the brother’s wife, and their 2 kids. The boy was 2 and crying. There was a 3 year old girl completely crashed out on a bed next to the sofa. The room was warm from the wood stove they had setup. The men were stoking it and adding in more fuel, which was not wood, but manure.

First came coffee and chocolates. Then they brought out apples. Next came pomegranate. After that there was natural homemade cherry juice, or diabetes in a glass as I like to call it (extremely delicious). At this point I was getting a bit embarrassed because it seemed like we were eating all their food. Who invites 6 strangers into their home??? Armenians. Do you want warm bread? No, no we don’t want, thank you. Then came the warm bread, fresh out of the oven. My soul departed my body and ascended towards the light. They also brought out homemade cheese and matsun. Okay, it’s dark out now, we should have left 30 minutes ago, and…oh…she’s bringing more cheese. And more juice. I said that we needed to go. The girls took some pictures, which I hope to print out and bring back to the family. The patriarch gave me his phone number and told me that we could come over whenever we wanted.

I was for the millionth time thoroughly impressed with the endless hospitality these people show. I still have a hard time believing it. It just doesn’t happen in America. Or most other places. It’s a beautiful thing about Armenia. As we traversed the dark muddy roads back home, I couldn’t help but think how cool it is to make the completely random friendships in this foreign land.

Okay, I am tired now. Before I sign out, I would like to point you to my dear friend Jared’s blog:
He made a nice post about some of us, which you should check out. And then you should continue to check out his blog because he has some of the best insights of anyone I know. Hajogh!