Archive for January, 2011

On Peace Corps

January 30, 2011

Let’s talk about Peace Corps (PC) a bit.

It’s been in the news, it’s been loved, it’s been hated. There are many different opinions out there regarding PC. I didn’t know much about it a couple years ago. Now I’m living it.

News: Recently there was a 20/20 about lackadaisical security standards at some PC posts. Watch it here.

My thoughts: PC varies from country to country. In Armenia they do a good job of protecting us, I think. We all joke that our Safety & Security Coordinator, Vahagn, is ex-KGB. But much of the PCVs’ safety lies on the PCVs’ shoulders. It is far too easy to put yourself in a compromising situation. Also, many volunteers have an expectation that they can do things as they would back home, which is not the case. It’s just naïve thinking.

Criticism: I just read this article. It requires you to create an account, which takes 30 seconds (direct it to your junk e-mail). It’s a great read for those who are interested in PC.

My thoughts: The author raises a lot of valid points, but so do all the people who responded to his letter. PC is not perfect, but it provides a service to the world and to the American people at a relatively low price tag. The PC budget for 2010 was $400 million. Compare that to the $1.3 billion we send each year to Egypt to support their military.

Humor: Check it

My thoughts: Too true!

I have to say I am pleased with PC. Yeah, it took forever to get through the application process, and yeah, maybe things here and there don’t always go smoothly, but for the most part they really take care of us. There is no way I could be living like I am without PC’s help. There is a reason why the non-PCV/RPCV Americans who live here are only in Yerevan. I have gotten to know the Armenian people and way of life with an intimacy I never otherwise would have had. When I look at a “competing” organization like European Voluntary Service (EVS), I can see that their volunteers don’t get the same training and assistance we do. I am grateful for everything PC provides us, even if a lot of other volunteers like to bitch about PC.

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The Bachelor Life in Armenia

January 22, 2011

So the past week has been my first one living as a foreign, very eligible bachelor in a small town of homogenous people. Maybe the only time I will live through that in my life? Quite possibly.

As I mentioned last time, I’ve been shopping every day. Between the potatoes Varditer gave me, the lecho (think homemade canned tomato and pepper product) my tutor gave me, the PB and parmesan I’ve received from the states, and the stuff I bought, I have been eating like an oligarch. Meals have been simple so far, but I realize that I will have lots of time on my hands for experimenting in the kitchen. You might think it’s sacrilegious, but in my 4+ years of cooking for myself I had never made mashed potatoes. I just was not a fan of the tater back home. But I successfully made some pretty good mashed taters this week. I’m sure I will find many other ways to prepare the glorious potato during my time in Armenia.

Along with increased shopping comes increased staring, questioning, and even vodka shots. Yes, it happened. I was walking home from language class and stopped to buy some bread in a nearby store. Most of the shops in Vardenis, and Armenia for that matter, have the same basic array of foodstuffs and drinks. But this shop is funny because you walk in and it looks like a messy walk in closet. There is a room to the left with pointy leather shoes. In front of you are disheveled racks of clothes. Before the clothes have a chance to draw their border, there are household goods like toilet paper creeping into the picture. Then the food section is a random collection of cookies, toothpaste, batteries, and some other stuff you might find in your garage when you decide it’s finally time to have a rummage sale. On this particular day, there was the clerk and another guy in military garb (fairly common to see). They asked where I was from, and when I answered them in Armenian you could see the surprise. As they were already drinking vodka, and here was an American plopped down right in front of them, of course the occasion called for a round of shots. They toasted to our acquaintance, and then I paid for my huge pack of toilet paper (I’d rather be really embarrassed once than be embarrassed 8 different times buying TP. Look at that American! He poops a lot!). As I walked out, the only thing I could think was, “A vodka toast at the checkout line: something you will never find at WalMart!”

Most of the week has been spent getting things in order and buying supplies. Today I bought a couple buckets, some clothespins, and did the first load of laundry. As I was hanging out the window pinning the laundry to the line, people on the street below were staring up at me. For them to see a 20 something dude doing laundry is like a Twilight Zone episode. It just doesn’t happen. Even if I don’t accomplish much during my service, maybe I will have some sort of impact on these people just by showing them that a young man doesn’t have to be dependent upon women to take care of every need.

I must say, my transition has been aided by some wonderful packages I’ve received this week. Thank you thank you thank you to everyone! It might have taken a long time, but the wait was worth it.

Since I am now in a Soviet style apartment, I thought a good stoic moustache picture was in order. Please enjoy:

I think it adds at least 5 years

Independence

January 19, 2011

For the first time in nearly 8 months, I am free.

Sunday night I moved into my apartment. After anxiously waiting with my bags packed for several days, I was relieved to hear that the landlord was finally ready. Of course it snowed while I was moving, but no big deal. It was cool to be able to pack up all my belongings and load them into a taxi, take 5 trips up the stairs, and be done with it.

The feeling of having a key, a place of my own, makes me smile just thinking about it. I can come and go as I please without answering questions, I can eat whenever I want, I can take as much time in the bathroom as I want, I can talk to myself like the crazy guy that I am, and so much more. Last night I had spaghetti for the first time in 8 months. ‘nuff said.
I was lucky because Varditer hooked me up with a lot of plates, pots, and utensils. So that drastically cut down on the amount of stuff I have to buy. I still need to get some sort of shelving in the bathroom and some other minor things, but I am up and running.

The weird part for me now is shopping for food every day. Back home I was a once a week shopper. I pretty much was out of food when I would go to the store to get more. And I didn’t like going to the store, so I tried to avoid it. In Armenia, there isn’t a whole lot of food storage going on. People have cellars and have some canned goods, but if they have a refrigerator, chances are it is empty. So I will be doing a lot more shopping now than I’m used to, but it’s okay with me. There is a store on the first floor of my building, so it can’t get much more convenient!

The other challenge is thinking of stuff to cook. They have pasta here, and of course I will abuse that, but I need some variety too. I will probably get pretty good at cooking some basic foods like eggs and potatoes. I still haven’t found any Jack’s pizzas, so I will have to resort to cooking some of the things the locals do.

Finally, laundry. I was eased into the country, with a washing machine and a clothesline. Then I was downgraded to an agitator and hand rinsing. Now I am without even a bucket to my name. So I will be buying some containers and doing laundry by hand. I’ve done it once in Solak and it wasn’t too bad. Keep in mind that we wear our clothes multiple days. Washing things by hand, or even with an agitator, just doesn’t get them that clean anyway, so you don’t wash your clothes nearly as much.

Okay, let me give you a rundown of the glorious apartment. What it lacks in features, it makes up for in Soviet dilapidation.

Floor: 3rd
Rooms: Bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, dining room, enclosed balcony
Rent: 25,000 AMD ($69) + gas and electricity
MLS Number: Unknown


Bedroom
– 2 single beds and a wardrobe. There is a window that looks out to the front of the building, facing one of the major streets of Vardenis. The window gets sun in the late morning and afternoon, after the sun hurdles the soviet block across the street.

Bathroom
– Toilet, mirror, and bathtub. Also a bonus “Fishing is my therapy” sweatshirt balled up in the corner (former use unknown – not planning to wear at this point). There is a sink, but it is not installed. The drain for a sink is stuffed with trash, so maybe there is a reason it isn’t installed. There is hot water in here.

Kitchen – Sink, stove, a bookshelf type thing I moved in there to store plates and food, and a tiny table. Another street view window. Paint on ceiling is flaking off from water damage – I need to clean it up because it lands all over the bookshelf when I cook.

Dining Room – Table, 7 chairs, bookshelf, coffee table, and a bed. This is where I sleep, eat, and hang out. It’s also the room that I try to heat.

Balcony – Enclosed area with glass windows. A couple bed frames in here (brining my total to 5) and a storage closet. There is a clothesline of questionable integrity outside one of the windows. I will test it by doing pull ups before attempting to hang laundry. Just kidding, I can’t do pull ups!

That’s about it. I need to investigate buying a new heater. After a few functional fixes, I will really be rolling.

The All Purpose Room

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to take pictures of rooms?

Future site of millions of pasta meals

PC Water Filter: Taking up a ton of space and maybe saving PCVs from diarrhea but maybe not too

Every Day Food

January 15, 2011

If you read up on Armenia, chances are that you’ll hear praises of dolma, khorovats, and other delicacies. While those foods deserve their praise, it’s not what we eat every day. Last night I thought about the dishes that my host family cooks. It comes down to about 10 different things, all pretty basic, but also delicious.

1. Default Soup – I don’t know what it’s called, but when we have soup, it’s usually this. A bright orangeish-red broth chock full of grease and salt so that it’s extra savory. It is accompanied with potatoes, greens, a green pepper (sometimes), and a hunk of meat (usually chicken), eaten with your hands after you’ve downed the rest.
2. Borsch – We have borsch probably half as much as default soup. Since it’s my favorite, I always get excited when I see cabbages getting chopped the night before. Borsch is Russian and I think usually made with beets, but here in Armenia they don’t use beets. The broth is really flavorful, a bit more tomatoey than default soup. Add to that a bunch of shredded cabbage and some potatoes, and you’ve got my favorite soup.
3. Mushy default soup – Just like default soup, but with a thicker broth and no meat. The broth is more like a potato based liquid.
4. Vospov Soup – Lentil soup in a brown broth. Again, the broth is salty (everything here is) but quite tasty. There are usually some potato chunks floating around amongst the vosp.
5. Kanache Soup – Green soup. It’s like a really salty soggy salad with potatoes. Add the customary spoon of garlic water before eating, and stand back while the salty garlic flavor overtakes you. We’ve only had this twice, which is fine with me.
6. Plate of mashed potatoes – Self explanatory. The potatoes are yellow with the yugh (fat/shortening) they add in for flavor.
7. Plate of pasta – The pasta is not boiled, but rather pan fried in the same yellow yugh. It makes for a squishier doughier pasta. Served with sweet onions. They eat it with matsun (sour yogurt) on top, but I opt not to.
8. Rice with chicken – A plate of greasy rice with a boiled chicken leg or wing on top.
9. Pilaf with chicken – Ditto
10. Lobi – Green beans with scrambled eggs mixed in. Probably my least favorite meal, not because of taste, but because it is not filling.
11. Vegetarian dolma – We’ve had this a handful of times, which contradicts my opening statement. But the classic dolma you find is meat based. Veggie dolma is mostly rice, wrapped in cabbage leaves, soaked in a tomato broth. Quite good.

Plate of mashed potatoes is our most common meal. We probably have it 3 times a week or so. All meals are eaten with white bread. Usually there are no knives, and the bread serves as a sort of utensil. I eat with the fork in my left hand and a piece of bread in my right hand which acts as a wall, leveler, mop, palate cleanser, and even a napkin when boiled chicken is involved. The family almost never drinks anything with their meal. Sometimes they might have a bottle of off-brand soda and have a tiny glass of that. I always have my water bottle with me at the table, for which I’m sure they think I’m weird.

There are a couple other items on the table sometimes. In the summer and fall, there is usually a diced tomato or cucumber. In the winter, there is a bowl of ttu (sauerkraut). They have also canned some products which are delicious, but kind of rare. One is khaviar (eggplant paste), another is a pepper and onion concoction, and another is a tomato and pepper paste. All three are delicious. I make little sandwiches out of them with the bread and cheese. Cheese here is all of one variety: extremely salty white cheese. I have gotten used to it, but I still can’t really eat it without bread.

Breakfast is hot tea, bread, and cheese. Sometimes there is an egg for boiling, but often not. They also use apricot jam quite a bit with the bread.

So yeah, while they have lots of fancy foods here, our menu is pretty basic. Now you know what I eat on a daily basis!

Saltier than it looks

The Alphabet

January 14, 2011

Armenians have been conquered by many different dynasties throughout their long history. Yet, they persevere as a nation. One of the other PCVs commented, “I’ve never seen such a small country with such a strong cultural identity.” A huge reason for that is their alphabet. It makes Armenia unique, and has given a bonding quality to its culture throughout the millennia.

The alphabet was created in 405 A.D. by a guy named Mashtots. He is a revered dude, obviously. You can find his name on lots of things throughout Armenia.

Mashtots enlightening a scholar and Morten's dad

His original intent was to create an alphabet to translate the bible. Leaning on the Greek alphabet’s success, he created an Armenian alphabet in which every sound created in the oral language was represented by one letter. Read that again, English speakers. The one sound per letter rule makes pronouncing words when reading quite straightforward (kind of).

Side Note Problem: There are 39 distinct sounds in Armenian, so the alphabet is 39 letters long. 50% longer than the English alphabet. Also, there are many letters that sound the same to the foreign ear. In fact, there are 2 t sounds, 2 p sounds, 2 k sounds, 2 ts sounds, and many others that sound similar or don’t exist in English.

While he did it for Jesus, Mashtot’s alphabet caught fire for another reason: it also doubled as a numerical system. The first 9 letters represent 1-9, then 10-90, 100-1000, and 1000 to 9000. With the simplicity of one letter per sound plus the numbering, the language was destined for success. Traders especially benefitted from the ease with which they could now do business. It was like an alphabet Leatherman.

Why stop at 26 when you can have 39??

My first encounter with the language was utter confusion. Why are there so many w’s, u’s, and n’s? It does look like a cluster when you are unfamiliar. But once you finally learn all the letters, it is actually pretty cool. I can read Armenian, but I am pretty slow. The real problem is that once I read it, I have no idea what it means! 🙂

I should also say that the original alphabet was only 36 letters. The last 3 (yev, o, and f) were added in later in order to import cognate words. Lots of Armenians turn up their noses at these last 3 letters, as if perfection was met with 36 and we don’t need those outsiders’ silly words anyway.

Finally learning the entire alphabet was a relief. Words no longer looked like the symbols on the Predator’s watch. I could actually look up words in the dictionary. And I remember the first word I read successfully: bistro.

The other thing to think about with the alphabet is just how much it adds to their culture and identity. Imagine for a moment that you are part of a nation of only 3 million. Your country used to be vast and powerful, but now has been reduced down to the size of Maryland. 1.5 million of your people were massacred in a genocide less than 100 years ago. You are a bastion of Christianity in a sea of Islam. Your country has survived thousands of years and multiple sackings, takeovers, and wars. You just recently survived communism and are struggling to catch up to the rest of the world. Now imagine that you had your very own language. No one else uses it; it is yours entirely. No one else can understand your script because it is so unique. The letters are over 1300 years older than the USA. That is the reality that Armenians live in, and it helps me to understand why they are so homogenous and steadfast in their traditions.

Tatik

January 9, 2011

The lifeblood of the Armenian family: The Tatik

Tatik means grandma. Armenia has a lot of Tatiks, perhaps because the men smoke and drink themselves to an early death. They can be seen waddling around the streets occasionally, but most stick to the areas adjacent to their homes. How do you know you’ve seen a tatik? If the cankles and canter don’t give it away, the 5 layers of clothing, doorag, and specialty tatik socks will be your clues. Also, in order to be a tatik, you must be at least overweight. Obese is better, but overweight will do.

My first tatik wasn’t the garden variety tatik. She is Russian, and a little bit more with it than your average tatik. She has her own cell phone, uses Skype, and is generally a badass. No headdress either. I’m not here to talk about her, though. I’m here to talk about Tatik.

Tatik is the most interesting thing in our household. The way she saunters around the house is mesmerizing in and of itself. She has bad vision (not unlike myself), so you can often find her examining objects at point-blank range. Her cankles are bigger than my thighs. She has 4 or 5 teeth left, so meal time is always a symphony of smacks and slurps, especially when boiled chicken is involved. But my favorite part about her is what she says.

Her Armenian is laden with barbar so thick that on any given day I don’t understand a single word she says. She also can’t understand my crappy Armenian. This leaves us with a formidable communication gap. I don’t think she knows what my name is. She resorts to calling me “Keeny” or sometimes “Keen”, which is funny because keen is the word for woman. She is chock full of the Armenian flavoring expressions, of which I never quite know the meaning. Things like “vay”, “ba”, “uhhh”, and “ehh” are constantly coming out of her mouth.

The youngest son always lives with his mother in Armenian culture. So my host father, and his wife, and their kids all live with Tatik. The house is the one he grew up in (I’m assuming). As the tatik in the family, she is revered in some ways, but seemingly disrespected in others. The other brothers visit quite often. The first toast usually has something to do with Tatik. But she does a disproportionate amount of work around the house considering her age and health. And the dad and brother have no qualms about asking her to go get them water or an ashtray while they sit on their asses watching TV. Of course, it only seems disrespectful to me. To them, I guess it’s normal.

While I can’t really communicate with her, Tatik is probably my favorite family member. She leaves me alone, makes dinner every day, and gives me internal comedic relief. She even asked me about my apartment search one day, in a genuine way. The best moment with Tatik was probably when my host dad was drunk and bugging me about leaving. She was in the background behind him with wide eyes, flicking her throat with her index finger (the national sign language for drinking).

She may look 90 even though she’s only 74, and she might make me laugh in ways that I shouldn’t be laughing, but deep down I respect what was probably a very difficult life. She has lived through communism, struggle for independence, and numerous other difficulties, yet she continues to soldier on. To Tatik!

Nor Tari

January 5, 2011

Nor Tari is over and I survived. My arteries are hardened, my liver waves a white flag, and my stomach is still trying to process meat from 3 days ago. It didn’t help that today is Christmas here, so I just ate their Christmas dinner. It consists of rice yellow with fat and raisins and a soup of apricots that is way too sweet even for me. I’m sorry body; please forgive me.

Cigarettes don't cost $5 a pack here

Quick observations:
-All the families prepare the exact same food
-There wasn’t a potato to be seen anywhere, despite being the foundation of their diet
-I’ve never had so much vodka and meat in a 4 day span

How do they celebrate the new year? On December 31st at midnight they go outside and shoot off fireworks. The sky was lit up with the multiple firework displays. Then the families gather for the first feast of Nor Tari. The table is prepared with 8-12 settings, baskets of fruit, a variety of drinks (drinks are always kept on the table while dining), cakes, nuts, dried fruit, cold cuts, mayo-based salads, and lavash.

Meals are served in a certain way. First, they ask what you want to drink. If you’re a man, probably vodka. If you’re a woman, usually wine (gini). There is also a token beer on every table, just in case someone is difficult and requests beer, but as far as I saw, no one actually drinks this beer. Keep in mind the drinks are served in little mini wine glass shot glasses.

Next comes the kyufta. This strange meat is ubiquitous during Nor Tari. I think I had 8 pieces in a 24 hour span. It’s basically pounded minced meat that is combined with onion and egg to make a very dense meat globule. It is then sliced in long “filets”, sometimes topped with butter, and eaten wrapped in lavash. The best way I can describe it is somewhere between bologna and a thick cured ham, but maybe squishier.

After kyufta there is actually a tad bit of variety. Some houses serve boiled meat. Perhaps they all do, but it seemed after the 2nd day there was no more boiled meat. It could be chicken, or pig. Other houses serve blichik (not sure if that’s right), which is like a little taquito. There is a spongy crepe-like wrapping, inside of which is a finely ground meat with a few other flavorings. These are pretty good, but extremely greasy.

As if the guests didn’t already consume a month’s worth of protein, the next dish is always dolma. Dolma is minced meat, rice, and onions wrapped inside a grape leaf (winter dolma) or a cabbage leaf (summer dolma). It is served with matsun (sour yogurt). I like to wrap mine in lavash and pretend it’s a mini burrito.

I hope you’re not full yet, because it’s not over. Now they bring out a plate of homemade cakes. The families prepare multiple square cakes and cut them into parallelogram pieces. A platter might have 5 different kinds of cake. Many are layer cakes that resemble some sort of graham cracker cake you might have in the US. A few of the families had paklava. It’s just like it sounds – baklava but a little less flaky, but quite possibly more delicious.

Now it’s time for fruit. They cut up several pieces of fruit, including oranges, persimmons, apples, bananas, kiwis, and if you have an awesome host son like me, pineapple. Remember, this whole time you are also drinking juice, soft drinks, or mineral water along with your alcohol. There will be several similar toasts for a happy new year.

Sometimes there is dancing during the meal as well. It depends on the family and the elation level. I’ve found that they could care less if you can dance well, they just want you to dance. While I am not a dancer, I always oblige and make a fool of myself. Luckily it’s easy enough to imitate the simple arm movements they make, so I can passably dance Armenian.

Finally, it’s time to leave before the next guests arrive. The family will clean the plates just in time for the new guests to come in. Then it’s the same thing all over again. Armenuhi! Go reheat the kyufta!!

So that’s the meal part of it. Families visit each other during these 4 days. They also spend time with friends and coworkers. I think that if someone comes to your house, you usually go to their house too. I’m not quite sure how it all works…to me it seems like a scheduling nightmare. It is definitely a hard holiday for the women in Armenia, as they are constantly either serving food, heating food, or cleaning up the food. People do not bring gifts to each other’s houses. When you enter a person’s house, you congratulate each of them on the new year, even if they already came to your house and congratulated you.

I love the pump dispenser!

What did we do, you ask? Well, New Year’s Eve the dad’s 2 brothers came to our house, since my dad is the youngest and thus lives with his mom. We all ate and danced in our house. Then we made our way next door, to one of the dad’s brother’s houses. They had one of the biggest bottles of vodka I’ve ever seen in my life. The next morning, we went to the other brother’s house. From there, I left to meet up with my friends at my co-worker’s apartment.

When I came back home, I asked if I could invite my friends over that night. They told me the third would be better. Okay. Then they asked me if I was hungry. Yeah, I guess…why? Well you can eat what’s on the table, because we’re going to grandma’s brother’s house and you’re not going. Oh. ::Family all leaves:: Well, so much for tagging along with the family the rest of the time. I’m home al..-KEVIN!- Yeah? ::The mom runs back inside the house:: Come shovel the snow on the porch while we’re gone. What?! So I found myself shoveling snow using some sort of fire-oven pizza spatula wooden contraption. After I gave you January’s money early when you asked? After I appeased the dad’s advice that I should bring them presents for the New Year? I hate you guys.

The next several days were all very similar. I went to bed late, woke up to go eat lunch at a co-worker’s house with my friends, came home usually to a big party of people that I didn’t know, ate, drank, ate drank, etc. Yesterday things wound down nicely. I went to my language teacher’s house, which I was a bit nervous about because it was the only place I went alone. I didn’t know if it would be awkward. And the idea of going to someone’s house to eat all their food is not really my nature. But it was a great time. Like a language lesson with great food.

Overall, it was extremely cool to see this unique celebration. A lot of the volunteers went to Tblisi for some reason. While their facebook statuses all proclaimed that Tblisi is God’s gift to the Earth, I still can’t understand an absence during what has to be the coolest time of the year here. The hospitality was again dumbfounding. And I had multiple instances where I almost overflowed with appreciation for some of my Armenian friends and their families. Like the girl who walked through the snow to meet us at the Y, take us to her house, feed us, entertain us, and give us gifts. The coolest thing of all was just to be welcomed into these families as a lifelong friend. It certainly makes me feel more at home and gives the place a special feeling.

Now I’m off to Martuni. I hope to move out soon, but am still waiting on PC. The rest of my break will be spent recovering, digesting, studying, relaxing, and saying goodbye to Ula. She leaves on the 14th.

Did you have a good New Year’s? I want to hear about it! Let me know in the comments or with an email. Thanks for reading and here’s to a wonderful 2011 for all of us.

The Blog: 2010 in Review

January 2, 2011

This was an automated email I got from WordPress, which I thought was pretty cool.

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

The Leaning Tower of Pisa has 296 steps to reach the top. This blog was viewed about 1,100 times in 2010. If those were steps, it would have climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa 4 times

In 2010, there were 40 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 65 posts. There were 38 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 13mb. That’s about 3 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was August 29th with 104 views. The most popular post that day was untitled.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were mail.yahoo.com, facebook.com, and mail.live.com.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

untitled August 2010
3 comments

2

About January 2009
2 comments

3

The Bus that Saved My Life October 2010
5 comments

4

Howdy Ho! December 2010
8 comments

5

Gaz Chka September 2010
2 comments