Archive for March, 2011

The Game

March 27, 2011

Since you read my blog, there’s a good chance you know I grew up playing soccer. I loved it! I was never as interested in watching soccer though. However, things have changed in the last 4 years or so. Now I thoroughly enjoy watching the game too (although playing soccer is significantly more fun than watching it, which I can’t say about other sports like baseball).

Bonus points if you can find 2004 Kevin

Despite not being a soccer fanatic early on, I was lucky enough to attend a variety of games. There are distant memories of Sangamon State and a game winning bicycle kick, trips to Chicago to see the Fire, and of course SLU soccer. I’ll never forget our dorm floor winning the spirit competition while I simultaneously lost my keys and wallet in one of my first days of college. Running around campus in a togo looking for your wallet is not fun.

Attending soccer games has given me some great memories. I can remember the first time walking up to a Chicago Fire game at Soldier Field and being amazed at the diversity. The announcements were done in 3 languages: English, Spanish, and Polish. I just couldn’t believe it.

The most high-profile game I ever attended was probably the 1999 Women’s World Cup in Chicago. If I remember correctly, the US destroyed Nigeria. And while that was a great experience, I have never gotten a feeling for the euphoria soccer provides for other nations. So, attending my first game in “Europe” on Saturday was quite exciting.

Despite Armenia’s ambiguous geographical location, they are considered part of Europe as far as FIFA is concerned. So, they take place in Euro 2012 Qualifiers, just like England, Germany, Spain, and all the other European nations. Euro 2012 is a cup for European teams that is organized every 4 years, offset 2 years from the World Cup. The class of European football means that this tournament is seen as a quasi-World Cup that helps tide people over for 4 years.

Armenia has never qualified for a World Cup or Euro since its independence. That fact, coupled with their 2nd place position in the Group B qualifying group, meant that the game against Russia on Saturday would be one of the most important in their young history. You also must consider the political and geographical dynamics to put the game into proper context. Russia is like Armenia’s big brother – protecting it from bullies, giving it a noogie from time to time, and selling it some discounted anti-aircraft weapons. Armenia’s 2.x million people vs. Russia’s 140 million. Biggest country in the world versus one of the smallest. You get the idea.

So of course I jumped on the opportunity when a fellow volunteer organized a ticket purchase. Tickets sold out quickly and passports were required to buy one. It was the most sought-after ticket in Armenian soccer history.

As we walked to the stadium from the Peace Corps office, you could feel the energy in the city. Roads were being blockaded. Cars drove through the streets with Armenian flags proudly waving. And a bunch of Americans marched towards the stadium in Armenian flag hats and facepaint. The street leading up to the stadium was slightly surreal. Normally in America you would see people hawking bottled water, t-shirts, and other crap. Here in Armenia the goods of choice were sunflower seeds. Everywhere!

Security Checkpoint 1

Approaching the stadium, we saw a big mass of people and some security. The Armenian police force had teamed up with the military to make several security checkpoints on the stadium entrance. They would corral a large amount of people and make us wait. Then a moment later some of the group would get let in. They would then block us again. In this way we were herded, much like cattle, through 3 different security checkpoints. Amongst the chaos there were Armenians, who were perhaps surprised or just plain confused about the American group walking around in their colors. Some diasporans began talking to me and another PCV. Then one of the diasporans asked the other something in Armenian about where do we work. I started answering in Armenian to the shock of the diasporans. They and their Russian friends all started laughing, but I couldn’t tell if it was at the situation or at me. Speaking of Russians, they were out in full force. Their pasty skin, light hair, and sharp eyes and noses would have given them away if it weren’t for the smattering of Russia clothing, scarves, and hats. Oh yeah, the Russian they spoke would have given them away too!

After finally getting through all the checkpoints, we were within striking distance of the stadium. The stadium was old and probably not the correct choice for the game (there is the Hrazdan stadium which is much larger and appears more modern too). It is a simple bowl with no concourse or concessions of any kind. You just walk up to an exterior gate, climb a few stairs, and you’re inside. Oh wait, it wasn’t that easy.

With 10 minutes to spare, we thought we were in great shape. That feeling quickly evaporated when we saw our gate closed and locked. A crowd of people on the stairs were pleading with the police on the other side of the gate. I could hear the roar of the crowd inside, but could see nothing. We made our way to the top of the stairs and started pleading our case. We have tickets, we just need to get inside. The police said that there was no room. Now I could hear the national anthem playing. The situation started getting more tense the closer it got to kickoff. The other gates nearby were the same situation. A mix of Armenians, Americans, and Russians all stood on the steps frantically trying to persuade the emotionless police officers to open the gate. After a few more minutes it was obvious the game had started, by the roars of the crowd. You could feel the energy from the crowd, yet you couldn’t join them. It was a terrible feeling.

Toms Unenq (We Have Tickets)

We kept trying to get in, because we didn’t know what else to do. One Armenian man kept saying, “I have a ticket! I have a ticket! I came from Georgia for this game!” But nothing we said was working. Everyone I asked had no good reason why they wouldn’t let us in. Then I found a guy with a radio among the military patrol, police, and German sheppards. He told me, “just wait”. How ridiculous is that? You buy a ticket, get to the game early, and then you can’t go inside because of some power trip by the police. I was mad, frustrated, depressed, and losing hope all at once.

Usages: Euro Qualifiers, Zombie Attacks, etc.

Then a couple of our people got through another gate. They tried to plead with the guards but to no avail. The situation seemed hopeless. A Russian guy came up to me and suggested we go try another gate. So I left our group and went with the commie to another gate. Just as we got there the guards were closing it. We pleaded with them in Russian and Armenian. It was funny because he was trying to use my American status to get us both in. Didn’t work. We tried another one. Nope. We tried a third without luck. The Russian dude was still talking to the guards when I took off. Now I realized that my group wasn’t there. They got through when I wasn’t there! Nice move Kevin! So I was on my own to find a way in.

I walked all the way to the other side of the stadium to try my luck. I was denied, as my ticket was obviously for another section. I climbed another set of stairs, which were empty, and slipped through the gate, which was left open. A few others followed me in. I cautiously went up a few stairs, until I was met by the police. I showed my ticket to the officer. He started to look at the section number. I then explained that I knew it was the wrong section, but mine was closed. He gave me a little nod and tore the edge of the ticket. Finally. I was in.

“I’ll just walk around the bowl to the area where the Americans are sitting,” I thought. Then I noticed the big blue fences that separated sections. Then I decided I would just sit down somewhere….but where? All the seats were full. I started walking, and right before I got to the blue fence, I saw some Armenians sitting on the aisle stairs. I plopped down next to them to watch the game at last. Looking up at the clock, it was the 36th minute already. I missed almost half the game waiting to get in. But the score was surprisingly still 0-0.

I didn’t know either team very well, so I started watching the one player I knew I could recognize – Arshavin of Russia. He was diminutive and reminded me of some of our midfielders we’ve had at SLU. The half closed out with a few Russian corners and a couple good chance from the Armenians. Halftime was my chance to go sit with my friends.

After getting blocked a couple more times, I got in to my section. I found the Americans and was relieved/pissed to find a bunch of empty seats belonging to us. Why didn’t they let us in before? So stupid. I watched the 2nd half and can’t say it was beautiful soccer. It was a bit sloppy and nothing magical happened. Armenia made some decent counterattacks and had some clutch tackles in their defensive third. Russia definitely had the edge and should have won, but the game ended in a 0-0 draw. It was basically a victory for Armenia. The crowd was pleased.

Finally

For me, it was more about the experience than the game. I chanted, cheered, did the wave, and even helped some Armenians wave their flag. I screamed as much as I could despite an already hoarse voice from a cold. I blew my little horn thing loudly and quite well. I had fun, despite the frustration of not getting in. I felt bad for the Russians who had the same problem, except that they came FROM RUSSIA to see this game. Armenia could learn a lot from America in terms of how to handle logistics for a sporting event. It’s a good thing Azerbaijan didn’t attack, because I think at least half of the Armenian military was outside the stadium twiddling its thumbs. Armenia definitely shouldn’t get to host any more Euro qualifiers after such a poor display.

In all, it was an interesting introduction to European soccer. The best thing is that it leaves much room for improvement. I’m sure I’ll see a better match in a better venue at some point in my life. But I’m glad I went.

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Not Quite Spring

March 23, 2011

The mud was almost gone. Almost gone! Snow seemed out of the question. But we’ve had snow all day now, even as I write. What’s another half foot at this point though? It will probably melt in a couple days (I hope).

So even though we are still hovering around freezing, life must go on. First thing was the poetry contest I spoke of last time. Everything worked flawlessly (the girls showed up, the taxi showed up, the event happened, etc). We had a great time and I was really proud of the girls. The youngest one is perhaps the most adorable 12 year old girl I’ve ever seen. She is so diminutive and shy, but when she got on the stage she was as brave as a soldier. Two of the girls took home 2nd place in their respective grades.

The whole crew in Martuni

Then, last week we were busy at work finishing up a grant for our summer camps. I spent a couple days translating it with one of the girls. When translating there are many moments where I just have to let things go that really bother me. I have to remember that I am supposed to be translating and not recrafting all the ideas within so that they make sense to a western mind. Of course there are times when we have to rewrite, but if I stopped every time I wanted to, we would never get done.

Friday we were off to Stepanavan, a city halfway between Yerevan and Tblisi. Aga and I stayed with Pascal, our French friend who lives there. We arrived at about 8:00 Friday night after a day in marshrutkas (the final 3 hours on a stool – ouch!). He wasn’t back from Yerevan yet, so we went to a Georgian restaurant, where I had khinkali for the first time. Needless to say, I loved these oversized raviolis. Oddly, the restaurant had no beverages except for a pear soda (famous in Armenia, known as limonat). We ordered one and then secretly drank some leftover vodka that Aga brought along. I mention that because the next night we returned to the same restaurant after learning from Pascal that he always brings his own drinks, including beer and vodka, into the restaurant. Later Friday night we met Pascal’s French neighbor, Mike, who had some great photos of the recent political demonstrations in Yerevan.

Stepan: Bolshevik Leader

Saturday was spent wondering if Pascal would wake up soon, deciding to leave without him, walking around Stepanavan being amazed that people weren’t amazed to see us, bumping into a PCV who gave us a tip to check out the cemetery, walking through the cemetery and finding an amazing view of a river gorge, eating baklava, hiking through a village to a hilltop, and finally reuniting with Pascal. At this point we were tired and hungry, so we decided to return to the Georgian restaurant. We ate some delicious food and drank our drinks. Then Pascal went out to check on something and never came back. We soon realized he had been absorbed into an Armenian party’s table. We joined him and immediately had shot glasses and juice in front of us. I think everyone had a good time. For us, free vodka and some entertainment. For them, 2 French dudes, a Polish girl, and an American sitting at their table. By now, I know what to expect from these situations. The conversation turned almost exclusively Russian when they realized that Aga spoke Russian. That left Pascal and me in the dark for most of the time. And Mike, despite having some Armenian blood, has just started learning the language, so he was lost most of the time. Finally, we left right as things were getting a little weird. It was a good cap to a good day.

Volunteers

The next day was spent in transit to Vardenis. We spent a couple hours in Yerevan between marshrutkas, and it was possibly the best couple hours I’ve spent in that city. The weather was warm, yet not hot. We ate ice cream in Republic Square and watched some kids rollerblade down the steps. Then we grabbed a beer at a café near the Opera and did some people watching, my favorite activity in Yerevan. Maybe it’s the break from being watched that pleases me so much. Or maybe there are just some really interesting looking people in Yerevan. Whatever it is, I love it.

Monday I went to Gavarr for a safety meeting with PC. We have these mandatory meetings where we talk about what happens if there is an earthquake, war, etc. And now, here I am, trying to find a place to stay in Yerevan Friday night. I signed up for Couch Surfing, despite my skepticism. So many people swear by it. I have really enjoyed meeting different Europeans while living here, and using Couch Surfing is another great way to do that. So I’m giving it a try. I have a meeting with Armenian Red Cross for Border2Border on Friday. Then on Saturday I will go to the Armenia v. Russia Euro Qualifier. It should be a great weekend, as long as it doesn’t snow!

Culinary Excursions and Attack of the Doberman, Among Other Things

March 12, 2011

I realize now that what I did in America was not really cooking. I ate at home almost every night, but I was missing the point. I ate almost entirely processed foods. I’ll give myself credit for making awesome whole grain oatmeal cookies every week, but that was about it. Now things are different.

The lack of pre-made foodstuffs in Armenia facilitates my development as a “cooker” (as my ESL friends would say). I am forced to not be lazy – there are no frozen pizzas. I am forced to be adventurous – I know like 3 recipes. I am also forced to use the metric system – and I like it a lot better.

Here are some of my latest meals:
Lentil Soup – Easy to make, healthy, delicious, and food for several meals. I will be making this one back in the states!
Potato Soup – It was a little too liquidy for me. I won’t be making it again, partly because I didn’t love it and partly because it calls for milk. I have gambled and lost too many times lately with milk here, so I’m taking a break from it.
Fried Rice – A good way to use leftover cooked rice. I add sausage, onions, egg, and sometimes potatoes to turn it into a real starch fest.
Chocolate Chip Cookies – These do not exist in Armenia. Sometimes a taste of home is bliss, so I made them and was quite happy.
Snickerdoodles – Again, chka Hayastanum. These followed the chocolate chippers. They also dominated the chocolate chippers, so it’s snickerdoodles from here on out. Armenians at the office enjoyed these too.
Egg Rolls – My first time ever really frying anything. Despite being disgusted at the amount of sunflower oil I had to use, these were really good. Lavash, with carrot, egg, mushroom, and cabbage filling.
Pizza – Friday night I made my first pizza in country. Drop a little extra money for meltable Hollandakan (Dutch) cheese, and you’re set. The dough was almost too easy – 3 cups of flour, baking powder, salt, and beer. I can’t decide if the best part was cooking with beer, eating the pizza, drinking the rest of the beer with the pizza, or cold pizza for breakfast the next morning (first time in almost 10 months). I am lucky to have a working oven!

While I will probably return to my old ways in the kitchen when I get back, it is nice to slow down, spend a bit more time preparing food, and discover that I can make tasty food from scratch.

In other news, I had a bad run in with a dog this week. PC gives us some training to be careful of dogs. In Armenia there are many wild street dogs. Usually they don’t pose a problem. Part of that is because they’re scared of Armenians for the most part. So our training was to avoid dogs, and if necessary, carry a rock. Just the act of raising your arm is enough to scare most dogs away.

I haven’t had too many problems with dogs up until now. Mostly they are just annoying here. I get chased on my runs sometimes, but those are little yippie dogs chasing me. But Wednesday, I was as scared as I’ve ever been in my life.

I was walking to my language lesson, which takes me down a dirt road in a residential area. As I approached my sanctuary, I could see a Doberman sitting in a driveway. I knew the dog, because it is not a street dog. I see it sometimes at this house, but usually it isn’t there. The reason I knew it was because it scared the shit out of my in one of my first weeks in Vardenis. Back then, it charged all the way across their yard, right at me, before stopping at the edge of the property. So I already don’t like this dog. I’m walking by, and since the dog is sitting at the edge of the driveway, the farthest away I can get is the other side of the dirt road I’m traversing. But the road is full of major league puddles, so those kind of determine where you can walk.

So I’m walking, getting closer to the dog. The dog is on the right side of the road (about 15 feet away), and I’m on the right side of a huge puddle. As I get closer, the dog starts growling and baring its teeth. I realize that I need to get to the other side of the road, but I have to get around the puddle first. Before I can do that, he bolts right at me.

Have you ever been so scared that you can’t control your reaction? It’s the definition of fight or flight. It’s a kind of fear that I have only had a few times in my life (another of which was in Armenia with a dog in Yerevan). I consider myself able to stay calm and cool in some intense moments. For example, when I was 18 and sleepily driving to my job at ADM, and an oncoming dump truck turned left right in front of me. Boom, slam the brakes, save your own life, no problem. But the Doberman, I was scared shitless…

So I jump backwards in fear, screaming “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!”, with my arms rising at my sides. The awkwardness of my reaction must have caught the dog off guard, because he stopped charging. At this point he was just a few feet away from me. Some Armenians further down the road see what is happening and start yelling at the dog. The dog goes back towards his driveway. I assess the damage: my left foot is completely submerged in a mud puddle, my dignity is nowhere to be seen, and I feel like a pansy. But there are no flesh wounds, no rabies, no trip to a soviet hospital. I step out of the puddle, try to think of something to say to save face with the Armenians I will soon pass, and consider myself lucky.

Other than that, life has been really good lately. I did the International Writing Olympics at the college this week with some English students. Today (it’s 1 a.m. right now), I will take some teenagers to Martuni to compete in a poetry contest. Yesterday was an unusual Saturday. Let me break it down:

9:00 – Wake up, realize it snowed again (everything had melted and even the mud was drying)
10:00 – Cold pizza and gata (pastry) for breakfast…heaven
12:00 – Go to YMCA for their board meeting. First one I’ve ever seen. Try to understand and help translate for Aga, but don’t understand much. Scribble some words on my hand to look up later.
2:00 – Board meeting is over. 4th school director/teacher is our new board president. They want a PCV at the 4th school. Bonus. Stand around in the office, teach one of my friends some English, get questions about the words scribbled on my hand, and more standing. Think, “I’ll stay for a few more minutes.”
2:02 – Realize that we are now going upstairs to eat barbecue chicken and drink vodka. Reconsider staying in Armenia the rest of my life and attending as many board meetings as possible.
5:00 – Act like I’m not drunk. Help the janitor lady clean up despite her refusals. Walk home with her, talk to her about my family’s visit (she is really excited to meet you guys).
5:05 – Arrive in apartment and pass out on top of bed in all of my clothes.
10:45 – Wake up to a thudding noise coming from upstairs. Totally disoriented. Upon realizing where I am, reflect on how sweet life is for 1 hour.
12:00 – Eat some more gata, write this blog post, and check the internet.
1:00 – Go to sleep. Gotta get up at 7:30 and run, then take these girls to Martuni.

🙂

Happy Women’s Day and Border2Border

March 8, 2011

Dear Female Readers,

Tonet shnorhavor (Congratulations on your holiday). Today is International Women’s Day in Armenia. It was started as a Socialist holiday. Thus I had never heard of it before coming to Armenia. But it’s a pretty big deal here: we got yesterday and today off work. For that reason, I am now an advocate for the holiday. Tomorrow I will take some food and drinks into the office. I figure it’s a good idea since I am pretty much the only guy there. The plan is to make snickerdoodles tonight so I can give them a little ‘merican culture while I’m at it.

In other news, after some unavoidable bureaucracy, our Border2Border project’s PCPP (Peace Corps Partnership Program) webpage is now live on the Peace Corps website. This page will serve as our funding mechanism. Check it out here: B2B PCPP. We are under the gun since the walk is slated for June 1st. Our goal is to raise all the money within the next month. So, if you are at all interested in this project, or know someone who would be, please check it out and consider donating. Small donations of $5 or $10 will definitely help us get there since there are 16 of us on the project staff (so a big network of friends and families). And of course big donations are okay too :). Donations are tax-deductible too. As I headed the team that wrote the PCPP grant and am also the financial manager for the project, seeing the PCPP get funded on time will be very rewarding!

If you would like more info on B2B, please check our blog and Facebook Causes pages:
B2B Blog
B2B on Causes

Thanks to those of you who have already been active in recruiting people to the Cause page!

Disclaimer: This might not be the only time I hit you up for money. While I am happy to be part of this big effort, there could be projects that are more specific to Vardenis in the future. But right now I have no idea!

Things That Make Me Smile

March 3, 2011

I’ve said it before and I have to say it again: There are so many times when I wish I could transmit a live video feed to people back home!

There were two occasions recently. The first happened when I was walking to my tutor’s house. I was about to turn onto the main road when I felt something watching me. In my peripheral vision, I spotted something odd about the nearby garbage bin (they are like 4’ high square bins, usually overflowing). I glanced over and saw two blonde/orange ears pointing skyward with two black eyes underneath. There was a dog in the trash can just staring at me! But I could only see it from the eyes up, so it was like a real-life Oscar the Grouch. I started laughing. When I looked back for a second take, there was no sign of him.

The other one was today in Yerevan. Background: There are many public water fountains on the streets, even in rural areas. These usually have no valve, but are instead constantly “on.” On usually means a tiny dribble, but can also result in a hilarious geyser effect now and then. Walking down the sidewalk, I saw a 50 something Armenian dude casually pressing his thumb down on the faucet of a water fountain, squirting the water all over his taxi. You would never see someone using a water fountain to wash their car in the states! And so non-chalantly at that.

Oh yeah, I also saw Abraham Lincoln on the side of a bus as part of an advertisement. The ad was in Armenian and I didn’t have enough time to read it (usually I need at least 1 minute per word). But it got me thinking about our global penetration. I can see the namesake of my state plastered on the side of a bus in this country, but I didn’t know where Armenia was before Peace Corps. Crazy. However, the effectiveness of using foreign presidents for advertising is another post entirely.

Today was a long one but a good one. A day trip to Yerevan (so 6 hours in a marshrutka) for a meeting with a lady from PC Washington who is in charge of training in our region. In a group, we discussed the CBD (Community and Business Development) program that I’m a part of. Our post is going through a lot of changes, and my program is no exception. I picked up some Yak Trax at our office. I figured it was time now that the winter is almost over. I also got an Armenian language book that I’m pretty pumped about. Plus, I talked to our PST Coordinator. She really liked my application to assist with PST. I think it’s a 99% sure thing that I will get invited to help with that 🙂

A couple really bright spots on the horizon are approaching too. I’m hoping to attend the Armenia vs. Russia Euro qualifier in Yerevan near the end of the month. There is a large group of PCVs interested in attending, so hopefully we can get discounted group tickets. That would be such a blast. Armenia really rose in the FIFA rankings, and of course, Russia is a good team with some world-class talent. Also, I am proud to say that I just bought my plane ticket to Poland! I will leave with Aga and visit her homeland. It will be incredible to get a real experience in Poland. I can stay with her family and maybe with Ula too. That will be for a week in early May. PUMPED!

I will finally pay respect to Casimir Pulaski. Thanks for all those days off from school man! Dzień dobry Polska!

Paper Those Walls People

March 1, 2011

Winter is dying. Spring is coming. Get your wallpaper to commemorate this special time.

Actually, the wallpaper makes more sense if you get the winter one first. So here:

And then here:

And then Happy 50th Anniversary Peace Corps.