Archive for May, 2011

You a Southpaw, Son?

May 31, 2011

Hopefully everyone had a great Memorial Day. Although it’s not a holiday here, I still managed to have some delicious khorovats and drink vodka with Armenians. Alcohol and barbecue? What more can you ask for on a summer holiday?

The reason I write today though is a cultural phenomenon that rears its head every so often, but not often enough that I remembered to write about it before now: handedness

Every time I’m in the presence of new people and I take a bite, scratch an itch, jot a note, or pick up a glass, they proclaim in an astonished state, “You’re left handed?!?!?” Yeah, I am. Wanna fight about it?

Apparently, during Soviet times, yes, they did want to fight about it. You see, the reason that it’s so surprising for them that I’m a lefty is because none of them are lefties. I asked around today why. The Soviet era left behind many gems that still leave their muddy footprints all over this culture even 20 years later. One of those gems was forbidding use of the left hand in the classroom. If a student wrote with the left hand, the teacher would smack him and stick that pencil in the now quivering right hand. And instead of focusing on learning the lesson (which coming from the Soviet system would be highly valuable and useful) the student instead had to focus on using that damn right hand of his. Thus, he would fall behind his peers, etc.

Because of that, no adult in Armenia is left handed (that I know of, and I know at least 30). When they see me using the hand that is attached to my arm with the big mole (that’s how I tell left from right you know) they think of it as some sort of black magic.

From the beginning it’s been a fascinating thing for me. The speed at which they recognize my leftiness is truly amazing. Maybe I’m not realizing that when they are in the presence of this weird American they are staring at everything I do. But I think something else about me would warrant their first comment. Like, “Why is your hair long??” or “Why do you speak Armenian??” Instead, they go right for the left hand. To me, it indicates just how wrong or awkward it must look to them. Or maybe it highlights that we as Americans don’t pay much attention to what hand people use (I don’t anyway).

Why now, Kevin? As we were doing a toast at the khorovats, my counterpart’s husband looked at me and said, “Kevin, you know in Armenia we toast only with the right hand. I’m telling you so you know.” I switched the shot glass to my right hand in a subservient attempt to be culturally sensitive. The hard thing about this tradition is that there is an inverse relationship between the number of shots we drink and my ability to remember to abide by this norm.

Now the Soviet thing is disappearing and there are kids who are left handed. But it will be a while before they restock the adult population with lefties. So, don’t expect to see any left-handed relievers with last names ending in “ian” any time soon. If they’re fresh off the boat, that is.

Mi Tari Arten (One Year Already)

May 27, 2011

The past few days have been rather busy, but in the quiet moments my one year Armenia anniversary has surfaced in my gray matter. It’s surreal that it’s even here now. I’ll get that out of the way in the opening paragraph.

What does it mean? How can I comprehend living in a developing country for 1 year? How can I process that my Peace Corps journey is almost halfway over? Where was I last year? Where will I be next year? Has this been the Xest year of my life (insert your own adjective – crazy, weird, fast, fulfilling, confusing, rich, slow, painful, great)? Has it really been a year since I’ve seen any of my friends or family in person? And who am I now?

In the Peace Corps bubble, it’s like I’m jumping from Freshman year to Junior year. I’m an upperclassman now. It’s time to help the noobies out, to be a role model, and to give back to the program. 1 year is often a time of crisis for volunteers, a low point in service. While my last post might argue otherwise, I am generally happy and don’t feel like I’m in a trough at all. It’s also the point when many volunteers realize, “Okay, I only have 1 year left to do all the things I want to get done.” I am experiencing that one.

There’s still the restaurant menus in town to translate with my English club. I need to finish the Google map. There’s more topics I need to teach the staff about. The Y’s website is not done. Our web presence isn’t where it should be. The 5 year strategy is still just an idea. And of course, the camp building doesn’t have solar panels yet.

That’s the work side of it. And no matter how much or how little I do here, I think there will be a feeling at the end that I could have done more. But there are other reasons I’m here too, besides doing something to help them out. I want to develop myself!

My Armenian can always be better. I haven’t read nearly enough books. I never taught myself Excel macros, and I don’t really see that happening now. I should make more time for art. Physical fitness only recently crept back into my life (albeit with a vengeance). There are new foods yet to try. New recipes to cook. A plethora of places in Armenia that I still haven’t explored. What about all these computer games I wanted to play? I still can’t juggle 4 balls. Really, where did 1 year just go?

So there’s a lot I want to do in this next year. I think it will go even faster than this one. But let me take a moment and remember a few things about this year. I’m sure I’ll never experience one quite like it again.

The Low Points
My worst time was probably my 2nd week in the country. I was incredibly homesick. I was going through all the separation pains – from family, from friends, from food, from comfort. The prospect of 2 years was not sounding good. I was also quite sick physically. I was in a new group of people that I didn’t really like. Luckily things got better from there.

Thinnest picture of me (July). The weird thing was this was with the family that kept me stuffed. I've since bounced back.

I had another bad spell in August when I moved to Vardenis. It was lonely and desolate. I didn’t know what to do with myself. It was such a nebulous assignment. My new friends weren’t here. And Vardenis was a sad place for me then.

In late September I had another low. Going to a counterpart conference with a guy who wasn’t my counterpart, being extremely frustrated with communication problems, and fighting Giardia all put me in the doldrums again.

Expressing some love for the host fam (September).

Finally, part of December and January was a low point. I felt destined to live in my host family for the foreseeable future. It was so cold in my room I just wanted to sleep. My patience with living in the Armenian family had run out.

Greasiest and hairiest picture of service (January). Good thing you can't smell pictures.

The common thread in all these situations is that you are thrown a lifeline when you need it. I was able to escape all these lows and come out stronger for it. I can stand here today and be proud of the fact that I survived for 1 year. Most of us can say that, but not all. There were times when 1 year of service seemed so far away.

The High Points
It’s harder to remember the high points because I think I generally was on a high most of my time here. I really enjoy being here and cherish the time. That’s a sign that I’m happy. I had the same feeling throughout college. But here are a few I can think of.

Finishing PST was a great feeling. Our practicum was a bit grueling. And of course PST was in general. To make it through the language lessons, the culture sessions, the diarrhea, the general state of confusion and doubt, the boring admin sessions, the bitchiness of homesick PCTs, and all the other tribulations was a great feeling.

The camps we had at the YMCA were high points. The one in August was a bit stressful because I didn’t really know what to do, but I look back on it very fondly. Same for the one in October, although that was more of a workshop. It is really a bonding experience with the people you are there with. I will never forget these camps.

Nor Tari was a high amidst a low. This was during early January when I wanted to scream at my host family. But Nor Tari was a great fun distraction and something that was dripping with cultural richness.

The Spring was a high point for me too because I am at home here now, had great times with Aga in Georgia and Poland, and feel like I’m doing good work. It also feels like I am really at home amongst the PCVs. I have made some good friendships that will probably last a lifetime.

Dressed to kill in the new apartment (February).

It’s funny that there are these high points and low points in our life, but our lives are really just all the average days in between. On any average day, I might go through several completely different attitudes about my service. Today started off great, then there was a 2 hour span where I felt like I could go back to the US, and here I am capping it off back on the great side. Just another day.

In one year I have accomplished a lot and a little all at once. I think it’s clear to me now that my biggest accomplishment was probably just surviving and making a home in a strange land. That will probably become clearer as time passes too.

So, here’s to one year in the back pocket. It will be pretty handy to have it there, to be able to pull it out at a moment’s notice, and use it to have an incredible 2nd year. It was a great year that I’ll never forget. I just thank Kevin of 1 year ago for being just crazy enough to actually get on that plane.

Lone Survivor

May 22, 2011

Excuse me while I write one here that is maybe not as cheerful as normal. I’m not depressed or looking for your pity, but I would like to write about the current situation and analyze it a bit. I think it helps me cope.

I remember this feeling I had when I heard that my site was going to be Vardenis. I knew that Wayne was there but quickly leaving. And I knew I would be alone. I didn’t know what to think of that at the time. I was living in a training village with 7 close American friends. It seemed like we could get through anything with each other’s support. But how would I survive out there without them?

Then I learned that some Danish kid would be coming at the same time as me and staying for 3 months. It seemed to be a life preserver thrown my way.

Then I learned that there were going to be 2 Polish girls coming too. All of the sudden the idea of Vardenis changed from a desolate outpost barely on the PC radar to an EU convention. I was happy about it and felt lucky.

Then Wayne left. It was very weird to see him go. To see him wrapping up over 2 years of his life in this strange place. Especially at a time when I was struggling to come to terms with Vardenis as home for me for the next 2 years. There was a big part of me that wished I was getting on the plane with him.

Next was Morten. His 3 months seemed to go pretty quick and soon my best bud was gone. I can say that I was closer to him than to anyone in the PC at the time. It felt like a loss, yet it gave me room to focus more on work and integration.

A few months later Ula left. Again, a feeling of loss. A different atmosphere without her. Another empty chair at the office. Another Westerner bites the dust!

Finally, Aga leaves several months later. Of course, a huge blow.

Even though I knew it was coming, there is no way to prepare yourself.

And here I am, for 15 more months.

I don’t think the dust has settled yet. I’m not quite sure what to make of the situation. There certainly is a hole in my life to fill. Sometimes when you have a hole in your life, you don’t know what to use to fill it in. If you fill it with the wrong stuff, say, the plastic bags and garbage that are lying all over the place here, you really haven’t done yourself a service. You just have a squishy and stinky circular area in the middle of your field. But if you go to the other extreme and just pave over it, well, you can never plant anything in that hole ever again. Even in a perfect situation, maybe the field will never look quite like it did. In fact, it won’t. That’s for sure. But perhaps it could be good to find a tree to plant in that hole so that the future will be beautiful.

That’s where I am right now, trying to find a tree.

Vaghashen and Firsts

May 22, 2011

Yesterday we had a birthday celebration in Vaghashen, a village outside of Martuni. Martuni is overflowing with a really cool group of A-17s who will all be leaving soon. So it was time to get our kicks in while we still have time together.

The cows coming home, literally stopping traffic on the main thoroughfare for the entire marz (state)

The day was a great escape: hanging out with a bunch of cool Americans, chatting, drinking beers, and eating khorovats. The weather was as crazy as ever, with rain, sun, more rain, more sun, etc. We made the most of the day and had an amazing time enjoying each other’s company. Every time I see these people now I wonder if it will be the last time.

Pristine weather for 1 hour

Besides that, I was thinking that today was a day of firsts. Let me elaborate.

First time walking on the same road amongst a huge group of cattle going to pasture. Thankfully, they were docile.
First time hitchhiking with 2 guys where the car stops and one of them gets out, informing me to stick with him as he has another car coming that will take us all the way to Vardenis. The kindness is sometimes incredible.
First time going in to work on a Sunday (in a long time). I think I’ve done this before here, but definitely not in the States! I didn’t really do much there but it did require me to change out of my lazy man wardrobe.

One Year Anniversary: Studying Armenian

May 17, 2011

It’s a week or so premature for the 1 year post, but I have indeed been studying Armenian for about a year now. Let me share more than you want to know!

The memory is vivid. New crap laying all over my carpet, in front of my huge Plasma TV. This was to later be stuffed into one of 2 suitcases during a night were I would slightly freak out, cry a bit about leaving home, get myself together before my dad got home with the vacuum bags, and suck it up and decide to jump into the deep-end that was the flight to Armenia. But I digress, crap on my carpet, huge to do list on my desk, laptop and desktop sprawled next to each other trying to frantically transfer pertinent data, checking Craigslist to see if someone would come take my bed that night, and oh yeah, trying to study the little PDF Peace Corps sent me with basic Armenian phrases transliterated into English.

Listen to recording. Listen again. Read transliteration. Try to say it. Repeat recording. Use a Borat voice to say “Welcome to Armenia!” Wonder why all the letters looked like u’s and w’s. I can be there if I close my eyes.

Sun shining in my greasy face. The smell of cigarettes and BO coming from the PCV next to me. Uncomfortable bench chair. Stomach gurgling with advanced diarrhea. Smell of shit coming from the bathroom next door. Beautiful Armenian teacher. Trying to take notes fast enough, yet failing every time. Sweating uncomfortably as I waited for the next break where we would stand around outside together and complain. I can be back in the PST classroom too if I close my eyes.

Incredibly strange dreams. People, Armenians, inside my bedroom while I’m asleep trying to speak to me in Armenian. Me not understanding and being angry that they are watching me sleep. Be worried that they’ll see me in my boxers. I can remember these dreams without closing my eyes.

There was, for a long time, a feeling of hopelessness. There was so much I didn’t know, and so little that I did know. Nothing made sense. I felt no progress. It was very hard to keep studying when you know there is so much to do.

But the small victories were enough fuel to keep going. Positive feedback from the teachers, a few brief moments of understanding with the host fam, and a surprising score on my language proficiency exam. There was a fire inside of me to learn this language. Honestly, it didn’t matter what language it was. Learning a language was as big of a dream as the Peace Corps was. It was a huge component of my desire to join. But as I came to know it, I began to love the Armenian language.

No genders. Yes! No difference between present simple and present continuous. Yes! Completely phonetical alphabet. Yes!

Yet there were things I hated too.

39 new letters to learn? No! Sounds that I can’t differentiate? No! Declensions of nouns? No!! Intense local dialects? No!

The cool thing is, to love something it is not required to love everything about it. I still loathe a few things, but I carry on learning this interesting and beautiful language.

Where am I now? I’m not sure. I can say a hell of a lot more than I could in the fall, but I am not fluent. I get stuck when trying to explain things. I have to take time to think which ending to connect to my verb. Which tense should I use? Is this verb irregular? Should I use dative here? Where was my definite article there? I totally just said “Aram went to the store” instead of the correct, “The Aram went to the store.” English tendencies still predominate in many situations. And that’s just in speaking.

Understanding is a different beast. While I can understand more than I can say, it’s not enough. Depending on the person and topic, I might understand up to 70 or 80%. And then it dips as low as 5%, especially in Vardenis. So that is troubling and depressing at times.

Honestly, I am learning literary Armenian. To learn Vardenis Armenian, I need to know a completely different word for maybe 40-50% of the vocabulary. It’s incredible and daunting. I choose to continue to focus on literary Armenian and just hope to be able to better understand the local barbar as a result.

I can notice a difference when I go to my tutor’s house now. Instead of translating sentence after sentence, we tend to have several big conversations. Armenians from time to time tell me that I’m getting better. And when I go back to Solak it’s always the biggest indicator of progress. However, there is still so much to do, and I am realizing that I might never be as good as I hoped. I guess part of language learning though is being realistic, not beating yourself up, and appreciating the progress that you have made.

Yeah, I’ve talked a lot about language through this blog, but it is one of the most interesting points of being here for me. It’s important for me, even if I will never use it again after August 2012. It’s a challenge and an academic exercise with a huge practical application, which is so cool. If I can stay motivated and dedicate more time to studying, I could be in a very good spot next year.

For now, I can say that I’m proud. I can read and speak a foreign language with intermediate proficiency. I can get by okay with my skills. And it’s allowed me to have some great moments with Armenians!

Poland

May 15, 2011

Ah, Poland. Before I start blabbing I’ll give the summary.

Thursday, May 5th: Travel to Yerevan, spend day there
Friday, May 6th: Fly from Yerevan at 5:30 a.m. 2 hour layover in Vienna. Arrive in Warsaw at 10 a.m. local time. Take bus to train station. Take train to Poznań (3 hours). Go to Stęszew.
Saturday, May 7th: Go to a nearby castle, see the oldest trees in Poland, and see the town.
Sunday, May 8th: See the rest of the town, have bonfire with Aga’s friends
Monday, May 9th: Ride bikes, go to Poznań, see the old market, come back, walk around Stęszew.
Tuesday, May 10th: Go to Poznań, watch the famous rams butt heads in the old market at noon, see a church, brewery tour, come back.
Wednesday, May 11th: Go to Poznań, see Aga’s high school and uni, go to the biggest shopping center in Europe, watch movie, go out with her sister and roomie
Thursday, May 12th: Train to Warsaw at 7:45 a.m. (3 hours). Train to a town where Aga’s aunt has a house. Go back into Warsaw, see Uprising Museum, go back to town
Friday, May 13th: Train into Warsaw, meet Ula, go to the big square and old town, lunch and beers, go to airport. Fly to Vienna at 7:50 p.m.
Saturday, May 14th: Arrive in Yerevan at 5:00 a.m. Wait in airport for 3 hours b/c there is no way to get home that early. Marshrutka to Vardenis, arrive home at noon.

First, I must say that my experience in Poland is coming from the lens of a guy who has lived in Armenia for a year. I don’t know how much it would vary if I was coming from the U.S, but the sense of refreshment and luxury might not have been there.

First impressions: Wow, it’s so clean. Wow, everyone is so happy. Wow, they’re tall here! They’re not staring at me. This road is really smooth. Do they have any problems?

I’m a bit tired and out of sorts, so I’m not going to write about each day. At least not now. I’ll try to just give some general info about my trip and share what the country is like.

The way I see it, I really had a mini Peace Corps experience in a developed country. I stayed with Aga’s family. They welcomed me so warmly it was hard to believe. I was immediately at ease despite a new culture and a language I have no grasp of. Maybe part of that is getting used to being uncomfortable throughout my time in Armenia, but I think the disposition of her family helped a ton. So from this perspective, I really really loved this “vacation” because I got to experience some of their lives rather than living out of a hotel and only touching their culture in a tangential way. I ate with them, drank coffee and beer with them, went to church with them, rode around with them, and had a great time doing it all.

At first, I thought Aga’s mom was randomly similar to an Armenian in terms of hospitality. She was very empathetic to the weary traveler. She tried to speak English with me. She made tons of food and wanted me to try everything. When I could eat no more, she would look at me with sad eyes as she pulled an apple pie from the oven, saying, “Please! Please!” Later I learned that this kind of hospitality is very common in Poland. So that is a nice similarity to Armenia. The people on the street were so helpful to us in finding our way too. One guy overheard us speaking English as we stumbled through the castle, and he gave us an impromptu tour even though he wasn’t a guide.

It's no Giant Sequoia, but gnarly nonetheless


Poland is a beautiful place. The people take care of it well. Recycling is big – you can see big bins for sortable refuse on many street corners. The areas we were in were flat, but they do have mountains in the south. Several people told me with pride, “We have mountains and a sea.” Right now it is green and lush. Streets, especially in Aga’s town, are manicured and very appealing. The houses are pleasing, save for a few that made bad color choices. The typical house is squarish, 2 stories, and made of a stone material with some sort of plaster on the outside. The plasters have wonderful colors, anywhere from earth tones to bold reds and calm yellows. This was a big change for me because here everything is gray, gray, and gray.

As you can see from the summary, we took a lot of public transportation. There are lots of trains available. The big cities have trams and buses. There are no marshrutkas like in Armenia. You see bikes but they aren’t as popular in some other European countries. There isn’t really any special consideration for bikes there like bike lanes. All of the public transport uses a ticket validation system. You buy a ticket ahead of time at a machine or in a store. Then you can validate it on the bus or tram. Similar to St. Louis, there usually isn’t someone on board to check tickets. In fact, I think they have it calculated perfectly to allow enough time between ticket checks for people to get lazy and stop buying tickets. The first 3 days I never saw one. Then, on a train in Warsaw a guy got on and caught a couple of people riding it hot. So, it was cool to use public transport, but it’s a bit annoying to always be concerned about bus and train schedules. I would rather have a bike and use that to limit my reliance on the public transport.

Why take the bus when you can buy one of these bad boys for 50 euro?

Several supermarket chains take on a critter for branding

Economically speaking, it felt like I was back in America. It felt like the land of plenty. I knew it would be a western country, but I was a bit surprised at just how much they have embraced it. The malls were incredible and would be considered nice by any American’s standards. Brand labels were everywhere, and besides a few Euro trashy haircuts, you wouldn’t notice much of a difference between the Poles and Americans. McDonald’s is worth a mention due to its huge popularity there. It was always the most crowded restaurant. Even at a food court with a Burger King, Subway, and KFC, the McDonald’s was relatively overflowing. It is what it is.

Moley moley moley!

So, I basically saw three different places. A small town, a regional city, and the capital. Stęszew (think “stay chef”) was my favorite. It’s about 6,000 people. Poznań, at 500,000, was next. Warsaw seemed too big and a bit overwhelming for the amount of time we spent there. I think it would be a great place to take a trip, but you need several days there, if not a week. The one day we spent there was simply not enough. Its size was a turnoff. It made me appreciate Yerevan and how walkable it is. Poznań was nice because it is relatively intact from olden times. The outskirts appear modern and nothing special, but in the center is a gem of an area than gives you the classic European feel. Tiny cobbled streets, beautiful buildings, and a big square with lots of cafes and a church. We ducked into a non-descript church and I was blown away with the beauty and intricacy. But Stęszew was my favorite just because it was a quaint, gorgeous town. You could easily live there without a car, although most of the people there work in Poznań I think. Maybe living there long term would get a little boring, but the peacefulness I found there was just what I wanted.

There were a few funny things I found. Check them out:

The only thing funny is the name


Don't you just want to sink your teeth into a Corny BIG??


Why do all mannequins now have nipples? At least censory is alive and well in this market, in the form of pasty price tags!

It was definitely a trip of luxuries forgotten. Poland was the first time in a long time I…
Showered every day
Drank delicious beer
Flew in an airplane
Watched a movie in a theater
Was in a mall
Stayed in an American-style house
Sat around a bonfire
Rode a bike
Went on a brewery tour

The Lech brewery tour was great. I highly recommend it! In my book it was cooler than the AB tour in St. Louis. We had a great guide who kept it informative and fun. It was fascinating to see how they process the refundable bottles. And at the end of course you get a pint, which you can enjoy outside on a really nice patio under the shade of umbrellas.

Lech is part of SABMiller

But the thing most refreshing about the trip was the feeling of riding a bike for the first time since leaving America. I didn’t ride bikes all that much back home. It’s not something I can say that I missed. But for some reason, it felt so liberating, so wonderful, to pedal a bike into the countryside.

One other thing about the trip, on several occasions I got a sense of what some Poles think of our country. “Wait, you’re American? Why aren’t you fat?” “You’re from the Midwest? So that’s the place that is completely devoid of intellect, a large hole in between the East and West coasts, right? And you have lots of rednecks there.” “Your people spend more money trying to lose weight than other countries spend on food.” “You know nothing about the rest of the world.” It was alarming for me to hear that some of them have such a strong opinion of my country. Some of the criticisms they have are true – maybe we are too focused on ourselves, maybe we don’t know a lot about the world. But it was odd for me to sit there and listen to these complaints while everything I saw and lots of what I ate was American. One girl listed off a handful of things that bothered her about my country, and then finished it by saying, “and it’s also the only other place I want to live besides Poland.” So I’ll carry that enigma around with me for a while and chew on it. I’m not sure what to make of it, but I feel lucky to be an American. If I’ve learned anything so far on this journey, it’s that we all have more in common than we think.

It’s May? What?

May 3, 2011

Time is relative, right? I’ve been doing some traveling around Armenia for work. Maybe it’s the travel, or maybe it’s complete shock that it now feels like Spring (Wayne it snowed on 4/27), but I can’t believe it’s May already. Did April even happen?

Two weeks ago I was in Vanadzor to do some work on our CBD program’s project plan and learning objectives for training. It was an all day thing, so that meant traveling the day before and the day after in order to fit the marshrutka schedules. I am now used to the way that works here, but if I step back and think, it’s crazy that you can spend so much time here traveling for 1 meeting.

Vanadzor was a nice break in the usual routine. It’s the 2nd or 3rd city of Armenia depending on who you ask. I stayed with my good friend Kath, who is a fellow Solakite and a member of the “Over 50” volunteer community. She has a great bright apartment that made me realize how far I’ve fallen short of making my own Soviet darling feel like a home. Also enjoyable, besides her company obviously, was her delicious cooking which included things like cheese toasties, salads, French toast, wraps, and apple pie. Needless to say, I will be going back!

Last Wednesday I took off for a 3 day training in Yerevan with 2 Armenian girls from Vardenis. The topic was HIV/AIDS. It was a training of trainers, with the idea that we now return to Vardenis and do at least 6 presentations in the community. The training was great. There were 10 or so PCVs and about 20 Armenians. I really had a great time with the Americans there – they were some of my favorite PCVs. Almost all of the Armenians were great too. I was really impressed with their presentation skills and maturity in talking about many amot (shameful) topics. Especially impressive were the efforts of my Armenians, who unlike the majority there, were not alumni of the FLEX program (1 year study in a US high school). 1 of the girls is actually in my English club and had enough grasp of the language to understand me a few times when I couldn’t explain myself in Armenian. Combining her English skills with my Armenian, and we were actually able to understand each other as a group quite well. It helped that the other girl was one of my coworkers who talks to me quite a bit in Armenian, so I can understand her a bit better than most.

Sunday I came home from the training and stopped in Martuni to attend Nick’s going away party. Martuni is pretty cool because there is a cluster of 6 cool Americans serving in and around the town. They are all leaving at various times this summer, just another experience for me in survivor syndrome, which I’m sure I’ll write about once Aga leaves. 🙂

First, we went to Madina to pick up Hector. He has a great host family. His dad looks like an Armenian David Hasselhoff, except he can handle his alcohol. We had some great food in Hector’s house before leaving. Hector is a great guy from LA. As a Mexican-American, he is completely fluent in Spanish. I was always and still am baffled as to why PC thinks it’s a better idea to send someone like him to a non-Spanish speaking country like Armenia. I guess that’s the government for you?

The goodbye party was done in Nick’s school. We were met by 8-10 slightly elderly Armenian men, the teachers at his school. Apparently everyone was invited, but Nick knew none of the women would come. The men were in great spirits though and you could see how much they respected Nick. He is arguably the best volunteer we have. His level of Armenian is so high, which has definitely helped him truly become a valued member of that community. It’s pretty cool to see. As there were no women present, it was up to the men to prepare the food and set the table. There were a couple moments when I wondered if we were truly capable of accomplishing such tasks, but somehow we got it done. The khorovats was great, the vodka flowed, and there was even some nice Armenian singing. Despite a rainy spring day, the inside of the school was joyous.

Toasting in a classroom

Monday was a holiday for some reason. I have no idea why (but I can really get used to this). Since I had the day off, I did the only thing that seemed appropriate: Taco Night. That’s right, for the first time since leaving the glorious USA, land of plenty, and also land of Land O’ Lakes dairy products, I ate tacos. Thanks to my Mom, I had the taco seasoning and even some tortillas to use. I bought some fresh tomatoes, a pepper, cheese, and ground beef to round it off. It was actually my first experience buying meat from a butcher in Armenia. A half kilo cost 1,200 dram, or about $3.50. So that’s pretty close to what you would pay to 1lb of chuck back home I think. The only difference is that you carry it home simply in a plastic bag rather than the bloody Styrofoam seran-wrapped thing we’re so used to. I think if you walk down the street with a plastic baggie full of ground beef in the States, you’ll get dragged to the nearest precinct for questioning!

So, the tacos were delicious, and per usual I overate. Every time I eat tacos I finish the meal thinking, “I’m not going to make those again for a while…” Even better, it was Aga’s first time eating tacos. At this moment I realized the sad reality that not all countries are infused with the deliciousness that is Mexican food. One more reason to love the USA (no Bin-Laden reference necessary).

That leaves me at today, which is a work day that I am really using to get ready for the trip to Poland. There is a lot to do in getting myself ready and trying to help Aga wrap up. I’m pretty excited for the trip, but really don’t know what to expect. It will be my first time on an airplane in almost a year. Perhaps a fitting reminder that I have been here now nearly one year.