Archive for April, 2012

Two Year Anniversary: Learning Armenian

April 29, 2012

That’s right, another language post. If you don’t like it you can just GET OUT. One of the things I’ve learned about myself in these 2 years is that I find language learning just fascinating. I like to think about it, discuss it, and write about it.

So, it’s been nearly two years since I began this long funny journey of learning a really random language. Not quite two years, but close enough for me. Especially when we consider that to be honest my learning will die off now that I’m done going to lessons and just took my final test.

I just read the one year post about learning Armenian. I have to say it’s nice to be able to read that snapshot because it contains many things I’ve forgotten about. That’s the idea behind this post – to take another picture so I can enjoy the view later.

What’s it like now? I’ve been here for two years. I’ve marinated in the language for 24 months. My dictionary pages are turning brown from thousands of references. I have two notebooks filled with tattered yellow pages of Armenian words and phrases. I even have an Armenian movie that I have watched far more than any other movie in my life in attempts to understand. Where does all that put me?

I remember half of these words at best

I am quite functional in Armenian now. I can explain most things. I speak too often in simple, comfortable tenses. Abstract speech comes with a lot of pain and thought. I can understand quite a bit in person, but not everything. Listening to the radio still leaves my head spinning. My comprehension of the trusty old movie is creeping up into the 70% range. Third party comprehension is gaining a bit of momentum but often still leaves me scratching my head. Written work is quite understandable. I can read at a much faster rate now. Finally the letters are just letters instead of strange markings. The Vardenis barbar is still really hard for me at times. Pronunciation is decent, but could always be better. Most people understand me. But I still can’t usually decipher between the similar sounds when Armenians speak. My vocabulary is the weakest link in my toolkit.

That’s the snapshot. But what’s the analysis? Peace Corps gave me an Advanced High with a slight minus. Note that the slight minus is not part of the rating system. Apparently the language coordinator threw that in there to either be cute or to sweetly let me know that I just snuck in under the bare minimum requirements of the level. I was pleasantly surprised with that score. It equates to B2 or C1 if we look at the European scale for learning languages. I would say I’m much more B2 than C1.

But that’s just PC’s subjective rating system. There are other volunteers who I feel speak better than me that might receive lower scores. The real analysis is my own self reflection. I sit here today as not quite the same person who left home 2 years ago. It’s hard for me to remember sometimes how I felt before I came here. But if I think back to 2 years ago Kevin, would he be satisfied with what I’ve achieved? Yes. He wanted to learn a foreign language. I can say that indeed, I have done that. It’s not perfect, there’s a lot of room for improvement, but this American can have conversations with Armenian people. With that, I have accomplished one of my main goals when I set out for PC service.

For sure I could have reached a higher level. I started teaching myself Polish in August, to the detriment of my Armenian. Since that time I haven’t studied Armenian at home. There was no motivation. Sometimes I wonder what my vocabulary could have been like if I had really dedicated myself for the 2nd year of studying. I still went to lessons, which helped my skills improve, but to be honest I was going through the motions a bit. Still, I have absolutely no regrets about how I approached learning the language. I chose to gain some basic skills in a new language knowing that I will need it next year as opposed to polishing a language that I already know and will be using for a limited time. Over the two years I studied a LOT, stayed dedicated, and tasted the fruits of this labor. What a rewarding experience. And the most beautiful thing I realized today: I actually think I’ll be able to use this language in my future.

I’ve learned so many lessons about life and myself while learning Armenian. I never would have imagined the impact language learning has had on my life. Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that studying a foreign language is a long journey without an end. You can continue up the mountain as far as you’d like. There is always something to learn, something to perfect. That beautiful and frustrating adventure is whatever you want it to be.


Election Season in Armenia

April 27, 2012

Things are heating up in Armenia. I’m not just talking about the permafrost thawing on all of us in the regions. I’m talking about the political feistiness.

On May 6th Armenia will hold parliamentary elections. This is a big deal. The elections are held every 5 years. The presidential elections are also every 5 years, but held one year after the parliamentary ones. So, the last elections were the 2008 presidential elections. These elections turned into a bloody debacle that still hangs over the country like a storm cloud.

In that context, the election season is tense. It’s also very meaningful if you consider the youth of the republic – it’s only 20 years old. There are also many more competitive parties than we have in America, so that’s interesting as well. Another fascinating aspect is the scale of everything. Sure, these are important leaders and famous people leading the parties and running for office. But they are much more accessible than in America. For example, I spoke with the 5th strongest party’s leader last spring while he was doing a hunger strike in Yerevan. And just the other day, the president came to Vardenis. I could almost put him in my pocket he was so close (and tiny).

Here are some scenes of the carnage that the president’s visit unleashed on Vardenis. Never before have I seen such a bustle in this sleepy town:

What Vardenis might look like everyday if there were jobs

A clump of fired-up Armenians

These are political banners from the villages

Most Armenians will tell you they don't like the president, but they still showed up to see him speak

With the excitement of the election season we are also presented with some other worries: tensions on the border. The frozen conflict with Azerbaijan is thawing in a dangerous way. Ceasefire violations are way up in the last week (and I’m assuming that goes for Armenia too, but they don’t like to talk about that in the news here). Soldiers are getting sniped on the border. The Azeris even fired on an ambulance and a kindergarten in a border village up north. So keep your ear to the ground and hope that the two sides can refrain from another war. Perhaps I’ll write more about that at another time. But don’t worry, Peace Corps keeps us quite safe and if war was imminent I know we’d be evacuated in an instant.

Field Work

April 24, 2012

Spring has finally come to Armenia. Vardenis is getting up into the 10 Celsius (50 F) range every day now. The snow on the mountains is slowly being defeated by the sun. At this point the mountains look like those iced ginger cookies.

If only the mountains were as delicious as these bad boys

With the changing seasons comes an abundance of tasks. The Armenians are tending to their gardens, cleaning, and probably doing more stuff than I realize. I am helping a bit too all of a sudden. Yesterday Ev and I helped Ludmilla prepare her garden for the potato crop. There’s still a lot left to do, so we’ll be at it all week most likely. But today I had to decline because our whole office went to the camp building to plant trees.

After two days of digging, I can only see a shovel and a hole when I close my eyes. I actually like this kind of work, but if I had to do it every day I would sing another tune. There have been many thoughts during the hours of digging…

Industrial Revolution? Oh yeah!
I can’t really fathom what slavery must have been like
What’s it like to be a worm and suddenly have your house just devastated?
The soil here sure is rocky
How is that old woman/old man less tired than me?
Armenia is one big mountain with a fine dusting of topsoil

I enjoy this work because it’s tangible. You work days on a grant application and hear nothing back. You dig a hole and you have a nice hole.

It was also nice to spend the day with the Armenians I know. Today was not an official work day. It’s the Genocide Memorial Day, so everything is closed. I’ve been reading Black Dog of Fate, which is about an Armenian-American’s journey of discovery about his family’s past. The book has given me some perspective on the Genocide. As we rode to the camp today the cab was playing the saddest song on the radio – a lone Armenian woman singing a mysterious lyric-less melody in a minor key – while passing through impoverished villages. I was able to reflect a bit on what the day means to them.

All eyes will be on Obama later today. Sadly, I know he won’t say anything worthwhile. Volunteers will be left answering questions about why our country doesn’t recognize what was clearly a genocide. And Armenians will be left with the same bleeding hole in their hearts, longing for recognition and closure for one of the deadliest and cruel events in the history of the world.

The Last Trip

April 22, 2012


My final Peace Corps vacation was a good one. There were no crazy travel stories this time. I made my way to Poland for the 3rd time in a year. If you told me 2 years ago that I would go to Poland 3 times during PC, I would be quite confused.

The trip was sandwiched around one of the biggest religious holidays in the Christian world, Easter. Poland is an 88% Catholic country and quite devout at that. So, I had a chance to experience another holiday in a foreign country. That’s always a good thing as it expands your mind in ways you can’t anticipate.

The main point of the trip was not Easter though. It wasn’t even to see Poland. I just wanted to see Aga. We got to spend a solid 10 days together. The bonuses were getting to experience Easter and seeing a new chunk of the country.

We started in Warsaw, since that’s where the airport is. I don’t like Warsaw. Every time I’m there it’s gray, gloomy, and depressing. Aga doesn’t like it either. Actually, all Polish people I’ve met who aren’t from Warsaw do not like Warsaw. That’s completely the opposite of Armenia, where everyone adores Yerevan. It’s so over the top that at any moment you can turn on my radio to its one station and hear a cheesy song about Yerevan. Come on guys, sing about something else. There’s a lot here to sing about. Anyway, we didn’t stay in Warsaw long. We were on the move back to her town of Stęszew (Sten-chef).

Warsaw - The gray place where no one knows where anything is

I really like Stęszew. It’s about 6,000 people and charming. I already wrote about a lot of the basics in Poland, so I don’t want to beat the horse. Stęszew is cool because it is a little community where many people know each other. You can walk somewhere, or ride your bike, or drive your car. It has train and bus service to the big city. You can walk to the countryside in a matter of minutes. You can be next to a lake or in a forest if you desire. It is something of a commuter city, but without the ugly trappings and artificiality of suburbia. In fact, it’s been around since 1370. I wonder what all the Oakwood Hills of America will be like in 600 years.

A coal-powered train makes a special trip once daily in Stęszew

We spent some time in Poznań meeting some of her friends. I always feel awkward and guilty when they all switch to English just so I can understand. At this point I know a bit of Polish but not enough to have a conversation or understand anything. So I graciously speak with them in English if they are able. However, I also had the opportunity to use my other language. Aga met a couple Armenian girls randomly at her university once. I met both of them and was almost as shocked with their amazing Polish as they were with my conversational (but not amazing) Armenian. Although I needed to and wanted to escape Armenia during the vacation, it was still music to my ears to hear Armenian. Especially in a place where I didn’t understand much of what was going on. Their clean Armenian words cut through the haze of Polish so sharply I couldn’t believe it. Just as strong if not stronger than the cocktail party effect.

Poznań - my future home

One of many impressive malls in Poznań. There is no eminent domain. Notice the little chicken stand.

One of the Armenian girls has a Polish boyfriend who is from Toruń. She invited us up to visit them on Saturday. That was too perfect, because we had been trying to decide between Toruń and Wrocław for a day trip. Now we had a reason to go to Toruń and a friendly face to boot. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Friday was Good Friday. To me it was always another day. But in Poland it really does feel like Jesus just died. Everyone is a bit sadder, there’s not as much cake, and no one eats meat. Some people don’t eat at all. We went to the church that night for a solid 2 hours or more. I feel comfortable enough in their church even though I’m not Catholic. I decided to start kneeling with them back in December even though we don’t do that in my church (okay, I don’t really have a church these days). Everything else is pretty straightforward. I don’t take communion but that’s okay because not all of them do either. But on Good Friday they started doing something that made my heart jump into a higher gear: they laid a cross of Jesus on the altar and the offering basket next to it. Usually the offering is done by a guy walking around with the basket. This time Jesus was in charge. People started lining up down the aisle. Then, one by one, they got down on both knees, kissed little metal Jesus, and wiped him with a community hankie that was draped on the cross. Then they threw their coin in the basket.

“Oh God!” I thought. “I’m not doing that.” But it was a problem. Her parents very generously always give us a coin to put in the offering. Should I just give her my coin? Or maybe there’s a chance I can sneak up there after the service? As the church was packed, it was obvious this was going to take a while. I asked Aga whether I was even allowed to do it since I’m not Catholic. “You can, but you don’t have to.” The best answer you can get. There’s nothing like being comfy in the house of God. But then I started thinking about the situation. I thought about my life in the Peace Corps. I thought about all the whiskery Armenian male cheeks I had kissed. I thought about all the times I rode without a seatbelt. I thought about not blowing my nose in public. I thought about all the small little things I do to fit in with their culture. And then I realized that this was just a cultural exchange. How many Americans get the chance to be in a small church in a Polish village and give Jesus a big wet one? That’s when I decided that I wanted to kiss Jesus.

After the service her mom came up to me with a huge smile and we did an awkward hand clasp celebration type thing. She was so happy that I even came to the church with them. And probably more so that I tried to do everything they did. Even without that, I think it’s clear I made the right choice.

The next day we took the train to Toruń. Aga picked seats across from two suspicious looking people. In fact, everything about the situation screamed, “DON’T SIT HERE!” Two slightly crazy looking people, a weird smell, and an empty bottle of vodka in the little trash can. By the time we sat down it was too late to change seats, both for the social awkwardness getting up would entail as well as the crowdedness of the train. It was an old drunk man and a crazy middle-aged woman. Turns out the woman had just been released from prison. She gave Aga a book and a pamphlet she had written in prison about other prisoners. The book was about a Russian secret intelligence director that Aga was really interested in. So, sometimes if you sit next to ex-cons good things happen. Another lesson learned.

Anyway, we got to Toruń and met the Armenian girl and her boyfriend. They drove us into the center of town. Toruń is a beautiful old city situated on a river. The center of town is classic old Europe. There are massive churches, pristine streets, and crooked, cobbled back alleys. We went to the ruins of a fortress. The only remaining tower was the Toilet Tower. In medieval times they took care of their business in this tower, which is smartly located above a tributary heading out of town into the main river. We explored a bit more of Toruń, but it was cold and windy. It’s a great, often overlooked Polish city.

We're not in Armenia anymore, or Kansas for that matter.

Ten budynek jest wspaniały (This building is great)

The Leaning Tower of Toruń

They were nice enough to let us tag along as they went back to Poznań that evening. They even drove us all the way to Stęszew, completely beyond the call of duty in my book. The next day was a day of celebration. There was a big meal. Before the meal her father read a blessing. Then we each took a Polish deviled egg, which symbolizes the new life of Jesus. My kiss must have worked wonders, because that egg and the rest of the food was delicious. We spent the rest of the day hanging with the fam playing Sabotage.

Originally we had planned to go to her brother’s city on Monday and Tuesday, but we decided against it. After traveling from Warsaw, going to Poznań, and then Toruń, we were traveled out. It was nice just to stay in Stęszew the final few days. We went for walks, met with friends, and just took it easy. On the final day we made pizzas for her family. In Poland they prefer pizza with ketchup smeared all over it. So, I’m not sure the pizza was as big a hit as it would be for an American family, but they still enjoyed it. Especially her mom, who finally had a break in the kitchen. That night we had kopiec kreta (Mole Mound cake) for my early birthday celebration. They sang Sto Lat (One Hundred Years) as I sat in amazement at the celebration of my birthday in a foreign language and culture. Then we all sang the Happy Birthday song together. Everybody knows that song somehow.

Many walks were had

Ham pizza

The next day was the beginning of my long trip home. Aga and I said our goodbyes on the train platform like a scene from a movie. This time it was the correct train. That makes the trip home so much easier. Then it was a simple bus ride, plane ride, and a couple marshrutka rides, plus a whole lot of waiting, until I stepped inside my dark little apartment.

And now I’m back, trying to soak up all the good things about Armenia and not think about Poland or America too much.

They have Chuck Norris jokes. I think living in Poland is going to be alright!


April 20, 2012

COS stands for close of service. In PC jargon it means 2 things: the final conference and the day your service ends. I’m writing about the first one right now 🙂

Our group started with something like 58 people. Currently we’re down to around 46. Some couldn’t handle it here. Others had medical problems. Recently a lot have found jobs. There are many reasons a person might leave during the course of 2 years.

The conference was a multiple day affair located in Aghveran. If you are a long time reader with a great memory, you will remember that we stayed at a hotel in Aghveran upon arriving in Armenia. Our conference was not in the same hotel. Instead, we were in a nicer hotel up the road. I saw our COS hotel 2 years ago while on a run with other PCVs that contributed to some nasty altitude-sickness. At the time we all thought, “Wow, it looks so nice. I don’t think we’re supposed to be here.” Well, consider it a reward for making it close to the finish line.

COS felt like we came full circle in many ways. The setting obviously helped. You could reminisce about our first days here, those strange, terrifying, impossible first few days.

I thought back to what it was like then. I knew none of the other volunteers. They all seemed crazy to me and very different from my friends. Everything seemed odd. The smell of the blankets. The coldness of the rooms. The look of the food. I could understand nothing. I was scared of the Armenians. And I was so confused as to whether I made the right decision to ditch my previous life for this uncertain thing.

Now I think about what it’s like today. I have 46 friends (okay, that’s being generous). They still seem crazy to me. Everything seems normal now. Nothing has phased us for a long time. I can understand a lot. I am no longer scared of Armenians, usually. And now there is absolutely no confusion or doubt about my decision to come here: it was one of the finest of my life.

COS itself was just a series of sessions about wrapping up our life here. I even did one with a fellow volunteer about identifying skills we’ve gained. But the important aspect of COS is closure. It’s about catching up with all your friends one last time. Saying goodbye. Thinking about the last 2 years. Wondering about the future. Asking everyone the same questions: Are you early COS? (We can COS on July 3rd or August 3rd) What are your plans after PC?

As I soaked in our final conference, our final gathering, I also tried to reflect on my situation. It seemed like most people already knew about my plans to go to Poland. Maybe that’s because it’s one of the more uncommon things people are doing. But telling countless people about it, getting some good advice, and listening to others share what they will be doing all helped me to realize that I am happy and content with my plan. I’m excited even. I couldn’t have said any of that a few months ago. So I guess that’s some sort of progress just on its own. I am confident in my decision and open to the ambiguity and newness it entails.

I looked forward to this conference a lot. It signals the end. It’s a chance to say goodbye. It’s the last one! I can also say that I feel it’s time to leave. I feel that any longer in this place would be wasting my time. I’m no longer stretching myself or learning much new. I am ready to begin the next chunk of my life. I am ready for a lot of things besides Armenia. And I am ready to finish up this wonderful experience and remember it for the rest of my life. It’s time to hand Armenia off to the A-20s.

COS makes me remember a discussion I had with Wayne after our swearing in ceremony, which now feels so long ago. He said that he thought the A-16 COS conference was too soon. I wonder if I’ll feel that way too. There are 3.5 months left. That’s a lot after you just essentially said goodbye to everyone. Anyway, I remember thinking then that COS sounded so cool – a chance to celebrate with all the people you’ve struggled alongside. I couldn’t wait to do my own COS, but it seemed impossibly buried into the future. Now that’s it’s over I am in a bit of shock.

The conference also marks the final language test. As a dorky guy who has mostly enjoyed learning the language the last two years, I was looking forward to the final exam. This exam’s score is what we get to put on our resumes the rest of our lives. The idea is that your language is strongest now, but that’s not always the case. However, I do feel like my language is as strong as ever. Despite not living in a family, not having really any outside-of-work Armenian friends, and almost never working in Armenian, I have managed to gain a decent grasp of the language. Most of that has come through a year and a half of dedication to language lessons. Multiple times a week, for nearly 80 weeks, I trudged 20 minutes one way to my tutor’s house. Some days I didn’t want to go. Other days I really didn’t want to go. But I always went. And that dedication helped me have a strong final test. I won’t know my score for a while, but I accomplished my goal of using 2nd conditionals (If I were X, I would Y) without struggle. Since I have only once used these in a non-tutoring conversation, I was very happy when I successfully used them a couple times during the exam.

Speaking of that, it also marks the end of our tutoring reimbursements. So, another big part of my life here has finished. I had my final language lesson on Monday. I was happy and proud of all the work I’ve done as well as the relationship I’ve built with my language teacher. Now I’ll fill that time with even more Polish self-study.

Slowly but surely this life is finishing. It’s a good feeling, kind of like graduating high school or college. It’s not bittersweet yet. Just a warm feeling about the other volunteers I’ve met, the things I’ve done, and the Armenian experience. I’m grateful for all of these things and will try to savor the conclusion.

A-18s (Photo: Fred Linden)