I left Armenia for the first time in nine months. In my head, that didn’t really seem like that long of a time, but people’s lives can change a lot in nine months. I didn’t even realize mine had.
I went to Berlin to meet Hannah, my friend who is studying there now. I met Han my first year of university. We lived on the same floor; we struggled through chemistry together. Later, we lived in the same tiny box (dorm room) for a year. We’ve spent a week snowed into a cabin together; we’ve driven hours to meet up. Hannah puts up with my weird coffee habits. She knows me probably better than anyone.
I expected for my first time back in a more Western country, with food I was familiar with and a culture similar to America, with a person I know and who knows me so well, to feel more myself than I had felt in a while.
Here, in Armenia, I had been feeling a little like a different person. At site, I am a person who teaches English and organizes clubs, who seems very responsible and put together, is a little bit shy, but is overall well-liked by other teachers and my students especially. And then when I am with my American friends I am more social than I’ve ever been before—I don’t think any of them would describe me as “shy”. But neither of those people, neither the responsible me nor the social me, has really actually felt like me.
I’m thinking mostly of the me who, when Hannah left in March, stood at the end of an icy driveway, quietly realizing we didn’t know when we’d see each other again. After so much time of having each other to count on, after going from 18-year-old college kids to both moving overseas. The me that stuffed her hands in her pockets and said “don’t” and we both nodded and didn’t cry (I like to think we’re too tough for that).
I expected to feel more myself in Germany, and I just didn’t. Berlin is a big, big city. It’s loud and it’s fun, and there’s a system for everything, orderliness and structure and a “right way” to do things. All of this was a strange concept for someone who has developed a real vochinch attitude (read: It’s nothing, everything will work out).
In Berlin, there are big colors and a big, grey subway, and a long, ugly history. In Dresden, a different German city, Hannah compared Berlin to the rest of Germany.
“Berlin is… more chaotic,” she said, talking to a tourist in a hostel lounge. “The rest of Germany is cute. Berlin has character.”
We did a lot of walking, and eating, and watching Man in the High Castle, and cooking, and sightseeing, and I did a lot of feeling a little lost, and overwhelmed, and just not really like myself. Like one of those dreams where I’m in a play that I’ve been practicing for weeks and everyone thinks I should know the lines but I just don’t. (Specific to me? What?!!) Or like I was trying to be that same me at the edge of the driveway last March, but I’ve changed enough that I’m just not her anymore. And that wasn’t at all how I expected to feel.
We did a lot of relaxing too, just snacking at the kitchen table and reading obscure Wikipedia articles. The kitchen is painted orange and yellow. It feels very warm.
Hannah scrolled through Twitter and paused. “Uh, what is going on in our dear America? Right now?” She turned her phone toward me to show a low resolution tweet of the American flag.
“Well that can’t be good,” I said, a little joking but mostly serious.
Sometimes here in Armenia, I find it a little hard to stay updated on current events back home. It’s gotten a little easier in the past week or two.
We sat at the kitchen table of an apartment in Berlin and through thin walls I could hear neighbors laughing and speaking German. Wasn’t it only 70 years ago that this city was considered enemy territory? Only that long ago that Dresden was bombed half to rubble in what most Germans and a lot of the international community considers a war crime? Only 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Back in August, I saw Iran across Armenia’s southern border. Several Peace Corps Volunteers did a GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) camp for 14 and 15 year-olds in a city just several miles from the Iranian border. We talked about women and leadership, and how to set goals, and the environment. We did crafts, and danced.
All of these girls reminded me so much of my own 14-year-old little sister back in Michigan, who is safe and far-removed from the ugliness of geopolitics.
These girls I’ve worked with here in Armenia, and the one’s I’ve left back at home—neither are so different from the people who might be affected on the other side of the border. It’s easy to let people who you think are different than you be reduced to headlines and stereotypes.
The girls and young women here in Armenia and across that border are more similar to the girls and young women in America than they are different. They love their families, like to dance and color. They want to be doctors, and teachers, and accountants. They listen to Billie Eilish and Bruno Mars. They roll their eyes, and giggle at my accent. They get secondhand embarrassment from watching me dance. All of that seems important to me.
I’m back home now, and honestly I’ve missed it. I was really surprised to find after coming back, I feel more myself here, not less.
I sat with my host family and passed out chocolate and joked about how I’d forgotten all my Armenian. I talked about how back home in America, my mom hadn’t wanted to do a Christmas tree because none of her kids (Claire* is this true??) would help. My host mom laughed and looked at her kids— “It’s the same here.” Neither of my host siblings would make eye contact and I laughed.
Probably, the reason I didn’t feel like myself in Germany is pretty simple—I’ve changed a little. And actually? Actually I think I like the me I am here a lot.
Sure, she’s a little scatterbrained and has a hard time with languages and makes an idiot of herself at least a few times a day, but she’s resilient, and invested in other people, and I’m really proud of what I’ve been able to learn and do in nine months.
Things aren’t perfect of course, and I don’t want to give anyone that idea. I still get anxious before school sometimes, and I’m still somehow always a little disheveled, and I’m still regularly tripping over my own tongue.
But, without even really realizing it explicitly, I’ve come to really love Armenia, the people here, and the person I am here.
*Update: This is in fact true but Claire would like everyone to know the reason she didn’t help was she was still taking Exams and not home during the assembling of the tree.
(All views expressed on this site are my own and do not reflect the views of the Peace Corps, the US government or the Armenian government!)