I think the first time I ever paddled anything was on this lake. It’s little, and now I do laps around it in a plastic sea kayak, but when I was younger it might have been an ocean to me.
My grandma would load me and my sister into the canoe, make us promise to sit very still, and we’d push off. Skirting alone the edges of shore, we’d count painted turtles and point at fish. I’d lunge and rock the canoe for a glimpse of even a bluegill. Grandma knows the name of every bird.
There are conifers and birch trees here, otters and loons, king fishers and eagles— as a kid, it was a jungle, the real wild. It still feels sort of magical, even now.
I am not good at sitting still. Not in the canoe, not really in general. I’m a bag half-packed kind of person. That proved useful almost two months ago when all the Peace Corps Volunteers were evacuated from Armenia and worldwide. My travel bag was half-packed. One less thing to worry about.
We rushed through airports with the wave of other repatriating people, no temperature checks, no six foot distancing then. At first I was downstate with my immediate family, quarantined for 14 days. In Southeast Michigan you can feel that things are different. People are out walking dogs four times a day, the roads are mostly empty, there are police in parks. There’s an undercurrent of panic that sort of sits in the air and hangs there.
From what I’ve heard, things are similar in my town in Armenia. I lived in a small town a little over an hour from the capital, Yerevan. It’s warmer there already, with fruit trees in full bloom. It’s hard to say how many people are sick, but I have heard somewhere around 20 cases in that town. You can see live updates of cases in Armenia here, but as I’m writing this the number of confirmed cases is close to 2,000, with 30 deaths. In Michigan, where I am now, we are nearing 40,000 cases with 3567 deaths (April 29, https://www.michigan.gov/coronavirus/0,9753,7-406-98163-520743–,00.html).
My Host Mom and Counterpart (Armenian Co- teacher) are all still teaching online, through apps like WhatsApp and Viber, but individually checking student homework sent in a photo or voice recording is time consuming and not easy, and students are finding it hard to stay motivated.
In Armenia now, particularly in cities and larger towns, you need to carry papers stating where you’re going and why, and police officers are out checking. There is a limit of two people to a car.
The restrictions are stricter in Armenia than in America, but people are still more willing to follow them, from what I understand. A protest like the one in Lansing over these restrictions seems much less likely to happen in Armenia.
Part of that could be that the culture itself is more collective and very community focused. People care about their neighbor, and are willing to make sacrifices for the good of a community. Part of that could also be the country’s long history of resilience, from the genocide of 1915, through the Soviet Era, to the Spitak Earthquake and the ongoing Nagorno Karabagh conflict. Armenia has survived more devastating disasters than this in the past hundred years, and people know how to come together for the sake of their neighbor.
I think in America many of us, myself most certainly included, have a deep sense of entitlement to things we have decided are our rights, and it feels uncomfortable for a government meant to safeguard such rights to instead limit them. But I also think here it is easy for some people to mislabel discomfort as oppression.
Coming back, America feels bigger. Armenia is a smaller country, though the mountains can make travel difficult, and it’s more homogenous. Most people in Armenia are Armenian. America contains such a multitude of people, and ideas, lifestyles and stories, and even within a state situations can be incredibly different.
I came “up north” when my grandparents came back from Florida, to deliver and pick up food and prescriptions, and, after contact with them, for another 14 day quarantine.
For a while I really didn’t want to write again, not here, not like this, because what else is there to say?
We were pulled out of country. I had half an hour to say goodbye. We had chocolate chip cookies burning in the oven while my host sister helped me finish packing. I keep dreaming about that. I got tears in my host sisters hair when I said goodbye. It was awful, and jarring.
And the America I’ve returned to is not the same.
At first readjusting was hard, really hard. I don’t even really know how to explain it. It was being stuck inside, in a place that runs differently than you’re used to. My clothes smelled different after washing, fit different. A whole pile of clothes I had forgotten were mine, that seemed like they belonged to a person I wasn’t anymore, were in a box. I would reach on instinct for the button on the back of the toilet. I still will accidentally say “vochinch” or “ha”.
And it was like being home, with people I love, and happy to see them, but not happy to be there. And that’s really hard to explain to the people who care about you, that you can be happy to see them, but still really wish you were in another place, and be really really sad that you aren’t.
And people would say “I bet you’re happy to be back”, and the honest answer is no, no not at all. There’s an implication that life is more comfortable in America, or safer, or better. Aside from being incorrect, that is frustrating to hear.
I miss Armenia every day, and I had a whole life there. It is different in America. But one is not better than the other.
Quality of life is not dependent on amenities. Life there is every bit as full and bright as life here.
I sorted through all my writing from Armenia, and have it all here, like chapters. I’m not really looking for any sort of closure because I doubt I would find it— life never has the narrative structure that I want it to, but that’s okay. I’m not going to force it.
So now I am at the lake. In the mornings, I drink coffee, and work on my TEFL certificate, and study Russian. I watch the birds out the window, and flip through Grandma’s bird books. In the afternoons I’ll do yard work, then Grandma and I will take out the canoe, or I’ll pull out the kayak, and enjoy the lake and the company of the birds and otter. If you’re quiet, and move slow, and stay mostly still, the birds won’t scare so easy.
I already had the desert spring in Armenia, so now I get the north woods spring here too.
I never liked spring when I was younger, but there are somethings I am discovering I like about it now.
I really like how fresh the last trace of winter feels on your face and in your lungs. I like the slow return of the birds, and the trees shaking off snow like they’re waking up. I like how when you’re raking leaves, it smells like earth and dirt.
There are already robins hatched in the nest in the garden, and I like how things can change for the better slowly, but also overnight.
I like how things like gardening, and spring, and staying still, can force you to be patient even if you’re not. I like the challenge of learning to like things I didn’t be before, and finding something meaningful everyday.
* My views and words, as always, don’t reflect that of the US Peace Corps, US government, or Armenian government, and my opinions are often wrong!