A year ago, we poured a bottle of cheap champagne off a balcony in Berlin. On a shoestring budget, the bottle was completely undrinkable, somehow all too sour and too sweet and too bubbly. We each poured a third over, and listed our goals and wishes for 2020. I don’t remember what I said. I do love symbolism, but a year is simply a year.
We watched fireworks from the balcony in the snowless cold, and watched people on the streets dodge them, even though we were in a tame residential area. There’s no escaping Berlin wild on New Years, not even at a small cheese-themed party where we tested German versus Swiss style raclette and drank our bottle of nice wine first so the rest wouldn’t taste so bad.
From that balcony, the whole city lit up, undeniably beautiful, and I felt a little hopeful, but also guilty. Visiting Hannah, my college roommate and longtime friend who lives in Berlin, was my first time leaving Armenia since arriving there nine months before. I had left during Nor Tari, or new year, the biggest Armenian holiday.
The break would help me and I knew it. It would give me two weeks to be my western self again, instead of a constant guest in someone else’s culture, and stop worrying about all the ways I was an inferior Peace Corps Volunteer— something I did constantly. I knew that I needed the leave time allotted to me, that I hadn’t yet left Armenia even once, and that my host family wasn’t injured by my absence in the slightest, but none of that negated my guilt.
I wanted badly to be “one of the good” volunteers— a designation I afforded to just about everyone but myself. I had hoped Berlin would be a break from constant self evaluation and pressure to be better. But as champagne splashed on the pavement and the air was thick with firework smoke, I still felt crushingly guilty and I could not for the life of me figure out why.
We watched a father helped his daughter light a firework in the street then run for cover holding hands, and I smiled. Maybe things will be easier when I go back, I thought.
A year ago, I stayed up so late that the buzz wore off in a friends cozy Berlin apartment, and we got up the next morning with the silly goal of riding the circle line on the Bahn in its entirety to witness the carnage of New Year. I stayed in Berlin for just a few more days before I went home, to Armenia, and things really were easier for a little while.
And then they weren’t. We’ve all got a 2020 story.
Mine is that in that Berlin apartment we made a big brunch the next morning, with raspberries and baguettes. That on the plane home, I got to act as a translator for an eternally grateful older Armenian couple, and that felt incredible, and that I ran into my Peace Corps friends in the Warsaw airport, all of our Christmas layovers converging at the same spot, a happy, late night caffeine-soaked reunion.
Then back home in Armenia, things really started to click and I was busy and had friends I only spoke Armenian with, and it took so long to get to that point where a foreign country felt like home that when the whole world screeched to a halt in March and our program pulled the plug it took a while before I could even think about Armenia without it hurting.
March last year, my little slice of desert had started to come back to life, apricot blooms, thick with bees so loud you could hear them from across the street, but pink snow still on the mountains. The little creek I would pass on runs sang over rocks, full with snowmelt, and in English club we spent the last 20 minutes outside playing games in the sun. I went from all that life and bright colors to home, and inside, in a gray Michigan March so quickly I couldn’t really understand what happened. Packing in that green room with the buzzing trees and mountain in sunset gold, and my host sister and I hugging and sobbing on the bed is all a blur, like it’s not even real. My host mom double checking to make sure I remembered to pack my pokrik kanach girk, little green book, the journal I wrote in every night, the one it hurts now to think about reading.
And despite all of that bad and terrible, despite the weeks in March I spent in shock, and waking up from iridescent Armenian dreams and the ache that followed, and all of that time I spent trying not to think about Armenia because I couldn’t reconcile that life and losing it, because it simply hurt, and despite the amount of alone-ness we’ve all felt this year, that I’ve felt this year, this year was not a loss.
I still call my host family every week, or every other. I still am going to go back to Armenia and will see them again. Every time we call, I talk slower and make more mistakes, but I still understand most everything.
This year I am not in Berlin, and I won’t pour champagne into the street. This year, it’s cold and thick snowy, and I’ve got a cozy small apartment in Northern Minnesota, and students who I meet with online, and just one or two close friends I can see, and frozen waterfalls and skiing, and it’s hard but we’re all making it work.
And I love symbolism, but a year is simply a year, and 2021 doesn’t magically end what has been a historically difficult time. But what it does do is give you the space to think, and hit reset just a little, even if in your own head.
I’ve got so much to say about this past year, and Armenia, and the way that it ended, and how incredibly grateful I am for the way everything has worked out.
Ultimately, if you’ve made it this far, if you’ve read this much, thank you for listening to what I have to say, and Happy New Year. Despite everything, we’re all still here.
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