Peace Corps Armenia: Blink and You’ll Miss it

It doesn’t seem like I could possibly have anything to teach Nune*. She’s in her late sixties, a garden expert, makes a better cup of coffee than I, and is decidedly unimpressed with both my Armenian and my cooking. So I was surprised when she came in to my room with a skein of yarn and pointed at the hats I had been knitting.

Doo kskses?”She asked me. She held up a circular needle.

In early June, she had shown me all the sweaters with lace patterns and cables she made in her apartment. We had a cup of coffee, and I asked invasive questions, like how old is she, and why she lives alone. She answered and great detail while I tried hard to understand. She showed me her view of the town and the mountains in the distance, and I agreed with her—it was the best spot in the town.

“Uhh…” I paused. I understood the words, but not the context. “Oozoom ek ays pes?”  I held up one of the hats I had finished.

Ayo,” she answered.

So we sat on the couch, and I demonstrated with minimal language the cast on I had used and how I knit in the round—things Nune undoubtedly knows but wants to see me do anyhow.

I’m still not sure why. Maybe it’s because while I still stumble through Armenian, this is a language we can share—we both know when to knit and when to purl, and can do a quick sketch of a fair isle pattern after seeing it. Maybe it’s proof to her that if I could learn this language fluently, one of knots and colors, there’s a good chance I’ll learn hers too. Maybe next time I will better understand when she candidly answers those questions I asked, instead of understanding the sentiment and not the words. Maybe too, it’s out of curiosity about the women like her at the other end, my own grandmother who sat next to me on a couch that same way years ago and showed me that same thing.

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Emma* is sweet and small and ten years old and reminds me very much of every other ten-year-old I’ve ever met. She and her sister walk me home after my English club and I quiz them on colors and numbers and the difference between “walk” and “work”.

I leave the door to my room open while I plan lessons for English club, which is maybe an Americanism to assume that this clearly communicates people are welcome to come in and talk to me. Either way, Emma does. She catches my eye when she’s over playing with my host siblings, and sneaks in and taps my shoulder.

“Inch es anoom?” What are you doing?

“I am working,” I smile and tell her and English.

“Uhhh…” She glances up to her left, thinking, then shakes her head. “Chem hasganoom.” I don’t understand.

Ashkatoom em hima,” I translate.

“Okay, super,” she tells me in English and I laugh. She plops down on my bed and I rifle through my desk to find her a notebook and some colored pencils to draw with while I finish up a lesson plan for my English club. She sits and draws and tugs at my wrists asking me to look every few minutes. I look, and promise her she’s the best artist I’ve ever seen.

At night, Emma, her sister, and my host sister all go out to walk in the first cool hours of the day. We walk back and forth in the dark on the dirt round.

“I am live in America,” Emma tells me, smiling so big her eyes crinkle.

Asa,” I say, “I am from America.”

Yes Amerikayits em,” her sister translates.

“Let’s go to America,” Emma tells me in Armenian.

I smile. “Okay, hajo.” I wave goodbye to her and all the girls laugh.

Emma dramatically airplanes away from us down the dusty road. The sky is the color of the melons that grow here and the stars have just started to burn through. There’s no breeze tonight, but the heat isn’t quite so bad in the absence of the sun.

“Yes Amerikayoom hima,” Emma announces.

Vortegh es Amerikayoom?” I ask. Where are you in America?

“Uhhh…” Emma is stumped. She frowns, then smiles. “Dubai,” she answers confidently, and we all burst out laughing.

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I don’t understand how the summer has passed so quickly. I blinked and lost all of July. I got so much done and nothing at all. I clocked 64 hours of English clubs. I went all the way to Meghri. I was able to see my PCV friends about twice a month.

At the same time, I feel like my language skills have completely plateaued despite studying almost every night, and consistently find myself wondering if maybe I’m just not smart enough. I managed to start about 10 books, and finished only one. I catch myself comparing my work and myself to other volunteers, and constantly wonder what I should be doing.

 

When I was in high school I used to run the mile. My junior year I was fast. My senior year, I got faster by enough to be proud of, but my friends improved by even more. Before one of my last races, my coach pulled me aside to let me know he’d noticed all my hard work this season and tell me I was doing really well.

I shook my head. “I should be doing better. Everyone else is,” I told him.

“I’m going to tell you what my coaches told me,” he said. “Running can be a team sport, but you can only do your best. You have to run your own race.”

And I remembered that. My effort and improvement was impressive and something I deserved to be proud of—it was only when I was constantly looking at the girls next to me that it seemed dull. And each of us had a different set of legs, a different body, different injuries, different classes, different home lives, and different goals. We were all running different races.

Which brings me back to here. Every single one of us, both as people and as Peace Corps Volunteers, has a different set of challenges. My clubs went fantastic this summer. My language suffered. I had some of the most wonderful and meaningful experiences of my life. I also had days where I didn’t leave the house. I experienced both unending kindness from strangers, and street harassment. I wrote some blog posts I am proud of; I also dumped full word documents into the trash can. I have had days where I feel confident and like I’m doing really well here, and also had days where I feel isolated and clueless.

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Coming back from Meghri has felt like a relief. The familiar silhouette of Mount Ararat, the red hills, the fig tree outside my window, people who were so happy to have me home, all of that has felt right. And it was that thought that shocked me a little—the summer has passed so quickly I feel like I’ve almost missed it, but here, at the end, coming back to my site has felt like coming home.

 

*name changed

(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!)

Peace Corps Armenia: Narrative Arc

“I know this!” My student said in English. She grinned.

“I like this song,” I told her, glancing at my laptop screen. Let it go, from Frozen, had just started to play. I smiled to myself—I had been hoping they would recognize this part of the movie.

“Me too,” She and her friend craned closer and elbowed each other, smiling. “Yes haskatsa,” She whispered to her friend. I understood.

This is the same girl who pulled me over in the hallway after the 7th grade English club two weeks ago and told me in panicked Armenian that her English was bad, and she was embarrassed, and she wanted to be in the 5th grade class instead. I had told her sure, whatever you want, and assured her that her English was right where it needed to be if she wanted to stay in her class.

My game plan for Frozen was about 15 new words or phrases for every ten minutes of the movie—just enough so that they could understand the plot. The previous week, I spent about 4 hours going through the whole movie and deciding which words they would already know, which they would need to know, and what questions I could ask them to check comprehension. Then I picked out colloquial phrases that were useful, like “hang in there” and “just roll with it”, and tried to figure out how to explain those in either basic English or my broken Armenian.

So when only two of the eight students I invited to the movie came (despite somehow having 30 students for the previous lesson on basic questions?) I was a little frustrated. Was the lesson even worth it? If I was going to have to do the exact same lesson with a different two students next week, and hear that song again?

My two students sat side by side and wrote translations and notes on the words and phrases I gave them.

“Absoutllllley,” One repeated back at me, smiling. The word appeared like clockwork two minutes later in the movie and she perked up and grinned at me. They leaned in and whispered to each other, pointing at the verb list I made and translating. They laughed at the funny parts, and I did too, and I could see them understanding.

More importantly, they were proud that they were understanding. Seeing that—them look at each other and laugh, and understand, and feel good and smart for understanding, made me feel guilty for thinking for even a second that it wasn’t worth the prep time.

So much of what is on TV and in media, both in Armenia and all over the world including in America, follows a man’s achievement. There is so much that uses violence against women as a plot tool, where women and girls exist as cogs in the narrative arc but are rarely the hero. The girls and young women here and everywhere deserve so much better than that; they deserve to feel important, valuable, and proud of themselves.

Our world is coded in languages and corresponding cultures, and English and learning foreign languages can open up a lot of the world for kids and everyone. In headspaces that allow for the confounding of violence and love, where girls and women are plot tools or objects, it can help to have a separate language, a separate code and access to different narratives, where someone like you is a hero.

The truth is, I don’t think watching Frozen or other movies alone can change the world, and I certainly don’t think I am capable of any mass change. (I’m only 5′ 4 and not super organized.) I don’t really get to see the results of any work I’m doing, or know concretely if it is “worth it” per se, but that’s okay. Even if just one of those students decides that they deserves to be loved the way they want to be loved, or that they are important and can be a hero of a story, or feel proud and smart for understanding a foreign language, even for a second that’s completely worth it. If one student decides they’d rather be kind than tough, or decides there’s nothing wrong with them for not understanding, that’s worth it.

Language is so powerful. It’s the one thing that cracks us open, lets us explain ourselves, and helps us connect.

The only thing more powerful is a story.

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Photos of Lesson Plan so no one else who wants to do this has to watch the movie and come up with a word list!

(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!)

Peace Corps Armenia: Kami

The thing that strikes me most is how alive everything feels here.

Mornings are slow. I wake up around eight and have a cup of coffee, then a cup of tea, then go to the school and do English clubs for two hours. Twenty kids a class, turquoise walls and a chalkboard. I sweat through a loose pink blouse.

After, it gets hotter and everyone stays inside while the thermometer creeps red. I’ll open the window, and a dry breeze swept down from the mountains will fill the house and rustle the trees. The Kami (wind, or storm) comes every night, and some afternoons if we’re lucky. You can see the heat outside—a bright white sky against washed out green leaves.

Around five it cools down. The sun comes at a slant, and washes the city in pink. The kids are out playing volleyball and soccer, and they’ll wave as I walk by. Sometimes I play too. Sometimes I walk up the hill in the center of the city and look out over the mountains in the distance. The sun will set, and a storm will roll in light up desert pink, flicker with lightning, and cool wind will come but usually no rain. My hair will be yanked out of a braid.

Someone will stop me while I walk, ask if I’ll come in for coffee or dinner, and where am I from? I’m not Russian? I don’t speak any Russian? I sure look Russian.

I laugh, and say no, I’m American. Sometimes I accept the coffee. Sometimes I’m passed a bag of sweet cherries, or apricots. I say thank you, shnorakalootsyoon, and they will smile, and say I speak very well. I’ll laugh, and tell them they don’t have to lie. Tjisht e asoom / say true.

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Time starts to work differently. “Meeting at 11” starts to mean meeting you leave for at 11:10, and materializes maybe by noon in the form of more coffee. I show up for my English clubs 10 minutes early, and students show up around 10 minutes late. My favorite khanoot, small grocery store, is the one where the aisles are tightly packed, fresh fruit spills off the shelves and on to the floor, and items are organized in no logical order I can sense. It’s an adventure to find something, but they always seem to have it.

 

 

I walked with my host sister and her friends through the town for a few hours while the sky turned coral pink, mountains steeped in purple. They talked with me, and I reminded them to slow down so I could understand, and we all laughed and I told them they’re funny.

Gitenk,” My host sister grinned. We know.

It took a second for the joke to process but when it did I burst out laughing, both at the joke itself and how long it took for me to get it.

My host sister proceeded to tell her friends how the previous day she had told her brother in prefect English “You are the stupidest person,” and had been so surprised I snorted tea out of my nose. Fourteen-year-old girls are the same everywhere.

A group of men stopped smoking on the corner as we walked pass. “They are staring at you,” my host sister’s friend needlessly explains. “Nmana Ruski. Yev siroon es. Kapooyt achker.” She nodded. You look like a Russian and are pretty, with blue eyes. “Ba. Don’t worry. Vochinch.

I nodded. “Vochinch.” I echoed.

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The heat sticks to me. On my legs, slick on my lower back. It’s only June, and a storm tumbles down the mountain and the sky sizzles and red hills roll and roll. Dust flares down the road. It’s too hot to leave the host so I sit alone in the shade. A tangle of birds sing outside.

I eat cherries. Sweet, and roll them over my tongue in the shade of the apricot tree, while the sun broils the dirt roads and sand hills all around. I spit the pit into a napkin, my lips stained red.

We walk to the butcher in the city to get meat for khorovats, Armenian barbeque, where the meat is cut with an axe on an old stump. Five of us cram into one taxi and bump down a dirt road in the dust and heat. Me, in a black tank top and lipstick like I never wear at home, grinning at some private joke with my head craned most of the way out the window, a little bit awestruck by the facts of it all. How lucky I am to be 23, and in Armenia, in that taxi in the Valley with this group of Russian and English teachers. Right then, it felt like there was no better place to be in the entire world.

 

Later, the Kami will sweep through the valley again. Rain will drum on the roof, spit out the gutter steady. A bird will sing outside while swallows dance between me and Mount Ararat. Dark clouds will split open at a crack of white lightning. I’ll move inside, and knit in front of the TV, trying to piece together the plots of Armenian soap operas and talk with my host family. After, I’ll go to bed and leave the window open, enjoying the wind. I’ll wake up in the morning and repeat.

(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!)

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View of Mount Ararat from the Hill

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Yours truly
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Mount Ararat, in Turkey
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Coffee and apricots 

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Peace Corps Armenia: Raw Garlic is Spicy

I was planning on seeing my bad day all the way through, while I kicked a stone down the road in a pair of shoes not meant for distances measured in kilometers.

These shoes are my only pair that have seen three continents. I got them in Norwich after I soaked my old favorites beyond repair in a London puddle. Now, my three continent shoes trek down a dusty road in the Caucuses, soles thin enough that my toes can curl around rocks.

I think the thing about “bad days” is what lies in the definition. One whole day can’t possibly be all bad. There are 24 hours in every day. We don’t really have 24 consecutive bad hours. We have one or two frustrating, or embarrassing hours, which go on the color the rest of the day.

Kicking that stone down the road as I walked, I was okay with letting those hours dictate the whole day. That was my plan right up until I pushed through the gate and looked out into the garden and caught my host sister’s eye.

She grinned and waved me over. I set down my backpack, following the maze between plants to where she stood.

“Maddy, ary!” She told me. Come.

I followed. I had never been in the garden before. She led me out past the apricot trees all lit up orange in the late light and out to a field where you can see three mountains at once.

“What town is that?” I tried to ask.

“Yerevan.” She answered, rattling off the Armenian names of the mountains too, having me repeat. Then we moved on to the trees, tsirani tsarr (apricot tree) and popok (walnut), and she taught me the names for plants that I can’t remember, chem hishoom. Armenian sounds prettier than English, with sweet “ah”s, long “oo”s and “zh”s, or the throaty “kh” and “gh”—sounds my own metallic American accent can’t quite replicate. In the garden though, my nasally accent didn’t matter so much. Bees hummed around us, and the sun sunk low, so we were in the shadow of the mountains, and I forgot all about the bad day I had decided to have.

 

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I’ve grown to really like that long walk, the one that’s a little too long for the shoes from Norwich. I especially like it in the morning, because rounding the corner I can see Ararat. If it’s light out, and the clouds are right, the snow on the peak looks orange or pink.

I was distracted, watching the mountain when the dog jumped at me. I cursed in English, and shoved a knee at her.

Voch,” I told the dog, walking a little faster.

I’ve always liked dogs. They don’t really scare me. Which, it turns out, is probably dumb.

She growled at me. Another dog joined. Fantastic, I thought. The first dog, the white one, bit at me, her teeth snagging the back of my shoe.

“No!” I turned around, snarling at her. You know, how you snarl at dogs? Like somehow if you convince the dog you are also a dog, it’ll leave you alone? This wasn’t my thought process. I didn’t have one. Hence, snarling at the dog.

Either way, the dog backed off.

The next time I passed the house with those two dogs was in the afternoon, and I was prepared. I picked up a large stone and held it in my hand.

The dog lounged in its yard, belly up, eyeing me and the rock.

“Don’t think I won’t,” I told the dog in English, both of us knowing full well that I probably wouldn’t. “I’m not afraid of you.”

A little afraid of her teeth for sure, and I could’ve sworn she was bigger.

The neighbor girl who lived in the house popped her head out and waved at me, eyes flickering between me, the rock in my hand and the dog.

Vontes es?” she asked me, raising an eyebrow, probably wondering why the strange American girl with was afraid of a small dog napping in the sun.

I blushed. “Lav, uh, lav em!” I called back, quickly throwing the rock away.

Good, I’m great. Super normal. Not threating a thirty-pound dog with a rock.

She laughed at me, and walked with me ways. The dog hasn’t bothered me since, as if embarrassing me just that once was her end game, but I still grab a small rock when passing by early in the morning, just for the peace of mind.

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“Garlic not spicy!” I argued in broken Armenian.

My host sister looked at me like I had come from the moon. “Shat ktzoo.It’s very spicy. Mi rope.” She stood up and crossed the kitchen.

My host sister brought out a tiny clove of garlic and waggled it in my face. “Sktor?Garlic?”

“Ha, same, nooina!” I replied in the Armenglish I’ve been using around the house. My host sister’s English is excellent, so I can get away with a few English phrases here and there.

It should also be noted that I’m no stranger to garlic. Toasted in tin foil over a fire, I’ve eaten a whole clove. I’ve even eaten raw garlic before. So I thought I knew what I was getting into.

My host sister grinned at me. “So you like it then?”

“I like,” I insisted.

“All right, go ahead then. Eat it.”

“Okay,” I said in English, popping the raw clove into my mouth. Chewing. Ready to declare che ktzoo, no spicy, when I quickly changed my mind.

“Oh no,” I said out loud. “Shat ktzoo.” My eyes started to water and my host sister burst out laughing.

“Here, quick, eat some cheese,” she shoved some cheese my way, both of us laughing. I deserved that, I typed into Google translate.


I guess I don’t believe in bad days. You can get chased by a dog in the morning, and laugh later when you’re caught afraid of a puppy. Choking down some raw garlic that I didn’t realize would be spicy is pretty funny from all angles. You can be frustrated and embarrassed, and still, later that day sit in the grass in the shadows and learn the names of the trees and mountains.

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(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!)

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