I stand in the middle of a muddy road in what to me, in that moment only, feels like the utter last reaches of the globe. There are two smaller roads off of the one I stand on. One leads home, to the place I will start calling home, where there are warm smiles and people who promise not to make fun of the way I stumble over Armenian and laugh with me. The other road leads somewhere else; I don’t know where. The roads look the same to me—both dirt and muddy from fresh rain that I didn’t dress for, with concrete houses and green grass at the sides. I pause.
A stray dog cocks its head at me. Which road is your road?
Chgitem, I think. I don’t know. My best phrase in a language that seems to choke and die on my tongue.
The mud has caked its way up my boots. The roads aren’t labeled, and I feel a little bit of panic. I don’t even know the words for “I’m lost”. Even so, the stray dog watching me won’t have an answer.
It’s a longer walk to the place that I am staying than my friends have to their homes by just a little. I didn’t have to walk alone, but it seemed so manageable. Less than a quarter mile. Surely I could handle that, a quarter mile in a small town in the Caucuses? Aren’t I a tough girl? Shouldn’t a tough girl be able to decide between two roads?
My host sister in that warm lit house off the muddy road knows quite a bit of English. In the kitchen we exchange kitchen nouns and food words.
I point to an apple. “Inch e sa?”
She grins. “Kndzor.”
She crinkles her nose and shakes her head. “Che. Asa “Kn-dzor.””
I butcher the pronunciation again and we laugh.
I grab some silverware. My host mom watches us and smiles. “Fork,” I say.
“Fork,” my host sister repeats.
My host mom smiles and nods thoughtfully before saying “Fack you?”
I look and my host sister, and we lock eyes, neither of us really wanting to admit that we know what that means, but it’s too late. She starts to giggle and soon I am clutching my sides from laughing and trying to explain in broken Armenian that this is “vat tarr”, bad word.
The Peace Corps requires that volunteer and trainee rooms in the host family home have a lock on the door, and they encourage us to lock it, so I did.
I decide about an hour after I say bari gisher that I need to use the bathroom, so I throw on a coat and some sandals and put my headlamp in my pocket—I hadn’t noticed a light before in the bathroom. I go to open my door. It’s locked. Because I locked it. Because the Peace Corps told us to. I mess with the door a little, to no avail. Ten seconds pass. Thirty. I feel blood rushing to my cheeks and curse quietly. Leave it to the Amerikatsii to not know how to open a door.
“Kantrumem ognel es?” I muster. Please help you. This is the current extent of my Armenian.
My host brother rushes to my rescue, and between the two of us we pry the door open. He says something to me that I don’t understand and I smile, still blushing. “Chgitem?”
He laughs, and assures me I don’t need to be embarrassed. I rush out to the bathroom, forgetting my headlamp. I realize halfway there that it’s dark, and I might need it, but decide it might be less embarrassing to fumble in the dark than to turn back, so I fumble.
The next morning, I realize there had been a light switch all along and take a minute to laugh at myself, and wish I had the language to explain to my host family how silly I was.
My host sister looks at me and grins, signing the cross before tasting the coffee she had me make. “Che!” I object, laughing. “Lav e!”
She crinkles her nose and takes a sip then smiles. “Ahh, it’s very good, shat lav e.”
“Che,” I say.
“No, it is!” she promises. “I am still happy to be alive,” she tells me in Armenian. I am not sure if she is referencing the coffee itself, or what went into making it—ie, me misinterpreting directions on a gas stove almost (almost!) resulting in singed eyebrows. Either way, she has a point.
The shower feels infinitely good as I peel back a layer of dirt. Heated by a wood stove, it’s warm like a sauna and the shower curtain has tiny blue flowers on it and little sparks light up the room.
Later, I try to ask my host brother about the wood stove heating the shower room, and if he needs me to put it out. I pull out Google translate, and he looks at me alarmed. “Vortegh!?”
My eyes widen. “Che! Che.” Not that then—nothing is on fire. He laughs at me a little.
“Don’t worry about it,” He tells me.
This isn’t one of those things that is going to be easy, or good, or graceful, not all the time. It’s not all cut and dry, and some of it needs to be just mine, not something I type into a word document and share on the internet.
Sometimes the vast pool of language that I don’t know is overwhelming. Sometimes I can’t even choose between two roads. But most times? Most times language doesn’t matter at all, and I am doubled over laughing in a kitchen in the Armenian Highlands.
(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.)