Peace Corps Armenia: Restart

We’re surrounded by mountains on all sides. To the North, the hills are stained red and orange. To the East, the mountains turn green. If you look hard you can still snow at the peaks. To the South, the mountains are neither red nor green, rather a gray and orange that tells of more desert over the jagged ridge at the edge of town. To the West is Mount Ararat, hovering over the whole valley, marking the border with Turkey, near the point where Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Iran almost meet.

There’s red and mountain on every side, but here in the valley it is green. Apricot, peach, and almond trees creep towards the sun, cherries fall off trees and bake to the pavement. It’s hot—the shoulders of rosy mountains move in heat lines, puddles appear and disappear in the street. I sweat through a pair of loose fitting jeans, feel tank top lines burning into my back. I think long and hard about water—about taking a pull from the cold hose at my last host family’s house, letting it drip from my chin. I decide that there if there is a fountain of youth it’s that hose. The air hangs thick and hot.

At night, it dips from the upper 90s back down to 70, and street lamps fire up, lights strung between the trees hold that warm orange glow. Everyone comes out, and the small city hums.

It’s not what I pictured when I imagined life in Armenia. I guess I pictured twirling through the mountains like Maria in The Sound of Music, or a small town in the ice cold of winter with a snowball fight. But it’s so different where I am from that idea, that it sort of feels like starting over completely.

 

Part of starting over completely is going from a village and schedule I know, with a support system I know, to somewhere completely new. And a part of that is feeling… honestly a little helpless. A little helpless when it takes me a long time to find the kiosk to pay my phone bill, or when someone introduces me saying I know very little Armenian, or when I honestly just have no idea what’s going on and have to go with the flow and cross my fingers.

Sunday I felt a little helpless on a school excursion when the timer on my Armenian language skills ran out and I was left feeling very foreign in a group of kind and welcoming people, and then feeling worse that I didn’t have the language or energy to be as invested in them as they were in me. Monday I felt a little helpless when my stomach hurt, and time seemed to drag by, and I wondered what it is I am going to do this entire summer. I felt helpless and overwhelmed when I was handed a list of 109 names and phone numbers written in Armenian and told it was for my English club. I couldn’t read the names, and it’s about 89 more kids than I know what to do with. I’m still not sure what I’m going to do with that. Tuesday I felt a little helpless when I couldn’t figure out why my host family didn’t want me to go for a walk. (It was because it was 3pm and 97 degrees out in the desert, that’s why, and it’s a good reason to not go).

 

I sat on a bench with two older women and sipped coffee. You’ll notice there’s a lot of coffee drinking here. It’s a social activity, as it should be everywhere frankly.

I sat, not really participating in the conversation, but keeping an open ear in case I was addressed. A girl ran up to us and started talking in quick Armenian.

She blinked and glanced at me, then back at the women. She spoke at a pace I had no hope of understanding, but in a tone I know well.

The woman who must have been her grandmother shrugged as if to say, “I don’t know what to tell you kid. Tough luck.”

The girl blinked harder, and spoke again, her voice trembling just a little.

I leaned forward. No one wants to cry in front of a group of people, especially not a twelve-year-old.

Oozoom es kaylel mi keech?” I asked. Do you want to walk a little?

She looked at me for real now, and nodded quickly, then grabbed me by the wrist. We started walking and she spoke in fast Armenian. I listened and gathered that she wanted to go swimming, but none of her friends did. She didn’t want to go alone.

“It’s okay,” I soothed in English while she cried frustrated tears and held my hand.

Ko mazere sirun e,” I told her, touching my own hair.

She grinned and tugged at her braids. “Oozoom es?

“Sure, why not?”

I sat on a log and she braided my hair. She told me her name, and that she is twelve and that she knows a little English but it’s not very good. We switched to English and I talked slow and patient and asked her about her sisters and what countries she wants to visit.

Her tears stopped and she dragged me by the arm back to her group of friends who all sat in a circle and asked me questions—how old are you? Are you married? Why not? You’re an English teacher? Will you be our English teacher? Two years?! Do you miss your family? You have sisters? Can we see them? This sister is prettier than you a little. Is she married? Will she come to Armenia?

I laughed so hard my stomach hurt. There in the shade of a tree by the river, sitting in a circle with a group of curious twelve year olds, I made some of my first friends.

 

During the weather mandated house arrest I had my first real conversation in Armenian. I mean a conversation that lasted a full hour and ended because we ran out of time, not because I ran out of words or energy.

I talked about the clubs I wanted to start, my plans for this summer, my life back in America, and understood most of what was said in return. It felt like such a relief after spending the earlier part of the week stumbling over things I could’ve sworn I knew well and feeling very dumb.

But my host mom was patient and spoke slowly, and gave me time to both process and answer.

“You’re Armenian is good today,” she commented.

I sipped at my coffee and smiled, feeling a little proud.

Mek mek, yerb senyak shat zvagbats e, yes klinem hoozvats yev kmorranem Hayeren,” I paused. Sometimes when room is busy I will be nervous and I will forget Armenian.

“Pordzoom em, uh, bayts mek mek hoknats em. Ha?” I am trying, but sometimes I am tired. Yes?

My host mother nodded. “It’s okay,” she assured me. “You are speaking well. Take your time. Kamants kamants,” she promised. Little by little.

It was an entire weight off my shoulders, to be given permission to speak poorly. To be told it’s okay if I am tired, if I am overwhelmed, that that’s allowed. I didn’t realize how badly I missed being understood, how important it was for me to not feel lost or stupid. And she went out of her way to create a space where I could feel safe with my language and vulnerabilities.

I swallowed, and thanked her in Armenian, then again in English, but there’s not really a word in either language that covers the thing I was feeling—the one where you realize you’ve got someone in your corner when you need them.

 

And I guess it turns out I’ve got a lot of people in my corner. I’ve got my people at home, a mom who calls and always laughs at my dumb jokes, who reminds me that not everyone could handle things the way I do, who reads every single rambling blog post. Thanks for always making me feel special mom.

I’ve got two sisters who sometimes reply to my texts but definitely don’t read this blog so I can write whatever I want about them so let me just say it’s really hard to be the smartest, funniest, and coolest of us. It’s really a burden.

I’ve got the world’s best college roommate/best friend who promises me one day she’ll binge read all of this so for when you do that Hannah sorry I left you 40 minutes of voicemails talking about tiny linguistics nuances you’re a real one for listening to that crap.

And I’ve got Peace Corps staff here who are always helpful, understanding and looking out for our safety.

I’ve got some of the greatest volunteer friends in the world—people who checkup when you’ve been feeling down, and participate in five-way FaceTime calls, pick up the phone when you’re in a tough situation, or promise you your language doesn’t suck as bad as you think it does, even when it definitely sucks just as bad as you think it does.

And I have met such wonderful people in the Ararat Valley, and I’m sure I will meet so many more. Please forgive my butchered transliterations and continued language errors.

 

Today, while drying dishes I looked out the window through the tangle of vines up at the profile of the mountain and thought about all the great people I’ve met here, twelve year olds, teachers, and friends alike. I tried to think of a word in any language that covers that feeling, but I couldn’t find one. So I wrote all this instead.

 

(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: 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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