Peace Corps Armenia: Lingua Humanis

“Come for a walk with me,” my host sister said. I looked up from my homework.

Noritz?” I asked. Again? I didn’t catch the quick Armenian the first time.

“Take a break,” she urged.

Ah, Hastgatsa,” I understood this time and shut my book. It had just poured outside, but the sky lit up a buttery yellow, in that way that reminds you that pretty much anything can be beautiful if you remember to look.

We walked to a neighbor’s house, where pastel colored water streamed off the roof and down lilac bushes and I taught the words for “garden” and “tomato”, and happily accepted a cup of coffee.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” a neighbor asked me.

“Salt—“ I began, then corrected myself, because the words for salt and garden sound similar to me in Armenian. “Garden very beautiful.” No article, no auxiliary.

He smiled anyway, and didn’t correct me. We traded garden words while the tsirani tsarr (apricot trees) and kanache (greens) shimmered in the sun and drying raindrops.

 

Language has been so hard for me. I’m self-conscious about how stupid I feel like I sound, and my American accent, and not learning quickly enough.

But my host sister speaks just enough English that we have a third language that is only for us. We speak in an Armenglish that gets the point across, and even without that, my Armenian is at its best when I’m with her, and when she praises me I know she really means it.

“You’re speaking well today. Really well,” She noted the day after I came home from site visits. I grinned, and really felt like I was able to communicate more than just a little.

 

The language barrier falls away completely when she sucks me into a dance in the kitchen. It’s one of those things that I did in America all the time—put on an old song while my sisters and I spun around the kitchen in socks dancing and flinging flour. Here, in a different kitchen on a different continent to a different song, we dance and spin like it’s nothing because there are some languages that are universal.

Like the one where you fling water from the hose at each other and laugh, or where I help clean the dishes so she’s not cleaning alone. Like her blow drying my hair and brushing it back off my forehead, pointing the blow dryer at my head like a gun and laughing. Laughing again over a dropped cucumber or laughing for no real reason at all, so hard that my cheeks and sides hurt.

Like the language where I am just a little sick and fling myself on to the couch with a dramatic sigh and announce in broken Armenian that I will soon be dead, and my host sister snickers and tells me doo verch nes, you’re the end.

Like the language where she teaches me to use the stove correctly and cook her favorite foods, and I help her make American style pizza. Like when she talks to me in quick Armenian and it doesn’t matter that I can’t understand understand, because I still get it, because I remember being sixteen too, and how that feels. Or a hand on your forehead when you’re sick, a head on your shoulder, a quick smile.

Within the safety of friendships and kitchens, language and words lose their weight, the forgotten auxiliaries and strange accents are stripped away, and you’re left with the remarkable sameness of every person, and a good reason to listen.

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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!)

Peace Corps Armenia: With Dust in My Hair

The sole of my hiking boot split clean off halfway home. I stopped walking and stared at the mangled boot in some sort of humbled disbelief, a thin song playing in old ear buds. I had bought the boots for four dollars at a thrift store in Northern Wisconsin. I had put at least 200 miles on them between then and now. I’d stuffed them in a suitcase and lugged them to a new hemisphere. And now, after this, they had the audacity to disintegrate while I still had a quarter mile’s muddy walk.

I didn’t have a good fix for that. There’s no textbook solution for how to fix the bottom of your only pair of boots on a dirt road in the mud. So I kept walking, sole flapping pathetically against my sock, and wondered what the hell it was I wanted that brought me here.

Bees hummed in peach blooms so loud it seemed like the whole tree was buzzing. The smell of wood smoke snaked through the village, sparrows and small birds I didn’t know the names for shot across the sky. Two hundred miles for four dollars isn’t so bad, I reasoned with myself, my sock now soaked through.

I swallowed a lump in my throat, and tried to ignore the metallic taste in my mouth. I want to be here, I reminded myself. My shoe was broken, my language skills stagnant, and my feet wet. I didn’t feel like a good English teacher, or good Armenian learner, or frankly good at anything, while the loud flap of my broken shoe hit against my muddy sock.

Duct tape, I thought. You need duct tape in your backpack. I stopped walking, overwhelmed by the sheer task of a quarter mile.

That was the first time I really, really wondered if I’d made the right choice. I feel like I write about walking a lot, but I suppose that’s the only time I have alone, the only time I’m stuck with my thoughts, and the only time my boots break and I walk in the mud.

So I stopped walking on the muddy road and asked myself what it was I really wanted that brought myself to said muddy road.

I wondered if I remembered a year ago, in my writing tutoring job joking with a coworker about wanting to teach English forever. Did I remember her question— why not? Or how I came in the next week and told her I had thought about it, and I was serious, I was going to do it?

I wondered if I remembered how badly I wanted to teach and be that good role model, omni-positive, well-adjusted, with all the right flaws for the younger girls watching me, as if that were a good for thing for either them or me. As if you could ask someone what it is they want and get an honest answer.

I wondered what the point was if I wasn’t good enough at the language, or good enough of a teacher, or able to find a silver lining all the time. What is the point if I can’t even find a good fix for a broken boot on a muddy day?

Right then, there wasn’t a good fix. At least not one that I could think of. The best fix was to tough it out for a quarter mile, and then change my shoes and socks

But the rest of it? I am good enough at the language. I am a good enough teacher. And I do know what I want, why I want to be here. And next time that I stop and take a break on the side of that road, my hair caked in dust and my shoe breaking at the seams, maybe it’ll be a little easier, or funnier, or at least better. And next, I will have that duct tape in my bag.

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Detail at Noravank

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The muddy road

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Apple pie and coffee we made for my host family

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A literal page from my journal in case I didn’t already overshare enough on the internet!

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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!)

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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Peace Corps Armenia: Pre-Departure Part 2

If you didn’t read my last post, or don’t keep up with me in person, then you might not know that in about a week I am leaving for staging with the US Peace Corps, and shortly thereafter leaving for Armenia.

I worked my last shift as a content writer a few weeks ago and in the meantime, I’ve been visiting my grandparents, getting 100% snowed in Northern Michigan, learning Armenian, and distracting myself from the abyss. Mostly that’s a joke.

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My language cheat sheet (excuse spellings)

Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Packin’ Stress

I was more stressed about this before I actually started packing and realized that I probably have it under control. I was able to fit most of the clothes I want in my bags easily, and used packing cubes to smoosh them down.

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More or less what I am packing
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A more honest representation of what packing looks like

I’ve got two checked bags, and was able to jam my tent in there, and I’m not so concerned anymore that I’m missing anything important.

I’ve been told that many people in Armenia are very nice dressers, and I will be expected to scale it up a bit. I was a little stressed about this, because none of the jobs I’ve worked before or places I’ve lived have had a more formal culture, and most of my work clothes in the past have been jeans or outdoor gear.

I think I’ve probably over packed on the business casual front. Once I’ve been in country for a while I will post an actually packing list will recommendations for future PCVs.

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The clothes in the previous pile all fit into these packing cubes and stuff sacks
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As of now, these are the bags I’m planning on bringing

Tickin’ Off the To-Do List

My to-do list involves a series of very manageable tasks like “clean car”, and “put stuff in boxes”, and some last minute shopping for a few odds and ends (new pens, chapstick, extra American deodorant, I don’t remember the rest, but that’s why I made a list). Also on the list is various lunches with friends, continuing to stress study Armenian, and eating a lot of bacon.

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Language notes (staged photo)

Gettin’ Real

It’s strange to me that something I’ve spent a whole year thinking about and six months actively prepping for only started to feel real a month or so ago, when I started studying the language. Something about the curves of new letters and stumbling through the most basic of conversations makes the reality of leaving more immediate, and my own language incompetency glaringly obvious.

I almost wanted this Peace Corps position to work out too much, you know? So now that it is working out it seems surreal. It’s like there’s a line between my life, and the sort of life or person I wanted to be, and I’m crossing that line just a little, and for some reason those two lives and people are incompatible. I am so lucky, and excited, and very grateful.

Still, there’s all that I’m leaving here. In fourth grade we were introduced to the concept of opportunity cost, and I’m happy with my choice and its implications, but I’m also aware that there are implications.

I love my family so much. My dad took me to over a thousand soccer games growing up, and my mom is one of the most interesting, open-minded, and just best people I’ve ever met. I have three younger siblings, and I love them all, and we have so much fun together. I have funny and open-minded grandparents, who I am going to miss as well. I am so incredibly lucky to have such a supportive (and, like, fun) family, and I am missing out on time with them.

In the time I am gone, my sister will graduate college, and my brother high school. I am going to miss out on birthdays, and time with my family, time with the coolest friends anyone could ask for—I’m talking snowed in together for two days, drive nine hours to visit, completed two shot tours together, live together and still never sick of each other style friends.

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(I spelled tattoo wrong I see it now oops)

I’m leaving another summer kayaking, and my favorite diner, and the Great Lakes.

But I am going to gain so so much—language skills, more classroom experience, new friendships. Still, right now, from Michigan, all of that seems ambiguous and unknown, and occasionally eclipsed by the people I know I am going to miss.

I think it’s okay to acknowledge and talk about that, because it would feel dishonest if I only wrote about how stoked and #blessed I am. Kidding myself into thinking I’m only excited seems detrimental.

One of the things I’ve been doing is working really hard to put myself in a good headspace for all of this, and part of me things that means making myself so oppressively positive that nothing will phrase me once I’m in country, inevitably making a fool of myself.

I sort of ended up deciding that that’s dumb, and if I don’t address all the things I’m feeling now, I’m just going to feel them more later. And I’m publishing this on the interweb (1) because I have no shame and (2) to let you know if you’re feeling the same thing about moving or leaving home you’re very much not alone. And you’re super normal.

I feel this completely imaginary pressure to be really tough, all the time. To be only excited for this, and optimistic, and have these massive goals and sunny attitude towards my service.

And I am excited—but I am also worried, and know I will miss my family. I know I will see my friends kayaking pictures and be impossibly jealous. I know I will cry when I say goodbye to my mom and sister, and my nose will get all stuffy and my eyes all gross and red. I don’t think any amount of emotional prep will make that moment less graceless.

I’ve lived away from home plenty of times, but 27 months isn’t the same as a semester, and a different state isn’t the same thing as a different continent.

So I guess here’s what I need to put to paper:

  • I am going to miss things. That’s okay.
  • I am going to airport cry. Then I am going to be embarrassed that I am airport crying and cry harder.
  • Soon, I will be able to make a really funny map of places I have public cried, including a train in Wales, the floor of Bessey Hall, and in-flight while watching The Good Dinosaur. Whoo! (Maybe this makes me sound like a disaster, but crying is healthy. And be honest, we’ve all sat on the floor and cried on the floor outside our Academic Advisors office.)
  • Despite all of this, I am still excited, and grateful, and going to have a really great time most of the time.

Thanks for reading; gold star if you made it this far! I am flying out Sunday the 17th(St. Patrick’s Day). In the meantime, I’ll be packing for real, hanging out with my super cool family, and eating so much that the jeans I bought a size too big will fit.

Some of my favorite Michigan (home) pictures: