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: Dancing and Lights

A group sits around a table full of food, laughing and clapping. I stand towards the outskirts of the group with my friend, a woman whose first home is also far away. We ask each other about our respective countries in a language neither of us was born into, with long patient pauses while we try and remember new words.

The yellow light from the patio casts my host sister’s silhouette long and gray against the cement, and a song I am starting to know shakes the leaves on the apricot tree arcing over the house. She beats at the pavement quick, and swirls.

I watch while the music pulses faster, and shadows mix with the orange glow of the porch light. Her uncles clap and whistle. Her arms swing and feet pound, never missing a step. She grins with her whole face and catches my eye, and I grin back, full of that feeling you get when you are watching someone you care about happy. Pride, I think, and a secondhand smile.

One song melts into the next and she notices me standing and clapping and grabs me by the wrist and pulls me in, and I find it hard to imagine that anyone could ever feel like an outsider here for long—they’d never let you.


Even the very first day I was here, they made sure to tell me in English that they were a good family, and I didn’t need to worry. They promised me through google translate that even when they were talking in Armenian they weren’t saying bad things about me.

My host mom and sister spent hours trying to teach me to make Zhingyalov haats, letting me mess up as many times as I needed and try again. They’ve let me help cook and clean, and taught me their favorite songs, laughed with me while I tripped over my own feet trying to learn a dance. When my host mom found out my American mom’s birthday was coming up, she made sure I didn’t forget it. (Also, what’s up mom, my dedicated reader, love you!)

“Your mother misses you,” she reminded me. “Don’t forget to call her. And tell her I say happy birthday.”

Yes kpatmem,” I said. I will tell.

I don’t think it can be overstated, how brave you have to be to be willing to take an American foreigner into your home for three months and welcome them so completely. An American foreigner who could really be anyone, from a culture different from your own, with essentially zero language skills. I cannot understate the respect I have for all host families, and the gratitude I have for mine.

I’m wrapping up pre-service training, swearing in as a volunteer tomorrow, and moving to a new place to start service for the next two years. My overwhelming takeaway from pre-service training is how incredibly lucky I am to be here, and how grateful I am for everything my host family has done to make me feel safe and a part of something.


My host sister grabs me by the wrist and pulls me out to dance. Her mother adjusts my arms and smiles and nods, and I don’t mind so much that I’m not a good dancer and probably look ridiculous. With careful instruction in three different languages, I forget to feel awkward and start spinning and grinning like the rest of them.

The Big Dipper stretches across the sky, and the lights from Yerevan glitter in the distance, and here, in the house at the far end of the village, there’s probably enough light for the entire rest of the world.

Miss my last post? Click here! It’s better than this one!

(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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Some of the fantastic other volunteers in my PST village (love you ALL)
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The face I pretty much made all PST before saying “chem hasganoom/ I don’t understand”

 

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Mount Aragats and the garden