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.

67767687_2325451774370418_7129465687805788160_n

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.

69027186_472614830186416_2926467802120323072_n.jpg

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.

68795684_581604765707154_212162317746438144_n

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: GLOW Meghri

“Why not?” A student asked her classmate across the table. “I know a woman doctor.”

“Yes, but usually,” the other girl said back.

“And a driver?” One of the consolers prodded. “Usually girls or boys?”

“Boys, usually,” The class responded.

The same girl threw her hands up in the air. “I could be a driver!”

The other girls nodded—they could be drivers too, if they wanted. Or doctors, or accountants. Why not?

IMG_3805

IMG_3780
Mountain glow in Meghri, Armenia

Peace Corps Armenia’s GLOW(Girls Leading Our World) Camp works create a community of girls and young women and promote leadership in communities throughout Armenia. Last week, I had the opportunity to work as a camp counselor for the five-day GLOW camp in Meghri, Armenia.

The camp covered topics of environment, leadership, and confidence. GLOW Meghri reminded me so much of the summer camps I used to participate in when I was about these girls’ age, and while it was a blast for me and the girls, it was also useful and created a space for the girls to voice their opinions and support each other’s ideas.

In addition to the lessons and topics covered, we made art out of recyclables, learned the “Cha Cha Slide” and “Hoedown Throwdown”, had a scavenger hunt, and in small groups the girls designed a sustainable and realistic project to implement in their respective communities.

It was really incredible to watch the girls open up to each other over the course of the week. Even the girls who I initially thought were shy started to voice their opinions as the week progressed. I worked with three incredible young women from Meghri as co-consolers, and got to help and watch while they facilitated meaningful discussions with the younger girls.

The last day of camp focused on confidence building, and we all wrote notes for each other to put in envelopes on the “wall of love”.

IMG_3406.jpeg

While the girls worked on making collages representing the things they like about themselves, I walked around and talked to the girls in a combination of broken Armenian and beginner English and they leaned together and giggled.

“Do you like Armenia?” They asked me.

“How old are you?”

“Are you married?”

“Do you have a family in America?” One girl asked.

“Yes,” I told her in slow, clear English. “I have two sisters and a brother. One of my sisters is your age.”

She proudly translated for her friends, who leaned in and nodded. I pulled out pictures of my family, and they crowded around curiously.

“What does your sister who is our age like?” They asked.

“Arianna Grande?” I joked.

They grinned. “We like Arianna Grande!”

All of the girls at camp are so good to each other and full of energy. It was easy to imagine my sister, the one who likes Arianna Grande, like them, and is fourteen, like them,  at that table. I thought about that for a moment, what that would be like. The way she would make friends, how she probably would’ve started out stiff and awkward and embarrassed on the first day, the same as these girls did, but by the last day would have been dancing silly in the courtyard outside the school with the rest of the girls.

I pushed the thought aside, the feeling of missing people, and a little bit of guilt for being here playing with and helping these girls and not her, and went back to my broken Armenian and passing scissors and glue around.

IMG_3654

IMG_3708.jpg
From walking around Meghri

Outside of the camp, me and the other PVCs at GLOW went for walks around Meghri, enjoyed the mountains, and on the last day treated ourselves to some khorvats.

The commute through Syunik Marz is long, and not great if you get carsick, but I don’t, and it is beautiful, so I had the time of my life both ways.

In some areas, the mountains still had snow near the peaks. Near the Meghri Pass we drove above the clouds. The only thing I could think of that compared was the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park.

The mountains were more green than in Glacier, and a strange mix of hard peaks with bare rock and rolling green mountains. I wasn’t able to get many pictures from the drive, so you’ll have to take my word for it that the area is stunning or go the Pass for yourself.

IMG_3635

IMG_3645.jpg
Near the Meghri Pass
IMG_3397.jpeg
Phone photo from the middle seat of a moving taxi
IMG_3666
PCV and great friend Methi was gifted a fig by a generous tatik

(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: Special Everywhere

The smallest girl in my English club stands on her tiptoes to try and reach the board, giving English her very best shot despite being only six and sitting in on her older sister’s class.

“Miss Maddy,” An older student whispers, and points at my stickers. Her eyes glitter. “Kareliey?” May I?

I nod and smile. She pulls off a sticker, and when the younger girl finishes correctly writing the answer, the older girl gives it to her. Watching from the back, while the students play an English game and help each other, I can’t help but be happy I am here, able to witness something as small as a sticker.

 

My girls from English club walk me home, and we do impromptu lessons along the way. We point at colors and they grin and shout them. They learn this is a tree, and this is a mountain, and this is a cloud. The sun darkens my forehead and I sweat like I’ve never sweated before, a bundle of wadded up conjugation posters in my arms.

“Miss Maddy, Miss Maddy, Inch e sa?” They ask and smile. When they run out of questions they quiz me on my Armenian.

“Goodbye!” I say when I reach the green door that is mine.

“Goodbye! Ts’aystyoon!” They call after me.

“See you tomorrow!” I grin back.

“What is tomato?”

Che, tomorrow, vagha. Tomato, lolik,” an older girl corrects.

I laugh and go inside.

 

I think we’ve all got this tendency to love experience a little— to absolutely relish in foreignness, to play it up, to collect unique experiences like someone might collect coins, pushing pins in to a map like it proves something about yourself, like those pinholes are inherently meaningful.

No matter where you are, your experiences are important. And honesty, I am the same person here that I was at home, and the same worries and problems that I had there, I have here too. A new continent does not make me a new person.

Here, I still get lonely. I still take long walks and wonder if there isn’t something I should be doing differently or better. I wonder if I’m not wasting time that I could be using planning better lessons, or learning the language better. It’s hard to define what my job is for the summer, so it’s hard to quantify if and to what degree I am fulfilling it. I was hard on myself about a lot of things at home; I am still hard on myself here.

At home I used to feel stuck sometimes, and frustrated with the pace of time. I feel that here sometimes too. Just like at home, I get frustrated with myself, specifically with my language progress, and not seeing results the way I would like to.

All this isn’t to say that it’s not special here; rather to say that it’s special everywhere.

A girl who doesn’t know me at all leans on my shoulder and tells me a story, looks at me with big trusting eyes.

The stranger I meet on my run stops to talk and offers me some fruit.

I watch Moana with my students, three 13 year old girls, and they get to watch a young girl be the hero of a story, and see themselves in the storyline. They laugh at the funny parts, or pause the movie to help each other understand the new words.

It feels special when I can see my students excited about learning English and proud of themselves, or when my host family laughs at one of my clumsy jokes, or when the late night storm rolls in and the whole world is pink and orange.

And all of that is special, but all of that special is everywhere. All of those sparkling little facets of humanity, those exist here, but they exist wherever you are too.

 

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.

IMG_3607.jpg

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.

IMG_3620.jpg

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!)

IMG_3160.jpg
View of Mount Ararat from the Hill

IMG_3164.jpg

64933999_621514641688143_7053292531550781440_n.jpg
Yours truly
IMG_3197.jpg
Mount Ararat, in Turkey
65106786_706182996469579_4353300257619050496_n.jpg
Coffee and apricots 

IMG_3600

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!)