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.

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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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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

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!)

Pre-Service Training Choose Your Own Adventure

Wondering what I’m up to? Bored and want to fight a goose? Look no further than this entirely autobiographic choose your own adventure blog post!

START HERE:

You are currently training to be a Peace Corps TEFL Volunteer in Armenia. You are living in a small village in a valley for training with a host family and several other trainees. Your language skills are bad. You walk a long way to get to class. But you absolutely love it.

1: You wake up at 7:30 to the sound of a crying cat. You get up, wash your face, and start to eat breakfast and realize you’re running late. Because you snoozed your alarm 6 times. You try to tell your host mom that you’re running late, but your language skills, as previously stated, are pretty much zero. Your host mom puts more food on your plate. You…

A: Quickly eat the food and run to language class. Everyone is always little late anyhow. (Go to 4)

B: Start putting away food and pack your breakfast to go. (Go to 2)

C:  Snooze your alarm? What? You’re already out the door and avoided the whole situation. (Go to 2)

2: Halfway to class you run into a goose standing in the middle of the of the road. You try to go left but the goose hisses at you. To the right is a large puddle. You…

A: Brave the goose. What’s the worst that could happen? (Go to 3)

B: Go the long way around through the puddle. Wet shoes are worth your life. (Go to 3.1)

C: Stand there, debating your options for about five minutes, before the goose ganders away on its own accord. (Go to 4).

3: The goose hisses at you, and a million obituary scenarios flash through your head. You pick up a rock (it worked on the dog last week) and the goose backs off. You make it to class on time, feeling like a champion. (Go to 5)
3.1: Your shoes are soaked, and now you have blisters and gross feet. You walk slower because your feet are water logged. And gross. (Go to 4)
4: You are late to class. You try to explain in Armenian that you have no excuse and are just bad at planning ahead. You mix up the verbs “to have” and “to eat” and confidently tell the class that you eat dog. Later, you will write on the board that you are late for the carrot. (Jump to 5).
5: Language class takes four hours, and after you run back home for lunch before another four hours of TEFL training. On your way, a group of Tatiks (grandmas) stop you and your friend to ask if you are amoosnatats (married) and when you say no, they ask if you want to be. You:

A: Play dumb. Say that your Armenian is bad and you don’t understand, and ohhhh geez look at the time! (Go to 7).

B: Tell them you know what, yeah! Yeah, you do want to get married. Who have they got for you? (Go to 6).

C: You don’t have to play dumb because you honestly have no idea what they asked. You’re smiling and nodding, and your friend elbows you to shut up because you don’t know what you’re agreeing to. You remember what amoosnatats means and ohhhh geez look at the time! (Go to 7).

6: That was a dumb choice go pick something better.
7: You are late to lunch. Lucky for you, you eat quickly and still catch the bus to TEFL training on time. In TEFL training, you are assigned your 999thskit. Your group tries to spice it up and make it funny. It’s not funny. You study student-centered teaching and wonder how a classroom that can’t be managed is going to make good classroom managers. Four hours later, you are released into the sweet, sweet freedom that is the hour of 6 o’clock. You go home and eat dinner. After, you:

A: Head out to the soccer field to crush some kids in soccer. (Go to 8).

B: Go for a walk to enjoy that golden hour lighting. (Go to 9).

C: Sit down at the dinner table so that your host family can see you studying Armenian. (Go to 6).

8: Soccer is a blast for about twenty minutes before the big kids show up and prove that you don’t have the classroom management skills you were supposed to be working on. You decide to go for a walk with six other Trainees who had been playing. (Go to 9)
9: You and your fellow Trainees are walking around being loud Americans in a narrow road with houses and fences on either side when, to your absolute delightyou see a herd of sheep. You make a joke about running with the bulls and the sheep hear. All 30 (okay 10) sheep charge (trot) at you. You all:

A: Break into a panicked run to the edges of the road and increase your volume by a few decibels, bringing people to the windows to see what the heck the dumb Americans have done this time. (Go to 10).

B: Let’s be real, A is the only option.

10: You survive the sheep charging but barely. You all leave laughing about it. When you get home, you have dinner with your host family and they help you with a few new Armenian words because they’re super cool. It comes time to shower, and after you’ve already gotten completely naked you realize that you don’t have hot water and don’t know how to do it. The only towel you have is a microfiber backpacking towel, because you’re stubborn. You:

A: Throw your clothes back on and ask for help, explaining the problem with your limited vocabulary and miming. (Go to 13).

B: Tough it out. It isn’t worth the pride hit of getting dressed and admitting you don’t know how to work the water heater. (Go to 11).

C: Tough it out, but not completely. The shower room itself is still hot, so you stand really really close to the heater and try to wash your hair with as little water as possible. Showering is overrated, anyway. (Go to 12)

11: You are cold, but clean. Fair enough, I guess. (Go to 14).
12: You are cold, and not that clean. Better luck tomorrow, maybe. (Go to 14).
13: Your host family is super cool, and always helps you out, even when you say things like “I’m going to be late for the carrot” and “one day I’d like to eat a dog”.  You are warm and clean. (Go to 14).
14: It’s the end of the day, you’re showered and more or less clean. You have a cup of tea with your host sister and study a little Armenian while she studies English. You go to bed and read for about an hour. You wake up at 7:30, but snooze your alarm. Go to 1.

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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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