Honestly I have no idea where to start. I’m sitting in my room now, probably the biggest I’ve had in years, thinking about the last few years as I go through the pictures I have stored on my computer. I want to show my host family here how I’ve lived since leaving home. I mean I’d show them how I lived before too but I didn’t take many pictures back then, and even fewer were scanned on to a computer. Whatever, this is all erroneous as hell but I’ve got to hit a starting point somehow.
It’s just past midnight and by all appearances the house is asleep. You wouldn’t believe how little these people seem to sleep, despite the fact that they work out in the garden all day. We drink coffee together at around 11 pm, but somehow I usually go to sleep before they do. Of course they’re always awake before me, even though I’ve got to be to language class everyday at 9. The whole thing makes me feel lazy as hell, especially considering that they tend to wait on me hand and foot, all the crazy time. I wake up and there’s a breakfast, I come home from class and there’s a lunch, sometimes a plate of food will just “appear” in my room, sometimes two. This is to say nothing of candy or “confet” which I’m pretty sure is a Russian word.
Anyway, yeah, 90-some percent of the males in this country smoke, but somehow, one of the few smoking peace corps volunteers (I think there’s about 4 out of the 47 of us) I end up with one of the only non-smoking ones. However, it’s probably better that these people don’t smoke given the amount of candy they consume, quite seemingly for the hell of it. We’re all sitting there at the table and a dish appears, everyone takes a few pieces and, invariably, a few are dropped next to me with the request to eat. The Armenian word for eat being “kesh” which I hear more than one hears horns honking, downtown in a big city. Of course you’d expect that sort of mentality, it’s not exaggerated, really I’m almost always surrounded by food and someone telling me to eat it. Not in a jovial manner either, more like the way that someone who is becoming frustrated explaining something to you (think your dad telling you how to fix something on a car) will tell you to “pay attention!” They use that same tone to tell me to eat, and they’re always telling me that. There’s no saying no either. I tired once or twice after I had already had an entire serving plate or two dumped on my own plate. My host dad looked up at me, blinking his huge eyes as though holding back tears and made a grandiose gesture toward his heart. I immediately grabbed the proffered food item and ate it with relish, despite the fact that I think it was probably the 8th one I’d had that day.
I don’t want to make my host family out to be, in any way whatsoever, at all bad. They are some of the nicest people I have ever met by far. As far as Armenian families looking out for the Amerikatsi go they are also very permissive. I know many of the grown men here are hounded after by their host mothers. I’m taking 45 year-old men who have to report home after school. Sweet merciful shit, that would drive me nuts! I mean, like I-think-this-peace-corps-business-isn’t-for-me nuts. Luckily, my host family doesn’t seem to care what I’m going to do, or when I’m coming back so long as I eat before I go. This requisite freedom has given me a few opportunities to make some nice countryside excursions. I’ll tell you about one if you’ve got a minute.
Two dogs, walking around a gas station, and the sun beating down on the dirt-pack parking lot. I’m push starting a car with a portly middle-aged guy when the dogs start to bark, apparently annoyed that I’m making such a flagrant ass of myself in what is, by all appearances, their parking lot. One of them has that low, “I’m not really going to do anything” type of bark, but the other, Sparky seems like a good name for a gas station dog, Sparky, well he’s kinda’ gaining on me and if this portly guys doesn’t put a little more muscle into it I’m going to be getting my ankle chewed off in a minute here. The car starts, coughs, and stops. At the first sound of the motor the portly guy stopped even pretending to push and left me shouldering the car. After the motor stops the car looses any momentum I had put in and is too hard to push. The driver gets out either cheering me on to push harder or just straight up yelling at me for not pushing hard enough. Either way, I’m feeling better ’cause I’ve noticed that since I stopped pushing the car, Sparky has calmed down significantly and gone back to sitting under his bench. After a few more tries the motorist and I eventually get the car started, he drives off onto the road, probably still yelling at me to push harder. I return to the bench I had been reading on earlier after having walked all the way into the city of Hrazdan. I was kinda’ tired and had been taking a break until I was appointed head car-pusher. I went back to my book, but suddenly I didn’t feel like resting anymore. The sun was too bright and the country still far to new to sit down on, even if I had been walking for 4 hours or so. I bid Sparky adieu, gave him half my sandwich and headed back up the road I had come down where I had noticed what looked to be a supermarket previously. It didn’t look open but I thought I saw some people going in and out, so I decided to go in, or try to go in and find out the deal on Armenian supermarkets.
Sure enough the supermarket wasn’t even built yet, they were still putting in beams, girders and such and groceries were all over the place in boxes. I had walked in anyway, and despite the obvious fact that I didn’t belong in there, no body stopped me until I picked up a bottle of water with the obvious intention to buy. Let me back up a little and tell you why it’s so obvious that I didn’t belong in that store. In Armenia, not many people sport anything like a beard. This is not eastern Europe we’re talking about here, even the occasional mustache is rare. I get a lot of people asking me what the hell I’ve got a beard for, as if I was actually using it for something. I usually tell them it helps me think, which I follow up with the classic, beard-rubbing, eyes upward, thinking gesture. I usually get a few laughs for this, but the confused looks never go away. Secondly, everybody here dresses like they’re always about to go to some kind of formal event. At least the guys do. The young girls wear all kinds of flashy stuff but the guys are strictly business casual. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried to fit in. I wore a button-up shirt for awhile but soon found out that I simply cannot tuck shirts in. I hate the damn feeling of it. I’d almost rather walk around trying to wear a sweater as a pair of pants, I seriously feel that awkward. So, the un-tucked button-up shirt is almost as bad as whatever else I’d wear so I just said, “screw it, I’m not going to ever convince anyone I’m Armenian anyway, I might as well just remain American, and where my worn-out jeans, but maybe I’ll go with a sweater rather than my worn-out tee-shirt.”
So anyway my ratty-ass is escorted out of the not-yet-open supermarket and I continue down the street. After walking for about an hour I came to a little café. I went in, tracking mud all over the just-mopped tile floor, and asked for a coffee. I tired to start a letter while drinking my coffee but within seconds I noticed about three bodies leaning over my shoulder. At this point I’d been walking all day and I was tired so I pretended to ignore this unabashed display of curiosity. I have since learned that such a thing is simply impossible. I tried to continue writing, but I noticed the volume of the conversation being held, quite literally and figuratively, right over my head, was gradually increasing. As one tends to do in letter writing I had a snag in my line of thought and had to look up to collect my ideas. Of course, as soon as I looked up from the paper I immediately found myself face-to-face with the group of young men who had surrounded me when I had walked in the café. They all beamed at me the way new parents beam at a new-born. I said hello to them and invited them to sit. They declined and continued to hover. After a minute or two of awkward silence the questions came, which are only slightly less awkward since my Armenian is still so bad.
Ohh Gawd when was that? I must’ve wrote that right after I got here. There’s a lot in it I’d like to correct now, for one, I have since seen a beard or two. They are still quite rare however and I’ve actually been told by people close to me to cut mine. I have since revisited that grocery store. It was open and I bought a bad of potato chips from the Saudi Snack Company. Currently I am still dressing like a bum, but I try to keep a professional look on my face in hopes that someday, someone may take me serious.
There’s just too much, I swear. My friend Jay and I were just discussing this the other day. Everything that happens in this country needs to be written down immediately or else it becomes lost. Fortunately, I’ve done a great job of this by way of several handwritten letters and myriad e-mails, but, alas, I am far too concerned with personal communications to pay much heed to any kind of general communiqué, or even anything that I would keep for myself, like a journal or something. Whatever, I’m resolved now to at least make a comment or two about everyday that passes. The Peace Corps got us all so bogged down with our training that it’s really hard to find enough time to write a story, let alone interesting anecdote everyday, but, dammit, I’ll try.
With this in mind I’m going to take a precursory view back over, hmmm, July, 20th, I think? As it went down in Solak, a village, nay my village just outside Hrazdan, Armenia.
My shoe’s falling apart. I’m on top of a mountain and the bottom just fell off my shoe. I think about the loose shale that I climbed up to get here, I think of the steep and very sudden inclines, I think of the Caucasian wolves that I’ve heard are up here. The sun is beating down on me and I didn’t bring enough water. It’s only been an hour or two and I’m already thirsty as hell. That wouldn’t be so bad if I had a way down. I curse myself, thinking of the perfectly fine pair of boots that I’ve got back home, sitting by my bed. Luckily, I’m the resilient type and I’ve actually tangoed with worse shoe problems than this, hard to believe maybe but true. I repair ol’ lefty with a bungee cord that seems to serve no purpose on my Land’s End backpack and continue on my way. After a few hours, I reach the church that I came up to see in the first place. Now, I’ve gotta’ admit, I’m not usually especially blown away by churches, either decrepit or lavish, but this lonely little place in the mountains, with child-drawn icons of Jesus was pretty impressive. I guess it was more in the solitude of it than anything else. Just that it was so far away from any kind of civilized place, I wondered how they even got the bricks up there to build the thing. Also the bright orange candles in the carbon-scored apses appealed to me somehow, I dunno’ centuries of smoke looks pretty cool on a centuries old wall way up in the mountains, twelve time-zones away from the rest of the world that one knows.
When I finally got home I had laundry yet to do and I usually bathe and clean my clothes almost simultaneously, since it’s sorta’ a pain in the ass to heat up the water. There’s a basement-y looking room with a moldering tile floor where the washing is done. I went in after enjoying a pleasant meal of borsht, (which, by now, I’m quite sure is any kind of vegetable soup and doesn‘t necessarily have to include cabbage) and began to mix the stove-heated water with the cool stuff. I’ve got to say a word about this process, as there’s almost something magical about taking water from a dented metal drum that abuts a stone wall in a room with a window that overlooks the ever-purpling mountains. It seems like every time I’m doing my laundry the sun has just set so the mountains beyond the window are backlit. While I prepare the water in this nearly narcotic alcove, I’ve got to strip down to nothing, while somehow managing to keep my feet in a pair of sandals the entire time. Believe me, if I could avoid the hassle I would but my host dad insists that the sandals be worn at all times in the bathing room. He speaks with such conviction that I am inclined to follow his advice, lest I end up with bubonic foot-rot or something, the floor does have a nice black patina all around its edges and I would venture to guess that it probably wouldn’t be the best idea to walk on that stuff with bare feet.
So after this maneuver I’m standing completely naked in sandals, I assure you, I don’t think there is a more awkward manner of dress, even the infamous “nude with socks” fashion would probably look more appealing. Anyway, I then proceed to dump the water over myself with a measuring cup. I’m tempted here to include a picture just because I think it would be hilarious. I’ve got the window with the mountain view right in front of me and the whole process is quite relaxing, but, with the fading light and the trickling sound of water I cannot help but to feel that the bathing situation here is probably better suited to women, who, at least in my mind, are probably much more at home in relaxing bathing situations than goofy-looking kids like myself.
When I’ve finished cleaning myself I start on the laundry, which is slightly tedious. I guess one misconception I had about the peace corps was that I’d be sitting in a room much like the one where I do my laundry, using buckets and stoves in much the same manner that I use them, with, I dunno, a scarf or something tied around my head, laughing in an unknown language with the babushka’d women of the village. The situation is nearly dead on with the exception that in the back of my mind, I’ve got a bunch of pedagogical papers and homework I should be looking over. I didn’t think this part of America was going to follow me to Armenia, but it has. The thing is, one could easily abandon the paperwork and slug homemade vodka in the washing room all night with the old ladies and never touch the papers, or one could hide in one’s room going over the papers over and over again. Maybe it’s just because we’re still in training here, but I’ve talked to people who have taken every available view about what to do with all these papers they give us, and, strangely enough, every viewpoint seems to work. You could probably get away without ever looking at most of the papers we get, without ever lifting a pen, but then again, we’re all here for a common objective, right? So why wouldn’t you look over what they gave you, presumably only to help with you project. The only excuse that I can come up with is that it feels foreign to be looking over Xeroxed copies of EFL and safety guidelines when your host family has been out in the fields all day long with scythes that they made themselves. I’d never even seen a scythe until I came here. Everything that the Peace Corps seems to promote makes you think that the best thing to do would be to ditch the papers and start working on making your own scythe, so you too can help in the fields. I guess what I’m saying is, I’d like to be up the hills, herding the goats and wearing a straw hat and instead I often find myself sitting in my room highlighting catchy phrases in academic papers, just like I was back in the states. This isn’t so bad, I mean there’s still plenty of opportunities to acculturate oneself, I guess I just hadn’t fully considered what it is to be the harbingers of “progress.” It doesn’t really enable you to pass yourself off as a goatherd, though you still get to bathe with a bucket, using water heated up on a wood stove, I dunno’ strikes me as a dichotomy, I guess.
Ok, if the flash drive card I bought earlier today works I’ll finally be able to put this thing online and stop mercilessly adding more and more to it. That’s always been one of my problems when I’m not writing to a specific audience, I never know when to stop, especially here where so much happens, while, seemingly, nothing happens. I want to contribute this phenomena to darkness and time, both of which are distorted in Armenia, and the usual American perspective has little bearing, in fact, when applied, it tends to make things more confusing, take the dark for example. There are no streetlights here outside of the capital, at least all the places I’ve been that aren’t the capital, I’m quite sure they probably have streetlights in some of the larger cities that I haven’t been to like Gyumri or Vanadzor. But, since I haven’t been to Gyumri I can’t speak for it, and here in Solak and elsewhere there is no light outside that which escapes from people’s windows. Now, this is not particularly disconcerting or anything. I haven’t been wandering outside at night feeling lost or disorientated. No, the difference is much more subtle. Sometimes I’ll go outside to brush my teeth and find that I’ve inadvertently walked around to the other side of the house. The moon is also much more salient and, when full, casts some incredible shadows. The stars seem caught in the branches of the trees and the rain at night is completely invisible. These things would be easy to adapt to, even to embrace, but the oddest thing about the dark here comes from its ability to envelop people until they’re right next to you. The intensity of the darkness here seems capable of masking things to an incredible extent, one moment I’m totally alone, the next I’m sitting and talking with someone. When this person gets up, well, almost immediately they’re swallowed up by the dark and I wonder if they were ever even there. This all might seem fanciful, but consider how, in the states, no matter where you are, everything is designed to give notice that someone is approaching, whether this takes the form of headlights coming up a driveway, a porch light that draws silhouettes around those at you door, even bikes have reflectors. Simply, in America, we are probably the most visible people in the world.
So when the dark begins to envelop people, and they become prone to disappearing, time too begins to shift. My lack of a command of the Armenian language also distorts time when I am speaking with people. My thoughts creep by at a much slower rate, my speech is drawled out and, when I try to pantomime, my gestures seem too fast, as they don’t match the rate of my speech. Opposite this, I often find myself picking up a book here and not looking up from it until four hours have passed, though I’ve only felt, perhaps two of those hours at the most. I go for a walk on Sunday and have no concept of how much time had passed until my feet begin to hurt and I notice it‘s getting dark.
Maybe what I’m trying to communicate here doesn’t need to be expressed with the ponderous abstracts of darkness and time, maybe I could just say being in a new culture forces a different outlook on you and while this outlook is taking shape around your old perception of the world it’s hard to keep your bearings. Yeah, after all I’ve written that seems to be true enough but I’m afraid it just doesn’t do justice to the feeling of watching the stars, while knowing that your friends and family, looking to that same sky would see only sun, and suddenly realizing it’s been three hours and someone is standing next to you. I don’t know how to explain that.
After teaching for a few days I had an exceptionally wonderful lesson with my “practice” class. My partner and I taught a William Carlos Williams poem and I was enthused to see my old interest in teaching returning through the poet’s words on eating someone’s plums. I was again, waving my hands all over the place and practically shouting at my students to get them to understand and enjoy the possibilities of the poem. It almost seems like I teach better when someone else has prepared the lesson. I remember this feeling from substitute teaching back in Lansing, Michigan. It feels like ages ago that I stumbled into a class that was reading Jack London’s To Build a Fire. Most of the time I subbed, I had math or social studies classes, but for one shining moment I was teaching the kids the symbolism behind a story that meant something to me when I first read it as a Jr. high student. I’ll never forget that class and each time I am able to communicate my love of literature to students I revisit that day in Lansing when, for a brief moment, I felt like I connected with a class full of apathetic students, much like I had once been.
After my class today I came home and plopped myself down in the field behind where I live. There’s a wonderful cluster of rocks up there, perfect for reading and musing. As I drifted in and out of my book, watching the village retire for the evening below me, I heard the far-away sound of a train whistle. I turned my head to see where the sound came from and saw an engine making its way toward me with three flat carriers of tanks. I gotta’ tell you it’s pretty interesting after a long day to watch a train go by carrying tanks. I mean, real olive drab military tanks. The look so damn formidable I kept waiting for one to roll off the train and blow my little town apart. I guess just that comparison between a peaceful little village and a group of tanks made me see how fragile everything is in the face of war. I have no idea where those tanks were going but I hope it was somewhere far away.
I am happy that I seem to have recovered my ability to stay up really late. Despite my endless days of Armenian classes, lesson planning, teaching and homework, I have stopped sleeping like a damn recluse and this makes me hopeful that I may be able to accomplish something amongst all the cultural confusion after all.