Thursday, December 10, 2009

Basement Horrors or a la recherche du temps perdu

In order to stem the effects of seasonal flu, or perhaps to justify rumors of its particular virulence this year, the schools in Armenia have closed down for the next two weeks until the official beginning of the winter break. I’m sure the kids have got to be happy about that, but their mothers seem to be keeping them all inside ‘cause I haven’t seen many to ask them what they plan to do with this miraculous 2-week extension of their vacation.
In the meantime the university continues it’s scheduled courses heedless to the menacing coughs and frail looks exchanged by students and faculty alike. Luckily, I’ve already gotten myself sick so I guess I won’t have to anticipate getting sick again, at least not until the current illness abates.
The last few days have gotten slightly warmer, but have produced a particularly nebulous, grey sky, something I’m totally unaccustomed to as this place is classified as semi-desert and is usually very sunny. As a result of the weather and this nearly consumptive-sounding cough I’ve got going for me, I’ve spent the last couple of days hiding in my apartment, emerging only to buy more juice and to run only the most essential of errands. I’ve finished two books in the last two days. This, as you can imagine, complicates the task of writing anything exciting about life in Armenia. I find myself even further perplexed by the sudden appearance of predictability and normalcy in my daily schedule. I haven’t written very much for the last couple of months because it often seems as if very little worth writing about has happened. Sure, a few things here and there, but nothing to make me run home, jotting notes on my hand the whole way so as not to forget the tiniest detail.
I’m content enough, working, or rather, beginning to work on the final projects that will surely wind up my remaining 7 and ½ months in Armenia (Wow!). At present I’m not really even over-concerned with the future, as I have been in the past when suddenly everything became commonplace. Last winter, I spent a lot of time thinking about different places and people I’d like to see again, but it looks as if this winter is going to be different. I don’t want to lose sight of the few changes I’m hoping I can make before I leave, and, besides, I’ve been gone so long now that there doesn’t seem to be much reality left to draw from day dreams of San Francisco or post-Peace Corps trips to Turkmenistan or India. I’m here, and I guess after all this time, in a way, I’ve finally excepted that, until it’ll change again.
However, la recherche du temps perdu does still filter through, things that I’d nearly forgotten only to have them dredged up by a line in a book or a brief conversation, where they settle into reminiscence.
The most recent example came to me today while reading a book where the characters have to drag a damp mattress out of an extinguished house fire. This reminded me of one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever had to do. I think now with enough temporal distance between myself and the offending event, I can safely describe it.
Years ago I lived in a typical collegiate house, a big place on the east side of town, a little run down and cold as hell in the winter, but nothing too offensive. Even if it had been some kind of full-blown slum I certainly would’ve minded, but, as it was, the place we used to live on Foster Ave. was ideal for my Jr., Sr. and post-undergrad., pre-grad. days. The house was spacious, although there were not always enough rooms for all the people living there. My old roommate Jon lived on and off again in the attic and I once spent an entire summer sleeping on the couch in a room off the kitchen, awakened nearly every night by someone coming home and deciding to cook at 2 am.
"Oh," barely whispering, "that’s my roommate Jon, I guess he’s sleeping in here now."
"Why," barely curious interlocutor asks, "doesn’t he have a room?"
"I don’t know, who cares, ughh this kitchen is always so dirty, help me clean this pan will ya’?"
"Yeah, ok. Where’s the beer?"
Whereupon the noise would commence until the prepared meal would, thankfully, be taken into a room to be consumed and all the dishes dirtied in preparing it would be left for the next night, so that the same conversation could be repeated for my benefit.
I shouldn’t be so cynical. Mostly it was a wonderful place. I have so many happy memories from Foster Ave. that I really have to stretch to write about it in a negative light. In some way it seems as though I was the freest I had ever been in my life when I lived there. Just out of college, working at a great bookstore, 1st class diner right down the street to sequester myself in whenever I felt like drinking coffee and reading all night, which was frequently. My roommates were also great people. Two guys I had known since Jr. high, one of whom was never around and a succession of various people living in one of the other rooms. I had all kinds of things in those days, and it’s the only time I can remember when I actually had to debate with myself whether or not I wanted to leave. Up until this point and ever since, a move comes naturally. I feel that it’s time to go and I do, and after I leave it usually doesn’t feel as if much has changed, but when I did finally leave that place I did so amidst much internal argument and skepticism. I know that I had no other choice. If I didn’t leave that place when I did for SF I would’ve left it another time for a different place. Essentially, it was just a matter of which bus I was going to catch, not whether I was going to get on one at all. I’m glad I left. Many people I knew there have since left themselves and no one wants to be the last to leave the party (although I usually am.) Still, many of my good friends, in fact both of the guys I lived with, are still there. It’s a great place to go back and visit, to go unearthing old memories of winter nights, summer afternoons and autumn evenings. In fact it seems like every time I sit down to write something really substantial it’s a story that has come from my time in that house. They are the memories near enough to be full and rich without the gauzy covering that comes from memories when life perspective was different, for example those of childhood, or even, I hate to say it, the ridiculous stuff I did when I was 17 is also hard to center on anymore. It was just too long ago to remember without embellishing. Likewise, the most recent events often have a sheen of newness that needs to be buffed off by a little more time and experience before I can claim to be representing them correctly. Four years ago seems like a great time period for the glimmer to wear off, but also to hold the memory against obscurity. For this now we’re going to go into a dimly lit living room that hasn’t been cleaned in months.
I came in from a nice spring night, the kind where the fresh grass and the melting snow blend together on a light, clean vernal breeze, just enough so that a three block walk takes the smell of cigarette smoke out of your jacket. The door was never locked, even at night I don’t think anyone ever really considered locking the door and the familiar, but somewhat stale air of home greeted me on the threshold, a murky light and the sound of a television just out of sight, the atmosphere a mix of evening-quiet library and day-after-a-party frathouse . It was calm.
I walked into the living room and dropped into one of our enormous and battered couches, not bothering to take my hat and jacket off.
"Hey guys, what’s up, how was work?"
"Jon, we’ve got to get it out." My roommate, also named Jon announced, as if I’d been privy to the conversation that was going on between he and my other roommate Eric before I came in.
"It? What it? I…oh that. Do we have to tonight?" After I realized what ‘it’ was my spring ebullience left me.
"Yeah, Nelson (the landlord) came over and said it absolutely had to go before tomorrow. I guess there’s an inspector or someone coming over," Jon said, looking apologetic and even slightly scared.
"Well," I said, remembering that every unpleasant task must be done sometime and thereby letting a little of my former light-heartedness back in, "let’s go down there and get this over with."
There being no just cause for further delay, we slowly got up and walked toward the basement door.
Let me stop here a moment to give a little background for ‘it.’ What I’ve been referring to was a mattress that had somehow found it’s way to our basement. Even if we knew whose it once was no one would dare claim ownership of such a loathsome object. Of course we frequently hypothesized about where it had come from, all of us being sure it was the property of whoever we had lived with over the past three years that we had liked the least. My bet was on a girl who had come to live with us for a thankfully very brief period and who often accused me of plotting against her for very absurd and somewhat schizophrenic-sounding reasons. Jon claimed it came from another roommate that he had thought not very tidy and Eric, if he had any opinions, kept them to himself. Regardless, at some point this mattress had found its way to the basement floor, back behind the stairs, where it had presumably remained quite unobtrusively for some time. In fact I don’t remember ever noticing it until one day it made itself particularly conspicuous by being festooned with condom wrappers a few weeks after a party had been thrown. After this the mattress began to develop a certain repulsiveness. It brooded down in the most mildewed corner of our already filthy basement, providing refuge for all sorts of mutating insects and other assorted vermin. In fact, Jon and I had tried to move it already, about two months prior, but had dropped it and given up when a dark swarm of some spider-centipede highbred had come pouring out at the slightest perturbation.
There the mattress had remained for the duration of something like three spring basement floods, sponging up the brackish basement water and vomiting it up in little putrescent rivulets and breaking out in dark moldy splotches that did not bode well for what it had going on inside. Layers and layers of wet spongy foam, pregnant with abysmal dark terrors and Lovecraftian horrors, living forms of moist and dark filth.
I had never particularly liked going down into the basement before but with the mattress, swollen with its mephitic smell and seeming to wring out nightmares from its once posturpedic convolutions, I only went down when I absolutely had to and each instance brought me closer to the certainty that one day it was going to raise itself up and belch out some sort of Jabba the Hut-esque threat.
‘At least,’ I reasoned as we cautiously descended the basement stairs, ‘at least I don’t have to try to do this alone, so after we all get Ebola they’ll at least quarantine us together.’ It is sad to note that in man’s most lonely and frightened times he often thinks of ways to bring those he cares about most down to his own dark level of suffering.
Although there was a source of light, in the basement it seemed as if the darkness was total, every corner, every crevice all but roared with it. The basement was actually constructed in a manner that seemed conducive to peripheral darkness: strange anterooms and root cellars crept up to the main room from all sides; the single 60 watt bulb was not nearly enough to dispel the ages of darkness that seemed to be festering there. Amidst this backdrop of Chaos and Night the slick and dirty tumescence of the mattress seethed its poisonous dreams.
It seemed that we had tacitly agreed on a surprise capture, because before I was really aware of what was happening, I found myself grabbing a corner of what felt like gelatinous mold and angling it toward the door.
Our attempt with three people was much more successful that our attempt with two had been previously and soon we were already to the stairs, slipping up the wooden slats as quickly as possible trying not to gag or vomit. Our task was not merely the moving of a revolting object but rather, as it soon became apparent to us, an exorcism. As we toted stench incarnate or in-pillow-ate up the stairs we were each subject to reoccurring nauseating waves of stench memory. As they say that the fermentation of the grape is capable of taking on any known flavor due to the molecular arraignment as it becomes wine, the mattress had actually developed nuances of stink that mirrored every putrid thing I’d ever had the displeasure to smell before: summer dog shit, stagnant subway tunnel urine, halitosis, forgotten Tupperware in the back of the refrigerator and endless mountains of dirty socks. The mattress seethed with these smells and bled a thin dark line up the stairs and through the living room, angry that its rest had been disturbed.
I could see from the looks on my roommates’ faces that they were also revisiting their own worst olfactory memories. We shuffled through the house as quickly as we could not daring to drop the dreadful load near any place we actually lived in the house. As the door opened and the smell of the ghastly thing mixed with the fresh air it almost seemed to come to life with stink. We coughed and gagged, no longer able to hold back our horror and total revulsion. The mattress, as if sensing that the end had come at last, almost seemed to squirm in my grasp and I nearly let go my hold in surprise.
Near enough to the dumpster we finally pitched the thing down and immediately ran back into the house in search of quicklime and bleach, anything strong enough to eradicate what was surely septic ooze from our hands.
With the deed finally accomplished we returned to the living room to brag over our accomplishment and bravery while the mattress, now bested and dying quietly in the dark, eked out the last of its mordant juices and killed more than half of our lawn.
Next time I write I’ll try to get back to Armenia instead of writing about old basement horrors, but, unless you’re really squeamish, hopefully you enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it. It’s funny how such a disgusting memory can fill one with feelings of love and friendship. As I remembered this particular, otherwise uneventful evening, I couldn’t help but picture the three of us squirming up the stairs trying not to let the thing drip on us, laughing and gagging at the same time and, of course, the feeling of relief that followed when it was finally out of the house when we could return to our own peaceful musing brought about by a warm April night, when even the most distant joys seem totally attainable.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Smile Like Moonlight on a Tombstone or Eating Over the Sink

Sometimes it’s like this:

I woke up, as I always seem to do from an afternoon nap, at dusk. I had slept so long that I was totally disorientated. Even after a three-hour nap I still couldn’t seem to make up my mind whether I wanted to get up or not. I lay in the retreating light for a while feeling like I was about to doze again, when something changed my mind and I kicked off my sleeping bag and swung my legs to the floor in one motion. There was no reason to regret the nap, on Mondays I teach in the village school, something that’s not necessarily harder than teaching in the university, but takes a different kind of stamina, one that I really haven’t built up yet and probably won’t until I’m on the verge of leaving, considering I only go there once a week anyway. I can remember this feeling from substitute teaching in the states, after only 4 or 6 hours of work, coming home and promptly falling asleep, children’s laughter still a flush in your face and smelling of crayons.
Here the smell of school is a chalky, earthy redolence, like wet concrete walls, but it doesn’t cling to you like the way I remember American Elementary School smell clinging to me: brown paper bags and green vinyl floors. Smell or no smell I have woken up to my Friday evening, so I don’t regret the nap, now I’m ready, charged for a long walk in the closing light and then maybe a movie with a beer or something. I was looking for a sweater to throw on when I realized my stomach was aching with no small insistence. I ignored the feeling, dismissed it as some odd post nap thing, grabbed my headphones and set out.
Outside in the cool fall air my mouth felt thick, gummed up inside. My stomach was hurting more than it had been inside and I still felt disorientated, like I could still have been dreaming. On the pavement outside my apartment my shadow, thrown out by a lighted window startled me, as I thought it was some small animal running directly at my legs. Walking to the internet café, I realized that no one had called me. One of the volunteers had mentioned that he would be coming in for a class and would call me when it got out. I had looked forward to this, so it was with some dismay that I checked my phone and found I had missed no calls. I knew there was some excuse that I’d hear the next day or maybe the day after, and some how I dreaded this, dreaded it because I knew that nothing mattered except the present. At the moment I would’ve like to have had some company and I felt slightly abandoned for being denied it. Tomorrow that wouldn’t matter and I’d brush the issue off, but somehow that future conversation seemed absolutely abhorrent to me. Now I was alone, and there was a reason for that, he had some other engagement, but for some reason I almost shuddered to think of the time that would come when he’d explain to me why he hadn’t been able to call, like qualifying exactly what it was that was more important than me.
I left the internet café with a sudden desire to get far away from the center of town, away from all the cloying lights, the husky laughter and the cars. I was feeling thirsty as hell as I walked to the southern edge of town. For some reason my sense of smell felt incredibly heightened, to the point where all the burning and rotting smells of autumn were practically chocking me. I was feeling tired, it wasn’t just sleep I hadn’t shaken off but a deep fatigue, like what you feel when you’ve got the flu.
I watched the stars as I walked, One of them fell but I crowded it too full of wishes for any of them to come true. I then thought what a shame it was that I spent the beautiful scene wanting something more, as if a falling star on a quiet night wasn’t enough. I remembered how my childhood friend and I used to hook pinkies and wish for things after we had said the same thing at the same time (where people usually jinx each other). I had read somewhere that this was a foolproof way of attaining wish fulfillment. He and I spent so much time to together that we said many things at the same time, leading to many wishes. At first they had been long and descriptive but gradually they had been shortened, probably more out of the embarrassment of having to tacitly link pinky fingers as late as 7th or 8th grade after saying something at the same time, only further pandering to the rumor that we were quite gay, or as it was in the parlance back then "gay together," as if one needed a cohort to be gay with, or possibly that it would’ve been ok to be gay alone.
My stomach still hurt and I began to think how nice it is to smoke when things like bad stomach aches present themselves. When you want something to take your mind off the pain that also lends a little composure. I decided that a lemon Fanta would go well with the cigarette I was going to have when I got home. I stopped into a store and bought one, feeling like I looked horrible after a woman nearly shut the door in my face, wheeled around to see what was blocking the progress of the door and actually dramatically widened her eyes when she saw me, like something out of a Hitchcock movie, which I guess made sense considering I felt like vertigo itself, standing there taking in too much smell, too much brightness, feeling too tired with a lead stomach. When I got home I thought about phone calls I’d like to make without actually making any of them while smoking cigarettes and drinking my Fanta.
II. Sometimes it’s like this:
I watched the sun come up this morning from my kitchen window while grinding stale coffee beans by hand. Sometimes, and I couldn’t tell you why, the morning feels rushed even when I’ve got more time than things to do; this morning there was, however, no hurry. I stood on the broken vinyl floor in my bare feet looking out over the mountains without really concentrating on a single thought, just kind of going along with all of them.
After the coffee I heated some water in my living room and bathed by dumping cup after cup over my head in an old bathtub that already needs to be bleached again. With my hair still wet I walked down to the university, wearing ridiculous clothes but not feeling at all awkward.
Over the course of the day I shifted out of various classes and talked about various vocabulary words, the need to learn them and any verb tenses that they could possibly be coupled with. Probably not the best way to teach a language, but so far it seems to be getting me somewhere.
Sometimes I thought of South America, or the southern end of Armenia, or, inexplicably, a late evening coffee in Ann Arbor, Michigan I drank almost two years ago.
At the end of the day a student approached me, as many of them have been doing lately, and asked if I was doing one-on-one tutoring. I told her she was welcome to come after class to a session I was doing with only two other beginners. She seemed to balk at the idea of having anyone else around and asked if I was free at the moment. I was and we met a few minutes later in my classroom to talk about her village and possible travel ideas.
As mundane as the experience was, between the Armenian clarifications and the slow, basic English questioning, I suddenly became aware of a familiar feeling of light-headed, almost transcendent happiness. Like the feeling I remember getting when I was a kid getting my hair shampooed before having it cut somewhere. Even at ten years old I remember sitting perfectly still, while someone worked the coconut-smelling shampoo out of my hair and feeling like I was about to drift into some kind of beautiful dream. Talking about the village of Malishka and Paris today this feeling came back to me, and though the conversation faltered as a result I didn’t mind at all and just smiled when I realized that I hadn’t really been paying enough attention to advance the conversation beyond a certain point.
When my after-school lessons had finished, I went home to a quick meal before going back out for my language tutoring, during which I made my tutor laugh quite a few times, not directly as a result of my incompetence, but rather through my making light of it. As the sun set we had begun to talk of the recent events of our daily lives and the exchange was comfortable, as I both understood and seemed to have little problem in communicating my own thoughts.
I stopped by the internet café again and caught the main market area in the rare window of time after the sun has completely set but none of the shop keepers have closed, in the darkness the lights wash out into the piles of garbage, catch the eyes of stray dogs and flicker in stationary car taillights.
I stood by the window awhile again after I got home, drinking a bottle of half-frozen peach nectar, three-liter size, looking down in the now dark and empty streets. My phone rang and the girl I tutor was suddenly telling me I had to go over to her house. She’s done this before, telling me she has something really important to say only to shove an overstuffed bag of walnuts, tomatoes and peppers in my arms and run back inside. I told her I didn’t want any food, still had enough from the last time I barely escaped getting two sweaters along with my farmer’s market surplus bag, a cornucopia that’s still rolling all over my fridge. I wasn’t bothered at all, in fact I was enjoying the novelty of the conversation, which essentially consisted of her trying to get me to come over, or at least meet her somewhere to take some food under the ruse that there was to be no food involved and that she merely had a question.
"Well, ask me the question now."
"I can’t…it’s important, you have to come over here"
"Why would I have to do that, I’m coming tomorrow, we’ll talk then."
"No you have to come now, right now (first time I think I’ve ever heard anyone say this in Armenian.)"
"I don’t need anymore food (kind of laughing.)"
"Come over! There‘s no food."
I wondered what I was going to find myself carrying back as I set down my apartment stairs, skipping over the steps familiarly in the dark.
I met my friend and tutee in the street between our buildings’ lots. She said hello and thrust a hot pastry at me, my favorite, Zhingelov hots, like southern greens baked in the middle of a loaf of homemade bread.
I went back home to my window and my frozen nectar and a dinner I hadn’t expected to eat a few minutes before.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Rooftop to Rooftop Transfer!

Books to Read and Homes to Read Them in or Bleat out the Dusk

I wonder how the last group of volunteers, the one’s that just went home, felt when they first met us last year? Did they have the same hope, the same desire to connect with different people? Did they have the same difficulty trying to hide their excitement and anxiety? If anyone from the previous group was feeling these things and exhibiting signs of bewilderment or reluctance last year I never would’ve noticed. Back then I didn’t care. Armenia was still a new experience, and after two months off daily training our first occasion to really meet these volunteers at a softball game struck me as completely unimportant. They waited there on the field, aware of the significance of this first meeting, trying, as we did this year, to find the correct way to usher us in, to make us feel comfortable with them and still fresh from the states, from training in Philadelphia and still getting to know each other we brazenly turned around and left the game to find a café to relax in.
I remember my apathy from that day, one year ago. How the softball game and the senior volunteers seemed so unimportant to me and how walking into town to have a beer instead sounded much more enjoyable. This year, after so many winter afternoons dragging along under banks of grey clouds and long spring evenings watching the sun set through my windows and all the countless hours spent alone, the new volunteers were like a miracle. Almost 50 people about to endure much of the same things we had already endured, living with the same families that we had lived with the year before: new people to discuss our experiences with, to share, to complain and to plan with.
At the same time I almost didn’t want to meet them at all. I wanted to have the opportunity to meet them on an individual basis. The groups here are no good, or at least they’re not for me. I can never seem to find anything meaningful trying to interact with over seventy people. I knew their feelings at the game would be similar to my own the year before. They would not feel much excitement about meeting us, rather they would be happy only for the opportunity to take a break from the incredibly rigorous and often monotonous training schedule. They would stay in their own group, occasionally looking over at us, possibly trying to read something of their future here in our faces. I wonder if they could see the shadows of depression, the smiles of accomplishment, the year of students, broken conversations, piles of books read. Did our faces betray us? Did we arch our eyebrows too much? Did we stand too still or pace too often? Did we look the sum of a year of alienation, triumph, uncertainty and hope?
Immediately I wanted to be loved by all those new faces. I wanted them to know me and to know them so that we could have earnest and fruitful conversations. To some degree I wanted to find a reason to stay another year in the crowd. I wanted to see a reflection of my own face a year ago and remember the deracinating passion for travel and discovery that had pulled me up from San Fran. and brought me to this country, this town and this playing field.
But at a sports game people stand on two different sides of the field, what’s more they intentionally heckle each other, they engage in what’s pretty much the exact opposite of warm, friendship building conversation. They joke, argue and insult, all in fun, all in sport, but all prohibitive to what I wanted to find out there. Of course I joined in the game, rooting for my own team, the people I’ve been here with since the June before last. I argued, I threw up my hands with relish when we scored, shook my head in disappointment when we struck out. And I felt closer to my teammates. The guys that had stayed, the 35 of us left from a group of 50. I let them know that I cared about them after all the text messages they had sent and books they had lent, these people I never thought I would be close to looked like old friends to me. They deserved my support, they deserved to kick the ball over everyone’s heads and get to third base, to run home. But so badly, under the cheers, I wanted to go over and thank the new group just for coming, for continuing the tradition of coming here and working and learning that has occasionally seemed impossible to me.


Despite what everyone said there was no early transportation to Yerevan. Of course there was a marshutka waiting there, but a parked marshutka is really just a bus shelter until all its seats have been filled, and in the morning this is usually a slow process. That particular morning was no exception. I waited, sitting patiently in the back seat, for about an hour and a half until there was no other place to squeeze anyone. I had been hoping to get to Yerevan by 11 in order to catch the marshutka to Tbilisi where I was due to meet someone the following day. If I didn’t make it I would miss a week of work at a camp in Georgia that I had been looking forward to working at since March.
Yerevan is about and hour and a half away from Yeghegnadzor. We left at about 9:15. At first I tried to read but, as with all rushed travelers, I seemed to think that there more attention I paid to the road the faster we would go, like if I looked frazzled enough and stared intensely out the window the driver would take the hint and drive even more rampantly and manically. It didn’t work,. We went the usual pace until, after about 20 minutes we came to a total stop. I groaned. The men all got out to look over the engine and see if any of them could identify would needed to be fixed to get us moving again. After about 15 minutes I noticed they were beginning to light second cigarettes and drift away from the engine, without getting back in the marshutka: a bad sign. I leaned my head against the window and let out a long weary sigh. I had left the house at 7:45 and now at 9:45 I was barely a twenty-minute walk from my front door.
After some deliberation we were routed to another marshutka that passed by, or almost all of us were, I alone was left after a great jostling effort to drag goods and children into the limited open seats of the replacement. By the time I reached the other marshutka I found myself staring into an open door of a full van, no sympathetic face to be seen. I pleaded to sit on the floor, but what is usually a valid request was denied me and the marshutka sped away, leaving me alone with a sullen driver and no foreseeable way to Yerevan. I asked him what to do, despite the fact that I already knew the answer. He shrugged and said I would wait for the next one. Of course. Of course I would.
For a while I paced back and forth, hoping that a passing car would pick me up along the side of the road, but almost every car that passed looked completely full, either with people or tomatoes, of which some cars were so full that it looked as if they had no driver, just happy piles of tomatoes piloting Ladas down the road, taking themselves to market.
Eventually my relief came, by that time I wasn’t sure it mattered, but regardless of whether or not I’d make the Yerevan-Tbilisi marshutka I was happy to be moving again instead of imagining things about tomatoes by the side of the road.
At times I thought, “maybe I’ll still make it, we’re making pretty good time, it might be possible.” I had been told that the last marshutka left either at 11am or noon. My hope was that I’d still be able to catch the noon departure, if it existed. I clenched my teeth when we stopped for one of those unpredictable smoke breaks that some drivers indulge in and that others never bother with. Luckily these are never very long and soon we were on our way again, the mood a little lightened by the cheap tobacco mirth the men had all brought back into the marshutka with them after the break. Children turned around to peek at me and out the windows from their mother’s laps, while the mothers talked quietly about food prices and the men stared stoically ahead or rested their foreheads and the back of bouncing jump seats. We were getting into the swing of the journey and this relaxed me a little. If nothing else I thought I’d go into Yerevan, beg for some sort of Tbilisi passage, find nothing and resign myself to an afternoon stroll through the capital and maybe a cup of coffee somewhere and some letter writing. The trip, I decided, wouldn’t be for nothing, regardless of what happened. Than the engine stated sputtering and we pulled over, still not even half way there.
It quickly became apparent that there was nothing that could be done, after a look at the situation no one made any movement to act, in fact I think I even saw a few looks of total resignation pass over the faces of the crowd the moment the hood was opened. Other cars that slowed to see if they could help were quickly and curtly waved away, as if they had been onlookers to something far more disturbing that a broken-down engine. Still in the marshutka, but diligently observing the scene outside, the women and I began to discuss our impending fate as the oft seen, squalid and desperate looking party along the side of a broken down vehicle. Like a scene from The Grapes of Wraith, we would bow our heads against the dust and the weight of our mental anguish while awaiting some kind of miracle, hollow-eyed and hungry.
To pass the time I went out to smoke and soon found myself trying to converse with a fellow passenger who did not seem to share my desire for conversation. After trying to figure out what was going on and when we could expect to leave (tomorrow, next week, when the first snows fell) I made the brutal mistake of lamenting my fate to the guy standing next to me.
“This is second time this thing to happen to me today!” I whined piteously.
“So what?” but the way he said it doesn’t really deserve a question mark. It wasn’t a question, it was a statement. ‘Shut up, I don’t care’ was what he was really saying.
My cultural adaptation may not be so far advanced to prevent me from saying certain stupid things, but after a year here it has reached a point where it allows me to immediately see the folly of what I’ve said before I’ve finished saying it. This was just such a case. I wanted to erase the idiocy of my feeble complaint by saying something, but nothing was going to work, apart from saying” well, enough of this bullshit” and promptly walking over and fixing the engine with a single deft blow to the hood, like the way one would imagine The Fonz would fix a car. Only by doing something so gracefully cool would I be able to salvage some kind of dignity.
I knew it was bad when the driver just started walking away. I mean everyone there had cellphones and even in remote areas, Armenia has really good reception. The guy could’ve called anyone, anywhere, instead he slowly, not at all confidently, began walking down in the road. In curious manner that suggested that any minute he might change his mind and start off on a different course, though the weeds or toward the distant mountains. I imagined if we were in Japan he’d probably be kneeling on a mat and unsheathing a sword by now, that’s how dejected he looked. I wanted to run after him and get my money back and start walking to Yerevan, rather than apparently just resigning myself to death as it seemed most of the people around me had done. I started out to catch up with him, but after a few minutes of jogging my own apathy kicked in. It was still a long way to Yerevan, but busy enough on the road where hitchhiking would be difficult. I lit another cigarette and blinked into the blinding sun.
After a while the driver turned around and started walking back. Worst of all we could see he didn’t even go anywhere, just walked down the street for a while and turned around. Our spirits sunk and some began to listlessly drag their stuff off the marshutka to hitchhike or walk. But, as if sensing the hardship and heartbreak, an empty marshutka, blasting duduk-laden festive music, suddenly pulled over and stopped. The driver pulled open the door with a big smile on his face, we smiled in response. A little bit of room is cleared and in no time at all we’re all getting in and finding our seats, laughing, and happy to be saved. Best of all, I noticed there was something novel and carefree about the marshutka, the driver didn’t seem at all serious, like he was just out for a drive and decided he wanted some company right when he saw all of us on the roadside. The music continued to play and as the people get on I hear them all laughing about something, something beyond their own thankfulness, something inside that’s actually funny.
I pulled myself into the marshutka, ‘whoa,’ I thought, ‘who peed?” “Who peed all over this thing?” Because no doubt someone had. The smell was like one of those urinals in a high school basement that the janitor has apparently decided is not worth his time.
“How good this smell is that is coming!” I found myself remarking to my happy travel companions, hoping that they will appreciate my joke. An old woman smiled at me and pointed to the back seat, “look there.”
I looked under the seat and saw my own curious expression reflected back to me through the benign and peaceful eyes of a sheep and before I could even sit down we were tearing down the road again.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Neighbors, Answer Your Phones! Children, Answer Your Mothers! or "Salutations"

I’ve got a huge American map on my kitchen wall now. Patti, my sitemate who’s leaving in a week, gave it to me after cleaning out her apartment. Of course there was probably little question as to who would get the thing since nearly every time I went to her apartment at some point I would approach the tapestry of states, union, south-west, Maine, and travel the roads for awhile in my imagination, imaging routes that I would take when I returned home, Montreal, through Vermont, back to California along the ten, changing to the 8 after Phoenix to finally see San Diego. While everyone else talked in the background about the snow falling outside, or what happened on the marshutka I traveled those roads, revisiting many of them. Dawn in Wyoming, almost five years ago, traveling by van. I wrote a postcard to someone at a gas station about the gas station itself and, as a result committed the scene to memory; Queens from Jamaica Station after a rainy layover at JFK; Memphis looking like something from a 1950s TV show, like Cuba without all the fedoras and white walled tires; Missoula, still hot late at night after a long summer afternoon, smoldering with casino lights; gauzy visions of early April morning in Vancouver, BC; Fox theatre in Detroit at 16, at 23; a bowl of coffee in a service station-cum-café as persuasion to spend the afternoon walking through Denver in February, where snow etches out faded graffiti; the European obelisk in Indianapolis; somnambulism: Portland; driving barefoot through Nebraska, like walking through warm summer fields; and a coyote skulking carefully down a suburban cul-de-sac in the hills above Los Angeles, where the moonlight dissipates into the city’s carmine glow; three-day old coffee spilled in the cup holder, cigarette butts between the seat cushions, CDs loosed from their sleeves and rolling along the dash, halogen rest stops, I’ll love you by Reno, and run out of things to say by Arizona, by mining towns, the water running out on the long stretch between Death Valley and Las Vegas.
And still so much that I haven’t seen between Kansas and Alaska, South Carolina and Florida but I know people that have come from these places and gone back to them since I have been here. I’ve listened to people talk about the places that they’ve come from and why they have to go back to them, people who don’t want to go back, people who have moved. “The last volunteer was from San Francisco, too,” my last host family asked, “why are you so different than her?”
I wonder how much I’ve begun to embellish America over the last year away from it. I’ve always been curious about the various corners, the small to medium-sized towns where, perhaps some new movement is fomenting. What are they doing in Brownsville? Biloxi? Is something about to happen in one of these places? Could I be a part of it if I move in time? I’ve never really understood exactly what it is I’ve expected to find on the edges of America. I’ve looked up pictures of Boise and Las Cruces on the internet, hoping to catch a glimpse of something that will indicate an ideal, but even if I did chance upon a place full of 24-hour taquerias and dive bars with punk rock records on the juke box I know that in the end such things would not hold me to a certain place. I’ve already lived in places that have had such things. In Chicago most taquerias are open all night, but the burritos are better in SF, in Minneapolis there are a number of dive bars where you can listen to Dillinger 4 records, but they’ve got those internet jukeboxes all over the place now where you can listen to anything you want.
In the end you’re left with the people. Surely it’s the people that make a place worth living in. At least I can say that every time I’ve moved the people are missed well above what ever conveniences and incidentals the place itself actually offered. Sometimes I miss walking down Dolores in the afternoon with a cup of coffee by myself, but I miss talking over the cover of my book to my old roommate Mikey a hellovalot more. All the places I uses to go were populated by certain people and, inevitably, my memories of those places are tied to the people that I experienced them with. If I didn’t have the people all my memories would be of ghost towns. But then why move at all? I’m not really the type to suddenly find myself at odds with my friends, especially not to the degree where I’d want to move away. But here again it comes back to the abstract of a place, just a name, just an idea, an abstract on the map. Maybe it’s the mystery behind it all, or maybe it’s still the people, not the great friends that you share your daily life with, but rather a new crowd, that’s into different things and speaks Spanish or something. Of course there’s a recurring note here, namely that one who moves frequently is really only seeking out the same experience over and over again. It’s an approximation but basically the same: friends, favorite places to eat, drink, walk, listen to music, be alone etc. In every place I’ve ever lived I’ve had these things.
I think it’s really just a youthful desire to feel like you’ve looked, so in the end, when you end up somewhere you feel like you got the best deal around. Even though you are vaguely aware that the differences between places are actually quite marginal.
So the slow summer wind pulls up the corners of my new map in the kitchen, the papery flapping sound jumbling all the Midwest, Southeast and Key Wests together.

II. I’m not really sure where to begin with this. So much has happened in the last week or so that I’m just going to have to begin with the most absurd points and work my way into the more serious stuff.
A moment ago I came to the conclusion that internet dating is right for me. Based mostly on the notion that inevitably my ability to relate to a person is what ultimately attracts me to them. That’s not entirely a blanket statement, sure there’s other things about a person that make them attractive, but almost everything else, I mean every other quality fades after a while except the feeling that you can open yourself up to that person, that you can rely on them to listen and, what’s more, to actually understand your garbled thoughts. Certainly, we’ve all realized this before, but, I think, what we haven’t realized, is that internet dating, no matter how vapid and sterile it might seem, is actually a well-spring of like-minded people, who believe in communication, why else would they be on the internet? Also, when you think about it, on the computer, all you can do is communicate, it’s like the greatest foundation for building a relationship on communication because it doesn’t allow for anything else.
Then again, what is communication without personality? So much conversational minutiae is lost between the keys of an online conversation. There’s no sarcasm, no body language, only smiley face icons and ellipsis. One could probably carry on an internet conversation with someone for years and still be surprised when they finally met them by how they really acted and who they really were.
Then again, if internet-based communication bars the emotional basis of face-to-face conversation what does the say about all texts, notes, letters or even literature, certainly there’s something more than 900 pages of chatroom antics to be found in Les Miserables.But I guess I can’t say that one lacks something the other has, based on format when they are of the same format. If we can come to love the Fantines and Remedioses through a few chapters, perhaps the same can be said of real people. In fact maybe life can truly imitate art this way, all the better, life becomes art when people date on the internet.
Yeah, I don’t really buy any of that either. It still seems to awkward to me, and there’s a lot of heroines I’ve liked but I don’t know if I’d really want to meet any of them.
I have also recently discovered what seems to be a near permanent link to the internet which is soaking up my extra time. I really didn’t want to get the internet for this reason. When I’m not doing anything I end up looking at my aforementioned map for about twenty minutes and then going off and looking up mid-sized American towns on Wikipedia, trying to get an idea if I’d like to visit El Paso or some place, perhaps even live there. I don’t really seriously consider the latter, but anything uncertain is open for consideration and so come the thoughts about living in National City, California. It seems Tom Waits lives there and there’s a high enough crime rate to make me think I might be able to afford it. I’m not entirely sure where it is, south, or south-east of San Diego, probably just a scattered suburb in the desert, but in the languor of a hot afternoon I imagine it’s some last bastion of cheap, fun and friendly living in southern coastal California, yet another place with cheap Taqerias and bars where everyone comes up and introduces themselves if you’re sitting alone.
Perhaps I am misusing the internet, maybe it’d be better, more constructive, if I took up internet dating.
The other day my friend Raman died. It was sometime in the late morning when I found out. My friend Ben was visiting from his site in Jermuk. The weather was late-morning-hot, the kind of heat that makes you feel like you’ve already wasted a whole day sitting around even though it’s only ten o’clock. I was expecting two couch surfers to come that day, later on the evening. As Ben arrived via the earliest marshutka he had woken me up at 9:30 or so. I was still sleeping as I had not been able to make myself comfortable enough to sleep the night before amidst these damn sandwich bag pillows that have no yield, and my reasonably decent couch that I kept trying to roll off for some reason.
For some reason I like being woken up by visitors, provided I enjoy their company. It reminds me of college. It nice to just wake up and have your day start off with a friend who wasn’t around when you went to sleep. I can remember a few instances of waking up late, sometime in the afternoon to someone sitting on my bed.
“You’re still sleeping, man? C’mon we gotta’ go! The lake/Oregon/Minnesota/the local diner awaits!”
In fact, I remember sometimes almost intentionally sleeping in to wake up to such an event, of course in the morning it doesn’t take a lot of effort to keep sleeping, but when you feel like you’ve got an incentive, that’s good living.
Feeling pleased and tired I decided to make pancakes. Of course coffee goes great with pancakes so I made a few cups and, while it was boiling some potatoes fried with onions and peppers sounded like it would round everything out well enough so I began making that as well.
The sun shone through the window, Ben and I were talking across the kitchen about graphic novels and the general art of story telling. The pancakes didn’t rise very much but with syrup they were still really good. Fried potatoes are always good.
The dishes were easy enough and we moved back into the living room to finish our conversation. I gazed at the sunlight that drifted through the dust motes above my couch and listened to Ben alternately talk and type on my computer, as he checked listings for apartment rentals back in Austin where he’d be moving when he went back in less than two weeks. I felt happy for him and I felt happy for myself. The first year had fully passed; the volunteers from the year before were returning home. I had completed something, and felt confident enough to do it again, maybe even make it better. Ideas bounced flitted through my mind for the coming year and ways to make more of an impact in the university, and Ben and I talked about the last year in Armenia
When Ben left to go fax some papers I decided to take a turn at the computer. Happily, I noted that I had a message from my friend Mikey. It was brief. “I got your letter. Call me, it’s important.”
“Sure, why not?” I thought to myself. “It’s been a good morning and a phone call to a good friend would only strengthen that impression, enhance the morning.”
I have a thing about making phone calls to the states. I really only like to make them when I’m feeling really good, otherwise I worry that I’ll complain too much or not be able to think of anything to say. I’ve developed this practice through experience. After having moved many times over the past couple of years I find calls to people no longer in my vicinity can leave me feeling very disappointed if I don’t time them right. Sometimes, a call can succeed in making one feel incredibly far away from people if not handled correctly. I can recall a few instances of this from when I was living alone in northern California. Making lonely 2am phone calls back to San Francisco and being greeted with the din and excitement of a familiar bar, something that clashed so desperately with the sound of frogs peeping outside my quiet, mildewy northern Pacific apartment. Even worse, having little or nothing to say can make one feel as though one has grown apart from good friends, that there are no common interests or that one’s life has become so boring that no events are worth describing. I hate that feeling, so I make it a point to call people when I’m feeling good, ebullient enough to chat about nothing for a while and appreciate it.
Usually every time I try to call Mikey he doesn’t answer the phone. Who knows what the hell he’s always doing. His voice mail message only furthers one’s sense of curiosity.
“Hey, this is Mike, I’m doing something that involves me not answering my phone right now, so if you’ll leave your name and number I’ll try to get back to you as soon as I can.”
In my case “as soon as I can” is whenever I try to call him again, as calling Armenia is pretty expensive from the states.
I called an got the message after a few rings.
A pleasant note of happiness and uncertainty. It wasn’t the message, but the “hey” part sounded exactly the same and fooled me for a second.
“Hey, Mikey, what’s going on, man?” for some reason I always say “what’s going on” when I haven’t talked to somebody in a while. I guess it sounds a little more elaborate and celebratory than “what’s up” to me.
“Nothing, man, how are you, it’s good to hear from you.”
“Good, man I’m good, I’m good. What’s going on?” I say again to further the impression of my jubilation at having made this phone call.
“Well, I’ve got some bad news.” I can’t really remember if he called it bad news or not. What’s important is that I got the impression that Mikey was going to tell me about an author’s death. He always seems to find out about them before me and usually reports it first thing, perhaps so that the conversation that follows will be a fitting discussion of the author’s works. Something of a fitting tribute to the life of anyone who dedicated their life to letters.
“Raman died, Jonny.”
How the hell do you start talking after someone says something like that on the phone?
“How’d it happen?”
That’s probably the most moronic way, but usually the first thing that comes to mind, the first sorta’ feint at real grief the mind comes up with.
“Car accident, somewhere in Nevada, he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt.”
At this point one’s verbal skills are reduced to:
Which I continue to say, pretty much after everything else Mikey says for the rest of the conversation. Sometimes varying the tone, drawing it out like a sigh, sometimes sighing before I say it and adding it after like some kind of punctuation mark. Because the only thing you really can’t do with this word is request more information, I mean you can’t say it like a question, it would sound absurd. Because of this I occasionally add “really?" to the end
“Fuck, really?”
It still doesn’t sound very coherent, my end of the conversation lags on like a sputtering tire, gradually losing its air, flapping off the highway and into a rest stop.
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”
Like a locomotive regularly pumping the wheels back and forth with burst of steam, slowly, between words.
Mikey talks and I puff. I flap.

When the conversation is over and I’ve gotten the basic details, I notice that Ben has come back from faxing. He seems to have understood the gist of the conversation despite only being able to hear my laconic responses.
“You ok, man? Do you want me to go?”
I honestly didn’t know.
“No, it’s ok, man. Hang out, it’s ok.”
I had absolutely nothing to say. I told Ben what had happened, somewhere in Nevada. I tried to keep talking to avoid any kind of awkward silence. Ben, not being able to know anything about my relation to Raman or who he was at all, probably had no idea if I was going to collapse and rent my clothes while screaming and dumping the ashtray on my head or if I’d just shrug and say well, you know, the only guarantee in life. Want some more coffee?
I told Ben a little about Raman, how he and I had been friends through my later years of college. How we never really called each other up to hang out , but were always glad to see each other at all the social events we attended in common. I told him about how Raman was a beautiful kid with positivity and energy to spare. How I couldn’t remember if I had seen him after we met in Phoenix a few years ago. That he lived in a very energetic way that was at least some consolation, that he had gotten a lot out of the short life he had. That he and I used to spend Tuesday afternoons sitting in in front of this used bookstore he worked at and acted as caretaker to. How one of the most romantic encounters I have had with anyone was in the bookstore after the bars closed.
I didn’t tell him about how Raman had been the last person I said goodbye to when I moved away from the city I went to college in and, as a result, passed some of the best years of my life. I didn’t tell him how Raman had me do a mural on the back wall of the bookstore that as far as I know is still there. How he had me design a recycling bin for the bookstore, that I stared at, painted and repainted over an entire July, sweating like crazy in my old basement. I didn’t tell him that I couldn’t remember what Raman’s last name was, despite the fact that I knew he knew mine, as I heard him say it a good number of times. I didn’t mention Beggar’s Banquet, nor Mac’s nor Dagwood’s, the name which just occurred to me after not being able to remember it, attempting to find a hint of it on the internet and only drudging up a bunch of old memories by finding listings for a bunch of other places I had forgotten about, but not Dagwood’s, the name of which occurred to me after finishing the search. All the conversations we shared all over the place, agreeing on all kinds of things, most of the time proposing ridiculous ideas for local change at three o’clock in the morning and drawing up basic plans for their implementation.
When Ben left, I found myself sitting in a local café, not wanting to be there and trying to read Charlotte’s Web, which I had checked out from the library only a few days before, unaware of the pending significance of my selection. I got the feeling that Raman would’ve liked to find his friend reading a child’s paperback classic, with a notepad nearby ready for notes and beginnings to letters that probably wouldn’t be finished. So much of what we had often discussed was based on the mutual enjoyment of this vaguely aesthetic way to whilie away of the hours. I decided to write a letter to Raman, telling him what I was doing after I heard he died, how I thought he’d like it, but after a while I gave up, the café was hot and I felt guilty, given that I had never written him a letter before, it seemed stupid on my part to start now.
The couch surfers from Hungary came a few hours later. There was nothing I could do, I’d been telling them for months that I would be available. When they arrived I tried to excuse myself by hinting that there’d been some bad news from home, but I guess I was too vague, because they only proceeded to ask me what I was doing in Armenia and how I liked it there and what were some things to see around town and whether or not it was hard to learn Armenian.
The next day I had to leave for camp in the evening. I woke up feeling despondent, not so much from the news itself but from the unreality of it. I wanted to talk to someone, I wanted to remind myself that this had really happened, because Armenia was closing in around me. I had work to do for the camp, I had to clean up my apartment, my window broke, actually fell out onto the entrance stairs to the apartment, it could’ve killed someone. Like Raman, Raman died. I had to practice break dancing if I was going to try to use it to teach some English to the campers. Had to get this damn trash outta’ here, this damn trash that’s been piling up for ever, making the hall way look like a damn dump, just take one minute to get this bullshit pile of trash outta' here. then to the university, then maybe lunch.
In the evening I called Colleen. It was early in the morning Michigan time. I had to leave to catch the camp bus in 20 minutes, an escape in case the conversation didn’t go well.
“Uhh, Hello?”
I woke her up.
“Hey what’s up. Sorry if I woke you up. I knew I’d be able to get a hold of you if I called early enough. What time is it there anyway?”
“Hey, uhh, nine thirty.”
“Nine thirty!? Wow you should be up anyway, I don’t feel so bad now.”
“I had to close the bar last night.”
“Oh, you still work there? The place I visited last time I was in town?”
“No that place closed, this is a different bar, but I’ve got a new job, I’m going to start teaching in the Fall.”
Everything changes. Only a week before my friend Jules had had a baby. Now Colleen is going to be a teacher and Raman has died. A great friend and a great kid, a reunion that would never take place, someone I shared things with that I will not be able to reminisce with anyone else about, because no one was around. Someone I created memories with that I’ll always have. Someone who sent me a clipping from an old Sci-Fi magazine, an advertisement for the Peace Corps from circa 1967 that made me feel happy to be here. Here, Armenia, where I got the news that my friend had died just before going to work at a summer camp and tried really hard to reconcile these two things.
I called from camp the next morning. My friend’s voices greeted me talking from and about the list of bars I wrote about above. Everyone sounded good. They were remembering. I hung up the phone and remembered with them for a while, then I went into breakfast.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Take Me to the Movies or Post-Visegrad

I. In Armenia they begin giving final exams shortly after the official last day of classes, but unlike the US university model, these exams are slowly meted out over the course of about 5 weeks. So while the last day of classes was back in May, I’ve just returned from a month long vacation to give a final exam, which I’ll admit was slightly bewildering. Not that I had any problems, in fact everything went pretty well, despite the fact that I was slightly still in vacation mode and showed up in an un tucked shirt and jeans with holes in them, thus spoiling my dapper appearance record. Well, maybe not, but I’m sure no one appreciated the fact that I looked like I’d just cruised in off the free bread line to proctor a pedagogical exam. I can tell you they don’t have the reverence for the archetypal scruffy professor that we’ve been so indoctrinated with in the states. Quoting Walt Whitman and leading a gaggle of students off in poetic exploration wouldn’t impress anyone around here they way they make it out in Hollywood. But Hollywood isn’t really a representation of anything, fevered dreams of mad people, really.
Despite the slight hang ups of reintroducing myself to this conservative country, I’ve actually been having a good time since I’ve gotten back. Leaving the country for a while has really helped me to understand how much I like about it. Along the route between Tbilisi and Sarajevo I saw many beautiful landscapes, quite scenes carouseled past train windows: heather blowing in the twilight, shining afternoon cobblestone streets, minarets lifting eastern Turkish cities up toward the moon, and all the pastorals sung by bus engines, desperate street merchants, cicadas and river valleys alike, but, despite the grandeur that was the Western Ottoman empire at one point, I’ve returned to Armenia to find that nearly everything I enjoyed on vacation is available here to varying degrees. All the beautiful scenes of the Turkish Orient and the brigand-green hills of Bosnia have their approximations in Armenia. In the evening there’s no call to prayer, but there are the bright notes of kids playing under my kitchen window. There’re no palm trees, but all the former stumps along the main streets of Yeghegnadzor (stripped for wood in the winter) have sprouted incredible green tufts that make them resemble something from a Dr. Seuss book. There’s not quite the same sense of exploration and adventure that results from sleeping on the ground at border crossings and being in a different country with only ten dollars, but there’s still the effects of an entirely different set of mores and standards, which at times can become complicated but always feel like something different. Finally, there’s no sea, no collision of two blue horizons, nothing that could be the Pacific as seen from Ocean Beach, or the spit that comes out over the Humboldt bay. There’s nothing here that you could really cast your imagination into like the black sea, but for imagination I have the help of my friends that supply me with different ideas while encouraging my own nonsense. And or course that’s the only thing that really makes anyplace habitable: people you like. It was great to come back here and talk with these people again, other volunteers, the people who put up with my horrible Armenian in Yeghegnadzor: grocers, university faculty, the dude who loves Deep Purple down at the cultural center and all the people who even after a year don’t know what I’m doing here and stop me in the street to ask me.
So while I still find myself standing in front of the map, tracing out new routes and pinpointing new border crossing to sleep on, it’s good to be back in a place I can kinda’ understand.

I would like to have an opportunity to get to know all these great people better, though. I find my life is crowded with so many temporary positions here. For one thing I’m only a volunteer in Armenia for two years, I could extend that if I wanted, I could even stay indefinitely, but from the very beginning one always feels both the beginning and end of the two year term. From the day I arrived I knew I’d be here two years: a verifiable date two calendars ahead. Usually the stages that make up life aren’t so clearly defined. It seems this has an interesting effect on the way one chooses to interact, like an orbit, or a season, there is a goal to be found at its completion. All the other volunteers (Peace Corps, EVS and other assorted international NGOs) are also functioning in shifts. All the people one meets, all the different relations one develops, are confused by all these different lengths of time. One meets locals, with a two-year near-guarantee, other volunteers come and go. I’ve missed more going away parties here than I’ve attended in my whole life, all for people that I hardly knew, but would’ve liked to have gotten to know better.
Travelers come though, stay a few days, share their life perspective and leave a comet’s tail of e-mails off into the future, until the day when distance and time find one at the keyboard with nothing to say, meanwhile there are all kinds of new people to meet.
Walking through my first night in Yerevan with a girl from Lithuania, drinking beers and discussing past relationships with a journalist from Scotland, sitting in the candle light at my sitemate’s apartment during a power outage, eating out of Tupperware, sitting in on parties where at least 5 different languages are being spoken and within a few days people have moved on and others have come. With all these great people going back to Iran, France, Delaware or traveling on to Indonesia, I find myself occasionally wishing we could all just work in an office somewhere, just so we’d have time to get tired of each other, or fall in love or build up enough reminiscences to keep the e-mails coming for a little while longer.

One of the most troubling thing about Peace Corps service, is the constant refrain of self doubt that one feels as a volunteer, working without any kind of direct supervision. Sure we’re collectively under the auspices of a greater organization, we have people to answer to concerning our performance, but despite the bureaucracy and organization one could probably quite easily spend the entire two-year period doing the bare minimum, or even nothing at all.
The situation is further complicated by the numerous job details, the standards by which we try to gauge our performance. I mean to beg the question: what is the ideal volunteer? Should language and cultural adaptation skills be considered above all else? Do the volunteers who write the most grants deserve the laurel? Or perhaps those that try to bring their particular skill to as many people as possible?
I have just recently returned from my training village, the place where I was first introduced to Armenia a little over a year ago now. While staying with my first host family, I saw many locals who commented on my advances in Armenian. They praised my efforts, saying how great it was that we could now communicate better with one another.
I also met a group of the new volunteers, and recounted with my former site mate Jay how much we had changed from the group we were that closely resembled the new group, still stumbling on basic phrases.
But, in some cases, you never really stop stumbling. Maybe some do, but I think any volunteer would be able to describe a number of situations in which they found themselves suddenly almost completely without the acquired language skills. Almost any adverse comment leaves me faltering for the most basic words, as if I had only arrived a few days ago. I can so quickly be brought back to the level of trainee that I can’t help but to wonder what real advancement has taken place since my arrival.
These doubts are thoughts that I live with from day-to-day. As I sit in my apartment and read, or talk to friends back in the states who are undergoing life-changing events (pregnancies, marriage, etc.) or stare out my window, or dribble a basketball all afternoon at a camp I’m working at, I still wonder what I’m really doing here. I wonder what I’ve really done and if my time here has been worthwhile.
I’m sure that I have made impressions on at least a few people. But what kind of impressions? Have I done anything beyond what any other foreigner could have done given a month or two and a set up in a decent organization? Does talking to the woman who I buy produce from count for anything really? Everyone, all the supportive staff at the office would have you believe that it does. In fact almost any effort we make is usually highly praised because so many volunteers get discouraged and need some ideological reinforcement. And, at times, such reinforcement seems to come from many angles at once. All of a sudden you find yourself almost mired in people’s positive comments, but when I try to match those comments to my actual performance, well there seems to be a gap. But I can’t be sure, maybe I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. Many people would tell me that only I know the answer to that question, but it’s truly my opinion that given the disorientating nature of being a first-time worker in a foreign country, I’m no longer sure what I’m capable of, at least not yet. I know my way around well enough by now, but I couldn’t tell you if all the recreation I take is absolutely necessary in regard to my work as a volunteer or if I am just being lazy. In fact I don’t think I’ll know this answer to this question until I leave Armenia.
This self-probing monologue is probably the culmination of a number of things, but I think it’s mostly due to the fact that my friend and initial sitemate Jay, is leaving. After a year of toughing it out and doing his absolute best, myriad extenuating circumstances have forced him (nearly) to return home.
I went back to my training village recently to say goodbye to him in the most fitting place. The time worked out well too, as it was the 4th of July and the new volunteers in town were hosting a party and hatching plans that sounded a lot like ours last year.
“Hey so what’s going on after this?”
“I dunno’, should we meet up later”
“I think I’m probably just going to go home,” a comment which is greeted by at least four of the volunteers saying,
“Awww c’mon, it’s the Forth of July! We should do something.”
“Maybe we could watch a movie. Did you guys ever finish watching…”
And so on, pretty much the same conversation I remember having with my group the year before, five now remaining from the original eight of us.
So I’ve made it this far, apparently following in the footsteps of so many volunteers before me. And as I agknowledge this I wonder,
“Well then what’s the difference? What have I done that’s been unique? Have I been a good volunteer? Would it matter if I went home tomorrow?”
I can say that it would absolutely matter to me. In fact the more I think about how comfortable I’ve become here the more I worry about going back to the states. The same subject I used to fantasize about is becoming somewhat disconcerting. Not finding work, or finishing school, or basically having to return to a fixed routine, but the idea of leaving this, uncertain if I’ll ever return or not. When people leave the Peace Corps it’s quick. In fact in almost every case I never knew a certain volunteer was even leaving until they have already gone. One day someone, usually Paige in my case, who knows a lot more about what’s going on with people here than me, somehow, tells you that someone left. There is talk of a few vague rumors, a review of some memorable things this person did, some more speculation as to why they left and then that’s it. Gone. They’re already back in America by the time you here the news. Back to the old life, back to the way things were before we all met in Philadelphia about 14 months ago. Only, well, you know that most of that is all gone too. At this point we’ve all been away for a long enough time that some things are bound to have changed. Whatever we boarded a plane and took off from last year is not exactly there as we left it. And we’ve changed too, but it still only takes 18 hours or so by plane to totally reintroduce yourself to it. Just like that, back there in the JFK airport, dragging a suitcase through crowds and booming audio security warnings. Only this time your alone, and not in the company of 49 other excited people ready to take the trip with you. You’re just standing there alone after all that, wondering what home you have to return to after purposefully leaving it behind two years ago.
So what makes it worth it? When I find myself standing again in SFO, looking around in amazement, what am I going to remember? Will it have been worth it? Did I do everything I could? Or did I just sorta’ kick around until it was time to go back. Back to…? What exactly will I go back to? The whole situation is vaguely reminiscent of Nintendo games I used to pause as a kid, having made it, or so I thought, to a near-completion level, but having to go somewhere, say to my Grandma’s for a weekend. I remember hoping on the ride back home that the haphazard grey box hadn’t frozen up on me, and that I’d be able to walk into my room and unpause the ninja in mid-summersault, as though I’d never left. Inevitably, almost every time I would return to a gray and orange flashing screen or something, any trace of my advancement being wiped completely clean.
I know that I can’t walk directly into the life I paused before leaving, but I hope that something I’ve done here will make the lost game seem like a necessary sacrifice.
People have told me I’m doing a good job, but I question the value of this statement so often, as I seem to frequently find myself holed up somewhere reading a book, not really paying attention to what’s going on around me. Can someone who escapes into books and movies and long meandering walks so often really be such a good volunteer?
But things are going well. I guess it’s just important to remember that sometimes advancement is imperceptible here, not to be felt or noticed until long after one has left and is hastily throwing a scrapbook of Peace Corp photos onto a bookshelf in a recently rented apartment somewhere that betokens the beginning of an entirely new stage of life. Perhaps only then will I be able to see what my volunteerism meant and whether or not I was truly a decent volunteer or just someone who bummed around Armenia for two years.
The camp has been going well. I’ve been having a good time messing around with all the other councilors, playing team-building games in the evening and eating scant breakfasts in the morning: typical camp stuff. I had to take off a few days from the camp training to go back up to the training village to see Jay and my host family. The journey, though somewhat arduous was actually a welcome break from hanging around the same building for the last four days, listening to everyone speak in Russian.
Unfortunately I was not able to interact with the new volunteers as much I had hoped. For one thing, it was hard not to feel somewhat pretentious talking to them, as I wanted so badly to tell them how training had gone for me in that village and what to expect, but didn’t want to start pontificating unless they asked me for it, and no one did, except the volunteer staying with my host family, and I didn’t get much of a chance to talk with him, seems like a nice guy though.
Most of my time was taken up strolling around the village with Jay, reminiscing, talking about his decision to leave, what he was going to do when he got back and how things had been going for us. Of course this dialogue was subject to numerous interruptions from the local young men who seemed to be out in droves that particular evening. Some of them welcomed us, and were quite happy that we, having now been in Armenia for a year, were able to communicate with them better than the new group of volunteers. Some of the groups were actually quite warm and receptive, were others were just as crass as I remembered them being last year, but we expected this from the onset, and nevertheless still had a good time walking around the dusty streets that we had shared over a year ago.
Essentially, I spent the entire time talking with Jay. At times people joined in our conversation; my host Dad; the new volunteer Danny, staying with my family; Jay’s host family, who had decided not to host another volunteer. It was both great and sorrowful to sit with him on his host family’s porch, as we had done so many times in the past, knowing that this would be the last time we would look off into the distant fields and swap typical volunteer complaints. This is what started me thinking about the whole “what is a good volunteer thing” as, essentially Jay’s volunteer experience was ending right there, while my host family talking about the improvement in my language skills and how they were excited to listen to me after another year of being here, we listened to Jay speak Armenian, knowing that was as far as he’d go, that for him the experience was over. Only for me the experience was different, in that this time I was privy to his leaving before he actually left, unlike all the other volunteers from our group who have taken off. Jay wasn’t to be just a name and a few anecdotes, already living back in the states, but someone who was still in Armenia, still living as though he had another year left, speaking Armenian and complaining about his landlord, despite the fact that within a week or so all of this will just be a memory for him, and I can already hear other volunteers, further off talking,
“Did you hear Jay left?”
“Really, when?”
“Like last week, he’s already back in the states.”
“Wow, just like that.”

Monday, May 18, 2009

Rainbow Through a Battered Window or La Turista nella Verde

I was talking with a friend of mine a while ago who asked me why I hadn’t written any thing on this thing in a while. Other than “because no one reads it besides you” I really couldn’t think of a sufficient answer. That was over a month ago and I still haven’t even attempted to organize my thoughts into anything coherent just in case anyone is reading this thing from time to time. It’s odd, I guess, this business of writing blogs, where you sorta’ pour yourself out to an audience that you can be entirely sure of. I like to the experience of talking on the phone when you’re not sure if the other person is still on the line, which happens a lot here. When calling the states there’s a short relay period, so every point of call and response is given a neat set of ellipses, this also cuts the sound on the other line too, so it always takes a few seconds to be assured you’ve still got someone on the line. This used to bother me, but I’ve gotten used to it and am as inclined as I ever was to drone on endlessly, assured that who ever I am talking with is still there. A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend of mine, telling a characteristic long-winded story when I suddenly realized I hadn’t heard any kind of assent or phatic confirmation in a while. Sure enough the line was dead and I had been talking to myself, in my kitchen for at least 7 minutes.
Writing things and pasting them on the abysmal internet is something like the experience of talking on the phone when you’re not sure if the connection’s been dropped. In order to keep the conversation fluid you continue but, every so often, you have to pause and wonder if you’re talking to yourself. It’s like the moment when you realized you haven’t heard any kind of response in a while.
Now, I’m not writing all this as an exercise in self-pity. Really, I realized a while ago that, although I usually write with an audience in mind, I’m always writing for myself. I write long e-mails and letters because they feel therapeutic, when there’s no one to talk to it’s nice to confide in an empty room. To some extent everyone does this, I guess we all just have different mediums for it. It helps to understand a situation if you can turn it over in your mind through some physical activity.
I haven’t written anything in a while because I guess I’ve found enough people who are willing to listen to my attempts to understand things in tête-à-tête conversation. Lately, I’ve spent a hell of a lot of time mulling over my thoughts with various people in earshot. I was inclined to write more when I didn’t have this outlet, now that I do I guess I tend to use up most of my stories around them.
Another important factor, that I just considered is that of familiarity. Initially, I found this place interesting to write about because something new was constantly happening to me, something I wanted to write down before I forgot it. To this day interesting things continue to happen around here, but, I guess, they’ve become commonplace to me. Making a half-cooked vegan cake with my student and her mother that turned out to look like an illustration of pathos, while the birds chirped in the blooming trees outside in the growing twilight or discussing the geography of Damascus with a kid from Syria over a few Armenian beers or wandering the streets at night with a few stray dogs in tow and explaining to the local police why I was out at 1 am nosing thorough the trash, have just become normal enough events that I don’t come home and feel like to recounting them.
But, like I said, we, or at least, I, write because I like to examine certain feelings and occasions through some kind of concrete expression. A few minutes ago, I wasn’t too sure why I hadn’t written anything, having just written about it, I now have a better idea why that is. It would seem the process is still working.
In about a month, I’m going to cut out for a while, after having been here for a year I’m going to take a trip west to Bosnia, or possibly Croatia. As you can imagine I’m immensely looking forward to this opportunity. I’m glad that I’ve hung around in one place as long as I have now, but I think in order to find the impetus to work for another year, I’m going to have to get on and off a few buses and see a few palm trees, like those stocky ones, all bunched up down Guerro, or those lanky things that you can see from the BART, growing in people’s backyards in the East Bay, tangled up in a landscape of telephone wires and liquor store signs.


I went down to Goris a few days ago to visit a friend of mine on his birthday and to observe a poetry competition he was putting on. As usual, when I look back upon the overall experience, which only occupied the space of about two days; I see how the journey, both to and from southern Armenia, was the most memorable aspect of the trip.
My friend Paige and I had reservations for a marshutka (van taxi, overcrowded airport shuttle bus with no suspension, no heat in the winter and no windows to roll down in the summer) that was coming down from Yerevan. As all transportation here is routed through the capital it’s really hard to get a ride starting from any other point, there’s no official stops anywhere and the only solution is to try to flag down a passing marshutka that’s heading in your direction. They are, however, almost always full and remarkably unconcerned to your plight as a rain-sodden pedestrian trying to get a ride.
The best way to avoid this scenario is to get to know some of the marshutka drivers, call them, and ask them to hold a seat for you when they leave Yerevan, I’ve never bothered to do this, but luckily I’ve got some friends here who are a little more forward thinking than me.

I was hanging around my apartment, thinking about mailing a letter. The phone rang and the driver told me I had about ½ hour before he arrived, enough time for a few more songs, a few more absent looks out my kitchen window, the rest of the coffee and the post office (if there’s anybody there.)
A half an hour later, my letter mailed, I took my wayward place along the highway, standing at the end of a row of people waiting for their respective rides. The day was overcast so I decided to put my headphones on; the birds weren’t singing much and I got tired of listening to the roar of Iranian oil trucks barreling down the road.
About 20 minutes went by when I noticed a foreign couple getting out of a marshutka that had stopped about 50 feet ahead of me. Here, especially outside the capital, foreigners are especially easy to pick out, usually because the often have backpacks, which Armenians never wear, or they have light Northface jackets, which are about as tell tale as the fanny packs and Hawaiian shirts of yesteryear. After they got their stuff together they began talking with their driver. I could see there was some confusion so I headed over to see if I could help.

Now, since I’ve been here I’ve probably only seen a handful of tourists come through. There are almost none in the winter, except for the occasional round-the-world-on-a-bike type, and in the summer most people don’t make it too far from the capital. But the few groups of people who have come this far have been a great solace to me. For one thing, it’s great to be able help these people out, as many of them know no Armenian and little Russian. Plus, you get to hear all their stories about their experience in Armenia, not to mention whatever other countries they’ve visited. In this way, I’ve gotten a good deal of information on Iran without having ever been there. I’ve made some friends this way too, but unfortunately, friends that are very difficult to keep up with, as they often leave after a day or two for places too far to visit. But the best thing about meeting tourists is the realization that it brings about my own position in this country. The contrast between their level of interaction and my own helps me to realize how far I’ve come in terms of cultural integration. I’ve become a local foreigner, as opposed to the visiting foreigners and through this distinction I am able to see what I have gained from being a long term volunteer, even if my community relations are somewhat tenuous, I am at least reminded that they exist when strolling around town with someone who is traveling the world. For that I am able to see the benefits to staying in one place to formulate a better understanding of the culture, rather than trying to glut up as much traveling experience as possible (which I often want to do). Of course it also makes me wonder where the hell the balance is between sedentary and itinerant lifestyles. I don’t know if there’s any place I’d want to stay in forever, but, at the same time, its hard to really touch anything unless you stop moving for a while.
The tourists were looking for a local hotel. I don’t know where the got the name of the place they were looking for, but it either never existed, or existed only for a very short time, or possibly was the self-styled, elaborate name of someone’s homestay. I mentioned that we only had one crumbling, soviet monolith hotel in the middle of town, and given the price, was probably their best option, not to mention their only option. I’ll never know if they found it though, because I was trying to explain where it was my own ride pulled up and the driver didn’t seem to willing to wait for me to give clearer directions. Shame, they seemed like really nice people and I would’ve liked to hear more about their travels.
I crammed myself in between two guys and a frayed nylon bag that was taking up the entire aisle, realizing there wasn’t going to be enough room for me to take out a book comfortably. After a few minutes my seat companion began to ask me the usual questions about where I came from and such.
Perhaps it’s an indication of my weak Armenian, but I love getting these questions, mainly because I can answer them with alacrity, rather than stumbling through a bunch of obtuse phrases. I also feel comfortable enough with mundane topics to attempt a joke or something here and there, which makes the experience seem so much more authentic. Not like I’m just blundering my way through something but as if I actually had something to say.
We pulled into Vyke and Paige got on. As she’s a little more adept at talking to people she took over most of the conversation and I happily gazed out the window, watching the surprisingly green scenery pass by.
It was one of those occasions when you feel genuinely happy, though it’s hard to say why. Perhaps there was the element of doing something new, going to a different place and going to meet different people, or maybe it was just the weather, which was cold and rainy for most of the early spring and is only now beginning to look appropriately decadent. Either way, as I conversed intermittently between Paige and the guy sitting next to her, I felt a great lump of happiness in my chest. The kind of feeling that makes you want to laugh after everything you say, just to punctuate everything with a little bit of mirth.

On the way back from Goris I wasn’t feeling quite the same way. The weekend was over and everyone had gone much earlier in the day. I stayed behind to attend the poetry competition and missed the last marshutka running back to Yerevan. I was going to wait until the next morning to leave, but it seemed there was no way to make it back in time for my first class. The only other option was to catch a solo taxi ride, which is an incredibly expensive option. Rather than miss my classes I found myself riding back with a young man who spoke a heavily accented Armenian. I wasn’t very excited about the idea from the beginning, but seeing no other option I stayed in the car.
Our conversation never got very far. I was able to understand most of what he said, but I could never seem to think of an interesting response to anything. For most of the ride I just stared out the window. It felt rude to read, and I didn’t feel much like it anyway. The road in that part of the country goes through some pretty beautiful mountain passes and I decided to take the opportunity of not being balled up in a marshutka to actually get a good look at some of it.
The driver and I talked a little about the weather and the beauty of the scenery, but most of the time we just listened to the arrhythmic pop music he had playing. The car smelled like BO and I couldn’t tell if it was coming from him or me. I wonder if he was thinking the same thing. We passed nondescript towns and villages that he pointed out to me, saying their names and nothing else, as if they might mean something to me.
Not quite half-way we stopped to get some gas and, as tradition and probably safety demands, I got out of the car while he filled the benzene tanks. I walked over to the waiting area where a few other passengers stood and watched the rain that was beginning to drizzle off the roof overhang above us. The area that we were waiting in didn’t have doors, just gaps between the low concrete wall to let people in. A woman was cleaning the tile inside the shelter and this little dog kept infuriating her by continually slinking back in when she wasn’t looking and getting paw prints all over her floor. She was probably enjoying the extra work through, I doubt she had had much to do all day in a place like that. But you could tell the dog was confused, every time she swore at him and raised her mop he seemed to think she was calling him over, and began to cautiously approach her, getting the floor even dirtier. It was pretty comical for a while, but I felt bad for the dog so I pulled a half eaten sandwich outta’ the trash and called him away from the cleaning lady to give it to him.
Behind the building I noticed the first perfect rainbow I’d ever seen in my life. I wish I coulda’ seen it the day before when I was in a better frame of mind, but I guess you don’t really get to chose when you’re gonna’ see stuff like that, unless you live in Hawaii; I have the impression that place is more rainbows than land for some reason.
Back in the car, with the pop music and BO I couldn’t remember the Armenian word for rainbow [tseat-tsan] so I didn’t say anything about it; even if we had turned around I don’t know if we could’ve seen it. The rain had ended pretty quick.
A few miles down the road the driver asked how old I was. I told him, and he told me he was a year younger than me. I didn’t know how to respond to that, as when I first spoke to the guy I wasn’t sure whether to address in the formal or not. I was sure he must’ve been a few years older than me, at least, though I was not really consciously thinking about this. I only realized it after he said how old he was. Inevitably, I began to wonder if I looked as old and, to some degree, tired as he did, and as we drove on the rain clouds entirely lifted and in the grass around the mountain villages glowed an incandescent green, like algae, or that bright moss that grows on everything in the pacific northwest.
When I got home I invited the driver in for coffee. He told me he had to get back, but that he’d take me up on the offer the next time he drove me back. I wanted to tell him that it was far too expensive and that I’d make sure I never missed the last martshutka again when in Goris, although I had enjoyed the ride with him, but instead of trying to manage all that in Armenian, I just agreed and told him that sounded good, giving the customary wave one gives to an acquaintance, feeling somewhat awkward, standing back on my own street.

Today was the last day of classes for the week and next week will be the last week of the semester. It’s already been an entire year of classes. I can remember sitting on my 2nd host family’s porch sometime back in September or October, probably at the peak of my disenfranchisement, and thinking how great it would be if Peace Corps only lasted a year, that a year would be so much more manageable in terms of comprehension than 27 months, a total amount of time that just seemed reckless at the time, like an arbitrary sentence for an uncertain crime. I remember sitting up there, as I did every single night, watching the lights of the town drop off and the lights in the sky brighten, smoking and thinking how after 5 months I had still only just arrived. I still knew very little about the place I lived, I still hadn’t done much in the way of work, I still had a long way to go before I came to resemble a respectable Peace Corps volunteer. Of course, to this day I probably haven’t done much to deserve that title, but I no longer feel like someone who’s been dropped into something they don’t understand. I feel capable of understanding things well enough, although I occasionally lament that it seems I rarely have anything to say. I feel more like a part of where I am today, but it’s still a distant, and even slightly off-kilter part.
I still think back to that balcony quite frequently; all the time I spent out there reading, pondering and wondering what the hell I was going to do in Armenia. I remember exactly what it felt like in October, with the diner-plate moon coming up over the mountains, like something perfect to hide under and forget all the pressures of the day. I was always in someone else’s way, or at least in their space back then, before I had my own apartment to go to and I used that porch as an escape; a place to go to listen to my headphones and quietly mouth the words. I also used to sit up there and think about what it would be like now, when the school year ended and summer came again. Unfortunately I don’t really remember what I thought about it, only that I thought about it. Maybe it was some kind of goal of mine, to stay here for at least a year, maybe it was just interesting to consider what such an anniversary would be like. But since I don’t remember exactly what these thoughts were the only thing they succeeded in doing was connecting the present with the past, in a way that makes me wonder where all the time between the two occasions went. Also, now that the length of my time here really only is a year, as I used to consider, I find that it doesn’t necessarily make it feel more manageable.

Tomorrow is my last day of school, which ever since I was a kindergarten student, has been my favorite day of the year. No matter what my plans for the summer are, the end of the school has always felt like something monumentous. It also feels like it always comes just in time. I guess it’s the expectation. Kinda’ reminds me of the feeling of having to go to the bathroom and how it increases when you’re trying to get your apartment door open, even if you’ve been enduring it for hours, right before that door opens it seems unbearable. Also, the door always seems more difficult to open in these cases. Luckily, I’ve had a lot to do lately so the time has been dragging by too slowly. The nights away from work are, however, somewhat drawn out by my endless vacation planning, not really even planning but fantasizing. I lie on my couch thinking about riding on a train, hearing different languages, in the company of my friends, opening warm beers and drinking from them as the wind rushes in through the cracks of the old soviet manufactured couches and the dim lights blink on and off. Waking the next morning to the window’s filmy light, looking out on places I’ve never seen before, people I’ve never met.
It’s horrible though, in a few days I will have been here exactly a year and I can’t seem to drum up any valid reflective notes. Sometimes I almost feel like I forgot how it was when I came here. Lately I think of where I was at this time last year back in the states. Driving across the country with my friend Mikey. I think tonight we would have been in Minneapolis. But back then I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I still don’t, but it’s hard to compare that vacant expectation with anything that I now know here. Now Armenia is a very concrete place, with a distinct character that I’ll probably never be able to forget. That’s something I didn’t really expect from the Peace Corps, I guess I didn’t expect that I would be remembering these things forever. I can’t definitely say that I will, but some of these occasions burn pretty bright, effulgently even.
The most interesting thing is the obvious comparison I have to my trip out here last year and my up-coming vacation this year. Except this time I’m sure as hell not anticipating going into any intense training sessions, just one long dive of the peer of the Yerevan train station.
Your hand in mine, a ringing bell, the sea, jump.