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.”