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.”

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