Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Last Day of February Was a Sunday or Last Sunday Was in February.

You have to remember that I have no spellcheck anymore.


One thing that's going to be hard to return to (because I have begun to contemplate that) is the notion that doing menial tasks will no longer be an important and valuable part of my day, not because I have gotten lazy and want to occupy myself with such things, indeed, doing housework is quite antithetical in the routine of a lazy person, rather, I have acclimated myself to living in a place where doing the dishes and sweeping the floors are tasks as necessary as writing papers and studying the cantankerous words of aging scholars late into the night.
When my landlady first came to visit me more than a year ago, she was extremely put off by the state that she found her apartment in, not because any irreprable damage had been done, but rather because dust was accumulating here and there and my blankets were all in a tussle and "why, those books are simply haphazardly thrown on that end table!" When I returned home after a long day of teaching classes I was appalled by this woman's list of complaints that seemd to me as more of an attack on my very way of life than anything that was egregious for her apartment. I laughed aloud at a few of her comments. "Books not straightened" this seemed like lunacy to me, after all who was this woman to infringe upon my right to have my books floating in the toilet, if I should chose to keep them there.
I barely escaped being booted out by promising total reform. I swept and dusted and polished for days on end, even inviting two female consultants to view the results (and alternately help me) so that I couldn't miss anything. Interestingly the woman never came back again, but I think her intended effect stuck as ever since that incomprehensible phone call (the only distinct words being "deh gana" [essentially 'get out']) I have been ruling over this small apartment with a broom for a septre and a smock for my rainment.
At least twice a week I sweep this place out. The dishes are done shortly after they are dirtied, the ashtray is emptied with OCD-like regularity and though my books are still disheveled, they are free of dust. I have come to view these menial tasks, or what I thought of as menial tasks before coming here, as absolutely essential. A number of things led to this seachange in housekeeping habits. The obvious was fear of being kicked out and having to live in the sterile student dorms (I have prided myself on never having lived in such a place, even in that endurance test of freshman year), but I also came to accept the necessity of keeping a clean apartment through other social pressures. As a clean apartment is expected here, even amongst single men (though a man living alone is an incredibly uncommon thing here) apartments and indeed everything else is expected to be clean. One's clothes, shoes, car and apartment all reflect one's self respect. Here, anything dirty or unkempt is a remark of one's inability to keep it clean, usually through lack of money to do so. As such, this is to be avoided at all costs. Initially, I naturally rebelled against this. I went through the immense social pressures of high school without ever caving and saw this as only being another test of my sense of individuality. But as time went by, and I became somewhat desperate to be accpeted I began to clean the dried mud off my shoes even when I was going out into muddy streets; I began to brush the chalk dust off my clothes because I got tired of my students constantly mentioning it as though I were covered in anthrax; I began to clean my apartment even when it did not look very dirty. I began to have more resect for my European and Armenian guests because I knew I could count on them to take their shoes off at the door rather than lounging on my couch with some tattered Reeboks smearing mud on the armrest.
In only a few short months what had once been normal became almost reprehensible to me and I found myself picking up the broom and doing a once-over when I was talking on the phone or waiting for the water to come to a boil in the kitchen. As time has gone by I realize that I have become fairly accustomed to spending nearly half my day keeping this one room apartment clean in one manner or another. With only about 5 months left here I can't help but to wonder what it will be like to return to a place where I will be expected to lay aside all other cares to persue my studies. How will I be able to keep a clean apartment, especially living in a cooperative setting, when I've got 6 hours of paper writing to do every day? The question I ask myself is will I be able to revert back to not caring if anyone takes their shoes off in my house? Will I be capible of keeping my shoes on in my own house? Will I spend hours of time that I won't have cleaning the kitchen?
I'm not really too worried about this, especially as I often find myself wishing I had something to do other than wipe off the table for the 4th time in one day, but I can't help but to wonder what reforms I will bring back with me. There is no question that being here has changed some things about me, most of them still dorment, perfectly acceptable now, but waiting for an opportunity to present themselves in the states and render me a weirdo of some kind. I am interested to see how much personality I have adopted from this place. What is immutable and what shifts with one's changing environment? Only time and the reemergence of vacuum cleaners into my life will tell.

I look around my apartment at 8, 9 in the morning and think how far I've come. How different everything looks than it did twenty-two months ago, when I pulled my luggage off a quiet convyor belt and nestled into a 3 am marshrutka seat, filing out past the Yerevan suburbs, dark and fenced and worn. I wake up to my apartment and think of my schedule, who I have to see, what needs to be done for tomorrow. I try to remember dreams, but I seldom do, there's just a feeling of being emotionally spent, as if while dreaming I am nightly running emotional gamuts that I cannot recall in the morning.
At night, I sit in my kitchen, watching the lights flicker under the moonstone snows of the mountains just past the pastures on the edge of town, where I have walked so many times and never returned with clean shoes. I go out, when there is no moon, no stars and its hard to see the streets and the open manholes. I walk the backlanes of the town and remember that here, last spring, there was a bright and beautiful lilac bush. I remember the morning frost that fillagreed my path when the first autumn came and I was living higher up on the hill. I remember the streets and the roads as they looked through all the other seasons. The mud: dark orchre, mixed with sheep manure, cigarette butts, that tepid reddish standing water that accumulates outside areas where there seem to be too many chickens living. The snow: sometimes hard, frozen into the tiretracks produced by a thaw, reticulate windows of ice framed in the iron-hard dirt, some broken. The first snow, the second snow, the last snow: lilies, white danelion froth, eraser shavings on a test-time paper, the pleasant screen of slightly opaque breath before one. The bloom: 3 weeks of green on the perpetually brown, rocky hillsides, a bright and startling spring, the calendar days to which guidebooks show focus all their attention. Summer: dry rippling sun, the mirage waves of a fan heater, the roads empty in the afternoons, the university shuttered, unfamiliar and cool in its closed marble and tufa hallways, quietly seething in dust.
In every walk I confront parts of these things. In my apartment I go to sleep in the same position that I resume when I wake up. Somedays I drink coffee all day long and an hour of reading on the couch still carries me off to the restive slumber of fugitive dreams.
The buildings are flawed, but familair and wonderful. There's a broken house plant pot in the stairwell, dirt tumbling from the place where the plastic has broken. In Vyke, there's a house that's been covered with flat rocks, like the kind that could be flung delicately off waves, in a houndstooth pattern. Where so many perfect skipping rocks came from in a country with no oceans or seas, I'll never know. At a wedding, I saw an entire house converted into a banquet hall. "I love you" on a carpet, hung on a wall, written with pulled cotton. I never heard the bride say a word, although I was there most of the night, smoking cigarettes and nodding, clicking glasses and shouting "Oh-pa!" for no reason.
The glass is faintly flawed by ripples. Looking out onto the cemetary, occasionally the lights of decending cars drift too high up into the corners of the room and suddenly depart, rolling out over the dapples and waves in the imperfect window.
I sweep the floor again and light a cigarette. For a moment I think of Marquette, MI (red-brick downtown, simple bay); Blue Lake, CA (afternoon barroom television very loud and undiscernable through the dust and sun light, my last night in Arcata, drinking an evening, no, a twilight beer here with Mikey) Taco Bells in Missula, MT and Bismark, ND (sodium arc lights everywhere); Tbilisi, Sakartvelo (a palm tree covered in snow); Argentina (not Buenos Aires); Trieste, Italia (like a Venezia with fields that connect it to the land and Sarajevo out there somewhere, statues of Joyce) Samakand (an opium-induced dream of Victorian England); and Mexico with a worn flannel and better shoes than these, drinking Tamarind and smoking a cigarette, Spanish, writing Spanish, speaking it slowly as I walk from place to place, beard either totally neglected and tangled or shaved off a few days prior, red and stubbly. I return to my apartment, to the memories of the first Armenian house I entered, summer kitchen, without a word in my mouth hoping we'd eat soon. A whole summer, not really working, not really studying, not really vacationing. Learning how to say things and then forgetting them, packing a language amalgam into the cavities of my teeth. All the phone calls that have sputtered out over the Atlantic.
There are two and a half month left of the semester. Two months of summer. It took so long to introduce myself, it should take as long to say goodbye. Taking the dry and gnarled hands of shepards, the smell of sheep that I never knew before, but will never forget. Every incidental meeting where I promised to return. I should return to all those places and thank all these people and then go. Try to get a commital goodbye in before it's too late. Not leave quietly in the morning like the volunteers last year. A bright July morning, a few boxes picked up, placed on the plush seats when the trunk was full and, well, here's a hug, have fun back in the states. Two weeks later the empty apartment had computers in it. Even today, I remember it and I don't: the plastic cups, the linoleum floors, America taped all over the walls.
In the end I want to know what all these bucket-flush toilets and bucket baths came down to, all the times I answered the door and the few times I didn't, responding to every insistent bang with a muted sigh from the kitchen where I had just finished cooking my dinner. What did these things amount to? Have I come into something new? Did one of those long walks down by the river change something? Did that dog who bit me last Spring really infect me with something? Have I become mountainous? Are my phone calls more insistent now?
I go out into the grey morning to visit a potential pupil at his father's behest. I don't want to go. I've got enough to do and little time to do it. I cannot teach this kid very much through the medium of my own ebbing and falling apathy, especially not in two and a half months. Still, I make my way through the dispelled myth of Sunday morning to his house.
A white Lada 4x4, a dog in a small fenced-in enclosure barking madly, a cold stone foyer, where I take my shoes off, the walls inside are covered with carpet, as I now imagine they are everywhere. I felt unable to start this again. I asked about 'Y' and it was 'U' [Russian] I asked about 'I' and it was 'E' [addmitedly the sound it usually makes, especially in trasliteration]. I mentioned a few basics of sentence building, describing the arc of the basic English sentence and the sine qua non of the present simple tense. I said study your books. I said I'll come back and check and made a move to find my coat.
When I don't feel much like talking I seem to be better at speaking Armenian. Everything rolled out with practiced ease, which allowed me to point out the importance of actualy speaking the language one is trying to learn. We set up future dates, or tried to, over coffee, the ubiqutous demitasse cup, coffee silt at the bottom, chocolates and fruit: the social engagement laid out to perfection, an ingratiation that I know I will miss when I leave.
I told a painter last night that one of his landscapes will be the Armenia that I remember after I leave, and although I wasn't lying, I realize that the Armenia I will remember will be "confetov ker" [have your coffee with candy, in the imparative] and all the other things that I can't even respond to any more. The things I will mutter to myself in lonely America and smile.
The life of a 20-something American is full of big decisions. Graduate school, moves across the country, engagements, moves to different countries and careers are set and begun in weeks. Life moves quickly so that it may find a course to settle in and flow evenly onward. Here I have feigned at making such decisions. I spoke about going home over a year ago when I knew I wouldn't. I've planned and replanned the trip I will take when I am finished here. I've read books on Ireland and Italy and India and considered moving to all these places. But at the end of every day, I find myself watching the stars from my kitchen window, a modest dinner simmering behind me, knowing that I'm making personal history by just staying in the same place for so long, but having absolutely no idea about the end result of all these thoughts about frozen mud roads, carpeted walls, marshrutkas, how the number '3' looks like the letters 'Y,' 'Z' and 'V' in three different alphabets and the familiar feeling of drinking coffee in someone else's slippers.
How can I possibly share these things with you?
Start by curiously taking one thing out and you end up with a mess.