Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pulling Down the Bill of a Baseball Hat or Sometime Every Spring

I have had many unsuccessful attempts to write an update. I'm caught somewhere between liking what I wrote last too much and not really having anything new to add. I articulated my feelings of conflict between past and present, here and there well enough last time that I don't feel much more need to go back into it, but, for some reason, every night I sit down and grapple again with the slippery topic of finishing Peace Corps service, or at least the impending feeling of finishing Peace Corps service, despite the fact that it's still something like 4 months away, by no means an indifferent, unimportant amount of time, but considering the length of time we've already been here and the fact that the summers are usually pretty carefree, it's hard not to just pull off the last two months of that and say there's only two months left, only about a month and a half when you count the end of the semester at May 17th. Like I think I mentioned before the weather also plays into this. As it gets warmer outside it becomes summer in my mind and I begin to think about how, before the summer is over, I will be leaving this country, with no real clear destination apart from a trip, by bus and rail, to Kyrgyzstan, which puts me pretty much in the exact middle of nowhere, finishing two years in Armenia and finding myself in a yurt outside Bishkek.
This burgeoning idea has begun to drift into my dreams. Although during the day I feel perfectly content, my nights have begun to be mottled with restlessness. I dream and wake, talking or gasping, and when I fall asleep again I resume the same dream. For months, perhaps even nearly an entire year, my dreams have been nebulous and elusive, fading from description the moment I wake up, but lately, they've stuck fast to my , waking mind, gumming up my reality late at night when the town is totally quiet and my single room apartment almost seems stifling with the air of the dream that just expired there.
I woke up about 3:50 last night trying to talk to someone across the room from me, standing in a back-lit door frame so that all I could see in the darkness was an outline. I was calling to this figure and woke with the inarticulate sounds I had apparently been producing to get this figures attention, somewhere between a moan and a grunt. I've always found it disconcerting to wake up to the sound of your own voice, still numbed with sleep, almost as if a dream persona had actually been able to break a few words (or grunts at least) into your waking world, with you as a mouth piece. When I fell asleep again I was arguing for my sanity. A number of things had happened in my dream that led those around me to declare me insane. Naturally, no one believed my defense, except a cousin of mine that, though now probably about 16, appeared the last way I remember seeing her, years ago when she was about eight or nine; a quiet, shy girl with very light blonde hair. In the dream I had such an incredible sense of love for her because she alone believed me.
Perhaps the symbolism here is not so clear but when I woke up this morning it was clear to me that I had been dreaming about coming back to America after living in a different reality for so long. My insanity was the means of living that I have adopted here and all the socio-cultural aspects that influence it, for example language, and standard of living. It seems curious that I should feel worried about this in my dreams, as I have never really concerned myself with it in waking life. Of course I assume that it will be difficult to communicate so much to the people back home, and that, for propriety's sake, I'll probably have to cease trying to explain after 20 or 30 minutes to most people, as it's probable that most of them won't really care. The language too will have to go. I know that people don't like to hear a language that they don't understand for anything more than a minute or two just to hear how it sounds. If, say after a few beers, I were to switch into Armenian for my sole amusement, I would surely only be harassing those around me. But I have prepared myself, or thought myself prepared for all these pitfalls, so why the daunting dreams? Why am I outside of things so often looking in when I am asleep? It only makes me think that perhaps I have been even more affected by the last 22 months than I had previously thought.
Perhaps the dreams are resulting from the, somewhat coincidental, string of American situations I seem to continually be finding myself in as of late.
A few months ago a guy by the name of Oscar opened up a Mexican restaurant in Yerevan, the capital. When I noticed the sign above the place before it opened, I didn't think to get my hopes up. Usually restaurants in the capital are expensive and too hung up on posh decor and service to really be fun for me. Every time I would chance it and tried out another Thai or Indian place, I would also find myself feeling very uncomfortable at the prospect of having to act like a rich person while I dined there. Apart from hotdog stands there are very few casual-type restaurants in Yerevan, people don't go out to eat much so when they do it's extravagance all the way. Even the summer outdoor cafes are outfitted with plush chairs, almost Laz-e-boy like and 4-dollar coffees, instant but served in a tall glass, not to mention they'll surely come by and replace the ashtray after every extinguished cigarette, bearing the old one away with all the dignity someone engaged in a very important task.
I stopped even suggesting that we go out to eat in Yerevan probably almost an entire year ago, there just didn't seem to be any point in it. It was a little too pricey for the volunteer budget, even when we only did it once every three months or so, and just wasn't really any fun. So, when a new Mexican place was set to open I didn't find myself very excited. I imagined just another knock-off of the good places outside of Phoenix and Baker, California, only the circumstance would be reversed, where before the food was great and the atmosphere dingy, in Yerevan the atmosphere would be immaculate but the food would make you wonder if any of the staff had ever even seen real Mexican food, let alone eaten it.
Luckily, I was completely wrong, the owner, turned out to be from San Diego, and the ambiance of the place is much like the taqerias I remember from Ukaiah to Oxnard. In short, (and to finally get on with my point) sitting in the place, with a company of other English speakers, laughing, vaguely aware that the night is waining on outside the window while peeling the aluminum back from a second burrito can give the immediate illusion of being back in the states.
The last time I was there we sat in the patio dining room, eating and talking and smoking for at least two hours, all the while I was somewhat aware, that for perhaps the first time since I had come to Armenia, I felt like I was in America. I kept having flashes of the realization, the food, the music and the jokes, the city outside, all combined to crystallizations of San Francisco. I would've attributed this solely to the new restaurant and it's ingenious proprietor, if, again later in the night, celebration the Iranian holiday of Chahar Shanbe Soori I hadn't suddenly found myself feeling the same way, holding a beer, listening to the pop of fireworks and staring up at a light-polluted night sky, latticed with the shadows of overhanging amusement park rides, great twisted tracks set darker against the mauve sky and the occasional bright gaudy relief of some kind of roller coaster maidenhead, the snot-green face of a caterpillar that heads the car that's supposed to look like a sectioned caterpillar's body zooming by, the lights from the concession stands, the clanging noise of cash registers, all of it combined to make an Iranian holiday feel like a teenage night at the fair in Springfield, Illinois.
It wasn't only that night. It seems that ever since that time this feeling keeps periodically washing over me. As time goes by I seem to be continually finding scraps of what I remember of America here and there. Yesterday, I played basketball with Paige and Elliot, and before going back home, sat under the late afternoon sun in on Paige's roof, sipping beer out of a jam jar and feeling the kind of contentment that I remember feeling after a Saturday afternoon, spent with my friends after skateboarding across town when I was 16, or taking a bus out to Ocean Beach when I was 23. The kind of late afternoon feeling that required no advance plans for the evening. There's nothing planned and somehow it's better that way. I ended up going home, but thinking about that afternoon for the rest of the night between pages of a book about Afghanistan I was finishing. It seemed that while we played basketball on that outdoor court, with a group of school kids watching us that the three of us had become a moving, living piece of America. We were no longer just a rag-tag group of foreigners, playing some weird foreign game, but actually people from an identifiable place and time, there in the middle of Vyke Armenia. For a very long time I felt uncomfortable doing things that singled us out as American; I did all I could to try to fit in and I think Paige and Elliot did the same. When we walked through town together we talked in quiet voices. When we went into stores the volume of our voices went up when we began to speak in Armenian with the shopkeepers, and we hid our American qualities behind the doors of our houses and felt slightly guilty for watching movies and missing things like city bus schedules and bike rides with friends. But all this time here has changed that. I no longer worry about seeming culturally inappropriate because I know that part of the reason I came here was to share my culture while learning of another one, not to totally try to blend in.
I'm finding America more easily now here perhaps because I've finally begun to feel totally comfortable here. The jeers of young men on the corner don't really bother me the way they used to, and the stares of people who I haven't met don't really cut through me anymore. It's just part of being here. For nearly my entire first year here I secretly longed for the comforts of home, the lack of certain amenities and kinds of food did not make Armenia less interesting, but made it hard to love as I had loved San Francisco and Chicago in the past. But after all this time I've finally discovered that my sense of what is comfortable is totally relative. Good Mexican restaurants and cheap, second-run movie theaters are great, but they don't necessarily define whether a place is livable or not. I know this all might sound really obvious, but for me it wasn't. I came to the Peace Corps to see something different and be challenged by it, so that's what I got, but this perception made it hard for me to let go of the things I loved about being in the states. Armenia was interesting for being Armenia, but it would never have Friday evening kickball games for 20-somethings followed by dinners in pho restaurants where The Pixes would be played on the overhead. I put a lot of stock in these things before because I had assumed that they were my ideal way to have fun, my culturally specific way, and therefore that best suited to me, of enjoying my free time, but now, coming up on the third June of being here I realize these things are relative. I enjoyed kickball games because I felt they were my element. Now that Armenia had become my element, even if I don't fit into it the same way that Armenians do, it feels comfortable to me. So, I've finally been able to put a basketball game in Vyke at the foot of the mountains, with kids and old men alike watching us with curiosity, on the same level as a game of Frisbee on a Saturday afternoon, in Dolores park with bikes and cans of PBR all over the place. It may not sound like much of a revelation, but it's something that I personally took a long time to acclimate myself to, the idea that I could be myself here, just as much as I could there.
The morning sun is warm, but there's a chilly wind blowing down from the mountains as I leave my house with a thermos of tea and a Batman comic book. I walk up the dirt road the borders the cemetery on one side and come to the top where people dump all their garbage down into the ravine below. The wind has kept the heat, and thus the smell of this garbage, down. I walk along a shepherd trail that skirts the rocky hillside. There's little pellets of sheep crap and cloven hoof prints in the soft earth along the trail. The sun warms my face but the wind cuts through my thin sweater. Where the trail ends in a flat clearing, so flat as to look like a putting green amidst all these craggy hills, I find a place to lean up against a rock and pour myself some tea. I take a drink and open my comic book, but before I begin to read I look around and enjoy the view: hills and the rocks that break out of their tops and climb further up into mountains, some with snow still on their peaks. There's a two lane road winding through the Selim pass below and the village of Getap looks like something that grew naturally, in earthen colors, along the river bank. I try to begin reading, but my concentration is stuck on the scenery, and I look back up, although I've seen it all a million times by now, when suddenly it occurs to me that where this was so long my reality and my memory was the view from Alamo Sq. in San Fransisco (that shot in the opening credits of Full House where it showed the four bright Victorian houses with the city sky line behind them) that soon I would back back in Alamo Sq. seeing this backdrop in my mind's eye and before too long it would be somewhere else, until the panoramas pile up over the years and my rheumatic eyes can no longer tell the difference and I prattle on and on about all the places I have sat and watched until they drew themselves into the convolutions of my mind.

No comments: