Friday, June 11, 2010

The Mantoux Test, or, A Tangle of Fountains

The days have gotten so long that taking a nap doesn't seem to take up any time, no matter how long it lasts for. You get drowsy around 3 or 4 and wake up, sweating to a six-o'clock world that looks exactly like the one you left. But, even after a week of siestas, the skin on your arms still has a burnt siena color to it and the hair that grows from them has a sweaty pomade kind of look. I spend more time than ever sitting out in the fields north of town, sometimes not even bringing any distractions with me, just sitting there and trying vainly to memorize the landscape and the feeling it produced over the course of two years of contemplation. I'd like to take some pictures of it but I know I'll probably forget before I go. I don't really want a reproduction anyway. Pictures of people are nice. They help one look directly into the eyes of the past, but landscapes often look like postcards of unfamiliar places no matter how new or relevant.

Everything Breaks When You Want to Move.

The water pressure has been vacillating incredibly since the summer heat set in. This caused me no small amount of irritation due to the malign nature of my bathroom facet, bandaged as it's been since I moved in with a piece of wire to keep it together and to hold the gush of the building's pipes at bay. Although the facet has always mercelessly dripped it never reached a deluge proportion until last month when I began to hear the pipes growning in the walls. I would wake up in the night to find the facet spraying water all over my bathroom and the meter faithfully recording this rediculous unchecked water expendature. Sure, water's not that expensive, but it just seems so wasteful to watch it swirl pointlessly down the drain and leave rust deposits all over the place. I'd try to tie the wire tighter, but often this would permit an even more devulian quantity to belch forth from the useless facet. Aftet fighting with it for weeks I finally got tired of the whole farce and just punched the damn thing.
I immediately regretted it.
Everything in this building came from Brezhniv. None of it's reliable, none of it's sound or even secure. The windows drop out of thier frames when storm winds blow through the staircase, the drywall/whitewash combination drops in chunks from humid bathroom walls and nearly every time I go in my bathroom there's a party of large roaches in there that have gotten stuck inside the slick and steep washtub basin, like skateboarders skating a pool they dash madly up one side only to slip down and be carried by their momentum up the other convex side. Yeah, they're big enought to have momentum.
Considering all this I shouldn't have been suprised when a light punch of irritation suddenly bathed my bathroom from floor to ceiling in water. And in fact I really wasn't that surpised, but even when one intends to splash cold water on one's face it's still shocking, the mouth still opens suddenly as if seeking a final source of air before going under an enormous wave. The facet, now rendered completely useless, ratteled into the sink and the water, free from and obstruction at last, maddened by its lengthly captivity, roared from the open pipe socket.
I stood there stupidly for a while, trying to block the flow and replace the facet. The pressure only angered the rushing cataract and the facet acted as a conduit to get the most water on my ceiling as quickly as possible.
I believe it a good indication that something of the pace of life here has effected me that I was able to actually stand there, in front of the raging torrent, and contemplate what to do next. It wasn't until I noticed my weight had changed due to the amount of water I had taken on, that I decided I had to get someone else's opinon. My neighbors weren't home so I went upstairs to the apartment of one of my students, a nice kid who's helped me out with apartment problems in the past. As he was apparently not in a hurry either we slowly made our way downstairs to where my bathroom was beginning to seep out into my hallway.
When we met the water outside the bathroom door my neighbor regarded it quite stoicly, merely glancing down at it for a second, looking at me and saying,
"Jure ka" [There's water here].
I responded my saying, "ghist eh" [that's correct]. And nothing in this exchange felt odd to either of us.
After this appraisel I almost expected him to turn around and return to his apartment, as if he'd only come down to make sure I was telling the truth about my broken facet, but had no deside to help me do anything about it. Luckily, he went in for a closer look and I soon found him, trying, just as unsuccessfully as I had, to cram the broken facet back into the rushing stream. I told him I thought we should turn off the water. He agreed but kept trying to get the obstinate facet back into the hole it had produced. Once again the water was blasting the cobwebs off my ceiling and raining down amidst the flaking paint and dead bugs that had peacefully been reposing up there.
When we got outside by the main shut off switch (I didn't have one in my apartment) he pointed it out to me and walked rapidly away, as if to secure a place of innocence when the water screeched to a halt in the two adjoined buildings. Luckily, I was firm in my resolution to not flood out my downstairs neighbors, and much to my neighbors' irriation, pulled back the hubcap that served as a cover for the water shut off switch and cranked the thing around until I heard voices lifting from every window in dismay.
"Inchi anjetel es?" [why'd you turn it off?] a chorus of balcony voices demanded to know.
"im ban@ jartvel eh" [my thing broke (I didn't know the word for faucet)].
I like to think how it must of looked for them. One minute you're washing clothes, or running bathwater for the baby and suddenly the water is ktrats [cut-off, it sounds so much better]. You look out to see if maybe the guy from the water board is down there doing repairs, or if someone's tapping the pipes to wash their car, and instead you find the foreign kid from the next building over, grunting with effort and totally soaked with water.I can't help but to think it looked like some really ill-concieved sabotage effort.
My neighbor's father, sitting in the gazebo-type of thing that's usually staked out by the old men, playing nardi in the afternoons, called me over and told me to go buy another facet. Soon he was in my bathroom with an acetylene torch blasting away at my pipes with a bunch of old and battered tools all over the place. My neighbor and I watched while he banged tool after tool down on my pipes to clear out the facet threading that had broken off inside of them due to my careless punch. Although the work was rough, my neighbor's father showed a deft familiarity in his trade and soon knocked all the offending objects out of my pipes.Within minutes my facet was in perfect working order and I was upstairs eating strawberries with my saviors, trying not to think about the huge mess that awaited me downstairs.

The Kind of Person that Always Adds 'Right?" After Saying "We're Friends."

Yeah, I neglected a bunch of friendships, to some degree I even neglected my family, simply because I had to if I wanted to remain here. I know this might sound pretty sevire. And I'm sure many Peace Corps volunteers would disagree with what I understood as an inherent incompatability between the life one leaves behind in the states and the life one starts in a host country. Initially, I didn't give it much thought. Before I left I occasionlly considered the effects of two years of transitional living, but I wasn't able to really ask myself what that would mean for the life I had in the states. I thought of new and exciting relationships and letters back home that would make reference to them, and I did have both of these things at different times since I've been here, but not quite the way I had imagined it.
I have often told the story of my first homecoming back to Jackson, MI (my hometown) after my first move away at 18 in order to illustrate the importance of holding low expectations for any kind of return trip. I tell this story to my friends here and to myself when I begin to get too excited to see old faces and walk old streets. I've heard myself telling it so many times that it no longer disappionts me, no longer feels pathetic, but rather just seems like truth, and indeed reminding myself of this event before any kind of reunion has never let me down.

I moved to Chicago. I had been there for about a six weeks when I had to come back for my Grandfather's funeral. When everything was finished I still had a day before going back to Chicago and decided to drop in on my friends.
I can still recall the scenarios that played out in my head on my way over to the house where many of my friends had been congregating before I moved, and, as far as I knew, still were. I imagined all kinds of surprise and champaigne bottles popping as I walked into the room nonchalantly. I saw my friends bounding up and down in surprise; every handshake turning into a bear hug, actually lifting me from the ground.
I parked down the block to make sure that no one recognized my Dad's car and proceeded up to the back door. As I approached the house I could hear all my friends' voices lifting and falling like a fond but forgotten song. I was suddenly overcome with a sense of lonliness that I hadn't been aware in Chicago. I realized how much time I had spent with these people and how much strain our friendships had stood over the often turbulent high school years. I was beginning to feel relieved, happy just to be back around them. Still, I hoped for something in this way from them. I wanted reciprocity.
I found the door unlocked, exactly as I had hoped, and entered, trying to supress a latent grin. As I crossed the livingroom threshhold I found them all facing the TV, playing the same videogame I remembered them playing before I left, six weeks before. I walked in, they turned around, and the great reception I had expected barely leveled out at an enthusiastic hello.
For what it's worth, any of my friends that were there at the time might contest this. They might say that I actualy recieved a thoroughly enthusiastic greeting, but I don't remember it that way. I couldn't remember it that way because I expected too much. I had only been gone six weeks. To the people that had stayed behind hardly any time had passed at all. Life had continued on as usual, and suddenly, I was back. They had hardly noticed my absence. I, however, had been very well-aware of every passing day, thinking constantly to myself, "I'm going to make it, I'm going to start all over again and be happy." But, at first, this was not easy, I had no friends, I didn't know anything about where I was, and although I enjoyed a lot on a superficial level nothing had touched me the way a good friend's phone call or smile can.
I remembered this lesson well, and although I continued to pine after my friends long after returning to Chicago and living there for a while longer, I gradually learned to distance myself. To live with them, so far away, was just torment. they became figures of near-mythical proportions. Even the most drab memories became colorful stories, and I spent most of my time telling these stories to people I met who probably didn't care to hear them.

Although I never repeated this mistake with the same intensity, I certainly repeated it.When I moved back to Michigan I spoke of Chicago as a perfect and baffeling place, where everything one could want was easily procured. When I moved to California I hung out with other people who had moved from Michigan, true, they were all wonderful people who I'm sure I would've befriended anyway, but our shared Michigan past certainly didn't hinder things. It wasn't until I moved to a small town in Northern California that I began to truely see how I had always cluched to my recent past.
When I moved to California I had gone to live in San Francisco with a very good friend of mine. We lived together for a year and became impossibly close. Upon suddenly finding myself in the boonies of northern California, I longed for the companionship I had known in SF. I thought not only of my friends in SF but also those in Chicago, Lansing and Jackson, MI and all the other places to which many of my friends had scattered. I felt lonliness like I had never known and although I tried to make new friends I just couldn't seem to get close to people with the knowledge that I already had so many wonderful friends all over the country.
Eventually, I found myself in a realtionship that substituted for all the friends with which I couldn't be. I poured myself into it, overjoyed at finally having found something familiar in what, until then, had seemed a desolate place. What I hadn't realized was that I was setting myself up for prolonged longing. If I could have left northern California without having ever really attached myself to anyone, without having made any lasting friendships perhaps my Peace Corps service would've been easier at first, but once again, upon arriving in Armenia, I found myself without, I found myself missing something too strongly to truely look around and appreciate what was around me.
It took nearly a year, but eventually I began to open my eyes and see the country in which I was living and the people with whom I was living.
And now, with about five weeks left here, I know what I've done. I've established more relationships that will echo well into the future; voices without people behind them when I find myself back in northern California again, again a stranger, again alone. That's not to say that I've ever regretted any of this. In fact, I know that all these people have ultimitly made these places for me. If I had never met Viki in Arcata, CA I couldn't possibly think much of it, if I hadn't moved to SF with Mikey and met Sam there the bars and the bikes wouldn't have held my attention for long. If Bretton hadn't enticed me to move to Lansing and Mark and Akikwe hadn't been there it would've been a lousy five years and I probably never would've been able to get through college.
So as I begin to comtemplate some kind of return back home, experience has taught me not too make to much of it, least I find myself a half heartedly received guest at my own party, and, probably for the first time, I am truely conscious of just how much I am going to miss the friends I have made here. I can already feel it pulling at me, although I am still here. I can feel the echos of so many voices, that have yet to travel across the Atlantic and reach me in California, but certainly will, all too soon. At the same time, these echos have confirmed this place for me, and without them, as with other places, Armenia would mean nothing.
I did what I had to do. I have missed many things over the course of time that I have been here, but it was necessary, for me, to live here without constantly checking Facebook updates, or sending long e-mails of heartfelt longing. Now, as I begin to look more at the place to which I will return, I find these things confusing. My friends talk of things to which I can't relate. They post pictures of people whom I have not met. All of them smiling in appreciation of a life I have not known. And I talk with my friends here and feel comforted, they too understand this feeling of disorientation, they too know they are going to miss speaking Armenian and drinking hykakan s'rge, to mention nothing of oghe. It may have been awkward but we have built up lives here, we have places, that though we may be tired of occupying them, they still feel familiar to us.
If I neglected anything it's because I truely made it. It's because I became comfortable enough here to let go of the past. It's what is always needed, but, after an experience like this, I know that I cannot fully do it again. I will not go one living in Vyke, in Yeghegnadzor, in Yerevan, I will not try to drag these places back into an incompatable America, but where ever I go, I know that eventually I will leave that place too, whereas, in some way, I will always have Armenia with me; it's simply been too long and too seminal and, in many ways, too damn beautiful.

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