Welcome to my home

Welcome to my home

Friday, October 24, 2008

I’ve Decided That Meat Over an Open Fire is the Best Meat

So here I am, sitting in my room, messing around on my ukulele when I come up with this catchy little blues hook.  So, I push it around a little bit, and start to hum a melody line as I develop a chord progression.  And after a while, the humming gives way to words, and wouldn’t you know it, now I’m addicted to writing blues songs on my ukulele.  Now, I know what you all must be thinking.  “Scott, you are a skinny white boy, playing an ukulele.  You expect me to believe that anything bluesy can come of that?  Last I checked, if you wanted to sing the blues you needed to be a big burly guy with a smoky voice and a steel guitar.  And, if the guitar isn’t steel, there at least needs to be a lit cigarette stuck in the strings up by the tuning pegs.”  Well, my only response is that, yeah, you’re probably right.  But hey, there’s got to be a first for everything, no?  The way I see it, I’m living in a place that insists on calling this thing a small guitar, and I’m not playing it for anyone anyways, so who’s to say I can’t play the blues on it?  Are the lyrics lame?  Probably.  But honestly, unless you’re B.B. King or Jimi Hendrix, what blues lyrics aren’t lame?  If nothing else, it passes the time and usually makes me laugh…at myself, which is probably for the best.


And honestly, learning ways to pass the time seems to be the best thing that I can be doing at this moment.  As I am still fairly new to country, I still have much to learn, and am reminded of that with each passing day.  One thing that has been on my mind as of late (and perhaps you’ve heard my grumblings about this already) is the threat of winter as it swiftly makes itself known.  As of yet, all I know about the winter is what I have been told, so my knowledge is, at best, second hand.  So, I am left to imagine what my life during winter will be like.  I’ve heard horror stories of waking up in the middle of the night with your sleeping bag frozen around you.  Not having anything to eat but potatoes for months on end.  Being holed up in an apartment with nothing but a bottle of vodka and loneliness to keep you warm.  Now, I’m willing to bet that some of these things are exaggerations, but I’m also willing to bet that they aren’t wild exaggerations. 


Winter comes at a time when I am allowed to move out onto my own, no longer under the care of a host family, which would be a first for me in Armenia.  This, of course, offers me a new sense of freedom and independence.  But, it also offers a host of obstacles.  How will I heat wherever I end up living?  Where will I get food? (Remember, grocery stores don’t exactly exist here, and I have not been pickling.)  How will I avoid becoming that volunteer that keeps himself warm with a bottle of vodka and a single light bulb suspended from a wire dangling from the ceiling?  In the winter, because heating does not exist here, the schools shut down.  Apparently, 0 degrees at home is warmer than 0 degrees at school…So, if I’m living on my own, I will now be battling boredom as well.  I know, things just keep getting better, right?  Needless to say, the development of hobbies is a must…cue ukulele and blues.


Now, some of these problems can be avoided if I decide to stay with my host family through the winter.  It’s weird.  For my service in Armenia thus far, I have always been of the mindset that I would get my own apartment as soon as possible.  But, as that day approaches (December 15), I find myself unintentionally leaning towards staying with my host family.  Maybe it’s just doing things like cutting my own hair and having them laugh at me, but then asking me to cut theirs too.  Or sitting on the new couch (which they bought with the money from a cow slaughter) reading a book while my uncle’s three year old son holds my elbow like it were my hand and we were crossing the street.  Or just having a plate of potatoes dripping with oil waiting for me when I get home from work, when I wake up, when I don’t wake up, or when I otherwise turn around, breathe, etc. (yeah, there really are a lot of potatoes here).  Or maybe, I just can’t fight that primordial instinct that humans really are pack animals, and we stick with the pack.  I mean, it’s just what we do…unless you’re weird…which I am.


But, come December, my host dad moves back home because it’s too cold for him to work until spring.  And, mom is due to have a baby pretty soon.  (On that note, I’m not exactly sure where people go to have babies around my village.  And, I don’t know anything about midwifery [midhusbandry?].  In fact, sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night scared to death that it’s going to be time for the thing to fall out and I’m going to be the only one around.  So, I know that a few of you reading this are nurses.  Any words of advice are more than welcome.  I’ll tell you what I know.  There’s something about breathing.  The thing needs to have a cord cut.  Odds are the mother will probably hate me just because I’m standing near her.  And I think I saw a doctor slap the baby once in a movie.  But that’s it.  Seriously, what do I do?)  Now, as the apartment stands, with mom, boy, grandma, grandpa, and me, we are at full capacity.  Add two, and that makes for one awkward feeling.  “Hey guys, don’t mind me.  I’m just going to hang out and take up room that you could be using to be comfortable.”


What do I do?  Move out and risk becoming fond of a hermitage to the point of becoming an alcoholic, growing a nasty beard, and writing a manifesto?  Or, stay in the pack, but constantly feel emotions of guilt?


[At this point the topic changes without any attempt at segue.]


One of the things I’ve found myself thinking about often is me as a little boy.  I wonder what I would have thought of myself, if I had had the ability to see me now, then.  I remember back in the day when I just wanted to be the weatherman, then the garbage man, then back to the weather, then on to sillier things like writing.  Never, really ever, did I imagine that I would be where I am, or dealing with the things I’m dealing with now. I just finished reading this book, and I think it relates to my own situation quite nicely.  It’s non-fiction, but that doesn’t mean that metaphor cannot be read into it.  It’s all about this guy who has this grand idea to walk the Appalachian Trail, and so, without much hesitation (you know, aside from waiting for winter to pass), he sets out to do just that, starting down in Georgia, with every intention of hiking all the way through to Maine.  Needless to say, he, like 90% of the other hikers that start out with intentions of completion, did not end up hiking the entire trail.  But, that’s not to say he didn’t give it a good try.  Anyways, there’s a quote that I really like from it:


“All I know is that from time to time I end up a long way from where I want to be.  But it makes life interesting, you know.”

--A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Friday, October 10, 2008

Armenian Nights

As many of you know, nightlife is not really something that I get on a regular basis. Really, unless I’m in Yerevan, there isn’t much of what we would call in the states a “nightlife”. But, that’s not to say that there aren’t exciting things that happen at night. So, I’ve decided to sketch out a few nocturnal events that have happened recently. I’ll warn you, this writing is sloppy and lazy, but entertaining none the less.

Wolves! In a daring effort to reclaim the land for nature’s original tenants, a pack of wolves deftly sneaked into the city of Gyumri under the cover of night’s darkness. The citizens of the city awoke to the terrified sounds of cattle being slaughtered and devoured by the hundreds. When morning dawned, a total of 300 head of cattle had had the likes of life removed from their bones, courtesy of countless encounters with the vengeful jaws of relentless wolves, who incidentally turned out to be fairly efficient at what they do. Now, I do not live in Gyumri, but, I don’t live too far away either, and I’m pretty sure we share the same hills, so this news story was topping the headlines of the local news in my town, and I’m fairly sure that this is the first time an urban cow has topped the news since the Chicago fire. So that’s exciting.

This is a true story, and took place in another volunteer’s host family.

So there’s this cow, right? And this family has cared for this cow pretty well, right? Every day the cow is up with the rooster and released from his holding pen to join the other cows just like it as they mindlessly climb up the mountain to graze under an Armenian sun. And usually, they just walk the cattle trails chewing grass as they go. And if they are unlucky enough to be a wanderer, or stupid enough to linger near the dogs, they get a not-so-friendly nip on the ankles to remind them where they belong, both on the terrain and in the hierarchy of intelligence. But this cow, holy cow, this cow was not cut out for humdrummery. This cow was ambitious. What’s more, is that this cow had the amazing subtlety to be able to carry out his ambitions undetected.

Maybe it was the chickens all cooped up adjacent to his pen at night, telling old hens’ tales of days when they were a free-range creature, talking about a mythical potato patch high up in the mountain passes. Or maybe it was just the smell of subterranean spud on the morning breeze. We will never quite know how this noble bovine brain came across the knowledge of a potato patch in the vicinity of the herd. But somehow, he did. And that’s all that’s important. So, when the other cows were mindless chewing the cud that their first stomach was too lazy to digest, and the dogs were all busy showing off for the one human superintendent who would never like them, this cow moseyed on over a few gentle rises in search of a destiny never known by any cow.

The herd moved on, ignorant of his absence, so ignorant, in fact, that none were aware of this departure until the cow didn’t show up at home that night. So, the family decided to wait until morning before sounding any sort of alarm. Maybe the cow was just loafing. But, by the time rooster o’clock rolled around, there was still no cow. So now, the family decides to take to send out a search party. They searched all over, in the churchyard, in the streets, down by the water, anywhere a cow might be. But, alas, no cow was to be found carousing about within the city limits. So, a brief meeting took place, and the family decided to take to the hills. And there, low and behold, was their cow, with a happy low and a content cow grin, laying in the grass stuffed to an extant that told his body that it was better off laying on the ground.

So there was this cow, right? And it had eaten so many potatoes that it couldn’t walk back down the mountain for the evening. In fact, it had eaten so many potatoes that it couldn’t even be coerced into moving with the help and agitation of its family. In essence, this cow had just pulled a Roger Maris. He had broken the single season record for potatoes eaten by one cow. A record formerly held by one of the greatest cow legends in the history of the game. A record no one ever thought to be breakable. So there was this cow, right? And there were these people, determined to not abandon their cow, right? This cow had been a major investment for them, right? So now there’s this problem, right? How do we get the cow down the mountain? (Note to the squeamish: skip ahead to the next story, this ending is not for you.) So there was this axe, right? Then there were a lot of cow pieces, right? Because everyone knows it’s easier to carry small pieces down a mountain is easier than carrying one big, cumbersome piece, right? No other possible solution. Now there is a lot of cow soup. Talk about being put out to pasture…

Necessary vocabulary for this reading:
Counterpart- work associate to whom I am assigned my two-year partnership
Cowboy- what my host uncle calls me because I have a tendency to whistle softly while I think
Dog- a viscous beast that is not to be loved, but kicked, disdained, and feared to the point that many towns have a season to hunt them within city limits, much like deer (assuming deer were viscous)
Tahteek- Armenian word for grandmother (cultural note, usually come with a complimentary moustache)
jan- an ending affixed to names that means sweety

The other night I went over to my counterpart’s house to visit and work on lesson plans for the upcoming week’s lessons. So, we worked, chatted, and coffeed until about 9:30 in the p.m., at which point I decided it was high time for this cowboy to hit the road. However, the sun has begun its annual trend of laziness, and 9:30 is no longer a time deemed worthy of extreme solar luminance. In fact, I’ll be so bold as to say it was dark outside, pitch dark. But, being the forward thinker that I am, in anticipation of the possibility that this meeting was not just going to be a business call, but rather a forced social call that had the potential to last for hours (which it did), before I left my room I stashed a dinky little flashlight in my bag to help light my way home. So, when my counterpart asked me if I wanted her to call my home to send someone to get me since it was so dark, proud of my foresight, I proceeded to pull out my flashlight and declare that I think that somehow I’ll be able to make it home all right. I was then promptly warned to beware of the dogs on the street at night, to which I replied, “It’s ok, I’m an American.”

Off I went, into the night, proud that maybe someone finally understood that I did not come with a warning label advising constant supervision. And oh, how glorious the night was. The beautiful thing about living in a village is that there are no lights. So, when I got to a point on the path where the footing was good enough to not need a light, I turned my light off and turned my eyes upward. Unreal. I tell you what, boy, if I had a dollar for every star I saw, I could bail out Wall Street, and maybe still have enough to independently finance Michael Moore to invent a ludicrous documentary about the causes for its demise. (It just felt like a good place for a jab at Michael Moore. I don’t actually know if this is a project he’s working on, but it seems like the kind of thing he gets uppity about.)

So there I was, taking my time, enjoying the splendor of the skies, taking in a quiet moment that I so desperately needed, when, out of nowhere, a tahteek pops out from behind a rock. “Oooh Scott-jan!” (pronounced skote-jahn) HOLY HELL BATMAN! What’s a tahteek doing out at this hour? More importantly, why are there tahteeks hiding in the rocks? Wait, is this my tahteek? Yes, it is. “Uh, Zeena (tahteek’s name) what are you doing walking around at night?” “Oooh Scott-jan, there’s a dog right there!” At this point, I’ve finally caught my breath from the tahteek ambush, and have turned my light on, expecting to see a rabid carnivore, and ready to reenact an old yeller scene. But, as I should have known, it was nothing more than a 3 month old pup. Someday these unnecessary fears of animals will abate (must I remind you all of Snake Mountain). But, for now, these fears generate grand delusions, and tahteek made sure I was safe. Good old tahteek. She picked up a few rocks and chucked them at the dog, which didn’t move, because the rocks fell well short of their mark. So, Zeena grabbed my shoulders and whisked me away to the safety of our apartment. While being whisked, I asked her, once more, what she was doing walking around at night, and she told me that my counterpart had called her when I left her house, and that it had been so long (reality check: five minutes) that they thought for sure I had fallen and broken my leg. Ahh, to be a five again. One of these days it will be understood by all here that I am an adult.