Welcome to my home

Welcome to my home

Friday, February 13, 2009

Slowly Emerging from Winter

Well, my little host brohan lost his first tooth today. I thought this was an awesome opportunity to tell him about the Tooth Fairy. So there we were, sitting on the couch, and I was doing my best to provide him with a comprehensible character sketch of this nocturnal spirit, but, I didn’t have my dictionary, and somehow, back in July when I was in Armenian language classes, I must have missed the Tooth Fairy chapter. So, the best I could do was to say that “in America, when children lose their teeth, they put them under their pillows when they sleep. Then, as they are asleep a tiny little person with wings flies into your bedroom and steals your tooth from under the pillow and leaves a small amount of money.” His responses (and my subsequent responses) are as follows:
How small are people in America?—What? No, the small person with wings isn’t American.
What country is it from?—It’s not from any country, Edik.
Do all small Americans have wings?—No. (But you can’t imagine how badly I wanted to tell him yes, yes they do, and fangs, big viscous fangs.)
What does it do with the teeth?—I can’t tell you that. It’s a secret.
Did you know that she builds a really big tooth out of all the teeth she steals?—How do you know? She is very secretive little person with wings. No one really knows what she does with the teeth.
It builds big teeth out of them.—Sure thing. Do you want to put your tooth under your pillow tonight?
No. I don’t want small people with wings in my room.
At this point, mom comes in the room and I learn that they take the teeth and bake them into lavash (flatbread, kind of like a tortilla, and by kind of, I mean exactly) for good luck. I think it’s kind of like the bay leaf in the pot of soup, but instead of having to do the dishes, you get 40 virgins when you die or something like that. I don’t know. I prefer to have tiny little people with wings leaving money in my room while I sleep. At this point Edik gave me a toothless grin and said he didn’t want to help her build a big tooth and handed his tooth to his mother to go bake…so much for cultural exchange.

Things around here have been pretty slow, hence my blog silence. But, that’s also partly because my hands have been too cold to type very well. I tried typing with gloves once, but it just made me feel like I had real chubby fingers that were too stupid to move. Last week we (the volunteers) had a big conference that is geared towards project design and management. Each volunteer was allowed to bring one counterpart (an Armenian who lives at site and with whom you frequently work) to the conference. During the conference each pairing works on designing a sustainable project to implement in their community. My counterpart and I are going to try to get a pre-school up and running. I think it’s possible, but the toughest part of the entire thing will not be the actual work. The work is easy. The hard part is motivating the people to take action, and not give up at the first moment of difficulty. I have the moral support of the mayor’s office, which will likely be the only support I get from there. So, we’ll see I suppose.

The schools are what they are. I realize that that phrase is circular, and offers little to no insight, but, it’s important to remember, that circular phrases are, in fact, completely right…although also completely worthless. But, I’m at a loss for another way to describe the state of the schools. The best I can say is that I’m trying to stay positive.

I have recently been given an assignment from the country headquarters to make a full video about what volunteers who teach English actually do in Armenia as volunteers. They are hoping to use this in volunteer training, as well as PR tool. Often times when the Peace Corps calls up new schools and new towns to ask them if they are willing to host a volunteer, they school directors have no way to understand what exactly a volunteer is, or what said volunteer will do within their school. So, hopefully this video will help. I’m pretty stoked about putting it together. I get to travel around the country (although on my own buck) to gather field footage of volunteers at work in the classroom, which means I’ll get to see a variety of different work environments as well as some of the countryside. I also have the freedom of completely designing and editing the format of the video itself. It’s a project with almost complete self-direction, which is definitely my style.

A month ago, or so, I started private English tutoring lessons with my little brother. We study for about one hour every day of the week. He is fairly enthusiastic about learning English, with the exception of a few days here and there where he just wants to go play games and not study. But hey, he’s eight, so I’ll cut him some slack. If nothing else, he is learning a good work ethic, as I facilitate a class that meets every day, and that requires him to push himself to remember to study every day. (Please don’t think I’m cracking a big nasty bull whip here, by study, I mean practice counting on his own maybe once a day.) The concept of continual learning is something that is absent within the culture here. At best, a subject in school is only taught twice a week for a 45-minute session each time. And then, each session is disconnected from previous sessions, no building upon concepts, review of previous material, etc. The result is incredibly disjointed learning that is nearly impossible to wrap a head around. The other day he told me that he likes having to remember things from day to day, rather than waiting until the end of the week to remember things. So that’s a success. Even more enthusiastic about these English lessons is his father. Every day he calls home to ask if Edik did well in his English lesson for the day. It makes me happy to see familial involvement in the learning process. But then again, I do have quite a bit of respect for this family.

In other news, I’ve recently solidified plans to come home for the first two weeks of June. I’m getting pretty excited about the trip, even though it’s still several months away. Sadly, despite having maintained radio silence on my blog for so long, this is all I have to say for now. Live it, son.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Holiday Special on Aisle Armenia

The holiday season is upon us once again. And, as this is my first holiday season in Armenia, I’ll do my best to catalogue my experience with Armenian culture during such a typically happy and culturally unique time of the year.

Religious Holidays
The Republic of Armenia is, officially, a Christian nation. In fact, they were the first country in the world to declare Christianity as their national religion, and they did this in 301 (AD of course). They have their own church, which is called Apostolic Armenian Orthodox. (This means homogeny, once again…surprise. So, if you were hoping for Hanukah, Kwanza, or really, anything other than Christmas, don’t hold your breath. It’s simply not tolerated.) Over the years, and based on who has been in control of this region of the world, Armenia has had to make a few concessions when it comes to faith. The most recent example of such concessions would be during Soviet rule (ended officially in 1992) when all religion was ousted from Armenia. But, if you ask the Armenian people, their faith never really died. In fact, the church is currently taking on massive efforts to re-educate Armenians about the church because for so long, nothing related to religion was allowed. Much of this re-education process comes from Armenian priests who live overseas. The church currently has a recall on all of these priests to come back to Armenia for a one year period of time (in rotation of course) to reconnect with the country. Countless priests will come from the states. But, getting back to a more pointed focus…

Armenia has a different church calendar than the overwhelming majority of Christian denominations in the rest of the world. And, within this calendar, Christmas falls on January 6. And, it seems that the holiday’s celebration is masked, in a large share, by the magnitude of excitement that consumes the country in respect to New Year’s. I would guess that a part of the belittlement that has befallen the celebratory practices of Christmas is due to the Soviet attempts to minimize religious traditions.

New Year’s
In the states we all get excited for a wild bash on New Year’s Eve. But here, the actual tick of the second hand at the stroke of midnight is not really that important. There is a message from the high priest, followed by a message from the president broadcast on national television. But, the parties don’t start until January first. Certainly people stay awake for this nocturnal moment, but the party leading up to it is usually small and restricted to family. But that’s alright, because starting on January first, every home will have a massive table laid out for all of the neighbors, friends, and family to pillage. Essentially, it is a non-stop feast with traditional foods such as dolma, kyufta, pastries, cognac, vodka, dolma, and cognac. And these parties will last until January 6. It’s wild.

Santa who?
Yes, Santa Claus does exist here, but he goes by another alias…that crafty s.o.b. Here he is called something in Armenian that I can’t type because I have a western keyboard…and because dollars to doughnuts, you don’t speak Armenian. But, the literal translation of his name is “Winter Father”. And he comes to give presents to boys and girls who have been well behaved. But, they don’t have fireplaces here, just free standing wood stoves. Now, I haven’t asked, but I’m assuming that this means he has to forcibly enter the front doors to all of the homes. None of that sneaking around on rooftops like some kind of morbidly obese, red nosed burglar stuff. Also, because I’m the only man in Armenia who has a red coat (men only wears black or dark brown here) I now confuse a bunch of small children, which is fun for me.

What did I do?
With my English club, I helped the students practice and perform the Christmas pageant, many different carols, and a few different poems. I have it on disc, and if you’re lucky enough to be my friend, next time I come back we can watch it. For Christmas I went up to Gyumri where I spent time with several other volunteers. We had a potluck Christmas feast that had a massive turkey, tons of different salads, and lots of pies. I made mulled wine for the party. We also had a gift exchange. I got an air horn. Now I can finally honk back at the cars (and mule carts for that matter). I stayed in the city for a few days, and then went back to my village. But, for New Year’s Eve I went back into the Charentsavan/Bjni area where I visited other volunteers and my first host family. While there, we had a massive snow storm (see picture). Although it made any form of transportation unreliable and risky, I was incredibly impressed with the absolute beauty of the village covered in snow. Until now, I had only seen it in the summer time, but this trip afforded me to see its winter views.

General update
As for life in my village, work has come to a halt. We will not go back to school until the end of January, possibly February. The village doesn’t have gas, which means we have no heat. So, if you’re quick, you’ve figured out that this means that we can’t heat the schools. So, I get a month off. Neat. Ultimately what this does is give me ample time to make my new apartment liveable. It has no water or heat, but that’s ok. There’s a well outside, and I have blankets. The real pain is that there are no counters or elevated surfaces of any kind anywhere in the place. This makes food preparation incredibly difficult. In the states, I’d just go get some wood and build a counter or two, maybe a bookcase. But here, that’ infinitely more difficult because there is simply nothing to buy. So, I’m currently using the floor as my counter. I hope to have pictures of my new digs up at some point, but I can’t say when that will actually happen. Until now, I hope this update sates you.

German: still at large