Sunday, July 25, 2010

Language, Food and Hospitality

One of the toughest parts of being in Armenia so far has been learning the language. As I mentioned previously, we are housed with host families in a small village for full immersion and forcing us to use the language daily. Although some of us have people in the house that speak English (usually teenagers who have been studying it in school since they were kids) my family speaks no English at all with the exception of the five year old grandson who can count to ten. As a result, until I learn the language, communication is achieved by trial and error with my memory, by writing words in a notebook and consulting it frequently, by using a dictionary and by miming. I am happy to report that I have progressed far enough to communicate things although I still can’t follow conversations that are going on around me except for words here and there. They are very patient with me as I struggle through my sentences and correct me as I go.

At the suggestion of my Program Manager (the person who oversees all of the Business volunteers), I started watching an Armenian soap opera – the idea being that the dialogue is spoken relatively slowly, using non-complex vocabulary and usually without regional dialects so I can hear how words are used and pronounced. This has also proven to be a bonding experience with my host family as they are all addicted to the show. While the others here tease me about it to an extent, I have found myself understanding more of the language the longer I watch (and getting absorbed myself even if I can’t entirely figure out if some of the characters were hookers at some point, although it was easy to figure out that the rich woman is the real mother of her cleaning lady’s daughter).

The toughest part of the language is that there are 39 letters, each allegedly having a unique sound. Unfortunately, two of them are pronounced “ts”, three sound kinda like “j”, there are two “r”s, two “t”s and three variants on “k” and “g”. While I can read all the letters by now, my spelling is atrocious when I try to write. And to make matters worse, the words tend to be on the long side with letters looking kinda similar. For example, Շնորհակալություն (pronounced shnor-haka-lut-yun) means “thank you”. “Peace Corps Volunteer” is Խաղաղության կորպուսի կամավոր (kha-gha-ghu-tyan cor-pus-i kamavor) and պաղպաղակ (pagh-pagh-ak) is ice cream. And since I studied Spanish, I get tripped up by things like the word “ես”, which means “I” but looks like the Spanish word for “you” (and by the way, it is pronounced “yes”). The capital Armenian “T” is “S”, while “S” is “U”. I’m coming along, but I feel like a pre-schooler when I try to read aloud from a book and need to piece things together letter by letter.

I can manage conversations better, but the vocabulary escapes me sometimes. This can make things very awkward, such as the other morning when I asked my language teacher what a phrase meant, attempting to repeat something and introducing it with “Last night my host mother said to me….” By mixing up words, I proceeded to say something I now believe was obscene based on the appalled look on the teacher’s face.

Luckily, when under pressure, my memory has kicked in. When I visited my future home a couple of weeks ago, I managed to hold entire conversations with the new host family while rarely having to consult my notes. Fortunately, my future co-workers all speak English well, although I will still need to work with a tutor as I will need to communicate with others outside of work.

The food here has required some adjustment although I have liked almost everything I have had. Most is much fresher than you can get in New York – the eggs are hours old when I eat them, the milk comes straight from the cow (with a stopover on the stove for boiling), the tomatoes are amazingly tasty (bought from a guy who drives from village to village and sells them from the trunk of his car) and I eat bowls of raspberries that are picked from the bushes in the backyard. The khoravats (barbecued meats) are delicious, and most of the bread, butter, yogurt and cheese is homemade. I eat a lot of soups, dolma, homemade ravioli type things and a lot of pasta, although always in butter instead of sauce. There are tomatoes, cucumbers, bread and cheese at every meal. My host mother also makes delicious apple turnover type things that I love – some nights, dinner is about ten of them. There tends to be a LOT of salt and butter in everything, lots of potatoes, a lot is fried and there is candy and cookies everywhere. Every store carries Snickers and Twix bars (and I now have a one-bar-a-day-minimum habit), and every house seems to have bowls of candy lying around. Soda is the norm for drinking at meals although I have returned to mostly water lately. Even though we were warned about being offered alcohol constantly (and maybe being pressured to drink a lot), there hasn’t been much in my house. I may split a beer once a week with my host father, but I have not had vodka shots for breakfast as some others have.

Despite the diet, I seem to have lost a few pounds while here and the weight might also have been redistributed since my pants are all loose on me (the fact that I hand wash everything makes it difficult to tell since nothing shrinks as clothes tend to do in a dryer). Having had no serious GI problems here (unlike quite a few of my colleagues), I am at a loss as to why. I haven’t been to a gym in over two months and there do not seem to be any outside of Yerevan other than in Olympic training facilities.

While the food has been very good, it would be nice to have Thai or Mexican food once in a while. I did manage to have a Mexican lunch in Yerevan a few weeks back and even a frozen margarita or three. I don’t get into Yerevan much, though, and the few times I do tend to be quick in-and-out visits with no opportunity to enjoy the variety. When I move to Gyumri, there will be more to choose from than the one restaurant in Solak (which serves khorovats). Despite what may be available there, my new host mother is also a good cook and, given the pride Armenian women take in their cooking, I need to be careful not to insult by eating out a lot.

Which brings me to the legendary hospitality here. Armenians are known for (and very proud of) their hospitality, and it is not uncommon to be invited into someone’s home for coffee upon first meeting him or her (although women would not invite a man in – gender norms here require much too much explanation to cover right now). As a guest, you are seated at the best spot at a table, the food is piled in front of you, you get more meat on your plate than others do and often your plate and glass are refilled for you until you actively decline. The host families we live with have been asked to dial back the last part so that we don’t get into vicious circles of trying to politely eat everything we are given and them politely refilling plates. If guests show up unexpectedly, that is not a problem – either another plate is added to the table or dinner starts again if it was already done. It is not unusual for someone to drop by at 10 PM unannounced and stay for a while. When there is a party, an invitation is extended not to individuals, but to everyone in the house – many of us here have been included in birthday parties, going-into-the-army and coming-home-from-the-army parties and weddings. At first I thought it was to make us feel included but I later learned that it is a matter of course. When there is a party, someone is designated as the “tamada” or toastmaster. You don’t sip at your liquor during the party but drink only when there is a toast – but you never have to wait long for another toast. They tend to be very involved and may follow a prescribed order (to the event, to the parents, to the children, etc) which we learned in language class this week. The tamada can delegate toasts during the course of the party so, at some point, I will likely be asked to offer one. I have a few stock ones memorized just in case.

All of this carries on regardless of the family’s finances – if hospitality is called for, you find a way and there is a tradition to give your own food to a guest before eating it yourself. Yet another lesson I learn as I live here.

That is all for now. Հաջողություն ե գրելու եմ նորից շատ շուտ: (So long and I will write again very soon).


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Village Life

As part of the pre-service-training (PST) period, all of us live in villages with host families. Our training centers on Charentsavan, a city of about 30,000 a half hour outside the capital, Yerevan.

Yerevan has nearly half the 3 million population of Armenia, and is like a country unto itself. It has modern infrastructure, including a subway, many businesses, restaurants, clubs and universities. Much of that was built up during the Soviet era and I understand the intent was to build up other cities similarly. The collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia’s subsequent independence, a severe earthquake and conflicts with its neighbors (including closed borders with Turkey and Azerbeijan) prevented that from happening.

As a result, cities like Charentsavan have fewer services than one might expect. We are in seven villages surrounding this city that have fewer still and have populations of about 500 to 3,000. We live with host families in small villages for two reasons – complete immersion in the Armenian language since most of the villagers do not speak English, and most of the health education, environmental education and English education volunteers get permanent assignments in small villages and towns, so the training sites are similar to where people will spend the two years of their actual assignments once we are sworn in as volunteers (we are “trainees” at this point).

Solak, the village in which eight of us live, has a population of 2,800. Many of the villagers have lived here their entire lives, as have many generations of their families. Many subsist on agriculture for their own consumption or to sell in markets, and many of the houses have livestock on the property. It is not uncommon to see herds of sheep and goats in the roads and cows walk around quite a bit as certain people take others’ animals out for grazing during the day and return them in the evening (a sort of day care). You get to the point where you don’t even watch where you walk.

My house has a cow, a calf, eight sheep and goats (they never stand still long enough for me to get a count of which are which), two roosters and about 20 chickens. There are trees that grow apricots, apples, pears, plums, cherries and walnuts and there are raspberry bushes as well. Nothing is sold at market although some is given away as pay to local kids who help pick the fruit. My host mother makes her own bread, cheese and “matsun”, a yogurt that is a national staple here and seen as a cure for all ills. She also makes preserves and juice from the fruit they grow.

Few of the houses have indoor plumbing and many do not have running water (my house has neither) although the village is running pipes right now that are supposed to provide everyone with running water by the end of the year. At present, water runs through the village from noon until two (give or take) every day and people store bucketsful in various places around their houses. In my house, there is a hose outside tapped into the water supply and that is where the water gathering is done. For bathing, there is a stove in the bathroom and water is heated for bucket baths (see picture). Similarly, water is heated to do laundry, all of which is done by hand and hung outside to dry. Electricity and gas supplies are pretty good (unlike some years back) although we lose power periodically (the other night, it went off at 9:00 PM and came back on at 1:00 the next afternoon). Everyone takes this in stride. Despite this, cel phone service is prevalent and many houses have satellite TV.

Many people don’t have cars although I have seen a few BWMs, a Jaguar and a few Mercedes. Other than the artery road that connects the village to nearby cities and the highway that skirts the edge of the village, most are either not paved or haven’t been in years. While there is a train that connects Solak to nearby cities and runs into Yerevan, it doesn’t run often and many people take public transportation on intercity buses known as “marshutkas”. I’ll get into that experience some other time.

There are quite a few stores in the village although most of them sell the same things – vegetables, soda, vodka, candy, detergents, phone cards, ice cream, cigarettes. One or two sell a few items of clothing and there is a building supply store but there are no furniture, shoe, clothing or any other types of stores. For anything like that, you go to a nearby city or ask the shopkeeper to get something for you if it’s small. There are no restaurants other than some “khoravats” (barbecued skewered meats) stands along the highway and one that is part of a hotel there.

As one would expect, everyone knows everyone else’s business and quite a few are related. My first week here, I was in a store buying a bottle of water and the shopkeeper (who I had never seen before) asked if I was the one living with Gohar and Rasmik. Being substantially taller than most of the people here and not really looking Armenian, I expect to stick out but it was still a bit disconcerting. And of the eight of us living in Solak, five of our host families are related somehow. The close ties and the social fabric make for interesting celebrations though. I was invited along to a birthday party (Rasmik’s sister’s grandson turned one) that involved about forty people, a huge amount of khoravats, heaping plates of other meats, vegetables, fruits and pastries and bottles of vodka and brandy every four feet along the table. Toasts were made, people came and went all day and a cake with fireworks on it was rolled out. I haven’t been to one, but I hear the parties for when the sons go into the army for their compulsory two years and when they return are huge affairs.

The kids in the village are a lot of fun. They seem fascinated by us, especially since we spend a lot of time at the village school for language classes. Although school is out for the summer, a lot of kids hang out there during the day as there is not a lot to do otherwise after they do the family chores. Any time we have an event of some sort at the school, kids show up out of nowhere to see what we are doing and to join in. While most everyone in the village knows about us, who we are living with and probably our names, the kids are the ones we hear calling out to us as we walk through the village. The adults are more reserved and it is not uncommon for people not to acknowledge you on the street if they don’t know you personally, but the kids haven’t grown into that yet. They all learn traditional Armenian dances and perform them at special events, as when the Prime Minister passed through last week.

And while the adults are more reserved, that doesn’t mean that we are ignored. Many times, I have been stopped on the road by someone curious about me (especially when I am walking with my camera). Some just ask how I am while others ask about what we are doing here. Many of the latter speak in Russian (possibly they think I am Russian or assume I don’t know Armenian and that is the foreign language most know) so the conversation doesn’t get very far although they are pleased that I can follow Armenian to an extent.

Lastly, the scenery is pretty nice. Solak is surrounded by mountains and we hiked up one the first weekend we were here. There is an old church atop one hill (as there are many throughout the country) and the locals make pilgrimages up there to give thanks for good fortune. Those thanks may involve sacrificing an animal (we saw a chicken sacrificed during our hike) and I understand that in mid-August most of the villagers go up there to do so. Although Armenia is a Christian nation (and you are often reminded that it was the first one – making it official in 301 AD) that is more of a national identity matter than a religious one. In any event, the views are as nice from the top as from the village (the lead picture on the blog is from outside the church).

I have already visited the city where I will be living starting August 6 (after I am sworn in) but that will merit its own post. And while I won’t miss some of the rustic aspects of life here, I will kinda miss things like the calf walking into the house periodically, the view of the stars when heading to the outhouse in the middle of the night and knowing exactly how fresh the eggs and milk are when I eat. But I have already been invited to the back-from-the-army party for my host family’s son next June and can always visit again.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

First Post

So, after all of my public statements about blogs, others have answered my question as to "Who gives a **** about what I have to say?" and I decided to take the plunge.

There are rules that I need to follow here, so no comments will be allowed (see the Peace Corps disclaimer and you will understand).

I will start this off by pasting in a few things that I have emailed to people over the past weeks in response to questions about life here. Part of the reason I am launching this is that many people ask similar things and this will allow me to answer without parceling out the information too much.

I have been in Armenia for 6 1/2 weeks now and can't believe that it has been that long. On the other hand, given all that I have experienced, I can't believe that it hasn't been longer.

Am I happy? Yes – perhaps it is because I am still in the honeymoon phase and it is still short enough a time that it still feels like vacation, but things are going well. The language classes are tough and I sometimes feel like I am going backwards, but the people are very nice, I am kept comfortable, I am in nice surroundings and there are interesting things at every turn. The seven other people posted in this village are good people and I will be able to rely on them when I am on my own later this year. I will revisit this question as time goes on.

Am I feeling OK? Yes. Again, maybe because of the traveling I have done my body is not as shocked by the changes as it could be. Some of the others have experienced various GI problems but I have been spared so far. I am not eating as healthy as I was in at home (lots more bread and cheese, lots of salt in everything, a lot of fried food) and not as much exercise since there is no gym here but I do walk as much as I can manage. Still, I feel fine and hope to re-establish an exercise routine when I am in my permanent spot.

How is life with the host family? The lack of privacy that comes with living with a host family is manageable since they leave me alone to the extent I want to be. My “host parents” are just a few years older than me (that is them at left with one of their three grandchildren) and have had two PC people stay with them before so they know the drill. My room is comfortable and having them here helps the transition. I can practice my language with them, they invite me along as part of the household if they are invited to an event, and they seemed glad when I got back from four days visiting my future home. Even the 80 year old great-grandmother (a pretty tough lady) seems to have taken a shine to me and we watch TV together.

What is my typical day? I normally get up at 6:30 when the alarm rooster wakes me. I usually do my internet surfing at that point as the connection tends to be better then. If it is a bathing day (every other day at present which is more often than the norm here), I have my bucket bath at 7:30. Gohar (my host mother) has breakfast ready for me at 8:00 – eggs fresh from the family hens and cocoa made with milk from the family cow. I study a bit and get to school at 9:00 for language class (six days most weeks) until 1:30. Then it is back home for lunch which may be hearty soup, dolma, grilled meat and potatoes, pierogi type things, rice pilaf or various other things. Meals are always accompanied by tomatoes and cucumbers (incredibly fresh) and bread and cheese that Gohar makes herself. I study though the afternoon and sometimes go to a neighboring village for other training on the PC business sector, medical issues, cultural issues etc. When I am finished, I read or walk around the village to help them get used to me. Everyone knows we are here and everyone knows one another so we are ongoing topics of conversation. Therefore we always need to be on best behavior and be very polite to everyone. Having said that, anything I do will seem odd to them so I don’t let myself get too self-conscious. If I want to wander along the road with no particular destination, so be it. I usually get into a conversation with some of the locals who either want to be friendly or want to practice their English which is fine with me. There are a few that I already know to avoid but by and large people have been very friendly. Dinner is usually between 8:30 and 9:00 after my host father gets home from work. Dinner is normally lighter than lunch and may be the same as lunch or porridge of some sort. I usually study some more after dinner and often join the family to watch an Armenian soap opera that they are addicted to. I was advised that it would help with the language and I am starting to follow what is being said. I read for a bit and go to bed by 11:30. Weekends are not much different from weekdays as there is no real social system here outside the home – people tend to keep to themselves or go to house events.

How is the food? Really good so far. Talking to the others posted here, I am on the luckier side as to variety and the meat content of the meals. Gohar is a good cook and her daughters who visit sometimes are good cooks also (making more spicy food than is the norm here). I was never one to focus on “organic” food but most of what I eat here is since people can’t really afford pesticides and what is grown on the property is as fresh as it can be.

How is the language coming? It is actually coming along and now I can communicate with my host family although I still can't follow conversations while they are talking amongst themselves. We had language proficiency interviews a couple of weeks ago and I'm told that I am above average for someone studying for a month so that says something.

What will the permanent site [where I will be living for two years after the training period is over] be like? I am happy about the city placement {in Gyumri, a city of 150,000, compared to Solak with a population of 2,800] although there are aspects of village life that I think I will miss. In some ways, it is nice that everyone seems to know who I am, the mountains right nearby are nice and the smallness is very manageable. On the other hand, I think the everyone-knowing-who-I-am would really grate on me after the novelty wears off. The host family there has running water and an indoor bathroom so that is a nice change. I can have more of a real social life as there are restaurants and cafes and a movie theater. In the village, there are no bars although I did discover a sort-of restaurant at the edge of the village along the highway and we hike out there for a drink or two periodically. If you buy beer or alcohol at the local store, everyone knows about it because everything we do is noteworthy. As a result, I am drinking a lot less than I had been. Again, not necessarily a bad thing.

That is all for today. I will tackle some other questions shortly (and add more pictures).