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).