Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Technology and Entertainment

As I said in an earlier post, learning the language here is one of the most difficult parts of adjusting. The Armenian language has its own branch in the family of Indo-European languages and it relies on very fine distinctions between certain sounds (for example, there are two separate letters to represent “TS” – one that is aspirated and one that isn’t, with similar distinctions for the two “T” letters and the two “P” letters). While the language itself is somewhat simpler than others I’ve studied (for example, there are no masculine or feminine words, adjectives are singular only) there are also exceptions to the rules and some words that have no connection to one another (three, child and yesterday for instance) sound almost exactly alike.

To make matters more difficult, it is barely spoken outside of Armenia, with its population of 3 million, where the official language is Eastern Armenian. Outside of the country, most of the diaspora (estimated at about 7 or 8 million) speak Western Armenian which is similar but has differences including a slightly different alphabet. Therefore, unlike English, which people around the world are exposed to through television and movies, there are virtually no sources to hear the language before you get here.

The Peace Corps approach of immersion, then, makes a lot of sense. We spend the first 6 ½ months with host families who are instructed not to speak English even if they can. Many of us live in villages where no one speaks English so that everyday routines such as going to the grocery store and traveling on a bus require speaking Armenian.

Technology, however, has changed the experience, though. As pointed out in a recent article, unlike in years past, we have constant access to the English language. I alone have a PC with internet access, a disk drive with which I can watch the dozens of DVDs I brought with me, a cel phone with which I can call other volunteers or the US for pennies per minute, a Skype account (although I still don’t know how to use it) and a Kindle that I use to read English language books. I am glad to have them all, and I will admit that studying the language makes my head hurt after a while and I retreat to my native language instead of putting myself out there as much as I could. As a result, I am not learning the language at the speed I might otherwise but I think the benefits to my mental health are well worth the frustration I feel by not learning faster.

On the flip side, the technology also allows me to accomplish things at work almost instantaneously while my predecessors a few years back would have had to spend days on the same task if the information was even available (a recent history of Santa Claus traditions that I printed from Wikipedia recently would have been impossible not long ago). Most people when first told I was joining the Peace Corps expected me to be digging wells in Guatemala – this experience is indicative of how it is changing with the times also (there are still volunteers working on irrigation in Latin America but you need to have an engineering or agriculture background for one of those slots).

A friend from New York who works in the entertainment field asked me recently about entertainment here, so here is what I have observed so far. This all excludes Yerevan, which I again maintain may as well be a separate country and I haven’t had enough time to observe.

Technology also allows people here to spend a lot of time watching TV. Most houses (even in poor villages) seem to have satellite TV and my personal observations and those I hear from my colleagues indicate that this is a TV loving nation. My host family has the TV on most of the day and night, watching a variety of soap operas, news broadcasts and music programs – sometimes all at the same time, bouncing back and forth between shows so as to not watch the commercials before a show starts (see below). Music videos are very big (most from Russia, as is a lot of the other programming).

One thing I find odd (and which leads to a lot of channel surfing) is that things don’t seem to be on at the same time every night. “Anna,” the soap opera I have been following for a few months now, is allegedly on from 9:30 PM until 10:30 PM with a re-run the next day about 6:00 or so. The starting time is rarely at 9:30, even when there is a commercial around 9:00 saying “Tonight at 9:30!!” Most times the opening credits run about five to 10 minutes late, but sometimes it’s a few minutes before 9:30 (I guess if it’s a slow news day and that program runs short). The opening credits are then followed by 10 – 15 minutes of commercials, there are none during the program and there is another block after it ends. All told, the show is only about half an hour but you never know which 30 it will be. Typical for a soap opera, the music can tend toward the melodramatic but here it gets familiar also. Some of the others here have noticed music from “The Lord of the Rings” score and I can here selections from “Twin Peaks” from time to time. I guess I should mention that the concept of copyright doesn’t mean much here.

The music programs are interesting in that people come out to perform, they are interviewed by a host and then get commentary from a panel sitting in the audience. One program seems to be only for people playing the duduk, a clarinet type instrument that is traditional here. While this sounds like Armenian Idol, all of the commentary appears to be praise and there seems to be no contest (its kind of like school where everyone gets a medal). These programs are on all day every day so people must love them.

News programs also seem popular which may account for the virtual absence of newspapers. While I see some for sale in stores and on newsstands, I honestly can’t recall ever seeing anyone read one except for someone today reading “Futbol”. Some have big Sudoku-like puzzles on the front page and I have seen people reading TV listings, but it is nothing like the good old New York Post screaming headline approach that draws people in (but then maybe they don’t find headless bodies in topless bars here either).

This also does not seem to be a nation of book readers. I have seen no bookstores in Gyumri or any of the other places I’ve been to, instead sometimes finding books in stationery stores. I don’t remember seeing any people carrying books around or reading in public spaces as I do sometimes in the park. Various volunteers here are working on library projects as they are in sorry shape and badly in need of improvement – keeping circulation records on index cards, maintaining tons of Soviet era technical books, etc. I hope that the reading I don’t see is a result of the state of the libraries that can be reversed with improvements – if instead the state of the libraries is a symptom of lack of interest that can’t be reversed that would be very unfortunate.

And, as I have said before, there aren’t many movie theaters either. There are a fair number of DVD stores (all of which I am certain sell only legitimate copies of the movies….) but there seems to be no interest in seeing something on a big screen. From what I can see, the theater here screens only big Hollywood movies (Prince of Persia, Sex and the City 2, Shrek, Sorcerer’s Apprentice), all in Russian. There are special programs such as an out-of-the-blue 50th Anniversary screenings of West Side Story, but I have not noticed any Armenian films per se. A Wikipedia search of Armenian films list fewer than 10 dramas in the last decade.

As to music, I am very surprised at the virtual absence of American pop music. As I said previously, a lot of socializing involves walking around the town square or other popular areas, and it is common to hear people carrying cel phones that play music pretty loudly. The music you hear people carrying (and what is blasting from car radios) all seems to be local pop stars and, like in the US, you hear the same stuff all the time. Likewise, someone once asked me what I have on my iPod and when I named a few artists, I was asked “No Armenian music?” Despite this, there was a recent concert by Brazzaville, a California band that I had never heard of. They played three dates in Armenia, all free, including a stop in Gyumri. I went to see it and noted a crowd from the very young (maybe five years old) to people in their 70s. A lot of the teenagers seemed to know the music (and it sounded familiar to me also, probably through appropriation of other artists as opposed to having heard it before). Since it was a free concert, people may have attended for the novelty of something to do (I know I did).

I understand that the theater where the concert was also has live performances of various typed but I am not aware of any in the two months I’ve been here, other than a classical music concert performed in honor of Russian President Medvedev’s visit a few weeks back. That took place at 3PM on a weekday.

So that leaves the question – what do people do for entertainment? And the answer seems to be that they hang out together, since socializing and being with your family is a very important part of Armenian culture. They go to cafes and talk. They go to each other’s houses and talk. They walk around together and talk. And they love watching soap operas and music videos on TV.

I did spend last weekend in Yerevan and saw some of the culture there. Yerevan has live theater, and I am sorry to say that I was unable to catch a local version of Boeing-Boeing since I was only there one night (it was called something like Don Juan of the Air). There are a couple of movie theaters and some of the movies are shown in English. There is an opera house there, and reportedly people talk on cel phones, talk to each other, take pictures and walk in and out during the performances as is done everywhere else – except when it is a performance of an Armenian opera. A lot of international music acts perform at the opera house, and I missed Orchestral Jethro Tull by one day. Otherwise, I saw a lot of people gathering in cafes and walking around the main square, eating sunflower seeds, just like in Gyumri.

As to what I have been up to lately, it’s been a bit of a monastery tour. Beside the one at Lake Sevan that I wrote about in my last post, I went to another (Marmashen) outside of Gyumri and the next day to another (Maharavank) in the northeast corner of the country, within sight of the Georgia and Azerbeijan borders. There are plenty more around the country and I hope to see a lot of them while I am here. Most are in bad shape and unused since religion was suppressed during the 70 years of Soviet rule, but some (like Maharavank) are operational and visiting them offers an opportunity to see how religion, which never went away here, is reestablishing itself.



Choir during a service at Maharavank

And for those of you following along, I have been taking a lot of pictures. The most recent have been added to the Snapfish photo albums linked at the right side of this page.

So long for now.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

This past weekend, I was able to travel outside of Gyumri for the first time since I had moved here last month. Peace Corps requires that you spend the first month at your site so as to integrate into the community, start to assess their needs for projects and, I suspect, to get people used to being on their own for a while (traveling can be very difficult during the winter so volunteers tend to get more isolated then). As the month had passed, most of the volunteers planned trips to various places around the country and I was among a group that went to Lake Sevan, the largest in the country. Although the weather has been unusually warm this year, the weather in the northern half of the country normally starts getting cool in mid-September so the timing was off-season. And, while the weather was hot and sunny up until the day before we went, we had mostly cool to cold temperatures and a fair amount of rain. Some went swimming anyway, but I was not among them.

There are a variety of hotels along the lake, including a Best-Western, but the one we stayed at was a series of “domiks”, rail cars that were converted into living spaces (the same things used as temporary housing after the 1988 earthquake). Any resemblance to a trailer park is purely coincidental.

There is a peninsula jutting out into the lake that had been an island before a Soviet era plan to increase the water outflow to the river the lake feeds (it was intended to improve irrigation and hydroelectric energy production but it didn’t quite work and the lake surface is now about 20 meters lower than it used to be). At the end of the peninsula is the Sevanavank monastery, which is comprised of two churches and the remains of a third building. Some of us took advantage of the nicer weather on Saturday afternoon to take a look and had an interesting encounter with an Iranian tourist who loudly proclaimed his love of America, American film stars and the benefits of the Aikido that he learned from Steven Seagal (presumably not personally).

On the way to Sevan and again on the way back, I spent some time in Yerevan, and again was amazed that it is in the same country in which I have been living. Again, I was there only a few hours but I saw luxury shopping, tons of restaurants, nice park spaces, an entire area of booksellers (there are virtually no bookstores in Gyumri) and well paved roads. The subway is pretty old and only one line with 10 stations, but it was easy to use and cost only 50 dram (about 15 cents). I will be spending a weekend there at the end of September so I will have more to write about Yerevan later.

As I mentioned above, the weather has been warm later than normal here, but that has given me the opportunity to observe a segment of Gyumri social life that probably doesn’t continue into the colder weather. The main square in the city (“Freedom Square”) is a large open area with statues and fountains in the center, All Saviours cathedral and Yot Verk church on opposite sides, the monstrous new city hall under construction (in the picture below) on one side and a row of cafes on the other. Every day, late afternoon into the night, people gather in the square to stroll and socialize. Sitting in one of the cafes, you can watch groups of young people arrive in a car and start circulating (weekend nights, the cars also cruise the perimeter making the act of crossing the street into the square more dangerous than usual). There are people selling sunflower seeds (a very popular snack here for which you can pay 30 dram for a shot-glass full) and speakers with piped in music that you can hear throughout the square. For whatever reason, the songs “Besame Mucho” and “Feelings” are very popular here, as is the theme from “The Godfather” (I hear them everywhere I go where music is either piped in or played by a band). Luckily “My Heart Will Go On” is not big in the repertoire. As there seem to be no “bars” here, this seems to be a primary social activity, but the crowd also includes parents with young children (there are also vendors selling toys) and older people although most are the younger crowd.

Another place I like to visit is the main market (or “shuka” as it is called in Armenian). As I have mentioned previously, the vegetables here tend to be very fresh and they are still in abundance here at this time of year (soon they won’t be so many families are busy canning them for the winter months). In the shuka, you can also buy spices, meats (including cow and sheep heads if you like), cheese, clothing, housewares and pretty much anything else. As with the square, I have yet to see it in the winter but will continue to visit and watch it change with the seasons.

Recently I also paid a visit to one of the Gyumri cemeteries. I like to visit and photograph cemeteries when I visit a city as I find you can learn a lot about a place by how their dead are remembered. The gravestones in Armenia tend to have portraits of the deceased etched into them, sometimes from a very formal picture and sometimes from one that I imagine was a favorite photo, showing logo-design clothing as many people wear here. Approaching from what I later realized was the rear of the cemetery, I was surprised at how disheveled and overgrown the place is. I felt foolish about that when I realized the likely reason.

Passing a gravestone in one of the better maintained sections, I noticed the picture was of a teenage girl, as was the one next to it. Noticing that both had died in 1988, it hit me that I was seeing the graves of some of the people killed in the earthquake. The condition of the area I first saw is likely due to the disruption from the earthquake itself and the fact that the breadth of casualties may mean that there are no longer any relatives to maintain the sites (I remember hearing a similar explanation for the Jewish section of the main cemetery in Vienna as a result of the Holocaust). As I looked more closely, I began to see family graves where two or three generations were buried together with 1988 as the date of death. Most had a clock inscribed with the time of the earthquake, reinforcing that as the cause.

I have not yet had a conversation with anyone who lived through the earthquake as it seems too painful a topic to broach. As I mentioned, the signs of it are everywhere (physical and economic) making me curious about the experience, but I imagine people want to talk about it as much as I want to talk about being in New York on September 11, 2001.