Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Homes away from Home

My New Home

As of the week before last, I entered the third phase of my living arrangements by moving into my own place. After a village host family (with whom I was required to live during the two-plus months of training) and a permanent site host family (with whom I was required to live for the first four months after being sworn in as a volunteer), it is nice to have my own space again.

One of my biggest fears about joining the Peace Corps (aside from my ability to learn the language and whether I would be accepted as part of whatever community I was placed with) was whether I could deal with the lack of privacy for the first six months. I had lived on my own for 25 years prior to moving here and I wasn’t sure if I was too settled in my ways to adapt. As I have written previously, though, I was lucky to have two really good host families and I do believe that living with them helped me to learn the language and get acclimated to living here.

I am also lucky in that my apartment is a pretty nice one. I have four decently sized rooms (a bedroom, a living room, an eat-in kitchen, and a room I may set up as a dining room) plus a bathroom. It is behind a house and there is a yard in between that I will be able to use. It was fully furnished when I moved in, including kitchen supplies, linens, a washing machine and heaters.

The view across the yard to my landlord's house


Living room

Living room

Maybe dining room



The washing machine

Armenian homes tend to be set up differently than what I am used to so I moved some furniture around (a wardrobe was near the entry and a bureau was in the living room - both of which are now in the bedroom - and a china cabinet from the living room is now in the maybe-dining room). While the landlord seemed a bit surprised, I am free to do as I want as long as I don’t break anything (or replace / pay for anything I damage).

There are some things to get used to, though. The building is not insulated so it gets cold pretty easily. Since the utility costs are relatively high here, most of the rooms have doors you can close to control the heat. I have two Peace Corps supplied electric heaters for the bedroom, the gas heater is in the living room and the kitchen has a small electric heater of its own. Unlike many apartments here, there is a shower, water 24 hours a day and a water heater so I am finally back to daily showers. Since the bathroom is not heated, though, they tend to be quick – even more so since I am still getting used to the water heater and keep tripping something that cuts off the gas (and therefore the hot water). And the kitchen heater is not very good so the temperature in there has been holding steady at about 45 degrees lately. It’s tempting to save on electricity and just leave things on the table instead of in the refrigerator. The bed is also twin-size with a footboard, consistent with what I had in both host houses (my 6’2” frame just about fits if I squish the pillow against the headboard) and the mattresses are normally filled with wool so they are not what you would call firm (or even flat). I may be treating myself to a new one in the near future.

While the kitchens normally have stoves and ovens, I have yet to see working pilot lights. Therefore, you need to keep a ready supply of matches handy, turn on the gas and hope for the best. The electricity is also patchy so surge protectors are a must. The electric outlets in the apartment are more modern than in the Gyumri host house where I sometimes heard sparks crackling. Luckily, we are all provided with smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers and the aforementioned gas cutoff devices in our homes.

Since I had been living in one room of each of the houses for the past six months, I had not fully unpacked everything I brought with me or the things that were shipped to me later. Now that I have space to spread out, I have come across things that I completely forgot about. I now feel more prepared for the winter and am glad that I can further delay the inevitable purchase of clothes here. While I don’t mind wearing black (and a lot of the clothes I brought are), I can do without the fake designer logos and the pointy shoes that would make my already large feet look more ridiculous.

But I have to cook for myself again (I can hear those of you in New York laughing). Probably the best thing about living with a host family is that I got really good food made for me every day. While there are caf├ęs and restaurants here, the living allowance we receive doesn’t permit eating out the way I used to (that is, two of three meals every day). So I have spent the last few days stocking up on things I need, scoping out the different stores and market stalls and cultivating relationships with the owners. I haven’t gotten ambitious yet but I have the cook book that Peace Corps has compiled over several years with recipes from volunteers here so watch out.

I am lucky that I got the apartment easily (for the past few years it was rented to other Peace Corps volunteers and the landlord seems to like having us as tenants). Renting an apartment here is a challenge for a variety of reasons. Most people own their homes, having gotten them awarded upon independence from the Soviet Union. There are few rental agents and not many listings in the few newspapers here and if you do find one, the landlord may be inclined to charge more for rent to a foreigner. While there seem to be many vacant apartments (due to new construction or families living abroad due to the lack of work here) some people are hesitant to enter into a lease since the economy may turn around at any time (a sentiment that seems to be driving the substantial amount of construction here). And many people may be hesitant to rent to a single man since men tend to not live on their own (see below). Therefore, the key is to know someone or take over an apartment that another volunteer lived in. Most volunteers lean heavily on their co-workers for assistance or just go door-to-door looking.

Over the six months I have lived here, I have seen a variety of homes – in villages, in Gyumri, and in Yerevan. I have been in homes occupied by Armenian families (the most pared down as far as amenities that we are used to and running the gamut from rustic to pretty comfortable), occupied by other volunteers (generally pretty nice) and occupied by expatriates (sweet!).

The principal difference in the homes is that Armenians typically do not live alone and some cannot understand why Americans prefer to do so (and the Peace Corps does not allow volunteers to share living quarters except for the married couples so we don’t even have the option). In a typical Armenian home, at least one son never moves out and when he marries his wife moves in (and since her new father-in-law may never have moved out when he married, she may also be living with her grandmother-in-law). If a son does leave the family home, it is normally when he is the second son who marries and moves in with his wife. Both host families I have lived with were unusual since only the parents (and in one case a grandmother) were there. But in Solak, their only son is away for his compulsory army service and will return next year. And in Gyumri, the sons moved to Russia since there are few jobs here. But in both cases, other family members (sister, daughter, nephew, grandchild) visit often and stay over frequently. Every Armenian home I have been in has couches everywhere that serve as beds for visiting family or guests (the couch in my living room is typical).

The homes I have been in also had one central room for entertaining – including sofas, television, a dining table, sometimes a piano (I have a piano now but the landlord plans to sell it). During cold weather, other rooms may be sealed off so only this central room needs to be heated. Some families also sleep in these central rooms for the entire winter. While the previous tenant in my place did that I do not plan to but it depends on how brutal the winter turns out to be.

Home ownership in Armenia includes apartments but there is little in the way of common area improvements. One of my fellow Gyumri volunteers lives in a building that survived the earthquake, partly because the ground floor was flooded to save the structure (I am not an engineer and don’t know what that did but the place is still standing). The water damage is still evident to the extent that the building looks abandoned from the outside and upon entering, although the apartment itself (on the second floor) is beautiful. And I have seen quite a few buildings open to the elements with lingering earthquake damage, but with individual units in the building that seem to be nicely renovated and occupied.

Right after I moved, I paid a visit to the Solak family and I was again reminded how much my conditions had improved. We spent most of the time huddled around the wood stove in their living room which is smaller than the space I have to myself now. While I have my indoor plumbing, some of them used the outhouse while others found ways to avoid it but I won’t go into details here. I have 24 hour water but the water installation in the village that was supposed to reach everyone by November did not make it to them yet (“probably next year”). But now there is a faucet in the kitchen sink, so they are getting ready. Despite the lack of amenities, they made me very comfortable again and I am glad that I visited.


Yesterday was the anniversary of the 1988 earthquake. Everywhere I went, I saw people buying flowers and carrying them to various places to lay them. All over the city there are khatchkars (cross stones) often with a dedication to someone who died, and white flowers were laid by many of them.

The main cathedral has a statue in memory of the victims and there were wreaths set up and mournful music playing over loudspeakers. I didn’t go by the cemeteries but I saw many people heading toward them. In the nearby village of Shirak, a cemetery was created after the earthquake to accommodate the victims and I am sure that was very busy also.

As I have written previously, many people who lost their homes in the earthquake are still living in “temporary” housing – 22 years later. The houses are “domiks” – railroad cars converted into living spaces. I often see people from domiks getting water from the public water fountains, presumably because they have no water source of their own. Periodically, the government announces with great fanfare that another group of families have been moved into apartments but there are still quite a few areas with people still awaiting theirs.


Just as there were signs of fall, there are signs of winter as well, even though we haven’t had any snow yet. Many houses still use wood for heat, so as winter approaches a wood-smoke fog descends over Gyumri every night. And for some reason I am still trying to understand, most of the tree branches are cut off. I have asked several people and two told me that the branches are cut so that they grow back better in the spring. I am not a botanist, but that sounds like when I used to hear about people cutting their hair so it would grow in thicker. In any event, the pictures below are of the same street near the main square – in the summer and last week.


Last week was the annual Armenia All-Volunteer (“All-Vol”) conference in Yerevan. It started with two days of meetings for the 2010 group which included refresher meetings on language, administrative matters that we now need to deal with and technical updates. The following days included sessions including the 2009 group and covered a variety of topics and a speech by the US Ambassador to Armenia. But the highlight of the entire conference was the Thanksgiving dinner that we had on Monday night (a few days after actual Thanksgiving). A small group of volunteers managed to make a dinner for about 120 people that included turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, vegetables and 25 pies made from scratch. After dinner there was a talent show that was by turns touching and funny. While I have often been outside the US for Thanksgiving, it was usually part of a relatively short trip. And while I have not been as homesick as I imagined I would be by this point, it was nice to have the event so fully celebrated to get me back in touch with what I am missing back home.