Tuesday, November 15, 2011

And the Strangest Things Seem Suddenly Routine

I suppose that it is an understatement that time adds perspective to things, yet with the quickening passage of time the change in your view can really surprise you with how sudden it seems. 

This phenomenon repeatedly comes into focus the longer the newer group of volunteers is here in Armenia.  As they go through their first experiences in country, my group goes through its second round.  As I try to give advice as winter approaches and about how to settle into living alone here (the newer volunteers are now able to move out from their host families’ homes if they wish) I often forget how surprising some things were this time last year.  When I recently advised someone “unless you are planning to take one in to live with you, don’t get too attached to the puppies here” it was later described as one of the saddest things that person had heard in a while. While I have no problem owning up to being cynical, I don’t think that is the reason why little makes me stop and do a double-take (although “TIA”, meaning “This is Armenia” does pop up as an explanation a lot).  

So here is a partial list of things that may still annoy me, make me laugh or make me sad but don’t really surprise me.  I can mention them casually in a conversation, forgetting that is was all news to me a short time ago:
  • ·         Electricity cutting off for no apparent reason.  This can mean having to read by candlelight or my coworkers not being able to work (I use my laptop so power failures don't normally stop me).
  • Scheduling laundry based on when the power is strong enough for the spinner in the machine to work sufficiently.
  • Scheduling showers around variations in water pressure or foregoing one entirely because I took one within the last three days.
  • Being unable to flush a toilet in someone’s apartment because the water schedule for that town (or street, or building) doesn’t allow it at that time of day. That is if the person even has a flush toilet.
  • Vegetables that can sit on the table unused for days and not spoil.
  • Having a room that can serve as a refrigerator.
  • Keeping one room in my home warm while I am able to see my breath in all of the others.
  • Sleeping in bed, inside a sleeping bag, along with several blankets on top.
  • People who cut into a line with no argument from anyone who has been waiting.
  • Seeing a guy wearing dress shoes with a track suit or a girl in church with cleavage-enhancing clothing.
  • Seeing guys in dress shoes walk easily across ice and snow [especially considering that is how I broke my leg a few years back].
  • Seeing women in spike heels walk easily across ice and snow [when asked, they will explain that the heels are safer since they act as ice picks].
  • Boys who appear to be 14 being served beer in a cafĂ©.
  • Knowing a dentist with his own practice who is 22.
  • Weddings that take place any day of the week (and learning a coworker is not in the office because of he or she is attending one of those weddings).
  • Seeing someone buy a shotglass full of sunflower seeds and having them put in his back pocket (loose) for easier snacking access
  • A car covered in Dolce & Gabbana logos.
  • Seeing used Coke bottles being used as containers for benzene, homemade vodka and/or homemade wine.
  • Being waved down on the street by the postman since everyone in the neighborhood obviously knows the American in their midst.
  • Leaving letters at the post office and never knowing if they will be delivered.
  • Bottles of wine and vodka that are “expensive” if they cost more that the equivalent of $5.
  • My standard for wine declining from “good” to “drinkable”.
  • Seeing dogs, cats or cows eating out of trash bins or seeing cows in a road.
A fellow volunteer shared an experience when his girlfriend came to visit and they went to the training village where he had lived.  She was bothered by the sheer number of flies everywhere which he had stopped noticing.  While we in New York perceive flies as a sign of uncleanliness, in Armenia they are a natural byproduct of having livestock around.

Another point of evidence that my perspective has changed is that I am taking fewer photographs lately.  While I took hundreds of pictures in the first months I was here, the sight of a collapsed building, a rail car converted into a house, a cow eating trash, Soviet symbols and other things that were fascinating early on are not as noteworthy now.  But, as I have written before, some things are changing here so I find myself revisiting earlier photos to keep a record of the changes. 


And this next one only took a few weeks to change.

While I am impressed with myself that I have gotten used to the inconveniences here, I have decided not to visit the US during my service, partly because I fear having to get used to everything again.  My living circumstances have improved from my Solak house (no indoor plumbing, no running water) to my Gyumri host house (indoor plumbing, running cold water) to my apartment (running hot water and a very decent bathroom) so I am content.  But that is not to say that I wouldn't like to take showers more than once a day if the mood struck me.  If I were to visit the US now, I am not likely to be so acclimated to Armenian life as to not take a shower because I don’t expect running hot water there 24/7, but I don’t think that I would want to have to re-acclimate when returning. 

In the meantime, being an “experienced” volunteer doesn’t protect me from being caught off guard by the earlier onset of cold weather this year.  While we did not have a serious snowfall last winter until New Year, we got about six inches of snow in Gyumri last Friday – and we were late to the party since other areas had snow on the ground at Halloween.  But again, the perspective has changed – it is not how cold it is, just that it's come earlier.

The view from my kitchen on Saturday morning
Living here has also given me a new perspective in other areas.  I recently re-read Animal Farm by George Orwell, which I can appreciate much more now than I could when I was in high school.  Back then, I had no clue about what it was satirizing.  I don’t by any means consider myself an expert on the Russian Revolution, the socialist system or what life under Stalin was like, but I have now lived for a year and a half in a country that was one of the “neighboring farms” for 70 years.  And I think I can understand how people can be made to believe that their lives are better than they are since I often meet people nostalgic for the Soviet period.  

While 99.5% of votes were cast for Armenian independence in 1991, it is clear that nobody foresaw the economic consequences (particularly those caused by ancillary factors such as the subsequent war with Azerbaijan and Turkey closing its border in sympathy with Azerbaijan).  What people recall is that during the Soviet times, everyone had jobs, food and heat.  Few seem to care that there were drawbacks in the Soviet system as much as they do about not having sufficient money to live on now.  Never mind that the Soviet Union could probably not have survived much longer economically – the response is normally that things were better then.  

So, with all the talk lately about Russia forming a new Eurasian Union (including this article), I will be very curious to see how far Armenia will take its alliance with Russia. Maybe things will get better, maybe not.  I guess it all depends on how you look at it.