Friday, January 27, 2012

A Face in the Crowd

Juan in a million - Gyumri Day 2010
I come from New York City, a city with a population of ~8.5 million.  I now live in Armenia, a country with an official population of ~3.4 million (about the same as Brooklyn), in a city with a population of ~170,000 (less than half of Staten Island’s).  

In New York, I enjoyed a pretty high level of anonymity.  Never mind that it can feel like a small town sometimes, where everyone you meet seems to know someone else you know.  And there have been times when I have run into people on the street who don’t even live there and whose visits I hadn’t been aware of.  In most cases, I could go out, be lost in a crowd and not have to worry about anyone paying attention to me unless I did something noteworthy (falling in the middle of the street and breaking my leg being a good example).

One of the big adjustments for me here has been the absolute absence of anonymity.  We are prepped for this and are urged to be mindful about it since one of Peace Corps’ goals is “Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served”.  Since many stereotypes of Americans exist (many Armenians watch US movies and believe what they see in them to be true), we often have to counteract those – not everyone in the US is rich, not all American women are “easy”, we are not here to impose our views on others, etc.   

I can say from first-hand experience that people watch everything I do and are certain to have opinions about what they see.   During my time in Solak, I received a package from my family.  I don’t even know how people found out about it (it came through the Charentsavan post office, not the one in the village, and it was in my backpack when I entered my host family’s house) but I learned from another volunteer that I was a topic of dinner conversation at her host family’s house that night.  Not only were they speculating about the contents, but they concluded that it was sent by my wife (even though I don’t have one). 

Solak has a population of about 2,800 so I thought things would be different living in Armenia’s second largest city.  Not so much.  I stand out here also.

Armenia is a very homogenous society – about 97% of the population is Armenian with the other 3% comprising Russians, Yezdis, Iranians and various other ethnic groups.  Most Armenians have common physical characteristics – generally dark skin, thick black hair, brown or grey eyes, and caterpillar type eyebrows.   Still – I can see a lot of variation in how people look, and not just because many women here dye their hair.  I see redheads and blonds, some tend to have very fair skin, I have seen young guys that look like a group of WASP/Italian/Irish hybrid brothers I know in New York and some of the men actually do go bald.  While many are short (in Solak, I am pretty sure I was the tallest person in the village), Gyumri has a lot of people my height – including some women.  

There are many reasons people stare at me.  Baldness is not common, blue eyes are unusual, I am taller than many and facial hair is not very common (I could shave, but I prefer not to).  Armenia, especially outside Yerevan, is also a pretty conformist society and I dress differently than most of the men (although I am very glad that I brought a lot of black clothing with me).  I could conform more, but in a future post I will talk about the clothes here and why I have chosen not to follow that lead.   

So, I stand out enough that quite a few people remember me – even if we haven’t met. Over the course of the 18 months I have been in Gyumri, I have given presentations, taught classes, led clubs, been a camp counselor and been on TV a couple of times.  In most of these cases, people have learned my name while I may not have learned theirs.  Therefore, it is somewhat disconcerting when I walk down the street and hear “Hi, John!” since much of the time I can’t remember how I know the person or if we’ve even met at all.  Similarly, I get friend requests on Facebook from people I don’t recognize, and the fact that many have the same names doesn’t help.  

I don’t have it as bad as some others.  Quite a few of my fellow volunteers live in villages (some as small as a few hundred people) so everyone knows about everything they do.  The African-American and Asian-American volunteers have the added issue of being considered downright exotic, drawing extra attention.  I have heard numerous stories of kids wanting to have their pictures taken with these PCVs for no apparent reason or people taking pictures of them surreptitiously.  I recently met a PCV who had just completed his service in Ethiopia.  He lived in a remote town – four hours away from the nearest fellow volunteer.  His town was not one that tourists would normally go to, so when any white person happened to come into the town, someone would bring him to the volunteer’s door as if to say “Look what I have for you!”

While that is more extreme than my experience, here are some examples of what I have encountered:
  • Being waved down on the street by the postman who had a delivery notice for me.  I had never laid eyes on him before.
  • Entering a post office one time, and before I could even finish saying “I think you have a package for me”, I was asked “Are you John?
  • Some of my mail is delivered to the "American Corner" in Gyumri since the people in the neighborhood know I have clubs there.
  • Asking for a kilo of fruit in the market and the vendor asking me why I am not buying two kilos as I normally do.
  • Entering my local shop where I always buy eggs, the owner asking me if I want my normal six.  Another customer asks her who I am and why she knew how many I wanted and the conversation was still going in when I left.
  • The house I live behind does not have an address marker outside so people coming to visit me often have trouble finding the correct door.  If it is a fellow American, one of the neighbors is sure to point him or her to the correct one.
  • A fellow volunteer was talking about me to an Armenian and began to describe me but was cut short – “He is the one with the blue eyes”, the other person said, knowing already who I was although I don’t believe we had met.
Also, seeing as this is the Caucasus, people take the label “Caucasian” seriously.  Having filled out a questionnaire one time and marking my ethnicity as “Caucasian”, a friend of mine told me he laughed and told me to change it to “European”.

As with many other matters here, I have found that I have gotten used to it.  While waiting on a marshutni one time with a fellow PCV, we heard a group of young guys outside the vehicle talking and then laughing.  I was asked “Doesn’t it get to you – being laughed at?” I was a bit surprised at the question since it hadn’t occurred to me that they might have been.  And even times when I know people are laughing at me (the YakTrax I wear on my shoes to traverse snow and ice get a lot of attention), I can usually shrug it off. If I find someone is staring at me, I may just stare back or just smile and move on.  Life is too short to get worried about it - and if I fall on my ass on the ice I will get laughed at anyway, so I'll spare myself the pain.

As my service approaches its end, I start thinking about the “reverse culture shock” we are warned about upon returning to the US, which can be worse for some than the culture shock we experience when we start our service.  One of the factors we are told to be aware of is depression – some have trouble adjusting to not being the center of attention any longer, having to settle back into relative anonymity.  

Frankly, that is one of the things I am looking forward to.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Home for the Holidays

My second round of holidays in Armenia was very different from the first.  Last year, I attended a gathering of volunteers for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and went to Tbilisi for New Years Eve.  Due to several factors (having the flu among other things), I missed out entirely on the Armenian holiday celebration despite having heard about it for months. 

A summary of the Armenian New Year (excerpted from one provided by our Peace Corps staff) is as follows:

New Year (Nor Tari in Armenian) celebrations became very popular only in Soviet times when celebrating religious holidays was not encouraged. Most Armenians consider it the biggest and most important holiday, maybe as important as their own birthdays and anniversaries. The preparations start in mid-December when people start purchasing all kinds of food items and loading their refrigerators with various types of meat, produce, dried fruits and nuts. Some people spend all their savings, some even may borrow money, "not to disgrace themselves in front of the neighbors".

During the last days of December, housewives keep extremely busy cleaning, washing, cooking and baking. Many families decorate trees and prepare gifts for each other and especially for children. Parents usually wrap up some gifts for little kids “brought by Dzmer Pap (similar to Santa Claus). Late in the evening, families gather around a beautifully laid table and help themselves to various dishes, salads and pastries. Usually the TV is on and everybody is in festive mood. Closer to midnight the president and the Catholicos [the head of the Armenian church] speak on all local channels and congratulate the population.

As the clock strikes 12, people clink glasses and congratulate each other toasting the New Year. They eat, drink and dance; younger people get together and may stay awake until early morning. Already, close neighbors and relatives start visiting each other. It is a must to visit and congratulate older people first - parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts - as well as families where someone has died in the past year. It is a custom not to go "empty handed" but to take a box of chocolate and a drink and maybe candies and small toys for the kids in the family. These visits continue until January 13, the so called "Old New Year". This was a common tradition observed in all Soviet Republics (Russians adopted the Gregorian Calendar only in 1918, and the difference between the two calendars was 13 days; they still follow Julian calendar to celebrate Christmas on January 7). Armenian Christmas is celebrated on January 6th - the day the Western Church commemorates the epiphany.

This year, I was determined to experience Nor Tari while also spending “American” Christmas with friends.  I was away on vacation until December 24 (you can see pictures here if interested) and arrived back in Armenia at 4AM on Christmas morning.  [FYI – since Armenians don’t celebrate on December 25, I did not see Santa at the airport].  Christmas dinner was a quiet one with three other PCVs over steak and a nice bottle of wine and it was very nice.  

I arrived back in Gyumri in time for the Christmas party at my English club.  One of the purposes of the club is to share our traditions with the people here and learn about theirs.  We had a tree, one of the girls performed a nice rendition of “Jingle Bells” and we had Armenian cake and other pastries.

So as to not get caught short food-wise as I did last year, I did a fair amount of stocking up before the end of December since everything normally shuts down for Nor Tari.  As it turns out, that wasn’t entirely necessary as quite a few stores were open the entire time.  I don’t know if it is the creeping effect of capitalism or the need to make more money as the economy continues to drag but it was definitely noticeable.  Not only food stores either – I saw others selling housewares, toys and clothing.

New Year’s Eve was also a quiet dinner with fellow PCVs.  I had heard that people gathered in the main square for fireworks at midnight, but I misunderstood the magnitude.  When we arrived just before midnight, we saw about 20 people there and the only fireworks were those people had brought with them (some of which were being fired into the tree in the square).  As described above, people tend to spend it at home and we could see fireworks all over the surrounding area that people were lighting at their houses.  There were some enterprising folks, though, with props for taking pictures of the kiddies and a couple of Dzmer Paps walking around.

Times Square it ain't

I was honored to be invited to spend New Year’s Day with the family of someone I know.  I was made an honorary family member and stayed when guests visited and I also went along when they visited other families.  It was a long day that was very enjoyable and also very informative.

For the most part, the New Year Table in every house is the same – some sort of meat (turkey, beef, pork), dried meats (salami, basturma), dolma (the kind with grape leaves is standard but some have the cabbage leaf variety), blinchiks (crepes filled with meat), several types of salad, cheese, greens, fresh fruit, dried fruit, an assortment of nuts, a bowl of chocolates and plates stacked high with pastries.  Depending on the size of the spread, there will be one or more clusters of drinks – water, juice, soda, brandy, vodka and wine.  Tea and coffee are inevitably offered.  

As with any other time you visit an Armenian home, every visitor is expected to eat something (and preferably a lot), even if you have been house-hopping all day and eating at every stop.  Since this is an annual tradition, and people visit the same people each year, one learns who cooks things better (or – shamefully – buys things instead).  I am told that people may schedule their visiting based on when they want to eat something specific and who makes that best.  You often are told by the hostess that everything is homemade, just in case there is any doubt.

The newly arrived guests have their glasses filled and one of them will normally make a toast to the hosts.  As honorary family member, I was asked to take care of the glass filling duties.  Toasts I heard a lot had to do with health success and “the best things for you”.  As the token American, several times people offered toasts specifically to me. Luckily, I had memorized a couple of things to say so that I could return the toasts when that happened.

In every house I went to, the women were very busy the whole time.  When I progressed from food to dessert, my plate was replaced with a clean one.  Glasses at place settings were swapped if you wanted something different to drink.  A stack of clean dishes and glasses were needed in case a lot of guests came at once, so cleaning was going on non-stop at times as was the warming of food. 

As the tradition is one of an “open house” there are not invitations, per se.  Some visitors simply drop by (something that is not restricted to Nor Tari visits) while others call in advance.  This requires coordination within a family as there must always be someone at home while others are out in case someone comes unannounced.  I noticed that most arrived and departed at quarter hours and most would stay for multiples of 15 minutes.  The clockwork was remarkable.  

After more than nine hours of the above, I was stuffed and headed home.  For the first time I can recall here, the streets were well lit – not by the overhead street lights, but by lights over doorways, all lit to welcome visitors. Also, the iron gates outside of every home - normally kept closed day and night - were ajar.

Over the next few days, I did some house visits on my own.  While I could have done that last year and would have been welcome, I didn’t know where anyone lived and the people I did have addresses for – such as my host family – were away.  This year I got addresses in advance.  

One visit was to see my first host family in Solak.  All of Gohar’s children and grandchildren were there and it was nice to spend some time with them. Since villages are much different than cities, I was expecting it to be more low-key, but the full spread was there.

Gevorg had a little too much dolma
Although it may go on until January 13 as described above, for the most part the visiting ends on January 6, when Christmas is celebrated.  On January 13, many families do another "New Year Table" for Old New Year.  

More than once, I heard people expressing a wish that the holiday focused more on Christmas than on New Year. Given how the nation prides itself on being a Christian one, as more time passes it will be interesting to see if the focus does change over time.

While I found the traditions nice as an experience, I heard from several Armenians how much they dislike Nor Tari.  One explanation I heard was that it is too much of an obligation and not simply about spending time together – even if someone visits your home, you need to pay a visit to theirs also.  Another was that you see people only once a year so that some of the visiting is for show also and not from a sincere desire to see someone but then you are obligated to pay a return call. 

And while stores were mobbed in the last few days of December in preparation for all of this, so were the banks.  Since people don’t know how many guests they will have, a substantial sum is laid out to stock up on everything, just in case. Unlike the US, Armenians have a great aversion to debt so that tells you how important this holiday is viewed.

And then there is the time and effort involved.  I know several women who have full-time jobs who went home after work to cook late into the night.  The amount of food to prepare can be enormous (and with some of the pastries, extremely time consuming) and the women bear the brunt of cooking it all.  While most everyone has time off that entire first week, most of the women are still cooking, cleaning, serving and visiting that whole time.  Many that I know say they need a vacation more after it’s all over.

One of the families I visited has a recently-married daughter who now lives in Yerevan.  She was happy to be in Gyumri as she told me that the Yerevan people don’t adhere to the traditions as much as the rest of the country does.  She was glad to be in the familiar world, even for a short visit.  Much as people can complain about all the bother they may find they miss it if it goes away. And next year, when I am back in the US, I am sure I will miss it also.