Friday, March 30, 2012


Every four months, we need to submit a form to Peace Corps to report on progress in various areas.  One question that we need to answer is "How integrated do you feel in your community?" This is always a difficult question to answer because it depends on the place where you are assigned to live, the circumstances of your work assignment, and on you individually.

As I wrote previously, I don't think I will ever fully blend in here as anyone who looks at me can tell I am not Armenian. No matter how long I study the language, I can't imagine myself being so fluent that I would not still have to say "I don't understand"sometimes and no matter how long I live here, there are certain customs that will always seem odd to me because I have not grown up with them.

Regardless of that, on my latest report I finally notched up my answer from "Somewhat integrated" to "Integrated".  It is something that I think about a lot and it was the accumulation of various things that finally allowed me to claim that.  As I think back on my time here so far, I can identify specific things that have signaled my acceptance by the people here.

Taking pictures.  I learned early on that people here like to have their pictures taken.  I sometimes walk around with my camera and people will call me over asking me to photograph them. Later on, I usually brought prints to them which has led to anything from nodding acquaintances, to people stopping me on the street to chat, to getting discounts or free stuff from the people selling in the market.  

Working in the hay fields.  Living in Solak, everyone knew I am from New York.  I imagine they viewed me as a "city-slicker"or whatever the equivalent Armenian phrase would be. For most of the time I lived there, when I offered help to my host father with any physical work he would decline.  But when the beginning of August rolled around and the family headed to the hay fields, I was asked to come along.  Although it was a much longer day than I expected and I got pretty severely dehydrated, working alongside the two sons-in-law gave me some credibility.  I noted a breakthrough when, during one of the breaks we took, one of the sons-in-law (Gagik) sat right next to me, close enough for our shoulders to touch.  While in New York sitting this way in a wide open field would seem like an invasion of space, here I recognized it as a sign that I was accepted as a friend. Now, when I go back to Solak for visits, Gagik is the one hanging around with me (like young Gevorg does).

Dancing in the square.  A few months after I moved to Gyumri, there was the annual Gyumri Day celebration.  I went, intending to just stand on the sidelines and observe, take some pictures and soak up the atmosphere.  At one point, I was standing with some other volunteers and a group of teenagers waved us over.  After the usual questions, they resumed the dancing that Armenians are compelled to do any time there is a crowd and music and they suggested we join in.  I have never been big on dancing, particularly when it is of a national variety that has prescribed steps for different songs and I can't even differentiate those.  But, having learned a lesson from a Greek wedding I attended years ago, I jumped in and faked it.  And the response was enormous - like speaking, it doesn't matter if you do it badly as long as you try.  And some people told me that I looked like I knew what I was doing. Forget "dance like no one is watching" - this is more like "dance although you know you are on television". And I was.

Participating in Vardevar and snowball fights. Before I moved into my apartment, I had heard from another volunteer who had lived there that the kids in the neighborhood were unfriendly.  After living there for a while, even though I didn't find them unfriendly our relationship was mostly cordial.  When Vardevar rolled around last year (see my post about that here) I arrived home in the middle of the day to see a full-blown water fight in the middle of the street.  They stopped for me at first but, when I let it be known that I was willing to take part, all hell broke loose and we all had a lot of fun. Since then, the kids go out of their way to say hello to me, shake my hand and are completely friendly.  Early in the winter, when I took part in a snowball fight with them, that sort of cemented it.   

Accepting a coffee invitation.  One of the neighbor kids stopped me on the street one day and invited me into his house to meet his family. I used to feel really awkward about accepting invitations like that, but realized that if people are going out of their way to invite you, the least you can do is graciously accept. Over the course of a half hour, I was given a lot to eat, I was treated to the younger brother's singing (Italian arias!), and I formed a sort of bond with the people I could really now call neighbors. You get a lot of questions - why are you here? which is better - the US or Armenia? where have you visited in Armenia? do you like it here? - but find that people are not being nosy, they are generally interested.  And you come to realize that not only are people being polite, but they seem honored to have you as a guest.

Subsequent times I was invited over by someone I had met on the marshutni from Tbilisi, a man who I simply knew from seeing on the street all the time and a family from whom I asked directions. Some of these families clearly had little money but bombarded me with things to eat and drink. Another keeps calling me (from another part of the country) asking when I will come back so he can have a khorovats for me. Time permitting, I accept these invitations readily now because, early on in my time in Gyumri, I was invited into someone's house for coffee and reflexively (and truthfully) answered "I don't like coffee."  I have been kicking myself about that ever since.

Accepting an arm-wrestling challenge. When I first discovered the gym that I now go to, everyone there wondered what I wanted and why I was there.  Few of them speak English and my knowledge of Gyumri dialect was (and still is) very limited, so I would just go and do my workout and not really engage with anyone.  Periodically, the guys there start challenging each other to arm-wrestling matches and everyone else gathers to watch while I continue with what I am doing.  One day, one of the regulars sent someone over to me to ask if I wanted to arm-wrestle.  The challenger is about half my age and noticeably strong (my nickname for him is "Wolverine") so I knew I would get crushed.  My response was "why not?" and, as expected, it was over in about half a second (a full second if you count the second time he beat me).  From then on, though, when I see the others from the gym - either there or in other parts of the city - I get a nod, a hello, or even get called "akber jan" or "ap jan" - sort of an Armenian way of calling someone "buddy".

Being interviewed on TV.  This one is odd because it actually caused some trouble.  I attended a meeting about a program for people in Armenian civil society organizations that sends them to the US for six weeks to observe the US legal system.  I stepped out into the hallway at one point and a TV reporter asked if he could interview me.  I brought along someone to translate and answered his questions in English.  When the news story ran, though, my voice had been dubbed over and words put in my mouth different that what I actually said - they had me saying things that were very critical of the Armenian legal system. Various American officials who learned of the broadcast had to be assured of what I had (and had not) said and, to my knowledge, the matter got smoothed over.  Shortly after that, I was walking down the street and a woman I had never seen before approached me, shook my hand without saying a word and walked away.  A man in the market likewise called me over to say hello and has been very friendly to me ever since. I must point out that I don't recommend this one as an integration strategy.   

Going to a wake.  As I wrote a few posts ago, I attended a wake recently for one of my neighbors.  At first, I was hesitant to go for a few reasons - I didn't know the proper protocol, I wasn't sure who the person was, I didn't have anyone to bring me (all the other volunteers I know who have attended wakes went along with someone close to the deceased).  But I soon learned that it was the grandmother of my friendly-neighbor-kid and his Italian-aria-singing brother.  I had been in their house and met the woman and felt it was appropriate to pay my respects, even if I was solo. While I was there, I realized that it was the right thing to do despite the surprised looks on the faces of the other mourners - the mother of the family (the daughter of the deceased) seemed genuinely pleased that I had made the effort, and the friendly-neighbor-kid gave me a hello kiss - like the shoulder-touching sitting distance I mention above, a common occurrence between male friends here (this is the first time it had happened to me).  And since then, I have noticed that more of the older people in the neighborhood say hello to me on the street.

Each of these have marked instances when I could afterward notice a change in how people treat me.  Just as importantly, I can't overstate the value of just talking to people.  Many times I have hesitated to speak with people because I knew I would make mistakes.  I tend to practice in my head what I need to say but that does not prepare me for any follow up questions.  But even when a conversation goes badly and both parties involved walk away frustrated at not being able to communicate, I can tell that the effort made is appreciated.  The fact that I have bothered to learn the language at all is a sign to many people that I want to communicate.  Even if I knew Russian (which virtually everyone here speaks) that wouldn't have the same impact.   

Other volunteers have told me of great strides they have made in connecting with people by sitting down to a game of chess or nardi (a form of backgammon) - you don't even need to speak the language for that.  Having made progress with villagers, teenagers, kids, gym rats and old women, I regret that I long ago forgot how to play chess and have not yet learned nardi. But there is still time to do that and bond with the old men...and then maybe I can notch myself up to "Well Integrated" before I go home.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Get Me to the Church on Time

One of the big cultural events I was afraid I would miss out on here was going to a real wedding.  I specify a “real” wedding as I did attend a fake one last year.  [One of my fellow volunteers worked at an organization that started a “Culture Club” that has periodic events to showcase the customs of different nations.  The first event was about Armenia and they staged a wedding, with a Peace Corps volunteer as the bride and a European volunteer as the groom.  Since virtually all the people at the event were Armenian, one might ask why they needed an event to educate them about their own customs, but it was fun anyway (at least the parts I attended).]

This one didn't really count
You can always tell when there is a wedding going on in Armenia as cars speed through town honking their horns, so you hear it before you see it.  When the cars pass, you see someone with a video camera in the lead car, hanging out of a window or with his head through the sunroof, and you see an arm stuck out of a window holding a decorated sword (but more on that later). 

Weddings here happen every day of the week so the noise pollution rarely stops.  One (uncorroborated) story I heard to explain the horns relates to the Soviet period and the suppression of religion.  Since church bells could not be rung, the car horns became a substitute and the tradition stuck. 

Last year, I was told that weddings were generally not held during Lent as many people foreswear numerous things – no meat at all during the period, and you are supposed to abstain from various other things such as “carnal pleasures” - which would put a damper on the wedding business, I think.  While I did notice a reduction in wedding-related horn honking last year, there have been plenty in the main Gyumri church this year, so maybe things are loosening up.

Another difference from the US is that brides don’t buy their dresses – they rent them.  Early in my time here I started to notice a lot of shops that had both bridal dresses and flowers in the windows, which I now understand are one-stop bridal shops.

Luckily, a friend here overheard me say that I hadn’t been to a wedding and, coincidentally, his cousin was getting married two days later.  He invited me to go and I jumped at the chance.  When I accepted, he hastened to add “Bring your camera”, which made it even more interesting – I became the quasi-official wedding photographer. As a bonus, the wedding was in a village (really, in several, but I’ll get to that) where more of the traditions were held to than in the cities.

Things began at the groom’s house in Gharibjuryan, a village southwest of Gyumri.  We were told to be there by 10AM but, when we arrived, the groom was not there.  Unlike the way things are in the US, it is not unusual for the groom to help out the bride with last-minute arrangements on the morning of the wedding.  Also, he and others had been up late decorating the restaurant where the party would be later, so nobody seemed too surprised that he was late.  Plus, this is Armenia where everything is late. 

Waiting for the son
We hung around the wood burning stove with various relatives while other guys were outside decorating the cars.  There were also three musicians – one with an accordion, one with a drum and one with a clarinet.  Baskets had been prepared, filled with things for the wedding.  One held the bride’s shoes, veil and bouquet; another had chocolate and wine; another fruits and candies; yet another had wedding favors; and the last was filled with rose petals.  These would be carried from place to place throughout the day.  The table was set for a typical Armenian feast.

There are two men who perform the duties we would give to the “Best Man” – one who acts as godfather (and there is a corresponding godmother for the bride) and the “azapbashi”, who is sort of a bodyguard. The godparents are married (and I believe usually to each other and selected by the groom) while the azapbashi is unmarried.  Only the latter was present at first, as collecting the godfather is part of the process.

When the groom arrived, things started to roll.  His clothes had been laid out along with the baskets. The azapbashi helped him to get dressed and then the band started playing, and everyone started to dance.  The azapbashi carries a sword decorated with apples and ribbons, and this one had toothpicks jutting out of the apples – I suppose to prevent it being stolen.  As the bodyguard, the azapbashi must hold onto the sword and people try to steal it.  At some point, coins are added to the apples as a wish for good fortune.  
Everyone danced around the house for a while and then we all got in the cars waiting outside, the azapbashi carrying his sword and others carrying the baskets.  We were off to collect the godfather.

Now is the time in the wedding when we dance
The godfather lives in Azatan, another village southeast of Gyumri.  Because the road between the two villages was blocked from the winter’s mounds of snow, the procession drove into, through and out of Gyumri to get there.  When we got to the godfather’s house, everyone piled out of the cars, the band started again and everyone danced into the house.  The music stopped, toasts were offered (and some snacks were eaten since there was another table laid out) and then the crowd danced back outside with the godfather and back into the cars.  Then it was back to the groom’s house.

Leaving the godfather's house
When we arrived, everyone got out of the cars, the band was playing, and the crowd danced into the house again.  The music and dancing continues as the mother of the groom pinned a flower to the godfather’s jacket.  A bunch of people (mostly the men) sat at the table and started to eat the piles of food there and, of course, there shots of vodka, wine and brandy.   

Celebrating the pinning of the godfather (at center)....

...while others thought it wiser to eat.
Then, you guessed it – everyone danced back out to the cars.  This time, we were headed to the bride’s house. And by now, the crowd had gotten big enough that the procession included a rented marshutni.

An old tradition is to put a fox on the hood of the car that will get to the bride’s house first.  I haven’t gotten a good answer on what that is supposed to represent, although the old saying about “a fox in the henhouse” may be it.  Apparently, that tradition is not entirely lost as I saw one a few weeks ago.

The bride’s family lived in Keti, a village north of Gyumri and the procession headed there. When we arrived, the band started up again, the dancing resumed and everyone went into the house. By this point, we were running about two hours late and I was told that many a bride waits a long time, worrying if her groom is going to show. 

Into the bride's house
The basket with the bride’s shoes, veil and bouquet was brought to her bedroom, where she was surrounded by her female relatives and friends.  The bride’s brother put on her shoes, after carrying out the traditional “ransoming” of one of them.  He threatened not to put it on, thereby preventing the wedding, until the godfather gave him some money.  I have heard that in some places, all of the bride’s single female relatives and friends sign the bottom of the shoes (and the names get crossed off as they later get married).  I did not see that happen but it was kinda crowded….

Next, the veil was waved around the bride’s head three times while the godmother sang to her.  Similar to the signing of the shoes, sometimes the veil will also be waved above all the single ladies, but not that day. 

At some point, green and red ribbons were pinned to the groom’s shirt. Traditionally, the groom’s mother does this, with the red ribbon symbolizing health (pinned from the left shoulder down to the right) and the green ribbon symbolizes happiness (pinned from the right shoulder down to the left). Sometimes the bride’s mother is asked to assist with the ribbons “to add more motherly love as their children take one of the most important journeys of their life”.  Or something like that.

While all of this was going on, most of the men were in a separate room.  As with every other house visited in this process, there was a feast laid out with khorovats, meat, cheese, vegetables, juice, soda….and vodka, wine and brandy.  More toasts, more shots.   

The bridal party came into the room with the table o’ food and posed for pictures with the adorable kiddies who had been added to the bridal party.

Godmother, bride, groom, godfather, azapbashi and the kiddies
Once the pictures were done, the band started up again and the (even bigger) crowd danced its way out of the house to the vehicles, which by now included two marshutnis.  We got in the cars and headed into the center of Gyumri for the wedding itself.  After circling the main square (during which the marshutni I was in fishtailed during one of the turns, incidentally), we parked and everyone made their way into the church. 

The ceremony itself was shorter than I had witnessed in the US, but nonetheless interesting.  A priest read some prayers, blessed the rings and blessed the couple once the rings were exchanged.  They were brought up to the altar and crowns were placed on their heads, after which they stood with the crowns touching while the godfather held a cross at their heads.

A final blessing was accompanied by the bridal party eating the chocolate and drinking the wine that had been in one of the baskets.  After a receiving line and the taking of pictures on the altar, everyone moved outside where a pair of birds was given to the bride and groom. The birds – one representing love and the other happiness – were released and they flew off.  Or at least back to their owners down the block who rent them for these occasions. 

Then it was back into the cars and back to the groom’s house.  As we arrived the band and the dancing resumed.  Lavash (wrapped in plastic, like a sash) was placed over the shoulders of the bride and groom.  The mother of the groom had a pair of dishes prepared to welcome the newlyweds to the house (as the bride normally moves in with her in-laws).   

Get a load of these dishes
The plates were placed just inside the door and the couple stepped on them to smash them – warding off evil spirits.  And then it was more pictures and, of course, more toasts.  Then it was off to the reception.

Mazel tov!
The reception was at a restaurant in Bayandur, yet another village.  A dais was set up and tables throughout the room.  There did not seem to be seat assignments so people rushed to get the seats they wanted.  Naturally, there was food piled on all the tables – meats, cheese, greens, fruits, bread and lavash, vegetables and nuts.  And the usual assortment of mineral water, juice, soda, vodka, wine and brandy. 

When the newlyweds came in, they had their first dance and then took their place at the dais – from which they didn’t move much for a while.  At one point, the groom jumped up to dance and was dragged back to his bride by the godfather.  They did do a round of the tables at one point and did join in on one of the dances, but mostly they danced in their seats.

As more food was brought out during the party, I was surprised to see that, even though it was in a restaurant, some of the female guests were the ones bringing out the food (and maybe cooking it also).  

The presentation of the khorovats

oh shit
The same musicians from earlier in the day were also playing at the party, most of it traditional Armenian songs. During their breaks, pop music from Russia and elsewhere filled in.

From then on, it was a blur of dancing, toasts and eating.  I was cajoled into all three, but in moderation.  

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay to the end as I needed to take a taxi home and I was told I wouldn’t get one past 10:00 (the party, I am told, ended about 2:00).  As I was leaving, they were just cutting the cake and I missed the throwing of the bouquet and garter (not Armenian traditions, but seeping in from the West). And, undoubtedly, there was a lot more dancing.

Another thing that I missed was the morning after.  As I have written before, a bride is expected to be a virgin on her wedding day. Traditionally, the family of the groom brings red apples to the family of the bride the day after the wedding as a way of reporting that, how shall we say…evidence was present in the bridal chamber.    

Anyone who has read my previous post would not be surprised that, as I am told, the couple met two weeks before the wedding.  But at least the song for the first dance wasn’t this.

Given my unofficial role at the wedding, I have way more pictures in this album.

Now if I can only get invited to an Army Party….. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

On Death and Dying

Gyumri is a place where you are always reminded of death in one way or another.  While not the epicenter of the 1988 earthquake (the village of Spitak was) it was hit the hardest in terms of casualties, being a much more heavily populated area.  The collapsed buildings that remain all over the city are constant reminders.  Everyone you speak to has a story about the earthquake and knows someone who died (or, in the case of younger people, there were family members they never got to meet).

Throughout Armenia, there are also constant reminders of the Genocide.  Unlike the earthquake, which is more present due to the fact that it was relatively recent, the memory of the Genocide is kept alive in part because Armenia is still struggling for it to be recognized as such.  No matter the reason, you always meet people whose families were from Istanbul or somewhere else in Turkey and whose families fled at that time.

Everywhere you go in Armenia, you see memorials to the departed.  Many are in the form of "khachkars" (cross-stones) which are a distinct part of Armenian culture.  You may notice a strong resemblance to the Celtic cross, which was pointed out to me by the bishop with whom I work as one of many indicators that the Irish and the Armenians are related somehow.

Other memorials are in the form of fountains - some of which are simple drinking fountains, others look more decorative, but are still used by people to drink from or wash their hands.


Throughout the cemeteries in and around Gyumri (and some of the memorials along the streets) you see markings for those killed in the earthquake. Beside the telltale "1988" marking, there is usually a clock that shows 11:41, the time it hit.

Most of the graves here have pictures of the deceased.  I assume that many of the pictures are based on a favorite photograph provided by  the family, which would explain why they include the logo clothing that many people here are fond of. 

On a side note, one thing I find amazing (and which is a testament to the artistry here) is that the portraits are done freehand - not using computer technology.

As with everything else here, the rituals that people follow are interesting to me.  Recently, one of my neighbors died and I went to pay my respects to the family.  Not wanting to offend (or make a fool of myself) I asked around for the appropriate protocol and what is normally said to the family (answer: "Ցավակցում եմ ձեզ" - tsavaktsum em dzez - I sympathize with you).  As you approach the home of someone in mourning, you see the coffin lid outside and, often, flower arrangements.  As I entered my neighbors' house, the open casket was laid out in the living room surrounded by flowers, candles and benches for people to sit.  The immediate family was alongside the casket and after I offered my condolences, I sat on one of the benches.  I had been told by others that normally only women sit inside, but the cold may have kept some of the male visitors inside also. I am told that in some villages, the men and women gather in separate rooms of the house for mourning.

The sign of a funeral within

Not knowing the family too well, I didn't stay too long.  As I was leaving, I passed the group of men outside the house smoking - one aspect I had been told about that held true.

As I was sitting in the house, I had noticed that a portrait of the deceased was on the wall, with a black ribbon across one of the lower corners.  While I did not go to the funeral/burial itself, I have seen processions where the portrait is placed on the front of the lead car going to the cemetery.  After, it takes its place back in the house.

This "death picture" is another of the reminders throughout the country as almost every home I have been in has had a portrait over the living room couch.  The portraits are of the family matriarch or patriarch or both.

In Solak, Razmik's father's portrait
This is something people prepare for.  One of my fellow volunteers who left last year, a very gifted photographer, was asked by a neighbor to take her portrait for this specific purpose.  I haven't been asked a similar favor but would be honored if I was. 

Traditionally, there is another commemoration 40 days after the death and another on the one year anniversary.  One of my fellow volunteers was asked by her landlady to vacate her apartment for a funeral (the landlady's husband) and again for the 40 day commemoration.  I am not clear if these are universally formal where room needs to be made for visitors, but I do know there are informal aspects also.  These normally involve men drinking shots of vodka at the graveside.

Twice last year, I was part of an informal remembrance - once when I was on the walk across Armenia.  Approaching a village where we were spending the night, we passed a cemetery just off the road and were greeted by a group of men.  After pleasantries were exchanged, they told us all the great qualities of their friend, shared the food they had with them and shared their vodka.  And we took pictures.

So the traditions often take on a celebratory aspect - talking about the fond memories of the departed.  Just like an Irish wake....