Sunday, July 29, 2012

You've Got Mail

One of the welcome changes from being in Armenia these past two years is the absolute absence of junk mail.  When I live in New York and go away for two weeks for vacation, I return home to a pile of mail nearly a foot high - magazines, bills and tons of catalogs and other marketing driven mail. Mail in Armenia is not a foreign concept, but (as with everything else) it is very different from the US.

During training, we had a language lesson about dealing with the post office and the related vocabulary.  We also learned that the address format here is the reverse of the one we use in the US.  Specifically, the format is:

Republic of Armenia
Marz (region) name
City/town/village name
Street address

Our homework assignment was to ask our host families for the mailing address of our house and bring it to class.  I knew I was dealing with a different reality when my host mother looked at me like I had two heads.  She told me that if I ever wanted to send them a letter, simply address it to "Solak Village - Gohar and Razmik" and they would get it.  I asked about their surname (which I still to this day do not know) and she told me it is not necessary - everyone knows them.  [I subsequently learned that wives do not always take the husband's surname upon marriage, so not all family members have the same one - but I digress.]

I did not know at the time that Gohar works in the post office, but I don't think that is even relevant.  A former Armenia PCV sent a postcard to one of my fellow volunteers last year and the address (written in English) comprised the volunteer's name, his town and "Armenia" and it reached him. What is more important in may cases is to specify the marz (region) since there are multiple villages in the country with duplicate names (one of my sitemates learned that the hard way when she thought she found a 20 minute shortcut to a village that normally takes three hours to reach - oops - but, again, I digress).

Since that experience, I have learned that many people don't know their post code, where their local post office is, or even what their full mailing address is for one simple reason - they don't get mail.  One of the lifelines for a lot of PCVs is letters and packages from home, so you learn a lot of interesting lessons in trying to navigate the system that does exist.

For example, the time required for something to reach you here can vary widely.  We are told to use the US Postal Service only because there is some sort of agreement that allows us not to deal with some of the customs formalities that might be applied to the courier services such as FedEx and UPS.  But more importantly - those services do not normally deliver outside of Yerevan.  While a FedEx package might reach Armenia sooner, getting the package would entail a trip into Yerevan once you know it has arrived, and maybe a trip to the airport to pick it up.

But following the USPS route is not foolproof either.  My first year here, I left my winter clothes in New York and asked that they be mailed to me once I had a mailing address.  My brother-in-law mailed two boxes to me - both the same size and nearly identical weight and mailed at the same time.  One of  the boxes reached me in four weeks, the other in eight. In tracking the packages (thank you Priority Mail!) I saw that both reached Yerevan the same day, but one was returned to Newark where it sat for a few weeks and then came back again. I have no idea why it got waylaid.

Once the packages reach Yerevan, they are put on a train to Gyumri and I need to trek to the post office adjacent to the train station to retrieve them. It takes me about 30 minutes to walk there and I don't mind it  except that recent packages did not go there, but instead went to one of the local post offices.  I never got an explanation as to why the process changed, but that made me realize how few people here know where the post offices are - it took me two days to locate "Post office 18" (this was made more difficult because people here give directions without really knowing street names, but I digress yet again).

But the combination of the small-town feel of Gyumri (that is - how much people know of my business) and Armenian resourcefulness makes it a bit easier sometimes.  When a package for me was mailed to my Gyumri host family's address after I had moved out (and after they had decamped to Russia for a while) the mailman heard (I suppose from the neighbors) that I sometimes worked at the American Corner which is nearby.  So, he brought the letter there and left it for me. For the next couple of months, any mail I received was delivered there, even when the correct address was used. Another time, a mailman saw me near my apartment and chased me down the street to give me a package notification slip - even though I had never laid eyes on him before.  Likewise, when I finally tracked down the post office I needed to go to for the first of the packages that didn't go to the central location, I walked in and didn't need to ask about a package - one woman took one look at me and asked "Are you John?"

In any event, you had better have your passport with you to pick something up.  Passports seem to be the most widely used form of ID here and heaven help you if you can't prove your identity - even if they seem to already know who you are.  The information is entered manually into a big book; you sometimes see carbon paper (remember that?) if duplicate copies are needed.

Mailing things out is interesting also.  There is no apparent standard stamp rate here as every letter is weighed and postage charged accordingly.  In my first visit to a post office in Armenia, I sent a few postcards out.  Since the hours are irregular at best (many close for a lunch break and this was in a village so there are many reasons people wouldn't show up at regular hours) I decided to buy some stamps for future mailings.  When I asked to buy them, I was met with confusion as I did not have a letter to weigh so there was no way of knowing how much postage I would need.  I was still in the very preliminary stages of language learning  - plus the concept of no minimum postage was alien to me - so the whole exchange must have been comical to the other people there.  Finally, she sold me a couple of stamps, probably just to make me go away.  I still have them.

I have since learned to navigate the system and have successfully mailed various items, although I have no explanation as to why some things reach the US in two weeks while a letter mailed to England took four months.

I was in for a shock when I paid a recent visit to mail some of my things back to New York as I wind down here.  I had heard previously that packages needed to be mailed from Yerevan but recently learned that I could mail from one particular post office in Gyumri.  Whether the old information was incorrect or if the system had changed is unknown to me  - I was just excited that I could mail locally.  I decided to do a test package to gauge the process, the cost and the speed.  I packed a box the size of a shoebox with things that were non-essential but which I wanted to keep and packed it up in a way that I thought would be acceptable.  When I got to the post office, I was told by the very stern lady who handles packages that I needed to open it so that she could inspect the contents.  I did so and (although she did not look at everything) she asked me to explain certain items (as if she had never seen socks or glass jars before). 

Four copies of the mailing label were needed and this was not a carbon paper kind of place - I had to fill it out by hand four times.  And she required my passport to mail the package.  She then proceeded to wrap the entire box with packing tape so that in the end it looked like something I expected the post office in the US to treat as suspicious.  The kicker was that a 3 kilo package (about 6.6 pounds) cost 50 bucks to mail.  Looks like more of my stuff here would move into the no-longer-needed category.

Yesterday, I had to mail a letter-sized envelope to my Solak host mother (she of the unnecessary surname and street address).  The envelope contained a stack of photographs and a small flash drive I was sending so the family would have the electronic versions of the pictures. It turns out the stern package lady is also the person one needs to deal with when sending a letter also (this was told to me by another woman there whose purpose is a mystery to me if she is not responsible for letters or packages; since people pay utility bills at the post office, maybe that's her job, but I digress again).

My "customer service representative" looked suspiciously at the envelope which I had sealed with packing tape since the glue on envelopes doesn't tend to hold.  She asked me what was inside, which I thought unusual and which made me think also that either she generally distrusts foreigners or takes her job too seriously.  I am not aware of any customs restrictions on mail within the country but she started to make a big deal when I mentioned the flash drive and consulted her supervisor.  Thankfully, his response was sane: it's being mailed within the country - what's the problem? She asked for my passport and I think my surprised expression actually shut her up.  She seemed disappointed that the postage for this envelope was only 220 dram (about 55 cents).

But the funniest post office story I have relates to something the USPS botched, but in a very creative way.  The post code for my office is 3104.  I went into the post office near work one day to mail something and a woman who worked there said she needed  my help and produced a letter addressed to someone with an American sounding name - maybe I know him, she thought.  I looked at the envelope and saw that it was mailed from Tampa, Florida to another address in Tampa, Florida.  The mailing address, however, was 3104 N. Armenia St. (I looked on Google Maps - it's a legitimate address).  Despite normal US postage, the correct ZIP code on the mailing address, and no indication whatsoever that it was going to a foreign country, it made it's way here.  

Maybe it would have helped if the person mailing it had needed to show a passport.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Woman of Substance

Peace Corps has an initiative project to encourage volunteerism in the countries in which we serve.  The following is an article that I wrote to recognize one of the people I have worked with during my time in Armenia. 


In my conversations with Armenians, I am often asked about why I came here when the US has so much more.  “Why would you leave the US to come to Armenia??”  I explain my various reasons but also explain that, in the US, there is a well established tradition of volunteering.  

Armenia also has a history of volunteering, but of the Soviet kind.  During the 70 years when Armenia was part of the USSR, there were sometimes “Volunteer Days” declared, but the difference was that attendance was mandatory.  So, the confusion when I tell people I am a volunteer can be understood. 

Another legacy of the Soviet time, however, is the belief that the government should do everything.  While people complain about many things here, the complaints are often accompanied by a complaint that the government is not doing anything about it.  There is a lack of civic involvement, even with respect to things like trash – people litter all the time but think the government should be responsible for cleaning it up.  

In my conversation club, we talk about volunteerism occasionally and I give examples of how people can help others here – for example, those with even a moderate command of English can coach children who are just starting to learn, people can do trash clean-ups in their neighborhoods, time can be spent with children at an orphanage.  The response is normally a list of reasons why it wouldn’t work or be appreciated or various others excuses for not doing things. 

So it is always refreshing to meet someone like Hasmik.

I first met Hasmik a few months after I moved to Gyumri, with a big smile that I have never seen her without. She was attending a project design and management workshop with other alumni of a program through which she spent a year in the US (more on that below).  Since then, she has worked with me and other Peace Corps volunteers in teaching HIV/AIDS education seminars, as a youth camp counselor, helping with a children’s poetry recitation contest, and participating in a program to increase volunteerism. She is the person I immediately think of when an Armenian volunteer is needed for a project.

She was born in Gyumri and is of the generation born after the earthquake, for which the aftermath has been a daily presence their entire lives.  She lives with her parents and younger brother in a district created to replace housing destroyed in the earthquake.  When she was 6 years old, her mother started teaching her English letters along with English language poems and songs. She has been studying the language since then.

At the age of 15, she had what she describes as “a life changing experience” when she entered the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program to study in the US for a year.  FLEX is a very competitive program open to high school students in 10 of the former Soviet Union countries.  To apply, you must already have a good command of English, be energetic and committed to do volunteer work – both while in the US and after returning.  Her family was supportive, seeing the program as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, although her father was concerned about whether it would be detrimental to her performance on university entrance exams by taking away study time.  Ultimately, the decision was made to enter the program.  Considering that Armenian society is very protective of girls, who normally live with their families until marriage and then with their in-laws after, the idea of a girl going away to live with strangers is alien to many people.  The fact that Hasmik’s family saw the opportunity the program offers and supported her desire to go tells me a lot about how they helped develop her character.  I know of other, very qualified women who were not able to enter the program because their parents did not permit it.

As a member of the FLEX program, Hasmik lived in San Antonio, Texas – not exactly an Armenian hub in the US – while the other FLEX students were in other communities throughout the US.  She lived with a host family the entire time and attended the local public high school.  Her host family spent some of the year in Indiana, so she was exposed to two very different regions of the US.  I can’t help but to compare the idea of moving across the globe alone as a teenager (usually for the first time traveling outside the country) with the Peace Corps program where volunteers are all well above high school age, receive language and cross-cultural training upon arrival, and live in the same village as other volunteers as we settle in.  This comparison makes me believe that Peace Corps volunteers have a lot we can learn from these students.

The FLEX program requires students to volunteer for 30 hours during their year in the US.  Hasmik’s volunteer work included working in her school library and in a nursing home – and totaled about 150 hours. It was her first experience with volunteering but it was something that resonated with her and that she continues to do. In her view, she does not see being involved as volunteer service, but rather “as a social duty that as a true citizen, I have to do.”

Since returning, Hasmik has been studying full time to obtain a degree in English.  Despite 20 hours of classes and countless extra hours of studying, she devotes much of her free time to volunteer work.  Beside the activities with PCVs, she also volunteers with the Jinishian Memorial Foundation’s Civic Dialogue and Action project, the OSCE’s Anti-Corruption Student Working Group, and the Gyumri Student Council of the Armenian Apostolic Church.  She recently worked with the “Melodies of Peace” project – an international your orchestra with musicians from Armenia, Georgia and Turkey.  She is the Gyumri representative of FLEX alumni, and is also working as a Student Ambassador for the organization that runs the FLEX program (American Councils), teaching students about the benefits of studying in the US and helping them learn about the application process and all that involves. 

As to her future, she wants to learn more and experience more.  She plans to enter the European Volunteer Service (whereby people from one country travel to another for specific volunteer projects) and then pursue a degree in Communication and Conflict Management.  

So what motivates her?  How does a Hasmik come to be?  She credits the FLEX program and the challenges it presented to her. “At first, you don’t really see the changes” she told me. “They are not very visible for you. But after some time, you realize that the person you are now is the result of all the obstacles and difficulties that you overcame while living all on your own.

“What I have learned from my volunteering experience is that there are some people, who are always motivated and it is their type. I am among them. Although sometimes I get tired or discouraged by the indifference and inert state of people around me, it doesn’t stop me from what I do. I am always motivated, because to really make a change you have to take little steps. Eventually, those steps will lead you to real success.  Also, there are people [whose] example is a motivation itself. My hero for this is Mother Teresa, who inspires and motivates me.”  There are others like Hasmik in Armenia, and each time a PCV meets one it encourages and motivates us that our work is worthwhile. 

So what next? “As far as for now, I don’t know where the waves of life will take me. I keep planning things but as new opportunities come up, I take advantage of them.  I think I will stay in Gyumri, but as I said, nothing is for sure.”   

For Gyumri’s sake, I hope that she continues as a force of nature here for a long time.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

You Oughta Be In Pictures

One of the primary communication tools that PCVs in Armenia (and probably other countries) use is Facebook.  We all have cel phones, the office in Yerevan sends out regular updates on things via email, but if you want to know what your fellow volunteers are up to, you need to look at Facebook regularly.

For Armenians, though, Facebook is relatively recent.  A similar Russian site (Odnoklassniki - meaning "classmates") is the primary site people use, but since it is all in Russian I haven't.  Facebook's popularity is growing rapidly, though, and it is following the same path that it did in the US at first - and that means people seem to want to add friends, even if they don't know them well (or at all).

As a result, I get a lot of friend requests from people I don't remember, but whom I met at some point.  As I have written before, I am easily remembered for not being an Armenian and many people here have the same name so I don't always know which Armine or Hovhannes is sending me a friend request.  Since I am the only John Kelly in Armenia (at least of people on Facebook) I am really easier to find than if I was one of the myriad Gagik Grigoryans (do a search for that name if you don't believe me). The most confusing is a friend request from someone who uses a made up name and has a cartoon angel for a profile picture and all other pictures hidden from non-friends.  I once got chastised from one of those people for not accepting her friend me crazy.

Most times when I have accepted a friend request, I log in a day later to find that I have dozens of notifications.  As I scroll through them, they are all about my new friend liking one of my photos or photo albums and/or commenting on them.  [Someone mentioned to me that this is because of how Odnoklassniki is set up in that the site asks you to rate people's pictures when you view them.] Considering that I have a lot of pictured posted on Facebook, there can be quite a few of those notifications.  Another Armenian with whom I am Facebook friends (who is also connected to a number of other volunteers) spent a lot of time going through our pictures and tagging herself.

But once you are connected, it is interesting to see the pictures that they post on their own profiles. 

First, there is the sheer volume. I think this is a world-wide issue caused by the ease of uploading from a memory card, but there seems to be no editing of what is uploaded.  It is not uncommon to see 100 or more pictures from one party/wedding/day in the park/conference, with many that are out of focus, odd shots of floors or ceilings or repetitive group shots.

It is also pretty common to see someone post a whole group of shots of herself (some guys do this also, but it is mostly the girls) that she had someone take of her - in the park, in the square, near the lake - a sort of a mini-portfolio. Similar to the way people dress, a lot of the pictures can be kindly described as "provocative".

Maybe as evidence of budding Photoshop skills, some of these pictures then get put into rather creative backgrounds.

And then there are the group shots. Armenia is a very social society and there are a lot of youth groups - whether for social purposes, for training of some sort, for church gatherings - and when the groups get together, pictures are always on the agenda.  Beside the mandatory get-everyone-in-the-picture group photos, there are four other distinct categories that I see posted often:

The Circle from Below
The Circle from Above
The Hand Circle
...and my favorite, The Shoe Circle
These are normally tagged to show whose hands or feet are in the picture. I don't really get it, so maybe I am missing something.   

Another common posting is pictures with no caption, but with various friends tagged.  Many of these are pictures of floral bouquets such as this one, which had about 20 people tagged in it.

These are especially common around Valentine's Day, Women's Day and other holidays, but sometimes a girl just wants to let her friends know she is thinking about them.

The pictures on Facebook also highlight something I find remarkable.  We have a running joke about the stoic Soviet era non-smile that you see in a lot of "official" pictures, school photos, wedding photos and just in general around people's homes.  But in the pictures on Facebook, people are usually smiling.  I first thought it was a generational thing, but some of the Armenians I have friended are adults - and they have smiling pictures also. 

Another victory for social media. Say "cheese".