Saturday, November 25, 2006

Americakan Despaunatoon

The American Embassy in Armenia…
I’ll be honest with you. I’ve got nothing but wonderful things to say about the people there. All those that I’ve met have been personable and desire to put forth the best American face possible while helping this country as much as possible. I have had a wonderful time and enjoy their free beer and sympathetic gifts of peanut butter and Fritos… but as dedicated American tax payers I feel it my duty to tell you what it’s like over here.
Many times these “pork barrel” policies within the US government are only able to survive because they are out of the public eye enough to not draw any attention to themselves. By flying under the radar their existence is preserved. I would categorize the American Embassy in Armenia as under said “radar.” Maybe the millions upon millions of dollars spent on the embassy compound and lavish housing for its employees is all made of that stealth bomber material. Whatever it is, it all seems a bit much. And damn it, I’m here to expose it! (All this time around former hippy / 1972 Berkeley grads who organized protests in “their day” and are now PC volunteers has gotten me all fired up about having “a cause.”)
My drive from Gyumri to the capital city rolls past many impoverished villages. Some of which sprouted up around soviet era factories that now sit unused and broken down. As one might imagine the loss of the major (almost singular) employer in the area has led to a severe lessening of their financial well being, and one can imagine how these villages look. What they do not look like is coastal Orange County California. But lo and behold as I approach the outskirts of the city of Yerevan I can look to my right and see just such a coastal Californian scene. The eye can sneak peaks through the protective walls to strips of manicured green grass and well kept streets with what look like gutters. I always expect to see Land Cruisers or other such vehicles, but I think they’re all kept in their garages. For my local readership; garages are things attached to houses that hold cars to protect them from the elements and prying eyes of bitter Peace Corps volunteers.
But the wall is not extensive enough to shield the eyes from the two and three story monstrosities inside the complex. These houses are ridiculous! I haven’t been in many of them, but the few I have been in are nonsensically nice. We’re not talking MTV Cribs here (for my older readership, ask a youngster, they’ll know) but they are way more than is necessary, prudent and culturally sensitive (I can’t believe I just used that buzz-word seriously.)
I am in no way downplaying the job that these Foreign Service officers do, only saying that there is no shortage of qualified people fighting tooth-and-nail for these Foreign Service jobs. Though I can attest that it is definitely difficult to work in a foreign country, there is no need to incentivise (according to MS Word this is not an actual “word”) these people in such a way. I happen to know that with free housing, mostly tax-free status, and life in a place with a low cost of living, the financial incentives are present. I suppose I forgot to mention that the government of our fair country (America) pays them pretty handsomely too. The demand for these jobs coupled with a small number of positions available would lead any amateur economist to the simple conclusion that excessive pay and incentives are not necessary. But this is only half of my gripe, or cause if you will.
We come to the issue of cultural sensitivity. I realize that the Embassy is not Peace Corps (an organization that wants us to live at the level of our surrounding neighbors and beneficiaries) but I do think that there is something to be said for being inconspicuous. Projecting this sort of effusive wealth to the local population does no favor to the organizations trying to convince people that they really do want to help, just because. I have a helluva (another example of an MS Word “non-word”) time convincing anyone here that I’m a volunteer. Their exposure to the excess of America that many see as a byproduct of her capitalist greed foments bitterness and distrust of Americans countrywide. I would assume worldwide also.
It just all seems so insensitive, imprudent and again… Ridiculous. It would seem obvious that it would behoove the United States Government to scale back their flashy and excessive provisions for Embassy staff. Even if it was necessary to incentivise the Foreign Service employees in this way (which I find hard to believe) it could be done in a more unobtrusive way. Maybe try and fly under the radar of the Armenian people and not the decision makers in Washington.

Post-disclaimer: In the spirit of transparency I should admit that the posting of this does coincide closely with the defeat of the Peace Corps Football team in the first annual “Embassy vs. Peace Corps Thanksgiving Football classic.” Take that as you will.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Photos finally

Hey for friends and family (and anyone interested I suppose for that matter.) I was finally able to get a good connection and post some photos. So if you want go to
login as: dmonley
password: dominic

I think the slideshow is a good way to view things

If anyone has a better way to display these photos on the internet let me know. They posted in alphabetical order, so there's no rhyme of reason to the order.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Nor Yeregha

My cousins had a baby yesterday. Michael Patrick Monley! The addition of another Monley to the earth was a big deal in pockets of the west coast and Minnesota for sure, but who could have known that a house in Gyumri, Armenia would erupt in celebration.
After receiving a call from the new uncle discussing the details of the birth, I exited my bedroom to talk with my family over dinner. I truly didn’t think that they would be too interested in the new addition to the Monley clan half a world away, but as the conversation slowed and I, always feeling awkward in times of silence (even when I don’t really speak the language) realized that I could formulate a sentence describing my new relative, burst forth with it. As my mother (who speaks some English) reformulated my word order and translated from my Armenian to actual comprehensible Armenian the family understood and the table exploded in congratulations. Hugs were spread around and the liquor cabinet was cracked. This normal Tuesday night dinner turned into a celebration of Michael Patrick.
My new host family (in great contrast to my first) doesn’t drink. In fact, I’ve never seen any one of them so much as drain a full shot glass full of wine over the course of a party, but apparently this was different. As my host brother reached to the depths of the liquor cabinet he kept producing these amazingly old bottles of cognac. I’ve a bit of knowledge regarding alcohol costs. My time spent as a bartender at a fancy establishment made me aware of the basic going rate for a decent bottle of well aged cognac. Bearing this in mind I can’t even begin to imagine how valuable the bottle of 60 year old bottle of cognac was, let alone the 85 year old one, both from which we were partaking and comparing.
As the cognac continued to flow so did the toasts. Young Michael Patrick was celebrated in proper Armenian fashion. After a couple too many toasts we came to the conclusion that indeed he would make a fine Armenian!
For me this just served as not only a way to curb my loneliness at missing such a momentous family event in America, but also another example of how gracious and genuinely caring this culture is. I’m really quite lucky to have received a Peace Corps placement in a country with such wonderful people and tradition.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Khash jasheeapse

Every sport has its finale. The World Series in baseball speaks for itself. The NBA finals is coming into it’s own as of late, as dynasties are broken and more parity takes hold. What can hold a candle to those first two days of the NCAA college basketball tournament, leading to 3 more blissful weeks of the narrowing of the field of 64 to the final 4. And college football… well, I guess not every sport has its finale.
On a much more micro level the Peace Corps in Armenia has their own little finale of sorts. I guess it’s more of a rivalry than a finale and the initial paragraph of this blog should have more fittingly talked of the Iron bowl, Kings-Lakers, Yankees-Red Sox, and Woodland vs. Davis back in the day (my apologies to all non-Yolo county residents.) In Peace Corps Armenia we draw our Mason-Dixon line somewhere around scenic Lake Sevan. This is the separating line of the volunteers from the North and the South of the country.
The Khash Bowl was explained to me as a “not so friendly” flag football game for bragging rights within PC Armenia. With all the pre-weekend discussion and trash talk I believed it. The south won last year and thus had the honors of hosting the event somewhere south of Sevan. They, being a spiteful bunch placed the game far down in the south of the country. By subjecting us to an arduous journey I’m sure they hoped to dampen our spirits and stiffen our shamefully out-of-shape bodies. Frankly, I think it worked pretty well. By the time I rolled out of the 4 hour ride on a cramped and crowded mini-bus I was a bit stiff, to say the least. I have to imagine that my fellow teammates felt the same.
The rules of Khash Bowl are simple; basic flag football. The rules are pretty much interpreted by the referees arbitrarily. My readership might imagine this a problem as the pool of qualified and unbiased American football refs in Armenia, and the Caucasus for that matter is very small (in fact, non-existent.) Thus the referees are taken from our own ranks. Since “our ranks” all live in either the north or the south (how could it be any other way) this also brings up issues. But fate is a fickle and sometimes friendly beast who afforded Peace Corps Armenia quite possibly the most over-qualified volunteer ever. Our referee was a retired Federal Court judge. And from a relatively corruption-free nation like the US, we couldn’t ask for much more.
We (the north) jumped out to a quick lead. I don’t think the south was really prepared for the grittiness of the recently-arrived volunteers from the north. The south began clawing its way back slowly. Two huge plays turned the tide. One being a questionable kicked ball on a fumble that led to a 75 yard touchdown. (Someone who knows these things should tell me if kicking is legal.) When all was said and done two and half hours later, we were left battered and broken and the south had a two touchdown margin of victory, and that portion of the Khash Bowl weekend was finished.
Only a portion of volunteers actually play in the game. Most come to the event just to watch and partake in the after party. Every year someone is foolish enough to agree to host this event at their site and completely ruin their reputation and standing in the community for the rest of their service there. When 60-70 Peace Corps volunteers descend upon one village of people who has seen nary a foreigner, let alone the panoply of ethnically mixed volunteers that the Peace Corps brings, the actions of every visiting volunteer is sure to effect the community’s opinions of the volunteer(s) who hosting the event. And make no mistake, Americans in this culture are always seen as shameful.
We rented out a restaurant (to keep everyone contained and off the streets) and had a helluva a time. One of the volunteers had prepared some amazing chili, and there was a “straight out the village” homemade vodka tasting. Being that I live in a large, very developed site (you might even say a city) I haven’t had the pleasure… or let’s say experience, of tasting the variety of witch’s brews that are produced in various bathtubs, old soda bottles, and random vats in villages across this great country. They were all pretty potent, and I supposed resembled vodka (mostly in color only.) As one might imagine the night descended into debauchery, and was enjoyed by all. Maybe less-so by the hosting volunteers who have to face this community for the remainder of their service.
As my wracked body and those of my teammates piled into our mini-bus for the cramped, uncomfortable and miserable all-day trip home I couldn’t help but be excited for the next Khash Bowl and some redemption for the North. Mostly though I just hope I never have to host this event in my site and subject my reputation to the battering of such a large group of Peace Corps volunteers.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Juicers anyone

I am fond of my father for so many reasons. One of which is the stories he tells of his youth. Oftentimes they are informative and serve as vehicles with which to convey a message or moral, like the numerous stories of the “rodbuster” Lance Alley, who defended the honor of his wife at all costs and in all circumstances, because… well… she was his wife after all. Often they are merely a glance into his past and what sort of child he was. But some of my favorites are the ones that shed light on a certain period of time from a personal perspective. His stories of being in the seminary in the early 70’s in Berkeley are interesting to say the least. One of my favorite pieces of Americana he conveys is his youthful affinity for Jack Lelane. Now I don’t pretend to be an expert, and many readers may shiver with disgust at my explanation of a man so revered and remembered, so my apologies to those who do have knowledge of the aforementioned. But for my younger readership (or those not in possession of a juicer) he was one of the first, if not “the” first fitness guru in America. Hell, maybe anywhere. My father’s description of the mythical man always involved big baskets of fresh vegetables, lots of push-ups and doses of wheat germ oil in the morning. Apparently he was a “crazy in shape guy” (to use the youthful parlance of today.) I believe his thing was to keep a good diet and good exercise regimen. I couldn’t help but wonder what ole’ jack is doing today as my Armenian host grandfather, holding aloft the 1 kg. weights, completed numerous squats and gyrations in front of me while continually saying, “ice pesce” or in English, “like this.”
I can’t quite be sure what made my host grandfather think that this morning was any more important to my own physical health than any of the other previous 90 I have spent in his house. Maybe he was trying to raise my level of hardiness as the snow creeps down from Mt. Aragats as winter approaches, or perhaps he had noticed that I had begun refusing 4th helpings of dinner. Whatever it was, there he was, completing these strange motions with locked, outstretched arms all holding some absurdly small amount of weight. I’ve read a coupla fitness magazines and tried to mix up my work-out routine from time to time, but have never seen anything even in the universe of what he was doing. One of my favorites was when he would spread his arms straight out to his sides, squat, and complete the motion by bending at the waist, touching his chest to his knees, then returning painfully to a standing position. An impressive move for a man of well over 70 years of age. After completion of each repetition he would always hand me the weights with a look that said, “there you are youngsta, you just try and see if you can do it.” I must admit this hybrid of weight-lifting, yoga, and utterly uniformed fitness foolishness was difficult to complete. My host grandfather looked upon me approvingly, satisfied that his obvious years of perfecting this movement were all paying off now, as they must be instilling a desire in me to learn this strange new art, thus imbuing upon (to?) me the means of achieving a life of health and happiness. His look convinced me that he was certain he was extending my life expectancy by a good piece.
I, ever straining to fulfill Peace Corps’ second goal of exchanging American culture with another country, took this opportunity to show my Grandfather how we exercised in America. Grabbing a heavier weight (by that I mean maybe 5 lbs.) I began with a simple curl. My choice of exercises seemed perfect; classic and hopefully universal. I was wrong. My Grandfather looked down on me like I was a Tango dancer at a disco party. Wagging his finger and clicking his tongue, he told me that I was doing it all wrong. He grasped my elbow pulled it away from my body and upwards and told me to twist my wrist, “ice pesce.” It was definitely a difficult move, in the same way that cracking a walnut with your eyelid would be difficult, and maybe as useless.
I was under the impression that the cardio workout came before the weights, but apparently not here. The Cardio portion was a mix of jazzercise without the music and speed bag boxing without the coordination. I do not have words to explain it, only to say that it lasted a good half hour. I tried to join in but my father kept looking at me disgusted with my possession of basic coordination and motioned for me to sit down, “Ice pesce, ice pesce, spece, spece.” When the display was over my grandfather, sweating profusely through his wife-beater and Adidas workout pants told me to meet him in the living room the next morning at 8:00. I’ve been sleeping in ever since.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Ameena Deszhvar

Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions here laid forth are mine and mine alone. They in no way represent the thoughts or opinions of the Peace Corps or the United States Government.

Disclaimer #2 This post was written a month after I arrived in country. I thought I had lost this post, but just found it today.

I haven’t changed my underwear in 8 days. It is not for lack of want. I’d love nothing more than to feel the coolness of fresh cotton, but currently I find myself trapped in quite a conundrum.
It is not traditional for males here to do much of what Americans would categorize as “daily housework.” The washing of one’s clothes definitely falls into the aforementioned category. I wanted to wash my clothes upon arrival. There was something kind of romantic about getting out the wash basin, throwing in some soap (the most popular brand here is called “BARF” strangely enough) and going to it. I kind of relished the exercise. My first attempt was headed off in its infancy by the females in my house as they saw me enter the washroom and came running to stop this affront to tradition. The second time I was a bit slyer and waited until all the females were indisposed in the garden or performing other tasks. I snuck in that sanctum of feminine production and was able to complete all the soaking and scrubbing necessary. I wrung out my clothes and headed for the wash line. My luck continued as there was no one in sight of the clothes line. As I pinned the last leg of my jeans (turned inside out to not fade in the sun) my host grandmother (or tateek) came around the corner and gave me a look which conveyed that she thought I truly was a foolish and willful young man. Brushing me aside she proceeded to take down all my clothes from the line, turn them back right side out and headed straight for the washroom. The rewashing of my clothes admittedly didn’t take as long, due to my host tateek’s years of experience, but as she re-hung all the clothes, I saw no appreciable difference in their level of cleanliness. On to the dilemma…
When you first meet your new host family the Peace Corps is kind enough to provide a translator for an hour or two as you work out the details of the new living arrangement. As myself, the translator, and my family were sitting around discussing things like smoking in the house, times of meals and the like, there began a whispering between the ladies of the house. After much hushed discussion my blushing mother leaned over in the translator’s ear and told her something. After nodding her understanding the translator pulled me aside and explained to me that they will wash my clothes but it is shameful for them to wash my underwear, and they don’t feel comfortable discussing it any more. I, being too distracted by other things like how late I could stay out on weekends to think through this statement to its proper end, just nodded and said, but of course. Now I don’t know if this aversion to foreign boxer-briefs is only present in my family, or if it is a culturally thing, but I do know that it has made things difficult for me.
So here is my conundrum; I am not allowed to wash my own clothes, but the only vehicle I have for washing my clothes will not wash my underwear. Thus, I sit here in 8 day old underwear perplexed.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Roll over Comrade

Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions here laid forth are mine and mine alone. They in no way represent the thoughts or opinions of the Peace Corps or the United States Government.

The communist experiment is officially dead. I witnessed its final gasp just this evening. The death nail was not hammered home with Reagan wielding the handle, nor Sakarov, nor the purveyors of Perestroika. No my friends it was Simon Cowell of American Idol fame.
Tonight I watched Hay Superstar the Armenian version of American Idol complete with the same intro music, stage and visuals. I knew this show begun in England and transferred well to the US, but I had no idea it had been bottled up and sent overseas like this. If it’s in Armenia I gotta believe it’s in many other former Soviets also. I can’t imagine the gyrations that Lenin must be performing in his exposed tomb right now.
I’m laying myself a bit bare here… but I watched the last 2 seasons of American Idol. In my defense it initially started as a way for me and my buddies to have yet another way to bet on things. After watching the first show of performers we would all draft our horses for the upcoming season and place wagers ranging from different sized packages of imported beer to a guaranteed performance of some embarrassing and foolish act in the presence of many friends and strangers. We usually didn’t watch the show, mostly just checked up to see who had been thrown off each week. Afterwards, we would ceremoniously cross off the latest casualty.
The American show was terrible. The “talent” was not talented, being just a springboard for the most marketable person. Things like… oh I don’t know… vocal ability… or… I don’t know… vocal ability… played about 15th fiddle behind things like teenie-bopper appeal or being from the middle of America where all the 12 year old girls had more than enough time to lob forth ludicrous amounts of votes by text message. For those of you who watched, think Bob Ice.
America is a big place made up of 50 states. The current Republic of Armenia is the size of Maryland, not a particularly large state. (Interesting sidebar; apparently if you cut Alaska in half Texas would be the 3rd largest state(a little shout out to my Peace Corps A-14 readership))… If from this great ocean of talent in America decent performers for American Idol cannot be found, one can imagine what is brought up from the relative kiddy pool of Armenia after the nets are cast. It’s not pretty. Add to that poorly pronounced songs in English and you’re left with a potent brew. The screeches are shocking.
But of course, everyone loves it and its popularity is comparable to the US show. This penultimate exemplar of Western capitalism (there still aren’t any McDonalds here) is chalk full of advertisements as the performers sing, and commercials between nearly every song. The push for consumption is nothing short of gratuitous. The Evil Empire has been transformed into a teeming mass of consumers… and God bless it! I wonder if Stalin could have appreciated the sway this show and its ilk have on the masses, or if he is rolling over in his grave too?

Saturday, September 23, 2006


Oftentimes I have no idea what’s going on in my life over here. My daily schedule is fairly regimented when I work but on weekends it’s a free-for-all. In fairness it is usually my fault as my family tries to explain to me what is going on but I can’t fully comprehend with my current language proficiency. But nonetheless…
Today for instance is a good example. I woke up at my normal time. Not too late not too early. Upon exiting my room I found the house abuzz with preparations. Apparently about 30 people were coming over for a party that morning. Apparently it was some sort of holiday. By the lengths being gone to in the aforementioned preparations I could tell it was gonna be a big one too. So I threw on some decent clothes (gleaned from my extensive wardrobe I brought here all in one backpack) and prepared myself for the conversations I hoped to have. As I sat in my room reviewing phrases like; “do you live here also” “are you related” “I am glad to meet you” “where do you work” or if the spirit hit me right “what do you think about the current government administration?” the guests began pouring in. Most of them had been briefed on the reasons I was there and didn’t seem too shocked by my presence. After sitting and quickly eating some small items everyone got up and began leaving. I not knowing what to do, followed them out of the house. There were many cars there and we all piled into them. I had no idea where we were going and ended up in a car with 4 people in the back seat and no one I had ever met before. In a caravan we proceeded to drive way out of town (making some random stops to pick up various items) everyone chattering to me (assumedly explaining what in the heck was going on) but at such a verbal pace that I understood none of it. When we finally stopped someplace very near Turkey, we all piled out and headed off to a cemetery. Apparently to commemorate some relatives who had died. The cemetery was packed with other people doing the same thing. We went through some service, burning incense, and then stood around starring at each other for an awfully long time. We then piled back in the cars, this time with 5 different people I had never met and headed home.
When we returned there were more people than before and the table was festooned with a feast. We had a huge meal with much food and drink and as things started winding up (4-5 hours later) my family started kicking people out very rapidly. After a painfully difficult conversation with my mother, it was understood that the family was all going to the capitol city to watch some sort of concert. I had had enough. I did not feel like making the trip, and mustering up all the cultural insensitivity I could, I told them so. This, as one might imagine caused some consternation, but fearing the wrath of a youthful American scorned, my family gave in. More truthfully, they were just very late and didn’t have time to browbeat me into going. I realized that maybe, just maybe I would be left home alone for the first time since I arrived. Trying to remember if I had brought a bath-robe with which to walk around in, front shamelessly untied, my family filed out.
The simple pleasure of solitude was short lived. The first visitor was someone hoping to borrow some sort of foodstuff… I never quite figured out which though. She burst past me to retrieve it from our fridge with such speed that I couldn’t tell. The next was what appeared to be some sort of bill collector or perhaps a salesperson. Then it was someone who I never figured out what they wanted. Something having to do with coffee and a fork, I can’t quite be sure. They all spoke very fast. Understand that with every visitor I spat forth a long and poorly formulated explanation in Armenian of where my family was. Most people, not wanting to piece together the vast array of words spluttered from my mouth into some sort of informational exchange, just nodded and walked away. Then came the children. There are many neighborhood children around my home. Not fathoming that my two younger siblings could have gone to the capitol city they all decided to stop by to look for the little buggers. I am often amazed at the surprising patience of these children. As I tried to explain to them where my family was I wished they would just turn and walk away frustrated. I gotta believe that they just enjoyed listening to me butcher the language with such audacity. They were finally dispersed when some mother came to relieve me of this burden and tell them to stop making fun of me. One of the kids explained to this mother that my family was not home. She gasped at such an affront to hospitality and offered to cook me dinner. I said that I was grateful but that I had just eaten. She, like all other Armenians when things of this nature are mentioned, paid my statement no heed and headed off. 5 minutes later, having been informed of my impending starvation, a relative of mine was at the door insisting that dinner be prepared immediately. I have been here long enough to know that resisting this sort of thing is completely futile. With a recently honed ability to restrain my gag reflex and put down ungodly amounts of food, I put down another huge meal.
After the dishes were completed and coffee consumed, I convinced the relative that I would somehow find a way to muddle through on my own until my family returned. She didn’t like it but after much hinting and hectoring left me alone.
Settling in to watch some Russian variety show (a favorite past time of mine) I dozed off on the couch completely confused by the dancing bear and obese man dancing and singing on the screen before me.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


I walked around Gyumri, Armenia with a 6’6” African American man today. For the first time since my arrival no one stared at me and whispered to each other as I passed.

The US Embassy was kind enough to pay for a traveling American music trio to come up to Gyumri last night. They sung opera, medleys of Ray Charles, and other upbeat tunes recognizable to any red-blooded American. Being that Gyumri sits in the northwest crook of Armenia, near a closed border in the west with Turkey and a closed border crossing with Georgia in the north, it goes without saying that there aren’t a lot of shows that get up this way, nor large African Americans with dread lochs. It was strange but kind of nice to feel a bit more a part of the society here as the eyes bored into my guest, to whom I was giving a tour of the city, instead of me (as you might imagine there also aren’t a lot of blond haired pointy-nosed white kids around here either.)
During the whole of this tour I was acutely aware of the fact that the term used for darker skinned people in Armenia is one which we in the United States find utterly unacceptable and repulsive. The use of the “N” word in English is tied to a history stained with repression and atrocity, but here it does not possess that same connotation. Just as we refer to people as Caucasians or Asians, the “N”-word is dropped around these parts obviously without concern for English language sensitivities. I was not relishing having to explain the nuances of history and location’s effect on the meaning of words to my guest, but was nonetheless preparing my dissertation as we left mumbling crowds of locals in our wake throughout our walk. Fortunately I think the power of such a dissimilar person (or perhaps that he kept saying hello to strangers, which is not done here) evoked such surprise from the Gyumretsi that we were always well past earshot by the time categorization and the vocalizing of this took place. I was left to gladly explain the eventful history of this place and its environs, as the group of curious children following us grew.
It was nice to finally begin to feel the first pangs of localism as I explained my new home to “an outsider.”

Friday, September 08, 2006


I hadn’t realized that for the last 4 months the only real music I had been listening to was Russian techno. The beat blasts out from shops as I walk to work, is played from the computers of nearly every place I visit during working hours, and videos of the same ilk are often on the television of my host family when I return home. I didn’t think much of it, only tried to tune it out but still subconsciously caught myself tapping my feet at random times. In an attempt at integration and hyper-cultural sensitivity (impressed upon us by the Peace Corps’ training) I do not play my music in my host family. In fact I hadn’t really listened to any of my music since I have been here, save for an inter-cultural karaoke celebration at the end of training where a terrible rendition of “We are the World” sung, arms slung about haphazardly, evoked tears from many. I appreciate the money that project raised and I’m sure there are many now late teen-aged Ethiopians without swollen bellies who are in better health because of it, but that song is Terrible!
I was amazed at how soothing familiar music was to me when I decided to throw caution to the wind and turn on a couple songs on my lap-top today. (For those surprised I have a lap-top I should tell you I also have a cell phone. Yeah, this ain’t yo Mamma’s Peace Corps.) The recognizable language, more relaxed rhythms and sounds were a welcome break for my ears. I had forgotten how much I like my music. I can’t wait to move into my own place (in 3 months) and come home and turn on songs of my choice to fit my mood. Maybe relax and just stare at the wall while listening to some soft singer/song-writer. Or turn on something more upbeat and happy as I prepare to go out on a weekend. Hell, even the yearning and angst of that emo stuff when I want to feel sorry for myself. I miss how familiar music can effect and adjust my mood.

Monday, September 04, 2006


When I signed up for this gig I knew it might entail a little more danger than my previous life in Northern California. Indeed I kind of relished the idea of a little excitement to break the monotony. I didn’t know what form this new danger might take… maybe typhoid fever, angry Muslim anti-American nationalists, or the new hot death toll of international politics; The Bird Flu. Well I’ve figured out what my challenge will be. Being placed in one of the most advanced Peace Corps countries with little to no Muslim presence, my most pressing danger (save for the pretty consistent insurgency waged by my bowels) is undoubtedly the dogs. They are crazy here! Wandering around, many strays have learned the ropes of respecting the normal pedestrian, and keep their distance. But the house trained pets (if one can refer to these crazed beasts as such) have an overly developed sense of property and protection (guess the Soviet imposed socialist ideal of communalism didn’t filter down to the K-9 kingdom.) A foreigner need only walk within sniffing distance (my father swears Americans smell differently) of some dog’s house and furious comes the onslaught. I keep my Nalgene hooked always on my finger to wave about as the dog, or normally pack of dogs inevitably surrounds me and barks menacingly. Waving it in front of me like Indiana Jones and his flaming torch in Raiders of the Lost Ark usually does the trick and I can safely back out of the pack surrounding me. This has proven to be kind of a quaint game that gives a certain life and vitality to my otherwise monotonous walk home.
But the real fun starts when get I back to my house, or near it should I say. Specifically when I approach the outskirts of my group of buildings where the first whiff of my American-ness catches the proficient nose of my neighbors dog. Steven King’s Kujo was not necessarily so frightening merely because of his size, but more so due to the unpredictability and aggressiveness of his actions. I can only compare this dog as such. The initial week of my visit we had a great relationship. That is to say he didn’t bark or even snarl at me as I walked past him in the tiny pathway that leads to my home. But the last two weeks he has been like a dog possessed. Maybe as is so often the case, he initially thought me a friendly and harmless Canadian traveler (I’d guess we smell similar even with our government’s differing foreign policies) but upon finding out that I was American became incensed. Whatever it was, leaving or returning to my home has now become quite an interesting process.
He first attacked me unexpectedly and I was able to fend him off with a smarting blow to his snout from my trusty Nalgene bottle. As I left the next morning he and a friend of his, a mangy looking mongrel of a thing, waiting for me around a corner, caught me by surprise. Surrounding me, I was able to reach down for a rock and raise my arm to throw it and they scattered. This strategy worked for a few days, until they got hip to the fact that I really didn’t want to throw the rock, only pass safely by. The next day the dog lunged at me and I drilled him with a rock in the face again (a one in a million shot if I do say so myself.) This kept him at bay for a good 3 days as he nursed his wounds. Becoming afraid that I may have really pissed this thing off, I returned home yesterday to find that the dog had brought even more friends with him, a motley crew of neighborhood K-9 riff-raff. They blocked any chance I had to pass. I, having gone through many a painful Peace Corps’ trainings on resiliency decided to take a new approach. Tossing a rock over their heads past my door I rushed by them as they turned to see the commotion behind. I figure that ticket is only good for one ride. So on to today….
I’m currently gathering a group of other volunteers from the area to come to my house and face these dogs. I figure with a few sturdy Americans and a whole lotta rocks we can convince these beasts that there’s a new top dog on the block. Maybe teach them a thing or two about the righteous wrath of the good ole’ U.S. of A! Or at the very least sacrifice one of the other less-fleet-of-foot volunteers to the dogs and hope to satiate them until I move out of my host family’s home and find some safer lodging.

Monday, August 21, 2006

New address

To family and new address is

Dominic Monley
235/035 Nzhdeh
Gyumri 377501
Republic of Armenia

I hope to write more very soon.
Thanks again for all the emails and comments.

ps. if sending things only use the US postal service (nt DHL, FedEx, etc...)

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

New Stove, New %^&* (Part 3)

Sitting down in my chair the dinner party proceeded as normal. In an attempt to avoid redundancy I would direct all interested parties to review my previous post about “the life of a party” to see my take on such social matters. The toastmaster was chosen and began espousing his love for the family, friends and specific people whose birthdays either just passed or were coming up. Glasses were filled, emptied and refilled many times. As the food began diminishing and some voices became slurred, one brave soul stood up and tilting his glass towards me gave a long toast to me, my country, and America. Thinking to myself something great about the brotherhood of man, how cultural barriers are so pliable in the face of humanity, and other such nonsense, I arose and we embraced heartily and downed our drinks. Sitting down I couldn’t help shake these large thoughts, ever the derivative of a good buzz. Searching the cockles my mind I realized that I lacked the basic faculties of the Armenian language to properly express my love for such a country, her appreciation for family, her beautiful woman and the valiant warriors which have fought off foreign invaders for over 3000 years. Reaching in my pocket for my pocket sized English/Armenian dictionary hoping to find some page explaining the proper way to conjugate the phase “you are all my Cold War brothers” I realized that no one had yet toasted to the impetus of this party… the new Stove. The stars were aligned that night my loyal and patient readers!... Unfortunately they were not aligned in my favor. I thought to myself, how lucky am I to have come upon such a gross oversight! I flipped slyly to the “s” section. Not finding it there I moved on to the “o”, glancing quickly down at the first translation of the word for “oven.” I gathered myself, excited to remember that the verb “to want” is an exception, and conjugating it properly in my head rose to speak. alas I glanced a little to briefly at the dictionary and apparently not appreciating the plain font of this version didn’t fully appreciate the ever so slight bend at the bottom right of the character. In the Armenian this changes the sound completely and can make all the difference in a words meaning.
Motioning for the glasses to be refilled, I launched into my toast. Someone great at some point in time said that brevity is the soul of wit. I, not one to normally subscribe to this sort of nonsense have been lately forced by my poor language acquisition abilities to justify my terse speech with this sort of thing. Seeing the Americatsi rise to speak the audience of Armenians present quickly became quiet, waiting to hear some other phrases butchered, and find some humor to take home to their neighbors. Raising my glass I thanked my mother and sister for the food, Armenia for her wonderful Vodka, which is so much better than any American whisky (they love that one), and raising my glass high finished with, “here is to your new oven!”
Or at least I thought I did. By the sharp intake of air and shocked faces I suppose I should have realized that either it was a cultural faux pas to toast to newly acquired American engineered appliances, or I had just badly butchered some word. Instead I continued to try and drive my point home by continually raising my glass and saying “new oven, to your new Oven. New Oven, NEW OVEN!” Feeling my host father firmly grasp my arm and pull me downwards, he quickly launched into some toast about the newly married couple who had just arrived at the party. I was perplexed.
Still baffled by my ill-fated toast, the party ended and I went to bed. Awaking the next day I approached my host sister (who speaks pretty good English) and somehow forgetting about the previous reaction of native speakers, asked how she enjoyed her new oven. She turned sharply to me and said, “why you keep say that word? It is bring great shame to family, great shame!” Returning to her task obviously disgusted with me, I went to language class very confused with the situation. While walking to class with other American volunteers I told the story to not much reaction. We enjoyed ourselves reliving stories of prophylactics and ice cream from the first two weeks of our service.
The first 15 minutes of each day of class we are free to ask any cultural or language questions of our very able trainers. As my turn came round I began telling of my doomed cheers, never actually saying the word. Inevitably my teacher laughing (hoping to have another fun story to tell the other trainers later over lunch) asked what it was that I said. I, repeating word for word from the previous night said, “I want to toast to your new oven.” I swear that her gasp almost caused her to faint. Regaining her composure she looked around to see that no one with any sort real knowledge of the Armenian language was around. Lowering her voice she informed me of the proper Armenian word for oven and said, “please Dominic, promise me that you will never say that word again. It’s not safe.” Inevitably we asked her what the word meant. She said she couldn’t tell us. We asked her to motion what it was, she refused. Someone asked her what would happen if they called a girl on the street my version of “an oven.” She made it clear that any right thinking and mildly chivalrous Armenian man would be forced to defend her honor and at the very least maim me severely.
After many awkward interviews with local youths who I though might divulge this translation, I have gathered that my word for “oven” actually is something closer to the Armenian version of the English “c” word. I won’t go into details (I’m sure the kids know what I’m talking about) but apparently my mispronunciation of “oven” was like the “c” word but much more offensive. I know what you may be thinking… how is that possible. I must say that I don’t know, I thought there was nothing worse than that word too. I have deduced that this word combines the “c” word with a reference to experienced “ladies of the nights” while being suggestive that many generations of the person’s family has a long history of this sort of work. One teenager’s particularly insightful explanation made me aware that there also is a very physical and dirty element to it.
Thinking back to how mortified my immediate family must have been at my offensive outburst, as I repeatedly accused all present of such horrible things, I can’t help but thank my lucky stars for my host families ever present patience and lack of even the basest respect for my language abilities.

New Stove, New %^&* (Part 2)

We’ve all heard the stories. A foreign speaker’s mispronunciation of a word leading to an awkward or funny situation. I often think back to my Swedish cousin Simon refusing to accept that his name while in America was “Simon” and not the Swedish version, which values “e” much more than “i” or “o”. If the unwitting foreign speaker is lucky the mishap will come off as charming, making for a fun story for the native speakers to laugh about later with their friends. It’s all part of the cultural exchange and often times breaks the cultural barriers that can often seem so insurmountable. The pronunciation of “ice cream” in Armenian is but a hairs breath away from a word for a common prophylactic, understandably leading to some interesting situations during the first few weeks of our service, as the prevalence of inexpensive and ever-so-tasty ice cream mixed with the conservative social sensitivities of an established and staunchly monogamous nation like Armenia. These sorts of things were explained to me by my current language teacher as a way to gain a common ground of humanity and share in the international appreciation for small misunderstandings. At the time I truly understood and agreed.

New Stove, New %^&* (Part 1)

Getting a new stove in the villages of Armenia is a very big deal. My family just got a new stove. It was a very big deal. At first it didn’t function correctly so the inevitable gaggle of male neighbors came by to watch as the one person, who apparently was an oven repairman during soviet times, worked his magic. While watching him work, constantly asking for random tools to aid him like a darning needle or some butter, I concluded that it was more likely that he worked at a factory fashioning quality door hinges. I’ve seen it many times already, but after close to an hour of tinkering and consultation with the group, they huddled up one last time and turned to me. Swallowing their pride, and more so any nationalist sentiment gained within the last few years of independence since the fall of the Soviet Union, my host father turned and handed me the directions, written only in English.
I never realized how absurd and counterintuitive most child proofing measures are until I began rubbing the West’s cold war victory, and concurrently the victory of the English language in the faces of innocent Armenians. After quickly scouring the table of contents and flipping to the appropriate page, I held down a button on the front of the oven pushed down the knob with the oven door open and finally was able to outsmart the childproofing, loosing the natural gas from its previously straining state at the intake of the oven. Finally finding its purpose, its home, the flames of the burners jumped to life. Feeling quite satisfied, I turned to greet the seemingly impressed intake of air, only to hear numerous comments about the complications with Western appliances and how if they had gotten a stove from the Ukraine we would have been eating dinner by now. Holding back my indignant urge to expound the positives of capitalism and other such Western ideals, I swallowed my tongue and made space for my host mother and sister to begin cooking the aforementioned meal, retiring to the table to drink Vodka and discuss the quality of Russian beer as opposed to that “poor and tasteless American stuff.”
The mood was festive and the word was spread that the party, celebrating this new oven was afoot. Sending out the children to various corners of the village to collect certain specialty items found only in that corner of the village, the women of the family began producing various tables and chairs I had no idea existed. The phone bank was set ablaze and the attendance of all the extended family was secured. As the children returned exhausted from their various missions, special cheeses and/or mulberry vodka in toe, they were put to work connecting all the flat surfaces available into one large table. Less than an hour later the guests began arriving. I gathered that the obligation in this sort of situation is to look at the new stove, gasp, inspect it closely (lightly commenting if desired) and step back and discuss with the new owner for a minimum of 3-4 minutes. As one might imagine, the line to partake in the formalities began stacking up rapidly.
With the backlog of new guests lining up to see the new stove and the table being covered beautifully with all types of fare, the excitement for the party began rising. As I pulled out my chair to sit down to eat with the 20 some-odd guests I was able to appreciate the beauty and excessiveness of an Armenian dinner. Having such a great spread of food and drink and sharing it with the whole family is really quite a cool cultural trait of the Armenian people. Being the only non-blood relative at the meal, I couldn’t help but feel honored and blessed to have been included.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Game Set Match

Disclaimer: I tell stories. Oftentimes long and verbose stories. If you are one who would normally leave the room or tune out as the first syllables of “did I ever tell you about” burst forth from my mouth, then do not waste your time with the following. I do not take offense. In fact, I very much understand. But for those of you, who work in front of a computer and are paid hourly (carpet dealer employees withstanding) or those who enjoy the occasional Dominic story (time intensive as they may be) I think you’ll like this one…

I had some bad meat last week. That came as no surprise. Gastrointestinal issues due to inadequately prepared meat are an inevitability in the Peace Corps. So much so that the organization devotes a full hour-long training session to its prevention and treatment. I will not horrify you with the gruesome details of my body’s defensive strategy in regards to this unwanted intruder (a sausage foolishly purchased from a fly-by-night street vendor) only say that it was multi-pronged and persistent. In the parlance of today’s military tacticians one would certainly categorize it as bodily “shock and awe.” None of this was a surprise though. What was a surprise was the concurrent battle of accepted western medical strategy and traditional Armenian opinions on such matters.
I will begin by stating that Caucasian women are of hearty stock. Don’t let western gender roles fool you. This fight was evenly matched. Especially when one considers my lack of communicative skills and relative cultural timidity. She definitely had “home court advantage” so to speak.
It began with my sprint to the bathroom at 3 o’clock in the morning to orally relieve myself of the aforementioned sausage (and seemingly every other food stuff I had consumed since my arrival in country.) My Tateek (or Armenian grandmother) who is the unchallenged head of the household, heard this mad rush to the bathroom. Out of concern, or I suspect fearing that the integrity of her own cooking was being questioned by this amerikatsi, she proceeded to camp out near the bathroom and listen in to my vomitous revelry. But stand idly by she could not. Maternity is an urge ground deeply into the fiber of all female kind, western feminism be-damned. The battle lines were drawn.
After what felt like hours of lying on the cool tile floor of the bathroom and thanking my lucky stars that I did not get placed in Africa, and so had a flush toilet and these oh-so-cool ceramic tiles to press my face against, I emerged from the bathroom battered, broken, and in dire need of water and place to lie down. But my Tateek had other plans. I will not try to explain the reasoning behind her methods, only put them to paper (or the 21st century blog informed equivalent) for my humble readership.
She had prepared a large wash basin of scalding hot water with laundry detergent in it. The reader may be understandably asking themselves why? I would caution that these sorts of questions emanate from a western paradigm not understood by the antagonist, and are best left unasked. She proceeded to forcibly (which was not difficult in my state) sit me down and place my bare feet and hands in this basin. Hopefully one can envision this scene, aware that I’m a full grown man! It took me a few seconds to realize the damage that was being done to my skin by this devil’s brew as I had other things on my mind (namely the sensation of 13 teenagers playing with BB guns inside my steel drum of a stomach). As my body’s natural protective measures took precedence and informed me that the skin of my four extremities was being done irreparable harm, I naturally tried to pull away. That was when I realized my Tateek had placed herself, face down, on top of my slumped body, and placed all the weight of her sizable body on top of my slumped-over back. She did her best to forcefully hold my hands in the water. At this point she began splashing the water up onto my legs, arms and body. Some might be picturing me in the proper night attire, or maybe a pair of boxers. But no, due to capacity constraints I had packed nothing of the sort. Conforming to societal norms and refusing to leave my room without the proper body parts covered I was wearing slacks and an untucked dress shirt, both of which were now soaking wet.
Round 1: Tateek
It was quite the struggle. As my fighting spirit gained traction more of my senses came to the fore and I became aware that not only was she lying on top of me but she was screaming strange Armenian things at me simultaneously. I, not willing to afford my enemy modes of attack that I didn’t have, began yelling back. The tide of battle was turning. I did not yell the sort of fluent Armenian phrases one might imagine after well over a month of intensive language training, but opted for well traveled English blaspheme. As I gained the advantage of the removal of my second hand from this tiny scalding hot bucket of hell, I realized that my head had been forced below my body by her left forearm for far too long. I could feel the bile swiftly rising, and hear that the whole house was awake due to the screaming.
Fully aware of the consequences I mustered all my strength for one last attack. This was not going to be some sortie, some flanking maneuver, but more closely associated with Hitler’s last European thrust. And my bile-induced watering mouth was not going to allow it to be remembered as just some “Bulge”, but a victory.
I exploded upwards and obviously caught my Tateek off guard. How could she have expected someone of my stature to detonate with such force? But such is the story of battle. Ordinary men doing extraordinary things. Her body was flung against the wall and fell, mercifully on some unfolded towels. I made my dash for the washroom door. I nearly made it unscathed, only her outstretched arm managed to grasp my left ankle which I was easily able to shake.
Round 2: America
I made it to the bathroom in time to not only fulfill my the lately held fantasy of my stomach to be rid of what ever else it possessed, but to lock the door. My Tateek was at the door screaming before the dry-heaving even began. The force of her “knocking” if it could be so categorized, made me convinced that the hinges were going to break. But if there is one thing that Soviets were good at fabricating it was metal hardware. And thank goodness. I stayed in my coolly tiled fortress until I believed the whole house to be asleep. How foolish was my faith.
As I exited the bathroom, only desiring my water bottle so as to drink, my Tateek appeared with a tea of some sort. I asked her what it was and she motioned that it would help settle my stomach. Preferring whatever she would offer to the currently prevailing flavor in my mouth, and ignoring the pungent scent or the tea, I obliged and took it down only to find a mush of grass and leaves at the bottom of the cup. I looked at the kitchen counter and noticed her ingredients. They were instantly recognizable as the grasses from the pens of our cohabitating cows and pigs. It’s a very small pen. I gotta think that the herbs she wanted were just out of season, or she is writing her own blog about this event and she, and many Armenian diaspora are laughing heartily at the gullibility of Americans.
Round 3: Tateek
This predictably caused a new batch of vomiting. I emerged to find that I could not locate my Water bottle. My Tateek noticed my search and (referring to the specially filtered water that all Peace Corps are mercifully given) informed me that “your water is bad”. As she offered me more tea, I realized that she was more than capable of stealing my water bottle and hiding it. I decided that this sort of insurgency warranted more covert action. I retired to my room, graciously declining the tea.
Round 4: Tateek
I lay in my bed for 45 minutes, but it seemed so much longer. The taste of bile, grass, and the manure of various animals in one’s oral cavities definitely extends the perception of time passing. Flashlight in toe, I finally snuck out of my room and stealthily moved to the kitchen area. After searching numerous cabinets I finally found it. She had hidden my water bottle behind the crock pot, inside the large colander. I suppose I should have looked there first. The sweetness of the first drink was only lessened by the flicking on of the Kitchen lights. I didn’t even look to see who it was. I just scurried to my room and locked the door. I still had the colander. I needn’t tell you how important that became when my stomach revolted again less than an hour later.


Saturday, July 08, 2006


To my devoted readership (well reader might be more appropriate (thanks mom.)) I'd like to apologize for being so remiss in posting to this blog. Internet access has, of late been sketchy at best. I figure the best way to catch up is to dump information and avoid all the verbose "crap" that I usually fill my posts with.
On Thursday I finally was told of my job placement (location and description) for the next two years. The Peace Corps does this cool thing where they draw a huge map of Armenia on a parking lot out in front of the school where we train. They get all the trainees (or PCT's) in a group and call us out one-by-one. As we are called out, they announce the job, and site where the trainee will be working. The trainee then walks to that spot on the map of Armenia. It's really neat because you got to see who is near your site, and how everyone has been dispersed across the country.
I will be working in Gyumri in the Northwest of Armenia, fairly close to the Turkish border. Gyumri is the second largest city/town in Armenia. My primary job will be with an NGO called "Youth For Peace and Development" or "YFPD". The Peace Corps loves acronyms. I don't know what I will be doing as of yet, but apparently Gyumri will afford me numerous opportunities to explore different avenues of work and volunteerism.
Though I only know the title my future job and the name of place I will be living, just having some shape to my expectations has been a wonderful breath of fresh air.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The life of a party

I had the pleasure of attending an Armenian birthday party last evening. It was not held in an Armenian’s honor, (rather a Peace Corps volunteer from Huntington Beach) but it was Armenian nonetheless. There were similarities to an American birthday party and many, many differences. Because of my deep well of experience with Armenian birthday parties (or party as it were) I feel it proper that I generalize.

-As at all parties (I’m assuming it’s a worldwide phenomenon) the first 15 minutes are spent moving through formalities like “how are you?” “how is the job going?” “What are you up to?” et cetera. In summation; talking about things that no one cares about, but feel obligated to ask.
-People bring gifts
-years ago someone on that specific day of the year was born. In this case it was 26 years, but it obviously varies according to age.

-The Armenians are toasting machines. They give the most lengthy, lavish, well thought out, impressive toasts ever. At weddings, oftentimes someone will be specifically hired to be the “official toaster”. Not joking, I saw a wedding video (which, on a tangent, is just as boring in Armenia as it is in America… go figure) and there was a professional toaster who toasted consistently for well over 7-8 minutes. It doesn’t sound that impressive…. But you try it. I, feeling the pull of constant public attention being directed somewhere other than myself, felt obligated to give numerous “amerikatsi” toasts. I fit in well. Not in the “lavish, well thought out, impressive” realm, but certainly in the length department. I probably needn’t even inform you that the “Irish Blessing” was in full affect that night.
-The Armenians love to dance. The Music is very different and the dancing looks to be a fair mix of middle eastern wrist action and Russian footwork. No one is conscious of their dancing, and the whole of this crowd chose to participate (which is a definite difference from an American party).
-Though the women prepare all the food, and do a heck of job of preparation, they don’t actually sit at the table with the men. It really pushed the bounds of my social sensitivities. It’s all part of the cultural adjustment and acclimation I realize, but difficult to put up with regardless.

But overall the party had quite a life of its own. John Steinbeck in “Canary Row” (which I recommend to anyone) does the greatest job of describing the life of a “typical party” I’ve ever come across. This party made me think of that passage. Though I don’t have the book here to reference…. He talks about how a party has waves. How a party begins slowly, grows to a crescendo (in the book a fight breaks out/or in this party’s case the alcohol takes ahold) and then the party fades a bit. But once the music begins it is revived with a new fervor, more powerful than the first…. Just like in Steinbeck’s story this party kept taking on new life as new guests kept arriving and departing in a random manner. With every new wave of neighbors or family (seemingly every family in the town was invited) glasses were refilled, food was offered anew, and the dancing revived. Pretty cool.
Similar to the United States, I’m trying to convince my host family that the celebration of my half-birthday is a completely valid/ and necessary reason to throw a party. As in the US they don’t seem to be buying it.


Slaughtered my first cow today. She was beaut! Guess I can cross that one off the man card. I don’t have it with me but I believe it’s right there between the “wrestling a bear” and the “simultaneously driving a truck (manual transmission), scratching oneself, singing a country song about a girl and a dog, shooting a shotgun out the window, while excoriating one’s wife for ‘gettin’ outta line’”. I could be wrong, as I haven’t referenced it as of late.
It’s interesting to, after killing something, be eating its choice parts 15 minutes later. Interesting… yet tasty. I’ve heard that Armenians have a special “cow’s hoof soup” that they make. I’m not looking forward to the actual consumption of said delicacy, but am looking forward to the fodder it may give me for an upcoming “” post. Is it Kosher to shamelessly plug your blog on your blog?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Chandeliers in the outhouses

The interiors in the homes here are confusing and crazy. Armenia was previously one of the richest Soviets in the USSR. After a huge earthquake, the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of their economy, Northern Armenia (where I am located) is a hodgepodge of shells of shaken down buildings, quickly constructed Soviet buildings (built in the brief period between the earthquake and Soviet collapse)and those homes that withstood the earthquake and are still precariously standing. New buildings built with western money withstanding, the villages are an interesting sight to behold. But the interiors are the truly informative and haunting things.
Instead of wallpaper the interior walls and ceilings of most homes are painted with intricate designs and patterns. Most done by hand and with a high level of craftsmanship. From almost every ornately designed ceiling hangs a fancy chandelier.
Beyond the chandeliers, in most homes you have this amazing mixture of very high quality items like dishware, intricate rugs, finely carved furniture, etc... But nothing of quality or worth is less than 15 years old.
The walls are all severely cracked (some poorly-patched), the chandeliers mainly hang precariously from exposed sockets with few functioning bulbs, and many of the rugs are matted and fading.
With this said, it has been my experience that most homes are meticulously kept up and these older items are cherished and kept up as well as possible. The pride of ownership shows through, but much like this country, the slouch into decay has been inevitable.
But in the cities I have found a much different scene. Many new buildings not only have every modern convenience, but show the first signs of comfort and excess... an eye towards being stylish. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come, and it will only be a matter of time before some degree of wealth transfer from the cities to the villages occurs.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Armenian Legends

I've been moved from my previous training barracks to a host family in an outlying village.
Prior to my arrival in Armenia I had heard tales of the legendary kindness and excessive hosting of Armenians. All true. My host mother wears glasses, and I truly believe that they must have some special tint on their lenses that makes all 26 year old american men look emaciated and in need of 13 meals a day. I do not use the term "meals" loosely. I'm talking full on feasts. Within 4 minutes of arrival in my village I had a bowl of bread, cherries, apricots, cucumber, tomatoes, Lavash, 3 types of cheese, some sausage wrapped in cabbage, a big bowl of soup and the enormous shank of some unidentified animal thrust in front of me. Just coming off 5 days of training on how to adapt to a new culture I partook in all that was offered. I have not stopped partaking. Nor has my host mother stopped offering.
The village I live in is small and everyone is very close to one another. Last night my host father, brother and I visited various neighbors and friends. At every single home I am treated as the guest of honor. With this catagorization comes certain responsiblities, namely the consumption of all food offered. This food has thus far included A bowl of bread, cherries, apric...... (see above)...and I forgot to mention ice cream.
For a community that has so little, to offer me so much is very touching, and it speaks to the kindness and hosting prowess of her people.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


We have arrived! Our flight got into Yerevan very early in the morning allowing for a wonderful sunrise ceremony @ this temple built in the 7th century that had a wonderful view of Mt. Ararat. All the currently serving Peace Corps volunteers had come in from all over the country to greet us. They were very, very excited. I hadn't really thought much about it but they were instantly acquiring a group of 50 new friends. Our arrival brings the total to almost 100 volunteers spread out across the country. They seem like a cool bunch. We've just been shipped off to an old barracks building where we will begin our language, cultural, and job training. I've much more to write about but I'm going to give it at least a little more time to soak in... and the jet lag is getting me down. Thanks to all of you who have already emailed. It was so nice to open up my inbox and see so many replies.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Vienna (and no sausages in sight)

   We've been delayed in Vienna for a few hours and apparently this airport has free wireless. What a pleasant surprise to open up my laptop fully expecting to merely engage in a few rousing games of minesweeper and POW! There is that network connection screen.  Very cool.  
    We’ve been traveling steadily for a day or so, and weariness is starting to wear on the group and your humble narrator.  But as I searched the cockles of my mind for anything to write for my (I assume) awesomely large and devoted readership, I struck up a conversation with an American/Armenian traveler.  She is an opera singer who had her Armenian home bombed out by the Russians in the 80’s and immigrated to Ecuador, got a visa to Mexico and came across with some coyotes, and currently lives in Fresno.  She truly had quite a compelling story.  We discussed things from the current border issues in California to her family history and strife.  She was also kind enough to give me an impromptu Armenian language lesson.  Apparently (and rather bluntly I thought) I have terrible pronunciation.  It kind of stoked my fire for the upcoming adventure, at a time when it had been waning.  My nerves seem to be gone and I can’t wait to get to Armenia and get this thing started!  

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Dollars and sense

The Federal Goverment gave me $300 a few days ago for tips, travel and incidentals. I'm assuming that "incidentals" is a broad term that includes exploring the social opportunities that Philidelphia (my place of staging) has to offer. I'm also assuming (maybe hoping is a better word) that this same government will provide me with more money soon. I'm currently staring down at a my wallet buried, maybe covered is a better word, with 1 ten, 2 fives, and 7 one dollar bills all waded up in a shamefully haphazard manner. I'm no mathematician, but that ain't much. I'll just chalk it up to the cost of living being so much higher in a big metropolis like this one.
It's fun to be a part of a group of people (all having been given $300 from the federal government) go out and celebrate a final night before going oversees for 2 years and giving up many of their comforts. I, forced by professional obligations, have spent much time in bars and observed many different group dynamics. Last night was probably one of the neatest dynamics I've witnessed. Our group was drawn from different parts of the country, different backgrounds, and wildly varying degrees of social assertiveness. We had a wonderful time together. I guess it speaks to the comfort and excitement of being surrounded with people with the same fears and aspirations. The night came off without incident. I suppose I'll just have to tip less.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Hippies and housewives

Hippies and housewives

Apparently the Peace Corps allows more “mature” ladies to only serve in the few countries where Pap Smear and breast consultations are readily available.  Apparently Armenia is one of those countries.  Long story short, our group is teaming with 65 year old, busy-bodied ladies.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that (see Seinfeld season 2) but I must admit I’m surprised.  In no way is this bad, as I have under-packed and plan on shamelessly throwing myself upon their maternal mercy whenever necessary.  I’m assuming that at least some of them have retained a healthy sense of their now retired motherly instincts.  Beyond “the ladies”, I find myself surrounded by idealistic, overly excited recent college graduates.  It appears that both the Portland Oregon and Portland Maine school districts do quite a job imbuing their pupils with a healthy sense of idealism and adventurousness, as most of my group is originally from one of those two locals.  
Training has been an interesting mix of fuzzy feel-good thinking, team-building exercises and governmental red-tape.  As we wade through learning vignettes like the “pyramid of safety” and spend an inordinate amount of time drawing pictures about both our fears and aspirations I realize that I may be a bit out of place.   Many of “the ladies” are former elementary school teachers, and as one might imagine the all-stars of the team drawing exercises.  I would probably be considered more of a third stringer.  I never owned a pair of hiking boots, a tent or a VW bus before I came here, nor am I from either of the Portlands, nor do I need or desire Pap Smear and/or Breast Exams.  I don’t even know what a Pap Smear is.  I may well be screwed.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


Sacramento (airport lobby/mid-flight)
June 1, 2006

I’ve always been a nail-biter. Any chance to rip away any portion of superfluous, opaque cream-colored upper nail has always been quickly taken up. But as I look down at the now pained and bleeding cuticles on my right hand (which I have been recklessly gnawing into for the past hour) I realize that this is not similar to the eve of a big exam or job interview, this is genuine deeply felt fear?/apprehension?/Trepidation? “Terror” would seem to carry with it too negative a connotation, and thus I have employed my delete key to rid this post of it. It’s a strange feeling….. I guess I’m excited…?... or I suppose I’m more looking forward to being excited in the near future about my current self imposed situation. Current thoughts (in chronological order):

-What in the Hell am I doing?
-What have I gotten myself into?
-What in the Hell am I doing?
-Could I have squeezed out a few more going away parties?
-Two years is a long time?
-Will the Welcome back parties be nearly as good?
-I had such a good thing going?
-What in the hell am I doing?
-Damn! (sorry mom if you’re reading this, I’m freakin’ out here)

But as my plane taxis out to the runway, and I feel that awesome force of the accumulating speed of the plane flinging us into the air, I glance around and notice everyone else in suits, or with briefcases, or much other paraphernalia that screams out responsibility and habit, and I realize that I’ve been blessed with an opportunity to go experience. I’ve literally just been catapulted into a something so very new. I just pray that it is fruitful, bearable and worthwhile. Cause if not I’m truly an idiot and… I just realized I’ve now moved on to my left hand . I’m pretty damn freaked out! Sorry mom.