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.