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.