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.