I chalked up another point on my cultural integration/man card today. There was a huge snow storm and as the snow abated we all (meaning the males in the neighborhood) headed outside to shovel our way out. Being from California I had never shoveled snow before and thus zealously took to the task. Maybe with a bit too much relish as it turns out. As I seized the shovel from the clutches of a leisurely moving neighbor’s hand and started shoveling frantically (determined to show these people what real ‘American’ elbow grease smells like) the gathered crowd of men looked upon me disapprovingly.
There seems to be a certain code of conduct when it comes to the work ethic here in Armenia. Unlike America, speed is not really all that important. (Actually that last sentence was maybe the understatement of the year.) As far as I can tell the joy is in the process. Though not a purveyor of the culinary arts, in any way shape or form I assume that it equates to a chef cooking a great meal. He/she doesn’t enjoy the food so much as the making of said food. The act is there to be savored.
My initial recognition of this cultural quirk may have been the first time one of the Marshutnis (mini-buses) that was transporting me between cities broke down in the middle of nowhere (an occurrence that seems to happen on more trips than not). As we stopped, and smoke began billowing forth from the hood, every man of child-rearing age jumped out, and went to take stock of the situation alongside the driver. As cigarettes were lit and wholly uninformed initial diagnoses were exchanged, the natural ‘tinkerers’ and experts amongst the group forced their way to the front to pop the hood and initiate the process. A universally understood pecking order was quickly established. In this case the problem was quickly identified and one of the lesser-tinkerers was sent to a trash heap beside the road. He returned with a small scrap of metal wire. The wire was ceremoniously passed to each of the observers and all comments and opinions were duly voiced. Then the men stepped away from the hood, a few of them squatting and started talking and smoking. Now to an American’s analytic mind it was simple. The problem had been identified and a means/material for fixing the problem had been found. So obviously one would want to execute the solution as quickly as possible and be on one’s way. But not so here in Armenia. As I sat in the marshutni (feeling somewhat emasculated by this point) cursing and complaining about the delay along with all the female passengers and children, the men rose and again approached the hood. They bent the wire every which way, discussing every contortion in detail. After 15 minutes the wire was put in place and the engine started right up**. The men returned to the cabin visibly satisfied and reeking of cigarette smoke and unproductivity (not a word I realize).
Finally stopping my frantic shoveling one old man laid his hand on my shoulder and asked me why I was in such a rush to accomplish this modest task. I told him that I had much work to get back to (a bald-faced lie… I’m a Peace Corps volunteer after all). He said that there would always be work to do, and that if I rushed through the work I was doing now I would never enjoy it, and that would be a wasted opportunity. I suppose this is something that we’ve lost a bit of in America. I remember rushing around so much that I never really enjoyed/appreciated the act of working. The Armenians, in general seem to retain a greater appreciation for the ‘process’. This is one of the things I’ve learned in the Peace Corps and hope to take back with me to America. (potential future Employers please disregard last paragraph, when considering my application)
**Other fascinating fixes include a large piece of cardboard shoved somewhere into the back of the hood, or bubble gum and tape used to fix a hole in some tubing. And my personal favorite; the driver going into a house by the side of the road and returning with a box of powdered laundry detergent. The detergent was then poured into the radiator (possibly lowering the boiling point??? I can’t be sure). I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that all the aforementioned repairs were successful.