I’ve been struggling mightily as of late to come up with new fodder for this blog. As I sat in a meeting today and lectured a new NGO on how they must always keep their audience in focus when writing a grant, I realized that maybe I too had lost sight of such an essential. As I’ve lived here and become more accustomed to Armenian culture, I have naturally become more callous to things that you, my humble and patient audience may find interesting. So here are a few tidbits:
Random dance party outbreaks:
Armenians love to dance. You can literally be anywhere, and if the music starts playing you can be sure that the moving of tables, chairs and other obstructions will soon follow. Today for example I was sitting in a meeting with an organization, alongside a Canadian volunteer who has just arrived in country and someone turned up the background music a bit. Next thing I know we’re shoving tables aside and whooping ‘dashiiiiii’ while forming a circle to allow for the more qualified dancers to show off. The reaction to the music was nothing short of reflexive. Grant writing cast aside midsentence, others started streaming in from adjoining offices to join in the revelry. On one knee and clapping rhythmically to allow 3 women to complete a traditional Armenian dance around me, I glanced over at the bewildered face of the newly arrived Canadian volunteer (a very accomplished 50 year old man) still sitting at the computer; I remembered that this wouldn’t really be considered normal in western business culture.
In no way was this an isolated event. At most dinner parties there is almost always a late night dance portion. These can go on torturously for hours. If there is an eligible young girl of marrying age then the dancing/talent portion is all but guaranteed.
I am awkwardly atremble as I type this, recalling the 2 hour solo karaoke show that was put on by one unwed 18-year-old village girl for yours truly. Her father sat beside me, constantly requesting my affirmation that she was indeed a ‘wonderful singer of incomparable beauty’. On the first count at least, I can say with all confidence that she was not. This show only began after 3 hours of dancing.
I have always thought that we possess an appreciation for ‘straight shooters’ in America. People who tell you what they think and don’t equivocate or hold back their thoughts are often seen as doers, people without the time or inclination for niceties in the cause of clarity or other such things. After nearly 2 years in Armenia I challenge that notion. We’ve got nothing on the Armenians.
Armenians generally tend to be true straight shooters. While our American version is still beholden to a certain level of decorum, this place is the Wild West (or East as it were). Nothing is off limits. This is probably one of the largest cultural clashes that Americans (especially in the villages) encounter.
I was reminded of this today when I walked into my office with a new haircut. Reactions from coworkers included; ‘Dominic why did you cut your hair?’ ‘That looks very bad, did you cut it yourself? Couldn’t you have at least used a mirror?’ ‘It will grow back soon.’ Etc… I have grown so used to this country that it didn’t even affect me. Though this has only come after much time immersed here.
In my first week in Armenia, upon meeting my village grandmother, she grabbed my stomach and stated loudly to the gathered that I was so skinny I looked sick. Bear in mind that I had known her for all of 3 seconds, and she was in fact holding a good chuck of my stomach in her hands (betraying her statement outright). As I left the room in the morning, (looking admittedly a bit unkempt) she would often tell me that I was shameful and not as good-looking as the previous volunteer that had lived with them. But this was nothing compared with a fellow female volunteer who lived across the street from me. Nearly everyday when she returned from Armenian language classes her host mother would tell her she was fat and naughty (a loose translation). Already grating against the self-conscience of an American female, it was followed up daily with the statement that she was fatter than the day before. Admittedly the men receive but a small fraction of the unintentional disparagement heaped upon them that the women receive.
Guard dogs are normally employed to keep intruders or other unwanted guests out of private spaces. Here oftentimes they are used outside of public establishments like stores and offices. There is a specific store near my work that would be so convenient for me to visit, but for the vicious dog that patrols the entrance. It strikes me as bad business practice to put obstacles, especially ones that threaten immediate bodily harm, in front of a customer’s access to the establishment.
Walls of Walkers
When walking in Armenia it is usually in groups and nearly always arm in arm or holding hands. Normally only intra-gender (boys hold hands and lock arms as much as the girls here), these chains of people walking together down the street can reach breadths that are debilitating to the average pedestrian. In America it’s common courtesy to move aside to let others pass when blocking a path. Not so here. These walls of walkers NEVER move or break rank for the lone pedestrian! It frustrates me to no end. Add to this the various other obstacles on the streets (fruit stands, burned out car carcasses, etc…) and you have a confounding mix.
Often one is forced to walk inordinate distances around them if passing from behind, but it’s when they are approaching you that it becomes interesting. My first year, as I was more concerned with integration, I would cross the street or move aside if the path allowed (one time I even gave in, turned around and went home), but now I’ve taken to the more direct approach. Some of you may have played the game Red Rover during your formative years. It’s kinda of like that. I get a nice head of steam and head for the weakest looking pair/portion of the wall. I’m always sure to say excuse me as I burst through their grasps. It’s probably not regulation Peace Corps behavior, but it’s good for my soul.
These are but a sampling of these things. I will try to keep my eyes peeled for more as my service winds to a close.