Thursday, September 30, 2010

Around town

A few weeks ago I took a trip to Gyumri to see my Bestie Ashley! I met up at one of the town circles and this is what I saw. By looking at these pictures you would almost think I was in the modern world, but Gyumri just happens to be the second biggest city in Yerevan so it is a lot different than 90 percent of the places in Armenia. There even happens to be a place where you can get a cheeseburger! But trust me when I say that even Gyumri, as advanced as it looks, is not on par with the average American city. Some places do not have running water nor toilets that work.
Anyways, Armenia is pretty much a country of beautiful sculptures, statues and churches. Everywhere you go there are beautiful statues, or interesting statues.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

lost in translation

This is how I know I need a new language tutor: My family told me a story yesterday about a man in a nearby village who waited until there was a party and then came and knocked on the door and killed everyone he saw. It happened a number of times. Oh great I thought, a serial killer in freakn Armenia. Well tonight when someone walked in without knocking, while we were drinking hot coco, we all stiffened up and looked at each other with eyes each asking the other who that was. Of course there was no answer to our unspoken question and as the footsteps came closer I screamed and broke the petrified silence. My neighbor peaks her head around the corner and we all laugh. My neighbor asked me why I was scared. I said I didn’t want that man from the village to come in and kill me. Everyone looked at me with puzzled faces. You know the man from yesterday. They laughed, you mean the man who steals things? It turns out that story was really that he waited until they left the house and stole everything not killed everyone... woops! Now I will be forced to hear this story time after time again at many a neighbor’s coffee table as everyone in the room laughs at me. On the bright side, maybe they will now stop talking about the time I asked for a caco bon chic, when I should have asked for a chocolate bon chic because caco is only for milk… I still don’t get what the hell the difference is, chocolate is chocolate but they find this hysterical =/

On that same note, I was also told tonight that even though we just got new gas boxes in my home, there is actually no gas pipeline that runs to our house. This means in the summer we will have no heating unless that pipe magically appears. As my host mom explains it, I will have to sleep on the couch in the living room with the whole family because they only have one small heater and they close all the doors to keep that one room warm. I am hoping that this too was somehow lost in translation because that freakn sucks!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Potatos and Field Dreams

Even though I have only had classes for two weeks now, I have noticed that quite a few boys had been missing my classes last week. I asked my counterpart about it, but she said she didn’t notice. In my ninth grade class one boy in particular missed all three of our classes last week. This is the boy that has waited for me after school on many occasions to walk me home and has brought me flowers, so I really noticed his absence. So I pointed this out to my counterpart and she told the boys class master. I didn’t understand the response that the class master made, but soon all the teachers were talking about it. The thing about my newly learned Armenian skills is that I don’t really understand conversations unless they are with me. When people talk to me, I can answer them and ask them questions and have a little chat with them, but when they talk amongst themselves, I can often pick up the general theme and some sentences, but not much. From what I understand they were talking about whether I would understand something and whatever it was they decided not to tell me. I asked my counterpart what was going on and she just brushed the question off and never gave me an answer about the kid.
So when I went home later that day I told my host mother about the boys being absent from my class. She explained to me that this particular student is a very good boy, but that he has 7 brothers and sisters and they are very poor. She explained to me that they get their school outfits every year from the church. She told me about the responsibilities that he has to the family to help take care of the other kids and the garden as well. Here your garden is your wealth in many cases. If you tend to your garden and have a good season you have food for the winter to eat and to trade with and if you do not, you will be hungry. She also explained that this little boy in particular helps take care of his grandparents and their house because they are too old to do most of the work by themselves. My heart broke for my poor student. It’s hard to be a teacher and know that no matter how hard you work, you’re not going to be able to help prevent these situations. The boy is already so behind in his classes, and has talked to me about dropping out of school on numerous occasions. I want to help him so badly, but any help I offer he refuses and explains to me that he doesn’t need English because he will never leave here.
When I asked my host mother why the other boys were gone as well, she explained to me that it is potato season in Spitak and that many of the boys stay home to help their families and neighbors pick the potatoes. She explained to me that it’s very important because when Winter comes, all we will have to eat are potatoes, so they must be picked in a timely manner. Sure enough the next day was a Saturday and I woke up to the sound of shovels hitting the dirt. I walk outside in my PJs to see what my family was up to and was surprised to see that my host mom and brother along with some of my students were outside digging up the potatoes. I rushed back in to get dressed and when I came back out my students called me over to them. As I walked into the garden I saw hundreds of potatoes that had been shoveled out of the ground, and this was just in one tiny patch!!! When the potatoes are ready they rise almost completely to the top of the soil and you can see them peak out from the dirt, so all you have to do is get them out and clean them. My host mother asked if we were hungry. The boys replied yes and my host brother asked if I would cook a potato and egg breakfast skillet that I had made for them once before. So as the boys picked potatoes I prepared a meal for ten!!! It was a lot of work. At the end of the afternoon we all ate breakfast and drank coffee. It was amazing to see how neighbors here help each other out. The boys who came over to help pick the potatoes didn’t have to come, they were not family. But they came and worked early in the morning for hours and the only reward they got was a meal made by me! I just can’t imagine boys from my parent’s neighborhood in Palmdale coming over to help my dad with the yard work. It’s amazing to see the cooperation and general concern for others here. It’s an amazing way to live, and I am so lucky to be to witness this every day, and can only hope that one day I will be able to teach others to live by this example.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Teaching in Armenia is definitely not anything like teaching in America would be. First of all the classrooms are in poor shape, schools were built during the soviet era and often have not been upgraded since. There is no such thing as technology in the class room, which includes heat. When it’s cold we freeze and just have to deal with it. Yesterday I found myself teaching with a beanie on and it’s only September! Secondly there are no such things as visual aids in Armenian schools. They teach orally and kids are expected to memorize everything they hear, they often do not even take notes, which explain why they never remember anything. When I want to explain the colors to my third graders I rely on my box of crayons and the flash cards my mother sent to me from America. When I want to teach about professions I rely on my Armenian skills and my tiny computer screen, that often runs out of battery before my presentation is over because we do not have power. Thirdly there is no such thing as positive reinforcement. I never hear Armenian teachers telling students good job. They never give students incentives to do anything other than if they don’t they will be yelled at. Today I brought stickers for my students and gave them to the students who completed their project without any mistakes. The students were amazed. They don’t even get handouts in class, let alone stickers that they can show their parents when they do a good job.
It’s hard to have grown up in American schools and to see this approach to education. I am not saying the American way is better, or that Americans are smarter. I realize that tough love is the Armenian school systems way. In a lot of ways, I think it’s a good thing, but at the same time it’s hard for me to stomach a child working so hard and not receiving praise.
My first week of teaching, I had a particularly bad class. They talked the whole time and didn’t listen, until finally I had to discipline them. My counterpart seeing that I was being stern felt that she must step in and be even sterner, the headmaster was called in and a shouting match ensued. I felt horrible. I only wanted the two students to stop talking, but I didn’t want them to be yelled at or hit. I went home feeling so defeated. Later that evening the student that had been the cause of my problems came over to my house to apologize. He told me that he didn’t mean to disrespect me, but that ever since he was little he hated school because he was called stupid and was hit. He can’t stand to be in my class because if he tries and fails he will be punished so it’s not worth trying. I felt horrible. I told him that I am trying to change things and trying to teach teacher’s new methods and that when he talks he hurts other student’s abilities to learn. I explained that I came all the way from America to teach him so even if he hates English he should be quiet in my class. Well I have to tell you he turned my worst class into my best class. They are so well-behaved ever since he and I had that talk. They mostly all try to participate and if they don’t want to they are at least quiet now. They are so good that I am going to make them my last batch of chocolate chip cookies to reward them.
I really want to make a difference here. I love to teach, and I love my students, even the ones that don’t speak a word of English. I have so many ideas to get them excited about school, from having a student of the month American movie and snack night, to awarding my best class each month with some kind of treat. I want to introduce Armenian teachers to the joys of positive reinforcement instead of negative. I want to get punch cards and when a student participates in class I will punch their cards and when everyone’s card in a class is full we will watch a movie. I have so many ideas to change things here, but it’s hard with such a limited amount of supplies. I brought in a weather chart for my tenth grade class today, and the kids were amazed that they had a visual to teach them. I am really new to teaching, so if you are a teacher and have some advice on ways that I can encourage my students or methods I can use, or materials I can make, please share with me. My email is I would really appreciate any advice you can give me, especially when it comes to making visuals with almost no resources. I know I have a lot of super crafty friends so please share with me!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

my new puppy!

Yup I have another one. My papik just keeps bringing them home! He blames it on me, but I never wanted the cat nor Jack. But I do have to say I am in love with this lil gal!

So now introducing to you Manook!

So at first I wanted to name this lil baby Jill or Cali. Jill because the boy is named Jack, and Cali because it's pretty and it matches Lucca, as a name of a place. But I couldn't decided and my host mom started to call her miky, I don't know why... So I thought I lost the opportunity to name her. Then one day I was sitting in my room typing a blog and the pup was curled up in my lap. My tatik came in and started talking to me. She asked me if I wanted babies one day and I said of course and she said I needed to do it soon. I answered nah I have a baby right here and picked up the dog. This is my manook (baby in armenian) I told her. My tatik laughed so hard. She thought calling a dog a baby was the funniest thing in the world. So now we call the dog manook, or alyssa's manook.

I am honestly so glad to have her. She is about a month old (can you believe it, poor baby still needs to be with her mama) and snuggles and is a love bug! I get so happy to come home to her! And today she even tried to follow me to school!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Home is where the heart is...

Last Friday was the first day that the new volunteers were allowed to travel around in country, so we took the opportunity and took a trip to Lake Sevan together. I was excited to see other Americans and to kayak and swim and enjoy a nice weekend away from work, since let’s face it every day here is work. Every day you have to work, just to speak and to understand what is going on. Every day, whether I feel like it or not I need to be in a good mood and make myself available for people. I signed up to be a representation of my country. If someone asks me to tea and I say no, I make all Americans look bad, so I go, no matter how tired I am. And its work, believe it or not, it’s really difficult. Imagine being in a room where a whole family, who obviously has nothing, wants to share everything they have with you. You can barely understand enough to keep up with the conversation, and they are all stare at you expectantly. They want you to eat their food and converse with them, they want you to teach their kids and make their lives better, they want you to understand their culture and sometimes they even want you to give them money. It may not seem like anything to you reader, but every day every part of my life, I am representing my country, and I am teaching and learning all at the same time. It’s draining, emotionally and physically. Wait a minute you expect me to believe that being a guest and eating food is hard work, you may be asking. Well my answer is yes, in a way I am a constant actor putting the best image I can out there. There are days when I am so tired and all I want to do is go home and sleep but then I get home and my family tells me I must pay a visit to someone. A person only has so much energy to be “on”.
I’m not complaining, I am just explaining the need to be around other Americans as often as I can. So like I said we took a vacation together to the lake. There was one small problem with our plan however, it was freezing there!!! It rained almost the whole time and was so cold. So we basically stayed indoors the whole time, which was a huge bummer.
When I got back home on Sunday, I put my huge pack on my shoulders and made the 40 min walk to my house. For some reason I was homesick as could be, being near the lake really made me miss California and my friends, and the beach, and the summer, especially the freaken summer! So as I was walking back I was listening to my ipod a little bit heartbroken, when I saw my papik approaching me on the road. His face lights up as he seems me and I quickly wipe away my tears. Barev dez barev dez he calls out to me in a sing songy voice. I say hello back to him and smile the best that I can. He asks me about my trip but before I can answer, he tells me that it was a bad week to go because it was cold there. We both laugh as I agree, and he asks me if I swam. Of course not I exclaim and we laugh again. Good we don’t want you to get sick he tells me and we say goodbye and continue on our paths. As I walk up to my house my host mom sees me. Alyssa agchicka she says with a big smile on her face, this has sort of become their pet name for me. She calls to the rest of the family and tells them that I am home, and puts her arm around me and walks me into the house. My tatik stands up and kisses my cheek. They all begin to ask me questions at once, but then my tatik sees that I still have my heavy bag so she commands everyone to let me be so I can go get comfortable. When I come back we talk about my trip, drink tea and eat some hot fresh bread. Everyone is so happy to see me, I feel like I have been gone for weeks! My host mom tells me that my papik kept asking all day when I would come home, he couldn’t wait for me to get back. It was really comforting to feel so loved. My tatik put her arm around me and called me her girl. Instinctively they picked up on my sadness and we had a long girl talk and I actually poured my heart out to them a bit. I told them why I was sad and they both understood. Then my host mom did the most amazing thing, she made French toast!! I felt like I was back in High school and when I would have a really bad day my mom or my dad would make me a special treat, a rootbeer float, ice cream or brownies. Well this French toast was my bad day cheerer up, and it made everything feel a lot better.
It is so amazing how easy it is to become a part of a family here. I do feel a part of my Spitak family. I feel like they genuinely love me and want me to be happy. I am so blessed to be having this experience especially because there are many volunteers who can’t stand their families. I love my family and am even thinking of living here at least for one full year…

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

American Television

It seems that living in Armenia means you must get use to saying goodbye. This week my host father left for Ukraine where he works in a shoe factory for 8 months out of every year. Even though I have known this day was coming, I didn’t realize how sad I would feel now that he is gone. He is the third man that I have had to say goodbye to since moving to Armenia, and I am beginning to understand a deeper level of the Armenian woman’s strength. They send their sons off to the Army and their husbands abroad to work, never complaining about the unfairness of it all, or about the extra work they will have to do. My family now lives on a farm of sorts. This means that my host mother will now have the extra work that both my host brother and host father have left behind.
The last night that my host father was here, the mood was different. It was as any other day but only quieter. No one spoke. No one laughed, or if they did they did so quietly, not their usually boisterous outbursts. It was different than any other Armenian goodbye that I have usually seen. Usually there are parties and khorovots (bbq) and toasts made with lot of laughter and hugs and kisses. There was none of that this time, but nor were there tears. We ate dinner as normal, nothing special denoting the occasion other than a small shot of vodka shared between my father and my papik. Chores were done and after they watched tv just like any other night. I almost started to doubt my language skills, and thought perhaps he wasn’t leaving yet.
At around 10 o’clock at night my host mom called me to tea and bread. We drank tea and watched Eurovision, or something like it. My host mom asked if we have Eurovision in the US. I told her no, but we do have shoes like it, the only difference being that only Americans are in it, not other countries. My father then says next year we will get a satellite dish and be able to watch American tv. He asks if I had one in America. I explain that I had cable tv. He asks me how much it cost. I tell him about 70 dollars. He looks disappointed. He tells me his satellite dish will cost him 80 US dollars. $80 dollars a month! I say. He scrunches his face, no just once he answers. Oh that’s good, I paid 70 a month. His jaw drops, a year, he tries to correct me. No a month I tell him. He and my mom say something to each other, prolly about how much money they think I have.
I like the Animal Planet he tells me in English. I laugh, astonished that he knows what the Animal Planet is. See I know some American things he says in Armenian. In Ukraine we watch American tv. I can watch the Animal Planet all night, I like it very much. I watch the police arrest bad people who are mean to animals, we should have that here, but most people would go to jail. I like to watch the surgeries. I use to be a vet and I like to watch it because one day maybe I can be a vet again. I nod my head and think to myself, what sad times we live in that a vet now works in Ukraine as a cobbler in a factory. I admire him for doing what is necessary to provide for his family, especially when so many of the men here just give up. The room falls quiet again, everyone in their own thoughts.
In America you don’t have the porno channel my host dad says in armenian, suddenly breaking the channel. Apparently there is no translation needed for porno channel, it is the same in both languages. I look up, trying not to giggle and try to pretend I don’t understand. He points to the tv, porno channel he says again. I look, and sure enough there is porno on the tv. My face couldn’t have been more red. Here, he says, it comes on late at night (it was about 1 am). My host mom looks disgusted, yet no one changes the channel. In America, I tell them, you have to pay for “the porno channel”, so you only get it if you want it. Ahh that is much better they tell me, as if they are disgusted with their own country, and yet the porno channel remains on tv. I look over at their son and it’s too much for me to handle. I let out a giggle. They all look up at me. It’s nothing I say and I sneak off to bed… Defiantly going to miss my host dad!

* I would like to note that by porn, I don’t really mean porn; it was more like a raunchy movie that may be rated R or X depending. There was some plot to it, so it wasn’t full out porn, but it was pretty graphic.

Monday, September 6, 2010

To the Lovely People of Hanley Wood...

To everyone at my dad’s work, I would like to thank you for your kind words in my care package! It means so much to me that you all read my blog and keep up with what I am doing when I am so far away. It is so very easy to feel all alone here in a city where I am the only American. You watch life go by in the states without you and sometimes it pierces your shield and makes you re-think your decision to leave your former life behind. It’s easy to feel forgotten, but when I receive notes from home letting me know that people read my blog and care about what I am doing, it re-ignites my passion to make a difference in the world and strengthens the armor I must wear in order to live here day after day for two years. So thank you so much for thinking about me and sending me your salutations!!! I hope that I can continue to make my father proud and write stories that hold your interests.
On another note, I would like to thank whoever my dad stole fruit snacks from! The cheap bastard =)

Thanks daddy, I love you and miss you! P.S all the other volunteers were jelous of my dinosaurs!

Teaching makes a difference

This is my favorite class. The first time I met them they all stood up and recited a poem for me. And then they handed me flowers. They are so excited to learn English, and I am going to do my best to keep them interested and show them how fun it can be in the next two years. I really feel that I have the ability to change their lives, to show them how English can open doors for them to have better lives. Especially the boys.
When boys are finished with school they must go into the army for two years. After that they usually go to Russia where they do manual labor. They consider education for women, who will most likely become teachers. The older boys that I have in my class who are smart are often teased for it. It’s hard to know how to encourage them without making them a target for the rest of the class. I think if I start teaching them at a young age all the opportunities they will have by knowing English, then maybe I can encourage them to learn.
The older classes are much more difficult. The education range varies to such a strong degree. In my tenth grade class I have kids who can write sentences and answer my questions in English and then kids who do not even know the alphabet. I told my school director today that I will offer all my students private tutoring if they are behind. She was shocked. I am expected to start clubs for the good students, and to dedicate my time to them. She couldn’t see why I would want to waste my time on the students who in her opinion can’t learn. For the most part these students are passed on year by year because the teachers don’t know how teach them, and therefore do not want to deal with them any longer, so they are given passing grades and skate on by. The biggest part of my job is not to teach children English, it’s to teach teachers how to teach. If I teach them how to be better teachers, it is sustainable change that can really make a difference for many. If they see by my example that even the bad kids can learn if they are given attention and time, then maybe they will change their methodologies which will help many future students to come.
These first few days of teaching have been such a positive experience for me. I have found that I actually really love to teach, and for the most part it comes natural to me. I have a patience for it, that I do not have in other parts of my life. I am honestly thrilled when a student gets an answer correct, or asks a smart question. I love being the antithesis to the Armenian teacher, always with a smile on my face that lets them know its ok to make mistakes. I have so many ideas on how to make school more exciting for them, and to get them interested in learning.
Already me being an American has drawn them in. They tell their other teachers how excited they are for their English lessons. The English students that don’t have me as a teacher, but instead have another English teacher complain that it is not fair and that they want to be in my class. When I walk in the halls from class to class groups of little girls follow me, waiting to show me that they know how to greet me in English. I am something new and exciting to them which gives me an advantage. I have their attention, now I just need to use my creativity to keep it and use it to teach them. I pray every day that I am up to my task. This is where Peace Corps decided I am most needed, and more than anything I want to do the best that I can and make a difference.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

September 1st

Yesterday was September first, which in Armenia means back to school. Which also meant Alyssa’s first day of work. Vacation is now over and the work has begun. Going into the first day of school, I hadn’t really met with my counterpart and had no idea what to expect. I was actually really nervous. It didn’t help my nerves when as I was getting dressed my host mother came into my room to make sure my outfit was acceptable. She straightened a few ruffles and told me to spin and okayed the outfit. I had some tea, and walked outside to see a group of neighbors standing at the driveway. They all stare at me from up the street as I begin to walk to school. As I approach them they begin to cheer, I don’t know whether to die of laughter or embarrassment. They each hug me and congratulate me on the new school year. Alright thanks. =/
As I walked to the school I saw small clusters of children dressed in black pants or skirts and white shirts. The closer I got the more black and white I saw. Apparently this is the standard Armenian school uniform. As I walked into the front gate to the school, I felt a hush on the play ground. Parents stopped fixing their little kids outfits and the children stopped talking and everyone stared at me. I obviously stood out with my light hair, skin and eyes as well as my style of dress. I walked hurriedly to the teacher’s lounge, trying my best to look like a grown-up who knows what she’s doing.
When I get into the teachers’ lounge I am alarmed to find out that I don’t feel much safer. I step in and the room gets quiet. Everyone stares at me, not really knowing what to say to me, and not really knowing how much Armenian I understand. They tell me to sit and push some candy in front of me. To my dismay my counter-part is not there yet. Great, no one to talk to. I feel a little silly being there. People say hello to me and ask how I am, but other than that, they just don’t know what to do with me.
Finally my counterpart comes! Its nine thirty, and I thought school began at nine. She says hello and then goes and sits near her friends. I have no clue what the heck is going on. So I sit, a confused foreigner, not knowing what I should be doing. Finally my counterpart grabs me and tells me I can go outside. I follow her to a group of students. We line them up in a square and then we wait and wait and wait. Finally a line of 1st graders come out from the school holding the hands of 11th graders, our oldest students. The little ones recite some poems and sing a few songs. Then the older kids also recite some poems. The director of the schools says a few words and then calls me up to the front. She puts her arm around me and introduces me as the American teacher who will make their school better. She says an awful lot about me that I don’t understand, and I just smile hoping she is not making promises for me that I can’t keep. Then I take an oath that I don’t understand with the rest of the teachers, flowers are handed out, and an 11th grade boy picks up a 1st grade bell and tells her to shake it. She gets major stage fright so he begins to shake her and the bell rings. He runs around shaking her and everyone laughs and congratulates each other on the new school year.
We go back into the teachers’ lounge and I am told that I can leave, there is nothing else for me to do. All that big hoopla for nothing?!?! Later in the evening I come back to school for a celebration of the new school year. We have khorovots, vodka, salad, cake and cookies. Everyone in the room feels that they need to be motherly to me. Eat eat, is all that I hear the whole time. If I say I am full, one of my designated mothers puts food on my plate for me. We dine and laugh together for a few hours. This is obviously a close group I have come into, but the good news is they all seem happy to have me. I just hope I can meet their expectations.
After my day I walk home and run into my Tatik. I am so proud she tells me. All the kids told me that you looked very pretty today, so I told them you are my agchica (girl). They are all so excited to have you, and I am very proud.
And then: What is that on your face, did you cut yourself. It looks bad….. No tatik I just have a… and then in English, a pimple, thanks for noticing, said in my best eeyore voice.