Friday, December 31, 2010

If you give a boy a piece of chocolate...

When I was a little girl I read a book called If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. It was a cute story whose main point was that if you give a mouse of cookie he will keep asking for more stuff. There were also many other versions of this story; I even wrote my own version as a 5th grader called If You Give a Boy a Box of Crayons.
Anyways, last night I found myself thinking of that book a lot. For the past month I have felt a lot of tension in my host family. It seems these days money is very tight for them and all of a sudden a lot of rules have popped up. Such as I can only take a shower twice a week or I can’t drink milk, or use my heater at night. These rules drive me nuts because I feel like I pay them a good amount of money to use these things so I don’t understand why I can’t use them. Sometimes it just seems as though it would be a lot easier to move into an apartment of my own, which has been the plan all along, but now I have been wanting it to happen sooner rather than later.
Part of the recent tightness has been the weather change, it is now winter and cold, and obviously it costs more money to heat the house. However, the biggest reason I find for the change is that tonight is Nor Tari, aka New Years. Nor Tari is huge here in a way that it is hard for the American mind to grasp. In a way Nor Tari can be compared to American’s Christmas, except it’s twice as big and lasts for 4 times as many days. For the past week my house has been busy from early in the morning till late at night with Nor Tari preparations, which mostly include cooking and more cooking and a little bit of cleaning. We put up the tree the day after American Christmas, as the tree is for Nor Tari not Christmas. Armenians do have a Christmas on January 6th, however it’s named Saints day and Santa Clause comes on New Year’s Eve, so it’s not really the same concept as ours.
Anyways in move to break the tension with my family I bought them all Nor Tari presents. At first I didn’t want to do it at all. Part of my reason being, well I am in the Peace Corps and I am broke! I never even have money to call home. The other reason being that my family always seems to think I have a lot of money when in fact I have none. I was afraid to buy them presents because they already expect so much from me, and if you give a mouse a cookie, he will want a glass of milk. For my host mom I bought a table tea set that matches the rest of her cups and plates. Previously for tea we used really old Halloween cups that had no handles! For my host brothers I got them a huge Talbarone chocolate bar. That doesn’t seem like much, but the two bars costs as much as the tea set did. My host brother Vahag loves chocolate, and I wanted him to have some good chocolate for once.
So last night I was sitting around the heater with my host brothers and we were watching tv and talking about Nor Tari plans. Vahag informed me that he got me a little Nor Tari surprise, and that is exactly how he said it. I have been teaching him a little bit of English so I was happy that he used it! I then told him that I had a little surprise for him and the kid went crazy! He basically turned into a younger me, and started begging me to give it to him right then. I couldn’t help but to laugh, I absolutely adore my younger host brother so I had to give in to him. I brought out the candy and explained that it was my favorite chocolate in America and that I consider it one of the best. As my host brothers began to open their chocolate, I was feeling a little sad because I didn’t have enough money to buy myself a bar of my own and it really is my favorite.
My brother Vahag ripped his open as excited as could be. He is 15 but at that moment he was a six year old. My other host brother Vahe, who is on vacation from the army, opened his slowly and more maturely as if he could care less. I watched carefully wanting to see the expression on their faces when they had their first taste. However, I was interrupted when Vahag stuffed a huge chunk of the chocolate in my face. Eat it he ordered me. I told him I couldn’t it was his gift and he had to eat it. He shoved it in my mouth! Almost half of the chocolate, half of his Nor Tari gift he gave to me. I can’t think of too many people who would share like that, but that is one of the best things about having a host family, and specifically my host brother, he treats me like I am family. Not even just like family, but like special family who gets special treatment.
Often when he and his mom get into an argument about something he looks to me and tells me to decide.
“Alyssa you’re my sister and Armenian sisters always protect their little brothers and always choose their side.”
He really does see me as his big sister and always tells me how glad he is that I am here. As it turns out he loved the chocolate and said it was the best he ever had. He loved it enough that when Vahe put his down, Vahag stole it! We all agreed that it was the best chocolate you could find in Armenia.
It turns out that if I give that mouse a cookie he will give me half of it and offer me a glass of milk.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Memories

This year will be the first time I have ever spent Christmas away from my family. I guess one of the bad things about growing up is that every year Christmas seems a little less special and losses some of it’s magic.
As I have thought about making plans for Christmas this year, I have unintentionally been thinking a lot about the past Christmas’ I have shared with my family. Even if we can’t be together this year, nothing can take away the past 27 years of Christmas’ I have share with you guys, so I thought I’d share my top memories with you here.

#10- Christmas 2006. That year was my first year in Long Beach. My first year living as an adult, in an adult apartment. My roommate Jami was huge on decorating the apartment. For her birthday party we had a tree decorating party. I have to admit I was in a major funk that night but when she finally got me out of my room and got a cup of spiced rum apple cider in me, we had the best night ever. I can’t even begin to tell you how awesome that night was, but the memory will last my whole lifetime. Jami even made Lucca and I, our very own stockings that she hung on our walls.
#9- Christmas 2005. This was the last year we had Christmas with my Nana and as of now stands as the last true Christmas I have ever had. It was the last time our whole family got together for Christmas. I remember at Thanksgiving that year, my Nana had talked about skipping tradition for a year and buying Christmas tamales instead of making lasagna. I of course, always trying to grasp on to tradition, threw a fit and protested as only I can. So my nana caved in and made her famous lasagna. Even though I know I was a brat, I am so glad that our last Christmas all together, was one of tradition, and I am so glad for that one extra year of eating Nana’s Lasagna and a worry free mentality.
#8 Christmas 2007 - After my Nana died, the keeper of tradition in our family, no one really knew what would happen during holidays. Well for this one year after her death we all banned together, minus my grandpa Tom and tried our best to have a good Christmas. Even though our hearts were not completely in it, I think the little ones had a good time. It was also the year I took over my Nana’s torch and began making the Christmas Lasagna.
#7 There is no year to this one because there isn’t one specific year that it happened, but I can’t have a best Christmas memory list without including my Grandma Shirley’s Rice Pudding!! I have been attempting to make her recipe for almost 8 years now and nothing will ever come close to hers! The taste of cinnamon will always mean Christmas to me because of her famous pudding!
#6 A few years ago, which year it was escapes me, my dad gave us all a very special Christmas stocking. He MADE my mommy make us chocolate chip cookies, which for some reason felt to me like the most special chocolate chip cookies in the world. He also gave us a letter that he had written to each of us kids specially, and what he wrote meant so much to me. I just loved the true Christmas spirit of that year, that really in life it’s the thought that counts, not the gifts you are given.
#5 Christmas 1990ish- One thing about my Papa is that he always wrapped his presents in comic strips, and the memory of the comic striped presents under the tree with a huge train running around them will always make me smile. But specifically this year makes me smile cause this year my Papa gave me a present that no one will ever forget. He gave me a basketball. I was about eight at the time and had just began playing sports, but still very sensitive about being a tom-boy. When I opened the present I threw it and stopped away yelling through my tears, that’s a boy’s toy, I am not a boy! I look back and laugh at how much like my cousin Lyndsay I was. Funny thing is I really loved basketball, and always had, but all the other little girls got dolls and I was mad that I didn’t get one too.

#4 Christmas 1989- This Christmas my parents were separated and me, my mom and my sister were living with my Nana. The thing about my Nana, is that she was Susie homemaker, especially when it came to Christmas. She always had the most beautiful Christmas tree, with long red bows flowing down each side. She also always put the Christmas presents under the tree about a week or two before Christmas. My parents never did this, they waited until Christmas morning. Well being a little girl that had never seen so many presents in my life, the temptation was too strong, I couldn’t keep away from that tree. So I convinced my sister to help me take a peak. We poked holes in the bottom of pretty much all our presents to see what we got!! My grandpa Tom was so mad when he found out, but I can’t help but smile as I look back and think of lil me and Bri shaking gifts and poking holes in them!
#3 Christmas 1991-ok the year on this one is a guess, it might be 1992, I don’t remember. This was the first Christmas that my mom and dad had got back together after being separated. They had absolutely no money at all and couldn’t afford a Christmas tree. But nothing can stop my dad’s Christmas spirit, so he decorated his desk like a tree. We called it the Christmas desk! The few small presents we could afford that year fit nicely under the desk and we were no worse for wear for it. I am glad I had parents who only spent what they worked to have. They never did that whole credit card Christmas thing where they would spend beyond their means. I mean this year, we got trolls and tapes, but it was awesome anyways!
#2 Christmas 2006 again- This was my first Christmas with Lucca and it was also the first Christmas that I actually had money to buy people good presents. I had done all my Christmas shopping really early that year, and had bought my brother a super nice 250 dollar watch. I bought my sister a really nice purse that she still uses to this day. Me and my sister together made my mom a gift basking present, filling it with new make-up, hair appliances, and all the stuff she never buys for herself, as well as some nice shoes. This is also the only year I ever got something for my dad he liked, a book that had been recommended to me by my Religious Studies teacher. It felt so amazing to be able to give people things I knew they would love… .
This also happens to be Lucca’s first Christmas. I was such a proud new pupster momma, I had to get her the best presents. I spent Christmas Eve, wrapping up all her gifts, and putting small treats in them so maybe just maybe she would try to open them. I had little hopes, but it was worth it for me. The result was amazing. Not only did she open all her gifts when I gave them to her, but she knew they were presents for her and gathered all of them into her new dog bed. She would open one and then carry it over to the bed and drop it there. If anyone got to close, she would go nuts!! She would bark at them, as if saying these are my presents, and you can’t take them from me!
#1 Christmas sometime when I was about 7 or 8- Christmas Eve has always been the big deal for my family. Christmas Eve is when we all get together and see each other and open presents and eat a nice lasagna dinner. I use to brag about how amazing our Christmas Eve’s were. One of our traditions when we were little and my Nana still lived in West Covina was to drive around and look at the Christmas lights in the neighborhood. When we got back from this trip, we walked in the living room, and “Santa” had been to my Nana’s house. The tree looked as though it was exploding presents! But better than that, under the tree were two matching bikes for my sister and I. I can’t remember a time being more excited for a gift as that. It was so magical at that time in my life, when we still believed in Santa and were so excited we couldn’t sleep at night. We would stay up giggling and talking about how we couldn’t wait to ride our new bikes. We woke up so excited in the morning laughing and playing games and sneaking a peak at our own tree until our parents woke up. When I was little Christmas was enchanted, and I am so grateful for my wonderful grandparents and parents who did all they could to make it so special for us. Especially my Nana, who I loved so much and one day hope to plan as beautiful parties and holidays as she did! I can never take her place, but I hope for my family I can carry on her traditions.

I love you family and hope that during these difficult times, you will remember all the amazing Christmas’ we have had and it will lessen the burdens in your heart.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

My last blog was a little depressing so I have to put a few pictures of things that have been makingme happy here to balance things out a bit!!

This is a little video of Sophie following me to school. The lil thing has such lil legs, its so funny to watch her run!!
Right now in my 9th form class we are doing lessons on differnt English speaking countries. For a week we studied Australia. The kids were so interested in it and had so many questions. I had never been there so I contacted my brother who had took a three week vacation there. I asked him if he would skype with my kids and answer their questions. My kids were so excited. For 30 mins they asked him questions and he answered. I was so proud of them, and so proud of my brother! It's moments like this where I really feel like a Peace Corps volunteer providing cross cultural exchanges...

This is one of my 3rd graders Garik. A month ago he was my worst student. I couldn't get him to remember a single letter. I began to sit by him every single class and help him out as my counterpart taught. Even with this extra help he was so far behind. I decided I had to try something else, and I asked his brother zora to help him learn his letters. I dont know how his brother did it, but Garik is now one of my best students. He knows all his letters and is even reading. Giving him the student of the month award and having his class all clap for him, is one of my proudest teaching moments.

This is Sofie in the teachers lounge of my school. As you can see in the video, she now has a habit of following me to school. We put her in a box in the teachers lounge while I teach my classes and she sleeps!

These pictures are of sofie after her bath. Her hair is so fluffy!!! I took her to Vanadzor with me last weekend and we hung out with some other volunteers. She was so happy!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

I’m not going to lie, some days being in the Peace Corps is really difficult. Today happens to be one of those days. Actually this week happens to be a really hard week. When you sign up for the Peace Corps you agree to be away from your family for two years. I knew at the time that two years is a long time and lots of things can go wrong, but at the time I kind of pushed that thought from my mind. I’ll deal with it when the time comes, I told myself. Well the time has come. Actually, the time came my first month in the PC, but I guess during the holiday season the strain is really felt. It is so difficult to be so far away from your family when they are going through difficult times. A few days ago I found out my grandfather Walt died. When I got the news I was sad, but I didn’t really think much about it. It wasn’t until my brother, sister and father had to go to his house to pick out something to remember him and my grandmother by, that it really hit me. It made me so sad to not be able to be there for them; especially for my little sister, who more than anyone takes things to heart. It’s so hard to be distanced from their pain, families usually feel pain together, and I feel so separated from that.
Yesterday I also found out that my other grandpa Tom has stomach cancer. I can’t even believe it. While he had surgery to take the cancer out, and is now doing ok, he still will have to go through Chemo. Yesterday while he was having surgery, it was night time here. I couldn’t sleep at all. I just kept thinking, what if something happens to him, and I am so far away and never get to see him again. Would I have made the right decision to be here than? In five, ten years from now would I regret not being there?
Another agreement we make as PCV’s is to live under harsh conditions if need be. When you think of the Peace Corps, you imagine the worst, small huts, no bathrooms or running water. And I honestly didn’t have running water or a bathroom my first few months here. It was hard to adjust to, but I knew it was part of the deal. This past week my house has not had water. For six days, no water!! And also for one of those days no electricity nor gas, which meant no cooking, or playing on the computer or doing anything really. Now I agreed to this, so I shouldn’t complain, but what makes it so hard is that I got use to having water. Once you get accustomed to having something and then it unexpectedly is gone, it sucks! Not being able to take a shower is the worst. At one point I just began to feel so gross and itchy that I had to do something. So I took a pot of tea that we had made the night before (we got water from the neighbor) and I washed my hair with it…. That is how desperate I was.
Lastly on my blog of complaints, as this is turning out to be, the animal situation in Armenia is heart breaking. I have wrote before about how animals are treated here so I won’t go into it too much. I will say that my family is one of the best when it comes to how they treat our animals but I still have daily struggles with wanting to bring my puppy inside because I am afraid she will die in the cold. As it turns out, my concerns are justified. Last week I was walking to school and I heard a puppy crying. My dog sofie has taken to following me to school, so I thought maybe she had followed me and I hadn’t noticed and now she was hurt. I began looking for her frantically, following the sound of the cries. As it turns out, it was not my Sofie Jan but instead a newish born puppy who had fallen into a well. I immediately jumped into it to get him out. He began to growl at me so I backed off and re-thought my decision. I jumped out of the well to think. He started to cry again so I jumped back in and pulled him out. Once he was out he ran over to a hiding spot where 4 other puppies were sleeping. They were so adorable!! I have t o be honest that I felt really good about saving the puppy. Well today when I was walking to school I heard a faint puppy cry again, so again I went to search for the problem. What I saw will forever hurt my heart. The puppy that I had save only a week before now lay frozen to death near his dead brother and his barely alive sisters. I am sure that by tomorrow the sisters will also be dead. I thought about taking them with me, but how can I ask my host mom to feed two more mouths? And honestly I don’t think they would have made the walk home. Ugh, this week has just been awful.
I try to only focus on the good while I am here. Peace Corps volunteers are alone a lot, and have a lot of free time. I have no site mates, so I am alone more often than most. If you start to let yourself get homesick or sad, it can take a hold of you. So I am constantly trying to stay busy, and trying to think of different projects I can do. For the most part this makes me happier, as part of the reasons I am here is because I really do love to help people and to make things better. I love teaching, and I love my students so I enjoy thinking of better ways to teach them and fun activities to do with them. I am even writing a children’s book for my 4th and 5th graders which I will have them illustrate and have copies made for each of them. All of this makes me happy, but that doesn’t mean things are not hard.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Armenian Wedding Part 2

When we arrived at the wedding site I immediately began to look at the other guests. One of the things you learn to do as a Peace Corps Volunteer is people watch. We must watch other closely so that we can learn how to act in all situations. This time I was searching desperately to see what people were wearing, which in all honesty would be one of the first things I would do at an American wedding as well. As I surveyed the group I noticed that how people dressed, depended entirely on their age and status. Married, older women wore nice dresses or pants with nice blouses, they dressed business like. The younger married women were almost all in dresses or nice jeans, while they were more done up than the older woman; they were a lot less done up than the next category, young unmarried women. This age group ranged from 16 to well me, I guess, though not many women are my age here and not married. These women were dressed out to the nines, the hair, the make-up and the dresses were all as fancy as could be. From what I am told, many women meet their husbands at weddings, so it is important for the young girls to look their best. Lastly there were the little girls. The little girls were the absolute cutest things I’ve ever seen. They looked like little pageant dolls! They wore huge poufy prom dresses and had pink rosy cheeks and curly hair, like little angels.
After taking a look around we walked into a huge dining room with about 20 large tables, all covered with food and drink. An Armenian wedding is basically the same as a party here, only bigger and with better food! After much dispute between the women, we found a suitable table to sit at and waited for the bride and groom to arrive, also very similar to an American wedding. My table was reserved for all of my neighbors. On one side of the table sat the men and the other half sat the women. As we sat the men began pouring shot glasses of cognac and vodka and wine. I was offered a glass of cognac; I quickly looked around to make sure there was coke and then accepted. Armenians drink differently than Americans do for the most part. They drink straight shots, no chasers or anything. They only drink when they toast as well. It is not well perceived if you drink and a toast hasn’t been made. I simply cannot drink straight shots, I just can’t. My host family always watches me when toasts are made so that they can laugh at the funny faces I make after taking a sip of alcohol. During PST however, I learned a small trick, when a person is making a toast, everyone is looking at him, and you can quickly pour your cognac into your glass of coke…. Well at the wedding I attempted the same thing, only this time I got caught!
“What are you doing Alyssa Jan” My host mother asked me.
“Ugh, Ugh well I like to drink my cognac with Coca cola. I can’t drink it straight it’s too strong for me” I tell her, feeling a bit like a child who was caught with their hand in a cookie jar.
“Is it tasty like that?” She asks me.
“Yes, would you like to try it?”
Yes! I mix her a small amount of coke and cognac. This is very good she tells me, and then tells the other women at the table to try it. Some of them shake their head like I am crazy, but some of them also decide to try it. It is agreed by all who try it, that it is a very good way to drink cognac. Although they tell me I am a just a little chic and soon I will learn to drink it the normal way. I doubt this!
Soon the bride and the groom enter. Flower petals are thrown on them and they begin to dance. As soon as they enter the building they dance and their wedding party dances with them. There is a mini bride and groom and they dance alongside the bride and the groom. When the bride and groom sit, the waitress comes in dancing, with a plate of kabab and khorovots in her hand. She dances in circles around the room, bringing the food close to the wedding table, but each time she approaches, the groom does not offer enough money so she dances away. Later she comes back, apparently the groom has made the right offer and soon others bring in plates of meat as well. We begin eating as toasts to the happiness and health of the new couple begin. After every toast the wedding party comes out to the dance floor and dances, then they return to their seats.
As we are sitting and eating we are told there is a very special guest in attendance. In walks the grooms brother, dressed in his Army uniform. He has been away for a year in Karabakh. The groom jumps out of his seat and hugs his brother for what seems like forever. They cry as they embrace. Soon the bride joins and the three of them dance together. For me this was the most beautiful part of the wedding. I can’t even imagine how happy I will be next November when I come home on vacation to attend my brother’s wedding. I will be in exactly the same place as this man has been, away from my family for over a year, and seeing them for the first time on the happiest days of their life. I can’t wait.
Next the bride and groom walk over to my table and make a toast. They thank me for coming to their wedding, all eyes are on me as we cling glasses. Then they continued on and made toasts to all their guests. This is defiantly something I want to steal and use at my wedding one day. How amazing that they took the time to make a toast with every single guest.
Soon the music is playing non-stop. Alyssa jan go dance, I am told. Dance with Romela. Romela is one of my best 4th form students, and also one of the shyest. Her grandmother couldn’t be happier that I am Romelas teacher and always thanks me for encouraging her daughter. I decline and Romela goes to find her classmates. I see them look at me. I know I have no choice; they come over and grab my hand. My first Armenian dance! At first I am scared, I really don’t like to dance, especially not when everyone is staring at me. As I walk to the dance floor I hear whispers of Miss Alyssa, and Americatzi. As I begin dancing with my students I forget people are watching and I begin to have fun. Armenian dancing really is a lot of fun! We dance and dance, and soon there is a small group of people around me. I am center of their stage. I laugh do a few spins and quickly pull my little girls into the middle to dance too. That was enough of a dance solo for me! When I return back to the table, everyone tells me how lovely I dance, except, they say, you only dance with your feet….
Trays of fish are brought in and we do a toast to my hykakan dancing. I am once again called out to dance by my students. Once again I oblige and have a good time. When I come back to the table a man approaches me.
You are the American?
He begins speaking to me in Russian. I tell him I only speak Armenian, and don’t know Russian.
What a lovely girl you are, he tells me, so pretty and nice. Are you having a good time at the wedding.
My face is red, men usually do not talk to unfamiliar women in this manner in Armenia. I tell him I am enjoying it very much. My whole table is silent, waiting to see what will happen. I look to my host mother for help, but she offers none.
Will you marry an Armenian boy Alyssa?
No, I will marry an American I tell him.
Armenian boys are better than Americans. We have very nice boys here. In a year from now you will see, and you will want to marry an Armenian. You will want to marry me.
I am sitting in my chair, turning redder and redder. I tell him I don’t understand him, what else could I say?
Come dance with me Alyssa Jan.
I look around, my eyes pleading for help. I thought men were not allowed to dance with unmarried women. I have no idea what I am suppose to do. Everyone is smiling at me.
I have danced already and am very tired, I tell him. Maybe I will dance more later.
You have not met my brother yet, when you meet him you will dance with him. He is younger and better looking than I am.
Again I just want to crawl under the table and hide! Ok I tell him. He laughs and laughs and talks to others at my table.
He is a bit drunk, my host brother tells me…. I laugh and soon the whole table is laughing too.
More food is brought out, at this point we have been there for 3 hours. Kufta, a beaten and then boiled meat is put on the table with a tiny bowl of lemons and butter. My host mom prepares some for me to taste. Even though I am terrified, at least it is not the boiled pigs feet on the table. I try it, it is delicious!! The best food I have had in Armenia. I eat so much that my stomach hurts, just like I would on thanksgiving. We dance one more time before the bride and groom cut the cake. I begin to fall asleep at my table, so worn out.
We eat cake and watch as the bride and groom dance once more before they leave.
All in all the wedding is about 5 hours long. Five hours of intensive dancing, eating and drinking. It was one huge happy party that I am very grateful to have been invited to.
The next day I go to the post office to pick up a package from my sister.
We heard you are a lovely dancer, the post women tell me.
My face turns red all over again, already everyone in town has talked about my dancing…. Aye Kez ban!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Though the ground may shake, our faith stands firm...

A few months ago, after I had learned that Spitak would be my new home for the next two years, I did what any American would do. I ran home and googled it. At the time I can remember being horrified by the rubble filled images of sadness and despair that appeared on my computer screen. Spitak, according to google images was an earthquake zone with a tragic past and a condemned future. I have to admit; only the worst pictures formed in my mind of what the town would be in the present day. Me being… well me, had to ask every Armenian I knew to tell me what they knew of my new town. Time and time again people reassured me that Spitak was now a beautiful town that has made great progress in reconstruction. You will never even know there was an earthquake there, they said.
I can’t begin to tell you how wrong they were. The 1988 Spitak Earthquake, though 22 years ago, still lives in the very heart and soul of Spitak. Over 25,000 lives were lost, how can such a devastating loss ever be forgotten. There is not a single adult that I have met in Spitak who has not shared their earthquake story with me. I know where most people were during that time and who it is they lost. Every house I walk into has pictures hanging of those they lost, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives. No one escaped un-touched. Walking around Spitak it isn’t an unusual occurrence to see scars that the natural disaster left behind. Some people’s faces are disfigured; some are crippled and have no legs.
And then there is the physical rubble that has been left behind. You may never see it walking in the main square of Spitak, the part that has been made shinny and new, but if you walk a few blocks up you will stumble onto domiks. Domiks are little tin houses, that resemble a trailer house except they are much smaller, and the infrastructure is a disaster. My Papik and tatik happen to live in a domik. I will always remember the first time I went over to my tatik’s house. My host mom was going and I asked to come with her. She gave me a funny look, but really couldn’t say no. As we approached my tatik’s house, I was horrified. Green and rusted, the walls were pealing back. I didn’t even want to walk in. We knocked on the door and tatik answered “oh Alyssa Jan, my house is lav chi, you shouldn’t have to be here.” She was so ashamed that this is where she lived. I walked in to a tiny little kitchen area. There were three camping burners on a table, and this is what she called a stove. There wasn’t a sink, just a huge bucket of water. The roof was caving in, and mold was everywhere. The floors are scuffed and torn, and almost non- existent at this point. The wall paper peeling off the walls, and the windows rusted. It broke my heart that this is where she has lived for the past 21 years.
Everyone who has been living in a temporary shelter since the earthquake is supposed to get a new house, and some have. Recently I attended a house warming ceremony in Spitak, in a community they now call “Glendale” after the city in L.A. that gave so much funding to Spitak after the disaster. I believe something like 80 new houses were given away, and it was really a beautiful thing! However, when many of the poor had to pay bribes to receive these new “free” houses, the beauty begins to become enshrouded in clouds. Many people, who received their house, did so because they paid a bribe to an official, and many of these people already had houses. Many people who live in the domiks are still living in the domiks. Steps are being taken, and amazing progress has been made, but those who are living in unlivable conditions must not be forgotten. I write about this because I cannot simply read online this “The last of those homeless due to the earthquake were either given new apartments by the Lincy Foundation or given vouchers to purchase home by the Urban Institute by funds granted by USAID (in 2003).”

It simply is not true, and is another example of the dangers of believing the media at face value. Spitak has made amazing strides, but there is still work to be done. The Armenian government has promised that it would not stop until everyone has a home, and I hope they stay true to their promise, but I also believe that it is up to the Armenian people, in Armenia and living aboard to hold it accountable.
Today on the Anniversary of the 1988 Spitak Earthquake we had short lessons, about 15 minutes each so that we could go to the earthquake memorial and remember those that have been lost. I walked from school to the memorial with my counterpart and for the first time she opened up about her own earthquake story with me. She had told me before that she lost a sister and her dad in the earthquake, but she never told me where she was or the hardships she endured, probably because a lot of survivors here feel guilty complaining because so many had it so much worse than they did. She told me she was 12 at the time and was in school. The earthquake occurred at 11:41, so most children were at school at the time, which also contributes to why there were so many deaths. The infrastructures of soviet era schools were built very poorly and they collapsed killing most. (Makes me thankful for California ordinances that protect the inhabitants, and demand that buildings have codes and accountability so that needless lives are not lost in case of a disaster) Back to her story, my counterpart explained to me that she was trapped under the rubble with her classmates for more hours than she can remember. She thought she was going to die, her face was bleeding and her legs were broke. She lost three classmates that day, and countless other schoolmates, including her sister who went to the same school as her. For three months after the earthquake she was in the hospital, all alone. Her mother could not stay with her because the body of her husband had not been found, and she had to go search for it every day. It took two whole months to uncover it…
At the memorial, as a school we walked to the front of the crowed and left a flower arrangement. A priest said a prayer, and the mayor brought a flower wreath. We had a moment of silence at 11:41 and people quickly dispersed. My counterpart explained to me that everyone is in a hurry to go to the graveyard to see their loved ones. I stayed behind, out of respect to families, to give them their privacy to morn their loss.
Being a part of today and feeling the loss of my community, and them sharing their stories with me, meant a lot. We all have certain tragedies in life that have happened to us, but I don’t know how many of us are comfortable sharing those tragedies with others. The Armenian spirit is a beautiful thing, through all the hardships, atrocities committed, unfair circumstances, depravity, corruption, and disasters, their culture remains a dancing, lively culture. Yes, at times the sadness and distrust can be seen, but what stands out the most is the tatik that breaks into song and dance in the middle of dinner. The women who stand outside and laugh with each other, the gracious host that invite you to have tea and share with you a small part of their sadness and hardships, but also the great selflessness of heart that allows them to give you their last papoke maraba jar!

Monday, December 6, 2010

My Youtube channel

Hey Everyone,
I have a new youtube channel to post some of the little videos I record. For some reason I have a hard time posting them to my blog, so you can follow the link and take a look at them!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A big fat Armenian Wedding part 1

The moment I have been anxiously waiting for and dreading all at the same time has finally happened. Many of the other volunteers experienced this cultural exchange within the first three months in country, so you can just imagine my anticipation for the big event. Every little girl dreams of this day, no matter what country or culture they come from. Yep he proposed… oh wait, that happens on a weekly basis here, and it is definitely not what I dream of. No I finally was able to attend an Armenian wedding!!!
This wedding has been the talk of Spitak for months! It was suppose to take place in October, but the week before the big event, the bride’s grandmother passed away. They re-scheduled for two weeks later, and as it happens that week the groom’s grandmother passed. Talk about unfortunate timing. Finally after about a month of waiting the wedding was re-scheduled and I was somehow invited. Now my relation to the family is as follows; I teach the youngest daughter Sylvia and she is in my English club. Other than that the bride and groom once picked me up while I was walking in the rain and drove me home. I had never met them before and was shocked, and a little frightened that they knew where I lived! But apparently that is all it took to be an honored guest on the biggest day of their life!
So why have I been dreading this day? Well, where to start? For one, the day I found out I was invited my host mom came into my room to inspect all of my cloths so she could choose what I would wear!! No joke! She sighed as she went through my dismal wardrobe, searching for anything that would work. She found the one black dress I brought for special occasions, and with a look of distaste said it would work unless I wanted to go buy a new dress! HA on a Peace Corps budget? Yeah right! I explained to her that I had to pack everything I would need for two years and was told to bring a conservative dress, not anything too fancy. She offered to sew it up for me to make it shorter and tighter, I apologetically declined. Then I received a lecture about how I should do my hair, how I had to wear heels and she made sure to tell me a number of times that I had to wear pretty makeup. Does this mean I don’t normally wear pretty make up? Aye Kez Ban, she took all the excitement out of me, and made me feel like an ugly American duckling! Then of course my brother had to chime in and told me I must start practicing my Armenian dancing! If you know me, you know I don’t dance, I just don’t. So the thought of having to practice Armenian dancing for a wedding where everyone would be watching me, scared the hell out of me!
A few days before the wedding, my school is all abuzz with the news that Miss Alyssa will be going to the wedding. The people who were not attending were excited for me to experience their culture and wanted me to report back to them what I thought. The people, who were going, were even more excited, telling me I had to dance with them, and makes toasts and such. No pressure or anything! And of course everyone had one question, what are you wearing?!?! You have got to be kidding me, I thought. I moved out of L.A. to a village and the cloths I wear are still important?!? This is a erie side of Armenian culture, though they may not have money, what people wear and look like are still very important here. It is a huge part of the culture to look your best, wear the cutest shoes and wear pretty make up. I rarely see young women in Armenia not looking their best, once you are married it is a different story, but the whole goal of adolescence through young adulthood is to find a husband and one must do everything within her power to do that.
You can imagine how much pressure I felt the morning of the wedding as I got ready. I took a shower and “blow dried” my hair. I put on heavy eye make-up and my best dress and high heeled boots. When I walk out of my room to make myself some coffee my host brother and mom are waiting to see me. “Alyssa Jan, can’t you do something with your hair? Do you have gel or anything?” Umm no, I am in the Peace Corps, I did not bring hair products. Thanks a lot!
As we got into the cab to be driven to Spitaks only restaurant I noticed something very fishy, my host mom was wearing jeans!!! Yes jeans! What the hell, she can wear jeans but my black dress isn’t fancy enough?!
To be continued…

Thursday, December 2, 2010


If you have ever spent some time with a little girl, you know just how much they can talk. At first they may pretend to be shy, and say only a few words to you, if anything at all, but once they figure you out and decide to love you, you never hear the end of it. In my family we have had more than a few of these little talkers, starting of course with Nicki, then Brittany, Amber, Lyndsay and Ryan. In my family they are notorious for talking your head off. It starts with a simple question, but to a talker a simple question is an invitation for an expansive journey through that child’s imagination. Over the years I have become accustomed to listening to my cousins chatter away, I pretty much consider myself a little girl expert. But nothing could ever prepare me for the Armenian chatterbox…

This is vanoohi. She looks innocent enough and is one of the most adorable kids in Spitak, and maybe in all of Armenia! Since I have started teaching in Spitak, I have spent a lot of time with Vani, she even comes to my English classes when she doesn’t have to go to kindergarten. Vanoohi is the typical little girl; she started off shy, only staring at me when she thought I couldn’t see her. As time went by she began to give me a high five and say hello. As she became more comfortable around me, she would offer me candy or agree to take candy from me. Sometimes she would even tell me a small anecdote about school.
One day as I was walking to school I saw Vanoohi with her mother walking from the opposite direction. Vanoohi called out to me and came running over to me. She grabbed my hand and insisted on walking with me. Her mom told me how Vani loves me and wanted to come to school to see me today. She even said that every day Vani asks if her mom can do her hair like Miss Alyssa!! So cute, right?
Well as the day went on, I had little time to sit with Vanoohi and talk because I had three back to back classes, but after the third I had a break. Vanoohi came up to me and gave me a picture she drew of the two of us. And then it happened, Vani began to tell me about her trip to Vanadzor last weekend. The story started off well enough, she told me about a dance she went to with her friends Susanna and Annie. She told me that they danced and sang songs and she had a lot of fun. And then out of nowhere she began describing the girls to me, and then their cloths, and then the place she went. Soon enough she began telling me the same thing over and over again, and then it came, the part when little girls start to make up stories. Once this happens you are stuck! Stuck I tell you, they never get out of fairy tale mode and can go on for days!!! Usually I am trained to recognize this mode and change the subject before it begins… but this is Armenia, and this conversation was in a heavy accented child barbar, I barely understood what was going on… There was nothing I could do. Every once and awhile I would look up to see other teachers watching us out of the corner of their eyes , smiling to themselves, thinking how funny it is that I couldn’t get away. At other times they were downright obvious and made jokes about it and laughed out loud at my expense. Time seemed to stand still, and I still couldn’t tell you if it was an hour that I talked to Vani or an hour and a half.
I went home that day with a huge headache, the only thing in the world that I wanted was to listen to someone speak English. For the first time since I have been here, I was thankful to not have a host family with a little kid!! I finally realize other volunteer’s pain! I called everyone I know until my mom finally answered. Please mom, speak English to me, please I can’t take this day any longer and then I slipped into my own little girl chatter box self and talked my mom’s head off!! =)