Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Christmas present

A short story… Yesterday my mom sent me an email telling me about how my dog Lucca back in California spent Christmas and how she opened her presents and loved her new toys and as I was reading the email I thought oh yeah, maybe I should have gotten Sophie a small toy or something. But being that I have absolutely no money right now as most of it was stolen during a Christmas play at school where I left my bag unattended, presents had been the last thing on my mind… I honestly didn’t buy a single Christmas present this year. Later in the day I got all bundled up and walked to the small hanoot that is close to my apartment. I always go to this same hanoot and buy the same things bread, sour cream, cellphone rechargeable minutes; just small things that I tend to forget to buy at the big grocery store. There are two ladies that own, or at least operate the small store and they are always so friendly with me, and they think Sophie is just the funniest thing in the world. They like to talk to her as if she is a person, and they get rather annoyed when customers are afraid of her. They tell people, she is just a small little dog, she doesn’t harm anything. So basically I love these women! So anyways on this day I ran to the store to get some cell phone minutes and as I was buying them I saw a row of stuffed dragons on the shelf. I didn’t even notice but I most have been staring, because the lady asked me aren’t they nice and explained to me that this upcoming year was the year of the dragon. I asked her how much they were and she told me 1000 dram. As I said I was really broke and didn’t have 1,000 dram to spend, so I said yes they are nice and began to walk away. She stopped me and asked me what color I liked. I told her it didn’t matter it was just for Sophie I was thinking about buying it for. She began to laugh at me as if I was joking with her. You want to buy Sophie a New Years Eve present she asked me, as if I was crazy. Of course I told them, she is my little baby, she needs a present. It is a dog; it won’t even know that it is a present she told me. Oh yes she will I told them, dogs love presents. They told me they didn’t believe me. So I called Sophie over and asked her if she wanted a toy, she happens to know the word toy, and she began to spin in circles. They were so surprised and thought it was cute but weren’t so convinced. So the lady handed me a small red dragon. I took the small toy and told Sophie, look Sophie it’s your new toy as I showed it to her. She stood up on her hind legs and grabbed it from me in her mouth and ran to the rug in the store and began to chew it. The ladies squealed with delight. She is like a child in a dog’s body they told me! It doesn’t seem like much at all, but I love moments like these. Moments that I can teach Armenians that animals are sweet and have feelings and emotions. People here honestly don’t know the depth of what animals think and feel and so they kick them and beat them as they walk by because they are afraid of them. I love every opportunity I get to show them differently and to prove to them that animals are awesome and cute and very loving when you don’t beat them…

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Noun Town Projects

I am always trying to teach my kids the difference between parts of speech… something that is often overlooked when teaching foreign language. I think that understanding the structure of a language makes it much eaiser to think in that language; at least that is how I began to really learn Armenian. Another one of my goals has been to introduce more projects into the class room. My students love projects! They love when I give them a long term project that they will have to present to the class, it makes them excited about class. Which is a switch from American students who groan when a teacher announces a new project.
So from these goals came the idea for an excellent project that I called Noun Town!! This was a three part lesson. The first part of the lesson students got into two groups and wrote all the people, places and things that a town would need to run. My fifth grade class really ran away with this part. One of the groups came up with 150 words!! Remember this is their 3rd language, and they have only been studying it for 2 years! So it was really fantastic to see such excitement. This is also my class that loves competition so it was really fun just to sit back and watch them try to steal words from each other and sneak peeks at the other’s list. My student Romela who by far is the brain in the class but also the calm shy quiet girl burst into an angry tirade when she caught a boy from the other team trying to look at her list. In the middle of class she yelled out I will murder you if you come any closer. The whole class was taken aback because it’s just so uncharacteristic of her… though I have to say English class does bring out the cutthroat in her!

The second part of the class the students had to draw a picture of their town and label it. Everything had to be on one small poster board, but the catch was that whatever they put on the poster board they would have to remember because they would have to present it as a group and be able to answer questions. The kids really loved this part. They all worked together so well making pictures and studying the new words. Finally they had to present the project to the class. Each presentation was about three minutes long… which is a lot of English for them to be speaking!!! They had to tell me what their noun town has and who works at the various places. I have posted the video of my 5th grades presentations on my youtube channel… it’s really cute to watch them! My sixth grade class also did this project but 5th grade just blew them out of the water with the depth of their projects…. The best part is hearing them correct each other and showing them what the other team was missing. You know your students are very involved in a project when they come up to you during the day and say Miss Alyssa the other team doesn’t have a bus station in their town, they can’t go anywhere!! So anyways we had a very exciting week in my classes and the winner of the presentations got stickers in their books as well as homemade cookies by their very own, Miss Alyssa! I couldn’t have been more pleased with this project and with my students!!!

Monday, November 28, 2011

It's game time

Last week I had to take a sick day from school, which I hate to do because I know a lot of the other teachers are sick as well and they don’t take the day off… But I remind myself that they too would take the day off if they weren’t getting paid for the day anyways… But none the less I feel guilty whenever I am sick so I had to do something to counterbalance it…. So I spent the only hours I was awake making a game for my third grade class. I basically structured it off of Candyland… I created areas of the board with seasons starting off in winter working your way autumn where home is… So today my kids actually got to play the game and they had so much fun!!! I separated them into two teams, each team would send a player up (taking turns of course) to spin the spinner, it would land on a color and they would get a word from that category, such as long E’s or Angry E’s or whatever lesson they had learned already in the book, if they read the word correctly they could move to the color that they spun… of course I added some tricks to the board, such as a go back two squares or go to the next purple… there is even a space on the board where the whole team gets a sticker if they get the question right!!! It’s funny because this kind of format for a game would be very familiar for American children, but my children were absolutely amazed. One of my favorite students Ramzik spun the spinner and it landed on lose a turn. I told him he had to sit down and couldn’t answer a question… his face was so precious, he looked like he was going to cry… my counterpart explained in Armenian that he landed on the spot that meant he would lose his turn, but he still looked so confused!!! It was adorable!! And of course the best part for me as a teacher was when the winners got to the home square and all started jumping up and down, pumping their fist in the air!! I love to see my kids having fun as they are learning!! I love when they ask me if they can play this game every day!! It makes me so proud to be a teacher!!!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The language of friendship is not words but meanings

This morning I took a half hour or so to meditate on all the things I have to be grateful for and trust me there were a lot!!! I could list hundreds, but this Thanksgiving I am most thankful for my Armenian friends. When I first came to Armenia I quickly bonded with a group of Peace Corps volunteers figuring that throughout the next two years they would be the people that I turned to. All during training we were inseparable, going to the nearest town to watch football games and drink beers, and calling each other when we were stuck in the village, and that is almost how we felt, that we were stuck in places when we were not with our American friends.

When I first got to my site, I was the only American for thirty minutes around. I would walk through the streets of Spitak trying to smile at people and make friends, basically to be ignored. I remember hating Spitak, thinking I would never make friends here, and leaving my site the first chance I got to see my American friends. I bonded with my host brother a lot, but could barely talk to him, and other than that I didn’t know anyone other than my counterpart who could speak English. I would often have tea and cookies or fruit at a neighbor’s house or a fellow teacher, but it never felt as if they were my friends, it felt more like I was being interviewed and was on stage, everyone just staring at me, and me doing my best to speak intelligible Armenian. I would like to say that this quickly passed and soon I made some good friends, but it isn’t the case. It isn’t until the beginning of last summer that I finally began to make some true Armenian friends here. I think living in my own apartment really speed up the process because I was forced to do everything on my own which often meant that I needed help and had to find people to help me. This has resulted in me actually trying to talk to people instead of shying away from them because my language skills were so horrible. Soon I became friends with my neighbors, and store owners and random people in the street who would offer to help me when they thought I looked lost.
I also became facebook friends with many of the people in Spitak who speak English, and in this way they send me encouragement and also help me when they see that I am in distress. If I need apricot jam, and write on facebook that I am looking for it, they all rush to help me find it. If the water is not working and I have no idea why, I merely have to write to them and ask what is going on, whereas before I was stuck trying to walk around my apartment complex hoping a neighbor would come out and talk to me so that I could ask what the matter was…  
The biggest surprise for me is that throughout my service, it hasn’t been that core group of Peace Corps volunteers that I have come to depend on for emotional support, it has been the Armenian friends that I have made in Spitak and in Yerevan. Now when I want to get away for a weekend and get out of Spitak, I run to my closest group of friends in Yerevan who happen to be Armenians, not Americans. I never thought this would happen, and I don’t think it is the case with most Peace Corps volunteers. But for me it really hit me when I was discussing my plans to go home for a short two week vacation. My best friend here in Spitak wanted to know how I was getting to the airport. I told him I would take the marshutka and then take a taxi. He immediately wanted to know everything about my flight and told me there was no way he would let me go to the airport alone, so he took me, but best of all he was waiting for me when I got off the plane to bring me back home. I can’t tell you how loved and cared for that made me feel!! So for me I can truly say the people I love most here in Armenia are Armenians, and I am so blessed to have made so many fantastic friends, who I will remain friends with for the rest of my life.  This thanksgiving I give thanks to God for all of the amazing people he has put in my life here in Armenia, because I know without them, this would never have become my home!

But that isn’t to say that I don’t equally love my American friends!!! I re-read this post and I want to make it clear, my American, European, and wherever else friends are just as amazing, and have also clearly been a huge support to me throughout this journey, but for whatever reason, I just felt the most thankful to my Armenian friends today, maybe because it has taken me by surprise how much I have come to love them, need them and turn to them, though our cultures are very different!! 
And now I am off to spend the rest of Thanksgiving having a small feast with my best Armenian friend from Spitak! A first Thanksgiving for them!!! =)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A grumpkin Thanksgiving turned upside-down!

Thanksgiving, the time of year we give thanks for all things big and small that contribute to a happy, healthy life… and the time where you stuff your face!!! Thanksgiving has always been my absolute favorite holiday! There is nothing better to me than a holiday where you cook together as a family and then eat together, not that this was rare in my family because it wasn’t, but Thanksgiving was always just so special… maybe it’s the turkey, I do looooove turkey!!
But I have to admit yesterday while trying to think of Thanksgiving lesson plans to share with my class, I wasn’t so enthusiastic… I basically did everything but make my lesson plan, including making a huge, larger than life Candy Land style game board for my third graders (more on this later)… But finally I found a good short reading for my students to do about the history and traditions of Thanksgiving, vocabulary words about Thanksgiving (can you say feast?!?! Great vocab word), and an activity where they themselves would list the things they are grateful for this year. Usually with any activity I try to make an example for my students, but as I said, my heart just wasn’t in it for some reason…

So today in class I introduced the lesson by telling the students that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and telling them why I love it so much. We then did our reading, but mostly the kids tuned it out, even my good students… I really couldn’t understand it. I tried to ask engaging questions, and comprehension check questions, but really they wanted nothing to do with it… So I went right ahead to the activity, even though it was a writing activity, it was only making a list, I thought it would be easy for my students. I mean I am talking about my 11th and 9th grade classes, making lists should be no problem. After walking around the classroom in frustration I listened to the complaints of the students and was shocked at what I heard.
“We have nothing to be thankful for”… What?!?!? I couldn’t believe it. I looked at my students and asked them, how is possible that you have nothing to be thankful for… Some rolled their eyes and shut me out, some made comments like I am an American so I don’t understand, but a few students dared to tell me their thoughts. They told me that they have nothing in this country, every day is the same, they are poor and life is very hard with no hopes of getting easier so they feel that they have nothing to be thankful for….
I thought about it for a minute and then tried to explain to them that thanksgiving isn’t about being rich or being thankful because life is easy, the pilgrims in fact were thankful for merely surviving the winter (something I now can relate to). I looked at one of my students who was wearing a new jacket. I asked him who bought the jacket for him, and he replied his mother did. I then told him, well if you have no money but your mother thanks what little money she has to buy a jacket for you, aren’t you thankful for having a good mother?? I saw a bit of light go off in his head, well yes of course he tells me. Well, see you have something to be thankful for then… So he returned that with a question to me: what are you thankful for Miss Alyssa…. The one answer that came to my head at the moment was that I was thankful for growing up with parents who always made sacrifices to keep me fed and clothed and going to dances and playing volleyball. I explained that I too grew up very poor and my father didn’t always know where he was going to get money to feed us with. I don’t think many of the students believed me though; to them it seems impossible that an American could grow up poor. But I guess that gives me another reason to be thankful that I am here in Armenia, there are many misconceptions about Americans in the world, that we are all rich and selfish, and every day I live my life trying to show Armenians that there are all kinds of Americans, and I for one happen to have lived a very different life from the one that they stero-type. Sometimes I get very caught up in my job to teach my students English, that I don’t take the time to share my culture with them and today I realized that it is my job to do both, to teach English but also to teach them who Americans are, even if it means I need to take some classroom time to do it.

So today I am thankful that my students woke me up out of my discontented content and made me realize that I have much to be thankful for and a lot to do before I leave… I will say that one girl did stand up and say that she was thankful for her teacher Miss Alyssa who gave her opportunities that she never had before and because of me she was able to attend GLOW Camp, a camp that teaches young women about women’s issues but that is also a lot of fun too. This warmed my cold little heart right up and gave me another reason to be thankful… I am doing a job a love and teaching some of the best students I could ever imagine… I am so thankful to be in Armenia, in Spitak, serving as a representative of my country… I only hope that my work here will be useful and remembered for a long time after I have left!!!
I have many many many more reasons to be thankful, though life has come with many difficulties I have learned to see the good and gained strength in learning to overcome those difficulties. Once again to my American friends, be thankful that you were born American, in a country where we are given great opportunities and freedoms. I know that life looks tough now, but we still all have so much to be grateful for.  Happy Thanksgiving!!

Friday, November 18, 2011


Winter has hit Spitak in full force!!! For the first time in my life I had snow on my birthday!!! It is so cold here that it’s pretty much unbearable!!  Part of it might be that I have just come from warm sunny California, so I have had to make a huge adjustment… but the other part is that it is just really cold!! This is the one time when I just wish I could go home… Last year I fared so much better, but that was because the snow didn’t come until January first.  Snow in November is just too much for this girl! To make matters worse I went to my sitemate Judith’s home last week and boy was it warm… I mean the kind of warm I can only dream about right now. She has a gas heater and it works so well!! I can walk around her house without a jacket. I only have my Peace Corps heater so I pretty much have to sit on top of it and not move!!! Even Sophie is cold, she has been snuggling under the blankets at night instead f sleeping on top of them as she usually does…
A lot of Peace Corps volunteers say that Peace Corps in Eastern Europe is the posh corps… and maybe in a lot of ways that is true, most of us do have things that a lot of volunteers in more remote regions don’t have, such as a steady internet connection. Hell the Bulgarian volunteers I met even have washing machines. But when winter comes and its 10 below, and we have little heating, have to walk everywhere in the snow, and have no sunlight for a 6 month chunk of the year, we struggle. I mean have you ever tried to hand wash cloths with freezing cold water?? Your hands hurt so bad sometimes to the point that they crack and bleed… There have been times I have left my cloths in a bucket to line dry the next day and have woken up to them frozen… There is also the fact that I get home around 3 in the afternoon and after that, there is nothing I can do but snuggle in a blanket and try to keep warm… I can’t even take Sophie out for walks and socialize because It is just too cold… Seasonal depression is huge in Eastern European countries. I mean wouldn’t you be depressed if every day you went to work, and came home and had nothing else to look forward to? You can’t really travel like you do in the other seasons because roads are snowed in and marshutkas are pretty wobbly in the snow which makes you fear for your life a little. So basically you travel on a need base, you see only the people in your town, and only really between you walking to where you need to get and back…. To say the least, I hate winter here especially now that it has come super early. I mean we had spitak until May of last year… November till May covered in snow??? Ugh no Thanks!
Ok done ranting, and now for a funny story… The cycle of weather goes a little something like this in Spitak right now, snow falling, snow on the ground but a clear sky, snow on the ground but its mostly icey and the sludge… and it rotates every few days… So one day I decided to take Sophie for a walk as she has been getting some winter time blues because she can’t go out and run anymore. So we were walking home from the grocery store in the center of spitak, her on the leash following behind me a little bit. I am not paying too much attention to her or the surroundings because I am constantly watching my feet so that I do not slip on the ice. Well as I am looking on the ground tip towing around Sophie see’s a bird or something, I never really saw what it was, and takes off running. I have her leash wrapped around my hand a good 3 times, because when I have groceries in my hands I like to make sure I have a good hold on her. So she takes off running and I am attached to her walking on ice. I feel my legs begin to lurch forward as my torso leans backward. I try to dig my heels into the ground, but it’s slippery and I fall. But to make things worse as I fall down, my natural momentum pulls Sophie back toward me. She stops for a second and looks at me and then continues to run, dragging me on the ice behind her… We didn’t go far thank God, but we went far enough for people to see and to laugh. I mean they were concerned but the site of the American with her huge ole snow boots and tons of grocery bags in hand being pulled across the street by a tiny little dog must have been irresistible, I mean I giggle just thinking of it so I don’t blame them!! Luckily I wasn’t hurt, my groceries broke my fall!!!  If only I could get the hang of walking on the ice… It’s only been three weeks of snow and I have fallen three times… once a week. At this rate I am going to need to walk with pillows wrapped around my body!!! 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Bari Galust America... kinda

Going back to American has been a total mind fuck for me, sorry for the language but I seriously can’t think of anything else to describe it…. I knew when I joined the Peace Corps that I would be here in Armenia for 2 years and 3 months. Never did I think that during that time I would make my way back to America, nor did I want to. Not because I don’t love my family or miss them, but actually precisely because I do! I knew that going back would put me back into the American mindset, get me used to being around my family, and make it extremely difficult to continue my life here in Armenia. But my brother got married, so what choice did I have? And while I am so happy to have been able to spend time with my family and friends who I love and have missed so much, it has made returning to Armenia very difficult for me.

People always speak about reverse culture shock, that you will go back home and see it differently, and be a bit shell shocked by it. I never really truly believed in this, I mean I lived 26 years in America and only a year and a half in Armenia, so how can I feel odd in the place I spent most my life in???

Well I am not sure if I experienced reverse culture shock, but there were things that I just couldn’t get over! First and foremost America has really changed, especially with technology. Every single person has a smart phone now, and tons of people have IPads. When I left, iPhones were all the craze, but most people didn’t own one. While at church the pastor told us to take out our bibles or our electronic devices… I looked around to see if he was serious. I must have looked pretty confused as I saw people pulling out iPads and their smart phones to look up the bible verse, because my sister took her hand to my face and put my jaw back into place… I just couldn’t believe he was serious!!! Also while at church I couldn’t help but to be amazed at how tall Americans are. I have always known I am short and most are taller than me, but I never truly saw how tall our people are until my return. I guess living in a country where I have never once felt short, distorts your perception a bit. All I could do was scan the floor to see if the women were wearing heals, which they weren’t. I couldn’t understand how everyone could be so big!!! Church was really the most confusing experience I had all together. At church people of course smile a lot! As we were leaving the church people would smile as they walked by me and all I could think of was do I know that person? Why is she smiling at me? This brought me back to my first few months in Armenia, I would smile and say hello to everyone, and they would look at me confused or with disdain. I would think to myself how rude they were and want to go home and cry about it. I remember telling my mom, no one here wants to be my friend!! Now it’s just natural to me, if you don’t know someone you don’t talk to them or smile at them… how quickly I let go of my American ways!!

There were tons of small things here and there that took some getting used to again. For example while I was at a Starbucks a man stood behind me as if I was in line, though I wasn’t. So instead of me telling him oh I am not in line, I directed him to the line with my hands. I touched him. He looked back at me as if I had just made a pass at him, huge smile on his face, but I couldn’t figure out why until my mom told me, well you touched him… Americans enjoy personal space. Once again somewhere along the way a habit that I hated when I came here has become my nature. I didn’t even realize I got used to it, as I still hate when people touch me here!! I also stared at people as if they were aliens, something I hate when people do to me here, but I couldn’t stop myself back home. One guy was all tatted up and pretty scary- looking, so my eyes were just drawn to him. I kept thinking what the hell did he do to himself as I stared at the tattoo going across his eyes! He turned and gave me a dirty look, and I wasn’t even fazed, I kept staring. My mom gently reminded me that things like that can get you shot in LA… oh yeah...

I don’t really feel that this accounts for culture shock, because all of these things I knew somewhere inside of me, it’s more that I just forgot them and had to readjust to them.

Things that I couldn’t readjust to when I got home included American’s love of mean tabloids, something I use to enjoy reading. Now it just seems so cruel and evil to me. It disgusted me to see them lined up in the grocery stores. Also our obsession with weight, especially in Los Angeles. Most girls gain about 10 pounds in the Peace Corps while the men lose about 20, something about the way we handle stress, and I am no different. But I have never felt overweight in Armenia. I knew I had gained weight but I didn’t really feel like it made a difference. All of a sudden back in LA all I could think about was my weight. I don’t know why or how it automatically switched back to that mentality, but it was scary to me. Everything is weight centered in Los Angeles, even at the supermarket you are flooded with diet products which are basically telling you be careful about what you eat or you will be fat, and fat is ugly. Armenians don’t feel that fat is ugly. Sure there are girls with eating disorders here that strive to be skinner, but women here come in all sizes and shapes and the general view is a pretty girl is pretty no matter how much she weighs… Looking through magazines was the most shocking thing to me. Not a single girl looked normal to my eyes. They were all sooo skinny. I really could not get over it, and talked about it to the point where my family was pretty sick of hearing it, but it really just got to me.

One of the most surprising things that I discovered while back home was just how much I identify with the Armenian culture now. A number of times I caught myself explaining, “my culture” to people, as if I were truly Armenian! I longed to meet Armenians and speak to them in Armenian, and to listen to Armenian music and to share the Armenian culture with my family and friends. I wanted to shake people and tell them no listen to me, learn about my country, ask me questions and I will tell you how amazing it is, but for the most part no one really wanted to listen. It was difficult to see that no one really cares about this different life I live over here, they kind of just expect you to be the old you, but how can you be?? Every time I would hear someone complain about life, I wanted to tell them why they should be happy to be American, and about how difficult life is for the Armenians.

One of the happiest moments I had back home was while shopping at a jewelry store I looked up and noticed the man had a bunch of evil eyes hanging over the cash register. I looked at him and immediately knew he was Armenian. I asked him if he was and we just erupted into conversation. He couldn’t believe that I lived in Armenia and that I could speak the language. He called his grandfather and sister over and we all just began talking about Armenia with such joy. My mom and cousin stood by probably pretty confused as the whole conversation was in Armenian. I have never really had confidence in my Armenian skills because though I know the language and understand it, people here have a hard time understanding me, but this couldn’t be further from the truth in L.A. They understood everything I said, and even complimented my accent. I think that they learn Armenian out of Armenia and speak it with an American accent so they have the same ear for it that I have which makes pronunciation difficult. Anyways, suddenly a ten minute trip turned into 2 hours and I couldn’t have been happier just to spend my time with them talking about the old country =)

Armenia has really become a part of my soul, and I indentify with her and her people in so many ways, but somehow all of this was intensified while back home. I am so thankful for this experience that the United States government has given me. I am so thankful for the Peace Corps for selecting me to be an ambassador of my country to the Armenian people, but also for allowing me to give a voice and a face to the Armenian people for Americans. I am really very blessed to be where I am doing what I am doing, which going to America only reaffirmed for me. Sure I miss having hot water at my fingertips, (really I miss it quite a bit) or having a heater that actually keeps me warm, but coming back to Armenia and having a Armenian best friend greet me at the airport, a school who rejoiced in my return on my first day back rushing to hug and kiss me and tell me how beautiful I got again (yes implying that I was ugly for awhile here), and people in the streets of Spitak calling out bari galust to me (welcome) is second to no other experience in the world and I couldn’t be happier to be back and to complete my service.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

classroom manipulation =)

This year I have been trying to mix up some things in class and restructure what we expect from the students… this has included assigning a lot more assignments. But in my first year of teaching I learned that students may hate to do exercises but if you give them a fun assignment more often then not, they actually enjoy doing the assignment. So at the beginning of the school year I sat down and made a list of goals for each of my classes. For example for my 5th grade class my goals were to have 10 minutes of pupil to pupil speaking each class and to give them one project every two weeks. My 11th grade class has to give one 3 minute presentation every 3 weeks on different subjects. It sounds like pretty standard stuff for most Americans, but let me tell you this is not standard for the English classes here. Mostly the students are given written exercises and poems to memorize and that is all.

So one of the interesting classes I taught this week was for my 11th graders. I began the class with a recipe for hot cocoa. They had to read it and tell me what it was and what it was for. Pretty easy. We then spoke about what words we knew for cooking, reviewing some words but adding some 20 new words for them to learn. I told them it was very important for them to learn the new words because they would have a test of sorts… so at the end of class I split them into groups and gave each group a recipe for a different type of cookies. I told them their assignment was to bake the cookies in groups and bring them to the next class. Of course the girls were so happy!! They thought it was the best assignment ever!! The boys at first were happy too asking “we will eat cookies on Monday?” I laughed and told them they can only eat cookies if they bake them! Of course this brought on a huge debate. The boys told me how Armenian men don’t cook and how it’s humiliating to have to cook. I laughed at them and told them that it would be fine, they could all get a zero in the grade book for the assignment. To be honest some were perfectly fine with that, but one of my best students is male and the only good grade he gets in school is for English, so he was not happy. He debated back and forth with me how he couldn’t bake. I told him he didn’t have to do it alone, he would have a group and girls would help him. The boys pouted some but then one bright boy realized this would mean he could go and hang out with his beautiful classmates. I could see the bell go off in his head. I will help, Miss Alyssa he tells me. He turns to the girls and tells them that his family has a chicken farm and he can bring the eggs, so who would like to have him in their group. Well once the boys saw him step forward they all wanted to be in a group and this soon became the best assignment they have ever received. I have to say I am looking forward to eating cookies on Monday!!

Another fun thing we did in class this week was a spelling bee. The ministry of education in Armenia now requires that we test our students in dictation, something my counterpart never does. She told me that she would like to work on dictations and so she wrote the paragraph on the board for the students. This of course prompted an argument between us, as I pointed out that they wouldn’t learn just by memorizing. She told me that they cannot write and they cannot spell so she has to do it this way. I sulked for about an hour and then I had an idea. We could give them the words in the dictation as spelling words, and make a spelling bee out of it. This way we can be sure they know all the words, but they will also have to use listening skills. I have to say she became very excited for it and so were the kids. We gave them the words and told them that we would have a spelling bee and so they should practice the words. The next day in my 4th and 5th grade classes we had a spelling bee. It was a lot of fun! My children love competition and they especially love to earn new stickers in the sticker book!! It was fun to watch them stand before the class and spell words. It allowed for students who are weak in other areas and usually don’t shine in English to shine a bit. The funniest thing was that in my fourth grade class the third word I chose ended up knocking out half the students. The point was to start with easy words and work up to difficult ones, but apparently all is a very difficult word to spell for TEFL learners!! Some of my best students got knocked out!!! I love that I have the opportunity to see a problem and find a creative way to fix it. I am not saying all my students wrote fantastic dictations, but you know what for the most part they were pretty impressive. Spelling is difficult even for English speakers!!

Now if I could just get my two problem classes up to a level where we can do fun activities, I would be the happiest teacher in the world!! For whatever reason my 6th grade class just cannot focus this year and refuse to speak any English. My goal for them was to give a book report a month but it seems impossible because they cannot speak about what they read!! And then there is my 9th grade class that are just monsters, I cannot even hear myself speak in that class… One step at a time =)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

Last school year I had the pleasure of nominating 3 very strong, smart, outspoken and passionate young women to attend Armenia’s GLOW camp. GLOW stands for Girls Leading Our World, and is a Peace Corps initiative camp that teaches women to be leaders and to talk about challenging topics. I was beyond excited to see that not only one of my students was selected to attend the camp, but all three. The week of GLOW camp I received text messages from fellow Peace Corps volunteers informing me that my girls were amazing and perfect selections for the camp. I burned with pride, not because I felt that their characters were in any part my doing, but because in just a year I had watched them grow and knew that they would come back from this experience changed for life.

And I was right, my girls came back from GLOW camp excited about life, ready to face new challenges, and ready to share what they learned with their peers. I talked to the girls about what they learned, and with a relentless passion they discussed issues such as HIV in Armenia, women’s rights, trafficking and education. They had learned so much but now they were in the position that they wanted to learn more, but none of these topics are discussed nor taught about in Spitak. We live in a conservative town, where most, not all, but most women marry young, have children and struggle to help support their family. Women are only beginning to see that they have other options. They know of course that they can teach, as nearly all teachers are women, but they are beginning to see that they don’t have to rely on a husband. Spitak has at least two women police officers, sure it is uncommon and often I hear other women complaining about them, but they of course have opened the door for girls to think outside the box. Many of my female students express the desire to be doctors, though they tell me that they are afraid no man will marry a doctor because she will make more money than him… so as you can see Armenia is in a time of change.

After spending my summer talking to these students and other young girls who frequently would come and sit on my porch and spill their hearts out to me, I became very passionate about founding a young women’s club in Spitak. A place where they can learn, discuss, and debate important issues facing young Armenian women. A place where they can learn about career and university options, and find mentors to help them along the way.

As I thought about what I wanted to do with my final year in the Peace Corps I decided that I must work with the YMCA on this project. I contacted them and was happy to learn that they two had been thinking of this subject and that they loved my ideas and wanted to work with me. We held a meeting where we discussed the club, the setback that we would face, the sensitivity of the subject and the opportunity at hand. I told the YMCA about my three students that had learned so much about women’s issues and suggested that they attend our next meeting.

It has been 2 months now that we have been planning our Young Women’s organization, and during this time I have been amazed with the way my girls have stepped up and became leaders of this group. They are now in charge of almost every aspect, and have shown so much passion in it. At first I saw this group as my baby and was a bit reluctant to give up so much of the power to a group of young girls, but now I can see that nothing makes me happier than to watch my students grow. To know that I have taught them, I have counseled them, and I have in a very small way shaped some of their thinking and now they are taking that and running with it. They are such organized, passionate and compassionate leaders. They express their ideas so completely and respectfully that I cannot help but to sit back at every meeting and beam with pride. In the next week or so we will host 30 to 40 young girls in Spitak for our very first meeting, and I am so excited to see what will happen. We do not have the option to fail, the young women here need this, and we may never again be given the opportunity. So we can only work hard, be sensitive and encouraging and hope that little by little we can help these girls to understand that they can be who they want to be. That who they are need not be shaped by the opinion of what men think they ought to be…. I look forward to stepping outside my English teaching role in Spitak and working with young girls to help them understand that they are the future of their country.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Weather Report

Everyone has been talking about how crazy the weather is back home. So I thought I'd show you a little bit of the crazy weather in Armenia. This was taken on September 1st, but really we had had storms like this all August long. There was even rumors of snow in a small southern village...

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

My new third grade class

This is my new third grade class. They are so adorable!!! It goes without saying that they are super adorable!! I have only had two classes with them, but both times it has been pure comedy!! I love that little kids just say whatever is on their mind. My student karen will just randomly shout out English words as he thinks of them! Today we taught them the letters A and B and he tells us, I know the next letter would you like me to say it. My counterpart tells him no that we will learn it in the next class, and she begins to speak about something else and he just shouts out C! At this age I can't help but to just laugh at them!! Also when they say good evening, they sound like little Count Draculas, bonus entertainment for me!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

1st Bell

September 1st is the day of Knowledge and the official first bell in Armenian schools. What this means is all Armenian children dress up in their best black and white outfits, girls in skirts and ruffled shirts, hair in pigtails with big white bows, and boys in suits, dress shirts and ties and come to school. I have been waiting for this day all summer long! Ok not all summer, but defiantly these last few weeks have dragged on meaninglessly and devoid of purpose. So as my taxi pulled up to good ole school number six, and students lined up to see who was inside it I couldn’t help but to smile. Yes it is good to be back! I stepped out of the taxi to an echo of Hello Miss Alyssas and how are yous, greeted my students and went to the teacher’s lounge.
After answering questions about my summer and telling everyone how Sophie is doing, there really wasn’t much else for me to do. So I sat and tried to listen to people’s conversations. Soon I felt as though I was in a tornado of Armenian, all the words whirling by me too quickly for me to catch on to anything. I had forgotten what it is like to be in a room with some 30 Armenian women, it’s overwhelming to say the least! At some point your brain just stops functioning all together. Unfortunately for me this point came just as I was being introduced to the mayor of Spitak, who stopped by to hand out free backpacks to our new first graders. The vice principal wanted me to meet him so she called me over. She began to explain to him that I was the American volunteer who taught English but that I had business experience and could do a lot of things in Spitak, that much I caught on to, but soon I lost what she was saying and when they both turned to look at me, I could tell that I was suppose to say something but I had no idea where the conversation was. I couldn’t even remember how to introduce myself. I simply told him I was happy to meet him, and then offered and embarrassed smile. He must of thought I was an idiot because he just looked at me with mild interest and then continued on with his conversation. I ducked away, but had nowhere to go. It was terribly embarrassing.
Soon it was time to introduce our newest little babies to the school. We gathered in our brand new gym and watched as they came dancing into the spotlight amongst a clamor of applause. Soon our oldest students (12th grade) each grabbed a tiny little hand of a first grader and presented them with a bouquet of balloons. Poems were read, speeches were made and awards presented. Then came my favorite part!! One of the 12th grade boys picked up a little tiny 1st grade girl, handed her a bell and paraded her around the building as she rang the bell for the first time of the new school year. After the commotion was over, the teachers sat down to a nice meal of cake, candy, ice cream and fruit!!! It was a pretty small affair compared to most schools but it was nice and over in time for me to make it home for my 1pm nap. How will I ever return to working 9-5 jobs?!?!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Marsom em!

It's August, and I am currently wearing my long underwear,socks, and a sweater. I am also under a blanket and drinking hot coco.... What the heck Armenia?!?! Winter just ended in May, this is unacceptable!!!
Also I went to the Peace Corps office today and was surprised by a number of things. First a mailbox full of dog toys and treats?!?!?! Who are they from??? I don't know but I am really thankful and so is Sophie!!!
Second a letter from my Senator Barbra Boxer pretty much telling me I am awesome and thanking me for my service! Senator Boxer, I AGREE with you! It's about time you noticed =)
Lastly A pretty green bag sitting in the middle of the office with my name on it. What was inside??? A volleyball and two basketballs and a pump!!! Awesome little donation to my school for our new gym, which dear God I hope opens this year!! Thanks to a MR. Paul Bloomer for getting the children of Armenia sports equipment donations! I can't wait to give my students a real volleyball. They would beg me to play with them last year, but they played with a soccer ball. It hurt! Now we can play without breaking all the blood vessels in our arms!!

Life is good even though I am currently begging my dog to come sit on my lap so that I don't have to turn the heater on!!! =) Enjoy your heat wave America

Friday, August 19, 2011

Not only did I dance but I....

As we drove back in the direction we had come from, I began to wonder where the reception was going to be. The house that we had met the bride at was a tiny little house, so I knew it couldn’t be the place where the reception would be. I wondered if such a tiny village could have a restaurant. The only other Armenian wedding I had been to was at a restaurant so I figured this one would be as well.
A few minutes later we pull back into the driveway of the house that we had left. As we get out of the car, I ask my counterpart if the reception would be at this house. She looks at me and says oh no we don’t do that… Ok then what are we doing here? Oh we will eat and dance and celebrate here, she answers… So the reception is here.
The bride and groom stand at the foot of the stairs to their home that they will share with his parents and sister. The Grooms mother comes out with Levash, she places it on the grooms shoulder first and hugs him and then she goes over to her new daughter and places it on her shoulder. The groom looks over at his bride, smiling, his face lit up with happiness as his mother speaks into his brides ear.

Next we follow them as they lead us into their house. At the entrance way two plates lie on the floor, the bride and groom stomp on them together. They don’t break. They attempt it again as screams of opa ring out (Armenians say opa a lot, I guess it’s not only used by the Greeks). This time the groom’s plate is crushed but not the brides, so the third time the groom and the bride stomp the plate together and it breaks. I have no idea what it means or if it has meaning to it at all other than its just tradition.
We all pile into the family’s dining room where four large tables are laid out around the four walls of the tiny room. One side of the room is for the bride’s side, the head table the bride and groom and toast master and God parents and on the other side a table for the grooms side. The table in the back is for the Singers and the grooms friends. I sit down where I am instructed to sit by my counterpart’s mother, who I also call mama. People are rushing to try to find seats in this tiny room. As people pile in to my table, I begin to panic a bit as I realize that there won’t be room for my counterpart. We try to save her room but my counterpart being who she is, refuses to sit when others don’t have a seat. So in the end I am packed into a table with the groom’s family, only knowing my counterpart’s mom who is sitting near me and not having a single English speaker at my table. My counterpart goes over to the men’s table where her husband is sitting and they share a seat. I look over desperately, my eyes pleading with the men to tell me to come sit with them, as everyone knows, the men’s table is a lot more fun anyways, but of course they don’t as I am an unmarried women and it wouldn’t be appropriate. So life goes in Armenia. It’s not that I don’t want to sit with the women; it’s just that Armenian weddings last well into the night, and sitting a whole 10 hours at a table where no one speaks English is exhausting. I have the conversation skills to last me about an hour. My time limit at an Armenians house is always about an hour because after an hour of small talk, I simply run out of language skills and begin to feel like a child who cannot express themselves.
After everyone is seated a toast is made by the tomada, the guy whose sole purpose at the wedding is to keep everyone drinking. He makes toast after toast, and if someone else wants to make a toast they must ask him. The old women I am with hesitate to pour their drinks; they instead wait to see what I will drink. I in turn am waiting to see what they will drink, as you can never be sure what is appropriate. My mama tells me they are waiting for me, what I would like to drink. I laugh and tell her today I want cognac. She laughs too and calls over her nephew Mkirtich over to the table to poor cognac for us. If you remember from my Easter blog here: http://felicitypassionrapture.blogspot.com/2011/05/charming-easter-in-armenia.html Mkirtich is the sweetest Armenian boy I have ever met and he happens to have a huge crush on me. He blushes as he approaches the table and smiles at me and tells me he is glad that I came. He pours us all a shot and we toast to the bride and grooms health and some other things that I didn’t really understand. Then the women in the groom’s family come out from the kitchen as a khorovots song is being sung. They take the skewers of meat and dance around the room with them as they bring them to the groom. This dance means it’s time to start eating.

Big trays of grilled pork are brought to each of the tables and my counterpart’s mom who pretty much acts as my mom grabs the meat first to make sure that she can grab the best piece for me. I have to say I am usually not much of a pork fan but this was the best grilled pork I had ever had. While we eat toasts are made and people are dancing. There comes a time when all of the groom’s family is asked to make a toast. The tomada goes from person to person and they say some words to the bride and groom and drink. Well when they get to my counterpart’s mother she announces that I would like to make a toast. She tells me that I have to because I am a part of the groom’s family. I look around the room and everyone is staring at me. The Tomada introduces me as the family’s American and tells them that I would like to make a toast. I beg her not to make me but she is relentless. I stand up feeling as though I am going to pass out, we are in a tiny little room with no air conditioning in the middle of summer, I start to say something like I want to thank everyone for inviting me to be here and then I froze. I had no idea what to say. I mean I don’t believe I have ever even made a toast in English, let alone Armenian… so I stand and stare and start giggling. They begin to yell to me to say something in English if I don’t know how to say it in Armenian. So I just say in English I don’t speak Armenian very well but I wish you all the happiness in the world and I quickly sit down. My counterpart translates and it’s all over. I bury my head into my Armenian mothers shoulder and she laughs at me. She asks me why I am so shy. I tell her I am not really shy, I just don’t like it when everyone is staring at me. We both kind of laugh because considering my situation it’s a bit silly, everyone is always staring at me in Armenia. Something about me just screams foreigner.
After the last of the grooms family makes a toast people begin to dance again. As I am sitting at the table I hear my name being called across the room. It’s my counterpart’s husband and Mkirtich, they are holding up their glasses to me and single for me to take a shot with them, so I take a sip of my drink. Then Mkirtich comes over and asks me to dance. I tell him that I can’t, I am not ready to dance but I will dance in a little while. He shrugs and says ok. Then another dance with food begins, this time a huge pig is lead out on a tray and once again they dance with the meat and present it to the bride and groom. I have to say I was a little bit surprised because not once did the bride and groom get up and dance nor did the bride’s family. One time they got up and walked outside, but they didn’t dance. It actually seemed to me that the bride seemed a bit sad. I asked who the people sitting near the bride were and they explained that they were people in the grooms family, his godparents and his sister. I asked why the bride’s sister was not in her wedding party and they said that she couldn’t be because she was already married. I tried to explain to them that it made me sad because American weddings are all about the bride and her friends and family surround her and her husband and she is the happiest person in the room but that Genya didn’t seem so happy and none of her friends were there. They told me that the wedding was a very small wedding and that she was from far away so her friends could not come. I realized how lucky I was to be a part of everything.

As people were eating roasted pig, the tall skinny boy in the picture above holding the pig, asked me to dance. I told him I don’t like to dance, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. Mkirtich, seeing that I was uncomfortable, came over grabbed my hand and took me to the dance floor and away from the other guy. We danced a little and my counterpart joined in but as we were dancing the music changed and a Russian song came on. Everyone began to make circles, all holding hands and began some Russian folk dance. They grabbed me in as if I knew what the heck they were doing. Whatever it was, it was way too complex for me, and I think they got that because some little old women came and grabbed me by the hands. She lead me in the dance showing me what to do and soon enough I was doing some kind of Russian dancing too and actually I was having a lot of fun. She pulled me into the middle of the circle. All of the other dancers circled around us and we danced. They went one way and her and I the opposite. As we spun in circles I realized that they were all watching me but I didn’t really care because it was so much fun. Soon the dance ended and it was sweltering hot. They told me to stay and dance some more but It was just too hot so I went outside. As I was standing outside a boy came up and began to talk to me. He asked me all kinds of questions about me and why I was there and what I did and the like. Then he asked me how old I was. I told him and he shook his head no. He said I was mistaken. I looked at him like he was an idiot, how could I be mistaken for my own age. I told him that I know how old I am thank you very much, and he simply replied that It wasn’t good then because I was too old to not be married. My face must of scrunched up because my counterpart’s husband Tigran came over and told the boy that he must be on his best behavior with me and that he must be clean and stand up straight. The boy asked Tigran if he knew how old I was and Tigran told him. He asked Tigran why I am not married, at which point my counterpart came over and told him that it’s not in my culture to marry young. He started to say that no one would ever marry me, and I looked at him and told him he was stupid. Everyone began to laugh at him, and he quickly got defensive saying that he wasn’t being rude, but that if I wanted to have a family I should have one now. I told him that I am not disadvantaged that I get to travel where I want when I want, be friends with whoever I want to be friends with and do as I please so he shouldn’t feel sorry for me. He looks at my counterpart and by this time her mom is with her and the mom tells him, she just went to Bulgaria a few weeks ago, have you ever been to Bulgaria? He says no, and she says, well then don’t open your mouth, she has a good life. I feel vindicated and go back inside to dance some more.

While dancing with my counterpart I ask her about the bride and why her family doesn’t dance. She explains to me that the bride’s family will only dance the last dance with their daughter before they leave and then the rest of the night the bride will dance with the groom and his family as they will be the only ones left at the wedding. Soon the bride comes to the floor and dances with her family. Her mom has tears in her eyes, all too quickly the song is over, the bride throws her bouquet and her family leaves. The bride and groom also hand out presents to all of the single people at the wedding. Its’ a small I don’t know what that is pictured above. They also hand out chocolate and tell me I must put it under my pillow so that I will dream about the man I will marry.
The bride and groom dance some and then Ice cream is brought in and we eat it. Now my counterpart has come over and sits with me and explains things to me. We talk a little as others are dancing; only about 20 of us are still at the wedding. I look over and her cousin Mkirtich is over at the singer’s table. He whispers something into the piano player’s ear. The music changes into a slow song. My counterpart gets up and dances with her husband, as I reach for my camera to take a picture, someone grabs my hand. It is Mkirtich. He pulls me to the dance floor, leaving my camera behind. As we dance he tells me that I look very beautiful and that I am the most beautiful girl he has ever seen. He is actually really sweet about it. He also tells me that it really is too bad that we don’t speak the same language because he would like to talk to me more. I laugh and make a joke about my Armenian and he laughs too. I look around the room and his mom and sister are standing together watching us. Uh oh I think to myself. He tells me that I am a good girl in English and asks me if I understand him. I repeat it back to him in Armenian saying yes lav agchick em. He says no no, I mean I love you. I laugh at him and tell him he is a very nice boy. By this time we have been at the wedding for about 10 hours so I am pretty sure he is just intoxicated, as he is normally painfully shy. The song ends and he kisses me on my cheek, I look at my counterpart and we both laugh a little. I walk over to her and tell her that I think her cousin is in love with me. She begins to laugh and says she knows. She told me it was his birthday the previous week and he had really wanted me to go to his party but I was in Bulgaria. He soon comes over and begins to whisper in her ear. She laughs and tells him that I already know. When he leaves she tells me that he told her he likes me. I feel like I am in high school again.

The bride comes out as new music begins and the family is cleaning. She tells me to dance with her. My counterpart and I do, and my counterpart tells her that I thought she was unhappy. She laughs and assures me that she is very happy. I have to say she is the most adorable thing I have seen. Soon her husband joins us and his whole family is dancing with her and the truth is she really does look happy. That is until she is called away to help clean!!! I couldn’t believe it, so soon she has to step into her duties!!! I couldn’t imagine having to clean up after my own wedding while my husband gets to drink and dance and party with his friends!!! Oh well, I guess that is Armenian life for you. Another reason why I have so much respect for Armenian women!!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Dasht Dasht Dasht... Dance Dance Dance

My counterpart informed me a few weeks ago that I was going to be a guest at her cousins wedding. It wasn’t so much an offer as a statement of fact. Ok by me, I told her excited to once again be a witness to such an amazing cultural occasion. The thing she didn’t explain to me however was that her cousin was the groom, and that by inviting me to go to the wedding I was actually going to be an active participant in the wedding. This I did not find out until much, much later.
On the day of the wedding, I asked my favorite neighbor if she would come to my house and do my hair for me. I got just about as dressed up as I can be here considering I don’t even have a pair of high heels in country with me. When I walked into my counterpart everyone made a huge fuss over me, as if I am some kind of tomboy that never wears dresses or something, it was very strange.
As we take pictures at my counterparts house I notice a white basket covered in tool and all glittered up. I recognize the basket as the bride’s basket which contains her wedding cloths. I thought it was sort of strange for my counterpart to have the basket as I know it plays such an integral part later in the day. But I didn’t think to question her about it as we soon we were piled tightly into a car and on our way to the festivities.
When we arrived at my counterparts house, where the festivities were to be held, there were cars piled outside of a house. Everyone jumped out of the car, people shouting that we were late. I didn’t quite understand what it was we were late for. I asked my counterpart, whose house is this. This is my cousin’s house she told me. The bride is upstairs in a room waiting for us. Your cousin is the bride, I ask. No my cousin is the groom. I look as her aunt grabs the basket with the bride’s cloths in it, and a bell goes off in my head. I’ve seen this before, the groom’s family is going to have a precession to the bride and they are going to dance with the cloths. I can hear the music begin as we walk around the coroner to the house. A group of girls from the groom’s side of the family are at the gate waiting for us. My counterpart tells me to come and they begin to dance up to the house. My face drops; you mean I have to dance?? Yes she tells me, we are the grooms family, we must dance. I follow at a distance behind her, videotaping it, so as to not have to dance. We get to the yard and people are yelling and whistling and the girls are all dancing, with the brides cloths and flowers up in the air. For about ten minutes they dance, before someone notices I am not dancing. I get thrown into the mix. We dance for awhile and then the groom comes out, wearing a shinny white coat, white shirt and white pants. People scream louder and louder as he joins the dancing party. He throws up his hands, lips pressed together and a face that says, yes this is my party and I have arrived. Confidence and exuberance radiate off of him. You can’t help but to dance when he is dancing. The party dances for about 20 minutes and then we head on up the balcony to the bride’s room. Once in the room the family begins to sing a song. The aunt and the grooms mother place a glove on each of her hands, we all shout shnorhavor (congratulations). They take her shoes off and place the new shoes on her, we all shout shnorhavor again and they burst into another song. It is such a beautiful song, welcoming the bride into their family and telling her congratulations, it kind of reminds me of one of our sorority ritual songs. The bride takes candy from the basket and begins throwing it out to the large group of women gathered in the tiny room. The women around me push me forward and tell me I must take some candy and put it under my pillow tonight. They tell me that who I dream of this night will be the man that I marry.
Soon the footsteps of men are heard approaching the door. The women all turn around and face to face them and make a blockade in front of the door. A little boy in a suit waits at the threshold. The groom approaches and the little boy shakes his head no. Laughter from both the men’s side and the women’s side erupt. The groom hands the boy 5,000 dram (I think) and the boy takes the money but still shakes his head no. The groom hands the little boy more money and the boy allows him to pass. All the women create an aisle and the groom walks to his bride, huge smile on his face. They link arms and we escort them out of the room.
Then it was off to the church!
The church was in a nearby town called Stepanavan. It’s a very old 13th century church and was very beautiful. As we piled into the church the priest person (I have no idea what they are called in Armenia, bisop, minister?) began to speak, even before we were all seated and quiet. I soon learned that is because even during a wedding ceremony Armenians talk!! I was pretty shocked, though I guess it didn’t matter so much for me because I couldn’t understand a word of anything. The only word that I picked out of everything was Genya, which as it turned out was the brides name… good thing I didn’t ask anyone to translate for me, I would have felt really stupid!
During the ceremony the priest sang, placed a crown on the bride and grooms heads, read from a bible, and sang some more. After the ceremony was through we each had to go up to the pulpit and congratulate the bride and the groom and the grooms God parents. We kissed them each on the cheek in a precession ending with the priest whose ring we had to kiss as well as a cross.
Overall I thought the ceremony was very beautiful, though I didn’t understand the words. There was a part of the ceremony where the bride and the groom stood forehead to forehead and the god father placed a cross over their head. They stood like this for a minute or two, just staring into each other’s eyes as prayers were read over them. For me this was the most beautiful part of the ceremony. The one thing that I did feel was missing is that they didn’t have to say any vows, which I think is the most beautiful part of an American wedding.
After taking a few pictures at the church, we drove around the city center three times honking the horns of the cars. Now I have seen this done before, and have always found it to be the most annoying thing, and actually I can sometimes hear horns honking even here in Spitak, but somehow being in the car while it was happening was kind of fun! Next we were off to the reception… To be continued

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Alyssa in Bulgaria (Sofia)

Bright lights, big European city… well not exactly, but I am starting to learn that almost anything feels big compared to Armenia. I never feel the smallness of the place that I am in until I leave it. As soon as that plane set down in Sofia I felt a pressure lift off my chest. As I observed skate boarders, couples walking holding hands and kissing, dog walkers and a plethora of McDonalds and Subways I realized that I Dorothy was no longer in Kansas anymore. Not even close.
When I selected Sofia for my summer vacation, I figured it wouldn’t be too different from Armenia. I mean both are post soviet countries, both have Peace Corps, so both should be pretty similar, or so I thought. I couldn’t be more wrong. In fact I am struggling to make comparisons between the two, so vast are their differences.
As the taxi driver escorted me from the airport to the hostel the first thing that I noticed was the graffiti in Bulgaria, it’s everywhere! It almost has an old school Los Angeles feel to it, except for the architecture, everything in Bulgaria is very cute and what I would imagine to be very European. Everything is so old, and yet so modern. Next to a 10th century church sits a McDonalds and just down the road is a Turkish Hamman which is across the street from a Metro station. Upon my first glance at the city I wasn’t very impressed. Why I chose to come here again, I asked myself.
The Taxi driver took me to my hostel where right away I noticed that this wasn’t your ordinary hostel. I walked into the reception area and bags upon bags were piled around the room and close to 30 people were hanging around playing pool, sleeping on bean bags, and talking. I sat down with the receptionist and she highlighted the places on the map of Sofia that I should go to. To be honest, I was overwhelmed a bit and a little afraid to go out into the city alone. So I sat down for about 20 minutes working up my courage.
Finally I was off, map in hand, going to see the sites of a new country. I was afraid that I would be bored alone, or that I would lose my way, but in fact, I had a great time. The best thing was that I could do whatever it was that I wanted. If I was tired I could sit down and people watch for a bit before going on. If I wanted to skip something that didn’t seem interesting I did. It was great to not have to worry about anything at all. My first stop was for some Bulgarian Ice Cream. The Ice Cream stand was so colorful, and the flavors looked so interesting, though I didn’t know what any of them were because everything was written in Cyrillic. So I essentially pointed to what colors looked best and was rewarded by some of the most delicious ice cream I have ever had. I’d put it right behind Reineers Ice Cream Shop at Sequoia National Park. I took a seat at a busy intersection and ate my delicious treat as I watched people walking by. The thing that surprised me right away was that Bulgarians do not have an autonomous look. They all look very different and sometimes it was hard for me to tell who the tourists were and who the host country nationals were. The second thing I noticed was the way the dressed! Men wearing board shorts and tank tops, men wearing no shirts, people wearing flip flops and girls in nice sun dresses. I almost felt as though I was back in the states, except for one glimpse at the architecture would remind me otherwise. As I sat there a man began to play the violin and people gathered around to watch. No one got pushy with each other, people just calmly stood by to watch. I stayed sitting and closed my eyes for a minute to enjoy the peace. Ahhh vacation!!
After my ice cream was done, I walked to the nearest Church St. Nedelia’s. Once I stepped inside I was amazed. Frescos covered every inch of the walls. Beautiful images of the gospels were everywhere on the walls, while the front of the church was brightly gold. It was somehow exactly as I thought it would be and still breath taking all at once. I walked around staring at each picture, trying to figure out what it was depicting. I lit candles for each person in my family and let the peace of the church refresh me as I sat taking it all in for about an hour. It was nice to be able to take all the time I wanted and not feel as though I had to rush. After this I walked to a few more sites, I basically hit up all the monuments and sites to be seen in Sofia, all in just one afternoon. My last stop was at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and I can’t even describe it effect on me. I have never seen a more beautiful cathedral in my life. The fact that this was made for the glory of God impressed me and while trying to take it in I was overcome with emotion. I lit more candles and I prayed and prayed and prayed. I felt so much pressure unloaded from my shoulders and before I knew it I was sleeping in the church!!! I think I was only asleep for a half hour or so, but when I woke up I was so embarrassed! I wonder if that happens often?!?
After day one of site seeing, I had already come to love and appreciate this charming little placed called Sofia. Not the way I adore Istanbul, nor the way I cherish Armenia, but in a way that I could walk around light hearted, smiling and being smiled back at, comfortable in my own skin, not being stared at, melding in as just one of them kind of way. I felt invisible in a fantastic kind of way that I have not felt once since I have left America. I felt as though I could belong there and no one would know the difference, I felt that in that time and place I did belong there. I was lighthearted and free for the first time in a loooong time!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Can I have a glass of water please?

Last year as I was visiting Spitak in preparation to move here, I had a meeting with my counterpart to be at my host families’ house. She called about an hour ahead of time, informing me that she was on her way to meet me. I quickly threw on my best cloths, wanting of course to make a good impression on this woman who I knew would be everything in Spitak. After I got dressed I ran out to the porch to wait for her. I waited and waited and waited. Finally I gave up and went back inside; not knowing what was taking her so long.
About an hour later as I was taking my mid-day nap, I was woken up when my counterpart walked into my room, laughing. The first thing that I noticed was that her hair was wet, dripping in fact. When I shook her hand, I noticed it was not only her hair that was wet but she was completely drenched. I must have looked puzzled because she began to laugh as she told me that kids had dumped water on her. As she said this, I vaguely remember that I had heard about some kind of Armenian water holiday. She explained to me that it was Vardavar, a day when all Armenians celebrate by playing in water in general, but mostly by throwing water on each other. The greatest thing, she told me, was that you could even throw water on Tatiks and they don’t get mad.
At the time I was a little disappointed, I was staying with a host family and they had told me nothing about it. Not a single splash of water was made that whole day with my family. They never even mentioned it to me. I was sad that I didn’t get the opportunity to experience my first Armenian holiday.
So this year, now that I live in the city center, I was a little bit excited to finally get to experience this water day. The truth is it’s so hot here, that a bucket of water on your head actually sounds nice! As I prepared for my morning run, I wrapped my Ipod in plastic, prepared for the day. I walked to the park, and surprisingly enough I didn’t see a single person outside. I ran for an hour around the lake, and not a single soul was around, which is defiantly not the norm, usually I have groups of boys that sit and watch me run… It was actually a little bit eerie. It was so hot outside too! I began to walk up the stairs to go back to my apartment. There were two Armenian women in front of me dressed in nice cloths and high heels. I began to think that maybe this holiday wasn’t really celebrated in Spitak that much. Then I hear a splash of water hit and screams erupt from the women. I looked up and saw a group of boys waiting above the stairs with buckets of water, water bottles and plastic bags of water. The women began to yell at the boys telling them that they didn’t even know them so they couldn’t throw water at them. They were really pissed off, I had to laugh as it reminded me of my mom a little! She would hate this holiday!
So as I reached the top of the stairs, I braced myself for a splash of cold water, to tell you the truth after running miles in the hot sun, I actually wanted water to be poured on my head. But there was nothing. Just the group of boys standing there all looking confused. They had the water ready, but seemed as if they didn’t quite know what to do. Then I saw that they were looking directly at Sophie who was out in front of me on her leash. They began to walk away in the other direction, one asking the other, can we water the dog? Maybe it bites. So I had my first brush with vardavar but I came out un-scathed.
As I walked to my building, there was a 10 year old up on the balcony, waiting with a bucket of water. He politely waved to me and said hello Miss Alyssa. Once again he didn’t dare to dump water on me.
So I went on with the day as normal, me and Sophie came back home and took our mid-morning nap, but after awhile we were awoken by screams outside the window. I walk out to the balcony where I see a water war going on between kids below. On my neighbors balcony a group of my younger neighbors have gathered all with buckets of water. They say hello to me and ask if I know that it is a holiday. I laugh and say I do. They tell me that they feel the need to throw water on me. I laugh because I know I am too far for them to reach, and on the top story so there is no chance. They try anyways and waste bucket after bucket of water in hopes that it will hit me. Downstairs there is a commotion as a young man dumps a bucket of water on a mom who decided that she was untouchable because she had a newborn in a stroller. Apparently she wasn’t. They boy then begins to taunt me, telling me to come down and play with them. I laugh and decline. The girls on the balcony next to me attempt to throw water on me once more, I laugh at their futile efforts. As I am laughing cold water covers my head. I am drenched! I look behind me and see the back of one of my neighbors running out my front door. She had run into my house, out on my balcony, as I was distracted, and dumped a bucket on me. My door wasn’t locked! I had no idea that someone would just come into my house to get me. I am completely stunned, as I am standing there soaked. Everyone looking up at me, suspended, waiting for a reaction. I begin to laugh, and they laugh with me.
I quickly lock the door and change into my bathing suit. This is going to be messy. I sit out on my balcony and watch the festivities below as secretly I am preparing buckets of cold water in my house. I don’t throw a single bucket while I am on my balcony, as the kids are already soaked, and really I just have revenge on my mind. Everyone thinks I must not be into it. Finally the kids go inside and so do my neighbors. This is my chance, I know that my target will have to leave the apartment next door to go downstairs to her apartment. So I wait, bucket in hand at my peephole. Five minutes pass and nothing, then ten. I am about to give up, when I hear a door open. I look through the whole and see her plaid shirt. I throw my door open and release a whole bucket of water right on top of her dry head. She screams and begins to laugh and run away from me. She screams to me that she will get me back. Not likely I say.
So I lock my door and go back to doing whatever I was doing. I vow not to go outside for the rest of the day, which seems easy as it’s already 4 pm. I watch a movie and begin to make dinner all the time hearing splashes of water and bursts of screams. I laugh, knowing I am un-touchable. I realize I have no bread, but decide to do without it for the night. Then my cell phone goes off. My best friend sends me a text. Uh-oh I think when I hear the ring, I hope I have dram on my phone. I look at the text, it’s asking me if can meet her in Yerevan. The type of text you have to answer. I press *122* into my phone and wait for it to respond with the amount of dram I have left. It beeps and lets me know that there is 6 dram left on my phone. Not enough to send even a single text. So I drop call her, thinking she can call me back… She doesn’t call back; maybe she has no dram either.
So I have to go to the local hanoot to get a cell phone card. I listen at the door, and hear screams but they trail around to the back of the building. Everyone is at the back of the building playing, so I can simply go around to the front. Sophie intact, we sneak out of my door and go out the front of the building. Not a soul to be seen except an old tatik and the end of the pathway. She smiles at me, I take it as a sign of encouragement and quickly Sophie and I are off. As we are walking there are basically three rows of balconies that I have to look out for. I look up and all seem to be clear. Then I hear a splash behind me. It doesn’t hit me and when I look up I see nothing. So I walk faster, and splash splash splash, people fill the balconies and are laughing as I walk under them. Nothing hits me; I escape to the stairs un-scathed. I go into the store and they begin to laugh. I ask them why, and they tell me Sophie got jurvesed, or had water thrown on her. I look at her little face and water is dripping from her. She looks miserable. I laugh too. I buy what I need to and am on my way. I walk up the stairs, and the same tatik is there. She offers me a bowl of cherries, and tells me to go around the back. I decline her advice, not fully trusting her, as I had a feeling she was in on it last time. I tell her I will take the front, and she takes my bag of bread, wraps it tightly and turns it upside down. I look up and people are in the baronies laughing. I laugh back, they won’t hit me, their aim sucks, I think to myself. So I begin to walk very calmly to my apartment. Bags of water, essentially acting as water balloons come crashing down as I walk. Not a single one hits me. I look back and Sophie hasn’t moved an inch. She is in fact trying to get out the other way, back down to the store. Crap! I have to go back under the balconies to get her. One bag hits my foot, but doesn’t explode. I grab Sophie is soaked with water, tuck her under my arm and begin the other way again. Once again the bags are tossed but don’t hit. VICTORY is almost mine. One more door to pass and then I will be at my apartment. I begin to pass the door, almost home I think, prideful. And then I feel a crash upon my head. Cold water shocks me into confusion. I look up and see nothing. There is no bag around my feet or on my head. Then I sense movement behind me, a big fat man with a huge smile on his face is standing there laughing at me. I guess they learned they needed a new tactic. He had ran all the way down stairs and threw a bucket of water on my head. I begin to laugh and a little girl runs over and dumps a cup on Sophie’s head. I take off running, trying to protect my bread!
When we get to my apartment, Sophie runs under the bed, where she stays the remainder of the night. When I call out to her, she glares at me, as if I had thrown the water on her head. She made it very clear, she is not a fan of Vardavar, but in all honestly I am! I can’t wait for next year. Now that I know no one expects the water early in the morning, I am ready to wage water war!!