Monday, July 30, 2012

Hello!! Goodbye!

If describing one’s life were as easy as making a colorful cardboard collage, I would post a bright blue, green and pink hodgepodge of magazine cutouts of people I don’t even know to express to you how I am feeling right now. Unfortunately those things are best left as classroom projects and the only adjective I have that is really coming close for me, is overwhelmed! I have three days left of my Peace Corps service. 3 DAYS!! Yet I will not be leaving Armenia for some time as I will be traveling with Sophie Jan and I fear the August heat will be very bad for her health, so there is a part of me that doesn’t really even feel as if my service is about to be over.
In fact just the other day I was walking around Spitak and I thought hey I have a great idea for a new project for the young women’s group. We can host an art exhibit at the cultural center in Spitak that seeks to define who Spitak women really are. We can give cameras to our girls and have them capture Spitak women in all different positions in society and also we can ask the schools to participate in an art contest simultaneously submitting paintings of the strongest woman they know… I kept building and building on this idea in my head and thought how great it would be for the group but also for the town to walk around and see these powerful images of the growing role for women today. Then it hit me, I won’t be here for the next Woman’s day. In fact, I have only a few days left, not even enough time to try to throw in this project at the last minute.
Yet I continue to think of my life here in Spitak, not able to even imagine coming home to the US. It has been so long since I have lived in my own country, a fast paced, ever changing country that the truth is I am absolutely terrified to come back. America is no Armenia, in America things change, quite rapidly at that. I could leave Spitak and come back after two years to the same town, the same neighbors, the same school children shouting my name and feel welcomed. But the US is different. There is no place in society open and waiting for me, everything will have to start over. I can’t just fit back into my old life. My apartment is inhabited by strangers, my family home has been sold off, my trusty Nissan has been sold and my last position was filled a month after I left it.  Life in America as I knew it is gone forever, and if I try to grasp on to that old life I will inevitably fail.
All of this is not to say that I have delusions of staying in Spitak forever. In fact lately I have days here where would if I could, I’d hop on the next plane and just leave here forever. After two years and three months here, I have learned that no matter what I could never really be a spitaksian. If Peace Corps volunteers were scored on how they integrated into their community I believe I would really be at the top of that list. I have worked really hard to stay inside my community and live as an Armenian. Unlike many of my fellow PCV’s , I refuse to travel to the capital every weekend for my fix of ex pats, cheeseburgers and freedom. I make a labored effort to stay in Spitak and be seen in Spitak.  I have never wanted to be the American that blows in and out of town on a whim, because there isn’t a single Armenian here that could afford to do that. So I stay, and I play with the neighborhood children, clean things and shop the vegetable khanoots trying to find the best cucumbers in town. Yet, as much as people here may be used to seeing me, they will also be looking at me as an outsider, a stranger who is in fact very strange to them. Hard as I may try I will never wear the right shoes (I can’t live without flip flops) nor can I force myself to share their gender biases. There is a large part of me that will always be fighting against their culture and clinging onto my own.
I have loved being a teacher and a mentor here. I have loved the relationships that I have made with my students and some of the neighborhood girls who feel they can confide in me their problems. I love the peace I feel in Armenia, always knowing that there are no time limits, and no one is pushing deadlines on me. I have loved being able to dream of a project, plan it and make it happen all according to my whims and even when those projects have failed, it has only meant a lesson learned in life, not a life changing tragedy. I have loved short days of work and long days of eating bbq and laughing with a number of extended family members that I have made here. And I have even loved the hard work that comes with washing my clothes by hand, scrubbing my floors with bleach on hands and knees or cooking a meal with no short cuts. Believe it or not saying goodbye to all of this makes my heart hurt, more than coming back to America brings me fear. It has been such a difficult journey and there have been times that I have hated my town, my neighbors, the gossip and the judgment, but this Peace Corps life I have lived has truly changed me and it is so hard to say goodbye to it. I have one month left before I come home. I hope to travel to Georgia for some time and relax at the black sea, but mostly I hope just to spend time with everyone I care about here and say goodbye the Armenian way, one tiny cup of coffee at a time….

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

You know that you have been in PC Armenia for too long when...

So lately I have been feeling that it is my time to say goodbye to Armenia. I can just about hear my mom and dad's sigh of relief right now... It's not that I don't love Armenia, I do, it's just that I love my country too and I understand my culture better and I have come to a point here where I have realized that I can't magically fix things which makes a person feel a bit jaded. Good thing that I only have 17 days left of my service. I think people don't realize that most Peace Corps volunteers are not in PC for a cool vacation, (trust me after my first 3 months, nothing felt like a vacation anymore) but most of us really believe that we will be helping the community that we live in. For the last three months I have been in the position to evaluate my service, and the number one question that tugs at my heart is, did I really help anyone?? I know that I have influenced people, heck just the other day I was running at the park with Sophie when I saw a 9 year old boy running around the lake with a little white dog on a leash. I caught up to him and he told me that he got his dog after he saw me with sophie one day a year ago. So I do know that my way of living has influenced people, but what really matters to me is that I was helpful and that is more difficult to answer. It may take years before I can see if I had an effect on my students lives, if the young women's group that I started will continue on and finally move into a stage where real issues are discussed. I did the best I could do as a teacher and I am proud of my work as a teacher, but I can't help but to think of my time here and to feel as if there was more I could have done if only I had been braver.

So anyways as I have been talking to my mom in these past few months she has pointed out to me the numerous strange things I say or do now that I have been here for so long. This has got me thinking about all the indicators that it is indeed time for me to return home. So I made a silly list, that I hope will make you laugh. This is meant as a joke, though most of the things are true, I say them with a smile on my face and in my heart because I do love and respect Armenian people very much...

You know you’ve been in Armenia  too long when…

You can’t remember what the most important meal of the day is, all you know is that no matter what time of day it is Bread is the most important part of the meal
You can’t wait to eat last night’s dinner for breakfast in the morning
The minute you feel a cold/fever/sneeze/ anything irregular whatsoever you reach for the yogurt
Worm in your Apricot? Pick it out, keep on eating
A midnight snack is more like a midnight smorgasbord!! Tea, compote, cake, fruit, candy, honey and of course bread!!! 
You have forgotten all the old rules about eating after 6 pm, in fact two of your most important meals of the day come after that time, dinner and supper 
You can drink vodka almost as though it were water and in fact sometimes throw some in your water just for good measure 
Hot dogs have become sausages and can be added to just about anything… hot dogs and scrambled eggs, yummmo… hot dog pizza, why of course! 
Privacy, what’s that? My neighbor’s door is unlocked so of course she wants to me to walk in and have a cup of coffee with her
Drinking coffee 4 times a day is nothing! In fact let’s have a cup before bed!
You now recognize that we are going on a “small Excursion” is slang for we will kidnap you for a minimum of ten hours
Anyone not from your village or town is an “outsider” and it’s required that you stare at them intensely in efforts to gather information about them that you will later share with your neighbors
Upon seeing this outsider it is not uncommon for you to ask very loudly “who is that” forgetting that the said outsider may understand English and would consider it very rude for you to stare at him and ask who he is
You learn this so called “outsider” is a European or another American; you are equally excited to see them as you are annoyed that they are in your town.  
You hear water turn on you jump up and immediately begin washing things. Who knows how long it will stay on, and you have been deceived by its promises of longevity far too many times
You see something gold and shiny and think, yeah that really is nice
In fact “nice” has become the most prominent word in your vocabulary. Pretty girls are nice, things taste nice, weather is nice… it’s a one size fits all kind of word
You have learned all the grammatical rules of English and yet have somehow managed to speak English as a foreigner does. You often leave out articles, deciding that they are unnecessary for comprehension 
You have forgotten the words good and delicious, everything is tasty or not so tasty. 
You make weird sounds in conversation to express agreement, annoyance, surprise or just comprehension. In fact you are not really sure if you can actually speak Armenian, or you have just learned to imitate sounds. 
You can’t help but to wonder if that tickle in the back of your throat is due to the fact that last week you went outside without your socks.
You get into a random taxi from the street and without you saying a word he takes you to your house. In fact, you are not even sure if that taxi driver was from your town, still not strange. 
At one time you had a bus schedule for your town memorized, but now you can’t remember what the official times are, you just go when you feel like it
Standing in a van full of people for a 45 minute drive is nothing unusual 
You no longer reach for a seatbelt that is never there 
You don’t think it’s strange for people to watch you do mundane things. Getting a haircut is not a spectator sport? Could have fooled me 
You no longer try to create lines out of chaos. You need to pay your bills? Squeeze in front of the twenty other people standing in a crowd at the teller, then make yourself as big as possible by holding your elbows out, and throw money at the teller. Don’t make eye contact with anyone, and don’t show weakness. 
You’ve jumped onto a crowded bus and without even thinking hand your purse over to a stranger so you can grab onto the back of someone’s chair
A mother enters a crowded marshutka and there are no seats. You offer her yours, but she refuses and instead plops a baby onto your lap. You tell the baby that you want to eat it and smile as if this is the most normal thing in the world, and in some way it really is...