Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Seven, A Few Highlights

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This past week has been one of those funny stretches of time when you’re keeping busy enough, but when you look back and try to remember exactly what you did you find that you can’t quite remember. I blame it on my time being full of a million little things instead of one or two big ones.

Part of that was the fact that Yerevan celebrated its 2799th birthday this weekend, which meant that there was all sorts of celebration, including a half marathon on Sunday. Before you ask, no, I did not run in it or any of the shorter runs happening at the same time, but I did help register the hardy souls that did. That was an adventure in and of itself, since while my Armenian is getting better every day, I’m still not quick with it. My two fellow volunteers were native Armenian speakers, though, and more than happy to bail me out more times than I can count. It was slightly trickier when we met a few people who only spoke Russian, but even then we were able to send them down to the next table.

As hard as it is at times, I think the huge bounty of languages here is one of my favorite things. There’s Armenian, of course, and I’m getting to the point where I can recognize the differences between Western and Eastern even when it’s being spoken quickly, though my understanding of what is being said is still a spotty at best. There’s a lot of Russian as well, and spending time at the Birthright office means that I hear at least bits and pieces of Spanish, German, Arabic, French… And English is common in my day to day, which I’m simultaneously grateful for while still knowing that I’d be learning Armenian faster if I couldn’t fall back on my native language.

That being said, I’m far less able to do that while at the hospital. While there are a number of people there who do speak English, most do not and I get all kinds of practice for speaking Armenian. It’s exhausting, but my progress is undeniable if still a slower than I’d like.

Speaking of the hospital! This week I got the chance to spend a little time in the actual Emergency Department, or at least the section of it devoted to cardiac emergencies. I saw what a STEMI looks like on an echocardiogram, and was able to watch on a monitor as they treated it with a stent.

The rest of the week has been pretty low-key, just keeping busy with the aforementioned million little things. Part of that has been preparation for an excursion to the Republic of Artsakh. Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh, is a territory just east of the Republic of Armenia with a mostly Armenian population. It declared and fought for its independence from Azerbaijan in the early 90’s, and while most nations do not recognize its sovereignty, it has been a “de facto independent entity” since the fall of the Soviet Union.

I’ll have a lot more to say about it next week after we return, as well as pictures, as I understand that it’s a particularly beautiful area.

Until then!

Fiction (Short)

The Farewell

OURFAREWELL

It was late, and we were loud, but for tonight, that was alright. Tabby had told us hours ago to not worry about it. The corner table at the pub was ours as late as we wanted it. And so far, no one had seemed inclined to complain anyway. The only looks that came our way were smiles and nods, and Reuben and I didn’t end up paying for any more than a third of our drinks. The rest were covered by our friends, and a couple of rounds appeared at our table, courtesy of grateful, generous strangers. The other members of the crew were probably doing the same thing with their own friends in some other bar.

We tried not to call it a suicide mission. It might have been. Probably was, really, but on the off chance that it wasn’t, we promised each other that we wouldn’t count ourselves out until our ship was blowing up around us. Either way, we were leaving the next morning. Our ship was already prepped and ready, and it waited at the launching grounds at the edge of town with the course out to another system and another planet somewhere beyond colonized space already programmed into its computer.

But that was tomorrow. Tonight, we were still here.

“So, Erin.” Reuben’s dark eyes glittered wickedly at me from across the table, and even the fuzz left by my last beer wasn’t enough to dull the feeling of sudden dread.

“Don’t even think about it,” I said.

“Think about what?” His grin showed more teeth than it ever did when his motives were good.

I grinned right back at him. “The same thing you’ve been hounding me about since it happened.”

“Come on, Erin. It might be our last chance. Everyone wants to know the old tractor story.”

A general clamor in Reuben’s favor went up from our friends, encouraged as much by his sly fox smile as my pretended scowl of disapproval.

“You’ve got to tell it now!”

“Cat’s half out anyway.”

“One to remember you by!”

“You’re a bloody cheater, Reuben,” I said, but there was nothing believable about my frown.

“So, will you tell it or will I?”

“You.” I balled up a napkin and threw it at him before he could start. “But not until your sister gets here, because she’s been demanding the details since it happened and she’ll kill me if everyone else finds out before she does.”

His smile faltered. “I’m not sure she’s coming.”

I gave him a quizzical look, but he waved it off and I didn’t push. I just paused for a moment, playing along with the game before giving the answer everyone knew I’d give. And I still smiled when they cheered. Our joviality was fragile, but it was enough.

The only thing I would have changed would have been to have Luca there with us.

 

 

An hour passed. Another one followed it. The late night grew later, and we grew sleepier and even a littler quieter. The pub’s other patrons left, one by one. So did a couple of our friends, citing the years they had gained since we’d first met. They promised to see us at the launching tomorrow as they went.

Luca never came, and it didn’t need to surprise me to hurt. I’d sent her a handful of messages throughout the evening, surreptitiously touching my fingers to my commphone’s controls to activate the contact display and tap out the words I wanted. Reuben caught the telltale, electric glimmer across my eye the second time I did it, but he didn’t say anything, just offered a quiet, sympathetic smile and looked away before anyone else noticed. I’d tried to be as present as I could the rest of the time, but I’m not sure how well I succeeded. It was hard when I was waiting for a response that didn’t come.

At least, it didn’t come until the night was over and last few of us were finally admitting that we should sleep. My contact display lit up, and I jumped despite myself. The message was short and simple, but it said everything it needed to.

I’m out by the launch field.

It took me less than a second to get up from the table. I grabbed my jacket, apologizing as coherently as my midnight-addled tongue could manage and confirming that I would see them all for last goodbyes before we left. Reuben gave me a look that I returned as best I could, and then I took off. I broke into a jog before I was five steps out the door.

I found Luca leaning back against the wall of the maintenance bay, staring towards the dark outline of our ship where it waited in the field. She turned her head as I approached.

“We missed you tonight,” I said. I think I said it without letting it sound like an accusation. I didn’t mean it to be.

“I’m sorry,” said Luca. She paused before saying something about being at the launch tomorrow.

“For whatever it’s worth, I appreciate it,” I said. “Reuben will too.”

She didn’t respond, quickly or otherwise. I’m usually comfortable with silences. The stretch of wordless seconds that clings to the edge of a conversation has always just been another way to enjoy a friend’s company. Nothing more, nothing less. But this one wasn’t like that.

I forced a laugh. “Hey, if we get ourselves killed, at least you won’t have to worry about keeping us out of trouble anymore.”

“What the hell, Erin?” She jerked away from the wall. “Seriously?”

An apology slipped off my tongue, and I followed her out into the field, into the deeper shadows where the hull of our ship blocked the light of the moon. An excuse or two stuck in the back of my throat, whispers and mumbles about coping mechanisms and an attempt to lighten the mood. But Luca kept talking before I made anything worse.

“I wanted to sabotage this thing, you know.” She was looking up at the hull. “To find a way to break it enough that it would never get you to deep space.”

My stomach tightened. Only the fact that she kept talking kept me from making some stupid inquiry after the state of the ship.

She shrugged, or that’s what it looked like. “I might have actually done it if I thought it could have stopped you.”

“Oh, sure,” I said. “Keep us behind, safe and sound. That’ll work great until the bad guys come and kill us here instead.”

Luca snorted in disgust. “There’s every chance they’ll do that anyway.”

“No! Not every chance. If this works they never get past Relfa.”

“If!” She hissed the word through gritted teeth. “’If’ means nothing! ‘If’ means we’re down to dreams and delusions!”

“’If’ means that some of us haven’t given up just yet!” I shouted, and my words echoed out across the field. They faded without interruption.

Her response came slowly, cold and delayed. “Or maybe it means you’re just going to die in denial.”

“Better that than whatever it is you’re doing.”

Her hand moved in the darkness, and I braced myself for a blow that never landed. Her fists jerked at the air above her head instead, threatening to beat her own skull. A ragged scream wedged and died in her throat. “How can you say that? You! Of all people! I’ve been in every meeting you have, come up with dozen insane schemes of my own—I lost my husband to one of them and it never stopped me!”

“It broke you when Aaron died!” There was a moment, just a moment when I could have kept from going further. “If he was alive he would have been the first to volunteer”

I thought she was going to hit me. I’d have deserved it. If I’d been her I probably would have. The dead silence was worse, and it remained unbroken even when she left half a minute later, leaving me alone to justify myself to the snarling in my head. It was a lost cause, and I gave it up after the barest handful of seconds.

I woke early the next morning, well before my alarm and only five or six hours after I’d finally collapsed into bed. I should have been able to fall back asleep. Exhaustion squatted on my chest, and I didn’t need to look in a mirror to know that my eyes were bloodshot. Another hour of rest would have smoothed the roughest edges if nothing else. I knew without trying that I’d never manage it. A resigned curse escaped through my teeth, and I dropped my feet to the floor.

Not that I had much to do before the launch. My bag was packed and skulking by the door. My uniform hung over the back of my chair, waiting for me to pull it on. A pile of letters sat on my desk, filled with sentiments I’d already said out loud to the recipients, though perhaps not so eloquently as when I put pen to paper. Actual paper. It was old-fashioned, perhaps, but it seemed fitting. It would be something to hold onto if things turned out the way we feared the most.

One of them was for Luca. It was one of a dozen, but when I looked at the stack it was the only one that mattered. Fortunately, I’d written it before last night, and the things inside were things I meant, things that I wanted her to know and remember. If she decided to read it instead of burning it, it might bring her a little peace.

A twisting in my gut told me that I was still angry. Of course I was. I would be until we made up, and unless Luca felt like seeing me in the next few hours, I was just going to have to live with it. Or die with it. One or the other. I gave a snort. It was as close to a laugh as I could manage.

It didn’t take me long to get dressed and ready. My uniform went on easily, comfortably. I dragged a comb through my hair until it was vaguely presentable and able to be tied back in a tight braid. I tossed my dirty clothes in a laundry basket. I made my bed. I yanked my boots onto my feet and laced them up. Within fifteen minutes, I was out the door with my bag slung over my shoulder and the packet of letters clutched in my hand.

The colony was quiet. The streets weren’t quite empty, but the few of us who walked them were more inclined to enjoy the silence and the solitude than to strike up a conversation. We exchanged civil nods when we passed and little else. When I reached the little shop that operated as a post office of sorts, I dropped off my letters with a minimum of talking. Old Man Rufus who ran the place did the same, though he offered his well-wishes and only charged me half price for sending the letters. I smiled and thanked him and left.

I wandered the streets after that. I still had hours before launch, hours even before the crew had to be there for our early checks, and I wasn’t about to spend the last of my free time aboard the same beast of tech and metal that I would be tied to for the next weeks. My bag wasn’t all that heavy, and I took simple comfort in its weight against my back as I said my goodbyes to the colony.

I was halfway to Luca’s house before I realized where my steps were taking me. I stopped walking. The urge to turn and go back the way I had come thrummed in my chest. I could put aside the argument from last night. I could make myself believe it didn’t matter. I could bury it deep and let it fester until the mission was done or I was gone. Just not if we came back for round two now.

But if we didn’t, there was no way we were going to reconcile. The odds weren’t good for any encounter turning out that way, but it wasn’t as if I was paying much heed to probabilities these days anyway. I started for her house again with a sigh and a muttered prayer.

Of course, everything hinged on her actually being home and willing to open the door. I’m not sure which one of those wasn’t true, but I imagine that in the end it doesn’t really matter. After the fifth time I knocked only to be met by silence, I admitted defeat and wandered back the way I’d come.

I passed the rest of my time in one way or another. Fifteen minutes here, fifteen minutes there. Half an hour saying goodbye to the hollow in the corner of the park where I’d always hidden when I wanted to get away. Forty-five minutes getting lunch and coffee at my favorite cafe. Seconds and minutes and hours that I used to make sure I remembered.

Finally, I made my way back towards the launch field. We still had an hour to go before the crew was scheduled to gather for our final checks and any last updates on the mission, but it was close enough, and I was ready to not be alone anymore. I wouldn’t be the only one of the crew already feeling drawn to the ship.

I didn’t expect to find Luca there, but as I emerged onto the launch field I saw her there, standing next to Reuben. She saw me too, said something to her brother, and started making her way across the field to meet me. As soon as she got close enough for me to see it, the dark look on her face made me hesitate.

“You were out of line,” she said. “Tell me you know that.”

I didn’t want to. I did know it, but the words shriveled on my tongue and others to describe her own faults grew in their place. I choked them back and said nothing instead.

But Luca didn’t say anything else either, just kept staring me down even as I dropped my gaze. I tried again.

“I went too far.” It wasn’t what she wanted to hear. It was lame, and it wasn’t what I should have said. I hoped it was closer than anything else I’d come up with.

“I’m supposed to say it’s all okay now. That it was nothing,” said Luca

“Yeah,” I said. “But neither one of us believes that.”

“At least you’ve got that right.”

I felt the words of an apology trying to form just behind my teeth, but I couldn’t tell if they were sincere or self-serving. I could express remorse without taking blame, voice regret without admitting error. Smooth our feathers. Steal goodwill for an hour.

I could. I didn’t. “I shouldn’t have said what I did,” I said. “I was wrong. I’m sorry.”

If Luca was surprised she didn’t show it. If she accepted my apology I couldn’t tell, and the time that passed before she said anything at all left deep dread in the pit of my stomach. When she spoke, her words came slow and with a terrible deliberation.

“I’m still mourning Aaron, and you used him just to make a point.”

She looked me in the eye, and I kept her gaze, barely, as she continued.

“Maybe I should be able to let it go. Maybe it was only thoughtless words spoken in the heat of the moment. And maybe you’re right. Maybe if he was here he’d have volunteered right along with you and Reuben, and I’d be watching the three people I love most climb onto a deathtrap instead of just the two I’ve got left.”

She paused and shook her head, and her mouth opened and closed as she hunted for the right words. “But the fact that you’d use him against me without thinking hurts deep. And I can’t just forget it and I can’t just let it go. Even if maybe I should.”

I set my jaw and nodded once. Before I managed a single word she reached out and put a hand on my shoulder.

“But I forgive you.”

Her hard look cracked just long enough for me to see a whisper of a smile. I stepped forward and wrapped my arms around her in a tight hug, and as she did the same a weight I’d tried ignoring slipped off my shoulders.

“We’ll need to talk about it,” she said. “When you get back.”

I nodded, still hugging her. “Then I’ll make sure we come back.”

“You’d better.” If her words were an act to make me feel better, then I couldn’t tell. We stepped apart and she smiled again, and this time it lasted a little longer. “And you’d better tell me the tractor story before you go.”

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week 6, Genocide Memorial

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I blinked, and it’s halfway through October.

It’s been a fairly quiet week, which has given me a little more time to sit back and think, which I’ve enjoyed. A couple weeks back I mentioned that I was starting to feel at home in Armenia, or at least in Yerevan. That feeling has continued to grow, almost without my noticing, and whatever happens after I finish volunteering, I’m certain that a piece of my heart will always stay here.

There’s a part at the end of The Return of the King where Frodo tells Sam that he “cannot always been torn in two“, and that he must be “one and whole, for many years”. That quote lodged in my head sometime during college as I started trying to figure out how to balance my love for family and friends in my hometown with deep, new friendships. Now, instead of being torn in two I’m being torn in three, and I can only hope that Frodo’s advice was at least somewhat more Sam-specific than broadly general.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these feelings got stronger the same week that I visited the Armenian Genocide Memorial for the first time. A group of Birthright volunteers gathered there around its eternal flame on Wednesday night and listened as our program’s Country Director read passages from the eyewitness account of a genocide survivor. If asked to describe the experience, the first word to come to mind would be “sobering”, but with that feeling being tempered by an incredible sense of resolve.

Today, Armenians live. Today, Armenia exists. Despite everything that happened, we are here today. With everything good and bad about this tiny country in the South Caucasus, it’s here and it’s independent and it has a future. There’s just a lot of work to do.

Which would explain why I’m feeling a little pulled apart. Because when I go back to the States, I’ll still be Armenian. I’ve always known that, but there’s such a huge difference between knowing a little bit about the language and the culture and the food and actually living and working in Armenia, even if only for a few months. It’s only been six weeks; I’m less than halfway through my trip and I’ve already learned so much.

Right now, I can only guess at what it’s going to look like. And I probably shouldn’t be doing that yet either, since, as I mentioned just above, I’m less than halfway through my trip. I need to live here, in the present.

There are about a thousand other thoughts buzzing around in my head right now, almost all focusing on what it means to be an Armenian-American (and more specifically an Armenian-American writer), but none of them are coherent enough to merit writing down. Mostly because they are less full-fledged thoughts than they are just questions. At a guess, it’s going to be quite some time before I find answers to them that satisfy me.

So, in lieu of further writing, I’ll just share a couple pictures of the city in the country that’s doing a frighteningly good job of stealing my heart.

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View of Mount Ararat from Yerevan

 

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View from near Barekamutyun Station
Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Five, Grapes, Tea, and Borscht

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As another week has already flown by, I find myself grateful that the Saturday immediately following my previous post was filled with adventure, because if it hadn’t been, this entry might be a little boring. While resting at home when you’re sick tends to make you feel better, it doesn’t make for particularly thrilling writing material.

I’m not sure if it was food poisoning or a run-of-the-mill stomach bug that decided to follow me home, but either way it could have been so much worse. I mostly just had to deal with a total loss of appetite, absurdly tight muscles, and no energy whatsoever. Regardless of what it was, drowning it in tea and borscht proved effective in finally chasing it off.

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Pictured: Tea kettle and pots of borscht and yogurt soup, valiant defenders of queasy stomachs everywhere.

But before all that, we had another lovely excursion, this time going to the Karas Wines vineyard and the Sardarapat Memorial.

Karas Wines is a member of a company called Tierras de Armenia that was founded in 2005 by an Argentine Armenian businessman named Eduardo Eurnekian. The company acquired 2300 hectares of land (that’s over 5500 acres, or almost nine square miles) in the Armavir region of Armenia to the west of Yerevan. The gentlest phrase I’ve seen used to describe the area is “previously uncultivated”, though “desolate wilderness” has also been used and might be somewhat more accurate.* I’ll have some pictures down below that will help illustrate.

It took us about an hour and a half to cover the sixty kilometers between Yerevan and the vineyard, which meant that I got to spend an hour and a half staring out the window as the Armenian countryside rolled past, as well as a few villages. If nothing else, it gives a glimpse of all the parts of the country that aren’t Yerevan, as well as a lot of stark, ruggedly stunning landscapes.

We had a pretty good idea that we were getting close when we started seeing fields of grape vines stretching on all around us in long, orderly rows. As a girl who grew up in northern Idaho where the rolling hills are covered in fields of oat and wheat, the sight was simultaneously familiar and not. To state the obvious, grape vines are a lot bigger than grains and grasses.

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A view of the vineyards.

 

Once we got there, we found out that we were going to be helping the villagers who are employed by the vineyard as they removed the plastic protectors that had been put in place around the stems of the vines. Sleepy as I was, there was a (sizeable) part of me that felt a sudden dread. It’s one thing to be mildly sleep deprived as you take a tour and listen to people tell about what they do. It’s something else entirely to have to do something yourself.

Or, maybe, I was just feeling a little lazy and intimidated by the prospect of having to communicate in Armenian when I hadn’t expected it.

As is usually the case, it was actually a whole lot of fun. The plastic protectors were secured in place by thin metal rods which we had to find among the vines. Some of them were hard to find. Some were stuck. Some had tiny vine tendrils all wrapped around them. Each one was just a little different than the others, and it reminded me how much I miss working as a groundskeeper.

Lest I give the impression that we spent the day in the fields, each of the little groups we had split ourselves into only did one, or maybe two rows, and each row was probably only about fifty yards** long. Even though harvest was over, there were still a few clusters of grapes here and there, so we also got to eat fresh grapes and sun-dried raisins as we worked. Actually, by the time we got to the end of the row, we all had more grapes than we knew what to do with.

Afterwards, we were treated to a lunch of (massive) sandwiches, and we spent the next while just hanging out together and talking. There was even a little bit of dancing as a couple of the more knowledgeable volunteers taught some of the rest of us a Armenian folk dance or two.

 

After that, our excursion leaders somehow managed to herd us back onto the buses so that we could take the tour, and we got to learn a bit about the vineyard and what had gone into creating it. I’ll try to hit a few of the highlights.

I mentioned above that the land was a mix of “previously uncultivated” and “desolate wilderness”. What that actually means is that the ground was so rocky that no one had thought that it would be worthwhile to clear it for agricultural purposes. This is one of those times when pictures really are worth a thousand words.

 

All those rocks you see right there are just the tiniest fraction of the ones they pulled out to clear the ground, and this is not the only pile like it. Additionally, these pictures don’t show the massive boulders that have been removed from under the surface, or the fact that they are still pulling rocks from the fields every year, or that the 230 hectares that have been cultivated so far only represent about a tenth of the total land that will need to be cleared in this way in order to become useful for growing grapes.

The entire endeavor is more than a little incredible. Add to that the fact that Armenians have been making wine for a very long time, and it’s as much a link to the past as a way to look to and provide for the future: Karas employs hundreds of people from the surrounding area, and has chosen to go without certain machinery that would make the process more efficient at the cost of jobs. They are focused on sustainability, using dripline to minimize water waste and organic solutions (pheromones imported from Germany) for pest control as opposed to chemical methods.

From there we went on to the Sardarapat Memorial that commemorates the battle of the same name fought in 1918 to stop the advance of the Ottoman Empire across the rest of Armenia. They were already in its heartland. The Armenian army consisted mostly of volunteers, pitted against the trained Ottoman troops. If they had failed, it’s possible that it would have meant the destruction of the Armenian nation.

The memorial itself is beautiful: two massive winged bulls made of reddish stone and a 26-meter tall trellis structure built of the same stone and hung with twelve bells that are rung every year on the anniversary of the victory. There is also a path edged with stone eagles and a curved victory wall, as well as a beautiful museum containing all kinds of items of Armenian history. I’ve got a few pictures of the monuments, but they hardly do it justice. If you ever have the chance to come to Armenia, I would highly recommend visiting it for yourself.

 

That’s all for this week. I feel like I’ve talked forever this time, but as always, there’s so much more that I haven’t said, and I can only hope that I’ve provided a decent summary. As always, thanks for reading, and let me know if you’ve got any specific questions or want more details on anything. I’d be happy to provide!

 

 

 

* There’s a folktale I ran across regarding how the Armenians ended up with the particular plot of land that is now known as Armenia. I had a heck of a time finding it when I went looking, and didn’t succeed until I’d already rewritten it, so I’ll leave my retelling down below as well as linking to the post where I found it originally.

Back when God was dividing up the earth among the peoples of the earth, the Armenians were late, as happens often enough.

“You should have come earlier,” said God. “Because now there is no land left for me to give you!”

But the Armenians pleaded with God, asking for anything, any scrap of land that he had left that he could give to them to live on. Finally, worn down by their endless cries, God relented.

“Fine!” he said. “You win! But I have nothing left but this little rocky piece of land that wasn’t fit to give to anyone. Do with it what you will.”

So the Armenians took it and built on it and cultivated it and turned it into a place where they could live, and that’s why Armenia is the way it is.

As it turns out, the Armenians weren’t the only ones who were late, and once God had given the Armenians their land, the Georgians came up to him and asked if they could have a piece of land to live on as well.

God frowned and said, “You should have come much earlier! I’ve just given the last piece of land to the Armenians and have nothing left to give you.”

But the Georgians begged and pleaded with God as well, until at last he threw up his hands and relented.

“Here, take this! I had reserved a small piece of paradise for myself, but since you will not give me any peace until I give you a little land, I will give it to you.”

And that is why Armenia is rocky, mountainous, and hard, and why Georgia has beaches and forests and the Black Sea.

 

** I should mention here that I am notoriously bad at estimating distances. Please take all attempts with a grain or ten of salt.

Updates

[Update] October 2017

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It’s October!

This is just going to be a quick update this time, mostly because there’s not a whole lot new to talk about regarding my various writing projects. I’ve still been writing– it just hasn’t been going very quickly. Something about international travel and navigating a new culture. Go figure!

I mentioned a couple of weeks back that I’d finished the first draft of a short story, and I’m still working away on it. At this point, I’ve probably got a third or a fourth of the second draft done, and I’m liking what it’s looking like. I hesitate to give an estimated time of completion, but I’m hoping to post it up in the next week or so. We’ll see!

In addition to that, I’ve got a couple of other ideas in the works, one of which should just be a simple, fun idea that will write itself easily enough. Of course, I’ve been wrong about that before, but here’s hoping.

In the meantime, I’ll keep posting up Friday updates on my Armenian adventure, so be sure to let me know if there’s anything you want to hear more about! Until then, all the best!

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Four, Autumn

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Another week, another blog post!

It’s funny– sometimes the same week contains both the highest highs and the lowest lows. Which, now that I’m thinking about it, is nothing new and hardly unique to living in another country. The same thing definitely happened back home as well; I just didn’t notice because it was normal. There’s also the fact that my support network here is not as well developed as the one I have back home, but more on that in a bit.

After reading the above, it probably sounds like this week was the definition of a mixed bag. And that’s what I thought it was until I scribbled down a list of the aforementioned ups and downs, only to find that the former far outdid the latter in both quantity and quality. None of that negates the rougher parts, of course, but it definitely makes it a little easier to be thankful for the good.

I’ll start with the biggest change. I think, fingers crossed, that summer has finally given way to fall. Ask anyone who knows me: I love colder weather. Even nine years in Santa Barbara couldn’t change that. There’s a part of me that comes alive when the chill finds its way back to the edges of the breeze, bringing with it the smells of earth and cold and rain. Even the quality of the light has changed and softened, and I’m pretty sure the leaves are starting to turn as well.

I’ve been here for almost a month now, and whether it’s because of that or the change of season, I’m also starting to feel at home here. I noticed it a couple of evenings back as I walked through Republic Square to the metro. I was just on my way home at the end of a regular day, not going anywhere exciting, not doing anything special, but I felt a sense of peace and familiarity that I hadn’t since before I left Santa Barbara.

Given that, it feels a little weird to say that I’m also a bit frustrated with my language learning progress. It’s hardest when I’m shadowing at the hospital, listening to the doctor talk with her patients. She translates for me when she has the chance, but it’s so discouraging every time she asks if I’ve understood and I have to answer with miayn mi kich; only a little.

It doesn’t help that I also have the almost neurotic need to feel useful, and while shadowing is a fantastic learning experience, there’s not a lot that the shadower can give back in the moment. And in theory, I’m okay with that! That’s how you learn and grow, and more generally it’s just a part of living in community with others. Helping the people around you isn’t a competition. It’s just what you do when you have the opportunity. In practice, I still feel more comfortable when I have a way to contribute.

One other thing about my language learning endeavors: I’m pretty sure I have a warped view of my progress. There’s no getting around the fact that my vocabulary is still horribly small, but it’s also definitely growing. There’s also a huge difference between knowing enough to follow a conversation in a medical setting and being able to hold a basic conversation– and I’m getting the chance to do that second one more and more often. Whether or not it feels like it in the moment, I know I’m getting better, and that’s always really cool.

I think my favorite part of the week, though, was the tour we got to take of the Megerian Rug Factory. Armenians have been making rugs and carpets for thousands of years, so in addition to this trip being a chance to see some beautiful examples of a skilled craft, it’s also a fascinating piece of Armenian history. They are made with dyed and knotted wool or silk, and depending on how they are made, they will last and hold their color for a long, long time. The Megerian factory, for example, uses organic dyes and fixators that have been developed and perfected over decades, and they follow a process that ensures a very high quality: one of the silk rugs we got to see was intricately patterned and had 1.9 million knots per square meter.

I could go on for a while, but I’m afraid I’m already starting to ramble. If you’re interested in more information, you can follow the links up above or let me know in the comments, and I’ll be happy to give you as many details as I can! My only regret is that I was a dork who forgot her camera. My cousin is awesome, though, and she let me post a few of the shots she took. Check them out below!

 

 

There’s so much else I could talk about, but then, that’s always the case. I finally spent a little time exploring the neighborhood right around my host family’s apartment and found all sorts of amazing nooks and crannies. I also figured out that all these weeks I’ve been playing Frogger to get across the street on my to and from the metro have been unnecessary. It turns out there’s a route that goes below the street and through this amazing little underground mall area that has given me about twenty ideas that I want to include in various stories. The whole city is like that– stoking and feeding my imagination. And I love it so much.

 

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Three, Exploring

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As best I can tell, this week that just finished was probably a pretty good indication of what a normal week will look like. Well, normal aside from Thursday, which was Armenian Independence Day. And looking back, it was a really good week, even with the occasional hiccup.

But first, the excursion!

We spent all day Saturday visiting two monasteries, (Hovhannavank and Saghmosavank), the Armenian Alphabet Monument, the Gourmet Dourme handmade chocolate factory, and the Byurakan Observatory. If you compare that list to the one I posted last week, you may notice that this one has a couple of additional locations. It was a long, busy day, and I was exhausted by the end of it, but it was so much fun.

The monasteries were incredible and beautiful. The biggest parts of both were built in the 13th century, but the original basilica, was built in the early 4th century. Seventeen hundred years ago. Seventeen. Hundred. I got to stand and pray in the same place that Christians have been worshiping for the better part of two thousand years. And I’d keep going, but I don’t think words are going to do it justice, at least not in a blog post like this. Hopefully, I’ll fill in at least a few of the gaps with pictures.

 

There is one thing, though, that pictures aren’t going to help me share, and that’s what it was like to listen to the Little Singers of Armenia in both of the churches. The Little Singers, as you’ve probably guessed from their name, is an Armenian youth choir. They are incredibly beautiful singers who have sung all over the world, and getting to listen to them sing in the acoustics of both churches was extraordinary.

Between visiting the two monasteries, we stopped for a little while at the Armenian Alphabet monument. It consists of giant stone renditions of each of the letters in the Armenian alphabet, and was installed in 2005 to honor the 1600th anniversary of Mesrop Mashtots creation of the Armenian alphabet. It’s weirdly cool. Also, there was ice cream and I got to see a horse, and it’s hard to complain about that, either.

 

After that, it was the chocolate factory! I have a feeling that terminology is giving the wrong impression– I know I wasn’t quite sure of what to expect. It’s called Gourmet Dourme, dourme being the Armenian word for chocolate, and it’s actually pretty small; they make handmade, handwrapped gourmet chocolates using Belgian chocolate, and it’s not a huge industrial operation at all. It’s owned by two Armenian brothers who repatriated from France and Austria. We got samples, and it was just as amazing as you would expect it to be. Maybe moreso. It’s also really cool that this is one of the new things coming out of Armenia.

Our final stop was at the Byurakan Observatory. I believe the original plan was to visit the HAYP Pop Up Gallery that was setting up there, but we also had the option to tour the telescope, which several of us did instead. Unfortunately for those of us who still only have a basic grasp of Armenian, the tour was mostly conducted in Armenian, so I didn’t learn as much as I would have liked to, but we still got to see it and learn just a little bit about astronomy in this part of the world.

The telescope itself is about ten to fifteen minutes away on foot from the main entrance, and for those of you who played Myst, it felt a little bit like that, minus the bit about traveling through books. There was also a friendly dog who who followed us over and was just a generally amicable fellow. As for the more technical aspects, about all I remember/heard was that it is a 2.3 meter Cassegrain reflector, and while it’s not among the very largest anymore, it’s not tiny, either.

 

So, that was Saturday!

Monday marked the first day I went to the hospital to shadow, as well as the first day I had to get up there on my own. I went by marshrutka, and was very grateful that my first time taking one was on a day a bit less busy than normal. The marshrutkas are basically fifteen passenger vans, but on busy/normal days (like this past Tuesday), they are definitely standing room only.

Sadly, my stomach decided to go squirrelly after only an hour or so on Monday, so I actually ended up going home early and sleeping. Tuesday went much better, and I got to spend the whole day shadowing a very kind doctor who would translate for me when she was done with each patient so that I could follow what she was doing. I’m hoping that my Armenian continues to improve so that I can follow more on my own.

That’s all for this week! As always, thanks so much for reading about my adventures. To those of you who are also interested in seeing more fiction from me, I’m hoping to have the story I’ve been coaxing out word by word finished sometime next week, and I have another one that I’m hoping will be a bit easier to write coming shortly after that.

Until next time!

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Two, Settling In

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I can’t believe another week has already passed. By the time this post goes up I will have spent sixteen days in Yerevan, long enough for a bit of the novelty to have worn off (though I still haven’t gotten around by marshrutka– that’s an adventure for next week). It’s long enough for a bit of the homesickness to have worn off, too, though I suspect it’ll be around for another go sooner or later.

It’s been a good week. Busy, for sure, but definitely good. Monday was my last week of intensive language class, which feels a little bit like someone turned the hose off and is now waiting to see what happens when the bubbles die down. I’ll still have class twice a week, but for two hours at a stretch instead of six, and we’ll have a chance to get deeper into the grammar, which I’m really excited about.

Finishing the intensive class also means that I got to start volunteering this week, at least for the first of my two job placements. Specifically, I’m helping with content at Repat Armenia, a non-profit/NGO whose mission is to “inform, initiate and actively champion the return of high-impact (professional, entrepreneurial) individuals and families to Armenia to secure the future development of the Armenian nation.” It’s a fascinating place to work, and in just a few days I’ve learned more about the challenges facing Armenia than I’d realized there was to learn, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’ll try to post more specifics later, but if there’s anything in particular that you’d like to know, please let me know and I’ll do my best to answer!

As for the second of my job placements, shadowing at the Nork Marash Medical Center, that starts on Monday. If I understood correctly when I met them last week, I’ll be shadowing in their cardiology department at first instead of their emergency department, but with the possibility of switching departments later. Either way, I am looking forward to it and can’t wait to see what happens.

And that’s about it for this week! Tomorrow there’s an excursion for the Birthright volunteers that will take us to tour a chocolate factory (yay!) and on a hike to a couple of old Armenian monasteries. Expect pictures next week! Until then, all the best!

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week One, Ups and Downs

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This week has been full of what feels like a thousand ups and downs. A part of me has a hard time believing I’ve only been here for a little over seven days, because it feels like so much has already happened. Another part of me, just as big as the first, is still convinced that I’ve just gotten here. In a way, both of them are right.

Like I mentioned last week, Yerevan is truly a lovely city. There’s so much stone used in the architecture, and that same stone is often carved beautifully as well. Even when it’s not, the color is amazing and like nothing I’ve had the pleasure to see before, at least not all in the same place. The History Museum of Armenia is built out of pale, whitish stone. Much of the rest of Republic Square (Հանրապետություն Հրապարակ), including the main government building, uses reddish stone of several different shades. Another building, the Tufenkian Historic Yerevan Hotel is built mainly with a very dark stone, but its accent are a striking, russet color. As if that wasn’t enough, there are also parks everywhere. It’s absolutely incredible.

My ability with the language is improving by leaps and bounds, which is probably the coolest thing to me so far. When I got here, I could read most of the words I saw on signs all around– by which I mean I could sound them out without understanding them– but when it came to listening, I was lucky to pick out a word or two in every third sentence. Given that my host mom doesn’t speak English, this added a certain challenge to the first couple days, though her patience and kindness helped me begin to learn and recognize words even before I started the five day crash course offered by the Birthright program.

I should also mention (again?) that my wonderful cousin is in Yerevan as well, and having her here to show me the ropes has made everything so much easier than I believe it would have been otherwise. I don’t think I can overstate the effect of knowing that there’s someone in the city who already knows me and who I can ask for help should I need it. I know the Birthright staff are available and more than happy to support us all if necessary, but there’s nothing quite like family.

If I only talked about the good and the easy, though, I would not be doing justice to this experience. The hard parts are what will help me grow as a person, despite how frustrating they are now. Or perhaps more accurately, because of how frustrating they are now. If the discomfort these experiences cause is an indication of an area where I am weak (say, for example, being willing to make mistakes), then maybe that’s the first step in getting better. I may need someone to remind me of this four or five times a week.

So here’s a couple of the things that have proven the most difficult so far.

The first, unsurprisingly, is the language. And I know I listed it up above as well and counted it as one of the coolest things about being here. That’s true, of course, but it belongs down here as well. There have been a couple of times I’ve caught myself choosing not to do something because of the language barrier, and that doesn’t count all the times I’ve hesitated before choosing to do something after all. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how much of this is real and how much is perceived, either. Most people I’ve interacted with know far more English than I know Armenian, and are more than happy to use it. It’s just me annoyed with myself for not being able to speak the language.

The second is how tired I still am. As far as I can tell, the jetlag has worn off, and I’m not having any more trouble going to bed and getting up at decent hours than I did at home. If anything, it’s a little easier. That being said, I’m finding it far harder than I expected to get the writing done that I would like to. Even my minimum goal is proving hard to reach. For example, this blog is going up more than four hours later than I wanted it to. Also, my partially written short story that I wanted to finish this week is still only partially written, and not for lack of trying. I just haven’t had the energy to force it into existence like I might have back home. And despite the fact that it’s perfectly understandable and (hopefully!) a sign that I’m engaging with my new surroundings, it’s vexing and makes it hard not to feel like I’m just not trying hard enough.

On the bright side, I’m aware that both of these are good examples of a normal experience on an adventure like this. I may not feel like it right at the moment, but these are, in their own way, a good sign. It means I’m letting the country affect me. There’s a couple of cliches that apply here, I think. No pain, no gain, for one.

Also, today was a good day. A long day, and I was almost giddy every time I remembered it was Friday, but definitely a good day. It was the fourth day of my intensive language class, and I can feel it all starting to sink it. It’s getting easier to come out of my shell. I can truly say that I’m excited to be here.

I’m also truly excited to go to bed for the night, so I think I’d best sign off and wrap up this beast of a post before it gets any longer. Thank you all for following my adventure, and look forward to a new update (sometime) next Friday. To those of you interested in reading my short stories, I promise I’m still writing. I hesitate to give a definite time to expect the next one to go up, but it is coming and this weekend looks like it should be good for writing. Thanks for sticking with me!

Until next week!

Updates

[Update] September 2017

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Hey everyone! New month, new update!

I’m not sure how it went for you guys, but August absolutely flew past on my end. As you’ve probably seen in a couple of places, the final week of the month saw me flying out to Armenia to start a four month stint as a volunteer with Birthright Armenia, and I have no doubt that the preparation for that played a large part in the rate at which time passed.

Unfortunately, it also meant I was a lot less productive writing-wise than in July, only finishing one short story (Grey Dog Inn) and not getting a whole lot farther on my rewrite for The Seven. So far, as I’m settling in to my homestay and getting used to a new schedule, it’s looking like I’ll have a fair amount of time for writing in between all of the getting out and living and learning and volunteering, but only time will tell.

As it stands right now, I’ve got part of a short story written, which will hopefully be ready to go up sometime early this week. If I’m really lucky/productive/my brain doesn’t explode while trying to learn Armenian, I may even manage to make up the week I missed due to travel by getting something ready to go up next week as well, but I make no promises.

Anyway, that’s all the news from August! Let me know down below in the comments if you’ve got any questions, curiosities, or requests for stories. Until next time!