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!

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Here I am in Armenia

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By the time this post goes up (and assuming I’ve done my math right*), I will have been in Armenia for almost two full days. Which probably means that I will have cycled through at least five more complete sets of emotions in addition to all the ones I’ve already felt. I will also, I hope, be slightly less sleep deprived and more able to write coherently, but I’ll save that for next week’s blog. This week, I’ll just have to revel in all the giddy thoughts running through my head.

And “giddy” really is the best way to describe it. Giddy and a little fuzzy and not quite sure that this is all real and so very glad that it is. Between packing and good-byes and more packing** and then the actual travel, I haven’t had much time to stop in the last week. Now, though, it’s all taken care of. Or not, and the world didn’t end. I can stop and breathe and look around and grin like a maniac every time it hits me that I’m finally in Armenia. Quite literally on the other side of the world. Getting ready to learn and get involved and even just live.

It was around 1am when my plane landed in Yerevan, so I didn’t get to see much from the air beyond the pattern of the lights. I spent the trip to the home of my wonderful host family doing my best to sound out as many words in Armenian as possible as they flashed by outside the car window, which was simultaneously encouraging (I could recognize and even understand a few!) and faintly unnerving. For every word I could read, there were a hundred more I couldn’t. To say the least, I have a lot of work ahead.

And speaking of the language, it is, for me, a strange feeling to look around a busy street and know that a large percentage of the people all around won’t necessarily understand you. I’ve traveled only a little before this, and that was to the UK/Ireland. This is an entirely different ball of wax.

So far, it’s all been a lesson in humility as well. There’s so much of this I couldn’t have done (and won’t be able to do) on my own. Again, see note ** down below. But it’s more than that. It’s the cousin who encouraged me relentlessly to apply for the program and is helping me around the city now that I’m here. It’s my boss who reminded me until I listened that this is a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. It’s having to accept that right now, I need the help, because I don’t speak the language, don’t know the metro/bus systems, don’t know where to find anything or what to avoid. It’s having to recognize that in some ways, I’m about as self sufficient as a little kid.

And, weirdly enough, I’m okay with that. Most of the time.

That’s all I’ve got for now, save that Yerevan is a beautiful city, and I can’t wait until I’m awake enough to explore it. There will definitely be pictures, starting with a couple down below. A quick note: as you’ve probably already guessed, there won’t be a short story going up to this week, as my time got eaten by international travel. I do have one started, and I hope to be able to finish it over the weekend, but you know what they say about the best laid plans. Either way, it’s time for me to drag myself off to bed in the hopes of wounding the vile beast jet lag. Until later!

 

History Museum of Armenia

 

A view from Republic Square

 

 

* If I haven’t, I blame jet lag and entirely too many hours (about twenty) spent on planes. And if you point out that the two of those are basically the same thing… you’re right. I’ll blame that on the jet lag as well.

** I haven’t had to move for five years. To say I’m out of practice on packing would be a severe understatement. I would have been in a world of hurt were it not for everyone who helped me pack and move out and gave me a place to store everything that I didn’t take with me, and I’ll never be able to thank them all enough. Friends, if you are reading this, thank you so much. You saved me from myself.