[Blog] Place Magic


When thinking about the most important aspects of a story, the first things that come to mind are plot and character– the things that happen and who makes them happen. And to some extent, that’s entirely true. The characters we meet in a piece of fiction and the journeys we take with them are what make our favorite stories so compelling. But perhaps there’s a third part that is just as important to a good story: the setting.

It’s entirely possible that this is common knowledge, and I’m just a little late to the game. Even so, I think it’s fair to say that we tend to focus a bit more on the two elements that I mentioned first. Stories are retold in different settings all the time– think Shakespeare’s plays– and, at least when we like how it turns out, we don’t have any problem saying that it’s still the same story. As long as the plot and the characters remain the same, it’s easy to say that the story is fundamentally the same.

Of course, the fact that so many of the Bard’s plays have been retold and given a different location in time or space serves as evidence that the setting is a large part of what makes each particular story what it is. If it didn’t, there wouldn’t be any point in changing it in the first place. When Hamlet’s tragedy plays out in a modern day setting as opposed to medieval Denmark, different aspects stand out. One might expect to encounter a ghost in a drafty castle, but if that same ghost stalks the halls of a twentieth century military base he might seem a little more out of place, and even though the characters will ultimately react in more or less the same way in a faithful retelling, the incongruity draws our attention.

That’s a specific example, but the point holds true: a story might tell how a scrappy hero rises from nothing and fights to topple an oppressive dystopia, but if the story is set in a fantasy world with swords and magic, it would have a different theme than if the events played out on a space station in the distant future. The first describes what we are capable of doing to each other. The second makes a similar point, but also makes sure that we know that it’s not something relegated to a barbarous past.

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Sixteen, It’s Not Goodbye


I’ve been writing this post all week, a few words here, a few phrases there, trying to convince it all to come together into something that might help me share a fraction of the thoughts and emotions that are spinning through my head. Now that I’m so close to the end of this trip, the conflicting feelings of wanting to stay and go are even stronger, and my excitement for going home again is tempered by the fact that I don’t want to leave. These past four months have proven more meaningful than I ever imagined.

It’s funny: a year ago, I wasn’t even certain that I would apply to the Birthright program. It seemed like such a wild idea to drop everything and travel to the other side of the world, especially when I wasn’t even certain that Armenia was “my” homeland. My family’s roots are in Kessab, Syria, not the area that now makes up the Republic of Armenia. I assumed that I would be able to learn about the history of my people generally, but that it would feel far removed from that of my family. I was wrong.

I feel a connection to this country that is far stronger than I ever expected it to be. I want to see it grow and thrive, and I want to do what I can to help that happen, whether from the Diaspora or from Armenia itself whenever I get a chance to come back.

Of course, the fact that it’s a beautiful place doesn’t hurt. I spent the majority of my time in Yerevan, and I’ve already talked about how much I love the rose-colored stones that give the city its distinctive look, and our trip to Artsakh in October took us through mountainous territory that captured my heart and my imagination, as is evident in the absurd number of pictures I have from those four days alone. And this past weekend I got to go on one last excursion, this time to the city of Gyumri in the northwest of the country.


The city is far smaller than Yerevan with a population of around 120,000, and if I had more time I could see myself taking advantage of the option of volunteering there. I don’t regret staying in the capital for the full four months I was here, but I also know that that choice meant that I haven’t seen huge portions of what Armenia has to offer. In case I needed one, I suppose it’s an excuse to come back again.

This won’t be my last post about Armenia. There’s so much more to say, and in the coming weeks and months and longer as I process this wonderful journey, I’m sure I’ll bend your ears about it again. Probably, in part, to complain about reverse culture shock. But that’s tomorrow’s trouble, and I’ll deal with it then.

As we say at Birthright Armenia: It’s not “goodbye”, it’s “see you later”.

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Fifteen, Penultimate


It’s starting to feel a little like that last leg of a run– the part where you burn all the energy you saved up by pacing yourself earlier by finishing with a last ditch, now-or-never, I’ll-breathe-when-I’m-done sprint. My flight leaving Armenia takes off from Zvartnots International Airport in a little less than a week, and there’s still a few things I know I would regret not doing before I go. Fortunately, I have a list.

Something like one, at any rate. It’s not exactly set in stone (I keep it in my head), and I’ve been adding and removing items as different opportunities come up or fall through. That being said, there’s a few things I’ve known I’ve wanted to do since the beginning, and I’ve gotten most of those taken care of.

One of those was going to the Vernissage and picking up some souvenirs, which I did last Saturday. It was a cold day, but it was so much fun to wander past the stalls with various rugs, rings, necklaces, books, kitchenware, and all kinds of other things. It was also a chance for me to use my Armenian, and given that I came away with everything I went looking, I think it worked out alright.

As for things that came up that I hadn’t planned on, the Little Singers of Armenia (who I talked about a little bit here) had a performance last Friday that I was able to attend. They sang a number of different songs, some in Armenian, some in English, and at least one in Latin. It was a lovely way to spend an evening, and if you ever get the chance to attend one of their concerts, I would highly recommend it.

Tomorrow I’m planning on visiting the city of Gyumri for one last excursion before my trip ends, which I’m excited about. If all goes well, I’ll have a whole new batch of pictures to share next week for one final post from this wonderful country. I’m keeping so busy these last few days that it’s hard to slow down and think, but I’m grateful for that. It makes it a little easier to just enjoy being here. I’ll have plenty of time to think on the plane ride back.

A khachkar in the park near the Republic Square Metro.
Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Fourteen, First Aid


This week, I got to teach basic first aid to a group of high school students. If that doesn’t sound particularly exciting, let me try to explain why this is so special to me.

Months ago, back before I got to Armenia, the first thing that had me feeling really, truly excited about joining the Birthright program was the potential opportunity to help teach first aid and CPR in a number of Armenian villages through an organization called Aid to Armenia (ATA). When I got certified as an EMT a couple of years ago, it was like I had finally figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up, so the chance to put that knowledge to good use in Armenia while also getting the experience that could help me get a job in that field was thoroughly appealing. Sadly, due to timing and a handful of other factors, it didn’t work out and I took other volunteer placements instead.

Until this week.

Members of the Birthright staff had mentioned once or twice that, if I was interested, there was some possibility I might be able to help with some trainings in Yerevan. One of the major logistical problems that had made it impossible for me to go out to the villages was a lack of available transportation; if I stayed in the city, that was no longer an issue. To my shame, I didn’t follow through right away. It was a slim chance, and with just over a month left on my trip I was loath to shake things up when they were working so well, or at least well enough to be safe. If you ever wondered what my greatest weakness was, I think that’s it: I don’t leave my comfort zone easily.

At the same time, spending two days every week just observing for the past three months was hard. I was learning, and the friendships I had begun (and continue) to make with the doctors and nurses at Nork Marash are more than worth the time spent on them, but I hated that I wasn’t doing anything hands-on in any medical field.

The thing that finally pushed me into doing something about it was the half day I ended up with no one to shadow. I talked to the same Birthright staff member who had mentioned that there might be some possibilities in Yerevan, and, long story short and with lots of help from lots of people, everything fell into place. Another Birthright volunteer agreed to interpret, and now there’s a few more people who know a bit more about basic first aid. And maybe that means they’ll be able to help someone when they need it most.

And that’s really, really cool.


[Update] December 2017


It’s December, and the end of the year is approaching far faster than it has any right to. That’s what it feels like, at any rate; I’m having a hard time believing it’s not still early fall.

My Armenian adventure is quickly coming to an end, and while I can’t wait to see everyone back in the States, I can already tell I’m going to miss this place more than I ever thought possible. Between the amazing people and the more relaxed pace of life here (not to mention the incredible food), the specter of reverse culture shock is already rearing its head and eyeing me balefully from a distance. But that’s a problem for later. For now, I’m still here.

That being said, I am looking forward to seeing how the experiences of the last few months end up working themselves into my writing. I already have a few ideas– one of which is even half written. I didn’t complete any new stories in November, but there should be at least one going up in December, provided that the last couple of weeks don’t end up too crazy.

That’s all for now! As always, drop me a line in the comments or via email if you’ve got any questions. Until next time!


Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Thirteen, Everyday Life


The past week has given me a chance to just stop and breathe for a moment. There’s a part of me that feels almost guilty about that: I’m only here for a little longer; isn’t slowing down a waste of a limited resource? Turns out I’m not as immune to the fear of missing out as I thought I was.

Despite the easier pace, though, it’s not as if my days have been empty. As I write this, it’s Friday evening and I’ve spent thirty hours at my jobsites this week and another five in class. I’ve shadowed doctors and chatted with their patients. I’ve written things and edited others. I’ve talked with friends both in Armenia and back in the States. I’ve treasured the thousand tiny things that make up everyday life.

As silly as it is, I think I can thank a Facebook status chain for part of that. It’s the one where you’re supposed to post up a black and white photo from your life for seven days in a row, the only other rule being that you can’t include people or any kind of explanation. It’s a different way of looking at the world around you, one that gives you a chance to notice all the little bits and pieces that you might not otherwise: this nook or that cranny, the view out a window, the minutiae that anyone can relate to.

The more I think about it, the easier it gets for me to remember that slowing down isn’t a bad thing. Not even while traveling. Perhaps especially not while traveling. And for me, at least, it will give me some of the memories that I’ll hold most dear.