Happy New Year! To those of you who have been following me for a while, thanks so much– you mean the world to me! To anyone just stumbling across my little corner of the internet, welcome, and if you happen to like what you see feel free to stay a while.
Between the holidays and the end of my Armenia trip, December was another fairly quiet month around here when it comes to writing. Friday blog posts went up every week, but nothing much beyond that. But! I’m back in the States, and while I haven’t manage to settle into anything like a routine just yet, I’m looking forward to more time for writing and the chance to do some more work on my bigger projects, as well as getting back into the swing of two short stories a month.
Speaking of those bigger projects, there’s two I’m particularly excited about! The first is that I’ll be working to finish the second draft of a fantasy novel tentatively titled The Seven this year. Check out the teaser here, and keep an eye out for more information as the year progresses!
The second is that I’ve got more Tanner and Miranda stories in the works, with an eye towards writing a complete collection. The two stories I’ve completed so far (Under Whiskey Hill and The Ethan Lindsay Job) were so much fun to write, and I know there’s a bunch more adventures in store for the siblings. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy reading about them as much as I’m enjoying writing them.
That’s all I’ve got for now! I hope the start of your year has been a good one, and I look forward to seeing what happens in the months ahead. As always, drop me a line in the comments if you’ve got any questions, or just to say hi! I’d love to hear from you.
The traveler sat on a stool near the fire, one hand wrapped around a mug of strong drink, the other tapping idly at his knee. His too-green eyes glinted in the half dark. Almost half of the village’s inhabitants sat around him, some in chairs, others—children, mostly—made do with the floor. All told, it seemed he had the attention of more than twenty people. He cleared his throat and began.
“The sun is down and the moon is dark and new.” His voice was low, and there was a rumble to it like a cat’s purr. “This is the time to tell tales of monsters.”
A shiver ran through his audience, and anticipation held the room in perfect silence. The traveler basked in it.
“But what sort of story should I tell? You’ve already heard about wyrms and dragons, giant, scaly beasts that snatch and devour. And you probably know about the kelpies and other creatures like them, the ones that seem so lovely until they destroy the hapless person who is lured too close. Perhaps I could tell you about giant wolves or bears that have stalked roadways and forests and slain a hundred men despite the best efforts of brave and mighty hunters.”
The youngest members of his audience, a brother and sister, shivered. Even the adults sat in rapt attention and let themselves feel frightened.
“Or… I could weave a story about a thing even more terrible than these. A thing that might have once been man, a thing that brings death and terror in its wake, a thing that fears no simple bow or blade.”
He paused. His eyes flitted across the room, over all the faces watching him. He took a breath and slowly filled his lungs. And when the tension reached its apex, he finally spoke again.
“I could tell you of the Rehk.”
Murmurs worked their way through the room. The gathered audience looked away and lowered their eyes. The storyteller’s spell wavered and broke, and nothing remained but a lopsided quiet.
An old man coughed and cleared his throat. “Tell us a different story, traveler. We don’t tell the Rehk’s tales here.”
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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!
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.
The weather has gotten colder again, and my breath rolls from my mouth and nose in clouds when I walk outside each morning. Some green and yellow leaves still cling to the branches of the trees, but more fall every day, carpeting the sidewalks and the streets. In the park beside the Republic Square metro, the emptied fountains have been decorated with white Christmas lights.
Four weeks. That’s how much time I have left before I head back home. And it’s passing at an astonishing rate, leaving me in a state of mild panic. It’s not unlike the feeling you get when lose your footing while running down a hill, leaving you sliding and digging in your heels in a desperate attempt to stop.
The past few days have been fairly quiet on my end, which I’ve enjoyed. I took a little time to wander Yerevan with my camera, and though I didn’t get half as many pictures as I’d like, I have a few now that give a lovely impression of the city. I finally made my way up the Cascade. The climb was impromptu and after dark, so I’ll need to do it again when I have a little more time to just sit and enjoy the incredible view, but even a few minutes looking out across the spread of city lights was a lovely experience.
Iron bear statue in Charles Aznavour Square.
Buildings on Abovyan Street.
Fountain in Charles Aznavour Square.
My wanderings also, predictably, took me into a bookstore. Anyone who loves books knows the pleasure of wandering along the shelves and hunting for another world to explore. It’s a slightly different experience when most of them are written in a language you don’t speak (or read) fluently, though the extra time it takes to read even the titles can be enjoyable in its own right. The clerk came over to me after a few minutes and asked if she could help me find anything, and when I asked if she had any fantasy stories in Armenian she told me she had translations of Harry Potter and The Hobbit; I left a little while later with my own new copy of the latter, still grinning like a little kid.
I’ve had a rough spot or two in the last little bit as well, as if the honeymoonish feel of visiting for the first time has begun to wear off and leave me overwhelmed by everything that still needs to be done to get Armenia to thrive. One of the first pieces of advice that every Birthright Armenia volunteer receives is to not give in to negativity, and while that always made sense to me, I understand a little better why the staff makes sure that it’s one of the first things we hear on our arrival. Armenia is a developing country, with all that comes with that– both the good and the bad. It’s sometimes hard to ignore the little voice of fear and frustration that whispers that things will never change.
But that view is so small. It forgets about how far we have already come and denies the work and the vision of so many people who see potential where others see failure. It looks around and sees what doesn’t work but not everything that has already been fixed. Worst of all, it’s the kind of thinking that paralyzes, because if nothing is going to change, trying to make things better is a waste of time. It’s also categorically false.
That’s about it for this week. To those of you who celebrated Thanksgiving yesterday I hope you had a wonderful time with family and friends! December is coming fast, but I’m still hoping to finish and post a new short story here before the end of the month, so keep an eye out for that. It should go up early next week as long as I don’t get distracted by outlining the second draft of my current novel instead.
If I could change one thing about the Birthright excursions, it would be to spend more time at each of the places we visit. Of course, barring manipulation of the spacetime continuum, that time would have to come from somewhere and would probably mean visiting fewer places. So perhaps that wouldn’t be the best thing to change, because I wouldn’t have wanted to miss any of these beautiful sites.
For our most recent outing, we started by visiting the Yereruk Basilica in Armenia’s Shirak province. It was a chilly morning, particularly after sitting still for the two hours or so it took for the vans to drive from Yerevan to the village of Anipemza on the western border. A distant, cloudy haze filled the sky, as it often does here, somehow making the rocky plains around us seem that much wider.
The Akhurian River and the closed border with Turkey are nearby, a reminder of the unfriendly political situation that the country faces. It adds a further bittersweet note to the visit, beyond the one that always seems to haunt old ruins.
The remains of the basilica are awe-inspiring on their own, though I can’t help wishing I could see it whole. The church is large enough that it’s clear it was central to a large community when it was constructed in the 4th and 5th centuries. It’s also one of the oldest surviving examples of Christian architecture in Armenia, which is why it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List in August 1995.
From there, we climbed back into the vans to go to the village of Dashtadem where we were to have lunch, which we did in the home of one of the village families. I’ve talked before about Armenian hospitality, and this is another example of it. Birthright excursions started visiting this family after the staff went door to door, asking if anyone would be willing to host us. This family said yes, and now when we come this way, we eat with them.
The walls of the old Dashtadem Fortress stood just a few yards from the house, and after eating a wonderful meal of dolma and lavash we walked across the road to explore it. I think I was grinning the entire time. I’ve always loved castles, but living in the States means I don’t often* get a chance to actually see them. The original keep was constructed in the 9th century, and its enceinte was constructed in the early 1800s, with other additions being made in the years between.
View from the keep.
Kristaporivank in the distance.
Ramparts near the main gate.
View from the wall.
From there, it was a short drive to the Cathedral of Talin. Like at Yereruk, the size of the ruins give a hint of the size of the community it served when it was built in the 7th century. It was built with two studies on either side of the apse, both of which contain a series of handholds that can be used to access the second floor and were used as a way to hide the church’s manuscripts when hostile rulers came with the intention of burning them all.
View from the northwest.
Interior of Talin.
View from southeast.
View of St. Astvatsatsin from Talin.
The collapsed Talin Cathedral dome.
We finished the day with a short stop at Aruchavank. Like so many of the old churches here it suffered extensive damage from earthquakes, and though most of it has been rebuilt, its dome remains collapsed. The architecture of its eastern wall contains two examples of a type of engineering that provides the entire structure with greater stability, and our guide told us that another monastery using the same method was strong enough to survive even after its central pillars were cut by the Mongols under Tamerlane.
The eastern side of the cathedral.
Entrance to Aruchavank.
The southern wall.
I love the fact that there are stories like this everywhere we go, that history in this region has been recorded for so long that the connection to the past is so much clearer than I am used to. And I know I’m only seeing and hearing a fraction of them. There is so much to learn, so much to discover. Armenia is such a small country, but it’s so wonderfully full.
* The only other time (so far!) was about seven years ago, when I had the chance to study abroad in the UK and Ireland, and our group visited Kenilworth Castle. I took hundreds of pictures, and if I remember right, my friend and I were late in returning to the bus.