There’s a couple reasons for that, one of which being the devastating attacks that Azerbaijan made on Artsakh, resulting in the loss of swaths of historically and ethnically Armenian land and the displacement of tens of thousands of Artsakhtsis in the middle of COVID-19 and with winter on its way. It’s not a good situation, and it’s made worse by the fact that it seems like most of the world is turning the other way and pretending that it’s not happening. Actually, to that end, if you’d like to know more about what’s going on, please feel free to click the Contact button up above and drop me a line. I’d be more than happy to share what I know.
Aside from that, it’s mostly just been 2020 being its mangy, feral self. Which is to say, I’m tired– and once I fell out of the habit of updating every week, getting back in was… difficult. But I’m back now, and looking forward to getting back into the proper swing of things.
One last thing, maybe the most important. Advent is always one of my favorite times of year, but this year it seems particularly powerful. Christ didn’t come because everything was fine, but because it wasn’t, and the fact that this year has been so hard for so many of us doesn’t change that. And that is deeply comforting.
According to the calendar it’s been ten weeks since I left Armenia, and for the last several days, my thoughts have been wandering back there more and more frequently. I find myself missing Yerevan: the kebab and shawarma stalls on almost every corner, the families coming out to enjoy all the parks and public places every evening, even the busy chaos that fills the streets. It’s all the surface level things that make up my memories, almost inconsequential in and of themselves, but part of a much greater whole.
In so many ways I’m still just processing, and those simple surface things are the useful handholds I can use to figure out what I found in the land of my heritage. Or rather, if that’s too melodramatic a turn of phrase (which I think it very well might be), they’re concrete examples that I can use to better understand what I found there and how I changed.
It would also be pretty cool if I figured out how to incorporate it into all those stories knocking around in my head. That might not be for a while, though. I can’t remember which of his essays I read it in*, but Ray Bradbury talked about how it took years for themes from his time in Mexico to start appearing in his stories, and he was a great deal more prolific than I am. Right now, I’ve just got ideas that I want to use, but I haven’t figured them out nearly well enough to be able to fit them into a piece of fiction without it sounding forced and cliched. Of course, the flip slide is that trying and failing to write about it the way I want to is the best way to get it figured out, so maybe that’s no excuse after all.
* If memory serves, it was one of the ones in his collection Zen in the Art of Writing. Even if not, I highly recommend that particular book to anyone interested in writing and Bradbury.
It’s been about a month since I returned to the States, and somehow it feels like it’s been even longer. Coming back in the midst of the holidays probably had something to do with that, as did a trip back to Idaho to visit my family. And then there’s the unpacking and resettling, too, not to mention everything else that goes into adjusting to a new routine.
What all this means is that now, five weeks after boarding the plane in Yerevan, I’ve finally slowed down enough to start processing those four months in Armenia. At the moment, it mostly just feels like a flood of all the emotions I haven’t had time for since getting back.
And I miss it. I miss it so much more than I thought I would. I miss it so much more than I thought I did.
It’s the people, mostly– the friends I gained and everyone I met: my host family, the Birthright staff, the other volunteers, the amazing people I worked with. Now that I’m finding a new sense of normalcy, it’s strange to think that these people who became such a big part of my life are so far away.
Beyond that, though, it’s also the fact that I have to find a place for myself again, at least when it comes to working. There’s writing, of course, though that’s taking more wrestling than I was anticipating, and a whole slew of job applications to fill out, certifications to get or renew, resumes to write and write again. It’s hard not to get discouraged, especially after the simplicity of volunteering and the five years spent at the same job before that.
But, I’m making progress. If nothing else, I’ve gotten unpacked and my room is starting to feel like my own. It’s been a while since I’ve had a dedicated writing area, and I’m already wondering how I managed to survive so long without it. (Well sort of wondering. Coffee shops do a wonderful job of filling the gap.) There’s still a long ways to go, but at least I’m on the road.
This week, the way it always does when I’m visiting my family, my mind wandered back to that old saying about home and how you can never go there again. And, if pressed, I’d have to admit that I think it’s true. Once you move away from home, it will never be quite the same again. You’ll change, home will change. The pieces will never fit together quite the way they did before. But really, that’s only part of the story.
For one thing, change isn’t something that only happens when you leave. It makes it more visible, sure, and might make it happen faster as you adjust to a different set of circumstances and surroundings, but if you stayed, things wouldn’t remain static. Children grow, towns expand or shrink, new people come and old ones age or move away. Your hometown in 1998 is not the same place as your hometown in 2008 or 2018. Not entirely.
But then again, even if years pass between visits, there’s still familiarity. When I visit my family, I might not be sure which of my siblings is sleeping in which room, or even which ones are actually still living with my parents, but when we all come together I can guarantee that there will be exuberant conversation, giddy tickle fights, and more than a few terrible puns. It brings another old saying to mind: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
It’s not something exclusive to your first home, of course. If– when I go back to Armenia, it won’t be the same as it was while I was a volunteer with Birthright Armenia. Hopefully some of that will be because the country has continued to grow stronger. Some of it will have more to do with the fact that it won’t be my first visit. And some of it will be for other reasons entirely. But however it has changed, it will still be Hayastan, my homeland and the place I spent four crazy months in late 2017.
So, no. When you leave a place, you won’t be able to go back to things exactly as they were. But maybe it won’t be so different as you think, either.
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.
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.
This past weekend, our excursion was a little different. Instead of just visiting one of the countless, incredible sites of Armenia, we got to add something as well: we got to help plant three hundred fruit trees on the grounds of the Sardarapat Memorial.
This was my second trip out to the memorial in Armavir province. We took our first trip there back at the end of September when the weather was just starting to turn and the memory of a hot summer was still fresh in everyone’s minds. It’s hard to believe that that was only about a month ago. It feels so much longer.
We met a group from the Armenia Tree Project (ATP) on a small plot of ground near the Sardarapat Museum. Trenches where we would be planting the saplings– apricot and plum– already lined the ground, and the young trees themselves lay spaced out where they were to be planted. All we had to do was set them in the ground, perhaps digging a little deeper into the rocky soil to provide room for the roots, and fill the space around them with dirt again. Then, we needed to build small dams below each sapling before watering each one with a bucket to welcome each tree to its new home. Last of all, the ATP workers would turn on the water and let it run down the rows, watering the trees once more after the first bucketful had settled them all into place.
It was early afternoon when we finished, and the bagged lunches that the Birthright staff passed out to us were more than welcome: big sandwiches, fruit, salad, gata (գաթա). We ate them sitting together on the ground just above the newly planted orchard. Afterwards, we had the chance to visit the museum and the memorial again, and I was happy for the more leisurely afternoon and the chance to take a few pictures that I hadn’t managed to on our first visit.
The rear of the memorial wall.
One of the eagles representing the courage of the fighting men.
A woman representing revival on the rear of the memorial wall.
Excursions like this are my favorite part of this adventure. They are a chance to give back a little in addition to looking and learning. They make it easy to think about the future. Armenia is this strange mix of young and old; our history stretches back for thousands of years, but the Republic only gained its independence from the USSR twenty six years ago and is still working to find and make its place in the world. Working where I am with the people I am with, it’s not difficult to have an optimistic view of what that place might be. No one denies that there is still a long way to go, but the atmosphere is heady and excited. It’s going to be hard, but we can do it. We can get there.
From a purely writer-ish point of view, that’s the kind of thing I want to tell stories about. Hard odds and hope. Ups and downs and the difficult work in between. Ideas and ideals. It’s not just those more abstract concepts, either. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy (and anything else that lets me make up whole worlds of my own), something new sparks my imagination every day. The dichotomy of new and ancient means that centuries-old churches are as much a part of what Armenia is as the fact that the country is the “Silicon Valley of the former Soviet Union“. Kiosks throughout Yerevan let you renew your phone’s data plan and do a dozen similar things. The big intersection near where I live has no crosswalks, but if you take the steps down at any of the corners you find yourself in a kind of circular mall lined with stalls and stores and exits to the metro and the other side of the street.
I know I’m seeing the best Armenia has to offer, and though I’m aware of the worse parts of living here (low wages, government corruption, blockaded borders…), I don’t have to live them myself. Volunteering here for four months means that I get to experience life here in a way I couldn’t as a tourist, but four months is still just four months, a fraction of a year. It’s not enough time, for me, at least, to put down deep roots here. If I’m honest, I’m not entirely certain what I think of that.