Musings

[Blog] Stretch Fingers, Write

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I’ve missed writing. I’ve missed chasing the words across the page and catching them on the tips of my fingers. I’ve missed building cities and starships and space stations, and imagining the conflicts and the stories that take place in them. I’ve missed the exploration– of themes, of characters, of imaginary places.

And it’s funny to say that, because it’s been years since I last took off an extended period from writing. I didn’t get half so much done while I was in Armenia (at least, not when it comes to fiction), but I didn’t stop either. All the same, though, now that I have a little more free time again, it’s like stretching muscles that haven’t had a chance to work hard for too long. It’s a little rough and rusty at first, but once it gets going, it feels like coming home.

I’m still surprised by how much practice it takes, and how little time it takes to fall back out of practice once you’ve gotten yourself into it. If writing is a method of recording your own thoughts, it almost seems that it should come more naturally. And yet there’s a divide between the things we imagine and the words we manage to put onto the page, and for most of us, it takes a lot of work to bridge that gap.

I can’t help but find it fascinating that language, even when it comes naturally and almost as quick as thought, can’t always express the ideas that build their homes in our heads. Things get even funnier when you realized that a particular language might not have the words you need to describe exactly what you want, and while another language might get closer, it’s still not perfect. And, funniest of all, that’s okay.

Because of its limitations, writing forces us to understand our own thoughts better in order to more fully express them with the words you have available. It would be one thing to be able to transfer a complete idea to another person’s mind, just as it exists in our own. It’s quite another to write as we actually do, knowing that each word we choose may evoke subtleties in the minds of our readers that we have no knowledge of.

But perhaps I’m rambling, letting the words take me where they will. I suspect it means that I haven’t thought all this through entirely, or at least not as completely as I thought I had. But that’s okay too. God knows I don’t have all this figured out. And besides, a little rambling now and then is healthy. How better to remind ourselves that there are a thousand things we don’t understand?

Fiction (Short)

Aruri

FRONTIERSTATION

It was something about the way the girl moved. She was human, as were at least a third of the other passengers that the latest transport ship had deposited on Whitehorse Station, but despite the fact that she shuffled along towards the security check like all the rest of the travel weary crowd with her head down and her shoulders slumped, Taylor watched her and waited for her to do something that would explain the wary feeling nesting in his chest. She looked young, no more than eight or nine years old. She was thin, too, and wiry, though most children who grew up in space were the same. A mane of thin brown hair reached just below her shoulders, and a loose hair-tie could only do so much to keep it out of her eyes. She followed close behind a young couple wearing the sort of sturdy clothes favored by colonists, and Taylor almost convinced himself that he was reacting to nothing. Colony kids always seemed to be a little different.

But then she disappeared.

She looked at him first, glancing up from her feet and staring at him long and slow out of the corner of her eye. Taylor’s first impulse was to look away, though whether that was out of some irrational fear or to keep from spooking her he couldn’t say, so he kept on watching. Or rather, he did until some disturbance farther down the line stole his attention for a split second, and when he looked back she was gone.

He muttered something under his breath and looked twice all through the line. The young couple was still there, as was the scattering of other humans and aliens of a dozen different species— everyone except the girl with the wolfish eyes.

He tapped the comm in his ear, and it clicked softly as the line connected. “Lumyan, keep an eye out for a girl trying to get into the station proper. Human, not even ten years old. You’ll know it if you see her.”

Understood.” There was a pause, then his partner’s voice hummed in his ear again, this time with laughter barely held beneath the surface. “Anything else I should know? Is she the next big mob boss or something?

“Heck if I know. I’ve got a feeling is all. Just let me know if you see her and try to keep her from running off.”

Sure thing.” Lumyan paused again, then: “Want me to search for any puppies or kittens while I’m at it?” He didn’t need to see her grin to know it was there.

“Only if you want to. Taylor out.”

He hadn’t expected her to, but the girl had not reappeared. The young couple she had been following was still there, still looking tired and travel-worn just not like the parents of a child that had gone missing. He approached them anyway.

“Excuse me,” he said, and the two broke off a quiet conversation and looked at him. “Could I speak with you both for a moment? Are you traveling with a daughter?”

They were not. They had no children at all, let alone a girl almost ten years old. Taylor thanked them for their time and moved on again, scanning the crowd for the twentieth time in the vain hope of catching sight of her again, though he wasn’t at all certain she was still there at all. He just didn’t know where else she could be or how she had gotten there.

He had a better idea about five minutes later when the young couple caught his eye and broke away from the line to approach him and report that the bag that had contained their papers, currency, and a few valuables was well and truly missing. Taylor directed them towards the office that specialized in helping with that sort of thing and started for the front of the line. A clever adult would be able to come up with several ways to use the pilfered items to get inside. A clever child would have an even easier time of it. He tapped his comm again as he moved.

“Lum, she got her hands on some papers. Have you seen her yet?”

There was a pause of a few seconds the reply came, and Taylor grimaced at the delay. If the checkpoint was that busy, the girl might not have even needed the benefit of the papers to sneak right through.

Sorry, Taylor. We just got swamped over here with a couple of clowns who don’t think the rules apply to them. If she’s come through I haven’t— oh, hell. I think that’s her. She just snuck through with another family.

Taylor broke into a run. Colony papers didn’t have the built-in checks and safeguards the ones issued on the central worlds did. It was fiddly technology at the best of times, especially with the older printers that would be available on fledgling planets. The scanners would only be checking to make sure the numbers of people matched the numbers of passes.

As he approached, Lumyan looked up long enough to point and wave him on in the direction the girl had gone. “Towards the markets. Go! I’ll have Sarge send Rofik down to help me here!”

Taylor gave a grateful nod and bolted through. The wide hallway was busy, full of humans, feathered avings, four-legged xentou, and all the others who had just made their way through security and into the expansive rings of the station beyond the docks. The thirty seconds it had taken for him to get there was more than enough time for the girl to vanish in the crowd. And if— when— she made it to the markets, the haystack would get that much bigger.

He held out hope that he’d find her before she they reached the markets until the corridor spilled out into the massive, noisy, stall-filled room that was the markets. If futility ever needed a physical representation, this was it. It didn’t matter how long he spent winding his way through the bickering, bartering members of species from every corner of the galaxy. His chances of finding the girl were beyond poor.

After a few steps more he slowed, stopped and raised his eyes to the ceiling in a look that expressed his frustration better than words ever could. Then, he commed back to Lumyan.

“She made it to the markets. Nothing I can do for now. Might as well tell Rofik he can go back to napping in the precinct. I’m putting in an alert and heading back to you.”

The rest of the passengers passed through security without further incident, or at least without anything out of the ordinary. There were a few lost bags, a few complaints about the level of service they had received on board the transport ship, a few red-eyed travelers who weren’t certain where they were supposed to go next, but all that was to be expected. It took less than an hour to empty the rest of the line, and when the last of the exhausted passengers made it through and stumbled off towards the residential rings and the rest of the station, Taylor and Lumyan followed.

A single main passageway led through the entirety of the docking ring. Turning right would take them down to the markets, and Taylor stopped for a moment and looked off that way until Lumyan slugged his shoulder.

“Won’t do any good, mate. Well. It might make you feel better, but there’s no way you’re finding her in there.” She winked. “Your words, more or less.”

Taylor grumbled, but he turned and followed Lumyan to the left and the precinct office. It was a small room, just large enough to hold a pair of desks and four chairs and still be comfortable. Taylor sank into his seat and woke his console with the intention of updating the alert to something more detailed than “Human girl, brown hair, 1.5m tall, approx. 10yrs old. Contact security if seen.” If nothing else, pulling her image from the security cameras in the docking bay and attaching it might keep would-be do-gooders from trying to turn in any of the brown-haired ten-year-olds who actually belonged on the station. He had just found and added what he needed when the door hummed and slid open to admit a pair of g’keyli.

Taylor’s stomach turned upside down and slid back against his spine. He was ashamed to admit it, but of all the alien species humanity had encountered since taking to the stars, the g’keyli unsettled him the most. They looked, to human eyes, like massive, bipedal canines. The smallest he had ever seen was nearly two meters tall, and the pair that loomed above his desk now, staring at him, were bigger. The fur that covered their bodies was long, braided and beaded in places and dyed with dark colors in others. They wore little in the way of clothing beyond belts with pouches and pockets and what little their culture asked for modesty’s sake, and while the end result was both practical and sensible, it also seemed a little wild.

The smaller of the two, relatively speaking, took a slow, deep breath, then twisted her tongue around human, English words that fit so poorly in her mouth that they came out with a rough, growling lilt.

“Do you have a moment, Packprotector—officer? I am Niumra, this is my mate, Grumyu. We would speak with you, if you have the time.”

She crouched down so that her golden eyes were level with Taylor’s brown ones. It was a sign of respect. That was what some quiet memory desperately said again and again in the back of his head. He just found that hard to remember when a mouth full of long, white teeth dipped that much closer to his neck, even when that same mouth was saying such civil words. His own mouth was uncomfortably dry, and he had to swallow before responding.

“Of course. How can I help you?”

“The transport ship that is docked here now, is that the Azdatses?”

Taylor nodded. “It is. Do you need to board her?” He forced himself to match and keep the g’keyli’s sharp, bright gaze.

“No, thank you, Packprotector. We have our own vessel, but we believe that one of our own was aboard the big transport. A young one named Aruri. She rode the transport here, and we must find her before she gets herself lost any further. Will you assist us?”

Taylor swallowed again, a little more easily than before. Though not by much. “We’d be happy to help,” he said, “but I’m afraid you’re the first g’keyli we’ve seen on the station in months. You’re certain she was aboard the Azdatses?”

Niumra turned to Grumyu, and they spoke a few words in their own tongue before she looked back to Taylor and nodded once, pointedly. “Quite certain.” She was about to continue when Grumyu touched her arm with one of his heavy, paw-like hands and tilted his head in query.

Niumra’s ears flicked backwards, almost pinning, and the two canids held another hurried conference in their own language. It seemed more combative than before, and Taylor put his hands below the table to hide the fact that they were shaking. He had almost regained his composure a few seconds later when the comm station in the corner of the room chimed, and both he and Lumyan rose on instinct. She waved him back into his seat with a wink and an impish expression. He paused, but there was nothing to do but drop back down and attempt to calm his hands once more as Lumyan transferred the call to her own comm before stepping outside to answer it.

It only took the g’keyli a moment or two to finish, and Niumra turned back to him with an almost sheepish expression. “Forgive us. My mate and I disagree—”

But whatever she was about to say slipped away as Lumyan burst back in and called across the room.

“I’m so sorry to interrupt, Taylor, but someone saw the girl. She’s still in the markets, apparently trying to steal herself some dinner. Stall A-34. They think she’s still close. Go! I’ll cover here.”

Taylor was up and on his feet in half a second, and halfway to the door in one more. He was about to apologize when both of the g’keyli started after him, and Niumra’s paw brushed his shoulder.

“Wait, Packprotector. We will help you hunt.”

She phrased it like a statement, but the question was clear. Taylor hesitated, and fear twisted another knot into his stomach. But there was no time. Taylor gave a quick nod.

“It’s a human child, somewhere in the markets. ” He reached back and turned his console screen so that the two g’keyli could see the picture taken from the security footage. “She looks like this.”

Grumyu gave a short, sudden bark and followed it with a wild pattering of words in his own language. Niumra stopped him with a paw on his chest before whirling back to Taylor. “We understand.” There was a wild look in her golden eyes.

“She’s just a child. Be gentle!”

“We understand! We go!”

And they went. Rushing the the door, flying down the corridor. The g’keyli let Taylor keep the lead, but their mere presence was enough to keep the halls clear for their passage. Only idiots stood in front of a loping g’keyli. The effect was less noticeable once they reached the markets themselves, but even then they made their way through the crowds in half the time it would have taken Taylor alone. He also got the distinct impression, once they reached stall A-34, that the aving merchant was a great deal more polite than he might have been otherwise.

“I appreciate your coming so quickly,” he said. “It’s good to have some sign that you humans do care about the security of your station. Too bad you couldn’t stop the little wretch before she savaged my wares.”

The attempted raid was evidenced by the various meats and breads still spilled all across the floor beside the stand.

“Where is she now?” Taylor felt impatience rising up the back of his throat, and he fought it back down beneath a show of professional calm. It got harder as the merchant began to let loose a flood of complaints, none of which gave any hint as to which way the girl had gone.

“…and I demand reimbursement from the station for… failing… to…”

Taylor frowned in confusion and was about to ask what was troubling the merchant when he noticed that the aving’s eyes were focused over his shoulder. He glanced in the same direction and found the answer on his own: Niumra’s muzzle was wrinkled in annoyance, showing almost an inch of her long, white teeth. It was all he could do to keep his knees from giving out. His voice was husky when he spoke.

“Which way?”

The aving pointed further down the row of stalls.

He muttered a quick thanks, and the three of them were off again, moving quickly down the opening in the crowd provided by the presence of the huge canids. Even as they went, Taylor felt a rising certainty that it was all in vain. It didn’t matter how close they got without catching her, not when she could vanish into the crowd or between stalls at a moment’s notice. But perhaps if they split up.

“Niumra.” He stopped and turned around to look at her, and his whole heart jumped up into his throat. She and Grumyu were both just behind him, both standing at their full height. He forced his words out over a dry tongue. “We won’t find her this way. We need to cover more of the markets.”

“Of course, Packprotecter. I was about to suggest the same.” She was about to translate for Grumyu when Taylor forced himself to speak again.

“But one more thing. The girl, she’s human. She’s not as strong as you. Don’t hurt her.”

Niumra clamped her mouth shut and flicked her ears back. A chill tumbled down Taylor’s spine that grew a thousand times worse when something that sounded too much like a growl escaped the g’keyli’s throat.

“We are not fools, Packprotector,” was all she said. Then she exchanged a few words with her mate, and the two big creatures stalked off in opposite directions through the crowd, leaving Taylor to continue in the direction they had been going.

His progress was not as quick without the g’keyli to clear the way, but if it had been he might have missed the upturned container that drew his attention to a small space between two stalls. And if he had not seen that, he would not have seen a pair of hazel eyes staring back at him when he peered inside. He also wouldn’t have suffered a surprisingly heavy blow to the head when the girl hit him with a length of aluminum pipe she had clutched in both her hands.

She hurtled past him while he was still reeling and sprinted wildly through the crowd of milling shoppers. Taylor scrambled to his feet.

“Station Security! Stop her!”

No one did. A few tried, but the girl was too fast, too agile, too wiry. She slipped out of their hands or between their legs, and Taylor knew she was getting away all over again.

And then Grumyu appeared from around the corner of a stall, just ahead of where the girl was running. He barked something fierce and forceful in the g’keyli language, and the girl stopped and dropped to the floor. The big g’keyli stepped forward until he stood just beside her, towering above her tiny form and growling low.

“Grumyu, wait!” Taylor’s knees were weak again. The g’keyli didn’t understand any human tongues. He could only hope the alien would hear and understand his name.

If he did, Grumyu gave no sign. Instead, he bent down over the girl, still growling, and placed one enormous paw on her thin chest.

“Grumyu!” Taylor started running forward, horrified by the images provided by his own mind of what was about to happen. “Grumyu! No!”

He was still yards away when something caught his shoulder and stopped him in his tracks. It was Niumra. Taylor yelped and shrieked like a child.

“Hush, Packprotector. The girl is fine. You are fine. Stop your fear.”

Taylor went quiet. He couldn’t tell if it was because he had regained control or because he was too scared to make a sound. For the moment, he didn’t care.

A few yards away, Grumyu’s low, rumbling voice continued speaking. It was joined a moment later by a second voice, a tiny, thin, and piping voice that answered inexplicably with g’keyli words.

“Our pup,” said Niumra. “Our Aruri.” She lifted her paw from Taylor’s shoulder, tentatively at first and then more freely when he didn’t run. “She is curious and rebellious, and she found her way onto the transport ship. We did not realize until too late.”

It took some time for Taylor to find the courage to speak. When he did, a question came out first. “Your pup?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Niumra. “Our pup, since we rescued her from the broken ship where her blood parents died. She was tiny and very weak, but we helped her and raised her, and she is ours.”

“Ah,” said Taylor, and he nodded.

Niumra made a chuffing sound that might have been a laugh. “You are surprised?”

He paused and considered, then nodded again. “I think I am.”

“That’s alright,” she said. “Many are.”

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Fifteen, Penultimate

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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.

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

[Blog] Week Twelve, Rambling

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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.

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.

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The Hobbit… in Armenian!

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.

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Eleven, Old Churches

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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.

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The landscape around Yereruk.

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Ten, Planting Trees

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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.

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Fall on the grounds of the Sardarapat Memorial.

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.

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Trees in their new home.

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.

 

 

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.

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Nine, Connections

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While last week’s adventures can best be described as big and grand, my favorite parts of the past few days have definitely been of the smaller sort. Which is not to say that the experiences are going to stick with me any less. In fact, it’s often these incidental experiences that work themselves most deeply into my memories.

That being said, calling a khash party “small” is probably a bit misleading. Khash (խաշ) is a dish made by boiling sheep or cow’s feet to make a broth, which is then seasoned with garlic and salt to taste and given substance by crumbling dried lavash into it. It is traditionally eaten in the morning, and, in Armenia at least, only during months that have an “r” in the name. Vodka is often served as well, and you probably won’t feel like eating much else for the rest of the day.

Khash!

I got to enjoy the meal with a large group from Impact Hub Yerevan, the amazing coworking space where the Repat Armenia office is located. Or rather, I did once I double-checked the address and realized that I’d ended up at the wrong branch of the restaurant. It all worked out in the end–hunger and the nagging knowledge that you’re already late do wonders to keep you walking quickly–and the rest of the morning was spent enjoying each other’s company over tasty food.

That, I think, is one of my favorite things about being here. We love food and we love friends, and we make sure to eat food with friends every chance we get. And by “friends” we mean everyone from brand new acquaintances to lifelong companions. All those old stories: Beowulf. The Iliad. The Odyssey. Hospitality was deeply ingrained in those cultures as well, and there was an assumption that guests would be treated a certain way. After spending two months in Armenia, I think I understand it a bit better.

Another highlight of the week happened while I was shadowing at the hospital. It wasn’t medical in nature, and I’m still missing the chance to be more involved in that field, but that’s another topic for another day. What my time shadowing at Nork Marash has given me every day I’m there is an incredible immersion in the language, and earlier this week I got the chance to see how far I’ve come.

A family who had come in several times before came in again. At one point, the doctor stepped out of the room and I stayed behind. Since they had met me before, several of the family members knew that I was an American, and I heard them mention that fact to each other, which I took as an opportunity to mention that I did speak a little Armenian.

It was so much fun to talk with them. As soon as they knew I could understand, they asked me questions about where I was from and why I was in Armenia, and though I didn’t always know the exact word I wanted to use, we definitely got by. It was such a simple conversation, but the reminder that I’ve learned enough Armenian to make basic connections with strangers here has left me a little giddy all week.

Other than that, it’s been a fairly low-key week. A couple members of my language class are finishing up their time here, so we all went out to dinner together to celebrate (and practice our Armenian). It’s rained once or twice, and most of the trees are boasting beautiful yellow leaves. I’m about a week past halfway through my trip now, and while I miss everyone back home terribly, I feel a similar tug every time I think about leaving. I suppose the only thing to do is to savor every minute of the time I have left.

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 bit 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!

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.

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.