Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Four, Autumn

BIRTHRIGHTHEADER

Another week, another blog post!

It’s funny– sometimes the same week contains both the highest highs and the lowest lows. Which, now that I’m thinking about it, is nothing new and hardly unique to living in another country. The same thing definitely happened back home as well; I just didn’t notice because it was normal. There’s also the fact that my support network here is not as well developed as the one I have back home, but more on that in a bit.

After reading the above, it probably sounds like this week was the definition of a mixed bag. And that’s what I thought it was until I scribbled down a list of the aforementioned ups and downs, only to find that the former far outdid the latter in both quantity and quality. None of that negates the rougher parts, of course, but it definitely makes it a little easier to be thankful for the good.

I’ll start with the biggest change. I think, fingers crossed, that summer has finally given way to fall. Ask anyone who knows me: I love colder weather. Even nine years in Santa Barbara couldn’t change that. There’s a part of me that comes alive when the chill finds its way back to the edges of the breeze, bringing with it the smells of earth and cold and rain. Even the quality of the light has changed and softened, and I’m pretty sure the leaves are starting to turn as well.

I’ve been here for almost a month now, and whether it’s because of that or the change of season, I’m also starting to feel at home here. I noticed it a couple of evenings back as I walked through Republic Square to the metro. I was just on my way home at the end of a regular day, not going anywhere exciting, not doing anything special, but I felt a sense of peace and familiarity that I hadn’t since before I left Santa Barbara.

Given that, it feels a little weird to say that I’m also a bit frustrated with my language learning progress. It’s hardest when I’m shadowing at the hospital, listening to the doctor talk with her patients. She translates for me when she has the chance, but it’s so discouraging every time she asks if I’ve understood and I have to answer with miayn mi kich; only a little.

It doesn’t help that I also have the almost neurotic need to feel useful, and while shadowing is a fantastic learning experience, there’s not a lot that the shadower can give back in the moment. And in theory, I’m okay with that! That’s how you learn and grow, and more generally it’s just a part of living in community with others. Helping the people around you isn’t a competition. It’s just what you do when you have the opportunity. In practice, I still feel more comfortable when I have a way to contribute.

One other thing about my language learning endeavors: I’m pretty sure I have a warped view of my progress. There’s no getting around the fact that my vocabulary is still horribly small, but it’s also definitely growing. There’s also a huge difference between knowing enough to follow a conversation in a medical setting and being able to hold a basic conversation– and I’m getting the chance to do that second one more and more often. Whether or not it feels like it in the moment, I know I’m getting better, and that’s always really cool.

I think my favorite part of the week, though, was the tour we got to take of the Megerian Rug Factory. Armenians have been making rugs and carpets for thousands of years, so in addition to this trip being a chance to see some beautiful examples of a skilled craft, it’s also a fascinating piece of Armenian history. They are made with dyed and knotted wool or silk, and depending on how they are made, they will last and hold their color for a long, long time. The Megerian factory, for example, uses organic dyes and fixators that have been developed and perfected over decades, and they follow a process that ensures a very high quality: one of the silk rugs we got to see was intricately patterned and had 1.9 million knots per square meter.

I could go on for a while, but I’m afraid I’m already starting to ramble. If you’re interested in more information, you can follow the links up above or let me know in the comments, and I’ll be happy to give you as many details as I can! My only regret is that I was a dork who forgot her camera. My cousin is awesome, though, and she let me post a few of the shots she took. Check them out below!

 

 

There’s so much else I could talk about, but then, that’s always the case. I finally spent a little time exploring the neighborhood right around my host family’s apartment and found all sorts of amazing nooks and crannies. I also figured out that all these weeks I’ve been playing Frogger to get across the street on my to and from the metro have been unnecessary. It turns out there’s a route that goes below the street and through this amazing little underground mall area that has given me about twenty ideas that I want to include in various stories. The whole city is like that– stoking and feeding my imagination. And I love it so much.

 

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Two, Settling In

BIRTHRIGHTHEADER

I can’t believe another week has already passed. By the time this post goes up I will have spent sixteen days in Yerevan, long enough for a bit of the novelty to have worn off (though I still haven’t gotten around by marshrutka– that’s an adventure for next week). It’s long enough for a bit of the homesickness to have worn off, too, though I suspect it’ll be around for another go sooner or later.

It’s been a good week. Busy, for sure, but definitely good. Monday was my last week of intensive language class, which feels a little bit like someone turned the hose off and is now waiting to see what happens when the bubbles die down. I’ll still have class twice a week, but for two hours at a stretch instead of six, and we’ll have a chance to get deeper into the grammar, which I’m really excited about.

Finishing the intensive class also means that I got to start volunteering this week, at least for the first of my two job placements. Specifically, I’m helping with content at Repat Armenia, a non-profit/NGO whose mission is to “inform, initiate and actively champion the return of high-impact (professional, entrepreneurial) individuals and families to Armenia to secure the future development of the Armenian nation.” It’s a fascinating place to work, and in just a few days I’ve learned more about the challenges facing Armenia than I’d realized there was to learn, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’ll try to post more specifics later, but if there’s anything in particular that you’d like to know, please let me know and I’ll do my best to answer!

As for the second of my job placements, shadowing at the Nork Marash Medical Center, that starts on Monday. If I understood correctly when I met them last week, I’ll be shadowing in their cardiology department at first instead of their emergency department, but with the possibility of switching departments later. Either way, I am looking forward to it and can’t wait to see what happens.

And that’s about it for this week! Tomorrow there’s an excursion for the Birthright volunteers that will take us to tour a chocolate factory (yay!) and on a hike to a couple of old Armenian monasteries. Expect pictures next week! Until then, all the best!

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week One, Ups and Downs

BIRTHRIGHTHEADER

This week has been full of what feels like a thousand ups and downs. A part of me has a hard time believing I’ve only been here for a little over seven days, because it feels like so much has already happened. Another part of me, just as big as the first, is still convinced that I’ve just gotten here. In a way, both of them are right.

Like I mentioned last week, Yerevan is truly a lovely city. There’s so much stone used in the architecture, and that same stone is often carved beautifully as well. Even when it’s not, the color is amazing and like nothing I’ve had the pleasure to see before, at least not all in the same place. The History Museum of Armenia is built out of pale, whitish stone. Much of the rest of Republic Square (Հանրապետություն Հրապարակ), including the main government building, uses reddish stone of several different shades. Another building, the Tufenkian Historic Yerevan Hotel is built mainly with a very dark stone, but its accent are a striking, russet color. As if that wasn’t enough, there are also parks everywhere. It’s absolutely incredible.

My ability with the language is improving by leaps and bounds, which is probably the coolest thing to me so far. When I got here, I could read most of the words I saw on signs all around– by which I mean I could sound them out without understanding them– but when it came to listening, I was lucky to pick out a word or two in every third sentence. Given that my host mom doesn’t speak English, this added a certain challenge to the first couple days, though her patience and kindness helped me begin to learn and recognize words even before I started the five day crash course offered by the Birthright program.

I should also mention (again?) that my wonderful cousin is in Yerevan as well, and having her here to show me the ropes has made everything so much easier than I believe it would have been otherwise. I don’t think I can overstate the effect of knowing that there’s someone in the city who already knows me and who I can ask for help should I need it. I know the Birthright staff are available and more than happy to support us all if necessary, but there’s nothing quite like family.

If I only talked about the good and the easy, though, I would not be doing justice to this experience. The hard parts are what will help me grow as a person, despite how frustrating they are now. Or perhaps more accurately, because of how frustrating they are now. If the discomfort these experiences cause is an indication of an area where I am weak (say, for example, being willing to make mistakes), then maybe that’s the first step in getting better. I may need someone to remind me of this four or five times a week.

So here’s a couple of the things that have proven the most difficult so far.

The first, unsurprisingly, is the language. And I know I listed it up above as well and counted it as one of the coolest things about being here. That’s true, of course, but it belongs down here as well. There have been a couple of times I’ve caught myself choosing not to do something because of the language barrier, and that doesn’t count all the times I’ve hesitated before choosing to do something after all. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how much of this is real and how much is perceived, either. Most people I’ve interacted with know far more English than I know Armenian, and are more than happy to use it. It’s just me annoyed with myself for not being able to speak the language.

The second is how tired I still am. As far as I can tell, the jetlag has worn off, and I’m not having any more trouble going to bed and getting up at decent hours than I did at home. If anything, it’s a little easier. That being said, I’m finding it far harder than I expected to get the writing done that I would like to. Even my minimum goal is proving hard to reach. For example, this blog is going up more than four hours later than I wanted it to. Also, my partially written short story that I wanted to finish this week is still only partially written, and not for lack of trying. I just haven’t had the energy to force it into existence like I might have back home. And despite the fact that it’s perfectly understandable and (hopefully!) a sign that I’m engaging with my new surroundings, it’s vexing and makes it hard not to feel like I’m just not trying hard enough.

On the bright side, I’m aware that both of these are good examples of a normal experience on an adventure like this. I may not feel like it right at the moment, but these are, in their own way, a good sign. It means I’m letting the country affect me. There’s a couple of cliches that apply here, I think. No pain, no gain, for one.

Also, today was a good day. A long day, and I was almost giddy every time I remembered it was Friday, but definitely a good day. It was the fourth day of my intensive language class, and I can feel it all starting to sink it. It’s getting easier to come out of my shell. I can truly say that I’m excited to be here.

I’m also truly excited to go to bed for the night, so I think I’d best sign off and wrap up this beast of a post before it gets any longer. Thank you all for following my adventure, and look forward to a new update (sometime) next Friday. To those of you interested in reading my short stories, I promise I’m still writing. I hesitate to give a definite time to expect the next one to go up, but it is coming and this weekend looks like it should be good for writing. Thanks for sticking with me!

Until next week!