As I adjust to a different set of surroundings, I find myself once again thinking about the way a story’s setting affects everything else about it. And wondering how much the habitat of any given writer affects the stories they create. I don’t think it’s an absolute thing– certain projects I’ve worked on in recent years (while living in Southern California) have clearly taken inspiration from the Idahoan hills I grew up in– but I suspect that the high desert I’ve been so near for the past few years has worked its way into my imagination. At least, I think I recognize the tiniest shreds of the Mojave in the barren plains that keep supplying Tanner and Miranda with their adventures. And I imagine there are some wildly colorful stretches of Utah that will make an appearance as well, now that I’ve driven through it.
So maybe it’s not so much about where the writer is at any given time. Maybe it’s more about where they have been, what different places have seeded themselves in their minds. And if you spend more time in a place it has more time to make itself at home in the corners of your imagination. It’s why I suspect the various space stations that exist half-imagined in my note-heap bear a striking resemblance to both Los Angeles and Yerevan.
And yet. Sometimes it doesn’t take that long at all. Sometimes, all you need is a flash. Wilderness illuminated by the untamed, untameable summer storm that finally caught you. Or the red-sand expanse that spreads beneath a great, blue sky and takes your breath away. Or the water, impossibly still, that reflects the desert mountains in stranger perfection because the sand has forgotten what to do with the rain.
There was a time that I wanted to be a truck driver for a living. If I remember correctly, I got the idea shortly after learning about sleeper cabs and finding out that a pair of drivers could switch back and forth on a long haul. I thought it sounded like a lot of fun, especially if you got along well with your partner. Actually, my specific thought was that it would be really cool to be a husband/wife team: we could support ourselves while traveling all over the place, and we wouldn’t have to be apart for a long time while we did it. It’s possible that I was a weird kid. It’s also possible that I’d already figured out that it was the closest I’d get to living on my own spaceship.
Or maybe that’s just what it sounds like in retrospect. At the very least, though, I’d figured out that I enjoy long road trips. I don’t know that it played any real part in it, but it’s interesting to connect that old fantasy to the fact that I eventually got my license to drive small passenger buses: it’s not exactly the same, but it’s not so far off, either, and the idea of working by traveling long distances still appeals to me.
Well. Most of the time. Circumstances have me splitting my time between two different cities, so I’m sleeping on the couches of various friends (you are all incredible, wonderful people and I am forever in your dept) almost as often as I’m sleeping in my own bed, and there’s days that the idea of being so nomadic is a whole lot more appealing than the reality of it. But then, there’s also days when I realize that it’s still pretty cool. The drive between the two is unfailingly gorgeous, taking me past both mountains and the coast, for one thing. For another, it means I’ve got friends and connections in more than one place, and it’s a little easier to remember how big and small the world is all at once.
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 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.
Ramparts near the main gate.
View from the wall.
Kristaporivank in the distance.
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.
The collapsed Talin Cathedral dome.
View of St. Astvatsatsin from Talin.
View from the northwest.
Interior of Talin.
View from southeast.
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.
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.
One of the eagles representing the courage of the fighting men.
A woman representing revival on the rear of the memorial wall.
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.