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.

 

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Three, Exploring

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As best I can tell, this week that just finished was probably a pretty good indication of what a normal week will look like. Well, normal aside from Thursday, which was Armenian Independence Day. And looking back, it was a really good week, even with the occasional hiccup.

But first, the excursion!

We spent all day Saturday visiting two monasteries, (Hovhannavank and Saghmosavank), the Armenian Alphabet Monument, the Gourmet Dourme handmade chocolate factory, and the Byurakan Observatory. If you compare that list to the one I posted last week, you may notice that this one has a couple of additional locations. It was a long, busy day, and I was exhausted by the end of it, but it was so much fun.

The monasteries were incredible and beautiful. The biggest parts of both were built in the 13th century, but the original basilica, was built in the early 4th century. Seventeen hundred years ago. Seventeen. Hundred. I got to stand and pray in the same place that Christians have been worshiping for the better part of two thousand years. And I’d keep going, but I don’t think words are going to do it justice, at least not in a blog post like this. Hopefully, I’ll fill in at least a few of the gaps with pictures.

 

There is one thing, though, that pictures aren’t going to help me share, and that’s what it was like to listen to the Little Singers of Armenia in both of the churches. The Little Singers, as you’ve probably guessed from their name, is an Armenian youth choir. They are incredibly beautiful singers who have sung all over the world, and getting to listen to them sing in the acoustics of both churches was extraordinary.

Between visiting the two monasteries, we stopped for a little while at the Armenian Alphabet monument. It consists of giant stone renditions of each of the letters in the Armenian alphabet, and was installed in 2005 to honor the 1600th anniversary of Mesrop Mashtots creation of the Armenian alphabet. It’s weirdly cool. Also, there was ice cream and I got to see a horse, and it’s hard to complain about that, either.

 

After that, it was the chocolate factory! I have a feeling that terminology is giving the wrong impression– I know I wasn’t quite sure of what to expect. It’s called Gourmet Dourme, dourme being the Armenian word for chocolate, and it’s actually pretty small; they make handmade, handwrapped gourmet chocolates using Belgian chocolate, and it’s not a huge industrial operation at all. It’s owned by two Armenian brothers who repatriated from France and Austria. We got samples, and it was just as amazing as you would expect it to be. Maybe moreso. It’s also really cool that this is one of the new things coming out of Armenia.

Our final stop was at the Byurakan Observatory. I believe the original plan was to visit the HAYP Pop Up Gallery that was setting up there, but we also had the option to tour the telescope, which several of us did instead. Unfortunately for those of us who still only have a basic grasp of Armenian, the tour was mostly conducted in Armenian, so I didn’t learn as much as I would have liked to, but we still got to see it and learn just a little bit about astronomy in this part of the world.

The telescope itself is about ten to fifteen minutes away on foot from the main entrance, and for those of you who played Myst, it felt a little bit like that, minus the bit about traveling through books. There was also a friendly dog who who followed us over and was just a generally amicable fellow. As for the more technical aspects, about all I remember/heard was that it is a 2.3 meter Cassegrain reflector, and while it’s not among the very largest anymore, it’s not tiny, either.

 

So, that was Saturday!

Monday marked the first day I went to the hospital to shadow, as well as the first day I had to get up there on my own. I went by marshrutka, and was very grateful that my first time taking one was on a day a bit less busy than normal. The marshrutkas are basically fifteen passenger vans, but on busy/normal days (like this past Tuesday), they are definitely standing room only.

Sadly, my stomach decided to go squirrelly after only an hour or so on Monday, so I actually ended up going home early and sleeping. Tuesday went much better, and I got to spend the whole day shadowing a very kind doctor who would translate for me when she was done with each patient so that I could follow what she was doing. I’m hoping that my Armenian continues to improve so that I can follow more on my own.

That’s all for this week! As always, thanks so much for reading about my adventures. To those of you who are also interested in seeing more fiction from me, I’m hoping to have the story I’ve been coaxing out word by word finished sometime next week, and I have another one that I’m hoping will be a bit easier to write coming shortly after that.

Until next time!

Birthright Armenia, Musings

[Blog] Week Two, Settling In

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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!