Volunteers who serve in Africa or Asia have no problem describing how different their culture is from America — it’s the classic mud huts, monsoons and mosquito nets. Great photo ops of dark children with broad smiles, fishermen casting their nets from dugout canoes, or PCVs standing at cracked blackboards in makeshift classrooms.
Here in Armenia, the differences are not always apparent. I, like most Armenians, live in an apartment building. I have electricity, running water and a western-style toilet. I have a German-made gas stove and a refrigerator. I have a hair dryer and a straightening iron, both of which I bought here, and all types of makeup are readily available. I have internet 24/7 and can watch the latest American TV or Netflix. Some would call this an example of “Posh Corps.”
But my apartment building is a Soviet-era relic, falling into decay with no one in charge of maintenance. After the fall of the Soviet Union, all the newly minted citizens were given deeds to their home. Here, take it, the Soviets said as they walked away. What had belonged to the state was now theirs. Free and clear. But while people snapped up individual apartments and the homes their families had lived in for generations, no one was put in charge of the exterior environment. There are no HOAs or maintenance fees. People ignore the trash strewn in the stairwell and the pot-holed parking lot. It’s not their job.
My stairwell is dark and dank, with peeling paint and crazily slanting concrete steps. There are no elevators in the 5-story building, but fortunately I live on the second floor (or first floor in European parlance, the floor you enter from the street being the ground floor).
Inside, the once beautiful wood floor, laid down in a meticulous herringbone design, is stripped of varnish from long use and lifting in places. A crystal chandelier in the living room throws light on the cracked walls and peeling paint.
I have running water, but the only hot water is in a tank suspended over the bathtub. To heat it requires plugging in a cord, then waiting about an hour for it to get up to showering temperature. The tank is filled manually by turning a lever under the sink. For washing dishes I heat water in an electric tea kettle and pour it over the dishes while trying not to scald myself. Again.
There are no heaters in the apartment, only dirty shadows on the walls where the radiator heating system was ripped out after the fall — too expensive they say. I am grateful for the Peace Corp issued heaters. There is no insulation and winters here are fierce. Most volunteers spend the winter huddled around the heater.
When hunger strikes there’s no going to the freezer and pulling out a Lean Cuisine or frozen pizza. Those of us who live alone like to joke, “I’d offer you something to eat but all I have are ingredients.” Virtually all food is prepared from scratch by the women of the house, even if they too work all day. Cold lunches and sandwiches are unheard of, and an insult to a good Armenian woman’s ability to provide for her family.
No visitor to an Armenian house gets away without being served Armenian coffee and a wide array of sweets and fruit. Their hospitality is unrivaled. Some say the bounty they offer now is a response to the deprivation they have endured.
In the Armenian family structure the youngest son continues to live with his parents, bringing in his bride when he marries. Upon her arrival the mother-in-law usually hands the cooking duties over to her, even if there are other females in the household. So there is always someone to run the labor-intensive kitchen. Once I came home at lunch to find my host brother and father frying potatoes, as the daughter was ill. They looked like they had been caught red-handed, and my host mother rushed home from work to take over the lunch preparation and save their pride.
The procurement and preparation of food is a full time occupation here. There are two small “supermarkets” in Goris, a city of 20,000, but most shopping is done at neighborhood ghanoots that the family has traded with for years. The butcher, the baker, the greengrocer, all are stops along the way home. Milk is often delivered fresh and then boiled to pasteurize. One store now carries milk in cartons for the Amerikatsiner. It’s spring now, and every available patch of land has sprouted a carefully tended garden. In the fall there will be canning, canning and more canning. The post-Soviet lean years are a specter that continues to haunt them.
Despite these sometimes challenging living conditions, Armenian women take great pride in their appearance. Form-fitting dresses and stylish high heels are the norm, even for teachers on their feet all day. Makeup is always perfectly applied, eyebrows carefully arched and every hair in place. Even our best “business casual” looks like barn clothes compared to them. I know the teachers hate my clogs. Or maybe they’re envying the comfort. Goal Two: check.
But while Armenians try to keep up appearances, in reality they are barely keeping their heads above water. Every family has men who emigrate, usually to Russia, in hopes of finding work. Intransigent unemployment hovers just under 20 percent. The average teacher makes less in a month than American teens might spend on prom night. Armenians know that education is key to their children’s success, and that learning English is part of it. TEFL volunteers are often asked to tutor someone’s child; the landlord, taxi driver or neighbor (which we politely decline).
And war looms ever present on at least one border. On the 5-hour drive to the capital recently, the taxi driver pointed out that what I took to just be an earthen berm was actually a sniper barrier; we were within shooting range of the contested border with Azerbaijan. Ahead of us snow-capped Mt. Ararat rose up majestically from the plains of Ararat. But again, appearances can be deceiving; Ararat is the national symbol of Armenia, but it is now in Turkish territory. Like a better life, it seems so close and yet so far to the Armenians toiling in the fields below.