Outside my open window there is the sound of a child crying, long listless wails. A woman’s voice responds. A hammer pounds on steel, tires shoosh on the wet dirt road and splash in potholes. Horns honk. Dogs howl in chorus.
The house is quiet. It’s Sunday, a day to sleep in. Although, the lady of the house, my host mother Loosik, has already made my breakfast and showed me how to do laundry before going to her job for a few hours. We use a lot of sign language interspersed with my faltering Armenian, and lots of nods and smiles.
This is the end of my first week living with my host family, where I will stay for the three month Pre Service Training (PST).
The 42 trainees who make up A-23 have been divided amongst four villages, matched with host families who will help them settle in, learn Armenian and integrate into Armenian life. How well we do that will determine if we will be invited to stay on as full-fledged Peace Corps Volunteers, or hop the next plane home.
There are just three other trainees in this village with me, two other older women and one 26-year-old man. Another trainee quickly dubbed us “Paul’s harem.” Poor guy.
We are in a village called Taperakan, which is very near Mt. Ararat. The mountain where Noah’s Ark is said to have come to rest is in Turkey, a fact the Armenians are very bitter about. Border be damned, it is still THEIR mountain. Walking down the main street Ararat looms over the town, tantalizingly close.
The housing provided for the volunteers varies widely, but the one thing we pampered Americans all feared was getting a house with a “Turkish” toilet – the dreaded porcelain hole-in-the-ground squat toilet.
Only two volunteers drew that card, one of which is not even in the house; squat toilet in an outhouse. Combine this is the inevitable traveler’s trots, and you can see the challenge.
My host house is plain on the outside, a concrete block exterior tucked behind a small grocery on the main street. Only the lovely carved wooden door hints at what lies beyond. The house is large by any standards, and well equipped with hot running water (most of the time), a washing machine and TV. My room is brand new, as they proudly told me, and has a queen sized bed. It almost seems too grand, but I’m not giving it up.
The Peace Corps did an amazing job of matching up volunteers with host families, as almost all of us think we got the best family. I certainly do! My family is a mother and father who are a few years younger than me (although they are still my host mother and father), their 29-year-old son and his wife, and their 28-year-old unmarried daughter. The young wife is newly pregnant, but there are no other children in the house. That was a little disappointing as I am here to be a teacher, but it’s OK.
The 10 hours of Armenian lessons I took back home were quickly used up in the first evening. Since then it’s been lots of blank looks on my part, and polite frustration and repetition on theirs. We go to four hours of Armenian lessons every day, and I am slowly beginning to understand and converse with them. I keep telling myself it’s only been a week, be patient! Now how do I say that to them?
If we have one common language, it is food. My family feeds me constantly, and every house you visit is quick to put out food for their guests. It’s harvest season, and this region abounds in fresh tomatoes, watermelon, cucumbers, grapes, apples, pears and more. The food is fresh and simple, with every meal prepared from scratch, usually by the single daughter, who is also a cardiology resident. Every meal includes lavash, the flat bread that is practically the national symbol of Armenia. Every food item can be wrapped in it, one size fits all.
They put food in front of me all day, then wonder why I’m not hungry at dinner, which is served at 9 p.m. after the son gets home from his job as a web developer in the capital. I have learned to say “hamove” — it’s delicious, and “goosht” — full. I do my best to please them, just hope my clothes still fit in three months.