*“Yes haghaghootyan korpoosee kamavor em.” And with those tongue-twisting words, on Nov. 12, 2015 I became a Peace Corps Volunteer.
After 12 weeks of training I and 38 of my closest friends gathered in a beautiful concert hall in Yerevan to officially be sworn in as PCVs. We are the 23rd group to serve in Armenia. I couldn’t have felt prouder when I received my lapel pin with the American and Armenian flags crossed over the Peace Corps globe. Our group is the most diverse ever to serve in Armenia, with members aged 22 to 75, and naturalized citizens from Africa, South America, the Philippines and Russia. They are all smart, compassionate and caring individuals.
The week was an emotional roller coaster, from excitement about finally beginning our service, to fear of the unknown (or at least nervousness), to many, many tears at leaving our host families and dear friends.
My host family made me take the coffee mug I used every morning, because they said it would make them too sad to look at it in the cupboard. I said it would make me sad too, but they won. And they gave me a heat sensitive mug that when filled with soorj (coffee) or tay (tea) revealed a photo of the family and my fellow trainees at dinner. Around the rim it says “We love you Marcie!!!” How could I not cry at that? Less than three months ago I came into their house a stranger. I left as family. As I’ve said before, family is everything to Armenians so to be taken into the fold is the highest honor.
A Peace Corps home stay is not without its challenges though. I had not yet learned enough Armenian (hayeren) to converse beyond basic needs, so trying to communicate was a daily challenge. The food did not always agree with me, and I had “food-poisoning-like” symptoms twice. “Heevand em” — “I am sick,” was one of the first phrases the language trainers taught us. I learned that I was probably to blame for my sudden and violent illness because I wasn’t wearing socks and did not have enough blankets on my bed (this even though it was still hot outside). Cold=vomiting, of course.
But we didn’t need language to express our mutual sadness, and mutual joy as we celebrated at a large party the night of swearing in, and the night before departure. I knew how to say “siroom em barel” — “I love dancing,” as my handsome host father two-stepped me around the living room.
Armenians know how to party, with piles of horovats (roast meat) endless toasting and dancing to loud music. There is a joy of life that seems to come only from knowing deprivation; deep sorrow/deep joy. There’s probably an Armenian expression for that.
Over three months of daily language lessons and seemingly endless training sessions, I had become very close with two of the three other volunteers in my small village. We seemed an unlikely pair when they first announced the village groupings — three women over 50 and one young man with a Citadel ring. I remember telling Paul at the time that we probably weren’t the harem he would have chosen.
As it turned out, we could not have chosen better. Marti, 70+, was sort of in her own world, with a very active host family to keep her busy, but Paul, I, and the third member of our trio, Cathy, a former lawyer from Arizona, became fast friends. Our language and culture facilitator, or LCF, Satenik, and her adorable son, Abel, became the fourth and fifth members of our tribe. There wasn’t a lot to do in our sleepy village, but with friends like that, doing very little seemed like a lot.
So with tears, hugs, and more tears and hugs, the morning after swearing in we departed for our permanent sites, scattered across the country. Armenia is a small country, but right now it feels pretty big.
*I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.