Tag Archives: Peace Corps Armenia

Swearing In, Moving On

*“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.

Newly sworn in A23 volunteers, with U.S. Ambassador Richard M. Mills, Jr in the center.

Newly sworn in A23 volunteers, with U.S. Ambassador Richard M. Mills, Jr in the center.

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.

My lovely host "parents," Lusik and Maise Meharabyan.

My lovely host “parents,” Lusik and Maise Meharabyan.

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.

Friends forever, me, Paul Whitten and Cathy Steward.

Friends forever, me, Paul Whitten and Cathy Stewart.

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.

 

Awash in Lavash — About the Name…

I felt I needed to experience Armenia first hand before I picked a name for this blog. After three weeks and many, many meals, I decided nothing represents the Armenian experience better than the national mania known as lavash. It’s a simple flatbread made from wheat flour and water, rolled into large ovals and baked by slapping it onto the sides of a clay oven, much like Indian naan is made. For Armenians it’s nothing short of manna from heaven. Cultures around the world have similar breads, from naan to chapatis and tortillas. It’s the dough that binds us together, if you will.

Here's a picture of my host sister, Christina, with a batch of fresh lavash. What looks like a massive amount of bread will last our family of 5 about a week. You do the math.

Here’s a picture of my host sister, Christina, with a batch of fresh lavash. What looks like a massive amount of bread will last our family of 6 about a week. You do the math.

Lavash is eaten at every meal and is used for everything from scooping up soup to shoving gartofil (potatoes) onto a fork. All foods can be wrapped in it, much like a burrito, only  slightly smaller. The large ovals are cut up with scissors into manageable squares and piled into a bread bowl. It’s sprinkled with water to keep it soft. At the table the diners grab a handful and stack it on the table next to their plate where it is readily accessible throughout the meal.

One morning my host mother, Loosik, filled large rectangles of lavash with fried potatoes, rolled it up burrito-style, then rolled them in egg and bread crumbs and fried them. Carb and fat overload aside, they were really, really good. I quickly learned the Armenian word for “delicious” — hamove.

We arrived at the height of harvest season in the fertile Ararat valley, so fresh fruits and vegetables make up the bulk of our meals. Every meal includes a large plate of ripe tomatoes and cucumbers, and there is frequently eggplant, peppers, cabbage, beets and okra, as well as watermelon, grapes, apples, peaches, plums and other melons for dessert and between meal snacks.

Armenians are the most hospitable people on the planet — a guest barely has time to take off their shoes and put on guest slippers before the coffeetable is laden with plates overflowing with the fruits of the earth, like a still life with knives and forks. Coffee, tea, cake, ice cream and candy round out the groaning tableau. Fortunately we learned that guests are not expected to eat everything — it’s enough to have been offered and sampled a few of the offerings.

Khor Virap monastery is just a 15 minute drive from my village.

Khor Virap monastery is just a 15 minute drive from my village.

I do of course do other things besides eat. Last weekend my host family took fellow PC trainee Cathy and me to the beautiful and ancient Khor Virap, the sacred site where Grigor Luisavorich (St. Gregory the Illuminator) was imprisoned for 13 years before curing King Trdat III of a disease. This caused the conversion of the king and Armenia into the first officially Christian nation in the world in the year 301.

The church is still in use — my host brother got married there just last year. Nice choice of venue!