The End of Peace Corps

My Peace Corps Service officially ended on August 3rd, 2012. While I was hoping to leave the country the same day, there were visa issues that kept me in Yerevan until now. I wasn’t sure I was even going to get my Russian visa, which would have made it quite difficult to actually live and work there (duh). Thus, I never told people, “I am going to Russia.” I had said that I might go to Russia, and we’ll see how the visa thing works out. (The plan was to go there for 9 months and teach English).

Well, it’s now August 14, and it has been decided that I am not going to Russia. In the end, it was not because of the visa (though the length of time it took just to apply for it had discouraged me from continuing the effort). It was because of several factors, some related to going back home to the US sooner, and some related to the language center with whom I was supposed to work.

I’ve been prepared for both scenarios, and after months of uncertainty, I can finally rest easy knowing which one has been decided. My travels and arrival back in America, however, are still uncertain, but that’s how I like it!


Another Winter Day

Just when you thought spring had arrived… boom. Winter came again. It’s the end of March, and there were a few days I was convinced that we were done with the snow, slush, and cold. I even walked to the next village in sandals one afternoon. Then it snowed about a foot. Well, I’m now drinking a Polish beer brought as a gift by a recent couchsurfer, so here’s to hoping the wood will last until spring actually arrives.

There have been virtually no updates/posts in recent months, mostly because there is really nothing new to write about. I’d rather not write about all of the daily activities that keep me busy, and I’ve already written about a most of the important things pertaining to life in Armenia. It is kind of crazy to think there are only four months left though…

As far as the future goes (post- PC Armenia), it seems even less certain than ever, mostly by design. I’m trying to plan my travels as little as possible, while still researching where I can go and what I can do. I like having lots of options, but see no reason on deciding between them right now. The time period is indefinite, and the direction of travel from Armenia pretty vague.  But when I do know, I’ll try to right about it here.

In the meantime, here’s a picture a recent couchsurfer took of my two neighbors and me:

Punjik Tatik, me, and Armo Papik


That’s “Yerevan” written in Russian letters. It the capital city of Armenia, but it is also the name of a magazine written for Armenians in the diaspora. I wrote it in Russian letters because I just found out that the Russian edition (there is also an English and French edition) of this magazine recently had an article devoted to my village, Lor.

Yerevan Magazine's December issue

When I went over to my mayor’s house for dinner, he mentioned that this article existed, and that there was a picture of me inside. I vaguely remember some journalists arriving in the late summer/early fall, but I had no idea they would include me in their article (either the picture they snapped or the short conversation we had). In the picture found only in the print version, I’m standing near the village akhbyur (water source) in my flip flops with a red bucket. I could only understand bits and pieces of the article, as it is in Russian, but using Google translate I managed to decipher the following in the section that mentions me: that I am introduced by another villager as John, the American spy (they knew it was a joke), that I’ve been here for two years teaching English, and that I speak the local dialect of Armenian fluently.

Their photo of my village taken from one side of the valley

If you take about the part about being a spy, the rest is almost true. My name is Joel, which is almost John. I am American, but at the time had only been here just over a year. And while I can manage with the local dialect, my fluency is more in the standard Yerevan dialect. They also asked me if I would stay, and I replied that I would be leaving after completing my two years.

There are five pictures of my village in the online version of the article, all of which are of good quality. Once I obtain my own copy of the magazine, I will try to scan the picture and upload it, but until then I recommend checking out the pictures on their website to which I linked above.

Winter Vacation

My winter vacation began just before the new year when I left for Tbilisi with several other Peace Corps volunteers. This was my second trip to the city, though this experience was quite different. We stayed in a rented apartment outside of the city center, which was both cheaper and more comfortable. Our New Year’s celebration was one to remember, involving five-gallon jugs of wine, a few hours with some young and educated Georgian Marxists, and dancing to Beatles´ songs played by a live band in an Irish bar.

From there I flew to Belgium to meet the mom. It was great to finally meet up, and we had a great time exploring the streets of Brussels and Bruges. Lots of good beer (9% alchohol!) and food. I was glad to see so much diversity in the capital, where I heard several different languages being spoken and people from all sorts of different backgrounds. It was both interesting and saddening to learn about the language issue in Belgium. The Flemish communitz in the northern half of the country speaks Dutch and the people in the southern half French, with a small minority in the east who speak German. In Brussels, the lingua franca is French, though all the signs are in both Dutch and French (confusing when trying to navigate through the city).

I am now in Hamburg visiting a friend I met the last time I was in Georgia. I´ve been impressed bythe city so far. Many interesting neighborhoods, a modern and clean downtown area, and predictably a very good public transport system. I´ve heard about the Turkish population that lives here many times before, but it was really interesting to walk through some of the streets near my friend´s apartment. I walked into a supermarket that could have been placed in the heart of Istanbul. Everything being sold was Turkish and all of the people shopping there appeared to be Turkish. Unfortunately, the only Turkish words I know are the curse words (which are used in Armenia), so I just stuck to English.

Also, the German keyboard has the places of “y” and “z” reversed, so if zou notice anz mistakes, sorrz.

A Peace Corps update

Thanksgiving is over, which means Christmas is just around the corner. After Christmas, the new year. And the new year means just 5 more months of working at my school (which is in many ways signifies the end of my service. So, when you think about it, I have about 6 months left of Peace Corps service. The majority of my two-year commitment has been fulfilled, and that is a strange thought.

The second year has been a little different, and better in most regards. Language skills are a huge factor, and just knowing people in my community. Winter has come earlier this year, but not only do I have my wood cut and chopped, I have my apples to sustain me through the season. Ergo, winter can bring it.

But most things are the same. I’m going to school, teaching classes, giving guitar lessons, and doing after-school tutor sessions a couple times a week. Lots of tea is being consumed sitting by my wood stove, and my books are slowly being transferred to the “read” pile. My food is largely being cooked on the wood stove, too.

I’ve to some extent given up on the Armenian language because I’m comfortable with it and have no interest in becoming completely fluent in it (currently at an “Advanced Low” level according to Peace Corps, though I hesitate to attach “Advanced” to any description of my language skills). Instead, I’ve decided to take up Russian. Since arriving here, I’ve said that I’d like to study Russian because 1. It’s a world language and thus more useful 2. Armenia is a post-Soviet country, many words come from Russian and it is widely known by the older generation, and 3. I have the time to do it.

Before starting, I knew Russian grammar would be a bitch, and I have been able to confirm that with this book (which is excellent, btw). Not only does it have gender, like Spanish (unlike English or Armenian), but words must also be declined depending what their function is in the sentence. English has just a few of these. “He” becomes “him” when it is the object (Ann loves him, not he). In Russian, you’re lucky if you get to say a sentence where there are no declensions. So not only do you have to remember the gender of the nouns you say, but also which case you must use (i.e., Nominative, Genitive, Dative, Accusative, Instrumental, or Prepositional). This goes as well for the adjectives that describe those nouns. So in the sentence, “I read interesting books”, “books” must be declined in its accusative plural form, and “interesting” changed to correspond with that declension. AH! I took a semester of ancient Greek in college, and it has declensions as well, but then it was only necessary to recognize them when reading and writing. It is much more difficult with a spoken language. Despite the difficulty of the grammar, it is indeed fascinating and surprisingly fun the study.

Reading about and learning the Russian language has made me more excited to get into the Russian literature that I have been planning on reading for a long time. I read a few Dostoyevsky books last winter, and next up is The Brothers Karamozov. I thought that was a beast until I got Tolstoy’s War and Peace from another PCV. Over 1300 pages. Those two should keep me occupied for at least a month, probably more. I also have The Portable Nineteenth-Century Russian Reader which has selections from a number of authors. From this book, Anton Chekhov particularly interests me because Cornel West considers himself a “Chekhovian Christian,” which refers to Chekhov’s plays and stories that deal with the absolute absurdity of life and the human condition. Curious to find out more.

Apple Gatherings

Last year’s harvest in Armenia was extremely poor due to (I think) a late cold spell and hail. The fruit was particularly scarce. Not this year!

I’ve spent much of the last ten days cutting my apples and pears into slices to make dried fruit for the winter. Some of the slices I simply put on plates and left outside all day, but most I threaded on a string and hung on my fence.

Today, along with some temporary neighbors who own my previous house, I gathered apples in an orchard owned by some relatives near the end of the village. There must have been ten large potato sacs filled with apples, and this was just from those that had fallen from the trees. These were to be used to make juice, while the remaining apples on the trees will be picked later and eaten throughout the winter.

One of my favorite snacks in the Colorado was an apple with some raw almonds. I can get both here, but while apples are free, almonds are absurdly expensive (and aren’t sold in my village). At least I have the apples!

16 months in a foreign land

With the arrival of October and the cold weather I got so used to last winter, I am sitting in my house next to my electric heater. I would prefer to be starting my fire right about now, but wood has still not arrived in my village. The beginning of this month also marks the 16th month I have been living in this tiny village in a tiny country in the southern Caucasian mountains. Well, I’ve actually only been in this specific village for just over a year, but it sounded better the other way.

The start of my second year of Peace Corps service has included many of the same difficulties and pleasures of the first, with some new additions. I had the joy of moving from my house on short notice, though luckily I moved approximately 15-20 feet west of where I was before. With this move, I lost my outdoor water source, but gained a closet and a decent Soviet-era fold-down couch upon which I can sit and read much more comfortably than before. In my new yard, I also have the added bonus of being able to eat (and store?) virtually all of the apples and pears I could possibly desire. Because of the loss of my water source, I am now bringing all of my water from the center of the village. Laundry, dishes, cooking, and drinking all are being done with this water until my landlord (and principal) finally sets up the promised hose/sink outside. On a related note, I’m not sure whether I am proud or ashamed (or simply don’t care anymore) to say that my last shower in September was on the 8th. Subsequent bathing has been limited to the head, feet, and baby wipe-showers for the rest of my body.

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time at school with classes and after school clubs and tutoring. In all, I probably spend about five or six hours at school per day, which doesn’t sound like much for anyone working a full-time job in the states, but is actually pretty substantial for a Peace Corps volunteer!

My language skills have recovered from my summer travels, and I feel like I can communicate on a fairly fluent level. During our summer language exam, I received and Advance Low, but to be honest, this really doesn’t mean anything. A wide range of PCVs of various levels achieve this score, so it tells me little about how well I speak. If I were to assess myself, I would definitely say I am fully conversational – better than I ever was in Spanish. There are few times when I need to ask people to repeat something they say to me or ask what a particular word means, though it does still happen. I would still hesitate to call myself “fluent” because my language is so specific to my region and village life that I wouldn’t be able to function in any type of official setting. For example, I still have trouble listening to the news in Armenian because the topics and vocabulary used are simply not present in everyday conversations in my village. But because I can communicate with the people around me, it doesn’t really matter. None of my future plans require me to become fluent in the “standard” form of Armenian.

I’m looking forward to the winter because I have a reading list stacked up for the long and frigid days. A taste: another Dostoyevsky novel, Jack London, Vonnegut, Mikhail Bakunin and other anarchist literature, Cornel West, Philip Yancey, Upton Sinclair, Dickens, Robert Reich, and other lesser known works. I recently finished a history of Afghanistan, Carter’s book on Israel/Palestine, my second round of Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship (fantastic), and near the end of my first full book in Spanish, Antes de Ser Libre.