Lots of Lasts

I’ll be honest, I kind of felt like I was going to be here forever. Once I decided to extend for four months, I stopped worrying about what it would be like when I finally had to leave. That was something that could be left for later, something that could be easily ignored. Somehow, here we are in March, and “later” is now. Last week, all of the things that have become constants in my life here changed.

Me, Inga, and Zadig. The language class dream team.

Language class. Language class became one of the highlights of my week. I finally ended up in a class that was perfect for me. It was just me and one other guy, Zadig, plus our teacher, Inga. Zadig is hilarious and a super-fast learner. He’s been here far shorter than I have, but his vocabulary and speaking confidence are waaay beyond mine. Inga is the coolest. She’s the teacher I was assigned to when I first moved to Yerevan, and the more time I spent in her class, the more I realized how good she is at altering her teaching style to suit the people in the class. With Zadig and me, she gave us fun homework writing prompts, she made us speak ALL the time in class, and she came with different games and activities to help us grow our vocabularies and learn to speak about a wide range of topics.

Every class made me laugh, every class made me feel like I was learning, and every class made me want to stay even longer so that I wouldn’t have to leave Zadig and Inga and could keep practicing. During our last class, Inga had us debate on if all of the cars in Armenia should be required to be yellow. I, of course, got assigned the “yes” stance, and I was impressed with how many words I knew and how quickly I managed to plan out and write my arguments in Armenian. I certainly still have a long way to go (and Zadig’s Armenian is about 200 steps beyond mine already), but I’m really proud of what I managed to learn and how confident I’ve become (which is still not as confident as I probably should be, but it’s better than the mute I was before).

At the end of my last class on Thursday, I gave Inga a card I made for her and then sprinted out of there before I could start crying. I’ve become quite the emotional mess over the last couple of years. No matter how many times you go through it though, it never gets easier to leave behind something that feels perfect and that you know will never be the same again.

We did a “girls’ dinner” the one Friday night with all of the women from work. It was a lot of fun to spend time with everyone in a different context! From left to right it’s Laura, Yelena, me, Olivia, and Hayasa

Work. My job at Aleppo-NGO was ever-changing, but that’s one of the things I loved the most about it. I’ve always been someone who has a lot of different interests, and I’m always looking for ways to engage all of them. This job did it. Sure, there were plenty of times that were frustrating and tiring, but I felt like I was being pushed to learn new things and think outside the box. I felt like ALL of my different skill areas were being used. My last project was helping to redesign/update the website, and that involved rewriting EVERYTHING, making graphics for the different programs and projects, and coming up with ways to tweak the existing design to make it look better. I got to write, design, be creative, and use my brain. It was awesome!! Though don’t look at the website right now and think that it’s the work I did… they’re still putting everything together, and my stuff isn’t on there yet.

Besides the actual work I did there, my relationships with my coworkers really took off during my last couple months. I hung out with them outside of work, we had more fun at work, and I generally I just felt more comfortable being there and talking to them and like I was accepted as part of the team.

I don’t know why the quality of this picture is so terrible, but this is from a farewell dinner the people from work had for me. From left to right it’s Hayasa, Olivia, me, Yelena, and Hagop. Not pictured: Sarkis and Laura

Living situation. I moved out of my apartment at the end of February. Currently, my stuff is stored at my friend Zoe’s and I’m wandering like a nomad. I had my share of apartment struggles, including not being able to communicate with the property manager guy and him constantly judging me for “not knowing Armenian” (though really he just terrified me because I knew that he was judging me), I had a constant place where I could be alone, organize my stuff, and unwind.

St. Vartan Mamigonian statue in Yerevan. I took this during one of my “feeling nostalgic” moments. I also realized that I had no pictures of it because I lived so close, and if you walk by something every day, why would you take a picture of it?

My last week was filled with various walks around the city, listening to sad, overly dramatic music (because what better to do when you’re on the constant verge of tears?), and reminiscing about my time in Armenia. On my last day of work, Mount Ararat was the clearest I’ve ever seen it. You could see Masis and Sis (the tall and shorter peaks), plus the rest of the mountain range. I’ve literally never seen the range before because usually, the entire base of the mountain is clouded, and you can just see this mystical peak coming up above the clouds. It was incredibly cool, and I kind of felt like God was giving me a little present for my last day. It certainly made things a little less bitter and more sweet in the whole “bittersweet” equation.

Mount Ararat on my last day of work!

For the rest of my time in Armenia, I’m doing fun thing after fun thing. It’s hard to be sad when there’s so much cool stuff ahead (though trust me, I’m still managing). This week, I’m spending some time travelling around the southern part of Armenia. I haven’t spent much time in that part of the country, and there are a few things that I’d definitely like to see before I leave… plus, why not? Next week, my cousins are coming, and we’re going to have another Armenia adventure + tour guide Lara experience. After that, I’m going on a end-date-TBD wander around Europe and places (get excited for some cool new countries and cities in the future!… also, now accepting suggestions if you have any places I should definitely visit!) before going home and having a big “WHAT IS MY LIFE?” existential questioning (I don’t want to use the word “crisis” because that makes it sound negative when it’s actually a very exciting positive).

So… things are changing, whether I’m ready or not. The future is fun and exciting, and don’t ask me what’s next because at this point, your guess is as good as mine. Stay tuned for adventures from the south.

Life Back in Armenia

It’s been a long journey, but welcome back to Armenia! It took me so long to write about everything that I did in Lebanon and Dubai that I’ve actually been back for a few weeks now. It’s amazing how much can happen in the city when you’re only gone for a week or so!

After I went home for Thanksgiving, I came back to a bunch of lights and light sculptures all over the city. When I came back from Lebanon, they were starting to take things down, and within a day or two after Old New Year (January 13th), it was like the holidays never happened.

I have a proposal. How about we stop calling them “Christmas lights” (note: this is not a religious or political statement. This is a “Lara likes lights” statement) and start calling them “winter lights”? Here’s my reasoning: “Christmas lights” implies that the lights are decorations for a holiday, and once the holiday is over, the lights should go away. I don’t like that. Lights are one of the things that make the winter less sad and dreary and more like a winter dreamland. Why do we take them down when we’re not even halfway through winter? I could use some winter dreamland encouragement to keep me from winter sadness whether it’s December or February! If we start to call them “winter lights” instead, maybe people will think that it’s okay to leave them up until the end of winter, and then I… I mean “we”… can enjoy the twinkly lights for a couple more months.

Spring flowers!

Speaking of rushing things, before the Christmas lights were even taken down, people seemed to just decide that it was springtime aka flower time. All around the city, there are people selling little bundles of yellow flowers for 100 drams each. I asked my coworkers about them, and they said, “Oh, they’re selling them because it’s spring!” I was like, “Uhh… it’s January…”

To be fair, this has been an incredibly mild winter. Throughout the fall, anytime I told someone that I was planning to stay until March, they took it upon themselves to prepare me for the horrible winter ahead. They said that last year, the temperatures were frigid, and it snowed a TON. I was ready for some sort of snowpocalypse, and I was even a little excited because I haven’t had a good, snowy winter in a while.

All of that mental preparation ended up being completely unnecessary. I think that Yerevan and the U.S. east coast traded winters because while it’s been horribly cold and record-breakingly snowy there, here it’s been amazingly pleasant. The temperature has barely dropped below freezing, and we only had snow stick once… and it was about a centimeter of snow that melted by the end of the day. Now, in mid-February, it really is starting to feel like spring. The temperatures are usually slightly above freezing in the morning, but by midday, it’s around 8-10 degrees C (about 50 degrees F). I’m not going to complain because if we’re being completely honest, I would have been miserable in a real winter. I haven’t experienced an actual winter since 2015-2016 because I was in Peru at this time last year, and it was summer there!

It’s looking like springtime! You can kind of see Ararat in the distance.

Shiny kitchen!

Life has been hectic since I got back. Work has been seemingly nonstop with me running from one thing to the next. I honestly can’t even remember what I’ve done since I’ve been back because I’ve been here and there doing this and that, and my head is spinning. The most recent big and exciting thing happening is that the kitchen project I’ve been helping with since September is close to becoming a reality! They held a few events with various donors last week, and the construction work should be finished soon! I think I’ll be around to see the finished product, though it won’t actually open until after I’m gone. They’ve done some training sessions and stuff to prepare, but there is still a little logistical work to finish before it can open for real. Here’s an article that appeared in the Armenian Weekly about the project!

Besides helping with the planning and the construction drawings for the kitchen, I’ve most recently been asked to help with the logo. That’s been a whole adventure in itself because I’ve done graphic design-type things before, but I’ve never made a logo. I had to learn a new computer program, and it’s been pushing me to be creative in a new way. I finally came up with something that I think is brilliant, but I’m not sure that they’re going to use it which is kind of a bummer… oh, well. Such is life. I can still put it in my portfolio though because I’m proud of it.

Check out my name on the presentation slide! It’s second to last 😀 it was nice of them to give me a shout out.

For the rest of my time here, I’m mostly going to keep working on developing new content and an updated layout for the website. Oh, and I’ve also been assigned the task of social media manager for the twitter and Instagram accounts which is another new adventure for me. I’m a woman of many hats… the twitter hat and the photographer hat are probably my two least favorite at the moment, but I’m still wearing them anyway. While I’m here, I’ll do whatever I can to help.

One of my ongoing sources of joy is the ridiculous English things they have here. This is on a school notebook… like what??

A bright spot in the chaos has been language class. Remember how, back around Thanksgiving, I finally felt like I was making breakthroughs with my Armenian teacher, Inga? Then, there weren’t enough people in my class, and Inga got switched to a beginner-level group. I was assigned to a different teacher, I started feeling like I wasn’t learning anything, not because my new teacher wasn’t doing a good job but because I needed to focus on different things than what she was covering.

Then, a couple weeks ago, one of the girls in my old teacher’s class told me that she thought I might be okay moving back if I wanted. Only she and one other guy were left in the class, and she said that they were mostly just working on speaking which is exactly what I need. I talked to Inga about it, she said she had been thinking the same thing, and I changed back!

Since then, class has been great!! It’s just me and the guy, and we’re both good at different things. I know more grammar than he does, but his vocabulary is MUCH better than mine, and he’s one of those people who will just speak with no fear of making mistakes. I know that’s how you should be when learning a language, but it’s something I always struggle to do. Inga is focusing on making us speak, and she doesn’t let me just sit there silently. That’s exactly what I need. I feel like I’m making big strides of improvement again which is exciting. She also gives us interesting but challenging homework, and I don’t even mind spending a lot of time on it because it’s fun to come up with funny ideas and practice writing. For example, for next class, our assignment is to write a biography of our grown-up lives if we had become the people our younger selves had dreamed of becoming. Little Lara was a riot, so I’m looking forward to working on that.

My neighbors are doing construction out in the elevator lobby, and it keeps on surprising me when I come home. This day, I took the elevator up to our floor and was greeted with this tape barricade. I had to go down a floor, walk up, and then shuffle along the one un-concreted strip along the wall to get to my door.

Another time, they were plastering the walls. The guy stands on this to get the upper part of the wall… but I was walking up the stairs and was less than thrilled to find this barrier in my way (then, of course, I refused to go and use the elevator, so I climbed up and over it to get home).

In general, I’m starting to get that feeling of time moving too quickly. Language class is great, and I don’t want it to end. I have some really cool friends here, and I don’t want to leave them just yet. At the same time though, I’m mostly okay with leaving. I feel like I’ve done what I came to do. I have some closure. I’m ready to embark on a new adventure.

Despite that emotional readiness, I’m still getting stressed/anxious about everything I need to get done before I leave. I’m trying to fight it because worrying is the quickest way to ruin an experience, but I’ll be honest, it’s not going incredibly well. I know it’s mostly irrational, but that doesn’t help to make it go away. I’m stressed and anxious about moving out of my apartment, the things I need to finish at work, the things I haven’t seen/done yet, the logistics for the mini-southern Armenia trip I want to do before I go, the plans for the week that my cousins are coming, and the plans for the little Euro-trip I want to take before coming home. I’m looking at that list and shaking my head at myself because they’re all good things that I should just be excited about, but anxiety is a cruel thing. I just keep praying for a sense of calmness and peace because there’s no way I’m going to get over it on my own.

Me and my coworkers! I’m getting close to them which is going to make leaving a little harder. From left to right we have Laura, Yelena, me, Olivia, and Hayasa. We went out to dinner together, and it was a lot of fun!

This was on the holiday of Trndez, another one of those pagan-turned-Christian holidays. It used to be a sun/fire worship ritual meant to help strengthen the sun at the beginning of spring. Young women would jump over the fire so that they would bear “strong and intelligent male children”… classic. Now, they say that the fire symbolizes God’s light and warmth. Newlyweds especially will jump over the fire symbolizing their joy and happiness (and not due to superstition/to chase away evil because that would be non-Christian).

Websites and LIGHTS

My resume at the end of this year is going to be a total hodgepodge. In Ghana, I was a farmer, math and English teacher, tutor, computer repairwoman, carpenter, mason, and hole digger. In Peru, I was an engineering teacher, lighting consultant, and electrical surveyor. In India, I was an architect, dance choreographer, Bible storyteller, and English literature teacher. Here, I’ve been an AutoCAD teacher, archaeology laborer (aka bucket carrier), architect, kitchen designer, and content editor… and now, you can add amateur graphic designer and marketing consultant to that list.

Winter wonderland!

With the construction underway on the project at work, I’ve been dabbling in some other tasks. One of the other volunteers and I are determined to broaden the reach of the organization so that they can get more donations. They’re doing awesome work, but it’s not well publicized. If you want people to donate to support your work, you need to show what exactly it is that you’re doing. You need to promote your activities so that more people hear about your organization and are motivated to help. You also need to have a way for people to donate… ideally one that’s functional.

Disclaimer: I’m not a marketing expert. I didn’t study business. I don’t have experience specifically in this field. However, I do have experience with selling things… it started with Girl Scout cookies and led me to every merchandise committee in existence in university. Selling merchandise is all about making products that people will want and then alerting people to their existence. This isn’t so different. We already have products that people want (aka an organization that’s doing good, effective work). Now, we just need to spread the word. Maybe it sounds stupid to equate selling t-shirts with fundraising for an NGO, but seriously, there’s plenty of overlap in skills and thought processes.

Isn’t it just the perfect amount?

Our first project is the website. There’s a lot of information there already, but some things about the way it’s organized are confusing. We’re going to try to reorganize a bit, plus add more information that will hopefully answer some of the questions a potential donor would have about the logistics of the different programs. Anyway, I’ll let you know when it’s finished so that you can critique our work and offer suggestions (because what could be better than crowd-feedbacking? It’s like crowdfunding for ideas).

I also got placed in charge of designing the Christmas card that they send out to all the donors, so that resulted in a full day of me squinting at my computer screen and trying to come up with an idea that wouldn’t be too stupid. I don’t know, I think it turned out okay. I also didn’t have all of the graphic design resources that I would ideally have for a project like this, so I had to get creative with powerpoint and free editing software. It was a fun adventure… and by fun I mean that if I could afford photoshop, I could have finished the whole thing with about 10% of the effort.

The card…. Shh! It still hasn’t been sent out yet, so feel honored to be one of the first crew to see it.

In other exciting news, it snowed here!! It was about a week and a half ago, and it was the best kind of snow… it happened overnight, there was only about an inch, and it was all melted by the time I was walking home from work. You get all the beauty of snow with none of the annoyance! If only the whole winter could go like this… I know that’s not going to happen, though. It’s okay. I’ll enjoy the mild weather while it lasts!

Everything is so pretty under a layer of snow

Just enough to hide the litter on the ground and make the world look clean

I was on my way to work when I took this, but if I hadn’t been, I think I would have insisted on taking a quick frolic through the snow.

The city is getting even more out of control with the lights. I’m sure you’re probably sick of hearing my rants about the insanity of this city, but you’re going to have to put up with them a bit longer, sorry. They are STILL putting up new decorations. They started when I was home for Thanksgiving, and every time I think they must be out of places to put more lights, I’m proven wrong. There are lights everywhere. Everywhere. EVERYWHERE. Do you understand yet? No. You couldn’t possibly.

2018! Almost!

There are at least two ginormous Christmas trees, one in Republic Square and the other in front of Opera. Northern Avenue has lights strung up over the entire street like a light canopy. There are light sculptures in every fountain. There’s a Christmas Village on Northern. There’s a light tunnel in Republic Square. There are these massive light arches there too. In front of Opera, besides the huge tree, they have a giant light ornament that you can walk inside, plus big, light-up castles. There are light shapes hanging from the trees, and lights and lights and lights to the point where you think that if they ever turn them all on, all of the villages in the rest of the country are going to have to have their power cut in order to accommodate them (that’s a depressing joke, but it’s also one of those things that unfortunately wouldn’t be surprising).

Using a bucket truck to string the lights over Northern Ave

Northern Avenue with only some of the lights turned on… It’s going to be crazy once they get the overhead lights going.

Random concert on Northern!

More decorations

I still can’t figure out when all of the lights will get turned on, but I am the MOST excited. It’s another one of those situations (like Yerevan’s birthday party) where I think the whole thing is completely ridiculous and beyond crazy, but it’s happening no matter what I think, so why not enjoy it? I have some pictures, but I promise that as soon as more things get turned on, I’ll take so many that your eyes will be permanently damaged from all of the lights shining in them. Okay, maybe not your eyes but DEFINITELY mine. Even with the limited number operating so far, I think I’m permanently seeing spots.

Christmas Village on Northern

Lights lights lights!

Work and Life and Work

I haven’t given a work/general life update in a while, so let me try to catch you up! After my family left, it was a bit of chaos. I spent the first two weeks back at work running around like a lunatic. The plans needed to be finalized for the project and ASAP. In the week that I was gone, things just piled up, and when I got back, it was a combination of catching up on what I missed and trying to cross tasks off the list.

Festive stairwell decorations at work.

There were also meetings. A lot of meetings. Also, a lot of meetings that I had little to no notice of. For example:

“Hey, Lara. The people from the electrical utility company are going to visit the property to see where we want them to bring the electrical service.”

“Okay, no problem. When are they coming?”

“They’re already there. Can you go meet them now?”

I feel like I’ve mentioned this before, but how the heck did they put up these clotheslines??? They are NOT close to the ground, and some of them aren’t even close to a window on the opposite building. I don’t get it.

I mean, luckily there hasn’t been anything yet that I couldn’t handle. I knew what I needed to tell the electrical guy, and when the same thing happened later with the structural/seismic engineer, I knew what I needed to talk to him about too. He was another person who I was immediately impressed by and respected. He was nice, remarked that I look like his brother’s granddaughter, and told me that my Armenian is good. (True or not, I’ll take the compliment. I think that my accent is decent, so people always assume that I can speak a lot more than I actually can. At least that’s one less thing I need to work on.) Besides just being a nice guy, I could tell that he knew what he was talking about. He helped to design the original building, so I felt pretty confident that if he told us it wasn’t going to fall down if we cut a door out of one of the walls, he was right.

Besides the many surprise meetings, in classic building design fashion, everything changed about 100 times. Here’s the general summary of the last three weeks:

  1. Have a meeting.
  2. Make decisions.
  3. Lara makes a design based on the decisions.
  4. Everyone accepts the design.
  5. Something changes. Or someone changes their mind.
  6. Repeat infinitely.

It rained a couple of days, and this is the exit from my building. You couldn’t get anywhere without walking through like 3 inches of water. I got downstairs in my sneakers, opened the door, and turned right around to go and change into waterproof shoes.

If you think that sounds exhausting, you’re right. If you think that sounds frustrating, it probably should be, but I’ve decided I’m just going to go with the flow. Otherwise, I would have lost my mind by now. As if things couldn’t get any more ridiculous, I got back from Thanksgiving to learn that the construction deadline has been moved up from the end of the year… to December 4th. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. That. Is. Crazy. They started working on the walls and the ceiling last week, but how on earth are they supposed to be ready for the equipment in 5 days?!? That’s a whopping two weeks total for construction, and that’s ridiculous. I mean, I guess technically almost anything is possible, but only if either money or quality compromises are made. I don’t know. I’m just going to do my best because that’s all I can control.

Me with Nareg and Rachel, my work friends who left me 😦

Aside from work, life has been good! I mean, life is good even with work, but everything else is good too. I feel like I’m making progress again in language class, and that’s a huge relief after feeling like I was stuck in place or even regressing. The week before I flew home for Thanksgiving, I was the only student in my language class, and it was awesome! My teacher and I went over a bunch of things I wanted to learn and did a lot of speaking practice. I still am far from good, but my vocabulary is improving and I’m feeling more comfortable. It’s exciting! I also feel like I’m getting to know my teacher better, and that makes class more fun in general.

Practicing our funny faces. This kid has an evil eye like nothing you’ve ever seen.

Now, I’m back after spending Thanksgiving at home. It was kind of a whirlwind week. The goals were to see some friends and spend as much time with family as possible, and I’d say I achieved both of those. It was another one of those “not exactly what I would call restful” vacations, but a good emotional recharge nonetheless.

The best thing to come out of the week (besides a lot of baby smiles) was the scheduling of another family vacation to Armenia! This time, three of my cousins are coming in March! The whole thing went from a semi-joking, “Hey maybe I’ll visit you haha,” from one of them into a, “Hey our vacations match up! The three of us should actually go,” in about 5 minutes, and two days later, the plane tickets were purchased. Talk about major spur-of-the-moment decisions! If you’re thinking, “I thought you were leaving at the end of February,” well… make that March.

In the time that I was away, the temperature dropped about 15 degrees (F), all of the fountains in the city got embellished with fancy lighted sculpture things (they already drained them a few weeks ago), and two of my co-volunteers at Aleppo went home. Lots of changes, but I’m still here! It’s cool getting to see how the city changes throughout the year. Can you believe that December is the beginning of my 6th month in Armenia?? Me. Neither.

One of the fountain sculpture things. It’s not lit up, but maybe there’s some fountain lighting day that hasn’t happened yet (or it was just too early in the night).

Life Update

My family came to visit me!! Well, now they came and went actually. They were here for a week, and it was crazy busy and tiring, so I didn’t have a chance to write. I’ll retroactively post over the next week or so about some of the things that we did, but first, I have a life update for you!

Here are a few random, unrelated pictures… I laughed at this sign. At the bottom where it’s telling you not to litter, it says “person” under the person throwing trash into a bin and “pig” under the pig littering. In case the images weren’t enough hahahaha.

Surprise! My timeline for this trip has changed a little… I was originally thinking that I was going to be here for about four months, until sometime in October, but I’ve decided to stay until at least the end of February. I’m finishing my time with Birthright and will be volunteering directly with Aleppo-NGO.

My plan makes perfect sense to me, and my family is on board too, so I don’t think I’m crazy. I was a little worried that I was subconsciously trying to find an excuse to stay longer and put off figuring out what’s next for me, but maybe THIS is what’s supposed to be next. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced.

Here’s the backstory:

When I moved from Gyumri to Yerevan, I was placed with Aleppo-NGO, an organization that helps Syrian refugees in Armenia, as a content writer. I was excited about that. I love to write, I love to proofread, and I thought Aleppo-NGO was a super cool organization. Within about a month, they had a need for some architecture help, and it was all stuff that I could easily do for them. From there, things kind of just took off. The construction project became a priority, and they said that I could be involved for as long as I was around. Whattttt??

The sunset on my walk home from work one day!

It seems like the whole thing fell into place too perfectly for it to just be by chance. How many content writer volunteers also have a building design/construction background? I feel like I’m filling a need and am doing work that I’m uniquely suited for. Maybe it seems crazy to stay and work on this when I could go home and get a job and do similar things while also getting a paycheck, but I think it’s going to be a good experience for me. I’m getting to do all sorts of new things, and once the construction starts, I’ll be involved with that as well.

Coffee cup car. Why??

You’re probably wondering what exactly this project is… Two of the biggest challenges refugees face when coming to a new country are finding housing and employment. Aleppo-NGO has a few different programs to help with the housing challenge and works to help people find jobs. This project approaches the employment challenge from a different angle –creating jobs.

The project is a cuisine center that will mass produce Middle Eastern food for catering or grocery store distribution. It will provide jobs for Syrian refugees, especially those from underemployed groups like women and mentally and physically disabled people. Since it’s not for profit, the goal is to pay the employees higher-than-average wages and put any other profits back into the business. It’s a renovation project in an existing space, and there are a lot of things that need to be worked out to make the property function properly for this purpose.

This is the main part of the space that’s going to be renovated.

It’s a big job, and thankfully, all of the responsibility for the design isn’t falling on me. They also have a contractor and an engineer on board, and I’ve been very impressed with the two of them so far. They clearly know a lot, and I’ve gotten good vibes from them personality-wise as well. Sometimes it’s a struggle to be a woman in these contexts, but both of them have shown me nothing but respect. First of all, they both initiated handshakes with me when we met. That might seem like nothing, but here, it’s a big deal. Usually, if you’re meeting a man and you’re with men, all of the men will shake hands, and you’ll either get a head nod or completely ignored. I’ve started just sticking my hand out and leaving it there until it gets shaken, basically forcing people to acknowledge me. Second, they explain things to me, ask for my opinion, and listen when I have something to say. I think this is going to be a good learning experience for me.

Rachel (a friend who also works at Aleppo-NGO) helped me to measure all of the rooms and openings and such so that I could make an accurate drawing of the existing conditions. I couldn’t have done it without her!

Oh, and they both speak English fantastically well, so that helps too. I’m still getting good Armenian practice though. We had a meeting today, and it was at least 90% in Armenian with people cluing me in on the topic in English every once in a while. I did an okay job of following the conversation, but it’s hard when people talk quickly and are using words that I’m not familiar with (I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn that we didn’t get to the “building design and construction” vocabulary list in Armenian class yet).

Anyway, there you have it! I’ll be in Armenia for at least four more months which means I should be fluent by the time I leave (not). I’m coming home for Thanksgiving because it’s a big event in my family and  I didn’t want to miss seeing everyone. It’s not exactly ideal timing for the project, but I have to remind myself that I’m a volunteer. I’m already staying longer to help, and I’m not getting paid. I’m allowed to take a break without feeling bad!

Lots of Changes

This was a weird week. There are a lot of things changing at once, and I’m starting to feel a little overwhelmed.

Here’s a random collection of pictures of my and my departing friends *tear*…
Shant, Carineh, and me out at dinner.

The first big change was the weather. Last weekend, the temperature was still in the low 90s. This weekend, we’ve been in the mid-60s. That. Is. Crazy. I wore shorts and a tank top at the end of last week. This week, I’m wearing pants and a fleece and am sleeping with the windows closed and all of the blankets we have piled on top of me. Okay, that’s a small exaggeration, but it’s a substantial change which I completely wasn’t ready for.

My 3D model! I promise I didn’t select those building colors… that’s what they actually look like.

Next, my job went to like a full-on architecture position this week. That’s not a bad thing, just kind of funny. To give you a little more info about the project we’re working on, one of the big challenges that refugees face is finding employment. An even bigger challenge is finding employment that pays a living wage. A lot of people here were given apartments after the fall of the Soviet Union, so they don’t have to worry about paying rent. Refugees, on the other hand, don’t have that benefit, so they need to find higher-paying jobs than most of the people living here because they have a huge extra expense each month. The national average monthly salary is a little less than $400. Rent eats up half of that, if not more, and that’s not even in a central location.

Carineh and me on top of Aragats

Aleppo-NGO’s plan is to make cuisine center that manufactures frozen Middle Eastern food for sale in grocery stores plus has a little dine-in/carry out component. It will employ refugees from Syria, train them to work in the service industry here and develop management skills, and pay them wages that are higher than the market rate. From there, people can find other jobs, start their own businesses, etc, but it’s a way for them to get some experience and management training and get used to the logistics of running a business in Armenia.

They have the property, and now they’re fundraising and applying for different grants to pay for the construction and furnishing costs. I spent the first half of the week developing some possible floor plans for the report and the second half creating some graphics using the 3D model I started last week. It’s been fun to get to do something different and feel like I’m contributing in a way that is really taking advantage of my skills. Larkitect is taking the world by storm.

Finally, this is the last week that a lot of my friends are going to be here. We had a pretty solid crew of 5 of us who met in Gyumri and moved to Yerevan basically at the same time: Shant, Carineh, Gagik, Talene, and me. Shant has been gone for a couple weeks now, Carineh just left this morning, Gagik was supposed to leave last Friday night, and Talene will be in Armenia for a couple more weeks but is going to be sightseeing with her cousin which means she’s basically gone. The whole “Gagik was supposed to leave” thing is because he decided to change his ticket and stay another month! So that’s something at least. It’s still going to be pretty rough without the others though. My other good friend, Arin, leaves on Tuesday. That means I’ve been forced to try to branch out and make more friends. Ugh. It’s overwhelming because there are so many volunteers, and how do you even start going through 100 people to find the ones you get along with?

Talene and me enjoying each other’s company in Halidzor on the way to Tatev Monastery

I told everyone that they’re all required to find me one replacement friend before they leave. That’s only fair, right? They came through pretty well actually. I’ve met some people in the last couple of weeks who seem cool, so now I just need to do the whole “beginning of friendship effort” thing. Exhausting.

I think I’m going to be okay, though. Plus, it’s only three more weeks until my family comes to visit me!!! Yup, that’s right! My parents and my brother are coming for about 8 days at the end of October, and I’m super excited about it. We’re going to have so much fun!

Aleppo-NGO

Here are some random pictures from my time in Yerevan so far. This is the Cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator. The sky behind it is to the east, but it always gets some awesome reflected light from the sunset!

Along with my move to Yerevan came a new job! I got an email about a month before moving that asked what kind of job I wanted to do. I had no idea. I hate that question because it’s like, “Name the job that you would ideally like to have, but we’re not going to give you any ideas about what options are available.” Okayyy… Instead of giving a direct answer, I sent back a list of a couple thoughts. I said that I like doing anything creative or active, I wanted to work for a non-profit (because if they’re making money, they should be paying someone rather than benefitting from my free labor), I didn’t want to teach, and I didn’t want to work with kids (I’ve had enough of that for now).

We went to the Armenia vs. Denmark World Cup qualifying game. This is a nice, blurry picture of me and my friends in front of the stadium. Gagik, Talene, me, and Carineh.

After a couple of options got sent my way, I agreed to work for Aleppo-NGO (you can check out their website HERE). It’s a non-profit that works with Syrian refugees in Armenia. When I was trying to decide if I wanted to work for them and was browsing their website, I was amazed by how much they have going on. I kind of wondered if it was all for real, and the answer is yes. They organize something like eleven different programs and work with 1,800 families. Like what. It seemed to me that they could probably use some help, so I said, “okay!” and that was that.

I just think this is funny. We were shopping for cleaning supplies and came across refrigerator and microwave cleaner. Because you definitely can’t use the same thing to clean both, AND they’re different prices.

My first day in Yerevan, I went with another girl, Rachel, for what was effectively an interview. She is a fine artist, and they matched her with Aleppo-NGO to run art classes. My job description is “content writer”, but I told them that I’ll do whatever they need. I had a really good feeling after that first meeting. We met with a man and a woman, Sarkis and Hayasa, and they actually seemed like they cared that we were going to work with them! I know that sounds stupid, but sometimes volunteers don’t feel like they’re being useful. I didn’t get the feeling that I was going to have that problem. Sarkis even had our resumes printed out and asked us questions about them! Talk about prepared! Maybe that all sounds basic, but it’s not something I’ve come to expect here.

I’ve been there for a couple of weeks now, and I love it. I get to do all things that I think are super fun! My first week was spent going through their press releases from the last few months and editing them for grammar/making them sound like normal English. Those are all written in Armenian and then translated, so sometimes things come out weird on the other end. Also, fun fact: Armenians love to use adjectives, so instead of just saying “the youth went on a walk through the city on Sunday”, it’s more like “the excited youth went on a relaxing and informative walk through the beautiful city last Sunday, a serene and perfectly pleasant and wonderful day”. I feel like I’m an adjective hater because I take probably 90% of them out, but I’m all about using them if it makes sense and doesn’t just add unnecessary fluff.

I laughed at this too… They were using pulleys to move this railing up a building. There were two guys in charge of the lifting and one guy holding a rope to make sure it didn’t bash into the building. It all looked very safe.

I also have gotten to do some writing! I wrote an article (that’s still in progress, but it’ll hopefully be finished soon). It’s nothing too exciting, just writing up an interview that they did, but I had fun doing it anyway.

The most unexpected task has been some architecture-related work. Yup, that’s right! Lark-itect is back in action! They have a funding proposal going out for a project, and they asked if I could make some graphics for the report! I’m working on putting together a potential floor plan for the space they’re renovating for the project, plus I started a 3D model on Friday. I’m using a computer program for the 3D model that I haven’t used in probably 6 years (Google Sketch-up), so that’s been interesting. It’s good practice!

Anyway, I’ll write more about what they do in another post. They have so many projects going on that I could easily write a book about them. For now though, I’ll just say that I am super happy to be there, and I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile. It’s nice to feel that way.