Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! Շնորհավոր նոր տարի (shnorhavor nor dari)! Wow! Can you believe it? 2018. I’m feeling good about this year based on nothing more than the fact that 8 is my lucky number. This has been my only New Year’s out of the USA, and it was definitely a different kind of experience!

Tree at the base of Cascade

I’m used to New Year’s being a sort of “friends’ holiday”. You spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with family, and on New Year’s, you spend time with your friends. Here, that is NOT the case. New Year’s is a massive family holiday, and it launches a celebration that lasts an entire week, until Armenian Christmas on January 6th.

Like everything else here, there’s a lot of history behind New Year’s. Throughout the years, it’s been celebrated on multiple different days. “Kaghand” new year was celebrated on March 21st, coinciding with the spring equinox and the awakening of nature. “Navasard” new year was celebrated on August 11th, the day that the Armenian patriarch Hayk defeated the Babylonian King Bel, a tyrant seeking to extend his power over the whole earth. That day, Hayk killed Bel in battle with a long arrow, guaranteeing the freedom of his people and establishing Armenia in the year 2492 BC. (Hayk apparently had a pretty busy life because he also helped to build the Tower of Babel. That’s the tower in the Bible that people were trying to build up to heaven, and God disrupted its construction by making the people speak different languages.)

Ridiculous light tree

Next, according to the Julian calendar, the new year falls on January 14th. This is now called “Old New Year” and is still celebrated, though to a lesser degree than “New New Year” on January 1st, recognized on that date after switching to the Gregorian calendar in the 18th century. Does your head hurt yet? Yeah, same. During the Soviet years, the new year was celebrated three times each year: at midnight the night of December 31st, at 1AM (midnight in Moscow), and again the night of January 13th.

New Year’s is when Dzmer Papik (Santa Claus/Grandfather Winter) comes and brings presents. Families gather and eat a big meal at midnight after spending the entire day cooking enough food for a week. No matter the economic status of the family, significant money and effort are put into the table for New Year’s. People do what they need to do to create a spectacular feast.

The rest of the week is national holidays, and they’re spent going from relative’s house to relative’s house, visiting and eating more. Apparently, there’s a proper order to do your visits in. You would visit your parents, for example, first and move through the relatives and close friends from there. The most important people should be visited in the first couple days. I don’t completely understand how you’re supposed to know if the people you’re visiting are home considering everyone is going around doing visits… who knows. But even if you’ve been visited at your home by someone, that doesn’t mean that you’re not going to go later and visit them at home too. Of course, each visit includes eating. It’s amazing that everyone in this country isn’t as big as a whale.

I didn’t know about these lights until last night! There are lights going allllll the way up Cascade, and they look awesome! There are some twinkle lights too.

More lights

High-quality picture of me with a light-up reindeer

I didn’t have any big plans for the night until my friend Liz invited me to come over and celebrate with her host family! I was excited to get an authentic Armenian New Year’s experience. The walk over to their apartment was super eerie. I have never seen the street so deserted! It was especially startling considering how crowded everything was over the last couple of days as everyone did their last-minute shopping. At that point, the shopping was finished, and everyone was inside getting ready to commence the eating! I got to the apartment around 11:30, and Liz’s host mom was just finishing up cooking. They live close to Republic Square, so when the clock struck midnight, we crowded around the windows to watch the fireworks.

My plan before getting invited to Liz’s was to check out the festivities in Republic Square. They had a concert and a countdown and, of course, fireworks. In hindsight, I would have been miserable there. As usual, they were setting the fireworks off terrifyingly close to the crowd. When I talked to my parents earlier in the day, my mom said, “You’re not scared of fireworks anymore, right? You used to hate them!” Welllll. I don’t know that I would use the word “scared”, but I certainly don’t prefer them. It’s much better when you’re inside, can’t hear them as well, and can still see them. Everything definitely worked out for the better.

Republic Square New Year’s concert

Besides having a great view of the official fireworks in Republic Square, we also had front row seats for the many backyard firework displays. They were everywhere. I saw some getting launched off the top of an apartment building earlier in the day, and I’m sure that’s not uncommon. Seems like a horrible idea. We saw a few flying out of Liz’s building, and it seriously looked like the people on the floor above were just launching them out of their window. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Tree at an intersection because why not

Being in Armenia has made me despise fireworks (previously I just had a strong aversion). At home, I only have to deal with them a couple times each year. Here, it’s practically every night. There isn’t like a 15-minute fireworks show, but there are at least a few because every celebration deserves some firepower. I think there’s something else going on right now too because some of the explosions sound more like little bombs than fireworks. They remind me of the firecrackers that the operations people would use back in university to scare the crows off campus. Is crow relocation a thing here too? I don’t know, but I’m not a fan. I’ll be happy when we’re back to the usual five fireworks per night and no terrifying firecrackers. (Side note: if you enjoy reading about crow relocation like it’s a man vs. bird war, check out THIS ARTICLE. Crow relocation was consistently one of my favorite wintertime amusements in university.)

These are fun

Anyway, after the official fireworks ended, we went to eat the incredible meal that Liz’s host mom and sister prepared. There was enough food for thirty people, and there were four of us. Of course, everything was also delicious. I ate so much that I thought I was going to burst, and then they told me that dessert was next. Uh oh. There’s always room for dessert, though.

It was nice to spend time with a family again, especially after living alone for the last four months. Both Liz’s host mom and sister speak English fantastically well, so I got to participate in the conversation and really feel like I was part of their family. It was a lot of fun! After dinner, Liz, her sister, and I watched a movie together until about 5:30AM. I have no idea how I stayed awake so late, but I more than made up for it today when I slept until 2PM and still had to drag myself out of bed.

Tomorrow, while all of the locals are doing their annual family visits, I’ll be doing a family visit all the way to Lebanon! Get ready for another trip!

Second Week Struggles

This week has been… chaotic maybe? Today I was a little overwhelmed, and I’m starting to get the feeling that time is moving too quickly. It’s like there’s no time in my schedule for even taking a breath, and I need to take a step back to try to calm myself down.

Current state. While I was laying like this, one of the other volunteers helpfully stacked some rocks on my hands. Accurate.

I think the main thing that’s making me freak out is the class I’m teaching at GTC. It starts next week, and I don’t feel prepared at all. I was trying to convince myself that it will be fine, but I made the mistake of using the “probably not many people will sign up anyway” approach. That fell apart when I found out yesterday that 14 people have already signed up, and we haven’t reached the deadline yet.

This is the first class that I’m teaching where people are coming because they think that I’m going to have something interesting to say. Everywhere else, I had a captive audience, so it was less pressure. Now, not only are people choosing to be there, but I’m literally just making this class up as I go along.

Perashki! This is the same thing we made along with the ponchiks last week. This has potato and some herbs inside, and it cost me 80 dram which is about 17 cents US. Not bad for a whole lunch! (though if my host mom didn’t feed me so much in the morning, I would probably need two of these at lunchtime.. so that’s a whole 34 cents)

The class doesn’t start until Thursday, but I don’t have any more work hours to prepare. I literally had three days because we were forced to miss work today to go to community service at the school, and we’re travelling on Monday. I tried to get out of community service because I seriously felt like I needed to work, but my request was denied. That was a little annoying. So besides already being stressed because of the number of people in the class and the class in general, I lost an entire 6 hours of prep time. I definitely could have made good use of those hours.

I don’t want to keep complaining, but I promised I’d be honest about how I’m feeling. So here you go: today I’m feeling like I’m on the verge of a head explosion. I’ll be fine though. As soon as I make it through the first class, I’ll feel a million times better. On a positive note, I got connected with my translator for the class, and she seems really cool and determined to do a good job. That makes me feel slightly less anxious about the translation situation. Like I said though, I just need to survive class #1 and then it’ll be smooth(er) sailing!

On the home front, my host mom and I have been communicating slightly better. She still laughs at me on a regular basis and sometimes throws up her arms in exasperation when I can’t decode what she’s saying. I thought we were doing okay until today when I said that I liked dinner, and she thought I said that I am beautiful (see-room vs. see-roon). That didn’t get sorted out until she summoned her granddaughter who speaks some English.

Otherwise, I’ve been learning slowly… both the language and the ways of the world here. Just an FYI if you ever come here and are eating hot dogs, they’re always (as far as I now know) wrapped in a thin plastic skin. It’s not like at home where you’re supposed to eat the skin. Here, it’s plastic. I don’t know what kind of idiot would accidentally eat the plastic, but that’s just a random fun fact for you.

Dolma! They can be stuffed with different things, but these had ground beef, rice, onions I think, and some herbs. Then they’re wrapped in grape leaves and boiled. I thought I would be weirded out by the leaves, but I just reminded myself that eating spinach is eating leaves too.

Also, I’m making great strides in the whole “picky eater” thing. It’s mostly just because even if I ask my host mom what something is, I still don’t know after hearing the answer. I’ve been drinking mystery juice daily (it’s good, but I have no clue what’s in it), I had dolma for the first time yesterday (yes, I know it’s disgraceful that I’ve lived 26 years as an Armenian and haven’t eaten dolma before), and I’ve said yes to trying at least a tiny bit of everything I’ve been offered so far. That’s big for me. I can’t say that I’ve added too many new foods to my list of things I’ll keep eating when I leave Armenia, but at least I’m trying (dolma though… that stuff is good).

We leave tomorrow to go to Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh for the weekend. That’s the territory I talked about that’s technically (according to the international community) part of Azerbaijan still, is independent according to Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh, and is part of Armenia according to any Armenian you talk to here. Also, everyone has a different name for it. It’s enough to make your head hurt. So yeah, I don’t know what the internet situation will be there, but I’m going to guess that I’ll be off the grid. Brace yourself for some retroactive posting early next week.

Sarnaghpyur and Ponchiks

Each week, there are other activities planned besides just going to work and language class. They’re supposed to expose us to different things and teach us about Armenian culture, history, etc. We had a couple of extra activities last week, and they were both awesome.

Inside some really old church. I obviously forget how old, but it’s somewhere in the single-digit centuries. No, the metal roofing is not original.

One day, we took a trip to the village where one of the Gyumri Birthright coordinators, Karen (pronounced KAH-ren, or Garen in Western Armenian), grew up, Sarnaghpyur. He took us to check out an NGO that he started and manages there, and it’s actually a really interesting idea.

The basic concept is that whatever kids are interested show up, and they teach each other different skills. The organization renovated three rooms in an abandoned building, and kids can go there whenever they want to meet. It’s the summer now, so there were about 16 kids. During the school year, they said they can get up to like 70 kids.

There’s a kid who’s good at painting, and he teaches a class on painting. Some of the girls teach English, dance, and singing. There are other kids who teach sports or chess. One girl went to a piano school outside of the village, and when she came back, she taught the other kids some of what she learned. It seems like such a “duh” kind of concept. Why shouldn’t the kids share their skills? It makes sense, but I don’t think I ever would have thought of it. All the organization has to do is provide a space to meet and the resources the kids need for their different classes. Karen’s also trying to get a grant to organize some leadership training with the kids. The whole thing is kind of awesome.

The famous spring.

He said that the idea started with a group of his friends when he was in high school. When it got to the point where it needed to become an official thing or else be left to die out, the NGO was started and he secured funding to renovate the building so that they could have their own space. Before that, the group was meeting in one of the community buildings, and they didn’t have as much flexibility because they could only access the space at certain times.

After that, we went around and saw some of the sights in the village. Of course, we had a few churches to visit, and there’s also a “cold spring” (that’s what the name of the village means) that supposedly has some special powers. I don’t know about that, but it was definitely cold! On top of the cave with the spring, you can get an awesome view over the village. We stayed there for a bit and then went to the “forest” (aka maybe like 25 trees) to eat snacks and hang out. I somehow got wrapped up in making flower crowns for a couple of the guys (no, I had never made a flower crown before, but I figured it couldn’t be that hard) and then we had the weirdest photo shoot. It’s good that there are some people here that are just as weird as I am, and I’ve already managed to find them. What a relief!

The cave in all of its cluttered, eclectic glory.

The overlook

Have I mentioned how much I love wildflowers?

The lake

I made the flower crowns of the two guys. This is just one in a series of odd fruit pictures.

Some monastery we visited on the way back from town. It looks like literally every other monastery.

Kneading the dough.

A couple of nights later, we had a baking night at one of the host houses and made ponchiks (I’m sure that is the wrong way to pluralize that word, but we’re going to go with it) and peroshki. They. Were. So. Good. Omg. There are no words to fully convey how incredible they were. They both use the same dough, and ponchiks are fried and filled with either like a condensed milk filling or a whipped cream-ish filling. Peroshki (peroshkis?) have mashed potatoes mixed with some herbs inside and are also fried. And delicious. And both of those names are definitely Russian, in case you were thinking that they don’t sound very Armenian.

I ate WAY more than I should have and felt a little bit like I was going to throw up, but my brain was still telling me that I should eat another one. And another one. And another one. I do have SOME self-control, luckily, because while my brain was saying yes, my stomach was screaming, “NO!!!!”

I wouldn’t exactly say that I learned how to make them, but honestly, that’s probably for the best. I’m not trying to gain 600 pounds. Only 300. Kidding.

Peroshki in progress.

Peroshki!

PONCHIKS! The cream ones are on the left and the other ones are on the right.