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).

Christmas Round 1 and New Friends

It’s weird being away from home for Christmas. It’s even weirder being away from home for Christmas and having no one around celebrating. In some ways, I think that’s made it much easier. I don’t have to look around here and see everyone celebrating with their families while my family is halfway around the world. Instead, today was just like every other day. People went to work, kids went to school, and stores were open.

Nativity scene on Northern Avenue

When it comes time for Christmas to be celebrated here, on January 6th, I’ll be in Lebanon! I’m going to visit Badveli Nishan and Maria, family friends who moved there this year (shout out to Badveli’s blog for interesting musings on life in Lebanon). They came to Armenia for a week back in October, and we were able to meet up a couple of times. While they were here, they invited me to spend Christmas with them in Beirut! I’m super excited to get to see them, experience Christmas in a new place, and be surrounded by adoptive family for the holidays!

I made some earrings to get into the holiday spirit!

Even though it’s an adjustment not being home for the holidays, I have been making some new, good friends here which makes it easier. It was hard after a bunch of my friends from the summer left, and over the last month or so, things started falling into place again, both with brand new friends and reconnecting with some old ones.

At work, we have a really fun group! Besides me, there are three other people volunteering there, Hagop, Liz, and Olivia. They’re all nice, and two out of three of them are going to be here longer than I am! That means no hard goodbyes with Hagop and Olivia because it’s always easier to be the leaver rather than the left. I’ve started talking more with Yelena, one of the full-time staff at work, and she’s great too. Feeling like I have a little community there makes going to work much more enjoyable.

Ice skating with Zoe

I also made a new friend at church, Zoe. She’s going to be in Armenia for at least a year, so there’s another person who I don’t have to worry about leaving me! We went ice skating together a couple weeks ago, and once you’ve been ice skating with someone, your relationship reaches a whole new level… one hour of skating in circles, trying not to fall or skate over a child, and talking about anything and everything. It’s quite the friendship exercise (both physically and emotionally).

I think it’s cool to have friends from all different parts of life because then you get to bring them together and see what happens! My birthday was a perfect opportunity for that. For the opera, our group was me, Liz, Olivia, Zoe, and Gabrielle who is a friend from my old language class. Only Liz and Olivia knew each other ahead of time, and it was a ton of fun! When we went out for dessert afterward, Olivia and Gabrielle swapped out with Faith and Alina, a Birthright friend and an ex-BR friend who is now working in Yerevan. I like getting to see people connect, and when you’re friends with a bunch of different people, you feel like it’s only right that they meet and like each other.

Cake for Zoe’s Christmas Eve birthday

I’ve been trying to be less of a hermit (it’s too easy to let that happen when you live alone), and that requires an active effort which can be a struggle. That’s especially true when work nights are involved because all I want to do on non-language class days is go home and sleep! A couple weeks ago, I went with Hagop and Olivia to a screening of a genocide documentary called “Intent to Destroy: Death, Denial, and Depiction”. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, and it turned out to be incredibly interesting. I have seen and read plenty of things about the Armenian Genocide, but this took a different approach than most. It followed the filming of the movie “The Promise”. There were mixed reviews on the quality of the storyline in that movie, but that’s really not the point. The point is that for years, people have been trying to make a major, mainstream movie about the Armenian Genocide, and every time, it’s been shut down somehow due to pressure from the Turkish government. The US has strategic reasons for wanting to stay on Turkey’s good side, so rather than standing on the side of justice, the US government has failed to acknowledge and condemn the actions of the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago and has even contributed to pressuring production companies to abandon projects.

See? Don’t we look like old friends?

This documentary told the story of the genocide while also weaving in other stories: what happened to previous attempts to make a movie like this, people’s individual experiences during the genocide, impacts of the persistent denial, etc. It also gave some genocide deniers a chance to speak, and that was interesting because I’ve never heard anything like that before. I guess I should have known that such people existed considering that there are even people who deny the Holocaust happened, but it was strange to actually hear the voices of denial. They say that it was a war and that yes, many Armenians died, but that’s what happens in a war, and many Ottoman Turks died as well. Forget the fact that a huge number of the Armenians were women, children, and the elderly and that the Ottoman Turks were mostly able-bodied soldiers… Anyway, it was surreal and a little discomforting to hear people questioning something I’ve known as fact for my entire life. I strongly recommend checking it out if you get the chance!

Fountain lights in Republic Square. I love these!!!

I’ve also been making some new friends in my new language class. I haven’t talked about that yet, have I? I’m pretty sure that the last time I mentioned language class, I was raving about how awesome my class was and how well things were going with my teacher and how happy I was. Yeah… so probably the week after that, I was informed that I was switching classes. Devastating. I had the option of staying with my teacher and joining her new class but was warned that it would probably be too easy. After trying to stay with her for one class, I was forced to admit that I needed to get over it and move on. It was kind of cool to see how far I’ve come since my teacher’s new class was at the point where I was probably three months ago, but mostly I was just depressed because I knew that I had to get to know a whole new class and a new teacher.

Now, it’s been about three weeks with my new class, and it’s not so bad. This class is definitely at a higher level than my original class, and it’s pushing me to learn more. That’s good I guess. I’m still getting used to the teaching style and the other students, but I’ll get there. The best part is that everyone in the class can read Armenian which means no more transliterating words on the board. A recommendation for anyone seriously trying to learn a language with a different alphabet – learn the alphabet as soon as possible because it makes everything else SO much easier. At least with Armenian, there are a bunch of sounds that can’t be described with transliterated spellings, so you’re basically learning everything kind of wrong until you learn the correct sounds of the alphabet. Now that I can read, trying to do anything transliterated is a massive struggle because it all just seems wrong.

Anyway, things are going great for me right now. I feel happy and comfortable in my life here, and that’s exciting! It’s also good because I still have two months to go. If I was feeling unhappy, we’d be in trouble!

More Republic Square fountain lights. Don’t these look like Cinderella carriages?

Light tunnel in Republic Square

Vanadzor and Vahagni

After our morning marathon of alphabet-related sightseeing, we made our way to Vanadzor and eventually Vahagni.

Random city views

Vanadzor is the third largest city in Armenia, after Yerevan and Gyumri, with a population of about 85,000 people. Like so many other cities in Armenia, it had its peak population around the 1980s, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has been on the decline since then. At its height, it was an industrial city, home to Soviet factories and chemical plants. After the collapse, industry shut down, and thousands of people lost their jobs. The same type of thing happened in much of Armenia which is part of the reason (though there are plenty of other reasons as well) why the new republic struggled so much in the years following independence. Today, Vanadzor is back to being an industrial center but at nowhere near its former glory.

Despite all of this, I was pleasantly surprised by Vanadzor. Maybe my expectations for everything are very low because it seems like I’m pleasantly surprised by a lot of things, but hey, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Our first stop in the city was the train station. Since I had never been to Vanadzor, I put together our sightseeing list from things I found online.

Inside the train station. I apparently didn’t take an exterior picture, but I think that you can kind of guess what the outside looked like based on this.

When we pulled up and saw the hideous block of a station, I thought, “What on earth was I thinking when I made that list?” Then, thankfully, I had an “aha” moment where I remember that it was described as being built in “classic Soviet architecture style”. So yes, that’s what we were there to see… its hideousness. The station used to connect Vanadzor and Armenia to Eastern Europe, but now you can only travel within Armenia and to Tbilisi on trains, leaving it eerily deserted most of the time aside from the bustling parking lot outside that serves as the central bus station.

The Russian Church

Right across the street, there’s a park with a church in it. According to Google, it’s called the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (quite the mouthful, huh?), but it’s also just called the Russian Church. There used to be a wooden church on the same site, and after that one burned down in 1826, the current stone structure was built to replace it in 1893. They were doing some construction inside, but I was just excited to see that there’s stained glass! Clearly not an Armenian church because that’s really not a thing here. It was cool to see a church in a completely different style from most of the churches we’ve visited.

Inside the Russian Church. Stained glass!

After the train station and church, one of Mike’s Vahagni friends, Hovsep, met us to say hi and show us around the city a bit. He speaks English and works in Vanadzor now, so it was nice for Mike to get to see him again and for us to have a little local knowledge leading the tour for once (rather than just me reading whatever info page I found on the internet).

The old church

Hovsep took us to the next thing on my list, the Church of the Holy Mother of God/Karakilisa Church/the old church. If you’re asking why these things can’t just have one name, I’m right there with you. On the walk there, he explained that not only are the churches in the town name confused, but actually the town itself has had a thousand names too (note: 1 thousand = 3). It started out as Gharakilisa, meaning “black church”, was renamed to Kirovakan during Soviet days, and was renamed again to Vanadzor, meaning “valley of Van”, after independence. Talk about an identity crisis.

Inside the old church. Check out those ceiling paintings!

The current “old church” was completed in 1831, replacing the previous structure that was destroyed in an earthquake in 1826. The orange and black tuff was brought from Gyumri, and it was one of the only churches that actually operated as a place of worship during the Soviet years. I loved the inside of the church. The paintings and patterns on the ceilings were absolutely beautiful. It’s the little touches of personality that you can find in each church that make it worth going to see more even when I’ve already been to what feels like a million churches in Armenia already.

There were a bunch of very old khatchkars outside the old church

The new church

Inside the new church

From there, we strolled the streets a bit, Hovsep took us to a spring with natural bubbly water, and we made our way to the next church, Saint Gregory of Narek Cathedral/the new church. It was completed in 2005, and like so many other new churches, it just didn’t have the same personality as the old church. I mean, it was beautiful, don’t get me wrong, and it actually was much better than a lot of the new churches that feel stark, but I’d pick the old church any day. I did love the paintings though! Paintings and stained glass are almost guaranteed to make me like a church.

The park… I seriously can’t get enough of these fall leaves.

Before heading out, we stopped in the park across the street to enjoy the fall colors a bit before taking on the final stretch to Vahagni. Remember when I said that the road between Vanadzor and Vahagni was under construction? It. Was. Awful. The very few parts that were finished were fantastic, and the rest was horrible. I don’t even get carsick and I was feeling nauseous.

Fall fall fall!!!

When we finally made it into the village, some conversations with random, loitering strangers led us to Mike’s host family. Oh yeah, did I mention that no one spoke English? None of the people we were visiting. Zero. And how’s Mike’s Armenian, you ask? Ha. Haha. Hahaha. Dad and I were basically in the hot seats, responsible for translating and attempting to carry the conversation. I won’t lie; it was rough. We did our best, but Dad hasn’t spoken Armenian since he was last in Armenia 16 years ago and before that when he was like 4 years old. I’m 4 months in on basically learning from scratch. Not ideal, but somehow, we made it work. The conversation was never smooth, but conversation happened.

❤ ❤ ❤

Soon enough, we were all being force fed, and that’s basically same in every language. Things went more smoothly from there. I haven’t been force fed in a while, since I stopped living with a host family, so I had to dust off all of my “please stop feeding me or I’m going to explode” vocabulary. It ended up being a lot of fun, even if I had a headache from thinking so much/trying to understand what was going on.

Also, side note but there’s a big gap between understanding and translating. There were times when I understood the gist of what was being said but couldn’t have told it to you in words if you gave me a million dollars. Ugh. This Armenian thing is hard. Still, though, I felt good about the whole thing at the end because no matter how much I didn’t understand, there was a lot that I did, and that’s something to be proud of.

We popped in for a shorter visit with the other family in town, and that ended with me leaving with a new number in my phone and the invitation to come and visit anytime. Talk about the nicest people in the universe…

The family Mike stayed with while he was here

The family I was adopted into

The drive home was, as anticipated, pretty close to miserable. The Vahagni to Vanadzor portion of the drive was, once again, vomit-inducing, and about 5 minutes after reaching the end of it and driving on real road again, we got a flat tire. Oh, I wish I was kidding. Watching the tire-changing process was the most Armenian thing I’ve ever seen. All of the men got out of the car and looked at the tire. Okay, definitely flat. The tools came out. Everyone participated, either in action or in word. We didn’t have the right sized wrench. Cars driving by were flagged down. More men came to look at the tire. Still definitely flat. This guy doesn’t have the right wrench. Neither does that guy, but he says he’ll go get one and come back. Oooh! This guy has one! And against all odds, that tire got changed. Q: How many men does it take to change a tire? A: At least 8.

Oh yeah, and the guy who said he’d come back? He did, just as we were finishing up. Where does that happen? A stranger says he’ll go completely out of his way for you and then follows through. Despite the less-than-ideal situation, it did give us a chance to experience some good, old-fashioned kindness.

Tire change in process

Larkaeologist

I am completely wiped. I feel like all of my Armenia posts have started with a statement to that effect, but that’s because it’s true all the time! My schedule here is at a constant sprint. It reminds me of when I was in college and felt like I had somewhere to be at every second of every day.

On the bright side, I am happy with my crazy schedule. Probably the low point of every week is teaching my AutoCAD class, but even that really isn’t so bad. I think I’m just at the point of exhaustion with teaching. My other job, though, is awesome!! Remember how I talked about how I heard that an archaeology job exists in Gyumri? It does! And I’m doing it!

View from one of the excursion sites… in the middle of nowhere

During the month of August each year, the archaeology institute here does a dig! They’re working 5 days a week, but I only join for Tuesdays and Wednesdays because of my other job and community service Fridays. It’s exhausting work, but I wish I could be with them every day because I’m having a lot of fun. I’m getting ahead of myself though. Let me go back to the beginning…

During my first weekend at Birthright, I heard a rumor that there used to be an archaeology placement in Gyumri, and I immediately emailed Sona, our jobsite coordinator, to see if it was true. She said yes, and after contacting them, she told me that they do a dig during August and were willing to take me! Eek!!

We went to a meeting with the guy in charge, and he told us that on August 1st, there would be a sort of kick-off meeting that I should come to, and the work would start on the 2nd. When he found out that I don’t speak Armenian, he basically said, “well, you will!” and then told me not to be afraid to talk even if I might mess up.

View towards Gyumri

Sona sent me to the August 1st meeting with Liana, my translator for class. The “meeting” was exactly the chaos that I should have expected and consisted of too many people in one room all talking about different things in a million languages except for English. There is a German couple who comes each year for the digs, plus there were some other people who I still don’t know who they were, plus there were the locals who are working the digs. So by “a million languages”, I mean Armenian, German, and French. But either way, it was all things that I didn’t understand.

It was announced to all people in attendance that no one should speak to me in English. Great. I mean, it is great to be forced to learn, but at the same time, I’m not trying to mess something up because I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be doing. Liana was silenced anytime she tried to translate for me, and instead I was given all of the instructions in Armenian (thankfully, at a slow speed). She gave me a summary after we left, and I actually did get most of it on my own! We leave at 8 each day (which is VERY early by Armenia standards… Karen called one of his marshrutka driver friends to make sure that they’re even running that early. Luckily, the one I take starts running at 7). I have to wear pants and long sleeves, and I should bring a hat, lunch, and lots of water. We went on a surprisingly difficult quest to find me a long sleeve shirt, and after rejecting far too many with weird/awkward English phrases on them, we located a plain white, fake Louis Vitton long sleeve. Better than nothing.

Me in my most attractive state, eyes still recovering from my Vardavar eye infection

On the first day, I made it to the office without any trouble, and off we went! We headed to a site that had already been partially excavated, and the day was spent removing weeds. It wasn’t the most thrilling work, but I enjoyed being outside and having something active to do rather than sitting at a desk. The sun got to be brutal, and I was happy to be covered up so completely. I had a bandana that I used to shield my cheeks and neck, so literally the only part of my body that was exposed was my face. I found out that a couple of the girls can speak some English because they whispered some words to me to let me know what we were doing. Thank goodness. I’m fine with being spoken to in Armenian most of the time, but for instructions, I’d really rather be sure.

This week was pretty exhausting. We were doing some actual digging, so I spent two days shoveling and hauling bucketfuls of dirt. That plus the hot sun is more than enough to make you want to lay down and sleep forever. I have no idea how everyone else is doing that 5 days a week! Though it is a lot of fun, and the people are all awesome. They all try to speak to me in Armenian and are patient when I don’t understand what they’re asking. I’m definitely improving though! Besides the practice I get there, I really like the language class that I’m in now, and I’m getting more and more comfortable with putting sentences together and speaking.

The weeding site

They think that the sites we’re working on now are from the 5th or 6th century BC. Whoa, right? Everyone is amazing at spotting artifacts in the dirt while digging, and I’m getting better at it too. The constant question – rock or ceramic? They also were pulling out things that looked like wooden tools, and it took me almost an entire day to realize that they were actually bones. Yeah, I know that it doesn’t make sense for wooden tools to last 20 some centuries without disintegrating, but I just let myself go with my first thought. Then I was kind of freaked out thinking they were human bones, but the German woman said that they’re probably all animal bones. Phew. Less weird. We found some that were jawbones though and still had teeth! Creepy.

By the end of the week, I was spotting and pulling things out of the dirt too. I’m like a real archaeologist! Not really, I know there’s a lot more to it than that, but it’s fun to pretend. Larkaeologist. Hehehehe. (Lara/Lark-izing words will never get old for me.) I also upped our digging efficiency by taking on the role of bucket mover. I went into the hole and placed buckets for the diggers to put dirt into, removed/replaced them when they were full, and lifted them out of the hole for dirt dumpers to take away (these are all, obviously, the technical terms for the different jobs). My goal was to have no lag time between when a bucket was filled and a new bucket was put in place for the diggers to use. It was a fun challenge to keep myself entertained, and I think everyone noticed how much more smoothly the process went. Before that, the diggers were dealing with the buckets themselves, and it was super inefficient. It was cool to feel like I actually improved something rather than just being another body doing physical labor.

Anyway, so far this job is everything I hoped it would be. Like I said, I kind of wish that I could just work with them every day instead of having to teach too, but that’s not possible, so I’ll have to just be happy with the time I have there!

T.I.A. – Armenia Edition

This has been a crazy week! It was one of those ones that simultaneously feels like a lifetime and a split second. It started out on a rough note… Last Thursday was our last class doing pre-activities before starting AutoCAD, so I wanted to check out the program after class to make sure that it was in English like they told me. That turned out to be the least of my worries because the program wasn’t even installed! On any computer! Maybe I should be blamed for not checking sooner, but I thought that considering 1) I was literally brought to Gyumri to teach AutoCAD and 2) when I asked how many computers had it and what language it was in, I got answers to both questions, it was safe to assume that the program was installed. Wrong.

I have no relevant pictures, so instead, you can enjoy a random selection of wildflowers and this nice sunset picture of Gyumri’s main square.

This was probably my first T.I.A. moment in reference to Armenia (for anyone who wasn’t around for Ghana, T.I.A. – This Is Africa – became our mantra anytime something happened that our foreign minds were unable to comprehend. Having that mindset makes it much easier to just accept it, regardless of how seemingly ridiculous, and move on). So here we are, the new T.I.A. This Is Armenia, aka I shouldn’t have assumed anything even though in my mind, that was a natural conclusion to draw.

I immediately told the workshop coordinator, and she seemed shocked. That was comforting… not. She assured me that it could be installed by Monday’s class, but with my expectations shattered, I didn’t let myself believe her. Since I only work at GTC on Mondays and Thursdays, I wasn’t going to be there again before class. I asked if she could send me a message when the job was finished so that I didn’t have to worry… guesses, anyone, about whether or not I actually expected to get a message? Correct, the answer is no, I didn’t expect to, and no, I didn’t receive one.

I sent follow ups on Saturday and Sunday and was assured that they would be ready in time… until Sunday at about 7:30PM when I got the “there’s an issue, it’s not going to be ready for tomorrow” message. Ah. At last. I made the call to cancel class because there was no time to prep something new for Monday, and even there was, we would have just been killing time.

Thanks to one very helpful and hardworking person at GTC, the computers WERE ready for Thursday, and AutoCAD WAS in English. Phew. So my class turned into a combined English/AutoCAD class as I taught everyone the English words for the different commands and other relevant words. It was interesting. I feel like no matter where I am, I’m teaching everything for the first time the absolute HARDEST way. In Peru, yeah, let’s teach kids about robots in Spanish. In India, sure, let’s teach Shakespeare to kids who are at a 4th grade reading level. In Armenia, perfect, let’s teach AutoCAD in English to people who only speak Armenian. On the bright side, if I ever do any of these things again, they literally can only get easier. I’m sure of that.

It actually went fairly well today which was encouraging. There’s a huge abilities gap in the class though, so some people catch onto things really quickly, and others have to be walked through every step. It’s going to be a challenge to keep everyone busy and challenged, but all I can do is my best. That’s just the way computer program classes are, and if you’re one of the fast people, you need to either find some ways to entertain yourself or help the slow ones.

My amusement of the week has been discovering the Armenian way of pronouncing English words. For example, I was helping my friend Carineh (Cah-ree-neh) out by buying some Twix bars for her class. I went into a little store near GTC, and the shopkeeper asked if I needed any help. Normally, I’d say no and just suffer through trying to find what I wanted, but I decided that the evil of trying to speak Armenian was less than the evil of poking around the tiny shop while being stared down.

Me: “Twix oonek?” (Do you have Twix? with Twix pronounced the English way)

Shopkeeper: “Huh??”

Me: “Twix?… Tweeks?… Tweeeks??… Tveeks???”

Shopkeeper: “Ah! Tveeks! Ayo?” (Yes? – She points to a normal size Twix bar.)

Me (relieved): “Ayo! Vetz.” (Yes! Six. – My attempt to tell her I needed six of them.)

Shopkeeper: “Medz?” (Big? – She points to a bigger Twix bar.)

Me (ready for this to be over): “Che, vetz.” (No, six. – Also holding up six fingers because obviously words aren’t working.)

Shopkeeper: “Ah. Vetz.”

She goes and gets six Twix bars and rings me up. Success in the slowest way possible.

This was not the first time that pronunciation completely eliminated our chances of being understood. My first week, we were trying to confirm that GTC has a laser cutter, so Carineh asked one of the guys who works there if he knew where the laser cutter was. She said it all in Armenian except for “laser cutter”, and he just blank stared at her until she said it a few more times with different emphases. Finally, we got an Armenian, “ah! You mean the lah-zer cooter!” Right. That’s exactly what we meant.

This week, I was explaining in Lar-menian (that’s what I’ve started calling the horrible Armenian I speak) what I teach at GTC, and I said “I teach a class on architecture (I said this in Armenian) and AutoCAD (not in Armenian because there’s no translation, except apparently pronunciation-wise)”. Again, blank stares from people who definitely know what AutoCAD is.

“AutoCAD?… Ow-toe-cad?… Ow-toe-cahd??”

Finally, a response, “OH! Ahv-toe-cahd!” But of course. How did I not see the “v” in AutoCAD? Silly me! Carineh said that’s probably because the Armenian word for “automatic” is “av-toe-maht” which makes sense, but at the time I was thinking “WHAT THE HECK??”

As a result of all of this, my current favorite thing is saying English words with a heavy Armenian accent whenever I don’t know the Armenian word. The best is that sometimes, I’m actually right because there either isn’t an Armenian word for it or they use the Russian word which sometimes sounds like the English word. Candy names are the most fun though: “Keet-kaht”, “Sneekers”, “Muh yev muh” (M and M), “Skeet-ulz”. I could keep going, but I’ll spare you for now.

Class, Chaos, and the Armenian Struggle

Normal life over the last couple of weeks has been hectic, to say the least. I still feel a bit like I’m a chicken running around with its head cut off, but now at least I don’t feel like I’m also precariously close to falling off a cliff. So that’s an improvement, however slight.

Planning time

The final count of students signed up for my architecture/AutoCAD/laser cutter class was 18, and on the first day, we had 10 actually show up, and their ages ranged from 15-25. I thought that was a perfect number. I met with Liana, my translator, before the class, and we went over what I was going to talk about so that she was prepared. I still am getting used to the whole translator thing, but I’m lucky to have someone translating who wants to do a good job. The translators are volunteers too, so their motivation is just wanting to practice and learn. Liana is just as determined as I am to make this a class that people are interested in. It’s nice to feel like I’m not the only one who cares.

Hard at work

We spent our first class doing a mini architecture history/around the world architecture tour. I had such a hard time putting that together because there is SO much you can include in an architecture history lesson. That’s the biggest challenge for this class in general. We don’t have THAT much time, so I have to decide what is really important for the students to understand and what can be skimmed over. I did a little bit of history and then tried to show them how different parts of the world developed different architectural styles.

Literally no chance this thing was going to stand… but they got some style points.

We then moved into talking about all of the people involved with creating a building today. Honestly, I have no idea how the construction process works here, so I just based it off of how things happen in the US. If they actually decide to go into this field, they’ll figure it out. That was my segue into my personal favorite team building activity, paper towers. You split the group up into teams of three or four and give them a long piece of tape, scissors, and 4 or 5 pieces of computer paper. The goal is to build the tallest free-standing tower possible in a set amount of time. I’ve done this in three countries now, and it never ceases to amaze me how everyone comes up with something completely different. Also, it doesn’t matter how old or young the students are. Someone always ends up with a tower that blows away the competition, and someone always builds something that immediately collapses.

The winning tower. Plus it’s sleek so they get some extra points for that too… but honestly, I think some of the kids in Peru built a taller one. Sometimes people think too much.

Drawing plans, elevations, and sections of Liana’s purse

We also started talking about the types of drawings that an architect makes: plans, elevations, and sections. We did a couple of activities with that over the three classes, including my personal favorite one where they drew a plan of the outdoor courtyard. I gave them all graph paper and told them that the scale was one step = one square. So they all had to walk around the courtyard measuring distances with footsteps. It was good because we didn’t need a tape measure, and I always think it’s better to have people doing something weird/interesting because it’s more likely to keep their interest than just sitting in one place for two hours. Next week, we’re moving into computer work. I think the students are all probably happy about that because it means they can stop doing my bizarre activities, and I am too because that means I can start using online tutorials to help me rather than having to make it all up from scratch. You have no idea how long it takes me to prep for classes when I’m starting from zero.

Courtyard measuring

Last week was also my final week working at the startup company! It was interesting working there, but I can’t say I’m too sad to go because next week starts my archaeology volunteer placement! I’m really excited about this. Sona, the Birthright job site coordinator, took me last week to meet with the archaeology people. Apparently, there’s a German group coming for the month of August, and they do a big archaeology dig each year. They showed us a drone video of the site from last year. It was awesome! I’m going to be joining them two days each week, and I definitely need to go buy a long sleeve so that I don’t get fried from being outside in the sun all day. Ah!! I can’t wait! Hopefully it’s as cool as I think it’s going to be.

Here’s the courtyard from above. I made them include all of the different ground materials, plus the benches, trash cans, doors to the surrounding buildings, trees, etc.

On the language front, my Armenian is slowly improving. I got promoted to the next Armenian class, but that’s mostly because I already knew how to read and not because my Armenian is any good. I have a lot of vocabulary to learn before I’m caught up with the people in this new class. There’s no use knowing 15 tenses to conjugate verbs in if you don’t know the right verbs. I am way better than before though. I sometimes will go to my host mom with a well-practiced sentence, and I’ll say it so well that she then overestimates my abilities and asks a follow-up question. Most of the time, I understand what she’s asking, but I just don’t have the words to answer her. So I do the mouth open and close like I really have something to say, and the words just won’t come out. I’m like a fish. In response, she usually just smiles, shakes her head, and says, “Ah, Lara jan” (Lara jan means “dear Lara”. People use “jan” all the time as a kind of term of endearment). At least she’s patient.

Anyway, I’m hoping that I’ll have more time to practice my Armenian now that we’re moving into the software part of the class I’m teaching. I really do think that the prep is going to be much easier now.

Goal for this week: feel like a chicken with a head (baby steps). That sounds reasonable, right?