Tuesday, July 26, 2011

PLAY a Song, PLAY with a child: It's Cultural Exchange

         “Old Susannah, Oh don’t you cry for me. I come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee.”
       Who would expect to hear those words sung by an Armenian woman who barely speaks English? But our new host Mother sang these lines as we were working together on our respective languages. Annahit is learning English (Angleren) and I, Armenian (Hayeren). We help each other although she is certainly a quicker learner with a better memory than I. The startling recognition of the old Southern Stephen Foster song prompted me to bring out my new alto recorder which so far, had remained packed in my duffle bag. I do not play well but was able to provide the tune for Annahit’s song and in return, received lots of laughs and photo requests from our host family.  Anahit’s 2-year old son, Armen  watched with curiosity, and I was relieved he did not want to play with me!  He is a bright, active, smart child who frequently uses “che” (NO!) just as our American children do. He vocalizes and sings constantly and occupies himself amazingly well with little direction from adults. He has minimal play materials. I long for some of the items I chose to leave in the US due to space constraints when packing. Compared to the US, there is a limited supply of toys in village stores, so this child makes do with his Mother’s drawer of cooking utensils and other random household items. He is fortunate to have an older brother with a computer, and he does have a child’s computer program which is utilized occasionally. As a result, Armen can sing an entire children’s song in Russian and does so at many of our meals.
     One day David and I bought colored crayons for Armen and brought them home for use when he was bored.  That day came and I gave him 2 of the bright colors and several sheets of blank paper. (We have not been able to find coloring books here.) He was content to draw and scribble free style for a brief period of time, then just when I turned my back to help Anahit with a cooking project, he began making large scrawls of color on the kitchen walls!! I quickly took the crayon from his small hand, saying, “che” and trying to look stern.  Anahit smiled and said, “vochinch”, meaning “ it’s okay”.  I quietly put the crayons away until another time when someone could sit with Armen while he colored.  I’m a Tatik (grandmother) and should have known better than to leave a 2 year old child unsupervised even for a second!!!!  Later, Aahit told me they planned to paint those kitchen walls but not until Armen is older. I certainly see why.
        The brief encounter with music in the life of our Armenian family provides yet another thread or connection between them and David and me.  Our interaction with Armen is another route to cultural exchange as we see the overwhelming similarities in 2 year-old children, no matter where they live.                               
          May these everyday experiences and efforts be multiplied by many more such small links in the chain of understanding.                                  Judy

Sunday, July 17, 2011

BARI GALUST HAYASTAN! Welcome to Armenia!

 We made it to Armenia !           Following flights from New York to Vienna, Austria, then on to Yerevan, Armenia, our group of 41 exuberant though exhausted volunteers reached the first step in our 27 month commitment to service with the US Peace Corps.  Highlights of the journey included a 14 hour lay-over in Vienna where we visited the famous St. Stephens Cathedral and engaged in the pleasure of eating Austrian Sacher torte. In Yerevan, we were greeted by the Armenian Peace Corps Country Director and staff,  then whisked away from the airport at 4:45 am to view a glorious sunrise at the foot of Mt. Ararat.  Although we saw no rainbow at the alleged resting place for Noah’s Ark, we felt inspired while being surrounded by so much history and such  reverent beauty.     
                                                          OUR HOST FAMILY
     Angleren, Hayeren----our host “Mother” studies the language of America while we study  the language of her country, Armenia. These dual efforts bring David and me closer to our new family as we settle in for our 2nd intense 3 months of training with the Peace Corps. We come to this country in hopes of serving the entire 27 months without interruptions as we experienced in Niger.   Our host couple have a 2 year old son as well as 2 older sons, ages 19 and 21. The older son is now home from serving his 2 years in the Armenian military while the 19 year old is currently away with the military as required by his country. Beginning with our first introduction, we felt a warm, sincere welcome into this family. The 2 year old now calls us “Papik” and “Tatik”, Armenian for grandfather and grandmother. We miss our grandson , Jared, but do have little Armen to fill our ears with laughter and hearts with love. Just as other 2 year-old children, he is a master of the word “no” expressed as “che”  in the Armenian language.      
     Our home for the 3 months in pre-service training is located on a large farm where dairy cows are raised. The family does business with a local company, TAMARA, producers of matsoon (similar to yogurt), cheeses and other dairy products.   Our room in this family’s home is spacious and comfortable, an excellent place to live and study while in this country for Peace Corps training.  We share a family bathroom which has a FLUSH toilet---a great step up from our facilities in Niger. There is running water and electricity and hot water is available during parts of each day so that bucket baths are a routine we will avoid for now, although some of the volunteers in our village do have limited bathroom amenities.
                                                          Our Village and Country
      Our small village, as is all of Armenia, is filled with reminders of a somber history dating back for thousands of year .  Most visible is the destruction of buildings, remaining remnants, and the signs of gradual emergence of villages which were destroyed or damaged by the Turkish genocide of 1914-1917, World Wars I and II, the 70 year occupation by the Soviet Union, plus more devastation caused by the massive earthquake of 1988. Most recently the war with Gharabagh during the 90’s has added continuous woe to the lives of the Armenian people.   The genocide and violent restriction of religious practices for over 70 years has left this mostly Christian country still struggling to increase its population and return to the family-oriented, religious country that it once was.  There are numerous churches, monasteries and chapels found throughout the small villages and larger towns as well as in the capital of Yerevan. Many are in disrepair with local people striving to renovate these historical architectural gems.  There is a natural bleakness to the crumbling buildings which are in juxtaposition to absolutely stunning snow- capped mountains and lush green meadows covered with brilliant colored summer flowers.  The balance in mood is perpetuated by the resilient , hard-working Armenian people who value education and family and  desire to see their home land  thrive.  A Peace Corps assignment in Armenia offers us the opportunity to share ourselves and our country’s values with a totally different culture than we found in Niger thus broadening both our perspective and our appreciation for the US.   Although the people of Armenia possess a higher score on the United Nations Human Index scale, the country is pervaded by poverty and lack of jobs which affects families just as in the US.  Many men and women must travel to Russia to find work, thus separating families for lengthy periods of time. The same held true in Niger when the men of one tribal village traveled to another for field work as the seasons changed and crops came in.   Whereas Niger was horizontal and brown, Armenia is vertical and green. With the heat of summer becoming more intense, we are already seeing  that brown returning but to the mountains, not to the desert.    Those differences are obvious to the eye while the differences in each country’s people are not quite as self- evident.
                                                            Menk urakh enk Hayastanoom.   We are happy in Armenia!
 Written June 15, 2011