Saturday, April 28, 2012

ERICA is Here


Yesterday was a momentous day for me, not because I did great things or  that my students went home saying that they learned more English because of my lesson during their class.  It was momentous because more smiling faces emerged from the people on the sidewalk, from the bus, from the local khnoot.  Maybe it is because spring seems to be also emerging with more sun and touches of green,  warmer temperatures, and increased activity on the streets in our neighborhood, but whatever the reasons,yesterday  was memorable.      Let me explain..................

As I walked to my college a random little girl walking on the opposite side of the street and headed in the opposite direction from me, burst across the street and came up to me to show a drawing she was taking to school. I had never seen this child before, but many children walk the same route as I during the morning and I do not know each and every one of them.   This little girl was rosy cheeked, wore glasses (very unusual in Armenia) and was visibly so excited.  She spoke to me in English and answered my question about her drawing which was actually quite good for a small child. She was so very proud of herself and just wanted to share with someone. I was the only one available at the time, I guess.   After our brief conversation, the child darted back across the street and to my horror, she ran directly in front of an on-coming car. The car was speeding as many do on this major street and it never slowed down. Fortunately , the little girl with the unfinished art piece made it across the street safely, probably not even realizing that she almost lost her life after speaking with me.   I was appalled at the thought of what might have happened right before my innocent child could have been killed for no reason except for showing joy, happiness and the sheer exuberance of youth.   Oh, if only that driver could be made aware of what he  might have unknowingly done........................    that began the momentous day in which little things meant a lot because of the brevity and uncertainty of life.......for instance..............

As I reached school, a group of male students were having their last cigarette before entering the building for class. They are always there, in their black leather jackets, getting that last unhealthy drag and nicotine fix at the top of the steps into the building.  They usually mumble "hello", "barev dzez" or some other cursory greeting.  Today, though, several of them smiled, spoke clearly and greeted me, asking how I was and actually acting civil to an older person, a teacher at their school.  This was a change in behavior I was glad to witness.

Teachers were friendly today, trying to engage in conversation which is  as difficult for them as it is difficult for me.  The faculty and staff at my college, Dilijan State College,  have been overwhelmingly supportive, helpful and patient with a stranger from another country who speaks their language terribly yet who wants to communicate.  I appreciated their efforts yesterday because they were sincere and unasked for.

Later, as I awaited my language tutor in the local high school, students greeted me in the hall. They frequently do say "hello" because they all take English as a foreign language, however, today there was a different feel to their greetings. Was it because I was still reeling from the incident earlier in the day when the little girl almost lost her life after talking with me????

On the bus back to my neighborhood I encountered the bookkeeper from my college. We both were trying to get on the bus and being pushed and shoved by other riders as Armenian bus riders do. It's as if each bus is the last one on earth.  We were not able to sit together but as she left the bus, she turned around and handed me a bus ticket. She had paid for my ride as well as hers.  What a kind gesture, and I appreciated it.

Then I stopped at the local produce market where David and I like to purchase fruits and vegetables. The lady who owns it works hard, never missed a day even during the coldest weather, and has always been friendly towards us, unlike some of the other vendors in the area.   While there, another customer came in and said, "Judy, namank at the Hay Post".  I recognized this woman from the local post office and knew that she was telling me to go and pick up mail.   It was a good feeling to have someone realize who I was and to give me that message since there is no mail delivery and only through a phone call or word of mouth does one know there is mail waiting for pick up. Mail is precious here and sometimes never arrives from outside Armenia. We do not know WHERE it goes but when a letter makes it to our local post office, it is a good day.  Today there were 2 letters waiting for pick up.
Judy and Arpine, neighborhood friend in Dilijan
As I finally walked home after going to the post office, a young woman in the neighborhood who speaks excellent English and who is desperately seeking a job, caught up with me to say that she may have a job once the election is over in early May. She has been coming  to our apartment weekly to practice speaking English. She had missed the past 2 Monday's and was most apologetic.   We walked a short distance together and she said, "I think I've just got too much to think about right now to study, but I'll do it again soon".  I had a lot to think about too, after today's  simple yet eclectic encounters.    We could certainly resume working on English and Hayeren another day so I reassured her of my understanding how she felt.
Today, the same little girl mentioned in the beginning of this post saw me as I was walking home from school. She was on my side of the street this time and  as I approached her, she eagerly unrolled the piece of art paper she was carrying.  This time, the picture was totally colored in and complete.  Again , she was obviously quite proud of herself and seeking praise.  I said all that I could think of to let her know how much I liked her picture and what a good job she had done.  She asked me my name.  I told her "Judy" then I asked hers.....'Erica", she said.   We said good-bye and continued on our separate journeys.

  Just as yesterday was momentous, so is today,  because Erica is here.  What more could I ask of a day in Armenia.
                                                      Finally, spring has arrived in Armenia    

MALTA Demonstrates Health Care for All

Valletta, Malta waterfront
                                                       Along with other current volunteers, I have been asked to help with pre-service training for the next group of 45 Peace Corps trainees who arrive in Armenia on May 25. They will be greeted by a volunteer with a resolving black eye and a small scar over her left eye. (This reminds me of last year when we arrived in Armenia and were greeted by a volunteer who also had a black eye, facial lacerations and evidence of trauma. Pat, the volunteer, has been my role model ever since then!) Yes, while on a short vacation recently in Malta, I ungracefully or clumsily tripped on the curb and fell, hitting my face on the sidewalk.   There was a deep laceration over my left eye and bleeding, which resulted in much unwanted attention from passersby and also required a few sutures. My pride was hurt, but I am lucky to have only minor consequences of the incident.

Emergency Room in St. Paul Baffo Hospital, Floriana, Malta

          Having an accident in a foreign country is frightening, but the health care system of Malta was amazingly efficient. I was cared for quickly and professionally in the Paul Baffo Hospital Dermatology Clinic in Floriana, Malta. After the injury, Dave and I walked to the clinic.
Upon arrival, contrary to procedures in the U. S., I was assessed as an emergency case with treatment of my injury being the priority. I was not asked about my insurance, my name, allergies, medical history or anything. Although in reality, this lack of information could present serious problems, it worked out well for me.  An excellent dermatologist on staff that day sutured my laceration while we had a fine conversation of her travels over the world and the fact that David and I were from the U. S. Peace Corps.   There was NO CHARGE for this service although the Peace Corps does cover approved medical costs for volunteers, and we even offered to pay out-of-pocket.  The doctor said that basically all medical care in Malta is free due to their high taxes and since we were volunteers there’d be no charge. We were even driven back to our hotel by a hospital vehicle headed in that direction. I did e-mail my appreciation to the hospital and our Peace Corps physician did the same.  We were both grateful for the care provided.
                                                    So,  what else about MALTA...................................
        Malta, like Armenia, is filled with historical sites and stories of struggle.  Beginning 7000 years ago, invasions and attempted invasions were made by the Normans, the Ottoman Turks, Napoleon, the  Germans and Italians. The small country’s strength and resilience against outside forces was severely tested time and again.  As a result, there are hundreds of places to see, from ancient megalithic temples to stone bastions and forts built many years ago, to elaborate churches and art galleries.  
Downtown view, Valletta, Malta

 The architecture of Valletta, the capital of Malta, is exquisite with its balconies and brightly colored doors.   The strength of stone is prominent in most buildings and original cobblestone streets are in use throughout Valletta. Immensely thick, high walls surround Valletta and sky –blue water of the Mediterranean Sea brings ships of all types to its waterfront.  The walled city of Mdina is another site to visit and again shows how even a small town of 300 people can maintain its historic presence for others to see and study

Dave in front of a megalithic temple in rural Malta

Judy in garden outside Malta President's Palace
      Although our limited time allowed for seeing only a small portion of this intriguing country, we think staying in historic Valletta was the correct choice for us.   Learning of the Siege of Malta, touring museums and art galleries, strolling the immaculately clean streets, and attending cultural events , all within one week, made for a most memorable and refreshing holiday.  Since English is the second language after Maltese, there was also a respite from struggling with a difficult foreign language.  Dining in local restaurants and cafes was not only tasty but also stimulating learning experiences as we tried typical Maltese dishes and wines along with other cuisine.  Rabbit is the entrĂ©e of choice in Malta and it was served in numerous recipes in most restaurants.  We met a former Ambassador to Russia, a street musician who plays the bandura and sang with a gorgeous operatic voice, a couple from Great Britain who’ve traveled the world over, and countless other casual acquaintances on buses and in public places. 
             Malta, unlike Armenia, is a country attempting to protect the environment through recycling, reduced smoking and increased attention to garbage and trash disposal. Streets are immaculately clean even in the many construction sites in renovation areas.  People smile and are cordial to tourists because, like Armenia, tourism is their country’s livelihood. The difference is that Maltese people realize their country’s assets and want to promote them to outsiders. Tourist information centers are friendly and filled with ideas and materials about what is happening in the country. Many cultural events are free to the public and health care is also free or at very low costs to the Maltese people although taxes are reportedly high. Public transportation is widespread both day and night and primarily small, fuel- efficient cars are seen on the streets. The people of Malta are generally future-oriented with renovations and new buildings occurring alongside preservation and care for historic sites. These observations over a week’s time are not totally comprehensive but certainly enough to recommend this country as a “must see” for travelers seeking beauty, history, warmth of both climate and people, and change from one’s usual routines of living.
      Situated in the Mediterranean Sea, Malta is a place of overwhelming beauty which many  people would not even think of visiting, similar to Armenia.  David and I feel fortunate to have visited both and certainly encourage readers of this blog to consider Malta as a memorable vacation destination. Armenia could learn a lot from Malta as it strives to become economically stronger. Let’s hope that at some point in the future the positive influences of other countries will help Armenia to prosper, develop its resources, and become a more prominent member of the world around it.    

David with carriage driver who offers tours
of Valletta ,Malta

Fountain in front of governmental building in downtown Valletta, Malta

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Children in Armenia Agree.......We Shall Overcome!

 Emma and Saran on their way to school on a snowy day in Armenia

      Much of the pleasure derived from being in a foreign country comes from the children we meet.    Rosy cheeked and smiling, even in frigidly cold weather, Emma and Saran greet me almost every day as we meet on the sidewalk, going in our opposite directions to different schools.  At first it was “hello, how are you?” in strongly accented English. Now that greeting has progressed to “good morning, how are you, I am fine, thank you”, all together as if one sentence.  Smiling, the two girls stop to chat a few moments.  At first, they’d say, “what is your name”. I’d tell them and then ask their’s.  We are past that now, so our brief conversation usually includes well wishes for the day ahead and a few other phrases that either of us can think of.    The woman following close behind Emma and Saran, with a younger child in tow, seems to be in a hurry every morning, however, the girls always stop to offer their greetings.  One particular morning in January, Saran began speaking in English “ 1,2,3,4,5,6, mother, father, sister, brother ……..”, all at once and with a look of pride on her face.  David was with me that day. He and I were surprised at this burst of knowledge above and beyond the usual “hello”. We praised Saran greatly and said many “shat lav’s” or very good’s!  The next day as we approached the girls on their way to school, Emma stopped and burst into singing “We Shall Overcome”, the entire song including the OOOOO”S at the end.   We were shocked that she knew this song and just said the name Dr. Martin Luther King to her to see if she knew about the man. She did not.   We highly praised her singing, just as we had  praised Saran the day before, then we all continued in our separate directions to school and work.
Later that day as I chatted with Kellianne, the other Peace Corps volunteer who lives in our town and who teaches English at Saran and Emma’s school, I found that the girls had been taught “We Shall Overcome” by their local Armenian English teacher.  This teacher did not give information about the song, its history or meaning, thinking these 8 or 9 year old children would not understand.   A few days later, Kellianne asked if I’d come to one of her classes of older students and tell about living in Memphis at the time of Dr. King’s assassination, what it was like in the 60’s, and anything else I could tell them about that time in history. I was more than pleased to do this because I did live during that critical time, then eventually lived in downtown Memphis across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum which is housed in the old Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was shot.  Kellianne taught several lessons about Dr. King, focusing on the holiday in his honor on January 15th. She even had her students read and study the “I Have a Dream” speech and then write their own “I Have a Dream” speech.  Portions of these speeches were video-recorded as a class project .
 My early morning encounter with Emma and her singing of “We Shall Overcome” led me to hearing about and participating in a small way in the other volunteer’s lessons about human rights and Dr. King’s legacy.    Children lead us down unexpected paths and we are better for it.  Thank you, Emma and Saran. I look forward to seeing both of you every day.      Judy in Armenia
Children in our neighborhood , enroute to school.  To follow their path is to find new adventures and new friendships in Armenia.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Snow, Smoking and Small's Armenia

        It is March 26th in Dilijan, Armenia. Large flakes of a late winter’s snow brush my cheeks and cling to my eyelashes as I walk slowly back up the hill to our apartment.  I am wearing my fluorescent orange Yak- traks again, having placed them on my boots today after removing them last week, thinking the snow was gone for the year. As unstylish as these accoutrements might be, they do provide a measure of traction when there is new snow and I’ve become dependent upon them as attempts to prevent slips and falls when walking in this wintry land. Oh yes, the bright orange attracts immediate attention in this land of white and black. Some volunteers in other villages have fluorescent lime green ones so they, too, stand out.  Actually, as more local people see me and David in the neighborhood, at school, and downtown, there seem to be fewer quizzical stares than earlier in the winter…..or maybe I don’t notice them as much now.   It is just another way that I as an American and a foreigner tend to stand out as being different. It makes me think about what it would be like to be a minority all one’s life, always receiving stares, shuns or gestures of non-acceptance. At college today more of the staff and faculty were openly and verbally curious about my Yak- traks and one man even said what a good business it would be to sell them in Armenia.  Wouldn’t that be an interesting entreperneural Peace Corps project??? This opened a discussion of safety in this snowy, icy country and the dangers associated with falls and related injuries. My Armenian associates at school do not realize that I am from a warm Southern state in the U. S. and this is more snow than I’ve EVER seen, even when we took skiing trips in our younger days. I’ve shown them on the map where NC, TN, NV and other states are but they mostly respond to CA where many of the Armenian diaspora now live.
No Smoking!  but people in Armenia smoke everywhere.............without regard for 2nd hand smoke's effect
         Today, I had ridden the marschutni, our local mode of transportation, from the center of town back to our neighborhood.   Boarding the bus at one of the stops was an elderly man who was smoking a cigarette as he approached the bus. He entered the bus and continued to puff on his cigarette even though there is an ordinance against smoking on public transportation in Armenia. Quite immediately a woman rose from her seat and approached him as he sat down in front of her.  She said loudly, “CHE” (No! in the Armenian language) and waved her finger at his cigarette. She began coughing violently, at times barely able to catch her breath.   The man looked surprised but immediately tossed the cigarette onto the street from a cracked bus window and sat back in his seat.  The woman continued to cough a raspy, dry, non-productive, coarse, irritating cough for the remainder of the trip. She appeared to be struggling with her respirations and would cease coughing briefly only to resume the spasmodic episodes again. Other riders showed little sympathy, staring and pointing at the woman in question.   She had definitely been affected by the second-hand smoke of this unthinking man and others were treating her as if SHE was the problem, not the cigarette smoke which negatively impacted an innocent person.   
        The above incident describes only one situation where individuals are inconsiderate of their fellow Armenians, not to mention how foreigners are treated.  Some Armenians we know actually express embarrassment at their fellow Armenian’s negative behavior. We have found, though, that some people are becoming friendlier towards us.  A young woman who comes to see me weekly to speak English and work on her self-study of our language, typically always brings a gift with her. One day it is a jar of muraba (jam) made by her Mother, another day she brought a small apple. The following week she brought a batch of rose hips strung on string to be used later for rose-hip tea, which she told me is very healthy. 
Rose hips for tea, muraba (jam) , small apple: all gifts from Armenian friends
            Last week as I was returning home, our neighbor called to me from her 2nd story porch and was waving one of my Yak-traks, its bright orange fluorescence bidding me to retrieve it.   Zepur had found my boot attachment in the snow and saved it for me!!  Co-incidentally, her husband had picked up David who was walking home through the snow that cold day.  As a thank you for these good deeds, I took her freshly baked brownies one evening. She insisted that I come in and share them with her and the family.    Hospitality amongst those we know is evident. Consideration for strangers continues to fluctuate between dismissal and hostility.   As Peace Corps volunteers say to each other when a cultural practice baffles us, “ it’s just Armenia” .   Judy