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