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As Chopin, Mozart, and Beethoven tickled the air, brilliant streams from synchronized spouts dazzled the enlarging evening crowd around Republic Square in the heart of Yerevan. The sticky day cooled to comfort, and red jeans, high heels, and meticulously applied make-up finally made sense. The first night, we were lucky foreign observers sipping beer on the portico of the History Museum of Armenia. The second, after stumbling around with no destination in mind, we realized the mundane nature of the nightly affair hadn’t unsettled its spectators and shouldn’t disturb our enjoyment.
Armenia has an absurd history of conquest, war and national pain, torn apart by conflicts among Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and Russia/USSR, and devastated by a WWI-era attempt at genocide by the hands of the Turks. Yet the perseverance, determination, and optimism of the people, along with the hyper-developed and financially-supportive network of diasporans, demonstrate the power of the Armenian national soul.
The Envoy Hostel in Yerevan is one of a handful of its kind in the Caucus region. Its staff speaks many languages, is quick to help, and offers free daily walking tours of the city. Arriving “on business” with American Councils, a seemingly household name around town (or as ACCELS, our predecessor in the region), I was treated exceptionally well. Several of the staff were alumni of our programs and the head of the marketing department was a good friend of our office director.
The most scintillating aspect of travel is the people met along the way. Meeting fellow staff who enacts some of the very programs I worked to secure funding for this past spring (FLEX, JFDP) was a highly-anticipated joy of the trip. Similarly, engaging in conversation with several alumni of our programs offered the chance to see tangible effects of the government’s (and therefore taxpayer’s) generosity. The success stories are moving and inspiring as these dynamic young leaders continue down their chosen paths with a positive frame of reference toward America, and drawing from vast knowledge and skills learned through their exchange and study experiences.
Concurrently, the itinerants, who happened to be parked for the week in the only city I visited, were enjoyable companions. From the hitching, couch-surfing duo, to the Aussie and Dane headed to Iran, and the North Carolina Armenian-descendant with relatives in the area seeking to recoup some of his heritage after a divorce, I reveled in exchanging stories of travel, love, good governance, and superior social policy. I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of jealousy at the Danish model, where university starts later in life and summers are supplemented with governmental money for travel. Their language skills and cultural acumen were staggering.
Yerevan is full of Soviet-era structures and a lingering sense of oppression and dependence flutters within the hope and dynamism of the new era. High in the hills overlooking the main street which boasts his name, an enormous statue of Mashtots (the creator of the Armenian alphabet) appears to a novice as Lenin or Stalin may have before they were torn down – big brother watching over the workers. Many projects in the city were expansive and overly-optimistic works accomplished (or not quite finished) through Soviet funding (and now in many cases with money from the diaspora). One example is the “Cascade” that was created by promising the Soviets that they would include an ode to the importance of Moscow vis-à-vis the 15 republics, in the form of a series of springs with each linked to the one symbolizing Moscow in the middle. Another funny story is how the subway was built in Yerevan, according to my tour guide. During one of his visits to the city, Brezhnev was frustrated with how long it took for him to get anywhere in his car. When he returned to Moscow, his first order of business was to authorize funding for Yerevan to create a subway. What he didn’t know was that the leaders of Yerevan slyly slowed and stopped traffic in front of Brezhnev’s car whenever he tried to go anywhere in the city. It’s a testament to the way Armenians made the best of the situations within which they found themselves.
Yet, while there were many successes, it seems, as I viewed during my time in Morocco, that many projects are undertaken without a realistic plan in mind. They are gigantic undertakings that may or may not get finished, but include frequent stops during the building process and/or inept plans for upkeep due to lack of funding.
Finally, the Sergei Parajanov house-museum offered my first glimpse of the creativity and dynamism that ran counter to the cultural oppression of Soviet times. His haunting works of cinema, structure, and collage, were intensely unique and striking displays of self-expression. Producing such work under the conditions in which he lived illustrates the need for humanity to express and the fearlessness that wraps a soul when the reality of the alternative is contemplated. For his genius, he spent five years in one of the worst Soviet detainment centers and moved from country to country in the region before laying to rest in Yerevan.
Patiently awaiting the completion of my Peace Corps service over the final months, one of my driving inspirations was a tour west during baseball season. I’d bus and rail toward manifest destiny stopping to spend time with friends and family and viewing as many teams play in as many parks as possible. Thanks to the invitation to the wedding of a good friend in California in early July, I was able to make good on aspects of my visualization.
Arriving several days early to San Francisco and graciously hosted by Ben, and Brian and Sarah, my first treat was watching the Cubs play the Giants in beautiful AT&T Park where Barry Bonds made famous the bay’s inlet over the right field bleachers. It was sunny and the beer sat well as local fans enjoyed beating the National League’s best team.
The next day I traveled to San Jose where the wedding was going to be held the following day. Finally enjoying my nation’s holiday in the states after several years abroad, we dined and watched fireworks out the windows of the International Suite high above the pedestrian viewers below. The wedding was gorgeous with Pearl playing the part of mysterious princess to Maroof’s benevolent dictator. They sat on the stage of the new rotunda building within city hall’s complex as an imam lead the proceedings in Arabic and English. Throughout the evening I enjoyed the company of Steve (a fellow Peace Corps volunteer) and several acquaintances I met the day before. The delectable buffet-style spread included Moroccan tagine, wrapped grape leaves, Caribbean chicken, and fried rice among other exotic dishes.
After the wedding I returned to San Francisco where I stayed with old friends again, attended an outdoor music festival, and saw an advanced screening of Thoroughly Modern Millie at Broadway at the Bay in San Mateo.
On Tuesday, a short plane ride took me to LAX where Moshay, yet another friend from Peace Corps picked me up and we enjoyed Guinness near the beach. Throughout my time in LA I stayed in Hermosa with my great friend from childhood, Eric. A relaxing day on the beach preceded a tour of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown, a tour of Venice beach with Moshay and Michael from Peace Corps, and a night out on the town in Hollywood where the only celebrities I saw were on the sidewalk-lined stars. The steely undulations of the concert hall, another brain-child of Frank Gehry, form a striking image among the palm trees and skyscrapers.
Perhaps the best day of the trip began with coffee in Hollywood where we stayed with one of Eric’s friend after the night out. The first activity was disc golf at the nation’s (world’s) first course. Created in 1976, the course even retained one of the original baskets. Next, failing to book a ticket for the 3D version of the Journey to Center of the Earth, we saw Steve Carrell in Get Smart at a theater in Pasadena. Holding off on dinner until Dodger dogs came with a beer, we headed to Chavez Ravine to watch the Dodgers host the Marlins. Three runs in the first held for the Marlins until the Dodgers scored one in the ninth. With energy to spare, we headed over to West Hollywood and hung out with a cool group of friends from Bradley and Chicago among other places.
The final day included an attempt at surfing and a good deal of lounging and recuperation before the early morning flight back to the grind.
After months off the beat, my gallant return… coming to you not from the back of a donkey cart traipsing through the rocky flats of middle Morocco, but on the Metro in humidly bustling Washington, DC. Already, in three months, I’ve seen more rain than two plus years in the desert. I’ve also played more softball, almost.
Life here is nice. Every weekday morning I take a bus from a small, tree-lined, and flower-filled traffic circle, five minutes from the row house where I live in LeDroit Park, to my place of work in the development department of an international education organization near Dupont Circle. I prefer the bus, with daylight and passing scenery, over the Metro’s dark tunnels and crowded rush hours.
One of my favorite parts of living in the U.S. is watching baseball. During my time abroad, I caught precious few live games, depending instead on glorified beat writing and dry box scores. In 2006, I saw parts of four playoff games at the American Club, gladly missing the finale as the Redbirds raised yet another championship banner among those littered throughout their devastatingly overcrowded girders. In 2007, when the Loveable Losers in Blue crashed and burned in three games, I watched not an inning. Thanks to a good baseball buddy, I heard Pat and Ron deliver the calls over the Internet, though with five innings left in what became their final game of the season, the operators of the neighborhood Internet café kicked me out at midnight.
Back to the future. The Washington Nationals are not as good of a baseball team as their new stadium is fantastic. As in many other Major League cities, most people utilize public transport to get to the game. The Metro outfits game-day with increased personal and informative PSAs. As one walks, takes the escalator, or rides the elevator up from the bowels, and ambles through the exit stalls, the image of the striking ballpark façade, literally only meters away, and sea of seats beyond, and the murmur of a mobilizing fanbase beckon. Arriving for a night game, the air thick and dusk falling, fans buy overpriced light beer, grab snacks and find their seats. Vantage points throughout the ballpark include combinations of the Washington Monument, the Anacostia River, and the U.S. Capitol Building. Towering over centerfield is an HDTV screen large enough to provide all 40,000 plus spectators with a fine alternative to IMAX programming.
My first game was on April 25th. Fittingly, the Cubs were the visiting team. The Nationals pulled out a thrilling victory in their last at-bat with a minor league call-up hitting his first Major League home run as the game winner. Earlier in the game, Reed Johnson, the Cubs centerfielder, made perhaps the best catch I ever saw in person. As the ball was hit, he took off from right centerfield and caught the ball horizontally in the air, on his way down, curled slightly and crashed his upper back into the padding on the wall. As he got up and ran into the dugout to gasps and cheers, he did not even realize the bill of his hat was flipped up.
While living in Morocco, exotic travel opportunities were steps away – watching the pinkish-purple sunset off the breezy Essaouiran ramparts, trudging upwards through the pebble-laden landscape of the second highest mountain in Africa, lounging with modern-day nomads over mint tea in a small pocket of the great Sahara Desert… and now, after stops in St. Louis, Washington D.C. and New Orleans, I’m happy to remember how much excitement is available within our own country.
Returning to the states in late December, I was comforted by love and support from family and friends who were excited to have me back stateside. Out-of-town friends were home for the holidays and the season’s traditions carried me through the periods of “who am I now” questioning that come from, among other things, going through puberty and leaving a country (city, neighborhood, work) where you have invested two years of your life.
Through it all, I’ve been convinced of continuing the adventure. There is definite merit in setting up a sustainable life somewhere, developing routines, and settling into mortgage payments and marriage. Most times these are adventures in their own right. Yet, at this point in the game, my vision and images of happiness simply differ from these conventions. After living outside of my own country for a significant period I feel compelled to continue working cross-culturally. Rather than stumping for the protection of “my values”, I desire to find commonalities among divergent groups of people and nurture understanding of differences. Rather than decrying the addition of Spanish on signage as an erosion of English, our national language, I empathize with the Iraqis at O’Hare searching hopelessly for their flight, and wonder why we stopped at Spanish.
The transitioning process is always difficult and eternally a reality of the human experience. As January slid to February I found myself in a new situation – no school, no work – but I’m hopeful (and certain) that this time of soul-searching and exploration will serve me well.
Tagine Marocainne chez Brahim wa chrubna الشاي المغربي مع النعناع
Makla mrikania klanaha fi ras sna
Ana wa wld xalti Mason wa rajl ttlj
shjra al3id wa الهدايا
kora mrikania fi الثلج