Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving in Armenia

Today I woke up in Yerevan in Anahit’s house. Anahit is a woman, probably in her mid forties, who has opened her apartment to volunteers and travelers for a few thousand dram per night. Kind of like a hostel, her home is warm and there are plenty of beds. She even let me take a hot shower this morning. As I was getting ready to leave I spoke with another guest who happens to be a chef from Singapore. He is on a holiday because his restaurant is being remodeled. He couldn’t get over the cold weather, but to be honest it was so sunny today that I was able to take off my wool coat as I walked (thanks to the two layers of thermal underwear I’m wearing).

By 9 a.m. I had written my thank you note, put a small chocolate on my pillow, and was on my way. I walked to Republic Square where met a new friend I’ve made in Yerevan. She is about my age and is the PR director for a chemical company in the city. We sat and sipped green tea and she shared her experiences related to the stress of changing the public’s perception of a company that is harmful for the environment and the excitement of planning the company’s 70th anniversary celebrations.

I left and walked to the ATM to get my December living allowance. I hadn’t taken two steps out of the booth before a young girl walked up and asked for money. It’s pretty hard to say that I don’t have anything when she just watched me take money from the account. She exploded into a long story about how she was a homeless orphan, she didn’t have any money and she was hungry. I marched her into the nearest store and bought her two bananas and a bag of walnuts. Not necessarily the tastiest breakfast, but I'm a health volunteer right?

I decided that I would make a quick stop in a gift shop to pick up a present for my counterpart. In my village when someone loses a close relative it is customary to visit their home and bring a gift. Normally I would expect to get the present and go, but in my experience there is no such thing as a quick visit to anywhere in Armenia. She asked where I was from and what I do in the country.

*side note: Just yesterday we formed a PR committee for the Peace Corps. We realized that there is very little public awareness of the organization among host country nationals. Many people believe that American volunteers are missionaries in the country. This results from the fact that religious organizations were historically the first to send relief.

In an effort to represent my work clearly I told her that I teach health. She pulled out a bag of carrots and offered me a small snack. I praised her for her healthy choice and we had a 30 minute discussion about what should and should not be eaten, in what quantity and how often. It was an ironic discussion for Thanksgiving Day.

I picked up laundry and searched for Christmas notes (unsuccessfully, sorry if they arrive late). I came to the office to use the internet, type some committee notes and do some research about service learning. I’ll go back to the village tonight and consider sharing cookies from Aunt Carlene with my host family.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! You’ve all blessed my life.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Personal public relations

I'm bursting with ideas for this village and not a single one will work.

It's a slow process integrating into a foreign community where no one can speak to you and no one understands your mission. Unfortunately, I've had to learn this the hard way over the past few months. Although we were told that the first six months of service would be a difficult time of adjustment I must not have thought that the 45 years of Peace Corps procedure applied to me. Finally, my project manager came to visit and she very carefully explained (for the 100th time) why I was getting so frustrated: "You're not being patient enough."

She asked me, "if I moved into a small town in Ohio and knocked on a stranger's door and told them: 'Hello! I'm here to change the way you do things in America!' What do you think would happen? They'd call the police, right?"

She's right, I can't expect the villagers to adopt my ideas, want to change, or even want to meet me the very moment I come here. It's not a fair expectation. I guess that's why they give us 2 years to serve.

So now I'm doing some personal PR. I've introduced myself and explained my purpose for coming in all of the classes and at the parent teacher meetings, they published an interview with me in the school newspaper and they are letting me give a seminar on Monday at the Youth Action Club meeting. I am going to parties, events and a wedding tomorrow all with the intention to let people know who I am.

My program manager explained: "You come here with your own mission and the PC mission in your mind, but what about the people who have lived here their whole lives? Don't you think that they have personal thoughts about how things should be? Traditions? Methods of their own that they think work just fine?" Kitch Kitch (little by little) things will come together....I pray...