Friday, February 29, 2008

International Peace Corps Week

The Armenia PC Public Relations committee has embraced International Peace Corps week as an opportunity to educate the American embassy and the Armenian public about our organization’s work in this country. Volunteers were given speaking points in Armenian and English and encouraged to organize community meetings to raise awareness.

As one of the volunteers expecting others to participate in this week’s festivities, I felt an obligation to organize my own ‘meeting’. I called together the leaders from my region’s Youth & Community Action Club to present background information on the PC, a personal testimony about my work at site and provide an open forum for questions and answers to my counterparts and the school director.

The Peace Corps is a source of great pride for my director and this village. As one of the first villages in the region to host a PCV in 2004, my director has always been admired among educational leaders for her proactive attitude and successful project writing skills. After the success of my small meeting on Tuesday, she took the initiative to attend the regional director’s board meeting on Thursday with the same speaking points, PC site application forms and a personal request to the Director of Education & Sport for an announcement to be made about applying for a PCV. She’s the best spokeswoman the organization could hope for.

While individual PCVs promoted the Peace Corps in the regions, in Yerevan opportunities were organized with the US Embassy to provide informal presentations, lunches and language lessons to staff. We were invited to sit in the cafeteria on Thursday and offer up conversation about our experiences in Armenia to both Americans and Armenians on break.

The hope is that more people will have a positive idea of the organization and apply for a volunteer to work in their office or school. Fifty new volunteers will arrive in June and the more sites willing to host them the better.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Trndez Holiday in the village

According to, on February 14th, the Armenian Apostolic Church celebrates the “Tiarndaradj” holiday 40 days after Jesus' birth. The word means to meet Jesus. According to Ararat Patriarchal Eparchy, the celebration starts the evening of February 13. After the ceremony people light candles in church and take the light to their homes. According to the public tradition, people make a fire from the candle light brought from church. This holiday expresses the divine love towards God.

In my village, however, there is no church and after yesterday's celebration there are quite a few cultural traditions left unexplained. Even though this is my second 'hopping over the fire' holiday here I haven't been able to find anyone in my extended host family who can explain the behaviors of February 13th.

The celebration is for newlyweds or newly engaged couples. If you happen to be fortunate to have one of these pairs in your family you have a fire to jump over and a party to attend. This year we had two in our family--both parties starting at 5 p.m.

Everyone arrived and a fire was lit in the street. The women gathered up beautifully wrapped bowls of baked grains and popcorn in addition to horovats and vodka. There's also a traditional dish called halva (although I think it's enjoyed in Russia too) that they carry out to the fire. Women surrounded the couple and everyone walked around the fire seven times. My friend Sargis told me that they walk around seven times in hopes of the bride having a boy and eight times for a girl. For the record, I can't imagine an Armenian couple walking around eight times. Regardless, the theory was quickly negated this morning when my host grandpa infomed me that the next step in the celebration process-of actually jumping over the fire- is what leads to fertility.

Seven times around (I later learned that this could be for seven days of the week...or maybe because 7 is a lucky number)...

Three times over...

After leaping over the fire three times a relative took one of the sticks and burnt a mark into the bottom of each of the couples pant legs.
Me: "Why is she burning their pants?"
Grandma: "To let all the bad things and illness come out."
Me: "Illness comes out of the bottom of our pants?"

The couple was handed a pair of candles and they lit each wick from the fire in the street. The candles were left burning for the duration of the party.

My host grandfather says that God looks down on earth and sees all the fires burning on this day and decides to change the weather. All the heat also helps of course. This is why it starts to get warmer after February 13th. Try telling that to my friends up in Gyumri who still have another solid three months of winter ahead of them.

After this we all went inside. Well, some of us. One of my favorite relatives decided she also wanted to jump over the fire three times. I'm not sure if she was wishing for fertility (she already has three kids my age) or just wanted to see if she could do it.

The party inside was just like any other party table with BBQ, dolma, fruits, candies, cold cuts, olives, cheese and lots of bread. We ate and toasted to: The couple, their grandparents, their parents, uncles, aunts, even me and my family. Each toast is followed by its own thank you toast. Needless to say there was a lot of vodka flowing.

After two parties I returned home and handed each of the four kids a piece chocolate. After all, isn't chocolate the most important aspect of Valentine's Day anyway?

Happy Valentines Day--I love you.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Sarah and the Bee

I've gone on a school-wide promotional tour this week trying to inspire the seventh through eleventh graders to participate in a local spelling bee in April.

I began my speeches quoting numbers from the film Spellbound. "Nine million students participated in local spelling bees in America in 2001," I say. "This is a great opportunity that we'd like to bring from American society to Armenia." I thought maybe the sheer amount- 9 million-would be motivational to students growing up in a country with a population of about three million.

I told them about the rules-the difference between saying the sounds of the letters and their names. "If you say: kuh ah tuh you will be sent out the door. If you say cat you'll get to sit down until we have a winner!" I explained the process and then broke into my tireless focus on goal setting. I asked what the goal of a local and eventual national spelling bee would be. Apparently I overemphasize the importance of setting long-term life goals because I enjoyed responses like: "To have a better life! To be better people! To be winners!"

It seemed petty when I simply admitted: "You'll know how to write down English words and read the words you write."