Armenian Volunteer Corps

Welcome to the Armenian Volunteer Corps (AVC) blog. Here our volunteers and alumni reflect on their experiences living and volunteering in Armenia. For more information about our programs, visit our website, follow us on Facebook or drop us an email: .

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Volunteer's First Impressions

Haig Balian

I’m lying on my single bed in my new room in Gyumri, and my host family is down on the main floor, watching an Armenian soap opera. It’s been two nights since I arrived in Armenia, and I think I may have already beaten my jet lag. Yesterday, I wasn’t very hopeful that I would.

I had the day mostly to myself, and spent the morning wandering the getron – the downtown area – running errands and buying a few necessities. Before I arrived, I’d thought that being in Armenia would be like being dropped into a totally foreign country, but magically having the ability to communicate with the people there.

That’s sort of exactly what it was like.

At the phone shop, I figured out the rates for data plans. At the electronics store, I bought a converter for North American plugs. At a tiny bakers, I ordered two lahmajoon – commonly described as Armenian pizzas – and they were made to order. I’ve had fresh lahmajoon before, but never straight from the oven. They were pretty incredible. I know I could have figured all this out without knowledge of the language. I’ve gotten used to gesturing with my arms, as well as approximating pronunciations in my guide books. But it’s never been this easy.

Not that I’m even close to fluent. I stayed with a family my first two nights in Yerevan. They were, I think, pleasantly surprised by the amount of Armenian I was able to speak, but soon my limitations came to the surface.They asked what I did in Canada; I couldn’t really answer (of course, I have the same problem when speaking with English speakers). They tried talking about politics. Food. Culture. The best I could do was try to understand concepts. The fact is, I stopped going to Armenian school in the fifth grade, so I read and speak at less than a fifth grade level now. That being said, I’m getting by.

In the early afternoon, I made my way back to my host family, but my head down on my pillow, and slept for three hours. I knew it was a terrible idea, and I did pay for it that night when I woke up at four and went back to sleep at 5:30. I’d made plans to meet with another new volunteer later that evening. Meghrig is a recent history graduate from a university in Haleb (Aleppo?), Syria, a city with a large Armenian population. We made plans on the phone. It was the first time I’d spoken Armenian to anyone other than a member of my family on the phone for as long as I can remember.

Yerevan’s main square – which is actually more of an oval – is like nothing I’ve seen. It’s surrounded by five low-rise stone buildings, and at the centre is a large fountain. On summer evenings, the buildings are illuminated and there’s a choreographed water show on the fountain, set to the music of Aznavour, Khatchatourian, U2, Piaf, and Williams, as well as others.

Much more to write, but it’ll have to wait until at least tomorrow. And I’ll have more pictures, too.

A few random observations:

* Armenians – Yerevanites, anyway – are incredibly put together. The women especially seem to spend an incredible amount of time getting ready for the day. The men, too, make an effort to look nice. Yesterday, I wore shorts and a t-shirt, and was awarded with stares; today I wore pants.
* When someone invites you to sit down to eat hatz – bread – you’ll be in your chair for at least half an hour. You’re in for a lot more than just bread.
* Mt. Ararat is completely visible from Yerevan. I went running the morning after I first arrived, turned a corner, and was completely surprised by this.

This post first appeared on Haig's own blog,

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