I don’t own a pair of socks, and although I have many pairs of shoes, I prefer my feet to be bare when I am in the house. This won’t do in Armenia, where I now know people always wear slippers when they are lounging at home. It’s not just because of the cold, it is a culturally expected behaviour and it won’t do to do otherwise. (BTW, should you find yourself living in the shadow of Mount Ararat, also be careful not to put your handbag on the floor–it’s just not done.)The need to remember to cover my feet is new on my list of worries when I imagine myself in Armenia. The sock thing sounds small, but it’s not something that comes naturally to me. It therefore requires noticing, and remembering and planning and doing, which can be the last straw on difficult days when you retreat from the outside world and don’t want to try anymore.
I know about the slippers thanks to an excellent blog written by Peace Corps Volunteer Emily Brandt.Because of a shortage of water, Emily showered only twice a week using a bucket and jug. I’ll be ok with that bit I think-I am naturally grubby and it will be a relief not to have to step unsupported into and out of a shower over the side of a bath as I now do in London. I tripped this week and have a bruise the size of a frisbee above my right knee. It hurts. In the winter, Emily spent a lot of time in bed, blogging when her hands were warm enough. That will work for me too, and is already something I do on a year-round basis. Perhaps I can get Steptoe mittens to help with blogging below zero? Overall, I feel about gloves the way I do about socks–they are constricting and hard to keep track of, but it does seem a bedroom pair would be an advantage in the Armenian winter.
What about books? Worth packing and carrying, or better to use an electronic reader? Then there are crosswords,so much nicer to complete with a pen than on a keyboard, and essential in a world where one can’t get hold of the weekend Telegraph. I’ll take Scrabble of course. I like UNO too, and have the language basics to play it in Armenian. (Irok’!) The packing guide provided by the Peace Corps lists yak traks and thermal underlayers. Better to buy them in the US sales before I go, or get them there? I practice standing in outdoor clothing shops and try to imagine myself engaged in a conversation about snow boots and compact sleeping bags, but I am some way off forming the words. A friend advised waffle towels from Ikea and sleeping bag liners instead of sheets–lighter to pack and much easier to wash and dry, she says. I’m sure she’s right.
Emily advises that PCVs should take every opportunity to go out and get involved with their hosts’ extended family and the community in which they serve. I will have to fight a tendency to burrow. Emily shares cautionary tales of Americans who fell foul of one too many vodka toasts–at 70% proof, hardly a surprise. Be careful Liz, and remember you are representing your country–the upright American one, not the one that more commonly falls down drunk. Emily talks about the special occasion khorovats–grilled meats, piled high. My herbivore stomach grumbles at the thought and I fear still more excruciating social shame: in some places, the toilet is only a hole in the ground.
Other nagging concerns: will I fit in with my host family or will they see me as idle, lazy, large and useless when it’s clear I don’t know how to wash clothes well, and am more practised at cluttering than cleaning up? Will my mugs and books and shoes and other debris from every day life become mines or snares that threaten household happiness? Oh please Peace Corps, can I have a family with stacks and piles on every surface and dishes in the sink?
Emily served every day of her 27 months in Armenia, and now recruits for the Peace Corps. She found it tough and her candour chips the sugar-coating off my romantic view of soft diplomacy and international service. This will be more Survivor than The Sound of Music. Reading her blog makes me wish I was on my way today, for I am terrified that I will spend more time waiting to go to Armenia–talking about it, getting cheered on for it, and packing a play box version of a traveller’s trunk, than I will be able endure away from home and its familiar comforts. I have a Trump-level distaste for losing face and could not stand the shame. More importantly, if I flake, I would be costing some one else a place, wasting tax-payers money, and letting down the projects I am slated to support. Oh please don’t let that happen. Let me be up to this. I really want to do it.