Looking at the New Year posts of some of my Peace Corps colleagues here in Armenia I realize that they have it pretty tough. Tougher for some of them than I had realized. Reflecting on 2017, they talk about what they have learned, and the challenges they are overcoming. They are grateful for the people who help them here, and they miss their old life at home. They are here for the duration,and their words are resilient— but they can have a rueful undertone. It is not like that for me, and I am wondering why not.
Part of it is my age and background. I grew up in Ireland in the 1960s and 70s. I have lit fires in cold grates before, and endured power cuts. I know how potatoes, cabbage, an onion, salt, butter and perhaps a carrot or two can be endlessly combined to make comforting meals. This is not first time I have been able to see my breath when brushing my teeth. Socially too, I don’t have as much culture shock. I grew up at a time and in a country where women did all the work inside the house. When very few women could drive. Where sex before marriage was a sin and a secret. And where it mattered — really mattered— what the neighbors thought of you. In my childhood, people didn’t travel far and free time was always spent with family. It was important to have a sparkly frock at Christmas.
Being older takes a lot of the strain out of Peace Corps Service–both Peace Corps staff and community members cut us a break. I have comfortable quarters close to my office and I live in a town with 3 or 4 supermarkets, more than one beauty salon, several banks,and place to buy seasonal sparkles and fine china –although the Peace Corps stipend does not stretch to these. I am particularly grateful that my family upstairs allow me to use their washing machine, and for my internet signal. Without a doubt my life here is easier than it is for those who walk 40 minutes to school along uneven tracks, or burn cow dung lit by kerosene-soaked rags when they need to stay warm. I admire their resolve. I am not sure I would do as well.
Because I live in a city, there are no shortage of places to rent and that means I can live alone, and cook for myself. In my house, it is not spaghetti and bread for dinner– again. By virtue of having worked for more than 35 years, I have a US bank account with money in it. And a card I can use for emergencies. It is not like that when you are 22.
Being an unglamorous grandmother, I do not get the attention that often plagues the younger female volunteers here. Men do not stop to offer me lifts. They stare only when I am wearing an eccentric hat. I am not afraid to live alone for fear of unwanted nighttime visitors.
But it is more than that. For me, there is relief in being somewhat disconnected. Being unable to communicate fully with people around me gives me more time to spend in my own head. Very little is asked of me emotionally. I have no onerous family duties here. I enjoy my work and hope it helps my Armenian colleagues, our community and the country, but I have no long-term stake. It is a curiously carefree existence. I worry, of course, that I am opting out of what a real life should look like– running away from feelings and responsibility–but, life suits me here and I am happy.
I write more. Think more. I read a lot of poetry. Cook everyday. At work, I am learning to do things that I used to have other people do. I can now make infographics. And edit video. I enjoy it. I want to learn to use the office digital camera properly this year– no more selecting Auto. (I shall however still draw the line at messing with Excel). I am learning to play chess and, although I am probably still the worst player in all Armenia, the game is teaching me much about myself and how I sabotage my own success through braggadocio, impetuosity and lack of forethought. Here, I notice more. I appreciate landscape and fresh air more.
I drink less. I move more– although still not much. I can divine kindred spirits and so I exchange sly glances and knowing laughs with Natalie the 13-year old who lives upstairs. My family here and near Artashat hug me and I hug back. I learn unimaginably interesting things from streaming radio and talking to Ara and Madlene, and following Artak and Alex on social media. I know I am lucky to know these people who speak English so well, a luxury not afforded to some of my friends who live in small villages. I probably spend as much time on the phone with my daughter as I would if we were both in the States, for neither of us like the phone much. ( I will see her next week in Dubai–another advantage of all those years on payroll: the freedom to travel, see my Darling, and spend time in the sun). Here, as at home, I don’t hear from my son and don’t know his number, or if he even has a number now. This lack of contact is a continuing source of sadness but may be easier to bear here where I am not constantly looking for him on every street corner– half afraid, half hopeful–, as I always do at home. I am glad to have spent the last nine months with Peace Corps in Armenia. I look forward to 2018 here. Bring it on.
Doors to be opened…