I had not been back in Shady Side for even an hour before I was using a tumble-dryer, an appliance I hadn’t seen for nearly three years. In Armenia, where I spent twenty-seven months serving with Peace Corps, a washing machine is a luxury. Clothes are always dried outside on a line. In winter, laundry freezes hard.
Rain threatened the day I arrived at Peggy’s house with a giant suitcase, much of it filled with dirty washing.
‘Do you have a clothes rack?’ I asked for I had spent the last few weeks in the UK, returning home from the Caucasus by the scenic route. There, using a tumble dryer is a crime punishable by Greta Thunberg. They have tumble dryers, but it is no longer considered appropriate to use them.
Guiltily I pushed my wet clothes into the maw of Peggy’s mighty machine. The guilt evaporated as the tumbler began. The hum of the hot air and the regular thump of damp cotton on steel drum was reassurance that I was finally home.
I stayed a couple of nights in Peggy’s spare room catching up with all the news—my own house is still rented. This is just as well as I have no job—yet.
On day three I ventured into Washington DC, driving for the first time in nearly three years. Peace Corps doesn’t permit its volunteers to drive cars anywhere in the world—the risk of accident is too high. I was pleased to find that steering a car is like riding a bike—until I got into the city. Bike routes are now everywhere—perhaps to atone for energy wasted in tumble-drying? In principle, I approve but in my own lane I got in more and more of a lather. How could I turn right without mowing down at least two scooters and a cyclist? I made it to my appointment highly agitated, but without life-threatening incident. An American miracle.
I was visiting a temp agency, hoping to pick up a little office work to keep me solvent. The charming, well-groomed woman behind the perfectly ordered desk was quite encouraging. It was all going well until she mentioned a Word and Power Point test. It turns out there are waaay more things a person can do in Microsoft Office than I ever realized—or know how to do. It had also been a mistake to go to the temp agency before I signed up for phone service. I drove nervously to a carrier’s kiosk. Could they fit me up with a new sim card? They could—as long as I could share the last four of my social, create a six-digit pin, and so on.
‘I think I’ve forgotten how to live in America,’ I wailed to the two women in the shop. They laughed.
Off to the Doctor next. Peace Corps supplies its returned volunteers with a thick wodge of forms. These vouchers allow us to catch up with all sorts of procedures designed to sort out any health problems we may have experienced abroad—and to check we haven’t developed anything nasty and new. Doctors offices, naturally, dislike these forms, and don’t really know what to do with them.
‘Best if you pay yourself and claim it back,’ they say. It takes a lot of charm and patience to persuade them otherwise.
On Saturday morning, I had a 9am appointment for a mammogram. I sorted out my forms and doctor’s order (thank you Dr. Sheesley from Bay Community Health). I had a CD of images and last year’s report from an Armenian hospital. Lingering jet lag meant I had no trouble waking up early to drive to the appointment. I showered, and remembered not to use deodorant or lotion. I was on top of this. I made it to the clinic in good time, signed in and sat for half an hour waiting for my name to be called. I handed the forms to the woman at the front desk. She looked at them carefully.
‘I don’t think I can do anything with this.’
I began to explain, with just a hint of imploring.
‘I think it is the wrong form’ the receptionist said finally. ‘I don’t recognize anything here.’
‘But you deal with Peace Corps’ I said piteously. ‘It says so on their website.’
She handed me back the form, shaking her head. ‘Means nothing to me.’
That was probably because it was a form for a gastro-intestinal follow-up. Could I still have my mammogram if I promised to bring the right form back later? I could not.
I drove to meet friends in DC reflecting how much I missed Armenia—a country where there are very few forms, where rules are eminently bendable, and people like to say Yes—even when they should say No. It drove me mad when I was there, but some of it seems to have rubbed off on me. I began to wonder if I would ever manage in America again.
My DC friends treated me to a nice lunch to say welcome home. I had crab cakes and braised greens. Delicious. Seafood is not part of any menu in Armenia—the country is totally landlocked. Pot-likker isn’t a thing either. I hadn’t realized how much I missed it until I tasted it again.
Back in Peggy’s welcoming spare room I listened to the sound of cicadas in the crepe myrtles as I fell asleep. In the morning, there’d be a cup of drip coffee and a chat on her porch overlooking the Bay. Perhaps I could adapt after all.
A version of this article first appeared in Bay Weekly. Thanks to Sandra Olivetti Martin and the team for printing my stories from Armenia. Good luck for whatever is next you guys!