Wednesday, March 16, 2011

An Iranian gas lamp and a German vacuum walk into a room…

One of the perks of being a TLGer is getting a free phone from the government. Sure, the phones are old school Nokia blocks (you know- those phones that don’t really have any special features but retain an incredible battery life of five days) but they’re free.

I got bored with my phone last week so I used a set of permanent markers to color all over the keys. Nini fell head over heels in love with my rainbow phone and asked if we could trade. With pleasure I traded my simple Nokia for Nini’s 4G Samsung with a camera, MP3 player and various other functions.

Having the phone was one thing; using it was another story. Even after three days I still couldn’t figure out how to answer a phone call without first hanging up on people twice in a row. Plus, responding to text messages was such a hassle that I basically just stopped talking to people in mid conversation.

The funny thing was that Nini had no problem with my phone. I thought I might have to show her how to turn off T9 word or set an alarm, but no sir. In fact, Nini practically showed me how to use my own phone.

As Nini played with my phone and deleted the Georgian-Ebonics (seriously it might be a new language) text messages from her boyfriend on her own phone, I became amazed at how quickly she could navigate a cell phone in a foreign language. I never realized how important ‘English cell phone’ jargon is to teenagers until I watched Nini plunder through her Samsung and add locks to this, and change the ring tone to that.

All of the cell phones in Georgia are programmed in either Russian or English, so basically in order to operate a cell phone here every person needs to know a bit of a foreign language. Take texting for example: if your phone only comes in English you need to text in Georgian using English letters (or is it more correct to say Latin letters?).

I have a Georgian friend in Tbilisi who doesn’t speak any English and he always sends me these long text messages that are written in Russian using English letters. The only way I can understand what he writes to me is if I read aloud his text messages. Not only does this ensure that I look crazy on the marshutka, but it also takes me twelve years to reply. I can’t imagine having to text like this every time I might want to tell something funny to a friend, yet this is what everyone in Georgia is just used to doing.

Sometimes it feels like every object in my host family's house is in a different language. The washing machine is in Russian (I’m still in awe every time I open the machine door and realize I washed my clothes on the correct setting), the gas lamp knobs in the kitchen are in Farsi (an import from Iran) and the vacuum (or should I say vakuum) is an import from the Deutschland.

It’s a little crazy when you think about, but every other item in the house seems to be from another part of the world. Eka is always very curious and very aware of where all her products come from. She knows which country every plate she has is from (mostly China and the Czech Republic) and the exact city where her dining room table and cupboards were crafted.

I love the amount of pride my family takes in all their multinational goods. Both before I left for Israel and before I left for Armenia, they checked the almanac to see what the countries’ main exports were. So far I’ve always been able to bring back at least one of the exports mentioned in the almanac and those are always the gifts my family seems to be most curious about. In the United States I feel like most people don’t really care where their goods come from; usually whatever is cheapest at the store will do.

It amazes me that while I can barely use a cell phone in my native tongue or fix internet ‘connectivity’ issues on the computer, my fourteen year old sister who doesn’t even know what ‘connectivity’ means has no problem clicking around on the desktop and solving the issue all the while texting in Georgian using an English alphabet.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Brennen looking at one of the Genocide memorials
There was one thing I saw in Yerevan that really shook me. The Museum of the Armenian Genocide was by far the most eye opening museum I’ve ever ventured inside of.

I feel incredibly ignorant saying I didn’t know very many details about the 1915 Armenian Genocide before coming to Yerevan but unfortunately, this is the truth.

In all my years of schooling I don’t ever remember the genocide being brought up. Through all my time researching the Holocaust, I never remember reflecting upon the Armenian genocide. Even while protests over the genocide in Darfur frequented my college campus, I can’t recall ever hearing about the Armenian genocide.

Sure, I suppose it’s possible I read something and simply didn’t process it but it shocked me to my core that this utterly horrible, callous event occurred in history- an event that resulted in the death of 1.7 million Armenians- and practically everything I knew about this genocide was written in a one paragraph blurb in the ‘Lonely Planet Guide to Armenia’.

I cried a lot that day at the museum. I cried because 1.7 million people were killed for having a religion that others weren’t comfortable with. I cried because 1.7 million people were killed for being themselves. I cried for my own ignorance. I cried for the world’s ignorance. I cried because genocides are happening right now, in several countries, and I feel like there is nothing I can do to help.

 I cried and I cried. From 11am to about 7pm I was pretty much just crying.

The Holocaust inflicted upon the Jews and all the others who did not fit the mold of Hitler’s “Perfect Race” is a well-known event in world history. There is significant proof it occurred, from photographs and videos to a plethora of still-standing concentration camps that can be visited to this day.

The same cannot be said about the Armenian genocide. “Proof” that it occurred is not as accessible. There are no concentration camps to look at, few photos that lay any blame. There is evidence in the photos of dead starved children rotting on the streets, and in the written accounts of the brutal, sadistic acts inflicted upon the Armenians but somehow this is not enough.

Even now, the genocide is denied by thousands. Forty matching written accounts that say that cattle cars full of women and children were driven into a lake to drown Armenians is apparently not “enough proof”.

Many non-believers attribute the genocide to a simple casualty of war. A war occurred, people died.

Reading about views like this really messed with my head. My entire family was killed as a result of the Holocaust. My grandparents on both sides of my family were basically the sole survivors of their families. The combination of me barely knowing a single fact about the Armenian genocide prior to walking into the museum and the similarities between the Armenian Genocide and that of the Holocaust put something like a real hole into my soul.

The best thing I can think to do is to inform others who similarly feel like they know barely information about the Armenian genocide. There are four people I read about at the museum that I don’t think enough people in the world know anything about. I encourage you to read about these four amazing souls if even for a moment to just say their names out loud and acknowledge them.

-          Maria Jacobsen, a Danish Missionary, who kept a detailed accord of the events of the genocide and saved hundreds of Armenian children from extermination
-          Armin Theopil Wegner, a human rights activist who took photos (proof) of the horror occurring during the genocide 
-          Ruben Heryan, responsible for saving hundreds of Armenian orphans while risking his own life
-          Aurora Mardiganian, author of “Ravished Armenia” a personal account of the Armenian genocide 
The other genocide memorial in Yerevan

A plaque of condolences from Georgian President Saakashvili

Saturday, March 12, 2011

True Beauty

My real mom has a theory that every place is beautiful. Whenever I would tell her that I want to travel to this place or that place because it looked beautiful in photos she would ask me to name a place that’s not beautiful. I definitely think my mom is right (I even find garbage dumps beautiful because of all the different colors present in one place) and Armenia is no exception.

Armenia has breathtaking physical beauty; the mountain towns and stone churches are so striking they seem magical and the capital has a real cosmopolitan feel to it. I only spent about six days in the country but I was able to learn a lot about myself and what makes a trip worthwhile to me.

One thing that I learned was that even if a country can have gorgeous things to see, that does not necessarily make a trip worthwhile.

See, there was something missing from my trip: I only met two Armenians. Sure, the two Armenians I met were wonderful human beings, but getting to know just two locals on a week long trip seems laughable.

In fact, I think it was impossible for me to fully immerse myself into Armenia because I basically only perceived the country through the eyes of tourists; none of the people I was traveling with had much of a connection to anything we saw. Yes Roman our taxi driver-turned-tour guide was great (he even took us to his home in Garni to meet his family and bought me a bouquet of flowers after one of our long chats) but there was just something missing from every sight we looked at.

I would have loved to travel around the country with more Armenians. After being in Georgia for six months I really think that people are what make a country great.

I CouchSurfed with one Armenian guy in Yerevan who told me that the spirit and charisma of the Armenian people are what gives the country such heart. Artak, my host, was by far one of the most hospitable and altruistic beings I’ve ever met. Even though he and his huge family live in a small apartment, they still wholeheartedly gave up three beds for me and my two friends and the entire family just slept in one room together. Artak even insisted on getting us coffee, tea and drinks and paid for every cab we needed to take.

Both the kindness of Artak and Roman seem almost unbelievable. Sometimes it shocks me how above and beyond people go to make strangers feel welcome. I mean, asides from Mamuka in Telavi, who’s ever heard of a cab driver taking clients to his home for coffee and compote?

I plan on doing a lot more traveling while I’m in Georgia. There are still lots of cities and towns right here in Saqartvelo that I want to see, and I’m venturing into Turkey and Azerbaijan before I fly home at the end of June. Despite the many sights I want to see, I’m going to make it a point to meet many people. Tourist attractions and landmarks are great, but meeting people and having stories is what makes a trip memorable.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Addicted to Love

Even the cows stare at us funny.

Just yesterday I was buying a loaf of bread from a bakery in town I’ve never been to before. The bakery was quite crowded and just as I was about to receive my loaf the baker turned to me and said, “kartuli khar? G’khavs accenti” (Are you Georgian? You have an accent).

I took a small breath anticipating the aftermath of saying I was American and replied “Ara… Amerikidan”.

Now, I kid you not- the entire bakery broke out into song and dance. The baker began singing to me about America and beautiful girls; meanwhile all the customers at the shop began to whisper to themselves as if questioning whether or not I was a celebrity. Even as I walked away from the shop many customers yelled, “Goodbye America!”

My problem is that I’m getting used to all this attention and love and don’t know how I’ll cope back in the states when I’m just another human on the street. I’m now used to random strangers breaking out into song when they meet me, to children I’ve never met personally addressing me on the street. I’m used to getting free vegetables at the bazaar simply for having an accent and smiling too much and to getting text messages from Georgians I haven’t seen since September who just want to know how I’m doing and if I’ll visit them soon.

Of course, the most love I get is from the students at my own school. (I’ve even dedicated a drawer in my bedroom to love notes from my students). This semester I’ve taken more of an effort to get to know the students that aren’t in my classes. I’d like to meet every child at my school, regardless of whether or not they’re studying English.

Thus, when the bell rings and school’s over I try to chat with a student I’ve never met before even with my limited Georgian. The conversations never really delves any deeper than, “romeli simraera gikvars?” (which song do you like) but I like meeting more kids, especially when they’re all so excited to have me in their school.

After school today I walked home with two tenth grade girls I’d never met before named Naniko and Khatia. The three of us were headed in the same direction so for fifteen minutes we talked about our siblings, the music we like, who our friends are and our favorite kinds of Georgian food. Granted, none of this is brain stimulating stuff but cut me some slack, that’s fifteen minutes of listening and chatting in Georgian! In New York, if I just walked up to someone I’ve never met before and started asking them if they can play any instruments they’d most likely ignore me thinking I’m trying to sell them something.

My ‘foreigner fame’ has reached a new height recently. Over the past few weeks I’ve practically been rented as entertainment for birthday parties. A whole bunch of Nini’s friends have February birthdays and they all insisted that I absolutely must attend their parties.

Basically, I’m a party clown. I sing songs during dinner, I mispronounce things in Georgian, I dance when no one is dancing (and I accidentally use the juice cup as a wine glass and pour myself three times as much wine as anyone else). At the last party I went to I even brought my entire computer to DJ the event and nearly got yelled at by a group of fourteen-year-olds for not dancing “crazy enough”.

There is a lot of power in my being the clown though. At one party, Salome the birthday girl made another girl stand up and move her seat at the table because she wanted to sit next to me. Oh, and at a different party, I decided I was only going to dance with the boys that no girls wanted to dance with (‘Wedding Singer’ style) and lo and behold my ‘undesirable boys’ ended up dancing it up with cute girls the rest of the night.

This power and fame I have as a foreigner has even stretched into marriage proposals with strangers. A woman I sat next to on the train gave me her address and phone number so that I could come and meet her son and marry him.

I’m sure a lot of this attention has to do with the warm and welcoming nature of Georgians (not just that I’m some goofy girl from the United States) but it’s still going to be a challenge to resort back to being just another American in America come July.  Therefore, I’m going to eat up my fame for the next four months.

I mean, I might as well face it- I’m addicted to love.