Re-learning the little things

My first week in Yerevan, Armenia has truly been wonderful. It’s a beautiful city that’s safe and easy to get around. Yerevan is also home to some really welcoming people; the more I get to see and learn, the more I am enamored. We’ve had a few hiccups, though, with the language barrier and navigation. Because we don’t have Wifi/3G here, and thus no GPS, navigation consists of memorizing street names and occasionally asking a friendly-looking person for help (I always ask women…because solidarity). My Armenian is pretty limited as well, and we haven’t met too many people our age that speak English. However, I’ve been able to introduce myself, ask people their names, go grocery shopping, ask for directions, and get a taxi.

It’s the little things you don’t realize you take for granted until you’re in completely new surroundings. But it’s also the little accomplishments that amount to big successes.

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Here’s my past week:

Monday, June 4: We met with Dr. Artashes Tadevosyan, our host at Yerevan State Medical University (YSMU). He has been so helpful and accommodating. We also met the graduate public health students who will be helping us with our project, Ines and Ana. Our meeting with them was brief, but they seem really sweet and intelligent. Ines told me I was cute so that’s another bonus. After, Artashes showed us around YSMU, namely where the cafeteria is located. We got lunch with him and his wife, Dr. Natalya Tadevosyan. I tried a soup called sepaz (probably incorrect spelling) that is yogurt based with a grain and cilantro. I was a bit thrown off by the yogurt at first, but grew to enjoy the flavor. Natalya said it’s common to eat it first with another side dish. There wasn’t too much more for me and Hannah to do, so Artashes let us have the rest of the day to ourselves.

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We had to get groceries, and luckily there are two small grocery stores near our apartment. As simple as grocery shopping is, this proved to be a challenge for us. All of the labels are in Armenian and/or Russian, and some of the packaging is different than in the US. While we could easily figure out what milk and eggs were (thank goodness), we couldn’t find butter. We also didn’t know how to order from the meat counter since we didn’t know the words for chicken or pork. Additionally, Hannah and I are quite a spectacle (she’s rather tall among Armenians and I’m a foot shorter than her…and also possibly the only Asian in Yerevan), so we received many stares from the employees and patrons of the store.

Artashes suggested we buy produce at a street stand because it is probably better in price and quality. This was also challenging due to our lack of grocery vocabulary. Body language, pointing, and general gestures have been a life save. Luckily the guy working at the stand was really nice too. The produce was amazingly inexpensive. We bought a pound of potatoes, half pound of peas, two tomatoes, two carrots, and two cucumbers for 1800 dram, or roughly $3.75. We also got some flowers for our apartment. Flowers are also inexpensive here, and there are flower stands on almost every corner. There are some really beautiful arrangements!

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Tuesday, June 5: Artashes didn’t have too much for us to do on Tuesday, so he let us have a free day. We went shopping for a little bit, but we mainly used the day to familiarize ourselves more with the city and central points. One of the more touristy attractions is called Kazkad (pronounced ‘cozz-cod’, which I think means ‘cascade’?). The Kazkad is essentially a large flight of stairs up the side of a hill, with art and fountains on a few different landings. While it was really warm out, it was a great booty workout with some wonderful views of downtown Yerevan.

We also saw Mt. Ararat, one of Armenia’s national symbols, for the first time. Although Mt. Ararat is located in present-day Turkey, it once was within Armenian boundaries. It is said to be the mountain on which Noah landed his ark after the great 40-day flood. The fact that it is no longer within Armenian boundaries is a source of pain for many Armenians.

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A little past Kazkad (actually, quite a long walk further up the hill and through a park) is where Mother Armenia is located. She’s a personification of the Armenian nation, looking very powerful upon a pedestal. More information about her can be found here. It’s quite an interesting story.

After climbing 53 flights of stairs (according to my phone), we were heading home when we stumbled across a talent show. It ended up being a group of young girls, probably age 11 and younger, singing and dancing in groups. To be honest, I started crying after their first song. I think it was the mixture of jet lag, hearing an English song, and watching them perform and remembering how it felt for me to perform when I was their age. I also was touched by young girls learning skills about confidence, expressing their creativity and talent, and having fun/being comfortable in their own skin. We don’t get that enough. Hannah and I went to dinner at a restaurant that Artashes had recommended, called Cafe Central. It was raining pretty heavily by the time we were done with dinner, but running through the rain was a fun end to a busy (and hot) day.

Wednesday, June 7: Artashes has several research projects going on right now, with one of them focusing on endocrine blockers, specifically DDT and other pesticides and their effect on the reproductive system. He had to go to a fish hatchery to collect water, algae, and fish samples to determine whether pesticides/other agricultural run-off had gotten into the fish hatchery’s product. To get there, we had to drive to a village outside of Yerevan. On our way to the site, we passed by a field of poppies and saw several stork nests, a sign of good luck. There were also some amazing views of Mt. Ararat.

We were free for the rest of the day and went to the Arev Petrosyan gallery. Some really beautiful pieces.

We also met up with the Tadevosyans in the evening to get ice cream near Republic Square. Every night from 9 to 11 during the summer, there is a light/water show that accompanies songs at the fountain. Each song has different light/water choreography. Natalya told me that the water is supposed to look like dancers. It’s both beautiful and classy.

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Thursday, June 8: Artashes had a meeting with the Armenian Women for Health and Healthy Environment (AWHHE), a local non-governmental organization (NGO). He told us we wouldn’t have to go because the meeting would be conducted in Armenian, but we decided to go anyway to see the dynamics of an NGO meeting in a different cultural context. The women (and three men, including Artashes) introduced themselves. They also had us introduce ourselves. I was trying to show off a bit, and introduced myself in Armenian. Not sure how well my introduction actually went, but they smiled politely, and someone told me they understood what I was trying to say. So we’re making some progress here. Most of the presentations were in Armenian, but a few were in Russian. I’m always really impressed with how quickly multilingual people can switch between languages (this is known as ‘code switching,’ as I’ve learned in some of my linguistics classes).

The conference attendees talked about endocrine blockers, crop residues, pesticides, etc. and their effects on the public health of Armenia. While tensions were high about some topics, like how Armenia is compared to other countries in the world, they all agreed that they need to be more accountable in their health reports to the Armenian people.

After the meeting we walked a short distance to the National History Museum at Republic Square. Armenia is a very old country, with rich, fascinating history. The artifacts at the museum were in incredible condition considering their age. I could spend forever in museums, and would’ve spent more time there if I wasn’t so tired. I’ll probably go back, considering the entrance fee is only 2000 dram (roughly $4).

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We went home to rest for a bit, and decided to go back to Republic Square to see the light show. On our way, we saw several waves of people–it seemed like all of Yerevan was at Republic Square. It turned out to be a concert of what I think is a Russian band, whose name is Black Star Mafia. Even though we didn’t understand anything, it was a fun (and free!) experience with some catchy music! Definitely checked their music out after and would recommend it to others.

Friday, June 9 and Saturday, June 10: After our MHIRT internship, we are planning to travel to a few countries within Europe. We bought our tickets to Athens, Greece which was really exciting! I never thought I’d be able to go to Greece in college. Hannah and I felt kinda burnt out, so we decided to go to Swan Lake to read and write. There are two pairs of swans at the lake, a pair of black swans and a pair of white. It was rejuvenating to sit and think. We went out for a beer after and met a guy who invited us to a garden party at a hotel. On Saturday we decided to go to the garden party and met a few people who were fun to talk to. We went out with them after, and ended up being out until 5 in the morning. Everyone knows I’m not much of a party-er, but it was pretty fun to meet people our age who could speak English and show us around!

In total, a great first week. A few downs, but mostly ups. I like constantly being reminded that I have a lot to learn about other people and places from other people and places. I like being reminded that I’m still a child in a lot of ways, but an independent woman in many others. I like being somewhat away from my comfort zone where I’m almost forced to adapt and grow. And I really like seeing myself in the world, and myself and the world. So lucky to have this opportunity.