There are a great many things in this country that I have had trouble understanding. I don't simply mean the language. While difficult, and constantly a problem in the past, it shared a place with a number of others. I've had trouble understanding why volunteers come to feel great affection for the country; I've had trouble understanding how to interact with Armenians; I've had trouble understanding how any work gets done in this country and how to not give into despair.
But I'm beginning to get it after this weekend, which has been a watershed for my ability to feel a sense of place in this country.
Over the last couple of weeks, I've started up language lessons again. I've been far more studious now than I was in the last three weeks of PST, and that—combined with a more frequent use of the language in everyday activities—has begun to really pay off. I certainly don't understand everything people are saying. But my ability to quickly pick out enough words that I know, in order to patch together the idea being presented, has grown dramatically. I often understand what it is people are asking me, or saying to me, and can respond fairly well. I still often have to have things repeated, but it's not nearly as bad as it used to be. Paradoxically, my own knowledge of the English language has grown phenomenally as well, in large part because I'm teaching a couple of English classes a week and have to be able to explain structure and terminology (infinitives, conjugations, definite articles, participles, etc.).
This weekend especially, however, really went a long way in dissolving my last two difficulties, if not yet entirely by any means.
In Armenia there is an environmental NGO called Sunchild that does a lot of environmental education work with kids, as well as national public education campaigns. This weekend they kicked off a new campaign called "Save the Nature" (yes, I know it's a bit odd of a structure for a name, using nature instead of environment) and needed help setting up and running the event. The purpose of the event was to get a couple hundred tables from kindergartens in Yerevan and paint them with environmental themes to give the kindergarteners something prettier to use, and to instill in them an appreciation for nature through constant visuals. About ten of us decided to go into Yerevan and help. Four of us from my marz (similar to a state but more equivalent to a county in terms of their power to act independently; perhaps even less so) and an adjacent marz went in on Saturday with a bunch of kids that they bussed in to help paint the tables (they bussed in well over a hundred kids total from all over). We were up until about 1:30 in the morning setting up tables in the park that the event was held at, while hanging out with Armenians from the organization and just bullshitting a lot of the time. I very much felt like a Peace Corps volunteer at one point as I was sitting in the back of a truck full of tables in the middle of the night, with just enough room for me, driving through Yerevan with just a view out the flap covering the truck. I know that isn't a great description, but it was an absolutely surreal moment that I can't describe well.
After staying up even later at our extremely old-school Soviet hotel, drinking a bit and just talking a bunch, we got up very early in the morning, had breakfast with the kids, and headed back to the park to finish setting up. By about 10 or 11 in the morning the park was packed with hundreds of kids, drawing on and painting the tables as we dished out paint, helped move stuff (including an absurdly heavy helium tank for balloons), and watching the kids paint. And I have to tell you, a lot of those kids were absolutely amazingly talented. Some of the pictures they painted were stunningly cool. A woman from the US embassy mentioned to us that if they were selling them, there were some tables that she easily would have paid good money for. I was blown away by how well the event turned out, and it really lifted my spirits that, if there is a will and drive, big events can be done in this country and progress can be made. Does painting a bunch of tables necessarily fix the environmental education problem here? No, but when it's accompanied by a really entertaining and informative show during the painting (as it was), it sure is a good start.
To make the weekend even more incredible, a guy, and his wife, from the US embassy bought all of us lunch and brought us into the place he lives directly attached to the park. It definitely was a gated community, which normally I'm not a big fan of, but we had a great time talking to him and his wife, eating, and relaxing. What was so incredible was that he didn't even have anything to do with the event whatsoever. He merely saw it going on, walked around with his wife and daughter checking everything out, and then after meeting us straight up went out and bought us all of this stuff on a whim. The generosity and hospitality that he showed us, totally out of the blue, was such a phenomenal thing. We all had a wonderful time talking with him and his wife and his brother, who was visiting from the US, and I just couldn't have even imagined how great a day it would be.
Topping things off, in the evening we finished up by going out with some Armenians that one of the volunteers had met previously and went to a really cool pub. We all sat down and drank some beer, having wonderful conversation. We talked about Armenia and America—both the women we were with were around our age and had studied in America through an exchange program—told jokes and stories, and just relaxed. These women both really have it together. They are professional, hard-working, ambitious, and intelligent and have clearly done a lot to get themselves in the position they're in now. They are the perfect people to know, with such great insights into Armenian culture that only someone who's lived in both America and Armenia could get across to us.
I am indeed finally starting to understand.