The featured photo is a very faded picture of Mount Ararat, which I took from the third floor of the school where I taught, Ruben Sevak School #151.
On August 22, 1995, thirty people joined me at the Hotel Dvin in Yerevan, Armenia, where we all swore in as official Peace Corps Volunteers. We had spent twelve, hot, exhausting, often frustrating weeks being trained in our disciplines, the Armenian language (eastern dialect), and cross cultural issues. We also got a lot of shots and some basic first aid and CPR training.
Our group originally consisted of 32 people, but one female trainee was placed with a host family with a son. She ended up deciding to marry her “host brother” instead of swearing in. I remember being very surprised by that decision, since she had seemed to be one of the more driven trainees. She didn’t seem to like me very much at first, but then was curiously nicer to me once she heard me sing. That’s not the first time that’s happened to me. On the other hand, some people like me less after they hear me sing. It’s a double edged sword.
I remember August 22, 1995 well because it was such a good day. I felt very accomplished for having finished training, especially since I had never planned to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. I had mostly decided to serve because I was having trouble finding meaningful work and wanted to escape Gloucester, Virginia and my parents’ house. My older sister, Betsy, had been a Volunteer in Morocco back in the mid 1980s, but she was a lot more driven and accomplished than I was. She went to a much more prestigious college, was fluent in French, and even worked in the Moroccan Embassy in Washington, DC before she was a Volunteer. I was kind of average by comparison.
In December 1994, I was working three unfulfilling part-time jobs that paid peanuts. I couldn’t make enough money to break out on my own. I remember that Betsy had joined the Peace Corps and launched into a very fulfilling career. She’d earned a master’s degree at yet another prestigious university and traveled the world, having learned Arabic in Morocco. I longed for something more like that for myself, instead of selling lattes and menswear, temping at the College of William & Mary, and putting up with bosses with whom I didn’t mesh. One day that month, I decided to send away for an application.
When I got the application and saw how long it was, I started to lose hope. It required six references, and there were medical and legal sections that had to be completed, as well as lengthy questions to answer in longhand. I threw the first application away, because I was sure I would never get accepted.
A couple of weeks later, I realized that I had nothing to lose by applying. The worst that could happen is that I’d get rejected. Rejection is nothing new for me. I’ve been rejected by countless would-be employers, friends, and boyfriends. I even got rejected by three of the four colleges to which I applied. I was not a great student and didn’t have excellent SAT scores. But I did get accepted to Longwood College (now Longwood University). I ended up flourishing in college. That was where I discovered my musical ability, and that discovery changed my life forever. I thought that maybe the Peace Corps would be like college was. Maybe I would go there and life would change for me somehow. For better or worse, I had to take a shot at it.
So I was filling out the application on the evening of January 15, 1995. The phone rang. My dad answered it. It was someone in the family letting us know that his older sister, my Aunt Jeanne, had died of an inoperable brain tumor. I figured that might be a sign that I needed to mail the application. Two days later, as we drove from Gloucester, Virginia to Sylvania, Georgia for my Aunt Jeanne’s funeral, I dropped the application in the mail.
One week later, I was invited to an interview in Arlington, Virginia. One of my sisters happens to live in Arlington and her condo was within walking distance to the Rosslyn Metro station, which would easily get me to the office where the Peace Corps recruiter was. I put on an ugly red and black suit went in and spoke to a woman named Bethe (that was how she spelled her name). She’d been a Volunteer in Thailand. I noticed she wore pantyhose, but she hadn’t shaved her legs, so her hair was matted underneath the nylon. Anyway, we hit it off fine… and she said she would nominate me for an assignment Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) in “Central Europe”.
Well… Armenia is about as Eastern European as a person can get… or maybe it’s in extreme Western Asia. It seems to depend on whom you ask. But although Armenia is a tiny formerly Soviet republic, I had heard of it before I got the offer to go there. My fourth grade teacher, Bryan Almasian, was of Armenian descent. He told us about Armenia at a time when most people in my tiny hometown never would have heard of it. People of Armenian descent weren’t exactly all over southeastern Virginia in the early 1980s. So when I got the invitation to go to Armenia, I was excited.
I had decided to join the Peace Corps at an advantageous time. It was right after the fall of the Soviet Union. A bunch of eastern European countries opened up, as well as a number of former Soviet republics. Since I grew up during the Cold War, it was exciting to me to get to see part of the former Soviet Union. And although moving away for two years was kind of scary, being stuck in Gloucester was even scarier. A lot of talent has “washed up” there, as my former best friend would say. I hadn’t enjoyed growing up in Gloucester and ached to move somewhere else… although now that I’m a lot older, I see its appeal a lot more clearly. I still don’t want to live there again, but I can now see why a lot of people I went to school with are still living there today. Although I am not a Gloucester native, it’s probably the closest thing I have to a hometown. I moved there at age 8 and lived there off and on until I was 27. I still know a lot of people there.
Getting ready to go to Armenia was challenging. Unlike my sister, who had at least a year to prepare for her move abroad, I was invited to serve about six weeks after my interview with Bethe. That meant I had to complete legal, dental, and medical screenings very quickly. The legal screening wasn’t hard. I was only 22 years old, so I didn’t have any divorces or child support issues. I didn’t have children to worry about. All I had were student loans, which at that time, we were allowed to defer (I think the rules have since changed). I went down to the jailhouse in my town, having called first to tell them that I needed to have my fingerprints taken. I remember the folksy woman on the other end of the line telling me to arrive before 5:00pm, because that was when the “weekenders” showed up. I was so naive at the time I didn’t know what that meant. I had not heard of people who serve jail time on the weekends so they can work.
I had to go to the dentist, but that was no big deal. Unlike Betsy, I was born without wisdom teeth, so I didn’t need to have them extracted, like she did. I was also born without two of my permanent teeth and, at age 48, still have one baby tooth left. The other one was extracted a few years ago when it abscessed. Now I have an implant.
The medical screening was a lot harder. Because I was still under 23, I had access to medical care at the military bases near me. Actually, I think I could have gone there even if I hadn’t had access, since the Peace Corps is a federal agency. I grew up going on military installations for medical care, but I had never seen a gynecologist before. And my health screening for the Peace Corps was my first experience with that exam. It was given by a rather unkind Air Force major, who really traumatized me. To this day, I rarely see doctors, mainly because of the way she treated me. Fortunately, I was “healthy” down there, although she promised me I’d get really fat in Armenia (actually, I lost a lot of weight during training, but later put it back on). I’m just glad I didn’t have to pay for that treatment, especially since it still affects me now.
The rest of the medical part wasn’t that bad, except that they took many appointments to accomplish. Also, I got a nastygram from the Peace Corps medical office because they said I was “too fat”. However, I stayed mostly physically healthy during my time abroad. I wasn’t one of the ones who was medivacked. I did eventually have problems with really bad skin infections that required several heavy duty antibiotics to cure. I’m pretty sure I got the infections in Armenia, or perhaps Turkey (they started on a visit to Turkey). Other than that, I didn’t have health problems, despite being fat.
On May 31st, 1995, after lots of meetings and a night in a Washington, DC hotel, thirty-two of use got on a plane to Paris. We spent twelve hours there before we boarded a flight to Armenia on the now defunct Armenian Airlines. I will never forget that very “unique” flight. It was like a time warp to the 70s. Actually, since the flight to Paris was my first since 1978, it wasn’t that different from what I was used to. There was a lot of smoking on the plane, people standing up in the aisles, and flight attendants wearing uniforms that looked distinctly Soviet. They were passing out warm beer and paper cups of water that probably came from the lavatory. Forget about a movie or assigned seating!
This was also about the time that Christopher Reeve was in the news, having fallen off his horse while stadium jumping in Culpeper, Virginia. Ten years prior to Reeve’s accident, I was at the same showgrounds where he fell off, participating in my first horse judging competition. I fell off my horse many times. Fortunately, I never got seriously injured.
Once we arrived in Yerevan, at about 3:00am, we were confronted with what life would be like there. The airport was mostly dark, because there was little power. The toilets were disgusting, because there was little water. Two guys were unloading the luggage, so it took forever to get out of customs and into bed. Some of the members of the group that had arrived in 1994 were at the airport to welcome us. The airport in Yerevan is now much better than it was when we arrived in 1995. Back then, it was very Soviet looking and kind of crumbling.
Actually, a lot of things that were crumbling in 1995 are now looking a lot better. By the time I left Armenia in 1997, things were noticeably improving. For instance, in the summer of 1996, the government determined that Metzamor, the nuclear power plant, was safe to use. They reconnected to it and suddenly, we had power 24 hours a day. During my first year in Armenia, there was only power for a couple of hours per day. Having electricity all the time was a game changer and morale booster, and I was there to see it happen.
When we arrived in 1995, there weren’t many western style stores at all. Most everything was behind a counter and we had to ask to buy them. By the time I left, honest to God supermarkets were opening, although they still didn’t trust people to shop on their own. I remember being “minded” when I stopped by a grocery store in Yerevan. Someone would watch me to make sure I didn’t steal anything, even as they’d let me get it off the shelf for myself.
Perhaps the most awesome thing about my time in Armenia was that one of my students later went to work for Peace Corps Armenia. I knew him as a sixteen year old. He’s now a professional, helping people like I was when I was a Volunteer. It makes me very proud, even though I had little to do with his excellent command of English. He was already fluent when we met. However, I can take comfort in knowing that having me as a teacher didn’t completely turn him off of Americans!
It’s hard to believe that twenty-five years have passed since I became a Peace Corps Volunteer. I completely believe that I went to Armenia for a reason, and it led me to where I am today. I certainly had little trouble adjusting to Germany after having lived in Armenia for two years. My time there was often difficult and challenging, but I now mostly remember the best parts of it. I’m proud of myself for making it through, even if I wasn’t one of the people who had spent my life planning and preparing for a Peace Corps assignment. It truly was an honor to serve, and I learned so much. I hope others learned from me… or at least didn’t mind that I was there.
I meant to post this yesterday, but half of my post got wiped out, and I was so disgusted that I decided to wait to finish it this morning. I’m glad I waited. As usual, the end product turned out better after I slept on it.