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Jen and Jeremy Hailes Peace Corps Armenia Web site
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Jen and Jeremy Hailes Peace Corps Armenia Web site
Jen and Jeremy Hailes Peace Corps Armenia Web site
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The View from Here
Our Updated Journal Entries
Where There is No Roe
A Conversation with the Author of Fate
Looking out from our rear balcony in Gyumri.
On Life in Armenia
Over the past months, our thoughts and feelings about life here have continually changed. Our online journal gives you the latest on the way we live now.
Several of us have taken a stab at journalism. Ballast or bluster, one thing is certain: our work is not quite ready for prime time.
Armenian Art Online
Where would be without our friends? Certainly not here. A collections of pictures and comments from the people who love us.
Armenia has a stong artistic tradition. Coming soon, an opportunity to support local artists with purchases over the internet.
Next up, Vanity Fair
A Volunteer for Life
ACU Business Interface Magazine profiles Jen. Read the story here.
Jill Webb's conversation with Sister Montiel Rosenthal, a Catholic nun and physician who has dedicated her life to serving Armenia.
jenandjeremy.com is a personal website maintained by Peace Corps volunteers. The views expressed are the views of the authors and do not express those of Peace Corps Armenia or the United States government.
June 19, 2002
How do we live now? Let me count the days.
There is water coming in my kitchen and splashing on the floor. Of the amusing ironies that we face everyday, this is my favorite: most volunteers have to haul water up three floors from an outdoor tap and I can't get my faucet to turn off. Before it was just drip, drip, dripping and that was maddening enough. But this utter waste has driven Jenjon over the edge. She decides to call the landlord for the umpteenth time to do something about it. She can't get a dial tone and throws the phone against the wall. She can't manage to break it.
Lena shows up later that day to scrub our floors and Jen is in tears. Yes betke gnal, yes betke gnal. This country is absurd. Tell me about it. I live on six dollars a month, Lena says. Yeah, well we live on six dollars a day. Our neighbors say that Lena's family was the wealthiest in the building before Armenia went to hell. Now she triples up with her daughter so that Americans can live in her home. What's more she scrubs our floors for a pittance. I tell her tsaveh tanem (I take your pain) and she gets a big grin. I hear her going to her friend saying that Jeremy told her tsaveh tanem.
The lights are out again today and sticky stuff is seeping out of the refrigerator onto the floor. I go to the electric station and ask when they plan to turn them on. Tsaveh tanem is all the guy can manage. They do this on purpose. They turn the lights out so that people will pay their bills. I go into the store and try to incite a riot. Your ice cream is melting on the floor. Why not get shot mart and storm city hall? Vochinch. Tsaveh tanem, they say.
There is a crazy kid on my balcony who rocks back and forth, counting, counting, counting. He must be up to heesoon hazur meelyon by now. He's been out there for days. The boy is from Karabakh, the part of Armenia laden with land mines and cease-fire. His tatik comes out and slaps him around for disturbing me. She tells him to go inside because crazy kids aren't to be seen by Americans.
Two years we have spent here as community development volunteers and not a thing has changed. You wonder why Jen is depressed? This is why. This is a hard world, unjust to so many. It's tempting to think that we are leaving for paradise and the burden of Armenia behind. But I fear that there will be one final irony: When we shake the dust off our feet and say good riddance and depart, we will be taking this country's pain with us.
After July 8 you can find us at the following addresses: firstname.lastname@example.org and/or email@example.com.
March 25, 2002
I write this on one of the worst of my Gyumri days. It is my sixth day confined to my home with a variety of ailments. My throat feels raw from endless, deep coughing. The sun refuses to shine and I feel my depression is prolonging my physical condition. To be quite honest, I have never really recovered from my six-week stint in America.
Everything vaguely appealing about this place has passed. I look out my window with sadness and disgust at the derelict hodgepodge of buildings. I have learned about Armenian history, I have learned the Armenian language, and I have learned about its politics and about its Genocide. I feel as though our relationship is over, like ending a two-year love affair with no hope of a future. I am hanging on by the vow of commitment. But the days are long, very long.
This is why I do not write during the winter. My tone is pitiful. Yes, it is still winter in March. If it wasn't for our best friends I don't know how we would survive. Recently J-P organized a bowling tournament in Yerevan, took us kite flying in 25 mph cold winds, and whipped up some lasagna and quiche. We just pretend we are not here.
On a positive note, every day will be better. When the sun shines and spring arrives we will be deliriously happy. We will be sad to say good-bye to this beautiful place. We are still here for a reason and that is comforting. There is work to be done. I am simply tired of waking up and witnessing suffering day in and day out.
So Jeremy and I are thinking about what's next. Maybe graduate school, a new city, definitely new clothes. And I think, 'Why am I so lucky?' I love this life God has given me. As I try to decide where and what to do next I am keenly aware of that honor. Cynicism has crept in. I have learned that only a few of us have choices, freedom, and comfort. It is a cruel, ugly world out there.
With Shooshan in the Snow
The bearer of the fox brings news of an upcoming wedding. January 30, 2002
It was one of those days where I cherished my decision to join the Peace Corps. In fact, it was a perfect day.
I had friends in town and we had just finished off a big country breakfast at my house. The city was covered in a blanket of snow that literally glittered in the midday sun. A group of us, the usual suspects, headed for an afternoon of sledding. We purchased several black inner tubes from the shuka and headed up to Mother Armenia on the top of the city.
J-P designed the run that finished with a twist and a five-foot drop. After several uneventful trips down the mountain, J-P decided we should try a four-person finale with Jen on top. Next thing I hear is a loud crack. I honestly can't remember the descent; instead I only remember the sound of my body at the end. It turns out that our friend Bear actually fell on me after I flew off the tube. I didn't cry. It wasn't that kind of pain. It was something I had never felt before. So I screamed.
After three of the guys carried my bent body down the hill and loaded me in a taxi, Jeremy, Jeff and I headed for whatever medical attention we could find. Jeremy assumed I was overreacting, Bryant thought I dislocated my shoulder, and I was certain that I was paralyzed.
I guess we know as Peace Corps volunteers that there is always a risk that we will have to seek medical attention in Armenia. But I don't think many of us consider the reality of it. In all honesty, the prospect is terrifying. The Gyumri hospital, a few scattered buildings, was not heated. My body was even colder than usual from the shock. Of course, it didn't help that I had to go back and forth between buildings on ice. The experience provided the usual Armenian drama. For example, the doctor's pain killer solution exploded on my face during insertion. Jeremy and the taxi driver had to go shopping for the necessary medical supplies.
After three doctors and two x-rays, it was determined that I needed surgery to repair a broken and shattered collarbone. Four days later Jeremy and I boarded a flight to Washington, D.C. We had found ourselves with a free trip and home for the holidays. In Jeremy's words, it doesn't get any better than this.
January 25, 2002
The other night I decided to treat myself to a night out in Gyumri. The only thing I know to prepare for myself is breakfast (and I'm extremely proficient now, having made bacon, eggs and fried potatoes for at least 400 consecutive mornings). And so rather than go hungry I would eat Armenian pizza.
After trudging through the snow and in the blistering cold I arrived at the pizzeria. Closed. Well I was having none of that so I waited at the door until someone came to give me an explanation.
With Arpy, Our New Goddaughter
What I got instead was an interrogation. "Inchee sovats es? Ooteeneetz e. Vortegh e ko keen?" (In English, "Why haven't you eaten? It's already eight o'clock. Where's your wife?") Normally I don't have a lot of patience for this kind of small talk but this time I immediately saw the angle. I simply told the man that Jen was home in America eating sushi and drinking pinot noir and I was starving at home by myself. Well, you can probably guess the rest of the story. They opened the restaurant, the bar and kitchen and fed me until I was full.
Ugly Americanism, you ask. Yes, it is. I'm caving. Jen jon, please come home.
With the Dunns in Barcelona
November 20, 2001
It has already been several weeks since my return from Europe. So I figured I should say a few words before it becomes old news. In retrospect, the holiday was more rewarding than I imagined it would be. Remember I am coming from a redeveloping nation. So everything seemed luxurious and surreal.
The adventure began when we missed our flight to Paris on October 1st. We arrived groggy at the airport at 5:00 AM in anticipation of our 7:00 AM flight. After a few cups of Armenian coffee we ventured through the dark, empty airport to the check-in counter. No one there. Typical.
After wandering around we were told that our flight departure had changed to 6:15 AM and we would not be allowed to board. While our plane sat on the runway until 7:00 AM about 20 disillusioned passengers chased random airport workers around trying to find answers. Why weren't we informed of the flight change? Why won't they let us board if the plane is still grounded?
During this time I was wailing in tears. The next flight to Paris would leave four days later while Mom would be in Nice without us. I was also over-emotional due to post-Sept 11 stress and a terrible cold and fever. I tried to call Mom in Dallas to tell her not to board her flight but none of the airport phones would call out. Finally, at 10:00 AM, Armenia's earliest working hour, an actual airport official arrived at the scene. He informed us that there is nothing he can do.
Meanwhile, Jeremy was following a prominent French couple around observing and imitating their strategy. Only God knows how, but Jeremy managed to get us on board the Yerevan to Athens flight with the French couple. Too bad for the Armenian passengers, only the foreigners were given any rights. We were told to run with bags and all to the plane which had been waiting for over an hour on the tarmac. As I approached an empty seat a large Armenian man asked me where I am from. When I loudly replied, "America", he belligerently began a verbal attack stating that I was the reason the plane was held up. Then he continued to curse Americans. I ran to the bathroom in tears. We did arrive in Paris, just 12 hours late. We flew from Yerevan to Athens, Athens to Frankfurt, then Frankfurt to Paris.
In the dark we hopelessly walked through Paris in search of a hotel without francs or our credit card PIN number. My body had lost all energy since I was suffering from fever, a sore throat and sleep deprivation. Not to mention, my ears never unpopped from the long flight. I had to buy ear spray to try to unclog them. After a night in Paris and a five-hour train to Nice we finally found our hysterical Mom.
The first few weeks of travel were full of mishaps. We were fined four times on the trains for improper something or other. All in France I must add. One time Wade refused to pay with his strong superior American attitude. We finally paid to resist arrest. The trains were much slower than expected. Overnight trains are the way to go, especially first class (if you are over 26 you are forced to purchase a first class Eurail pass).
It was interesting to travel during such turbulent times in the world. During our 31-day jaunt the following events took place:
1. A few days after leaving Paris a plane was accidentally shot down by a Ukrainian missile over the Black Sea.
2. While in Italy the U.S. State Department issued an alert that Americans were unsafe in Italy.
3. While in Northern Italy two planes collided in Milan.
4. While in Barcelona a plane flying from Barcelona disappeared.
5. While shopping downtown violent protests broke out near our hostel during a Spanish holiday in Barcelona.
6. Shortly before going to San Sebastian a bookshop was firebombed in San Sebastian.
7. When we arrived in Madrid a car bomb exploded killing 14 people.
8. A warning was issued for all Americans abroad to hide their Americanism.
9. When in Paris all the museum workers were on strike causing the museums to close.
It seemed like disaster was following us everywhere. For us it made the trip all the more exciting. The holiday was beautiful. It was a collection of experiences and memories to laugh and relive for the rest of my life. I'm so blessed to have shared those moments with loved ones. Not many can recall the time they were stranded with Mom in a small fishing village without a room. Or when they stormed out of a Paris restaurant after an argument with their brother.
I could write forever on a variety of topics: museums, food, funny stories, the weather, etc. I will say that my favorite place was San Sebastian, Spain or the Cinque Tera in Italy. My favorite sight was the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. We swam in the ocean, mountain biked, saw the Mona Lisa, drank lots of red wine, ate dessert everyday, stood at the bar for coffee, stayed up late, dined on tapas, walked through cities and parks, and spent lots of time catching up with our people. We hung out in small Paris bookstores, saw "The Shining" on the big screen, ate crepes on the street, listened to live jazz, and witnessed a Spanish religious festival and wedding.
Americans in Paris Graffiti in Barcelona Our good friend Anahit with garlic and bread dipped in iodine around sore throat
November 7, 2001
There are so many emotions that fill my mind at the moment. What do I write? Where do I begin? Although much has happened to me, it seems egocentric to write about it when the world is falling apart. I won't write an essay about my feelings, but I will say that I cannot see or feel what you have. Sept. 11 will never be the same memory or event for me. I didn't see CNN non-stop for a month or experience the evacuation of a mall. It is, perhaps, too much like a movie for me. And because I live among suffering, uncertainty and earthquake ruins, my sense of security was lost a year ago.
I am thankful that Americans are spending more time looking at world maps and learning the names of far away places. Some of you are skeptical of the value of my Peace Corps service. However, I agree with the thoughts of Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He states in a recent interview:
"Peace Corps volunteers carry with them for the rest of their life an understanding of the realities-that these are not abstract programs; these are life-and-death struggles for people who are not as privileged as most Americans. They know the difference between a program and its implementation, how often well conceived programs on paper don't work, how local initiatives sometimes are more valuable than national ones."
I value my time in Armenia as a rich and incredible experience that cannot be described. Indeed, it will change every day of my life forever. To those of you who are wondering, I am staying until the end. When I returned from my four-week holiday in Europe I felt a renewed sense of love and warmth toward Armenia and its people. I realized that I take out many of my frustrations with the poor quality of everything on the people themselves. It is not their fault that their roads are crappy, their cars break down, and my electricity goes out. But, I tend to place the blame on the Armenians. Sometimes I feel like my friendships do not run as deep with my Armenian friends. However, while away, I missed Anahit, Artiom and Aida like they were family. Now I have little doubt that my Armenian relationships will continue when I return to the U.S. Consequently, I am so glad to be home.
Another morale booster for me was the welcoming home by Jeremy and my many friends. J-P and Sharon picked us up from the airport and everyone genuinely seemed ecstatic that we were back. This coincides with the pure feeling of unconditional love I feel after my holiday with friends. My reunion with Tiff was canceled because of Sept. 11, but Jeremy and I met Mom, Brent and Renee, my brother, Wade, and his girlfriend, Lauren, at various meeting places around Europe. I treasure those airport scenes and first hugs and kisses. Now I feel secure that all my relationships are as they should be or better.
My future in Armenia looks promising. I came home to a comforting feeling of 'I've done this before'. I have many contacts, friends and working relationships. These next eight months should be my most rewarding and productive time as a Peace Corps volunteer. I will keep you informed.
Our Godfamily (Notice the heavenly light that envelops us)
Demonstrators wave Soviet flags on May Day. Communist fervor remains in Gyumri. June 29, 2001
So Scott leaves tomorrow and we're not sure if he enjoyed his time here or not. He arrived fresh off a jaunt to Guatemala and determined not to let anything surprise him. As for the airport: "It's not that bad-it's got a tarmac." As for the minibuses: "There's only 21 people in here. In Guatemala they fit 50!" As for the apartment: "I've seen worse."
Unfortunately, Scotty's world travels had not prepared him for the Land of Dust and Dogs. About a week in, we were walking back from my friend Artiom's house when a dog came at us. There is only one rule when it comes to the dogs in Gyumri (and just about everywhere else, for that matter): Don't run from them. Scott broke this rule and spent the rest of the week applying bandages to his hands and knees. He didn't get bit; he fell in a pothole.
Maybe it was my singular Americanism. Or perhaps it was my Brandoesque manner. Whatever, this week the Armenian Apostolic Church deemed me fit to become a Godfather. In a move that will hopefully satisfy Jen's desire to have children, I am now the proud patriarch of a thirty-something woman and her child.
The fun began, I think, when our landlord asked Jen if she had ever witnessed a baptism. She replied that, why yes, she had once been baptized herself. We had agreed to become godparents a few weeks earlier and Jen's reply led the family to believe that we knew all about Armenian baptismal tradition. This turned out to be a rather unfortunate mistake. There were some nuances that only later did we learn that we had missed.
For example, it is shameful for godparents to bring anything other than a gold cross for those who are being baptized (the ones we brought were silver). It is shameful to have wet hair (I had just showered and was amoted for it by the tatik). It is shameful to try to lift a grown woman for washing (I'm not sure what I was thinking). It is shameful to get a case of the giggles during the baptism (Jen's fault). And it is shameful to be late for the ceremony (the baptism was scheduled for 10:15; we arrived at 10:30).
But despite these points, Tuesday was a day of inchoate beauty. My only real regret is that none of us understood the ancient Armenian words that washed our sins away.
[Note: Please address all future correspondence to The Godfather. And if any injustice should come about, do not disrespect me by going to the police.]
Someone mentioned to Jen recently that my online journal entries have become too cynical. It is my understanding that the Cynics of ancient Greece held civilization in contempt. They thought it was an artificial condition that should be eschewed in favor of the natural life. Their hopes did not include riches or luxuries, but simplicity and independence. So, Wade Floyd, thanks for the compliment.
Well, it is June 24th and the one year mark has come and gone. Jeremy and I celebrated with our last remaining bottle of Italian wine. At the time I didn't realize how differently things would feel from then on. On June 6th the next group of Peace Corps Armenia volunteers arrived at 4:45 AM. Most of our A8 group met them at the airport with huge smiles and welcome signs. It was at that moment when I realized I had made the greatest decision of my life.
When watching those faces of complete bewilderment, I only saw myself and relived the emotions of a similar day. I watched the new group ride off in broken down vehicles with families that spoke another language. Havard, Ann and I laughed uncontrollably as we watched Scott try to push his vehicle down the street in a tie, and Vanessa stuck in the rear of a huge, bright blue van. What were they thinking? What was I thinking a year ago?
My life was at the mercy of God at all times. As a trainee I submitted all control. Now I realize, I have lost control of my life. Only in America can we control the circumstances of the day. I am not able to arrange my day, but now it never crosses my mind to do so. I'm free. My brother-in-law, Scott, has been our guest in Armenia for several weeks. While watching Jeremy dart through the freezing cold lake full of rocks he remarked, "I'm not sure if that is really Jeremy or not." This might be a comment often uttered about us when we return. We are not the Jeremy and Jen that you remember. We have changed.
Like I said, I feel free. I don't seem to need anything and I don't need to know what happens next. And I don't need to know if it will be safe or washed or clean. I just live. Comfort and safety are nice surprises, but not expectations. I can't imagine the frustrations I will feel when I return to the land of prosperity and opportunity. The pressure to acquire things and plan for my future seems overwhelming. I'm uncomfortable with the fact that Americans do not even have a social beverage time. How many of you have time everyday for tea or coffee with friends? How will I be able to pick up fresh fruits and vegetables from a fruit stand on my walk home from work? Will I have a balcony to spend my Saturdays talking with Jeremy and watching city life? Who will I talk with for hours with about the destruction of the American Indians or the fate of Indonesia? Who cares?
The longer I'm here, the less I desire to return home. I'm realizing that the expats were right. Once you escape from your busy American life you find yourself truly enjoying daily life. There is something to be said about living in a place that isn't perfect, yet full of passion. Perhaps, I will end up in the structured and predictable safe haven of the American life of luxury. Or I could be like many other PCVs and end up in living in the other world.
Yesterday we arranged a typical Armenian day for Scott at Lake Sevan with Eric and an adorable Armenian family. We enjoyed a huge horovats, swam, played football, danced, ate again and made sandcastles. With sand between my toes, the blazing sun on my face and the lingering taste of my tenth juicy warm apricot, I felt liberated. One year later, I'm sure that I am blessed to have lived with the joy and suffering of Peace Corps life. Having this experience I plan to follow the motto, "greater the risk greater the reward".
Portrait of Gyumri, 1988 and today April 13, 2001 - A year ago, about the time this webpage was born, jenandjeremy.com featured the picture on the left. The caption underneath it read: "Gyumri, Armenia: This Could be our New Home!" My attempt at humor was just that. Indeed, we now live at the end of this street.
Less than two months from now, a new group of volunteers will descend on Hayaston. It's part of what is called sustainability, but also an alleviation for pcv ennui.
For the A8s, the first toilet we found didn't flush. The second bus we rode broke down. Moving to Armenia is like living a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. For the first three months, at least, it will seem that the world is passing you by.
Is it worth doing? We think so. Of the 36 volunteers who arrived in our group, 32 are still here (and two of those who left are returning with the A9s). There are few opportunities in the world like this one. Plenty of Americans live and work abroad. But how many live and work among the people?
April 1, 2001 - I'll start with what Italy did to my soul. It took me back to reality or the reality that I know. After a few days I felt like myself again inside and out. I wasn't aware of the psychological effects of living overseas without all of the things from home. It is very difficult to describe, but an interesting experiment. Now I realize the importance of vacation time in the Peace Corps.
And, as the days pass I'm more comfortable being back in Armenia. During the rainstorm yesterday I was able to take a two hour nap. You know all the great reasons why I'm here. There are dozens. But, there are many reasons why America is the best place on earth. I can't wait to return. I've hit my ten month mark. After twelve months I will start the countdown.
When Jeremy and I arrived in Italy we went through culture shock. Jeremy was very edgy, and I felt like complete crap. You really don't feel comfortable in Europe-especially Italy-looking like a Peace Corps Volunteer. We were wearing old, worn out jeans carrying Jansport backpacks. My stomach was carrying ten extra pounds of winter weight and I was pale as snow. Everyone in Rome looks like they just stepped out of Vogue and GQ.
So, I purchased a pair of ubiquitous black slacks at Bennetton and some super hip bell bottoms from ONYX (which I couldn't fit into for the first three days). Unfortunately, the jeans have to be hemmed so I couldn't even wear them in Italy. Then once I purchased my leather jacket in Florence I felt comfortable. I ditched the backpack for a really cool big red purse that I purchased from a street vendor for $10. It truly broke my heart to be in Italy as a PCV. The dollar was so strong that everything was incredibly inexpensive. Suits, shoes, purses, etc. All these hip stores that would cost a fortune in the States had shirts for $15, purses for $20, etc. I hated that I couldn't take advantage of the shopping. My advice for you is to go to Europe with empty luggage. You won't be able to resist the cool clothing. Traveling will definitely affect your style.
So we had three days in Rome before the Hailes arrived. We stayed at a budget hotel ($40 per night) with a bathroom down the hall. It was gorgeous. Everything in Rome is beautiful. It was close to a metro stop so Jeremy and I were darting all over the city for three days. We are both concerned with fashion so Jeremy purchased a pair of jeans, Italian shoes and hip shirt to blend in. We spent our time going to see "Traffic" (in English), "Gladiator" (in Italian) and hanging out in the hip part of Rome, Trasteverte, where Jeremy's parents might not want to go. I'm glad we had some time to be alone, because the Hailes aren't late night folks. We preferred to dine out where and when there was a "scene".
We began our days with a cappuccino for me and an espresso for Jer standing at a bar. A bar in Italy means a coffee/pastry shop and the price doubles if you sit down, so everyone stands to drink their coffee and eat a bite. Jeremy usually ate McDonald's for lunch and I grabbed a sandwich to go. Every small bar sells fantastic little sandwiches. Shrimp, mayo and argula on white bread without the crust, tuna and mushroom, eggplant and ham on panini bread, the list goes on.
Jen at Arco Naturale, Capri Island
A Venezian Canal (we skipped the $100/hr gondola ride)
I have an entirely new outlook on sandwiches and pizza. I prefer Italian food over American Italian food. Everything is lighter and simpler. The Italians put everything on their pizza. I ate shrimp, mussels, clams, whole olives, capers, anchovies, argula lettuce, tomatoes, etc. on various pizzas. They never put too much cheese or too much sauce. It always tastes perfect, in my opinion. My in-laws, on the other hand, tried to order fettuccine alfredo and veal parmesan but no place served it.
Everybody's in leather. We share a gelatto.
The rest of the vacation was delightful in every way. Jeremy and I behaved as if we just fell in love. We got along extremely well with the Hailes considering we were together for two weeks. Ginny did cry on the second day during a political argument. We are only becoming more liberal and Ginny dislikes conflict. We had political, religious and financial discussions which at times became heated.
I hope to return to Italy soon. I want to go back to Florence and Rome. I want to bicycle through the Tuscan countryside, visit the Cinque Terra and Sicily, and return to Capri. I didn't really get tired of the museums, but instead began to develop a true art appreciation. It helps to learn about the artist and the time period. I'm still dreaming at night about Italy. When I walked outside this morning I could smell Italy. It surely was a influential place and time in my life.
Jen poses with her purse in Rome. The Dreamlike Isle of Capri
Before seeing art in Italy, you'll need to study up on the Renaissance. There are literally thousands of works so if you want to spend any amount of time admiring them, decide which ones are important to you first. Too often, we were zooming past them simply because there was not enough time. Even devoting four hours to the Vatican Museum will force you to make some choices. Also, there are so many significant works that you could easily miss. For example, we walked down a flight of stairs that I later found out were designed as a double helix and are considered a masterpiece. Who knew?
The Uffizi was surreal - so many works that I had studied in art appreciation, including Michelangelo's only painting on canvas, Botticelli's Primavera and Birth of Venus, and works by Leonardo Da Vinci. This is considered one of the world's great galleries, but it was hardly my favorite. It is the kind of museum that one should visit (and, of course I'm glad I did), but it wasn't particularly moving for me.
Botticelli's Birth of Venus Michelangelo's Pieta Magritte's Son of Man Raphael's School of Athens
Michelangelo's David. You must see this in person. It is absolutely the most perfect work of art of any kind that I have ever seen. Somebody once said that after you've seen David, there is no need to ever look at another sculpture again. I don't agree with that, but it gives you an idea of David's greatness. And, when do you ever get to see his backside in pictures? David has a great arse.
I found the Spanish Steps to be slightly overrated. There are no Italians there-only foreigners and largely Americans-and the shops and cafes around that area are overpriced. If you like to hang out on Rodeo Drive, this is your place. There is some interest for me here in that Keats, Goethe, Wagner and other intellectuals relaxed at a nearby cafe. Now though, like Hemingway's old haunts in Italy, it has become a high profile tourist trap.
My favorite area in Rome is called Trastevere; that is to say, I would like to live there. To make a tortured comparison, it is a bit like the area around lower Greenville and Lakewood in Dallas - a place with cool pubs and restaurants, night life and lots of young people. And no tourists! Other places in Rome of particular interest to me were the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, Capitolini and St. Peter's Basilica. Notice I left out the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel. Both, for me, were underwhelming. (But of course, if you're in Rome, you have to see them).
Florence (or Firenze) was my favorite place in Italy. I realize that it is everybody's favorite place, but I won't fight upstream on this one just to be different. In Florence I loved the Borghello (a museum that once was a jail). Here we saw Donatello's David, which I prefer to Michelangelo's. It is not as breathtaking, but perhaps more interesting.
In Venice, my favorite places were the Peggy Guggenheim museum (modern art and possibly the most satisfying museum I visited) and the Jewish Ghetto - where the name "ghetto" originated. But the preponderance of tourists in Italy seem to cluster in Venice. Three McDonald's in this small city and every other restaurant is overpriced - particularly Harry's, which was once known as Ernie Hemingway's watering hole but is now renowned for it's $14 martinis.
In the near-death-experiences department...I bought these funky shoes in Italy that are wide at the toe. I decided too late to get out of the Metro, and so I held the doors open as they were trying to close. I squeezed through my body, but then they slammed shut on my shoe. I thought (and my family feared) that the train would take off and I would be slammed to my death against the wall of the tunnel. But mercy prevailed as the conductor must have seen me sticking out the door and he opened the doors again.
As far as family dynamics, everything was back to normal. I reverted back to a teenager the first couple of days we were together (as I generally do), but after that, things were fine. My parents now think I am some kind of left wing nut (perhaps because I advocated the legalization of drugs and the idea that Jesus was not really the incarnation of God-ideas I don't necessarily believe, but which make for interesting conversation).
But I was reassured that I haven't changed that much the other night after we returned home to Gyumri. Our Armenian friend Anahit said, "I've known Peace Corps volunteers for several years, but have never met conservative Texans like you."
I might want to be Jack Kerouac, but it's just not going to happen.
Santa Croce in Florence Jewish Ghetto in Venice Sculpture in Florence
Gyumri A8 PCVs: J-P | Jill | Jeff | Sharon | Jen | Jeremy
January 26, 2001 - Yesterday evening I brought a propane balloon home by cab and plopped it down inside the shop near our apartment. The cheese-and-eggs guy nodded at me and I went upstairs to summon Jen's assistance--god help me--in carrying the thing. Jen eventually accompanied me down to the store and when my main man saw that she was going to carry one end of it, he scurried from behind the counter, grabbed it from her and helped me take it around the corner and up three flights of stairs.
These are the precious moments in Hayaston. Your taxi breaks down and people stop to help. Your electricity goes out and you go to the home of the 'master electrician' and walk in without knocking and he gets up from horavatz to come fix it. Your wife is being a whiny-baby about carrying half of 20 kilos and the cheese-and-eggs guy leaves his post to carry it up to your apartment.
These moments occur every day and yet there are so many screwed up things about this culture that you often miss the revelations. You would think that this place is ripe for ambitious Peace Corps type projects. Everyone around here is a supposed master at something. We've got electrical engineers selling peanuts on the side of the road because the ex-Soviet regime pulled out all of Armenia's factories. We have biochemists like Jasmine (I interviewed her for the web site) who are begging Peace Corps for a job teaching the almost worthless Armenian language because their institutions haven't paid them in so many months. We have surgeons who moonlight--and daylight--as builders because: One, they aren't paid for their highly skilled labor; and two, Armenians in general are embarrased to visit a doctor as it would be tantamount to an admission of weakness.
We have all these people who must be itching for something meaningful and yet they've got the Armenian mentality: Pogh chikaw, gortz chikaw. It means there's no money and no business and there's nothing we can do about it. Volunteers spend their first 6 months complaining about this mindset and then they develop it for themselves during the next six months. That's the stage that most of us are in now (Jen being the notable exception with her unblighted optimism about peoples' ability to change and faith in God that everything will work out for the best). So most volunteers can pretty much write off these 12 months and look forward to year 2 when you actually get something accomplished.
In recent weeks there has been an overall slide. People spend much of their time gossiping and kibitzing about who did what and about what she should do. Though we're living in a country of 2 million people, we are a small family of Americans who are generally tired of one another. And winter doesn't help. During July, bucket bathing is quaint. When it's 0 degrees Celsius in your bathroom and you have to walk out into the snow to get water attitudes begin riding down a slippery slope.
Fortunately I have Jen who, as somebody wrote in an email this morning, "must be the most positive person in the world." Our home has become a place of uplift, as I think our Gyumrians would agree. It is the place where people come to be told lav kileenee (everything will be good) and to be reminded that, really, they wouldn't want to be anywhere else. Those of us imagining an assignment in the South Pacific have our doubts, but my better angels tell me she's right.
Like Jen will tell you below, she's taking care of me. Because I have nothing better to do, I read her journal and have lifted the following: "As a wife, I will accept Jeremy and love him for the exact person he is everyday, and I will pray selflessly for God's blessings in his life. His life I will no longer judge. I will keep him healthy and fat." How can a man not live well when his wife has that for a new year's resolution?
January 24, 2001 - I've been wanting to write for a few weeks, but I just haven't felt the inspiration. Today it came. Jeremy and I left for Yerevan early this morning in the bitter cold for a quick trip. We needed to make airline reservations for an upcoming trip and get a few shots at the Peace Corps office. About thirty minutes outside the city our marshutni broke down. No panic, this is normal. Rarely will a trip across town run smoothly. Every experience on Armenian transportation exudes adventure and thrill seeking. So we wanted to have donuts at around 10:00 AM. Oh well! We shouldn't get our mind set on donuts and coffee. Just as I'm imagining my mom coming to visit this summer, the marshutni begins to roll backwards in the ice heading toward the edge of the drop off. My mom would have had a heart attack by now. I don't think she knows what she's getting into. I stood up in the back and started yelling. The quiet and calm Armenians murmur, "problem chikaw" (meaning no problem). We finally managed to turn around and park. As I'm envisioning sitting on the side of the road all day with no heat an auspicious looking man pulls out a bright blue cell phone. Don't ask me how or why this man had a cell phone in the middle of the deserted tundra. But, Armenia is full of surprises. Our rescue marshutni arrives twenty minutes later with a crew of people for who knows what. So, we all cram into the new marshutni with a seat shortage. Jeremy sits on the lap of the cell phone man and I position my rear end in between two aisles. This is our position for the next two hours. The amazing part of it all is that I thought it was hysterical and the no seat on the marshutni didn't phase me. I don't think I remember normal life. This is the only life I can relate to.
We've been in Armenia almost eight months. I was expecting winter depression, but it hasn't hit. Contrary to what everyone expects, I love the cold weather. Give me ice and snow over Texas heat any day. You can always warm up with hot chocolate (thanks to everyone who sends it), kerosene, hugs and speed walking. You should see me walk along the street. It is almost a run, but it's the only way I can keep my body warm because I'm already wearing three or four layers.
Jeremy and I aren't teaching during the winter months. My classes do not begin until March. So, here is a typical day. We wake up whenever we wake up, usually around 8:30 or 9:00 AM. I make coffee and check email. Then I'm off to the 30 degree "Mama's Diner" to prepare the greasy start to Jeremy's day. I hate to contribute to his unhealthy lifestyle, but otherwise he would look like a starvation victim. The man can not keep weight on without his McDonald's. So every morning without deviation I make fried Cajun potatoes topped with sour cream, three scrambled eggs with grated cheese, three slices of bacon (when we can afford it), and toast with lots of butter and jam.
Jen and the peroshky tatik
Story Source: Personal Web Site
This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Armenia; PCVs in the Field - Armenia
Hi Jen and Jeremy,
I have read your story with pain, but sometime smiling. I can imagine what kind of life you have experienced in Gyumri, a ruined city in Northern Armenia without hot or even running water.
You have lived in a city where people are struggling till this moment with the problems you mentioned.
However, I wanted to ask your patience towards the Armenians traditions. The life you were engaged in was not the one that the Armenians deserve. The living conditions pushed people to become crueler. They used to host foreigners with warmth and make every effort for guests. I hope those times will return to Armenian, and particularly Gyumri.