Sunday, May 31, 2015

Twenty years ago today...

I wasn't going to blog again today, but thanks to Timehop, I realize that today is a very important anniversary...


Most of the people I joined the Peace Corps with in 1995...

At about 5:30 pm on May 31, 1995, I boarded a United Airlines flight from Dulles Airport in the Washington, DC area to Paris, France.  I remember that flight very well.  It was years before 9/11, so it was a relatively laid-back experience.  There were 32 of us together; we'd just been through a briefing at the State Plaza Hotel in Washington, DC.  I remember being excited about going to France, even if we were only going to the airport.  It was my first time abroad since my dad retired from the Air Force.  In fact, that was the first flight I had taken since we came back from Mildenhall Air Force Base in 1978.  

I was 22 years old... just weeks from turning 23.  As the lone Peace Corps Trainee from Virginia, I was the only one who hadn't flown in.  My parents drove me to my sister's apartment and she dropped me off at the hotel.  I wanted to get the hell out of Virginia and my parents' house.  I was ready for an adventure.

I was excited to have been accepted to the Peace Corps.  I joined at the right time.  I'm not sure if they would have taken me at a time other than the mid 1990s, when the Soviet Union and all the satellite countries that had been communist during the Cold War were becoming "free".  A lot of spaces were open for those who wanted to be Volunteers.  I didn't have a particularly impressive academic or volunteer record, but I did have a sister who had served in Morocco in the mid 1980s.  I qualified medically and legally, even though I got a nastygram from the medical office about being overweight.  I also managed to find six people who were willing to recommend me.

I joined the Peace Corps hoping to launch and wanting to do something worthwhile... something more than selling chocolate and menswear and temping in offices, which is what I'd been doing prior to joining.  I had a degree in English with double minors in speech and communications.  I went to a fine public school in Virginia, but not one that most people had ever heard of.  It was the kind of place where people tend to go to "grow up".  I was the only one in my group who originally hailed from a southern state and one of the few who hadn't attended a prestigious private university.  I was also one of the few who didn't have politically liberal leanings, though I have become a lot more liberal since 1995.



Though I felt grown up when I decided to go to Armenia for two years, some might say I still needed to mature when I arrived in Yerevan at 3:30am on June 2, 1995.  We had spent twelve hours in Paris and because I wasn't a seasoned traveler at that point, I just hung around terminal 1 all day.  Some of my new friends chose to venture into the city.  Hanging out at CDG for twelve hours while jet lagged was a pretty dreadful experience.  To this day, I can't hear "Driver's Seat" by Sniff In The Tears and not think of being stuck at CDG on my way to Yerevan.

I remember the flight to Armenia being rather scary.  We were on what looked like a Soviet era plane with a lot of flight attendants wearing what looked like Soviet era uniforms that were too big for them.  People stood in the aisles during the whole flight and smoked.  There was no assigned seating and they passed out warm cups of water and warm beer.  The plane shook for much of the flight and I seriously worried about crashing more than once as we flew over the Black Sea.

We landed in Yerevan at about 3:30am and there was little power in the airport.  In Armenia in 1995, the infrastructure was pretty poor.  The only places that had power 24 hours a day were hospitals and metro stations.  I'm sure the landing strip at Yerevan's airport had power, but I remember walking through darkened hallways when we got off the plane, right there on the tarmac.  Thank God I didn't need to use the ladies room.  You could smell it before you saw it.  Members of A-2, the second Peace Corps group in Armenia, were waiting for us, cheering us on, and passing snacks to us.  Remember, it was before 9/11.  It took several hours for everyone to get their luggage and get cleared by customs.

I remember my first glimpse of Armenia beyond the airport.  I was struck by the huge, concrete, ugly buildings. I saw lots of laundry strung up on balconies, lots of dust, trash, and Soviet era tackiness.  I wondered what the hell I had signed up for.  It wouldn't take long before I was very accustomed to all of those previously foreign sights.  Even today, when I go to a former Eastern bloc country, I feel at home.

We arrived at Hotel Armenia at about 9:00am, which at that time was not affiliated with any first world hotels and was divided by the "old side" and the "new side.  Hotel Armenia is now owned by Marriott.  Naturally, we were all exhausted and just wanted to go to bed.  Once we got to the hotel, we had to endure a briefing and a strange meal.  If I recall correctly, our first meal included salty mineral water from Jermuk, hot tea, terrible tasting Pepsi that reminded me of brown Alka Seltzer and only reinforced all the Soviet era stereotypes I'd heard of in the movies, salty fish, fruits, vegetables, and stinky cheese.  I remember lots of grandiose chandeliers only outfitted with a couple of light bulbs that shone dimly.  I also remember immediately learning the words for cucumbers, tomatoes, apples, apricots, and eggplant.  They were all in season when we arrived, so we were fed a lot of them.

We stayed on the "old side" of Hotel Armenia, because it was cheaper than the new side.  I remember hot showers were only available for about two hours a day-- one hour in the morning and one in the evening.  I remember the floors in the bathroom at the hotel were covered with brightly colored linoleum.  There were very fancy looking crystal light fixtures in the room, but not all of the lights worked.  The beds were twin sized and not particularly comfortable.  When we left the hotel, we had to leave our keys with the dour looking women who sat in the hallway, as if on guard.  The keys were all attached to heavy "keyrings", which made it difficult to walk away with them.

I saw so much change over the time I was in Armenia.  I wonder how it must seem to people today.  I know there are many things that haven't changed since the 1990s, but I know for a fact that Yerevan is different.  I lived in Yerevan during my tour.  At that time, it wasn't all that cushy.  The first year, most people endured life with no power a lot of the time.  I remember reading a lot of books by kerosene lamp.  I had running water everywhere I lived, but a lot of my friends didn't.  To get hot water, I had to put a bucket of water on a kerosene heater or my propane stove.

I never got as good at speaking or reading Armenian as some of my colleagues did.  I didn't work very hard at it.  But I ended up enjoying a very unique experience full of music, food, and fun.  I got to use a lot of the talents I was born with, and people were actually glad I was using them.  I was not just plugging away at some job that paid enough to live on, but didn't really excite or interest me.  Peace Corps was the one place where my talents-- all of them-- were truly welcomed.  When I later became an Army wife, it was a surprise to me that my husband, who had been an Army officer, recited the very same oath as I did on the day I swore in.  I recently told some of the folks in our local Facebook military group about swearing in.  Some of them were surprised that as a PCV, I swore to uphold and defend the Constitution, just like they did.



I interacted with a lot of people and many locals knew who I was, even though it was a large city.  There were very few Americans in Armenia in the mid 90s.  A lot of people knew me because I sing and being a very white, blonde, American woman who sings in a place like 90s era Yerevan can get you noticed.  I used to go to the jazz clubs in Yerevan and sometimes I'd sing with the band.  During training, a few of my friends and I would sit at the bottom of the Cascade Steps, drink beer, and play music.  We put on quite a show for the locals.  I'm sure it's totally different now, though I haven't had the chance to go back, despite all my travel since then.  I see now the Cascade Steps have been spruced up and there are now bars there.  

When I left Armenia in 1997, I flew business class on a new airbus being leased by Armenian Airlines (which no longer exists).  I had a whole row to myself and it was a very pleasant experience.  It's hard to fathom how different my flight into Armenia was from my flight out in 1997.  One of my sister's colleagues went to work with the USDA in Yerevan not long after I left.  They all knew and remembered me.  I was one of a very small group of Americans in a place where Americans had previously been forbidden for decades.


A view of Mount Ararat from my school in Yerevan.  It was a clear day.

Armenia really changed my life... not in the way I hoped or expected it would, but in other ways.  My Army officer husband was impressed by my service and the fact that I am also an Air Force "brat".  It was one of the things that made me attractive to him.  In fact, there were some things about Peace Corps service that were similar to military service.  For one thing, I too had a pair of hideous government issued "birth control glasses".  I also had to endure a very thorough physical, though maybe not like the ones Bill experienced.

Thanks to the circumstances of his career, I have continued to travel abroad, though not to places like Armenia.  I have been visiting many decidedly first world countries since my Peace Corps days, unless you want to count a couple of brief trips to the Caribbean.  But those trips were on all inclusive cruises with SeaDream Yacht Club.  I have to admit, I almost felt embarrassed to be taking such an expensive cruise when I visited some of those islands in the Caribbean.  There is a lot of poverty there.

My husband, on the other hand, has gone to many austere countries due to his work.  When he went to the Republic of Georgia in 2008, right after the South Ossetian conflict with Russia, I warned him that he would get sick on arrival.  I told him to bring back some wine.  He did get very sick and he did bring back wine, which we both enjoyed.  Since that trip, he's worked with at least one person who knew me when I was a Volunteer and was once, in fact, my colleague.


I remember this so well...

I won't lie.  I left Armenia on August 21, 1997 and I could not wait to get out of there.  I had had it with living the Peace Corps lifestyle and dealing with the problems I encountered when I lived there.  I was ready to go to Europe for a month, travel by train, go home, get a job, and live the typical American lifestyle.  At age 25, I thought it would be easy, especially since I had all this great "international" experience.  It didn't turn out that way, since I have never had a job that has paid me by the year or offered generous benefits.  I was preparing for that career when I met Bill, having gotten into grad school in part because of my Peace Corps service.  I doubt I would have gotten in on the strength of my rather average college grades and GRE scores.

My life has not worked out the way I planned it to-- I thought I'd have a career and a family of my own.  I never thought I'd live abroad again, let alone twice again.  I never thought I'd be someone's second wife... the wife of an Army officer whose constant moves made it difficult for me to practice the profession for which I was trained.  My husband's career has made it possible for me to do what I always wanted to do, which is write.  And sing... and travel...  Fortunately, he doesn't mind my dependence on him since I keep him entertained.  I don't have kids of my own, but I do have dogs.  They annoy my German neighbors with their rambunctiousness and worry me when they fight.


The phone number at the end of this PSA is the very same one I used to call over and over during the lengthy application process...

I was not one of those people who ever planned to join the Peace Corps.  I mainly joined because I needed to escape.  My sister had done it and flourished.  I thought it might be a good thing for me to do, too.  But I wasn't one of those people who planned for twenty years to be a Volunteer.  My decision to join was sudden and impetuous.  I filled out my application the night my aunt died of brain cancer and sent my application as I was on my way from Virginia to Georgia for her funeral.  My acceptance was surprisingly seamless.  As if I were in a dream, I successfully completed my Peace Corps assignment.  I never expected to be accepted, let alone finish the two years.  But I did it and it did change my life.  I know I got a lot more out of the Peace Corps than I put into it.

The Peace Corps wasn't necessarily the "toughest job I've ever loved".  I did enjoy a lot of it.  I made a few friends who I think will be friends until I finally die.  I learned a lot and there isn't a day that passes that I don't remember those 27 months I spent in Armenia as part of the third group to serve in the Peace Corps in that country.  It's hard for me to fathom that it's 2015 and they are now on group A-23.  I was a member of A-3, most of whom are pictured above at our "close of service" conference held in April 1997 in T'sakhadzor.

I have had the good fortune to run into people I used to know twenty or more years ago.  I'm happy to say that we mostly still get along, though I know there are some people from that time who would just as soon forget I exist.  I don't expect many people who shared 90s era Armenia with me will ever read this, but if they ever do, I want to offer a virtual handshake and a hearty congratulations.  We did it.  It wasn't easy.  And it was well worth doing.  Shnorhavor!



A more recent Armenia volunteer's video about her time in Hayastan...  Makes me feel very old...  On the other hand, those apartment buildings are so familiar.

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