Last night, as we were enjoying German Father’s Day and Asuncion Day, as well as the sublime weather we’ve been having lately, I was reminded of a woman I used to know in Armenia. She is American and was in the group who came to Armenia before ours did.
I didn’t actually know her very well. I remember she was from Illinois, as a lot of people who were in the Peace Corps during that time seemed to be. She had trained to be a teacher, and helped during our “TEFL” training. TEFL, for those who don’t know, stands for “teaching English as a foreign language”. I was kind of glad they called it TEFL as opposed to TESL, which is the older term, “teaching English as a second language”. In Armenia, that wouldn’t have been accurate. Almost every Armenian, especially in those days, also spoke Russian. So English would have been at least their third language.
Anyway, last night I remembered this woman, I’ll call her Tracey, but that’s not her real name, was very driven and accomplished. She once did a really cool presentation on teaching Armenian kids critical thinking skills. I remember being so impressed by the lesson and excited by things I might get to do when I became a teacher myself. Of course, in my case, the reality of the difficulty of trying to teach in an Armenian school overcame my ambitions. I’ll also admit that I probably didn’t try as hard as I could have. Teaching was never one of my passions.
Besides being smart, driven, and accomplished, Tracey was also very pretty. She dated an equally handsome guy who had come to Armenia with her in their group. This handsome guy, I’ll call Al, had written a funny open letter to all of the new Volunteers in my group. I remember sitting at home in Gloucester, Virginia, reading all of the letters the “A2s” had written. They were all about the challenges that awaited us in Armenia. Some of it was shocking. There were a few letters that issued warnings. I specifically remember one letter warned vegetarians to stay away, because vegetarianism wasn’t a “thing” in Armenia. Another warned alcoholics that the drinking culture was strong in Armenia. While I agree that alcoholics may have trouble in Armenia, I disagree that it would be hard to be a vegetarian there. In fact, I knew several vegetarians in my group. Armenia has really beautiful produce.
But I remember that Al’s letter was especially entertaining… He wrote about “breaking in” his overprotective host mom. If I recall correctly, that woman also hosted a guy from my group. He still keeps in touch with her, but I doubt Al does. Al was handsome and charming. He played a twelve string guitar. He was popular with the ladies, and knew it.
One night, a Peace Corps friend and I were sitting at a bar and Al came in, looking roguishly handsome. He approached the two of us, bought us a round, and struck up a conversation. My friend was warming to him, but I kind of stayed aloof. There was something about him that I just didn’t trust. He was a very good looking man, and I had come to distrust guys like him. I found that they were usually glib and insincere. I wondered why he’d want to talk to someone like me.
Al noticed that I wasn’t reacting to him like my friend was. He was bold enough to address it. I don’t remember how he approached it… he may have just asked me what was wrong. I do distinctly remember that he said I was “standoffish”. I’m not usually standoffish to people, so that was an interesting and probably accurate description. I just didn’t trust him. He said the right things and was very good looking, but there was something about him that didn’t ring true. I felt like by talking to me, he felt like he was “slumming” or something– doing me a favor by noticing me. I hasten to add that I might have been wrong in my perception. That was just how it felt to me at the time. It was like he was offended that I wasn’t reacting to him in the way he felt I should, and he had the nerve to call me on it.
I never did get to know Al very well, because he quickly found a job in Armenia and didn’t actually finish his Peace Corps assignment. But he still dated Tracey, and they were kind of the “it couple” from the A2 group. They, and all of the other, popular crew in the Peace Corps, used to get together on the weekends in Yerevan and party with the second in charge at the U.S. Embassy. I think I was invited and actually went to one of the parties the “DCM” (deputy chief of mission) threw, but as I wasn’t “popular”, I didn’t feel comfortable going to them and hanging out with the “in crowd”. They weren’t mean to me or anything, but no one wants to feel like a fifth wheel. Those parties were awkward for a “nobody” like me.
One night, sometime during my first year in Armenia and Tracey’s second, there was a big party in the city of Vanadzor (formerly known as Kirovakan in Soviet times). I had come up from Yerevan, which was where I was posted and the capital of Armenia, to go to this party. I don’t remember if there was another reason I was there… There probably was. Maybe we had some official or unofficial event there, because I remember a whole lot of other Volunteers had also come up that weekend.
Vanadzor was home to an Armenian band called Snack. One of the other A2 volunteers was also in the band. They would play at parties, and in fact, somewhere in storage, I have a cassette of their music. I remember some of the songs, which were kind of charming in their simplicity and sense of fun. If I recall correctly, most of the songs were originals. Snack was playing at this party, and many people were having a great time, dancing and drinking. I probably have pictures from that party, but they’re in storage.
Unfortunately, I have never been very good at parties. I was especially bad at them in the 90s. I remember an Armenian guy at that particular party calling me fat in Armenian, which really upset me. People in Armenia called me fat all the time, and I was… but back then, I struggled with eating disorders, so every time I was confronted by those comments, they were kind of shattering. One of my colleagues and friends defended me, which I appreciated. It was still pretty embarrassing, though.
Right after the fat shaming episode, I decided to go to the bathroom, an adventure in and of itself in Armenia back in those days. You never knew if you’d have power or running water. I opened the unlocked door, and there was Al, on the toilet. He was rip roaring drunk. He looked up at me, grinning, eyes glazed by alcohol, and laughed. He said, “Oh, excccuuuusse me…”
I backed away and slammed the door. Next thing I knew, the party had gone silent. Al, who was still very drunk, was making a speech, and everyone had shut up so he could speak. He was telling Tracey how much he loved and admired her. Her eyes were dewy with emotion as she stood there, starstruck as her drunk boyfriend proposed marriage! I distinctly remember hearing him say, slurring his words, “I wanted to ask ‘Tracey’ if she’d be my wife.”
And I remember her overwhelmed response…. “Of course!” They embraced, everybody cheered, and the party kicked back up into full swing.
Sometime later, I remember hearing Al talking to someone about their mutual career prospects, once Tracey finished her service. He talked of them moving to Africa, embarking on global careers. He said she planned to study public health, and “Africa would be wide open” for her. I knew this to be true, since my own sister, who was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco back in the 1980s, also works in public health. And, like Tracey, she is very driven and accomplished, and she has a Ph.D in public health.
Tracey and Al invited ALL of the Peace Corps Armenia Volunteers to their wedding, which took place in Illinois. I couldn’t attend, of course, and wouldn’t have gone even if it had been convenient. I didn’t know them that well, and as fond as I am of drinking alcoholic beverages, I wasn’t all that impressed by Al’s drunken marriage proposal. I had a feeling their marriage might not succeed. I’m not completely sure, but I think they did eventually get divorced not too many years after their wedding.
I looked up Tracey last night. I wasn’t surprised to see that she has a doctorate in public health from a very good school. And, like me, she has master’s degrees in social work and public health, although she got hers from a more prestigious school than where I got mine. She is now the director of a MPH program at a private university. She’s still very attractive, and probably would love talking to my sister, who is the big achiever in my immediate family. They have a lot in common, including attending the same school of public health, although Tracey went there for both of her master’s degrees and my sister went there for her Ph.D.
Besides being a “doc”, my eldest sister was a ballerina who finished high school early so she could attend the Royal Ballet School in London. She moved herself to Virginia from England and went to William & Mary, then went to Morocco for two years with the Peace Corps. She has a Moroccan friend I have never met who friended me on Facebook. He still remembers her with great affection… he met my parents and recently wrote a touching story about my dad and a guide who was trying to rip him off. I have never met her friend in person, but if I ever went to Morocco, I feel sure he’d show me around. It’s really something when someone who knew you in the 80s is still so attached in 2020.
My sister went on to earn a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, and then got a Ph.D. from Chapel Hill. She speaks several languages, has two great grown kids, and a long, successful marriage. I look up to her, but have always felt like I kind of fell short.
Last night, I was telling Bill about all this, thinking about how my life has turned out. Looking objectively at my life, I don’t think I have anything to be ashamed of, really. There are many people out there who are much bigger losers than I am. At least I’m not sitting in prison. But the truth is, I do feel ashamed a lot of the time, because I feel like I should be doing more… It’s hard not to compare your life to other people’s lives. There are a lot of accomplished people in my life who, at least on the outside, appear to be big winners at life. Some people might look at me and think I’ve done a lot, but I feel like a lot of other people think of me as insignificant. What they think of me isn’t my business, but it’s still hard not to compare… or to wonder if they think I’m as big of a failure as I sometimes feel like I am, but objectively realize I’m really not.
For many years after my time in Armenia, I felt like I hadn’t done much. That sentiment changed somewhat a few years ago, when I spied my very first Armenian teacher on Facebook. I sent her a message and we caught up a bit. I was in this lady’s very first Armenian language class, ever. We had three teachers over that twelve week training period, and Armine was my first. And that was her first year as a Peace Corps language teacher, way back in 1995. Armine now runs the language program for Peace Corps Armenia.
Right after we friended each other, I got a private message. It was from a guy, who rather shyly asked me if I remembered him. He’d been one of my students at that school where I felt like I’d done nothing of consequence. Now, he’s a program director for Peace Corps Armenia. I doubt I had anything to do with his ultimate success. He spoke English very well when I met him, and that was when he was about 16 years old. I think he went on to get a doctorate, too. But he remembers me, and I didn’t turn him off of the American people. I guess, in a way, he’s sort of my Armenian version of my sister’s Moroccan friend. I know I made a difference to at least one person, anyway. And I probably made a difference to at least several more people, and probably even more than that.
Maybe I wasn’t as accomplished as I felt I should have been, but I did accomplish something. It’s been really fun to get to know him now. I kind of wonder what he must think, having known me when I was in my 20s and, if I’m honest, a lot simpler and less mature than I am today. Looking back on it, it’s a wonder I succeeded in spending two years in Armenia. A lot of people spend their young lives planning to join the Peace Corps. I kind of joined on a whim, and did a lot of winging it. I certainly never came up with any brilliant lessons on critical thinking skills, like Tracey did.
Back in the 90s, when I was probably at my most attractive physically, I felt like a guy like Al would be “slumming” talking to me. He was very cute, accomplished, intelligent, and talented, and a lot of women found him attractive. He was definitely used to charming the women… and to be honest, it surprises me that he didn’t charm me, even though I thought he was good looking. When I was in my 20s, I might have thought of that guy as a “catch”, but the truth is, he’s probably not as much of a catch as he appeared to be. And I’m probably much more of a catch than I know. At least, that’s what 47 year old me would tell 24 year old me.
Now that I’m in my late 40s, I look at my husband, Bill, who may not have been a stud like Al, but he was also not drunk when he proposed to me. In fact, he took me to a beautiful restaurant in Georgetown, a place that he could ill afford at the time, and pulled out a lovely marquis cut half-carat diamond ring. He never actually asked, “Will you marry me?” He was very nervous… so it came out more like “Well, how about it?”
The next day, he put me on a plane to Jamaica so I could sing at my sister’s wedding. Then, a few days later, when I came back to D.C., he was waiting at the airport with a jacket for me, because he knew I’d probably be dressed for Jamaica and D.C. was cold. I’ll bet Al wouldn’t have thought to do that for his wife. Almost 18 years later, Bill and I are still happily together, living in peace and harmony. We’re getting to see the world together and I spend most days doing pretty much whatever I want. Last night, Bill gave me an adorable grin and asked, “Can I interest you in some ice cream?”, even though a guy like Al would probably say I don’t need to be eating ice cream. Bill cares about my happiness, not his image. Choosing a husband is definitely one thing I did right.
Even though I didn’t go on to use my lofty education in the way that Tracey has, I don’t regret going back to school. That experience taught me that I’m capable of doing things I never thought I could. If I really wanted to, I probably could get a doctorate. Fortunately, I am not that driven… because although I think I am probably intellectually capable of doing the work for a terminal degree, I don’t want to spend the money or the time. There are a lot of people who are much better qualified and more willing to take on the responsibility and the massive debt. I guess, in that sense, I’m glad I’m not that driven… it’s just good to know that I’m capable. And that maybe it’s a blessing that handsome men don’t look at me as someone they’d want to marry. I’d rather have a sober, private proposal from a sweet guy who asks, “How about it?” than a drunken, public proposal in front of equally drunk friends and a possible divorce just a few years later.
Though I have met some people, even a couple of Germans, who have made it plain that they don’t think I’m any great shakes, I also know that I’ve made a difference to at least a few people I’ve met here. I’ve even made a difference to some animals. Looking at “the big picture”, I think I’ve done alright. I probably don’t need to compare myself to anyone else. At least I’m not in prison, right?