Armenia, lessons learned, musings

What can you bring to the party?

Yesterday’s post about not having to be a star captured the attention of my friend and former student, Stepan, who is now working for Peace Corps Armenia. Since I’ve been working on writing about my Armenia trip on my travel blog, I thought today’s main blog post should be connected to yesterday’s post. I’ll try to be brief.

Two years after I finished my Peace Corps service, I decided to enroll in graduate school at the University of South Carolina-Columbia. Originally, I had hoped to be a Peace Corps Fellow, but that didn’t work out for me. In retrospect, the fact that the plan didn’t work out for me turned out to be a huge blessing. If I had been a Fellow, it would have altered my life quite a bit. I would have been required to stay in South Carolina for four years after I finished my dual master’s degrees in social work and public health. Since I ultimately got married six months after I graduated, and then moved back to Virginia, it would not have been ideal for me to be obligated to stay in South Carolina for four years.

The Peace Corps Fellows program I had hoped to sign up for went defunct the year I matriculated. Then it was reformed, so that it was really best for people who had served in Spanish speaking countries. While I did study Spanish for several years, I am definitely nowhere near fluent. I’m much better at speaking Armenian than Spanish. There aren’t that many needy Armenians in Columbia, South Carolina.

So, I wasn’t a Peace Corps Fellow, but I did know a couple of other former Volunteers who were in my dual degree program and had become friends. They served in Costa Rica and Guatemala.

One of the courses I took for my public health degree was a health promotion course. It was about coming up with public health campaigns that could be “sold” to people willing to invest in the cause. I remember the professor, a man with the last name of Ureda, presented this idea by likening it to throwing a party. He brought up concepts of planning the party and deciding who should be invited, so the gathering would be fun and successful for everyone.

I took that course in the summer, and it lasted about five or six weeks or so, if I recall correctly. Our class decided on a public health issue to present. We were divided into groups, and we had to come up with campaigns for our “parties”. My memories are a bit fuzzy, but I do remember that our class decided the issue we should address was bulimia. Bulimia, for those who don’t know, is an eating disorder in which sufferers binge on vast amounts of food and then vomit or use other means (compulsive exercise, laxatives, purgatives, etc.) to quickly get rid of the food before they gain weight.

Bulimia is a serious problem, especially among young women. I’m still not sure why that particular topic was chosen for our project. Maybe it was because we were on a university campus, and a lot of the people in the class were young women. In any case, I was pretty tired of writing and talking about bulimia by the time that class was finished. I had to write four long papers about it within the short timeframe of the class. But I managed to do it, and passed the class. And today, I’m reminded of the concept of planning “parties” while coming up with campaigns for helping people.

I don’t actually remember Ureda posing the question “What can you bring to the party?”. He was focused on saying “Come to the party!” But, when it comes to Peace Corps service, and the powers that be within it, I think “What can you bring to the party” is a good question to ask of any Volunteer.

In yesterday’s post, I wrote that I didn’t think Peace Corps should be super “results oriented”. I base that opinion on my experiences as a Volunteer, and how there wasn’t a lot of trust when I was serving. The earliest Peace Corps Armenia groups were kind of like “young pioneers” (see what I did there?) in what has turned out to be a very successful program. But, at the beginning of Peace Corps Armenia’s existence, some ice had to be broken. We couldn’t be expected to just go marching into a classroom or a business and expect everyone to immediately trust us. Building trust takes time, and two years isn’t a super long time to build a lot of trust… especially when you’re struggling to pick up language skills and get the lay of the land.

As I mentioned yesterday, though, almost every person has some kind of strength, talent, or skill… something they’re good at that has some value to other people. As I found out when I was a Volunteer, sharing those talents with other people is a great way to make connections and build trust. I am very fortunate, as one thing I’m really good at is singing. Armenia is a fabulous place for anyone interested in the arts. Whether you’re a singer, or a dancer, or an artist, or you play an instrument or act… all of these skills, as well as just about any other, are valuable and translate well.

Singing, for me, was a way I could connect to my three classes of first form pupils– seven year olds, who didn’t speak English at all and were just learning how to be in school. If I spoke to them, they’d talk over me. But if I broke into “The Hokey Pokey”, “Brown Squirrel”, or “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes”, they’d be quiet and we could get some things done. I used music with my older students, too. I remember singing “What a Wonderful World” with several of my tenth form students during my first year.

Using music also worked for bonding with adults. I remember joining some Peace Corps friends at a jazz club near Republic Square and there was a band playing. My friends wanted me to sing with the band, and they were kind enough to oblige. I sang “Summertime”, which was my go to song back then. I don’t remember the last time I sang it, but back in the 90s, I sang it ALL the time. And the sudden collaboration was a success. We bonded with the club owner and the band, and had a great time. That was one of the really GOOD times I had in Armenia.

Maybe your thing is basketball, instead of singing… Whatever you have to offer, you can bring it to the “party”.

Personally, I have found that music is an international language. I’ve connected with people in Germany, too, through the gift of song. But not everyone can sing or play an instrument. Some people have no interest whatsoever in the arts. Maybe they’re good at athletics– something I am definitely not good at! So they play a game with locals, maybe form a team or a club… I remember our training group used to play basketball or softball, and that was a good way of bonding with locals. There was also a guy who served in Vanadzor who formed a band with Armenians called “Snack”. They were great! They played at a lot of our parties! One of the band members married a woman in my cohort. Unfortunately, he passed away a couple of years ago, but he was a really nice guy who knew most of us. Somewhere in storage, I have a cassette tape with Snack’s music on it.

Stepan told me about one of the current Volunteers who dances. Recently, Peace Corps Armenia shared a video of him dancing with the locals. I thought it was really awesome, because they were obviously having a great time and strengthening a bond. Those kinds of activities are not only fun, but they also promote understanding and trust. They help break barriers and destroy stereotypes. This is how relationships are built so that positive changes can happen.

My sister, who was a Volunteer in Morocco, loved to go running. She’d run through her village in 80s era Morocco, creating quite a spectacle, since local women didn’t tend to do that. I remember she said they used to call her Superwoman. I don’t know if any of the locals ever joined her, but she did present an example of someone doing something different… she was someone venturing outside the “box” and presenting a new perspective. This is one way people evolve.

If someone asked me to issue a challenge to today’s Volunteers, I would encourage them to take an inventory of what interests them and the areas where they have natural gifts. What are you good at? What can you share with others? What can you bring to the party? It could be almost anything, as long as it’s legal.

I was known as a singer… and later, I shared my talents in the kitchen, when I got recruited to help some business Volunteers with a dried produce project. I used Armenian produce to create recipes. One of our most successful ventures was using dried tomatoes, onions, and peppers to make pizza sauce. We threw a pizza party that was very well received! Not only was it a potentially profitable enterprise for Armenians, it was also a lot of fun for me. I loved coming up with creative ways to use fruits and vegetables grown in Armenia. I even got to use an electric oven, provided to me by the US Department of Agriculture. That was quite a coup in the 90s. During my first year, I made a primitive oven with a big pot and my kerosene heaters!

Maybe I wasn’t a star teacher, but I was successful in other ways. And after my experiences as a PCV in Armenia, I know that there are many ways to contribute to a community effort. In fact, I learned that it’s a good thing that people have different strengths. If everyone invited brought soda or cake to a party, that wouldn’t be a good thing, would it? It’s much better when someone brings the plates, another person brings the ice, someone else brings beverages, and maybe someone bakes a cake and brings that.

Everyone has something they can contribute to the effort, and that’s what makes the whole party a success, and fun for everyone. Even if you can’t sing or play basketball, you almost surely have something to offer. Maybe it’s just two functioning arms to carry equipment, or a strong back. Never discount or underestimate the importance of those things. Any good project involves some kind of “heavy lifting”– whether figuratively or literally. A strong back and two strong arms can be the critical keys to the viability of any program. So can good critical thinking and communication skills. Maybe you’re not a singer or an athlete, but you are a good organizer. Maybe you’re empathic and good at managing people. Maybe you’re a whiz at budgeting. The possibilities are endless.

Back in the 90s, I lamented that I wasn’t a super talented and charismatic teacher… Or, at least I didn’t think I was. Maybe other people have a different take. But one thing I know I can do is sing a pretty song. I can make killer pizza sauce and bake delicious apple pies. I can write an engaging article– and when I was a PCV, it was I who put together the Peace Corps cookbook, with help from all of the Volunteers who also contributed. I can be entertaining in other ways, too… especially for those who like crude humor. πŸ˜‰ And, let me tell you, when I was in Armenia, I used every one of those skills and more. When it comes to living in a place where people don’t have much, those skills and talents turn into valuable tools that are essential for success.

So ends today’s “sermon”. I think I have two or three more Armenia blog posts left to write on my travel blog. Once those are done, I’ll probably return to my usual blog “programming” on this blog. So, if you’ve been missing my usual stuff here, hang tight. I should be getting back to that material in just a few days. For those who prefer this kind of post, fair warning that I’m not usually this mature. πŸ˜€

Today’s featured photo is part of the spread Bill and I enjoyed with Stepan and his daughter. We also had some killer khorovatz! It was a hell of a party!

Armenia, musings

“You don’t have to be a star, baby…”

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, lately, about life, and choices I’ve made in the course of it. My recent journey to Armenia has caused me to do a lot of pondering and wondering. The Peace Corps is the kind of organization that attracts all sorts of people. It is competitive to join the Peace Corps, and it can look really good on a resume. But while there are some real superstars who spend two years volunteering in austere places around the globe, the truth is, there are a lot of more average people who serve. And some people who seem to be shooting stars burn out quickly and can’t stay the course.

Obligatory mood music.

When I’ve written about my time in the Peace Corps, I’ve mentioned that I was never one of those people who had spent my whole life aspiring to be a Volunteer. In fact, I think the only reason I knew about the Peace Corps– beyond what I’d seen in the recruitment ads that aired in the 80s– was because my older sister, Betsy, had been a Volunteer in Morocco from 1984-86.

Betsy is a star. She has a doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and speaks several languages. When she was a teenager, she was a ballerina, and studied for a year at the Royal Ballet School in London. She finished high school by correspondence, and moved back to Virginia alone to attend the College of William & Mary, while my dad finished his last tour of duty at Mildenhall Air Force Base in England. Later, after she was in the Peace Corps, Betsy got married, and earned a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University. I’m pretty sure Betsy was my parents’ favorite of their four children. I’m certain she was our dad’s favorite. She excelled at everything she did.

By contrast, next to Betsy, I feel pretty mediocre. I did okay in school, but I was not an academic star. I didn’t go to any very prestigious universities, like Betsy did. I’m not what you’d call a “go getter”, and I certainly haven’t turned into anyone important or exciting. I have achieved some pretty good things, and finishing two years in the Peace Corps is one achievement that makes me proud. But for years after my time in Armenia, I felt a little ashamed of what I didn’t do there. I felt like I hadn’t produced enough. I wasn’t a “star”.

Me and Stepan in 1996.
Me and Stepan in 2023…

I felt even more humbled by what I saw as my “lame” attempts to help the people of Armenia when I’d read about what more current Volunteers were doing. For example, when I was in Armenia last week, I asked Stepan (who I think is a star) about a young woman who had been a Volunteer in 2017. Her name was Hanna Huntley, and at just 23 years old, she died while serving in Armenia. She and her boyfriend were in a car accident.

I didn’t know Hanna Huntley, but I can see that we had a few things in common, besides having served with Peace Corps Armenia. She was the daughter of a Marine Corps officer, and her home of record was Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, which isn’t so far from where I grew up, in Gloucester, Virginia. My father was an Air Force officer, although he didn’t go as far in his military career as Hanna’s father has.

When I mentioned Hanna to Stepan, I could see a flash of pain and regret on his face. Hanna had been one of “his Volunteers”. She was serving as a Youth in Development Volunteer, which is the program Stepan runs. I could tell that Stepan was devastated that Hanna had died during her service. He clearly thought very highly of her. When I looked her up on the Internet, I could see that many people loved her. In her 23 years of life, she had become fluent in Hungarian, Spanish, and Russian, and she was learning Armenian, to which I can attest is not an easy language to learn. Looking at her resume, I can see that she had spent her young life serving other people. Hanna was already a star, and had her life not been cut short, she probably would have burned even brighter.

I look at Stepan, and what an extraordinary man he’s become. He’s very intelligent and talented, but he’s also kind, generous, and caring. He’s clearly devoted to his work, and committed to setting up his Volunteers for success. We had a couple of good discussions about Peace Corps service, and what the focus should be for Volunteers. Americans are very results oriented, and when I was a Volunteer, I felt pressured to produce results… to teach kids to speak English. And I felt like I failed in that mission, although many of the kids I worked with already spoke English pretty well.

For years after I worked in Armenia, I felt like I hadn’t done a very good job or tried hard enough. That was one of the reasons why I was a bit reluctant to go back there. I felt a little ashamed, and I worried there would be negativity. What if I ran into my former counterpart? I don’t think she liked me very much, even though I really was trying to do good things. There wasn’t much communication, though. I felt like I was expected to do everything on my own, with no collaboration. And there wasn’t much trust. Not that I can blame the Armenians for that. I was just out of college… 22 years old when I arrived, and 23 when I started working at the school. What could I possibly offer anyone?

I felt that students like Stepan deserved a “star” teacher. And I didn’t feel like I was a star, even though I did try. I got negative feedback from a lot of people– Americans and Armenians alike. I wondered if I’d wasted my time, even though I came away from that experience having learned new things and made new friends. By the time I left Armenia, I was angry, depressed, and burned out… and then I came home to a crisis, as my dad went into rehab for his alcoholism the day after my return stateside. He was kind of mean to me when he met me at the airport. I hadn’t been expecting him to be there, and when he met me, he treated me badly. When we got into the car, he told me he was going into rehab. I was relieved to hear that, but the ride home was long and unpleasant, and the dinner my mom had made for me was spoiled by my dad’s anger about going to rehab the next day. Rehab, by the way, didn’t work for him.

As the years passed, I started to realize that Armenia had changed my life on so many levels. My bitterness faded as time went by, and I started to feel nostalgic. I gradually forgot the worst of the bad times, and focused more on the good times. I did have a lot of good times in Armenia. It’s the one place where I’ve had the opportunity to use almost every single talent God gave me. I realized that I did actually have some successes, and I started to feel warm toward Armenia. I started to feel love, respect, and appreciation toward my Peace Corps colleagues. Some of them really were stars.

A couple of years ago, we lost Matt Jensen, a Volunteer who had served in Senegal and Armenia. I wasn’t one of Matt’s best friends, but we did spend a lot of time together during our second year in Armenia. I got to know him pretty well, and although we’d lost touch, I was genuinely heartbroken when I heard about how he was hit by a car in Brooklyn, New York, and left for dead. I was outraged when I heard about the criminally short prison sentence his killer got. I’ve written a bit about Matt in this blog, so I won’t go on about his premature death. But I do want to mention something that really struck me when fellow RPCVs held a memorial for him on Zoom. There were people from around the world who joined that Zoom call to honor Matt– Bill and I in Germany, several people in Russia, a person in Sweden, someone in Belize, people in Armenia, and of course, people all across the United States.

One of the people who had joined the call was a man named Hoveek, who lived in Vanadzor. Matt had worked in Vanadzor, and he’d had a profoundly positive effect on Hoveek. I sat amazed as I listened to how much Hoveek had admired Matt, and how much Matt had helped him. Tears were streaming down his face… and I realized that Matt had changed this man’s life for the better. Matt was so beloved in Vanadzor, that locals have created a memorial for him there. I wish I’d had the chance to see it in person. I did mention Matt to the Peace Corps staff, and was a little surprised that they hadn’t heard of him. Matt had not only been a Volunteer, but he was also the TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) trainer for at least one group. Matt was, in my opinion, a star.

Which brings me back to Stepan and Hanna… Stepan was Hanna’s Peace Corps “boss”. But 27 years ago, Stepan was my student. Even though I didn’t feel like a “star” Peace Corps Volunteer, I must have done something right. Because Stepan later decided to work for the Peace Corps. Obviously, his interactions with me when he was a teenager weren’t a total turn off. Stepan is a star employee of the Peace Corps, working with today’s Volunteers. I can tell he loves what he does, and his Volunteers love him. Stepan is another link I share with Hanna, an extraordinary young woman I never knew, and will never meet.

Now that I’ve been back to Armenia and received such an overwhelmingly warm welcome, I realize that you really don’t have to be a “star” in the Peace Corps. You can do great things just by going there and talking to the locals, especially if you manage to do it in Armenian— at least at first. Stepan’s daughter, Susi, said it was “beautiful” when she heard Americans speaking Armenian. It’s not a language that gets spoken in many places, even though there are many Armenians in the diaspora. I’m sure it does sound beautiful to Armenians when someone tries to learn their language and doesn’t deem it “worthless”, as I recently saw it described in a scathing negative review of an Armenian restaurant.

As an American living abroad, I’ve seen how English is everywhere. It’s everywhere in Germany, and many people speak it fluently, even though they’re German. I’ve seen it all over Europe, and now it’s very common in Armenia. When I lived there, Armenian, or at least Russian, language skills were essential for success. Today, so many people speak English in Yerevan that not knowing Armenian isn’t a huge problem. But I made so many people smile as I gamely tried to speak my rusty Eastern Armenian. It opened doors for us during our visit, especially since so many people seemed to think I was Russian (one thing that hasn’t changed since the 90s).

Stepan said that he wants Volunteers to be happy, and he wants them to connect with the people. That’s more important than achieving “results” and doing a “good” job… whatever that means. Have I done a “good” job if my students can speak fluent English by the time I leave Armenia? Or have I done a “good” job if I’ve touched their hearts, put a human face on American people, and helped build trust? Or must I do both things to be considered successful? I guess it depends on whom you ask. However, last week, I found evidence that at least a couple of people who received my efforts at service in Armenia appreciated what I was trying to accomplish.

I think of all the people I’ve known who were Peace Corps Volunteers. Most of them were pretty amazing people with talents they could share. Not every Volunteer was a superstar who impressed everyone, but most of the PCVs I’ve known have been good, well-meaning people who genuinely wanted to make a positive difference. I think the focus of the Peace Corps should be less on producing tangible results and more on building relationships and trust. That’s how change ultimately happens.

Anyway… maybe I wasn’t a “star” like Hanna or Matt, or my big sister, Betsy. Or, at least I don’t see myself in that way. However, now I know that I did make a difference. In fact, I think I might have even made a difference last week, by going back to Armenia, speaking crappy Armenian, spending money, and showing them that not every blonde woman is a Russian. πŸ˜‰

It must have been meant to be that I taught Stepan. I don’t know why he wound up as my student. If my country director had had her way, I would have become a business Volunteer during my second year, and Stepan and I never would have met! She wanted me to leave Yerevan. But that wasn’t in the big plan. For some reason, I was supposed to teach Stepan, even though I wasn’t a “star” teacher.

Now Stepan is influencing people in the way I might have influenced him, so many years ago. And even if I wasn’t a superstar Peace Corps Volunteer, he sure made me feel like one last week. We got one of the warmest welcomes I’ve ever experienced anywhere… and sadly, that includes the times when I’ve come home to my own family. I hope we can go back sometime, and I can show Bill more of the country. I think it’s touched his heart and mind, like it’s been touching my heart and mind for years, now.

Anyway… so ends today’s deep thoughts. I think I’ll get back to the travel blog. I’ve still got stories to write about last week’s Armenian adventure.

family, home, musings, travel

When the prospect of “going home” makes me apprehensive…

I’m about to write a post that I think may resonate with a number of people. This is a post about “going home”, and how complicated it can be. I understand that for some people, home is where they want to be. I have friends who have never left the place they lived when we were children. They are perfectly happy living where they grew up. I’m not one of those people. I’ve had a number of “homes” in my lifetime, but only a few of them affected me so much that the idea of going back there makes me feel apprehensive.

In less than three weeks, I will be visiting a place that unexpectedly changed my life years ago. I won’t lie. I’m a bit nervous about our upcoming trip to Armenia. Sure, I am looking forward to going there and seeing how much it’s changed. I can’t wait to show Bill some of the places I’ve talked about for years. I worry that our trip might be too short, because there’s so much I could show him. And yet, I’m also feeling worried and nervous about this trip, more so than any other I’ve taken.

I first heard of Armenia when I was in the fourth grade, and my teacher, Mr. Almasian, told us about his heritage. At that time, it was 1981, and the United States was deeply entrenched in the Cold War. Armenia was then part of the Soviet Union, which was an enemy to the United States. I distinctly remember Mr. Almasian telling us about how Armenia was a Christian nation– the first in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion. And yet, now it was part of the Soviet Union, which highly discouraged citizens to adhere to religions.

At that time in 1981, I never had a clue that one day I’d move to Armenia to live for two years. Back then, I assumed Armenia would always be out of reach, because it was behind what we knew as the Iron Curtain. I didn’t think that curtain would ever part for someone like me. But I also remember getting a kick out of how Mr. Almasian told us that most Armenians’ last names ended with “ian” or “yan”. I later found out that was true.

I also remember my teacher playing Jesus Christ Superstar for us. When I later moved to Armenia, I remember hearing all of the bootleg cassette tape sellers blasting music from Jesus Christ Superstar from their stereo systems. I ended up buying one of the tapes and listened to it long enough to memorize the songs. My parents actually had that album on LP at home, but I always refused to listen to it, because I didn’t like religion. It wasn’t until many years later that I came to appreciate religion more, although I’m still not a church attendee.

My two years in Armenia were difficult for me, but not in ways that a lot of people would have expected. I think a lot of my problems came from a lack of good communication, a lack of assertiveness on my part, and perhaps a lack of maturity on many people’s parts. I was ultimately successful as a Volunteer, but perhaps not in the ways I thought I should have been. When I left Armenia in 1997, I was really ready to go. I was bitter, burned out, and legitimately depressed to the point at which I needed medication.

And yet, every day, I think of the time I spent in Armenia and just how incredible the opportunity to live there was for me. It really did change my life on so many levels. I wonder if I deserved the opportunity I received… and I realize that I was extremely lucky on many levels. Other than some rather serious recurrent skin infections and moderate depression and anxiety, I finished my service relatively unscathed.

I’m now over double the age I was when I arrived in Armenia in June 1995. I was about three weeks from turning 23 when I got there. When I left, I was 25 years and 2 months old, almost to the day. I’m now 51, and this will be my first trip back there… the first time I’ve dared to go back. It’s changed so much since I was last there, but I know there are some things that haven’t changed at all. I wonder if I’m ready to face it.

When I’ve told people we’re going to Armenia, some have expressed concern because of the situation in Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh. I’m not that worried about that. I expect we might see protests and refugees, things I saw when I lived in Armenia in the 90s. I don’t worry about being in any physical danger, because we don’t plan to go anywhere near the dangerous areas by the borders. I suspect we’ll mostly stick to Yerevan. Maybe we can arrange a day trip somewhere outside of the capital, although this might not be the best time of year for that. I don’t think we’ll be physically unsafe, though.

I’m more worried about how I will deal with this visit in an emotional sense. Genealogically, I’m not Armenian at all, and yet I feel like it’s an intrinsic part of me now. I don’t know if this is a common response to Peace Corps service, but for me, it feels like this trip is akin to going “home”… and going “home” can be a very stressful undertaking. I feel somewhat less apprehensive about going back to Armenia than I’d feel about going “home” to Virginia. I love Virginia, as it’s my home and birthplace– but going there is always stressful, because it means confronting crap from the past. And that’s kind of how I feel about Armenia, too. There’s stuff from my time there that makes me feel worried… because it wasn’t all sunshine and roses.

In spite of what some people might have thought of me and my service in Armenia, it truly changed my life. Being there made me a better person and made me grow in leaps and bounds. Maybe going back to Armenia will be edifying and enriching, and my feelings of apprehension will forever abate, because I do think that ultimately, I did fine as a Volunteer. Or maybe there will be tension and unrest, like there sometimes is when I go home to my family of origin– people I will always love, but with whom I share a complicated and difficult past.

In 1997, I left Armenia feeling somewhat like I’d failed. I didn’t think many people liked me very much. I wondered if I’d wasted my time there. I now know that none of those things are totally true… and what was affecting my feelings had a lot to do with clinical depression and the anxiety I felt about going home to the United States. Put it this way… I do think there were a few people in Armenia who didn’t like me and thought I was a waste of space. But I don’t think that was how most people saw me. My feelings were highly magnified by depression, which always distorts things.

The truth is, most people’s feelings were probably either neutral or they simply didn’t care, because they had their own shit to worry about. Moreover, everywhere I go, there are people who wind up not liking me. For many reasons, I’m not always a very likable person. But not being likable doesn’t mean I’m not a “good” person, just like being likable doesn’t make someone a decent or honorable person. Plenty of likable people are perfect assholes underneath the facade. And plenty of unlikable people are actually really fine folks, if you just take the time to get to know them. But, when you’re not super personable or charismatic, you can feel like an outsider. That’s how I often felt in Armenia. I often feel the same way when I’m with my family, even though I love them.

I worry that going back to Armenia will make me feel like I do when I go home to my family. However, I feel like I have to go there. If I don’t go, I will regret it. And I worry that if I wait much longer, I might lose out of my chance to go when it still somewhat resembles the place I left more than a lifetime ago– as I am now more than twice the age I was when I left. I’m going to try to be brave and open-minded, and see Armenia with older, wiser eyes and a willing heart. Maybe, once I’ve done this trip to Armenia, I’ll find the courage to go back to Virginia.

I’m sure if I thought about this some more, I could come up with a more concise post that makes more sense. I think I’ve waited this long to go to Armenia because the idea of going back there made me feel anxious and stressed. I wanted to go back, just as I’ve wanted to go home to Virginia… and yet, just like going to Virginia, I feel like I’m going to dive into a conflict from which it’s going to take a long time to recover. Does that sound crazy?

You see? I really am deeper than I appear…

I took the featured photo from a window in the school where I taught English to children aged 7, 11, 15, and 16… It was a rare day when the air quality was good enough to see Mount Ararat. There was also a train coming. I don’t know from where. I probably took the picture sometime in 1996.

art, musings, nostalgia

The many stray paintings and sculptures in my life…

If you read my first travel blog post yesterday, you might know that Bill and I went into Wiesbaden. We were on a special mission to have some newly acquired paintings professionally framed. This may not seem like the most exciting thing to be doing on a Saturday. I know that for many years, I would have preferred to have done almost anything besides visiting an art gallery with picture framing services. For most of my life, I found most anything involving picture framing unbearably dull. Why? Because I literally grew up in the business.

In 1980, my parents moved from Fairfax, Virginia to Gloucester, Virginia. For so many reasons, that move rocked my world. My dad had retired from the Air Force in 1978, when I was about to turn six. We moved from England, which was the only place I remembered living, to suburban Fairfax, where we lived down the street from my Aunt Doris and her family. Now, we were in very rural Gloucester County, where my father was going to be running his own custom picture framing business called The Corner Cottage.

The Corner Cottage was the name my parents gave the business, which was literally run out of our house. Prior to that, the framing business was called Ellis Smith Enterprises. That was the name of the tacky guy who had owned the house before my parents bought it. He really was pretty tacky– I remember he had put a mirror over the bed in one of the bedrooms. I guess he liked watching himself with his wife. I remember the bathroom in that room had a plastic, brown, padded seat and ugly mirrors all over it. My parents promptly redecorated that room, starting with taking down the mirror over the bed!

My parents’ decision to move to Gloucester and buy Ellis Smith Enterprises changed everything for me. My dad went from being an Air Force officer, to a salesman for the Solite Corporation (he sold gravel and concrete and such), to a self-employed picture framer who also sold art. I hated Gloucester when we first moved there. I still didn’t like it when I permanently moved away from there in 1999. It’s only recently that I’ve started appreciating the county where I grew up and can see why people love it. Of course, Gloucester has changed a lot since 1980, although a lot of the same people (or their descendents) live there.

As a kid, I had no interest in art, other than enjoying elementary art classes at school. I truly thought my parents’ business was really boring. Making matters worse was the way my dad would make me do things like clean behind the chopper, where he would cut moulding into precise pieces. I had to vacuum the shop and dust the pictures. All the while, he’d be watching CBS day TV, especially The Young and the Restless, which was his favorite soap. Or worse, he’d be listening to WFOG, the local easy listening station, which played absolutely cringey Muzak, which he’d sing along to. I’d watch him when he was on the phone, using his left hand to doodle mindlessly while he talked. I was reminded this morning of the many doodles my dad made over the years. He probably had a gift for drawing that he never explored.

For most of the years he ran his custom picture framing business, Dad had a woman working with him. For the first few years, it was our neighbor, Joanne, whose daughter was a year older than me. Joanne later opened her own framing business, which failed. Then he hired Deborah, who was a much better fit on many levels. In some ways, she was kind of an angel. She was, and still is, a tremendously talented artist in her own right, and she didn’t/doesn’t have a drinking problem. When my parents retired, Deborah eventually bought their house and the business. She still runs it today.

As I got older, the framing business sometimes came in handy. I never had to buy posterboard, because my dad had the vastly superior matboard available. He also had professional grade window cleaner, which I wish I could get ahold of now. Sometimes, he’d do fun things with products from his business. One time, he made me a periscope out of matboard, mirrors, and tape. That was cool.

My mom was also part of the business. She had her own shop, where she sold knitting, candlewicking, needlepoint, cross-stitch, and other art related supplies. My mom is super talented with a needle, among other things. In her 85 years of life, she has made many beautiful things with a needle and thread or yarn, as the case might be. And her business survived, even when Walmart came to town, because she offered high quality products, professional services, and had incredible talent for turning a canvas into a masterpiece. My mom’s business also occasionally came in handy for me, too. I grew up showing my horse, Rusty, and I never wanted for yarn for braiding his mane and tail. I never learned to knit or cross-stitch, though. I had no interest.

My mom taught many people– mostly local women– the secrets of her craft. I wasn’t among her students because I also found her business boring. I don’t have a gift for creating things with needles and threads. I don’t have the patience or diligence to stitch beautiful designs into cloth. Although I appreciate colors, I have a hard time deciding on color schemes. Consequently, a lot of my own artistic creations are a mess. My sister has artistic talent, no doubt taken from both parents. Me? My gift from them is music… but when I was growing up, I wasn’t interested in doing that, either. It wasn’t until I was an adult that making music captured my heart.

As a middle-aged adult, I’ve discovered that I like art, too. I like to buy art more than make it, because although I do like to draw, I’m not particularly good at drawing. I don’t come up with cool visual concepts like artists do. When I think of something I’d like to draw, something else intrudes and it turns into something too busy and messy. When I was growing up, I liked art class… until I had a teacher who asked me to draw only what I could see. I found it very difficult, even though being asked to do that was kind of revolutionary. It was at that point that I stopped taking art classes. I simply don’t have the knack.

My own personal artistic expression comes in the form of music and writing, probably in that order. I’m much better known as a writer, but probably more appreciated as a singer… especially when I behave myself and sing nice songs. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might know that sometimes I’m provocative. I like to cuss, and I’m not always nice or politically correct. I like to challenge people and make them think. And I won’t lie… sometimes I enjoy shocking people. But when I sing a pretty song written by someone else, people usually like it. They don’t always like what I write. Of course, if I start writing songs, all bets are off as to how that might turn out. I’ll keep working on learning guitar. Maybe sometime, I can experiment.

So what does this all have to do with yesterday’s outing? I’m getting there…

As I was talking to the guy who took our order, breathing in that familiar smell of art supplies, moulding, matboard, and window cleaner, I noticed a very weird sculpture on the top of a curio. It was a very provocative piece of art. I have a feeling it’s no accident that they put it where they did. It would be easy to miss it. And yet, it seemed to jump off the curio at me, as if it wanted me to take it home. I kept looking at the sculpture and even snuck a photo of it.

It’s ugly and weird… and I would love to own it.

We didn’t buy the sculpture yesterday. We were too busy talking about what we wanted to do with the paintings. I had two kitschy dancing cat paintings we bought in Prague that I wanted to be framed. But I also had a gorgeous painting (see featured photo) that I found in Cesky Krumlov. Like the above sculpture, it had jumped off the wall at me… like a stray dog, begging me to take it home.

I remember walking into the gallery, noticing all the usual landscapes and modern depictions of people… and then I saw this fascinating painting of a bunch of different birds. I loved the colors. I enjoyed the weird paranoid mood of it, even if I’m not particularly interested in birds. It stopped me in my tracks and made me think, just like the weird sculpture above did. I found myself telling the proprietor I had to have it. She was delighted, especially when we threw in a pretty but somewhat less interesting painting of a snowy church in Cesky Krumlov.

The way I found myself saying “yes” to the painting is the same way I said “yes” to adopting Noyzi the Kosovar street dog. He was unlike any other dog I’ve ever had in my life. I worried that he’d turn our house upside down… and right now, he’s lying behind my chair, quiet and contented. I don’t regret bringing him home.

I also don’t regret bringing home any of the weird art in my house. And I do have a lot of weird art. I suspect it annoyed our former landlady that my taste in art is so strange and unconventional. I’m sure it helped convince her that I’m a terrible, peculiar, perverse person who deserved to be disrespected and cheated.

If that sculpture is still in the gallery when we go back to pick up our dancing cat paintings, there’s a very good chance I’ll buy it. I think it might be meant for me. I don’t know where I’ll put it. Maybe in the downstairs bathroom? I can’t stop talking about it, though. Just this morning, I was talking about how the way the artist depicted the hairy spots and the breasts… it reminds me of the face of panda bear. You see? I love that. I love art that makes me see other things and think about what else could be. I don’t care if it’s ugly, obnoxious, or weird… or depicts things like someone taking a shit, which is a universal part of life for every creature.

Some of the weird art in my office. Each piece has a story.

If the sculpture isn’t there when we go back to the gallery to pick up the art, I guess it wasn’t meant to be… We will be back at least twice, though. The painting in the featured photo has to be mounted and stretched before it can be framed. That will take time.

If the gallery does a good job on this, I may go back with more art that needs framing. We have a dinosaur painting that has great sentimental value to us. We bought it from a Russian artist named Korelov in Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad) in the Czech Republic, back in 2009. At that time, we couldn’t afford custom picture framing. Now that we can, maybe it’s time I had it done… You can see it below with the cool painting we bought in Greece in 2013 and had framed in North Carolina.

If you come to my house, it won’t look like my mom’s house. My mom has beautiful stuff everywhere, artfully arranged. She’s a very neat person, so clutter is minimal. My house is messier. Not everything matches or coordinates seamlessly. I have some stuff that is odd and even offensive. You might not like it. But I’ll bet some of it will make you stop and think. That’s my goal… Come to think of it, making people stop and think is also often my goal when I write blog posts.

Yeah… some of my art is like a stray dog, begging to come home with me, where it will be loved and appreciated. I know it’s crazy, but I kind of love that sculpture. I almost wish we still lived in our old house in Jettingen. I’d buy it and display it in a conspicuous place just to annoy our former landlady. πŸ˜€

I’m kind of petty that way… πŸ˜‰

We’ll see if I am meant to buy that piece of art. If I am meant to give it a home, I may have to ask for opinions on where it should be displayed… Seriously, though… maybe I’d put it in the bathroom and remind myself that my body could always look worse than it does. At least my body doesn’t remind anyone of a panda bear.

controversies, lessons learned, musings

Judging a “lemon” by its rind…

I tried to stay pretty busy yesterday, and I mostly succeeded. I got off to a somewhat late start, as I woke up after 6:00 AM, which isn’t so common for me anymore. Then I made coffee, fed and cleaned up after Noyzi, and started a load of laundry. I did a longer cycle so I could focus more on yesterday’s rambling post that wasn’t particularly tight. While I’ll admit it was a stream of consciousness type post, it did turn out interesting, at least for me. As I read it, I had all of these memories of my younger days, when it seemed like I had forever before I would be considered “older”…

I actually needed some help getting started writing yesterday. There’s a lot I could write about, but I don’t feel knowledgeable enough at this point. And it’s not really what’s on my mind, anyway… I mentioned yesterday that I went down “Memory Lane”, starting with reading old posts about our move to Wiesbaden. I’ve written about that a lot, but I don’t know if I’ve conveyed just how totally difficult that move was to make. It seems like it was just a bad landlady/tenant situation, but it was really so much more than that.

That situation with our former landlady really drove home to me how easy it is to fall into true mind fuckery when you’re dealing with an abusive person. They can make you feel like you’re worthless, as if everything is your fault… or as if you don’t deserve better. It’s hard to break out of that mindset once you enter it. It’s so hard when you trust someone and they betray you, or they turn out to be someone totally different from the person they seemed to be.

Granted, in ex landlady’s case, I did have a subtle warning. There was something about her demeanor that tipped me off at our first meeting. Under normal circumstances, I might not have been so eager to rent her house. Actually, I wasn’t that eager to move into the house, as I was to finally be settled. The summer of 2014 was a very difficult one for us… from Bill’s Army retirement, to my father’s somewhat sudden death, to the very rushed international move to Germany after we found nothing viable in Texas… We were vulnerable.

In August 2014, we still had sharp memories of September 2007, when we spent six weeks in a grubby German Gasthaus in Vaihingen, where there was visible mold on the bathroom ceiling and the place reeked of stale cigarettes. Today, I would have insisted that we move to a better hotel, but we had much less money and experience in 2007, and Bill was fresh from the war zone in Iraq (which he spent with a narcissistic boss). Besides, that particular hotel was in walking distance of where Bill was working, and it was very dog friendly. So we stayed for six weeks. It wasn’t all bad, but I certainly didn’t want to do it again.

So, when we met former landlady, even though I had some mental misgivings about her, I took the former tenant and her husband at their word that she was “great” and my gut feelings weren’t “right”. That was a mistake.

Although it wasn’t all bad, just like our six weeks in a really crummy Gasthaus in 2007, it’s not an experience I’d ever want to recreate. Never before had we ever had such an intrusive situation with a landlord/landlady, even though I’ve seen lots of videos and written plenty of accounts of nightmare property managers, landlords, and landladies. We’ve have had other rental situations that sucked somewhat, but none as personally soul crushing as dealing with our previous landlady. What made it very different and so much worse was the former tenant.

It was one of those perfect storm situations… I’m a blogger, and I made the mistake of sharing my posts in a somewhat small community. People in the military community– I’m sorry to say– are not always the most open-minded people you’d ever meet. You’d think they would be, given how much and how often military folks move to places worldwide. I don’t mean to say that people in that community aren’t diverse, nor do I mean to say that everyone is an asshole. But there are a lot of people who have rigid mindsets about things. Someone who dares to write a blog called The Overeducated Housewife is automatically going to catch shit. πŸ˜‰

I do know that some people down in the Stuttgart community got some good things from my writings. Quite a lot of people told me they tried restaurants I reviewed, or they visited places I wrote about. But there were so many who just wrote off my efforts because they didn’t like the name of the blog and lacked the desire to find out why I titled it the way I did. How dare someone refer to themselves as “overeducated”, even if they literally are for what they do every day? πŸ˜‰

I don’t actually think I am “overeducated”. There is obviously a whole lot I don’t know. I also don’t believe that being “educated” is the same as being “intelligent” or “smart”. I just didn’t need to spend seven years in college to be a housewife. If I had known this was going to be my future, I wouldn’t have bothered with college or grad school… but then, I probably never would have met Bill, either. THAT is why this blog is titled as it is… and it came into existence several years before I started engaging with military folks who might be offended by it. In fact, the beginnings of my blog were very humble, as I didn’t even share my posts on Facebook. It took a long time before it evolved into anything people read on a regular basis.

Former tenant probably wouldn’t have been so involved in our situation if I hadn’t been a blogger. Our situation with ex landlady might have turned out like every other situation in which someone hands off a “lemon” to someone else.

Here’s a for instance. Back in 2003, Bill and I adopted an adorable beagle named Flea who had been abandoned in rural Virginia. Flea was a very fancy beagle. His original owner likely paid a lot for him. But, he got separated from the pack when they were hunting. When Flea was eventually found on the side of a road, he was skinny, covered in fleas and ticks, had Lyme Disease, and heartworms. The lady who rescued him got him cleaned up and offered him to a beagle rescue, as she also fostered him for them. The beagle rescue gave her money to get Flea treated for heartworms and Lyme Disease. When we met her, she’d seemed so nice and committed to Flea. But then it turned out she’d never completed his heartworm treatment. Instead, she pocketed the money for the second half of the treatment. So, when we adopted him, we were unaware that he still had heartworms.

Months later, when we discovered Flea’s heartworms weren’t all dead, we tried to contact his rescuer… who then promptly ghosted us. Flea also turned out to be quite a bit older than she’d said he was. Flea wasn’t a “lemon”, per se. He was actually a fantastic dog. But we got stuck dealing with his problems, because someone lied to us. Fortunately, the beagle rescue paid for him to be treated a second time for heartworms. However, heartworm treatment isn’t easy on dogs. I think it took a toll on his health in the long run. We had him for six years before he got prostate cancer, which eventually killed him.

Just like the situation with Flea turned out to be, I guess that former tenant felt the need to get out of her rental agreement with the ex landlady. And she was eager enough to get away from her that she wasn’t entirely truthful or forthcoming about her when we showed up looking for a place to live. We were sitting ducks… because we really needed a place to settle after a tough summer. Former tenant probably figured there was no harm in what she did… I’m sure she totally justified it. Fair enough. Maybe ex landlady really was as wonderful to her as former tenant claimed, and she really did just need to move closer to her job. There was probably even an element of truth to what she told us… but it wasn’t the *whole* truth.

I figure that if I weren’t a prolific and somewhat well-known blogger in the Stuttgart military community, former tenant would have just ghosted us, too. Ex landlady would have been “our problem”, even though the two of them were “friends”. Ex landlady probably would have complained and gossipped to her about us, but former tenant could have just laughed it off. She wouldn’t have been at all concerned about what I was thinking, saying, or writing. But because I was a somewhat well-known blogger, and she had loved Germany and was still following the community on social media, she couldn’t stop herself from following me… and she got upset that I was candid about our experiences.

Instead of realizing that I have the right to my opinions and perspectives and simply unfollowing me, former tenant felt the need to try to control me from afar. Not only did she deceive me, she also tried to silence me… and she seriously misjudged and underestimated me as a person. To her, I guess I was just a sucker who had the “audacity” to label myself “the overeducated housewife”. She probably thought I was just some silly twit– certainly not a match for her. She tried to take advantage of the fact that I’m basically a good person, using shame, obligation, fear, and guilt as a means of trying to fix the narrative. I complied with her for a time, but then wised up about what she was doing.

The irony is, if I weren’t a blogger, Bill and I probably would have been stuck paying for another lemon. Writers are recorders, so I had photos, blog posts, and bits of history that I could show proving the ex landlady’s version of events wrong. We probably would have won, anyway, but it wouldn’t have been quite so handily. Still, when all of that was going on, I felt like shit. I certainly had no desire to be on bad terms with anyone, nor did we want to sue anyone. But I’m also not about to be someone’s patsy.

As if that situation wasn’t bizarre enough… then I looked up former tenant last year. Curiosity killed the cat. I should have learned my lesson about not following people who show me who they are. That’s when I found out that former tenant took her own life. That makes me wonder about a whole lot of things… and it’s also left me with a burden.

All we had wanted to do was find a place to live in 2014. Now we’re left with this very strange chapter in our lives. We’ll probably always think about it and talk about it, and other people probably won’t understand. Some will even try to blame us, even though I only met former tenant in person a couple of times in 2014. Any interaction we had after we rented that house was initiated by her, after she read my blog. I doubt I had anything to do with her decision, but I don’t know. All I can think is that she had a lot of issues that led her to make a tragic choice. Her decision had ripple effects beyond her immediate family and friends that she’ll never even realize.

I never thought I’d ever be a blogger. I did like writing and likely would have loved a “real job” as a writer. But even when I was a teenager, I didn’t really let myself hope writing was how I could earn a living or make my way in the world. I used to have a lot of ideas and dreams about what my “adult life” would be. I figured I’d have a career and probably a family. As I got older, it seemed less likely that either convention was going to be in my future. I didn’t really date much, nor did I have great luck at impressing employers that would pay me a salary on which I could live comfortably.

Granted, after I finished graduate school, I might have managed to find a job to support myself properly. I didn’t really have a chance, as just after I graduated, I moved in with Bill, and six months later, married into the military lifestyle, with its constant upheavals. I was familiar with it, since my mom was an Air Force wife. But by the time I came along, my dad’s career in the Air Force was winding down. I didn’t know the realities, because my parents ran their own business for over half of my childhood.

I think marrying Bill was the right decision, and the best choice I could have made. But it definitely derailed the plans I tried to make for myself. I don’t think they were the right plans, anyway… but they were MY plans. And now I’m sitting here in Germany, writing this blog, wondering where it all went.

Yesterday’s post was a meandering stream of consciousness piece. It started in one place and ended somewhere else I hadn’t really meant it to go. Alex’s first comment to me kind of took me aback. He’d offered me consolation, which kind of distressed me. But, looking back at it today, I can see why Alex left a comment of reassurance. The end of yesterday’s post was about how I felt after reading the post that had inspired it. I was so very angry about the audacity of our ex landlady, treating us like we were the worst kind of people. It pissed me off anew, and brought up some old feelings of shame and worthlessness passed to me from someone whose opinion used to mean a lot to me.

No, I don’t mean ex landlady. I mainly did what I could to appease her, which I now realize was far too much. I mean my dad. I don’t think he hated me. I think he even loved me on one level. But he often treated me badly, and acted like he didn’t like me very much. He took out a lot of his frustrations on me, and treated me like an embarrassment. When I was a young woman, I realized that he was very often abusive to me, and that treatment shaped how I felt about myself. Some of that stuff still comes up today, as I try to stay out of trouble and hesitate to engage with people. I figure they won’t like me… and when some of them don’t, I get bitter and more reluctant to get to know people. When people treat me poorly, I remember it forever and hold it against them, even if their bad attitude doesn’t even have that much to do with me, personally.

There were a lot of times when ex landlady reminded me a lot of my dad. As a grown woman, I can now react in ways that weren’t safe when I was a child. I can speak out, for instance. So I often do. But doing that didn’t suit former tenant’s agenda, and I suspect she thought she could manipulate and control me. So she tried to do that, and I tolerated it for awhile… until I didn’t anymore, and the shit hit the fan. She took issue that I figured out what she’d done… passed off her lemon to Bill and me and expected us to see it as a favor. She wanted me to shut up and pretend I enjoyed the sourness of her lemon. Because it suited her, and her agenda. Who cared about how it affected us?! We’re just a couple of suckers and losers, right? Obviously, if ex landlady didn’t like us, it was entirely our fault, and it was our responsibility as Americans to make her like us

What a load of shit that is. Seriously… I can’t even believe it! We’re supposed to tolerate abuse and PAY for the privilege, because former tenant is/was friends with the ex landlady, and she doesn’t want to offend her or anyone in her family? If there’s a problem, it’s not because of anyone but me… and it’s entirely my fault. Again… that’s a lot of bullshit that doesn’t even have the courtesy of smelling lemony fresh! I can’t believe we wasted a single year on that crap, let alone four!

Well… at least it’s over now. We did prevail. But, like the proverbial lemon, that situation left a sour taste in our mouths. I’m left a lot more wary than I once was. I don’t share things like I used to. I’m not eager to get to know people like I used to be. I trust people less. The memory of that ordeal leaves me a bit depressed on some level. And the fact that former tenant killed herself makes it all the worse, because now it seems like I should feel sorry for her. Or at least act like I feel sorry for her. Really, I’m just angry with her on many levels. I’m sorry she felt the need to off herself, but I also realize that I spent weeks agonizing, feeling totally traumatized and fucked up, and the truth was, I wasn’t the fucked up one at all!

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a believer in destiny… We were probably supposed to meet these people, and these experiences were probably supposed to happen. We’ll just have to learn from it, move on, and either keep our lemons to ourselves or be honest about them. Sometimes lemons are a good thing, after all. In the grand scheme of things, this particular lemon at least taught us to be wiser, and we got to see some beautiful parts of the Black Forest. So that ought to count for something, right?