Monday, September 26, 2011

Making Keys

The shop bordered a large, dusty parking lot, full of ruts and rocks, broken concrete and potholes. It was little more than a hole in the wall, a rusting grey-green metal door with a sign above and a dirty window to let light through. My director, Rudik, and I pulled up in his car, looking to have a key made for me so I could get in our NGO's office on days my coworkers were busy with the WorldVision monitoring and audit that is going on right now.

Inside the shop, five old men stared intently at a nardi board. Two faced off over the black and white pieces, throwing the small dice and slamming their pieces across the board with a practiced intensity. Rudik took the key out of his pocket, said something to the men, and one bald man, wearing a greenish sports coat over a faded deep purple shirt glanced up for a moment from his black soldiers marching across the field of battle. He gave no more than a slight nod before taking up the dice again and throwing them.

The game continued with nary a care for us waiting there, watching them. The dice would tumble across the scratched, well-worn board, and hardly before the pieces were moved, the dice would be picked up again. The only sounds in the small, stuffy shop were the click of the dice as they tumbled, the slam of the pieces as they were forcefully placed in their apportioned spot. Only occasionally would this be interrupted by one of the men intently watching mumbling, "mek, yerkus, yerek, chos"--one, two, three, four--after doubles were thrown.

The game was lost long before we got there, this was obvious to even a beginner's eye such as mine. White was penned in at the end of the board, while black, played by the old man who gave us the nod, deftly moved his pieces off the board. Despite this we waited 5, 10, 15 minutes as white fought this losing battle to the bitter end.

Only when the game was over, only when the loser had taken a hand-rolled cigarette out of his pocket and put it between his lips, lighting the match with a snap on the edge of the board, did the winner rise and fix his glance on Rudik. Words were exchanged, and this short, old man took the key from Rudik's hand and looked it over.

Slowly he walked behind the counter and deeper in to the small, cluttered shop we had entered. How he knew where to look is anybody's guess. Old machinery, drawers, cabinets, wires, old telephones--the room was so packed the seven of us could hardly fit with the detritus of years, much of it dating from the time of the Soviet Union. But the man found what he was looking for, a small key that nearly matched ours.

In the center of the room, a new challenger had sat himself across from the smoking man at the nardi board. The dice began to click again, the pieces slammed, the numbers counted in grizzled voices.

The old man with the key fished out a pair of glasses from his pocket. These glasses magnified his eyes, and yet seemed to age him years. The keys he lined up, and then, with a flick of his finger he turned on an old Soviet desk lamp, secured the keys in a clamp, and took a file off the table next to him.

And so this man began his art. Eyes magnified a hundred times by the thick, plastic rimmed glasses pitted with a thousand scratches, he drew the file up to the key. With swift movements of his hand, he began to file the virgin key, angling the file this way and that, tilting it, maneuvering it, whittling the key down to its apportioned shape.

As this was going on, nardi raged around him. Another game started, and the old men watched the slamming as intently as the last one. Occasionally the man filing away our key would look up from his work to watch the match.

On and on this went, with the man occasionally lifting the keys up to his eyes and aligning them before he set them back in the clamp and returned to work.

Once he was finished, he handed my director the two keys and my director handed him some dram. Despite us standing there for thirty minutes, no point did the nardi game stop. As we walked out in to the dusty parking lot, the only sounds we could here were the clicking of dice, the slam of pieces, and the occasional counting off from the smoke-filled key shop.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

In Which our Author sings Chinar Es and becomes a Peace Corps Volunteer

Some have asked to hear me singing Chinar Es. Thanks to technology, that is possible! Follow the link below, which is to the recording of the live video stream of the A-19 Swearing In Ceremony, and fast-forward to about minute 43:00 on the video. You can also watch the entire thing if you're interested in seeing the entirety of the wonderful ceremony we had that day. Enjoy!

A-19 Swearing In Ceremony.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Wherein our Illustrious Author Ruminates on Why he has Not Posted, Reflects on Swearing-In, and Looks Forward to the Future

Dear reader, my reader,

I feel that this blog post should start with an apology. I had hoped that my blog could have been something to track my various exploits during my Peace Corps Service, but, unfortunately, I have let it fall by the wayside during my past two and a half months here.

I have spent the past few days attempting to summarize my past two and a half months, known as Pre-Service Training, or PST. I tried describing things. I tried doing a Letterman-style Top Ten List. I tried and tried to figure out a way to summarize that which has occurred since I first set foot on Armenian soil, and I have failed at every turn.

And so, sometimes, it's just best, in the interest of moving on, to cut bait. My attempts to summarize the past two months are getting in the way of me reflecting on my current situation, and so I'm just letting it go. And, maybe, that is the best possible commentary about PST--it's long, and hard, there's not much time to think, let alone blog,, and it's impossible to summarize. Let's just say it was the most trying two months of my life, involved learning a lot of things and meeting a lot of new people, and will always stay with me as an incredibly formative, trying, and, ultimately successful, time.

Before I do cut bait there is one thing that I want to memorialize here: at the swearing in ceremony, I had the distinct honor to be asked to perform "Chinar Es" by Komitas as a solo in the Komitas Chamber Music Hall in Yerevan, accompanied by Michael Braz on piano and Stephanie Conrad on cello. According to The Virtual Museum of Komitas:

One of the best concert halls of Yerevan, the Chamber Music Hall also bears the name of Komitas. This small but very original building was constructed in 1978 (architect: Stepan Kurkchian). It is located in the city center, deep in the park. Nowadays, Komitas Chamber Music Hall hosts concerts of chamber, vocal-instrumental, choral and organ music. Though the hall is not so large in size, it can seat about three hundred. Many distinguished figures of Armenian and international music have performed on the stage of Komitas Chamber Music Hall. International musical festivals are regularly held here as well.

I was asked to prepare this solo by the PST staff about three weeks before our swearing-in ceremony. The piece, a version of which can be heard here, is a beautiful, sad ode from a boy to his lover. He speaks of her beauty ("Chinar es" means "You are a poplar tree"), and then asks her never to leave, which, if I understand the song correctly, she has. Much of the song is just singing the "nai nai nai," which is like "la la la" but is full of lament.

Anyway, this song is beloved by Armenians. I had three weeks to prepare it, which would have been impossible without the amazing musical talent of Michael Braz. He spent countless hours helping me rehearse, arranging the piece for cello, voice, and piano, and working to make the piece as beautiful as possible. On top of that, Mike was arranging two works for choir and rehearsing said choir for the swearing in ceremony. On top of that on top of that, he was also doing what the rest of us were doing: preparing to finish PST, take the language exam, and move out to a new site where he will be working for the next two years.

My hat is off to Mike. He is one of the finest musicians I have ever had the pleasure to work with, and I hope we will get to collaborate in the future. The fact that after such an accomplished musical career, he went on to serve his country in the Peace Corps makes me respect him even more. And, just for fun, watch him play the Mickey Mouse Club song in various musical styles here.

The reason why I'm gushing so much about Mike is because working with him gave me one of the most amazing musical experiences of my life. Standing there, on the stage of the Komitas Chamber Music Hall, singing a beloved Komitas song before a sea of Americans and Armenians, during the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary Celebration…I almost don't know how to describe it. It was beautiful and moving and I will never forget it. I will never forget the loud applause once I was done, the "bravo"s I heard, and when I got off the stage, the cameraman grabbed me and said "that was amazing." I'll never forget all the people who said they were moved by my performance. It makes me wish I had gone forward with music.

Even more important than that, right before I had the pleasure of singing that song, I took the Peace Corps Oath with 39 of the most wonderful, dedicated Americans I have ever met. I wish I had the time to gush about them as much as I gushed about Mr. Braz there, but let me tell you that each of them deserves several paragraphs each. They are all unique, wonderful people, who range from business execuitives with over 50 years of experence, a woman who worked with the UN to help set up the President of East Timor's office when East Timor became a country, to lawyers (not just me!) and bankers, and people right out of college who knew, in their hearts, that the most important thing they could do with their education and experence was to spend two years serving others. With these 39 amazing Americans, I took the Peace Corps Oath, as prescribed by 22 USC §2504(j) and 5 USC §3331, before the chargĂ© d'affaires from the United States to Armenia:

I, Joseph Andriano, do solemnly affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge my duties in the Peace Corps.

Anyway, that's all you're getting out of me about PST. And swearing-in. And such related things.

So where does that leave us now? I first have to say that I'm not allowed to say publicly where I am for security reasons. What I can say is that I am in an undisclosed location in Gegharkunik Marz in Armenia. My town is larger than most but smaller than some, and I am assigned to work with an NGO which mostly focuses on children, but also works on rural development issues as well. They work very closely with World Vision Armenia, which is nice because it gives them a lot of opportunities to work on more complex issues.

One of the best things about my site so far are my coworkers. My counterpart is a highly active, intelligent, motivated woman who is doing everything to integrate me in to the NGO and in to our community. She is one of the hardest working people I have ever met, and I feel honored to be assigned to work with her over the next two years.

While that would be wonderful in its own right, the rest of the people at my NGO are outstanding as well. They all are friendly, fun-loving people who have a palpable motivation to make this community better. It has been a pleasure to work with them for a week, and I look forward to collaborating with them for the next two years.

I am also very lucky to have three amazing sitemates who have been living here for a year already. We've already gotten together multiple times, and I enjoy their company tremendously. They've been very supportive during this difficult transition, and are also just a lot of fun to hang out with.

I guess that all is to say that, after nearly three months in the Peace Corps, I feel as if this is the best experience of my life and I am looking forward to more. The sheer pleasure of living in this country, meeting amazing Americans and Armenians, and working towards making Armenia a better place has been excellent. I hope to continue to post in this blog about my exploits, but, until then, dear reader, be well.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Address to Send Me Anything (Except Bees)

If you want to send me anything (anything! (except bees!)) during Pre-Service Training, my official address will be: 13 Torozyan Street, High School, Nor Hajn 2412, Armenia.

While you are welcome to send me anything (except bees!) during PST, the general recommendation is to wait until I have my official posting and to send it to me then, since my address will be more stable at that time. However, if altruism moves you before then, and you, dear reader, feel the need to send me anything (except bees!) before September, you are welcome to send it to that address.

Y'know. Unless it's bees.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Travelin' Man

I've been asked by a few people--either because they're curious about my adventure or because they want to know when they'll finally get rid of me--what my travel plans are over the next month. Through the power of the internet, right here and right now, those questions are answered!

I should start by saying that I feel lucky to even know what my travel plans are. In the most poorly timed technological failure of my life, my mail server (the wonderful (up until now) delayed all my e-mails from the Peace Corps (which, as you can imagine, are important, time sensitive things) for 2-21 days. This went on for a month before I caught it.

The reason for this, which I learned after I contacted Fastmail's tech support, was because "there were too many attempts from [that] IP [read:] to deliver to unknown addresses on our servers. Should be some issue on the sending server and our servers thought that was suspicious and blocked their IP." This seems insane to me. Do you, Fastmail, really believe that a .gov is engaging in spamming? And the Peace Corps? Really? I know this is probably an automated protective thing, but you'd think that a .gov should get a little leeway.

At any rate, kudos to Fastmail for fixing this problem quick, but I've moved my Peace Corps e-mail to gmail. I just can't take that kind of risk with my e-mail right now.

Anyway! Travel plans, as promised. I leave Vermont during the week of May 23rd, probably near the end of the week, for New York. My time in New York will mostly be spent seeing my family and saying goodbyes, with "bon voyage" parties planned on the 28th and 29th.

On the 31st my mom is kindly driving me to Philadelphia, PA, where I'll be checking in to a hotel and probably meeting some of my compatriots for the first time. Registration in to the Peace Corps occurs at 12 noon the following day, June 1, and is followed by about four hours of introductory meetings. The next morning, on June 2, we board a bus and head back to New York, where that evening we get on a flight headed to Vienna. We arrive the next morning, where we get hotel rooms and then have 14 hours to explore (I know, twist my arm, a 14 hour layover in Vienna, right?) before getting on a plane for Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

According to the officially unofficial schedule they sent us of last year's training, we will immediately go sightseeing, which seems completely and utterly bizarre to me but I think it has something to do with not letting us go to sleep when all we'll want to do at that point is crash. We then check in to a hotel and begin five days of meetings and conferences. After that's all done, we meet our host families and head to our villages. Armenia, you see, is a CBT, or Community Based Training, country for the Peace Corps. This means that we will be distributed in to villages surrounding a larger city, doing 6 days of training in our villages with 4-8 other PCVs who also live there, and then we will occasionally go in to the main city for larger conferences with everyone.

Training will last three months, at which point I will be assigned a site where I will work for the next two years.

But that's getting ahead of myself. 25 days to Staging!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

And Now, A Word From Our Sponsor...

Ok, not really, but I want to step back from my ruminations about the Peace Corps for a moment and talk about another group that I've volunteered with and believe very strongly in.

Tonight was my last meeting as a Trustee of Windsor County Partners, and I would like to mark this occasion by asking you all to give a little something to this wonderful organization.

In December of 2009, I was approached by a member of the Windsor County Democratic Committee, which I was involved with at the time, to see if I would be interested in serving on the board of a local nonprofit. The gentleman who approached me was on the board of this group, and said they were interested in inviting me because I was much younger than their typical board members, and because I am an attorney. He thought that, for those reasons, I would be able to lend a valuable perspective to the board.

I met with him and WCP's Executive Director over breakfast a few weeks later, and was really excited about what I learned. See, WCP is a 35 year old non-profit with its headquarters located in Windsor, Vermont. WCP's mission is to provide volunteer mentors to the children of Windsor County. We focus on high quality matches, which means that our Executive Director makes sure, through detailed applications and interviews, to match a Senior Partner--a volunteer from the community--with a Junior Partner--a kid from a local school--who has similar interests and is in geographic proximity with the SP. This last part is important, because WCP expects the partners to meet two hours a week. WCP also does a lot to support the partnerships by keeping in contact with both partners to make sure everything is running smoothly.

During my tenure as a Trustee and then as Treasurer, WCP significantly expanded its mission by adopting a school-based mentoring organization in Springfield, Vermont that was in danger of going out of business. This group, called "Let's Do Lunch" matches a child in the Springfield schools with a community member for a one-hour lunch meeting once a week. This adoption was big for both WCP and mentoring in Vermont, and the program has been wildly successful there.

I did a lot while volunteering with WCP. Our board is a working board, and we spend hours each month doing everything we can to make sure this group remains healthy so it can continue to serve the children of Windsor County for another 35 years, and beyond. Over my year and a half working with the group, I came to deeply respect each and every board member and staff person for the level of dedication and love they have for this organization and its goals. Their work was unparalleled, and I was proud to work with them.

WCP is fortunate in that it recently received a matching grant from the Permanent Fund of Vermont. Through that fund, donations to WCP are being matched dollar-for-dollar until the end of June.

As my last act as a Trustee of this organization that I have come to love and believe in over my short time working with it, I want to ask you, dear reader, to give a few dollars--whatever you can spare--to help insure that the kids of Windsor County will continue to have this awesome resource for years to come. Again, this is a perfect time to give because of our matching grant.

Donations can be made out to Windsor County Partners and sent to PO Box 101, Windsor, VT 05089.

Thank you for any help you can give, and I will now return you to my regularly scheduled ramblings about the Peace Corps, already in progress.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Adventures in Applicationland

After being a Peace Corps Applicant twice over the past three years, I've come to a simple conclusion about the Peace Corps Application Process: its job is to weed people out, to challenge them, to see if they'll quit, so the Peace Corps can be sure that living in a third world country for 27 months won't make them do just that.

As I said, I've gone through this application process twice. The first time weeded me out pretty quickly, and I think that was good. My desire to join the Corps the first time around wasn't very well thought out. I didn't know as much about it as I should as I struggled through the two separate twenty page applications, and at the first sign of difficulty I balked. I learned a lot from that, a lot from the nagging feeling that in quitting so easily I denied myself what could have been one of the most awesome and significant experiences of my life. I also learned a lot more about the Peace Corps, and when I applied the second time around, my expectations were a lot more realistic.

I had actually thought that after dropping my application the first time around that the opportunity was gone. Based on absolutely nothing except my assumption that once you apply for something and unceremoniously drop it that they wouldn't even look at your application again, I figured that I would have to wait years at the very least to ever apply to the Peace Corps again.

Fortunately I was wrong. Almost a year ago I was standing outside under the pine tree when I got an e-mail. Apparently the Peace Corps had more funding than they expected, and they wanted me to reactivate my application. I took a few days to think about it, to talk it over with my wife and some friends, but I knew the second I got that e-mail that I was ready this time, that I wanted to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.

The reapplication process was pretty painless. I called the office in Boston, told them I wanted to reactivate my application, and within a day or two a recruiter called me. We chatted a little bit and set up an appointment for an interview at the end of July. When that day finally came, I took the Dartmouth Coach down to Boston, stayed the night at this cool little boutique hotel in the Back Bay, and, the next morning, took the T in to the Federal Building. I had an excellent, rambling three-hour conversation with my recruiter. I was open to teaching English this time around (I wasn't open to it the first time around, and that was the main reason I withdrew my application), but my recruiter seemed more interested in my work on the Board of Trustees of Windsor County Partners and in my experience as an attorney. He asked me all sorts of questions, and apparently it went well because at the end of the interview, he said, "I'm nominating you to become a Peace Corps Volunteer." He talked to me about various programs he felt I was qualified for, and told me he'd get back to me in a couple of days about my nomination.

When I finally heard back from him, I was in luck. I had two options: a nomination for teaching English in Indonesia, or a "provisional nomination" as an NGO specialist in the Caucasus region. The second one was my dream position, and I said yes. He said he needed to get approval from Washington since I didn't meet the educational requirements for that position (hence it being a provisional nomination), but he was sure that between being a lawyer, a teacher, and on the board of a non-profit, they'd say yes.

Less than a week later, I got an e-mail confirming my nomination.

After getting nominated, the next step was the (miserable) medical and dental clearance process. I don't want to dwell too much on this because it was a significantly unfun period in my life, and more than once I thought it was going to do me in. The dental part sucked, mostly because I hadn't had dental insurance for years and thus needed a lot of work done. I was in the dentist so much over three months that I became fast friends with my dentist and his staff. At one point he even jokingly suggested that I should take over one of their spare rooms as an office since I was at the dentist more than I was at work.

The medical clearance went fine as I'm in relatively good health, but, having a few chronic conditions, my doctor had to fill out reams of paperwork and then had to fill out even more paperwork after the (dreaded) Office of Medical Services, or OMS, decided it didn't like some of the first set of paperwork. It worked out fine in the end, but there were a few hairy moments there that added to the grey streaks that the bar exam had already put in my hair.

Not two days after I got medical clearance, I get an e-mail from placement saying they needed an updated resume ASAP so they could begin placing me. Things started feeling very real. I combed over my resume, got everything together, put it in the format they wanted, and, less than two days later, I got them my resume…and then didn't hear from them for two months.

This was another stressful two months, because it involved no news whatsoever, just waiting for a call with a DC area code or an e-mail or something, something that would let me know if I was about to go live in a third world country for two years or if I should start applying for new jobs, or whatever. More grey hair appeared, until, finally, one day, I got an e-mail from my Placement Officer. She wanted to have an interview with me at 9:30 AM the next Monday. I said that would be fine, and spend the next week trying to anticipate what questions they might ask me and what my answers would be.

As luck would have it, two days before my placement interview, I completely and utterly lost my voice. I couldn't believe it: here I was, on the threshold of the interview that I had been preparing and hoping for over months and months, and I couldn't speak even a single word. I spent the entire weekend in bed, drinking copious amounts of tea, and not speaking a word to anyone for any reason.

When Monday morning finally rolled around, I could hardly speak, was on multiple cold medicines, and hadn't slept well in days, but I was determined to get through the interview, come what may. The interview focused mainly on two points: 1) why I thought it was OK to be a PCV without my wife/why serving without my wife wouldn't make me quit early; and, 2) why I got three speeding tickets 11 years ago (the answer I gave, word for word: "I was young and stupid."). Yes, these were the two things that the Peace Corps, after all these applications, all these essays, all these medical reviews, wanted to know about me. I guess my answers were fine because after the interview the Placement Officer told me she had something in mind for me, and gave me a vague description of being an NGO volunteer. I told her that was my dream job, and we got off the phone.

Two days later, I woke up at 8 AM, and checked my e-mail, like I do every morning. Whenever anything happens to your Peace Corps application, you get this e-mail saying that your online status has been updated and to check the website, and one of those e-mails was sitting in my inbox. Unfortunately for me, the website tends to choke my internet connection (yay dialup). At any rate, the way I found out I was a PCV was when I clicked "log in" and saw the URL change to a string of characters which included the word "invitee." I didn't actually get to look at the website until I got to work a few hours later, but I raised my arms up above my head--victory. Getting invited to the Peace Corps was one of the happiest moments of my life. After all the time, expense, and anxiety of the application process, it was done. I was invited, and I was crying tears of joy.

It's been a blur since then. I ran afoul of OMS for getting sick for a couple of weeks, but it all worked out in the end. I got my Big Blue Envelope, found out that I was, indeed, just as I wanted, going to be a NGO/Community Development Volunteer in Armenia, and that I was leaving June 1. I started taking steps to transfer my cases, started to figure out what needs to be done to sell my house, and started to make lists on packing, on things I need to buy, on forms I need to fill out.

As of writing this post I am about fifty days out from my staging date. That seems like forever, but I know that, before I know it, I will be on a plane to Armenia. And then, this entire adventure of the past few years, of slogging through the application process, getting more dental work done than I thought possible, and dealing with the inevitable bureaucracy, will be done.

Then the real adventure will begin.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Liminal States

When you choose to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, you choose to step in to a new world, a world where the boundaries begin to blur, where the familiar becomes strange, and where your concept of home begins to dissolve long before you step on the plane.

It's hard to describe what I'm going through right now. I know that in two months I'll be half a world away, trying to navigate a new country, new friends, new alphabet, new family, new job. Everything here has an expiration date on it. How many more times will I see those friends? When will I visit my family before I go? How many more days before my things must be packed, my life put in storage? The liminality is overwhelming.

As melancholy as those thoughts are, this liminal state has been one to revel in as well.  The idea of doing things "for the last time" electrifies everything. I know that in two months this huge chapter is opening up in my life, something that I am privileged to experience. Two years volunteering, serving a foreign country, giving my time to help see that county improve. Two years learning about new foods, new music, new friends, new people, new ways of living.  Two years seeing the world in a way that few other Americans have had the chance to see it, by being immersed in the life of another country.

This is the liminal state I live in right now, one I do not see an end to anytime soon.  Transitioning between worlds, trying to retain my American identity while trying to learn as much as I can from my life in Armenia. Seeing what life looks like outside the safe, beautiful Green Mountains I have called home for nine years. And forever living with the new perspective that only an experience like the Peace Corps can bring.