Surrounding terrain

The houses in the town are mainly made of stone, basalt I think, and there is a certain look to the streets I haven’t seen elsewhere. There are long shared walls running along the street, made of stone and mortar, the mortar in many of them shaped in such a way around the stone to give a leopard-skin pattern to the wall.

There are gutters between the streets and the walls, and each house’s wall has metal doors large enough for a car, painted eggshell blue with rectangular or curved gaps near their tops that are decorated with bars in a fan pattern or the pattern of a sunrise, or even one is curled into the shape of an eagle clutching a snake in its talons. When the doors are open you can see in and there are their stairs and balconies, their laundry and their gardens, like a photograph sitting there, or in the mornings sitting around their tea.

The town’s only colors seem to be rock-grey, green, or roof-red. The streets are mainly straight, and they define a downward-sloping, tilting plain of the right bank of the river. Across the river, below downtown, the streets follow the curves of the hills but up above the ground seems unnaturally regular, only the river, running ten meters below the plane of the streets is like a long, curved hole cut in that plane, showing the terrain beneath it like a cross-section. The effect is an illusion that the town is floating some distance above the ground.

Across the river are a series of caves, none of them very shallow. They had been used as dwellings at least since the medieval period, and possibly far earlier, and some of them were used as recently as the Karabakh war. Some are still used, either to keep cattle or for recreation. They are all clearly man-made, with rounded entrances and windows or holes created to cool the cave; some seem to be made for summer use and some for the winter. They look like old teeth coming up from the earth’s green gums, and the caves are cavities rotted into them.

Personnel issues

Over the weekend, the math teacher had been dismissed, and the rest of the faculty only learned on Monday, when the vice principal introduced his replacement. He had written his own resignation, and he insisted to anyone, when he was willing to talk, that it had been his decision. But everyone knew he had been pressured; they only wondered what it was that kept him silent.

His replacement had never taught before, but he dressed better, had more self-confidence, and for once math classes appeared silent and busy. But others began to compare the school’s well-advertised hiring standards to the new teacher’s local college diploma, and wondered how he had such an in.

Then they asked what the old teacher had done. There were only rumors and they were easily denied. There had never been complaints or warnings, his students’ test scores were up to standards, in short nothing had been recorded against him, but he was gone.

Political minds reasoned: if the principal had wanted him removed, he would have prepared the ground and avoided the current morale problem. He never made sudden decisions. Therefore it had to have come from higher up.

Someone found out the new teacher had been tutor to a powerful family, and this fact was eagerly seized upon. Only a tutor is not a strong position. And, telling with an open expression of a late phone call the Saturday before his first day, the new teacher seemed the most bewildered of all.

Conversational method

As you age, you don’t lose the ability to learn altogether, only you lose the the ability to learn things you’ve lost interest in. I’m learning Armenian probably faster than I learned Russian, and certainly faster than I did French. You learn how you learn fastest, and learn that way faster. I’ve never been able to sit down and study and I haven’t learned anything I’ve learned that way.

For me, I need a close relationship with a native speaker to learn a language well. I think I heard the expression learning on the pillow, I think it’s the fastest way. You are close to someone, you understand their trains of thought and the gist of what they are saying more quickly, with less words. Two streams running parallel, one perseveres in the same direction when the other dips underground, and they meet again further along when it returns to the surface. The dark body swimming near you goes along with you, the wet spitting head rejoins you when it returns.

And the other way around, when you go beyond what you can say, when you lose yourself in your speech, the other can extrapolate from their understanding of you and supply the words or figure you need. I don’t know anyone like that yet who speaks that language, or I do know one person, but he lives in a village on the other side of the country and I was only just getting to know him when I left.

Of course given the simplicity of the language I’m able to produce, that I could have a conversation about any interesting topic with him might have misled me into thinking we were closer than we were. We talked about holiness and art, whether there was a relation between them, and what it could be and what it might indicate.

Other than that the most interesting topics I’ve spoken about with people are Georgia and related topics in international politics. From there it’s been a steep drop off to food, fashion, and customs, and there is a weird similarity to these conversations, and then to simple questions of transportation and logistics.

The leap from thought to thought, the seeming leap that you can find the hidden bond behind, that comes from intimacy of thought or a similar cast of mind, is a precious thing and so is often counterfeited. You speak in generalities to avoid knowing that another disagrees, or you are painfully explicit in order to exclude misunderstanding; or you leave gaps, wide gaps, and agree to pretend with another that you both know what belongs in them.

An author imitates it, with a telegraphic style that jumps from topic to topic or scene to scene without indicating their connection; to make the reader feel the author is confident in their intimacy so that the reader can be as well. That’s the irritating thing about this kind of style. It invades your bed and snuggles up against you as if you invited it there, it’s hail-fellow-well-met without being able to remember your name.

Scenes from the south

The morning light on the back porch is the best light to read by. There’s an old bedframe there, the mattress support being thumb-sized metal rings, linked together in chain-mail style, hooked by springs to a square frame anchored on the end posts. The neighbor’s roof is by the left hand side and above there is a canopy of grapes, half-purpled and half still small and green.

In the space between the two, I can see the border with Karabakh, the spine of the South Caucasus. The clarity and coolness of the light between eight and nine match my book, and the air is so still my heartbeat seems to shake the bed.

The other side of the house, the street side, is where my room is; my window looks out on a stretch of street that is all dirt, stones, and rubble apart from two large asphalt continents and a few islands around them, due to a burst water pipe that runs underneath it. I can tell whether to grab a full bucket on my way into the toilet – if there’s a stream in the street outside, no, otherwise, yes.

There’s one route I take home from work in the evenings sometimes that goes high above the city, parallel to the Tabriz-Yerevan road that runs through it carrying Iranian trucks north laden with fuel and goods and south again empty, where you see the whole town all at once and it looks like a piece of red-roofed, stone-built Greece stuck here far away among these boulders and mountains with no sea for days in any direction.

A show

In his studio, the painter would be garrulous and would talk without gesturing, keeping his hand to the canvas and not averting his eyes except to clean his brush. He would speak steadily at any length or fall silent, saying that question is too difficult while I am working, in the same slow voice. In front of the cameras he seemed innocent, and spoke too fast, with sudden facial expressions.

He had been living abroad but had never been able to learn the language. The slight puckering of his upper lip masked his missing front teeth, and his smile exposed them. Between two speeches, a librarian read translated a newspaper review of his paintings from another show, earlier that year, in that country.

The museum director was an old friend from twenty years before. With a yellow face and a great good-natured expression, he begin to sweat as he talked and repeatedly made a one-handed circular gesture. His eyes glittered and it was difficult to follow his train of thought. The mayor nudged his neighbor and started a conversation about food smiling with his blotchy, clownlike face. His belt hung below his large belly.

The museum director said in an almost angry tone, Your attention please, Mister Mayor, who fell silent. But he struggled to regain his balance. It had already been uncomfortable but now you could express it. People checked their watches, they shifted their weight from foot to foot, and their eyes moved around, looking nowhere in particular.

Up to date

This year, Armenian schools went from an eleven-year system to a twelve-year system. Last year’s tenth graders are this year’s twelfth graders, last year’s ninth graders are this year’s eleventh graders, and half of the kids who started school this year are put straight into second grade.

The idea is that although it might cause a little chaos now, in twelve years it will be normal, and there’s plenty of time to develop a twelve year curriculum in the meantime. They haven’t quite done it yet but they’ve started. For example, there’s a new seventh grade book and a new fifth grade book for English, but the eleventh grade is using the old tenth grade book, and there is no eleventh grade book.

However: I’m not sure who was doing what this summer, but one of the things that wasn’t done was to adapt the curriculum and textbooks so that, for example, this year’s seventh graders can cover the material that they ought to have learned in sixth grade, which they skipped, and so on down the line. Everyone who was studying this year will have a gap in their curriculum.

And no one seems to have thought this was a problem worth solving until a couple weeks ago, when the Armenian NIE English department called all their regional specialists into Yerevan. They split up the fifth and seventh grade books among eight specialists, including my counterpart, and assigned them to combine their sections of the current-year books with the corresponding sections of the previous-year books, write lesson plans for current teachers including the combined material, that they can use or not, as they choose.

That’s the work I’m currently doing. Officially, my responsibilities are to train the teachers in my city and the region, giving workshops and seminars as needed, observing and critiquing teachers; and also to field whatever work is sent down from the central NIE. And I suppose I am doing all right, and it’s good for the place I’m working at to have free labor – I can touch-type, and I speak English.

But my resume certainly wouldn’t support me doing this kind of work at home. Which puts me in an uncomfortable position, condescending without wanting to. Although I don’t know anything about education, I know the way I would do it if I had ever done it is better than the way you do it. Here, let me show me how. Or: we wouldn’t give this guy a job, here you take him, he’ll be great. Have some of this, it tastes awful.

Pausing on the way

“I’m going to be a father!”

Had he never noticed how red his grinning brother’s face was? And stretched out all bumpy along the short length of his head. An old road with stones exposed and scars in the asphalt. At fifty, a new father, for the first time. And just three years ago the last divorce. This new one was young, she’d been driving a taxi when he met her, riding from the airport, returning from two years abroad. In two weeks they were spending a lot of time together, and only a month later he moved out of their mother’s house, and moved in with her.

Two pictures came to mind, both of their own father. Him, young, with suspicious eyes and cheeks above his innocent smile. Another, him content, holding on with each arm to the two grandchildren he had known. What kind of father would he have seemed at twenty-two. Does anyone ever know what they are doing?

He couldn’t help smiling back. “This has been a real full year in your life, hasn’t it?”

“Life gets fuller at our age. If you empty yourself out first! And I don’t know how it flows in, at all the cracks.”

That crewcut immobile on the top of his vigorous nodding head. He pushed on the panic bar and opened the security door and as he went downstairs he let onto the floor a short eight year old with malicious-looking teeth and her tongue protruding from between them.

Currently

I’m thirty today. My last day at work is Friday, I’m leaving Portland in twenty-one days, our furniture and other possessions are steadily disappearing from our apartment. Scheduling final meetings with friends near and far. Sitting on the porch I can see the North Fork of the Shenandoah. The water just keeps coming and coming and I don’t know how. It doesn’t look like that much water, but if you consider how long a time it keeps up that steady rate, and how steady that rate really is, even considering the rises and falls in the level; it’s really something. A great deal of water goes through that channel. And then conversely: how although the river is proverbially never the same, continually self-altering, it stabilizes and anchors the life and landscape around it.

Got a couple blog posts I’m turning over in my head. Being away from home, my rhythms are a little confused, and I don’t think posting daily was working out for me anyway, good to have a chance to reconsider that. I’ve decided to repost all or most of my old posts from the (defunct) PF blog, so the archive should be looking fuller in the upcoming weeks. I’ve started it off with a few of what I had thought were old favorites of mine, until I read them. Not sure I recognize that person any more, and I certainly feel a little odd about being associated so closely with him. At any rate, here they are, if you remember them and want to read them again or you never knew me then and are curious: 22 October 2002, 3 November 2003, 1 June 2004, and 13 January 2005. Not sure I will be wanting to repost the comments on the posts: thoughts on that?

Train trip

By the time this posts, I should be out of Portland, in transit limbo. I’ll be traveling to Virginia to visit my family. We’re going in style, on Amtrak, taking the Empire Builder to Chicago and riding in a room. So I won’t be around for the next few days to approve comments or answer emails, and I’m not sure how often I’ll be on the computer while I’m back East. Otherwise, I feel a little ill, but that might be anxious anticipation; and I’ve got a big stack of books to read on the train and my Armenian lessons to catch up on. (I am now competent to invite a young woman up to my flat for drinks. Unfortunately, once she’s there, I have no option way to communicate anything else to her; although I can offer her more drinks! – or make another date for later, when hopefully I will have learned the signs of the zodiac, and we can discuss destiny and character and fate.)

Metric century

This afternoon, I’ll be riding a metric century, down around Salem. It’s a hundred kilometer ride. It shouldn’t be too hard, the course is pretty flat. I haven’t done a ride this long since before I was sick this winter, so I am nervous in spite of myself. But when I biked 100 miles before, I had only ever done forty, and my most recent long ride was about thirty, and I got through that last one all right. I’ve packed my Larabars and my butt’s all covered with chamois cream (which I really am not sure I need, but why not?). Anyhow, wish me luck.