This post isn’t about what you might think. Yes, Armenia is a confusing place at times. But what I’m referring to is the land inside my head. As I might have mentioned, learning a new language, ANY language is a struggle for me. As soon as I learn one new word, another one falls out of my head. I took French in school, and literally remember nothing but the words for french-fry and the bathroom. And poop. Oddly enough, when I started learning Armenian, sometimes forgotten French words would pop up instead. It took me forever to remember “het” instead of “avec” (with).
But now that I live in a foreign country, understanding what people are saying has gone beyond earning an academic A. Hahahaha, I never got an A, sorry Mr. Teacher What’s-your-face, I don’t think I came even close to an A (Oh, and I don’t remember names. Ever). But, I digress. Sometimes, thinking I know more than I do has gotten me into trouble. Case in point. The adventures with my driver.
Valod is an old-world Armenian. Lived in Poland during communist times, plays the accordion, and by profession, well, I have no idea what he does/did. He is the source of most of my major conspiracy theory gossip, and all the weather. We’ve found a commonality in discussing the woes of his car. My father was a mechanic, so even when Valod uses Russian, I can usually figure out what are his latest engine problems. The first time he drove me was in 2007, and my Armenian skills were even more horrible. I had a low level of gorilla-survival Armenian that allowed me to navigate through grocery stores, and get myself home in a taxi. He was trying to be friendly, so we had limited conversations which included a lot of pointing, and my standard response of “hah”. One morning we had just turned on to the Etchmiadzin highway (for those of you who have never visited Armenia, don’t get excited, it’s just a glorified expressway), and as we were driving out of the city, he pointed up towards the giant TV tower that looms over the city and told me he worked up there.
Before moving to Armenia, my experience with taxis and drivers was almost none. The occasional taxi in Vegas was about it. So using Armenia as my model, I just assumed that all taxis all over the world wanted to know where I was from, who I knew in LA, where I worked, how long I was staying, what did I like the best, if I was married, if I had children, if I liked living here, what was my favorite fruit……drivers in Armenia are chatty and should have their own reality show. And Valod was no different, even with the language barrier, he just had to try and converse everyday. But I digress again.
So, he worked up at the TV tower. Ok, that was nice, but my friend Odette, who he worked with before, had told me that he was currently unemployed. How nice, he got a new job and he was sharing happy news with me. A few days later, Odette asked me how everything was going. “Great!”, I told her, “he’s very nice and a super cautious driver. And did you know he was working up at the TV Tower?”. Confusion ensued.
“What? He got a job? And he didn’t tell us? We’ve been so worried, this is wonderful news. Maybe he didn’t tell us because it was a new job, and he wants to wait until he’s settled in. What is he doing, what is the job?” Of course, all questions I couldn’t answer since it took him four or five tries to get me to understand what he was talking about in the first place. When he pointed at the tower and started talking, I told him, “Yes, I know it’s the TV tower, it’s very nice.” But this was day 3 of our drives together, and he had already caught on that my standard response of “hah” meant nothing, so he persisted until he was satisfied that I really understood. What a mistake for us all.
Odette continued, “well I won’t say anything, he’ll tell us when he’s ready. Maybe he wants to be on the job for a while before saying anything. But I’m still so surprised. My housekeeper is close with Valod’s wife, it’s strange, I would think she would have mentioned it”. We ended the conversation and I happily went on my way.
What I will now describe is the best re-creation that I can piece together of the events of the next 12 hours. Odette spoke with her housekeeper, and they both came to the same conclusion that Valod didn’t want people to know yet, and was waiting until he worked there for a reasonable amount of time before saying anything. They agreed to not say anything. But this is Armenia, and that didn’t really last for long. The housekeeper was the first to break, who called Valod’s wife Suzy and asked about the new job. “What new job, what are you talking about?” Next was Odette, who went to the source and called Valod,
Odette: “Congratulations, but why didn’t tell us you had a new job?”
Valod: “What new job, what are you talking about?”
Odette: “Your job at the TV Tower?”
Valod: “You’re the second person to say that! Suzy was asked the same thing. Where in the world did you hear this?!?”
Odette: “Paula told me”
Valod: Loooooooong pause…..
Valod: “Nooo, I didn’t say ashkhadum (work), I said abrum em, abrum em, I live by the TV Tower, not I work up there”
Odette: ring, ring…ring, ring, “Paula jan? Ok listen, remember that you told me Valod was working at the TV tower? Well, here’s what Valod really said….”.
Now in hindsight, if I had just stopped to think for a moment, who would actually work at a TV tower other than guard? Probably nobody. But even today, when people speak to me in Armenian, and speak quickly, I panic. Cotton fills my head, all rational thought processes shut down, and I just panic, usually able to pick out 1 out of 4 words that seem intelligible. Valod, as well as various friends, still like to tell the story of my giant mix-up and the ensuing I Love Lucy fall-out. Maybe someday I’ll speak well enough to ask him what his real profession is. Until then, we smile every time we notice the tower, and I keep pretending to understand. And study.