Samkheti (Armenia): The Place Below

Hello dear friends!

I write today’s post in a bit of a haze. I have been sleeping at odd hours of the day, unable to really adjust to real life after my trip to Armenia. The Easter holiday gave us Thursday, Friday, Monday and Tuesday off. Yesterday, I went to school bright and early only to find that no children had bothered to show up. I ate some Easter cake with the faculty and returned home. Today is another holiday, Victory of Fascism Day, so once again we had no school. Tomorrow, a Friday, I will wake up early and teach one full day before another weekend.

Nevertheless, I wish to tell you about my fabulous journey to “the place below” (the literal translation of the Georgian word for Armenia, “Samkheti.”)

The capital city of Yerevan by night

The capital city of Yerevan by night

Armenia is a very interesting place, even for someone who has lived in Georgia for nearly a year. They border Turkey to the West, Azerbaijan to the East, Georgia to the North, and Iran to the South. They are currently at war with Azerbaijan, whose ally, Turkey, have closed the border, leaving Armenia halfway locked in. Our shared cab back to Tbilisi took a different route than the one we took south. We were adjacent to the Azerbaijani border and told by the driver that people are still shooting each other on the disputed lands, despite being in an official ceasefire.

armenia2

A piece of an old tank on a hill overlooking the border

Now, Georgians understand having issues with our neighbors (as you may remember, Russia invaded in 2008 and still controls two major territories of Georgia) but 3 of the 4 borders are open and friendly. Though Armenians are able to go to Iran, the Irani youths tend to retreat into Armenia instead. This relationship with Georgia allowed for a lot of jokes directed at Georgia. In the words of our tour guide, Arpine, “We like to make fun of Georgia because it is too dangerous to make fun of any of our other neighbors.” Also worth mentioning is that Russia has offered support to Armenia, so the relationship with Georgia is more symbolic than explicitly stated.

Here's the whole bunch at Lake Sevan

Here’s the whole bunch at Lake Sevan

This weekend, twelve Americans volunteering in Georgia (some TLG, some Peace Corps) visited our friendly neighbors to see how much a border truly affects a culture. We all signed up for a tour offered by our hostel, and the tour guide offered a lot of insight to the war, the Soviet Days (like Georgia, Armenia was part of the U.S.S.R.), and the current lifestyle. Here are a few fun facts:

The Kingdom of Armenia was the first state to officially adopt Christianity in the 301 A.D.

armenian-alphabet_picture

The Armenian alphabet was invented by the same man who invented the Georgian alphabet, an Armenian saint named Mesrop Mashtots. It has 36 letters. (Our tour guide, in one her jokes-about-Georgia, insisted that Armenia chose all of the most beautiful letters and gave the rest to Georgia.)

The Armenian flag is three stripes: Red, Blue and Orange. The red represents the blood shed in the past, the blue stands for a bright future, and interestingly, the orange stands for apricots, the pride and joy of the country.

armenia4

Armenian tombstones traditionally feature carvings that describe the person’s death. The one above depicts a wedding (bride and groom top left, food and guests on the right) where a Mongolian invader (bottom left, the hat helps identify him as a Mongol) murdered everyone present.

The tour wasn’t all about history, though. There was a meal, eaten with a local family, lots of churches with views of the incredible Lake Sevan, and even a pagan temple, the last one standing in Christian Armenia.

armenia5

Our tour guide, Arpine, our lunch host, and her son.

Later in the weekend, we were able to meet some Peace Corps volunteers in Armenia, who offered the expat perspective on the country. They talked about how Georgia is their only option, with Iran being closed to American visitors, but they seemed less antsy than us to leave the country anyway.

I LOVE GEORGIA, but sometimes, I hate how hard it is to find places where I can go and feel “American” for a minute. Even in the cities, expat retreats are limited and grocery stores don’t stock a lot of my favorites. In Armenia, we found an amazing cafe called The Green Bean which had bagels, peanut butter, and fresh squeezed juices. There were pizza places, Mexican food, Chinese, etc. I found ginger ale, Oreos, bottled Frappuccinos, and Pop Tarts at the market. It may seem shallow, but cut me a break. We also went and had a traditional Armenian meal with our new friends.

The Armenian PCVs and the local Armenians converse about how awesome Armenia is at dinner

The Armenian PCVs and the local Armenians converse about how awesome Armenia is at dinner. Also, apricot vodka.

Armenia was amazing. It far exceeded my expectations, which to be fair largely stemmed from the knowledge that the Kardashians were Armenian. Though I was reminded by our tour guide that System of a Down is also Armenian, and they’re awesome. The locals love them too. If you’re ever in the area, I advise that you pay Armenia a visit. I was so happy to see a lake that the rest of the trip could have sucked and I would have come out happy, but it did not suck. It was awesome.

-Kacie Riann

Added note: I received a few angry posts from random Georgians that I don’t even know questioning the validity of my fun facts. The thing is, I used the internet to back up ALL of the facts taught to me on the tour. I will not post comments attacking the truth, which anyone with an internet browser can backup, nor will I be bullied into changing my words.

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Gizhebi Kartuli

Hello Readers, or should I say:

Gamarjoba Mimdevrebi,

My mind has been operating in anywhere from 2-4 languages (with Spanish and Czech being of almost zero assistance) for over a month now, and Kartuli (or “Georgian” as you probably know it) is not so easily learned.

First of all, my only language training before coming to Georgia was in Spanish and Czech. Now, you may have to add a squiggly line or a hook to those letters, but for the most part the languages look similar to English and nonthreatening. I did you a favor by writing the above Kartuli in the English transcription, but let’s take a look at the actual alphabet, shall we?

Featuring 6 variations of the number 3 and 7 letters that look like a version of the English “m.” This is one of only 14 alphabets currently in use in the world and it is only used in Georgia!

I am proud to announce that I can read and write with the above alphabet with a small margin of error, even recognizing different versions of the script such as the simplified handwriting. I’m even regarded amongst the other teachers in my district as the champion of pronunciation, although there are a few sounds that I physically can’t make.

Kartuli has the French R, ღ, which was also the only sound I couldn’t make in Czech. However, if I make kind of a whispery, throaty g sound I am usually understood. The ყ, which is transcribed in English as “qkh” sounds like nothing I have ever heard before. I try to use a short-winded k sound there, but this simple looking letter is a sound virtually nonexistent outside the Middle East/Caucasian region.

This language map shows how Georgian, in the grey, is all alone in the world. The Caucasian language family is isolated to Georgia, and includes Kartuli, Svan (spoken in the mountainous Svaneti region), and Megrelo (spoken in the Samegrelo region).

There is also an interesting phenomenon in Kartuli to have different versions of a letter based on whether the sound is aspirated or not. My linguist friend explained the difference by using the p sounds in the word “apple” and “pig.” The p in pig is aspirated, meaning you let out air as you say it. There are aspirated and non-aspirated versions of p, k, t, ts, and ch in Kartuli, but I have yet to understand when to use what. That’s where my “margin of error” is in the reading and writing.

Where I am falling short on my language training is definitely the vocab department. I can count to ten, tell my host family that I want or do not want something, and point at pictures of my home family and tell them who they are looking at in Kartuli, but beyond that I am at kind of a standstill.

Chemi da, chem, chemi deda, chemi mama, da chemi sami dzmebi

I did not realize until I was writing that caption that it’s the perfect example of some of the more confusing elements of Kartuli. For one, “da” means both “sister” and “and.” Also, because this is a former Soviet country, they are known to use Russian where da means “yes.” In addition, I did not mix up my parents in that photo. The word for father is “mama” and the word for mother is “deda.” My sister made a good point when she said that babies learn to make “m” and “d” sounds before any others, so in such a far removed language, it makes sense that the words would just be switched, but it still feels very wrong to call my father “mama.”

My goal is to commit to memory three new Georgian words and one grammar rule each day. For example, “sami dzmebi” means “3 brothers.” The word for brother is “dzma” but to make a word plural in Kartuli you add the suffix “ebi” and depending on the ending maybe drop a vowel, such as the “a” in “dzma.”

Now that I’ve filled your head with information that is probably completely useless to you, let me list some of my favorite words in Kartuli!

Gogo- girl (like a go-go dancer!)

Bitchi- boy (pronounced “beachy” but still)

Mastsavlebeli- teacher

Amerikeli – American

Mshvidobisa- peaceful

Sasiamovnoa- nice to meet you

Tualeti- toilet

Vai me! – expression, like “My God!”

Sakartvelo – Georgia (country)

Kartuli- Georgian (language)

Kartveli/Kartvelebi- Georgian/Georgians (people)

Lamazi- beautiful

Tsota- very little (useful for food, alcohol, or describing knowledge of Kartuli)

Dzaghli- dog (I like anything with the “dz” sound in it)

Bednieri- happy

Gamrieli- delicious

I will give more fun facts about Kartuli as I figure it out. The best thing you can take away from this is that if I say Kartuli, I mean Georgian, and if I say Sakartvelo, I mean Georgia. And also, that this language is freaking hard.

Nakh Vamdis! (Goodbye!)

ქეისი რამი (Kacie Rahm)

 

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