I remember my first apartment in Chicago very well. It was a convertible apartment (beautifully converted into a two bedroom through the use of bed sheets and PVC pipe) in the Gold Coast neighborhood just minutes from Michigan Avenue. As beautiful as it sounds, it wasn’t. It was pretty disgusting when my roommate, Brittany, and I moved in. Previously occupied by a 20-something bachelor who- judging from the condition it was left in- never owned a vacuum, never…ok, I can’t fluff it up- basically, he never cleaned. It was one of those places that was potentially livable, but that potential was only after three or four months of intense elbow-grease and half of each of mine and my roommate’s student loans collectively spent on bleach and cleaning supplies. Eventually, it was “clean”-er and, thanks to its beautiful rooftop deck, became “home”.
Move forward in time 8 years and 8 moves later, I find myself in Kapan, Armenia finally allowed to live by myself. I wished my host family good-bye on good terms, but didn’t waste time moving out when I was finally allowed. I found a nice apartment in a good part of town. It is a building next to my site mate, two buildings from two different grocery stores, and a five-minute walk from my school.
My sixth-graders are learning about homes and how to describe them, so it has inspired me to describe my home as a poorly written British English textbook would:
Daniel lives in a block of flats. It is a five-storeyed building. There is a beautiful playground in front of it. His flat is on the third floor. He has three rooms, a small corridor, a kitchen, and a bathroom. The flat has all of the finest Soviet conveniences.
There is a mirror on the wall and it has wood floors.
The living-room is the largest. You can see a couch, two armchairs, a TV set, and a china cabinet there. There is also a big table with twenty-five [random] chairs there.
There are two beds in one room, and a double bed is in the second room. There is a big wardrobe in one room, and a table with a big mirror in the other room. There is a night table in the room with two beds.
The kitchen, where Daniel is pretending he is learning how to cook, is medium-sized. There is several cub-boards, a gas stove, a sink with one tap that only has scalding-hot water, and a table with five [other random] chairs and stools.
In the bathroom you can see a sink, a toilet, and a shower head that allows water to go all over the place. There is a shelf for toilet articles, but you can only keep waterproof items there or they will be destroyed [including toilet paper].
You get the idea.
Similar to my first apartment in Chicago, I have cleaned my body-weight’s worth of mold out of both the bathroom and the kitchen. The apartment is furnished well with furniture that has been here since the apartment was built. The cement walls are painted in their original decal: sponge art with geometric shapes. This reminds me of my childhood home where my mom would use sponges and feathers to paint our walls because it really classed up the place. So, because of its nice touches of nostalgia, I actually like it.
I have never lived completely alone before. I have always lived with roommates, and this is the first time that I have had to take care of an apartment all by myself. Living alone is a little bit more nerve-racking than living with roommates; my OCD is in overdrive when I leave the apartment, for I have to check that I am turning my gas off, unplugging all things, and locking the door at least three times. I am also getting used to all of the noises; one can never be too sure if a suspicious noise is from another apartment or from someone who is surely going to rob you and murder you. It is all- like the rest of Peace Corps- an adjustment.
My first six months in Armenia with host families were meant for learning how to live here. My host mothers taught me a lot. Most importantly, they taught me how to hang my laundry. They taught me to hang from the bottom of my shirts and pants so as not to crease anything the wrong way- this is critical to Armenian women. However, both of my former Armenian houses had washing machines, and neither of them were on the third floor of a building with a pulley-line to hang my clothes across the yard.
My first time doing laundry was last week. It was the only sunny day of the week, so a primo time to do laundry. I rushed home after school so that I could have at least three good hours of drying time on the line. I have never hand-washed my clothes before, so I did what I assumed was right (a little bit of soak, a little bit of soap, a little bit of scrub, and a swimming pool of wasted water for rinsing). I tried to squeeze most of the water out, and then I sent the clothes out on the line to say their soaking hellos to the neighborhood. Definitely not wrung out enough, drips of water soaked the children playing below, and the occasional adult walker would look up checking for a menacing cloud of rain. After all my clothes were out on the line, and pulling the wire down a few feet, the winds began to pick up. My heavy wet clothes began to blow back and forth; the long sleeved shirts were behaving as if they were trying to sell cars on a busy highway. Suddenly! I heard a big pop, a snap, and a crack, and I saw my clothes frantically begging for help across the playground. The other much wiser women- who have years of laundry-line-drying experience- had already pulled their clothes in to avoid the wind. I couldn’t. The pulley on my end of the line had shattered, and the metal wire was caught on the rubber axil. The wire was taught and beginning to be weighed down by the heavy wet clothes in the wind. The iron wire was beginning to cut through the rubber axil. Soon, the line would either snap or the axil would break. My clothes were stuck. They were out there to dry and embarrass their American male owner for eternity; a symbol of my inability to live alone, take care of myself, and do laundry. I tried to control the wire so that it would not snap from the weight of the waving clothes, potentially killing the families playing three stories below.
I called my friend in panic, my counterpart in panic- “WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO?!! MY LAUNDRY IS GOING TO KILL PEOPLE!” (Of course, this was the only conclusion.)
“Inch es anoom?” (“What are you doing?”) I looked up. There in the window above me was a little old man moving his hands back and forth asking “what”.
“Chi guitem”(“I don’t know”), I said. I have this problem where I forget all of my Armenian when people try to talk to me- especially in times of crisis. “Ays lav chi. Chi ashkatoom!” (“This is bad. This doesn’t work”), I yelled up. “Arri, arri!” (“Come here! Come here!”). To my surprise, the man’s head disappeared. I ran to open my door, and I heard soft footsteps coming down the apartment stairs. Through my home to the winter balcony came a soft-eyed, white-haired man with a pair of pliers. He walked over to the window and looked at the broken pulley system. “Ahhh, lav chi,” he said. Then, with my amazement, he pulled in the wire with his bare hands and the pliers. I grabbed my clothes from the line, secretly hugging each item as I set it aside.
Not only did my upstairs neighbor save my clothes and the children below that day, he also helped me replace the pulley, and he invited me upstairs to meet his wife and have dinner and coffee, and a few shots of his homemade vodka (which always does wonders to improving my Armenian speaking skills), and I ate plenty of his homemade honey.
My new apartment in Kapan- similar to my first apartment in Chicago- may have needed some TLC to begin feeling like “home”, but I am now happy I have met a few friendly neighbors with Armenian hospitality- and that is not something that would happen in an apartment building in Chicago.