The First 10% of My Watson Fellowship

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Well, I’m finally getting around to writing a formal update on what I’ve been up to. Its been 37ish days or roughly 10% of my year and naturally, a lot has happened!

The brief play-by-play (semi-organized thought):

July 31st – I flew from Chicago to London via Reykjavik, Iceland. The 9 hour layover in Iceland was definitely interesting!
August 1st – 5th – I spent these days in London, mostly spending time with my cousin Whitney who I hadn’t seen in years and getting things like an international phone sorted out. Saw the sights, had a general good time.
August 6th – I flew from London to Edinburgh. Pro tip – book your flight for the day you intend to travel! As opposed to what I did, which is to arrive at the airport and discover that your flight leaves in 2 weeks. This type of mistake may cost you upwards of 100 Pounds.
August 6th – 9th – I stayed in Edinburgh, literally in a shipping container. The Fringe Festival was going on, I thought I would really like it. I was overwhelmed and unhappy. So I left.
August 9th – I took a bus from Edinburgh to Inverness, in hopes of finding something more my pace. And more music…
August 9th – 24th – I worked and lived on a berry farm on the Black Isle north of Inverness called Black Isle Berries. I loved my time on the farm! I bought a bike, which I used to get everywhere I wanted to go, and was able to sell before I left. Each morning I would spend a few hours pulling strawberry plants to pay for the bed I would stay in that night. Pretty sweet deal I have to say. And there was indeed music to be had! And so many unbelievably nice people who were willing to help me.
August 24th – I took a bus back to Edinburgh.
August 24th – 30th – Back in Edinburgh. This time I didn’t stay in a shipping container. I stayed in a palace. Literally. Dalkeith Palace is a very old and beautiful palace outside Edinburgh that is now home to a University of Wisconsin study abroad program. I had my own room in the house for my stay, which was very affordable and in a beautiful location. I saw a bit more of the Fringe Festival, in fact the Palace was a venue for a performance while I was there, and I relaxed in preparation for the travels to come…
August 30th-31st – ***Exhausting thirty-something-hour travel sequence*** Isn’t it crazy though? That one can be mildly uncomfortable for a day or so and then all of a sudden you’re in a whole new place where they speak a different language and eat different food and listen to different music and have different cultural norms and values? Anyway, I took a bus to Glasgow and then a 3 legged flight Glasgow -> Warsaw -> Kiev -> Yerevan, Armenia.
August 31st to Present – I am in Armenia, and loving it! I will probably be here for some time – maybe a couple months? Maybe longer? We shall see!

Thoughts and highlights (semi-disorganized thought):

Well, now that you’ve got a skeletal view of what the last few weeks have been – here are some of the things that I didn’t mention above in no particular order.

I’m currently in a small town called Charentsavan, which is a ~35 minute ~.73 cent bus ride north of the capital city, Yerevan. Charentsavan used to be a major hub of industry for the Soviet Union. In 1991 when the USSR dissolved so did the economy of Armenia at large and especially places like Charentsavan. The population of this town reduced by a third between 1989 and 2011, as one metric of the effect this had. It’s striking to see, these stark concrete soviet-era buildings against the arid landscape and rolling hills that are typical of this part of Armenia. I’m staying right now with master Duduk player Arsen Petrosyan and his mother Elena. I can’t say enough how kind they have been as hosts. Arsen has arranged a teacher for my musical studies of the oud, helped me with all manner of other small tasks, given me a place to stay, the list goes on… I have hardly been allowed to lift a finger since I’ve been here. Elena cooks amazing food for me every day, and any time I offer to help (ognut’yun I say in broken Armenian and gesture toward the dishes) she tells me to go practice my oud. I can imagine why Arsen is such a great musician! I have had two lessons now with my oud teacher, Karo, who is so thoughtful and knowledgeable. I’d like to share a bit of one of my journal entries:

September 7th, 2017 – My second lesson with Karo was yesterday and it was great to hear his view on the oud, music and life (translated by Arsen of course). He says that he has dedicated his life to furthering this instrument, at least a little bit. He emphasizes the international and intercultural nature of the instrument. There are incredible players from Turkey, Armenia, Syria, Iran etc. He says that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from if you are dedicated to the instrument and the music. He is encouraging me to approach my education on the oud in this way.

I feel so fortunate to have happened upon this situation in Armenia. I didn’t originally plan to be here, but when I had the thought to study oud I immediately messaged Arsen who I was friends with on facebook. From that point forward he has been nothing short of a saint in helping me put this together. Next week I will be moving into an apartment in the center of Yerevan, walking distance from my oud lessons, language lessons, markets and everything that I will need. And I will be living with an Armenian conservatory student whom I have yet to meet! Exciting things on the horizon! I’ll probably share some of my oud playing when I feel that it is at any kind of passable elementary level!

On another note, when I was in Edinburgh the first time – that was definitely the low point thus far. I’m not ashamed to admit that I did at one point find myself shedding a few tears in the bathroom of a cafe. I think I’m beginning to realize more what this whole Watson Fellowship thing is about for me. If not for that moment of sadness I would not have found myself where I am now. I was missing my loved ones, and Edinburgh was not at all what I thought it would be. Pretty much from the offset my plan had blown up in my face and I didn’t know what to do next. Compounding that, I hated my living situation (the shipping container turned hostel) and even if I liked it there was no room the following night so I had to leave one way or another! And thus I found myself on a berry farm in the Scottish Highlands with the nicest family one could ask for. They lent me a guitar and introduced me to musicians. I met other people on the surrounding farms and during my brief stay was able to craft a very enjoyable lifestyle. And now I’m here in Armenia doing the same sort of improvising to get things together. None of it was planned, but it was always about knowing that this is possible. Another journal entry, this time from the moment that I found out I had received the Watson:

March 15th, 2017 – Well, I’m sitting here in the Jazz Room, once again. But I feel as though I’ve already changed. This morning I was notified that I won the 2017 Watson Fellowship from Lawrence University. Holy shit! I’m beside myself. I feel scared, excited, nervous, ecstatic, elated. All of it. Wow. So much support and genuine excitement and congratulations. I can’t stop thinking about how lucky I am. I had so much great help along the way.

I think I’ll leave it at that. As of right now, this is the overarching sentiment. I am so grateful for all of the people who have helped me, shared their time with me and taught me on this journey. This journey which began long before August 31st, 2017. Long before I boarded that plane to London.

Peace and love until next time.

Oh, and here are some of my favorite pictures.


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