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Colorado Retiree Teaches English, Struggles With Armenian Language


MARTUNI, Armenia (Associated Press) - Most men Peter Yurich's age in this lakeside Armenian town spend days lined up on a rickety bench outside the post office, expounding on politics and miserly pensions. At the veterans' bar in Yurich's hometown of Oak Creek, Colorado, men his age line up at the counter, gripig about the stock market and their medical woes.

Yurich, a 66-year-old former fifth-grade teacher, has no time for either. He's traveling and toiling in his 14th year in the Peace Corps, and overturning perceptions of aging, gender roles and education. He's a child of Yugoslav immigrants who has lived in eight countries and acutely understands America's place in the world. He bakes Easter bread that he shares with neighbors, and in his right bicep sports a tattoo of his initials which he got in the fifth grade. His face flushes crimson when he laughs his playful laugh.

While the Peace Corps is often associated with adventurers fresh out of college, many older Americans also volunteer, bringing with them a lifetime of work and wisdom. They're past retirement age and their children are grown. Healthier and freer than seniors of earlier eras, they're too vigorous and curious to settle for being old. Describing the scene at the VFW bar in Oak Creek, a small former mining town in the mountains of northwestern Colorado, Yurich said, "I just couldn't handle that. I don't fit in there."

Instead, he's on his sixth Peace Corps assignment, in this small former Soviet republic in the Caucasus Mountains. Every morning, he walks to work at Vanevan University, a tiny teachers' college that closes for the winter because it has no heat
and retains a gnawing chill well into April. He walks past a defunct lamp factory and shuttered shops that testify to Armenia's economic decline over the past decade, blamed on the collapse of Soviet-era infrastructure and a 1988-94 war with neighboring Azerbaijan.

He finds his name on the class schedule, a mass of squiggly Armenian script, and sets to teaching several subjects in English. Yurich wants to visit mountain village schools to demonstrate interactive teaching methods that are unheard of here. The college rector is resistant, urging Yurich to stick to lectures and theories. His students and colleagues are intrigued.

"As a teacher, not just a neighbor, he has made a huge difference here," said Sofik Mkrtchian, who lives next door to Yurich, giving a thumbs-up sign with both hands. Earlier, she had bustled into his apartment carrying cabbage rolls and succulent, salty Armenian cheese.

Yurich may be the only man in Martuni who does his own laundry, washing it by hand in the bathtub as his female neighbors do, in an apartment lucky to have running water an hour a day. In a narrow kitchen lined with pictures of his four children, he
prepares vegetables and noodles from the farmers' market. On a broken stove on his concrete balcony he's collecting empty vodka bottles for crafts.

His living arrangement in Armenia, he says, is more comfortable than his previous Peace Corps stints: the Philippines in Southeast Asia, the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, and Liberia, Namibia and Lesotho in Africa. Psychologically, however, Armenia is tougher.

"In Africa, they were very receptive to new technologies. But here they were used to a higher level of education and financial security. It's very hard for them to accept the deterioration," he said.

The Armenian language barrier is also formidable. His thick gray brows furrow when he gurgles out the guttural consonants, which he has learned to read in his nine months here but still struggles to pronounce.

"The younger volunteers pick up the language faster," he said. "I'm trying not to let that bother me too much."

Yurich is no stranger to languages. He was born the fifth of six children to a Slovenian mother and Croatian father. His father spoke only Croatian at home and in the Colorado coal mines where he worked with other immigrants. Yurich then served in the U.S. Army in Augsberg, Germany, where he met and married his sweetheart Rita.

When they returned to Oak Creek in the 1960s, Yurich was so concerned about their children's schooling, he said, "Everyone told me to get a teaching degree or shut up. So I did."

In 1987, divorced and with grown children, he saw an ad for the Peace Corps on late night television and called the Denver recruiting office. He's now their star volunteer. His family has cheered his adventurousness, but the last few months have highlighted the hardship of living across the planet from loved ones.

In February, his 10-year-old grandson Zachary died of leukemia. In March, his brother-in-law died. And in April, his daughter Martina bore her first child, daughter Dakota. Yurich learned of the birth several days later, when he journeyed to Armenia's capital, Yerevan, to check his e-mail.

"I miss him. But I'm just thrilled for him. He has so much to give," Martina Yurich said from her home in Anchorage, Alaska. "In Oak Creek people thought he was nuts," she said. "Now they look forward to his letters. He's very good at writing letters - you get the feeling that you're there."
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