Death by Apricots

I bought them in the Ararat supermarket. The packets of what I thought were almonds were displayed beside the boxed dates.

Bianca and I had new potatoes, asparagus and salad for dinner, eased down by butter, lemon juice and half a liter of homemade wine.

At dessert time I put out a bowl of apricots, the box of dates, and what I thought were the almonds. “Help yourself to the nuts” I said, for I am worried that Bianca is protein deficient.

“Not almonds” said Bianca who had bothered to read the label “Apricot kernels”.

We both ate a few along with the fruit, fresh and dried. We liked them.

Tonight I poured myself a glass of the leftover wine and took a handful of the kernels to enjoy as a snack. They have a crisp bite and a slightly damp chewiness. They taste mildly of amaretto. I took another handful.

By glass of wine number two I was on my third handful and feeling pretty mellow. I began to think about salads in which I could incorporate this new foodstuff. Or perhaps they belonged in a dessert? A crunchy topping? A healthful base?

I googled Apricot kernels and was surprised to learn that, while vitamin- packed, these seeds carry a safety warning. They contain Cyanide. 6-10 a day are ok. 60+ can kill you.

I tried to calculate the number I had consumed. Maybe an 8th of the bag, including those we ate last night? Maybe 15 in each handful? Phew. A total of 45 and let’s not forget I am bigger than the average nut-cruncher and seed-chewer…

But no need to be rash: i am flushing my system with the rest of the wine and have checked the bag (about the size of a large pack of peanuts, or enough to kill a family of five) for a health warning. There isn’t one. I expect it will be all right. There are worse ways to go if not…

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It’s the little things

In a week filled with sweeping landscapes, big names and history lessons spanning 6 millennia, it is the tiny details that stay special.

At Karahunj, Armenia’s stone henge I mooched among the wildflowers and was blanketed by the birdsong that rises from the grasses. Hidden from sight, the marsh birds and their cricket accompanists provide a soundtrack for visitors to the stones. The mountains, the rocks and the music make it one of the most lovely places on earth.

Most of the wildflowers were familiar– vetches, bird’s foot trefoil and a stitchwort or two. Then, disguised as rubble, a revelation: Iris lineolata grossheimii. This rare, dwarf iris is found only in this part of Armenia and relies on sepia contour lines and dark dots to hide its whereabouts. I am resisting the temptation to go back with a trowel and a plastic bag or two. No one would stop me if I did, for all of Armenia is there for the plundering. Stone carvings that survived the Mongols, the Persians and the Turks are today too often trundled away by locals planning an extension and seeking free building materials. The new Minister of Culture will have to introduce a few regulations, bylaws, ticket offices and site superintendents if Armenia’s open-air attractions are to remain intact.

The new government might want to turn its attention to health and safety regulation too. Outside a small hotel in Goris a stone sculptor plied his trade chiseling and chipping at a gateway from a perilous position on top of piled crates.

Some kilometers North, Russian soldiers took a day off from guarding the border with Turkey and took snaps with Ararat in the background. They were very jolly but perhaps not quite as buff and bemuscled as the Turks might fear.

At the Selim Pass we followed the tracks of long-ago merchants carrying jewels and spices from Iran and the Stans to buyers in Europe. This is Armenia’s Silk Road route and a caravanserai complete with stabling space for horses and camels still stands. The pass is only passable late spring to early fall. It was easy to imagine the animal warmth was welcome as tradesmen slept against bundled carpets and rolls of silk, safe from the rain, snow and wind.

The road along Lake Sevan, one of the highest altitude lakes in the world is lined with men selling fish, caught legally by rod or illegally in nets. The men hold their hands apart to indicate the size of the fish they have on offer. It is boring work and utterly unconvincing. Young men in hoodies use their full arm span to indicate a catch the size of a shark. In a couple of places scarecrows with their hands fixed 18 inches apart are stand-in salesmen. We had fish barbecue for dinner. Our catch seemed to be between 8 and 10 inches long– an average length and an exceptional meal.

Posted in Architecture, Armenia, armenia’s revolution, Borders, dwarf iris Armenia, entrepreneurship, Food, Goris, Great weekends, Karahunj, Lake Sevan, Mount Ararat, russian soldiers Armenia, Syunik Marz, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, Village life, wild flowers Armenia | Leave a comment

Armenia: it never gets old.

I saw a jackal last week. He or she also saw me and didn’t stick around. I glimpsed a woodpecker-the first I have seen here or anywhere else in the world. I picked some wildflowers that are new to me.– along with some old favorites. Life in Armenia continues to thrill and delight in small ways— a novelty to brighten almost every day of my second year here. Now household and community activities that seemed so strange a year ago have become routine and familiar, it’s a boon that there is a new layer of life to notice and explore.

I wasn’t really expecting this, and had braced myself for ennui that has yet to strike. I am calmer and more settled now than I was a year ago of course. It is easier notice the little things when you are not struggling for a word, defending against digestive disaster, and wondering why everyone is staring. And now I know people who can tell me or show me what they know and love, letting me be part of it too.

This is how I found a new cafe in Goris—Cafe Tur Baza .

I last walked past this cafe in the winter when it was closed and, in as much as I thought about it at all, I thought it was out of business, and never likely to open again. Certainly from the street the sign looks overgrown and the site derelict. But the other day Ara suggested we go there for a cup of mint tea. Oh, untold delight. The cafe has a beautiful garden, friendly staff and the most glorious view of Old Goris. Had you asked me, I would have  said there was nowhere in Goris I had not thoroughly explored.  The discovery of a new haunt is thrilling.

Back at the cafe today I ordered an Ajarakan khachapuri, another first. This turns out to be bread dough filled with two just-baked eggs, dominos of butter and fresh herbs. To hell with the arteries– I ate it all.

When I first arrived in Armenia–and even in Goris–I saw ugliness everywhere–scrap metal cars abandoned in hedgerows, cinder-block buildings half-finished, and trash dumped by the side of the road–weeds growing between broken paving stones. Those things are still there of course, but my lens has softened. Now I see the beauty of the green fields off-setting the blue of the  mountains on a village road I hadn’t traveled until today. I admire the cherries in picture-book bunches piled high in the shops, and eat a kilo at every sitting. I am pleased to discover that the Armenian word for gossip is onomatopoeic–bambasank. Բամբասանք.

In the last week I have been hugged by more kids than a department store Santa, and have found myself singing Queen’s We Will Rock You in support of an English teacher who is determined to make her kids speak rather than just read and write English. Gayane has decided Rock Anthems are the way forward. I am suddenly in demand for English language lessons that invite children to sit under the table or stand on the chair to practice use of prepositions. And you thought a revolution was the only thing to happen here in the last month? For all of us, life is good and getting better.

Posted in Armenia, Blessings, Cross-cultural understanding, Education, Food, friendship, Games, gratitude, Great weekends, Happiness, joy, Language learning, life lessons, Nature, Peace Corps, Peace Corps Armenia, singing, Syunik Marz, Teaching, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, Village life, work, Youth | 3 Comments

So now I know the Government!

lilit makuntsLilit Makunts was one of the battalion of teachers who helped me learn to speak Armenian when I became a volunteer with Peace Corps Armenia a year ago. Today she is Armenia’s new Minister of Culture. We remain Facebook friends.

Last week Lilit wrote a piece for Minds of the Movement, an international newsletter that reports on non-violent civil resistance, spreading the word about what works and what doesn’t. The newsletter is produced by the International Center on Non-Violent Conflict where Lilit attended a program. Talk about preparing for government…

I am privileged to witness the speed of change, and the hope in people’s eyes and voices, less than a week after Nikol Pashinyan became Prime Minister here in Armenia. Read Lilit’s take on events below.

After Armenia’s Revolution, new colors and vibes in Politics and Society

Before April 23rd, it seemed impossible to stop Serzh Sargsyan, Armenia’s president of 10 years, from becoming a lifetime prime minister. But thanks to the pressure of continuous mass protests—first in the capital of Yerevan then throughout the country leading up to this historic date—Prime Minister Sargsyan resigned, after being in office for only six days.

This was only the first phase of people power for political change in Armenia. The second phase came a few days after Sargsyan’s resignation, when the ruling Republican party attempted to block movement leader, MP Nikol Pashinyan’s bid for prime minister—a move communicating that the Republican Party wanted to keep its grip on power. Upon Pashinyan’s call for a general strike on May 2nd, more than 200,000 people engaged in strikes, blockades, and other nonviolent actions throughout the country, for the opposition candidate to be appointed. On May 8th, Pashinyan was elected the new prime minister, with 59 votes in favor of his candidacy and 41 against.

At this very moment, people throughout the country are celebrating the long-awaited yet miraculously short (mobilization lasting only 33 days total) victory over the ruling party’s attempt to undermine democracy. But it is important to note that this was achieved through smart strategic choices based on lessons learned from the past.

It’s also important to note that a third phase of mobilization is now to give Pashinyan leverage over the majority in Parliament held by the oligarchs, in order to pave the road to Parliamentary elections. If Pashinyan is consistent with the promises he made as he took office, he will indeed continue to have the mobilized support of the people, including the grassroots.

How Did Armenia’s Velvet Revolution Start?

As a result of the constitutional referendum in 2015, Armenia shifted from a presidential to a parliamentary system with the prime minister being the key political figure in the country. The people of Armenia apprehended this move as nothing other than an obvious bid to prolong ruling party power for another 10 or 20 years.

Just days before the election of the prime minister in April of this year, a peaceful movement escalated, led by MP Nikol Pashinyan. With his team of about 20 people from the Civil Contract Party, Pashinyan launched the initiative “My Step” in Gyumri (the second major town in Armenia) on March 31st. It initially planned to organize a march in the major towns of Armenia for 14 days and then hold demonstrations in the capital for the four days leading up to the election.

At the same time, another grassroots initiative “Reject Serzh” started organizing separate protests in Yerevan with a few dozen people publicly collecting money for Serzh Sargsyan’s retirement (a nod to Serbia’s movement Otpor’s humorous nonviolent tactic preceding the downfall of long-time President Slobodan Milosevic at the turn of the 21st century).

On April 13th, “My Step” entered Yerevan and united with “Reject Serzh” under the slogan “Take a Step, Reject Serzh.” Soon, they blocked the intersection of two major avenues (French français Square) and paralyzed an important part of downtown Yerevan. This helped them gain attention and attract more protesters for the mobilization. Within two days they managed to organize a demonstration in the Republic Square with tens of thousands of people.

On April 17th, Nikol Pashinyan dubbed the mobilization the Velvet Revolution—a name chosen to imply that it would be peaceful and nonviolent. Many people associate this name with the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, which put an end to the Communist one-party regime in the country.

Nonviolent Discipline and Other Notable Strategic Choices

Apparently, the ruling Republican party and Serzh Sargsyan underestimated the strategic capacity of the movement. They didn’t expect the seemingly “innocent” protests to turn into large-scale nonviolent mobilization and create a deadlock situation for the government.

One of the crucial movement strategies was excluding any kind of regional politics in their discourse and avoiding any involvement of “big brothers” (northern, eastern or western supporters such as Russia, the United States, or the European Union). It is widely believed that this has been the most influential strategic choice for gaining legitimacy and leveraging people power.

Another fundamental strategic choice has been a very public commitment to and call for nonviolent discipline. Movement leaders announced early on that any person not complying with the rules of nonviolent discipline was external to the movement and could not be associated with it in any way. This clear-cut division has helped downplay fake propaganda that many had been anticipating from the government and its allies to manipulate public opinion.

Propaganda attempts have failed not only due to the movement’s calls for nonviolent discipline among its supporters, but also joint efforts of journalists to report on developments in strategic ways that helped the movement gain legitimacy and grow. Authorities’ counter-reactions to the mobilizing were characterized as a “poorly staged soap opera” and attracted even more people to join the movement.

One unique characteristic of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution was that activists did not spend the night on the streets protesting. They organized mass protests during the day, and at 10 p.m., everyone was required to go home to rest and be ready to protest again the next day. In doing this, organizers applied lessons learned from past movements that had experienced police repression particularly during street actions at night.

As professor at Yerevan State University, Serob Khachatryan notes, past demonstrations in Armenia engaged in one-way “lecturing” and top-down instruction. This year’s movement broke away from this practice: every day, organizers assigned activists preparatory tasks to complete by the next day, such as blocking the streets with big trucks and boycotting supermarkets owned by oligarch MPs. These tasks helped generate a sense of buy-in among movement participants, who saw the direct impacts of their actions on a daily basis.

What Else Was Different with Armenia’s Velvet Revolution?

The 2018 Velvet Revolution was different from what the people of Armenia had seen before. All of the districts of Yerevan and almost all the communities of Armenia organized local peaceful protests, blocking, paralyzing cities, towns, and villages, interstate roads, the metro, and the airport. A general strike and other nonviolent actions took place all over Armenia. People organized flashmobs to bang pans from their windows and balconies at an arranged time in all the districts of Yerevan. Streets were blocked by people singing, playing musical instruments, playing chess or other games, and barbers cutting hair. And all of this exclusively with underlying messages of love, kindness, and care for the country (symbolized by activists cleaning the squares after protests).

The 2018 Velvet Revolution also drew on abundant sources of creativity, innovation, and inclusiveness. The atmosphere of love exceeded the beautiful vibes of Electric Yerevan (a popular mobilization in June 2015 to protest the planned hikes in electricity tariffs). It escalated due to the spontaneous engagement of a large number of students and young people who started strikes at schools and workplaces. The element of surprise, and diversity in nonviolent tactics were key to the movement’s success, as was the leadership’s transparency and inclusive approach to building the movement. On that note, observing that young women played an essential role during the protests, Pashinyan even stated publicly that the driving force of the protests were women and their exceptional engagement in the process.

Looking into the Future: What’s Next?

Armenia’s Velvet Revolution is already an established fact in this country. Before the movement’s short-term success, the streets of Yerevan had not seen so many smiling faces for a long time. The country gained new colors and vibes in the space of less than a month. The revolution took place not only in the form of a transition of power but also in the minds of the people.

At the same time, it should be acknowledged that there is still tremendous work to be done in all sectors of the country during this period of political transition. The new cabinet is going to be formed within the next 15 days. It will be a major challenge for the cabinet to promote changes with a minority government (the Republican Party is still the majority in the Parliament).

We know it is going to take time and a great deal of effort to re-establish the country we cherish. But we are ready to face these challenges with revolutionized minds and a solid foundation for bringing this dream to reality.


Featured image credit: Tigran Galstyan.


Posted in Armenia, armenia’s revolution, Cross-cultural understanding, friendship, History, Language learning, leadership development, Lilit Makunts, Minds of the Movement, Nikol Pashinyan, Peace Corps Armenia, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, velvet revolution, Women, work, Yerevan, young women | 1 Comment

Well Groomed of Goris

Let us consider the battle against body hair which is big business here, particularly now Spring is upon us. In the land of Kardashian complexions, the beauty salons practice not only epilation but eradication, hacking back unwelcome growth wherever it dares to appear, and waging war on every whisker. It is a boon for the middle-aged matron I can tell you. My many chins are now smooth as cue balls and I have been promised that formerly troublesome follicles are now past the point where they can or would fight back. I hear you tut: is this devotion to the beauty parlor really appropriate for a Peace Corps Volunteer? Shouldn’t I be adapting to conditions of hirsute hardship and stretching my stipend to cover only worthy essentials like dried beans, and burlap bedding? Well, maybe. I had certainly expected my eyebrows to beetle and all foliage to go untrimmed during my two years of Peace Corps service but I have never been so sugared, tweezed, and exfoliated in all my life. I line up for threading, waxing and plucking on a regular basis, just like every other woman in town and it feels pretty good I can tell you. Here $2 is a day’s wages for the family’s breadwinner, and women who work only at home (most do) are unwaged. Nonetheless, somehow, there is always a budget for down patrol. I justify the time and money as an integration exercise, for we have community where we are coifed, mowed and strimmed.

The lovely Mari of My Lady Salon, Goris,

Mari and the other staff at My Lady Salon greet me warmly when they see me in the street, and offer me coffee, chocolate and fruit when I join them at the shop. I practice my language admiring the dresses and tresses of mothers and daughters getting ready for birthday parties (the salon does make-up too) and pass the time of day with neighbors in for more routine appointments, like forearm waxing which is considered an essential practice here. Never the most assiduous about personal grooming at home, I have now become addicted to furze-fighting, much as teenagers who can’t stop at one tattoo. I have even been introduced, rather unexpectedly, to laser treatment– something I never even considered in the States. Engaged in an admittedly rather one-sided discussion about moustache management the other day I was led to a previously unexplored chamber in the back of the salon. It looked much like a dentist’s surgery. Here, Mari applied cold gel to my face and supplied me with dark glasses. She then came at me with the arm of a medical-looking machine, zapping me with red light. I foresaw skin burns and carcinoma but then I felt my upper lip. Soft as a boatload of bottoms in an advert for baby oil. The cost? Only 1000 dram– $2. I was hooked. “I’ll be back” I told Mari. No need” she said. “You have fine, fair hair and that will take care of it”. (Full disclosure: I think that’s what she said, but I often make things up when I don’t catch every word). I beamed, recalling my father’s contention that the nurses in the hospital where I was born said I was the hairiest baby they had ever seen. Ha. Take that Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast circa 1960. I am now sleek as an eel and my eyebrows have arches McDonald’s would envy. The only hairs I now plan to encourage are my eyelashes. Mari says she has just the thing that will help. Look out Kardashians, here I come.

My Lady Salon also does make-up, nails and hair

Posted in Advertising, Armenia, Beauty, Blessings, Chillin', Cross-cultural understanding, Goris, Language learning, My Lady Salon, Peace Corps, Social niceties, Stress management, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel | Leave a comment

Stories out of school

I was to teach a class about networking– how to make the kind of friends that help you get by. Ironic really that this session was scheduled for the evening Serzh Sargysan lost his job: the very day that thousands in Armenia chose to challenge the idea that it is not who you know,but how you behave that matters.

“Do you really think anyone will come?” I asked Samvel Movsisyan in a tone both incredulous and forlorn. The streets were solid with flag-draped cars and people whooping and cheering. I had no way of knowing if the 12 members of the Leadership School’s executive class would be celebrating or nervously lamenting change at the top, but either way it seemed unlikely they’d want an evening that smacked of serious study.

They’ll come” said Samvel in a voice that was doing its best to sound robust.

Five of them did come, four men and a woman. We worked in English, because it is the only language I speak.

Marina is an architect who now runs Source Foundation, an NGO that advocates for,and provides services to, children with all kinds of mental, physical and behavioral difficulties. She has been up and running for 4 years and has an impressive list of international partners.

Ruben runs Regard, a travel company catering to the needs of Iranian tourists. Apparently they eat a lot, the Iranians. “One of my visitors said it is because in their country there is nothing else to do” said Ruben “No dancing. No cinema. No alcohol. So they sit and eat. When they come here they always say we don’t serve enough particularly at lunchtime.” Ruben is building his own hotel with a custom kitchen that can supersize everything.

The company Armen founded is named for an ant colony–an indication of their reputation for hard work, heavy loads and ingenious solutions.  Esterox develops apps and websites for companies all over the world–prices for these services in Armenia are a bargain compared to those offered in London, Paris, New York, Munich, and of course tech specialists here speak perfect English.

Vresh uses his experience gained in years of work in 4 and 5 star hotels to run Feel Inn, a welcoming hostel near Republic Square. I inquired about a room.

“We are full up with journalists right now” he said, smiling. I could imagine edit equipment on every available surface as reporters tried to turn round their stories about Serzh in time for the evening news.

Tigran is building houses outside Yerevan and planting walnut trees further north. It will be 8 years before he has a harvest. This is a man invested in the future of his country. He consults and audits a bit too. You know, in his spare time…

Our conversation ranged from networking on the phone (make a conscious effort to smile. It makes your voice warmer), how to ask for informational interviews ( remember people like to talk about businesses they are proud of– ask them to share best practices) and the importance of a clear subject line and call to action in a (short) email.

They taught me how to deal with the dreaded networking reception: eat before you go. Of course, that’s where I’ve been going wrong.

We talked about ways to offer value and keep a connection going and as the class closed everyone made an action plan.

Following the session I received one Linked in request, two FB connections (Facebook is a valuable business tool here) and two emails, one with a clear invitation (immediately accepted) and one with an offer I intend to take up. Both emails had beautifully clear and compelling subject lines.

It is not at all clear what value I may hold for the group, but they certainly delivered value to me. I have a new place to stay, I know where to go for a big lunch, and I have a plan hatching for an app or two. I have already connected Marina to some of my fellow volunteers with a particular interest in inclusive education–they are glad to be in touch. I’m only sorry I won’t be around to crack Tigran’s first walnut in 2025. I am glad to know them all.

Note: this post was written one week ago. A lot has changed in Armenia since then and is changing still. As a visitor here I will not be commenting on politics, but for the sake of these lifelong learners and small businesses– plus of course the children featured below– I wish Armenia a safe, prosperous future full of opportunity for all

Pictures feature the hard work and ambition of some of Armenia’s next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs

Posted in Armenia, Capitalism, Cross-cultural understanding, Education, entrepreneurship, gratitude, Language learning, leadership development, Leadership School Yerevan, Learning, life lessons, National pride, networking, serzh sargsyan, story-telling, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, velvet revolution, work, Yerevan | Leave a comment

Drink lots of water

Haykush has made me jump twice this morning. I hadn’t expected to see her in my hallway when I got up at 7am to go to the loo. She was rootling to find chicken feed I think. Later I came out of my living room and nearly ran into her by the kitchen door. She was dropping off herbs wet with rain — freshly picked from the garden.Both times we laughed as I clutched dramatically at my chest and tried to regain my composure. The second time she poured me a cup of water and made me drink it, explaining that this must be done when someone is made to jump. “The water will calm you” she said.

These are jumpy times in Armenia– for some, exhilarating and for others scary because the usual order of things may be threatened. We must all drink lots of water.

Posted in Armenia, armenia’s revolution, Cross-cultural understanding, Education, family, Food, friendship, Jingalov hats, Local delicacies, Scares, Social niceties, Stress management, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, Village life | 1 Comment