Wild Flowers of Armenia

Meadow sweet. Toothwort. Common Spotted Orchid. Creeping Thyme. Yarrow. Knapweed and Salsify. Cornflowers and Gentians. White and Red Clover. Poppies. Flax. Tormentil. Oxeye Daisies. Vetch. Musk Thistle. Sainfoin and Vervain. Mulleins and Fleabanes. Larkspur. Lady’s Mantle. Catmint. Cow Parsley and Queen Anne Lace. Bird’s Foot Trefoil. Basket of Gold. Forget-Me-Not. Bellflower. Cowslip. Lousewort. Stitchwort. The names are nearly as lovely as the flowers themselves. All these were found and photographed on my travels around Goris and Sisian in Syunik Marz in spring and early summer. The Alpines and Succulents are from high on the mountain of Ughtasar. I am lucky to live here.


Posted in Armenia, Beauty, dwarf iris Armenia, love of words, Nature, spring, Things that gladden the heart, travel, wild flowers Armenia | 3 Comments


Yesterday was Merelotz in Armenia— the day when people go to graveyards to honor their dead. Merelotz happens several times a year– always on the Monday after a big public holiday. (Last week we celebrated Constitution day). Offices are closed and traffic jams form on the roads to cemeteries at the top of neighborhood hills.

Merelotz is good news for florists for every family will buy a odd number of flowers -3 or 5 long-stemmed carnations– to take to the grave. Men will light a small fire with sticks collected from the graveyard and busy themselves with burning frankincense. Women will sweep the plot, polish gravestones, arrange flowers and cry. It’s a good thing.








Seeing others yearn for their dead, I feel lucky to have only the living to celebrate here. Unlike most Peace Corps Volunteers, I have had a lot of visitors. Almost an embarrassment of guests. There are two reasons for my good fortune: many of my inner circle live in the UK. While it is a convoluted journey to get here, it is a much shorter trip than from the US. Also, being much the same age as me, my folks have had time to accumulate a travel fund. That isn’t usually the case for friends of volunteers in their twenties…

So since last October I have welcomed Valerie and Richard. Brendan. Margaret, Rosie and Joanne. And then Anne and Tony. Peter is expected. Susan will come in the fall. I saw Star in Dubai in January. We are planning another trip somewhere else for the same time next year.

Each party has arrived weighed down with British cheese, Sharwood’s Mango chutney and digestive biscuits– things I miss terribly here. They bring news of other friends. They remove the need to speak English in a slow, clear voice. I hug them as though to squeeze their essence from them, and keep it here to use like smelling salts in times of crisis. I love them even more than I love Mango chutney.

I have been amazed at quite how much pride I take in showing off Armenia. I find myself delighted when I hear Tony talk with tears in his eyes about the beauty of the singing he heard at Geghard monastery.  When Anne and I swam at Lake Sevan and ate fish barbecue washed down with homemade white wine (food and drink feature large in our relationship–always have). When Jo and Rosie saw the view from the Caravanserai. When Margaret hugged Elsa tight and thanked her for looking after me. When Brendan got on with Ara like a city full of burning houses. When Valerie came with me to a women’s cooperative. When Richard shared film-making tips with Artur. One of a Peace Corps Volunteer’s commitments is to share the story of her country of service with people back home. I am glad my family and friends have been able to experience Armenia first hand.

Krista came to Armenia in June to learn about the last weeks and months of her daughter’s life, cruelly ended by a car crash here last October. Hanna was a Peace Corps Volunteer who never got the chance to introduce her family to all she loved here. Krista came anyway, eager to see what Hanna had seen, and keen to meet the people Hanna knew. It was a way of spending time with Hanna without recourse to cold stones.  Krista’s courage, grace, spirit and faith were humbling and heart-breaking. She congratulated Volunteers on upcoming projects. She wished a grandmother-to-be joy with a new baby. She teased one of Hanna’s many admirers and took an interest in his plans for the future. She did very much what Hanna would have done. It brought Hanna closer to us, and I hope it brought Hanna closer to her. The trip must have been exhausting, overwhelming and heart-wrenching–but I hope not without sweetness and solace. Go and see those you love in life. We are all a long time dead.


Posted in Apostolic church, Armenia, Cross-cultural understanding, death, family, friendship, gratitude, grieving, Hanna Huntley, Happiness, life lessons, Mother/daughter dynamic, pagan ritual, Peace Corps Armenia, Sisters, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, visitors | Leave a comment

What kind of woman are you?

blog1 Armine who works at SOSE sat beside me and translated in a whisper. My toddler Armenian meant I couldn’t say much and anyway a loud-mouthed American braying in her own language wasn’t really what was wanted. But the discussion about men’s and women’s roles did make me think about my own views and so here they are. They are not representative of America or Ireland or Britain, or all the women who live there. They are not even representative of my own family’s views. They are certainly not a to-do list for all women or any woman in Armenia.

Liana opened the meeting by asking if women should do all the work at home.

It doesn’t makes sense to talk about all women, or all men. I think each woman and each man and each couple should be able to work out what they can do —usefully and willingly –to sustain and enhance their home. I like to cook. I don’t like to clean. I have been fortunate to spend chunks of my life with men — and indeed children–who care much more about cleanliness than I do. They happily cleaned and washed and ran the vacuum cleaner round. They washed up after I cooked. Usually they made the tea or coffee in the morning, because they got up earlier than me. They did these things lovingly and I, for my part, hope I shopped and cooked with minimum fuss and mess, and taking into account what they liked and needed. Usually, I kept the diary and made the phone calls and eased social situations. When it came to things that no one wanted to do, we discussed who was likely to do it better, or who minded it less. If necessary we took the really horrid things in turns. We worked it out based on who we are, what we care about,and what needed to be done. For the record, we didn’t give a rap about what the neighbors thought. But then we barely knew the neighbors, which is not the case here. My homes have also been helped and held together by 10 different cleaners over 30 years. Two of those were men. Everyone of them was a true professional– business people making the most of their strengths, circumstances, or choices to run their own in-demand small enterprise.

Which brings us to economics.

2017-08-17 12.20.59

Young women working at a hi-tech company in Yerevan

For good or ill, family life will change here as the economy improves. Armenians are well-educated and tech and service industries are already blossoming. In an age where brainpower and interpersonal skills are what employers want, bright men and women will be equally in demand. The days of hunter-gathering and physical work are done. As in many other parts of the world, companies in Armenia will woo some women to work– they can’t afford to lay waste to half the population. Perhaps in some houses the curtains won’t get washed and rehung twice a year. Perhaps not so many vine leaves will get picked and washed and sorted and stored. Maybe the cold room won’t be filled with homemade jam. Some families will use their new income to hire a cleaner. Not everyone will choose to make these changes, nor should they. But they will have a choice.

One of the men in the group brought up the issue of “head of the household”. At the moment, his wife works and he is not able to find a job. He believes the man should be head of the household– the authority and final arbiter when decisions need to be made. He conceded the role might pass to a women if they are earning the money. In his case he hopes the situation is temporary and that the natural order of things can soon be restored.

I don’t like the idea of someone being the boss in a relationship-and I certainly don’t like it being tied to income. None of us wants to feel owned. Consensus on important issues is ideal but we all know it is impossible to achieve always. It has to be possible to work out who has dominion where. Traditionally women have the last word on children and home, and men on spending money. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Negotiate on what matters to you most. Oh, and consider value versus income. I know a couple here where the husband is definitely in charge. He works outside his home and he brings home a pay packet. His wife works in the house and garden. She grows, preserves and prepares most of what the family eats. Her effort has no status because money is not involved. But if she stopped working the family would starve. That wouldn’t happen if he lost his job– although the lights would go off quite quickly. So whose contribution is greater? He sits down for most of the day. She is never off her feet. In the evening, he flops on the sofa and she makes the coffee and clears it up. She resents it and I would too.

And then to the parts of the discussion I found most difficult; the issues of dress and behavior.

Anahit said men should let women wear what they want. The verb jarred with me.2017-10-27 13.40.07 Let: allow, permit. Women should wear what they want. So should men. A partner might say they prefer one outfit over another but they shouldn’t have and shouldn’t seek any control. It’s only respectful. I love you. I married you. I trust you to pick your own clothes.

Respect and Trust

A young woman talked about teen relationships and how young men forced to enter the army for two years often ask their girlfriends not to wear short skirts or high heels while they are gone. Oh dear. Either you trust each other or you don’t. If your girlfriend is committed to you, she can wear what she likes and it will be ok. If she cares nothing, she can wear a balaclava and a onesie and still she will betray you. If some predator chooses to abuse her in your absence that is a crime. It doesn’t matter a damn how she was or wasn’t dressed.

After this the conversation turned to a discussion of (female) virtue, a big deal here. Several of the women talked about the messages sent by immodest dress. They were against it.

I am against it myself. No speedos and unbuttoned shirts and too-tight jeans, thank you. I am with the Queen of England:enigma is all.

2017-09-30 17.56.50There was a lot of talk about what the neighbors would think when a young woman is seen going out or coming home late at night. Or when four men who happen to be her brothers are seen coming and going. The neighbors? It’s none of their business.

“It’s the Armenian mentality” said everyone. But it doesn’t need to be. Let the change start with you. Don’t gossip or pass opinion on other people’s behavior that doesn’t conform and when you hear other people do it, challenge their assumptions.

“Do women in America wear white at their weddings?” asked Armine, who will be married in a matter of weeks.

“Most do” I said “But not all. They choose. They wear what they want”

Armine looked shocked. Was she astounded by the idea of despoiled women daring to drape themselves in white? Or by the idea that anything goes in America at the altar or in the aisle? I must ask her next time.

I believe in individualism, respect, trust, partnership, autonomy and choice. There, I’ve said it. It feels good.

Posted in America, Armenia, family, fashion, feminism, life lessons, sexism, Weddings, Women, work, young women | 2 Comments

Finding our true American voices

I lie in bed reading poems, trying to pick just the right one for a class at our Creative English camp. From the phone beside me miserable news streams from the United States.

I+Hear+America+Singing+by+Walt+WhitmanI come across Walt Whitman’s ” I hear America Singing”a poem full of full-throated purpose, confidence and hope. That was 150 years ago. Today the songs of Americans have a terrible backing track –the wail of frightened children; parents, there to join a different chorus, crying with their arms empty, their hands outstretched.

True, many of the workers that Whitman celebrated wouldn’t have jobs in today’s America. With those jobs went purpose, confidence and hope. But unemployment is less than 4% in the US at the moment–new jobs have replaced the old. Nonetheless, we remain unfriendly, not open. Those who consider our national choir complete have turned our many harmonies into a one-tone, hate-filled chant.

We need to find our true voices.

America Singing: Listen to a group of new Peace Corps Armenia Volunteers singing an Armenian folk song at their swearing-in ceremony this spring. Stay to the  end to see some really awesome tap-dancing. 

Posted in America, America singing, Armenia, BBC, BBC World Service, Borders, Emigration, Peace Corps, Peace Corps Armenia, Poetry, Walt Whitman | 2 Comments

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…

Posted in Armenia | Leave a comment

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