Welcome back–Belfast

The streets were teeming with teenagers, celebrating the last day of school exams. Many were drunk, although it was not yet six o’clock–or legal drinking age. One girl was wearing a yellow bikini and, over her hips and thighs, a sparkly string vest of a skirt. At the end of her bare legs, towering heels. I heard tutting. It was me.

There were boys on the streets too. Surly shoals of them, limbs and torsos fully covered in gray, blue and black. They seemed less drunk than the girls, who were louder, brighter, loose-limbed as they led the way.

The astringent after-shave kiss of a gin and tonic, like a welcome greeting from a long-ago lover. Exhilarating, with a deep memory of head-dulling danger.

The sting of salt and vinegar crisps, served in the street in a cardboard carton.

An everyday British department store, here renowned for its dowdiness. But I found myself wanting to touch all the clothes, admiring their cut and swing and color. Perhaps 80 styles of summer shoes, every size and shade. I bought a pair the color of Goris cherries. Day one away from Armenia.

 

Posted in Armenia, Armenian food, Belfast, Cross-cultural understanding, drinking, Gin, Teens, travel, young women, Youth | 1 Comment

Leaving gracefully — traveling light

My two big bags have been packed for weeks. I have a couple of changes of clothing in my hand luggage. I have kept this deliberately light, due to my still-wonky right wrist.

None of this counted for anything when I made it to Aygezard, the small village I first lived in when I came to Armenia. Elza was waiting for me with two towels, and a bottle of cognac she was determined to add to the packed bags.

Tamara visited from over the road and brought two large bags of dried fruit and some winter-weight tights.

Why, she wondered could they not be added to the framed original picture, and the hundred-weight of jewelry revealed to be secreted in my checkable baggage when Gevorg unzipped it to stuff in the cognac.

I mixed and matched all the following reasons as each new friend or neighbor came bearing gifts. Not one of them made a whit of difference, but you are welcome to try them:

• only 1.5 liters of wine or spirits per person is allowed by customs. I already had two bottles of wine, gifted earlier in the week

* it is illegal to import foodstuffs, even if dried

* I am traveling to Ireland, England, Italy and Spain before moving to wherever my next job is– stopping to see my kids in the DC area on the way. It can’t possibly make sense to carry household items on this mega trip when I have a great supply of both in the US, and all points in between.

As I finally left the house, Elza put two folded sheets of lavash, Armenia’s flatbread–nearly enough for top and under sheets on a twin bed—into my carry-on, in case I get hungry on the way to Moscow. I managed to stop her packing leftover green beans with eggs, and two kilos of apricots, but only because I ate them before we left the house.

At the airport, I was told my larger bag was one kilo overweight and, as it was the second bag, would be charged $100 if the weight could not be distributed. Luckily the entire family was to hand. My possessions were spread on the floor of Zvartnots as Gevorg struggled to move things around and rezip the bags. He did it. Oh good– instead of a total fee of $150, only $50 to be paid.

Downstairs to the bank machine, upstairs to the Aeroflot payment office, Gevorg encouraging my broken spirit every step of the way. He was standing in the check-in line ready to swap the baggage receipt for my ransomed boarding-card when Nane and her mother turned up. Nane is one of my poetry teens from Goris. She missed the chance to say goodbye there, but she and Knarik were in Yerevan today. They took a taxi to the airport to surprise me in the check-in line, and handover a terracotta plate commemorating my beloved Ararat. It is in my hand luggage.

Many hugs and kisses and photos and tears at the entrance to the gate. I am soaking wet but it is hard to know whether it is ordinary sweat ( the temperature is at least 100 degrees F), stress perspiration, my own tears, or everybody else’s.

I am having a last glass of Armenian white Karas wine at the airport cafe. Fruit flies keep landing on the glass. I know this is because all my fellow passengers have hand luggage full over overripe fruit.

I am lucky to be loved. I do not take it lightly. Arai zham Armenia.

Posted in Armenia, kindness, leaving gifts, saying goodbye, time to go, travel | Leave a comment

Bari Janapar—strolling through Artsakh with Ara

In Vank village in Artsakh they built a wall with all their obsolete number plates after the war was won, and independence declared. The ‘A’ on the old tags stood for Azerbaijan. The Republic of Nagorno Karabakh issued its own car tags, and so the enterprising people of this village in northern Artsakh came up with their own use for the discarded plates.

Vank is the kind of village that prides itself on being wacky. The entrance is guarded by two sets of stone lions, male and female, and there is also an art installation celebrating the not-so-recent evolution of the motor car. The last car in line is a Rolls-Royce. I wonder if they will add a Prius and a Tesla one day?

We passed through the village on the way to Gandasar monastery, and then the stone lion. The monastery has a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains and there is a manuscript library there. The gospels and bibles weren’t quite as old as the 10th century Book of Kells in Ireland, but there are hundreds of them, dating from the 11th century to the 16th. Beautiful blues and golds. Photos aren’t allowed. They sold single postcards at the door. I bought one of each, and wondered why they didn’t have the nous to make up multi-packs.

At the top of the church is a stone carving depicting the church’s builder holding up the structure through brute force. He couldn’t have known how arduous his centuries-old task would be. The church is surrounded by a fortress wall and has been attacked many times by marauding Russians, Persians and Turks.

In the valley below Treasure mountain, a natural stone configuration that looks like a lion’s head has been given a little human help. Opposite this cheesiness is a delightfully camp restaurant which apparently serves dreadful food. It and the Restaurant opposite, styled as a ship, were both empty at 2pm. I guess the word is out.

The monastery at Dadivank could have done with the resolve of Gandasar’s plucky builder. It was first constructed between the 8th and 13th centuries–it probably took this long because the workers constantly had to stop to admire the view. During the Soviet years, when Azerbaijan had dominion over Artsakh, the church was used to store grain and animal feed. At the time the independent Republic was declared in 1992, a Kurdish family were found to be living in the church, cooking their food on an open fire in front of the altar. Since 1999, the church has been undergoing renovation and ancient frescos have been found and restored. There is a spotlessly clean toilet at a cafe opposite. Avail yourself of it. The only other facilities we could find for miles comprised a squatty potty for which the owner wished to charge 100 dram-20 cents- a go. Toilets, shops, cafes and road signs are all scarce outside the cities in Artsakh.

The bishop at the monastery in Shushi faced a very particular problem: there was no one to hear his confession. He must have confided this to his builder, because the construction engineers fashioned an echo chamber in the basement of the limestone church. Stand just under a hole in the roof, and your own breath and words come back to you. The bishop could hear his own confession. History does not record if his acts of penitence were punishing, or pretty easy to bear.

By this time we were at risk of monastery fatigue. Time to repair to the market at Shushi for some fresh made zhingalov hats and the chance to admire the pickling skills of local women. Zhingalov hats are flatbreads stuffed with a variety of herbs, fresh-picked in local fields. The bread is skillet-baked in front of you, and handed over while still warm. As you can see below, it is tiring and labor intensive work.

Artsakh’s capital city Stepanakert (named for the communist with the defensive body language below) has a great little museum that manages to race through a couple of thousand years of history, politics, and culture while celebrating crafts and geology. A man outside sells handcrafted boxes with secrets compartments. These are made from local trees.

Stepanakert, easy, friendly, and airy, is like the rest of Artsakh, spotlessly clean. There is not a cigarette butt, single use plastic bag, or discarded ice-cream wrapper in sight. I’d love to know how they have engendered this litter-free consciousness– Armenia could benefit.

While Artsakh is allegedly an independent Republic, Armenia pays 80% of government bills. Of course, many houses and buildings had to be rebuilt after the war in the 90s, with the government footing much of the expense. The war was a high price to pay for coherent design and clean lines, but there is no doubt that Artsakh’s cities today look much better than those in Armenia. Cars in Artsakh too are imports, newish, clean and super-shiny. It makes no sense, but the place looks polished, even prosperous. I couldn’t help but think of Armenia as the parent of a young adult who scrimps to top up study fees while the prodigal parties. We’ve all done it.

An obligatory visit to grandma and grandma, ( the Tatik Papik statue) and then off to visit the oldest tree in the former Soviet Union. This plane tree is 2038 years old. It has been lucky to make it this far, because people will persist in burning candles inside the hollowed husk of its main trunk.

I resisted an urge to carve LB loves AA on the trunk, adding to the damaging but romantic social history of the tree. During our two days in Artsakh, Ara solicitously offered his arm for all the steep paths and uneven surfaces. The pictures of us walking together are my favorites of the trip. I will miss his love, friendship and support.

Some bonus pics, including those of a pomegranate tree.

Please note that Liz traveled to Artsakh after she concluded her Peace Corps service in neighboring Armenia. She traveled independently, and with an Armenian guide. If you have the opportunity, you should do the same.

Posted in Armenia, Artsakh, Azerbaijan, Cross-cultural understanding, Environment, friendship, Nagorno-Karabakh, Soviet Union, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel | 3 Comments

Artsakh: a Northern Ireland woman writes

Show your passport and get your handwritten visa as you cross the border from Armenia to the Republic of Artsakh and discover this: some of humankind’s most hellish hating took place in some of the most beautiful landscape in the world.

We saw a cow cleaning her minutes-old calf in a field on a plain where thousands died not thirty years ago. “Hee” “Hoo” the two men securing hay on the back of a truck called to each other in the sunshine– easy, ancient cooperation where previously bullets and rockets had flown. Missile silos surround a 7th century limestone church on top of a steep hill. The bright green of a local lizard is not the only camo this countryside has seen.

If you speak of it all, you almost certainly call this part of the world Nagorno-Karabakh. In Armenia, they call it Artsakh-its name since the 6th century BC when its beautiful forests and mountains, rock formations, and plains were part of Great Armenia, a country stretching from the Black to the Caspian Sea. In Azerbaijan today, they call this disputed territory theirs.

Fast forward nearly two thousand years from the time of Great Armenia to 1918. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent republics. Artsakh, which had also been part of the Russian Empire, and fought over for generations by Persians and Turks, was once again part of Armenia. It didn’t last of course.

In 1921, Stalin, then Lenin’s right hand man, gave Artsakh to Azerbaijan. So much for independence. No matter then, that the majority of the region’s people were ethnically Armenian, and Christian. The move was probably part of a bigger power play to bring the Turks closer to Stalin’s way of thinking.– though I for one am unclear what difference this might have made. No one really knows, for Stalin was not the confiding type. Not that it made much difference to Azerbaijan– its territory, like so many of its neighbors became subsumed by the Soviet Union. That is how things stayed for another 70 years or so.

With the collapse of the USSR in the late 80s/early 90s, the people of Artsakh thought it was time to let the Azeris know where they stood. They pressed for reunification with Armenia. That didn’t fly. The notion of independence was put to a territory -wide referendum in 1991. The ethnic Armenian/Christian population easily outvoted their minority Azeri/Muslim neighbors in the disputed territory. Independence was declared then using-ironically–the NK name which is Turkish in origin. The Azeris declared war. The Armenians fought for their kinsfolk.

If you look at a population map, it is hard to see how the tiny republic survived. Azerbaijan is a huge, oil-rich country. Artsakh at the time of the war had fewer than 200,000 people. Even with the support of every man fit to fight from next-door Armenia, the numbers didn’t look good.

The ethnic Armenians had a few things in their favor though. First, a passionate determination to hold out against the Azeris. And secondly and most importantly a strategic savvy honed by millennia-long mastery of chess. The landscape eventually worked in their favor too.

Today, the many deep gorges and ravines of Artsakh are all crossed by thin wires, threaded to thwart Azeri planes and helicopters carrying bombs, and men with loaded guns. The pilots couldn’t see the wire. When they hit it, it caused them to crash. Many of the pilots were Ukrainian– mercenaries trying to earn a crust after Soviet jobs disappeared. War does not discriminate.

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that the Armenians flour bombed the Azeris. They, thinking they’d been hit by a chemical weapon, fled.

The city of Shushi is on a plateau at the top of a sheer wall of rock. At first it was held by the Azeris who lit truck tires on fire and rolled them over the cliff edge on to the Armenians living in villages below. From their vantage point the Azeris could also shoot people in their houses, firing through their roofs. The situation looked hopeless for the defenders of Artsakh. But the Armenians had a plan. Across a period of weeks, they ignited spats in towns and villages, drawing their enemy out of the strategic center. Meanwhile they assembled many thousands of their own troops to storm the city from the non rocky side. It worked. The city fell to the Armenians and the war was won.

We stood overlooking the gorge and admiring the cliff and the plateau. A cuckoo sang. An Azeri might consider this a metaphor, but there are no Azeris left in Shushi, Artsakh or Armenia.

In the capital Stepanakert, a delightful, clean, open, sunny, white-stoned city there are ancient mosques dating from the time when Persians were in charge. Today these are under renovation as historic sites. In the ancient capital of Tigranakert a partial excavation has revealed a Christian church dating from medieval times. In slightly more recent times, Azeri homes were built using the remains of the old church as a foundation. No one lives there now. The plain is no man’s land, stretching out to the border with Azerbaijan. There were deaths on that plain as recently as 2016, a four-day war between the people of the Republic, their Armenian kin, and the Azeris. Every day still there are incursions on both sides, sniper shootings and deaths. Total deaths are estimated at about 35,000 since the war in the 80s/90s. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. Casualties are everywhere today.

Following the April war of 2016, the people of the Republic decided to revert to their old Armenian name. Nagorno-Karabakh is now the Republic of Artsakh. No one outside the South Caucasus much noticed. No one else much cares. Most of the world does not recognize Artsakh, however much they do or don’t know of the history. Azerbaijan has oil and gas, and that buys international friendship

Stepanakert is hosting CONIFA at the moment, a 10-team tournament for teams from unrecognized states. I can’t say I knew any of the team names. 3 of them– situated within territory you probably know as Ukraine– could not even turn up to play.

” Perhaps Northern Ireland should join the next tournament” said my Armenian guide. ” Northern Ireland is an unrecognized State isn’t it?”

“Maybe” I said ” but we have our own football team and we՚re able to compete in all the big tournaments”.

I thought Ara’s eyes began to glaze when I started to talk about the 1982 World Cup quarter finals. I expect if he ever has the chance to join me in Northern Ireland he will be glad our own vexed history is a great deal shorter than Armenia’s own.

Liz Barron finished her Peace Corps service before traveling independently to Artsakh in the company of an Armenian guide. Perhaps one day she will have the chance to visit Azerbaijan and hear their account of the last 2000+ years. That will not be possible however, while her passport bears an Armenian stamp.

Posted in Armenia, Artsakh, Azerbaijan, Cross-cultural understanding, Nagorno-Karabakh, Religion, Stalin, travel, war | 3 Comments

Fish and chips in a seaside poke— and other ways to celebrate a royal birthday.

I had not expected to celebrate the birthday of the Queen, or even to be invited to celebrate the birthday of the Queen. It has never happened in the UK,

Here in Armenia though, I, about 100 others, and a British military brass band, gathered at the Congress hotel in Yerevan. Our host Ambassador Judith Farnworth spoke great Armenian as she welcomed her guests, and toasted the birthday Monarch. The Deputy Prime Minister of Armenia wished the Queen a happy 93rd birthday, and we all ate fish and chips with Sarson’s vinegar, sausage rolls, and scotched quail’s eggs. On the table by the mini Yorkshire puddings with roast beef, there was a giant bottle of Colman’s mustard. Friends, there was Stilton and Wensleydale. There were oatcakes and water biscuits. There was quiche.

Most Armenians don’t expect to have cucumber floating in their drink, and so I had a punch bowl of Pimms to myself. Dark, warm flat beer was served by imperial measure, and there was a gin bar. I had the sense to avoid these options after the Pimms.

In addition to pictures of the Queen, the royal great-grandchildren, and Harry and Meghan kissing, there were a great many pictures advertising Britain as Great. These were illustrated with pictures of English castles and London icons. Being from Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, I could have chosen to be piqued by NI’s exclusion. Instead I sweetened my temper by eating Eton mess. I thought about working myself into a foment just so I could follow this with some strawberries and cream and a slice of lemon drizzle cake. Then the band played Danny Boy and I decided to mellow.

I don’t know when I enjoyed a birthday party more. All things considered, I have probably had a better week than the Queen herself. Happy birthday Ma’am. Now get some rest.

Posted in Armenia | 1 Comment

Ways of making him talk

It is a mission I never thought I would accept. I need to find a way to make my most mouthy friend talk more.

Liz Barron with Peter Weil

If you don’t know Peter Weil, well count your lucky stars. If you do you know him, you will know he talks all the time, usually about himself, and very loudly.

He makes Gyles Brandreth look reticent and tongue-tied. Beside Peter, Donald Trump is modest and backward about coming forward. Other famously garrulous Irishmen like Terry Wogan and Graham Norton seem hopelessly reserved.

Rumour has it this Crawfordsburn resident–known locally as the Mouth of Belfast Lough– once became unnecessarily intimate with the Blarney Stone, and that God mistakenly clicked refresh a number of times when endowing Peter with the gift of the gab.

On May 24, Peter has decided to stay silent for a day. He’s not in a huff, nor on a meditative retreat. There is no suggestion of oral surgery. No, Peter is trying to raise funds for a good cause by belatedly showing he knows how to shut up.

The idea was suggested by his long-suffering colleagues on the board of Belfast Central Mission. Even one day without Peter’s opinions, ideas and oft-repeated anecdotes will provide them welcome respite. Normally, I’d be with them. 24 hours of blissful quiet– what’s not to like?

Well, Peter has booked himself into Belfast’s newest hotel– the Grand Central. He knows he couldn’t go through an ordinary day without spouting forth on the bus, in the office, over lunch, and on the phone, but he thinks that a day lying on a comfortable bed binge-watching TV will allow him to do the impossible: keep his big mouth shut.

I think this is too easy. I am already plotting how to trick him into talking.

“Will it brighten up do you think?” I’ll bribe the hotel doorman to ask, for it is unlikely Peter can resist the chance to share his thoughts on Northern Ireland’s weather.

Perhaps I can prevail on the receptionist to ask him if he would like an upgrade to a Junior suite. Fond of luxury, it will kill him not to be able to say ‘Yes please’.

Once I know he is in his room I will need to arrange a series of phone calls and knocks at the door.

Maybe I could get someone to ring from Stormont issuing a special invitation for Peter to join the faltering political talks.

“Peter” I’ll get Mary Lou or Arlene to whisper “We need you here to tell us the way forward”. A long- frustrated pundit, Peter will be there just as soon as he can hail a taxi.

Then I’ll get Northern Ireland Railways on the line. Could Peter fill an immediate need for a guardsmen on the Belfast-Dublin line? Train-loving Peter has always wanted to announce the 3:33 to Portadown stopping at Lisburn.

If he still hasn’t cracked, I’ll arrange for a bewildered German tourist to stumble into his room, seeking directions to the Crown Bar. Peter prides himself on his linguistic talent and won’t be able to say Nein to showing off.

I don’t know if laughing out loud counts, but if it does then maybe I could persuade the gegsters from Queens Comedy Club to drop in on Peter during his silent vigil. The craic could make him crack.

Another weak spot of Peter’s is food. Unless he is permitted to pack a picnic, he will have to dial room service if he wants to eat. Hard to place an order if he can’t talk out loud. Maybe I can rig the TV in his bedroom so it carries only food and cooking channels? This way I can make sure he works up a massive appetite and has to dial for a starter, main and dessert. Come to think of it, there is probably no need to go to this trouble. Peter can’t work even his own remote control and so is likely to have to call Hastings Hotels’ Housekeeping for assistance long before hunger sets in.

The rules of Peter’s challenge say he is not allowed to use Twitter or other social media to get his needs met. This is not a particular hardship for Peter. He is of a vintage that prefers talk to text. But while he is not allowed online, I can be busily crowd sourcing mean tricks to get him talking. Share your ideas using #WeilWiles on May 24.

Peter Weil is attempting a 24 hour sponsored silence to raise money for Copelands – an eldercare facility that Belfast Central Mission hopes to open in County Down. You can support him and the Copelands project here. https://www.totalgiving.co.uk/mypage/peterkeepsquietforcopelands. If Peter succeeds in staying silent despite Liz Barron’s ruses, you might want to pay him double.

Posted in Armenia, Belfast, friendship, Fundraising, Grand Central Hotel, Nortgern Ireland Peace Talks, nortgetn Ireland railwsys, Northern Ireland, peace and quiet, Peter Weil | Leave a comment

To say I Love You—right out loudl

I used my involvement with Armenia’s Public schools’ Recitation contest as an excuse not to go, but even if I had been in Belfast, I wouldn’t have turned up at my school reunion. I keep in touch with a lot of girls I went to school with, and the ones I don’t see or hear from, I can’t say I miss. I am sure they feel the same about me. But maybe the truth is deeper and darker than that? As Joni Mitchell had it: so many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way. Who wants to reveal that she failed to fulfill her early promise?

It is 40 years since I left high school, and 40 years since I have seen a photo of me that featured in the 1979 Victoria College Belfast magazine. A good friend who did go to the reunion posted and tagged the old photo on Facebook. In it, I am clutching a cup awarded to the schools debate champion for Northern Ireland. That was me.

I remember that contest. The thrill of winning. The joy of making listeners laugh. My dad giving me a Chambers dictionary to commemorate my achievement.

Today, here in Armenia, I work with boys and girls who are much as I was then. Imaginative, funny, cynical, bright, ambitious and scared. The 80 who made it to the national finals of NPRC had beaten 1550 other competitors to get there. (This is rather more than competed in Northern Ireland’s debate contest in the Dark Ages). They were word perfect, high energy, original, passionate and will live in my heart always. They, of course, are competing in their third language. I still speak only Northern Irish English.

Northern Ireland in the 1970s was a grim place and any sentient teen felt isolated from real life and real opportunity. Many of us would have to get out to get on. Our Poetry kids here feel much the same way–but ask them where they see themselves in 40 years and most will say Armenia. They know they are the future of their country, and everything they do today is helping to ready them for their responsibility.

Joni Mitchell’s song Both Sides Now was one of our 11th form choices this year. Two weeks after the contest, the words are still running in my head in a loop.

Poetry people: I’ll say I love you right out loud. May your next 40 years be filled with work you love, and may you and Armenia reach your evident and glorious potential.

Just as my close school friends have championed me over the years, I hope you will keep in touch with your NPRC network and cast off other classmates who you don’t get, and who don’t get you.

https://share.icloud.com/photos/0bk7Byx0aS-1ipUZfjfAD3mbQ#Armenia

Alla recites Liz Lochead’s poem: For My Grandmother Knitting

Just as I had teachers and mentors who helped me grow in skills and confidence– and who ferried me to contests far and wide– so I hope you will stay in touch with me — and other volunteers, teachers, judges, and sponsors– who can help you now and in the future. There will be clouds. Don’t allow them in your way.

Click this link to see Martin recite Both Sides Now

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1kMupf6nxe3JRq9N4XMMPd4TJayeTG648/view?usp=drivesdk

Posted in Armenia, Both Sides Now, Joni Mitchell, Mentoring, opportunity, regrets, school reunion, Victoria College Belfast | 6 Comments