Light Fantastic Toe

Life can be particularly tough here in Armenia for people with disabilities. While the oft-mentioned playing field is not equal in the U.S., there is, in most cases, at least a field on which it is possible to play. Here, too many differently-abled children are still unable to go to school and thus as adults they are unprepared for the world of work.  Unemployed, they live in isolation at home. Where ramps exist here, they are steep and narrow, more suitable for delivery dollies than for wheelchairs. There are steps everywhere and very few handrails. There is no sound at pedestrian crossings and I have never seen anyone walk with a guide dog or a white cane. I have seen signers on some news broadcasts and I met an Armenian using a hearing aid the other day. I also heard about a village with adult, male deaf twins who have successful lives and families, living at the heart of their community. At national government level there is now a move to make education more inclusive but the hard work is too often left to teachers with no training, resources or time. Change is coming though, and is supported by the soft diplomacy efforts of international organizations working here. The US Embassy recently paid for the Mihr theater dance troupe to tour Armenia, performing for free in theaters and public spaces in larger cities. The troupe featured dancers whose physical appearance usually causes a second look on the street– people who are not commonly seen on stage. One was perhaps 6’7 tall and another small and hunched. These men danced with a grace and beauty that was mesmerizing, moving in perfect harmony with lithe and muscled dancers whose bodies were of the type a spotlight always follows. I was told the two female dancers were deaf, using the vibration of the live music on stage (the fabulous Tiezerk band) to inspire their movement. The performance was captivating and proof that each of us has our own beauty if only those around us can stop to see it and celebrate.

This post is one of a series inspired by International Human Rights Day–look for others in the next few days. 

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Arsen from Ararat Marz is one of the lucky kids: his school and teacher have been very helpful in accommodating his needs. He also benefits from twice-weekly physio in Yerevan. Go Arsen.

Posted in America, Armenia, Beauty, Cross-cultural understanding, dance, disability, International Human Rights Day, life lessons, Mihr theater, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, work | Leave a comment

Burn Baby Burn

stove2Aleta is the only person I know who can light an Armenian match. These non-incendiary items come in sad, damp boxes, with inadequate strike pads. Attempt to grip an Armenian match firmly, and its shaft will splinter as it connects with  poorly gravelled cardboard, or its blue head–the color of poor circulation–will fly off as soon as contact is threatened. But Aleta can make them work, just as she can pile sticks into a pyramid in the firebox of my wood-burning stove, add a couple of curls of paper, and conjure flame.

The stove is a welcome addition here. For the last week, I have been going to bed at stove37pm under a mound of quilts, and fully clothed. My Peace-Corps-issued-four-bar-radiator was failing to make a dent in the cold and so in came the stove, ungainly, unglamorous, untidy but HOT.  Last night I toasted my toes, stayed up late, and imagined cooking in the adorable little side oven that adjoins the furnace. I would blog about my cosy homestead and readers all over the world would marvel at my skills with windfall fruit and kindling.

This afternoon, I prepared to bake apples, bounty from a friend’s back yard. To be sure, some of the cores were black and rotten, but I still had a great pile of fruit to which I added some raisins, peach syrup and porridge oats. It was, I was sure, what Martha Stewart would do…

Now to light the fire: I couldn’t seem to find sticks quite as long and thin as those Aleta used last night. Never mind, surely a few of the  smaller logs would do? I added a couple of handfuls of sawdust from a potato sackful I found by the chicken coop, and looked around for some paper. I got the petrol pistol I use to light the gas stove–no need to  tangle with Armenian matches. Fifteen minutes went by and still the fire would not light. The sun set, and still the fire would not light. My teeth began to chatter, and still the fire would not light. I lit the oven, and put the  apples in there. I went to find Haykush and asked for help.

2017-10-26 17.41.11Now I know why I couldn’t find the kindling. Haykush took half a dozen smallish logs and brought them into the garage. Standing each on its end on a trunk stump, she attacked them with a fearsome axe, splitting each in two. She used her left hand to hold the stick, and her right to wield the axe. I couldn’t look.

Like me, Haykush has no truck with Armenian matches. She showed me to a C.S.-Lewis-like cupboard on the other side of the chicken run. Turns out, it hides a stove that sends hot air up a pipe to heat the whole house upstairs. She filled a shovel with molten ashes and ran with it through the garage to my furnace. That woman has Olympic-standard balance. I envy her.

Haykush dumped the smouldering ash on the faggots in my firebox and leant low to blow on the fingers of flame. “You’ll be ok now” she said. Then we both smelt the sugar burning in the oven: carbonated apple crisp. I ate it anyway.

potholderMy rug is covered in sawdust. I have already burned the potholder Aleta lent me by leaving it on top of the stove until it nearly caught light. I’ve used up all the wood I brought in while it was light outside. I don’t think I have completely got the hang of rustic living. I think I’ll add the fire station to my speed dial.

Posted in accident, Armenia, Cooking, craft activities, Cross-cultural understanding, Embarrassment, errors of judgement, fear, Fire, Food, gratitude, know thyself, life lessons, personal failings, resilience, Things that gladden the heart, travel, Village life, Winter | Leave a comment

Comfort Food

When Hanna died, we crawled to Peace Corps HQ in Yerevan, and huddled together damply in a shocked and miserable heap. Olivia and Hannah, two volunteers a couple of years ahead of our cohort, made mac n’ cheese for all of us. It helped, it really helped. I thought of that day yesterday, when Sierra brought a large pot of mac n cheese to our Thanksgiving celebration–it is truly the food of friendship. On our dark days in Yerevan, staff at the U.S. Embassy–most of whom we had never met– sent homemade pies and plates of sandwiches to keep us going. They catered for Hanna’s memorial too: hummus and salsa and chips and crackers and other good things we haven’t seen for a while. And more baked goods. Lots of baked goods. It was like having a hug from home.

Because of Hanna’s loss, and for all the more ordinary reasons, a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers here in Armenia might have been feeling lonely, sad and homesick this Thanksgiving. But, ever resourceful, we are cooking–and eating– our way through the crisis.

Last night 8 of us in Goris tucked into carbs in every form available–the mac n cheese was supplemented by roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, two kinds of stuffing, a mash of cauliflower, turnip and carrot eased with half a pound of  salted butter, chicken, broccoli (there had  to be something healthy), brownies, apple crisp and baklava.  We washed it down with a vat of punch made from mulberry vodka, Armenian fizz, orange Fanta and peach juice. There are two boxes of chocolates that haven’t been opened yet, and there are left-overs for days.

In Gyumri, they have secured a 46 pound turkey which is cooking as I write. About 15 volunteers will celebrate together there. There is talk of cranberry jelly and sweet potatoes–they have been very particular to do the whole thing right. In Kapan and Sisian, there are Peace Corps Thanksgiving dinners this weekend. In Dilijan, and somewhere close to Ararat too. We are thankful, truly thankful we have each other and a little piece of America here in Armenia this week.

In Gyumri last weekend, I visited an art gallery packed with the paintings of two 20th century sisters: Eranuhi and Mariam Aslamazyan. Among many landscapes and portraits, each sister had beautiful, warm, welcoming pictures of food and other domestic bits and pieces, much of it painted in the colors of fall. I bought postcards and wished I’d known the sisters. Travelers, feminist pioneers and open-minded observers of human life, I think they would have been fun. And I bet they cooked a great dinner.

Posted in America, American holidays, Armenia, Armenian art, Cooking, drinking, family, Food, friendship, gratitude, Gyumri, joy, Local delicacies, Moonshine, Sisters, Thanksgiving, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel | Leave a comment

Vegetarians: look away

To Gyumri to attend the Cow Head Festival, run by Mr. Digital Pomegranate (not his real name). For me, Caleb and Matt (the two big, bearded Southern gentlemen pictured), the event kicked off at 5pm on Saturday and cost 1000 AMD each–about $2. For our fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Thong Do, the party started a full day before–just about the same time as things started to go badly downhill for the cows. Thong was invited to document every aspect of the party preparations. That’s an offal lot of photos. Do you think he got the cow’s best side?

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There is about 25 kg of meat on one cow’s head and so oven-baking took about 24 hours.There were five cow heads altogether, for a party of about 75 people.  There were still pieces of grass stuck between our cow’s teeth, although they’d been browned in the oven. We had a giant platter of cheek, tongue and brains all to ourselves. There weren’t enough eyeballs to go round, so we nobly passed on those. I don’t think ears were on offer. Shame. The meat was all a bureaucratic shade of brown and the brains, served in a pouch of lavash, were creamish grey. Nothing tasted of anything much until enlivened with chopped chili, or mustard–the first we’ve seen on an Armenian table in 9 months. The cheek meat was glazed on the outside, and chewy in a good way. The tongue was coarse and linty–a tangle of tiny strings. The brains were soft yet rubbery. Caleb was brought up to eat everything on his plate, because waste is a sin. Quite quickly, he regretted the large dollop of cow smarts sitting spongily in front of him. He finished them though, although we all agreed that some cornmeal, beaten egg and hot oil would have helped the brains mightily. The meat was served with bread, lavash, tomatoes, cucumber, pickles, and herbs and washed down with vodka, wine, beer, juice, water or tan–a yogurt drink.The boys stuck to the vodka and beer and I monopolized the wine. All in all, it was one of the jolliest evenings we’ve had since arriving in Armenia. As the novelty of the cow heads waned, the Armenian dancing started. The party, I’m told, went on until 2am. I left when the accordion struck up at about 8pm. This was Gyumri’s first annual Cow Head Festival, part of an effort to raise the visibility of Armenia’s second city, which is still recovering from the after effects of 1988’s earthquake. The city–both beautiful and interesting– is worth visiting even on weekends without a Cow Head Festival, but my plan is to come back again next November. It was a great occasion, and really good fun.

To see Thong Do’s photos taken all over the  world, go to

Posted in Armenia, Cooking, Cross-cultural understanding, eating out, Food, friendship, Great weekends, identity, joy, Local delicacies, Marketing, Offal, Peace Corps, travel | 2 Comments

In the Driving Seat

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Hobbies of a Grandma. Heart of a Lion. Hear me roar. 

The Taxi driver’s intention was to frighten and bully me. He roared away from the train station in Yerevan at speed, grinding his gears as he went. I told him my destination, knowing it was about two kilometers  away. “Granny, it will cost 2000 dram” said the driver careening round a corner so fast that my suitcase, propped up on the back seat, slammed against me. Pinioned to the window, I protested. “It costs 1000”  I said. (It should probably cost 600 dram, but I am not an unreasonable woman–I always pay 1000).
“Granny the road is closed” he said, looking back at me, instead of at the road. It was nonsense of course.

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Mind your nuts.

“Stop here” I said.
“Because I don’t have 2000 dram”
“Granny it is always 1500” he said
I laughed. “It is always 1000” I said.
We arrived at a landmark near my hostel and the car stopped with a screech.
“Not here” I said “ I want right and then right and then left and then right. I will tell you where to go and when to stop”
Reluctantly he jolted the car forward until we got to the narrow road that leads to to my hostel “Granny I am stopping here. There is no way out” he said even though I knew there was.
I got out of the car with an exaggerated slowness. I don’t like to be called a Granny, even though I am one. ‘Let him wait’ I thought. ‘This old Granny will take her time’.
I walked up a few steps and made sure to stop under the light outside my hostel door. I parked my suitcase and started to count out small coins to the value of 1000 dram. I waited until he was forced to get out of the car and walk toward me to get the money. I counted it out 10 dram, then 20 dram, then 50 dram until I reached 1000. “Me rope, me rope” I kept saying. “Give me a minute” he had no choice but to stand there on the street below me with his hand outstretched.

I am 57 years old and a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Armenia.  Most people here treat me with respect because I try to speak their language even though I am a foreigner;  because (ok, I admit it…)I am old; and because I am female. This bully thought he had more power than me because of my foreignness, age and gender.  In younger years I might have paid the odious creature the money he asked for, and shut up– just to be safe. Not any more. This granny is galvanized. I will fight ageism, sexism, exclusion and bullying wherever it finds me. Be warned.

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Appearances. So often deceptive…

Posted in Armenia, Bullying, Cross-cultural understanding, Driving, errors of judgement, fear, know thyself, Language, Language learning, Peace Corps, resilience, Social niceties, travel, Women, Youth | 4 Comments

A Killer Recipe

Disclaimer: There follows a recipe both life-enhancing and life threatening. This blog and its author are not responsible for any injuries sustained should you make this soup.

2017-11-04 10.39.07I got a bit over-excited at GUM bazar last week and so my haul home from Yerevan included jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes) and chestnuts, among other more mundane fall vegetables. I made a rather fancy soup for last night’s dinner–the so-called ‘family dinner’ we three Goris-based Peace Corps volunteers enjoy together every Wednesday.

fuxwellThe first job was to prepare the chestnuts. The recipe I used for reference was very specific: make an x-shaped cut on the rounded side of every shell. Apparently there is a special knife manufactured just for this purpose, but I don’t have one, and I don’t know anyone who does, either in Armenia, or in any other part of the world. So it was out with the Fuxwell (no wonder it advertises its intimate charms. It may have staying power in the boudoir, but in the kitchen it starts off keen (hah!) but quickly dulls. It is not the kind of knife a girl should marry…)  I did my best to inflict damage on the chestnuts as they skittered away from the knife, and thought I’d x-ed them all–until I put them in the hot oven. Within minutes, the stove was exploding, and terrifying gunshot filled the air. Aleta peered nervously around the kitchen door. With the almost-everyday news of gun-toting crazies in the United States, could she be blamed for fearing there was an American running rampant with a rifle on her own first floor? I opened the stove door to demonstrate what was causing the noise and we both ducked just in time as a piece of furred, leathery coating flew at us in fury.  I turned off the  oven, cleared up the shrapnel and salvaged what I could of the chestnuts. The Jerusalem Artichokes were much more cooperative. In the end, the soup was delicious, but I recommend you heat the bowls before serving. Here, on a chill autumn evening, it cooled down on the journey from pot to table. Really, it should be eaten piping hot.

Sunchoke and Chestnut Soup (makes about 6 large bowls)

You will need: 

7-10 knobbles of sunchoke/jerusalem artichoke

About 30 chestnuts

A large tub of sour cream/smetna

Two onions

Three fat cloves of garlic

Stock–vegetable, chicken  or beef

Olive oil, salt and pepper, cilantro or other herb

Bread for serving

A good knife

An oven and baking tray

A large saucepan

A stick blender–or blender

Soup bowls and spoons

What to do

Heat the oven to really quite hot

Put a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a soup bowl and add a little salt and pepper and then roll the sunchokes in the oil. Place them on the baking tray and roast for 12-15 minutes, until soft.

Mark each chestnut with an X on the fat, curved side, being sure to pierce the skin. This is hard work, but don’t stint.  Your life could depend on it.

Put the chestnuts on the baking tray (the sunchokes can be cooling now) and in the oven. Stand well back.  After about 10 minutes, or as soon as the banging subsides, take the chestnuts from the oven. Chestnut meat should be peeping out of the X like hair from an old man’s ear. Peel the chestnuts while they are still warm.

Chop the onion finely and mince the garlic. Fry in a little olive oil until soft. Use a pot or pan that will be big enough to hold all of the soup. Roughly chop the sunchokes and chestnuts and add them to the mix. Add at least two pints of stock and give it 10 minutes to simmer.

Reduce the heat and add the smetna, stirring it into the mix. Allow the pot to cool, then whizz the mixture in a blender. It should have the consistency and color of thinnish porridge.

Pop next door and buy some warm, fresh-baked bread. (What? Not everyone has a bakery next door? Shame…)

Return the soup to the pot and heat thoroughly. Heat the serving bowls in the oven at the same time.

Pour the soup into the bowls. Add any little shards or crumbles of chestnut left over from the chopping process, and a leaf or two of a green herb.

Enjoy with friends. Eat with bread. Drink red wine. Follow up with an appley dessert and be glad it is fall.

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Posted in Advice, Armenia, Cooking, Food, friendship, Household tips, life lessons, Peace Corps, personal failings, Things that gladden the heart, travel | 5 Comments

A moment of silence

There is a Hanna-shaped hole in our cohort, the 25th to serve with Peace Corps in Armenia. Hanna Huntley died in a car crash a week ago, a profound loss for all of us here, and her friends all over the world. We sorrow for her, and for her family’s pain. Hanna had warmth, loyalty, ferocity, independence of spirit, fearlessness, goddamn cheek, humor, cynicism, cleverness, creativity and charm. Volunteers and locals, none of us who worked with her in Armenia will ever be quite the same again. I will write more about Hanna in future I know, because she made a profound impression on all of us who served with her.  Thank you Hanna.

Posted in Armenia | 1 Comment