Of Hope and Hot Water Bottles.

The twenty-somethings in the room honestly had no idea what it was. Grant pulled the owl-patterned, flannel cover away from the neck of the hot water bottle and showed its rubbery lips, and the brass thread for its plastic stopper.

“You boil a tea kettle and fill it up with hot water” he said “then you cuddle it and it keeps you warm. Anyone want it? It came in a care package”

No-one did. They looked both mystified and slightly horrified that anyone would consider having such a thing at anything less than arm’s length. I couldn’t work out if they feared a scalding hazard or if it was the cosy covering that was repelling them. Owls did seem an odd choice for a sleep aid. Aren’t they famously up all night?

“But you’ve had hot water bottles growing up?” I said, trying to encourage them. No-one had. These Peace Corps Volunteers, brought up in centrally heated homes, had never seen or heard of such a thing before.

“I have one” I continued. “It’s covered in purple fur and it keeps me lovely and warm in bed. I can really recommend it”. This only seemed to strengthen their resolve to avoid any contact with the contraption.

Here in Armenia there is snow on the mountains and every night the wind rattles the rusted sheeting and corrugated iron that patches our walls and roofs.  Creatures scuttle, scrabble and shriek behind skirting boards, collecting what they can to keep themselves warm.  Our living rooms are heated by wood-burning stoves, but firewood is expensive this year, and so we are encouraged to go early to bed. I am lucky to make it to 9pm. I usually wear a pair of tights under my nightwear—excellent for keeping the toes and the kidneys suitably warm. You’ll be pleased to know that I spared my young colleagues this detail. I imagine they wear yoga or ski accessories from sporting goods stores, or else risk frostbite, considering it preferable to a fashion faux pas.  Better to be cold than uncool.

We had gathered, the young and the old, for a holiday celebration at Kate’s small apartment in a town on the main road south to Iran. Kate had made cookies—snickerdoodles, chocolate chip and brownies—welcome reminders of home. I made a vat of punch for under $10. Sparkling wine is about $2.50 a bottle here, and cognac is the national drink. Every family makes their own peach and apricot juice. Oranges are imported for winter. Apart from persimmons and pomegranates which grow wild here, they are the only everyday fruit at this time of year. Clayton had handcrafted personalized Christmas cards. Alex cut out tiny stockings to hang under a construction paper Christmas tree taped to the old plaster of Kate’s apartment wall. Kate hung a tissue paper wreath on the wooden door that protects her studio bedroom from draughts. Grant led a marshmallow and toothpick construction challenge (Alex won). Bianca wore reindeer antlers, and Allen sported a scarf that made him look like a handsome skater on a 1950s Christmas card. It was all almost unbearably festive—our own little family Christmas in our two-year home away from home.

image1At the village school close to one of Armenia’s most beautiful monasteries, celebrations were well underway. The 12th form girls were constructing a wall decoration with fresh pine branches. The younger kids had made a Santa for the door, although the fat one is not usually feted here. If gifts are given, it will be on New Year’s Day. When families overspend, it is on imported, special-occasion pineapples, kiwis, and special store-bought vodka to impress neighbors and relatives, and not on stocking stuffers for the kids. Apostolic Christmas is on January 6, but it is a religious occasion and no time for red-nosed reindeer, and elf-enabled excess. Then it was back to work. I listened to group of 13-year-olds labor through a story about a governess in English class. A governess? It is hard to imagine this vocabulary will get much use. The English-language materials here are old, irrelevant and inaccurate—a frustration for students and teachers alike.

16-year-old Nane and her mom and dad invited me to come to visit them in their village on the border with Nagorno-Karabakh, just as they did last year at this time. They live with Nane’s maternal grandmother now—their own house burned down a few months ago, one of four homes completely gutted after an arson attack by a neighbor with mental health problems. No recourse, no insurance, no place to call home.

“Where’s  your granddad?” I asked, for I’d met him with Nane a year ago.

“He doesn’t live with us anymore” said Nane, upset. The family explained her father’s father can’t get to the outhouse at night, because it’s too far, and there is no outdoor lighting. When they moved in with their “other” grandma, he had to move an hour away, to live in an apartment with his daughter and her family. The house that burned was built by his father, and was the only home he’d ever known. Nane misses him, and he misses her. He’s been in and out of hospital since the fire. She’s had constant stomach problems, caused by stress. Nane’s mother cries as she pours the tea—made with thyme picked from the fields. Her grandmother squeezes my hand and thanks me for coming.

“It’s been terrible for them” she says, and I can see that it really has.

Nane urges me to try some rice,  baked with home-dried fruits and local honey. This is winter comfort food, Armenian style.

Nane’s father, handsome, strong and sad, raises a glass of homemade vodka in the first of many toasts.

“2019 will be a better year” he says. We raise our glasses and drink to that.


Posted in American holidays, Armenia, Christmas, cocktails, Cooking, Cross-cultural understanding, drinking, family, Food, Great weekends, Homemade decorations, hot water bottle, joy, Local delicacies, New Year, Peace Corps Armenia, Syunik Marz, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, Village life, Vodka | Leave a comment

Story Beyond The Ruins: the Gyumri and Spitak Earthquakes, 1988

It took an earthquake to shake me out of yesterday’s bout of self-pity. The 1988 earthquake which, 30 years ago tomorrow, destroyed the town of Spitak, and wrecked the city of Gyumri, killing more than 20,000 people in the North of Armenia.

Vahagn and his friends arrived in Gyumri to find the city in ruins. He recounts getting off the bus and joining the rescue workers already there. They worked through the night in the bitter cold, taking breaks to lie on stones heated by small fires. Vahagn quietly retells how calm he was the moment when he found his first body. He would find many more. There was no water at the time, so in order to wash his hands, he used Pepsi-cola bought from a nearby store. Vahagn also remembers stores being looted, and facing the reality that he couldn’t stop all the looters.  After three days of grueling rescue work in Gyumri, Vahagn went back to Yerevan to go to Stepanavan, his childhood home. On the way there, he saw the devastation of Spitak. There wasn’t a single building remaining. During the first few weeks after the earthquake, after seeing international rescue teams from Germany and France, Vahagn realized that Armenia needed a trained rescue service. A few days after returning to school, he found an opportunity to join one called Spitak, named after the town that was destroyed.

The account above is from Storybeyondtheruins.com,an oral history site launched by my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers Michael Chen and Max Malter in conjunction with a number of students from the American University of Armenia. The group interviewed survivors of the earthquake, making sure their stories are preserved for new generations of Armenians. The site will have audio interviews, transcribed stories, and photos from 1988. It is in its early stages, and it is important work.

Vahagn, whose story is above, now works at Peace Corps Armenia. He is Safety and Security Manager– a career choice inspired by the terrible disaster on his doorstep at the age of 17. I have heard a number of other people I know tell their stories of horror and loss: Peace Corps staff, a teacher and a principal involved with the poetry contest, a man I met at a party, and another in a class I was teaching. When you hear them talk and see and hear the emotion on their faces and in their voices, you wonder how they picked up and went on. They are Armenians–that’s what they do.

When you hear the figure 20,000 dead (in a country that now has a population of just under 3 million), it doesn’t really sink in what that means. But hear a woman–just a small child at the time–talk of toddling out of the house, following her mother who’d stepped out to see what was causing the rumbling noise. Hear that little girl tell the story of her infant brother crushed to death in his cot as the house fell in just seconds after she crossed the door. Imagine living the lives of that sister and mother after that terrible day… They will never forget, no one who hears their story will ever forget. It is important that the word gets out, and all these stories are told.

Outlook on the BBC World Service had a very powerful story yesterday, told by a woman called Anahit. She was a school girl in class at the time the earthquake struck. Eventually, she was pulled out of the concrete wreckage, her life saved by the dead body of her friend Larisa who had been tossed on top of her, saving Anahit from being crushed by a slab of stone. Anahit’s friend Garik died beside her before he could be rescued. Her brother, in another class on a higher floor, died too. So did their father. I know today’s  Larisas and Gariks, young people the same age as those lost children were then. The tragedy is unimaginable. You can listen to the Outlook story here. 


Children who survived the devastation in Spitak, December 7, 1988

Another Anahit told me of her niece—17 and newly married–who also died in Gyumri. Ara (in Yerevan–not Goris–it is a common name here) told me about his uncle, killed in Spitak. Ara believes that if the phone system had not failed, if the roads had been passable, they would have been able to save his uncle’s life. So many “what ifs” and “never to bes”.

If you are feeling down and blue today, hug your favorite people tighter and be thankful you have not had to go through what the dead, injured and living of Northern Armenia have endured. Keep Gyumri, Spitak and Armenia in your heart. Check back on Storybeyondtheruins.com  or follow them on Facebook, and be glad every day the earth doesn’t come crashing in on you.




Posted in Armenia, Armenian Earthquake 1988, Gyumri earthquake, Spitak earthquake | 2 Comments

One of those days

There are days when it is tempting to hop online and book a flight home. A flight leaving tomorrow. Today was one of those days:

A day when the person supposed to be my new counterpart messaged me to say she would no longer be coming to work. She lasted one week. The backlog of to-dos stretches for miles.

A day when many of the nearly 300 teachers of English and other volunteers I work with all also decided to get hold of me via Facebook messenger, their preferred means of communication. My screen looked like my head felt.

A day when the satellite phone I was meant to check wouldn’t connect, not even when I stood outside in the cold and jumped to fix the magnet aerial to the highest point on a wrought iron gate.

A day when the bedroom fixtures were draped with sodden clothes, which had had to be rinsed by hand as a result of my latest gastric emergency.

A day when the wood was too wet to catch light in the wood-burning stove. A day it managed to resist the wiles of even Aleta, the flame whisperer.

A day when I had half a cabbage to cook and precious little else.

And then Ara, my personal winemaker, turned up with a liter Soda bottle full of his latest press.

“I want you to have a glass of this one and compare it to a glass of the first type” he said “I think this one is better. Be sure to taste them both”.

I poured a large glass of each wine and you know he was right. The second one is rich and round and mellow with none of the fizziness in the finish that so characterized the first. I poured a second glass of the second wine, just to make sure.

Aleta sacrificed an old chair and a window frame or two to get dry kindling. The stove is now throwing out a rare heat. My clothes may be dry in a couple of days .

I found a zucchini lurking in the fridge. I chopped it and the cabbage and threw them on top of a pot of pasta shells and boiling salted water. I chopped and fried an onion and some garlic and added them to the drained pasta and steamed vegetables. I even managed to squeeze the last of the sweet chili sauce out of a care package bottle.

I found three sycamore leaves– brown, yellow and green– a really cute kid gave me at the weekend. I arranged them in my window.

I remembered to be glad that we have no actual emergency that would require use of the satellite phone.

I don’t think I’ll book my flight tonight but I’ll stay away from the computer just to be sure. Perhaps I’ll leave it alone tomorrow too…

Posted in Armenia, Blessings, Chillin', clothes, Cross-cultural understanding, drinking, Embarrassment, Fire, Food, gratitude, havjng a bad day, Homesickness, online friends, Peace Corps, Peace Corps Armenia, resilience, Stress management, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, Underwear, Village life, wine, work | Leave a comment

Throw them a bone this winter.

Let’s face it, in this part of the world, no one has done much for dogs since Noah saved a couple from the rain. That’s until my friend Sarah turned up. Sarah, who once worked as a dog-walker in Virginia, now lives in Yerevan, because her husband is working here for a while.

Eager to get out of the house, Sarah began to volunteer at the Pawsitive dog shelter. Although her Armenian is limited, she can communicate well with the 127 dogs who live in the disused Soviet factory which is Pawsitive HQ. The good news is that the dogs can run about doing what dogs do. The downside is that Sarah has to run after them through this near-derelict building, pooper scooper in hand. Most of the windows are broken. At this time of year, it is perishing cold.

The shelter is funded entirely by donations and so the dogs get fed once a day. Dinner is usually a bowl of buckwheat. Sarah knows and cares more about dogs than I do, and so she decided to launch a Santa Paws  fundraiser, vowing to get each of the 127 dogs two meals every day all winter. She asked me for some ideas to draw attention to her campaign. She knows that, while I  am not much of a dog lover, I do like a copy-writing challenge.

may i have some moreI advised that she might tap British donors, musical lovers, and great readers through  the season-appropriate use of Please Sir, May I Have Some More, and a suitably cute picture. Perhaps a shopping list for the 12 days of Christmas would prove pupular? On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a puppy chew and Chum Pedigree. On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,  two t bone steaks, a puppy chew and Chum Pedigree. On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, three french hens (bones removed) and so on, all the way to 12 drumsticks basting. In the end though I like the simple, straightforward Throw Them A Bone this Christmas. After all, it doesn’t do to kibble.

If you would like to donate to Santa Paws, please do so here.

Posted in animal welfare, animals, Armenia, giving Tuesday, Pawsitive Armenia, pets, Santa Paws | Leave a comment

A Hykakhan Thanksgiving

I was doing ok until Star mentioned mac’n’cheese with ham, part of her Thanksgiving dinner. All I could taste was the longing. Then she said, with just the faintest hint of accusation, ” If you were home we’d have all kinds of pies lined up on the counter. We’d be eating them with ice cream”. We finished the phone call and I went to bed shaky with a side of self-pity.

Then I visited Elsa. It is her birthday this weekend. Naturally, this meant that she did about three times the normal amount of work. She made up her bed for me, insisting I took it because it is the softest in the house. She made her special lentil salad, because she knows I like it. She baked gata. From the moment I arrived I have been fed: coffee and chocolate. Tea with chirr– her own dried fruit from the garden. Nut and raisin mix. Fresh fruit. Green beans with egg– another favorite. For dinner yesterday we had giant bowls of harissa, a kind of porridge mixed with poached chicken and served with garlic butter and Elsa’s homemade pepper relish. It sticks not only to the ribs but to every other internal body part. I am leaving with two liters of homemade apricot juice, Elsa’s apricot jam, a jar of eggplant caviar, about half a tonne of dried fruit “take it to the office to share”, a carrot relish, and a carton of the lentil salad. She has also packed up some cheese. “It is made in Gegharkunik– the best in Armenia”. She has also given me a set of exquisite Armenian coffee cups to bring home for Star whose birthday is also this weekend. She washed my clothes and hung them out to dry. She gave me a pair of socks in case my feet felt cold (they never do). It wasn’t Thanksgiving, but it was family. I don’t feel quite so sore about missing the mac’n’cheese with ham, or the pies and ice cream. I have much to be thankful for.

Posted in American holidays, apricots, Armenia, Blessings, Cooking, Cross-cultural understanding, family, Food, gratitude, Happiness, kindness, Local delicacies, Thanksgiving, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, Village life, welcome | Leave a comment

I know the lead singer

Mariam had never heard her brother’s band play live. She lives in Goris but the Katil band are based in Yerevan. They’re relatively new but have already toured in Turkey and I think also in Georgia. Sevad is the lead singer and of course he sings and plays for the family when he is home, but this is not the same as seeing him fill a concert hall and stand in the spotlight. Mariam was therefore very excited that the band were to play Goris on Friday night. She invited us all to come.

The big theater in a Goris city center was full when the four band members took to the stage

” Bari Yereko Goris” shouted Sevad and the lead guitarist encouraged us to clap along to the opening chords. The music– all original as far as I know– was folk rock. For most of the evening Sevad played an acoustic guitar and sang. He is handsome and dashing, just as a lead singer should be.Sevad was backed by a drummer, a flautist/duduk player, and the tall guy on electric guitar. At various points across the evening a female accompanist joined the men on stage. First she played the Qanon, a sort of harp balanced flat on the knees and played by plucking.

The speed of her fingers and the sound thus produced were astonishing. Then she played a Qamancha, which looked like a gourd attached to the neck of a violin. The instrument was balanced between her knees on the seat of her chair, and played with a long bow in the manner of a cello, although it looked more like a potbellied banjo held upright. Again the sound was exquisite.

The flautist played the duduk, Armenia’s own reed instrument, and a small animal horn. Then he brought out a set of pipes,–parkapzuk–a true cross between Scottish bagpipes and Irish Uillean pipes. They appeared to be made of cowhide and were played standing up.

The drummer was mostly busy with Tom Toms and tambourines but towards the end of the evening he strapped on a drum nearly the size of the Lambeg drums played in my native Northern Ireland. The drum didn’t sit in his chest though but rested on the front of his thigh. He hit one side with a soft-topped mallet and used a reed or a whip to beat a rhythm on the drum’s other rim.

The band had been sponsored to play in Sevad’s home city but I never quite found out by whom. The concert was completely free and was a truly great night out in Goris.

You can hear a little of the band’s performance in the videos below– but catch them live if you possibly can. The glory of the music was bettered only by the look of pride on Mariam’s face when we all enthused about what a great night it had been.

Today Sevad was on the same marshrutni as me from Goris to Yerevan. He was very friendly and smiley but I was too over-awed to speak to him. I am not used to traveling with the band.

Posted in Armenia, Armenian instruments, Armenian music, Cross-cultural understanding, Goris, Great weekends, Katil Band, music, singing | Leave a comment

Tatik talk


Haykush lives upstairs and often comes to me to sit and chat at the weekends. My role in these conversations is necessarily limited, because we speak in Armenian, but I can understand a lot more than I can say. Who knew listening could be so much fun?


“Karine has a new husband. She got married”

“I know. Aleta told me”

“But Aleta hasn’t met him. Karine was here with him today. A good man. Younger…”

“Younger? Good for her. Good for Karine”

” I know. She did right. I told her ‘you did right’. I am happy for her”

“Good for her”

“He’s a good man too. Drives a car. Has his own cows. They live in Khndoresk now. She doesn’t work. Doesn’t need to. Just takes it easy. I told her I was happy for her”

“If Karine is married, maybe you’ll be next. Maybe you’ll find a new, young husband”

Haykush bends double laughing in her seat by the fire 

“Now that would be big news… Karine had no house you know, in Yerevan. Her granddaughter went to Russia. She had nowhere. No one. It’s okay to have friends, neighbors, but if you don’t have anywhere to live….. She did right to marry him. I told her. ”

“Good for her”

“I asked her if she loved him. If she cuddled and kissed him. She got all shy and looked away”

We both laugh 

“No more selling clothes, packing them up and moving from village to village. She takes it easy now. He has his own house”

“Has he been married before?”

“Yes, his wife died. He has two daughters and a son”

“Big now?”

“Yes, big and away–they have houses of their own. They have the house to themselves, Karine and her new husband. Lots of kissing and cuddling”

We both laugh some more 

“It’s ok with the kids though. They get on well. They come and go all the time”

“That’s good”

“Yes it’s good. I told her, she did right. I am happy for her”.












Posted in Armenia, gossip | Leave a comment