School’s out.

I turned up to my village English club this afternoon to find students sadly lacking. “Voch inch” I said to myself like a good Armenian ” it is a lovely day for a walk”. I picked my way down the stony hill admiring the light over the gorge. “Amerikatsi”. An old woman sitting on a rock outside her gate sounded the general warning.

I said hello in Armenian and she asked me where I was from ” Goris” I said ” I live in Goris”.

“What are you doing here?”

“Walking, looking and taking photos. It is a beautiful day”.

” She’s walking, looking and taking photos” reported the woman to no one in particular. “She thinks it is a beautiful day.”

I continued my walk past a donkey saddled for work, a cow or two grazing by the roadside and another couple of cows sitting in the sun. A woman was sitting on her step shelling walnuts.

“Ooh walnuts” I said

” You are welcome to eat some” she said. I did.

By then I could see the younger half of my English class playing volley ball in the street, a length of string strung between the houses. The girls ran towards me squealing. Kisses all round.

“We don’t have class today ” Shushan said. “I see” I replied “so I am enjoying myself and having a holiday”

“It is my birthday” said Heghine ” come and eat cake”.

We sat outside Heghine’s mom’s kitchen door and had cake and peach juice. Heghine’s mom didn’t seem at all surprised to find an American stranger speaking English in her back yard. She made me a cup of coffee. The view, the company and the food were all delightful. The girls picked some narcissi and tulips for me and went back to their game. Class. It’s overrated.

Posted in Armenia, Beauty, Chillin', Cross-cultural understanding, Food, friendship, Happiness, joy, Language, life lessons, Nature, Syunik Marz, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, Village life, young women | 1 Comment

What Next? Spare tires on the Pirelli calendar?

IMG_3412It is fair to say that Haykush and I consider ourselves unlikely pin-up material, particularly perhaps in this picture. Nonetheless, we are the poster girls for this year’s Peace Corps Armenia Annual report, and thus we are big in Washington DC. In addition to sliding across the desk of our new Agency director at Peace Corps HQ, we may appear in the pigeon holes and in-trays of every Member of Congress with an interest in our agency’s budget and impact. Thank goodness our results are impressive. This may make up for the shock our Senate appointee and elected representatives experience when they see my toothy grin and Haykush’s stony stare. What next? Spare tires on the Pirelli calendar?

A poster is a good idea, even though I fear this one may not get much wall space in the Capitol or Administration buildings the length of Independence Avenue in Washington DC. A poster draws attention and leaves an impression, and it doesn’t require much reading. On the back, our poster does have lots of data–and pictures of my fellow PCVs in action– but I confess I haven’t read it, being more than averagely interested in the image on the other side ;). Based on what I know about annual reports, and all other kinds of promotional materials, it may never get read fully by anyone. But that is not the point. It is important it exists,  and indicates purpose, activity, results and heft at a glance. The beauty of a poster infographic is that purists can peruse it if they wish, and everyone else can stick pins in it, or use it in folded form to line the bottom of the budgie cage. Very few twigs and branches were sacrificed to make the paper used in this form of report.

In no other world would my face make it to A1 poster size but on Peace Corps Planet I’m the real deal: a face like mine indicates an interest in applications from older people, and simultaneously sends a message about the inclusivity of our organization. Thanks for choosing me Peace Corps Armenia.

Haykush and I are proud to represent.emojii

You can download your own copy of the annual report here, and hang our poster where you can see it everyday. You’re welcome.

Posted in Advertising, Armenia, Data Analysis, Design, Diplomacy, I don't believe it, Peace Corps, Peace Corps Armenia, Pin Up | 5 Comments

I gotta be cool, relax

It has been a temples-pounding, head-aching, jaw-clenching kind of month and I didn’t really see it coming. Oh for sure I  knew that March and April would be busy, with 10 regional poetry recitation contests to deliver, and more than 700 students and their occasionally ditzy teachers to marshall. But busy doesn’t bother me. I like busy. It is enforced stillness I can’t bear. I am also keen on control. And action. And deadlines. It is an unpleasant and slightly  militaristic part of an otherwise right-brained approach to life that emerges in times of stress. I blame my father, and all those years working at the BBC.

hurry up.gif

My rigid insistence on thinking ahead has served me well until now. Living in Western Europe and then in North America, my natural preferences for check-lists and schedules and nailing things down fits with the cultural psyche. ENTJ personalities like mine do well in a society that rewards results. Personalities like mine do not do so well in Armenia, where planners are pariahs, and the last minute is still at least a minute too soon.

It is easy to understand why Armenians don’t over-concern themselves with concepts like control. Let’s face it, every time they think something is settled–a border, a landscape, a population– something comes along and wrecks it all. When you’ve lived through a genocide, an earthquake or two, and the arrival and departure of the Soviets, you can be forgiven for throwing your hands in the air and shrugging Voch Inch (an all purpose Armenian expression equivalent to “no matter”, among other things). Still, for a people who drink so much coffee, they are surprisingly laid-back.

In America we get things organized early, so we have time and energy to respond to an emergency or something unforeseen, should it occur. In Armenia, my friends take exactly the opposite view. Something WILL go wrong they reason, and so you might as well wait to see what it is before wasting your effort on activities that might turn out to be totally unnecessary in a new reality. Come. Sit. Eat. Have a coffee and some chocolate. It will be alright.

liz lemon

In between the blood pressure surges, near-panic attacks and sleepless nights, I have learned a couple of useful things about how the world works. It seems people still turn up at the right place, at broadly the right time even when you haven’t quite got round to updating the website, emailing the details, or placing a reminder call. It is not the end of the world if  the pens weren’t packed, or the taxi doesn’t come. The problem can be solved. There is always time for coffee and chocolate. Warmth and good-humor and care are more appreciated by participants than neat rows and orderly lines. The two systems couldn’t be more different, but the evidence of the last 9 contests suggests the Armenian approach to event management is every bit as successful as the American one.  I know. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. But it works, it really works.

I would be lying if I said that I am now completely comfortable with trusting the universe and leaving the details to Friday night, but I am at least learning to cope. I practice NOT saying ” have you called the bus driver?” and “how many trash bags do we have in inventory”. So what if the man who may or may not have the certificates won’t be here until Thursday? There’s always Friday (blessed Friday) after all. Does it matter if an event billed to start at 10am isn’t quite up to speed until closer to 11:30am? Look! See! Everyone’s enjoying themselves–now they have  time to network. If it doesn’t kill me, it will make me more flexible, content in the here-and-now (not a place I usually live), and able to focus on what matters most. This, I suppose, is what people join Peace Corps for.

I’m at a loose end because it is only Monday. No point moving towards the printer for days yet. Why bother the janitor at Saturday’s school?–he won’t be thinking about us just now. This morning I couldn’t find the prize bags. What of it? I expect they’ll turn up… Best if I  make some coffee, and have another mini Twix. Breathe. Just breathe.

BTW, in everyday life I usually test ENTP on the Myers Briggs Type Inventory-it is only national events with tight turnarounds that bring out the Commander in me. 


Posted in Armenia, Chillin', Cross-cultural understanding, Diplomacy, Education, errors of judgement, fear, Myers Briggs, Peace Corps, personal failings, Stress management, Wellness | Leave a comment

Swirling for the dyspraxic

My approach to drinking wine is very much like my approach to playing chess. I  am terribly keen, but not very well-informed. This can cause me to make poor decisions, both at the bar, and on the board.

While my chess has shown very little improvement despite a series of lessons, and constant practice, I decided that I should tackle my ignorance on the topic of red, white and rose. I signed up for Artem Parseghyan’s two-evening course at the Yerevan Wine Academy.

2018-03-26 20.26.02Artem is everything you want in a wine-maker from a country that has been busy with amphoras, juice and presses since Noah was a boy. He has ink-black hair that follows him at an angle of 45 degrees, and a nose that can get deep into the glass. Another great thing about Artem is that he is not at all pompous about wine. He knew we were there for the tasting, and encouraged hearty consumption, although he himself used a little silver bucket and spat instead of swallowing.

We learned how to sniff appreciatively and how to swirl. Artem says sweerl and it is adorable. I was bad at sweerling–lots of messy splashing–and so Artem introduced me to swirling for the dyspraxic. I am to keep the base of my stemware on the table and turn it in furious circles.

We learned why some screw-top wine can smell bad when it is first opened (cabbages, farmyard, rotten eggs) and how to dispel this either by decanting the bottle to let some air in, or to swirl the glass furiously until it dissipates. “Unless” said Artem “you are having a party. In that case nobody will notice, or mind”

We used tiny adorable bottles of scent to test our powers of identification. I got 6 out of 10, largely because I alone in the class knew the smell of hawthorn. I don’t think it is an Armenian thing…

We discussed color and complexity and finish and I learned that there is a chart of names and shades that wine-makers use when they talk amongst themselves. Artem’s own Trinity Canyon Vineyard 6100 rose I consider to be onion skin. He describes it as salmon. I am pleased to tell you it tastes of strawberries and cream and its finish lingers deliciously long.

We learned to read labels from the old world, and the new and had a fabulously interesting discussion about why Armenian wines are now described as “historic”. In 2007 a 6,100 year old winery was discovered in Areni in the Vayots Dzor region of Armenia where most Armenian wine is still made today. It is fair to say therefore that Armenia was one of the very first nations on earth to make wine. Georgia and Turkey also get shout-outs for this. But in the time of Soviet centralized economic planning, Georgia was designated as the wine producing region, and Armenia was told to make brandy. This meant that Armenian wine production dwindled to almost nothing, and many of the ancient grape varieties are today nearly extinct. Luckily progress in grafting (or something) means that some of these are now being reclaimed. I had started drinking by then, so some of the details escaped me. So Armenian wine is neither new world, nor old. It is historic and it is your duty to drink it so it isn’t lost and gone forever. Get started.

We finished the evening with a Sauternes and picked out its place of origin on a map of France. There was much talk of honey and apricots and sunshine. We talked ignoble rot, if you like. All week I have been remembering to hold my glass by its stem and to sniff, sweerl and tip my glass. Artem told us how to pour wine as well as how to drink it, and finished with tips on how to clink. Make clink buddies he said. You can never have too many. That’s my kind of evening class.

Now it’s time for more practice…



Posted in apricots, Armenia, drinking, Education, friendship, joy, Local delicacies, National pride, Soviet Union, wine | Leave a comment

Easter Basket, Armenian style.

In front of the cathedral old women sold coronets of mimosa and forsythia, and long rods of pussy willow. The young women clamored for the crowns, knowing they’d look cute. There were buckets of daffodils and bunches of hyacinth and scilla. Inside the church, glorious singing, clouds of incense, and people celebrating the Palm Sunday communion that marks the end of Lent. The place was packed but no one seemed to stay for the whole service. They brought their kids for a blessing, lit a candle or two, and then took off as the next shift arrived. I admired the altar, unveiled for the first time in nearly forty days, and kept my eyes peeled for palm fronds. But palm leaves don’t seem to be a thing at the start of Holy Week in Armenia. You’d think they’d bring them in from Iran along with the dates…

In Armenia you can buy a single egg for 60 dram– about 12 cents–and this is money well spent for there are few things as fresh and delicious anywhere on earth. In real life I don’t like eggs much, but here I crave them–yolks so creamy and satisfying there is no need for butter. Tradition has it that eggs for Easter should be boiled in a pot with onion skins and thus dyed the color of Christ’s blood. But today at the shuka there were paper twists of dye in many colors, and trays of wheat seeds germinated to make small fields of Easter grass– a soft landing for the decorated eggs. Several times I was invited to buy stumpy bundles of small sticks. Not sure, but I think they may be willow root to be shared as a symbol of new life. Also at the market, crates of ducklings, chicks and white rabbits with pink ears. Easter can’t be fun for everyone.

Walking away from the cathedral I passed teenage boys weaving crowns–competition for the older flower-sellers. In the park, other boys tore limbs from trees and stripped them of their branches: the first crew in an impromptu Easter assembly line.

Posted in Apostolic church, Armenia, Christianity, Church, Easter, Food, Great weekends, Happiness, Homemade decorations, Lent, Local delicacies, spring, Things that gladden the heart, travel | Leave a comment

Rage, Rage Against the Dying of our Children’s Light

Yesterday everyone I know in America marched. The gay grandads marched. The Arizona teacher raised on an island filled with Armalites marched. The TV producer mom flew home from a shoot to stand in front of the White House and shout, because her teenage daughter wanted her there. They and others like them want to make the guns go away. The parents of pre-schoolers paid babysitters and made placards and marched. An East Coast Aunt and a Great-Aunt rallied. An Uncle by marriage took to the streets. Students in their millions spoke out for themselves and their safety at school

In Armenia I spent the day in a school auditorium filled with mismatched chairs and excited children. I was in Gavar. On the other side of glorious Lake Sevan, a similar school hall in Hrazdan was packed with equally excited kids, all competing in The National Poetry Recitation Contest. On the face of it, American schools are “better” than those in Armenia– better equipped, better resourced, and run with transparency. Children don’t get hit in American schools. But they do get shot. In Armenia, we have no armed guards at the schoolhouse door.

Yesterday as girls in white blouses with bows in their hair spoke the words of Angelou, and Oliver and Frost, I listened to their beautiful use of English and exulted. “Don’t give way to hating” said the boys reciting Kipling. “We were made for fun” said the girl with braces and the pink coat quoting Yusuf Komunyakaa. Adrian Mitchell’s poem Human Beings was popular: ” Look at life,all that beauty, you are human, we are human, let’s try to be human. Dance!

In Armenia, parents send their boys and girls to school with a hug and a kiss and look forward to seeing them warm, happy and vital at the end of the day. This is how it should be in every country in the world. Be like Armenia my America. More verse, less violence.

Peace Corps seeks donations for a creative English summer camp for 60 Armenian school students who have excelled in the National Poetry Recitation Contest. The camp is a project of the Hanna Huntley Memorial Fund. If you would like to donate to support this initiative please go to:l

Posted in 2018, America, Armenia, Cross-cultural understanding, Education, fear, Fundraising, gratitude, Great weekends, guns, Hanna Huntley, Happiness, march for our lives, Mother/daughter dynamic, National Poetry Recitation Contest, no guns in schools, Peace Corps, philanthropy, Poetry, Safety, Terrorism, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel | 2 Comments

Worth reading: A Post From Fellow Volunteer (and Irishman) Clayton Davis

History Lesson #1: Confessions of a Real Fake Irishman in Armenia
— Read on

Posted in Armenia | Leave a comment