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

Night Terror at Tatev: a Story For Halloween

“We need a pumpkin if you want to have ghapama” said Tatik, standing in front of the stove, her back to me.

I thought she looked thinner than usual, but it was hard to tell. As always, she had a wool scarf wrapped around her head, covering what was left of her hair. Her sweater was topped by a long woolen vest. Her thick tweed skirt had a blanket layered over it, tied clumsily round her waist. On her feet, slippers covered a pair of men’s socks that reached to her shins. The gap between skirt and socks was filled by a sturdy pair of opaque black tights, — hosiery probably older than the average Peace Corps Volunteer. It was only the end of October, but already Tatik felt the cold.

“We should go to Tatev to buy a pumpkin” said Tatik. “Call Gevorg before it gets dark”

“We’ll be here all night” I complained. Gevorg was not the most reliable of the Lada drivers

“Oh, I don’t think so” said Tatik, ever emollient.

I made the call and went to grab my coat and bag. Tatik was in the front seat by the time I got to Gevorg’s car.

“How are you Liz jan?” Gevorg asked as usual. As I climbed into the back I noticed he didn’t turn to look at me. Tonight he had a beanie pulled down low over his ears, touching the collar of his worn pleather jacket.

“Voch Inch” I said. “Not bad for the time of year.” It seemed hard to believe tomorrow would be the first of November.

img_7654The road to Tatev was shrouded in fog. We drove in silence though the cold, damp grey. There were no other cars on the road.

“Will the ropeway run on a night like this”?” I asked

“Oh the ropeway will run tonight” said Tatik chuckling. “You can stake your life on it”

Gevorg laughed grimly, his hand stretching for the gear stick as we made the last hairpin bend on the steep road to the cable car terminal.

“What happened to your hand Gevorg?” I asked, shocked at a glimpse of spreading patch of bloody sinew and naked bone.

“You’ll find out soon enough”

img_1314The car park was empty. I fumbled for my bag and shrugged into my coat as the other two left the car and disappeared into the mist. I hung back. No need for me to go to the ticket office. They could buy three local tickets and save a few dram. If I went to the desk, I’d be charged tourist price. I edged my way to the turnstile at the entrance to the ropeway, and checked my phone as I heard Gevorg and Tatik walk up behind me

“All good?” I asked distractedly  img_1334

“Good as it will ever be”.

The ropeway cabin was empty as it swung into its docking station.

“No attendant?” I questioned. That was unusual.

“Not even a skeleton staff…” said Tatik.

“We can take care of it ” said Gevorg from just behind me. I could smell the vodka and garlic on his breath as he placed a bony hand on my spine to urge me through the gate.

I ran to the front of the cabin. I wouldn’t see very much in this weather, but it was still nice to have prime position for the ride across the gorge.

The cabin began its glide and I turned to ask Tatik to tell me the story of an abandoned village I knew lay far below.

The sight of two of them caused me to clutch the handrail by the cabin window for fear I would buckle and fall.

Their flesh had disappeared. Fully clothed, their bodies were nothing but bones and blood. Tatik’s one front tooth hung from raw meat where her gum should have been. Eyeballs moored by blood-soaked strings stared madly from her mud-grey skull. Gevorg’s finger, pale and knuckled, pressed on the button that powered the cable car. His other hand hung skeletal from his coat sleeve, clutching his beanie. His fine Armenian nose looked like a bird’s beak below the smooth dome where his hair used to be.

img_3957“Wha? What happened?” I cried, bringing my hand to my mouth. Tasting my own blood I reeled in horror. My skin too was gone. Very much alive, I looked like the walking dead.

“Voch Inch” said Gevorg and shrugged his shoulders with a terrible hollow rattle.

“Happy Halloween” said Tatik and the lone tooth lolled where her tongue should have been.

The cabin docked and I made made a run for the door, my trousers flapping loosely now my calves and thighs were no more.

“Gata, Gata” The village sellers cried from their stalls by the side of the pathway that leads to the church. Swathed as usual in aprons, sweaters, men’s coats and blankets, they too were skeletons studded with shreds of decomposing gristle.

“They don’t have pumpkins” I said, stupid with fear. “They don’t have pumpkins. We should go back home.” Back to where we’d be whole again. Back to the warmth of the kitchen and a world where craniums were covered, and flesh was reliably Shakespeare-solid.

“No turning back” Tatik was striding towards the monastery from where a long low keening could be heard.

img_5595Inside the church women stood with their skulls bowed, their lace scarves threatening to slide to the floor. Men fumbled in their pockets, wondering how soon they could clutch a cigarette between still-white metacarpals. Babies,cradled against clavicles, made fists with tiny nail-less hands, desperately looking for an earring or an ear to clutch. A skeleton priest failed to fill his capacious cassock. His elaborate hat, too big for his head without its thick black hair, had slipped over one eye. A horrible mix of ghoul and clown, he made the sign of the cross, candle light bouncing off his pearlised finger bones.

“How soon can we leave?” I tried to mouth to Tatik– a difficult maneuver without lips and tongue.

She shook her head dolefully. I could see her neck vertebrae turn like knobs on a stove. She pointed to a small dark door.

“Take the tunnel. ” she whispered “We must join the others at the abandoned village.”

I cupped my hand round the hole where my ear used to be, desperate to hear her.

“You’ll be okay.” She said “They can see you are an American from your clothes. You’ve got your purse with you, right? They’ll give you a good house I’m sure. I’ll be in a garage, close to the cadaver chickens. My pension doesn’t stretch far enough, even in the other world… ”

She shrugged and sighed, her breath frosting the church’s incense-scented air. It would take an eternity for the return cable car to come…

I hope my Armenian friends will forgive me for this story, written for a spooky story-telling contest organized by our Peace Corps Volunteers here. Halloween is not observed in Armenia, with many communities considering it the Devil’s Holiday. My intention is not to offend people with this belief, but to bring a little bit of American and Irish tradition to lighten this time of year. You will be completely safe if you visit Tatev monastery–but it’s true, there is an ancient, disused tunnel that runs down to the bottom of a deep gorge. Who knows what’s down there? 

Posted in Apostolic church, Armenia, Church, creative writing, Cross-cultural understanding, Halloween, Peace Corps, Scary stories, story-telling, Syunik Marz, Village life, Writing | Leave a comment

New Wine in Old Coke Bottles

img_7978New wine in old bottles

Le Chateau Atasunts est arrive! (No idea how to add the missing accent– punctuation, not pronunciation) Yes, Ara has delivered 12 liters of brand new wine, just out of the bathtub, and fresh in the bottle. Of course he and his father grew, picked and pressed the grapes themselves.

When I pour my first Atasunts 2018, I will use a standard wine glass, and not one of the gilt-flourished fairy cups that are commonly used to serve wine in Armenian households. Here, wine is a genteel ladies drink and is served by the thimbleful so women can join in the toasting at celebration dinners. Where there is a larger glass on the table, it is to be used for compote–fruit juice–or tan–a yogurt drink. Many women just raise their dainty wineglass lipwards and don’t touch the contents at all. A lot of wine that begins life in the bathtub, ends up down the sink. Apsos. It’s a pity. I on the other hand, risk social shame by swigging it down and asking for refills. About 8 acorn cupules make a full-sized glass.

Men here drink homemade vodka, also in shot glasses. 8 of those will render even a rhino gibbering and incomprehensible. My fellow PCV Clayton Davis, having recovered from over-indulgence at a children’s party, writes about his latest vodka experience below. I urge you to read it– great writing, very funny, and a real insight into Armenian hospitality.


Posted in Armenia, Cross-cultural understanding, drinking, Food, friendship, Homebrew, Local delicacies, travel, Village life, Vodka, Women | Leave a comment

Stepping into Fall

For the halt and the lame, living in Hayastan can be a challenge. No set of stairs will be the same depth or width from top to bottom . Handrails are a rarity. And in some cases– even, notably, Yerevan’s famous Cascade–the steps will simply stop at top or bottom, without a destination reached. Shallow steps crafted from the same stone do not have their edges marked with colored tape– my cortical vision often fails the test.

I and my poor, sad knees will not miss these jarring surprises, nor the fact that the flat surfaces on each side of any door are rarely at them same level. The entrance to the marshrutni office in Goris is particularly bad. I have lost count of the times I push the door open and step into nothing. The drop is fully eight inches. Usually I order my ticket while sprawled on the floor with people stepping over me. It isn’t dignified.

Set against this though are the things I am already pining for. I will leave Armenia in June 2019 which means I will never see another Apricot season here. I am already eating double the amount of jam to make up. What will I do without fresh thyme tea? Only three more hair cut and colors at $10 before I go back to paying $150…

It is coming into Ghapama season– my favorite Armenian dish. This is pumpkin stuffed with rice, dried fruit, nuts and honey. I intend to eat it at every opportunity for although the ingredients can be found back at home, I am sure it will never taste so good again.

See the recipe here. My friend Ruzanna is one of the cooks featured.

Ghapama recipe

Posted in apricots, Architecture, Armenia, bad knees, Cross-cultural understanding, disability, health and safety, Local delicacies, travel, Yerevan | Leave a comment

Hajo to His Excellency

2017-07-06 13.48.02

Volunteers Pat Hogan and Liz Barron are treated to lunch by Ambassador Richard M. Mills Jr., July 2017

The outgoing Ambassador of the United States to the Republic of Armenia gets what it’s like to be a volunteer. After treating four of us to breakfast in Goris in April, Richard Mills and his wife Leigh Carter had to hurry back to Yerevan. “Stay and finish everything on the table” he instructed.  We did, and anything we couldn’t manage to eat, we put in our pockets: those hard-boiled eggs and raisin rolls would be welcome later.

Ambassador Richard M. Mills Jr. had to return at speed to Armenia’s capital city because the Velvet Revolution was underway. The revolution has been popular here for many reasons, and an unexpected side effect was that it gave all of us here–Americans and Armenians–a few more months to enjoy the thoughtful generosity and support of His Excellency and his equally excellent wife. The US State Department like their plenipotentiaries to stay put in times of volatility and change. But now the Mills’ three and a half years are up, and they leave Armenia this week.

During their time in Armenia, Leigh and the Ambassador have been very good friends to many people and causes, includiAUA_8661ng National Poetry Recitation Contest. Leigh has been a judge at the finals for years, and the Ambassador typically comes with her to cheer on the contestants. In 2018, the date of the finals had to be moved, because of the revolution, and the new date clashed with a family visit Leigh had planned. ” Would my husband do?” Leigh asked, and so the Ambassador gave up a Saturday to listen to 60 school kids reciting poems in English. Even last night, just hours before they will leave Armenia, the Mills’ were still doing their best to create opportunity for people here. At their farewell party, they were sure to introduce potential employers to likely employees–“here’s someone you should know”. They showcased an up and coming musical trio–other smart party bookings for the Tiezerk band will surely follow. There were lots of artists there, mingling with Ambassadors from all over the world, with big, empty residences to  fill. Leigh and the Ambassador use their standing in service of others. I didn’t see either one of them eat or drink anything at the party–they needed their hands free, so they could keep on giving.


Ambassador Mills, with Anahit at our Creative English Camp, July 2018. And with Peace Corps Armenia Country Director Sonny Luu and Irish Poet-in-Residence Damian Gorman at the same event. 

Leigh is a former US State Department Foreign Officer herself, but she has no formal responsibilities in Armenia, nor will she in Canada, where the Ambassador is posted next. Unbidden, unpaid, and deliberately unobtrusive, Leigh chooses to join her husband only when a project particularly interests her. She is often to be found at the opening of a playground or reading to children in English. Think of this and their roles in the recitation contest: the Mills do things many parents would pay to be excused from, and they don’t even have a kid in the class…

When we were working on the program for our contest finals, I asked for a picture of Leigh to add to the agenda. But Leigh no longer bothers with such niceties as headshots. She doesn’t have a smartphone. When she travels with her husband, they must have a driver and a bodyguard. Alone, she drives herself everywhere. At cafes all over Yerevan, waitstaff know how Leigh likes her coffee and she knows their names. These people don’t need a photo–they can see who Leigh is, inside and out.

2017-06-05 21.01.01When dressed in a suit, Ambassador Mills brings to mind a tarpaulin-covered charcoal grill. The garb is well-fitting and entirely appropriate, but it masks his true value and purpose–his power to sustain, and his spark and warmth. The first time I met the Ambassador he was giving a geo-political briefing ,and of course he wore a collar and tie.  He administered the oath we swear to uphold the U.S. Constitution the day we became fully-fledged Peace Corps Volunteers. Then too, the suit was an essential. On other occasions though, he has looked much more comfortable in a small-check shirts and cosy sweaters. When he spoke at Hanna’s memorial  service here–serving not only as a representative of the American government, but also as a stand-in family member for the Huntleys, and very much a close relative for the rest of us—we were pleased to see he stuck to the sweater. It made him much more at one with us and with Hanna than the suit would have done.

By nature, the Mills are both introverts, most happy with a good book and their own thoughts.Their cat is the most company they need. It is a testament to them both how hard they work on connection, and how much energy they put into making other people feel and look good. Armenia misses them already. Canada will be lucky to have them.


Snatched photo of Leigh Carter arriving in Kapan. You gotta love the blue shoes and socks

Posted in Ambassador Richard M Mills Jr., America, Armenia, armenia’s revolution, Cross-cultural understanding, Damian Gorman, Diplomacy, friendship, Hanna Huntley, National Poetry Recitation Contest, Peace Corps Armenia, Poet In Residence, Summer camp, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference | Leave a comment

Twin Peaks

Heavy lifting. It’s what bras are for, and all of mine in Armenia had proved unequal to the task.

Of the six I brought with me from home , one had pinched from the get-go, two had lost a wire each, and another was so far beyond capacity that everyday overspill threatened to become an eye-threatening outrage. That left one functional foundation garment. For some months I have had to stay home on laundry day to avoid being a low-hanging hazard.

They sell bras in Armenia of course, but even the ones with cups the size of a toddler’s head seem to be padded. Goodness knows my shirts are under enough strain without having to accommodate extra insulation in my upper body region. Bras here are cheap too, made with tinseled nylon and underwires no thicker than sparklers. I begin to itch just looking at them. I seek shelving rather than something spindly. I’m a girders and rebar girl.

For a while I considered double-bagging, because I particularly like the two bras that had each lost an underwire– one left and one right. But no one has time for 6 sets of hooks and eyes every morning…

It was time for tough choices: would I opt for a lop-sided look, continuing to alternate two bras, each with only half their hardware? Would I learn to live with unsightly overhang? At no point did I consider the bra that pinched– Volunteer life is hard enough without risking running sores under each armpit.

Then along came Susan, swinging a bag from Marks and Spencer. I had trusted her with the relevant dimensions and she had bought London’s supply of (strait) lace.

As previously noted, it is perfectly possible to be properly fitted for a bra, try it on in the comfort of a cubicle, and then discover on day one that your bosom is snared in a steel trap. What chance then of a good fit from a gifted bra?

Well what a turn up for the boobs. The bras– confections of fuschia filigree, gold underlay and midnight blue froth –are holding up surprisingly well. A strap has yet to slide off my shoulder. No wing can be blamed for a welt. Each bridge sits tight to my breastbone and I can bend, stretch and swivel without public outcry. I am lifted and separated to an enviable degree. Thank you Susan, First Lady of Full-Coverage.

Posted in Ararat, Armenia, Beauty, Blessings, bras, clothes, Cross-cultural understanding, Design, Embarrassment, fashion, friendship, gratitude, Khor Virap, Mount Ararat, Peace Corps Armenia, personal failings, shopping, Social niceties, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, Underwear, visitors, Women | Leave a comment

Northern Ireland and Armenia: bordering on —well, what?

Above all else, politicians and peace-builders in Northern Ireland — not two completely overlapping groups— know that people find it hard to change. It is 20 years since the Good Friday agreement and many stumbling blocks to lasting peace and integration still remain. For the most part, Catholic and Protestant children are educated separately. Distrust festers in both the Unionist and Nationalist communities– the local assembly has not met for nearly two years because power must be shared and the elected politicians from the two major parties aren’t prepared to sit down together. It is hard for everyone to forget terrible wrongs– a dad shot at the front door of his home. A bride-to-be killed in bar, or a schoolboy blown to bits at a bus station. Knowing obstacles to change made Neil Jarman and Alex Attwood careful not to be directive in their talks in Yerevan last week. They were in Armenia to share the history of the Peace Process at the invitation of the Caucasus Institute. Could the Northern Ireland experience provide fresh thinking on how Armenia might resolve tension with its neighbors, Turkey and Azerbaijan?

Author and Neil JarmanAlex Attwood talks to the Manooks

We get everywhere: a little bit of NI in Armenia

Of course in Northern Ireland members of embattled communities live within the same (contentious) state and border. This is not the case here. Huge ethnic population shifts– and terrible violence –100 years ago with Turkey and less than 30 years ago with Azerbaijan mean that Armenia is now 98% homogenous, squeezed between neighbors it does not speak to and will not trust. The fear of invasion and war is real.

The part of Armenia that I live in is close to the border with Nagorno-Karabakh, land that Azerbaijan claims and that Armenia hotly defends as an independent republic– most of the people there are ethnically Armenian.

My part of Armenia-Syunik Marz- has desecrated cemeteries, empty villages and buildings pockmarked by bullets from the 1994 war with the Azeris. Armenians who once lived in Baku now live in houses they swapped with Azeris as two populations abandoned everything they had and fled with their lives. As in Belfast, there are landmarks that will forever be associated with bloody atrocities. Close to where I lived in Belfast, the La Mon Hotel. Where I live in Armenia, the fields close to Nerkin Khndoresk where 4 Armenian shepherds were beheaded by their neighbors.

In Northern Ireland, civil society development probably started with the Peace People. Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan won a Nobel Peace Prize for their cross-community outreach but it would be another 20 years before a tentative Peace could be agreed– and another Peace Prize won. International support from the US, the EU and the UN urged on the negotiators in 1998. I was involved in neither initiative. A cynical schoolgirl the first time round, I was long safe in London by 1998. My disengagement, to my shame, was not built on fear, pain or loss but rather on a kind of fed-up fatigue–‘what difference will it make anyhow?’

Everyone agreed that with the current occupant of the White House and turmoil in Europe it would be hard for those two global forces to align to help the Caucasus today. Plus Russia has a strategic interest in this region, but cared not about NI. The balance of world powers is complicated. In Armenia, a number of international organizations do offer grants for work that crosses cultures and borders. The applications are few–civil society organizations here don’t want to partner with people in Baku no matter how much money is on the table. I am sure it is the same the other way around.

The people–local, British, Irish and international– involved in the Good Friday agreement focused on what they could agree on, and now what they could not. The goal was to make sure every group with a stake got some of what was most important to them. It stopped the bombing and the shooting and allowed the economy to get a toehold. There are geraniums now outside the Duke of York pub. The Europa Hotel has all its windows. Heavens, there is even an IKEA. Even so, there is still much work still to be done– particularly now Brexit threatens to upset the fragile Armagh apple cart.

Alex Attwood, a nationalist democrat bruised by swings to extremism in Northern Ireland politics, nonetheless continues to show patience and perseverance. His mantras: even when no common ground is apparent, work hard to seek it out. Talk and listen with everyone you can. Prepare yourself so that when an opportunity presents itself to move towards peace and consensus, you are ready to act. Act decisively and show progress quickly. Don’t assume difficult issues will melt away. When you run out of options, don’t be afraid to ask outsiders for help– they can bring perspective and energy the key players may lack. Alex was also particular to credit the role of women– many of them new to politics– to the progress made in NI.

As I say, Alex was honest about setbacks and reverses in Northern Ireland and eager not to be prescriptive here. But his words were moving and galvanizing, at least to this Northern Irish-American in the room. A new energy suffuses Armenia since the VelvetRevolution of the Spring — now, people here do think things can change, at least on the home front. Who knows what may be possible next? I appreciate the irony that I am more involved in civil society development here than I ever was on the place of my birth during all its most difficult years. But know this Armenia: I am no George Mitchell but if you need an outsider I am here, and I will do my best to help.

Neil Jarman, Liz Barron, Isobel and Paul Manook (from Millisle) and Alex Attwood

Posted in America, Armenia, Belfast, Borders, Caucausus, Cross-cultural understanding, fear, Learning, life lessons, Millisle, Nagorno-Karabakh, National pride, Northern Ireland, Peace Corps, Peace Corps Armenia, Terrorism, Things that make a difference, travel, velvet revolution, war, Women | 3 Comments