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

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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.

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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

A Short Stay in Old Town Tbilisi

At first it looked very much like home, 12 hours drive away in the South of Armenia. Our Old Town Tbilisi accommodation was on a dilapidated street, unevenly paved and steep. Cars blocked every entrance. Roofs were patched with rusting corrugated iron. Old women swept cracked concrete in front of battered doors.

“Odd neighborhood” said my brother

“But only steps from the action” I justified.

We took the dog leg past the Art Hostel and turned left at the synagogue, picking our way across cobbles to an attractive street lined with restaurants and bars. I’d had an excellent potato khachapuri atCafe Kala the night before– and an odd experience watching a young woman work at the wine bar opposite.

“Wine tasting. Wine tasting” the young woman said to each passing group of tourists.

She was pretty and animated so some of her targets acknowledged her and smiled as they said “No thanks” or Not right now”.

Between entreaties she smoked a cigarette in the company of a skinny man with long, lank hair sitting at an empty table in front of dark steps leading down to the wine bar. He wasn’t a customer. There weren’t any customers.

Across the way, Cafe Kala–all painted furniture, faded print fabric, bright flowerpots, and jazz–was roaring with trade.

I beckoned the girl to come over to the success-filled side of the street. This is what happens when I have no one to keep me in check.

” I can’t do it” she said “your place won’t like it”.

She gestured to a waiter behind me and apparently got the go ahead.

“Just for a minute” she said.

“Why don’t you ask them Are you ready for a glass of wine?” I suggested. “And maybe have a bottle or two and some glasses on the table?” I didn’t say to ditch the boyfriend.

“The owner wouldn’t like it” she said. “I like it. It’s a good idea, but I have to follow a script”

“But the script isn’t working– you aren’t getting people in”

“We get people” she said looking doubtful. She stepped back to her lonely station.

A group did come. Five people, perhaps German, accompanied by a tour guide. The gangly young man smoked his last cigarette, kissed the girl and left. Now she looked at her phone in between stillborn solicitations.

I finished my glass of wine and paid my bill. Cafe Kala needed my table. I walked over to the girl and asked her name

“Nina”

“Tell me what is so great about your wine– why should I come and taste it?” I asked

“It’s free, it’s natural, it’s Georgian” she said and shrugged with a smile.

“Maybe say that as part of your pitch?” I suggested.

She was a little annoyed by now.

“The guy inside talks to them about the wine” she said.

“But they aren’t going inside” I said

“Some of them do”. She turned away. I moved on.

I don’t expect Nina will be there when you have a drink or a snack at Cafe Kala.

We walked down to Sioni Cathedral. Zion. But Sioni is pronounced See-oh-knee which you will need to know when you ask a taxi to drop you off there. (By the way, use Taxify– or be sure to proffer only 2 or 3 lari as a fare. We did not do this and were consistently and irritatingly ripped off.) The church has been rather overshadowed by the more showy Holy Trinity high above the city, but it is a beautiful, peaceful place. The courtyard has park benches for the weary, and a row of taps dispensing holy water. Georgian churches have taller, slimmer spires than those in Armenia which made them all look strangely out of scale to me.

To the left of Sioni as you walk down towards the river there is a goods store run by the church, presumably to help the poor. The scent of beeswax mingles with the smell of dried peppers, wooden boxes of onions, and fermenting fruit. We sampled cream cheese topped with a trickle of chestnut syrup and then felt guilty about the plastic cup and spoon

It was time for coffee. I can highly recommend Entree, just beside the synagogue. They do a marvelous almond croissant too.

The Royal Bath House is the most ornate of the sulphur baths that are the main attraction of old town. We booked a bath and steam room for two– an hour for 40 GEL and a little extra for towels. A brisk splashdown and massage cost 20 GEL each. The bathrooms are covered with tiny tiles and ours was spotlessly clean. The salt in the water makes your legs float like barrage balloons and the water is very warm. We spent more time sitting on the stone bench by the shower than we did submerged. A woman gave me my personal massage–a bracing treatment during which she sloshed buckets of hot water at me and then scrubbed me sternly with a scouring pad. A quick wipe down with a wet cloth and an instruction to have both a hot and cold shower. A man provided Peter with the same. If they’d offered facials I would have had one. Exfoliated from shoulder bone to big toe, it feels odd to be left with a dirty face.

Tbilisi differs from Yerevan in that there are arty crafty things everywhere that you really might be tempted to buy. Modem cloisonné jewelry. Tablecloths with bold geometric traditional patterns and eccentric hats made from felt. The Old Caravanserai building seemed to be best for this sort of stuff.

There are also some shockingly bad things. No one wants those ugly felt slippers and all should ignore the miniature drinking horns. I bought nothing as I am now a bona fide minimalist world traveler more into the experience than the expense.

Dinner was at Culinarium Khasheria where we both toyed with warm salads featuring herbs we’d barely heard of. The restaurant was quiet and studiedly chic. We would have ordered the pudding featuring figs but no on quite got round to taking our order. Nice set up though, and very near the baths. We repaired to the Radio Bar where a young woman with a throaty gurgle in her voice sang 21st century classics and made them completely her own.

Posted in Advertising, Apostolic church, Architecture, Armenia, Cross-cultural understanding, eating out, fashion, Food, Georgia, Great weekends, Local delicacies, Old Town Tbilisi, shopping, Tbilisi, Things that gladden the heart, travel | Leave a comment

Between a rock and a charred place.

Nane and her mother Knarik are tiny and perfect. They remind me of dolls who  dance on the top of music boxes, except they wear jeans and leather jackets.  Not the type for tutus, they wouldn’t thank you for satin and tulle.

Here we are on the front deck of Nane’s house, last New Year, with Nane’s Grandfather.

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This is what that same deck looks like now.

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The Baghdasaryan’s house in  the village of Khatsakh on the border with Nagorno-Karabakh was one of four burned down last week. It was arson, and the police have someone in custody.

The house –built by Nane’s grandfather’s father–was completely gutted. The family are safe but everything–hairbrushes, underwear, clothes, shoes, birth certificates, tools and Nane’s school computer –has gone.  Insurance is not a thing in Armenia. They have lost everything.

The family is staying at the home of Nane’s other grandfather. He died last year, and the house has been lying empty since. They have the basics, but it is not what you’d call home–especially not if you are a 16-year-old girl.

Neighbors and friends have done their best to help by donating clothes and shoes but it is hard to be grateful for other people’s cast-offs, especially when they don’t really fit. The family needs cash–and that’s what their neighbors don’t have to spare.

As soon as I posted news of the fire, friends of mine from the US and UK immediately offered to send money. They don’t know the Baghdasaryans the way I do, but they could instantly imagine the horrors the family are facing. Unfortunately, it is not easy to send money to Armenia. Bank transfer fees would eat up most of the donation–and at this point I don’t know a swift code or iban number for Nane’s father’s bank account. These things can be hard to explain when the family’s teenager is the only one who speaks any English.

A friend in France has offered to send a laptop. A petite friend in Italy will parcel up some clothes. But would they ever arrive by mail? Could we get them through customs? Many less valuable parcels have failed to make it to me before…

“Ah,” you say, “but this is where Just Giving or Go Fund Me can be invaluable…”

Tragically, it is not that simple. Those crowdfunding sites don’t accept page requests from Armenia, and don’t transfer money to Armenian banks. It’s an unfortunate legacy of decades of corruption here.

A campaign has to be set up with a US or UK bank account and the person whose name is on the account then has to be responsible for transferring the money collected to the family. If you gave money to support Emilia Simonian–who, by the way, is off to Cambridge next week–thank-you–you’ll know that the Go Fund Me page was in her Grandmother’s name. Rosa lives in LA. The Baghdasaryans have no relatives anywhere but Armenia.

“I know,” I hear you cry. “YOU have a US bank account. Why don’t YOU set up a campaign and then use your ATM card to draw out the funds raised and pass them to the family?” It makes perfect sense–except that Peace Corps rules forbid me to accept money on behalf of anyone else. There are very good reasons for this: it could open impoverished volunteers to temptation; it could cause volunteers to be accused of fraud or skimming; and it moves the focus of Peace Corps service from capacity-building to fund-raising.  I am not allowed to do it.

Each offer of help that appears on my Facebook page breaks my heart. I so appreciate the generosity of friends who get that Nane’s dad –a teacher–needs a jacket to wear before he can go back to school. That Nane’s mum needs make-up to feel like herself again. That Nane needs trainers that aren’t in the shape of someone else’s feet. I hate that I don’t know how to match their willingness to help with the family’s desperate need.

Any ideas out there? For now, your ingenuity may be more valuable than your offer of cash.

Below: The House now–and in happier times, last Nor Tari.

Posted in Advice, Armenia, Arson, clothes, Corruption, Cross-cultural understanding, family, fashion, Go Fund Me, kindness, Peace Corps, Peace Corps Armenia, shopping, Things that make a difference, Village life | Leave a comment

When World’s Collide

I am back home in Goris and enjoying a perfect dinner of Irish Wheaten bread with Armenian butter, salad, and cheese.

The bread comes from Knott’s Bakery in Newtownards a no-nonsense town just outside Belfast, Northern Ireland. The tomatoes probably grew under plastic in Ararat Marz, as did the cucumber, sweet and juicy. I bought the salad makings from the greengrocers–a brother and sister– not a hundred steps from where I live in the South of Armenia.

The milk for the cheese came from Nelli’s father’s cow, grazed on the grassy slopes above Verishen village. The cheese was made by Nelli’s mother here in Goris.

The bread, a taste of the first place I ever called home, was a gift hauled 3500 miles from Millisle, County Down. I hadn’t met Isobel before she handed over the wheaten. Isobel, who is married to an Armenian raised in Iraq, found me through this blog. In return for my updates on everyday life in Armenia, she sends me regular reports from the Ards Peninsula. It is very cheering to receive photos of the view from Isobel’s kitchen window– water stretching out towards Scotland —and to get a report on this year’s rose show at Lady Dixon Park. Then, oh joy, Isobel offered to run a few messages for me, bringing bread supplies all the way to Yerevan.

“Could you manage a bag or two of dulse as well?”

I couldn’t resist the additional request.

They sell this dark, dusty, dried seaweed at the newsagents in Millisle so Isobel was glad to comply. I had eaten both bags of the salty snack before I even got back to my Yerevan hotel on Sunday night. Armenians get their iodine rush from walnuts. I like walnuts but I am addicted to the chew and swallow of Celtic kelp.

Dulse devoured, I broke into the bread before the marshutni made it all the way back to Goris. Luckily Isobel bought two loaves.

Isobel is a find even when she is not on a wholemeal mercy dash. The visit to the rose show and the talk of grandchildren in her electronic dispatches let me know that we are around the same age but in fact we have more in common than our years. We each have daughters to be proud of. Sons to worry about. We shared some enjoyable eye-rolls on the topics of Brexit, relatives, and Armenian shipping. It was not only a huge relief to be speaking in English, but a real indulgence to use the verbs of my childhood. I dandered (walked slowly). I hirpled (lurched or limped). I was alternately scundered (embarrassed) and cowping (falling into a deep sleep). It was great, so it was.

Tomorrow’s breakfast will be a local-laid egg fried in a pan with a wee bit of potato bread. A great start to a new day in Armenia and a lovely way to bring my old home a little bit closer.

Isobel. I’m very glad to know you.

Posted in Armenia, Cooking, Cross-cultural understanding, Food, friendship, gratitude, identity, Ireland, Local delicacies, Millisle, Northern Ireland, Nostalgia, online friends, packing, shopping, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, Village life, Women | Leave a comment