I have a view of Mount Ararat from my bedroom near Artashat in Armenia. The mountain, the national icon of Armenia, is now in territory claimed by Turkey, but the people here still consider it very much their own. The peak dominates the landscape, flat land that doesn’t see much rain. Every day in Shady Side, I was awed by the beauty and size of the Bay. Now I am in a landlocked country, but fortunate to look out upon another wonder of the world: Noah’s mountain, the peak where the Ark is said to have run to ground.
I live within five miles of the Turkish border, closed because of century-old tension between Armenia, and its neighbor. All around are lookout towers, small huts on stilts from where the Armenian army can stay watchful, night and day. 1915–1918, the Turks killed as many as one and half million Armenians living on land the other side of the mountain. Not for the first time in this part of the world, borders were brutally redrawn. Every day the people in this village see the mountain they can no longer climb. It reminds them of the relatives and land they lost.
My village is much the same size as Shady Side and is about the same temperature at this time of year. There are a couple of small general stores, but there the similarity ends. There are no bars and restaurants. Certainly no dry cleaner or bank. The roads here are impacted dirt and there are no sidewalks. Some men work on Soviet-era cars in front of their houses. Others try to keep all-pervasive dirt off their Mercedes. As in America, people choose to spend their money in different ways. Older women sit outside in the sun, hailing everyone who goes by and taking particular interest in the sudden influx of Americans—20 of us enrolled in an intensive 10-week language program, to prepare us for two years’ service in this country the size of Maryland. Everyone knows we are here and is eager to talk. They ask questions about our families, and houses, and life in America. They marvel at American house prices. The average wage here is $300 a month. Every house keeps chickens—my host family has five—and a garden with apricot, cherry, walnut and apple trees. Sheep are never far away. Our village name translates to “Garden of Jewels” and Elsa has planted tulips outside the front door. They aren’t in bloom yet, but it won’t be long.
I am involved in a youth development program which the US Peace Corps has been running for the last twenty-five years at the invitation of the Armenian government. In order to prepare, I take language lessons for 4 hours every day, and then afternoon classes on the country’s economy, politics, social and cultural norms, and its development needs. Elsa packs me a lunch of red bean salad or coleslaw (cabbage is big in these parts); lavash (paper-thin bread ) rolled into a burrito and packed with egg, spinach and cheese; and a locally-grown apple the size of a grapefruit. An old plastic bottle is filled with water from the tap. No Pepsi or Coco Cola products in this house.
After class, I stop to mime a chat with Malan in the small local shop. Her shop is next to the hairdressers where I might splash out on a wash and blow out next weekend—a good way of getting to know my neighbors. I could easily do my hair at home though, where Elsa and Gevorg have a beautiful tiled bathroom with a hot, powerful shower. I have my own bedroom, much bigger than the one I left in Avalon Shores. Someone—I don’t yet have the language skills to find out who—has painted the bedroom walls in the manner of a French chateau. It might be Alla, Elsa’s daughter, who has taken cake decorating lessons. Now that I have seen what she can do with royal icing, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was the one who turned the first-floor bedroom into Marie Antoinette’s boudoir. It is quite the most beautiful bedroom I have ever slept in. The furniture is mid-century style, but lacquered, and the sheets are 70s retro. My house in South County is often described as eclectic, because it is furnished with a million yard-sale finds. It is pure serendipity that Peace Corps has placed me in the home of people who like color and pattern just as much as I do. I don’t suppose my luck can hold. In June, I will move on to another family, and another part of the country where it is likely that life will be much more basic. Other volunteers have told me about their “lick and promise” washes deploying a tea kettle and wet wipes, and many houses in this village still have outhouses. For now, I count myself lucky to have a washing machine and western toilet to use.
Elsa is in her 50s, like me. She is a great cook. I come home every night to omelette and fried potatoes, or pork and tomato stew, or maybe a delicious Armenian soup called sepass. This is made from yogurt and barley and is served with cilantro. Served hot and eaten with bread, it is the ultimate comfort food. There is always a chopped salad of an imaginative and colorful variety, a bowl of plain yogurt to use as a relish, and a platter of fresh dill, watercress, tarragon and cilantro. The children eat the herbs in handfuls. Dinner is served with homemade apricot juice and followed by coffee, strong and dark in tiny cups. Over dinner in the kitchen, the family quiz me about my day’s learning and laugh when I pull faces and try to act out incidents I don’t yet have the words to describe. The smallest grandchild, Gayane who is 3, knows the most English, for she listens to pre-school rhymes on her mother’s iphone. I don’t yet have a phone data plan and the house has no internet. The lack of digital access is the thing that that we volunteers find most difficult. Most of our group are in their 20s and have boyfriends, girlfriends, and family at home who expect to talk or message with them every day. It’s just not possible.
After dinner, we sit in the living room and watch Indian soap operas dubbed into Armenian. At the best of times, I can be overly dramatic. It is probably dangerous that I am picking up vocabulary and accompanying hand gestures from Bollywood actors. Arsen, aged 6, watches Japanese anime, also dubbed into Armenian, a unique and ancient language dating from 450 BC. There are elections here today, Sunday (April 2) and so last night we watched a debate and town hall discussion. The political make-up of the government is not expected to change here but big constitutional change is underway—a shift of power from the role of President to the role of Prime Minister. More than that, I don’t yet know. Voting is at the local school. Later, we are going to the farmer’s market. This is an Apostolic Christian country and was the first place outside the Middle East to follow Christ’s teachings, way back in the 3rd century AD. Despite this, there are few signs of active worship in my new community. I haven’t seen a church yet—or any other house of worship. Across the country, only 3% of the population regularly attend Apostolic services.
The coffee table in the living room is always piled with chocolate, wrapped candies, pomegranate, orange slices, dried fruit and cake. Neighbors, family and friends will be in and out all evening and must be (over)fed. In Armenia, hospitality and family closeness are key: all are welcome and grown children stay close. Elsa’s daughter Alla and her husband Ararat and their children Arsen and Gayane live just a few doors away. Alla’s sister Lala and her brand- new husband Edgar live in the nearest town. Lala is working in Moscow this week, but she calls home every night. Elsa works in the house all day, and has her grandchildren after school. Gevorg, her husband, goes out to work but I have no idea what he does. I only know how to say Volunteer and Teacher and he is neither of those.
I met these people only a week ago, but it is not at all awkward to live in their home. I have watched videos of Lala’s wedding. I haven’t met her yet, but we are already friends on Facebook. (I am able to connect via my teacher’s hot spot during break at school.) Gayane and I sing “No more Monkeys…” while she jumps on the distinctly non-bouncy divan in the living room. My tablecloth with the map of America is on the table in front of the window and has a large vase of artificial roses keeping it in place. Arsen has told me about the Armenian player who is part of the Manchester United soccer team and laughed when I mixed up the word for swimming with the word for shower. He hopes to swim to America, and visit New York and Los Angeles, he says. Gervorg pretends to be a professor and bellows questions at me in louder and louder Armenian tones until I put my head in my hands and say “Che gitem. Chem haskanoom.” I don’t know. I don’t understand. There is a three-bar heater in the living room, and an overhead light. There are family photos on the credenza and a framed photo of a woman I think is Gevorg’s mother in pride of place above the flat-screen TV. Every house I have visited seems to have something similar. We volunteers have compared notes and think that photos in this style –formal, solemn and large—must be a tribute to honored, dead relatives. Elsa and Gevorg had three children. Their son, Geram, died last year. He was 26 and killed in a traffic accident in Moscow. Geyorg told me about him, showing me a snap of all three of his grown children. I looked at the photo and touched his forearm. There are no words in any language. Roads and cars and drivers here are dangerous. As in all other parts of the world, Peace Corps Volunteers are forbidden to drive. Works for me.
I have to remember to take off my shoes inside the front door and change into slippers. Notice has been taken of my lack of socks. Everyone was more comfortable today when I swapped dress pants and bare feet for a dress and panty hose. My purple dress is set off with a green, chunky necklace. Alla asks me, through pointing at her own jewelry, why I don’t wear gold: voski. After many dictionary consultations, I explained, haltingly, that it is too expensive, and I tend to lose things. The conversation turns to wedding rings. Why don’t I have one? I shrug and dip back into the dictionary. Gevorg promises to find me a good Armenian man. I feel I could do worse.
Will I enjoy two years in Armenia? It is too soon to say, but the signs are good. Ask me again in June when the irises are blooming in Shady Side, and the day lilies are about to open. Ask me when Pete is serving fresh rockfish and soft shell crabs at the Brick House. Ask me when it is my friend’s birthday and I can’t buy him a Famous Grouse or a glass of Pinot Grigio at Petie Green’s. By June though, I will have been sworn in as a fully-fledged Peace Corps volunteer (the US Ambassador may attend the ceremony, because this is the silver anniversary for Peace Corps in Armenia. This is a very big deal.) By June I will know what and where my two-year volunteer project will be. I could be working in a big town, or a tiny mountain village where it is winter for 6 months of the year, and the water and electricity supplies constantly fail. In June, here in my new home, the apricots will be ripe and it will be time to make jam. Arsen’s piano performance will have taken place at our village school, and Alla will be icing a cake for her little girl’s birthday. Ask me again then.