Sitting on a chair in Ani’s kitchen, I had a flashback. Ani, my new next door neighbor,was drying my hair and was about to style Elsa’s. It reminded me of when we were children in Belfast, and used to go to our neighbor’s house for haircuts. June lived at the end of our street and did hair in her spare room. One day she put my hair in rollers and styled it as though I was thirty-five. It was 1971 and shortly after my mother died. I was ten years old, and June thought I should look and behave like a grown woman. My hair, which had hung quite happily to my shoulders, was hair-sprayed high on my head like a Gorgon helmet. I was horrified. Luckily so was my father, who did a double-take when I came home looking like Sophia from the Golden Girls. I combed out the stiff curls and resumed use of my bobble.
Life in this village in the shadow of Mount Ararat is very much like growing up in Ireland in the 60’s. Women make pin money doing neighbors’ hair. Small children squeal with delight sitting on their father’s knees and holding the steering wheel for short drives. Households grow their own fruit and vegetables. Wives make jam, pickles, relish and sauce to see them through the winter. Husbands and sons are very rarely seen in the kitchen, except to eat. Bedrooms are not heated. Everyone shares the same bathroom. People speak to each other when they pass in the street. Kids play outside without hovering adults, and old women ask all young women when they will get married. In the last week, my memory has been jolted many times. I feel I know where I am. It may not be very PC or 21st century to say so, but for the most part I feel fondly secure and at ease.
I imagine for the younger volunteers, particularly the women, there is more of a culture shock. It is clear that early marriage and homemaking are the done things here. Answering endless questions about one’s marital status and prospects can be tedious. For women used to wearing t-shirts and jeans, or going out in a tank and running shorts, it is a shock to be asked to wear a dress, tights, make up and even heels to work, and to be advised to cover up at all times. Women– even me–are not allowed to entertain gentlemen callers in our rooms, and reputational damage may result from having a gentleman caller at all. This is difficult for a group of people who have traveled the world sharing tents with almost-strangers and forming study groups with peers of all and any gender identities.
Of all our 42 volunteers, I am probably the one with the least international experience. We have women who have taught in Uganda and South Korea, Guinea and Hungary. Men who have hiked across Jordan, learned Arabic in Lebanon, and camped out in Mongolia. Let’s face it, my only overseas experience has been in America itself. But what I lack in air miles and war stories I make up for in time travel. I have been here before, 40, nearly 50 years ago in Ireland.
I can cope when I see a toddler bringing a half bottle of cognac to her father, so he doesn’t have to move. I first saw it in a hotel in Donegal in 1968. I get it when the woman of the house says “Eat. Eat” and piles everyone’s plates high. My Aunts Annie and Lizzie used to do that, in the days before people worried about portion control or calorie counting. I remember our immersion heater, and my father getting up to turn the water on 15 minutes before we all had a wash, drying ourselves more often than not with the same scratchy towel.
Today my Armenian language teacher, a lovely woman of 30 or thereabouts, told the story of her broken night’s sleep. She is staying with us in our border village, far away from her home in the capital city, Yerevan. At four in the morning she was woken up by mass activity in the street “my heart was thumping. I was sure the Turks had invaded and were coming to kill us in our beds. I thought ‘it’s happening again and I will never get home'”. The noise subsided and eventually Sona calmed down enough to go back to sleep. At 6am she heard the same rampage. By now it was getting light and so she got up to look out the window. A large flock of sheep were being hastened down the street. She had to pick her way to school through piles of sheep droppings.
Sona told the story against herself–the city girl terrified by country sounds. But her story revealed something else: a deep-seated fear of history repeating itself; the terror of being small and vulnerable and surrounded by people who you feel will do you harm. Her story took me back to Belfast again and the nights in the early seventies when my dad would go out. I’d lie in bed taut for the sound of bombs in the city, or the welcome crunch of his car pulling into the drive. Like Sona, I was never in fact in any danger, but the fear was real. As I said, I’ve been here before.