Yesterday was Merelotz in Armenia— the day when people go to graveyards to honor their dead. Merelotz happens several times a year– always on the Monday after a big public holiday. (Last week we celebrated Constitution day). Offices are closed and traffic jams form on the roads to cemeteries at the top of neighborhood hills.
Merelotz is good news for florists for every family will buy a odd number of flowers -3 or 5 long-stemmed carnations– to take to the grave. Men will light a small fire with sticks collected from the graveyard and busy themselves with burning frankincense. Women will sweep the plot, polish gravestones, arrange flowers and cry. It’s a good thing.
Seeing others yearn for their dead, I feel lucky to have only the living to celebrate here. Unlike most Peace Corps Volunteers, I have had a lot of visitors. Almost an embarrassment of guests. There are two reasons for my good fortune: many of my inner circle live in the UK. While it is a convoluted journey to get here, it is a much shorter trip than from the US. Also, being much the same age as me, my folks have had time to accumulate a travel fund. That isn’t usually the case for friends of volunteers in their twenties…
So since last October I have welcomed Valerie and Richard. Brendan. Margaret, Rosie and Joanne. And then Anne and Tony. Peter is expected. Susan will come in the fall. I saw Star in Dubai in January. We are planning another trip somewhere else for the same time next year.
Each party has arrived weighed down with British cheese, Sharwood’s Mango chutney and digestive biscuits– things I miss terribly here. They bring news of other friends. They remove the need to speak English in a slow, clear voice. I hug them as though to squeeze their essence from them, and keep it here to use like smelling salts in times of crisis. I love them even more than I love Mango chutney.
I have been amazed at quite how much pride I take in showing off Armenia. I find myself delighted when I hear Tony talk with tears in his eyes about the beauty of the singing he heard at Geghard monastery. When Anne and I swam at Lake Sevan and ate fish barbecue washed down with homemade white wine (food and drink feature large in our relationship–always have). When Jo and Rosie saw the view from the Caravanserai. When Margaret hugged Elsa tight and thanked her for looking after me. When Brendan got on with Ara like a city full of burning houses. When Valerie came with me to a women’s cooperative. When Richard shared film-making tips with Artur. One of a Peace Corps Volunteer’s commitments is to share the story of her country of service with people back home. I am glad my family and friends have been able to experience Armenia first hand.
Krista came to Armenia in June to learn about the last weeks and months of her daughter’s life, cruelly ended by a car crash here last October. Hanna was a Peace Corps Volunteer who never got the chance to introduce her family to all she loved here. Krista came anyway, eager to see what Hanna had seen, and keen to meet the people Hanna knew. It was a way of spending time with Hanna without recourse to cold stones. Krista’s courage, grace, spirit and faith were humbling and heart-breaking. She congratulated Volunteers on upcoming projects. She wished a grandmother-to-be joy with a new baby. She teased one of Hanna’s many admirers and took an interest in his plans for the future. She did very much what Hanna would have done. It brought Hanna closer to us, and I hope it brought Hanna closer to her. The trip must have been exhausting, overwhelming and heart-wrenching–but I hope not without sweetness and solace. Go and see those you love in life. We are all a long time dead.