The twenty-somethings in the room honestly had no idea what it was. Grant pulled the owl-patterned, flannel cover away from the neck of the hot water bottle and showed its rubbery lips, and the brass thread for its plastic stopper.
“You boil a tea kettle and fill it up with hot water” he said “then you cuddle it and it keeps you warm. Anyone want it? It came in a care package”
No-one did. They looked both mystified and slightly horrified that anyone would consider having such a thing at anything less than arm’s length. I couldn’t work out if they feared a scalding hazard or if it was the cosy covering that was repelling them. Owls did seem an odd choice for a sleep aid. Aren’t they famously up all night?
“But you’ve had hot water bottles growing up?” I said, trying to encourage them. No-one had. These Peace Corps Volunteers, brought up in centrally heated homes, had never seen or heard of such a thing before.
“I have one” I continued. “It’s covered in purple fur and it keeps me lovely and warm in bed. I can really recommend it”. This only seemed to strengthen their resolve to avoid any contact with the contraption.
Here in Armenia there is snow on the mountains and every night the wind rattles the rusted sheeting and corrugated iron that patches our walls and roofs. Creatures scuttle, scrabble and shriek behind skirting boards, collecting what they can to keep themselves warm. Our living rooms are heated by wood-burning stoves, but firewood is expensive this year, and so we are encouraged to go early to bed. I am lucky to make it to 9pm. I usually wear a pair of tights under my nightwear—excellent for keeping the toes and the kidneys suitably warm. You’ll be pleased to know that I spared my young colleagues this detail. I imagine they wear yoga or ski accessories from sporting goods stores, or else risk frostbite, considering it preferable to a fashion faux pas. Better to be cold than uncool.
We had gathered, the young and the old, for a holiday celebration at Kate’s small apartment in a town on the main road south to Iran. Kate had made cookies—snickerdoodles, chocolate chip and brownies—welcome reminders of home. I made a vat of punch for under $10. Sparkling wine is about $2.50 a bottle here, and cognac is the national drink. Every family makes their own peach and apricot juice. Oranges are imported for winter. Apart from persimmons and pomegranates which grow wild here, they are the only everyday fruit at this time of year. Clayton had handcrafted personalized Christmas cards. Alex cut out tiny stockings to hang under a construction paper Christmas tree taped to the old plaster of Kate’s apartment wall. Kate hung a tissue paper wreath on the wooden door that protects her studio bedroom from draughts. Grant led a marshmallow and toothpick construction challenge (Alex won). Bianca wore reindeer antlers, and Allen sported a scarf that made him look like a handsome skater on a 1950s Christmas card. It was all almost unbearably festive—our own little family Christmas in our two-year home away from home.
At the village school close to one of Armenia’s most beautiful monasteries, celebrations were well underway. The 12th form girls were constructing a wall decoration with fresh pine branches. The younger kids had made a Santa for the door, although the fat one is not usually feted here. If gifts are given, it will be on New Year’s Day. When families overspend, it is on imported, special-occasion pineapples, kiwis, and special store-bought vodka to impress neighbors and relatives, and not on stocking stuffers for the kids. Apostolic Christmas is on January 6, but it is a religious occasion and no time for red-nosed reindeer, and elf-enabled excess. Then it was back to work. I listened to group of 13-year-olds labor through a story about a governess in English class. A governess? It is hard to imagine this vocabulary will get much use. The English-language materials here are old, irrelevant and inaccurate—a frustration for students and teachers alike.
16-year-old Nane and her mom and dad invited me to come to visit them in their village on the border with Nagorno-Karabakh, just as they did last year at this time. They live with Nane’s maternal grandmother now—their own house burned down a few months ago, one of four homes completely gutted after an arson attack by a neighbor with mental health problems. No recourse, no insurance, no place to call home.
“Where’s your granddad?” I asked, for I’d met him with Nane a year ago.
“He doesn’t live with us anymore” said Nane, upset. The family explained her father’s father can’t get to the outhouse at night, because it’s too far, and there is no outdoor lighting. When they moved in with their “other” grandma, he had to move an hour away, to live in an apartment with his daughter and her family. The house that burned was built by his father, and was the only home he’d ever known. Nane misses him, and he misses her. He’s been in and out of hospital since the fire. She’s had constant stomach problems, caused by stress. Nane’s mother cries as she pours the tea—made with thyme picked from the fields. Her grandmother squeezes my hand and thanks me for coming.
“It’s been terrible for them” she says, and I can see that it really has.
Nane urges me to try some rice, baked with home-dried fruits and local honey. This is winter comfort food, Armenian style.
Nane’s father, handsome, strong and sad, raises a glass of homemade vodka in the first of many toasts.
“2019 will be a better year” he says. We raise our glasses and drink to that.