Sealed with a Kiss

The woman at the post office had to lend me one of their super-strong plastic sacks and then hail me a taxi. I live only a few hundred yards from Hay Post but my birthday haul of presents was just too big and too heavy for me to carry home. Six parcels of various shapes and sizes–lots of love boxed and taped and mailed all the way from the United States and from the UK too.

At home in Washington DC I am lucky to receive even one card in the mail on my birthday. Friends might treat me to coffee or buy me a drink, but there is a general agreement that congratulatory Facebook posts are all that's needed to mark the beginning of another shuffle round the sun. It is not so now I am in Peace Corps and living thousands of miles away. My friends and family–fellow travelers all– know that home comforts are particularly sweet when you've spent months in a country where nothing is familiar, and where the stores don't carry the peculiar range of things you suddenly find you miss. Lynn's parcel contained fish sauce– essential for the Thai flavors I love– and sriracha. The sriracha bottle split in transit, but luckily Lynn is an expert parcel packer. The bottle was dispatched in a plastic baggie and so the pads of construction paper, sheets of alphabet stickers and jigsaws she also sent arrived without sticky chili stains. She cut the cover pictures from the jigsaw boxes and used them to line the bottom of the box. As long as I can work out which image matches each pack of pieces, I should have plenty to keep me busy across the
snowy months of winter in Armenia. Home entertainment was a feature of Brendan's parcel too. A game of Monopoly featuring the landmarks of my hometown. Local newspapers so I can keep up with who's newly wed– or newly dead. From my brother, a face cream I love but can't buy here. From my sister, sturdy underwear supplies and a book to help me identify Armenia's wild flowers. From one of my oldest friends, a tote bag that rolled up small enough to post.

I know other volunteers have been thrilled to open packages containing well-worn t-shirts they never thought they'd miss; family photos; jars of peanut butter. Of course it's not the things themselves that matter, but the association with well-loved people and places. The knowledge that someone misses you enough and thinks about you enough to put together a goodie bag and get it in the mail. Write your own far-flung family members today. They'll be glad you did.

Say No To Permanent Erections

The 4-year old poked me in the back with a toy gun and then held the revolver to my temple. My physical reaction was visceral, intense and surprising. I bristled with rage. I wanted to kill that kid for violation, attempted intimidation and intended harm.

I took the gun from the child and told him in no uncertain terms that he was not to treat me or anyone else that way. I don't suppose he'll listen.

The boy's motivation doesn't matter. Nor does it matter that he was "only playing" , or that he was simply copying what he has seen on TV, or seen other kids do. What matters is how the experience made me feel.

I know guns are deadly weapons. I know villains often threaten to shoot victims in the back, or at the temple, to intimidate them into doing the bad man's will. To me, a gun– or a representation of a gun– is a threat. I know to other people in my America they are a liberation.

There is a difference between my reaction to a gun, versus, say that of a Marine or a 2nd amendment champion, or an Olympic-standard marksman. They can have their guns. They can use them responsibly. But not everyone is as disciplined or morally upright as the good guys are. And I still don't want any kind of gun at my back or in my face. That should never happen to me.

Thanks to a well-reasoned and civil debate I heard this week on NPR, I have come to understand it is the same with statues. If a large lump of metal in a public place makes any part of the population feel threatened or harmed it should be taken away and put somewhere where its perceived power can be responsibly managed or diffused. Anyway the story of the person commemorated can be better told in a book, or a film and stored forever electronically. Statues are old school in an age of selfies and Snapchat and Shutterfly.

I didn't always feel that way, mainly because the UK is coming down with colonial clutter that, in most cases, people are blind to, ignorant about, and therefore unharmed by. What we don't know can't hurt us. (And there is a hypocrisy in using the endowment of (the certainly hateful) Cecil Rhodes to fund the fine scholars' program, while tearing down his effigy. To be sure, those funds were accepted before there was a brand reputation expert in a marketing department urging caution when it comes to picking patrons, but modern-day moralists can't have it both ways. If the statue goes, the money goes because both are tainted. If Rhodes' name is good enough for the scholars' program then it's hard to argue his face is not good enough for the front of an Oxford College building he also paid for. But I don't want to get distracted from the scrap metal argument in general here….)

I got thinking about Belfast. I wouldn't like it if the sectarian murals– loyalist or republican– that decorate gable ends if different parts of my still- segregated hometown suddenly popped up in Ann Street or Cornmarket where I'd have to pass them every day. I'd be offended by all of them. Everyone would be offended by at least one of them. They are not in our central public spaces. And they never should be. It is the same with General Lee and co in the United States. Move the statues to the historic battlefields. Tell the stories in tours and manuals and surround sound films but keep them from our central squares and public streets because they make many of our people feel sick and angry, belittled and scared.

At the Stormont Parliament buildings in Belfast (now deserted because local politicians can't agree long enough to form an assembly) there is a larger than life size statue of Edward Carson, once leader of the Unionist party and the mover and shaker behind the creation of Northern Ireland when Ireland gained its independence from Britain nearly a century ago. The statue was erected in Carson's lifetime. In a city where almost everything is bitterly contested, I can find no evidence that nationalists have ever tried to get this statue removed. Perhaps Carson's pointing finger stiffens the spines of Sinn Fein and the SDLP every day they go to work? Famously, former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams supported the launch of a Carson Cup awarded to champions in the game of hurling. Hurling is like field hockey on cocaine and in Northern Ireland, is taught only in Catholic schools. Carson learned to play when a student at Trinity College Dublin in the years before partition which is why the winners cup bears this name today. The Carson Cup is the equivalent of the Jefferson Davis cup for Go Go dancing, the Robert E Lee cup for R&B, or the Stonewall Jackson cup for creative work with corn rows. Go figure.

The only other political sculpture in Belfast is that of trade unionist and socialist Jim Larkin which has been attached to a gable end in the newly-fashionable cathedral quarter for about ten years. It is possible the well-heeled of South Belfast could object to his anti- capitalist presence but I think a protest march is unlikely–unless they send their cleaning ladies and "the wee man who does the garden"'to do their dirty work for them.

Here in Armenia, statues of Lenin, Stalin and Marx have been assiduously removed, though effigies of Tolstoy, Pushkin and Chekhov remain. The dates of removal are documented. I am sure that across the centuries statues have been erected and removed as battles have been won and lost, and borders have shifted. I can find no mentions of statues for Turks or Azeris on what is now Armenian soil. Presumably, if they ever existed, they disappeared when those populations fled. Despite the absence of political statues here, there is not a man, woman or child in the place who couldn't talk you through every war and slight since trouble with the Persians in the 4th century AD. Proof that history endures even when men (nearly always men) in metal get melted down

My research on the vexed subject of statues brought me to the sad story of the Statue of Humanity, erected in 2009 in a Turkish village close to the Armenian border. The statue, visible on both sides of the border, depicted two halves of a man, each holding the other's hand. It was commissioned in support of a Turkish-Armenian reconciliation project and lasted just two years. Citing aesthetic reasons and calling the statue a "monstrosity" President Erdogan ordered the statue demolished in 2011. It seems our Presidents are art critics now, for Trump claims to find the confederate statues "beautiful"– part of his argument that they should stay. Times change, tastes change and there are at least two sides to every (hi)story. I am forced to conclude that no erection should be considered permanent and if yours lasts too long then do what the advert says–seek help and bring the thing down before permanent damage ensues.

I don’t know myself at all.

Gazarnaguine they call it here. Carrot orange. The color of my hair ever since I was born. Admittedly my hair– much like the rest of me– has had a little help from the bottle this last twenty-five years, but still it is apparent to everyone that I am authentically a redhead. Until now that is.

My friend did my hair. She's cut and colored it before, with excellent results. She charges the Armenian equivalent of $10– less than a tenth of the price I regularly paid for the same service in Washington DC. She's good at what she does.

"Do you have my color?" I asked Ani when I stopped by to book an appointment. There is not much call for gazarnaguine hair dye in a land of Kardashian lookalikes, and I wanted to be sure.
"Oh yes" she said airily, but I think that she may have been one or two squirts shy of the usual gingery mix. Now my hair is a gothic shade of beetroot and I don't look like myself at all.

Other people say it is pretty of course– what else can they do?–but I continue to be startled by the stranger I catch sight of in the mirror. She looks like Marian "Bomber" Price and not like me at all. At first I thought make-up would help, but current supplies

only seem to worsen my new Provo prison pallor. Everything I apply blot and reapply is too light and yellowy for my new black Irish looks. Elsa bought me an emerald green top for my birthday. I tried it on pre-hairdo and everyone agreed it was 'shat siroon'– very beautiful. Now the green with the black blood looks like a Halloween horror show. The beetroot demands a complete wardrobe reboot.

"It'll wash out" said Ani sheepishly as she ran the thinning scissors through my layers one last time. "It's dark but it will fade". Meanwhile I need to get used to the new me: black cherry hair and whey curdle skin. Note: a search of Google images reveals that Belfast bogey-woman Marian Price is now a strawberry blonde.

Pleased to know you Picsart

We only know each other through social media but as soon as we met for real, Ani and I both went in for a hug. It was the same when I was introduced to Madlene, another member of the Picsart team I had chatted with only on Linkedin.

pics5Ani and Madlene are exuberant, connected, super-friendly people, and so it seems are the rest of the 400-strong Picsart team. This is probably just as well because they interact in one form or another with 95 million people every month. Picsart is a social media application and website that allows users to upload their photos (450 million every month–and growing), edit them, add text and effects, and share them with a special someone or a special everyone, either through private messaging or in a public forum. Think Facebook meets Instagram meets Snapchat, but more varied, arty, techy and cool. Better yet, download Picsart on your phone, or check out the website on your laptop. Playing with Picsart is easy and fun and everything you are likely to want is free.

Picsart is a real Armenian success story. Started by two young men in Yerevan in 2011, it now has offices in San Francisco and people in Japan and China. Most of the staff are in Yerevan–designers working on stickers celebrating a trending Korean pop group, technical wizards using both real and artificial intelligence to develop new products that will know what you want before you do, and marketers making sure there is always something new and fun and quirky for their mostly teen users to do. The company has its pick of young engineering, programming, analytics and creative talent, all educated in Armenia.  Everyone speaks English. The company offers free lessons for those who want to brush up.

pics3So what do people do on Picsart? Want to do something for Madonna's birthday? Design your own celebratory sticker and channel your inner pop diva. Mad about the weekend's events in America? Check out #lovenothate and add your own peaceful picsart to the mix. Wrung every FB like you possibly can out of your own inner circle? Share those summer beach pics with strangers and develop a whole new fan base. Disappointed with your own creative efforts? Never mind–pick the remix option and let a complete stranger have a go at making art out of your everyday images. Madlene's team use algorithms not only to spot what kids care about in Mumbai, Manchester and Minnesota, but to weed out bullies and haters. There are backgrounds and effects and add-ons to suit every taste. A lot of what's posted looks like the cover of school-girl copy books of old–doodles and cute animals and hearts with boys' names–but there is some real creativity, taste and innovation on the site too. Billy, for example, has 649,322 followers worldwide and mostly photographs nature.

In a country where design is often dilapidated Soviet-era, or where there seems to have been no design sensibility at all, it is a pleasure to visit Picsart's offices in Yerevan. They rent space in the TUMO building–itself a marvel of design and innovation–and their warehouse is all poured concrete and bean bags, swing seats and succulents. There is table tennis. There is foosball. There are tropical fish. Everyone looks glad to welcome a middle-aged visitor, and people rush to get me a proper office chair when they see me looking warily at a bean bag. The office is entirely open plan. The founders are out of the country at present, but they sit in amongst everyone else when they are at work. There are meeting rooms, but the doors are glass. This means I see a morning meeting take place. The participants stand up and lean on the backs of office chairs while they talk. Standing is healthy, keeps people focused and alert, and means the meeting lasts only minutes. A sign on the office wall reminds people that their most valuable asset is time–please pay attention in meetings, it says. Rooms are named and themed for the world's greatest artists and quotes from Da Vinci, Picasso, Saroyan and Van Gogh encourage greatness.


Picsart is mostly funded by advertising–five second interruptions that break into an enjoyable hour or two of adding thunderbolts, and tessellations and a rose gold tinge to your iphone snaps. They do sell bundles of stickers for $2.99–100 variations on unicorns, mermaids, hairstyles, ninjas or muscle cars– but I was sufficiently diverted by free tools that allow you to melt and manipulate photos, shift perspective, and create confetti-like clouds from picture fragments that I needed no other stimulation. Here in Armenia, I meet too many well-meaning foreign types encouraging locals to set up small businesses using old-world creative skills–wood-carving, hand-knitting and a hundred ways with raffia. I am as fond of crafting as the next little old lady, but it is not the key to a golden life. At Picsart, these clever, original, and irreverent young people are building a global business using both their hands and their brains. Give them a keyboard, a stylus and a server loaded with data, and they will create the future, one social media sticker at a time. I have been smiling all day because I had such a good time at Picsart. Thank you Ani and Madlene. Glad to know you.



For Anahit

Anahit is 15 and things are going her way. She brims with possibility and could sell self-esteem. She has plenty to say and everything to do. In her case, this includes geometry, at which she excels, and languages, of which English is only one. She has already aced out of piano school. For all I know, she is sporty and arty too. She is one of Armenia’s brightest and best.

There are aspects of Anahit that remind me of myself at the same age, although geometry always eluded me, I have come to language learning late in life, and I can’t play the piano. We both love words, we both love an audience and, at 15, I had that same toss of the head, curiosity, and unstoppable desire to leave a good and strong impression on adults who I believed could help me unroll another few yards of my life’s golden pathway.

I met Anahit in one of my very rare encounters with the Armenian Youth I joined the Peace Corps to serve. My work usually involves writing documents and making phone calls and sitting in meetings and doesn’t very often involve actual young people. Usually, I like it that way.

But on this particular day I had ventured from behind my desk to make a short film about The National Poetry Recitation Contest, an annual event in Armenia run by the NGO I work with, and Peace Corps Volunteers. I love the National Poetry Recitation Contest. It is just exactly the kind of thing I would have thrown myself into at school (supposing, of course, I had been able to speak a second language). Beautiful words and endless opportunity to discuss them. Memorization (for which I have a knack) and glorious competition on platforms parochial, regional and national. The chance to talk and flirt and get to know other like-minded teens. The chance to meet people to look up to– people who aren’t family or teachers, people who can make things happen.

Anahit took National second place for her school year in last year’s contest. She will enter this year too of course. Next year she is likely to be unavailable– she hopes to be selected for the prestigious FLEX English language exchange program and if–when–she makes it, will be studying in the US. Ms Ghazaryan, Anahit’s teacher, always gets great results at the NPRC. While filming. I asked her why she considers the contest worthwhile “Speak to Anahit” she said “She can tell you. She can show you.”

It only took her 90 seconds.

Armenia is a land full of well-educated people, where one third of the population live in poverty. At Anahit’s age, too many young people here have already given up hope of a great life. Young women in both cities and villages will look after in-laws, rise early, make jam, keep chickens and sacrifice themselves for their children. They will do this even if they also go out to work. Young men will go to the army and, if they are lucky, come home and look for a job and go to work in Russia when they can’t find one. There will be no holidays, no ordering interesting sounding books online, no eating out and no new laptop when the old one shuts down. Education and hard work by themselves are not a passport here. It takes drive, and connections, a dash of brilliance and money, yes money for young Armenians to reach their full potential. Just because Anahit and others like her are self-assured does not mean they have an easy life or a certain future. Thousands of other Anahits and Aras live in villages where there are no English language books, no cars fit to drive to the city so kids can take part in a contest, and no money for snacks or a night in a hotel. This matters, for if these young lives lie fallow, Armenia has no future. There will be no one with the spirit and sense to lead the country There will be no one left to work so Armenia can prosper, compete and grow.

12th form national winners 2017 from schools in Yerevan, Vardenis and Kapan.

For Anahit and for every Anahit in Armenia who has drive and grit and ambition I will sit behind my desk every day and write funding requests and make phone calls for donations and take sponsor meetings so they all have the chance to enter that contest, study those beautiful words in English, develop the ability to imagine, feel, reason and debate and stand tall on a stage with their arms outstretched. This matters. It is not just about showing off and winning prizes –although those are important parts of growing up to be powerful– but about incentivizing hard work, clear thinking and competition. It is about excelling in a world language used by every global company; knowing how to walk across a stage and command a room; understanding and demonstrating that different tones and emotions and emphases are necessary in diverse situations; learning to wait in line, manage nerves and pull off a great performance. It is about getting ready for the rest of their lives.

This is work I love. I can’t wait to get back to it tomorrow. You go Anahit.

To learn more about The National Poetry Recitation Contest, Armenia please click here.  Last year, 453 students from 117 schools took part. This year the goal is 680 students from 170 schools–a tenth of all schools in Armenia. Your involvement can help young people travel to one of 10 regional contests, and to the national finals in Yerevan on May 5, 2018. This year, the contest will also be supplemented by a five-day summer school for 60 national finalists. 

I made them myself

I have taken my attempts at host country integration a little further than most Peace Corps Volunteers in their first three months of service, in that I have seen the inside of an Armenian operating theater, and a large number of Armenian medical professionals have seen the inside of me. I am without a gallbladder, but my surgeon thoughtfully kept the quite startling collection of gallstones, so I still have those. In this land of stone and rock it seems only fitting that I should have my own pebbly pocket-collection to carry around. This time the pouch containing them will not be linked to my digestive system. I have walked a few steps, eaten a baked apple and brushed my teeth and hair. I have clean pajamas. I am pretty much ready for anything.

Lunch Potato Dinner Potato

Bile has always been my favorite body fluid, with its Elizabethan associations of vituperation and coruscation. Imagine my distress then, when I learned that, due to a gallbladder silted with more stones than an Armenian gorge, my own bile was failing to make it from my liver to my duodenum quite as it should. This revelation was shared by Dr Tehmira who drew a picture, spoke Armenian and waved her hands a lot. Dr Tehmira speaks small-talk English, much as I speak cocktail party Armenian. We are both fine at "how are you?" but it all goes downhill after "wretchedly ill and racked with pain, thanks".

Dr Tehmira is an infectious diseases expert at Goris hospital, the first of two hospitals I have road tested this week. She is pretty fab, especially when she put me on a five day diet which she insisted must be strictly followed: potatoes, rice, pasta, bread. She spelled this out using clenched fists and speaking very slowly. "Potato lunch. Potato dinner". It has become my motto.

Unfortunately, I had no opportunity to show just how well I could follow Dr Tehmira's diet because I got moved to the Nairi hospital in Yerevan, and for the last 12 hours have not been allowed to eat anything at all. Dr Samvell's orders, issued in English. He is the surgeon who will remove my gallbladder later today.

The contrast between the two hospitals in Goris and Yerevan is worth noting. On Sunday, I seemed to be the only patient in my wing of the Goris hospital. Peace Corps Pat and I (she came with me and stayed overnight–forever indebted) arrived and were ushered into the office of the director, a man who liked a cigarette. Then we were shown to a twin room where the beds had crazy retro mismatched sheets. The room had a small fridge. Oh, and a beautiful view, plus a big window that opened. I had 3 bags of saline fluid and Pat had exactly nothing. There is a fridge in the room so your family can bring you food. If you don't know a cook, or forget to pack, you don't eat.

Now I am in Yerevan, kind people from Goris are constantly calling me up to say they have a relative in the capital who can bring food to the hospital. Their thoughtfulness amazes me, but there is no need. I am strictly nil by mouth, and there is a trolley that comes round supplying all manner of tempting delights if I wasn't. . New patients get two bottles of water on check in, and a pair of periwinkle blue pajamas in lawn cotton. There is piping on the pockets for God's sake. These seem to be the equivalent of those awful backless gowns you get in American or U.K. I am wearing my PJs with the fly at the back– old hospital habits die hard.

In Goris, patients walk everywhere, often pulled along briskly by a nursing aide. Here I am wheeled about, allowing me to smile wanly and bestow regal waves on patients, visitors and medical teams I pass. Yesterday a lot of people said Hello in English as I glided by. In regulation pjs with no clothes, accessories or shoes, how did they know I was American? My brother (by text) pointed out that how ever integrated I feel, I probably will never look Armenian. I blame the freckles.

In Goris, there is no patient shower and the patient bathroom is, frankly, a bit of a shock to someone raised with hand washing protocols, Purel dispensers and those cords you pull if you need help while using the loo. There were none of these but instead trashcans overflowing with remains of patients' picnic lunches, and someone's laundry soaking in the handbasin. Pass the kidney dish Peace Corps Pat.

In Nairi, apparently founded by the wife of a former Armenian President, bed linen is a restful blue and white, picking up on my Pjs and veins and off-setting my newly yellow skin and eyes.

I have a fully tiled bathroom (nothing in Armenia is fully tiled) with a shower. By the bed there is a button I can press to call a nurse. Unfortunately it is decorated with an icon that would bring UNICON out on strike in a minute. Trained medical professional as 1950s chambermaid.

A little help from my friends. Part One

The spiced chickpeas were in one bowl and the eggplant curry in another. The rice was cooked, although not very well. It was clumpy and sticky despite having been soaked and rinsed. Why did I buy basmati? If I can't cook it in the U.S. why would I suddenly develop the ability in Armenia? Take me back Uncle Ben…

There were grilled peaches and toasted walnuts. I hadn't been able to find crumbly cheese or salad greens, but a trip to the market ought to sort that out. Except that I couldn't go to the market. I could barely make it to the bathroom.

I had invited a house full of people to a housewarming party on Friday and I was sick. Oh so sick. I couldn't cancel–volunteers were already on their way to Goris from far-flung parts, and my invitations to new Armenian friends had been haphazard and often issued through a mutual acquaintance. Who knew who would actually turn up?

My flatlette needed work to become party central. I began to roll up the rugs on the living room floor. Then I just lay on the living room floor and gasped a bit. That's where I was when Aleta walked by, on her way to feed the hens. Realising that I hadn't the energy to clean (to be fair, a condition Into which I frequently fall), she immediately began shaking, vacing, sweeping, washing and wiping in the living room, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. I lay on the sofa and was grateful. When I thanked her profusely, if weakly, she said " It's nothing. I will always help you" . Then: " I'll bring you the green beans, cucumbers and yoghurt" Oh yes, there were two more dishes to make…

Dominic and Ryan stopped by to see if I needed anything for the evening. They  were expecting an order for beer, or perhaps to be asked to lug a watermelon up the hill. Instead I told them that I couldn't be around food. Could they organize everything in the kitchen? They said they would. Clayton arrived by marshutni and was dispatched on a beer run.

The hour of the party approached. I didn't get washed. I didn't get changed. I didn't brush my teeth. There was no talk of make-up. I just continued to lie on the sofa. Dominic, Ryan and Clayton got busy in the kitchen and I could hear a very competent clatter of pans. Aleta came with the green beans, which she'd cooked on my behalf. Armenian visitors began to arrive bringing big bags of plums, beautiful bars of chocolate, a huge cake, and bottles of wine. I directed guests on where to leave the bounty and men emerged from the kitchen to offer drinks. I had moved from supine to somewhat upright and was propped in a chair. My capacity to chat, always the last to leave me, was functioning well and the fact that much of the conversation was in Armenian removed my need to contribute much anyhow. Pat arrived and knocked the peaches and walnuts into a salad with some greens bought by Dominic.  The men got the table set and brought the food out. Everyone but me ate heartily. At the end of the meal I had yet to move and so Mary cleared all the dirty plates from the living room. Later, she and Pat did all the washing up and putting away. "Thank you so much. I owe you" I said as my party crew prepared to leave. Afterwards I lay in bed and marveled at how can-do, uncomplaining and obliging everyone had been. It's what makes them good Peace Corps Volunteers I suppose.

On Saturday morning, waking up to a nice clean house and immaculate kitchen, I mixed some special Peace Corps rehydration salts with a liter of water and drank the concoction. I perked up quite considerably–enough to do some work. At lunchtime a message from the next slew of volunteers arriving from out of  town: "We're in Cafe Deluxe. Join us".  Why not? I thought. Do me good. I got dressed–washing still felt like too much of a challenge–and walked five minutes into town to meet them. I ordered and ate some mushroom soup. Delicious in the serving bowl, it was –an hour later–less attractive in a bathroom bowl. I went back to bed leaving my 3 incoming house guests to fend for themselves. I did make a brief reappearance on Saturday evening to watch them eat a meal they'd made from party leftovers. I went back to bed at 9pm (Again, to be fair, this is my regular bedtime, but usually I try harder with guests). Because I went to bed, they pretty much had to go too. Some weekend. At no point did I ask anyone about towels or blankets or glasses of water. Some hostess. On Sunday I got up at 6:30. Jim and I were to go on an off-road trip to see Armenia's ancient etchings– petroglyphs– and I was terribly excited. Well, I had been when we organized it. Less so on Sunday morning. Eventually, noting that I was still sitting around in my t-shirt and underwear, couldn't face breakfast, and seemed to be having difficulty walking more than 20 steps, Jim gently suggested that I should stay home. He closed with the reminder that there are no restrooms and indeed no trees or shrubs in Syunik's stone desert. I went back to bed, too dehydrated to cry. KJ and Amanda went to visit Tatev Monastery while Jim took to the hills. They all brought sun cream and lots of water, for the day was unseasonably hot in Syunik Marz. Which made it all the more odd that I was shivering with cold. Shivering so intensely that my limbs were lifting off the bed. I rolled myself in my duvet and prayed to get warm. After about an hour I prayed simply to die. When I woke up 4 hours later, now swimming in sweat, KJ and Amanda had come home. Amanda sorted out more pills and a new bottle of rehydrating salts and did that brisk, efficient straightening and tidying that nurses do–so reassuring. KJ began a campaign to call the Peace Corps doctors. Pat came to visit and called the Peace Corps doctors. Which is why she and I are now in Goris hospital. But that's another story…

For now, just hear how amazed and touched and happy I am that people I met less than 6 months ago, people I may only have spoken to 6 or 8 times, were prepared to go so far out of their way, and their weekend, to do their best to help me. Problems were solved, treats were provided, misery was substantially reduced, and kindness was in constant supply. The humor and the stories helped. The company was infinitely restorative. I hope none of these folks ever need help like they offered me. If they do, I hope I am up to the challenge. I seriously doubt I would be as flexible, insouciant, empathetic and insistent. Thanks y'all. I really do owe you.

Pictures: Jim Daly

Sights I hope to see for myself someday at the Armenian Stone Henge and the Ancient Open Air Art Gallery

Sunday lunch

The mass at Tatev monastery is a real workout. The service lasts at least two hours, during which the congregation stands. At intervals the faithful must dip to touch the floor, kneel for protracted periods on slabs of stone, and then stand up  again without any chair or rail support. There is much making the sign of the cross– enough to work those troublesome upper arms. At one point the Apostolic priest races round the church chased by those anxious to kiss a four-inch bejeweled cross he carries for that purpose.  He is followed by two spear carriers and again the worshipful must lunge and stretch to reach and kiss the icons borne aloft.  Later another priest holds a heavy bible triumphantly above his head, as though it were a boxer’s championship belt. The chap with the chasuble is Olympic standard. The choir work their chest muscles to good effect. You can listen to them singing here.

I was worn out just trying to keep a silky scarf (supplied to all women as they enter) from slipping off my super-shiny hair and so about an hour into the service I left the church in search of a cool breeze and a seat in the shade outside. A number of other women my age had done the same thing. We sat on a bench beneath an almond tree and chatted. Yes that’s right. Chatted. In Armenian. It all went surprisingly well. Anahit moved so she could get closer to me. “Come for coffee” she said. I couldn’t see anyone with coffee, or anyone selling coffee but I was sure I’d understood. “I have to wait for my friend” I said rather primly, for Lilit, lithe of limb and sound of knee was still doing Apostolic aerobics. “She can come too when the service finishes” said Anahit firmly, and took my arm. Lilit was just coming out of church as we passed the door. Refreshment sounded good to her. Anahit led us to a long, cool stone room tucked away to the side of the church. The room had a table with fifty place settings and a full lunch-cold chicken, plates of pork, several kinds of cheese, peppers, cucumbers, tomatos and fresh herbs plus every kind of soda you can ever imagine. We were ushered to one end of the table and offered red wine from a two gallon plastic bottle. The table was thronged with old people, children, babies and all ages in between. “Eat Eat” said everyone, quite as though they were characters concocted by Lewis Carroll. Alice-like, I had no idea what was going on and no way of finding out. Lilit asked a few questions and ascertained that the group– with Anahit as a leading light–had come from Artashat four hours away, close to where I used to live near Mount Ararat. It was a church outing suggested by their priest, who we had seen taking part in the service. Someone in the group– we never found out who– had had a baby she’d named Tatev. When the priest christened the child he said they should make a pilgrimage to Tatev monastery and so here they all were. They’d brought their own lunch. They had plenty. We should eat. “Anush lini”. Let it be sweet.

The priest, now without his gold hat, gold cape and gold Elvis-style collar came and sat beside us, as did one of the spear carriers, now minus his royal blue surplice. The spear carrier spoke some English. The priest, a man with the look of Demis Roussos, was wearing all black accented by a silver-colored cross both enormous and ornate. Lilit’s cousin, our ride home, called her to see where we were. We exchanged hugs and kisses with half a dozen people round the table and friended a couple on Facebook. I have Anahit’s number and instructions to call her when I am next in Artashat. Anush Lini. Let it be sweet. It was.

Thunder Road

I call it the Thunder Road, although there is nothing loud, scary or stormy about it, and there’s not a Hell’s Angel or Harley Davidson in sight. No sign of Bruce or his bandana either. The road from Sisian to Melik-Tangi bridge–surely one of the most beautiful in the world– runs beside the Vorotan river and to Vorotnavank monastery and Vorotnaberd fortress. Vorot, if you hadn’t guessed by now, is the Armenian word for thunder. On the day I was there, the weather was sunny and serene, and no rolling thunder–indeed no engine of any kind–was heard. That’s one of the best things about Armenia’s emptiness: you often have the road to yourself. Historic sites, though usually lacking a tea-shop, a museum shop and a toilet,  feel like yours alone. Better yet, you can clamber all over them–there are no signs, no notices and no guards.

Our first stop on the road from Sisian was at a 6th century memorial to three battling brothers who fought off the Persian army. The land around the monument  in Aghitu is dotted with khatchkars—cross stones—depicting a playful range of people, children and animals along with Christian symbols. Climb the monument to see the cross engraved on every side of the center stone, or stay on firmer ground and marvel that bits and pieces of ancient rock carving that would be behind museum glass in darkened rooms in most other parts of the world just lie around by the roadside here, like rubble.

You’ll see the river on your right, deep in the gorge, flanked by tangles of green. In the foreground at this time of year, yellowed grasses. Behind the river, blue and grey mountains stretch for miles. Round a corner and there is Vorotnavank monastery. I defy you not to gasp. The monastery is a monument to Armenian girl power. The complex was built  in AD 1000 by Queen Shahandukht and added to by her son Sevada in 1007. The monastery also served as a fortress (those pesky Persians again) and within its walls were a once shops, a seminary, workshops and housing for the poor. Today you can see a snake pit in one of the churches, the remains of a 11th century painting, and the new dome, rebuilt in 1931 after the original was destroyed by an earthquake. The ancient cemetery, surrounded by a centuries-old dry stone wall, contains two incongruously modern graves— those of a famous translator who died in 1965 and his son, a general killed in the 1994 war with Nagorno-Karabakh. At 10am on a summer Saturday morning, the place was deserted. We ate small, sweet apricots from a tree overlooking the gorge and listened to the silence.

On to Vorotnaberd, the remains of a fortress first mentioned in reports of liberation from –yes–the Persians in 450 AD. Today, just one wall of the fortress remains, strung between two giant basalt rocks, high on a steep hill 1,365 meters above sea level. You can scramble up the grassy side of the rock, but I recommend walking beside the river to the Melik Tangi bridge and admiring the fortress wall from the bottom of the towering, natural pillars. I got dizzy looking up. As a citizen of Northern Ireland, home to the Giant’s Causeway, it pains me to say this, but really the rock formations here are more impressive than those on the Antrim coast. Here, there is no heritage center, no opportunity to buy a teatowel, or earrings made from igneous rock. The guide books hardly mention the  volcanic activity, or the beauty it left behind. The bridge at the bottom of the valley was built in 1855, using two enormous natural rocks as its base. Today it is used mostly by sheep and cows, but it’s sturdy enough for cars, if there was anywhere to go.