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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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

Arts in Armenia: A Beginner’s Guide

Hooked on Trivia? Compulsive when it comes to crosswords? Proud of your performance at the pub quiz? Don’t risk being caught out by a question on the arts in Armenia–it could come up at any time. I am as fond of a general knowledge test as the next nerd, but I will confess that, up until very recently, my mental file on all things arty in Armenia was very slim indeed. I could still easily be stumped but, in a spirit of information-sharing, I pass on such knowledge as I now have. At the very least, it may help you set fiendishly difficult questions for your foes. Ch’argi. Ձարժե It’s nothing. Khantrem. խնդեմ You’re welcome.

Artist: Martiros Saryan  is founder of the modern school of Armenian art and a painter whose pictures of the Armenian landscape you may well have seen–not least on the dress I had specially made for my swearing in as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  My favorite thing about the 1923 painting is not the depiction of Ararat (although I DO love that mountain), but the women dancing at my hem (there is a detail below). Women and music, plus mountains were a bit of a theme for Saryan. He lived from 1880 to 1972 and was awarded the order of Lenin 3 times. If you are unable to see me and my dress, you can always visit the M. Sarian House-Museum in Yerevan where many of his paintings are displayed.

 

Fashion Designer: I love the work of Edgar Artis  who designs dresses using every day objects. Will my next special occasion dress be made from salad–or pencil sharpenings? Follow Edgar on Instagram to see all his fabulous creations.

 

saroyanLiterature: The big daddy of the Armenian writers is William Saroyan who, like those pub quiz staples Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw is famous for saying lots of wise and memorable things, many of them contradictory. If you need a quote about writing, madness or being Armenian, he is your man. He won the Pulitzer prize in 1940–his is a handy name to know if you are asked to list five such winners.  He is quoted at the end of the Armenian film “The Promise”.

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”

You can check out some of his other quotes here

FullSizeRender (13)Poetry: I want to give a shout out to Goris’ local boy made good: Axsel Bakunts, a poet and short story writer born in Goris in 1899 and killed on Stalin’s orders in 1937. His crime: alienation from socialist society. As a schoolboy in Goris, Bakunts was first arrested at the age of 15, for satirising the town’s mayor. Not much of Bakunts work is published in English–or if it is, it is not available online, or here in Goris. Wondering how Bakunts’ writing compared to that of Jonathan Swift or Flann O’Brien, two great Irish satirists, I asked my Hayeren tutor, a native of Goris, if she knew what Bakunts had said that so enraged the town. “Probably no-one read it” she said “It was just talked about, and that was enough”. Interesting to discover that sort of thing happened even in an age before Twitter…

Here in Goris there is a rather lovely small museum commemorating Bakunts, in the house where he was born. In addition to displays of many artefacts, paintings of his mum, and so on, there is also a beautiful garden where would -satirists can sit and think creative thoughts.

 

Film: The Golden Apricot Film Festival takes place in Yerevan in July and so presumably my knowledge of Armenian cinema will be broadened beyond The Promise, this spring’s Hollywood take on the Armenian genocide. The film, though hamfisted and with a couple of story twists of dubious morality (tut), is worth seeing. I didn’t need a hanky though, except to stifle giggles.

Music: The Armenian duduk is to Armenian music what the uillean pipes are to Ireland and the banjo is to Bluegrass. This wind instrument made from apricot wood could be useful to know if your Jeopardy category is music for 500. A contemporary of  all the chaps above is Soghomon Soghomonian, ordained and commonly known as Komitas, (Armenian: Կոմիտաս; 26 September 1869 – 22 October 1935) an Armenian priest, musicologist, composer, arranger, singer, and choirmaster, who is considered the founder of Armenian national school of music. The wailing noise of the duduk is the soundtrack for Komitas’ tragic life. Captured and deported by the Ottoman government during the genocide, he did escape with his life, only to suffer post traumatic stress disorder. He lived the rest of his days in terrible torment, in and out of pyschiatric hospitals. You will need your hanky for this music.

Martin Mkrtchyan, a sort of cross between Tom Jones, Daniel O’Donnell and Donny Osmond, manages to be much more cheerful. Recently, Elsa and I watched a recording of a big concert he gave in Yerevan’s Republic Square at New Year. Good stuff.

Much as in Ireland where I grew up, most of the songs in this ancient country but new and vulnerable republic are nationalistic–about the beauty of the land, the value of birthright, and courage in the face of enemies. It’s like living with the Wolfe Tones. The song below was sung to me by Arsen, aged six. He pumped his fist and cocked his imaginary gun as he sang. Boys here must go to be soldiers when they graduate high school and Arsen is already ready for the fight. I hope that here, as in Ireland, they will reach a level of security and prosperity that will allow their young singers to write of something other than threat and loss and war. More Snow Patrol than Stiff Little Fingers, if you like…

There is one well-known song that has an unexpected link to Armenia–Rosemary Clooney’s Come ona My House. This, it turns out, was written by the aforementioned William Saroyan and his cousin in 1939 as they motored across America.  Once you know this, the plums, apricots and pomegranate in the lyrics make complete sense. The cousin later went on to have great success as one of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Saroyan wrote no other popular songs. Now if that isn’t the stuff of great trivia quizzes I don’t know what is. Listen to Rosemary and enjoy.