Don’t hold the front page 

There are no newspapers and magazines to be found in Goris. And, now I come to think of it, there were none in the small local shops in my first village–although that was less surprising. In Yerevan, where I know there are some very good bookshops, perhaps it is possible to leaf through a copy of Cosmopolitan, or The Economist or Yogurt Producers Weekly, but I can’t be sure.

Although print is in decline all over the world, I don’t know if locally-produced media has gone out of business here, or if it never existed? This country has a small, spread-out and poor population and a language all its own: perhaps a daily newspaper (considered the poor man’s pleasure in Britain since the time of Pepys)  has never been part of life here? I haven’t been to a dentist’s office so I don’t know if they have Russian language magazines, or none at all.  When I went to the hairdressers for a highly luxurious mani/pedi, there was no way of keeping up with the Kardashians, or following the social ins and outs of Armenia’s oligarchs and their offspring. That was rather a relief. 

Cigarettes, sweets and other small essentials like batteries and disposable lighters are available in corner shops and supermarkets, but there are no newspapers and magazines either domestic or international where you would expect to find them.

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Annahit–bosom pal material?

That is not to say that there is a shortage of local journalism. There is a Press Club in Goris — I met a rather glorious woman called Annahit today, and she is one of five journalists based there. There is a National Press club in Yerevan which seems to generate a TV news story every evening: important looking foreigners spend a lot of time opining from there. I have met two people in Goris–a town where I have perhaps  spoken to twenty people in total–who are photojournalists and have their own professional video and audio equipment. One of these chaps trained as a history teacher but now supplements his income from camerawork by working on the reception desk at a local hotel.  There is also a woman who has a professional blue screen studio set up in the same building as our crochet collective, but I haven’t met her yet.  

Across the country there are as many half a dozen TV stations–I still get them mixed up–who all have extensive newscasts before the Indian soap opera hour at 9pm. Whatever channel you watch, there is always a story featuring the President, something about Nagorno-Karabakh and the general shortcomings of Azerbaijan as a neighbor, and a tale of woe from a home or community with subsidence, or flooding, or mould or similar. The newsreaders are women with immobile faces, scary lips and nails, and strict expressions. They are undoubtedly the ones in charge. Their male counterparts are usually slightly tubby and nerdy looking. The men who do the sport are sweaty, dark of brow and jowl, and stuffed into suits that are just a little too small. Their knotted neckwear never quite meets the top button of their shirts.  They become very worked up when talking about Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona and always look at though they want to rip off that troublesome tie, and shrug off the too-straight jacket. Usually, they have no moving pictures of the game to show: Armenia isn’t really a player when it comes to bidding for soccer screening rights.

Last night there was a happy story about UNHCR and European Union support for Syrian refugees in Armenia. The refugees were filmed enjoying a hop-on hop-off bus tour of Yerevan. On the bus was this slogan in English:  Yerevan. Feel the Warmness. They could have used a bilingual copy-editor. 

As part of the Syrian story, I saw my friend Hayasa on the news– she runs Aleppo NGO here.  I probably know 50 people in all of Armenia and it is almost certain that at least one of them will be on the news every night. This may be because the news programs always finish with a feelgood story and so the volunteer community is often featured, helping sick children, strolling appreciatively in nature while monitoring water quality, or challenging locals to a bracing game of something involving a ball and a net. But I think everyone in Armenia knows someone on the news every night, I really do. 

Other than a shortage of information about red-carpet dresses and celebrity autopsies, I am not deprived of news from the world beyond the Caucasus. Here in Goris I have 24 hour internet access and can listen to BBC Radio 4 (the 6 o’clock news, the light relief, and the Archers) as I get ready for bed–we are three hours ahead of London.  Boston’s excellent NPR speech station, WBUR, keeps me informed during the night. I have also discovered the deep joy of the podcast, thanks to a new venture launched by a friend in Washington DC. I have known Bruno Falcon, the presenter of Applying to Everything since before his voice broke. Nowadays he asks a broad range of questions in deep, velvety tones and talks to people you haven’t heard of, but who have something interesting to say. Last night’s conversation was with a therapist who shares Bruno’s love of superheroes and comic books. I can’t stop thinking about the Incredible Hulk and his response to fear… 

Hayeren words to live by.

Tom and Mike were once guests at a baby shower in Washington DC. The mother-to-be invited her guests to write down a personal  motto on slips of paper. These she would save in a glass jar, ready to share with her new born when he or she attained adulthood.

Tom wrote:

Never buy art on holiday.

Mike wrote:

Never drink cheap brandy.

History does not relate how the child turned out, or whether he or she followed this valuable advice.  Me, I live by these wise words.

In preparation for upcoming baby showers in Armenia, I am compiling my own list of life lessons learned. Other well-wishers will restrict themselves to աչքդ լինի լինի archkad looys lini.

May your eyes light up

or առողջ բալիկ լինի aroch balik lini

 May the child be healthy

but I will be sharing the following well-meant advice.

  • Never wear white sandals in mulberry season. Not if you want to show a clean pair of heels. 
  • Every wash day, be grateful you live in Hayastan. Here, quilt covers are well-designed, with  a large diamond hole cut in the middle of the top side. Think of the hours you save while the rest of the people of Europe are wrestling with the corners of their duvets. 

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  • Yogurt is great for the skin. The women in my house lather it on and let it dry. Then they wash it off with warm water. It’s good for getting rid of spots, and for soothing sunburn. They all have lovely complexions, so I know this works. 

yogurt

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.

Double Trouble

img_3804-2Robert zoomed by his mother as she was painting her nails. He knocked the coffee table with his toy truck and nearly sent her bottle of blue nail polish flying. “Don’t do that” said Aleta. (She says it a lot. Robert pays no attention. He is four years old and bashes on, unrepentant and undeterred.) չի կարէւի. Ch’ kareli. Don’t do that. It was the first phrase I picked up when I moved in here.

Grabbing her son, Aleta pulled a piece of cotton wool from the roll in front of her and soaked it with vodka, a bottle of which was also on the coffee table. “Come here” she said. Արի Ari! Then she wiped Robert’s sticky face and grubby hands with the wet wad, scrubbing hard. Next she yanked off Robert’s dusty shoes and gave them a good going over with the vodka wipe. They came up lovely. I must try it.

Vodka is cheaper than bottled water here. Aleta’s bottle had a commercial label but it may have been refilled many times over with spirit distilled from local produce. Should you ever drink vodka in Armenia, certainly don’t trust any label unless you see the seal broken on the bottle. It could be anything in there. For all I know, this particular vodka had also served as nail polish remover. You have been warned.

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Robert stood still just long enough for this photo with his grandmother.  We’re growing beans. 

 

This is what they eat in heaven

FullSizeRender (10)Aleta has hair the color of dark honey. It is long and thick and usually piled on top of her head. Her eyes are hazelnut brown and her skin is apricot. She has the kind of body that should always be lounging on a chaise longue, and spilling out of a silk peignor.  In fact she is wearing a rip off Adidas t-shirt and track pants, and is making breakfast for both of us.

“You’ve been sick” she says, opening a jar of homemade cherry jam, unctuous and damson-dark.  From the fridge, she takes a large pan of milk–we know the cow personally–and begins to spoon the top of the milk into a smaller pan. She puts two saucers and spoons on the table next to the basket of bread she just picked up from the bakery.  She spoons the cream into the saucers and indicates I should add a nail polish streak of syrup from the jam.  The bread is crusty and still warm.  Aleta dips and swirls each piece of bread slowly to soak up the most cream. People would pay to watch her satisfaction as she eats. She refills her saucer twice. I hope she will go back to bed after this, but probably she will clean out the chickens and do the laundry, just like she does every day.

Awkward

Are you married?

No

Why not?

(Laugh) No one asked me. (This is not true)

But you have had a boyfriend?

Yes 

Do you have a brother?

Yes, I have a brother and a sister and I have two children. 

You have two children? But you said you weren’t married?

I adopted them. (Why did I say that? Why? Why did I want this stranger to think of me as ‘good’ rather than ‘fallen?)

Do you have pictures?

Yes (I hand over my phone)

Why did you adopt black children?

Washington DC is a black city. All the children available for adoption are black. 

But I have been to Washington…

The people you see in the center of the city are not the people who live there. White people are the minority in DC. (This is not now true, but was until very recently. I do not have the language skills to explain urban regeneration, gentrification and suburban spread)

She is light. Not too black. 

(Firmly) She is black

Yes, but light. That’s good. 

(Stiffly) I don’t think it is bad to be black. 

No, but we don’t have black people in Armenia. We are not used to–dark

There are millions of black people in the world. And people of all colors in America. We like it. 

Yes. Is your daughter married? 

No, but she has a boyfriend. (Again, why?)

And your son, is he married?

No.

But he has a girlfriend? 

Yes.

(I didn’t mention my granddaughter, my son’s baby. I am ashamed of that, but not of her. I just think this was enough chat for one day. Awkward.)

The language of love: meet my best friend in Armenia

Elsa got past me this morning to hang a last load of my laundry on the line by the backdoor. She is very particular about pegging out. Underwear is discretely strung next to the pear tree,  and dark or colored clothes are then ordered, small to large, in the middle of the line. White towels and sheets go last, flapping at the far end by the apricot tree. It doesn’t matter how carefully I plan the timing of my weekly wash, or how close I sit to the door of the bathroom where the washing machine lives, Elsa can always beat me to the unload, spiriting a basin of wet clothes out of the house before I know what’s going on.  If I go to help her with the pegging, she will circle back around me and rehang whatever I have pinned. In recent days as my language has developed to the point where I can remonstrate, I have tried to be firm: it is not her job to do my laundry. I am a grown woman, indeed I am older than she. I am not a guest and am meant to be here to work. She just laughs and indicates that my version of Armenian is not understood here.

Here in a village on the Ararat plain we  have lived together for 10 weeks, one American and one Armenian. We are both in our fifties and female, but beyond that we appear to have little in common. She is fit and spry and compact. She works in the garden and house from morning to night. She is patient and loyal and endowed with common sense. I–well, you know how I am.

Sometimes I wonder if we would be nearly so close if we spoke the same language. How long would it take for my verbal tics to annoy her?  Would my sharpness of tongue, extravagance of language, and general bumptiousness irritate her if she was forced to listen to me speaking as I normally do?   At least for now, I have to listen carefully to everything she says, often asking her to repeat it slowly so I can better understand. I don’t form sentences quickly enough to talk over her. I am quite unlike myself and our relationship is better for it.

There is something curiously naked and true about language stripped of all flounces. For weeks,we told each other how beautiful and good everything was, including each other. These were two of the first adjectives I could say and understand. Over and over again every day since March, Elsa has urged me to come, sit, rest and eat.  It is rejuvenating and comforting to always speak positively and to respond to kindness with grateful, humble acquiescence. I may have to continue the practice without her: today I move to my new home in a city 200 miles away where I will work for the next two years.

Is it possible that Elsa would say something I would find it hard to agree with if I could understand everything she uttered? Yes, but not likely. In a country where men are waited on hand and foot, Elsa encouraged me to tease her husband, teaching me to ask him to make the coffee, a thing he would never do. In a country where black people are non-existent and are usually referred to by the N-word, Elsa immediately admired pictures of my children and granddaughter. I didn’t have the words to explain quite how we came to be family but my teacher filled in the details  and now Elsa tells everyone the story and urges me to take out my phone and show everyone my beautiful kids. I always oblige.(Now my phone is full of pictures of her daughters and grandchildren that I show proudly too.). Elsa and her oldest daughter helped me get my measurements for the dress I wanted to have made for my swearing-in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. One wrangled the tape measure and yelled out impossibly high numbers (centimeters can be so cruel) and the other relayed the information by phone to the designer 50 miles away in Yerevan. Then I needed to go to the capital for a fitting. Elsa made her son-in-law spend a Saturday driving us there and back. She gave no indication that it was an inconvenience to lose a day working with the fruit trees, vines and vegetables, but it must have been. The whole dress thing was very intimate and giggly and fun– a closeness I  don’t have with anyone other than my Belfast school friends-people I grew up with and have known for decades.

On the day of the Peace Corps ceremony Elsa put on her black dress and wedge heels and took the bus to Yerevan to sit in a sweltering hall so she could hear me swear the oath to serve Armenia that we had practiced in Hayeren sitting out among the poppies and the cornflowers in her back yard. She wanted to see the dress in action too of course. Siroon e. Siroon es. It is beautiful. You are beautiful she said.

Elsa has never hosted anyone other than family members before. The decision to take in a foreign stranger was part of her recovery plan–she is mourning the loss of her 26-year-old son Geram, killed in a road accident. For the two years since Geram died far away in Russia, Elsa has not slept well. She keeps hurting herself in small everyday accidents. Now, she is often under the weather and ill. Perhaps a loud American would help to take her mind off things?

The first time Elsa talked about her lost son she had to mime rising to heaven because I didn’t know the language of death. She cried and I hugged her and sat with her and made tea. She has talked of him often since. I think she is glad to have someone to share his story with, perhaps especially because I can’t talk back. Being able to support someone physically and emotionally rather than through words has been good for me too.

After the laundry was dried and packed this morning. Elsa gave me two new towels from a dresser in her bedroom: they would be useful in my new home in Goris. In her view, I need those towels more than she does, and she is happy for me to have them. She packed me a lunch of bean salad, grilled eggplant, (soft and smoky) cucumber spears and lavash. She gave me a bag heavy with jars and jars of homemade jam and eggplant caviar. I have to send her pictures of my new home tonight: the bed, the room, the kitchen and the bathroom. I handed over a rather inadequate box of chocolates for her to share with her neighbors over coffee. We both cried. We love each other,it is as simple as that. We have agreed I will go back for my birthday. It won’t be long now…