Peace Corpse Volunteerie: Hacks for Halloween

When presented with a broom I immediately resist any urge to sweep or clean. To me, brooms are strictly for riding. Is it any wonder Halloween is my favorite holiday? Here in Armenia it is the duty of every Peace Corpse Volunteerie (see what I did there?) to spend the month of October scaring the Bejasus out of every ghost-fearing Armenian (roughly 2.5 million at the last census). It is part of our job, for Goal Two of the Peace Corps mission is to help promote a better understanding of Americans on behalf of the peoples served. In an age when so much American activity defies explanation -and is truly scary– the wise PCV will confine herself to stories of Charlie Brown and the Pumpkin Patch, and to introducing Armenians young and old to all sorts of witchy wheezes and ghostly goings on. But what to do when there is no chainsaw to hand, and when pumpkins are small and in scant supply?

Here are my own October activities which I hope will inspire your Halloween celebrations in and out of Peace Corps.

3012515971_14a0d859fa_s[1]Pin the Wart on the Witch. You will need a piece of flip chart paper, a marker pen, a dish towel, a pair of opaque tights or similar to use as a blindfold, and a raisin squished on a thumb tack. Draw a large witch astride a broomstick on the paper and be sure to give her a large, black, hairy wart on her nose, using the marker pen. Find some children and blindfold the first of them. Birl the child three times until disorientated and hand over the raisin on the thumb tack.

Ask the child to pin the wart on the witch. Mark the pin prick with the child’s initials and move on to the next. The pin prick closest to the real wart wins the child a treat.

TP Tutenkhamen: buy several rolls of cheap toilet paper. Show the children a picture of an Egyptian mummy or a scary movie clip where mummies walk the earth. Put the kids in threes equipped with a roll of TP. Set a time limit. Challenge the teams to wrap one member as mummy. Then have a walking dead race with treats for the winning team.

Frightful Face masks. If you have environmental concerns about the waste of TP, use it to make face masks. You will need several balloons (blown up), flour and water paste,markers for decorating and some elastic bands, plus of course the toilet paper. Paste squares of TP over one side of the balloon until you have 3-5 layers. Leave to dry overnight. Use a knitting needle or similar both to pop the balloon and to put holes for the elastic about a third of the way down the side of the face mask. Thread the elastic band and tie a knot at each end to keep it in place. Have the kids use markers to draw scary faces on the masks– a light touch is needed. You may want to cut eyeholes in the masks to aid the claustrophobic. Wear the masks and run around howling and screaming.

Dead Man’s Guts. Prepare a bowl of spaghetti and leave to cool. Cut an orange in half at the equator (not pole to pole). Blindfold the children and keep the lights low. Tell the children a scary story about a school director who died a terrible death in the very room you are working in. Make sure to include the detail that her eyes were cut out and be sure to find the Armenian word for disemboweled. Then ask each child to come up to pay their respects to the body of the long dead Director. Guide each child’s hand to the cold spaghetti-the guts of the ghostly creature. Then to the orange half– the slimy eye socket of the spectre. Much screaming ensues.

img_1747What the Blank Blank Blank!!! If you must have something educational, create some frightening flash cards with suitably scary adjectives, nouns and verbs: slimy, scary, half-dead, headless, rat, frog, bat, witch, spider, ghost, corpse, mummy, eats, scares, kisses, follows, kills. Then ask the class to complete the sentence

The Blank Blank Blanks the Blank Blank

Irish Apple Pie. If you must involve autumn fruit in your Halloween celebrations and don’t want to bob for apples or eat them off strings dangling from a washing line, then assemble the ingredients for an apple pie and add a coin wrapped in foil or greaseproof paper, a curtain ring, a thimble and perhaps a bean, similarly wrapped.Bake these into the pie. Slice the pie and share among the children, warning them to look for the charms. The one who gets the coin will be rich. the one to gets the ring will be first married. The luckless recipient of the thimble will always work hard, and she who gets the bean will never go hungry. Happy Halloween.

 

How to win an Armenian Cookbook

This cookbook WILL be mine. All I have to do is come up with an Armenian recipe that rocks. The trouble is, I don’t come across much fancy Armenian food, not least because the simple stuff is so good. Most days at lunch this summer we have eaten chopped tomato and cucumber (fresh from a co-worker’s garden) enlivened with purple basil and maybe some fresh dill, plus salt and pepper. On the evenings when I eat with the family upstairs, we might have fresh steamed green beans, scrambled with an egg, or chicken broth with zucchini, carrot, onion, garlic and fresh parsley padded out with rice, vermicelli and potato. (What’s not to love about a soup with three kinds of starch?) There is special occasion food of course–river trout at Easter, khorovats on birthdays, and tables groaning with all kinds of sweets and savories at new year (Nor Tari-the biggest celebration of the year). Much of this involves pastry, which I avoid in the kitchen, fearing all recipes involving dough. (I blame this on a scarring early-teen experience when I mistakenly made shortbread with lard, which I mistook for margarine).

FullSizeRender (2) I have decided to prioritize taste over glamor– always a rule to live by–and am submitting my version of Elsa’s Famous Faux Pate. Elsa and her family were my first hosts in Armenia. I lived with them for three months in Ararat Marz when I was completing my Peace Corps Pre-Service Training. Elsa is the best cook in all Armenia.

Elsa’s Famous Faux Pate.

You will need:

5 fistfuls of red beans

2 fistfuls of walnuts

At least two cloves of garlic

A handful of dill

A food processor, meat grinder or, failing that, a potato masher, a paper bag and a hammer.

Salt and pepper or broth to taste

Bread to serve with the pate

What to Do

Soak the beans overnight, or while you are at work during the day

Rinse the well-swelled beans and pick out anything floating.

Put the beans in a pot with salted water and perhaps a bay leaf– or use a vegetable or chicken broth– and boil until soft. It can take up to an hour.

Drain the beans but save a cup of the boiled broth

Mash the beans, adding back a little broth

Smash the walnuts into fragments no bigger than the size of a peppercorn. Smaller is even better.

Mince at least two cloves of garlic

Chop the dill finely.

Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. If you need a little liquid to help it bind together, use a judicious amount of broth.

Salt and pepper to taste

Marvel at how much the mix looks like a coarse, dark French-style pate as you pile it onto a serving plate, or press it into a small bowl or two

Top with fronds of dill

Serve with warm toasted bread.

Sit back and listen to your guests oh and aah with pleasure.

I just know this recipe is a winner, but if you’d like to compete to rob me of the cookbook you can read the newsletter (in English) from the Armenian Institute in London, paying particular attention to the article on cookery. You can then submit your own Armenian recipe at info@armenianinstitute.co.uk

This is the link to the newsletter. Bardez 2017-Wii

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I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do

2017-09-30 18.17.50Levon Aronian, 2017 Chess World Cup winner, got married yesterday. The Armenian grandmaster and his Filipina-Australian bride, also a chess champion, had their wedding photos taken at Zvartnots cathedral. I know, because I was there.

Chess is Premier League combined with the NBA here, and so the new Mr. and Mrs. Aronian arrived in a vintage Russian car, complete with police escort (lights flashing) and bridesmaids bundled into a pristine white Rolls Royce.  Nonetheless, they did not have the 6th century ruins to themselves. They were one of four couples (three real, and one fake) whose union I celebrated in just one hour yesterday evening.

Sadly not many people get married in order to score Armenian working papers, and so there is no need to call immigration about the sham wedding: this ceremony was an event staged by the Ministry of Culture, to illustrate traditional Armenian wedding practices.

Armenians are very clear about what they want from a marriage: the groom gives the bride’s family an apple studded with coins, symbolizing wealth–and, I suppose, dowry. The couple stamp on plates symbolizing a breaking of their ties with their birth families–they belong to each other for ever now. The bride is adorned with a sturdy belt by her bridesmaid, so she will have a strong back for childbearing–oh, and a life of hard labor. The mother of the groom provides the couple with epaulettes of lavash, demonstrating her desire that they should always have plenty to eat. The symbolism of fertility is rife: fruit and wheat are everywhere.

Jim and I joined the dancing (thanks Anahit for the pictures), but opted out before things got too strenuous. There was singing, there was drumming, there were general good times. All of this took place against the magnificent backdrop of the cathedral constructed by Nerses the Builder to honor Gregory the Illuminator back in the 6th century. Originally, the cathedral is thought to have been three stories high–quite a feat of engineering. Jim is an architect so he knows his apse from his apex but while he talked cupola and tetraconch, I contented myself with enjoying the sunlight through the pillars, and sneaking shots of brides I’ll never know.

The cathedral was intended to stand until the second coming, but was in ruins by the 10th century–noone knows if it was the victim of war or earthquake. It lay buried until  the early 1900s. Now it is a UNESCO world heritage site, and a popular venue for wedding pics. You can see why. Just a 2500 dram ($3), 30 minute taxi ride outside Yerevan, a visit to Zvartnots (close to the airport of the same name), should be on every visitor’s list of must-sees in Armenia. Even if you are there when the happy loving couples are not, the pillars, the circle and the sunlight will bring joy to your heart, and peace to your soul.

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WD-40: Now in Armenia

image1WD-40 is now in Armenia and could be in a store near every Peace Corps Volunteer in these (squeaky) parts. I predict both a stampede and a sell-out, for Americans who have spent months wrestling with recalcitrant locks, stubborn bolts, and rusted everything will be overjoyed to know they can now buy the  caretaker’s cure-all, launched in the Caucasus just days ago.  I bought my first 330 ml this morning at Rainbow hardware in Goris–and may go back for the rest.

Artur is already looking covetously at my can. He was resilvering a hubcap when I came home with my blue and yellow bounty. Through enthusiastic mime and a squirt or two of the miracle substance I showed him that I could help if the other three wheels seemed sticky. He is still sniffing the fumes appreciatively.

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Rainbow Hardware, Goris, Armenia:   Scene of first WD-40 sighting

I have already eased every lock and bolt in my apartment, and am about to start on an overly  stiff hinge, and a noisy castor or two. Later I may clean some tar off Natalie’s socks, and give her bike and its oily chain a once-over with the magic mist. I kind of wish there was some gum stuck on something, so I could amaze Armenia by removing it with ease. I can hardly wait for winter now, so I can unfreeze locked cars for friends and neighbors…

I even tried to work out how to spread the word about WD-40 (that’s WD-karasoon here) in Armenian–

գտեկ այս արտադրանք խանղտղմ  սհատ լավ ե ուճէր է սարկէկ ձէզ բանալի կողպեք

Find this product in the shops. It is very good and strong. It will fix your sticky keys 

–but I needn’t have worried. In preparation for global domination, WD-40 has a highly graphic website that details how to use WD-40 and shows about 2000 problems it can solve.    Artur has abandoned Operation Silver Spray and is studying it now. Lubrication beyond language. Long may it last.

 

Packing for Peace Corps

FullSizeRender (97)These scissors are the single most useful thing I have in Armenia. I didn’t bring them with me in either oPacking for Peace Cf my two enormous bags weighing 50lbs each, but found them in my Peace Corps medical kit. These are scissors that can cut through industrial under felt, treat plastic as though it was butter, and trim stray wisps of hair missed at the visaviranots–the Armenian hair salon. I did pack scissors of course–a rather feeble pair that came with a home sewing kit. I haven’t used the sewing kit–why would I when there is a seamstress in town who will alter, repair or make anything for a dollar a time? Not, I think, that I would have used the sewing kit anyhow. This is my first lesson in Peace Corps Packing:if you don’t use it at home, don’t bring it. You may be in a different part of the world, but you are still YOU. My own experience suggests that if you habitually run from a needle, iron, hacksaw or hand whisk, you will continue to make excuses to avoid them here. I am more duct tape than darning, and I have found my mega-roll of super-strong silver tape invaluable. It keeps a carpet in place, affixes postcards to windows, and can be used for emergency hemming. It requires no skill to deploy. The most useless thing I packed was a surge protector, which has tripped the electrics in both houses I have lived in here. I haven’t yet encountered a storm, and so far my laptop seems happy with the $2 adapter bought here. My industrial-strength corkscrew was a good investment too. At the office today, we were celebrating a colleague’s birthday with wine and cake when the flimsy locally-bought corkscrew snapped before the bottle became interesting. I  ran home and got my Chefmate model and the celebration was saved. Armenia may be one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world, but they haven’t yet succumbed to the allure of the screw top, and local implements could leave a girl both grumpy and thirsty, a state to be avoided.

When it comes to personal maintenance, there little that can’t be bought here, but often at an exorbitant cost (for one living on a Peace Corps stipend). Six months in, I am still using soap, toothpaste, deodorant and conditioner brought from home and it feels worth it to have lugged them all the way here. I have enough make-up to cover the cracks for the next two years. Another PCV from a cohort ahead of mine advised me to bring my favorite face cream, on two grounds: it is good to smell like yourself when you are in a strange place; and you are only a volunteer for two years, but your skin has to last you a lifetime. I find this to be excellent advice–thanks Alicia Easley. On the subject of luxury items, do find space for something beautiful from home. It will be a comfort in conditions of hardship, and it is good to have something aesthetically pleasing in what FullSizeRender (96)can be rather barren and ramshackle quarters. I brought a small lavender-filled pillow in dark cherry plush. I rather regret jettisoning my Indian velvet quilt in favor of a hard drive (as yet unused), yet another cardigan, and some Washington DC-themed tat rightly shunned by its Armenian recipients. The quilt would look great on my living room divan, and would provide another layer for winter. Bring a towel for the ones to be found here are rather scratchy and thin. I wish I’d brought a bathsheet–full coverage can be important when you are dashing from barnike to bedroom in your host family’s home. I wouldn’t bother with sheets–mine don’t fit any Armenian bed I have ever encountered. All other household items you are likely to need can be bought here—and most ingredients. I should have been more honest with myself about my peanut butter dependency (it can be bought in Yerevan, but at vast expense) and, if you like Asian food, do invest in garam masala and sriracha. (I sent for emergency supplies.) Peace Corps say to pack a pair of dress shoes but I am not so sure. I wore mine for our swearing-in ceremony in Yerevan but otherwise they have been consigned to the back of the wardrobe because the roads and pavements here–where they exist at all–are just too pitted and dusty for fancy footwear. Go to Tigran Mets in Yerevan and shop the discount shoe stores–lots of variety at near-disposable prices. Practice the capsule wardrobe thing--lots of mix and match that will survive two years of hard knock washing and line drying. And remember: the iron is always your enemy.

The sacrificial lamb

In the West, gratitude is the go-to emotion for our times, and we–begrudging, resentful and churlish– must learn to sprinkle it like salt to add savor to our lives. Since the end of the bitter and twisted, grasping 1990s, experts in positive psychology on America’s West Coast have urged us to cultivate gratitude because it will make us feel happier. Being grateful, and expressing gratitude to others, endows each of us with more energy, empathy and optimism they say. In an essay “Why Gratitude Is Good.” Dr. Robert Emmons from University of California, Davis breaks down what Gratitude is:

First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good thing in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.

The second part of gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from. We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. It didn’t stem from anything we necessarily did ourselves in which we might take pride. We can appreciate positive traits in ourselves, but I think true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.

 

If America has come latterly to gratitude through the self-help books of Emmons and others, here in Armenia, the practice dates back to pagan times. Take Ara as an example:

IMG_5875Ara is the father of two small children, one of whom needs physiotherapy at a Yerevan hospital a couple of times a week. The hospital is more than one hour away from home. Ara had a comfortable Nissan–one of the nicest cars in his village–and drove it with pride until a couple of weeks ago when someone ran into him, causing $2000 of damage to the car. That’s at least six month’s salary in this part of the world. The car is a write-off, and with it, a lot of the family’s comfort, security and everyday activity. Ara escaped with a bad bump on the head–indeed miraculous as he never wears a seatbelt. He considers himself lucky and he and his family are grateful, genuinely grateful. So grateful they had a matagh, a pagan ritual of gratitude.

They slaughtered a lamb. This happened before I knew anything about it, so I don’t know for sure if there was a ritual performed in front of the church, but probably so. I first saw the carcass when it was being manhandled into our cold-room, ready to be butchered and cooked.

The table at Alla and Ara’s was set for 15. The usual herbs, tomatoes and cucumber were supplemented by two or three types of mixed salad. There was wine for the women, soda for the children, and vodka for the men. The best glasses and china adorned the table. Platters of shwarma–rolls of ground meat squeezed round metal skewers and cooked until burnt and crispy on the outside–were covered with lavash to soak up the grease.  These took pride of place–until the bowls of matagh appeared. Matagh is lamb boiled in salted water and served when a family has something to be thankful for. The lamb is ritually killed, cooked in this specific way until falling off the bone, and then served before nightfall to people from seven families. We had a couple of aunties, and lots of neighbors and friends. The salt will have been blessed. The unfortunate animal will have been a healthy male. The matagh must be eaten all on one day. We used lavash to pick up lumps of meat, forming ungainly sandwiches that dripped. The meat was delicious–surprisingly so for something so knuckly and grey. There were plentiful toasts, but not, as far as I could tell, any kind of prayer. Ara beamed throughout, glad to be there.

It is hard to know how this family will manage without a good car. The bus-stop is too far for Arsen to walk, and few family members or neighbors have a car that could make the round-trip to the capital twice a week. I fretted about this while I ate, and I know the family are worried sick too. But in the manner of most Armenians, they accept their burden, set their shoulders and soldier on. Their ability to focus on the good–Ara’s still here, unhurt and happy–is, to me, remarkable. A real lesson in humility and positive thinking. They travel hopefully always. I wish I was like them. I hope it will take them far.

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Forever Blowing Bubbles

Peace Corps staff have seen it all before of course. They know the frustrations Volunteers will feel, and can anticipate dips in energy and enthusiasm across our two year cycle of service. I am a Community Youth Development (CYD) volunteer. On the front of my training manual is that Canadian quotation warning workers that change takes time.

“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” —Nelson Henderson

Over and over during our 10 weeks of in-country training, we were told not to expect the exhilaration that comes with knowledge of a job well done. Peace Corps and many other international agencies have been here in Armenia for 25 years, helping people adapt to life as an independent state, no longer part of an all-controlling Soviet Union. Together Armenians and incomers have created infrastructure, experimented with innovation and accountability, and helped families and communities get on their feet. It is a completely different country than it was a quarter of a century ago. In twenty-five years time, I am sure that Peace Corps will be long gone– no longer needed here. But Peace Corps leaders are right– there can be days when things seem to be stuck at standing still and when all Volunteers wonder if their two years of service will ever make any difference at all.

And then there are other days. Great days. Joyous, surprising moments when Volunteers realize that something each of us did, did good.

IMG_2697Borio was largely silent and deliberately reserved when I last saw him at the end of May. The kind of kid who stands slightly on the outside edge of any group, watching carefully. Not unconfident, but definitely cautious.

Now it is nearly September. Borio is four, and fully a foot taller than he was three months ago.

When I lived next door to Borio I pretty much spoke to him only to stop him doing something dangerous. “Get out of the road Borio– watch that truck” “Come down before you hurt yourself”. “Not in your mouth Borio”. That sort of thing. I don’t remember saying goodbye to Borio, although there were hugs and kisses with lots of other kids. If you’d asked me, I’d have said my going or coming made no difference to him at all.

At the weekend, I went back to the place I lived when I first came to Armenia–the house next door to Borio’s. I heard him before I saw him. A whoop from behind a tree, boots on compacted dirt, and shouts as he ran to get his sister “Elizabet. Elizabet. She’s back. It’s Elizabet. She’s back”.

Screams from Lilia and two pairs of feet running towards me. While Lilia hugged me Borio pulled at the hem of my shirt. “Can we blow bubbles?”‘ Ah yes, bubbles. Borio had been one of my testers back in May as I had tried and failed to perfect a soapy mix guaranteed to make giant bubbles. Across a week, I’d made buckets and basins of bubble mix. Supplied with a bubble wand made from a pipe-cleaner, Borio had blown bubbles big and (mostly) small, not stopping until he and we and the concrete patch to the front of my house were thoroughly soaked and soapy. He couldn’t wait to do it again.

I had completely forgotten about the bubbles, and was touched they had made such an impression on Borio. But I didn’t have any pipe cleaners, and no-one in the neighborhood had either metal coat hangers, or any kind of thin wire. I could have rustled up a bubble mix, but what to do about a wand? I briefly thought of using scissors, with bubbles to be blown through the finger holes on the handle. Then I considered that it probably wasn’t wise to have four-year-olds running the streets armed with sharp, pointy implements…

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I diverted. We did coloring outside, and tracked ants on the concrete, and made animals and machines and different kinds of food with plasticine, hastily bought at the small local  store. 2017-08-20 18.47.48A couple of girls joined in. They wanted witches nails (kakhardii yerrungner) made in green plasticine. Borio was having none of that. Gender is very definitely NOT fluid in small Armenian villages.

Borio lives with his mother, his sister, two grannies and his granddad. His dad works in Sochi in Russian and sends money back to keep his family. Armo can afford to spend only 3 months of the year at home. Borio’s mom does all the usual household stuff that women get landed with here, and runs a hairdressing and nail salon out of  her front bedroom. One of Borio’s grans works several days a week as a nurse in a hospital in Yerevan. The rest of the tiIMG_2947me she is busy making lavash, or iced coffee, or something else the family needs.  Her husband Boris, for whom Borio is named, spends all his time tinkering with the family’s ancient Lada parked at the front of the house. The other granny tends the hens, and pulls weeds. Her back is often sore–she doesn’t feel much like playing when she gets a chance to sit down.  For Borio and thousands of other kids across Armenia and all over the world, the benefit of having a Peace Corps Volunteer in town is simple: they know someone with time to play.  Playing is practically compulsory for Peace Corps Volunteers—it’s a great way of fulfilling goals 2 and 3 of our mission. I’ve told Borio I’ll continue to take play very seriously. He knows I’ll be back when the nights get dark early, and after the last grapes are harvested. My pipe cleaners and glycerin are already packed.

The Peace Corps Mission

To promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:
  1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

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.

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.

winners
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. 

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.