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.)

Bubble Trouble

I have been trying to make the perfect bubble mix in preparation for a community event on Sunday. The recipe promises giant, long-lasting rainbowed spheres and calls for ingredients including baking powder, cornstarch and glycerine in addition to liquid detergent and tap water. This wouldn’t be a problem in the US or UK where we all know the colors of the packaging for these items, and the whereabouts of the bakery aisle. But in Armenia?  

So far I have made sample batches of bubble mix with substitutes as diverse as potato starch and,tonight, polenta, which my teacher bought for me in Yerevan. Well it did say Corn Flour on the packet… I have found baking powder imported from America that has cost me two days of volunteer stipend–$6.  I have constructed perfect blowers from neon-colored pipe cleaners, but otherwise the bubbles have pretty much been a bust,  proving no more amazing, robust or outsized than those generated by ordinary efforts with dish detergent alone. I suspect that even if I source the right super-ingredients I don’t have the patience to measure well enough to make the chemistry work. I am sensing that the other volunteers, who are planning football games, army maneuvers and dance-offs for the field day, are already tired of my pipe dream and have serious doubts that bubbles of any size will hold the attention of 21st century kids for very long. They don’t like to burst my bubble but…

Well, tonight I was walking from class and was met by the two kids involved in last nights bubble trials. They were dancing up the street carrying sticks to which were appended plastic bags. Further they were followed by half a dozen other kids, all carrying similar sticks and bags. 

“We were waiting for you to come home” said Lilia, aged nine. “We made bubbles to carry until we could blow some with you” She mimed most of this because she knows my Armenian isn’t up to much.  I was highly relieved that I had a third batch of bubble brew in a basin on the bathroom floor.  I set up shop in the street and hoped these bubbles would do the business. Sadly, they proved no more successful than the last, but everyone squealed with excitement and fought for access to the tub nonetheless. Now, sticky with soap and smelling of lemon and lime, the kids are playing football and I am thinking that there won’t be soapy bubble (rhyming slang for trouble) on Sunday if my fairground attraction really blows. In this sphere, I can only succeed. 

Knickers, twisted

No wash today
If there is a nuclear accident here in Armenia I could be in more trouble than most. First, I have managed to lose — or simply failed to pick up–the very expensive, giant horse pills which Peace Corps issued, and which we are meant to swallow as the cloud goes up. They  are potassium something, wrapped in silver foil covered with red Xs, and are about the size of sofa coasters If you see them, don’t eat them, unless of course things turn nasty near you. 

Armenia has an old Soviet era nuclear power plant at Metsamor, about an hour from where I now live. It was built in 1976 and, although it produces about 30% of the country’s electricity, there is very little money to maintain it. Peace Corps assures us they do not post volunteers within 20km of the site. This cordon’s limits must be based on some intelligence, but I know not what. 

    In accordance with Peace Corps instructions, I have packed my emergency evacuation bag to be grabbed in the event of war, earthquake or the aforementioned nuclear mishap. I have a warm cardigan, a torch, American dollars, my passport collection, medical supplies and two pairs of drawers. I don’t know why I bothered with the knickers because I would rather die of radiation burns than risk a showdown with medical experts in the ones I packed.  Luggage restrictions imposed by  Peace Corps mean I have a limited amount of underwear to hand–2 weeks supply in a country where rinsing, wringing and pegging out is often impossible due to lack of running water. It seems a shame to leave the best bloomers on emergency standby and make tired pairs work overtime. I worry about it, but the bottom line is that I think I have made the right decision: best to have my best for everyday and gamble against an unscheduled scandal in unsuitable scanties.

    “But why not buy additional undies now you are safely (?) settled in Armenia?”  My sister’s voice rings in my ear. “I know you are–ahem–more substantial than the average Armenian woman, but surely you could buy something stretchy to cover all eventualities?”  

    Well I could of course, but bear in mind that the Peace Corps stipend is $3 a day—-1500 dram. That kind of money doesn’t cover much, in nether regions or otherwise.  For this amount, a person can buy a  bottle of good Armenian wine– in a glass bottle, with a label and everything, but gusset-lined goods imported from China cost rather more.  

    You may think that standards are surely permitted to slip in a country where washing machines are rare and tumble driers unheard of, but all the evidence suggests that Armenians take a visit to the doctor very seriously. Yesterday I bumped into a neighbor about my age on her way to the doctors’ office. Despite the dust and the heat of the day, she was dressed in a very crisp navy and white dress, belted black jacket, shiny candle glow tights and shoes with a block heel. Bear in mind that all the

    Scale photo of author with average-sized Armenian woman
    women in our neighborhood habitually wear dark pants and sweaters with thick socks and flat mules. Sometimes the older ones top this off with a fluffy dressing gown. Shoes are quickly ruined by the dusty tracks and potholes make any kind of heel inadvisable.  My neighbor made a point of telling me that her daughter had reminded her to smarten herself up, what with the doctor and all.  I took this as her way of assuring me that her foundation garments were both impeccable and irreproachable. These things matter. 

    Border Post: Part One

    I have been thinking a lot about borders. This is the first post in a series of four that threatens to be quite boring, but which is at least topical. Brace yourself and persevere if you can. 

    Borders are like boiled eggs. Some are hard, some are soft, some are easy to crack, and soldiers are often involved.  Borders also resemble pancakes, having two sides. They may also be compared to other people’s mothers in that you may occasionally cross them, but you really only care about your own. This last is not true in my case.  As a penance for my peripatetic life I find I have four borders to worry about just now. The one that divides Ireland North and South. The one that runs between the United States and Mexico. And the two jagged seams crudely stitched between Armenia and Turkey, and Armenia and Azerbaijan. All of these borders make news at the moment and, as sure as eggs are breakfast fare, you will hear more of them all.


    ireland-mapThis post is about the Northern Ireland border, created in 1922, meaning that the island previously known as Ireland split into two, with the northern portion continuing to be governed by the United Kingdom, as it had been since 1801. 26 counties on the island of Ireland became a free state, an autonomous country we now know as the Republic of Ireland.

    The border that separates the North from the South of Ireland runs East/West from Newry to Enniskillen and then South/North up through Fermanagh and Tyrone to Derry, an arbitrary line in slurry.

    From its earliest times, the new border was supervised in a slightly lackluster way by British and Irish customs officials. Many perfectly ordinary people went backwards and forward everyday, going from home to work and back, or visiting  their fields, family and friends. No one was much exercised about excise. Id may be requested, but there is no passport control.

    In the 1970s the area bordering the border was always referred to as Indian country by my dad.  (Forgive my father’s non-PC turn of phrase. We knew no better then.) From Belfast on our way south to Dublin or west to Donegal we were told to roll up our windows and lock car doors. It was the same on the way back.  My dad’s concern was that gun wielding guerilla fighters camped out in scrubby fields surrounding border towns would hijack our sedate Ford sedan and stack the back seat high with kalashnikovs, gelignite and unsold copies of Republican News to use as firelighters. This never happened. But the IRA weren’t the only ones hiding out on damp lanes and thorny hedges. A friend of mine, a Newry boy, took his girlfriend for a walk along a quiet border lane one summer evening in the mid ’70s, and persuaded her into a field for a little lie down. Just as he rolled towards his lovely, he found himself almost eyeball to eyeball with a British soldier in camo gear in Action-Man pose in the long grass, gun pointing.

    “I can’t move” the soldier said “so you’re gonna have to.”

    Undercover stopped ardent lover. In addition to their men on the ground (literally) the British  army also had heavily armoured towers at intervals along the border, ugly look-out posts from which to scan the landscape for men with bombs and guns.

    In recent, happier years, with dips and dives between British sterling and Irish punts or Euros,  people have taken advantage of a very soft border to smuggle siphoned petrol and herds of cattle, where once (at least according to my father, based on his memory of the ’30s and ’40s) they used to trade in watches and pounds of butter.  Everyone buys drink and stocks up on Marks and Spencer’s mincepies at Christmas. There are new worries now though.  The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union, which means Northern Ireland goes too.  The Republic of Ireland is a stalwart EU member. The UK has strict immigration laws and limits on refugees to whom it is prepared to offer asylum. The border between Ireland North and South could become the backdoor way into Britain. Will the Jungle move from Calais to Drogheda? Where will visitors to Britain clear British security?  At Irish ports? Or British airports? Or on our own wee border? Will people in Northern Ireland (the clear majority of whom  voted to stay in the EU in the recent British referendum)  choose to exercise their right to Irish citizenship in order to remain part of Europe, rendering the idea of Irish partition a nonsense altogether?  No one knows. Northern Ireland’s politicians are in a complete funk about a lot of things and offer no clear way forward. The Republic’s government certainly does not want its newish South North infrastructure (paid for by the EU) to become a corridor for pass through refugees headed to Belfast and thence to mainland Britain. Whatever they say, the Irish politicians wouldn’t want a gift of Northern Ireland either. Not for the first time, it is all a bit of a mess.

    Here, at a safe remove, I am interested in the way that a political and territorial question hotly debated for nearly 100 years– whether there should be a border within the island of Ireland– is suddenly and dramatically changed by asking a different question: will the United Kingdom vote in or out of Europe? It voted out. Priorities are changing for the two islands that lie just to the west of mainland Europe. Get ready to redraw the maps. Again.

    Amnesia and Arafat: The World According to Barkis

    IMG_2515Margie, a docent and all-round decent person, led the learning at my going-away dinner. Her project board featured maps of Armenia. A pop-quiz quickly confirmed that no one knew where it was. Kevin was closest and Michael (who couldn’t join the party until after his nightly viewing of Jeopardy) was also in the ballpark. As Barkis said later “You probably know where you’re going, but the rest of us have no idea.” In fact, I am only inches ahead of him.MCZC6158

     

    With one week to go, I am trying to get real but am still much clearer about what I am leaving behind, than where I am going to. With my house rented, I have been staying with friends and neighbors. What will it be like moving in with people I don’t know? Will I ever again enjoy a shower as warm and powerful as Karen’s? How will my new bed and pillows compare to the bliss of Peggoty’s spare room? I have started to count last times: the last time I will have a dress hemmed at the dry cleaners. The last time I can afford a blow-Shadyside (91 of 265)adry. The last order of crab dip and rockfish (there are only freshwater fish in Armenia.) The last time behind a steering wheel. (Peace Corps does not permit volunteers to drive.) The last time I will sing Jingle Bells with my granddaughter…

    Niya and I were in Target the other day and cut through the diaper aisle with our cart. “I don’t wear diapers” Niya announced loudly “I’m a big girl. I wear pull-ups.” Other shoppers nodded approvingly. She adjusted her volume to reach a wider audience “Grandma wears diapers.” People smiled uneasily. I do NOT wear diapers. At least not yet. Based on advice from current Peace Corps volunteers, this may be a mistake because, for Americans in Armenia, it seems unfortunate intestinal incidents are pretty much guaranteed. I stocked up on Wet Wipes and will let you know if a pass on padded panties turns out to be an error of judgement. Something for you to look forward to.

    Which brings us to Doo Doo shots, an Armenian drink I learned about today, featuring vodka and all the other ingredients of a Bloody Mary, without the space-wasting tomato juice. This, with Mulberry vodka and apricot brandy, are also mentioned in warning dispatches. Best be wary. The Armenians also make wine and have evidence that wine has been made in their mountains for at least 6000 years. Today’s grapes are from a strain of vines believed to have been planted by Noah shortly after he disembarked the Ark. A mention of Noah, brings me back to Barkis, still musing on my upcoming adventure: “You are off to Amnesia” he said “and you’ll see Mount Arafat …”. Margie clearly has more work to do.

    ENCQ5315

     

     

    Tips for Lady Travelers

    My beautiful Riad is in the northernmost part of the Northern Medina, close to a launderette, a number of scooter repair shops, some foundry workers and an Islamic saint’s tomb which non- Muslims are not permitted to enter. The riad’s rooms are gorgeous, the service friendly and the hot water plentiful. The breakfast includes crepes with honey and lemon, and bread with homemade orange marmalade, fresh orange juice and coffee. Today I also got two fried eggs. Every day starts well, but I go to bed hungry more often than not.  The Riad has only a small number of rooms and only a few are filled at this time of year. Although their website boasts a restaurant and room service, any evening meal would have to be ordered a day in advance. While sitting alone in a busy restaurant is something I enjoy– the perfect combination of eating and people watching– it would feel a bit bleak to hurry home at night for a lonely tagine in a dark and deserted courtyard. If I were better organized, I would buy bread and oranges while out and about, and supplement those with dates or figs and nuts. If I were more energetic and less stingy I would book a central restaurant and cabs and go out every evening at 8pm. In fact, I walk home as it gets dark about 6pm, rest my aching legs,  and then decide that going out again is too much trouble, for no restaurants are walkable from where I am staying. For this reason I recommend accommodations closer to the action in the Medina when you come to Marrakech. The rest of my tips may be useful only to other middle aged white women with bad knees but I share them here nonetheless: 

    • When shopping the souks, decide what the object of your desire is worth to you. Ask the vendor to name his price. Offer in return about half of what you are willing to pay, regardless of what he says. Bargain with a smile. If it makes sense to take home two or three of the desired purchase, reduce the unit price by bulking up. Above all don’t be a jerk.  That last 50 pence you are haggling over will probably mean more in their pocket than in yours. Once you’ve bought want you want, don’t fret about the price you paid,  or compare it in other places. You decided what your must-have was worth to you, remember?  If you can’t make a deal, move on. Someone else will have what you want at a price you will be happy to pay. If they don’t, it suggests your expectations may be entirely unreasonable 
    • Negotiate cab fares before your journey starts. I have been quoted 350 dh for journeys then completed happily for only 50dh. 20dh is often plenty. 
    • Know you will get lost when you are walking. Accept it. Enjoy it. Sit down and have a cup of mint tea. You may want to ask the waiter to hold the sugar. Look at your map. Don’t assume that everyone who offers directions is out to scam you. Equally, don’t assume that any directions given are accurate. (See previous post on this vexatious subject). 
    • Don’t yell or be otherwise abusive to any would-be guide or salesman. You will bump into them again and again. 
    • Don’t assume that anyone who calls after you”remember me?” or “you came back, you promised you’d come back” has ever laid eyes on you before. I have a particularly good memory for faces and so when this was tried on me I said “I don’t think so– tell me where it was we met?”  My alleged chum muttered something about a hotel and moved on. On the other hand, people you have bought from WILL remember you when you next walk past and will run joyously after you. “You like your scarf?” “You take tea with me?” I always do. You can’t have too much tea, the young men are easy on the eye , and if you can help them move their use of English beyond “only look, no buy” you will be doing them a lifelong favour.  
    • If you seek strong drink, be prepared to climb stairs for it. Very few restaurants in the Medina are licensed and those that do sell booze are bound by law not to do so within sight of a mosque. This means that bars are built on rooftop decks. Stairs are uneven and hazardous even on the sober ascent. When I first arrived in Marrakech I wondered where all the tourists were. One afternoon I scaled the heights of the Cafe Arabe and found half of Europe encamped on the terrace, sucking on bottles of beer and double vodkas with sprite.   You do NOT want to be one of those people.  Stay on ground level and stick to the tea. 
    • If you want to visit the Majorelle Gardens get up early so you don’t have to queue. I failed to do this today and am thus having–yes you guessed it– a mint tea while hoping that the crowds will subside. There are some high end Moroccan designer shops near the gardens on the Rue Yves Laurent ( he used to own the gardens) which I liked better than those on Rue Mohammed V. Overall, I see little to recommend the Ville Nouvelle, unless you have an overpowering need for a MacDonalds or a trip to H&M. It, like the Jemaa el Fna is more depressing than delightful
    • Hammans. Do it. You will never feel as clean again. They will give you your hand-knitted scrubbie to take home. Forego this. You can use the space to stuff in an extra scarf. 

    Warning: at least one cow was seriously harmed before these pictures were taken. 

    The Night We Shut The Place Down

    The weathered wood sprite danced towards the door, shouting over a tweeded shoulder at someone unseen.

    “I’m away on now. Sure, I’ll see you through the week”

    If Richard Burton had been from Belfast, this is how he would have sounded: vocal chords toughened by cigarettes and soaked every day in whiskey. Like Richard Burton, the wee man declaimed as though to a packed auditorium. He was, in fact, in a quietly comfortable, reasonably upscale restaurant in Shepherd’s Bush where I was peaceably enjoying mushroom risotto and a glass of red wine.

    “Where are you from?” I raised my own voice to match his, guldering from my seat in the corner. All heads in the restaurant swivelled from him to me. Out of the corner of my eye, I half-saw the restaurant owner shake his head.

    “The Ormy road” he said.

    “C’mere” said I, gesturing that he should join me. “What part of the Ormeau Road?”

    I knew the road of course, and an enjoyable, roisterous conversation ensued about the Ormeau Park golf course, the Nazareth convent, the bakery and the gas works. The wee man was in full voice–no volume control.

    “What brings you here?” I said, after we had exhausted conversation about the Parador and the Errigle Inn, the Curzon cinema and the Oriel Pharmacy.

    “Ah sure I just came in to get a drink off a friend who works in the kitchen” said my new best friend. “He lives below me, just up the street a bit”

    “You didn’t eat here then?”

    “Dear God no. Far too effing expensive. Not for the likes of me. I hardly eat anyway—stick to the whiskey” A phlegmy laugh. “No I just called in to see Stephen. I was on my way home when you shouted.”

    Behind him, the restaurant owner came into focus. He was sorrowfully polishing a glass with a look of a man who knew the night’s business was done.

    I looked more closely at my table companion, and could see the puck was down on his luck. His head was the size a coconut, and similarly rough and whiskered. Under his tweed jacket he wore a jumper of patterned acrylic. It had been some time since he’d visited a dentist. But his Belfast-Burton eyes burned bright. He was dapper in a derelict kind of way.

    “Are you working?” I asked.

    “I’ve a wee job at the convent doing maintenance” he said.

    My ears pricked up. “You could maybe help me find someone to get rid of a wardrobe with a smashed glass door?”

    “Just effing buck it out on the street. Let the council take care of it. Get a friend to help you at night—effing hurl it out. That’s what I effing do. Say you know nothing about it if anyone effing asks. That’s what I did with my boiler. Just effed it effing out.”

    He was on a roll now. Around us, tables emptied.

    “They’ve my gas off. Effing disconnected it.  I can do without it. Eff them. Bucked it effing out.”

    “Cold in winter though” I murmured, noticing that the last family in the restaurant were gesturing for their bill.

    “Cold? Cold’s no bother. I have no glass in my windies in the flat. Have them covered with chicken wire to keep the pigeons out”

    I air-scribbled for my own bill. It arrived with speed.

    “I’m sure it’s dear” said the wee man, looking as I pulled notes from my wallet. I felt a stab of shame.

    “Here” I said, proffering a fiver.

    “Ah, you don’t need to do that” said Jono, for we were now on first name terms. He pocketed the note.

    “Get yourself some chicken wire.”

    “I’ll probably get some cigarettes”

    “Awfully bad for you…”

    “Ah sure, the harm is done”

    At the bar in the now empty restaurant, the owner nodded ruefully. The harm was indeed done.

    “Sorry” I mouthed at the owner as we left. He didn’t say to come back soon.

    On the dark, wet pavement Jono shook my hand, eager to get off to the off-licence. .

    “If you’re ever passing the convent just come in and ask for me. If they don’t know me just say you’re looking the man in the white overalls. I’ll be up a ladder somewhere. I might not remember you, but sure I’ll know you when I see you”.

    That’s where we left it.

    Behind us, the lights went off in the restaurant. It was 9pm.