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

In the Pink at the Raspberry Festival

The mayor was wearing a shiny blue suit with a silvered stripe. He stood out in the heat of the day, not least because almost everyone around him was attired in raspberry pink. The occasion was the Raspberry festival, held at a beautiful resort hotel close to Sisian in Syunik marz, and most of the mayor’s constituents were there. The school age girls were part of singing and dancing ensembles. The school age boys were racing through the fruit borders and tearing their shirts off for a dip in the hotel’s pool. Young adult men smoked and roved in groups, eyeing young woman, all of whom were wearing shoes entirely unsuited to walking on grass. Families wrestled with toddlers dressed in too-hot outfits, and chided them when they got their clothes stained with raspberry juice. Older people sought the shade of willow trees and tutted about the price and quality of local produce on sale. She has the cheek to sell that watery honey–imagine! His vodka would burn the throat off you, so it would. Have you seen the state of her cushions? She must crochet with a hook the size of a walking stick…  (My translations are not literal, but I recognize the types. I agree it is unlikely that Armenian festival-goers employ a Northern Irish construction when bitching their neighbors, but honestly, the whole scene was so familiar to me from childhood fetes and harvest festivals that it was hard not to imagine everyone speaking with an asperity–and indeed an accent– like my own). When I was there, I spotted only one other outsider–a man in his middle years wearing shorts and carrying a Nikon with a lens  like a that dangled like a third leg. Armenian men don’t show off their shins, or anything else below the waist, and, having only family to photograph, don’t ever need to zoom. Most of the stalls seemed to be run by women in their forties and fifties, stalwarts of society prepared to stand all day in the searing heat. There were clowns, there were balloons, and there was ice-cream. Everyone helped themselves to raspberries from the hotel’s canes. Bees busied themselves on dahlias. It was as close to perfect as it is possible to get.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Taxi Talk

Ara taught himself English from an old phrase book. He was 10 years old and Armenia was at war with Nagorno-Karabakh. His world was an uncertain and dangerous place and Armenia’s economy was in tatters. In 1994 there was nowhere to go and nothing to do so Ara stayed at home and learned English. Later he came by an English grammar book and continued to study. Now he is 33 years old and he still works at his English online at night. He has never had any formal tuition but he’s fluent. 

Ara is a taxi driver. Yesterday I asked him to take me to Jermuk for the day. Jermuk is a spa town famous for its scenery and spring water. There was room in Ara’s  21-year-old Mercedes and so his wife and two sons came too. Jermuk is a three hour drive from Goris so Nelli and the boys slept most of the way there and back and I benefited from a guide who both knows his stuff and speaks my language. 

Leaving Goris, Ara showed me the new electrical power station being built to supply power to Iran. Big news for the economy in Syunik Marz. He pointed out the remains of the Goris Airport. Flights flew from there to Yerevan in Soviet times– he remembers his father and uncle taking the trip when he was a small boy. Now there is only the road. He shows me the plastic fencing newly erected in preparation for the winter snows.”it’s always windy up here in the mountains” he says ” the snow blows off the slope and closes the road which stops all work from here to Yerevan.”  This year they hope the fencing will hold back the drift and allow the road to stay open.  

We drive past Sisian the next sizeable town on the road north. “Great mushrooms here” says Ara “and pure honey”. The slopes are covered in wild flowers and boxy beehives form blue and yellow encampments by the roadside. Mist shrouds the top of King Mountain, more than 3000 meters high. Behind it is the Black Lake says Ara, the coldest, clearest, cleanest water you will ever see. Further on there is Camel Mountain. In the mountains beyond it, 7000-year-old petroglyphs can be found. The mountain is accessible only in summer. Ara offers to hire a four wheel drive to take me and some other volunteers. “Most people here have never seen the rock engravings”  he says. I will definitely go. 

Past Sisian, the landscape becomes more bleak and windswept. There are no trees now. We drive through a small village and Ara shows me cairns of cowclap drying in the sun. “They have no wood here” says Ara “so they dry cow dung to burn”. 

“Does it smell bad on the fire?” I ask. Ara shrugs. “Yes, but they are used to it. Sheep dung is better. It burns longer and hotter”. So now we know. 

Along this part of the road, only cabbages and potatoes grow. We pass a couple of abandoned villages. It just got too hard to live here Ara says. 

We cross into Vayots Dzor Marz. It is even more craggy here. Ara tells me there is a rare kind of mountain goat found only in this part of Armenia. It is called the Kar Ayt or Stone goat and is an endangered species. We don’t see it. Ara tells me to look out for eagles. He often sees them here, but there are no eagles today. 


Ara begins to talk about a new gold mine to be opened next year in Amulsar. The Armenian-Canadian owners have a 25 year agreement to extract 200,000 ounces of gold a year from open cast mines. Ara is against the project. “They use cyanide in this kind of mining” he says ” it will ruin the air and pollute the water. It will finish the spring water industry in Jermuk. It will provide fast money for people employed there, but it will kill them slowly”. Ara said he cried when the plans for the mine were approved. He is nearly crying now. 

We are now on the road to Jermuk. There are apricot trees and Ara says the area is also famous for its strawberries. We stop by the side of the road and wake the family to look at the view and eat apricots. Forget American apricots with their mouldy stones and mealy texture. Those are not apricots worthy of the name. Armenian apricots are the size of kiwi fruit,  cleft like a baby’s bottom and sweet, sweet, sweet. Neither unripe or too ripe as they always are at home, here they manage to be just right. We eat about 6 each. They are heaven. 


On the way into Jermuk we stop at a small apostolic church and light candles. I take pictures.  “Thank you, thank you” say Ara and Nelli. Like most families they find it hard to get pictures of all of them together. Like good Armenians they do not smile as the shutter snaps. 


Nelli asks me if I can drive and is excited when I say yes. She wants to learn. Ara is not enthusiastic “I am afraid for her” he says “She does not know the roads the way I do. She won’t know how to get out of the way”. A large truck heavy with Sisian stone lumbers towards us to help him make his point. He pulls into the rose hip hedge to let the truck come through “and she doesn’t know the drunks and the drug addicts” Ara continues “I can see who’s coming. I know who is on the road and I know when they are dangerous. She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know”. 

I am firmly on Nelli’s side “You weren’t born knowing” I say ” and you can show her and teach her. She can learn.”  When Ara drives to Yerevan and back he is on the road for at least 8 hours. If his passengers want a wait and return service his day can be much,much longer. Nelli works as a teacher and has two boys to take to piano lessons, chess club, doctors appointments and school. No wonder she wants to learn to drive. 

I know that drunk driving is a big problem in Armenia, but I am surprised to hear Ara mention drugs. Thus far, I have heard very little about drug abuse here, and I haven’t seen much sign of a problem. “When you drive for a living you see all kinds of things and all kinds of people” say Ara “believe me the bad guys are right here. Part of every society”. 

I ask him what drugs and speculate perhaps heroin from Iran? “Yes ” he says ” and people grow opium and cannabis here too, behind their houses. But that is not the worst. Krokodil is the worst. It is chemicsl. They make it from codeine and paintstripper and it makes them crazy. They jump out of windows. They drive like madman. It started in Russia and now it is everywhere here.” He sees how shocked I look. “I am afraid for my boys” he says “I tell them be like me don’t even smoke. But it is everywhere. I wonder about their lives when they are older. They might have to be soldiers in a war. Soldiers killed in Karabakh. There might be bad guys. All I can give them is education. Only education. Education. The most important thing”. He hits the steering wheel for emphasis as we pull into the parking lot for the cable car ride to the top of the hill behind old Jermuk. 


Ashok shoots out of the car and runs towards the ticket office. David follows him at speed. These boys, 10  and 8 years old, well-loved and well looked after, are afraid of nothing. May they always be safe. 

So what do you do there anyway?

I spent the 4th of July cutting out pictures of hamburger buns, cheese slices and dill pickles. Black and white pictures, because we don’t have a color printer here. I used the pictures to teach an English conversation class about the American holiday. Students–five women aged from 15 to 50–order a burger with their choice of extras from me. Then they show and tell what they will eat. Bacon strips, tomato, red onion slices, ketchup, mustard and french fries were among the options. I left out lettuce. No-one likes lettuce and the word is not used here. I play a short video of my colleagues singing the Star-Spangled Banner. We wrap up when everyone can say stars and stripes and point to the right images on the flag. I am not actually here to teach English, although a lot of volunteers are. But English lessons are valued in Armenia and random people, hearing an American is in town, will turn up to ask to talk and learn. I am happy to help. Some of the women I have met in the last month in Armenia blow me away with  their poise, determination and capacity to learn. Say magic words in English and you can conjure up a glorious future. They are determined to master the language.

At home, my family made a mattress. When I woke up in the morning, wool not long shorn from the back of a sheep, had been washed and hung out to dry. Later, it was laid out on top of an envelope of hotel-white sheeting. Much patting and teasing and prompting ensued, until the cloth was covered in a four inch thick mat of the unruly wool. Deft rolling and squeezing and pummeling and Aleta and Karina had wrangled the wool into its new cover. The quilt was rolled and carted upstairs where it was laid out on two dining tables–extensions added–and sewed with string to stop the wool shifting about. It looks like the mattress of my dreams. They will make another one tomorrow.

 

I am a community development volunteer, which means I work with an NGO. My focus is management skills and organizational development, just like it was in the states. I work with a more than averagely successful grant-funded organization which has offices in Yerevan and here in Goris. P&T NGO wins and administers grants from organizations including USAID, the European Commission, UNHCR, sundry foreign administrations and various branches of the Armenian national and local governments. Most of our work concentrates on civil society development training we provide for other, smaller NGOs. The training–in NGO management, Social Entrepreneurship, Communications and PR, Financial Diversification, Fundraising, Project Design Management, Managing Volunteers and Members, and  Advocacy–is first-rate. Practical, engaging and very hands on. I, of course, cannot facilitate, because my Hayeren isn’t up to it. This means I concentrate on trying to improve office processes, and on PR work.

Haykush is up at  6 o’clock to clean our office. She takes care of the kitchen and bathroom, dusts and tidies the desks, empties the waste bins and sweeps and stairs and outside areas, front and back. On her way to her day’s work in the garden, she stops to stir the vats of mulberries outside my bedroom. The berries are fermenting nicely now. Haykush has beans to tend, fruit to pick and seedlings to thin. Later, she’ll make yogurt.

God knows, I am not great at systems but I have learned the hard way the value of thinking first and doing later; of labeling files and folders by date and name; and of storing only the most updated version of materials to be used for publicity. I try to touch things only once, committing to finish what I’ve started, and attempting to answer questions before they are asked. In the States, I am at the back of the class when it comes to this sort of order and organizational ability. Here, my colleagues  consider me pedantic, process-oriented and positively nit-picking. Somewhere far away from Armenia Jacqui Barrett, Natalia Banalescu-Bogdan and Caela Coil are rolling their eyes…

Artur is spreading concrete on what will be the floor of my new shower. Next he will grout the floor tiles before doing a taxi shift. The work on the bathroom has been held up. We had heavy rain and our roof sprung a leak he had to fix. He needed to drive to Yerevan to get something to make the shower drain better. The next-door neighbor is too old to climb his own mulberry tree–Artur must stop his remodeling to help with the harvest.

At work, I write strategy documents in English and share them with my colleagues on Google Drive. Everyone here mistrusts Google Drive more than they mistrust lettuce. I can’t say I like it myself, but it is one way to make sure everyone is looking at the same version of the same document. Not that anyone reads my strategy papers. Even for those fluent in English, they are too fatiguing. I don’t blame them.

Natalie has cycled across town to meet her friend Sarkis. They are both teetering on the edge of puberty. Next summer, will she ride her bike? Next summer, will she be allowed to see Sarkis? Diana does her hair and her make-up and then does it again a different way. She is 19. Robert is outside playing in the street just as a four-year-old should be.

I come up with ideas to increase our visibility and illustrate our impact. We are having a big conference next Monday–200 people. We decided on the title the day before yesterday and we finalized the announcement in English, Hayeren and Adobe Indesign late last night. My friend Emily at the other end of the country has Indesign on her computer so I asked her to give me a couple of hours of her graphic design expertise. Two exhausting days later and everyone was happy. Thanks Emily.

The conference will pull together representatives from business, government and the NGOs we have been working with. I have drafted a press release for translation and want to start the conference with challenges to sector teams to attach themselves to each other with ribbon in the colors of the Hayastan flag. I can see it all now: executives and social workers and elected representatives knitted together by Armenian colors threaded through bracelets, down shirt sleeves and around ankles.  It will give the TV crews something to film I tell my colleagues. They look at me in bewilderment. This is more than a language difficulty.  They think I am crazy and ridiculous. By now, Jacqui and Natalia and Caela are nodding in agreement. This is the Liz they know.

I coached the female executive director of a NGO in Yerevan by skype. Another young woman who speaks perfect English. I coached another volunteer on managing her emotions as she settles into her new life in Armenia. I decided to call it a day.
00001

Aleta spring-cleaned the living-room. She took down the curtains  and washed all the windows with vodka and crumpled paper. Yards and yards of freshly laundered netting to be rehung. She made a tray of pound cake and a small batch of raspberry jam, before our raspberries spoiled. I joined her and Karina for cake, jam and tea after watching the exhausting business of the mattress. The cake was cut in perfect diamonds and the jam was still warm. This is what we do here.

 

 

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…

 

 

Congested in the Caucasus 

I blame the blossom. And then there’s the dust and the mould. What started as seasonal sneezing due to inhaling pesky pollen, motes of dried mud, and creeping black spores quickly led to sinus havoc. My ears popped crossing the mountains when I went to Goris. I was deaf, stuffed up and generating enough phlegm to allow fluent if fluid pronunciation of difficult Armenian double consonant sounds. By the time I came back it was showtime for three Irish pipers, playing badly in my chest.  Now I have been diagnosed with bronchitis and confined to quarters, coughing. 

Elsa of course has no truck with my arguments against the environment. She knows I am ill because I won’t wear socks, will leave the house with wet hair, and don’t have enough warm clothes. She has now made socks mandatory. I am not allowed to wash my hair. I am too weak to argue. 

Elsa has very clear ideas about how to treat my illness, or indeed any illness. She feeds a cold and gorges everything else. Things that are good for what ails me include: tea sweetened with black currant jam, vodka, (but only if swallowed from a shot glass in one large gulp), and butter–by itself is best but lavash can be permitted. The important thing is to get through half a pound at each sitting. If bread helps, so be it. Cherries, strawberries, and unripe small green plums eaten with salt (seed and all ) are also cure-alls. And of course there is spas. (SehPASS). 

Spas is the Armenian equivalent of chicken noodle soup. It can cure anything. I asked Elsa to write down her recipe. She laughed and said I could watch her work. The prep is a speedy process so I was able to fit it in between bouts of coughing. I urge you to make some. It is definitely restorative. 

Elsa’s Spas

Two cups of Barley (rice or buckwheat would also do)

Six cups of plain yoghurt — or use one whole jumbo tub

Six cups of water– or fill the empty jumbo tub with water

2 heaped tablespoons of flour. 

1 egg

Several handfuls of fresh dill, cilantro and tarragon, finely chopped with spring onions (use any other fresh herbs you like as well). The spring onions are key here– but you can be free form with everything else. 

Mix all the ingredients in a pan, beating in the flour and the egg so the liquid is smooth. 

Cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally until the barley is well swelled. About 40 minutes. 

Serve warm in a mug with a spoon. Add salt and pepper to taste. Get well soon. 

 Between the vodka and the NyQuil (reccomended by the Peace Corps doctor), I spend a lot of time asleep, or at least speechless, glassy-eyed and immobile in a chair. I haven’t been to class since I returned from Goris and so I am at home during the business of the day. I watch Indian soap operas and American films, all dubbed in Armenian. (I saw Brad Pitt and Ashton Kutcher in something yesterday. Or was that just the drugs?) Elsa is usually working– hens to tend to, sticks to break and stack, weeds to pull, floors to clean–but sometimes she finds a task she can fit in while visiting the sick. Yesterday it was canning vine leaves in preparation for dolma demand this winter. As high drama played out on TV (someone in a sari has been kidnapped) Elsa created neat piles of about a dozen grape leaves each, smoothing each leaf as though it was filmy, fragile lingerie she was preparing to pack. Then she gently laid each pile in a colander over a pan of boiling water and covered the pan to steam the rosette. She then folded and tamped the batches of softened leaves into mason jars and sealed them tight. This was the first crop of this year to make it to the pantry shelves. 
Neighbors are in and out all day. Tamara brought me cherries and strawberries from her garden because she heard I had the grippe. “Butter” she said as she heard me speak   “Butter’s what you need for a sore throat.”  Sada came and sat for a bit and put a rug round my shoulders. “Stay warm” she said. “You need more clothes.” She hugged me when she left “Butter” she said “Plenty of butter.” Like Elsa, both these women are the same age as me. They must wonder how Americans survive past childhood when we are so ignorant of basic wellness techniques.  

Right now, Elsa is boiling me an egg, laid by one of our hens this morning.  It will be perfectly cooked, the bright yolk just set and no suggestion of a tired, grey outer ring. She will peel the egg straight from the pan–her fingers are asbestos. She will mash the egg on a small plate with salt and pepper and maybe a side of herbs. Before she gives it to me she will add a slab of butter. “Kerr, Kerr” she will say. “Eat, Eat.”  Let’s hope the cough goes before my heart gives out. 

Armenia the Beautiful

Video credit: Peace Corps Volunteer Olivia Route.

Olivia’s short film about her springtime in Armenia is less than five minutes long and worth watching. Everyday for the last couple of months she has recorded a few seconds of footage on her iPhone. She used only two seconds from each sequence in her final cut. The result is pacey, comprehensive, personal and universal– a true record of her volunteer experience here, and a cheerful introduction to authentic Armenian life. Just like Olivia herself, the film is  spirited, clear-eyed and warmed by respect and gratitude for those she meets.  I love it.

I watched videos made by other volunteers before I arrived in Armenia. Most of these were profoundly depressing, detailing malfunctioning bathrooms and grim walks to dilapidated schools. “I don’t see much that looks beautiful” I confided to a friend before I left home. I wondered  how I would cope without the Chesapeake Bay, and my irises, and the bits and pieces that brighten the Barron abode. I said a regretful goodbye to my table lamp with the tulle tutu shade, and my retro red glass trinket bowl hauled all the way from Sydney, Australia. I rubbed my face one last time in the velvet quilt I brought home from India last year. I printed pictures of the irises and packed them along with photos of the children.

When I arrived in the Ararat region, my first impression was of dust, dull brown dust. The roads are made of it. The cars are covered with it. It gets on to and into everything. Then I saw the concrete–rough grey walls on half finished houses. I noticed that the women wore clothes of durable jersey usually grey, black and brown. My village name means “garden jewel” but in late March there was precious little sign of gem tones anywhere. But you live somewhere–anywhere– and begin to love it. In loving it, you see it with new eyes. Here, Ararat helps.

 

Seeing Ararat is like glimpsing God. It gives succor to the spirit, and uplifts the soul. Days with Ararat are marvelous and make possible great things. In months with low clouds, it is possible to doubt the mountain’s existence, or to forget that it is there at all. Then a shift in the sky reveals the peak and it is not possible to look away.  Today Ararat filled the background– dazzling sunlight on pristine snow –while I shopped at the farmers’ market. Last week in the same place there was no sign of the mountain at all. It is not the only time Ararat has taken me by surprise. Twice, in different places, I have been walking home from school and have rounded a corner suddenly to see the mountain. Both times I stopped and gasped. On other days I have loitered in the same places and strained to see but the glory is denied. To have lived in Ararat’s light has changed me, I believe. The Psalmist had it right: lift your eyes to the mountains and you will find strength.

IMG_3300It turns out Armenia has irises too, just like the ones at home. Maybe even better. There are hoopoes I see every day on my walk to school but haven’t yet been able to photograph. There is lilac. On the drive south from Ararat to Syunik Marz there are small cairns of stones, built perhaps by shepherds or by hikers taking a moment to remember someone close to them, and be glad. There are sweeping views of undulating mountains shaded in blues, and greens and greys. It is  like the West coast of Ireland, but on a larger scale, and there is no yellow, purple or brown. If there is gorse, heather and peat here, I have yet to see it.

 

 

IMG_2858While Armenia is blessed with every natural beauty but the sea, there is man made beauty too. These people can torture scrap metal into shapes that stun: great  things they have wrought in front of schoools and around parks. Windows are screened with iron sunbursts and doors are shrouded with lace the weight of lead. Then there are the khachkars, stone carvings from single-figure centuries: sandy, intricate and surprisingly enduring for stone so soft.

The women I am lucky to know take pride in setting a beautiful table here. China is always used at mealtimes. It matches, and it isn’t chipped. Glasses usually have a gilt band. Tiny coffee cups are candy colored and edged with gold. Inside houses there may be concrete walls half-primed and never painted. Tiles may be cracked or missing on floors or bathroom walls. Living room furniture may be covered with hardwearing polyester in stoic browns. But the kitchen table will have a gold and cream oilcloth cover and sweets will be served in a Royal Doulton-type bowl. Preserves are set out in small glass dishes and you will be invited to help yourself to apricot, raspberry and black currant jam with a dainty, ornate spoon. Slices of fresh-cut cucumber glisten green-white. I am sure Armenian radishes inspired the complexion of Snow White in the Disney film.

 

There is ugliness too of course. Abandoned, rusting cars, people shouting at their children, litter left on hedgerows, and corrugated iron roofing on dilapidated hen  houses curtained with blue plastic sheeting. There are seventies Soviet buildings and sex-selective abortions and dogs that bark all night, perhaps because they know someone will come to shoot them soon. Young men are dressed up as soldiers and equipped with remaindered guns. Corruption is as common as ketchup, served up everyday. Streets and towns are empty of shops and customers, for all the paid work is thousands of miles away, in someone else’s country.

But the kindness of the people blinds incomers to all of this. The woman with gold teeth who offers to pay your fare on the bus, because you are a volunteer, and don’t earn much. The host who makes spas because you are sick, and insists you drink your tea with a healthful honey made from pine cones. The English teacher in the supermarket who stops to sort out a mix-up over baking ingredients. The cab driver who forces the garage owner to find a USB and charge a dead phone, so you don’t miss a particularly good view of Ararat. The 8 year old who demonstrates ballet moves on her bike, providing an escort home every night from school. The grandfather who walks tenderly behind a crippled child playing ball in the street, ready to catch him if he falls. The teacher who decorates a miserable looking classroom so an American far from home has a lovely birthday. These people, and many other things, are what makes Armenia beautiful. Come and see for yourself.

Some dance to remember. Some dance to forget.

IMG_3006IMG_2858.JPGWe are not allowed to travel after dark. We may not leave our villages without permission. We will never drive a car in our country of service. The rules governing the lives of incoming Peace Corps Volunteers are strict and exist because of painful experience gained all over the world. When we need to venture further than the local school for a Peace Corps activity, we are driven in a Peace Corps minivan and returned home safely in the late afternoon. This week though, we had enough language to strike up a new relationship with our driver, and so we now have an eclectic mix of music as we ride. We have car-danced to Gangster Paradise, and some folky Armenian pop. I was astonished to find myself singing along to the Eagles’ Hotel California with a van load of 20 somethings. I, of course, know all the words, but would have been prepared to hide this knowledge if it would have helped my image any. I needn’t have worried: they all knew it and sang loudly with no apparent irony. The old, denim-clad and hairy must be new again? The millennials also sang along with Celine on My Heart Will Go On and On. I sat that one out. A girl knows her limits.

After a month in our villages and only in our villages the Peace Corps suddenly deemed we were fit to be let out last week It has been a social and cultural blur.

IMG_2838.JPGWe went to Norovank, an ancient church and monastery built on a hill and surrounded by deep gorges and snow-topped mountains. Norovank was built by one of Armenia’s most esteemed architects, Momik, back in the 13th century. Legend has it that the king challenged Momik to build the church if he wanted to marry the king’s beautiful daughter. Momik was keen on the princess and so rose to the challenge. Sadly the marriage never took place although the church still stands: Momik was killed by the king once the building was completed.

The church is still used today. It has two stories, the second of which is reached by a set of perilous outdoor stairs. The graveyard is filled with ancient engravings—celtic-looking endless knots known as hatchkars (cross stones). Visitors come from all over the world to see the engravings, some of the few that survive from Momik’s time. In taxis from Yerevan, they grumble about the distance and the need to inhale hard for oxygen in the high mountains. Why are there no historic sites on accessible main roads, they ask with a gasp. On the way to Norovank, we crossed a peak from which it is possible to see the mountains of Iran, Azeri territory, and Turkey. This small country’s neighbors live close at hand and over the years have often turned up uninvited. They have not always left Armenia quite as they found it. Across the years’ many of Armenia’s apostolic Christian churches have been raided and looted and destroyed and so it is only the most remote and mountainous that survive.

IMG_2938

Later in the week, we had a field trip to a second ancient site—Khor Virap. This used to be in a remote location, but now finds itself less than 10 miles from the Turkish border. Things change, though GPS coordinates remain the same. Here is where the man later known as Saint Gregory spent an uncomfortable 13 years imprisoned in a narrow, dark, underground well. A widow fed him from time to time. The king who had imprisoned IMG_2999Gregory eventually went mad, as those with evil ways are prone to do. The widow mentioned that it might be a good idea to free Gregory. He was hauled out of the pit and immediately, and rather generously, returned the king to health and vigor. The king wisely decided to throw his lot in with Gregory and together, back in 301 AD they made Armenia the first Christian nation. The first church was built on the Khor Virap site in 642. The one that stands today dates from 1622. We saw twins christened at Khor Virap. They both screamed lustily throughout. Gregory was also known as Gregory the Illuminator. You can buy a copy of his biblical illustrations at the gift shop, along with some hirsute dolls in Armenian national costume.

IMG_2979IMG_2974

 

On the home front too, there has been a lot of toing and froing this week. Lala, the newly married daughter is home from Moscow for a few days. Her husband didn’t come. He is a decorator and is busy with work. On Easter Sunday all of the Ararat region seemed to visit the graves of family members, sitting in a village traffic jam to get to the cemetery. In low-fenced plots, men lit small fires in metal pans and sprinkled incense on the flames to honor the dead. Women placed flowers, mostly carnations, at the foot of gravestones engraved with life size photos of the lost. It is important that the flowers are left in odd numbers—usually bunches of three, or five or seven.

IMG_2986

 

There were more than 30 people at our house for dinner. Elsa had been preparing for some days: fresh water fish, and Easter pilaf—rice prepared with butter and raisins—plus the usual herbs, tomatoes, cucumber and chopped salads. Bowls and bowls of eggs, dyed a rich brown with onion skins and then decorated by me with my favorite gold Sharpie and some chicken stickers I brought with me from an American craft store.

IMG_2930

A fellow Peace Corps Volunteer who rooms with Elsa’s sister was seated with me at lunch. We and a couple of doughty Aunts were put at the end of the men’s table. For us, homemade red wine was poured into tiny cordial glasses which we drank daintily. Hanna and I refilled ours as often as we decently could. I probably had 13 thimblefuls by the end. Not enough to do any harm. The men drank vodka shots with their meal. Vodka here is cheaper than bottled water and is often 75%. That’s percent, not proof. It’s rocket fuel and by the end of the lunch there were casualties. A couple of Elsa’s good tablecloths will never be as white again.

In the kitchen at the (real) ladies’ table, alcohol was not served. Many pastries and chocolates were consumed with strong black coffee in exquisite, tiny cups. For women, any kind of drink, hot or cold, seems to involve fairy-sized receptacles. They are strangers to mugs. At the children’s table in the living room, kids knocked hard boiled eggs together end to end to see who could break whose—it seemed to be a good luck thing, combined with a “mine is better than yours” type challenge. (Think conkers if you are British.)

Tonight (Sunday) the house is full of people again. They have been coming in waves from about 6pm, more than 30 across the evening. Elsa has yet to sit down. First we had dolma—ground beef, onion, garlic and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves and steamed—plus greens that looked like groundsel cooked up with egg. This was served with lavash and the usual salad bits and pieces. Acorn cups of sweet wine for any woman who wanted it. A bottle or so of vodka for each of the men. Coffee and homemade cake with chocolate butter frosting and a banana and chocolate cream center. Coffee was served. Then a shift change—a raft of neighbors replaced relations who had to hit the road for home. Tea with lemon, a refreshed plate of cakes and fancies. About 9pm a third contingent turned up and the salads appeared again, plus a yogurt drink—Tan—served cold with fine -chopped scallions and cucumber. (Refreshing but keep the Colgate handy.) Women are sitting in the kitchen eating black sunflower seeds—they nip the kernels with their teeth and then place the husks on the side of their plates in a ladylike maneuver I have yet to master. No spitting is involved. In the hallway, Geovorg continues to entertain the men who come and go, smoking and drinking vodka shots with them all. He appears completely sober. I don’t know how he does it.

IMG_2817

 

I am the only one who has to get up tomorrow. Everyone else is at home because it is commemoration day for the 1915 Genocide. On Friday, our group of volunteers went to Yerevan to see the memorial and to visit the museum commemorating the deaths of one and a half million Armenians at the hands of Turks who, facing the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, wanted power and land a century ago. World leaders plant trees at the site. Armenian school children lay flowers at the eternal flame. Holy music plays. On the way to the museum, we sang and danced in the bus, causing the van to shake. After the tour we stood in silence and looked at Mount Ararat from the roof of the museum, the enduring symbol of life and land that was lost. We didn’t sing on the way home.

IMG_3011

 

Jam tomorrow. Lavash every day. 

One of the great things about living in Armenia is that there are no rules about breakfast. In my past life,  I was used to being denied cherry cake before noon and nobody liked it when I finished off cold pizza or last night’s curry at 8am. I have a family member who simply can’t abide leftovers. He wouldn’t last long here. 

Breakfasting at the base of Mount Ararat, we pull everything available out of the fridge and put it on the table.  It has become my practice to start every day by constructing a sandwich of apricot jam (homemade), feta-like cheese (often homemade) and fresh tarragon (homegrown) wrapped in lavash (made in vast quantities by the lady across the street). I call it my Full Irish Breakfast because it is green white and gold. The licorice taste of the herb goes perfectly with the sweetness of the jam and the sharpness of the cheese. I commend it to you. 
Bean salad with vinaigrette and chicken, corn and pepper salad in mayonnaise were on the breakfast table this week, as were reheated spaghetti and chicken nuggets.  I ate the beans but gave the mayonnaise a wide berth: Peace Corps staff and other seasoned volunteers have shared stories of fragile Americans who tangled too soon with aging egg-based products, with explosive results. I didn’t get to the spaghetti and chicken this morning, being distracted by the halva and mushroom pilaf. Elsa packed the chicken and pasta for my lunch, chopping and mixing it before rolling it in lavash. If you are a fan of Discovery ID you will know dead bodies and other things that villains wish to hide are almost always rolled up in rugs before being smuggled past innocent bystanders. Lavash is the Armenian equivalent of the rolled rug. 

The people two doors down have a cow in their back garden and so fresh milk, heated to kill any germs, is often served. My concern isn’t the lack of pasteurization. I just don’t much like milk, either hot or cold. I prefer tea, which here is always served without milk. Sometimes homemade black currant jam is offered, to be used as a sweetener. The first time I was passed a small dish of berries and a spoon, I ate the whole plate as though it was a dessert. No-one batted an eyelid, but I have since watched entire families share what I devoured, spooning only five or six berries into each cup of tea served.  Oh dear. Embarrassed of Armenia. 

Sometimes a new dish appears at breakfast. Spinach pan fried in butter and supplemented by a lightly beaten egg is a favorite of mine. It’s good freshly made and hot, and surprisingly palatable when it turns up again at dinner, this time cold. 

In every house, sheets of lavash the size of medieval shields are bought in bulk from specialist neighborhood bakers and stored in a cool, dark and perhaps slightly damp pantry in each Armenian home. The piles are thick enough and long enough to make a comfortable bed for a small princess. Before it is served, the lavash is cut into slices the size and thickness of a Sunday magazine double spread. These sheets are folded in two and piled high in the breadbasket that always sits on the kitchen counter. I have noticed that the basket is always topped up before it is empty. There must be lavash in the bottom of ours that is older than some of my fellow volunteers. 

I keep forgetting just how young that is. In a  language lesson today we had to ask each other questions about people we liked and disliked– something to do with objects and possessive pronouns. Thinking to stick with an Armenian theme, but move past the Kardashians, I asked my class mates what they thought of Charles Asnavour. Blank stares ensued. I sang a bar or two of She. Nothing. When I YouTubed the song I discovered it was a hit in 1974, more than 40 years ago. Depressing. 

Charles Asnavour sings She