I made them myself

I have taken my attempts at host country integration a little further than most Peace Corps Volunteers in their first three months of service, in that I have seen the inside of an Armenian operating theater, and a large number of Armenian medical professionals have seen the inside of me. I am without a gallbladder, but my surgeon thoughtfully kept the quite startling collection of gallstones, so I still have those. In this land of stone and rock it seems only fitting that I should have my own pebbly pocket-collection to carry around. This time the pouch containing them will not be linked to my digestive system. I have walked a few steps, eaten a baked apple and brushed my teeth and hair. I have clean pajamas. I am pretty much ready for anything.

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

Sunday lunch

The mass at Tatev monastery is a real workout. The service lasts at least two hours, during which the congregation stands. At intervals the faithful must dip to touch the floor, kneel for protracted periods on slabs of stone, and then stand up  again without any chair or rail support. There is much making the sign of the cross– enough to work those troublesome upper arms. At one point the Apostolic priest races round the church chased by those anxious to kiss a four-inch bejeweled cross he carries for that purpose.  He is followed by two spear carriers and again the worshipful must lunge and stretch to reach and kiss the icons borne aloft.  Later another priest holds a heavy bible triumphantly above his head, as though it were a boxer’s championship belt. The chap with the chasuble is Olympic standard. The choir work their chest muscles to good effect. You can listen to them singing here.

I was worn out just trying to keep a silky scarf (supplied to all women as they enter) from slipping off my super-shiny hair and so about an hour into the service I left the church in search of a cool breeze and a seat in the shade outside. A number of other women my age had done the same thing. We sat on a bench beneath an almond tree and chatted. Yes that’s right. Chatted. In Armenian. It all went surprisingly well. Anahit moved so she could get closer to me. “Come for coffee” she said. I couldn’t see anyone with coffee, or anyone selling coffee but I was sure I’d understood. “I have to wait for my friend” I said rather primly, for Lilit, lithe of limb and sound of knee was still doing Apostolic aerobics. “She can come too when the service finishes” said Anahit firmly, and took my arm. Lilit was just coming out of church as we passed the door. Refreshment sounded good to her. Anahit led us to a long, cool stone room tucked away to the side of the church. The room had a table with fifty place settings and a full lunch-cold chicken, plates of pork, several kinds of cheese, peppers, cucumbers, tomatos and fresh herbs plus every kind of soda you can ever imagine. We were ushered to one end of the table and offered red wine from a two gallon plastic bottle. The table was thronged with old people, children, babies and all ages in between. “Eat Eat” said everyone, quite as though they were characters concocted by Lewis Carroll. Alice-like, I had no idea what was going on and no way of finding out. Lilit asked a few questions and ascertained that the group– with Anahit as a leading light–had come from Artashat four hours away, close to where I used to live near Mount Ararat. It was a church outing suggested by their priest, who we had seen taking part in the service. Someone in the group– we never found out who– had had a baby she’d named Tatev. When the priest christened the child he said they should make a pilgrimage to Tatev monastery and so here they all were. They’d brought their own lunch. They had plenty. We should eat. “Anush lini”. Let it be sweet.

The priest, now without his gold hat, gold cape and gold Elvis-style collar came and sat beside us, as did one of the spear carriers, now minus his royal blue surplice. The spear carrier spoke some English. The priest, a man with the look of Demis Roussos, was wearing all black accented by a silver-colored cross both enormous and ornate. Lilit’s cousin, our ride home, called her to see where we were. We exchanged hugs and kisses with half a dozen people round the table and friended a couple on Facebook. I have Anahit’s number and instructions to call her when I am next in Artashat. Anush Lini. Let it be sweet. It was.


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.

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At the Shops

Everything in Armenia looks like I built it. Skirting boards stop short of the door trim. Plastic piping pokes through jagged holes in plasterboard and tiling tails off when the money runs out. The whole country is not quite finished and in most places, interior design ambition seems to have outstripped artisanal aptitude.

Here, every man is a handyman, and every second shop is a hardware store. You buy what you need for Do-it-yourself and you do what you can.  At first, the rough edges and state of unreadiness are somewhat shocking to outsider eyes. Those of us raised in a world of contractors and kite marks, bonding, insurance, punch lists and perfect finishes are inclined to turn up our noses at what looks like the work of cowboy builders. But when men and women tell you the story of how their homes started to happen, you start to see the love and pride they cemented into every structure.  These couples built their houses from the ground up, adding here and there when they could, and teaching themselves as they go along. Homes are haphazard but they hold together (for the most part) and honestly, does the world need more straight lines and gleaming surfaces? Even if home improvements are more down and low than Lowes and Home Depot,  housekeeping is of a very high standard. There is many a multi-million dollar McMansion in the United States that could do with a little Armenian elbow grease and bear in mind that people here–well, women here–clean their own homes. I know! Unheard of…

Well-equipped though the hardware stores are, they lack two items regularly featured in the US big box stores. This is not a culture with garden furniture, and there is no such thing as outdoor equipment for hire. The other night, I sat outside on a rickety office chair and talked to a friend from home by phone. “Sorry if it’s noisy” she said “The men are here power washing the deck”. I looked at the rusting infrastructure that screens off the stairs to our cellar. “Ah yes, power washing” I said, and felt a little wistful. I’ll be pining for a carpet steamer next.

FullSizeRender (79)In among the hardware stores, there are a plethora of toy shops and stationery stores. While I am sure that people here do spend more on small children than they should, it seems hard to believe that there is enough trade to keep all the toy shops going. And surely stationers must have to shift an awful lot of envelopes, biros, erasers and post-it notes to keep even the most ramshackle roof over their heads? I do love a stationery store though. In the last week I have bought water colors and brushes, rolls of two-inch tape in the colors of the Armenian flag, and some very pleasing primary school posters featuring old-fashioned illustrations of fruits and vegetables. I have my eye on some stencils and am looking for glass paints and blu-tack. It’s all-consuming.

And then there the supermarkets, where it somehow comes as a surprise to find that the personal grooming aisles are filled with familiar packaging–Proctor & Gamble, Colgate, L’Oreal and Garnier are all in evidence here. The choice of tea, coffee and confectionary is huge, but there are maybe two types of cheese–locally made salty sheep product and something resembling Edam. God knows who buys the fresh produce and the booze, for every family here seems to grow and make their own.

No-one here does what an American would consider a big weekly shop. Diapers, disposable razors and cigarettes are sold singly, as are toilet rolls, a reminder that people cannot afford to buy in bulk.

There are vending machines outside many supermarkets that sell bottles of beer, wine and even cognac along with the more standard sodas and bottles of water. In case of emergency, as my kids would say.  There are machines in bigger stores where you can pay your phone bill once a month. Household bills are paid at the post office.

Pharmacies are white and green, clean and cool. Terribly reassuring. No one seems to sell feminine hygiene products and these are never mentioned. Peace Corps supplies tampons to our young women. I imagine delivery trucks piled high with cardboard tubes and cotton wadding barreling across the country. Girls here should stage a highway robbery. I don’t know what they do otherwise.  

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.
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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.

 

 

Don’t mess with my Toot Toot.

It is time to make toot vodka. Toot is the Armenian name for the mulberry– we have white and dark purple varieties here. The white mulberries, larval-looking but honied in taste, are the most prized. A couple of days ago, we spread tarpaulins on the street outside the house–passing cars were expected to swerve–and got ready to harvest. Artur climbed the tree and shook branches till the white mulberries rained. His mother and youngest daughter were the ground staff–filling old margarine crocks with fruit they wanted to enjoy later. Then Artur shook the fruit from the tarpaulins into giant metal buckets where the berries will ferment. He’ll set up a homemade still outside my bedroom. We are all saving plastic bottles–we’ll have about 70 liters to see us through the winter.
Goris had a mulberry festival this weekend, a small civic attempt to draw tourists to our town. I went to the festival with Pat, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, also from Maryland. Like me, she came to Peace Corps in her prime, and some decades after graduating college. Like me, she helps local organizations develop strategic thinking and management skills, and helps with branding, marketing, communications and sales plans. It can be uphill work in a country where local customers have no money, and where foreign buyers are unreachable. There is no access to Paypal or Etsy and the postal service is at best capricious. There is no way of taking money direct from the diaspora and no way of being sure that shipping will work. Everyone competes for the dollars of one million tourists who visit Armenia each year. Like me, Pat likes it here, although her two years of service are nearly over. She goes home next month. 

Armenians do not come easily to capitalism, perhaps because of their recent Soviet past, and perhaps because they are just too kind and generous to charge anyone for anything. At the festival, held in a bumpy, downward sloping field, they offer plates of fish stew, bean salad, dolma and beetroot vinaigrette to enjoy with free drinks. People pillage small stalls to pile their plates, picking through the food they want to try, and leaving the displays looking like Tom Jones’ dinner table several hours after Fielding’s description of the feast. It is an unholy, unhygienic mess.

The stall holders do sell packaged mulberry products– vodka, wine, a syrup that is good for the throat, and jam.  A liter of wine in an old Coke bottle will cost 1000 Armenian dram– about $2.  Half a liter of vodka in a water bottle costs $3. No one has bothered to switch the labels from the original bottles. I fear for the toddler who reaches into his mother’s shopping bag for a thirst-quenching glug  from what looks to be a bottle of Jermuk’s finest spring water. A mouthful of mulberry ori is far from mother’s milk. 

Sitting on a haybale in the shade, Pat and I watched people eating mulberries straight from the trees and kept an eye on a game of nardi– the local name for backgammon. We ate pistachio nougat and baklava while she drank a tot of vodka and I sampled the local red wine.  We got chatting to a gay couple from Australia. They had just come from Iran, a couple of hundred miles south of here, and they are on their way to Georgia, many hours of travel north, after a short trip to Nagorno-Karabakh, which is just down the road. “Try the beetroot with the sheep cheese” said the taller Aussie. “And get your mulberry wine from the French guy over there.”  Homosexuality is illegal in Armenia and, let’s face it, not likely to win friends in Iran. I asked the less lanky antipodean if they had felt under threat. “Not at all” he said. “Iran is surprisingly secular. It was Ramadan when we were there but no-one we stayed with was fasting. Everyone was very friendly–glad to see us. It’s not at all like you see on TV.” I fear I may never know. Current US/Iran relations mean that Peace Corps Volunteers are forbidden to travel to Tehran.

Three teenage boys rode by on a hijacked donkey. Vodka may have been involved. An Armenian grandfather showed off his overdressed baby to this American grandmother. A Japanese American with a man bun sampled the green beans, fish dolma and red currants. We ate cherries and talked to a Czech tourist. 10-year-old boys in itchy vests of Armenian design got ready to dance. The duduk player blew out his cheeks one last time. His instrument, uniquely Armenian, sounds like a mix between a gazoo and irish pipes.  A beautifully melancholy sound.

This is what they eat in heaven

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

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

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.