I don’t know myself at all.

Gazarnaguine they call it here. Carrot orange. The color of my hair ever since I was born. Admittedly my hair– much like the rest of me– has had a little help from the bottle this last twenty-five years, but still it is apparent to everyone that I am authentically a redhead. Until now that is.

My friend did my hair. She's cut and colored it before, with excellent results. She charges the Armenian equivalent of $10– less than a tenth of the price I regularly paid for the same service in Washington DC. She's good at what she does.

"Do you have my color?" I asked Ani when I stopped by to book an appointment. There is not much call for gazarnaguine hair dye in a land of Kardashian lookalikes, and I wanted to be sure.
"Oh yes" she said airily, but I think that she may have been one or two squirts shy of the usual gingery mix. Now my hair is a gothic shade of beetroot and I don't look like myself at all.

Other people say it is pretty of course– what else can they do?–but I continue to be startled by the stranger I catch sight of in the mirror. She looks like Marian "Bomber" Price and not like me at all. At first I thought make-up would help, but current supplies

only seem to worsen my new Provo prison pallor. Everything I apply blot and reapply is too light and yellowy for my new black Irish looks. Elsa bought me an emerald green top for my birthday. I tried it on pre-hairdo and everyone agreed it was 'shat siroon'– very beautiful. Now the green with the black blood looks like a Halloween horror show. The beetroot demands a complete wardrobe reboot.

"It'll wash out" said Ani sheepishly as she ran the thinning scissors through my layers one last time. "It's dark but it will fade". Meanwhile I need to get used to the new me: black cherry hair and whey curdle skin. Note: a search of Google images reveals that Belfast bogey-woman Marian Price is now a strawberry blonde.

Lunch Potato Dinner Potato

Bile has always been my favorite body fluid, with its Elizabethan associations of vituperation and coruscation. Imagine my distress then, when I learned that, due to a gallbladder silted with more stones than an Armenian gorge, my own bile was failing to make it from my liver to my duodenum quite as it should. This revelation was shared by Dr Tehmira who drew a picture, spoke Armenian and waved her hands a lot. Dr Tehmira speaks small-talk English, much as I speak cocktail party Armenian. We are both fine at "how are you?" but it all goes downhill after "wretchedly ill and racked with pain, thanks".

Dr Tehmira is an infectious diseases expert at Goris hospital, the first of two hospitals I have road tested this week. She is pretty fab, especially when she put me on a five day diet which she insisted must be strictly followed: potatoes, rice, pasta, bread. She spelled this out using clenched fists and speaking very slowly. "Potato lunch. Potato dinner". It has become my motto.

Unfortunately, I had no opportunity to show just how well I could follow Dr Tehmira's diet because I got moved to the Nairi hospital in Yerevan, and for the last 12 hours have not been allowed to eat anything at all. Dr Samvell's orders, issued in English. He is the surgeon who will remove my gallbladder later today.

The contrast between the two hospitals in Goris and Yerevan is worth noting. On Sunday, I seemed to be the only patient in my wing of the Goris hospital. Peace Corps Pat and I (she came with me and stayed overnight–forever indebted) arrived and were ushered into the office of the director, a man who liked a cigarette. Then we were shown to a twin room where the beds had crazy retro mismatched sheets. The room had a small fridge. Oh, and a beautiful view, plus a big window that opened. I had 3 bags of saline fluid and Pat had exactly nothing. There is a fridge in the room so your family can bring you food. If you don't know a cook, or forget to pack, you don't eat.

Now I am in Yerevan, kind people from Goris are constantly calling me up to say they have a relative in the capital who can bring food to the hospital. Their thoughtfulness amazes me, but there is no need. I am strictly nil by mouth, and there is a trolley that comes round supplying all manner of tempting delights if I wasn't. . New patients get two bottles of water on check in, and a pair of periwinkle blue pajamas in lawn cotton. There is piping on the pockets for God's sake. These seem to be the equivalent of those awful backless gowns you get in American or U.K. I am wearing my PJs with the fly at the back– old hospital habits die hard.

In Goris, patients walk everywhere, often pulled along briskly by a nursing aide. Here I am wheeled about, allowing me to smile wanly and bestow regal waves on patients, visitors and medical teams I pass. Yesterday a lot of people said Hello in English as I glided by. In regulation pjs with no clothes, accessories or shoes, how did they know I was American? My brother (by text) pointed out that how ever integrated I feel, I probably will never look Armenian. I blame the freckles.

In Goris, there is no patient shower and the patient bathroom is, frankly, a bit of a shock to someone raised with hand washing protocols, Purel dispensers and those cords you pull if you need help while using the loo. There were none of these but instead trashcans overflowing with remains of patients' picnic lunches, and someone's laundry soaking in the handbasin. Pass the kidney dish Peace Corps Pat.

In Nairi, apparently founded by the wife of a former Armenian President, bed linen is a restful blue and white, picking up on my Pjs and veins and off-setting my newly yellow skin and eyes.

I have a fully tiled bathroom (nothing in Armenia is fully tiled) with a shower. By the bed there is a button I can press to call a nurse. Unfortunately it is decorated with an icon that would bring UNICON out on strike in a minute. Trained medical professional as 1950s chambermaid.

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.


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. 

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…

 

 

Bubble Trouble

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

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

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

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

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. 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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