Yank Don’t Tug


​​You know it’s a good party when the men start the dancing, the wine is $2 a liter, and there’s a bouncy sheep. All of these were elements of today’s Sheep Shearing Festival in the mountains close to Goris. It was hard to see the sheep shearing competition because everyone was jostling to cheer on their village champion. Luckily I can watch it tonight on the news– all the national crews were there. The cameras didn’t capture the impromptu tug of war between the locals and half a dozen American volunteers, which was just as well: our boys were fit, strapping and strategic but sadly no match for the sinew of Syunik Marz. Tightrope walker? Oh yes, we had one of those too. 


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. 

The Road to Goris

I am laden down with a liter of homemade rose wine, a giant box of chocolates and half a hundredweight of homegrown dill and tarragon. These are my current host family’s gifts to my new family. Perhaps they hope to sweeten the deal for the people I will be living with for two years from June? I am traveling to take a look at my new home more than 200 kilometers south of Ararat, in the city of Goris in Sunik marz. Sunik is the narrowest part of Armenia, pinched between Azerbaijan, Nagorno- Karabakh and Iran. Goris is where I will live and work once I complete my 10 weeks of intensive language and culture training. It is about four hours by road from where I live now. I am going for three days. 

I am traveling with Lilit, the young woman who will help me fit in in my new city and new role. She looks like she could be Isabella Rossellini’s daughter– heart-shaped face, high cheekbones, almond skin and sleek dark hair. She speaks Hayeren, Russian, French and perfect English. She hopes to win a scholarship to Columbia to study NGO management. She already has a Masters in Linguistics and specializes in Germanic Philology. It is all rather humbling. 

Lilit arranged a taxi for our journey and my heart leapt when I saw it was a nearly new Mercedes. It had tinted windows. Would it also have air-conditioning and leather seats? It did not. There are now four people squashed in the car, plus the driver. Two women are at least my size and are clutching hefty holdalls. I am sitting behind the driver, who has long legs. Poor Lilit is sitting on the hump in the middle of the back seat. That’s the price you pay for being young and slim. 

We stop for gas and everyone gets out of the car and stands well back. Cars here run on natural gas, held in a tank in the trunk or under the chassis. The gas is both very cheap and very volatile. My current host works at a gas station like this. It is hot, dusty, and dangerous: a sort of concrete hell where employees must crouch like Caliban to fuel the cars, for the mouths of the gas tanks are low, close to the exhaust. 

Full up, the car snakes slowly into the mountains. Students of social sciences physical geography and geology should definitely plan a trip to Armenia; there is shist, there is scree: there are drumlins and u-shaped valleys hollowed by glaciers. We are climbing steeply when a car coming the other way honks. We do a u-turn on a hairpin bend (I must compliment our driver on his clutch control) and stop. Everyone piles out. The people in the other car walk towards us smiling. I have no idea what is going on. 
It turns out one of the other car’s passengers is to be a colleague of mine in Goris. She was on her way to Yerevan  and wanted to say hello. We exchange warm words in English. I was too confused to remember anything in Armenian. I look forward to getting to know Anna better on firmer, flatter ground. 

We pass several hundred sheep and lambs, a donkey and some goats being herded along the road by a young man in a Ferrari baseball cap, jeans and a rip-off Real Madrid jersey. Now there are vine terraces and I begin to fantasize about stopping for some dolma and a glass of local red. We do stop, but only so one of my fellow travelers can check on the chickens she has stashed in the trunk: a dozen pullets squabbling in a hot, dry cardboard box. And to think I was worried about whether my herbs would make the journey unharmed…

A few hundred more sheep, this time shepherded by an old man wearing a bomber jacket emblazoned with the Bentley logo. As the herd passes, a old woman with thinning hair dyed an unkind  red-purple hurries on to the road with a witches broom to sweep up evidence of the sheep. 

The road is good all the way. Did the Soviets build it or has the Armenian government scraped together the funding to ensure a straight run to and from Nagorno-Karabakh?  Either way, I am grateful. 

In Sunik Marz there is still snow on the high ground. For miles, there have been very few cars on the road, but now we see vehicles parked, and people picnicking on grass brightened by alpine flowers. The road dips and bends. My ears pop.  We turn a corner and suddenly see a town built on the steep sides of a deep crevasse. We have made it to Goris. 

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.


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.



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.



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.


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.



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.



For my daughter, with thanks

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Superhero cape not featured

Ever since she was nine years old, my daughter has held my hand when we are out and about. She does this to stop me tripping or, worse, running  headlong into traffic. Her caution is well-advised for I can fall over my own feet, and  don’t tend to follow road rules well.

Star knows I get dizzy and disoriented when I am stressed, and that this causes me to fall over and bang into things even more than usual. I did this on Saturday and she dealt with it firmly. “Sit down over there so you don’t hurt yourself. I’ll do it.” she said,  as I tried to wrangle wet wipes and dry shampoo and siracha sauce into a recalcitrant hold-all. “Look where you’re going” she said as she steered me and my tray to the sushi counter at the Chinese buffet, and successfully maneuvered me back to our booth without a nasty spill. “I got this” she said as she wheeled two enormous suitcases into the hotel and commandeered the bellhop. I was very grateful, and tried to say so, in a series of anxious, tearful bleats.

In truth, I hadn’t really expected my daughter to be the person to drop me at the door to my new life. In my head, I thought I’d bundle my bags into an Uber and arrive at the Peace Corps staging hotel, all independent and self-sufficient. She doesn’t get up early. She has stuff to do at weekends. She doesn’t like goodbyes.  How wrong could I be? On Friday night she organized a surprise farewell dinner at a favorite restaurant. On Saturday she turned up bright and early to grapple with the packing, and, following a hasty last lunch ( “Something light. Can you eat some sushi?”) she drove me to DC, parked the car, dismissed the valet, and stood with me in the check-in line. Naturally, all the other Peace Corps volunteers assumed she was the one on her way to adventure. This was partly because of her age, but also because I was rocking pathetically and sniveling more than a little–the kind of embarrassing mother who shouldn’t be let out of the house.

In truth I forget that she is grown up, and not only practical and capable, but also mature and empathetic. Since I first mentioned this Peace Corps carry on, she has been a trooper. She hasn’t questioned my desire to do it. She hasn’t tried to persuade me to stay home. This weekend, she bit her lip, squared her shoulders and set about giving me a good send off. I am amazed by her. I am proud of her. I will miss her more than I can say.

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Belfast: Our happy new year. 

Purple floor length coat with tartan trim. Avoca— made in Ireland.  Nine pounds. Just reduced. War on Want charity shop,  open today so people can donate what they didn’t want for Christmas. The tag says Small. It isn’t. Good.  The Royal Ulster Academy exhibition. The mummy who used to scare me with her coconut hair and kindling fingers is no longer the only attraction at the museum.  Irish artists now dare to use colours beyond the dull, wet, damp end of the palette.  The painting I want, crooked houses and an oncoming storm in vivid blues and orange, is not for sale. Sausage soda for breakfast, cornflake and golden syrup tray bake to fill a wee gap, eat an apple to show willing later. ritaCocktails at Rita’s–shantung lampshades, paper parasols and velvet armchairs. A bucket of Bathtub gin in a building dark and derelict for years, the dead space between the most bombed hotel in the world and the BBC, where I used to work, when young. Archana curry (sauces better than the US, but not as good as Yorkshire.) Home for Port and Christmas Cake and a bottle cap of cherry linctus for my poor bad chest. A walk at Mount Stewart and a tour of the house where Lady Rose still lives. We want her stuff. And her view of the Lough.  Castlereagh, (a foreign secretary  I learned about at school), lived here. Stubbs painted somebody’s horse. They have dessert dishes to die for. B and F my BFF make Chinese food– garlic,ginger and chili in perfect proportion. Double wok action. Awristing. I read John Sergeant’s autobiography and watch the history of Graham Norton. They play cards and bicker and kiss. On Dec 31 we go to bed before midnight.  Belfast. It is bliss.

Two Fat Ladies Ride Again

“Wrap up warm” she said “and don’t forget stout shoes.”

I grimaced. So far, it didn’t sound like my idea of a treat.

Then she tried to lend me her boyfriend’s fleece, and tutted when she saw one of my many layers “You can’t wear that tomorrow–it’s far too drapey”

My sister had decided to surprise me and was sure she’d found a weekend activity I would love. When the idea was first mentioned, I had dared to imagine a day on the sofa watching “The Crown” sipping Pro Secco and eating something Belgian and chocolatey. Perhaps there would be a Fijian spa attendant, ready to provide a pedicure. I would pack a peignor…

It was not to be. As we drove past Skipton up into Wharfedale I tried to guess what was in store. Oh, please let there be only a small walk and no muddy hills. I like birds and nature photography and crafty pursuits, but I didn’t fancy the idea of a morning spent admiring moss, identifying mushrooms, or listening to a lecture on autumn leaf eddies, or whatever well-meaning but mistaken idea my dear sister was pursuing.

It sounded as though equipment was involved. Surely she hadn’t hired a tandem? She doesn’t like heights so it wouldn’t be abseiling. Our last venture into underground caves didn’t end well, so it couldn’t be spelunking, could it?

“Is it learning to ride a motorbike” I asked, for this is something I really would like to do, supposing I could hold the bike up, which I admit is doubtful.

“You think I would let you on a motorbike?” said Anne at her most disapproving. Another hope dashed.

On the morning of the treat, Anne was noticeably anxious. Lots of phonecalls and tutting about the weather. I put on tights, trousers, a t-shirt, a big jumper, jerkin, scarf and anorak, plus a pair of sturdy boots.

“He’ll have waterproof trousers for you” said my sister, who owns her own pair. She was adjusting a knitted ski cap with patterned ear flaps. I would have shivered if I hadn’t been sweltered under all those layers of clothing.

“He’s here” she cried and I waddled behind her to the hotel door, moving like the Michelin man.

Jason was outside with his Boom trike. Sofa-sized, I still managed to run towards him, squealing with delight.  He gave us bikers’ gloves, waterproofs, helmets with microphones and strapped us in. Then he took us on a tour of the Dales, providing a commentary through speakers in our hard hats. We saw the village where the Calendar Girls baked their bosom-covering buns and the community hall that Helen Mirren and Julie Walters paid to build when the film made a fortune. We rode past Kilnsey Crag where the SAS sometimes have night manouevres. We roared around corners and stopped to admire bridges of Yorkshire stone warmed by apricot sunlight. Sheep stared as we zoomed by. On top of the moor, it was too misty to see much, but down below we raced past dry stone walls, bracken-bronzed fields and rivers rushing with the night before’s rain. The road was flooded in one place, but that didn’t stop Jason and the mighty trike. “Lift your legs ladies”. That’s how it is when your exhaust pipes are the height of your glove box.

We drove up and down the main street in Skipton, so everyone could admire us–the Clarissa Dixon-Wright and Jennifer Paterson of our day. We waved to all and sundry and they waved back–how could you not?

We stopped for coffee at the Trout farm and made Jason take our biker chick pictures. It was a great day out. I can’t wait to go again.

Book your own Yorkshire Trike Tour here.