Don’t hold the front page 

There are no newspapers and magazines to be found in Goris. And, now I come to think of it, there were none in the small local shops in my first village–although that was less surprising. In Yerevan, where I know there are some very good bookshops, perhaps it is possible to leaf through a copy of Cosmopolitan, or The Economist or Yogurt Producers Weekly, but I can’t be sure.

Although print is in decline all over the world, I don’t know if locally-produced media has gone out of business here, or if it never existed? This country has a small, spread-out and poor population and a language all its own: perhaps a daily newspaper (considered the poor man’s pleasure in Britain since the time of Pepys)  has never been part of life here? I haven’t been to a dentist’s office so I don’t know if they have Russian language magazines, or none at all.  When I went to the hairdressers for a highly luxurious mani/pedi, there was no way of keeping up with the Kardashians, or following the social ins and outs of Armenia’s oligarchs and their offspring. That was rather a relief. 

Cigarettes, sweets and other small essentials like batteries and disposable lighters are available in corner shops and supermarkets, but there are no newspapers and magazines either domestic or international where you would expect to find them.

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Annahit–bosom pal material?

That is not to say that there is a shortage of local journalism. There is a Press Club in Goris — I met a rather glorious woman called Annahit today, and she is one of five journalists based there. There is a National Press club in Yerevan which seems to generate a TV news story every evening: important looking foreigners spend a lot of time opining from there. I have met two people in Goris–a town where I have perhaps  spoken to twenty people in total–who are photojournalists and have their own professional video and audio equipment. One of these chaps trained as a history teacher but now supplements his income from camerawork by working on the reception desk at a local hotel.  There is also a woman who has a professional blue screen studio set up in the same building as our crochet collective, but I haven’t met her yet.  

Across the country there are as many half a dozen TV stations–I still get them mixed up–who all have extensive newscasts before the Indian soap opera hour at 9pm. Whatever channel you watch, there is always a story featuring the President, something about Nagorno-Karabakh and the general shortcomings of Azerbaijan as a neighbor, and a tale of woe from a home or community with subsidence, or flooding, or mould or similar. The newsreaders are women with immobile faces, scary lips and nails, and strict expressions. They are undoubtedly the ones in charge. Their male counterparts are usually slightly tubby and nerdy looking. The men who do the sport are sweaty, dark of brow and jowl, and stuffed into suits that are just a little too small. Their knotted neckwear never quite meets the top button of their shirts.  They become very worked up when talking about Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona and always look at though they want to rip off that troublesome tie, and shrug off the too-straight jacket. Usually, they have no moving pictures of the game to show: Armenia isn’t really a player when it comes to bidding for soccer screening rights.

Last night there was a happy story about UNHCR and European Union support for Syrian refugees in Armenia. The refugees were filmed enjoying a hop-on hop-off bus tour of Yerevan. On the bus was this slogan in English:  Yerevan. Feel the Warmness. They could have used a bilingual copy-editor. 

As part of the Syrian story, I saw my friend Hayasa on the news– she runs Aleppo NGO here.  I probably know 50 people in all of Armenia and it is almost certain that at least one of them will be on the news every night. This may be because the news programs always finish with a feelgood story and so the volunteer community is often featured, helping sick children, strolling appreciatively in nature while monitoring water quality, or challenging locals to a bracing game of something involving a ball and a net. But I think everyone in Armenia knows someone on the news every night, I really do. 

Other than a shortage of information about red-carpet dresses and celebrity autopsies, I am not deprived of news from the world beyond the Caucasus. Here in Goris I have 24 hour internet access and can listen to BBC Radio 4 (the 6 o’clock news, the light relief, and the Archers) as I get ready for bed–we are three hours ahead of London.  Boston’s excellent NPR speech station, WBUR, keeps me informed during the night. I have also discovered the deep joy of the podcast, thanks to a new venture launched by a friend in Washington DC. I have known Bruno Falcon, the presenter of Applying to Everything since before his voice broke. Nowadays he asks a broad range of questions in deep, velvety tones and talks to people you haven’t heard of, but who have something interesting to say. Last night’s conversation was with a therapist who shares Bruno’s love of superheroes and comic books. I can’t stop thinking about the Incredible Hulk and his response to fear… 

Double Trouble

img_3804-2Robert zoomed by his mother as she was painting her nails. He knocked the coffee table with his toy truck and nearly sent her bottle of blue nail polish flying. “Don’t do that” said Aleta. (She says it a lot. Robert pays no attention. He is four years old and bashes on, unrepentant and undeterred.) չի կարէւի. Ch’ kareli. Don’t do that. It was the first phrase I picked up when I moved in here.

Grabbing her son, Aleta pulled a piece of cotton wool from the roll in front of her and soaked it with vodka, a bottle of which was also on the coffee table. “Come here” she said. Արի Ari! Then she wiped Robert’s sticky face and grubby hands with the wet wad, scrubbing hard. Next she yanked off Robert’s dusty shoes and gave them a good going over with the vodka wipe. They came up lovely. I must try it.

Vodka is cheaper than bottled water here. Aleta’s bottle had a commercial label but it may have been refilled many times over with spirit distilled from local produce. Should you ever drink vodka in Armenia, certainly don’t trust any label unless you see the seal broken on the bottle. It could be anything in there. For all I know, this particular vodka had also served as nail polish remover. You have been warned.

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Robert stood still just long enough for this photo with his grandmother.  We’re growing beans. 

 

The Fool English

My infirmities have forced me to spend a lot of time in front of Armenian TV in the last few days and so I can report in detail on the schedule of the network channels.  There are prime time Hayastan versions of The Doctors ( the Phil McGraw format), Full House, and the Jeremy Kyle/Jerry Springer show. These are no more edifying here than in your homeland, but are of course cheap to produce in bulk and easy to repeat. This being Hayastan,  problems on the talk show are perhaps less scandalous than they would be in the US or the UK: “My wife doesn’t always provide a full, hot dinner at 5:30pm. How can I get through another 50 years of marriage?”  “Everyone else’s husband spends most of the year working in Russia. Why does my husband lie around at home?” “My daughter wants to go to college. I would prefer her to live at home and marry the boy next door. Which of us is right?”  “Am I wrong to wax my six year old?”  

Then there are dubbed versions of Indian soap operas. The sets and costumes are high-colored and so are the plots. It doesn’t take a lot of acting talent for the voiceover artists to match the skills of the original actors, but the whole spectacle is hugely compelling.  We are on the edge of our seats as marriages break up, beautiful women cry, evil children concoct villainous plots, and good looking men pine for lost loves from miserable prison cells. Everything but the fabrics are terrible. We are all completely hooked. 

And then there are the Hollywood movies dubbed into Hayeren. I watched something in which Brad Pitt romped about in hopsack and a ridiculous hat. Whatever the failings of the movie, best I could tell, the voice stand-in was rather good. Then I saw Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs. Again, the vocal understudy was entirely convincing. The following day I watched some of a children’s film–really high quality but not familiar to me. It must have been Disney or Pixar though. The voiceover work was great– characterful and nuanced: great acting in Armenian. 
So who is providing these voices, and where?  This is a small country with 3 million people at most. How many of these are top quality actors able to stand in for all the Hollywood greats?  Who directs their performance behind the mic? 

Ah, you say, the work is done in Hollywood where the studios dub versions of their movies for distribution all around the world. Well, maybe. But even if these movies first had theatrical distribution here in Armenia, I fear that the budget for the Hay entertainment industry doesn’t stretch to Hollywood rates; plus I believe that most of the Armenian diaspora in Glendale CA speak West Armenian, not East Armenian as we do here. (The people who fled 100 years ago from land now claimed by Turkey spoke a language that moved with them to the States. We speak differently here and now). 

Curiosity drove me to the Disney website where they proudly record all the languages into which their films are dubbed. Armenian was not listed. The film I glimpsed may not have been Disney (it seemed to be a meld of Toy Story and Cars), and even if it was, perhaps the work was done without the express permission and involvement of the originating studio? If so, it was a marvel of mixing: there was both dubbed dialogue and background music/ effects.– difficult to do without a do-it-yourself voiceover track made available on the original film.   

Watching Armenian media has made me appreciate my luck in being accidentally born in a country that speaks one of the world’s most common languages: English. Those of us lucky enough to speak English, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, Russian or other key world languages have almost unlimited access to great storytelling: the stuff we generate, and the translations from other cultures keen to access our pounds, euros, dollars, rupees, rubles, and whatever they spend in China.  Armenians are not so lucky. No wonder so many of them work at learning three or four languages. It is not uncommon to find young people from small villages like mine who speak Hayeren, Russian, English, Spanish and perhaps also some French or German. Literacy in this country is at 96% and families and schools expect a great deal from their children. In a country where jobs are few and far between, language skills are both a passport and an employment guarantee. Brad Pitt and Ashton Kutcher are big deals in America but they wouldn’t be all that here in Armenia. Not unless they could do their own voiceover in half a dozen major markets. 

One of our program managers in Peace Corps is an Armenian with a PhD in English Literature. His dissertation discusses the role of the fools in the plays of William Shakespeare. Not only does he speak perfect English, he reads and analyzes Shakespeare in a language not his own. Stepan has not visited England and has yet to see a Fool on stage at the Globe or in Stratford on Avon. He spends his working life teaching (mainly) monolingual Americans like me how to fit in here in his homeland. Good job he knows what fools are for…

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. 

Lost for words. No happy endings. 

Let me start by saying that I know English is a nightmare to learn, what with all our irregular verbs and silent letters and eccentric colloquial quirks. Compared to English, Armenian is easy. Most verbs conform as though drilled by Soviet paymasters. There is none of that irritating gender stuff they insist on in French. In all but very few cases, the infinitive is used for the past tense, together with the relevant auxiliary. Armenian is a language that relies on efficiency and the exercise of common sense. Except when it doesn’t. 

I am here to grumble about the definite article (TDA) and a couple of other irritations designed to trip up students of East Armenian. TDA is an eh sound when its noun ends with a consonant. It is a nuh sound when its verb ends with a vowel. These grunts are heard after the end of the noun, and before the verb and auxiliary. Are you with me so far? This is where it all takes a turn for the worse.  The pesky definite article attaches to proper names when the person bearing the name is the subject of the sentence. So no Liz but rather Lizeh. No Sara but rather Saran. Or Sarahn because the wretched h is silent, although very important to its owner. Elsan oorakh e. Elsa is happy. Elsan im inkereh e. Elsa is my friend. Inker also takes you know what, because of the possessive. Who knows why? Not me. 

In Armenian, when you talk about a place, you add um on the end.  We had this dinned into us early on. I live in Washington DCum. I study at schoolum. I spend time at Peace Corps HQum. But of course , most of the time one talks about a place, it is because one is going there. Except then of course the bloody um, um disappears. “Direction. No um” says my teacher Sona (also known as) Sonan several times a day. I fly to Washington DC. I walk to school. I go to Peace Corps HQ on Friday. No um. 

And don’t start me on plurals. If I talk about volunteers doing or being something I  say khamavornereh. Plural ending for multisyllable word and TDA tacked on to the end of the noun. If, however, I specify two volunteers, or any number of volunteers, the plural mysteriously slips away. Yerkoo khamavor. Two volunteers. 

I have been known to showcase TDA and my knowledge of plural endings when discussing shopping lists. The beetroots, the eggplants, the mushrooms. “Why would you use the plural and TDA?” asks Sona, mystified. “But you said….?”  “Yes, but not at the shuka or supermarket. Not necessary”   Well, that’s cleared that up then. It’s just like English. I need beetroot, eggplant, (but) mushrooms. 

Then there’s the negative, which swims around in a sentence depending on whether it applies to a verb or an an adjective. Ch’em siroom kaylel. I don’t like to walk. Sovatz ch’em. I am not hungry. 

Ch’e gitem (irregular). Ch’em haskanoom. I don’t know. I don’t understand.