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.

T

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. 

 

Awkward

Are you married?

No

Why not?

(Laugh) No one asked me. (This is not true)

But you have had a boyfriend?

Yes 

Do you have a brother?

Yes, I have a brother and a sister and I have two children. 

You have two children? But you said you weren’t married?

I adopted them. (Why did I say that? Why? Why did I want this stranger to think of me as ‘good’ rather than ‘fallen?)

Do you have pictures?

Yes (I hand over my phone)

Why did you adopt black children?

Washington DC is a black city. All the children available for adoption are black. 

But I have been to Washington…

The people you see in the center of the city are not the people who live there. White people are the minority in DC. (This is not now true, but was until very recently. I do not have the language skills to explain urban regeneration, gentrification and suburban spread)

She is light. Not too black. 

(Firmly) She is black

Yes, but light. That’s good. 

(Stiffly) I don’t think it is bad to be black. 

No, but we don’t have black people in Armenia. We are not used to–dark

There are millions of black people in the world. And people of all colors in America. We like it. 

Yes. Is your daughter married? 

No, but she has a boyfriend. (Again, why?)

And your son, is he married?

No.

But he has a girlfriend? 

Yes.

(I didn’t mention my granddaughter, my son’s baby. I am ashamed of that, but not of her. I just think this was enough chat for one day. Awkward.)

The language of love: meet my best friend in Armenia

Elsa got past me this morning to hang a last load of my laundry on the line by the backdoor. She is very particular about pegging out. Underwear is discretely strung next to the pear tree,  and dark or colored clothes are then ordered, small to large, in the middle of the line. White towels and sheets go last, flapping at the far end by the apricot tree. It doesn’t matter how carefully I plan the timing of my weekly wash, or how close I sit to the door of the bathroom where the washing machine lives, Elsa can always beat me to the unload, spiriting a basin of wet clothes out of the house before I know what’s going on.  If I go to help her with the pegging, she will circle back around me and rehang whatever I have pinned. In recent days as my language has developed to the point where I can remonstrate, I have tried to be firm: it is not her job to do my laundry. I am a grown woman, indeed I am older than she. I am not a guest and am meant to be here to work. She just laughs and indicates that my version of Armenian is not understood here.

Here in a village on the Ararat plain we  have lived together for 10 weeks, one American and one Armenian. We are both in our fifties and female, but beyond that we appear to have little in common. She is fit and spry and compact. She works in the garden and house from morning to night. She is patient and loyal and endowed with common sense. I–well, you know how I am.

Sometimes I wonder if we would be nearly so close if we spoke the same language. How long would it take for my verbal tics to annoy her?  Would my sharpness of tongue, extravagance of language, and general bumptiousness irritate her if she was forced to listen to me speaking as I normally do?   At least for now, I have to listen carefully to everything she says, often asking her to repeat it slowly so I can better understand. I don’t form sentences quickly enough to talk over her. I am quite unlike myself and our relationship is better for it.

There is something curiously naked and true about language stripped of all flounces. For weeks,we told each other how beautiful and good everything was, including each other. These were two of the first adjectives I could say and understand. Over and over again every day since March, Elsa has urged me to come, sit, rest and eat.  It is rejuvenating and comforting to always speak positively and to respond to kindness with grateful, humble acquiescence. I may have to continue the practice without her: today I move to my new home in a city 200 miles away where I will work for the next two years.

Is it possible that Elsa would say something I would find it hard to agree with if I could understand everything she uttered? Yes, but not likely. In a country where men are waited on hand and foot, Elsa encouraged me to tease her husband, teaching me to ask him to make the coffee, a thing he would never do. In a country where black people are non-existent and are usually referred to by the N-word, Elsa immediately admired pictures of my children and granddaughter. I didn’t have the words to explain quite how we came to be family but my teacher filled in the details  and now Elsa tells everyone the story and urges me to take out my phone and show everyone my beautiful kids. I always oblige.(Now my phone is full of pictures of her daughters and grandchildren that I show proudly too.). Elsa and her oldest daughter helped me get my measurements for the dress I wanted to have made for my swearing-in as a Peace Corps Volunteer. One wrangled the tape measure and yelled out impossibly high numbers (centimeters can be so cruel) and the other relayed the information by phone to the designer 50 miles away in Yerevan. Then I needed to go to the capital for a fitting. Elsa made her son-in-law spend a Saturday driving us there and back. She gave no indication that it was an inconvenience to lose a day working with the fruit trees, vines and vegetables, but it must have been. The whole dress thing was very intimate and giggly and fun– a closeness I  don’t have with anyone other than my Belfast school friends-people I grew up with and have known for decades.

On the day of the Peace Corps ceremony Elsa put on her black dress and wedge heels and took the bus to Yerevan to sit in a sweltering hall so she could hear me swear the oath to serve Armenia that we had practiced in Hayeren sitting out among the poppies and the cornflowers in her back yard. She wanted to see the dress in action too of course. Siroon e. Siroon es. It is beautiful. You are beautiful she said.

Elsa has never hosted anyone other than family members before. The decision to take in a foreign stranger was part of her recovery plan–she is mourning the loss of her 26-year-old son Geram, killed in a road accident. For the two years since Geram died far away in Russia, Elsa has not slept well. She keeps hurting herself in small everyday accidents. Now, she is often under the weather and ill. Perhaps a loud American would help to take her mind off things?

The first time Elsa talked about her lost son she had to mime rising to heaven because I didn’t know the language of death. She cried and I hugged her and sat with her and made tea. She has talked of him often since. I think she is glad to have someone to share his story with, perhaps especially because I can’t talk back. Being able to support someone physically and emotionally rather than through words has been good for me too.

After the laundry was dried and packed this morning. Elsa gave me two new towels from a dresser in her bedroom: they would be useful in my new home in Goris. In her view, I need those towels more than she does, and she is happy for me to have them. She packed me a lunch of bean salad, grilled eggplant, (soft and smoky) cucumber spears and lavash. She gave me a bag heavy with jars and jars of homemade jam and eggplant caviar. I have to send her pictures of my new home tonight: the bed, the room, the kitchen and the bathroom. I handed over a rather inadequate box of chocolates for her to share with her neighbors over coffee. We both cried. We love each other,it is as simple as that. We have agreed I will go back for my birthday. It won’t be long now…

 

 

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. 

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.