Arts in Armenia: A Beginner’s Guide

Hooked on Trivia? Compulsive when it comes to crosswords? Proud of your performance at the pub quiz? Don’t risk being caught out by a question on the arts in Armenia–it could come up at any time. I am as fond of a general knowledge test as the next nerd, but I will confess that, up until very recently, my mental file on all things arty in Armenia was very slim indeed. I could still easily be stumped but, in a spirit of information-sharing, I pass on such knowledge as I now have. At the very least, it may help you set fiendishly difficult questions for your foes. Ch’argi. Ձարժե It’s nothing. Khantrem. խնդեմ You’re welcome.

Artist: Martiros Saryan  is founder of the modern school of Armenian art and a painter whose pictures of the Armenian landscape you may well have seen–not least on the dress I had specially made for my swearing in as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  My favorite thing about the 1923 painting is not the depiction of Ararat (although I DO love that mountain), but the women dancing at my hem (there is a detail below). Women and music, plus mountains were a bit of a theme for Saryan. He lived from 1880 to 1972 and was awarded the order of Lenin 3 times. If you are unable to see me and my dress, you can always visit the M. Sarian House-Museum in Yerevan where many of his paintings are displayed.

 

Fashion Designer: I love the work of Edgar Artis  who designs dresses using every day objects. Will my next special occasion dress be made from salad–or pencil sharpenings? Follow Edgar on Instagram to see all his fabulous creations.

 

saroyanLiterature: The big daddy of the Armenian writers is William Saroyan who, like those pub quiz staples Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw is famous for saying lots of wise and memorable things, many of them contradictory. If you need a quote about writing, madness or being Armenian, he is your man. He won the Pulitzer prize in 1940–his is a handy name to know if you are asked to list five such winners.  He is quoted at the end of the Armenian film “The Promise”.

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”

You can check out some of his other quotes here

FullSizeRender (13)Poetry: I want to give a shout out to Goris’ local boy made good: Axsel Bakunts, a poet and short story writer born in Goris in 1899 and killed on Stalin’s orders in 1937. His crime: alienation from socialist society. As a schoolboy in Goris, Bakunts was first arrested at the age of 15, for satirising the town’s mayor. Not much of Bakunts work is published in English–or if it is, it is not available online, or here in Goris. Wondering how Bakunts’ writing compared to that of Jonathan Swift or Flann O’Brien, two great Irish satirists, I asked my Hayeren tutor, a native of Goris, if she knew what Bakunts had said that so enraged the town. “Probably no-one read it” she said “It was just talked about, and that was enough”. Interesting to discover that sort of thing happened even in an age before Twitter…

Here in Goris there is a rather lovely small museum commemorating Bakunts, in the house where he was born. In addition to displays of many artefacts, paintings of his mum, and so on, there is also a beautiful garden where would -satirists can sit and think creative thoughts.

 

Film: The Golden Apricot Film Festival takes place in Yerevan in July and so presumably my knowledge of Armenian cinema will be broadened beyond The Promise, this spring’s Hollywood take on the Armenian genocide. The film, though hamfisted and with a couple of story twists of dubious morality (tut), is worth seeing. I didn’t need a hanky though, except to stifle giggles.

Music: The Armenian duduk is to Armenian music what the uillean pipes are to Ireland and the banjo is to Bluegrass. This wind instrument made from apricot wood could be useful to know if your Jeopardy category is music for 500. A contemporary of  all the chaps above is Soghomon Soghomonian, ordained and commonly known as Komitas, (Armenian: Կոմիտաս; 26 September 1869 – 22 October 1935) an Armenian priest, musicologist, composer, arranger, singer, and choirmaster, who is considered the founder of Armenian national school of music. The wailing noise of the duduk is the soundtrack for Komitas’ tragic life. Captured and deported by the Ottoman government during the genocide, he did escape with his life, only to suffer post traumatic stress disorder. He lived the rest of his days in terrible torment, in and out of pyschiatric hospitals. You will need your hanky for this music.

Martin Mkrtchyan, a sort of cross between Tom Jones, Daniel O’Donnell and Donny Osmond, manages to be much more cheerful. Recently, Elsa and I watched a recording of a big concert he gave in Yerevan’s Republic Square at New Year. Good stuff.

Much as in Ireland where I grew up, most of the songs in this ancient country but new and vulnerable republic are nationalistic–about the beauty of the land, the value of birthright, and courage in the face of enemies. It’s like living with the Wolfe Tones. The song below was sung to me by Arsen, aged six. He pumped his fist and cocked his imaginary gun as he sang. Boys here must go to be soldiers when they graduate high school and Arsen is already ready for the fight. I hope that here, as in Ireland, they will reach a level of security and prosperity that will allow their young singers to write of something other than threat and loss and war. More Snow Patrol than Stiff Little Fingers, if you like…

There is one well-known song that has an unexpected link to Armenia–Rosemary Clooney’s Come ona My House. This, it turns out, was written by the aforementioned William Saroyan and his cousin in 1939 as they motored across America.  Once you know this, the plums, apricots and pomegranate in the lyrics make complete sense. The cousin later went on to have great success as one of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Saroyan wrote no other popular songs. Now if that isn’t the stuff of great trivia quizzes I don’t know what is. Listen to Rosemary and enjoy.

Armenia the Beautiful

Video credit: Peace Corps Volunteer Olivia Route.

Olivia’s short film about her springtime in Armenia is less than five minutes long and worth watching. Everyday for the last couple of months she has recorded a few seconds of footage on her iPhone. She used only two seconds from each sequence in her final cut. The result is pacey, comprehensive, personal and universal– a true record of her volunteer experience here, and a cheerful introduction to authentic Armenian life. Just like Olivia herself, the film is  spirited, clear-eyed and warmed by respect and gratitude for those she meets.  I love it.

I watched videos made by other volunteers before I arrived in Armenia. Most of these were profoundly depressing, detailing malfunctioning bathrooms and grim walks to dilapidated schools. “I don’t see much that looks beautiful” I confided to a friend before I left home. I wondered  how I would cope without the Chesapeake Bay, and my irises, and the bits and pieces that brighten the Barron abode. I said a regretful goodbye to my table lamp with the tulle tutu shade, and my retro red glass trinket bowl hauled all the way from Sydney, Australia. I rubbed my face one last time in the velvet quilt I brought home from India last year. I printed pictures of the irises and packed them along with photos of the children.

When I arrived in the Ararat region, my first impression was of dust, dull brown dust. The roads are made of it. The cars are covered with it. It gets on to and into everything. Then I saw the concrete–rough grey walls on half finished houses. I noticed that the women wore clothes of durable jersey usually grey, black and brown. My village name means “garden jewel” but in late March there was precious little sign of gem tones anywhere. But you live somewhere–anywhere– and begin to love it. In loving it, you see it with new eyes. Here, Ararat helps.

 

Seeing Ararat is like glimpsing God. It gives succor to the spirit, and uplifts the soul. Days with Ararat are marvelous and make possible great things. In months with low clouds, it is possible to doubt the mountain’s existence, or to forget that it is there at all. Then a shift in the sky reveals the peak and it is not possible to look away.  Today Ararat filled the background– dazzling sunlight on pristine snow –while I shopped at the farmers’ market. Last week in the same place there was no sign of the mountain at all. It is not the only time Ararat has taken me by surprise. Twice, in different places, I have been walking home from school and have rounded a corner suddenly to see the mountain. Both times I stopped and gasped. On other days I have loitered in the same places and strained to see but the glory is denied. To have lived in Ararat’s light has changed me, I believe. The Psalmist had it right: lift your eyes to the mountains and you will find strength.

IMG_3300It turns out Armenia has irises too, just like the ones at home. Maybe even better. There are hoopoes I see every day on my walk to school but haven’t yet been able to photograph. There is lilac. On the drive south from Ararat to Syunik Marz there are small cairns of stones, built perhaps by shepherds or by hikers taking a moment to remember someone close to them, and be glad. There are sweeping views of undulating mountains shaded in blues, and greens and greys. It is  like the West coast of Ireland, but on a larger scale, and there is no yellow, purple or brown. If there is gorse, heather and peat here, I have yet to see it.

 

 

IMG_2858While Armenia is blessed with every natural beauty but the sea, there is man made beauty too. These people can torture scrap metal into shapes that stun: great  things they have wrought in front of schoools and around parks. Windows are screened with iron sunbursts and doors are shrouded with lace the weight of lead. Then there are the khachkars, stone carvings from single-figure centuries: sandy, intricate and surprisingly enduring for stone so soft.

The women I am lucky to know take pride in setting a beautiful table here. China is always used at mealtimes. It matches, and it isn’t chipped. Glasses usually have a gilt band. Tiny coffee cups are candy colored and edged with gold. Inside houses there may be concrete walls half-primed and never painted. Tiles may be cracked or missing on floors or bathroom walls. Living room furniture may be covered with hardwearing polyester in stoic browns. But the kitchen table will have a gold and cream oilcloth cover and sweets will be served in a Royal Doulton-type bowl. Preserves are set out in small glass dishes and you will be invited to help yourself to apricot, raspberry and black currant jam with a dainty, ornate spoon. Slices of fresh-cut cucumber glisten green-white. I am sure Armenian radishes inspired the complexion of Snow White in the Disney film.

 

There is ugliness too of course. Abandoned, rusting cars, people shouting at their children, litter left on hedgerows, and corrugated iron roofing on dilapidated hen  houses curtained with blue plastic sheeting. There are seventies Soviet buildings and sex-selective abortions and dogs that bark all night, perhaps because they know someone will come to shoot them soon. Young men are dressed up as soldiers and equipped with remaindered guns. Corruption is as common as ketchup, served up everyday. Streets and towns are empty of shops and customers, for all the paid work is thousands of miles away, in someone else’s country.

But the kindness of the people blinds incomers to all of this. The woman with gold teeth who offers to pay your fare on the bus, because you are a volunteer, and don’t earn much. The host who makes spas because you are sick, and insists you drink your tea with a healthful honey made from pine cones. The English teacher in the supermarket who stops to sort out a mix-up over baking ingredients. The cab driver who forces the garage owner to find a USB and charge a dead phone, so you don’t miss a particularly good view of Ararat. The 8 year old who demonstrates ballet moves on her bike, providing an escort home every night from school. The grandfather who walks tenderly behind a crippled child playing ball in the street, ready to catch him if he falls. The teacher who decorates a miserable looking classroom so an American far from home has a lovely birthday. These people, and many other things, are what makes Armenia beautiful. Come and see for yourself.

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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Jam tomorrow. Lavash every day. 

One of the great things about living in Armenia is that there are no rules about breakfast. In my past life,  I was used to being denied cherry cake before noon and nobody liked it when I finished off cold pizza or last night’s curry at 8am. I have a family member who simply can’t abide leftovers. He wouldn’t last long here. 

Breakfasting at the base of Mount Ararat, we pull everything available out of the fridge and put it on the table.  It has become my practice to start every day by constructing a sandwich of apricot jam (homemade), feta-like cheese (often homemade) and fresh tarragon (homegrown) wrapped in lavash (made in vast quantities by the lady across the street). I call it my Full Irish Breakfast because it is green white and gold. The licorice taste of the herb goes perfectly with the sweetness of the jam and the sharpness of the cheese. I commend it to you. 
Bean salad with vinaigrette and chicken, corn and pepper salad in mayonnaise were on the breakfast table this week, as were reheated spaghetti and chicken nuggets.  I ate the beans but gave the mayonnaise a wide berth: Peace Corps staff and other seasoned volunteers have shared stories of fragile Americans who tangled too soon with aging egg-based products, with explosive results. I didn’t get to the spaghetti and chicken this morning, being distracted by the halva and mushroom pilaf. Elsa packed the chicken and pasta for my lunch, chopping and mixing it before rolling it in lavash. If you are a fan of Discovery ID you will know dead bodies and other things that villains wish to hide are almost always rolled up in rugs before being smuggled past innocent bystanders. Lavash is the Armenian equivalent of the rolled rug. 

The people two doors down have a cow in their back garden and so fresh milk, heated to kill any germs, is often served. My concern isn’t the lack of pasteurization. I just don’t much like milk, either hot or cold. I prefer tea, which here is always served without milk. Sometimes homemade black currant jam is offered, to be used as a sweetener. The first time I was passed a small dish of berries and a spoon, I ate the whole plate as though it was a dessert. No-one batted an eyelid, but I have since watched entire families share what I devoured, spooning only five or six berries into each cup of tea served.  Oh dear. Embarrassed of Armenia. 

Sometimes a new dish appears at breakfast. Spinach pan fried in butter and supplemented by a lightly beaten egg is a favorite of mine. It’s good freshly made and hot, and surprisingly palatable when it turns up again at dinner, this time cold. 

In every house, sheets of lavash the size of medieval shields are bought in bulk from specialist neighborhood bakers and stored in a cool, dark and perhaps slightly damp pantry in each Armenian home. The piles are thick enough and long enough to make a comfortable bed for a small princess. Before it is served, the lavash is cut into slices the size and thickness of a Sunday magazine double spread. These sheets are folded in two and piled high in the breadbasket that always sits on the kitchen counter. I have noticed that the basket is always topped up before it is empty. There must be lavash in the bottom of ours that is older than some of my fellow volunteers. 

I keep forgetting just how young that is. In a  language lesson today we had to ask each other questions about people we liked and disliked– something to do with objects and possessive pronouns. Thinking to stick with an Armenian theme, but move past the Kardashians, I asked my class mates what they thought of Charles Asnavour. Blank stares ensued. I sang a bar or two of She. Nothing. When I YouTubed the song I discovered it was a hit in 1974, more than 40 years ago. Depressing. 

Charles Asnavour sings She

From Anne Arundel County to Armenia: Week One as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

FullSizeRender (6)I have a view of Mount Ararat from my bedroom near Artashat in Armenia. The mountain, the national icon of Armenia, is now in territory claimed by Turkey, but the people here still consider it very much their own. The peak dominates the landscape, flat land that doesn’t see much rain. Every day in Shady Side, I was awed by the beauty and size of the Bay. Now I am in a landlocked country, but fortunate to look out upon another wonder of the world: Noah’s mountain, the peak where the Ark is said to have run to ground.

I live within five miles of the Turkish border, closed because of century-old tension between Armenia, and its neighbor. All around are lookout towers, small huts on stilts from where the Armenian army can stay watchful, night and day. 1915–1918, the Turks killed as many as one and half million Armenians living on land the other side of the mountain. Not for the first time in this part of the world, borders were brutally redrawn. Every day the people in this village see the mountain they can no longer climb. It reminds them of the relatives and land they lost.

FullSizeRender (7)My village is much the same size as Shady Side and is about the same temperature at this time of year. There are a couple of small general stores, but there the similarity ends. There are no bars and restaurants. Certainly no dry cleaner or bank. The roads here are impacted dirt and there are no sidewalks. Some men work on Soviet-era cars in front of their houses. Others try to keep all-pervasive dirt off their Mercedes. As in America, people choose to spend their money in different ways. Older women sit outside in the sun, hailing everyone who goes by and taking particular interest in the sudden influx of Americans—20 of us enrolled in an intensive 10-week language program, to prepare us for two years’ service in this country the size of Maryland. Everyone knows we are here and is eager to talk. They ask questions about our families, and houses, and life in America. They marvel at American house prices. The average wage here is $300 a month. Every house keeps chickens—my host family has five—and a garden with apricot, cherry, walnut and apple trees. Sheep are never far away. Our village name translates to “Garden of Jewels” and Elsa has planted tulips outside the front door. They aren’t in bloom yet, but it won’t be long.

IMG_2657 (1)I am involved in a youth development program which the US Peace Corps has been running for the last twenty-five years at the invitation of the Armenian government. In order to prepare, I take language lessons for 4 hours every day, and then afternoon classes on the country’s economy, politics, social and cultural norms, and its development needs. Elsa packs me a lunch of red bean salad or coleslaw (cabbage is big in these parts); lavash (paper-thin bread ) rolled into a burrito and packed with egg, spinach and cheese; and a locally-grown apple the size of a grapefruit. An old plastic bottle is filled with water from the tap. No Pepsi or Coco Cola products in this house.

After class, I stop to mime a chat with Malan in the small local shop. Her shop is next to the hairdressers where I might splash out on a wash and blow out next weekend—a good way of getting to know my neighbors. I could easily do my hair at home though, where Elsa and Gevorg have a beautiful tiled bathroom with a hot, powerful shower. I have my own bedroom, much bigger than the one I left in Avalon Shores. Someone—I don’t yet have the language skills to find out who—has painted the bedroom walls in the manner of a French chateau. It might be Alla, Elsa’s daughter, who has taken cake FullSizeRender (4)decorating lessons. Now that I have seen what she can do with royal icing, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was the one who turned the first-floor bedroom into Marie Antoinette’s boudoir. It is quite the most beautiful bedroom I have ever slept in. The furniture is mid-century style, but lacquered, and the sheets are 70s retro. My house in South County is often described as eclectic, because it is furnished with a million yard-sale finds. It is pure serendipity that Peace Corps has placed me in the home of people who like color and pattern just as much as I do. I don’t suppose my luck can hold. In June, I will move on to another family, and another part of the country where it is likely that life will be much more basic. Other volunteers have told me about their “lick and promise” washes deploying a tea kettle and wet wipes, and many houses in this village still have outhouses. For now, I count myself lucky to have a washing machine and western toilet to use.

FullSizeRender (2)Elsa is in her 50s, like me. She is a great cook. I come home every night to omelette and fried potatoes, or pork and tomato stew, or maybe a delicious Armenian soup called sepass. This is made from yogurt and barley and is served with cilantro. Served hot and eaten with bread, it is the ultimate comfort food. There is always a chopped salad of an imaginative and colorful variety, a bowl of plain yogurt to use as a relish, and a platter of fresh dill, watercress, tarragon and cilantro. The children eat the herbs in handfuls. Dinner is served with homemade apricot juice and followed by coffee, strong and dark in tiny cups. Over dinner in the kitchen, the family quiz me about my day’s learning and laugh when I pull faces and try to act out incidents I don’t yet have the words to describe. The smallest grandchild, Gayane who is 3, knows the most English, for she listens to pre-school rhymes on her mother’s iphone. I don’t yet have a phone data plan and the house has no internet. The lack of digital access is the thing that that we volunteers find most difficult. Most of our group are in their 20s and have boyfriends, girlfriends, and family at home who expect to talk or message with them every day. It’s just not possible.

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After dinner, we sit in the living room and watch Indian soap operas dubbed into Armenian. At the best of times, I can be overly dramatic. It is probably dangerous that I am picking up vocabulary and accompanying hand gestures from Bollywood actors. Arsen, aged 6, watches Japanese anime, also dubbed into Armenian, a unique and ancient language dating from 450 BC. There are elections here today, Sunday (April 2) and so last night we watched a debate and town hall discussion. The political make-up of the government is not expected to change here but big constitutional change is underway—a shift of power from the role of President to the role of Prime Minister. More than that, I don’t yet know. Voting is at the local school. Later, we are going to the farmer’s market. This is an Apostolic Christian country and was the first place outside the Middle East to follow Christ’s teachings, way back in the 3rd century AD. Despite this, there are few signs of active worship in my new community. I haven’t seen a church yet—or any other house of worship. Across the country, only 3% of the population regularly attend Apostolic services.

The coffee table in the living room is always piled with chocolate, wrapped candies, pomegranate, orange slices, dried fruit and cake. Neighbors, family and friends will be in and out all evening and must be (over)fed. In Armenia, hospitality and family closeness are key: all are welcome and grown children stay close. Elsa’s daughter Alla and her husband Ararat and their children Arsen and Gayane live just a few doors away. Alla’s sister Lala and her brand- new husband Edgar live in the nearest town. Lala is working in Moscow this week, but she calls home every night. Elsa works in the house all day, and has her grandchildren after school. Gevorg, her husband, goes out to work but I have no idea what he does. I only know how to say Volunteer and Teacher and he is neither of those.

I met these people only a week ago, but it is not at all awkward to live in their home. I have watched videos of Lala’s wedding. I haven’t met her yet, but we are already friends on Facebook. (I am able to connect via my teacher’s hot spot during break at school.) Gayane and I sing “No more Monkeys…” while she jumps on the distinctly non-bouncy divan in the living room. My tablecloth with the map of America is on the table in front of the window and has a large vase of artificial roses keeping it in place. Arsen has told me about the Armenian player who is part of the Manchester United soccer team and laughed when I mixed up the word for swimming with the word for shower. He hopes to swim to America, and visit New York and Los Angeles, he says. Gervorg pretends to be a professor and bellows questions at me in louder and louder Armenian tones until I put my head in my hands and say “Che gitem. Chem haskanoom.” I don’t know. I don’t understand. There is a three-bar heater in the living room, and an overhead light. There are family photos on the credenza and a framed photo of a woman I think is Gevorg’s mother in pride of place above the flat-screen TV. Every house I have visited seems to have something similar. We volunteers have compared notes and think that photos in this style –formal, solemn and large—must be a tribute to honored, dead relatives. Elsa and Gevorg had three children. Their son, Geram, died last year. He was 26 and killed in a traffic accident in Moscow. Geyorg told me about him, showing me a snap of all three of his grown children. I looked at the photo and touched his forearm. There are no words in any language. Roads and cars and drivers here are dangerous. As in all other parts of the world, Peace Corps Volunteers are forbidden to drive. Works for me.

I have to remember to take off my shoes inside the front door and change into slippers. Notice has been taken of my lack of socks. Everyone was more comfortable today when I swapped dress pants and bare feet for a dress and panty hose. My purple dress is set off with a green, chunky necklace. Alla asks me, through pointing at her own jewelry, why I don’t wear gold: voski. After many dictionary consultations, I explained, haltingly, that it is too expensive, and I tend to lose things. The conversation turns to wedding rings. Why don’t I have one? I shrug and dip back into the dictionary. Gevorg promises to find me a good Armenian man. I feel I could do worse.

Will I enjoy two years in Armenia? It is too soon to say, but the signs are good. Ask me again in June when the irises are blooming in Shady Side, and the day lilies are about to open. Ask me when Pete is serving fresh rockfish and soft shell crabs at the Brick House. Ask me when it is my friend’s birthday and I can’t buy him a Famous Grouse or a glass of Pinot Grigio at Petie Green’s. By June though, I will have been sworn in as a fully-fledged Peace Corps volunteer (the US Ambassador may attend the ceremony, because this is the silver anniversary for Peace Corps in Armenia. This is a very big deal.) By June I will know what and where my two-year volunteer project will be. I could be working in a big town, or a tiny mountain village where it is winter for 6 months of the year, and the water and electricity supplies constantly fail. In June, here in my new home, the apricots will be ripe and it will be time to make jam. Arsen’s piano performance will have taken place at our village school, and Alla will be icing a cake for her little girl’s birthday. Ask me again then.

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