For Anahit

Anahit is 15 and things are going her way. She brims with possibility and could sell self-esteem. She has plenty to say and everything to do. In her case, this includes geometry, at which she excels, and languages, of which English is only one. She has already aced out of piano school. For all I know, she is sporty and arty too. She is one of Armenia’s brightest and best.

There are aspects of Anahit that remind me of myself at the same age, although geometry always eluded me, I have come to language learning late in life, and I can’t play the piano. We both love words, we both love an audience and, at 15, I had that same toss of the head, curiosity, and unstoppable desire to leave a good and strong impression on adults who I believed could help me unroll another few yards of my life’s golden pathway.

I met Anahit in one of my very rare encounters with the Armenian Youth I joined the Peace Corps to serve. My work usually involves writing documents and making phone calls and sitting in meetings and doesn’t very often involve actual young people. Usually, I like it that way.

But on this particular day I had ventured from behind my desk to make a short film about The National Poetry Recitation Contest, an annual event in Armenia run by the NGO I work with, and Peace Corps Volunteers. I love the National Poetry Recitation Contest. It is just exactly the kind of thing I would have thrown myself into at school (supposing, of course, I had been able to speak a second language). Beautiful words and endless opportunity to discuss them. Memorization (for which I have a knack) and glorious competition on platforms parochial, regional and national. The chance to talk and flirt and get to know other like-minded teens. The chance to meet people to look up to– people who aren’t family or teachers, people who can make things happen.

Anahit took National second place for her school year in last year’s contest. She will enter this year too of course. Next year she is likely to be unavailable– she hopes to be selected for the prestigious FLEX English language exchange program and if–when–she makes it, will be studying in the US. Ms Ghazaryan, Anahit’s teacher, always gets great results at the NPRC. While filming. I asked her why she considers the contest worthwhile “Speak to Anahit” she said “She can tell you. She can show you.”

It only took her 90 seconds.

Armenia is a land full of well-educated people, where one third of the population live in poverty. At Anahit’s age, too many young people here have already given up hope of a great life. Young women in both cities and villages will look after in-laws, rise early, make jam, keep chickens and sacrifice themselves for their children. They will do this even if they also go out to work. Young men will go to the army and, if they are lucky, come home and look for a job and go to work in Russia when they can’t find one. There will be no holidays, no ordering interesting sounding books online, no eating out and no new laptop when the old one shuts down. Education and hard work by themselves are not a passport here. It takes drive, and connections, a dash of brilliance and money, yes money for young Armenians to reach their full potential. Just because Anahit and others like her are self-assured does not mean they have an easy life or a certain future. Thousands of other Anahits and Aras live in villages where there are no English language books, no cars fit to drive to the city so kids can take part in a contest, and no money for snacks or a night in a hotel. This matters, for if these young lives lie fallow, Armenia has no future. There will be no one with the spirit and sense to lead the country There will be no one left to work so Armenia can prosper, compete and grow.

winners
12th form national winners 2017 from schools in Yerevan, Vardenis and Kapan.

For Anahit and for every Anahit in Armenia who has drive and grit and ambition I will sit behind my desk every day and write funding requests and make phone calls for donations and take sponsor meetings so they all have the chance to enter that contest, study those beautiful words in English, develop the ability to imagine, feel, reason and debate and stand tall on a stage with their arms outstretched. This matters. It is not just about showing off and winning prizes –although those are important parts of growing up to be powerful– but about incentivizing hard work, clear thinking and competition. It is about excelling in a world language used by every global company; knowing how to walk across a stage and command a room; understanding and demonstrating that different tones and emotions and emphases are necessary in diverse situations; learning to wait in line, manage nerves and pull off a great performance. It is about getting ready for the rest of their lives.

This is work I love. I can’t wait to get back to it tomorrow. You go Anahit.

To learn more about The National Poetry Recitation Contest, Armenia please click here.  Last year, 453 students from 117 schools took part. This year the goal is 680 students from 170 schools–a tenth of all schools in Armenia. Your involvement can help young people travel to one of 10 regional contests, and to the national finals in Yerevan on May 5, 2018. This year, the contest will also be supplemented by a five-day summer school for 60 national finalists. 

I made them myself

I have taken my attempts at host country integration a little further than most Peace Corps Volunteers in their first three months of service, in that I have seen the inside of an Armenian operating theater, and a large number of Armenian medical professionals have seen the inside of me. I am without a gallbladder, but my surgeon thoughtfully kept the quite startling collection of gallstones, so I still have those. In this land of stone and rock it seems only fitting that I should have my own pebbly pocket-collection to carry around. This time the pouch containing them will not be linked to my digestive system. I have walked a few steps, eaten a baked apple and brushed my teeth and hair. I have clean pajamas. I am pretty much ready for anything.

A little help from my friends. Part One

The spiced chickpeas were in one bowl and the eggplant curry in another. The rice was cooked, although not very well. It was clumpy and sticky despite having been soaked and rinsed. Why did I buy basmati? If I can't cook it in the U.S. why would I suddenly develop the ability in Armenia? Take me back Uncle Ben…

There were grilled peaches and toasted walnuts. I hadn't been able to find crumbly cheese or salad greens, but a trip to the market ought to sort that out. Except that I couldn't go to the market. I could barely make it to the bathroom.

I had invited a house full of people to a housewarming party on Friday and I was sick. Oh so sick. I couldn't cancel–volunteers were already on their way to Goris from far-flung parts, and my invitations to new Armenian friends had been haphazard and often issued through a mutual acquaintance. Who knew who would actually turn up?

My flatlette needed work to become party central. I began to roll up the rugs on the living room floor. Then I just lay on the living room floor and gasped a bit. That's where I was when Aleta walked by, on her way to feed the hens. Realising that I hadn't the energy to clean (to be fair, a condition Into which I frequently fall), she immediately began shaking, vacing, sweeping, washing and wiping in the living room, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. I lay on the sofa and was grateful. When I thanked her profusely, if weakly, she said " It's nothing. I will always help you" . Then: " I'll bring you the green beans, cucumbers and yoghurt" Oh yes, there were two more dishes to make…

Dominic and Ryan stopped by to see if I needed anything for the evening. They  were expecting an order for beer, or perhaps to be asked to lug a watermelon up the hill. Instead I told them that I couldn't be around food. Could they organize everything in the kitchen? They said they would. Clayton arrived by marshutni and was dispatched on a beer run.

The hour of the party approached. I didn't get washed. I didn't get changed. I didn't brush my teeth. There was no talk of make-up. I just continued to lie on the sofa. Dominic, Ryan and Clayton got busy in the kitchen and I could hear a very competent clatter of pans. Aleta came with the green beans, which she'd cooked on my behalf. Armenian visitors began to arrive bringing big bags of plums, beautiful bars of chocolate, a huge cake, and bottles of wine. I directed guests on where to leave the bounty and men emerged from the kitchen to offer drinks. I had moved from supine to somewhat upright and was propped in a chair. My capacity to chat, always the last to leave me, was functioning well and the fact that much of the conversation was in Armenian removed my need to contribute much anyhow. Pat arrived and knocked the peaches and walnuts into a salad with some greens bought by Dominic.  The men got the table set and brought the food out. Everyone but me ate heartily. At the end of the meal I had yet to move and so Mary cleared all the dirty plates from the living room. Later, she and Pat did all the washing up and putting away. "Thank you so much. I owe you" I said as my party crew prepared to leave. Afterwards I lay in bed and marveled at how can-do, uncomplaining and obliging everyone had been. It's what makes them good Peace Corps Volunteers I suppose.

On Saturday morning, waking up to a nice clean house and immaculate kitchen, I mixed some special Peace Corps rehydration salts with a liter of water and drank the concoction. I perked up quite considerably–enough to do some work. At lunchtime a message from the next slew of volunteers arriving from out of  town: "We're in Cafe Deluxe. Join us".  Why not? I thought. Do me good. I got dressed–washing still felt like too much of a challenge–and walked five minutes into town to meet them. I ordered and ate some mushroom soup. Delicious in the serving bowl, it was –an hour later–less attractive in a bathroom bowl. I went back to bed leaving my 3 incoming house guests to fend for themselves. I did make a brief reappearance on Saturday evening to watch them eat a meal they'd made from party leftovers. I went back to bed at 9pm (Again, to be fair, this is my regular bedtime, but usually I try harder with guests). Because I went to bed, they pretty much had to go too. Some weekend. At no point did I ask anyone about towels or blankets or glasses of water. Some hostess. On Sunday I got up at 6:30. Jim and I were to go on an off-road trip to see Armenia's ancient etchings– petroglyphs– and I was terribly excited. Well, I had been when we organized it. Less so on Sunday morning. Eventually, noting that I was still sitting around in my t-shirt and underwear, couldn't face breakfast, and seemed to be having difficulty walking more than 20 steps, Jim gently suggested that I should stay home. He closed with the reminder that there are no restrooms and indeed no trees or shrubs in Syunik's stone desert. I went back to bed, too dehydrated to cry. KJ and Amanda went to visit Tatev Monastery while Jim took to the hills. They all brought sun cream and lots of water, for the day was unseasonably hot in Syunik Marz. Which made it all the more odd that I was shivering with cold. Shivering so intensely that my limbs were lifting off the bed. I rolled myself in my duvet and prayed to get warm. After about an hour I prayed simply to die. When I woke up 4 hours later, now swimming in sweat, KJ and Amanda had come home. Amanda sorted out more pills and a new bottle of rehydrating salts and did that brisk, efficient straightening and tidying that nurses do–so reassuring. KJ began a campaign to call the Peace Corps doctors. Pat came to visit and called the Peace Corps doctors. Which is why she and I are now in Goris hospital. But that's another story…

For now, just hear how amazed and touched and happy I am that people I met less than 6 months ago, people I may only have spoken to 6 or 8 times, were prepared to go so far out of their way, and their weekend, to do their best to help me. Problems were solved, treats were provided, misery was substantially reduced, and kindness was in constant supply. The humor and the stories helped. The company was infinitely restorative. I hope none of these folks ever need help like they offered me. If they do, I hope I am up to the challenge. I seriously doubt I would be as flexible, insouciant, empathetic and insistent. Thanks y'all. I really do owe you.

Pictures: Jim Daly

Sights I hope to see for myself someday at the Armenian Stone Henge and the Ancient Open Air Art Gallery

So what do you do there anyway?

I spent the 4th of July cutting out pictures of hamburger buns, cheese slices and dill pickles. Black and white pictures, because we don’t have a color printer here. I used the pictures to teach an English conversation class about the American holiday. Students–five women aged from 15 to 50–order a burger with their choice of extras from me. Then they show and tell what they will eat. Bacon strips, tomato, red onion slices, ketchup, mustard and french fries were among the options. I left out lettuce. No-one likes lettuce and the word is not used here. I play a short video of my colleagues singing the Star-Spangled Banner. We wrap up when everyone can say stars and stripes and point to the right images on the flag. I am not actually here to teach English, although a lot of volunteers are. But English lessons are valued in Armenia and random people, hearing an American is in town, will turn up to ask to talk and learn. I am happy to help. Some of the women I have met in the last month in Armenia blow me away with  their poise, determination and capacity to learn. Say magic words in English and you can conjure up a glorious future. They are determined to master the language.

At home, my family made a mattress. When I woke up in the morning, wool not long shorn from the back of a sheep, had been washed and hung out to dry. Later, it was laid out on top of an envelope of hotel-white sheeting. Much patting and teasing and prompting ensued, until the cloth was covered in a four inch thick mat of the unruly wool. Deft rolling and squeezing and pummeling and Aleta and Karina had wrangled the wool into its new cover. The quilt was rolled and carted upstairs where it was laid out on two dining tables–extensions added–and sewed with string to stop the wool shifting about. It looks like the mattress of my dreams. They will make another one tomorrow.

 

I am a community development volunteer, which means I work with an NGO. My focus is management skills and organizational development, just like it was in the states. I work with a more than averagely successful grant-funded organization which has offices in Yerevan and here in Goris. P&T NGO wins and administers grants from organizations including USAID, the European Commission, UNHCR, sundry foreign administrations and various branches of the Armenian national and local governments. Most of our work concentrates on civil society development training we provide for other, smaller NGOs. The training–in NGO management, Social Entrepreneurship, Communications and PR, Financial Diversification, Fundraising, Project Design Management, Managing Volunteers and Members, and  Advocacy–is first-rate. Practical, engaging and very hands on. I, of course, cannot facilitate, because my Hayeren isn’t up to it. This means I concentrate on trying to improve office processes, and on PR work.

Haykush is up at  6 o’clock to clean our office. She takes care of the kitchen and bathroom, dusts and tidies the desks, empties the waste bins and sweeps and stairs and outside areas, front and back. On her way to her day’s work in the garden, she stops to stir the vats of mulberries outside my bedroom. The berries are fermenting nicely now. Haykush has beans to tend, fruit to pick and seedlings to thin. Later, she’ll make yogurt.

God knows, I am not great at systems but I have learned the hard way the value of thinking first and doing later; of labeling files and folders by date and name; and of storing only the most updated version of materials to be used for publicity. I try to touch things only once, committing to finish what I’ve started, and attempting to answer questions before they are asked. In the States, I am at the back of the class when it comes to this sort of order and organizational ability. Here, my colleagues  consider me pedantic, process-oriented and positively nit-picking. Somewhere far away from Armenia Jacqui Barrett, Natalia Banalescu-Bogdan and Caela Coil are rolling their eyes…

Artur is spreading concrete on what will be the floor of my new shower. Next he will grout the floor tiles before doing a taxi shift. The work on the bathroom has been held up. We had heavy rain and our roof sprung a leak he had to fix. He needed to drive to Yerevan to get something to make the shower drain better. The next-door neighbor is too old to climb his own mulberry tree–Artur must stop his remodeling to help with the harvest.

At work, I write strategy documents in English and share them with my colleagues on Google Drive. Everyone here mistrusts Google Drive more than they mistrust lettuce. I can’t say I like it myself, but it is one way to make sure everyone is looking at the same version of the same document. Not that anyone reads my strategy papers. Even for those fluent in English, they are too fatiguing. I don’t blame them.

Natalie has cycled across town to meet her friend Sarkis. They are both teetering on the edge of puberty. Next summer, will she ride her bike? Next summer, will she be allowed to see Sarkis? Diana does her hair and her make-up and then does it again a different way. She is 19. Robert is outside playing in the street just as a four-year-old should be.

I come up with ideas to increase our visibility and illustrate our impact. We are having a big conference next Monday–200 people. We decided on the title the day before yesterday and we finalized the announcement in English, Hayeren and Adobe Indesign late last night. My friend Emily at the other end of the country has Indesign on her computer so I asked her to give me a couple of hours of her graphic design expertise. Two exhausting days later and everyone was happy. Thanks Emily.

The conference will pull together representatives from business, government and the NGOs we have been working with. I have drafted a press release for translation and want to start the conference with challenges to sector teams to attach themselves to each other with ribbon in the colors of the Hayastan flag. I can see it all now: executives and social workers and elected representatives knitted together by Armenian colors threaded through bracelets, down shirt sleeves and around ankles.  It will give the TV crews something to film I tell my colleagues. They look at me in bewilderment. This is more than a language difficulty.  They think I am crazy and ridiculous. By now, Jacqui and Natalia and Caela are nodding in agreement. This is the Liz they know.

I coached the female executive director of a NGO in Yerevan by skype. Another young woman who speaks perfect English. I coached another volunteer on managing her emotions as she settles into her new life in Armenia. I decided to call it a day.
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Aleta spring-cleaned the living-room. She took down the curtains  and washed all the windows with vodka and crumpled paper. Yards and yards of freshly laundered netting to be rehung. She made a tray of pound cake and a small batch of raspberry jam, before our raspberries spoiled. I joined her and Karina for cake, jam and tea after watching the exhausting business of the mattress. The cake was cut in perfect diamonds and the jam was still warm. This is what we do here.

 

 

Don’t mess with my Toot Toot.

It is time to make toot vodka. Toot is the Armenian name for the mulberry– we have white and dark purple varieties here. The white mulberries, larval-looking but honied in taste, are the most prized. A couple of days ago, we spread tarpaulins on the street outside the house–passing cars were expected to swerve–and got ready to harvest. Artur climbed the tree and shook branches till the white mulberries rained. His mother and youngest daughter were the ground staff–filling old margarine crocks with fruit they wanted to enjoy later. Then Artur shook the fruit from the tarpaulins into giant metal buckets where the berries will ferment. He’ll set up a homemade still outside my bedroom. We are all saving plastic bottles–we’ll have about 70 liters to see us through the winter.
Goris had a mulberry festival this weekend, a small civic attempt to draw tourists to our town. I went to the festival with Pat, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, also from Maryland. Like me, she came to Peace Corps in her prime, and some decades after graduating college. Like me, she helps local organizations develop strategic thinking and management skills, and helps with branding, marketing, communications and sales plans. It can be uphill work in a country where local customers have no money, and where foreign buyers are unreachable. There is no access to Paypal or Etsy and the postal service is at best capricious. There is no way of taking money direct from the diaspora and no way of being sure that shipping will work. Everyone competes for the dollars of one million tourists who visit Armenia each year. Like me, Pat likes it here, although her two years of service are nearly over. She goes home next month. 

Armenians do not come easily to capitalism, perhaps because of their recent Soviet past, and perhaps because they are just too kind and generous to charge anyone for anything. At the festival, held in a bumpy, downward sloping field, they offer plates of fish stew, bean salad, dolma and beetroot vinaigrette to enjoy with free drinks. People pillage small stalls to pile their plates, picking through the food they want to try, and leaving the displays looking like Tom Jones’ dinner table several hours after Fielding’s description of the feast. It is an unholy, unhygienic mess.

The stall holders do sell packaged mulberry products– vodka, wine, a syrup that is good for the throat, and jam.  A liter of wine in an old Coke bottle will cost 1000 Armenian dram– about $2.  Half a liter of vodka in a water bottle costs $3. No one has bothered to switch the labels from the original bottles. I fear for the toddler who reaches into his mother’s shopping bag for a thirst-quenching glug  from what looks to be a bottle of Jermuk’s finest spring water. A mouthful of mulberry ori is far from mother’s milk. 

Sitting on a haybale in the shade, Pat and I watched people eating mulberries straight from the trees and kept an eye on a game of nardi– the local name for backgammon. We ate pistachio nougat and baklava while she drank a tot of vodka and I sampled the local red wine.  We got chatting to a gay couple from Australia. They had just come from Iran, a couple of hundred miles south of here, and they are on their way to Georgia, many hours of travel north, after a short trip to Nagorno-Karabakh, which is just down the road. “Try the beetroot with the sheep cheese” said the taller Aussie. “And get your mulberry wine from the French guy over there.”  Homosexuality is illegal in Armenia and, let’s face it, not likely to win friends in Iran. I asked the less lanky antipodean if they had felt under threat. “Not at all” he said. “Iran is surprisingly secular. It was Ramadan when we were there but no-one we stayed with was fasting. Everyone was very friendly–glad to see us. It’s not at all like you see on TV.” I fear I may never know. Current US/Iran relations mean that Peace Corps Volunteers are forbidden to travel to Tehran.

Three teenage boys rode by on a hijacked donkey. Vodka may have been involved. An Armenian grandfather showed off his overdressed baby to this American grandmother. A Japanese American with a man bun sampled the green beans, fish dolma and red currants. We ate cherries and talked to a Czech tourist. 10-year-old boys in itchy vests of Armenian design got ready to dance. The duduk player blew out his cheeks one last time. His instrument, uniquely Armenian, sounds like a mix between a gazoo and irish pipes.  A beautifully melancholy sound.

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.

Yank Don’t Tug

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​​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. 

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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. 

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.