Peace Corpse Volunteerie: Hacks for Halloween

When presented with a broom I immediately resist any urge to sweep or clean. To me, brooms are strictly for riding. Is it any wonder Halloween is my favorite holiday? Here in Armenia it is the duty of every Peace Corpse Volunteerie (see what I did there?) to spend the month of October scaring the Bejasus out of every ghost-fearing Armenian (roughly 2.5 million at the last census). It is part of our job, for Goal Two of the Peace Corps mission is to help promote a better understanding of Americans on behalf of the peoples served. In an age when so much American activity defies explanation -and is truly scary– the wise PCV will confine herself to stories of Charlie Brown and the Pumpkin Patch, and to introducing Armenians young and old to all sorts of witchy wheezes and ghostly goings on. But what to do when there is no chainsaw to hand, and when pumpkins are small and in scant supply?

Here are my own October activities which I hope will inspire your Halloween celebrations in and out of Peace Corps.

3012515971_14a0d859fa_s[1]Pin the Wart on the Witch. You will need a piece of flip chart paper, a marker pen, a dish towel, a pair of opaque tights or similar to use as a blindfold, and a raisin squished on a thumb tack. Draw a large witch astride a broomstick on the paper and be sure to give her a large, black, hairy wart on her nose, using the marker pen. Find some children and blindfold the first of them. Birl the child three times until disorientated and hand over the raisin on the thumb tack.

Ask the child to pin the wart on the witch. Mark the pin prick with the child’s initials and move on to the next. The pin prick closest to the real wart wins the child a treat.

TP Tutenkhamen: buy several rolls of cheap toilet paper. Show the children a picture of an Egyptian mummy or a scary movie clip where mummies walk the earth. Put the kids in threes equipped with a roll of TP. Set a time limit. Challenge the teams to wrap one member as mummy. Then have a walking dead race with treats for the winning team.

Frightful Face masks. If you have environmental concerns about the waste of TP, use it to make face masks. You will need several balloons (blown up), flour and water paste,markers for decorating and some elastic bands, plus of course the toilet paper. Paste squares of TP over one side of the balloon until you have 3-5 layers. Leave to dry overnight. Use a knitting needle or similar both to pop the balloon and to put holes for the elastic about a third of the way down the side of the face mask. Thread the elastic band and tie a knot at each end to keep it in place. Have the kids use markers to draw scary faces on the masks– a light touch is needed. You may want to cut eyeholes in the masks to aid the claustrophobic. Wear the masks and run around howling and screaming.

Dead Man’s Guts. Prepare a bowl of spaghetti and leave to cool. Cut an orange in half at the equator (not pole to pole). Blindfold the children and keep the lights low. Tell the children a scary story about a school director who died a terrible death in the very room you are working in. Make sure to include the detail that her eyes were cut out and be sure to find the Armenian word for disemboweled. Then ask each child to come up to pay their respects to the body of the long dead Director. Guide each child’s hand to the cold spaghetti-the guts of the ghostly creature. Then to the orange half– the slimy eye socket of the spectre. Much screaming ensues.

img_1747What the Blank Blank Blank!!! If you must have something educational, create some frightening flash cards with suitably scary adjectives, nouns and verbs: slimy, scary, half-dead, headless, rat, frog, bat, witch, spider, ghost, corpse, mummy, eats, scares, kisses, follows, kills. Then ask the class to complete the sentence

The Blank Blank Blanks the Blank Blank

Irish Apple Pie. If you must involve autumn fruit in your Halloween celebrations and don’t want to bob for apples or eat them off strings dangling from a washing line, then assemble the ingredients for an apple pie and add a coin wrapped in foil or greaseproof paper, a curtain ring, a thimble and perhaps a bean, similarly wrapped.Bake these into the pie. Slice the pie and share among the children, warning them to look for the charms. The one who gets the coin will be rich. the one to gets the ring will be first married. The luckless recipient of the thimble will always work hard, and she who gets the bean will never go hungry. Happy Halloween.

 

How to win an Armenian Cookbook

This cookbook WILL be mine. All I have to do is come up with an Armenian recipe that rocks. The trouble is, I don’t come across much fancy Armenian food, not least because the simple stuff is so good. Most days at lunch this summer we have eaten chopped tomato and cucumber (fresh from a co-worker’s garden) enlivened with purple basil and maybe some fresh dill, plus salt and pepper. On the evenings when I eat with the family upstairs, we might have fresh steamed green beans, scrambled with an egg, or chicken broth with zucchini, carrot, onion, garlic and fresh parsley padded out with rice, vermicelli and potato. (What’s not to love about a soup with three kinds of starch?) There is special occasion food of course–river trout at Easter, khorovats on birthdays, and tables groaning with all kinds of sweets and savories at new year (Nor Tari-the biggest celebration of the year). Much of this involves pastry, which I avoid in the kitchen, fearing all recipes involving dough. (I blame this on a scarring early-teen experience when I mistakenly made shortbread with lard, which I mistook for margarine).

FullSizeRender (2) I have decided to prioritize taste over glamor– always a rule to live by–and am submitting my version of Elsa’s Famous Faux Pate. Elsa and her family were my first hosts in Armenia. I lived with them for three months in Ararat Marz when I was completing my Peace Corps Pre-Service Training. Elsa is the best cook in all Armenia.

Elsa’s Famous Faux Pate.

You will need:

5 fistfuls of red beans

2 fistfuls of walnuts

At least two cloves of garlic

A handful of dill

A food processor, meat grinder or, failing that, a potato masher, a paper bag and a hammer.

Salt and pepper or broth to taste

Bread to serve with the pate

What to Do

Soak the beans overnight, or while you are at work during the day

Rinse the well-swelled beans and pick out anything floating.

Put the beans in a pot with salted water and perhaps a bay leaf– or use a vegetable or chicken broth– and boil until soft. It can take up to an hour.

Drain the beans but save a cup of the boiled broth

Mash the beans, adding back a little broth

Smash the walnuts into fragments no bigger than the size of a peppercorn. Smaller is even better.

Mince at least two cloves of garlic

Chop the dill finely.

Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. If you need a little liquid to help it bind together, use a judicious amount of broth.

Salt and pepper to taste

Marvel at how much the mix looks like a coarse, dark French-style pate as you pile it onto a serving plate, or press it into a small bowl or two

Top with fronds of dill

Serve with warm toasted bread.

Sit back and listen to your guests oh and aah with pleasure.

I just know this recipe is a winner, but if you’d like to compete to rob me of the cookbook you can read the newsletter (in English) from the Armenian Institute in London, paying particular attention to the article on cookery. You can then submit your own Armenian recipe at info@armenianinstitute.co.uk

This is the link to the newsletter. Bardez 2017-Wii

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WD-40: Now in Armenia

image1WD-40 is now in Armenia and could be in a store near every Peace Corps Volunteer in these (squeaky) parts. I predict both a stampede and a sell-out, for Americans who have spent months wrestling with recalcitrant locks, stubborn bolts, and rusted everything will be overjoyed to know they can now buy the  caretaker’s cure-all, launched in the Caucasus just days ago.  I bought my first 330 ml this morning at Rainbow hardware in Goris–and may go back for the rest.

Artur is already looking covetously at my can. He was resilvering a hubcap when I came home with my blue and yellow bounty. Through enthusiastic mime and a squirt or two of the miracle substance I showed him that I could help if the other three wheels seemed sticky. He is still sniffing the fumes appreciatively.

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Rainbow Hardware, Goris, Armenia:   Scene of first WD-40 sighting

I have already eased every lock and bolt in my apartment, and am about to start on an overly  stiff hinge, and a noisy castor or two. Later I may clean some tar off Natalie’s socks, and give her bike and its oily chain a once-over with the magic mist. I kind of wish there was some gum stuck on something, so I could amaze Armenia by removing it with ease. I can hardly wait for winter now, so I can unfreeze locked cars for friends and neighbors…

I even tried to work out how to spread the word about WD-40 (that’s WD-karasoon here) in Armenian–

գտեկ այս արտադրանք խանղտղմ  սհատ լավ ե ուճէր է սարկէկ ձէզ բանալի կողպեք

Find this product in the shops. It is very good and strong. It will fix your sticky keys 

–but I needn’t have worried. In preparation for global domination, WD-40 has a highly graphic website that details how to use WD-40 and shows about 2000 problems it can solve.    Artur has abandoned Operation Silver Spray and is studying it now. Lubrication beyond language. Long may it last.

 

Packing for Peace Corps

FullSizeRender (97)These scissors are the single most useful thing I have in Armenia. I didn’t bring them with me in either oPacking for Peace Cf my two enormous bags weighing 50lbs each, but found them in my Peace Corps medical kit. These are scissors that can cut through industrial under felt, treat plastic as though it was butter, and trim stray wisps of hair missed at the visaviranots–the Armenian hair salon. I did pack scissors of course–a rather feeble pair that came with a home sewing kit. I haven’t used the sewing kit–why would I when there is a seamstress in town who will alter, repair or make anything for a dollar a time? Not, I think, that I would have used the sewing kit anyhow. This is my first lesson in Peace Corps Packing:if you don’t use it at home, don’t bring it. You may be in a different part of the world, but you are still YOU. My own experience suggests that if you habitually run from a needle, iron, hacksaw or hand whisk, you will continue to make excuses to avoid them here. I am more duct tape than darning, and I have found my mega-roll of super-strong silver tape invaluable. It keeps a carpet in place, affixes postcards to windows, and can be used for emergency hemming. It requires no skill to deploy. The most useless thing I packed was a surge protector, which has tripped the electrics in both houses I have lived in here. I haven’t yet encountered a storm, and so far my laptop seems happy with the $2 adapter bought here. My industrial-strength corkscrew was a good investment too. At the office today, we were celebrating a colleague’s birthday with wine and cake when the flimsy locally-bought corkscrew snapped before the bottle became interesting. I  ran home and got my Chefmate model and the celebration was saved. Armenia may be one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world, but they haven’t yet succumbed to the allure of the screw top, and local implements could leave a girl both grumpy and thirsty, a state to be avoided.

When it comes to personal maintenance, there little that can’t be bought here, but often at an exorbitant cost (for one living on a Peace Corps stipend). Six months in, I am still using soap, toothpaste, deodorant and conditioner brought from home and it feels worth it to have lugged them all the way here. I have enough make-up to cover the cracks for the next two years. Another PCV from a cohort ahead of mine advised me to bring my favorite face cream, on two grounds: it is good to smell like yourself when you are in a strange place; and you are only a volunteer for two years, but your skin has to last you a lifetime. I find this to be excellent advice–thanks Alicia Easley. On the subject of luxury items, do find space for something beautiful from home. It will be a comfort in conditions of hardship, and it is good to have something aesthetically pleasing in what FullSizeRender (96)can be rather barren and ramshackle quarters. I brought a small lavender-filled pillow in dark cherry plush. I rather regret jettisoning my Indian velvet quilt in favor of a hard drive (as yet unused), yet another cardigan, and some Washington DC-themed tat rightly shunned by its Armenian recipients. The quilt would look great on my living room divan, and would provide another layer for winter. Bring a towel for the ones to be found here are rather scratchy and thin. I wish I’d brought a bathsheet–full coverage can be important when you are dashing from barnike to bedroom in your host family’s home. I wouldn’t bother with sheets–mine don’t fit any Armenian bed I have ever encountered. All other household items you are likely to need can be bought here—and most ingredients. I should have been more honest with myself about my peanut butter dependency (it can be bought in Yerevan, but at vast expense) and, if you like Asian food, do invest in garam masala and sriracha. (I sent for emergency supplies.) Peace Corps say to pack a pair of dress shoes but I am not so sure. I wore mine for our swearing-in ceremony in Yerevan but otherwise they have been consigned to the back of the wardrobe because the roads and pavements here–where they exist at all–are just too pitted and dusty for fancy footwear. Go to Tigran Mets in Yerevan and shop the discount shoe stores–lots of variety at near-disposable prices. Practice the capsule wardrobe thing--lots of mix and match that will survive two years of hard knock washing and line drying. And remember: the iron is always your enemy.

Forever Blowing Bubbles

Peace Corps staff have seen it all before of course. They know the frustrations Volunteers will feel, and can anticipate dips in energy and enthusiasm across our two year cycle of service. I am a Community Youth Development (CYD) volunteer. On the front of my training manual is that Canadian quotation warning workers that change takes time.

“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” —Nelson Henderson

Over and over during our 10 weeks of in-country training, we were told not to expect the exhilaration that comes with knowledge of a job well done. Peace Corps and many other international agencies have been here in Armenia for 25 years, helping people adapt to life as an independent state, no longer part of an all-controlling Soviet Union. Together Armenians and incomers have created infrastructure, experimented with innovation and accountability, and helped families and communities get on their feet. It is a completely different country than it was a quarter of a century ago. In twenty-five years time, I am sure that Peace Corps will be long gone– no longer needed here. But Peace Corps leaders are right– there can be days when things seem to be stuck at standing still and when all Volunteers wonder if their two years of service will ever make any difference at all.

And then there are other days. Great days. Joyous, surprising moments when Volunteers realize that something each of us did, did good.

IMG_2697Borio was largely silent and deliberately reserved when I last saw him at the end of May. The kind of kid who stands slightly on the outside edge of any group, watching carefully. Not unconfident, but definitely cautious.

Now it is nearly September. Borio is four, and fully a foot taller than he was three months ago.

When I lived next door to Borio I pretty much spoke to him only to stop him doing something dangerous. “Get out of the road Borio– watch that truck” “Come down before you hurt yourself”. “Not in your mouth Borio”. That sort of thing. I don’t remember saying goodbye to Borio, although there were hugs and kisses with lots of other kids. If you’d asked me, I’d have said my going or coming made no difference to him at all.

At the weekend, I went back to the place I lived when I first came to Armenia–the house next door to Borio’s. I heard him before I saw him. A whoop from behind a tree, boots on compacted dirt, and shouts as he ran to get his sister “Elizabet. Elizabet. She’s back. It’s Elizabet. She’s back”.

Screams from Lilia and two pairs of feet running towards me. While Lilia hugged me Borio pulled at the hem of my shirt. “Can we blow bubbles?”‘ Ah yes, bubbles. Borio had been one of my testers back in May as I had tried and failed to perfect a soapy mix guaranteed to make giant bubbles. Across a week, I’d made buckets and basins of bubble mix. Supplied with a bubble wand made from a pipe-cleaner, Borio had blown bubbles big and (mostly) small, not stopping until he and we and the concrete patch to the front of my house were thoroughly soaked and soapy. He couldn’t wait to do it again.

I had completely forgotten about the bubbles, and was touched they had made such an impression on Borio. But I didn’t have any pipe cleaners, and no-one in the neighborhood had either metal coat hangers, or any kind of thin wire. I could have rustled up a bubble mix, but what to do about a wand? I briefly thought of using scissors, with bubbles to be blown through the finger holes on the handle. Then I considered that it probably wasn’t wise to have four-year-olds running the streets armed with sharp, pointy implements…

picsart

I diverted. We did coloring outside, and tracked ants on the concrete, and made animals and machines and different kinds of food with plasticine, hastily bought at the small local  store. 2017-08-20 18.47.48A couple of girls joined in. They wanted witches nails (kakhardii yerrungner) made in green plasticine. Borio was having none of that. Gender is very definitely NOT fluid in small Armenian villages.

Borio lives with his mother, his sister, two grannies and his granddad. His dad works in Sochi in Russian and sends money back to keep his family. Armo can afford to spend only 3 months of the year at home. Borio’s mom does all the usual household stuff that women get landed with here, and runs a hairdressing and nail salon out of  her front bedroom. One of Borio’s grans works several days a week as a nurse in a hospital in Yerevan. The rest of the tiIMG_2947me she is busy making lavash, or iced coffee, or something else the family needs.  Her husband Boris, for whom Borio is named, spends all his time tinkering with the family’s ancient Lada parked at the front of the house. The other granny tends the hens, and pulls weeds. Her back is often sore–she doesn’t feel much like playing when she gets a chance to sit down.  For Borio and thousands of other kids across Armenia and all over the world, the benefit of having a Peace Corps Volunteer in town is simple: they know someone with time to play.  Playing is practically compulsory for Peace Corps Volunteers—it’s a great way of fulfilling goals 2 and 3 of our mission. I’ve told Borio I’ll continue to take play very seriously. He knows I’ll be back when the nights get dark early, and after the last grapes are harvested. My pipe cleaners and glycerin are already packed.

The Peace Corps Mission

To promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:
  1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Sealed with a Kiss

The woman at the post office had to lend me one of their super-strong plastic sacks and then hail me a taxi. I live only a few hundred yards from Hay Post but my birthday haul of presents was just too big and too heavy for me to carry home. Six parcels of various shapes and sizes–lots of love boxed and taped and mailed all the way from the United States and from the UK too.

At home in Washington DC I am lucky to receive even one card in the mail on my birthday. Friends might treat me to coffee or buy me a drink, but there is a general agreement that congratulatory Facebook posts are all that's needed to mark the beginning of another shuffle round the sun. It is not so now I am in Peace Corps and living thousands of miles away. My friends and family–fellow travelers all– know that home comforts are particularly sweet when you've spent months in a country where nothing is familiar, and where the stores don't carry the peculiar range of things you suddenly find you miss. Lynn's parcel contained fish sauce– essential for the Thai flavors I love– and sriracha. The sriracha bottle split in transit, but luckily Lynn is an expert parcel packer. The bottle was dispatched in a plastic baggie and so the pads of construction paper, sheets of alphabet stickers and jigsaws she also sent arrived without sticky chili stains. She cut the cover pictures from the jigsaw boxes and used them to line the bottom of the box. As long as I can work out which image matches each pack of pieces, I should have plenty to keep me busy across the
snowy months of winter in Armenia. Home entertainment was a feature of Brendan's parcel too. A game of Monopoly featuring the landmarks of my hometown. Local newspapers so I can keep up with who's newly wed– or newly dead. From my brother, a face cream I love but can't buy here. From my sister, sturdy underwear supplies and a book to help me identify Armenia's wild flowers. From one of my oldest friends, a tote bag that rolled up small enough to post.

I know other volunteers have been thrilled to open packages containing well-worn t-shirts they never thought they'd miss; family photos; jars of peanut butter. Of course it's not the things themselves that matter, but the association with well-loved people and places. The knowledge that someone misses you enough and thinks about you enough to put together a goodie bag and get it in the mail.

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.

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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.