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

Arnica in Armenia?

I was walking back to my hostel when I tripped and fell. I blame a tarpaulin trailing from building site fencing. I slipped on it and ended up splayed on the sidewalk with two torn knees, a twisted wrist, and a scrape on the heel of the other hand. My entire face collided with the pavement and my nose gushed blood.

I had been walking back to my hostel following a most delicious dinner—roast chicken, baked potato and vegetable khorovats from a street BBQ vendor close to the fruit and vegetable market. Before you ask, I had had one large Armenian beer, water-weak and thirst-quenching, and I was wearing sensible shoes.

The street was dark and deserted. The shops sell wooden doors and coffins and close at 6pm. It was now about 9 o’clock. I got myself into a sitting position and tried to stop blood spilling on my dress and shoes. Damn, no hanky. Just as I wondered what to do next, a young woman appeared in front of me, dressed for a night out. “Do you speak Hayeren?” she asked in Hayeren. I am glad that I do. She didn’t have a phone but, by some miracle, I had mine in my bag and it was charged. I directed her to call my hostel, maybe 150 meters away, and ask whoever answered to come and scoop me up from the pavement.

By now, a car had stopped. A young couple got out, clearly very concerned. By now, there was a lot of blood and they thought that perhaps I’d been mugged. I told them what had happened and asked for a towel or some tissues. They had nothing. The woman spoke English and asked sensible questions about whether I had hit the top or side of my head. I had not. All the damage was front and center. She wanted to drive me to the hospital. I explained that my host was on the way to rescue me and with that he arrived.

FullSizeRender (80)Together he and the boyfriend of the English speaker hauled me upright and then steered me across the road and up the hill to the hostel. Back in the kitchen, he provided a wet towel, tissues, a glass of water, iodine and a mirror. I have reopened an old scar on my forehead (I have always been accident prone), a badly bruised nose, a thick lip and a chin with road burn. My teeth and glasses are not broken.

The iodine hurt of course, but otherwise, my face looks worse than it feels. I have no pain and slept well last night.

The man who rescued me is the son of the hostel owner. He was minding the shop while his mum and dad attended an out-of-town wedding. He couldn’t have been kinder and more concerned. He called his parents to tell them what happened and they phoned several times across the evening to check on my condition. I got an extra especially nice breakfast this morning. I’ll be back to stay with these lovely people again. They may want to up their liability insurance.

This was my second fall in a week, for last Saturday morning I crashed when walking home from English class. This one was worse in terms of ongoing pain and damage to pride. The sidewalks in Goris are uneven and perilous and so I usually walk in the road. But Mashtots street (named for the man who invented the Armenian alphabet) was surprisingly busy and so I walked downhill to the center of town using the sidewalk. This was a mistake. In one place the path was completely blocked by an inconsiderately dumped pile of gravel. I looked at the gravel and looked at the ditch, 18 inches wide and full of fast running water, sundry trash and weeds. The hill was steep and I decided it would be better to inch my way across the gravel where it bordered the ditch than to try to bridge the torrent and land safely on road with only one foot on firm ground. This was my second mistake. I slipped on the gravel of course, and ended up beached on my back, with one foot deep in the ditch. I was wearing a dress that suddenly thought to behave as though it were a t-shirt, stopping just below my waist. I felt pain in my right ankle and right knee, the ones lying awkwardly on the shale. An elderly man saw what had happened and crossed the road to help me. We both understood that my best approach would be to put the other, dodgy, foot in the water, stand in the ditch and then have the ancient pull me on to the road. This took several attempts and caused quite a stir as cars rode by. At least they slowed down. I limped home, squelching. My arthritic knee still aches and my cankle is the size of a swede.

FullSizeRender (81)When I first heard I’d been accepted by Peace Corps, my worst fear was falling. I imagined it would happen in winter, and that snow and ice would be involved. Four months in, and at the height of summer, I have already fallen twice. I have also engaged numerous friends and strangers to hold my arm on steps and narrow stretches. On the cable car in Jermuk I screamed so loudly approaching the step-off points both top and bottom that they stopped the entire contraption each time to help me off. Thank goodness it wasn’t busy, but I would have made a fuss even if it had been. I don’t do velocity and forward motion is not my friend.

A friend of mine once survived serious sexual assault and said that she had reason to be thankful for the experience: it had showed her that the worst could happen, and that she could live through it. It took the fear out of everyday living because she knew she was resilient. I feel the same way. Now I know I bounce.

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.
00001

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.

 

 

Awkward

Are you married?

No

Why not?

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

But you have had a boyfriend?

Yes 

Do you have a brother?

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

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

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

Do you have pictures?

Yes (I hand over my phone)

Why did you adopt black children?

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

But I have been to Washington…

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

She is light. Not too black. 

(Firmly) She is black

Yes, but light. That’s good. 

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

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

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

Yes. Is your daughter married? 

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

And your son, is he married?

No.

But he has a girlfriend? 

Yes.

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

The language of love: meet my best friend in Armenia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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. 

Knickers, twisted

No wash today
If there is a nuclear accident here in Armenia I could be in more trouble than most. First, I have managed to lose — or simply failed to pick up–the very expensive, giant horse pills which Peace Corps issued, and which we are meant to swallow as the cloud goes up. They  are potassium something, wrapped in silver foil covered with red Xs, and are about the size of sofa coasters If you see them, don’t eat them, unless of course things turn nasty near you. 

Armenia has an old Soviet era nuclear power plant at Metsamor, about an hour from where I now live. It was built in 1976 and, although it produces about 30% of the country’s electricity, there is very little money to maintain it. Peace Corps assures us they do not post volunteers within 20km of the site. This cordon’s limits must be based on some intelligence, but I know not what. 

    In accordance with Peace Corps instructions, I have packed my emergency evacuation bag to be grabbed in the event of war, earthquake or the aforementioned nuclear mishap. I have a warm cardigan, a torch, American dollars, my passport collection, medical supplies and two pairs of drawers. I don’t know why I bothered with the knickers because I would rather die of radiation burns than risk a showdown with medical experts in the ones I packed.  Luggage restrictions imposed by  Peace Corps mean I have a limited amount of underwear to hand–2 weeks supply in a country where rinsing, wringing and pegging out is often impossible due to lack of running water. It seems a shame to leave the best bloomers on emergency standby and make tired pairs work overtime. I worry about it, but the bottom line is that I think I have made the right decision: best to have my best for everyday and gamble against an unscheduled scandal in unsuitable scanties.

    “But why not buy additional undies now you are safely (?) settled in Armenia?”  My sister’s voice rings in my ear. “I know you are–ahem–more substantial than the average Armenian woman, but surely you could buy something stretchy to cover all eventualities?”  

    Well I could of course, but bear in mind that the Peace Corps stipend is $3 a day—-1500 dram. That kind of money doesn’t cover much, in nether regions or otherwise.  For this amount, a person can buy a  bottle of good Armenian wine– in a glass bottle, with a label and everything, but gusset-lined goods imported from China cost rather more.  

    You may think that standards are surely permitted to slip in a country where washing machines are rare and tumble driers unheard of, but all the evidence suggests that Armenians take a visit to the doctor very seriously. Yesterday I bumped into a neighbor about my age on her way to the doctors’ office. Despite the dust and the heat of the day, she was dressed in a very crisp navy and white dress, belted black jacket, shiny candle glow tights and shoes with a block heel. Bear in mind that all the

    Scale photo of author with average-sized Armenian woman
    women in our neighborhood habitually wear dark pants and sweaters with thick socks and flat mules. Sometimes the older ones top this off with a fluffy dressing gown. Shoes are quickly ruined by the dusty tracks and potholes make any kind of heel inadvisable.  My neighbor made a point of telling me that her daughter had reminded her to smarten herself up, what with the doctor and all.  I took this as her way of assuring me that her foundation garments were both impeccable and irreproachable. These things matter. 

    Lost for words. No happy endings. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    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.

    FullSizeRender (5)

    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.

    17632324_10154459579325382_7601925991251722998_o.jpg

    For my daughter, with thanks

    Shadyside (45 of 265)a
    Superhero cape not featured

    Ever since she was nine years old, my daughter has held my hand when we are out and about. She does this to stop me tripping or, worse, running  headlong into traffic. Her caution is well-advised for I can fall over my own feet, and  don’t tend to follow road rules well.

    Star knows I get dizzy and disoriented when I am stressed, and that this causes me to fall over and bang into things even more than usual. I did this on Saturday and she dealt with it firmly. “Sit down over there so you don’t hurt yourself. I’ll do it.” she said,  as I tried to wrangle wet wipes and dry shampoo and siracha sauce into a recalcitrant hold-all. “Look where you’re going” she said as she steered me and my tray to the sushi counter at the Chinese buffet, and successfully maneuvered me back to our booth without a nasty spill. “I got this” she said as she wheeled two enormous suitcases into the hotel and commandeered the bellhop. I was very grateful, and tried to say so, in a series of anxious, tearful bleats.

    In truth, I hadn’t really expected my daughter to be the person to drop me at the door to my new life. In my head, I thought I’d bundle my bags into an Uber and arrive at the Peace Corps staging hotel, all independent and self-sufficient. She doesn’t get up early. She has stuff to do at weekends. She doesn’t like goodbyes.  How wrong could I be? On Friday night she organized a surprise farewell dinner at a favorite restaurant. On Saturday she turned up bright and early to grapple with the packing, and, following a hasty last lunch ( “Something light. Can you eat some sushi?”) she drove me to DC, parked the car, dismissed the valet, and stood with me in the check-in line. Naturally, all the other Peace Corps volunteers assumed she was the one on her way to adventure. This was partly because of her age, but also because I was rocking pathetically and sniveling more than a little–the kind of embarrassing mother who shouldn’t be let out of the house.

    In truth I forget that she is grown up, and not only practical and capable, but also mature and empathetic. Since I first mentioned this Peace Corps carry on, she has been a trooper. She hasn’t questioned my desire to do it. She hasn’t tried to persuade me to stay home. This weekend, she bit her lip, squared her shoulders and set about giving me a good send off. I am amazed by her. I am proud of her. I will miss her more than I can say.

    Shadyside (29 of 265)a.jpg