Queening Around

2017-05-06 14.45.22I have had three chess lessons now, so obviously I am in a position to post about the game. And I am not a complete newbie. Goodness no! I have played chess before–or thought I had. Years ago, my father taught me the method of movement for each piece and, since then, battalions of  my rooks, bishops, knights, and pawns ( plus a tired old Queen or two) have languished in graveyards run by my opponents. I have never enjoyed much success traversing the 64 squares, and I have never understood why.

That was before I met Ara. Ara can win blind chess on three boards simultaneously.—good going even in Armenia, where everyone seems to be a whizz at chess. Ara is a man who likes a challenge, which is why he is now my chess teacher. The night of our first lesson, I  set up the board, proud that I knew the order of the pieces, and careful to put each Queen on the square of her own colour: no dozer me. Ara’s first instruction was to put the pieces back in the  box. We spent the first half hour looking at the empty board, identifying A8, F3, H6 and so on, pretending to be first the white and then the black player. “I’m sure I will never play blind” I demurred. Ara looked as though he agreed but he said only “You need to be able to read the board, to know where you are, to be familiar with the terrain”.  It turns out there is a lot more to that board than I have ever noticed before.

Ara demonstrated how chess defies the laws of geometry. In most triangular situations, travelling along one side, is shorter than zig-zagging to the same end point across the other two. Not in chess. If it is 6 squares in a straight line (white and black) it will be 3 on each other side of the triangle (either black or white). Ara’s first point is that there is always more than one way from A to B, and very often they are the same length, even if your brain tells you otherwise. Again, my hand itched towards the box of Royal Family members, and their hangers on, but it was still not time to play. “We will start with the end game” said Ara. “In chess, it is important to have a plan, to know where you want to get to. We will start at the end, and work back”. I have heard this sort of thing said before of course, in reference to professional strategy, career planning and so on. I  am more of the plunge in and muddle through school of thought. Ruefully, I must admit it has not served me well.

Ara put two kings and a white queen on the board. “You’re white–make a move” he said. Of course I put his King in check. That’ll rattle him, I thought.

“Why did you do that?” Ara asked, in a reasonable tone of voice.

“Because I could and because I thought it would get to you” I replied. ( I hardly liked to tell him that , until now, this has pretty much been my life’s philosophy)

“But it is a waste of time. It is not check mate. Watch and wait. Don’t bother with check until you know how you will end the game”. Petty spite–pointless? Planning ahead and biding your time: important. Who knew?

Ara showed me how to use a King and Queen together to maximum effect, seeing the basic-king-and-queen-1010bboard as a series of boxes within boxes. “You want to shoo him [the black king] to the side of the board and then into a corner. You always want to be giving him less and less space to operate in. You want to control where he is able to go.”

 

smaller boardAra’s view of the board as boxes within an 8 by 8 frame is eye-opening to me. Once he points it out, it is hard to believe I never saw it before–too busy pushing forward towards the other side of the board, I failed to notice that the game is more effectively played if you can narrow the area where action ensues.

We then discussed how to avoid a draw. “Think. Make sure he is in check before you move too close. If he cannot make any move you have wasted your time. Wasted your advantage. You have a draw. No-one wins.” Again, this advice seemed to have a certain resonance when I paused to consider my love life, my family life, and my career. Being sure I am right, I close in with reckless speed only to find that I have overlooked an important, game-killing detail. Apsos as they say in this part of the world: what a pity.

The next time we meet, Ara introduces the rook and sets up scenarios where the white rook and his pasty king must wipe out the black king, who  is working alone. “Keep the rook and the king close together” cautions Ara. “Shoo your opponent but make sure the King has the rook’s back.” We two-step across the board, the Black King’s territory shrinking with every other move. Once he is safely pinned against what I now think of as one of the number walls, Ara introduces the concept of the waiting move. We discuss scenarios where the demise of the luckless black king is inevitable–if only the white rook knows how and where to withdraw close to a letter edge, lurking in B 1 or 2, or B 7 or 8.  Again, a frustrating draw must be avoided, and the rook must use his vertical powers to keep the black king shuttling up and down the edge of the board. The  white king follows him patiently,  two squares over– C–and one step behind.  “Let him come to you” says Ara “he gets to the corner, and then he has to come back. When he is opposite your king, move your rook horizontally to A. Check mate”. A waiting move? A tactical withdrawal? I have never contemplated such a thing. In chess, as in life, I have stabbed away at enemies a thousand pointless times,  never to deliver the killer blow.

This video doesn’t feature Ara, but does illustrate the rook endgame.  Well, you can’t have everything. 

“Playing chess will make your life better” says Ara “It’s logical. It will sharpen your mind”. Well, maybe. But chess with Ara has already changed if not my life, then my view of my life so far. I have a new awareness of failure to read the landscape, blind enthusiasm, short-sighted moves,  and inability to partner, plan and wait. Now if I can only remember and practice what Ara is showing me, I may yet prevail, both on the black and white squares, and on the bigger board where I’ve careened so carelessly up to now.

It was finally  time to put all the pieces on the board, not to play Ara, but his 8-year-old son. Davit won of course and it took him only 10 minutes. Galling.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.
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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.

 

 

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.