Lunch Potato Dinner Potato

Bile has always been my favorite body fluid, with its Elizabethan associations of vituperation and coruscation. Imagine my distress then, when I learned that, due to a gallbladder silted with more stones than an Armenian gorge, my own bile was failing to make it from my liver to my duodenum quite as it should. This revelation was shared by Dr Tehmira who drew a picture, spoke Armenian and waved her hands a lot. Dr Tehmira speaks small-talk English, much as I speak cocktail party Armenian. We are both fine at "how are you?" but it all goes downhill after "wretchedly ill and racked with pain, thanks".

Dr Tehmira is an infectious diseases expert at Goris hospital, the first of two hospitals I have road tested this week. She is pretty fab, especially when she put me on a five day diet which she insisted must be strictly followed: potatoes, rice, pasta, bread. She spelled this out using clenched fists and speaking very slowly. "Potato lunch. Potato dinner". It has become my motto.

Unfortunately, I had no opportunity to show just how well I could follow Dr Tehmira's diet because I got moved to the Nairi hospital in Yerevan, and for the last 12 hours have not been allowed to eat anything at all. Dr Samvell's orders, issued in English. He is the surgeon who will remove my gallbladder later today.

The contrast between the two hospitals in Goris and Yerevan is worth noting. On Sunday, I seemed to be the only patient in my wing of the Goris hospital. Peace Corps Pat and I (she came with me and stayed overnight–forever indebted) arrived and were ushered into the office of the director, a man who liked a cigarette. Then we were shown to a twin room where the beds had crazy retro mismatched sheets. The room had a small fridge. Oh, and a beautiful view, plus a big window that opened. I had 3 bags of saline fluid and Pat had exactly nothing. There is a fridge in the room so your family can bring you food. If you don't know a cook, or forget to pack, you don't eat.

Now I am in Yerevan, kind people from Goris are constantly calling me up to say they have a relative in the capital who can bring food to the hospital. Their thoughtfulness amazes me, but there is no need. I am strictly nil by mouth, and there is a trolley that comes round supplying all manner of tempting delights if I wasn't. . New patients get two bottles of water on check in, and a pair of periwinkle blue pajamas in lawn cotton. There is piping on the pockets for God's sake. These seem to be the equivalent of those awful backless gowns you get in American or U.K. I am wearing my PJs with the fly at the back– old hospital habits die hard.

In Goris, patients walk everywhere, often pulled along briskly by a nursing aide. Here I am wheeled about, allowing me to smile wanly and bestow regal waves on patients, visitors and medical teams I pass. Yesterday a lot of people said Hello in English as I glided by. In regulation pjs with no clothes, accessories or shoes, how did they know I was American? My brother (by text) pointed out that how ever integrated I feel, I probably will never look Armenian. I blame the freckles.

In Goris, there is no patient shower and the patient bathroom is, frankly, a bit of a shock to someone raised with hand washing protocols, Purel dispensers and those cords you pull if you need help while using the loo. There were none of these but instead trashcans overflowing with remains of patients' picnic lunches, and someone's laundry soaking in the handbasin. Pass the kidney dish Peace Corps Pat.

In Nairi, apparently founded by the wife of a former Armenian President, bed linen is a restful blue and white, picking up on my Pjs and veins and off-setting my newly yellow skin and eyes.

I have a fully tiled bathroom (nothing in Armenia is fully tiled) with a shower. By the bed there is a button I can press to call a nurse. Unfortunately it is decorated with an icon that would bring UNICON out on strike in a minute. Trained medical professional as 1950s chambermaid.

Sunday lunch

The mass at Tatev monastery is a real workout. The service lasts at least two hours, during which the congregation stands. At intervals the faithful must dip to touch the floor, kneel for protracted periods on slabs of stone, and then stand up  again without any chair or rail support. There is much making the sign of the cross– enough to work those troublesome upper arms. At one point the Apostolic priest races round the church chased by those anxious to kiss a four-inch bejeweled cross he carries for that purpose.  He is followed by two spear carriers and again the worshipful must lunge and stretch to reach and kiss the icons borne aloft.  Later another priest holds a heavy bible triumphantly above his head, as though it were a boxer’s championship belt. The chap with the chasuble is Olympic standard. The choir work their chest muscles to good effect. You can listen to them singing here.

I was worn out just trying to keep a silky scarf (supplied to all women as they enter) from slipping off my super-shiny hair and so about an hour into the service I left the church in search of a cool breeze and a seat in the shade outside. A number of other women my age had done the same thing. We sat on a bench beneath an almond tree and chatted. Yes that’s right. Chatted. In Armenian. It all went surprisingly well. Anahit moved so she could get closer to me. “Come for coffee” she said. I couldn’t see anyone with coffee, or anyone selling coffee but I was sure I’d understood. “I have to wait for my friend” I said rather primly, for Lilit, lithe of limb and sound of knee was still doing Apostolic aerobics. “She can come too when the service finishes” said Anahit firmly, and took my arm. Lilit was just coming out of church as we passed the door. Refreshment sounded good to her. Anahit led us to a long, cool stone room tucked away to the side of the church. The room had a table with fifty place settings and a full lunch-cold chicken, plates of pork, several kinds of cheese, peppers, cucumbers, tomatos and fresh herbs plus every kind of soda you can ever imagine. We were ushered to one end of the table and offered red wine from a two gallon plastic bottle. The table was thronged with old people, children, babies and all ages in between. “Eat Eat” said everyone, quite as though they were characters concocted by Lewis Carroll. Alice-like, I had no idea what was going on and no way of finding out. Lilit asked a few questions and ascertained that the group– with Anahit as a leading light–had come from Artashat four hours away, close to where I used to live near Mount Ararat. It was a church outing suggested by their priest, who we had seen taking part in the service. Someone in the group– we never found out who– had had a baby she’d named Tatev. When the priest christened the child he said they should make a pilgrimage to Tatev monastery and so here they all were. They’d brought their own lunch. They had plenty. We should eat. “Anush lini”. Let it be sweet.

The priest, now without his gold hat, gold cape and gold Elvis-style collar came and sat beside us, as did one of the spear carriers, now minus his royal blue surplice. The spear carrier spoke some English. The priest, a man with the look of Demis Roussos, was wearing all black accented by a silver-colored cross both enormous and ornate. Lilit’s cousin, our ride home, called her to see where we were. We exchanged hugs and kisses with half a dozen people round the table and friended a couple on Facebook. I have Anahit’s number and instructions to call her when I am next in Artashat. Anush Lini. Let it be sweet. It was.


Thunder Road

I call it the Thunder Road, although there is nothing loud, scary or stormy about it, and there’s not a Hell’s Angel or Harley Davidson in sight. No sign of Bruce or his bandana either. The road from Sisian to Melik-Tangi bridge–surely one of the most beautiful in the world– runs beside the Vorotan river and to Vorotnavank monastery and Vorotnaberd fortress. Vorot, if you hadn’t guessed by now, is the Armenian word for thunder. On the day I was there, the weather was sunny and serene, and no rolling thunder–indeed no engine of any kind–was heard. That’s one of the best things about Armenia’s emptiness: you often have the road to yourself. Historic sites, though usually lacking a tea-shop, a museum shop and a toilet,  feel like yours alone. Better yet, you can clamber all over them–there are no signs, no notices and no guards.

Our first stop on the road from Sisian was at a 6th century memorial to three battling brothers who fought off the Persian army. The land around the monument  in Aghitu is dotted with khatchkars—cross stones—depicting a playful range of people, children and animals along with Christian symbols. Climb the monument to see the cross engraved on every side of the center stone, or stay on firmer ground and marvel that bits and pieces of ancient rock carving that would be behind museum glass in darkened rooms in most other parts of the world just lie around by the roadside here, like rubble.

You’ll see the river on your right, deep in the gorge, flanked by tangles of green. In the foreground at this time of year, yellowed grasses. Behind the river, blue and grey mountains stretch for miles. Round a corner and there is Vorotnavank monastery. I defy you not to gasp. The monastery is a monument to Armenian girl power. The complex was built  in AD 1000 by Queen Shahandukht and added to by her son Sevada in 1007. The monastery also served as a fortress (those pesky Persians again) and within its walls were a once shops, a seminary, workshops and housing for the poor. Today you can see a snake pit in one of the churches, the remains of a 11th century painting, and the new dome, rebuilt in 1931 after the original was destroyed by an earthquake. The ancient cemetery, surrounded by a centuries-old dry stone wall, contains two incongruously modern graves— those of a famous translator who died in 1965 and his son, a general killed in the 1994 war with Nagorno-Karabakh. At 10am on a summer Saturday morning, the place was deserted. We ate small, sweet apricots from a tree overlooking the gorge and listened to the silence.

On to Vorotnaberd, the remains of a fortress first mentioned in reports of liberation from –yes–the Persians in 450 AD. Today, just one wall of the fortress remains, strung between two giant basalt rocks, high on a steep hill 1,365 meters above sea level. You can scramble up the grassy side of the rock, but I recommend walking beside the river to the Melik Tangi bridge and admiring the fortress wall from the bottom of the towering, natural pillars. I got dizzy looking up. As a citizen of Northern Ireland, home to the Giant’s Causeway, it pains me to say this, but really the rock formations here are more impressive than those on the Antrim coast. Here, there is no heritage center, no opportunity to buy a teatowel, or earrings made from igneous rock. The guide books hardly mention the  volcanic activity, or the beauty it left behind. The bridge at the bottom of the valley was built in 1855, using two enormous natural rocks as its base. Today it is used mostly by sheep and cows, but it’s sturdy enough for cars, if there was anywhere to go.

 

In the Pink at the Raspberry Festival

The mayor was wearing a shiny blue suit with a silvered stripe. He stood out in the heat of the day, not least because almost everyone around him was attired in raspberry pink. The occasion was the Raspberry festival, held at a beautiful resort hotel close to Sisian in Syunik marz, and most of the mayor’s constituents were there. The school age girls were part of singing and dancing ensembles. The school age boys were racing through the fruit borders and tearing their shirts off for a dip in the hotel’s pool. Young adult men smoked and roved in groups, eyeing young woman, all of whom were wearing shoes entirely unsuited to walking on grass. Families wrestled with toddlers dressed in too-hot outfits, and chided them when they got their clothes stained with raspberry juice. Older people sought the shade of willow trees and tutted about the price and quality of local produce on sale. She has the cheek to sell that watery honey–imagine! His vodka would burn the throat off you, so it would. Have you seen the state of her cushions? She must crochet with a hook the size of a walking stick…  (My translations are not literal, but I recognize the types. I agree it is unlikely that Armenian festival-goers employ a Northern Irish construction when bitching their neighbors, but honestly, the whole scene was so familiar to me from childhood fetes and harvest festivals that it was hard not to imagine everyone speaking with an asperity–and indeed an accent– like my own). When I was there, I spotted only one other outsider–a man in his middle years wearing shorts and carrying a Nikon with a lens  like a that dangled like a third leg. Armenian men don’t show off their shins, or anything else below the waist, and, having only family to photograph, don’t ever need to zoom. Most of the stalls seemed to be run by women in their forties and fifties, stalwarts of society prepared to stand all day in the searing heat. There were clowns, there were balloons, and there was ice-cream. Everyone helped themselves to raspberries from the hotel’s canes. Bees busied themselves on dahlias. It was as close to perfect as it is possible to get.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Taxi Talk

Ara taught himself English from an old phrase book. He was 10 years old and Armenia was at war with Nagorno-Karabakh. His world was an uncertain and dangerous place and Armenia’s economy was in tatters. In 1994 there was nowhere to go and nothing to do so Ara stayed at home and learned English. Later he came by an English grammar book and continued to study. Now he is 33 years old and he still works at his English online at night. He has never had any formal tuition but he’s fluent. 

Ara is a taxi driver. Yesterday I asked him to take me to Jermuk for the day. Jermuk is a spa town famous for its scenery and spring water. There was room in Ara’s  21-year-old Mercedes and so his wife and two sons came too. Jermuk is a three hour drive from Goris so Nelli and the boys slept most of the way there and back and I benefited from a guide who both knows his stuff and speaks my language. 

Leaving Goris, Ara showed me the new electrical power station being built to supply power to Iran. Big news for the economy in Syunik Marz. He pointed out the remains of the Goris Airport. Flights flew from there to Yerevan in Soviet times– he remembers his father and uncle taking the trip when he was a small boy. Now there is only the road. He shows me the plastic fencing newly erected in preparation for the winter snows.”it’s always windy up here in the mountains” he says ” the snow blows off the slope and closes the road which stops all work from here to Yerevan.”  This year they hope the fencing will hold back the drift and allow the road to stay open.  

We drive past Sisian the next sizeable town on the road north. “Great mushrooms here” says Ara “and pure honey”. The slopes are covered in wild flowers and boxy beehives form blue and yellow encampments by the roadside. Mist shrouds the top of King Mountain, more than 3000 meters high. Behind it is the Black Lake says Ara, the coldest, clearest, cleanest water you will ever see. Further on there is Camel Mountain. In the mountains beyond it, 7000-year-old petroglyphs can be found. The mountain is accessible only in summer. Ara offers to hire a four wheel drive to take me and some other volunteers. “Most people here have never seen the rock engravings”  he says. I will definitely go. 

Past Sisian, the landscape becomes more bleak and windswept. There are no trees now. We drive through a small village and Ara shows me cairns of cowclap drying in the sun. “They have no wood here” says Ara “so they dry cow dung to burn”. 

“Does it smell bad on the fire?” I ask. Ara shrugs. “Yes, but they are used to it. Sheep dung is better. It burns longer and hotter”. So now we know. 

Along this part of the road, only cabbages and potatoes grow. We pass a couple of abandoned villages. It just got too hard to live here Ara says. 

We cross into Vayots Dzor Marz. It is even more craggy here. Ara tells me there is a rare kind of mountain goat found only in this part of Armenia. It is called the Kar Ayt or Stone goat and is an endangered species. We don’t see it. Ara tells me to look out for eagles. He often sees them here, but there are no eagles today. 


Ara begins to talk about a new gold mine to be opened next year in Amulsar. The Armenian-Canadian owners have a 25 year agreement to extract 200,000 ounces of gold a year from open cast mines. Ara is against the project. “They use cyanide in this kind of mining” he says ” it will ruin the air and pollute the water. It will finish the spring water industry in Jermuk. It will provide fast money for people employed there, but it will kill them slowly”. Ara said he cried when the plans for the mine were approved. He is nearly crying now. 

We are now on the road to Jermuk. There are apricot trees and Ara says the area is also famous for its strawberries. We stop by the side of the road and wake the family to look at the view and eat apricots. Forget American apricots with their mouldy stones and mealy texture. Those are not apricots worthy of the name. Armenian apricots are the size of kiwi fruit,  cleft like a baby’s bottom and sweet, sweet, sweet. Neither unripe or too ripe as they always are at home, here they manage to be just right. We eat about 6 each. They are heaven. 


On the way into Jermuk we stop at a small apostolic church and light candles. I take pictures.  “Thank you, thank you” say Ara and Nelli. Like most families they find it hard to get pictures of all of them together. Like good Armenians they do not smile as the shutter snaps. 


Nelli asks me if I can drive and is excited when I say yes. She wants to learn. Ara is not enthusiastic “I am afraid for her” he says “She does not know the roads the way I do. She won’t know how to get out of the way”. A large truck heavy with Sisian stone lumbers towards us to help him make his point. He pulls into the rose hip hedge to let the truck come through “and she doesn’t know the drunks and the drug addicts” Ara continues “I can see who’s coming. I know who is on the road and I know when they are dangerous. She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know”. 

I am firmly on Nelli’s side “You weren’t born knowing” I say ” and you can show her and teach her. She can learn.”  When Ara drives to Yerevan and back he is on the road for at least 8 hours. If his passengers want a wait and return service his day can be much,much longer. Nelli works as a teacher and has two boys to take to piano lessons, chess club, doctors appointments and school. No wonder she wants to learn to drive. 

I know that drunk driving is a big problem in Armenia, but I am surprised to hear Ara mention drugs. Thus far, I have heard very little about drug abuse here, and I haven’t seen much sign of a problem. “When you drive for a living you see all kinds of things and all kinds of people” say Ara “believe me the bad guys are right here. Part of every society”. 

I ask him what drugs and speculate perhaps heroin from Iran? “Yes ” he says ” and people grow opium and cannabis here too, behind their houses. But that is not the worst. Krokodil is the worst. It is chemicsl. They make it from codeine and paintstripper and it makes them crazy. They jump out of windows. They drive like madman. It started in Russia and now it is everywhere here.” He sees how shocked I look. “I am afraid for my boys” he says “I tell them be like me don’t even smoke. But it is everywhere. I wonder about their lives when they are older. They might have to be soldiers in a war. Soldiers killed in Karabakh. There might be bad guys. All I can give them is education. Only education. Education. The most important thing”. He hits the steering wheel for emphasis as we pull into the parking lot for the cable car ride to the top of the hill behind old Jermuk. 


Ashok shoots out of the car and runs towards the ticket office. David follows him at speed. These boys, 10  and 8 years old, well-loved and well looked after, are afraid of nothing. May they always be safe. 

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.

 

 

Don’t mess with my Toot Toot.

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

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

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

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

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

Arts in Armenia: A Beginner’s Guide

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

You can check out some of his other quotes here

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Yank Don’t Tug

​​​​

​​You know it’s a good party when the men start the dancing, the wine is $2 a liter, and there’s a bouncy sheep. All of these were elements of today’s Sheep Shearing Festival in the mountains close to Goris. It was hard to see the sheep shearing competition because everyone was jostling to cheer on their village champion. Luckily I can watch it tonight on the news– all the national crews were there. The cameras didn’t capture the impromptu tug of war between the locals and half a dozen American volunteers, which was just as well: our boys were fit, strapping and strategic but sadly no match for the sinew of Syunik Marz. Tightrope walker? Oh yes, we had one of those too. 

​​​
​​

Armenia the Beautiful

Video credit: Peace Corps Volunteer Olivia Route.

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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