Hayeren words to live by.

Tom and Mike were once guests at a baby shower in Washington DC. The mother-to-be invited her guests to write down a personal  motto on slips of paper. These she would save in a glass jar, ready to share with her new born when he or she attained adulthood.

Tom wrote:

Never buy art on holiday.

Mike wrote:

Never drink cheap brandy.

History does not relate how the child turned out, or whether he or she followed this valuable advice.  Me, I live by these wise words.

In preparation for upcoming baby showers in Armenia, I am compiling my own list of life lessons learned. Other well-wishers will restrict themselves to աչքդ լինի լինի archkad looys lini.

May your eyes light up

or առողջ բալիկ լինի aroch balik lini

 May the child be healthy

but I will be sharing the following well-meant advice.

  • Never wear white sandals in mulberry season. Not if you want to show a clean pair of heels. 
  • Every wash day, be grateful you live in Hayastan. Here, quilt covers are well-designed, with  a large diamond hole cut in the middle of the top side. Think of the hours you save while the rest of the people of Europe are wrestling with the corners of their duvets. 

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  • Yogurt is great for the skin. The women in my house lather it on and let it dry. Then they wash it off with warm water. It’s good for getting rid of spots, and for soothing sunburn. They all have lovely complexions, so I know this works. 

yogurt

Yank Don’t Tug

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

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Bubble Trouble

I have been trying to make the perfect bubble mix in preparation for a community event on Sunday. The recipe promises giant, long-lasting rainbowed spheres and calls for ingredients including baking powder, cornstarch and glycerine in addition to liquid detergent and tap water. This wouldn’t be a problem in the US or UK where we all know the colors of the packaging for these items, and the whereabouts of the bakery aisle. But in Armenia?  

So far I have made sample batches of bubble mix with substitutes as diverse as potato starch and,tonight, polenta, which my teacher bought for me in Yerevan. Well it did say Corn Flour on the packet… I have found baking powder imported from America that has cost me two days of volunteer stipend–$6.  I have constructed perfect blowers from neon-colored pipe cleaners, but otherwise the bubbles have pretty much been a bust,  proving no more amazing, robust or outsized than those generated by ordinary efforts with dish detergent alone. I suspect that even if I source the right super-ingredients I don’t have the patience to measure well enough to make the chemistry work. I am sensing that the other volunteers, who are planning football games, army maneuvers and dance-offs for the field day, are already tired of my pipe dream and have serious doubts that bubbles of any size will hold the attention of 21st century kids for very long. They don’t like to burst my bubble but…

Well, tonight I was walking from class and was met by the two kids involved in last nights bubble trials. They were dancing up the street carrying sticks to which were appended plastic bags. Further they were followed by half a dozen other kids, all carrying similar sticks and bags. 

“We were waiting for you to come home” said Lilia, aged nine. “We made bubbles to carry until we could blow some with you” She mimed most of this because she knows my Armenian isn’t up to much.  I was highly relieved that I had a third batch of bubble brew in a basin on the bathroom floor.  I set up shop in the street and hoped these bubbles would do the business. Sadly, they proved no more successful than the last, but everyone squealed with excitement and fought for access to the tub nonetheless. Now, sticky with soap and smelling of lemon and lime, the kids are playing football and I am thinking that there won’t be soapy bubble (rhyming slang for trouble) on Sunday if my fairground attraction really blows. In this sphere, I can only succeed. 

Congested in the Caucasus 

I blame the blossom. And then there’s the dust and the mould. What started as seasonal sneezing due to inhaling pesky pollen, motes of dried mud, and creeping black spores quickly led to sinus havoc. My ears popped crossing the mountains when I went to Goris. I was deaf, stuffed up and generating enough phlegm to allow fluent if fluid pronunciation of difficult Armenian double consonant sounds. By the time I came back it was showtime for three Irish pipers, playing badly in my chest.  Now I have been diagnosed with bronchitis and confined to quarters, coughing. 

Elsa of course has no truck with my arguments against the environment. She knows I am ill because I won’t wear socks, will leave the house with wet hair, and don’t have enough warm clothes. She has now made socks mandatory. I am not allowed to wash my hair. I am too weak to argue. 

Elsa has very clear ideas about how to treat my illness, or indeed any illness. She feeds a cold and gorges everything else. Things that are good for what ails me include: tea sweetened with black currant jam, vodka, (but only if swallowed from a shot glass in one large gulp), and butter–by itself is best but lavash can be permitted. The important thing is to get through half a pound at each sitting. If bread helps, so be it. Cherries, strawberries, and unripe small green plums eaten with salt (seed and all ) are also cure-alls. And of course there is spas. (SehPASS). 

Spas is the Armenian equivalent of chicken noodle soup. It can cure anything. I asked Elsa to write down her recipe. She laughed and said I could watch her work. The prep is a speedy process so I was able to fit it in between bouts of coughing. I urge you to make some. It is definitely restorative. 

Elsa’s Spas

Two cups of Barley (rice or buckwheat would also do)

Six cups of plain yoghurt — or use one whole jumbo tub

Six cups of water– or fill the empty jumbo tub with water

2 heaped tablespoons of flour. 

1 egg

Several handfuls of fresh dill, cilantro and tarragon, finely chopped with spring onions (use any other fresh herbs you like as well). The spring onions are key here– but you can be free form with everything else. 

Mix all the ingredients in a pan, beating in the flour and the egg so the liquid is smooth. 

Cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally until the barley is well swelled. About 40 minutes. 

Serve warm in a mug with a spoon. Add salt and pepper to taste. Get well soon. 

 Between the vodka and the NyQuil (reccomended by the Peace Corps doctor), I spend a lot of time asleep, or at least speechless, glassy-eyed and immobile in a chair. I haven’t been to class since I returned from Goris and so I am at home during the business of the day. I watch Indian soap operas and American films, all dubbed in Armenian. (I saw Brad Pitt and Ashton Kutcher in something yesterday. Or was that just the drugs?) Elsa is usually working– hens to tend to, sticks to break and stack, weeds to pull, floors to clean–but sometimes she finds a task she can fit in while visiting the sick. Yesterday it was canning vine leaves in preparation for dolma demand this winter. As high drama played out on TV (someone in a sari has been kidnapped) Elsa created neat piles of about a dozen grape leaves each, smoothing each leaf as though it was filmy, fragile lingerie she was preparing to pack. Then she gently laid each pile in a colander over a pan of boiling water and covered the pan to steam the rosette. She then folded and tamped the batches of softened leaves into mason jars and sealed them tight. This was the first crop of this year to make it to the pantry shelves. 
Neighbors are in and out all day. Tamara brought me cherries and strawberries from her garden because she heard I had the grippe. “Butter” she said as she heard me speak   “Butter’s what you need for a sore throat.”  Sada came and sat for a bit and put a rug round my shoulders. “Stay warm” she said. “You need more clothes.” She hugged me when she left “Butter” she said “Plenty of butter.” Like Elsa, both these women are the same age as me. They must wonder how Americans survive past childhood when we are so ignorant of basic wellness techniques.  

Right now, Elsa is boiling me an egg, laid by one of our hens this morning.  It will be perfectly cooked, the bright yolk just set and no suggestion of a tired, grey outer ring. She will peel the egg straight from the pan–her fingers are asbestos. She will mash the egg on a small plate with salt and pepper and maybe a side of herbs. Before she gives it to me she will add a slab of butter. “Kerr, Kerr” she will say. “Eat, Eat.”  Let’s hope the cough goes before my heart gives out. 

The Road to Goris

I am laden down with a liter of homemade rose wine, a giant box of chocolates and half a hundredweight of homegrown dill and tarragon. These are my current host family’s gifts to my new family. Perhaps they hope to sweeten the deal for the people I will be living with for two years from June? I am traveling to take a look at my new home more than 200 kilometers south of Ararat, in the city of Goris in Sunik marz. Sunik is the narrowest part of Armenia, pinched between Azerbaijan, Nagorno- Karabakh and Iran. Goris is where I will live and work once I complete my 10 weeks of intensive language and culture training. It is about four hours by road from where I live now. I am going for three days. 

I am traveling with Lilit, the young woman who will help me fit in in my new city and new role. She looks like she could be Isabella Rossellini’s daughter– heart-shaped face, high cheekbones, almond skin and sleek dark hair. She speaks Hayeren, Russian, French and perfect English. She hopes to win a scholarship to Columbia to study NGO management. She already has a Masters in Linguistics and specializes in Germanic Philology. It is all rather humbling. 

Lilit arranged a taxi for our journey and my heart leapt when I saw it was a nearly new Mercedes. It had tinted windows. Would it also have air-conditioning and leather seats? It did not. There are now four people squashed in the car, plus the driver. Two women are at least my size and are clutching hefty holdalls. I am sitting behind the driver, who has long legs. Poor Lilit is sitting on the hump in the middle of the back seat. That’s the price you pay for being young and slim. 

We stop for gas and everyone gets out of the car and stands well back. Cars here run on natural gas, held in a tank in the trunk or under the chassis. The gas is both very cheap and very volatile. My current host works at a gas station like this. It is hot, dusty, and dangerous: a sort of concrete hell where employees must crouch like Caliban to fuel the cars, for the mouths of the gas tanks are low, close to the exhaust. 

Full up, the car snakes slowly into the mountains. Students of social sciences physical geography and geology should definitely plan a trip to Armenia; there is shist, there is scree: there are drumlins and u-shaped valleys hollowed by glaciers. We are climbing steeply when a car coming the other way honks. We do a u-turn on a hairpin bend (I must compliment our driver on his clutch control) and stop. Everyone piles out. The people in the other car walk towards us smiling. I have no idea what is going on. 
It turns out one of the other car’s passengers is to be a colleague of mine in Goris. She was on her way to Yerevan  and wanted to say hello. We exchange warm words in English. I was too confused to remember anything in Armenian. I look forward to getting to know Anna better on firmer, flatter ground. 


We pass several hundred sheep and lambs, a donkey and some goats being herded along the road by a young man in a Ferrari baseball cap, jeans and a rip-off Real Madrid jersey. Now there are vine terraces and I begin to fantasize about stopping for some dolma and a glass of local red. We do stop, but only so one of my fellow travelers can check on the chickens she has stashed in the trunk: a dozen pullets squabbling in a hot, dry cardboard box. And to think I was worried about whether my herbs would make the journey unharmed…


A few hundred more sheep, this time shepherded by an old man wearing a bomber jacket emblazoned with the Bentley logo. As the herd passes, a old woman with thinning hair dyed an unkind  red-purple hurries on to the road with a witches broom to sweep up evidence of the sheep. 

The road is good all the way. Did the Soviets build it or has the Armenian government scraped together the funding to ensure a straight run to and from Nagorno-Karabakh?  Either way, I am grateful. 


In Sunik Marz there is still snow on the high ground. For miles, there have been very few cars on the road, but now we see vehicles parked, and people picnicking on grass brightened by alpine flowers. The road dips and bends. My ears pop.  We turn a corner and suddenly see a town built on the steep sides of a deep crevasse. We have made it to Goris. 

Armenia the Beautiful

Video credit: Peace Corps Volunteer Olivia Route.

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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.