I don’t know myself at all.

Gazarnaguine they call it here. Carrot orange. The color of my hair ever since I was born. Admittedly my hair– much like the rest of me– has had a little help from the bottle this last twenty-five years, but still it is apparent to everyone that I am authentically a redhead. Until now that is.

My friend did my hair. She's cut and colored it before, with excellent results. She charges the Armenian equivalent of $10– less than a tenth of the price I regularly paid for the same service in Washington DC. She's good at what she does.

"Do you have my color?" I asked Ani when I stopped by to book an appointment. There is not much call for gazarnaguine hair dye in a land of Kardashian lookalikes, and I wanted to be sure.
"Oh yes" she said airily, but I think that she may have been one or two squirts shy of the usual gingery mix. Now my hair is a gothic shade of beetroot and I don't look like myself at all.

Other people say it is pretty of course– what else can they do?–but I continue to be startled by the stranger I catch sight of in the mirror. She looks like Marian "Bomber" Price and not like me at all. At first I thought make-up would help, but current supplies

only seem to worsen my new Provo prison pallor. Everything I apply blot and reapply is too light and yellowy for my new black Irish looks. Elsa bought me an emerald green top for my birthday. I tried it on pre-hairdo and everyone agreed it was 'shat siroon'– very beautiful. Now the green with the black blood looks like a Halloween horror show. The beetroot demands a complete wardrobe reboot.

"It'll wash out" said Ani sheepishly as she ran the thinning scissors through my layers one last time. "It's dark but it will fade". Meanwhile I need to get used to the new me: black cherry hair and whey curdle skin. Note: a search of Google images reveals that Belfast bogey-woman Marian Price is now a strawberry blonde.

For Anahit

Anahit is 15 and things are going her way. She brims with possibility and could sell self-esteem. She has plenty to say and everything to do. In her case, this includes geometry, at which she excels, and languages, of which English is only one. She has already aced out of piano school. For all I know, she is sporty and arty too. She is one of Armenia’s brightest and best.

There are aspects of Anahit that remind me of myself at the same age, although geometry always eluded me, I have come to language learning late in life, and I can’t play the piano. We both love words, we both love an audience and, at 15, I had that same toss of the head, curiosity, and unstoppable desire to leave a good and strong impression on adults who I believed could help me unroll another few yards of my life’s golden pathway.

I met Anahit in one of my very rare encounters with the Armenian Youth I joined the Peace Corps to serve. My work usually involves writing documents and making phone calls and sitting in meetings and doesn’t very often involve actual young people. Usually, I like it that way.

But on this particular day I had ventured from behind my desk to make a short film about The National Poetry Recitation Contest, an annual event in Armenia run by the NGO I work with, and Peace Corps Volunteers. I love the National Poetry Recitation Contest. It is just exactly the kind of thing I would have thrown myself into at school (supposing, of course, I had been able to speak a second language). Beautiful words and endless opportunity to discuss them. Memorization (for which I have a knack) and glorious competition on platforms parochial, regional and national. The chance to talk and flirt and get to know other like-minded teens. The chance to meet people to look up to– people who aren’t family or teachers, people who can make things happen.

Anahit took National second place for her school year in last year’s contest. She will enter this year too of course. Next year she is likely to be unavailable– she hopes to be selected for the prestigious FLEX English language exchange program and if–when–she makes it, will be studying in the US. Ms Ghazaryan, Anahit’s teacher, always gets great results at the NPRC. While filming. I asked her why she considers the contest worthwhile “Speak to Anahit” she said “She can tell you. She can show you.”

It only took her 90 seconds.

Armenia is a land full of well-educated people, where one third of the population live in poverty. At Anahit’s age, too many young people here have already given up hope of a great life. Young women in both cities and villages will look after in-laws, rise early, make jam, keep chickens and sacrifice themselves for their children. They will do this even if they also go out to work. Young men will go to the army and, if they are lucky, come home and look for a job and go to work in Russia when they can’t find one. There will be no holidays, no ordering interesting sounding books online, no eating out and no new laptop when the old one shuts down. Education and hard work by themselves are not a passport here. It takes drive, and connections, a dash of brilliance and money, yes money for young Armenians to reach their full potential. Just because Anahit and others like her are self-assured does not mean they have an easy life or a certain future. Thousands of other Anahits and Aras live in villages where there are no English language books, no cars fit to drive to the city so kids can take part in a contest, and no money for snacks or a night in a hotel. This matters, for if these young lives lie fallow, Armenia has no future. There will be no one with the spirit and sense to lead the country There will be no one left to work so Armenia can prosper, compete and grow.

winners
12th form national winners 2017 from schools in Yerevan, Vardenis and Kapan.

For Anahit and for every Anahit in Armenia who has drive and grit and ambition I will sit behind my desk every day and write funding requests and make phone calls for donations and take sponsor meetings so they all have the chance to enter that contest, study those beautiful words in English, develop the ability to imagine, feel, reason and debate and stand tall on a stage with their arms outstretched. This matters. It is not just about showing off and winning prizes –although those are important parts of growing up to be powerful– but about incentivizing hard work, clear thinking and competition. It is about excelling in a world language used by every global company; knowing how to walk across a stage and command a room; understanding and demonstrating that different tones and emotions and emphases are necessary in diverse situations; learning to wait in line, manage nerves and pull off a great performance. It is about getting ready for the rest of their lives.

This is work I love. I can’t wait to get back to it tomorrow. You go Anahit.

To learn more about The National Poetry Recitation Contest, Armenia please click here.  Last year, 453 students from 117 schools took part. This year the goal is 680 students from 170 schools–a tenth of all schools in Armenia. Your involvement can help young people travel to one of 10 regional contests, and to the national finals in Yerevan on May 5, 2018. This year, the contest will also be supplemented by a five-day summer school for 60 national finalists. 

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.


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.

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At the Shops

Everything in Armenia looks like I built it. Skirting boards stop short of the door trim. Plastic piping pokes through jagged holes in plasterboard and tiling tails off when the money runs out. The whole country is not quite finished and in most places, interior design ambition seems to have outstripped artisanal aptitude.

Here, every man is a handyman, and every second shop is a hardware store. You buy what you need for Do-it-yourself and you do what you can.  At first, the rough edges and state of unreadiness are somewhat shocking to outsider eyes. Those of us raised in a world of contractors and kite marks, bonding, insurance, punch lists and perfect finishes are inclined to turn up our noses at what looks like the work of cowboy builders. But when men and women tell you the story of how their homes started to happen, you start to see the love and pride they cemented into every structure.  These couples built their houses from the ground up, adding here and there when they could, and teaching themselves as they go along. Homes are haphazard but they hold together (for the most part) and honestly, does the world need more straight lines and gleaming surfaces? Even if home improvements are more down and low than Lowes and Home Depot,  housekeeping is of a very high standard. There is many a multi-million dollar McMansion in the United States that could do with a little Armenian elbow grease and bear in mind that people here–well, women here–clean their own homes. I know! Unheard of…

Well-equipped though the hardware stores are, they lack two items regularly featured in the US big box stores. This is not a culture with garden furniture, and there is no such thing as outdoor equipment for hire. The other night, I sat outside on a rickety office chair and talked to a friend from home by phone. “Sorry if it’s noisy” she said “The men are here power washing the deck”. I looked at the rusting infrastructure that screens off the stairs to our cellar. “Ah yes, power washing” I said, and felt a little wistful. I’ll be pining for a carpet steamer next.

FullSizeRender (79)In among the hardware stores, there are a plethora of toy shops and stationery stores. While I am sure that people here do spend more on small children than they should, it seems hard to believe that there is enough trade to keep all the toy shops going. And surely stationers must have to shift an awful lot of envelopes, biros, erasers and post-it notes to keep even the most ramshackle roof over their heads? I do love a stationery store though. In the last week I have bought water colors and brushes, rolls of two-inch tape in the colors of the Armenian flag, and some very pleasing primary school posters featuring old-fashioned illustrations of fruits and vegetables. I have my eye on some stencils and am looking for glass paints and blu-tack. It’s all-consuming.

And then there the supermarkets, where it somehow comes as a surprise to find that the personal grooming aisles are filled with familiar packaging–Proctor & Gamble, Colgate, L’Oreal and Garnier are all in evidence here. The choice of tea, coffee and confectionary is huge, but there are maybe two types of cheese–locally made salty sheep product and something resembling Edam. God knows who buys the fresh produce and the booze, for every family here seems to grow and make their own.

No-one here does what an American would consider a big weekly shop. Diapers, disposable razors and cigarettes are sold singly, as are toilet rolls, a reminder that people cannot afford to buy in bulk.

There are vending machines outside many supermarkets that sell bottles of beer, wine and even cognac along with the more standard sodas and bottles of water. In case of emergency, as my kids would say.  There are machines in bigger stores where you can pay your phone bill once a month. Household bills are paid at the post office.

Pharmacies are white and green, clean and cool. Terribly reassuring. No one seems to sell feminine hygiene products and these are never mentioned. Peace Corps supplies tampons to our young women. I imagine delivery trucks piled high with cardboard tubes and cotton wadding barreling across the country. Girls here should stage a highway robbery. I don’t know what they do otherwise.  

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…

 

 

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.