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. 

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.

Some dance to remember. Some dance to forget.

IMG_3006IMG_2858.JPGWe are not allowed to travel after dark. We may not leave our villages without permission. We will never drive a car in our country of service. The rules governing the lives of incoming Peace Corps Volunteers are strict and exist because of painful experience gained all over the world. When we need to venture further than the local school for a Peace Corps activity, we are driven in a Peace Corps minivan and returned home safely in the late afternoon. This week though, we had enough language to strike up a new relationship with our driver, and so we now have an eclectic mix of music as we ride. We have car-danced to Gangster Paradise, and some folky Armenian pop. I was astonished to find myself singing along to the Eagles’ Hotel California with a van load of 20 somethings. I, of course, know all the words, but would have been prepared to hide this knowledge if it would have helped my image any. I needn’t have worried: they all knew it and sang loudly with no apparent irony. The old, denim-clad and hairy must be new again? The millennials also sang along with Celine on My Heart Will Go On and On. I sat that one out. A girl knows her limits.

After a month in our villages and only in our villages the Peace Corps suddenly deemed we were fit to be let out last week It has been a social and cultural blur.

IMG_2838.JPGWe went to Norovank, an ancient church and monastery built on a hill and surrounded by deep gorges and snow-topped mountains. Norovank was built by one of Armenia’s most esteemed architects, Momik, back in the 13th century. Legend has it that the king challenged Momik to build the church if he wanted to marry the king’s beautiful daughter. Momik was keen on the princess and so rose to the challenge. Sadly the marriage never took place although the church still stands: Momik was killed by the king once the building was completed.

The church is still used today. It has two stories, the second of which is reached by a set of perilous outdoor stairs. The graveyard is filled with ancient engravings—celtic-looking endless knots known as hatchkars (cross stones). Visitors come from all over the world to see the engravings, some of the few that survive from Momik’s time. In taxis from Yerevan, they grumble about the distance and the need to inhale hard for oxygen in the high mountains. Why are there no historic sites on accessible main roads, they ask with a gasp. On the way to Norovank, we crossed a peak from which it is possible to see the mountains of Iran, Azeri territory, and Turkey. This small country’s neighbors live close at hand and over the years have often turned up uninvited. They have not always left Armenia quite as they found it. Across the years’ many of Armenia’s apostolic Christian churches have been raided and looted and destroyed and so it is only the most remote and mountainous that survive.

IMG_2938

Later in the week, we had a field trip to a second ancient site—Khor Virap. This used to be in a remote location, but now finds itself less than 10 miles from the Turkish border. Things change, though GPS coordinates remain the same. Here is where the man later known as Saint Gregory spent an uncomfortable 13 years imprisoned in a narrow, dark, underground well. A widow fed him from time to time. The king who had imprisoned IMG_2999Gregory eventually went mad, as those with evil ways are prone to do. The widow mentioned that it might be a good idea to free Gregory. He was hauled out of the pit and immediately, and rather generously, returned the king to health and vigor. The king wisely decided to throw his lot in with Gregory and together, back in 301 AD they made Armenia the first Christian nation. The first church was built on the Khor Virap site in 642. The one that stands today dates from 1622. We saw twins christened at Khor Virap. They both screamed lustily throughout. Gregory was also known as Gregory the Illuminator. You can buy a copy of his biblical illustrations at the gift shop, along with some hirsute dolls in Armenian national costume.

IMG_2979IMG_2974

 

On the home front too, there has been a lot of toing and froing this week. Lala, the newly married daughter is home from Moscow for a few days. Her husband didn’t come. He is a decorator and is busy with work. On Easter Sunday all of the Ararat region seemed to visit the graves of family members, sitting in a village traffic jam to get to the cemetery. In low-fenced plots, men lit small fires in metal pans and sprinkled incense on the flames to honor the dead. Women placed flowers, mostly carnations, at the foot of gravestones engraved with life size photos of the lost. It is important that the flowers are left in odd numbers—usually bunches of three, or five or seven.

IMG_2986

 

There were more than 30 people at our house for dinner. Elsa had been preparing for some days: fresh water fish, and Easter pilaf—rice prepared with butter and raisins—plus the usual herbs, tomatoes, cucumber and chopped salads. Bowls and bowls of eggs, dyed a rich brown with onion skins and then decorated by me with my favorite gold Sharpie and some chicken stickers I brought with me from an American craft store.

IMG_2930

A fellow Peace Corps Volunteer who rooms with Elsa’s sister was seated with me at lunch. We and a couple of doughty Aunts were put at the end of the men’s table. For us, homemade red wine was poured into tiny cordial glasses which we drank daintily. Hanna and I refilled ours as often as we decently could. I probably had 13 thimblefuls by the end. Not enough to do any harm. The men drank vodka shots with their meal. Vodka here is cheaper than bottled water and is often 75%. That’s percent, not proof. It’s rocket fuel and by the end of the lunch there were casualties. A couple of Elsa’s good tablecloths will never be as white again.

In the kitchen at the (real) ladies’ table, alcohol was not served. Many pastries and chocolates were consumed with strong black coffee in exquisite, tiny cups. For women, any kind of drink, hot or cold, seems to involve fairy-sized receptacles. They are strangers to mugs. At the children’s table in the living room, kids knocked hard boiled eggs together end to end to see who could break whose—it seemed to be a good luck thing, combined with a “mine is better than yours” type challenge. (Think conkers if you are British.)

Tonight (Sunday) the house is full of people again. They have been coming in waves from about 6pm, more than 30 across the evening. Elsa has yet to sit down. First we had dolma—ground beef, onion, garlic and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves and steamed—plus greens that looked like groundsel cooked up with egg. This was served with lavash and the usual salad bits and pieces. Acorn cups of sweet wine for any woman who wanted it. A bottle or so of vodka for each of the men. Coffee and homemade cake with chocolate butter frosting and a banana and chocolate cream center. Coffee was served. Then a shift change—a raft of neighbors replaced relations who had to hit the road for home. Tea with lemon, a refreshed plate of cakes and fancies. About 9pm a third contingent turned up and the salads appeared again, plus a yogurt drink—Tan—served cold with fine -chopped scallions and cucumber. (Refreshing but keep the Colgate handy.) Women are sitting in the kitchen eating black sunflower seeds—they nip the kernels with their teeth and then place the husks on the side of their plates in a ladylike maneuver I have yet to master. No spitting is involved. In the hallway, Geovorg continues to entertain the men who come and go, smoking and drinking vodka shots with them all. He appears completely sober. I don’t know how he does it.

IMG_2817

 

I am the only one who has to get up tomorrow. Everyone else is at home because it is commemoration day for the 1915 Genocide. On Friday, our group of volunteers went to Yerevan to see the memorial and to visit the museum commemorating the deaths of one and a half million Armenians at the hands of Turks who, facing the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, wanted power and land a century ago. World leaders plant trees at the site. Armenian school children lay flowers at the eternal flame. Holy music plays. On the way to the museum, we sang and danced in the bus, causing the van to shake. After the tour we stood in silence and looked at Mount Ararat from the roof of the museum, the enduring symbol of life and land that was lost. We didn’t sing on the way home.

IMG_3011

 

Spin the Bottle and Speed Dating, Armenian Style

We have played Jeopardy and a saliva-free version of Spin the Bottle. We have danced to mnemonic rhymes. We have brought in family pictures and discussed them at length. We have done it all in Armenian as part of our intensive language learning. Classes take place for 4 hours a day, five days a week, including Saturday mornings. This goes on for 10 weeks and then we are taken to a Hansel and Gretel type forest and left to fend for ourselves–well, sort of. So far, we have tackled the possessive pronoun, the past (through the present perfect) and the future. I would tell you that the future is bleak, but I don’t know that adjective (?) yet. Language, it turns out, is easy to pick up when you have an imaginative, energetic and expert teacher who is determined that we will swim (lorhal–think phlegmy French sound in the middle) not sink (suzvel) when we are released into our different and diverse Armenian communities for two years’ service in June.  


Sona is a fabulous teacher. The usual drilling and white board writing is supplemented with lots of moving about and raucous laughing. This week we did a speed dating exercise with three of our group of five women given stick-on moustaches to help them get into the roles of Grigor, Gagik and Armen. The aim was to practice our vocabulary on likes and dislikes. It was hilarious. We go on forays to the school tuck shop to ask the price of things. We fish two or three kids out of regular classes to talk to about their birthdays. For homework, we ask our hosts to tell us what time they make coffee, or drive to work, or call their Aunts. Conversations involving Aunts and Uncles are particularly complex in Armenian, because it is necessary to specify whether the said relative is the sister or brother of either your father or mother. Depending on gender and genealogy, they must then be referred to as My father’s sister or my mother’s brother etc.  That tricky possessive again. One American dared to ask how to refer to a woman married, for example to one’s father’s brother: an Aunt by marriage. I have many of these, and love them. Apparently in Armenia though such a person is never spoken of– an interesting glimpse into family dynamics. 

Our teacher Sona is the one on the end with long black hair (yerkarr sev mazer)

The standard of teaching in our villages is particularly impressive when you stop to think that the Peace Corps teachers have no access to a photocopier or printer. When we learn our numbers through playing Bingo, Sona has had to hand produce the bingo cards. When she provides handouts, she writes them out five times, one for each of us. She is in class every morning at 8am pinning up visual aids prepared the night before. She has a PhD. Sona, and all the other language teachers– all women aged between 30 and 60– leave their homes and their families for 10 weeks to support our learning in remote villages. Like us, they live with local families. We get a fabulous service, delivered with verve, creativity and a smile. They miss children’s school concerts. Husbands’ birthdays. Mothers’ hospital appointments. I can’t imagine it. I certainly don’t know how to say it in Armenian yet. It’ll come. 

Where am I? It looks familiar

Sitting on a chair in Ani’s kitchen, I had a flashback. Ani, my new next door neighbor,was drying my hair and was about to style Elsa’s. It reminded me of when we were children in Belfast, and used to go to our neighbor’s house for haircuts. June lived at the end of our street and did hair in her spare room. One day she put my hair in rollers and styled it as though I was thirty-five. It was 1971 and shortly after my mother died. I was ten years old, and June thought I should look and behave like a grown woman.  My hair, which had hung quite happily to my shoulders,  was hair-sprayed high on my head like a Gorgon helmet. I was horrified. Luckily so was my father, who did a double-take when I came home looking like Sophia from the Golden Girls.  I combed out the stiff curls and resumed use of my bobble.

Life in this village in the shadow of Mount Ararat is very much like growing up in Ireland in the 60’s.  Women make pin money doing neighbors’ hair. Small children squeal with delight sitting on their father’s knees and holding the steering wheel for short drives. Households grow their own fruit and vegetables. Wives make jam, pickles, relish and sauce to see them through the winter. Husbands and sons are very rarely seen in the kitchen, except to eat.  Bedrooms are not heated. Everyone shares the same bathroom. People speak to each other when they pass in the street.  Kids play outside without hovering adults, and old women ask all young women when they will get married.  In the last week, my memory has been jolted many times. I feel I know where I am. It may not be very PC or 21st century to say so, but for the most part I feel fondly secure and at ease. 

I imagine for the younger volunteers, particularly the women, there is more of a culture shock. It is clear that early marriage and homemaking are the done things here. Answering endless questions about one’s marital status and prospects can be tedious.  For women used to wearing t-shirts and jeans, or going out in a tank and running shorts, it is a shock to be asked to wear a dress, tights, make up and even heels to work, and to be advised to cover up at all times.   Women– even me–are not allowed to entertain gentlemen callers in our rooms, and reputational damage may result from having a gentleman caller at all.  This is difficult for a group of people who have traveled the world sharing tents with almost-strangers and forming study groups with peers of all and any gender identities. 

Of all our 42 volunteers, I am probably the one with the least international experience. We have women who have taught in Uganda and South Korea, Guinea and Hungary. Men who have hiked across Jordan, learned Arabic in Lebanon, and camped out in Mongolia. Let’s face it, my only overseas experience has been in America itself. But what I lack in air miles and war stories I make up for in time travel. I have been here before, 40, nearly 50 years ago in Ireland. 

I can cope when I see a toddler bringing a half bottle of cognac to her father, so he doesn’t have to move. I first saw it in a hotel in Donegal in 1968.  I get it when the woman of the house says “Eat. Eat” and piles everyone’s plates high. My Aunts Annie and Lizzie used to do that, in the days before people worried about portion control or calorie counting. I remember our immersion heater, and my father getting up to turn the water on 15 minutes before we all had a wash, drying ourselves more often than not with the same scratchy towel. 

Today my Armenian language teacher, a lovely woman of 30 or thereabouts, told the story of her broken night’s sleep. She is staying with us in our border village, far away from her home in the capital city, Yerevan. At four in the morning she was woken up by mass activity in the street “my heart was thumping. I was sure the Turks had invaded and were coming to kill us in our beds. I thought  ‘it’s happening again and I will never get home'”. The noise subsided and eventually Sona calmed down enough to go back to sleep. At 6am she heard the same rampage. By now it was getting light and so she got up to look out the window. A large flock of sheep were being hastened down the street. She had to pick her way to school through piles of sheep droppings.  

Sona told the story against herself–the city girl terrified by country sounds.  But her story revealed something else: a deep-seated fear of history repeating itself; the terror of being small and vulnerable and surrounded by people who you feel will do you harm. Her story took me back to Belfast again and the nights in the early seventies when my dad would go out. I’d lie in bed taut for the sound of bombs in the city, or the welcome crunch of his car pulling into the drive. Like Sona, I was never in fact in any danger, but the fear was real.  As I said,  I’ve been here before.