Glad Tidings of Comfort and Joy?

It is always a white Christmas in my part of Armenia. Last year there was a meter of snow on the ground for the Apostolic celebration of Christ’s birth on January 6, and the first flakes fell back in October. This year though the weather was gloriously warm and bright for the two weeks from December 25 to what I now call Christmas. My family and friends are worried of course. Without snow, will there be enough water to grow fruit and vegetables this spring and summer? I know this is a serious concern but I was glad to enjoy the beautiful weather we had for the New Year holiday.

Water supply is an enduring problem in this part of the world. My 16 year old friend Nane and her mother are bandbox beautiful, always immaculate and well groomed. Their village on the Nagorno-Karabakh border has no paved roads and mud tracks are enlivened by dung from horses and cows, often several inches deep. The village has no running water and so someone, usually Nane, has to brave the piles of ordure at least once a day to fill plastic containers with water from the spring. She lugs these home so the family can wash themselves, their dishes and clothes. There is always water heating in a pan. There is not much talk of drinking 2 liters of liquid a day. What you may see as a chore would be a luxury here.

Nane’s mom, a physics teacher in the local school, is very house-proud, as is everyone else who has hosted me in Armenia. Her New Year spread of fresh-killed pork, baked fish, roast chicken, salads, fruit (dried and fresh), nuts, bread, lavash and every variety of pastry was served on exquisite pink and white china. The table cloth was without spot or stain and the glasses– different sizes for juice, homemade wine and Armenian cognac– shone. I cannot imagine what work it takes to keep everything so lovely and clean.

On the next day we enjoyed another spread, equally lavish, equally beautiful, in a second village on the N-K border. Kornidzor suffered more casualties than any other Armenian town during the war in the early 1990s. Today, you can still see garage doors pock marked by shrapnel and bullet holes. My volunteer friend has been warned not to go hiking because of land mines. We stood in the graveyard and looked out over the buffer zone to the beautiful mountains of Artsakh, the local name for Karabakh. Soldiers — from both sides–die on this border every week.

Nina came with me to the first village. Knatsakh is where she was born and Nane’s family are relatives of hers. The turn of the year is a good time to reminisce and Nina told stories of her early life as we enjoyed fresh mint tea and walnuts wrapped in apricot resin– the original fruit roll-up. Nina clamped her lip and blinked fiercely a couple of times when she talked of an Azerbaijani doctor who had treated her father when he had heart trouble. ” He was a great friend to us. The whole family were” she said. “I would like to see those people again”. She looked at her hands curled helpless in her lap for she knows she will not have her wish. Azeri Muslims and Armenian Christians lived happily together in these border places until about 25 years ago. Ethnic war broke out as the Soviet Union collapsed. In addition to deaths and casualties on both sides many thousands of people were forced to flee the homes they loved. There are no Azeris in Armenia any more. And no Armenians jn Azerbaijan.

Ara remembers going to Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, when he was a little boy 30 years ago. ” it is not good that my children cannot travel there” he said. ” They meet no one different from themselves. Our country is too small” he shrugged.

A generation separates Nina and Ara but they once lived in the same house–a teachers’ house paid for by the Soviet government. Ara’s parents and Nina were teachers at the same village school. “Education was a priority in Soviet days” said Nina ” and teachers were well looked after. We could afford to eat. We could go on trips”. Ara tells the same story ” Now my mother works for $4 a day” he says ruefully. Take note Scotland and Catalonia: independence comes at a price.

Many Armenians Ara’s age and up still miss the Soviets, and that can be hard for Americans raised in the Cold War years to understand. Our walk around Kornidzor took us to a church built overlooking a gorge. The church is abandoned now and hasn’t been used as a place of worship for many years. In the time when Soviets forbade religious expression they commandeered all the churches. 30 years ago, in a stinging act of disrespect, the building was used to store grain. Now the Soviets are gone and the Azeris are gone. One of Armenia’s other borders (with Turkey) is closed–orders of President Erdogan. There is unrest to the South in Iran. In this lonely, lovely part of the Southern Caucasus the few Armenians who still live here must wonder what their future holds.

Posted in America, apricots, Armenia, Beauty, Borders, Christianity, Christmas, Church, Cooking, Cross-cultural understanding, Food, Great weekends, History, identity, Islam, life lessons, Nagorno-Karabakh, National pride, Nostalgia, Peace Corps, Politics, Religion, Soviet Union, Syunik Marz, travel, Village life | Leave a comment

Traveling hopefully

Looking at the New Year posts of some of my Peace Corps colleagues here in Armenia I realize that they have it pretty tough. Tougher for some of them than I had realized. Reflecting on 2017, they talk about what they have learned, and the challenges they are overcoming. They are grateful for the people who help them here, and they miss their old life at home. They are here for the duration,and their words are resilient— but they can have a rueful undertone. It is not like that for me, and I am wondering why not.

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Haykush and her neighbor sit in the sun and watch everyone’s comings and goings

Part of it is my age and background. I grew up in Ireland in the 1960s and 70s. I have lit fires in cold grates before, and endured power cuts. I know how potatoes, cabbage, an onion, salt, butter and perhaps a carrot or two can be endlessly combined to make comforting meals. This is not first time I have been able to see my breath when brushing my teeth. Socially too, I don’t have as much culture shock. I grew up at a time and in a country where women did all the work inside the house. When very few women could drive. Where sex before marriage was a sin and a secret. And where it mattered — really mattered— what the neighbors thought of you. In my childhood, people didn’t travel far and free time was always spent with family. It was important to have a sparkly frock at Christmas. 1514740178416 (1)

Being older takes a lot of the strain out of Peace Corps Service–both Peace Corps staff and community members cut us a break. I have comfortable quarters close to my office and I live in a town with 3 or 4 supermarkets, more than one beauty salon, several banks,and place to buy seasonal sparkles and fine china –although the Peace Corps stipend does not stretch to these. I am particularly grateful that my family upstairs allow me to use their washing machine, and for my internet signal. Without a doubt my life here is easier than it is for those who walk 40 minutes to school along uneven tracks, or burn cow dung lit by kerosene-soaked rags when they need to stay warm. I admire their resolve. I am not sure I would do as well.

Because I live in a city, there are no shortage of places to rent and that means I can live alone, and cook for myself. In my house, it is not spaghetti and bread for dinner– again. By virtue of having worked for more than 35 years, I have a US bank account with money in it. And a card I can use for emergencies. It is not like that when you are 22.

Being an unglamorous grandmother, I do not get the attention that often plagues the younger female volunteers here. Men do not stop to offer me lifts. They stare only when I am wearing an eccentric hat. I am not afraid to live alone for fear of unwanted nighttime visitors.

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With my lovely office mates Mariam and Anna.

But it is more than that. For me, there is relief in being somewhat disconnected. Being unable to communicate fully with people around me gives me more time to spend in my own head. Very little is asked of me emotionally. I have no onerous family duties here. I enjoy my work and hope it helps my Armenian colleagues, our community and the country, but I have no long-term stake. It is a curiously carefree existence. I worry, of course, that I am opting out of what a real life should look like– running away from feelings and responsibility–but, life suits me here and I am happy.

I write more. Think more. I read a lot of poetry.  Cook everyday. At work, I am learning to do things that I used to have other people do. I can now make infographics. And edit video. I enjoy it. I want to learn to use the office digital camera properly this year– no more selecting Auto. (I shall however still draw the line at messing with Excel). I am learning to play chess and, although I am probably still the worst player in all Armenia, the game is teaching me much about myself and how I sabotage my own success through braggadocio, impetuosity and lack of forethought. Here, I notice more. I appreciate landscape and fresh air more.

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I drink less. I move more– although still not much. I can divine kindred spirits and so I exchange sly glances and knowing laughs with Natalie the 13-year old who lives upstairs. My family here and near Artashat hug me and I hug back.  IMG_7761I learn unimaginably interesting things from streaming radio and talking to Ara and Madlene, and following Artak and Alex on social media. I know I am lucky to know these people who speak English so well, a luxury not afforded to some of my friends who live in small villages. I probably spend as much time on the phone with my daughter as I would if we were both in the States, for neither of us like the phone much. ( I will see her next week in Dubai–another advantage of all those years on payroll: the freedom to travel, see my Darling, and spend time in the sun). Here, as at home, I don’t hear from my son and don’t know his number, or if he even has a number now. This lack of contact is a continuing source of sadness but may be easier to bear here where I am not constantly looking for him on every street corner– half afraid, half hopeful–, as I always do at home. I am glad to have spent the last nine months with Peace Corps in Armenia. I look forward to 2018 here. Bring it on.

Doors to be opened…

Posted in 2018, America, Armenia, Being a Grandmother, Blessings, family, fashion, friendship, gratitude, joy, know thyself, Learning, life lessons, Lonely this Christmas, Mother/daughter dynamic, New Year, Peace Corps, personal failings, resilience, social media, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, work, Writing | 1 Comment

Peace (and Joy) Corps Volunteer at Christmas

It makes sense for Santa of course that Armenians expect his arrival not on December 24 but a full week later on New Year’s Eve. This gives the bearded one time to nip back to the North Pole and replenish supplies. And the reindeer get a rest. It is only right too that Santa’s holiday here is kept separate from that celebrating the birth of the little Baby Jesus. Christ’s arrival is celebrated in the Caucasus on January 6,meaning that the good shepherds, wise men and choirs of Angels don’t get mixed up with the elves and Rudolph and sleigh bells in the minds of infant Armenians as so often happens at home. Here, December 25 is an ordinary front of cardworking day, made worse this year by being a Monday. Thus it was that I spent today hunched behind my computer in a cold office designing our organization’s greeting card and feeling really quite glum. I thought a trip to the post office– open all day– might cheer me up but no:parcels promised from the US and UK have yet to arrive. Things are a little more merry and bright now I am home. The fire and the candles are lit. The Christmas lights are twinkling. I have reheated the mulled wine (is it possible to over-mull?) and opened the liquor chocolates. The Facebook fairy has delivered a video of my granddaughter jingling all the way from the US East coast where it is 5am and the presents are already opened…

Whatever and however you celebrate the holidays here are a few party games as practiced by this Peace and Joy Corps Volunteer. These are particularly good if you and your ungrinchy guests do not share the same language.

Pin the Red Nose on Rudolph.

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Reindeer rendered by PCV Jim Daly

Draw a rudimentary reindeer head on a piece of paper and tape it on a door at child height. Arm child number one with a red push pin. Blindfold said child and spin him or her at least three times or until disoriented. Invite the child to pin the nose on the reindeer. Mark the pin prick with the child’s initials and repeat the process until everyone has had a go. The winner is the child whose initials are closest to the reindeer’s actual nose.

The Tray Game.

IMG_0166Put about 25 items on a tray– a button, a match, a leaf, a tiny spoon etc. give the children one minute to look carefully at everything on the tray. Cover the tray with a cloth and remove one item. The winner is the kid who can correctly identify what is missing. If you need to spin out the party until midnight, you can do several rounds of this and/or give everyone a pen and paper and ask them to list all the items they can remember. A prize for the child with the longest correct list.

Christmas Musical Statues.

If you have internet, stream Christmas songs on the phone and encourage dancing. Kids must stop as the music does and are “out” if they are found swaying in the silence. Repeat. Last one standing stock still is the winner.

Winner Winner Chocolate Dinner.

Place a large bar of chocolate in a soup bowl or dinner plate with a rim. Give child number one a knife and fork. Can they cut the chocolate and eat a piece without touching the chocolate with their hands? (Answer: they can’t). Keep going until everyone has had a go. Then let them use their hands to divide up the chocolate.

Prizes

image2 (1)Create a lucky dip for the prizes. This can be a box filled with polystyrene peanuts, strips of old wrapping paper or similar and small wrapped gifts. Or just put some chocolate, mandarin oranges, coins, tiny notebooks, sparklers, erasers or similar into a festive looking bag. The winner must close his/her eyes and grab a gift at random. This generates a lot more excitement than seems likely.

Pass the Parcel.

Armenia is a land entirely devoid of wrapping paper and so this game didn’t feature at my weekend party, but if you can find even a newspaper that isn’t destined for the fire then this is a good game. Wrap a small gift– chocolate, watercolors, slime– in a layer of paper. If you and your guests can read and write in the same language add an order– sing a carol, imitate a reindeer, pretend to be a shepherd abiding in the fields–and then add multiple layers of wrapping and similar messages. Sit the kids in a circle on the floor and play some Christmas music. When the music stops the kid holding the parcel unwraps a layer, follows the order, and passes the parcel to someone else. And so on until the last layer is unwrapped.

Bonus Item.

My colleague Mariam made some particularly lovely New Year Decorations for our office. Here’s how– and Happy Christmas.

Posted in Armenia, Being a Grandmother, Christmas, Homemade decorations, Homesickness, Jingle Bells, Lonely this Christmas, lucky dip, Party Games | Leave a comment

When your face don’t fit

Last week I was mistaken for the Ambassador of Greece to the Republic of Armenia. I do not know Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary H.E. Mrs. Nafsika Nancy Eva Vraila, but clearly she is a woman of astounding beauty, with a keen intelligence evident in her every feature. I can see how the mistake was made. And it was nice to be addressed as Your Excellency…

People like me and the Ambassador stick out here, because the population of Armenia is homogenous.  More than 95% are ethnic Armenians, from the Apostolic Christian tradition. Not everyone looks like a Kardashian–but most people do have dark and abundant, lustrous hair. Those of us of fair complexion are usually identified as Russian. We are perfectly welcome, but it is easy to see we don’t belong. Just as many Armenians have a clear idea of how they expect Russians to look, so many have an image of Americans in their minds, and not all of us fit the picture. When people here are first exposed to us—in all our splendid twenty-first century multi-colored diversity—we Americans can take a bit of getting used to, and not everyone immediately accepts and welcomes what they see. Families and schools have been known to ask for “a real American”. In village shops and small-town sidewalks, black people are followed and stared at. The scrutiny, the photos and the touching can be hard to live with, every minute of every day. Often no harm is meant. This behavior—though intrusive and unwelcome– is prompted simply by curiosity. But in every society there are some people who fear and mistrust what is unfamiliar to them, and in some cases here—as at home–that fear and mistrust turns into hate speech, even violence directed at volunteers. African American volunteers, although usually loved and well-looked-after by the families who host them, can be scared to breathe out when they are alone in their communities. Past experience for Peace Corps says the threat is real. I admire my colleagues for the grace and courage with which they serve, but it is no way to live. Volunteers of Asian descent report that they are often assumed to be Chinese, and that being addressed as Jackie Chan gets old. One of our cohort was told that “nobody here understands Chinese” even though he was speaking in perfectly clear Armenian. He is able to speak Mandarin. It is only one of 6 world languages he has mastered. He is not Chinese American, much less Chinese, just as I am not Welsh and you are not Canadian. It is not bad to be any of those things, if that is who you truly are, but we all like to be known, and recognized and seen as we identify ourselves.

Not that I minded being mistaken for the Hellenic Ambassador. No one has ever taken me for a plenipotentiary before and I doubt that it will happen again, for diplomacy is not my strong suit. I wish Ambassador Vraila well and hope I get to meet her one day, to thank her for her valuable work here and across the world. Nation speaking peace unto nation is a good thing. The better we talk and listen and travel the more we know. The more we know, the more open and welcoming we can be. We Americans learn every moment we live here, and are grateful for what our Armenian friends have taught us about generosity, loyalty, pride, problem-solving and making the most of everything we have. With luck, we, through the way we live our lives and cherish our friends, can show the value of respect for all, equality and inclusion. Combine the best of both our cultures, and we all get to live in love, not fear.

Posted in Armenia, Cross-cultural understanding, Diplomacy, fear, life lessons, Peace Corps, Prejudice, Race, resilience, Safety, sexual assault, Things that make a difference, travel, Village life | Leave a comment

Poetry Please

img_0147Gohar Ghazaryan’s  13-year-old students are preparing for 2018’s National Poetry Recitation Contest, reading and analyzing poems by AE Housman, Langston Hughes and Jack Prelutsky. Two of poems are copied below, so you can see just how accomplished these five students are. I’ve also added a video of Viola Davis reciting Hughes’ Mother to Son, which is followed by the poet himself reading his own work. It’s a thrill to hear the voices of the great actress and the legendary poet, but, to me, nothing was better than hearing Ruzan and Sveta do their readings today. Life in a village in Syunik marz ain’t no crystal stair, but these girls are a-climbin’ on, just as the mother in the poem says they should. I have no doubt they will get to the very top.

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Mikael is a natural comedian and got a big laugh on the last line of the Prelutsky poem. Grigor didn’t seem quite world-weary enough for Housman. Norvard did a nice job too–but she didn’t want her picture taken– a perfectly reasonable position when you are 13.

I first met these remarkable students when my fellow Peace Corps Volunteer Allen invited me to talk to them about the BBC, where I worked for years and years.  Then, we did our session via skype but the connection wasn’t good enough and so it wasn’t much fun for anyone. To try to make up, I got hold of  Susan Rae, the honey-toned BBC newsreader much loved by listeners all over the world. Would she send me some World Service journalism tools—good, old-fashioned notebooks and pens? Between bulletins, Susan parceled up some promotional items and popped them in the post to Armenia. I delivered the pens in person today and sat in on performances so polished that they led me to believe Susan’s job could be in jeopardy. When it comes to enunciation, pronunciation, emphasis and attention to meaning, Susan has few rivals–but these 8th form students, speaking in their second–no–wait–third–language are beginning to run her close. By the time they perform in March they’ll be word perfect.

At the end of the lesson the students gave me a New Year card in which they had all written thanks and good wishes for 2018.  I send the thanks right back to them. Today was one of the best days I have had in Armenia. I would also say good luck for 2018, but they don’t need it. Helped by the excellent teaching of Gohar and Allen they are making their own luck. 8th Formers of Armenia Beware: National Poetry Recitation Contest competition will be very tough this year.

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Yonder See the Morning  

Yonder see the morning blink:

The sun is up, and up must I,

To wash and dress and eat and drink

And look at things and talk and think

And work, and God knows why.

Oh often have I washed and dressed

And what’s to show for all my pain?

Let me lie abed and rest:

Ten thousand times I’ve done my best

And all’s to do again.

A.E. Housman

My Brother’s Bug

My brother’s bug was green and plump,

It did not run, it could not jump,

It had no fur for it to shed,

It slept all night beneath his bed.

My brother’s bug had dainty feet,

It did not need a lot to eat,

It did not need a lot to drink,

It did not scream, it did not stink.

It always tried to be polite,

It did not scratch, it did not bite,

The only time it soiled the rug

Was when I squashed my brother’s bug.

Jack Prelutsky

You can see all the poems featured in the 2018 National Poetry Recitation Contest here.

Posted in Armenia, BBC, BBC World Service, Cross-cultural understanding, Education, Language learning, Learning, National Poetry Recitation Contest, Peace Corps, Poetry, Syunik Marz, Teaching, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, Village life, Youth | Leave a comment

Where Worlds Collide

J’s beautiful face is surrounded by the hijab she uses to cover her hair. Her hijab is the only one I have seen in Armenia. J speaks Farsi, Kurdish, Arabic and of course English. She glowed as she talked about the TS Eliot poems she is teaching. I asked her about Irish writers she admired, hoping to steer her onto a topic where I could similarly shine. She enthused about Beckett and Joyce. Perhaps she’ll explain them to me one day, if I can persuade her to leave Yerevan. In Armenia’s capital, J says that people have been unfailingly kind and helpful–although they do stare. Her experience outside the big city might be a little more testing: Armenia’s relationship — or lack of it– with Turkey and Azerbaijan means that many people in my Syunik circle fear a religion other than their own. As in so much of the non- Muslim world, too many people in this Christian nation tend to paint all of Islam in Isis colors.

J has adventure in her soul. Born in the Middle East, she has lived in Iran, Iraq and Cyprus and studied in Ohio in the United States (where she says she often had to deal with cruel remarks). She wants to see more of the world. I hope it makes her welcome. We owenfinished out our conversation enthusing about First World War poet Wilfred Owen, whose work we both love. Owen was killed in action aged 25, just one week before the Armistice. He writes of the drudgery, misery and horror-smell of war. Of its futility. I wonder how his terrible, beautiful works strike young men in J’s classes about to go to the Karabakh border for their compulsory military service? There, sniping claims the lives of several young Azeri and Armenian men every week. War isn’t confined to poetry here.

 

 

 

Posted in Armenia, Beauty, Christianity, Cross-cultural understanding, Education, International Human Rights Day, Islam, Language, Learning, life lessons, Literacy, Middle East, Nagorno-Karabakh, National pride, Nature, Poetry, Religion, Rt, Syunik Marz, travel, Turkey Armenia relations, war, Wilfred Owen, Writing | 2 Comments

Light Fantastic Toe

Life can be particularly tough here in Armenia for people with disabilities. While the oft-mentioned playing field is not equal in the U.S., there is, in most cases, at least a field on which it is possible to play. Here, too many differently-abled children are still unable to go to school and thus as adults they are unprepared for the world of work.  Unemployed, they live in isolation at home. Where ramps exist here, they are steep and narrow, more suitable for delivery dollies than for wheelchairs. There are steps everywhere and very few handrails. There is no sound at pedestrian crossings and I have never seen anyone walk with a guide dog or a white cane. I have seen signers on some news broadcasts and I met an Armenian using a hearing aid the other day. I also heard about a village with adult, male deaf twins who have successful lives and families, living at the heart of their community. At national government level there is now a move to make education more inclusive but the hard work is too often left to teachers with no training, resources or time. Change is coming though, and is supported by the soft diplomacy efforts of international organizations working here. The US Embassy recently paid for the Mihr theater dance troupe to tour Armenia, performing for free in theaters and public spaces in larger cities. The troupe featured dancers whose physical appearance usually causes a second look on the street– people who are not commonly seen on stage. One was perhaps 6’7 tall and another small and hunched. These men danced with a grace and beauty that was mesmerizing, moving in perfect harmony with lithe and muscled dancers whose bodies were of the type a spotlight always follows. I was told the two female dancers were deaf, using the vibration of the live music on stage (the fabulous Tiezerk band) to inspire their movement. The performance was captivating and proof that each of us has our own beauty if only those around us can stop to see it and celebrate.

This post is one of a series inspired by International Human Rights Day–look for others in the next few days. 

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Arsen from Ararat Marz is one of the lucky kids: his school and teacher have been very helpful in accommodating his needs. He also benefits from twice-weekly physio in Yerevan. Go Arsen.

Posted in America, Armenia, Beauty, Cross-cultural understanding, dance, disability, International Human Rights Day, life lessons, Mihr theater, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, work | Leave a comment