Worth reading: A Post From Fellow Volunteer (and Irishman) Clayton Davis

History Lesson #1: Confessions of a Real Fake Irishman in Armenia

— Read on armeniansketches.wordpress.com/2018/03/17/history-lesson-1-confessions-of-a-real-fake-irishman-in-armenia/

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St Patrick’s Day in Armenia

shamrock 2St. Patrick’s Day in Armenia. Well, now at least there’ll be an entry should anyone else ever Google this phrase, which seems unlikely.  St. Patrick’s Day will not be as big a deal here as it is in my native Ireland or in most cities in the U.S. In Ireland, we pin bunches of shamrock–the national symbol of Ireland–to our lapels and maybe watch a game of rugby before enjoying a plate of champ–mashed potatoes mixed with spring onions and a lot of butter, salt and pepper–washed down with a  glass or two of Guinness, or the libation of our choice. There might be a parade, but it is nothing compared to the excess of celebrations in New York, and other places claiming Irish-American heritage in the US. St. Patrick’s Day in the US is distinguished by pints and pints of green beer, people dressed up as leprechauns, and rowdy singing of songs that are often Scottish not Irish in origin. In my authentic Irish opinion it is best avoided.
Here in Armenia, I will be attempting to share the essence of Ireland and our patron saint with the young people I work with. I have put together a game of Irish bingo–and I am struck how similar our landscapes and customs are.
2018-03-14 14.06.52
My bingo cards feature pictures of the house my grandfather grew up in in County Cavan, a misty day at Strangford Lough, and a dry stone wall from the mountains of Mourne. Any of these would be perfectly at home here in Armenia. To be sure, there aren’t many redheads in Armenia (I am the only one I know) and you don’t see fishing boats in this part of this landlocked country. But our green fields, purple mountains and grey stone crosses are all very similar–perhaps one of the reasons I love life in Armenia so much.
celtic cross

Celtic Cross near my Grandfather’s townland, Co. Cavan, Ireland

St. Patrick is credited with bringing Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century–a full 200 years after the religion took hold here in the Caucasus. St. Patrick is also said to have driven the snakes out of Ireland and it is true we have none there today.  His services would be welcome in Armenia where poisonous snakes can lurk in long grass and under the ubiquitous stones.
I hope my students enjoy their Irish Bingo and that they have the luck of the Irish all their lives. There is no Guinness here, but perhaps I’ll raise a glass of local Kilikia beer after class is done. It does come in a green bottle after all. Slainte.
Now all I need to do is find a color printer for my bingo cards…
Posted in America, American holidays, Armenia, Christianity, Church, Cross-cultural understanding, Food, Ireland, Legends, red head, St. Patrick, travel | 2 Comments

Peace Corps: One Year In

2015-11-23 16.32.33I am serving my country abroad, and my country is America. I can’t quite believe it myself. The words conjure pictures of soldiers, brave and resolute in uniform, or Ambassadors, smooth and sophisticated. I am neither of these, and I am a novice American. I was born in Ireland, a British citizen from Belfast. I moved to the U.S, to Maryland, and to Shady Side in the early 2000s. I was working for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) then. I was lucky enough to get a green card not long after 9/11. That sufficed for a while, but, as I became more committed to the American way of life—and American founding principles—I took advantage of my option to become a fully-fledged citizen. Adopted as one of America’s own, I felt I owed a debt of service.

A young man I worked with had just returned from two years with the Peace Corps in Kenya. Chris is something of a role model for me—resilient, focused, calm and creative in solving everyday problems. He mentioned that Peace Corps was actively seeking older volunteers, and said I should give it a go. The idea coursed through me like a quicksilver snake. I was bored at work. My children had left home and didn’t need me anymore. I was ready for travel and adventure.

People scoffed of course: I am not at all outdoorsy, I like a sedentary life, and am famed for my love of good food, mixed drinks, beautiful shoes and opulent interior design. “Put it like this” my sister said “I don’t see you digging a latrine”.  I didn’t see this either, and I worried about my weight, the arthritis in my knees, and my general lack of pioneer skills. It seemed Peace Corps would hardly consider me a prize specimen.

I applied for Thailand at first. I had spent time there with a friend who was volunteering, which gave me something to write about on my application form. And then there were the beaches, the cocktails, the fabrics…

My recruiter swiftly identified that Thailand was not for me “You can’t ride a bike over rough ground and you don’t feel comfortable with a squat toilet for two years” she said briskly. There was no mention of beach bars or street markets at all….

The recruiter phoned again. “The Country Director in Armenia is interested in your resume” she said “would you consider serving there?”

“Oh yes” I said “that would be great. Perfect for me”. And then I looked up Armenia on Google maps.

It turns out that Armenia is in the Caucasus, just north of Iran and sandwiched uncomfortably between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia. It is a former Soviet State. An early adopter of Christianity. A beautiful, rocky, mountainous place with its own curvy alphabet, troubled history, and hospitable people. I have now lived here for one year, and have another one to go. I am happy here, and glad I came.

Like my native Ireland, Armenia has more of its people spread all over the world than it does at home. People forced to flee the genocide one hundred years ago have been followed since by hundreds of thousands seeking work. We export math geniuses, physicists, computer whizzes, chess players and a host of self-taught tilers, builders and decorators. After the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago, Armenia became an independent state. Those were dark days—literally. There was electricity for maybe an hour a day, the water supply was inconstant, and food was very scarce. Houses half-built were suddenly abandoned. Factories closed.

Things are much better now, thanks to the imagination and effort of those who have persevered here. As in Ireland, the population is well-educated and there are signs that the innovators of Silicon Stone Quarry will rival California’s sunny valley. There still an over-dependence on foreign-aid but volunteers like those of us in Peace Corps are helping organizations large and small to become more self-reliant, business-like and entrepreneurial. Beyond that, our mission is to promote peace and friendship in this volatile part of the world.

IMG_8121My own day-to-day work? Well, this week I used a pack of playing card illustrated with pictures of Ireland to prompt some village teenagers to talk in English about landscape and weather. I wrote a grant to try to win funding for a summer school. I ran a creative writing contest. I made a video to encourage people to come and spend money at a fair my host organization is running. No digging is involved. For fun, I work with middle and high school English-language students who are taking part in a recitation contest. This year’s theme is What Makes Us Human and the students are learning poems by Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath and Mary Oliver, among others. It does my heart good to hear them. It does my health good to eat the homegrown fruits and vegetables prepared by my friends. The exercise afforded by the hills helps my poor old knees. I will not be the first U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer to feel that I am well served by serving America here in Armenia.


To learn more about Peace Corps go to https://www.peacecorps.gov/apply/.



Posted in America, Anniversary, Armenia, BBC, Blessings, Caucausus, creative writing, Education, friendship, Fundraising, gratitude, Happiness, life lessons, love, National Poetry Recitation Contest, Peace Corps, straight-talking sister, Teaching, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, work | 5 Comments

Women’s Day In Armenia.

IMG_1556Garik our office accountant brought me this beautiful plant. Ashot and Davit spent their own money to bring me another one just as lovely. The lady in the flower-shop, busy with the annual rush that comes on Women’s Day every March 8, shouted a cheery Shnorhavor as I walked by.

In common with just about every other woman in Goris, I went to My Lady salon to have my hair done. They fitted me in for a blow-dry even though the place was heaving with women enjoying their day off and getting dolled up for a rare night out. Cafe Deluxe is ready for them. On evenings at this time of year it is usually populated only by small groups of men drinking coffee, vodka or beer but tonight they expect lots of families celebrating the women who keep  their lives running. The tables and doors have been decorated with red and gold 8s in honor of the day. The owner has stocked up on cake and ice-cream.


Here in Armenia, Women’s Day is a mix between St Valentines Day, Mothers Day and Teacher appreciation day in the US. Artur bought Aleta long-stemmed roses. Natalie went to a school party at our biggest hotel. (I haven’t yet had the debrief, but there was to be dancing. With boys). My poetry pupils in Halidzor bought me a sunny IMG_1558yellow flower in a tiny pot.  The streets were thronged with people out to visit and chat. I caught up with Haykush as she made dolma, and interrupted Nina as she was mopping the floor. They were both in high good spirits, but Women’s day didn’t seem to have reduced their workload very much.

In the US, International Women’s Day is not a public holiday. It is more of a campaign day than a festival, and those of us who mark it do so to honor crusading women who changed things for us; and to draw attention to women at home and all over the world who still have to put up with unfairness, lack of autonomy and abuse.  It is not much fun, and it is a pity it has to be done…but there we are. In honor of the British suffragettes who won the vote for (some) women in the UK one hundred years ago, I wore a green and purple dress today.  While Emmeline and the Pankhurst posse were shingling their crowning glory and giving  voice to their sense of injustice, many women in the Caucasus were still covering their hair and sometimes even their faces from nose to chin with white or black cloth (the color depended on age and marital status) and keeping silent—obedient shadows of their fathers, brothers and husbands. I have seen  pictures from the 1920s that show women in Goris dressed this way. Times change of course and no woman in Armenia wears this headwear today, although it still remains a very visible part of the cultural memory. 2018-03-08An elementary school girl, asked to draw a picture of a local icon a couple of weeks ago produced this picture of a Hay woman in traditional garb.

Some girls and women here are still being curbed and silenced, not now by clothing but still by culture– that’s if they are given life at all. In some parts of Armenia, live births of boys outstrip those of girls by 20 to 1. This is gender selectivity on a scale second only to China. (You can read a recent Guardian article about this here). Why the big demand for boys? Well, as a matter of course, aged parents here live with their sons. When sons marry, they bring their new bride home to the in-laws she will one day care for. Some parents still see boys as the way to secure their own future– a girl is only a drain. It remains to be seen how long this thinking will last when male unemployment is so high; when a man must leave his home (and thus his wife in the company of his parents) to find work in Russia; and when so many girls are doing so well at school and securing professional positions outside the home. My friend Liana recently ran a social media campaign which asked prominent Armenians to post pictures with their daughters, and say how proud they were to have a girl. Across the country, many mothers and fathers took part. In my own circle I know many parents who cherish their daughters and take pride in their spirit, brains, entrepreneurship and ambition. These girls’ time has come.

People here marry young. I have heard community organizers, volunteers and teachers sigh about losing young female talent from soccer teams, small businesses and classrooms after girls become wives. Either their husbands don’t wish them to continue their outside interests, or the brides think it is inappropriate. That used to happen too of course in the UK and US. It is rare for it to happen now.

Not all young brides here have their independence threatened. I spent this afternoon with Armine. Not many women drive in Armenia, but Armine does. Armine met her husband through work. She is at home now, because they have a young baby, but Armine’s husband Arman was cooking dinner tonight–khorovats.  Both Armine and her husband are thrilled to bits with their Meri.  Today Meri was dressed a blue sweater and jeans that match her big blue eyes–only her rattle was pink. Meri is the proud future of this little family, and the proud future of Armenia. Happy Women’s Day Meri.


Tatev and her mother stopped me in the street to give me some perfume. Narine’s grand mom chased me down the road to give me a tablet of raspberry wafer, peanuts and chocolate. Numerous friends sent me flowery gifs via Facebook. Women’s Day was a very good day for me. May it and the next year be good for you too, wherever you are.


Posted in 2018, American holidays, Armenia, Cross-cultural understanding, family, Mother/daughter dynamic, Peace Corps, sexism, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, Weddings, Women, young women | Leave a comment

Hard lessons through beautiful words

The poor always believe there is room enough for all of us; the very rich never seem to have heard of this.
In us there is wisdom of how to share loaves and fishes however few; we do this everyday.

2018-02-11 16.40.49I thought Gohar had been hasty. She had looked at the list of poems for her form, and had quickly settled on the first.

“Why this one?” I said

“I like it”. She shrugged.

“What do you think it means?” I asked, pretty certain that she had taken in only a few of the easier words. I thought the poem, and its provenance, would be difficult for even the most accomplished of 11th form English-language students in Armenia to understand…

“It is about poor people who are really rich because they have pride and love” she said.

I gulped and nodded. “Good choice”.

Gohar is 16 and lives in a small village in a deep gorge in the south of Armenia. At first sight, she does not seem to have a lot in common with Alice Walker, (Yes, Color Purple Alice Walker. THAT Alice Walker) but Gohar has chosen to recite Alice Walker’s poem To Change the World Enough  in the Goris English-language poetry contest next Saturday.

Our conversation about the poem took place a week or so ago. Since then Walker’s words, given meaning through Gohar, have sounded in my head.

Winter is nearly over here and so there is not much food left in my family’s store room. The jars of tomato sauce and pickled beets and peach preserves are largely gone. The wood pile is depleted and so this week, the coldest of the year, Haykush has been taking the axe to the remaining logs and splitting them in half in the hope they will go twice as far.

I was invited upstairs today, because Aleta’s mom and sister were visiting from their village, and one of Haykush’s daughters was also stopping by. We would be ladies who lunched.

Together we ate Kjackhash– a homemade soup of buckwheat, yellow lentils, kidney beans and chickpeas. The family sprinkled several large spoonfuls of sugar on each bowl before they tucked in–the proper way to eat it, I am told. I stuck to salt. The soup, which didn’t appear to have any onion, garlic, herbs or stock was as filling as you might imagine, and much more delicious than seems likely. As always the company was warm and welcoming, the talk was lively, and we had a few good laughs.

More sugar — cubed this time– appeared on the table as coffee was served. No self- respecting Armenian would drink coffee without a little something sweet. At this time of year, there are no mini Twix and Grand Candy bon-bons. It is time to fall back on any dry goods in the back of the cupboard.

One of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers lives with a herdsman’s family in a village not far from here. One of the family’s cows was sick a week or so ago and there was no money for medicine. My friend, recognizing the need, fronted his rent money by a week. The medicine was bought and administered, and the cow recovered. The family call it Clay’s cow now—it wouldn’t have lived without his help.



In addition to the theme picked up by Gohar, Walker’s poem also talks about how the rich are afraid of the poor: We experience your fear as the least pardonable of
humiliations; in the past it has sent us scurrying off daunted and ashamed into the shadows. 
Walker then informs the rich: we seek the same fresh light you do:
the same high place and ample table. At the end of the poem there is a call to action: Learn from us, we ask you. We enter now the dreaded location of Earth’s reckoning; no longer far off or hidden in books that claim to disclose revelations; 
it is here. We must walk together without fear. There is no path without us. 

I may have read Walker’s poem before–I don’t remember. Now, thanks to Gohar and my family upstairs, the soup, and Clay and his cow I will never forget. This is the kind of lesson you join Peace Corps to learn.

Someday soon, I will post a video of Gohar reading To Change The World Enough. For now, listen to my friend Valerie reading it. She donated this recording because she knows it is so helpful for our learners to hear native English speakers. I thank her for walking together with Gohar.





Posted in Alice Walker, Armenia, Beauty, Blessings, Cross-cultural understanding, Education, family, Food, gratitude, identity, Language learning, life lessons, National Poetry Recitation Contest, Peace Corps, Poetry, Rich and Poor, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, Village life | 2 Comments

The Joys of (Nearly) Spring: Artistic life in our part of Armenia.

2018-02-11 16.06.36Later this afternoon I will travel in the bumpy backseat of a spring green Lada to meet the young women of Halidzor, a village about 20km from here. The taxi comes courtesy of a former resident of Halidzor who asked me to run an English club in her village. She speaks fluent English and now works in Yerevan. Narine wants the young people coming after her to have the chances she has made for herself—and the girls, (for most of the students are girls) are all keen to learn. These teenagers, who already speak elementary English, are like the flowers of spring, fresh-faced and beaming. They are full of life and hope and imagination. Last week we were discussing ambition and professions and I asked them to mime career activities so the others could guess what their dream job was. We had dentists, and lawyers, and nurses, and teachers, a guitarist and a journalist. It was all enormously good fun. I have a pack of playing cards in my purse. Each card is illustrated with a photo of an Irish landscape and so each student will be asked to describe the picture on her card. Lots of talk of rivers, lakes, mountains, castles, grass, sheep, mist and rain. The vocabulary is as useful here as it is in Ireland. Next week we are discussing feelings and actions. I sense a rendition of “Brown Girl in the Ring” in my near future.

Younger children come to English clubs too. Every Sunday in Goris I read stories to a group of kids aged 7-10. To check their comprehension of the story, I ask them to draw a picture as I read. We have had three little pigs and their various houses, and Raggedy Ann, found in the attic with only one button eye. Again, the students are usually girls and are very concerned to get the details of the picture just right. Left to their own devices, they will copy the picture from the book,  but I do my best to encourage a more freeform approach to illustration. Last week we had a sudden influx of boys who I could tell were tiring of the details of Raggedy Ann’s attire. The story explained that the little girl who found the doll had been climbing over old chairs and tables in the attic. Time for a challenge to see who could move around the room without touching the floor. The boys loved it. Anush, who’s probably 8, looked rather disapproving.


My organization hosted the Goris Write On contest a couple of weeks ago, so I had a chance to read some of what the students produced.  Write On is an international creative writing contest administered by Peace Corps. The students are given a prompt to spark their imagination and then an hour to write their story. Access to phones and dictionaries is forbidden. On student wrote an allegory about a monster and the insects clinging to its back–a government and its people. We had the invention of a season of opportunity, and a dystopic world where robots ruled. I could not have written any one of these stories in Armenian. I suspect that stories written by  kids of the same age in the UK or in the US would not have had the uniform high moral tone–exhortations to love one another, be kind, and work hard. Students here are educated to please, not shock.

Earlier today, I coached a 10th form girl–16 years old–who will recite May Sarton’s poem “For My Mother” at the Goris poetry recitation contest on Saturday March 10. Nane does learn English at school but her teacher is not involved with her decision to enter the contest. This is something she does all by herself. She is a previous 2nd prize winner at national level. She was word-perfect today and so we worked on emphasis and emotion, and a hand movement or two. She is amazing and a pleasure to work with. I am so proud of her.

The visual arts are flowering too in Goris. We have not one but two art schools and a an art gallery–the resident artist there also tutors proteges. My organization came up with a good idea: we asked some of the most talented young people to paint locally themed paintings and framed these up in colorful sets of four. Local businesses will be given the opportunity to buy the paintings for display in their offices–a wonderful way to show their link to both the landscape and the community. The money raised will help local families get over various bumps. I want one of those paintings myself…

Watch the 90 second video below and marvel at the talent of Goris’ Most Talented. The sale of pictures will take place at 3pm on Friday March 2 at the Art Gallery. Phone bids will be accepted. The music track on the video is written and performed by one of our young, local musicians. If you can, join us for the poetry contest in Goris on Saturday, March 10 from 12 noon. It’s at our local theater–yes, we do acting too.

Posted in Armenia, Armenian art, Armenian writers, art, Beauty, creative writing, Fundraising, joy, Peace Corps, philanthropy, spring, story-telling, Syunik Marz, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, Village life, young women | 1 Comment

Going for world domination— please help

I made a video to be showcased on the Peace Corps global website. It has been shortlisted as a finalist in the Peace Corps Week Video Challenge. In addition to the formal judging, there is a public vote via You Tube. I hope you will exercise your franchise and vote for me. It is quite disturbing how much your vote– and therefore my near-certain victory– means to me.


Voting on You Tube is a painful process and near-impossible for people in Armenia. Owned by Google, You Tube only allows login with a gmail email account and password. Gmail is not common here. Of course, it is possible to create a gmail address and password and never use it again (may I suggest humorliz@gmail.com. Password: pander) but that is hard to explain to people not raised in a grasping capitalist culture where data is the new gold. You, all too familiar with the wiles of Silicon Valley, can help: your vote will bring meaning and purpose to my pathetically needy life.

I am not even claiming my video is the best of the 18 on display. My two fellow Armenian Peace Corps Volunteers Jim and Thong have beautifully shot and edited videos on show. Vote for them too.

All the videos are worth a look. Learn a little about life in Timor Leste and Guinea and other places I can’t place on a map. I want to go to Guatemala, and Malawi now , or Mongolia or Albania, and I bet you will too.

You can see, and vote for the videos here.    Thank you for your vote.

Posted in Armenia, Peace Corps Video Week Challenge 2018, You Tube | 3 Comments