To say I Love You—right out loudl

I used my involvement with Armenia’s Public schools’ Recitation contest as an excuse not to go, but even if I had been in Belfast, I wouldn’t have turned up at my school reunion. I keep in touch with a lot of girls I went to school with, and the ones I don’t see or hear from, I can’t say I miss. I am sure they feel the same about me. But maybe the truth is deeper and darker than that? As Joni Mitchell had it: so many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way. Who wants to reveal that she failed to fulfill her early promise?

It is 40 years since I left high school, and 40 years since I have seen a photo of me that featured in the 1979 Victoria College Belfast magazine. A good friend who did go to the reunion posted and tagged the old photo on Facebook. In it, I am clutching a cup awarded to the schools debate champion for Northern Ireland. That was me.

I remember that contest. The thrill of winning. The joy of making listeners laugh. My dad giving me a Chambers dictionary to commemorate my achievement.

Today, here in Armenia, I work with boys and girls who are much as I was then. Imaginative, funny, cynical, bright, ambitious and scared. The 80 who made it to the national finals of NPRC had beaten 1550 other competitors to get there. (This is rather more than competed in Northern Ireland’s debate contest in the Dark Ages). They were word perfect, high energy, original, passionate and will live in my heart always. They, of course, are competing in their third language. I still speak only Northern Irish English.

Northern Ireland in the 1970s was a grim place and any sentient teen felt isolated from real life and real opportunity. Many of us would have to get out to get on. Our Poetry kids here feel much the same way–but ask them where they see themselves in 40 years and most will say Armenia. They know they are the future of their country, and everything they do today is helping to ready them for their responsibility.

Joni Mitchell’s song Both Sides Now was one of our 11th form choices this year. Two weeks after the contest, the words are still running in my head in a loop.

Poetry people: I’ll say I love you right out loud. May your next 40 years be filled with work you love, and may you and Armenia reach your evident and glorious potential.

Just as my close school friends have championed me over the years, I hope you will keep in touch with your NPRC network and cast off other classmates who you don’t get, and who don’t get you.

https://share.icloud.com/photos/0bk7Byx0aS-1ipUZfjfAD3mbQ#Armenia

Alla recites Liz Lochead’s poem: For My Grandmother Knitting

Just as I had teachers and mentors who helped me grow in skills and confidence– and who ferried me to contests far and wide– so I hope you will stay in touch with me — and other volunteers, teachers, judges, and sponsors– who can help you now and in the future. There will be clouds. Don’t allow them in your way.

Click this link to see Martin recite Both Sides Now

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1kMupf6nxe3JRq9N4XMMPd4TJayeTG648/view?usp=drivesdk

Posted in Armenia, Both Sides Now, Joni Mitchell, Mentoring, opportunity, regrets, school reunion, Victoria College Belfast | 6 Comments

The Secrets of the Stones

There are 64 Graves –some of them inscribed in Hebrew. They are the only evidence of a small community of Jewish people who lived in South Armenia in the 12th and 13th centuries. Today, Armenia is 98% homogenous.

Apart from the ethnic Armenians, there are small communities of Yazidis–often working as shepherds and herders– and of Malakhans –often red-haired, and unfailingly peaceable and modest– who are ethnically Russian, and who are usually found in the North of Armenia. Since the 1400s there have been no Jews.

All that remains of the Vayots Dzor Jewish community is this small graveyard. There is no history of where these people came from, or what happened to them. It probably wasn’t good.

The graveyard was excavated only a few years ago. Then, some of the stones were are used to form the base of a bridge. Luckily, someone quickly recognized the rarity of what they had found. The graves were not looted or further tampered with. Jewish communities from other parts of the world were told of the discovery. Some clubbed together to build steps from the river up to the graveyard, near the village of Yeghegis. There is now a wall and a gate with a blue Star of David.

The anniversary of the discovery of the graveyard is in a couple of days. Then, there will probably be many people visiting from all over the world to honor the long dead. Today there was no one. We walked among the graves– full length and piteously short –and listened to the water, and the birds, and smelled the wild garlic.

Previous visitors, almost certainly Jewish, had placed stones in neat lines on top of many of the graves. I am not sure why. Perhaps you know?

The Jewish cemetery of Yeghegis is only one of the mysteries of Armenia. Around every corner there are more rocks and stones and carvings with secrets they will not tell. On the way to Vayots Dzor we stopped to visit Armenia’s Stonehenge. I love it there and try to visit every season. The situation is glorious, and I am hooked on the ancient intrigue. The settlement is believed to be at least 7000 years old, meaning it predates the standing stones in the south of England by a millennium or two. Many of the stones have perfect circles somehow cut in an age before Precision tools. No one knows how or why. Clearly, there are graves and the remains of ancient dwellings. Locals and international experts bicker about whether the surrounding stones are evidence of an observatory, or were placed to make a wall for defense. It’s impossible to say.

As more and more tourists come to visit Armenia, the mysteries and ongoing discoveries only add to the fun.

Posted in Archaeology, Armenia, Cross-cultural understanding, History, identity, Jewish, Jews in Armenia, Judaism, Karahunj, Syunik Marz, Things that gladden the heart, travel, Vayots Dzor, Yeghegis | 3 Comments

I get by…

Ara came the whole way to Yerevan to pick me up and drive me smoothly back to Goris. I was so glad to see him, I nearly wept. He opened the passenger door and once he got in his own seat, helped me with my seatbelt. I couldn’t manage it with my broken right wrist in a sling. His concern as he maneuvered around the potholes on the five-hour drive south was very touching. When we arrived in the city, he stopped off at his mother-in-law’s in order to pick up some fresh cooked beans and other bits and pieces, so I wouldn’t have to try to cook.

He needn’t have worried on that score. When I arrived back at my spotlessly clean apartment, there was a bunch of fresh-picked daffodils on the table and Aleta and Haykush were waiting to welcome home the invalid.

“Come upstairs” said Aleta, taking me firmly by my one good arm “Haykush will make you zhingalov hats”

They know the homemade flatbread stuffed with fresh herbs is one of my favorite snacks. Later I got into my own bed made up with clean sheets and felt very glad to be home.

My sister had offered to fly from England to help me manage. “I’ll be fine” I’d said, without really realizing how difficult life without my dominant hand would be.

I slept in my clothes, as I had done for the previous couple of days. The next morning I managed to wriggle off my leggings and underwear and to find replacements. It turns out though,that my girth is such that my left hand will not reach to my right hip. Try as I might, I couldn’t pull up my nether garments to what passes for my waist. Aleta to the rescue when she brought me the first of many cups of coffee, always served with a piece of chocolate or two.

Peace Corps volunteers rallied too. Ashlin and Bianca brought wine and wielded the corkscrew. They made huge batches of soup and salads I could eat for days. They provided cheering company.

Work was piling up. This is our busiest time of year, preparing for the finals of the National Poetry Recitation Contest. Kristine and Davit, who are overworked at the best of times, very graciously said they would manage my workload. They both sounded unfailingly upbeat and adult about it, but I knew it had to be a pain. Besides, I am not very good at letting things go. I found myself getting twitchy and anxious. If my mental health was not to go the way of my physical prowess, I would have to get back to work. I discovered the little microphone symbol beside the space bar on my phone keyboard and began to use voice dictation. It is how I am writing this post. I love artificial intelligence. I just wish it was more intelligent. It’s good – but it can’t understand either Northern Irish vowel sounds, or Armenian names. Let’s just say it works better for other people than it ever will for me. Slowly, I made corrections with the thumb of my left hand. Often I had to delete cursewords yelled in frustration and faithfully reproduced. After fewer than a dozen emails composed in about half a day I was exhausted. I thought apologetically of my friend Richard who suffered a stroke in his 20s and lost the use of his right hand. I realized I had never been quite sympathetic enough about the trials and frustrations he faced. Sorry Richard. I get it now.

I had a school to visit. A bra seemed a necessity for the first time in just under three weeks. Perhaps I should also attempt a shower? Aleta was on hand with a towel and did Yeoman’s work manhandling my damp mammaries into sturdy foundation wear. Our Armenian hosts baby their American volunteers all the time, but washing, drying and dressing us is surely outside the scope of work. Aleta bore it bravely.

Worse was to follow. If there is anything more incapacitated than an unfit adult with a broken arm, then it is an unfit adult with a broken arm and a serious gastrointestinal complaint. Among the things Aleta has been forced to clean in the past few days include clothes, bedding, the bathroom and me. I have decided that the only thing to do is consider this humiliation as practice for being old. I also doubt if I will ever be troubled with shame again. Thank God for Aleta and her no-nonsense good cheer.

Fully dressed and upright for the first time in weeks

Zhingalov Hats and flowers from the garden

Easter lunch with Aleta and Ashlin

Posted in accident, Armenia, Blessings, bras, broken wrist, clothes, Cross-cultural understanding, Easter, Embarrassment, family, Food, friendship, Goris, havjng a bad day, health and safety, injury, Jingalov hats, kindness, life lessons, personal failings, resilience, shame, Sickness, Social niceties, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, Underwear, You Tube | 9 Comments

The Two-Soup Day

Yesterday was a two-soup sort of day. Snow on the ground, frost in the trees, and a bone-chilling fog which hung around damply.

The first bowl of soup was offered upstairs–part of my family’s desperate mission to expose me to every  Armenian culinary delight before I go back to the land of burgers and Twinkies.

Tan soup is a bowl of hot buttermilk to which is added a mix of chopped herbs, and finely chopped shallots fried in butter. Raw garlic, not so finely chopped, is sprinkled on top, together with square inches of dried lavash. It is eaten at breakfast time and is homey and satisfying without having the heaviness of khashil. I heartily recommend it for days when you plan to stay home breathing only under a blanket.

After the soup, I spent some time with 14 year old Natali who will perform in the National Poetry Recitation Contest in a couple of weeks’ time. Natali is reciting the lyrics of a modern Irish folk classic which has some resonance here–young men in Armenia must join the army after school and dying for their country is presented as a noble sacrifice.

Please help me through the door

Though instinct tells you no.


We were practicing the English th sound , which is difficult for most Armenians. Unfortunately for Nata, saying th requires the speaker to blow out softly while relaxing the tip of the tongue just below the front teeth. Nata recoiled in horror from the garlic stench as I ran thoroughly through the thoughs and thous, and shared my thoughts throughout.

I spent the rest of the morning brushing my teeth. Then I picked up an odd number of flowers (even numbers are unlucky) from our local florist (the poor woman was exhausted after a week featuring the days of both St Valentine and St Sarkis, the international and homegrown patrons of passion) a gift for the second soup-maker of the day.

Rita is my work friend Anna’s mum. Rita and I could be sisters and despite our language differences we recognize each other as kindred spirits. I was thrilled to get an invitation to spend the afternoon with her at home.

Anna was raised in a village about 20 minutes from Goris. Samson, another work colleague, drove us there, with Anna’s ten-year old daughter Mariam in tow. I noticed that despite the freezing fog Samson rolled his window down a little. I wished I had some chewing gum.

Rita lives with her husband, her mother in law, her son, his wife and their two kids, both under ten. The age span in the house runs from 7 to 79 and she is in the middle.

Roma, Rita’s son has actually only just moved back in. For most of his children’s lives he was working in Russia as a mechanic, sending home money every week to feed his family. Now, daring to hope that fortunes may change in Armenia, he and his dad have bought a plot of land, built a garage,and dug a mechanic’s pit. They did all this work themselves, so they have reason to be proud of it. We drove through the frozen mud to visit the garage ,and see Roma at work on a car for one of his first local customers. He didn’t have time to join us for lunch.

Lunch at Rita’s reminded me of similar meals at my Gran’s when I was a child. Giant amounts of comfort food, proper china and everyone around the table talking at once. Rita always make Anna her favorite soup when she visits. This was a tomato-based broth made with wild sorrel (aveluk) and dried plums. Lentils and potato gave it body, and the taste was both bitter and sweet. I liked it, but not as much as Anna did. There were two chickens, roast potatoes, green beans with egg, a beet and red bean salad, a pepper salad Anna had brought, cheese, bread, lavash and probably some other items I missed. We drank juice made from homegrown raspberries and toasted each other with cognac.

The kids had left the table by the time the cake, popcorn, chocolate, dates and fresh fruit were served. We had coffee at the table and then tea by the fire. Rita picked a lemon from the tree in the corner of the living room and sliced it to add to the black brew

Anna and one of her 2 sisters lay against each other on the sofa and bickered with their dad. It could have been my own family, except Anna and Meline are thin with enviably long legs.

A neighbor– everyone said she was crazy– pottered by to sit by the stove with Anna’s gran. The cousins– four of them by now–showed off their English to me, and practiced karate moves before disappearing into another corner of the house. Ruzan, Roma’s wife washed the dishes.

“Do you want nuts?” said Rita after we took some photos “biscuits?”

When I said I might never eat again Rita tasked and went off to prepare a to-go bag for me and Anna.

“Come back” said Rita. But that was before the garlicky good-bye kissing. I hope I see her again soon.

Posted in Armenia, Armenian food, aveluk, breakfast, Cooking, Cross-cultural understanding, family, Food, friendship, Garlic, Goris, gratitude, Great weekends, Local delicacies, National Poetry Recitation Contest, Things that gladden the heart, travel, Village life, Winter | Leave a comment

On the way out

I would hate to believe that my friends in Armenia are marking the days until my departure, but with 3 and a 1/2 months to go, the countdown does seem to be underway. I am constantly being invited to try something, do something, eat something before my unique opportunity disappears forever when I leave the country in June.

On Saturday it was a cocktail of homemade vodka, Armenian Champagne and pomegranate seeds at Tava restaurant in Dilijan, tasted after an enjoyable day painting on silk at Buduart.

The day before it was Crossroads wine from Trinity Canyon Vineyards sampled at In Vino. The winery is experimenting with combination of Areni Noir– an Armenian varietal –and either Syrah or Cabernet, which they also grow. I particularly liked the Syrah, but of course nothing compares to my beloved 6100.

Today my family invited me upstairs for a bowl of Khashil, a winter porridge made by boiling rough wheat grains. To this mix was added shallots fried in butter– lots of butter. These should still be bubbling hot when they are poured into a well in the middle of the bowl of brown mush. Then cool things down a little by ladling tan ( half water, half yogurt) on top.

It didn’t look instgrammable, but I promise you it was absolutely delicious. Winter comfort food. The stodge of the porridge. The sweetness of the purple shallots in their golden grease, and the refreshing cool of the buttermilk. We ate slices of Granny Smith apple afterwards. I highly recommend the mix.

My family are working up to kchuch– a lamb stew cooked in a clay pot. I had never heard of kchuch until the weekend. The cocktail people use the clay pots too.

I am cramming now. I have only a few weeks left in my immersion course in all things Armenian.

Posted in Armenia, art, cocktails, Cooking, craft activities, Cross-cultural understanding, drinking, eating out, Education, Food, gratitude, Great weekends, Khashil, Local delicacies, Moonshine, textiles, Things that gladden the heart, travel, Village life, Vodka, welcome, Yogurt | 2 Comments

Looming Large

You’ll see it as soon as you walk down the stairs in Yerevan’s Silk Road Hotel. I fell for it straight away, for this antique carpet features the blue and rust colors I love to see together.

The carpet is only one of a collection displayed at the hotel. Tatev gave me a tour and explained the history of some of the designs and symbols. Tatev loves textiles and is a very knowledgeable guide. Pride in Armenian wool and silk craft shines from her.

The hotel is home to the Folk Arts Hub Foundation. This Foundation invites members of the diaspora to “Adopt A Loom” — paying for the apparatus and supplies that can be used to teach today’s Armenians the skills of their ancestors. Adopting a loom costs just $500 and includes a fee for a teacher to instruct would-be weavers. The Foundation now has women weaving in 17 villages all over Armenia. Soon someone somewhere will be working on a carpet for me.

Tatev’s team draw patterns based on the antique carpets in their collection. They arrange for wool from Armenian sheep to be dyed to the old color specifications. This makes it possible for someone like me to have an exact copy of a favorite carpet, and customize it to include a name, date, icon or something important to the buyer.

I will know who made my carpet and where. Once the order is underway I can go to watch it being made.

Is it expensive? Well I have paid at least as much to Macy’s for a mass-produced carpet the same size but provenance unknown.

The weavers also produce their own contemporary designs. Some were on sale at the hotel. I fell in love with a modern hall runner and bought it on the spot. Tatev is keeping it for me until I know where I want both carpets shipped. The carpets are magical but they don’t appear to fly.

Buying these souvenirs of my two years in Armenia feels good. The weavers earn money for their work. I will know the long and short term history of my design and carpet, and I will have no anxiety about its age or authenticity.

More in this thread (ha) as the rug begins to take shape.

Tatev treated me to compote, tea and the hotel’s take on baklava as we talked about textiles. The baklava involved dates and walnuts wrapped in crisped lavash and shaken with powdered sugar. I began to wish I could stay for dinner, or book in for the night.

I asked to have the letters NPRC in Armenian stitched into my carpet, and the years 2017-2019. Tatev asked me why. When I explained about the National Poetry Recitation Contest she immediately offered me some small coasters and mats as prizes. There is no letter C in Armenian so I have to decide if this should be a K or an S before my loomswoman gets that far. I have a couple of months yet…

Posted in Armenia, Armenian art, armenian carpet, art, artsakh carpet, buting handmade carpets, craft activities, Cross-cultural understanding, shopping, textiles, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, Village life, Women, work | Leave a comment

Interred of Tegh

It was snowing but not hard. Tegh’s dirt roads had become mud baths because of the melting slush, but still we decided to drive to the village church on one side of the gorge.

Ara had never been to the church, even though Tegh is only a few miles from the village where he grew up.

“There was just no reason to come here” he said. “Tegh is not on the tourist trail, and the roads are not good. My wife’s father grew up here but I don’t know the village well”.

We stopped to ask a woman if the church was accessible by car.

“Be careful” she said “last week a car began to slide and ended up in the gorge”.

Like Khndzoresk, Ara’s village and one of Armenia’s most popular tourist sites, Tegh is surrounded by a lot of natural caves. Many of these are still used as stables or barns. They’re probably easier to hike to than the caves of Khndzoresk, but the countryside was completely deserted on this cold, bright day.

On the way to the church, we passed the men of the village enjoying a little warmth from the sun. We stopped at a graveyard quite unlike any I have seen in Armenia. Usually gravestones here are polished stone, etched with the likeness of the interred, or are Armenian tufa, brick-red and ornately carved with crosses. These tombstones, centuries old, were mostly the height of coffee tables and the size of travel trunks. They might have been granite. Many were carved with soldiers on horses, vases of flowers, and men carrying guns and swords. One more modern tomb featured an engraving of a pair of scissors. A seamstress’ resting place maybe?

We inched along the mud track. It was easy to see how someone had lost control and slithered over the edge. The car’s tires were caked in several inches of mud by the time we made it to the church.

There was someone else there, although he must have come on foot. Artak told us he had fought in the 1994 Nagorno Karabakh war and shared some horror stories about massacres and captures that took place on the slopes close to where we stood. He had been taken prisoner by the Azeris he said, and brought to Baku where he thought he’d be beheaded. Somehow he was spared. His friend had not been so lucky. Artak pointed to a memorial headstone he’d erected in memory of his friend. He’d had it made with money he’d earned living in Russia. He was thinking of going back to Russia. Nothing in this village for him now.

Artak wanted his picture taken with the American. They don’t see many outsiders in Tegh. It’s a pity. It’s worth seeing. You should go.

Posted in Apostolic church, Archaeology, Armenia, Armenian art, Church, Cross-cultural understanding, Great weekends, History, Nagorno-Karabakh, Tegh, travel, Village life, Villages of Syunik, war | 2 Comments