My inner voice is aristocratic

I have renamed my inner voice Lady Louisa Chick. LLC is the impossibly smug sister of the always-socially-distant Mr Dombey in Dombey & Son. (I have yet to read this Dickens’ novel, but binge- watched an old BBC version this week, hence my introduction to Lady Louisa. The series is on Amazon Prime.)

It is Lady Louisa’s practice when faced with the newly post-partum and consumptive, to urge them to make an effort. Things would be all right, she strongly implies, if people would only give themselves a shake. In the novel, they never do.

‘If you would only make an effort’ I have trained my bustle-wearing, bonneted alter ego to beseech. This morning LLC’s entreaties encouraged me into foundation wear and made me put out the bin. I also changed the trash bag in the kitchen can. TBH, that is probably it for the day. I was almost tempted to make the bed until I got detained by an online article on the topic. Apparently unmade beds allow dust mites to disperse. Plus there is less risk of injury when sheets remain tousled. I am doing it — or rather not doing it–for YOU and to protect our harried health workers.

In the manner of all Victorian ladies, I am to spend the afternoon painting and corresponding with friends. If only there was a glass of Madeira in my future and a footman to present it.

Be safe. Be well. Watch period drama.

View from my window. Someone regularly grazes his horse on the traffic island. Other than that, there is not much going on.

Posted in America, art, BBC, bras, Charles Dickens, clothes, coronavirus, Household tips, lockdown | Leave a comment

Tacos and Knuckles, Alive, alive, oh

IMG_6308My six-year old grand-daughter has been staying for a few days. Like almost every other kid in America, she is out of school as part of our communal attempt to contain coronavirus.

We bake and cook all day, and Niya spends a lot of time in the bath.At night, I sing her to sleep with a selection of Irish folk songs. It gives both of us enormous pleasure. I know I am lucky to have found such an appreciative audience.

Yesterday I heard poor, long-suffering Alexa being berated for failing to play a song Niya was requesting.

‘What song do you want?’ I asked.

‘Tacos and Knuckles’

“What? Who sings it?’

‘You do. You know Grandma. Alive, alive oh.’

The song she wanted, and which Alexa finally produced, was Molly Malone.

The verse about the ghost with the barrow is particularly relished by both of us. I have loved it ever since my father used to sing it to me at Belfast bedtimes in the 1960s.

Here, in case you do not know the song, is Sinead O’Connor singing it just a little better than I do. And below that, a bonus picture of Niya in her two-tone sequinned shamrock t-shirt and proudly showing off her first wheaten, made to Auntie Dot’s recipe. I’ll make an Irish woman of her yet. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.






Posted in Cooking, Cross-cultural understanding, family, Ireland, making bread, molly malone, music, National pride, nationality, St. Patrick, story-telling, things kids say, Things that gladden the heart, wheaten bread | 5 Comments

A life in pictures

I have only myself to blame, which makes the loss of the pictures even more galling. 2019-11-22 (2)They are all gone: the limited edition William Conor print Sour Apple which I bought from the Linenhall Library in Belfast because it reminded me of my sister when she was a child.

Half a dozen hand-coloured prints from Mychael Barratt, bought at a rate of one a year from Liberty of London. My favorite was titled It’s not over ’til the fat lady sings.

A print of three burlesque ladies in  colourful corsets I bought in Sydney, because the women –a blonde, a redhead and a brunette–reminded me of me and my schoolfriends Heather and Niki–even though Heather and Niki aren’t fat, and none of us dance, or wear garters.

These were just a few of more than seventy framed pictures I took down from the walls of my house by the bay when I needed to get it redecorated and depersonalized, ready to rent. That was three years ago. At the time, my helpful building contractor said ‘Throw the pictures into the basement of the house we are working on up the road. It is clean and dry and the pictures will be safe there until you have a place to put them.’ Neither he nor I knew it would be nearly three years before I’d show up again in Shady Side. By then, the house with storage space would have been sold, the basement cleared, and my pictures inadvertently thrown on a skip. This is the kind of shit that does happen.

2019-11-22 (4)

Another of the lost Mychael Barratt prints

2019-11-22 (7)The mistake was discovered only last week and since then I have been mourning the loss of the 6 wooden combs painted like Chinese ladies that I bought in Hong Kong, mounted on red velvet, and had framed by my favorite print shop in London’s Crouch End. The deeply politically incorrect framed set of cocktail stirrers in the shape of ageing women with drooping breasts. Deborah Toner’s linen runner stitched with outlines of Belfast’s most iconic buildings.

2019-11-22 (9)


In financial terms, none of these momentoes was worth very much in the first place, and some I can probably one day replace. The cost of glass and frame was, in most cases, the major expense, and the unplanned clear-out does provide new opportunity for a fresh collecting spree. Plus, the purge will save my daughter the trouble a decade or two from now. But still, but still, but still…

Fortunately, the items of most sentimental value–a Paul Crook painting of my childhood home, commissioned by my sister after my father died; my father’s own pastels of Northern Irish landscapes; and a pair of Maryland tobacco barns painted in exuberant purple and yellow–are safely stowed in my friend Judy’s guest bedroom closet.  Peggy has three yellow and red nudes, a gift from my friend Susan, reclining behind the desk in her own spare bedroom. All is not lost. These will be coming soon to a wall near me.


Posted in accident, art, errors of judgement, friendship, grieving, havjng a bad day, life lessons, Lonely this Christmas, loss, moving house, packing | Leave a comment

Splash-down in Shady Side


Missing Gayane and Arsen already

I had not been back in Shady Side for even an hour before I was using a tumble-dryer, an appliance I hadn’t seen for nearly three years. In Armenia, where I spent twenty-seven months serving with Peace Corps, a washing machine is a luxury. Clothes are always dried outside on a line. In winter, laundry freezes hard.

Rain threatened the day I arrived at Peggy’s house with a giant suitcase, much of it filled with dirty washing.

‘Do you have a clothes rack?’ I asked for I had spent the last few weeks in the UK, returning home from the Caucasus by the scenic route. There, using a tumble dryer is a crime punishable by Greta Thunberg. They have tumble dryers, but it is no longer considered appropriate to use them.

Guiltily I pushed my wet clothes into the maw of Peggy’s mighty machine. The guilt evaporated as the tumbler began. The hum of the hot air and the regular thump of damp cotton on steel drum was reassurance that I was finally home.

I stayed a couple of nights in Peggy’s spare room catching up with all the news—my own house is still rented. This is just as well as I have no job—yet.

On day three I ventured into Washington DC, driving for the first time in nearly three years. Peace Corps doesn’t permit its volunteers to drive cars anywhere in the world—the risk of accident is too high. I was pleased to find that steering a car is like riding a bike—until I got into the city. Bike routes are now everywhere—perhaps to atone for energy wasted in tumble-drying? In principle, I approve but in my own lane I got in more and more of a lather. How could I turn right without mowing down at least two scooters and a cyclist? I made it to my appointment highly agitated, but without life-threatening incident. An American miracle.

I was visiting a temp agency, hoping to pick up a little office work to keep me solvent. The charming, well-groomed woman behind the perfectly ordered desk was quite encouraging. It was all going well until she mentioned a Word and Power Point test. It turns out there are waaay more things a person can do in Microsoft Office than I ever realized—or know how to do. It had also been a mistake to go to the temp agency before I signed up for phone service. I drove nervously to a carrier’s kiosk. Could they fit me up with a new sim card? They could—as long as I could share the last four of my social, create a six-digit pin, and so on.

‘I think I’ve forgotten how to live in America,’ I wailed to the two women in the shop. They laughed.

Off to the Doctor next. Peace Corps supplies its returned volunteers with a thick wodge of forms. These vouchers allow us to catch up with all sorts of procedures designed to sort out any health problems we may have experienced abroad—and to check we haven’t developed anything nasty and new. Doctors offices, naturally, dislike these forms, and don’t really know what to do with them.

‘Best if you pay yourself and claim it back,’ they say. It takes a lot of charm and patience to persuade them otherwise.

On Saturday morning, I had a 9am appointment for a mammogram. I sorted out my forms and doctor’s order (thank you Dr. Sheesley from Bay Community Health). I had a CD of images and last year’s report from an Armenian hospital. Lingering jet lag meant I had no trouble waking up early to drive to the appointment. I showered, and remembered not to use deodorant or lotion. I was on top of this. I made it to the clinic in good time, signed in and sat for half an hour waiting for my name to be called. I handed the forms to the woman at the front desk. She looked at them carefully.

‘I don’t think I can do anything with this.’

I began to explain, with just a hint of imploring.

‘I think it is the wrong form’ the receptionist said finally. ‘I don’t recognize anything here.’

‘But you deal with Peace Corps’ I said piteously. ‘It says so on their website.’

She handed me back the form, shaking her head. ‘Means nothing to me.’

That was probably because it was a form for a gastro-intestinal follow-up. Could I still have my mammogram if I promised to bring the right form back later? I could not.

I drove to meet friends in DC reflecting how much I missed Armenia—a country where there are very few forms, where rules are eminently bendable, and people like to say Yes—even when they should say No. It drove me mad when I was there, but some of it seems to have rubbed off on me. I began to wonder if I would ever manage in America again.

My DC friends treated me to a nice lunch to say welcome home. I had crab cakes and braised greens. Delicious. Seafood is not part of any menu in Armenia—the country is totally landlocked. Pot-likker isn’t a thing either. I hadn’t realized how much I missed it until I tasted it again.

Back in Peggy’s welcoming spare room I listened to the sound of cicadas in the crepe myrtles as I fell asleep. In the morning, there’d be a cup of drip coffee and a chat on her porch overlooking the Bay. Perhaps I could adapt after all.

A version of this article first appeared in Bay Weekly. Thanks to Sandra Olivetti Martin and the team for printing my stories from Armenia. Good luck for whatever is next you guys!


Posted in America, Armenia, Cross-cultural understanding, Odd One Out, Peace Corps | Leave a comment

How did it change you?

If people ask questions at all, they ask ‘How did it change you?’

At first I was rather sheepish in my answer. Following two-plus years as an international aid volunteer in Armenia, I seemed to have managed re-entry to the first world with remarkable ease, and completely unimproved. I was back on the gin, had bought a couple of expensive frocks, and was eating all the posh cheese I could get my hands on. No change there then…

There may be more work needed to make me a truly reformed character, but now, six weeks away from Armenia, I can see a little of the difference it made.

In Armenia, I tried to say ‘yes’ to every experience and outing I was offered, fearful that I would never be asked again, or that the opportunity would pass me by. No more: I’m too tired tonight, I have work to do or I don’t think that’s my kind of thing. Now I have developed muscle for being in the mix, I make more of an effort to see and do all kinds of things while I am in the UK. Last night, in a howling gale, I saw Hamlet at an open-air pop-up theater in the medieval town of York in the north of England. I had a blanket round my shoulders, and Joanne wore her winter raincoat with the hood up. The play was great. I had never seen or read Hamlet before. I didn’t even know (spoiler alert) that he died at the end. Hamlet was gorgeous and delightfully mad, Ophelia was heart-rending. The only thing I said No to was the experience of being a groundling: for 12.50 pounds sterling, it was possible to stand in a pit in front of the stage, seeing the play from the same angle as Shakespeare’s original audiences. My stubborn knees would not have acquiesced to this. We paid for proper seats.

I am rather hoping seats will be available at the Isle of Wight festival I am going to in a couple of weeks. (Buy your own tickets here.) The event commemorates 50 years since Bob Dylan turned his back on Woodstock and instead flew to perform on the small island just off Southampton. Dylan is not slated to make a return journey this year, but there are many folky and hokey bands and performers whose names other oldies will recognize.


The event is billed as a dementia-friendly music festival. Possibly prudent to start looking for these sort of descriptors on events I plan to attend. ;(.

Other things I have said yes to in recent weeks include finals of a local stand-up comedy contest (genuinely good fun–I voted for Christian Russell-Pollock who came second), dinner with an old, old boyfriend (also good fun), and cooking for a large house party in Italy (riotous).  I swam in the salt water pool every day, even though I had to ask for help to get in. I intend to keep up the practice of giving things a go.

I notice color and texture much more appreciatively now I am away from Armenia. There, the landscape is lovely, but urban design is often ugly–or completely lacking. Looking out over the City of London from a restaurant rooftop, I marvelled at the glorious mix of old stone and new steel and glass. Sure there is deprivation and bad planning and squalor still in London, but the parts visitors see are easy on the eye.  At Roots in York for my birthday dinner on Friday night, I enjoyed the curve of the ash table, and the simplicity of the blue and white plates and napkins almost as much as I did the tasting menu. Truth to tell, although all the food was exquisite, I would have been content with only the multi-seed crispbread and chive butter served at the beginning of the whole extravaganza. Delicious. I bought a magenta silk dress covered in a giant tropical leaf pattern to wear to my niece’s wedding in Australia in December. I touch it every day, and marvel that it is mine. I know how lucky I am to have the means and the freedom to travel the world.

Above all, I am grateful for the English language and my ability to use it and hear it with joy and delight. Although I had good friends with excellent English in Armenia, there is nothing to beat nuance, the verbal shorthand built through years of friendship, and the fun of getting everyone’s news without having to stop to ask for explanation, a mime or a sub-par translation. I gurgled with joy while watching  Upstart Crow with Jill. I nearly burst with love during catch ups with by brother and sister and cousins and countless friends. I am reading Milkmana prize-winning book written in backstreets Belfast style. I roared my leg off at Derry Girls. International jobs I apply for specify: native English essential. Maybe I missed language more than anything or anybody while I was away. I am lucky to have English. I know that now. IMG_3527IMG_3417IMG_3464IMG_3499rootsIMG_3500









Posted in Armenia, drinking, eating out, English, Food, friendship, joy, Language, Language learning, life lessons, Shakespeare, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel, United Kingdom | 3 Comments

Pure moments of bubbling joy

At the wedding, we all sang along to the music played by the DJ. The bride and groom were in their sixties, and so all the music was of a certain vintage. The only people under 40 in the room were relatives of the newly married couple, and they didn’t seem to mind dancing alongside droves of ancients bellowing Brown-Eyed Girl. 

Van Morrison’s hit was the song of this summer in Belfast. The grumpy one is still pounding it out himself of course, more than fifty years after its original release, but The Killers  also performed it as a singalong when they played Belfast’s Ormeau Park a month ago. I wasn’t at the concert. Indeed, I had never heard of the Killers, and I certainly had no reason to believe a world-famous band would play in Ormeau. No, I heard the band (backed by the Belfast crowd) from Brendan’s balcony in the city center where we were sitting outside drinking Botanist gin and Fevertree tonic. I enjoyed the feel of the bubbles on my tongue, and marvelled at continuing change in my hometown.

In the ’70s, Ormeau Park was a bleak and scrubby place, as  unfriendly and unloved as the eponymous road that adjoins in. Now there are abundant flower-boxes on the King’s Bridge, and the near-derelict shops around the famous bakery have all been restored. Most of them now seem to be cafes and wine bars.  When I was at school, I would have snorted in derision if you had told me that 40 years’ hence there would be people dining al fresco on the Ormeau Road. For a start, it would have been hard to believe the weather would allow this, even in July. But the weather all month has been beautiful. 70+ degree every day, and sunny.

Not everything has changed in Belfast of course, and this is a good thing. Breakfast is still served with three kinds of bread, two of them fried. It is however now possible to order your soda farl with smashed avocado if you prefer. My school friends remain as funny, kind, creative and beautiful as they always were. One of them, and her family, have had a gruelling couple of years. It was good to see them all together, happy and dancing at their eldest boy’s wedding–and a great excuse for us all to see each other.

school chums


To Yorkshire, and more talk of matrimony. My niece is to be married in Australia in December and was home from Victoria to plan the  celebratory reception that will be held at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield in the New Year. My sister and I had a week or so of sampling menus, drinking preparatory champagne, and trying on frocks and hats. We will, of course, need both a summer and a winter outfit each…




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A day out in Lytham with my sister, and a visit to a stately home and garden–although all of England seems to be a heritage park now. Bunting everywhere. Dahlias. Plus fours may soon make a comeback, and there is honey still for tea. Meanwhile everyone, both Remainers and Brexiters, wonder nervously what will happen next, with a new Prime Minister and a new world order on their way. Consoled ourselves with fish and chips and rhubarb gin. Never mind. My nephew got a First in Engineering.




The train to Devon, and still more bunting,  seaside, delicious fish, and still more to drink. John took part in a dragon race on the Dart. In each boat, a cox kept time with a drum as the boatsmen rowed. We saw a seal keeping pace in the river. On Blackpool Sands, more singing along, this time to the Proclaimers and Wet, Wet Wet. Marti Pellow no longer fronts the Wet Ones–his stand-in was English and told us he’d been three years old when the band had their first hit. Sigh. The Saltire still flew though. Jill and I stood waiting for our taxi home and fantasized about hitching a ride with the two Proclaimer brothers–sti as Scottish and earnest and entertaining as ever before.

‘But we don’t know their names’ I reasoned, just in time to stop Jill attempting to rush a likely looking mini-van. Then again, probably none of their groupies today can remember much…

The entrepreneurs at Hill House Nursery–a couple of young women in sun dresses and wellies- have planted a lot of seeds in an adjoining field. Visitors are invited to take a florists’s bucket and pick whatever they like from the nursery. The flowers are a wild, glorious tumble, and a bucket costs only eight pounds. Find more about the Lychgate cutting garden here. 

In Tavistock, close up views of Charles, Prince of Wales and his wife Camilla who were opening a new wing of a market we were visiting. People turned out, but not in such numbers that we couldn’t get a close-up or two. The Royals walked through the market and stopped to shake hands and speak. Everyone stood silently and stared, or tried to grab a selfie with the heir to the throne in the background. It must be such an odd way to live, everyone you meet on their best behavior, and cameras constantly in your face.


Hilary asked me to share my three favorite things about Armenia. I stopped to think. In truth, I have not thought much about the country I left behind a month ago, because of all the excitement of reunions here. I realized that I couldn’t really break down my two-year experience into moments or standalone memories. Like Ireland, like England, like my part of America, Armenia now enfolds me. A soft-loomed shawl accessorizing a layered life. This July, I have been greedy for landscapes and smells and tastes I have missed–fields of corn and hedgerows, sunlight on streams, and the sound of the sea. Cheddar. French wine. Prawns in Marie Rose sauce. Next summer, it may be the mountains I long for. My teenagers. The apricots. A glass of Trinity 6100 red wine at In Vino. We shall see.



















Posted in Beauty, British food, British Royal Family, cocktails, Cross-cultural understanding, drinking, eating out, Food, Gin, joy, love, Northern Ireland, Nostalgia, singing, The Proclaimers, Things that gladden the heart, ulster fry, United Kingdom | Leave a comment

Welcome back–Belfast

The streets were teeming with teenagers, celebrating the last day of school exams. Many were drunk, although it was not yet six o’clock–or legal drinking age. One girl was wearing a yellow bikini and, over her hips and thighs, a sparkly string vest of a skirt. At the end of her bare legs, towering heels. I heard tutting. It was me.

There were boys on the streets too. Surly shoals of them, limbs and torsos fully covered in gray, blue and black. They seemed less drunk than the girls, who were louder, brighter, loose-limbed as they led the way.

The astringent after-shave kiss of a gin and tonic, like a welcome greeting from a long-ago lover. Exhilarating, with a deep memory of head-dulling danger.

The sting of salt and vinegar crisps, served in the street in a cardboard carton.

An everyday British department store, here renowned for its dowdiness. But I found myself wanting to touch all the clothes, admiring their cut and swing and color. Perhaps 80 styles of summer shoes, every size and shade. I bought a pair the color of Goris cherries. Day one away from Armenia.


Posted in Armenia, Armenian food, Belfast, Cross-cultural understanding, drinking, Gin, Teens, travel, young women, Youth | 1 Comment

Leaving gracefully — traveling light

My two big bags have been packed for weeks. I have a couple of changes of clothing in my hand luggage. I have kept this deliberately light, due to my still-wonky right wrist.

None of this counted for anything when I made it to Aygezard, the small village I first lived in when I came to Armenia. Elza was waiting for me with two towels, and a bottle of cognac she was determined to add to the packed bags.

Tamara visited from over the road and brought two large bags of dried fruit and some winter-weight tights.

Why, she wondered could they not be added to the framed original picture, and the hundred-weight of jewelry revealed to be secreted in my checkable baggage when Gevorg unzipped it to stuff in the cognac.

I mixed and matched all the following reasons as each new friend or neighbor came bearing gifts. Not one of them made a whit of difference, but you are welcome to try them:

• only 1.5 liters of wine or spirits per person is allowed by customs. I already had two bottles of wine, gifted earlier in the week

* it is illegal to import foodstuffs, even if dried

* I am traveling to Ireland, England, Italy and Spain before moving to wherever my next job is– stopping to see my kids in the DC area on the way. It can’t possibly make sense to carry household items on this mega trip when I have a great supply of both in the US, and all points in between.

As I finally left the house, Elza put two folded sheets of lavash, Armenia’s flatbread–nearly enough for top and under sheets on a twin bed—into my carry-on, in case I get hungry on the way to Moscow. I managed to stop her packing leftover green beans with eggs, and two kilos of apricots, but only because I ate them before we left the house.

At the airport, I was told my larger bag was one kilo overweight and, as it was the second bag, would be charged $100 if the weight could not be distributed. Luckily the entire family was to hand. My possessions were spread on the floor of Zvartnots as Gevorg struggled to move things around and rezip the bags. He did it. Oh good– instead of a total fee of $150, only $50 to be paid.

Downstairs to the bank machine, upstairs to the Aeroflot payment office, Gevorg encouraging my broken spirit every step of the way. He was standing in the check-in line ready to swap the baggage receipt for my ransomed boarding-card when Nane and her mother turned up. Nane is one of my poetry teens from Goris. She missed the chance to say goodbye there, but she and Knarik were in Yerevan today. They took a taxi to the airport to surprise me in the check-in line, and handover a terracotta plate commemorating my beloved Ararat. It is in my hand luggage.

Many hugs and kisses and photos and tears at the entrance to the gate. I am soaking wet but it is hard to know whether it is ordinary sweat ( the temperature is at least 100 degrees F), stress perspiration, my own tears, or everybody else’s.

I am having a last glass of Armenian white Karas wine at the airport cafe. Fruit flies keep landing on the glass. I know this is because all my fellow passengers have hand luggage full over overripe fruit.

I am lucky to be loved. I do not take it lightly. Arai zham Armenia.

Posted in Armenia, kindness, leaving gifts, saying goodbye, time to go, travel | Leave a comment

Bari Janapar—strolling through Artsakh with Ara

In Vank village in Artsakh they built a wall with all their obsolete number plates after the war was won, and independence declared. The ‘A’ on the old tags stood for Azerbaijan. The Republic of Nagorno Karabakh issued its own car tags, and so the enterprising people of this village in northern Artsakh came up with their own use for the discarded plates.

Vank is the kind of village that prides itself on being wacky. The entrance is guarded by two sets of stone lions, male and female, and there is also an art installation celebrating the not-so-recent evolution of the motor car. The last car in line is a Rolls-Royce. I wonder if they will add a Prius and a Tesla one day?

We passed through the village on the way to Gandasar monastery, and then the stone lion. The monastery has a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains and there is a manuscript library there. The gospels and bibles weren’t quite as old as the 10th century Book of Kells in Ireland, but there are hundreds of them, dating from the 11th century to the 16th. Beautiful blues and golds. Photos aren’t allowed. They sold single postcards at the door. I bought one of each, and wondered why they didn’t have the nous to make up multi-packs.

At the top of the church is a stone carving depicting the church’s builder holding up the structure through brute force. He couldn’t have known how arduous his centuries-old task would be. The church is surrounded by a fortress wall and has been attacked many times by marauding Russians, Persians and Turks.

In the valley below Treasure mountain, a natural stone configuration that looks like a lion’s head has been given a little human help. Opposite this cheesiness is a delightfully camp restaurant which apparently serves dreadful food. It and the Restaurant opposite, styled as a ship, were both empty at 2pm. I guess the word is out.

The monastery at Dadivank could have done with the resolve of Gandasar’s plucky builder. It was first constructed between the 8th and 13th centuries–it probably took this long because the workers constantly had to stop to admire the view. During the Soviet years, when Azerbaijan had dominion over Artsakh, the church was used to store grain and animal feed. At the time the independent Republic was declared in 1992, a Kurdish family were found to be living in the church, cooking their food on an open fire in front of the altar. Since 1999, the church has been undergoing renovation and ancient frescos have been found and restored. There is a spotlessly clean toilet at a cafe opposite. Avail yourself of it. The only other facilities we could find for miles comprised a squatty potty for which the owner wished to charge 100 dram-20 cents- a go. Toilets, shops, cafes and road signs are all scarce outside the cities in Artsakh.

The bishop at the monastery in Shushi faced a very particular problem: there was no one to hear his confession. He must have confided this to his builder, because the construction engineers fashioned an echo chamber in the basement of the limestone church. Stand just under a hole in the roof, and your own breath and words come back to you. The bishop could hear his own confession. History does not record if his acts of penitence were punishing, or pretty easy to bear.

By this time we were at risk of monastery fatigue. Time to repair to the market at Shushi for some fresh made zhingalov hats and the chance to admire the pickling skills of local women. Zhingalov hats are flatbreads stuffed with a variety of herbs, fresh-picked in local fields. The bread is skillet-baked in front of you, and handed over while still warm. As you can see below, it is tiring and labor intensive work.

Artsakh’s capital city Stepanakert (named for the communist with the defensive body language below) has a great little museum that manages to race through a couple of thousand years of history, politics, and culture while celebrating crafts and geology. A man outside sells handcrafted boxes with secrets compartments. These are made from local trees.

Stepanakert, easy, friendly, and airy, is like the rest of Artsakh, spotlessly clean. There is not a cigarette butt, single use plastic bag, or discarded ice-cream wrapper in sight. I’d love to know how they have engendered this litter-free consciousness– Armenia could benefit.

While Artsakh is allegedly an independent Republic, Armenia pays 80% of government bills. Of course, many houses and buildings had to be rebuilt after the war in the 90s, with the government footing much of the expense. The war was a high price to pay for coherent design and clean lines, but there is no doubt that Artsakh’s cities today look much better than those in Armenia. Cars in Artsakh too are imports, newish, clean and super-shiny. It makes no sense, but the place looks polished, even prosperous. I couldn’t help but think of Armenia as the parent of a young adult who scrimps to top up study fees while the prodigal parties. We’ve all done it.

An obligatory visit to grandma and grandma, ( the Tatik Papik statue) and then off to visit the oldest tree in the former Soviet Union. This plane tree is 2038 years old. It has been lucky to make it this far, because people will persist in burning candles inside the hollowed husk of its main trunk.

I resisted an urge to carve LB loves AA on the trunk, adding to the damaging but romantic social history of the tree. During our two days in Artsakh, Ara solicitously offered his arm for all the steep paths and uneven surfaces. The pictures of us walking together are my favorites of the trip. I will miss his love, friendship and support.

Some bonus pics, including those of a pomegranate tree.

Please note that Liz traveled to Artsakh after she concluded her Peace Corps service in neighboring Armenia. She traveled independently, and with an Armenian guide. If you have the opportunity, you should do the same.

Posted in Armenia, Artsakh, Azerbaijan, Cross-cultural understanding, Environment, friendship, Nagorno-Karabakh, Soviet Union, Things that gladden the heart, Things that make a difference, travel | 3 Comments

Artsakh: a Northern Ireland woman writes

Show your passport and get your handwritten visa as you cross the border from Armenia to the Republic of Artsakh and discover this: some of humankind’s most hellish hating took place in some of the most beautiful landscape in the world.

We saw a cow cleaning her minutes-old calf in a field on a plain where thousands died not thirty years ago. “Hee” “Hoo” the two men securing hay on the back of a truck called to each other in the sunshine– easy, ancient cooperation where previously bullets and rockets had flown. Missile silos surround a 7th century limestone church on top of a steep hill. The bright green of a local lizard is not the only camo this countryside has seen.

If you speak of it all, you almost certainly call this part of the world Nagorno-Karabakh. In Armenia, they call it Artsakh-its name since the 6th century BC when its beautiful forests and mountains, rock formations, and plains were part of Great Armenia, a country stretching from the Black to the Caspian Sea. In Azerbaijan today, they call this disputed territory theirs.

Fast forward nearly two thousand years from the time of Great Armenia to 1918. Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent republics. Artsakh, which had also been part of the Russian Empire, and fought over for generations by Persians and Turks, was once again part of Armenia. It didn’t last of course.

In 1921, Stalin, then Lenin’s right hand man, gave Artsakh to Azerbaijan. So much for independence. No matter then, that the majority of the region’s people were ethnically Armenian, and Christian. The move was probably part of a bigger power play to bring the Turks closer to Stalin’s way of thinking.– though I for one am unclear what difference this might have made. No one really knows, for Stalin was not the confiding type. Not that it made much difference to Azerbaijan– its territory, like so many of its neighbors became subsumed by the Soviet Union. That is how things stayed for another 70 years or so.

With the collapse of the USSR in the late 80s/early 90s, the people of Artsakh thought it was time to let the Azeris know where they stood. They pressed for reunification with Armenia. That didn’t fly. The notion of independence was put to a territory -wide referendum in 1991. The ethnic Armenian/Christian population easily outvoted their minority Azeri/Muslim neighbors in the disputed territory. Independence was declared then using-ironically–the NK name which is Turkish in origin. The Azeris declared war. The Armenians fought for their kinsfolk.

If you look at a population map, it is hard to see how the tiny republic survived. Azerbaijan is a huge, oil-rich country. Artsakh at the time of the war had fewer than 200,000 people. Even with the support of every man fit to fight from next-door Armenia, the numbers didn’t look good.

The ethnic Armenians had a few things in their favor though. First, a passionate determination to hold out against the Azeris. And secondly and most importantly a strategic savvy honed by millennia-long mastery of chess. The landscape eventually worked in their favor too.

Today, the many deep gorges and ravines of Artsakh are all crossed by thin wires, threaded to thwart Azeri planes and helicopters carrying bombs, and men with loaded guns. The pilots couldn’t see the wire. When they hit it, it caused them to crash. Many of the pilots were Ukrainian– mercenaries trying to earn a crust after Soviet jobs disappeared. War does not discriminate.

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that the Armenians flour bombed the Azeris. They, thinking they’d been hit by a chemical weapon, fled.

The city of Shushi is on a plateau at the top of a sheer wall of rock. At first it was held by the Azeris who lit truck tires on fire and rolled them over the cliff edge on to the Armenians living in villages below. From their vantage point the Azeris could also shoot people in their houses, firing through their roofs. The situation looked hopeless for the defenders of Artsakh. But the Armenians had a plan. Across a period of weeks, they ignited spats in towns and villages, drawing their enemy out of the strategic center. Meanwhile they assembled many thousands of their own troops to storm the city from the non rocky side. It worked. The city fell to the Armenians and the war was won.

We stood overlooking the gorge and admiring the cliff and the plateau. A cuckoo sang. An Azeri might consider this a metaphor, but there are no Azeris left in Shushi, Artsakh or Armenia.

In the capital Stepanakert, a delightful, clean, open, sunny, white-stoned city there are ancient mosques dating from the time when Persians were in charge. Today these are under renovation as historic sites. In the ancient capital of Tigranakert a partial excavation has revealed a Christian church dating from medieval times. In slightly more recent times, Azeri homes were built using the remains of the old church as a foundation. No one lives there now. The plain is no man’s land, stretching out to the border with Azerbaijan. There were deaths on that plain as recently as 2016, a four-day war between the people of the Republic, their Armenian kin, and the Azeris. Every day still there are incursions on both sides, sniper shootings and deaths. Total deaths are estimated at about 35,000 since the war in the 80s/90s. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. Casualties are everywhere today.

Following the April war of 2016, the people of the Republic decided to revert to their old Armenian name. Nagorno-Karabakh is now the Republic of Artsakh. No one outside the South Caucasus much noticed. No one else much cares. Most of the world does not recognize Artsakh, however much they do or don’t know of the history. Azerbaijan has oil and gas, and that buys international friendship

Stepanakert is hosting CONIFA at the moment, a 10-team tournament for teams from unrecognized states. I can’t say I knew any of the team names. 3 of them– situated within territory you probably know as Ukraine– could not even turn up to play.

” Perhaps Northern Ireland should join the next tournament” said my Armenian guide. ” Northern Ireland is an unrecognized State isn’t it?”

“Maybe” I said ” but we have our own football team and we՚re able to compete in all the big tournaments”.

I thought Ara’s eyes began to glaze when I started to talk about the 1982 World Cup quarter finals. I expect if he ever has the chance to join me in Northern Ireland he will be glad our own vexed history is a great deal shorter than Armenia’s own.

Liz Barron finished her Peace Corps service before traveling independently to Artsakh in the company of an Armenian guide. Perhaps one day she will have the chance to visit Azerbaijan and hear their account of the last 2000+ years. That will not be possible however, while her passport bears an Armenian stamp.

Posted in Armenia, Artsakh, Azerbaijan, Cross-cultural understanding, Nagorno-Karabakh, Religion, Stalin, travel, war | 3 Comments