Capsicums and the Spirit of competition in the Caucasus

Picture credit:Peter Barron

The Dezerter market in Tbilisi is so-called because soldiers in a Russian-Georgian war (1920s) went there to dump their guns when they tired of fighting. Deserting trends there still. The market stall holders were asked to vacate the hall a decade ago to allow a renovation of the building. Many of them never went back, preferring to set up shop on the pavements surrounding the massive warehouse. The sellers would have to pay rent in the market hall, but can squat in the alleyways for free.

Picture credit: Linda Jackman

Tina is one of the few traders inside, preferring the cool of the hall to the heat of the street, and proud of her city-approved hygiene certification. Tina makes a variety of pickles and relishes including a very good green pepper sauce. At first she handed us samples on small plastic paddles. When these ran out she poured her pepper preparations straight on to our palms inviting us to lick them off. The pepper must have anti bacterial properties for none of us suffered any ill effects. I still shudder when I think of the condition of the hand rails we’d clutched that day before we met Tina.

Picture credit: Linda Jackman

Encouraged by our enthusiasm for her condiments, Tina opened a bottle of what she calls Lady Cha Cha. This tasted like a fortified wine loaded with every soft fruit and berry imaginable. The base is cognac. One sip and it was Christmas. Many bags and knapsacks clinked by the time we moved on.

Delicious drinks and peppers in various forms were not confined to Tbilisi.

Back in Armenia we spent a night at the Hyelandz Eco Resort close to Garni and an Armenian Garden of Eden. Arthur has planted the place with fruit trees of every type. They keep goats and make their own cheese. There are aviaries. Caroline has designed the Lebanese-influenced menu and among the delights is Muhammara, a dip of homegrown red peppers and walnuts. Spread on the resort’s own bread or dried Lavash it makes the perfect lunch, washed down with a glass or two of Arthur’s home made red wine. We supplemented dinner with glasses of estate-produced cherry and walnut liqueurs. Could we fit a bottle of each in our baggage? It seemed we could.

Picture credits: Peter Barron

Caroline’s Muhammara was nearly matched by a simple dish we were served at Aland Resort in Yenokavan, high in the mountains above Ijevan. Green peppers this time, finely chopped and sautéed in olive oil with garlic and served with hunks of bread. It doesn’t sound like much, but it made a perfect outdoorsy lunch

We had a balcony in Gosh and it seemed like a good idea to order a bottle of wine to enjoy there before dinner. Bistro-owner Anahit took our order for a bottle of dry red wine without comment. We watched the sun go down as she brought glasses, giving them an elaborate polish before she set them down. A few minutes later we saw a five year old running across the square beneath us carrying a newly purchased bottle in front of him as though it were an outsize rolling pin. It was rose. It was warm But least it was dry. We drank it.

“Maybe we should take a bottle of our Georgian red with us to dinner?” I mused as I saw the shutters go up on the local store.

“You’ll need to ask if that’s ok”.

I broached the subject with Anahit who seemed most alarmed.

“What was wrong with the bottle I brought you earlier?” She wanted to know.

“Nothing at all” we reassured her “it’s just that we drank it”

“Ay Elizabeth jan” said Anahit and handed over the corkscrew.

Anahit produced a lentil soup we liked nearly as much as the Cornelian Cherry soup and the Rosehip, Cognac and Lemon soup we sampled at the Flying Ostrich in Dilijan. And we liked those quite a bit. Honestly though, Anahit’s tiny roast poussin, and cucumber, tomato and herb salad beat the Dolmama sister restaurant’s main courses by a Caucasian country mile. Across a week of very fine– and absolutely straightforward– dining, our favorite dinner was the fish barbecue, bbq potatoes and salad served by Hotel Lavash in Sevan. Fresh, simple and served by the lake. Go there whenever you possibly can.

Following a highly enjoyable wine-tasting at Vino Underground in Tbilisi I was eager to make sure the small wineries of Armenia weren’t ignored.

I booked us a session with Mariam at In Vino in Yerevan

Peter became uncharacteristically flushed and excited after the eighth half glass which this time was filled with a deep red Alluria Reserve, made in Etchmiadzin, just outside Yerevan.

“I enjoyed these much more than the Georgian wines” he said.

Mariam beamed and so did I. My smile was pretty slack by then.

The next day– heads beautifully clear– we visited GUM fruit and vegetable market close to where I stay in Yerevan. It doesn’t sprawl quite as much as Dezerter does and the market hall is full of traders selling everything from chicken feet to cheese and willow baskets to braided sorrel. A great deal of work goes into each display.

“Beautiful stuff” said Peter “and so orderly”.

Another score for Armenia.


Posted in Armenia, Cooking, Cross-cultural understanding, drinking, eating out, Food, food safety, Georgia, Lake Sevan, Tbilisi, Things that gladden the heart, travel, Vacation spots, Village life, wine | Leave a comment

What to do in Tbilisi.

Aghmashenebeli Avenue. Make three attempts to save this name in your phone, and go there when you visit Tbilisi. This paved street in the new town has loads of alluring outdoor cafes serving Georgian wines and flaky khachapuri — pastry hankies filled with beans, cheese, potato and cheese or a baked egg. (Other foods are available. But you’d be a fool to miss out on the khachapuri). The day was hot so we decided a beer was called for. Beer is not a thing in Georgia– or hasn’t been until now. A craft beer bar has just opened off the Aghmashenebeli main drag. The owner, an Azeri raised in Siberia, urged us into the concrete cool of his matchbox taproom.

The brass beer pulls are all in place but the brewer hasn’t yet been able to order enamel discs to parade before the parched. These beers are so new they don’t yet have names. We ordered an IPA and a Double IPA. Flat, golden, hoppy and cold, they put the fizz back in our physiology. I wish I could direct you to the place– but there’s no name outside the door. — at least not yet. Just look for the chalkboard.

A visit to Fabrika was next on our list–one of those vast,old industrial buildings now reimagined as a hub for artisans and artists. I fear it is referred to as multi-functional space. Cafes line the yard. We sat outside on school furniture and waited for the hip wait staff to, well, wait. Peter stuck with IPA– a small, bottled one this time. I had a lime and mint lemonade. Later we took the industrial elevator to the second floor of the old factory expecting workshops filled with tortured felt, imaginative enamel work, and a hundred uses of unwanted Soviet memorabilia– crafting staples of Tbilisi. In fact, the upstairs at Fabrika is a hostel. Dorm rooms and private bedrooms with refurbished mid century furniture lined each side of a snot-green school corridor spine. I don’t know what they charge, or how rowdy the backpackers are at night, but it looked clean, cool and calm.

The walk from Aghmashenebeli (it gets easier each time you type it) took us past lots of second hand furniture– the kind of chairs I find hard to resist, in colors I love. You may want to travel to Georgia by van so you can bring some back.

By now it was legitimately time for a glass of red. I had Papari Valley. Read the link if you want all the Kekhati, qvevri, Saperavi, microclimate information but trust me when I say that this is a wine for the full-bodied. It is 16.6 % and I loved every jammy mouthful. Expect to have to brush your tongue harshly before you go to bed, and then again the next morning.

Tongues returned to a healthy pink, we met Tamar, our Guide from Culinary Backstreets Tours. The tour is an excellent way to get a sense of the city and learn its history and culture while sampling delicious food. We were joined by an Australian world traveler; an American entymologist and his German wife; Carol from the US Embassy; and an enterprising woman from California going to Kyoto the long way round. For me the fellow travelers were a bonus because, inevitably, some of the stops on the tour were much more familiar to me than to the others. There is a lot of overlap in the Georgian and Armenian ways of life. Seeing the others’ enjoyment greatly added to my own but nonetheless I felt strangely torn in my loyalties. Surely the Tonir is Armenian? Surely Yerevan’s fruit and vegetable market is superior to that of Tbilisi? Don’t get me started on who was the first to make wine… I knew I had really lost my heart to Armenia when we arrived at the Dry Bridge Flea Market. I am highly susceptible to other people’s junk but every time I spotted a must-have item I reminded myself that my money would be best spent supporting the Armenian economy.

I got over this scruple by the time we reached Vino Underground, a wine bar on Galaktioni Street, near Freedom Square. Dark and dangerous steps lead down into a cavern lined with Georgia’s finest wines. Once you’ve made the perilous descent it seems wise to stay all afternoon. Our wines were served by a knowledgeable young woman from Western Massachusetts who came to Georgia four years ago for a short visit. She fell in love with the language, the wine and for all I know a Georgian. She is fluent in Georgian and in the language of wine. We found our own language proficiency increased with lubrication. We were there for hours. We had dinner at Ezo, a family run restaurant but a stagger from the wine bar. I ate beans with thyme, and an aubergine dish. Both delicious. I dipped my Georgian bread in the fabulous walnut sauce that surrounded the chicken. The wine here was red, homemade, and served in large jugs. We had several. Our tour, which was meant to end at 6pm, wrapped up around 10:30pm with an exchange of hugs and social media handles.

Posted in Armenia, Cooking, craft activities, Craft beer, Cross-cultural understanding, drinking, eating out, Food, Georgia, Great weekends, Local delicacies, social media, Tbilisi, Things that gladden the heart, travel, Vacation spots, wine | 1 Comment

By Gosh! Great Breakfast!

Hasmik crossed the square and returned with a packet of sugar, bought from the first of three small stores, each of which sell a little bit of everything. We began to hope that our breakfast, first mentioned 30 minutes ago, might soon appear. Hasmik was not the only person to pass the single table set outside the Mkhitar Gosh Hotel Two priests drove up in a Nissan, their long dark robes, ornate cross pendants and bushy beards looking out of place in the front seats of the near-new station wagon. Around us, women in flowered dresses, sleeveless cardigans, bright socks and flat mules began to set up stalls selling tat for tourists–people visiting Goshavank Monastery, high on the hill above the square. Just as all three shops in the tiny village stock the same items– hair dye, church candles, cognac, school socks and gata–so all the stalls compete to sell pomegranate charms, bags of herb tea, and items hand-crafted from stiff polyester fabric printed in traditional Armenian designs.

“Just how many people need a wine cosy?” we wondered as Hasmik once more crossed the square, visiting the last shop in the row of three this time. “And wouldn’t those waistcoats be itchy?” Hasmik came back with a box of salt.

By now the two priests were walking round the monastery grounds, looking at ongoing renovations to the main church and tutting over weeds sprouting from the roof of St Hripsime’s chapel.

The church complex has USAID-sponsored signage in Braille in five languages. Blind visitors from England, France, Germany, Russia and of course Armenia, know all there is to know about Mr Gosh and the history of the church. Some probably have rueful tales to tell about the perils of broken paving and steep slopes for the site is hard for even the fully sighted to navigate. Stands for other noticeboards surround the multiple domes, but they are all empty. It’s not clear if the signs have gone away or have yet to arrive.

A man in a hi-vis vest busied himself with path-sweeping as the priests passed by. He had started work at 9am on the dot. Yesterday, we’d seen him finish at 6pm, just as the cows came home through the square. Now the herdsman walked his cattle the other direction. The herd nudged past men playing nardi in the shade, and edged down the hill in front the apple tree and a couple of storage shacks. In all the excitement I didn’t see Hasmik embark on her third shopping trip. As she returned with a bag of rice we asked for a second cup of coffee.

“I’ll bring it now” said Hasmik. “and then I’ll bring some Melissa tea.”

“No hurry” said my brother, perhaps a touch sardonic.

Two young men in a Soviet era jeep rattled a few times round the square and then hared off up the hill. A badly battered Lada stopped where it could be seen and the driver unpacked a scale, boxes of plums tomatoes and grapes, and a sack or two of peppers. The back seat of the car was stuffed to the ceiling with other produce. People collected to shop, but Hasmik it seemed had no need of fruit or veg.

About 10 o’clock, the bread van stopped outside the hotel. Anahit emerged from the kitchen and bought three flat loaves– tonir made– and many batches of bread. Anahit picked what she wanted, tucking the flat loaves under her arm while she instructed the bread man to fill a plastic crate with everything else she needed.

Anahit and Hasmik are by far the most glamorous creatures in Gosh (pronounced Gauche). Anahit is manicured and bejeweled and owns a selection of sparkly tops. He hair is pink and the front and gold at the back. She is slim, serene and stately. Anahit was widowed four years ago and surely has no shortage of suitors today. Hasmik has hair that Rapunzel would envy Both women sport hair clasps that look like the belt buckles of medieval kings. They are magnificent. That’s both the women and the hair grips.

Hasmik struck out for one of the tourist stalls and came back with a handful of Melissa– lemon thyme. Anahit brought to our table a basket of freshly-cut bread, a bowl of soft-boiled eggs, local cheese and butter, and home made blackberry jam. We could see the bramble hedge that spawned the jam. We could hear the chickens who laid the eggs. Hasmik followed up with a French press filled with lemony tea, and some slices of ice-cold watermelon. The haze lifted over the mountains. A van full of German tourists creaked round the corner and reversed into a parking space. The parking attendant raced towards the van but was too late to assist. He had been chatting to the man with the limp who tends the square’s khorovats barbecue. Even before visiting the church, the Germans bought traditional aprons made in stiff, new fabric It was going to be a good day for the women trading on the square. Perhaps most people who stay at Anahit’s hotel don’t get out of bed until they know the bread van’s been. Those people miss out on a lot.

Posted in Archaeology, Architecture, Armenia, breakfast, Christianity, Church, Cooking, craft activities, Cross-cultural understanding, eating out, Food, Great weekends, joy, Local delicacies, Things that gladden the heart, travel, Village life, Women | Leave a comment

Met—and missed— along the way

I look a bus from Tbilisi airport to Station Square and congratulated myself that I would be able to book our beds on the sleeper train back to Yerevan before I even dropped my bag at the place we’ll stay for the next three nights in Georgia’s capital. At first I thought the bus was one of those free airport shuttles but as it began to fill with commuters all using electronic prepaid passes, I realized my mistake. I stayed sanguine until a ticket collector with an officious array of badges and an old fashioned leather money pouch boarded the bus. No need to worry– she checked a few tickets but completely ignored me. Phew, I thought. It was all going terribly well. Then we arrived Station Square and I completely failed to find the station.

At first I wasn’t at all alarmed. After all, I am the person who managed to miss the Grand Canyon, driving 90 miles past the massive hole in the ground before I thought to stop and seek help. If you often fail to see the obvious you get used to wandering around bewildered. Confused becomes your natural state. I walked past hawkers selling fake Nike sportswear. (Trust me, if you feel the need to burn something with a whoosh just do it with one of these rip offs. They look highly flammable.) I circled a large gold market. I stumbled into the metro. I fought off two fake taxi drivers offering to take me to Batumi. All the while I looked for clues: a sign saying this way to the ticket office? Some railroad tracks? People purposefully wheeling suitcases? I promise you there were none of these.

Eventually I gave in and asked a fake taxi driver to direct me. He said the station was several floors up above the gold market. I could use an escalator to glide through a low rent mall. Who ever heard of such a thing? A station where a cinema or a bar ought to be? I still have no ideas where the tracks are. As it turns out, I may never find out…

I had consulted the international train experts about how and where to buy sleeper tickets. Window 2 the man in seat 61 said. I am here to tell you that the Caucasus pages on this esteemed site needs updating. You can’t go straight to window 2. You have to take one of those tickets like the ones you get to wait in line at supermarket deli counters. I was called to window number 1.

Tamar tried to be helpful, she really did. But no, I couldn’t buy two tickets for Monday night unless I could produce two passports. I explained my brother would arrive here nearly 24 hours later than me, and that we had a packed schedule. Could she sell me the tickets? She could not. Furthermore, she advised me that all the first class, two-bed carriages were sold out. The two of us would have to travel in a four bed carriage. Could I buy all four beds? I asked. Only if I had four passports, Tamar replied.

I asked Tamar how many beds were still free on Monday night’s train. 9 she said, but all in different carriages. No two beds in the same small, swaying room. I guess we’ll take the bus.

Tamar asked me why I didn’t book online. It seemed pointlessly confusing to explain that the man in seat 61 had said this was not a possibility. I settled for asking her the name of the website where tickets can be booked. She didn’t know.

I got some cash and decided to take a taxi to our lodging, leaving the means of our Monday travel undecided. Many hairpin U-turns and much gesticulating later (Georgians don’t speak Armenian which is a pity because this morning it seemed to be my default setting) we arrived at a building clearly marked with a number 5 on the appointed street. Good job I thought and sat down to wait for someone to let me in. It did seem a little odd there was no one about.

My phone does not work in Georgia. This is a shame as it was almost fully charged thanks to some thoughtfully provided USB ports on the 37 bus from the airport. Eventually though a small boy rode by on his bike. I apprehended him, borrowed his phone and called the reservation number.

“Ah, “”explained Victor, “not that number 5” but another one two blocks away, not marked with a number 5 and on on a completely different street.

I followed Victor’s directions to go to another hotel and ask them to walk me to his place. They weren’t expecting me, but a very gracious young man became my guide. Once we got there, there were people who seemed to have heard of me, but the room wasn’t ready. No matter. I could leave my bag and come back later. At about this time a very old man who had been hovering on the outskirts of the conversation suddenly asked me for 180 of whatever it is they spend here.

“Why?”I asked, incredulously.

“I am Victor’s father”he replied and held out his hand.

“He is. He is.” said everyone else.

I of course could not phone Victor but his alleged father cheerfully offered to do this. But I couldn’t see the number he dialed. I began to tut and harrumph in unintelligible Armenian. The phone was passed to me and I asked Victor to repeat to me the previous conversation we’d had on the long-gone boy cyclist’s phone. He was able to do this and so I handed over the bank notes, left my belongings and set off to explore old town Tbilisi. I’m sure it will all be fine…

There was a small church on the way down the cobbled street. I stopped to study the legend detailing the history of the place at the same time as a presentable looking man about my age.

“Do you speak English?” he asked.

I affirmed this and he asked me where I was from — Armenia I told him. He said he was visiting from America’s Mid West.

“Decadent city, Tbilisi”he said.

“Oh good” I said, thinking that perhaps the trip was about to take an interesting turn.

“You think decadent is a good thing?” he asked, lips pursed, and told me how his taxi driver from the airport has offered to fix him up with a hooker.

“Oh you mean seedy, not decadent” I said. “I am pro decadent and anti seedy.”

“Have you talked to Apostolic priests?” My new friend asked. ” I hav spoken to quite a few but you can’t get close to them. Terrible body odour”.

I reeled back as though he too smelt bad.

“.Are you a Christian woman?” my new friend asked as we stood in the church grounds.

“I was raised in that tradition”I said. “But I can’t say I practice.”‘

“You would do well to go back to it”said Mr Mid West. More lip pursing. I began to notice he was clad top to toe in beige.

I decided it was time to make my excuses and leave.

“What do you do in Armenia?” he wanted to know.

“I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer.”

“Imposing America’s world order…”

“That’s not how I see it”. By now I was itching to go.

“Where are you from in the States ?

“Washington DC”‘I called over my shoulder.

“Oh of course” he said. “Broken place. Broken government”

“It is at the moment” I said.

“Has been for a very long time” he replied

I waved and kept walking.

Later I took a taxi to a flea market.

“You married?”‘mimed the taxi driver sliding an imaginary ring up and down his wedding finger.

My facial expression said that I was not.

” You are finished with that” he said. “So am I. But we can make it work. I will stay with you always. I will come with you to America”.

I looked steadfastly straight ahead, my bag barricading my all vulnerable parts.

When he dropped me off he asked to be paid in dollars or Euros

“Don’t have them” I said, truthfully.

“20 lari” he said.

” No way. I came from the station for 10 and that was twice the distance. I’ll give you 10″.

He drove off without protest. The driver who brought me back charged me five. He saluted every time I pantomimed a direction. Now that’s my kind of man.


Posted in Armenia, marriage, marriagw proposals, scams, seat 61, Tbilisi, trains, travel | 4 Comments

Leaving Armenia the hard way

I was booking my international flight by credit card when my friend called. He was planning some travel of his own. “We have the chance to visit Switzerland” he said, excited “Christoph asked us to come”

Christoph once visited Goris and saw the sites with my tour guide friend. Later, Christoph, who is Swiss, traveled to Gyumri in the north of Armenia. Unfortunately, he was involved in a late-night accident there. He wasn’t hurt, but had to go to the police. Christoph speaks French, German, Italian and English–but not Armenian. He made a midnight phone call to his tour guide at the other end of the country, and the driver’s language skills saved the day. Since then, the two men have stayed in touch. “Bring your family to Switzerland for a holiday” Christoph offered, and sent the money for four return tickets. Via DHL, he sent a formal invitation letter to help with  the visa process.  The letter specified that Christoph would cover all the family’s expenses during their vacation, and supplied bank statements to show money was no object. My friend drove 250 km to Yerevan from Goris to pick up the letter.

Armenians need a Schengen visa to visit Switzerland, and just about every other country in Europe.  Here in Armenia, there is a Swiss Embassy, but they don’t process visas. The visa process is allegedly managed by the Polish Embassy. Only on a Friday can an Armenian go online at the Polish Embassy site to apply for a visa. Not any Friday of course. At the moment, no applications will be accepted until Friday September 14. The notice of delays went up on the website on August 2. Something broken? Someone on holiday? There is no way of knowing. They do not answer the phone, and my friend was turned away when he turned up on the doorstep the day he was in town to retrieve the invitation letter. No applications until September 14. They may, or may not, be available then. The family is meant to travel on September 6.

swiss embassy wrote to important people in Switzerland and were told it was possible for Armenians to travel to Georgia, the country next door, to make application at the Swiss Embassy there. The family could make the nearly 1000 km round trip with passports, invitation letter and proof of income and savings. The roads are not good, my friend’s wife is pregnant. One of their small boys suffers from car sickness. Nonetheless, they did it–it takes nearly 12 hours each way. Plus waiting time at the Embassy.

In common with a high percentage of people in Armenia, my friend is self-employed and pays his bills in cash. In order to make visa approval more likely, he set up a bank account and ordered a bank card. But of course he has no history of regular deposits. This meant that the Embassy in Tbilisi had to forward the family’s applications to the Swiss canton where Christoph lives. Was the canton happy to take the risk of having the family in the country? It would take them two weeks to decide.

Last Friday, Christoph went to the Canton and made a fuss. Told that interoffice mail stampwould mean that a letter needing an official stamp could not be delivered to another Zurich office until Monday, Christoph offered to take it himself. He made the three minute walk, got the stamp and hovered while the necessary approvals were emailed to the Swiss Embassy in Tbilisi. By then, of course, the Tbilisi office was closed. At the weekend, as the family packed their bags, we emailed the Embassy and requested an early appointment for visa pick up on Tuesday morning. If they could confirm early on Monday, my friend could drive 500 km to the Embassy and have time to drive back on Tuesday and rest a little on Wednesday before making the five hour journey to the airport for very early Thursday morning. An eight and a half hour flight to Zurich via Kiev would follow.

Monday morning came and went. Still no word from Tbilisi. Christoph called and called them from Zurich. We called and called them from Goris. Although this Embassy had always been very responsive , no-one would now answer the phone. My friend alternated between biting his nails and revving his engine.  Time was running out…

At 4pm yesterday the message came. 3 visas were approved and would be ready for pick-up today at 11am. 3? Whose was missing and why? Luckily the problem was quickly sorted out by phone. Many wives in Armenia keep their family names when they marry. This meant that Mrs A’s visa had been misfiled. Phew. My friend set off with his uncle in the passenger seat–it wouldn’t be safe for one person to drive 1000 km in 30 hours, including Embassy waiting time. As far as I know they made their appointment this morning and are on their way home.

The whole thing took more patience, more persistence, more fuel, more time and more Euros than most people anywhere have. I know I would have given up on the doorstep of the Polish Embassy in Yerevan.

Lack of money of course is the main reason most Armenians don’t travel. Not everyone is lucky enough to be offered an all-expenses-paid international vacation. But visa issues–inevitably linked to finances in a world where impoverished immigrants are unwanted–must be a close second.

“I am beginning to feel like a prisoner here” said my friend told me as he faced yet another twist and turn on the road to visa approval “I love this country but it is like a crime to have been born here. I can go almost nowhere. We have this great opportunity–a friend offering this great chance for my boys–and yet we cannot make it happen. They think I would run from Armenia. I wouldn’t. I only want to see Switzerland, visit friends. I would never leave my garden…” This made me laugh, for it is absolutely true.

I need no visa to complete my own international trip. I will travel to Zvartnots airport just one day after my Goris friends. Those of us with US and European passports have no idea just how lucky we are.

Posted in Armenia, Cross-cultural understanding, Driving, Schengen visa, Things that make a difference, travel, Travel to Switzerland | 2 Comments

Yerevan or Bus(t)

“You are on the first bus” said the woman with the stiff curls, and marked my ticket with a 1.

I left the marshutni office and walked over to the only bus, where passengers were milling around the open hatch, fretting about the vodka, green beans, bedspreads and other breakable, perishable and bulky items they wished to transport from Goris to Yerevan.

The driver, fag drooping from his lower lip, checked I was going all the way into the city- sometimes I ask to be dropped off at a gas station close to Ararat, the better to visit Elsa and family. Satisfied, he bunged my bag into the back of his vehicle, sandwiching it between a sack of tired footwear and what might have been a very large sheet cake. He did not ask to see my ticket.

I took my seat over the wheel arch at the back of the minibus and played a little online Scrabble as the bus filled up. The second bus eventually arrived and filled up too. We both set off together.

“Good” I thought “an empty seat beside me all the way to Yerevan”.

It was not to be.

We wheezed up the steep hill out of Goris- I was already fearing for the sheet cake– and stopped at a gas station where two young men were waiting.

Two young men. Tickets 14 and 15. Only seat 15 was free. I was in number 14, but apparently on the wrong bus. Uproar ensued.

How, the bus driver wanted to know, could I have been so stupid as to get on the wrong bus?

The following retorts came to mind. A philosophical question :  “what makes the first bus the first bus?” ;  a declaration of inclusivity “I see no difference between the first and second buses”; and a practical suggestion “why don’t you get a bloody sign?”

Instead I rather meekly suggested that the second driver (mine) phone the first driver and arrange a handover of misplaced passenger 14 at the Tatev turnoff.

The driver was firm that this was not an option, but he did take the opportunity to call Mrs Stiff Curls and yell, even though it was nothing to do with her. By now other passengers were tutting and men were indicating that if this was to go on much longer, they would need to get off for a smoke

In the interests of peace and progress, the two bony boys folded themselves into the seat beside me and we set off. They were remarkably sanguine I thought for passengers forced each to sit on one thinly-fleshed hip for 250 kilometers.

In fact in turned out that they were only making a short hop to Sisian. I spread out on seats 14 and 15 and felt mollified.

One of the other backrow passengers decided to soften towards me.

“Amerikatzi es” he said sympathetically.

“Yes” I replied in Armenian–the only language used throughout — “But I live in Goris”

His eyebrows indicated that I should then be rather more competent in transport identification. That was the end of the conversation.

When we stopped for a coffee break the driver made an ostentatious point of checking I was on back on board before he set off. “The Amerikatsi might be on the marshutni for Martuni…” I imagined him muttering to the passengers up front.

I know the Armenian words for first and second, although I am certain that no-one uttered them to me or around me, except for Stiff Curls who sold me the ticket. My question remains: how was everyone else so entirely clear about which bus was which? And why, one year in, am I still oblivious, and the only one in all Armenia in a constant state of surprise and bewilderment?  I fear I shall never know.

           The Glorious View of the Mountains, including Baby Ararat from Seat 14

Posted in Armenia, travel | 1 Comment

Our happy, homogenous town

gorisConversation One.

“This is our American volunteer– her name is Liz”

“Come in Come in (hugs). Pleased to meet you. What will you have to eat?”

“We ate”

“But you’ll have something? Chai? Coffee?”

“Tea would be nice but don’t go to any trouble — we ate already”

Interlude to prepare blackberries, peaches, watermelon, hon, homemade halva, and tea served black in ornate glass cups with frilled edges and sapphire beading– exquisite.

My Aunt has a beautiful voice. She sings at the Culture House. People love her”

“Will you sing something now?

She does. Keeping time by tapping her thumb and the side of her fist on the coffee table. She does indeed have a beautiful voice.

This is a beautiful home”

” My uncle did it. He is a master designer. Come outside and see what he did”

We walk across a huge, covered deck and sit at the back of the house overlooking a large garden full of fruit and vegetables and with a fabulous view of the forest and mountains.

“When I was a child I was as welcome here as at my own home”

“Did you hear about Shurnukh?”

We all nod

We do not like those type of people here”

“It wasn’t good. People should live in peace and respect each other”

“Things are different in America…Do you have more LBGT there?”

“Not more. The same amount. It is just that people there are free to be themselves. Whoever they are. They do not have to hide from their family and neighbors. It is not right to threaten and fight”

“But the way they act. The life they choose”

“It is how they are. How they were born. Like left or right handed”

“Do you have a law?”

“Yes we have a law that says everyone is equal. Religion, race, sexuality, eye color, left or right handed we all deserve the same treatment”

“It is not good. God made a man and a woman”.

“God made all creatures. Every species has homosexuals. It is not bad it is just different.”

“Not right”

“But men and men getting married… Women and women getting married… No children”

“Some people adopt children”

“Two men bringing up a child…”

We do not like that here. We wish there were not these people here. We do not want your law here”

“People are the same all over the world”

Uncle appears from the back of the garden and hands me a small tomato.



“You should have some more”

“No, no– we ate”

Aunt goes to the kitchen and returns with a handful of tomatoes and baby cucumbers. She washes them under the garden tap. We eat them.

Your Aunt has beautiful eyes. Very unusual to see green eyes here”

“My brother has them too”

“This is a beautiful place. The mountain and the rocks are lovely”

” You are welcome in my house any time. Come back again. Come back and eat”

We walk to the front of the balcony to admire the view over the city

“It is so different there. All types of people. Here if we saw a Turk we would kill him. There –all types of people in one country”

“Here we have only Armenians and tourists. We are the only people here. It is good I think. The same kind of people. We are all the same in our country”

“You can keep an eye on everything from here. Know what everyone is doing”


“We should go. I will call a taxi.”

“Let me give you some candy–to take to the office”

“No. No”

Aunt goes into the house and returns with two handfuls of wrapped sweets she stuffs into my friend’s purse. 

“Thank you. We don’t need it. But thank you”

“Thank you Thank you. You are very kind. I am pleased to meet you”


Come back. Come back anytime. You are always welcome here. Careful on the stairs. Goodbye. Good luck. Goodbye”

Conversation Two

” I have no problem with gays. I know gay people– Europeans. Americans. But he just wants to provoke trouble. He is so…. disrespectful”

“I don’t know him but I believe that’s true. But a mob going to someone’s house. Fighting. People in hospital…”

“You know some of the mob were women?”

“Shame on them whoever they were. Hounding people out of their own home. Hurting them. That is no way to behave”

“He asks for trouble… people say you know that he only got like this after he met a Peace Corps Volunteer”

“A man?”

“A woman. They were friends. And then he started to make trouble. It is ok to be gay but he makes everyone have to know it. Since they were friends. I wonder: did she make him gay?”

“People are born gay. You can’t make anyone gay–or straight. Maybe she gave him the confidence to be truly himself”

“But the way he chooses to live his life. He does it to provoke trouble”

“Maybe. But ignore him. No need to hurt him”.

“No one should get hurt. But disrespectful…”

Conversation Three

“They told me when I went to the States I would have a culture shock but I had no problem. But Sweden. I had a culture shock. I try to accept everyone, respect everyone but some of it was hard to understand…”

” I think I might have culture shock in Sweden too. But the more people we meet the more we learn I suppose”

” My professor in the States was lesbian. I got to know her. I respect her. So intelligent. I know lesbians here. After Shurnukh I put a message on my website. Said we have to respect everyone. Human rights. Honestly I was surprised at some of the messages I got. One from a Doctor saying it is unnatural. Wrong. Says it is in the Bible. I don’t read the Bible much. Do you know what it says?”

“No idea. I think we are all good at reading it the way we want to. And it was written a long time ago. We change the way we see things all the time. We learn. ”

” I don’t want to go against God”

“Love one another. Respect. Do the right thing. The brave thing. I admire the way you think. I really do”.



96% of people in Armenia report that they do not approve of homosexuality. In the last couple of weeks, this led to an attack on a house party of men in a village close to where I live. You can read a report of the incident here.

You can find more data in these recent reports. (from page 41)



Posted in Armenia, Bullying, Christianity, Cross-cultural understanding, equality, family, friendship, gay rights, Human rights, identity, Learning, Safety, Syunik Marz, Village life, welcome | Leave a comment