Yerevan is a completely different country. Walking along sidewalks that stretch out between tall buildings. Grabbing indian food, mexican food, and Wetzel’s Pretzel’s. Dancing. Cafe-ing. Things are clean. The temperature is so much warmer. Mannequins hold relaxed poses in city clothes. The staring is much less frequent.
My friend Zoe says that I speak differently when I’m Yerevan. I’m relaxed; my conversation leans away from worries, leans into quick wit and joy. I blame it on samosa-related endorphines gathered in our favorite indian restaurant, Karma. Or it could be the quesadilla at Cactus. Or it could be the pile of books I gather from the shared library at the Peace Corps office. It very definitely has something to do with the dancing.
Whatever it is, I am so happy, no THANKFUL, for my trips to Yerevan. For the mornings at Artbridge where I can chat over an egg sandwich and french toast. For the afternoons spent at Թելեր, the yarn store, before perusing the spice market. For discoveries in SAS Supermarkets of ground cinnamon in bulk, pringles, and worchestershire sauce (ok ok… I don’t cook with it, but most importantly, it’s there). I’m thankful for the evening I spent looking for a coat and for the store called “Banana” where I found this jacket with a patch that misspells “Imdependent Steel” over my heart (I wanted to go for the green one, but I figured I couldn’t get away with the monogrammed “Linda”).
I’m particularly thankful for this past five days spent in the city during our All Volunteer Conference. For hours spent talking, laughing, dancing, and sharing stories (and a cold) with other PCV friends, literally spending every possible moment with each other. For the carrot suffle and the phenomenal brown gravy at our thanksgiving dinner. For the 15 minutes that 15 people spent singing about each other to the tune of “Anyone Else But You” by The Moldy Peaches (of Juno fame).
Returning home, I’m glad for the feeling of being missed, the wide grins and firm handshakes from co-workers and host family. I’m not quite as thankful that our water has been “cut” again, that it could be many days until my next shower. I’m not quite as thankful for the temperature in my house that makes it possible to see my breath in my room. I am VERY thankful for my space heater. I’m very thankful that I’ve made it this far.
And finally, I’m thankful that the snow that I saw falling today at 2:23pm stopped falling at 3:34pm. Keep putting it off, Father Winter.
At an Artik church built back in the seventh century, I found this artifact. I don’t think it was mashed into the dirt 1400 years ago. It’s cartoony, trashy, somehow made me giggle. Reminded me of anime characters thrusting their peace signs forward, all bright, over guestured, winking. But from the dirt.
This past weekend I grabbed my European Volunteer Service friends, and we popped over to Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city, for an art tour provided by the Berlin Hotel. The weather was quite the foil to last week’s sunny, crisp sort, but the day was still so charming, made up of long, quiet, gray rides through rain and flat lands and punctuated by endearing men and women armed for everyday with paintbrushes and homemade wine.
The above picture is the table of the first artist, Hakob Hovahnnisyan.
He lives in a small village, Gusanagyugh, where he moved only a few years ago. The landscape surrounding his home was surely uninspiring with dull grey rocks, smudgy grass and endless horizon, but Hakob said he moved there for the “light”. The best light in all Armenia he said. I was instantly considering the typical Why’s of moving (re: the schools, the active lifestyle, the beach, the job market). Not many people pick up and follow ‘light’.
This is his room where he paints, sleeps, cooks, warms by the gas stove. It’s actually a good picture of what most Peace Corps Volunteer homes are like, except that Hakob covered the walls with off-white draft paper where he hangs his work and scribbles things like, “Պետք է ապրել այնպես, որ կարողանալ նկարել, ոչ թե հակառակը:” It’s necessary to live that way, which can be pictured, not the contrary.
I always wondered what it would be like to be that fabled kind of artist. What it would look like if I jumped off the face of the earth and landed somewhere totally unknown, like the moonscape country of Gyusanagyugh. To be totally devoted to my art. And now I know. It’s a lot of broken furniture, of light-following, of sparse rooms, of quiet.
And outside his home stands this tiny structure, a remnant of soviet pressures which so supressed Christian life. A few brave souls who could not find a church nearby constructed their own for lonely services. The inside of this place was crusted with candle drips and thick with wet air. A picture of Mary. A cushion worn out by the recurrant fall of knees.
Ah, but a mood can certainly pick up at the sight of such houses, surrounded by piles and piles of cabbage, don’t you think? I know it’s hard to see, but look around the houses. Piles and piles. It’s like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, but … just cabbage.
The cabbage piles were followed by a visit to this structure, old walls of a seventh century fortress that jut into the sky at the crest of a hill. When you’re an American tourist, such vists always spark phrases like, “Well, we just don’t have anything that old in the States,” and “I don’t think our Starbucks will last this long.” And then we start thinking about the irony of American self-importance. And then we say things like, “Remember that time we were standing in a 1400 year old building.” Smile, then a bunch of ugly pictures (come on… you know they’re ugly), then back on the bus.
Now the next artists were my kind of people. Yesayi and Irina Meyroyan. These aethetes set up a snack spread as though it were a piece of art. They’re yard was speckled by rickety sculptures that doubled as summer tables and clothes pin holders, little works set up merely for their own pleasure, because very few other people would ever see them.
And finally, there was Vahan Topchyan. His art was my favorite. Whimsical, dreamy. Made me want to write a children’s book and ask him to illustrate it. Ooooh… maybe I will…
He was a strange bird though. Less of an upper lip than my own dad, a mustache that curled down into his mouth. He laughed almost constantly, and when asked by my friend Barbara if there were vacant apartments in the building, and how much they would cost, he replied, “If they are girls, they don’t have to pay rent. They just have to be gooood girls.” And… creeper laugh. But his art was phenomenal. I would absolutely buy one of his Noah’s Ark pieces if I had any dollars at all.
Tigo and I visited a village for these boys’ very first day of school back in September. They’re decked out like businessmen, but my suspicion is that I’ve found the real Harry Potter. Don’t think you fooled me with that band-aid, little man.
If you’re kind enough to read my blog, you will notice in the coming months that I’m trying something new. Nothing drastic. I’ll only be trying to update more frequently, but with less longer posts. So, you can grab your morning coffee and take a sip of Armenia as well. My pictures will come up in smaller bits, hopefully in the fashion of my friend over at Circle Me Confused (and go there to check out some really killer photos of PCV life in Armenia). With my little point-and-shoot Powershot (which I love), I’ll offer my bits here. Like the following:
I went to a play put on my a children’s club in a tiny village up north. I didn’t understand a word of it as the village speaks mostly Russian. However, the costumes were great, and although the pic doesn’t show it, the guy on the far left running the sound system dressed in fatigues, painted his face and carried a knife for the occasion (and was the sole representative for the village’s men). What a supportive akhber.
And here gathered the audience on tiny schoolroom chairs. After the performance which included recitations, drama, and a few musical numbers, the crowd was engaged with in a game of trivia. A right answer won you a paper flower prepared by the theatre troop. The women pictured here loved the event, paid at the door actually.
It’s cold here. My toes are freezing, but strangely it’s a feeling that I’m getting used to. It’s funny how much I don’t know about winter. For instance, I thought I had packed winter clothes. But no, I packed Texas winter clothes, clothes that are sufficient for getting me from one air conditioned home to the next. I am so thankful for all of those years of central heating for sure. But I was so unprepared for nights of being able to see my breath as I’m getting ready to get in the shower.
The other thing that Central Texas does not prepare you for is the drastic change in the Armenian diet come winter. Gone are apricots, cherries (gosh how I would love some cherries!!!), watermelons, green plums. In the States, our industrialized food systems don’t prepare you for seasonal vegetables (a term my mind previously relegated to special “green” efforts, an abstract idea that could ‘better the world’ like buying florescent light bulbs). The term “seasonal vegetables” actually means something to me now. The change of food goes along with the act of wearing sweaters 24 hours a day, or furiously knitting a new hat because I CANNOT BE WITHOUT ONE and I left mine on the bus. I am certainly now involved in a new sensation, this act so strange to me, this bearing down, gritting your teeth, bracing yourself for winter.
I made a verbal agreement on a house today. I’m trying to not get too excited about it, but my wayward imagination is taken with the place. It is a tiny cottage, spackled a plain grey on the outside with new, white trimmed windows. The building sits in the corner of a family’s garden and can be reached by a path that winds through a small forest of drying sunflower stalks and rows of newly planted potatoes. The whole thing looks new, and certainly the inside has been recently tiled and furnished sparsely with cabinets, beds, a table, an electric water heater. The landlord assured me that soon a gas line will be set up, that the water that only runs a few hours a day will be running 24 hours a day by January, and that a wardrobe will be brought in. Now I only need the thing to be approved by my PM, and I can move in. Cause for pause? Only one, that I’ll be moving in the dead of winter, and my first few days will be the coldest days of my life. So be it. I need a place of my own. And I think I’ve found it.
Things at work are going well. I had a fantastic Halloween party on Friday. I made cartoon versions of all my coworkers, had them draw numbers for the costumes that would be put on their cartoon selves. After they were dressed as an octopus, a dragon, a magician and others, the paper selves were handed out to their animate counterparts and hung around their necks by yarn. In the Armenian party tradition, each of my coworkers was also given a pre-written toast to correspond with their character, and so throughout the night my friends presented such speeches as “The Alien’s Toast” and “The Butterfly’s Toast”.
My desk mate, a wonderful sprig of a woman, who brought her husband’s nephew and neice to the party, had the bright idea to cut up some old posters and help all the kids decorate them into costumes. Kings and queens, butterflies and rabbits were all running underneath the strings of orange balloons and tissue ghosts that hung across the ceiling.
We had ordered a cake, a green one. My director actually did the ordering, but despite her saying that it needed to look like grass, it came with lots of beautiful swirls in many greens and creams and was finished with a large spackling of glitter. Much too pretty. However, it became a great deal uglier once we pressed the gummy worms into the icing and laid the gummy snake from corner to corner. Amongst the paper headstones and gnarled tree that were stabbed in a convincing arrangement, the whole thing gave my Armenian friends willies. Perfect. The cake also allowed me this cultural exchange: The security guard asked if this was the holiday on which American’s eat goose. I was able to reply, “No, this is the one where we eat cemeteries.”
We played three games. The dance competition and round of musical chairs were both very exciting. But the most well recieved was the Halloween Lottery. From money we had collected for the pary we had bought mostly food, but we also bought 18 prizes. We attached numbers to the prizes and put corresponding ones in the lottery. We also folded up written dares. So, if you wanted a prize you had to be willing to perform a dare should you draw one. Ah, risk. We then wrapped the pieces of paper in bits of plastic bag and stirred them into a pot of cold, soggy oatmeal. The pot was covered in a box with a hole in the top. So to play you had to be willing to stick your hand into a dark hole and dig around in a mucusy mess. The faces were priceless and the laughs went on for a long while.
The whole party was wrapped up in a video from a website my mom sent me which featured members of my NGO dancing to “Monster Mash” as a mad scientist, a vampire, a werewolf, and Frankenstein and his wife. I think they watched the video at least 8 times before we all went home.
A successful Halloween. Of course, now I’m getting asked the date of my next party. Perhaps I set a dangerous precedent. No… a terrifying, even scary precedent.
When I started this blog, I had hoped that I would be able to steer clear of typical blogdom. Mostly I mean that I hoped I would subject my posts to a literary standard. It would not be a recepticle into which I would vomit whatever bit of my personality I feel I need to share with the world. But then I read something that makes me want to throw such a standard to the dogs.
So, forget it, I’m giving in because some friends’ recent blog post struck a chord that, well, resonated.
Please go read their original recent post at Lara and the Reel Boy. It reminded me why I really like those two people. And it made me want to share my own list of 6. (I know at LATRB theirs was five, but I want 6. So what?!)
Six what? Well, six monsters I would like to have around. Some would make great pets. Others would be more like great friends. At the end of the post please comment and leave your own list. Or post some to your own blog and let me know. (My literary blogging soul is hating me for this… )
6. Mike Wazowski (Monsters, Inc.)- Look at that stunned face. So comic. I mean, he’s a monster, AND he’s Billy Crystal. You get two in one one-eyed pal! I don’t see how there could be anything wrong with this.
5. Falkor (The Neverending Story, etc.)– It’s funny how I think the desire to have my monsters around feels so self-explanatory. In this case I want to say, “Come on! He’s a luckdragon!” Plus, I’ll get to fly from world to world, taunt bullies, find cures for diseases, and if I’m ever flung into the ocean or left dangling on a cliffside, I’ll be saved… “With luck!”
4. Aughra (The Dark Crystal)– Sometimes I’ve got a hankering to banter with a cantankerous old lady. So number four was really a dual between Aughra and Morla, the giant sneezing turle from The Never Ending Story. But really, there’s all the doom with Morla, and plus, Morla’s more like a place to hang out at than a person to hang out with. In general, Aughra is much more impressive, what with the embodying of the planet Thra, the ability to control vines and other Thra-types, and reading the universe. Plus I would love to just hear her talk about various apocolypses and say things like, “It’s the Great Conjunction!”
3. E.T. (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) This I believe is the coolest monster/alien around. He’s the title of my favorite movie. We’d build things, make stuff hover, and do some general healing. And there’s something about the guy that tugs at my spiritual heartstrings. Major downside: He dies = I die.
2. Thing (The Addams Family, etc.) – Thing is everything I could want in a monster pal: good sense of humor, doesn’t mind doing your dishes, likes sports like skateboarding and tennis, and won’t hesitate to save the day. Plus he’s different from the other monters in that there’s no getting around how humanish, severed and undead he is. He’ll make all my friends wriggle.
1. The Muppets- If you know me, you know the following: a)It would be cruel to make me choose one Muppet. b) I actually have always wanted to be a Muppeteer so this makes absolute sense. There is not a Muppet that would make bad company (unless you include Skeksis in the Muppet bunch). Bring on Sesame Street, Muppets Take Manhattan, Muppets in Space. I would play guitar with Kermit, teach with Big Bird, think about the enormity of life with Gonzo, and bring Miss Piggy to my friends’ ANTM parties. My roommates would certainly be Rizzo and Pepe, and in the end I’d poke fun at all of it with Statler and Waldorf. This would be a dream.
So, I’m not good at putting up pictures yet, but since facebook doesn’t seem to be working for me, to my blog they go. Enjoy… and if you don’t like pictures… well… don’t enjoy. (Also, there’s about thirty pictures here… so you may want to take a couple trips here to take it all in.)
These are all from the months spent in my training village. For the pics of nowadays, you’ll have to wait. The process of putting these up is a LONG one.
I never quite figured out how this wonderful woman was related to my family. But her gap-toothed grin was priceless as was her frequent beckonings to join her for coffee, “Surj uzum es surj.” And she loved to dance, with little wrist flips and toe kicks.
This is my typical Armenian meal. Note the tomato and cucumber, still present at every meal. Also, there is cheese available on every table, and it is salty like whoa. And no Armenian table would be complete without bread in either the slightly stale, hard-to-tear chunks, or the harder-to-tear powdery flat lavash. Hatz u paneer (bread and cheese) is THE Armenian staple.
This is NOT a typical Armenian meal. The story is a good one, and a long one, and if you’re going to make it through these pictures, I’ll just give you the short version: Walked in the bathroom and was naked and climbing into the shower when I realized I was in the presence or our pokr kovi (small cow’s) head, skin and ankles. Poor Pokr Kov, as liked to call her. The family sold the meaty parts, but clearly they held onto the good stuff. These later became meals. However, they stayed in the bathroom for days. Plus side: they gave me something to look at besides the fly tornado that circled in the middle of the room.
Upon request, here is a picture of an Armenian church. Actually it’s THE Aremenian Church, Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Apostolic Church. It’s suprisingly small. Beautiful, but tiny. Most interesting facts: 1. Jesus alighted here, they say. 2. The church is built over a pagan temple that was used to worship the sun.
Horovats, the Armenian man’s barbecue. Here’s a good place to point out that here most people don’t have any of the same ‘culture’ around meat handling that Americans do. They handle the stuff, pinch salt out of the communal bowl, shake hands, scratch their face, touch everything without a drop of soap.
A picture of my favorite painting in my little village church. The church was built in 2000, and the paintings in the new building are gorgeous, with modern faces and poses. Actually reminds of the work of my friend, Kate Moore.
A favorite picture of mine of my host sister. She made me miss my real sisters all the time, but she was great fun to hang out with. We had lots of inside jokes that, wonderfully, had little to do with cultural or language barriers. Also, notice the tractor behind her. My host dad did a lot of work around the village bailing hay with that monster.
Host dad, skewering the chicken who just happened to be an unfortunate victim of the unfortunate dog who killed it, who was then unfortunately relocated to another house. At least the pup wasn’t turned out to the hills…
A rambunctious member of my groups summer camp, a project that three other volunteers and the village children did together. We gathered every week for games, dance lessons, or community projects. On this day we did a trash pick-up with an unintended end. Ask about that mini-failure if you’re interested.
This is one of two pictures I think my aunt could make into a nice painting. It’s from a church called Geghart, a popular Armenian destination. What is really unique about this church is that most of the building is actually dug rightout of the mountain. There are chapels all over the slope, dug into the rock, where believers kneel, pray, and light candles. This picture is the main hall.
This photo is from one of the dug out chapels. The sculptors/carvers/diggers started at that little whole at the top, carved the intricate designes you see there, and later dug down to make a floor, columns, altars and crosses.
An entrance to one of the dug out chapels. Notice the hach kar, or stone cross on the left. These are everywhere all around Armenia, even in the abandoned churches you will find these abandoned works of art.
As I promised, the afternoon and evening:
I usually try to leave work between 3 and 5pm. This week has been cold, so I usually go straight home. But the first two weeks, this place almost tricked me into thinking I could hold out for summer with its bright sunny days and sandal-worthy weather.
So in those first two weeks I have spent most of my afternoons at the park. On the edge of town, just before you walk up into the hills there it is, a kind, green place to stroll. Mind you, the regularity of municipal landscaping is well, very irregular meaning that even in this cute family friendly park there is not a single slab of concrete with out a crack somewhere or a corner sunk in the mud. The greenery grows at will. I do however think someone must come through and sweep the sidewalks for a few dram.
My town was once a popular tourist destination in soviet times (that phrase “in soviet times” is used quite a lot here). The park has wonderful tiny fair rides which mostly seem to work minus the carousel of swings in the corner whose chains are all red-brown and drawn up. There is a smaller, hanging-bench carousel that stands shorter than I am and a Ferris wheel whose tiny two-child buckets must have been replaced in the last few years based on their neon orange and dark blue color scheme. There is also a really strange ride that I’ve ridden twice for 100 dram. It’s a cage for two people in which you through your weight from side to side as the cage swing. The goal is to get the thing to spin a full 360 degrees. It’s a strange sensation to be standing, to have the floor move from under you. And you can’t stop engaging the swing or the floor will leave you behind, and you’ll smash your partner on the other side of the cage. All of the rides were painted in bright pastels which are now fighting the red-brown of rust.
I haven’t been to the park in a week and a half. I went yesterday and couldn’t find the friend I’d made, Sarkis, who runs an ice cream stand. The ice cream is delicious, reminds me of the kind you make in buckets in the backyard during summer cookouts, but this is creamier and consistent. Every day Sarkis brings fresh-from-the-cow milk to the machine. He always tries to give it to me for free, but even when he succeeds in not taking my coins, I drop them in a box on top of the machine. We eat ice cream (he has about 4 or 5 cones a day and is as thin as a toothpick) and talk. Our conversations are limited of course, based on my limited Armenian. But he’s a kind guy, the brother of the Armenian wife of the Peace Corps volunteer who just left here in July.
After the ice cream, other teenagers (the term is applied to 15-25 year olds) gather, usually around the ping pong table where they take turns losing to me. They like to play, and I’m fairly certain that there’s a charge for ping-pong time, but Sarkis doesn’t charge me and for ping-pong I take the deal. There is only one person who can beat me, a little 15 year old girl with long black hair down to her thighs. She can beat everyone. She’s got a future in the sport, might become the next Black Widow of ping pong if there isn’t one already.
After a few rounds I usually give a peace sign (I actually had to teach them to throw deuces… I thought that was universal) and take my walk home. On the walk I almost always say hi again to my butcher friend. Recently I’ve noticed how every day he hangs a strip of meat in his window. That’s Armenian advertising for you: raw meat.
I also watch the dogs. I’ve been thinking about getting a puppy. Besides the monetary, familial and possible future complications regarding dog ownership, I also may have trouble finding an eligible puppy since there are no breeders or pounds from which to adopt. I’m left to the streets. So, I’ve been starting to recognize my favorite dogs walking the sidewalks and gutters, noting which ones are male and female, and which ones I hope will mate and make me a puppy. There’s a great wiry haired schnauzer-faced dog with tiny little legs and beautiful coloring. There’s a tall blue-brown spotted hound dog, and a short white fox style pooch. Dogs are going on and off my list all the time. Usually it has to do with which ones are digging through the mornings’ trash bags on the curb.
I usually arrive home at dinner.
I won’t go into food but will instead stick with setting and describe where I spend most of my evenings, in my room.
I am loving my room these days, and it’s not just because it’s where I escape Armenia for a few hours. It’s comfortable, feng shui (that can be an adjective, right?), warm, a general feel-good place.
The wall paper is gold with darker gold borders and columns of white that make the room feel tall. Swirling painted sconces and a detailed center-ceiling piece make the room feel Eastern European. More specifically, and maybe morbidly, they most remind me of wealthy German homes and restaurants in WWII movies. But after Allied occupation of course (I’m a patriot…).
My bed is a combination of rough springy day bed mattress and two, thick, wool-packed mats that have taken a curve in the middle. It’s actually comfortable, sort of cradle like, and under my thick wool duvet makes a good sleeping nest.
I have a long coffee table that serves as my desk where I sit in a fairly comfortable arm chair and watch movies, write, or put the day’s pictures on my computer. My room has once again turned into a safe haven, feeling just as comfortable as any I’ve had (the sun room on Guthrie, the wood-floored master in the Young’s house in Abilene, my Oxford bunk room on the second floor overlooking Canterbury). I sit and read Dandelion Wine or knit and listen to Andrew Bird. I’ve watched four seasons of Grey’s Anatomy already (a sure escape) and generally find my small, safe nook to be just what I need at the end of a day of frustrating misconjugations and general disorientation.
At night I brush my teeth with my luxurious electric toothbrush, give my host family a bari gisher, and tuck into my wool cocoon. Ooh… that sounds so nice to me right now.