Saturday, December 10, 2011


I never liked roller coaster rides –the ups and downs made me dizzy and sick. As an adult that childish activity was even less appealing to me when the side effects of having “fun” were more pronounced.  So, I was the child and the parent who held the coats and cotton candy and watched as others relished the thrills of heights and ups and downs. David can attest to spending many hours of previous vacations riding roller coasters with our children and later, our grandson.  Thanks, David!
Now, I feel as if those roller coaster rides are back. Let me explain……………..
Swear-in Ceremony, August 16, 2011 with host family and friends and fellow Peace Corps volunteers from Kotayk, Armenia
a HIGH day for sure!
As a Peace Corps volunteer we’ve been told there are natural ups and downs within the 27 months of training and service. There is a high when finally reaching our country of service. There is a high and feeling of excitement with travel, meeting other new Peace Corps trainees and beginning pre-service training with them.  There is an extreme high as one anticipates meeting their new host family yet an extreme low may follow if this match is not a good one. The “honeymoon period” follows, then intense language training becomes all- encompassing for the new Peace Corps volunteer.  What follows may be climate adjustments, personal relationship difficulties, a compromise in living conditions, health issues and continued struggles with a new and sometimes difficult foreign language.  Those potential lows are off- set by highs of meeting gracious, welcoming host country nationals, traveling to see sites in the country, making new friends within the volunteer group and Peace Corps staff, and generally settling into Peace Corps life as one has dreamed about for varying lengths of time.  Once training is over, the high of swearing in and becoming an official Peace Corps volunteer is followed by periods of lows and highs related to each individual volunteer’s personality and situation. And, predictably this roller coaster ride will continue throughout service no matter what country Peace Corps service is found.

Thanksgiving Dinner, 2011, with Armenian  friends:  a HIGH on the roller coaster ride in Armenia

                                              I am now immersed in a new town with David. We’ve made Armenian friends who shared Thanksgiving dinner with us. Every day we  go to places where meaningful work may potentially be done although this is not certain.  We are fortunate to have a nice, warm apartment to return to each evening.  We also have each other to lean on when the going gets rough.  These are some of the highs for our first 3 months in Armenia.
But, I personally am back on a roller coaster with classic ups and downs.  One day I’m ready to quit because it was a low, “bad day”. Then, a random child smiles and says “hello” to me on the sidewalk or a neighbor calls from her balcony hidden by grape vines and says, “barev dzez, vons es?” and I can actually respond to her in Hayeren!  Then a kind lady at the avtobus stop initiates a conversation and seems to enjoy a brief chat with me, the Amerikatsi.”How old are you?” she asks, in the typical manner of a curious Armenian. “Vetsun oot”, I reply. She just smiles and looks at me and asks “Are you from California?” Armenians always ask that question when talking with an American. I smile back and say, “no, North Carolinaitis (from NC)”. She looks puzzled. She has no idea where North Carolina is and the avtobus is pulling up to the curb.  End of conversation. So goes a small high on the roller coaster ride of this volunteer.                                               
Lows occur when I’m at my school still trying to figure out my niche. Students now speak and say “hello” more spontaneously.  They sometimes stop by our English room to say hello. I want to chat with the students and the teachers at my school, yet neither they nor I are fluent in each other’s language. Fortunately, smiles, laughter and body language are universal communication tools. The lows occur in my life when out of frustration I feel totally at a loss for words or those universal tools fail.  My mute button is then pushed!  If you know me at all, you will understand that I do NOT like being mute!

Students in my school, wearing coats in class, trying to watch video on Netbook during English Club

There is only one small gas heater per classroom and it is colder in the building than outside during the winter months.
I feel LOW when it is so cold.......

Judy showing students about the holiday, Halloween, which is not recognized in Armenia.
Various American holidays are studied during English class and English Club.
These are HIGH's in teaching my Armenian students.
                                               Highs raise my spirits when my counterpart teacher likes an idea and it is successfully used with our students. The low dip of the roller coaster is felt when she and I sit in our winter coats in a cold, stark, unheated classroom with a small group of students who struggle to read a text in English. We are both correcting word pronunciations as they stumble over difficult words. I am not needed on this day, and it hurts. I want off the roller coaster—but—I missed several days of school due to in-service training with Peace Corps. When I returned the students seemed genuinely glad to see me. Their greetings kept me warm, and high, that first day back. Lows occur again when it is cold and gray outside with snow predicted as temperatures drop. Highs return when a brisk walk takes David and me through a wonderland of evergreen trees, each dusted with new, soft snow as lovely as any Christmas card.                                                                                
Emotions level out periodically just as on the amusement park roller coaster. One’s sense of anticipation builds especially if eyes are covered to prevent seeing what is next on the roller coaster track.  A steep drop into the depths of the ride happens when a question is asked and an understandable answer does not follow, or I see a student with potential for learning who is ignored or dismissed as if he weren’t present in the classroom. This unfortunately occurs on a regular basis in Armenian classrooms. The roller coaster rises from that low and gradually carries me onto the plateau when at the end of the day, a teacher asks me to walk home with her.  We are not able to verbally communicate very well, although we try, but arm-in-arm in the true Armenian way, we start up the steep hill together headed toward our homes. She is riding the high rail of the roller coaster with me and doesn’t even know it.
Gas heater with pipe venting to outside---main source of heat in our apartment and we are lucky to have it!!!
When I enter our apartment, it is cold inside. (We turn off our heat before leaving for work each morning for safety.) Still riding the high of a friendly walk home, I brace myself for turning on the gas heater which provides the majority of heat for our apt. I have not done this before because I am afraid of the gas and what it might do if too high, or leaks or doesn’t ignite. I’m also afraid of extinguishing the pilot light which would be a low in David’s day when he arrives home and has to struggle to re-light it.  But, I swiftly turn the designated knob to the far left as David has shown me previously.  A swish of gas is heard, and soon flames appear, yellow and blue, dancing in the window of the heater.  I adjust the flames and relax as heat begins to flow into the cold room. I am riding a new high brought on by the success of accomplishing merely this simple task.  The smallest of triumphs, sometimes that’s all it takes!                                                                            
Site seeing tour with Dave and Judy.Statues portray actors in movie about Dilijan, "Mimino".This was a day filled with HIGH's. They balance the LOW's.
Just as the Peace Corps warned us, highs and lows do occur for all volunteers at somewhat predictable times.  This service in Armenia can be tough and only with the support and companionship of David could I complete it. I will close my eyes as if on a real amusement park roller coaster ride. I will try to anticipate only highs while knowing in reality that dips and low spots will follow.   Please stay tuned to see what is ahead on our roller coaster ride of a life-time.                                                Judy

Thursday, December 1, 2011

SHNORHAVORANK' Neres! or CONGRATULATIONS! to Teachers: All Over the World

Teachers hard at work in faculty seminar on conflict management and communication

“Congratulations on Teacher’s Day”. These are the words which greeted me on October 5 as I entered Dilijan State College where I am a TEFL (teacher of English as a foreign language). Throughout the day, teachers greeted each other in the same way, smiling and sometimes offering a kiss on the cheek. Students brought roses to their teachers and the mood was definitely high on Teacher’s Day in Armenia.
                                                                      OCTOBER 5, 2011
  Although Teacher’s Day is officially designated as October 5th, I discovered that it is a day which over flows into another—and another—and another—similar to some people’s birthday which is celebrated before the date, on the date and afterward---to keep the feeling of celebration as long as possible.
   The day after Teacher’s Day, excitement filled the air because that evening there was to be a special dinner at one of Dilijan ‘s most interesting restaurants, Getap—named after the word for” bank of the river”.  I received a special invitation from both my counterpart and the college Director. I had not originally planned to attend, not yet feeling as if I deserved any special recognition as a teacher. I also knew the dinner was paid for by a fund composed of money taken from each teacher’s salary, and I had not contributed to that fund since I receive no salary as a Peace Corps volunteer.  However, with 2 invitations extended to me by important people at the college, I decided to attend.  I’m so glad that I did!         
Getap Restaurant, Dilijan , Armenia
      What an evening it turned out to be! A large number of the teachers and staff along with a few spouses, joined in the fun and enjoyed food and drink all served lavishly in the restaurant’s banquet dining room. The college director and several faculty members raised their glasses offering toasts to the faculty, students, previous director and teachers, women, to various individuals in attendance, to the people of Armenia, and especially to the spirit of working as a team for the sake of the students at the college. Laughter and conversation and, yes---music and dancing filled the evening. I hesitated to dance, but one of the senior faculty members, the librarian and Hayeren teacher, signaled that I should join in the fun.  I did. It was great!   And, it was interesting to see the surprise on the faces of my new colleagues when I stepped onto the dance floor. They know my command of their language is limited, but did not know how I love music and dancing.  Music is a powerful common denominator no matter what country one is in or what language is spoken.
Armenian Khorovats (barbecue) -- a most popular entree for parties and any large dinners
Following another course of khorovats, toasts, and strong Armenian coffee, my college director and her husband led the way onto the dance floor for the final period of dancing.  As I joined in and looked around the floor at people I barely knew, they were all smiling, swaying with the great Armenian music and executing the graceful hand movements naturally and perfectly. In this momentary surreal experience,    I could not help but think of my favorite movie, “Dirty Dancing” with Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. No, there was no “dirty dancing” at this Armenian teacher’s event, but there was a similar mood of warmth and happiness which one felt in the final scenes of that movie.  At the end of “Dirty Dancing”, the guests at a summer resort are all dancing happily together.  Patrick  Swayze won his girl’s hand and Jennifer Grey  stood behind her man in the face of her irate father.  Smiles are on the faces of everyone, even those who were in deep conflict throughout the dramatic movie.  As the movie ends, all is well and good.  Similarly, as the dinner ended at Getap, all was well and good for the teachers at my college, and I was so pleased to have been a part of that evening.
Amazingly, the next day the celebration of Teacher’s Day continued at Dilijan State College with the reading of a congratulatory message from our town’s mayor and the sharing of candy and champagne sent from his office. Even though in the U.S., Teacher Appreciation Day is celebrated with small events honoring teachers, maybe the U. S. could learn about larger ways for educators to recognize themselves as part of the cultural exchange the Peace Corps fosters through its Goal #3.

Friday, November 11, 2011


     The Smith's continue to serve as relatively new Peace Corps volunteers in Armenia, going about our daily work as an English teacher (Judy) and a business man (David).  Armenia will be our home for the next 2 years, but we can't help thinking of our first assignment with  Peace Corps Niger.                                    
      Our Peace Corps Niger volunteer group recently celebrated its 1st anniversary of staging in Philadelphia followed by pre-service training and swearing in as official volunteers in that country. Soon after moving to our permanent villages in Niger, we were evacuated and many of us have been re-assigned to Peace Corps volunteer sites all over the world.  On the occasion of that anniversary, David wrote the following e-mail to our group of 40 who continue to stay in touch via e-mail, Skype, cell phones and occasional snail-mail.   We intend to have a reunion in the future once everyone has completed their service, wherever that might be and whether in or out of the Peace Corps.
David’s First Anniversary e-mail to our fellow Niger group reads:
 In Niger, we had a mud hut with a light fixture, long lasting bulb and light switch-----but no electricity. In Armenia we have electricity but, alas, no light fixture, light bulb or switch.  Our mud hut had an opening with a tin shutter; here in Armenia I have a window with broken glass. Both countries seem to use the ground as the proper receptacle for all plastic trash. Both countries have more than their share of corruption. Armenians have more than their share of vodka, but they need it.  To say cold    doesn’t do the word or climate justice!  Armenians certainly have more food, better health care and education, but have recently been reported to be the 2nd least happy people in the world (Huffington Press). Niger wasn’t listed in the top or bottom tier on the happiness index. The second biggest difference that I see in the 2 countries is in the opportunity to accomplish something as a Peace Corps volunteer. In Niger I might have made some difference at least to a few individual people, and I’m not sure that can happen here. However, the biggest difference is in the Peace Corps volunteers themselves. The folks here are good, well-meaning, hard-working, and well educated but they aren’t us. We are still Niger, and I thank each of you.  
Plastic Covered Broken Windows in Dave's office in Armenia
Executive Bathroom in David's Armenian Office Building

Sunday, October 30, 2011

ET but not THE Extra Terrestial

Some thoughts on a cloudy day in Armenia………………………

Mike , Peace Corps volunteer and musician extraordinaire
A volunteer in our group has decided to ET or early terminate as we Peace Corps people call it. There are many valid reasons for a volunteer to ET such as health issues, family concerns back home, cultural challenges in the volunteer’s country, work related problems, financial issues, weather related dislikes, personal disagreements with Peace Corps policy,  etc.     Not being a close personal friend nor willing to divulge this volunteer’s reasons for his ET even if known, we are just sad that he made the decision.  Sad, yes, but respectful of that decision as one which he told us, was one of the most difficult decisions he’d ever made.   After experiencing all of the challenges associated with application, evaluation and acceptance into a training class with the Peace Corps, packing 2 bags for his 2- year anticipated service, then traveling ½ the way around the world, Mike reached Yerevan, Armenia. He then studied a new language and new alphabet and began to immerse into a new culture.  Mike passed the required language proficiency test, and raised his right hand to swear in as an official Peace Corps volunteer in Armenia. After that came the settling in process in a new town and work place and finding a permanent home for himself for his 2 –year assignment in Armenia.  All the volunteers in our group followed basically this same path, BUT……….Mike will ET and leave Armenia this coming week.   
To make this departure even more dramatic is the fact that Mike is a talented musician and recently retired university professor of music, primarily piano and keyboard instruments of all kinds. In addition, he is a skilled arranger and composer of music, captivating performer, unbelievably patient director of choral and instrumental groups of all levels, and a generally great guy.  Mike utilized his comprehensive abilities in the field of music to arrange music and train performers for our group’s swear-in ceremony in mid –August.  Because of his abilities, a group of 25-30 volunteers, many of whom were non-singers to begin with, performed a medley of American songs followed by a traditional Armenian musical selection sung in Hayeren, the Armenian language.   He also coached and accompanied a young volunteer, Joseph Andriano,  in a breathtakingly  beautiful tenor  solo performance of the Armenian folksong recorded by  Komitas,  Chinar Es. This musical addition to the Swear-in ceremony held in the Komitas Chamber Music Hall, was a special tribute during the year of the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary.  All bets were on that Mike would share his talents with the next group of volunteers as they participated in preparation for their swear-in event in 2012.
Joseph Andriano, Stephanie with cello, and Mike on piano
 at Swear-in Ceremony for Peace Corps Armenia Volunteers , August 16, 2011
Now that Mike is leaving us, that will not happen, however, the memory of his work with our group in 2011 is recorded for Peace Corps history.   Congratulations or shnorhavorank!  to Mike, for all that he has accomplished while in Armenia. He should be immensely proud of how he has touched the Peace Corps volunteers and staff, the Armenian people, and especially the children, with his music.  When there was a piano present, Mike played it without reserve. When the piano needed tuning, he arranged to have it done. When music was desired, Mike was there. We know the decision to ET was mind-boggling and difficult, yet a person who chooses that route has our utmost respect for recognizing that the decision had to be made, for whatever reasons. 
 Yes, we are sad that Mike is leaving but glad that he can move ahead with his amazing life. While his music will truly be missed in Armenia, there’s bound to be music wherever Mike goes in the world. We’ll all be waiting and listening to hear it.          Good luck or Hajoghutyun!  We’ll miss you, Mike.
Judy and David 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

SNOW! on October 3-----that's ARMENIA!

       Dzyun , or snow----in Angleren/English----appeared today,  on the mountains which we see from our porch.   It was cloudy and gray when Dave and I left for our work this morning. I left later than he, since Monday is not a teaching day for me, but one in which I can do planning and lesson preparation without a real schedule. The snow was not visible when I left home and I was concerned that it would rain, andzrev, and never thought of snow!!  True enough,  the snow was in the highest mountains, not where we actually felt it.  However, never in the past 68 years has there been snow present in my town only 5 days after my birthday!!!     Is this a hint of what’s to come???    One of the daunting aspects of living in Armenia is the weather, particularly where Dave and I live.  Because of the mountains, beautiful as they are on a clear, sunny day, they influence the weather in a way which produces more moisture, days- on- end of dreariness, and low hanging clouds which engulf the mountain tops and hover over the ground below.  It is always a blessing to leave school and find the sun shining when the morning so often brings these cloudy conditions.
       So, snow has arrived in Armenia which means the snow boots I bought before leaving the U.S. will soon be unpacked.  It is cold enough that I’d really like to wear them now but prefer not to show all of my wimpy characteristics at once. Plus, snow is not actually on the ground yet in Dilijan.  The staff members at my school already check to see how many layers of clothing I have on when I arrive in the morning, after I have walked about 25 minutes from home.  Most of them tend to dress very nicely and would rather be cold than unstylish. They laugh at me!  But,  I can hardly believe the attire of some of the teachers who are dressed to easily attend a semi-formal event or certainly a dressy art show opening or symphonic concert in the U.S.  This is typical of Armenian women in general, but since I work with teachers,  that is where my impressions are focused.  There are the older faculty members who wear dressy suits, often adorned with sparkle and shine.  Without question, black and white in various combinations, describe the color range.   Then there are the younger teachers who wear beautiful clothes, again mostly in black and white. Even though they may only have a few basic pieces, these women are masters (or mistresses) of coordination as they combine a few skirts with a handful of tops and jewelry. Always appearing well dressed, they would be over- dressed in the scope of American teacher attire.   I, on the other hand, continue to be a conservative dresser both due to age, my own style and what I brought to Armenia, plus I DO NOT WANT TO BE COLD!  Knowing that fact, a young teacher brought me a wonderful pair of softly lined tights today and asked if I’d like to have them. She said the color was wrong for her.  I don’t care as long as they are warm, which they will be, and I’ll find something to wear them under as another layer to ward off the damp chilliness of this season.  I intend to maintain my own identity yet do try to respect the culture in this new country, therefore, as new items are purchased over the next 2 years, I’ll consider some of more modest  choices in Armenian women’s attire.

                                                  Tourism students and their birthday gifts                            

                                                                               So, winter is coming. I’m not sure I’m ready although Dave is.  In order not to think about it, I choose to reflect on my first birthday in Armenia. That is a heart-warming memory for sure.  The students in my classes surprised me with handmade Armenian gifts of a lovely ceramic pomegranate wine vessel which may double as a vase, along with an accompanying salt dish with its own tiny spoon.  Dave and I ate dinner out with our host family who had 2 members also with September birthdays. We shared that evening with our site mate, Kellianne, an amazing young volunteer also serving as an English teacher in Dilijan. Numerous Facebook greetings, e-mails from friends in the U.S. and well- wishes from my school staff, counterpart, and host family made the day quite special.  Though unexpected, a late September birthday and an early October snowfall paired quite well.  I hope to celebrate the birthday next year, but maybe the snow will be delayed until a more appropriate time on MY calendar! 
                                               Dave and I with Armenian host family                                                       

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

IRENE in Armenia......A Strange Pairing!

“What I do today is important because I am exchanging a day of my life for it.” (author unknown)
I found the above quotation a few weeks ago on a scrap of paper as my Armenian counterpart teacher and I were tidying up our classroom in preparation for the first day of school.  I liked the quote then, and I like it now. I believe it fits my work as a TEFL with the Peace Corps.
In our English class today, this Armenian teacher and I introduced a simple form one might encounter when applying for a job. The students, ages 16-22, were asked to write name, address, date of birth, birth place, etc.  Doesn’t seem hard, does it? Not if presented in one’s first or native language which is Armenian /Hayeren , but this form was in Angleren/English. The students were immediately challenged and somewhat frustrated. So, isn’t that when some of the best learning occurs, when one is pushed to overcome those barriers?  Several of these students do not have good English skills and are more interested in car repairs or sports than in academics. They tend to do minimum work and even though their parents pay tuition to this State College, they are poorly motivated. So, our lessons on filling out a form for an imaginary job were somewhat unrealistic.  Several of the students did   complete the form but with prompting from those of us who gave them the task.  One student said, “I don’t have an address”. He was correct because he lived in a small village where there are no street addresses and no post office. Another asked, “What is a middle name?” My Armenian team teacher said that in Armenia there is not a middle name as used in the U.S.  She discussed this with our students. Then I used the example of my own middle name, Irene, and how it has been lost over the years due to marriage. I am now Judy Batson Smith, there is usually no Irene mentioned in my name as I write it today. This interaction and subsequent thought process prompted by Armenian students encouraged me to focus briefly on my middle name.
Im anun@ Judith Irene Batson Smith em. (Hayeren) My name is Judith Irene Batson Smith. (English) I was given the middle name Irene after my maternal grandmother’s name. She was deceased before I was born, therefore, I never met her and have only seen a few photos.  I recall being JIB as a child—Judy Irene Batson, thinking nothing of what would happen to Irene when I married my husband, David Smith, in December, 1964. What happened was that I dropped Irene, adopted Smith as my last name, and used Batson for my middle name as many American women do.  Other than my Grandmother’s gold locket with IRENE engraved on the front, which my Mother gave me, there is no mention of Irene associated with me.  Middle names get lost in the middle of life- changing events.
So, thanks to one student’s question and to our topic selection for English class today, I did a bit of research on my middle name.  IRENE is derived from the Greek word meaning PEACE. There are other spellings of the name including Irini, Eirene, Eirini, and Irina.  My favorite language trainer in Armenia was named Irina.  I always felt an unspoken bond with her.  Though Irene means “peace”, she does not always live up to that name. Remember the recent hurricane in the Atlantic whose name was Irene? Although this Irene was downgraded to less than her Category 4 peak of potential violence, she was followed by intense winds and flooding all over the Eastern Coast of the U.S.  Tropical storm Irene damaged the Florida panhandle in 1959 followed by Hurricane Irene, a Category I which caused damage to Nicaraugua. Category 3 Hurricane Irene hit France as an extra- tropical storm in 1981, while Hurricane Irene in 1999 struck Florida as a category 2 storm which caused 800 million USD in damages. No land was affected by Hurricane Irene, in 2005, but her very designation as a Category 2 storm indicates a lack of peace in her demeanor.
The name Irene or its various forms has been given to Greek goddesses, saints, and famous people in the fields of art, music, dance, politics, sports and show business.  Towns from South Africa to South Dakota carry Irene as their name. Movies, books, plays, comic book characters, Broadway shows, television programs, a British cargo liner, a plant cultivar, and a school district in South Dakota include an IRENE. An American folk song first recorded in 1932, “Good Night, Irene”, has been played, revised, and recognized all of these years.  My middle name, Irene, has made a mark in many areas.
So, a student asks a question and look what happens!  Curiosity is stimulated and research occurs. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the reverse occurred?  Unknowingly, the teacher asks a random question and a student’s interest is sparked into pursuing further knowledge on a subject.   That is my hope as a TEFL serving in Peace Corps Armenia---to stimulate the curiosity and interest of at least 1 person, hopefully more, to want to learn more English or to aspire to gain increased knowledge in any subject beyond what he/she had before my arrival here.  If that occurs, I will have definitely exchanged a day of my life for something worthwhile.  And, if that occurs I will have also spent my 2 years of service in the Peace Corps wisely.
“Good night, Irene, good night, Irene. I’ll see you in my dreams.” (folk song by  Leadbelly (Huddie Leadbetter—1889-1976).        Judy
NOTE:   After writing this blog and reading a bit more about the above song, David suggested that I add the following story which I found on the internet. Though lengthy, it is interesting and filled a few minutes of our time on a cold, damp, dreary day in Armenia when Independence Day was being celebrated and our family was glued to the small television in their living room.There they were watching the parade held in celebration of 20 years of freedom from Russian control while the children of Armenia were celebrating freedom from school which was closed for the holiday.
Irene: The Truth Revealed.
By D. J. Style (a Gentleman)        Entire text borrowed from the Internet without permission. Hopefully, Mr. Style will accept that as a gentleman.

Abstract of an Address given to the Irene Goodnight Appreciation Society by the Author on 24th September 1994.
Goodnight Irene, long considered one of the most plangent of American traditional love songs is in fact a gambling song whose true meaning has been deliberately obscured for reasons which will be explained.
Leadbelly (Huddie Leadbetter, b. Mooringsport, Louisiana 1889 - d. 1976) wrote Goodnight Irene while incarcerated for murder in North Carolina State Penitentiary, situated in the foothills of the beautiful Appalachian mountains. Today he is remembered as a songwriter, but in his lifetime he was a professional and compulsive gambler, specialising in roulette, stud poker and the dice. Goodnight Irene is a celebration of the best and worst times of Leadbelly’s gambling career.
Irene, goodnight Irene, Irene goodnight.
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene,
I’ll see you in my dreams.
The very best night of Leadbelly’s life was spent at the poker table. All but two men had ceased bidding: Leadbelly and "Lollipop" Lee Staine (real name Levi Stein, seaman, jazz musician, gambler and womaniser whose nickname arose from the succour he gave to the ladies in the Jewish community. This man will appear many times in the story of Leadbelly’s life).
The bidding was high, each man saying "I’ll see you for a hundred and I’ll raise you a hundred" until there were over 4000 dollars on the table and Leadbelly had no more money to offer. At this moment of high tension Leadbelly declared "OK, I’ll see you" and Staine showed his cards, a full house - four nines and an ace. Leadbelly spread out a royal flush - Ace to ten of Hearts - and became richer than ever in his life before. Years later Leadbelly confided to John Lomax that he still had nightmares about that awful moment of showdown.
Leadbelly worked as croupier at the roulette wheel on the Mississippi river boats. At that time, in addition to the regular 36 segments, the wheels included a segment nought, known as "the good old ‘0’ ". Whenever the ball landed in the ‘0’ the croupier swept the table - a handsome source of income in good times.
I win, good nought, I win. I win, good nought.
Good nought, I win; good nought, I win.
I’ll see you in my dreams.
Verse 1
Last Saturday night I got married.
Me and my wife settled down.
Now me and my wife are parted,
I’m gonna take another stroll down town.
The day which started Leadbelly’s decline into crime was also spent at the stud poker table. Tempted by his earlier success, Leadbelly again gambled his life’s savings on the cards. Over a period of three hours he was totally thrashed and was ruined. In gambler’s jargon, being thrashed at stud was known as "being ridden like a mare". The allusion is obvious.
In trepidation, he returned home to tell his wife Mary Ann - who liked to be known as Mi-Ann - that they were penniless. She, knowing his violent nature, counselled him to back off and do nothing rash, but he refused to take it lying down. He was determined to get money straight away by whatever means. In fact he went back to the gambling hall and watched and waited. Later that night some fool who had drunk too much stuffed his wad of notes in his pocket and left the hall. Leadbelly followed, stabbed the man and stole his bank roll.
Last Saturday night I got mare rid.
Mi-Ann my wife said "Lay down".
NO! Mi-Ann my wife’s half hearted.
I’m gonna take a nutter’s roll down town.
(Author’s note: Some commentators believe the murdered man was Lee Staine. This is unlikely. Leadbelly calls him a ‘nutter’, not a ‘sucker’).
Verse 2.
Sometimes I live in the country,
Sometimes I live in the town.
Sometimes I take a great notion
To jump in the river and drown.
Leadbelly fled the police into the countryside where for some time he scratched a living rolling the die (dice is the plural of die - one die, two dice) with poor agricultural workers.
At this point it is necessary to explain why this song is worded so obscurely.
Goodnight Irene was written in the penitentiary, where gambling was forbidden. Even talking or singing about gambling was not allowed. Offenders were reported to the Governor who might withdraw parole.
So the song must be encrypted: I win becomes Irene, Good nought becomes goodnight and so on.
Here, Leadbelly wants to say "For some time I die (ie I roll the die)", but he dares not. Very well then, if he cannot say die then he will say live. Brilliant, isn’t it? No one would suspect that this verse is all about crap!
Becoming bolder he returned to the city but the police were soon on to him. Lee Staine, a seaman himself, found him a job as deck hand on a tramp ship along the Eastern seaboard (the "Great Ocean"). Afterwards he worked on the Mississippi paddle steamers as the guitarist in a jazz band known as the "Round River Band", so called because of the dance craze at that time known as "Jumpin’ round".
Some time I "live" in the country.
Some time I "live" in the town.
Some time I takes to the great ocean
To jump with the river band "Round".
Verse 3
Stop rambling; stop your gambling.
Stop stayin’ out late at night.
Go home to your wife and family.
Stay there by the fireside bright.
There were five other members of the river band. There were the two Berlin brothers, Rambo and Gambo. Gambo played trombone from a wheelchair, having been crippled in childhood by a contagious tropical disease - hence his nickname "Yaws"
Gambo on the other hand was the cousin of that world famous songwriter of the 1930s, Cole Porter.
Lee Staine played trumpet, the vocalist’s name was Adelaide and "Darky" Knight was on drums.
The band held a permit to work on the river and feared that if it became known that they were harbouring a criminal they would lose their licence and their livelihood. Gambo suggested they turn Leadbelly over to the police. Knight refused, fearing that if Leadbelly could kill once he might kill the informant. Adelaide argued that they should all go to the cops together as Leadbelly could not kill all of them.
When they told him of their intention, Leadbelly appealed to them each individually not to do it. He volunteered that the next time the steamer moored alongside, he would take off (Leveetate). This he did with a heavy heart, having lost his money, his job and his friends and unable to work the ferries or the gambling halls.
He made his way home to Mi-Ann, the only person he had left in the whole world, only to find on his arrival that "Lollipop" Lee Staine had moved in with his wife and was sitting in his armchair. Leadbelly had once broken Staine financially, but now Staine had broken Leadbelly’s heart and spirit.
He walked away and was soon overtaken by the law.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

POSH CORE PEACE CORPS......."CHE", (NO! in the Armenian Language)

       What have we learned about Armenia since moving to our permanent town, the place where we will live and serve in the Peace Corps for 2 years? Many with other Peace Corps assignments in the world jokingly say that Armenia is “posh core Peace Corps”.  Having first been with Peace Corps Niger, deemed to be “hard core Peace Corps”, David and I initially agreed, however, even after only a few months in Armenia, we think “posh corps Peace Corps” is not an appropriate designation.
       True, most of Armenia does have electricity and running water which were rare in the bush villages of Niger. People do have houses, adequate yet limited clothing, and access to food although items other than seasonal ones are expensive.  Employment in our town is limited, therefore, the ordinary people live frugally. For instance, in our host family home, hot water is available only for certain hours of the day. There is a flush toilet, however, it is located in an uninsulated enclosure near the front door which means the water will probably freeze during the frigid winter weather. Gas heat is common, but we are told it is exorbitantly expensive and even though electricity is cheaper, there are few electric heaters. We are also told many people rely on wood stoves for heat and then only provide heat in1 room at a time.  School staff reports that during the winter in many schools heat is minimal with both students and staff wearing coats all day inside the classrooms.
Typical classroom in my Armenian school

House which owners have attempted to make livable; note electrical wire to house

Crumbling stairs leading from one street to another, left from
damage of earthquake, 1988

      While walking around our town, which during Russian times was a thriving tourist destination, we see more empty buildings in the business area than occupied ones. People we’ve met say that after the earthquake of 1988 repairs were not done to damaged buildings. Then war erupted and again prevented reconstruction. Now sidewalks are broken up, streets are rift with potholes, and old buildings needing demolition still stand with broken windows, decaying wood frames and crumbling brick and block foundations. Moreover, the primary colors for attire in Armenia are black and white while the affect on the faces of those met on the street is flat or stern. We are told this lack of response to our “Barev dzez” (hello), is partially due to the fact that the Armenian culture believes if one does not know you, they do not greet you.  This is not the case in all situations but in many we’ve encountered as we walk around our town in an attempt to immerse into our new cultural home.

Example of many houses which are left standing but in need of major repairs
Sidewalk I use to walk to my school; very poor condition and unsafe
          Visitors to our town  are  disappointed in what they find yet there is amazing potential for tourism in such a naturally beautiful place. There is a lovely relatively new art museum at the edge of town and an informational history museum in the older section which features local crafts, art and gift items. A few excellent Armenian restaurants are available although we find that our favorite cafĂ© closes from late October to April due to winter weather and declining business. Numerous bed and breakfasts are listed on tourism literature, but their quality and offerings are not known. There are no entertainment venues and no church in the town.                                                     
        One of Dave’s projects is to work with a local NGO (non- governmental organization) in the development of some aspect of tourism which could be marketed to international travelers.  With the realization that needed costly repairs of infrastructure will not be accomplished due to the lack of money, the focus may be on outdoor activities such as hiking, campinp, and backpacking in the surrounding mountains. In the past, trails were present and well utilized because maintenance was provided by the Soviets. Once Armenia established itself as an independent country, there was neither the money nor manpower to promote this type of activity. Hopefully, David and his counterpart will be able to assess what is present, gain the interest of volunteers to make improvements, draw up trail maps, and begin to advertise this facet of our town’s resources for tourists.
Beauty exists in our town with flowers flourishing everywhere.
There is hope that other aspects of the town will bloom as well. 

New construction in the center of town offers hope for the future.

Young boys on the opening day of school in our town, September 1, 2011
              It is disconcerting to us to hear that the population of Armenia is decreasing with each census.  Many people now either move to Russia or go there for part of each year because of job availability. This causes disruption of family units but does provide necessary income for them to live. Armenians are hard- working, family- oriented, resilient people. Not only have they as a people endured a difficult past, they also live hard lives as individuals. Their future could be brighter with major economic changes. Currently taxes are high, wages are low, and people are financially desperate on many levels.  Government corruption exists and the unemployment rate is 40% and higher among the young (people under age 35). I feel bleak about the future of Armenia, maybe because I’m writing this piece on a chilly, dreary day in August when long johns are worn and clothes have yet to dry on the outdoor line.  Maybe when school starts next week and I become involved in the enthusiasm of students eager to learn my native language, will it seem more positive. The young people of Armenia are beautiful, smart, and full of positive energy. It is my hope that our town and all of Armenia will be able to flourish again, due in part to the contributions of these young people.      
     Dave and I will have 2 years to serve with Peace Corps Armenia.  We do challenge those who deem it to be a posh assignment. Even though we’ve experienced amazing cultural events during our training and we are not living in a mud hut without electricity or running water, the challenges of need and how to help these people help themselves are tremendous in Armenia.
The mountains  are majestic, beautiful , and inspirational.
They help to balance the negatives of  Armenia's decline and a tragic history.
      Please follow our story to see if, or how, our perspective changes.    Judy and Dave