Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving Thoughts from Dave and Judy

“Thanksgiving in Hollywood” is a contemporary song found on the internet by my Armenian students. I do not want my students to think this song’s lyrics are a true reflection of what our American celebration of Thanksgiving is all about, even though the music is appealing and lends itself well to a program aimed at college aged students.  Just the mention of “Hollywood” encourages the students to think of the stereotyped, media’s portrayal of America---the land of rich people and vast opportunities.

We are planning a program about Thanksgiving in America and will include harvest time in Armenia since the times coincide and inspire similar feelings of being thankful for what one has. I am trying to help my students to understand the history of our Thanksgiving Day and how it is celebrated now. The program will be presented primarily in English, but readings must be translated so that the majority of the audience will understand the message.  Of course, the universal communicator, music, will be of utmost importance. Unfortunately, songs which I love and recall -----“Over the River and Through the Woods”, “Come Ye Thankful People Come” and “Harvest Home” are not nearly as exciting as “Thanksgiving in Hollywood”.

Dave and Judy with Peace Corps Niger Training Director, Tondi,  2 years ago
 Armenia is a Peace Corps assignment wrought with challenges as well as blessings. What are David and I grateful for as we continue our 2nd year of service in Armenia? The first is the blessing of good health, unlike Thanksgiving 2010 which we spent in Niger, Africa during our first Peace Corps assignment. On that first Thanksgiving, David was being released from the hospital on Thanksgiving Day.                                                                  

Music and Art:  Armenia cherishes music and art and encourages its young people to study both.  David and I have come to anticipate attending occasional concerts of the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra in Yerevan and the Dilijan Music School in our town.  Dilijan Art School is a fine example of available training for young talented students as they join the ranks of other famous Armenian artists. Music soothes the soul and art brings a different perspective to life in Armenia where strife and stress abound.
Armenia Philharmonic Orchestra  performing in Yerevan, Armenia
Director of Dilijan Art School with students submitting art work to the  K-12 ONE WORLD Classroom International Art Exchange

Mountains:  Visible from our apartment are lofty mountains which surround our town. Their majestic peaks will soon be snow-covered, but we are thankful for their mighty presence as we watch the seasons change throughout the year.
View of mountains from our apartment

Flowers:  Prolific profusions of flowers from early spring until the snows of winter make Dilijan, Armenia a haven for flower lovers.  I am thankful for that blessing of beauty which brightens our days yet is taken for granted by many Armenians.

A beautiful example of  wildflowers found in Armenia
Armenian family we met and shared a meal with several times: very hospitable people
                  Hospitality of the Armenian people:   Warm welcomes, a kiss on the cheek,  an invitation to have coffee , small gifts brought to every encounter even by those with little money…… we cannot be grateful  enough for those expressions of acceptance by people with whom we become acquainted.                                           

Armenian language tutor with Judy
              Tutors:  Without our tutor we’d be lost.  Our tutor not only teaches a foreign language to older learners such as David and me, but is also a link to the community in which we live, to the people we want to meet, to her family, to events we enjoy and to life in Dilijan.  For Knarick’s presence we are grateful.

One little boy in our neighborhood-------being shy, but so cute
             Children:  loving, laughing, curious, shy, ever present…..they are Armenia’s future and must be encouraged in the pursuit of more than basic education and life without hope. We are thankful to meet so many and to see them grow.

Narvik, special little child in our neighborhood who loves to study English with us.

Gas Heater in our apartment: we are fortunate to be able to stay warm on the cold days of winter  in Armenia

Heat: we have gas heat, expensive and warming.  We are grateful to able to afford it in our old age!! Many volunteers rely on wood stoves and must balance staying warm with the scarcity of wood as the winter progresses. Most Armenians we know also struggle with staying warm in a cold country.                                                    

      Peace Corps:  without this organization we’d not be in Armenia. We are thankful for the opportunity to be in the Peace Corps and hope our time in Armenia means something to others.

     Happy Thanksgiving to all.  May your day be blessed with loved ones wherever you may be on the 4th Thursday of November, 2012.    Judy and Dave

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Smells, Odors, Aromas, Fragrances.......of Armenia

The smell of the bathroom is overwhelming as I walk down the hall. It is several meters ahead and at least it is inside the building, not outside in the ever-changing weather of an Armenian autumn.  Open holes atop a concrete platform, no water to flush, and bring your own paper---- it does have  ½  wall partitions between the “pits” but no doors----that is the bathroom at my college.  There may be cold water, although it freezes during the frigid winter months, but no soap or paper towels for hand washing.  I have trained myself NOT to use these ancient disgusting facilities except in a dire emergency, but plenty of other staff and the students at my college enter and exit these places every day. They are accustomed to it or do not care about the lack of esthetics which bothers me.  It is pathetic for children to encounter such degrading conditions and not even realize there is a better way.

As I walk home today the warmth of the sun caresses my face. I carry the jacket worn this morning to ward off the chilly, dampness of late October. As I approach our neighborhood a familiar scent wafts across my path and immediately excites my memory. A feeling of homesickness overcomes me. Smoke is in the air and the smell of burning leaves so reminiscent of autumns in the past evokes a strong emotional reaction. I am reminded of campfires, of camping out, of cooking marshmallows to a crisp over an open fire. I can smell the season’s first fire in our former home’s fireplace. Momentarily I forget the blessings of such a warm, sunny autumn day when last year we had snow in October. I continue to walk, deep in thought and reflection, and think of the past, thousands of miles away from Armenia. The scent of burning leaves follows me and I relish the moment. I take a breath and breathe in the essence of autumn.
Students enjoying autumn leaves


The smell of freshly baked bread greets us as we walk in our neighborhood on certain days. Near our apartment is a family-run bakery which specializes in the baking of lavash, the National Bread of Armenia.  From early morning to nightfall, 4-5 women work in this small place located on the street level of the owner’s home. They can be seen mixing ingredients, rolling out the dough, slinging it into shape like a pizza crust creator, then putting each piece into the special stone oven to bake to Armenian perfection. Lavash is a thin Armenian bread which is served with every home-cooked meal and in every food establishment in the country. Its closest kin may be the bread used in wraps so popular in America or even the delicate crepes served in France.  When purchased from the bakery, the customer gets 3 large sheets of lavash for 240 Armenian drams, about   60 cents in USD.  Though thin, it is sturdy bread and one served in a variety of ways without which an Armenian meal would be incomplete. It is cut with scissors and placed in stacks beside each diner’s plate.   In the absence of lavash’s daily aroma drifting through the streets, our neighborhood would also be incomplete and our morning walk would not be nearly as pleasant.  We will miss lavash when our time in Armenia ends.
Neighbor who makes lavash
Sheet of lavash as bought in Armenia

          Cow dung, chicken droppings, pig pens ---all of these exist in our neighborhood, and we live in a tourist town of Armenia.  The smells create a barnyard-like odor usually found in rural areas in the U. S.  Since there is no zoning or restriction against having small numbers of livestock in town, we encounter random cows grazing along the streets and in the center of town. One is just as likely to see chickens and occasionally pigs and horses stopping traffic. Local drivers are accustomed to the presence of animals in the street, and we’ve not seen any fatal accidents because of this dual use of the roadways.  The animals are non-aggressive creatures whose main goal each day is to eat till full. This goal will be increasingly more difficult to achieve as winter arrives. The animals will then be confined to their owner’s small sheds and barns on the coldest of days. Now though, they roam the streets untethered and unattended.  Traveling alone or in small groups, the cows, chickens, occasional pigs and a horse now and then, seem to know where to graze, which garbage cans are full on a particular day and where they must return to when it gets dark.   To some people the animal odors are distasteful smells one must endure. To us the smells are comforting and indicate that other living things are sharing our space in Armenia. I like that!

This is one of the regular cows who wanders our neighborhood producing the smells  described above. She is definitely also willing to be photographed!

After I wrote this post, it dawned on me………here in Armenia one of the distinguishing facial traits seen in most Armenians is the person’s prominent nose.  In fact, when my English students are asked to describe their peers in an exercise focused on adjectives, they always include their thoughts about the other student’s nose. Of course, this prompts some uneasy laughter and good –natured teasing among the students.  Maybe the Armenian focus on noses prompted my focus on smells. Who knows (nose)?       Judy