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

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