Thursday, February 28, 2013

Beauty and Art Know no Time Frame

Cascade building which houses the Cafesjian Center for the Arts in Yerevan, Armenia

It’s never too late to take in beauty and realize the talents of others in this world.  The occasion occurred this past weekend for David and me when we were in Yerevan with a few hours of unscheduled time to spend.  We chose to visit the Cafesjian Center for the Arts, a breathtaking structure housed within the Cascade, a building conceived by Armenian architect, Alexander Tamanyan . Deterioration of the building took place during the years of economic struggle in Armenia, but in 2002, Mr. Gerard Cafesjian established the Cafesjian Museum Foundation which restored the Cascade and is now continuing to transform it into one of the world’s preeminent centers for the arts.  During our cultural training for the Peace Corps in 2011, David and I visited the Cascade and its outdoor gardens. We witnessed the artistry of Armenian dancers who first displayed then taught their native dance routines to tourists and locals alike. Here during our first summer in Armenia, we were introduced to the beauty of native Armenian dress and culturally distinct footwork and music.  We, along with many other Peace Corps volunteers and casual participants, joined in the lines and circles of novice dancers and tried our hand at some of these dances even though we stumbled and ended up laughing our way to the sidelines, out of breath and totally confused with the intricacies of our new country’s complex choreography.
Tower of exquisite Swarovski crystals

Glass piece which changes colors as one views it
         Today we did not see this type of display of Armenian’s performing art but would, instead, see the art work of glass artists and contemporary creators from various countries including our own, and we viewed depictions of history and historical figures of which we’ve read much.  Armenian historical figures such as Tumanyan, Mashtots, and others, were portrayed in massive murals and stone statues.  Alongside them were contemporary creations of stunning Swarovski crystal and murano glass.  Above our heads were the breathtaking glass flowers of Dale Chihuly, and greeting us in the first gallery was a wall of these exquisite  creations projecting their colorful beauty upon us.   Having seen similar displays in Las Vegas on the ceiling of the Bellagio Casino made this opportunity to view Chihuly’s work up close even more impressive.
Stunning crystal art piece at Cafesjian Center for the Arts
           As we proceeded from floor to floor, indoors and out, and viewing each level’s galleries, we were impressed with the professionalism in which the museum was both arranged and managed.   Nowhere in this country have we seen quite the level of attention to detail and eclectic display of fine works of contemporary art intermingled with historic presentations. Impressive ,too, is the fact that the majority of exhibitions presented in the Cafesjian Center for the Arts are derived from the private collection of its main benefactor,  Mr. Gerard Cafesjian   The offerings themselves mirrored the diverse  mix of viewers and art enthusiasts.. In our presence were young couples spending an unseasonably warm February afternoon with a loved one, to young children being introduced to a new visual experience, to older patrons  individually and jointly absorbing the beauty before them. Inside and outside offered visual stimulation as we viewed the wide spectrum of man’s creative efforts in an Armenian garden setting overlooking the city we have grown to enjoy.  Here in Yerevan one can become refreshed and gain a different perspective of a country in which our day- to- day work is oft times frustrating and seemingly non-productive. Here we can become re-charged, have a chance to contemplate new approaches to our daily work, and return to our work ready to try something different or attempt to re-direct our energies in a more efficient way for the limited time we have left as Peace Corps volunteers. Spending time in such a setting frees ones’ thoughts thus allowing refocus and some measure of change in direction. Clearing the cob webs and constant thoughts of challenge and hurdles ahead promotes improved mental health and a renewed desire to be a better volunteer.
David viewing the city of Yerevan, Armenia from atop the Cascade
              As we step outside the Cafesjian  Center for the Arts, we are at the summit of the Cascade where  hazy but breath-taking views of the entire city  may be enjoyed. From this vantage point one realizes a  panoramic look at Yerevan  which will be even more inspiring in the spring when the gardens begin to green- up and the decorative, stone fountains are flowing with water again.   Randomly situated below us are the sculptures and whimsical, sometimes controversial art pieces provided by traveling exhibions or Mr. Cafesjian’s own collection.. They are strategically interspersed among historic statues of Armenian intellectual figures in the country’s history.   People are wandering leisurely about the area which is bordered on each side by shops and restaurants. Overlooking the park-like setting are apartments and offices with to-die-for views before them. One can only imagine the maneuvering involved as occupants of those buildings vie for offices and bedrooms facing this oasis within the city. It is a place to come for respite, relaxation, and beauty. It is a place in which one seeks a view from above or a park bench on the ground level.
Famous Armenian historical figure, Tamanyan, greets visitors to the Cascade  
                                                               Though we’ve known of the Cafesjian area for much of our time in Armenia, we’ve never had  the time or made the effort to explore it, aside from the dance experience mentioned above.  Fortunately, we followed the lead of others who suggested such a visit.  It is never too late to seek beauty and to enjoy it with a loved one, David.   We’ll continue the exploration of this jewel within the city of Yerevan as we look to expand our horizons through concert attendance within the same building.  What better way to further learn about a country of which we knew little 2 years ago, than to spend quality time experiencing its cultural treasures. 

         May each of you discover a place of beauty in your city where you may gain respite and a change of perspective. It is never too late.       Judy

Saturday, February 16, 2013

BOOKS : This week in Armenia

Books and Dilijan
BOOKS  at the college
Student using new textbook, ENGLISH UNLIMITED , at Dilijan State College
The English classes at my college now have actual textbooks for use in class----for the first time ever. Thanks to funds granted to my Peace Corps Small Project Assistance proposal, each student can hold, read and study a new book in class.    
Bookshelves in new English Classroom where old and new books are found
 The grant, supported by US AID, is significant because up until now, students relied upon blotchy, dim copies of text/exercises from an old Soviet Union style books in which English was taught in the Russian style. Now students see bright, colored, contemporary pictures and clearly printed English texts based upon current age-appropriate subjects.  Will it make a difference in their language learning?  My Armenian team teacher and I certainly hope so, and we’ve already seen sparks of interest in students who up until now were reluctant to do anything in class. A few of the better students have asked to study separately with me during class because they are more proficient in English than others in their class and see the new books as being a way to move ahead even further if studied with a native English speaker. My team teacher and I are trying several ways of meeting these students’ needs while also trying to teach the students with more limited knowledge. This is a challenge all of the Peace Corps TEFL volunteers must face in a country where English is not consistently taught to younger students.
One negative though is our inability to find a CD player needed to play the accompanying audio discs.  Electronic devices of all kinds are very expensive here. Plus, technology has moved past the CD players I recall from earlier years. MP3 plays, iPods, cell phones, etc. now provide the link to music instead of CD players. Stores in Dilijan do not sell CD players and those in Yerevan are out of our price range. So you say---use a computer. Great idea! But we do not have a computer in our English classroom nor do we have electricity.  Ironically, my English classroom sits between 2 computer classrooms but equipment in those rooms is not permitted to be moved. Even so, it is great to have new books, and we use the CD scripts as dialogues with the students being asked to read rather than listen to the CD’s we can’t play.  Not perfect but not bad either!
In addition, a renewed student interest is occurring in checking out books from our small collection of graded readers. We tried to purchase a variety of subjects as well as reading levels.  Rarely assigned book reports and poor English level proficiency has limited this activity, so to see a few names on our check-out list is heartening.
BOOKs  in the town…………………..
Entrance to Dilijan, Armenia's new library

Dilijan’s long-awaited new library recently opened its doors. Housed on one floor of a renovated building in the heart of the town, the library shares space with an English learning Center operated by the American University in Armenia, and a high teach computer center operated by  >>>>>>>>>>>. The English learning center offers classes for adults wishing to learn English and the computer center offers amazing computer lessons for students ages 12-17 years. The self-paced computer classes are absolutely FREE after the student pays a nominal, refundable damage deposit. Within 2 weeks, the center already has 200 students eager to learn advanced computer skills and use of all types of computer technology unavailable anywhere else in Dilijan. What a wonderful way for students to spend their free time and what a boost to their chances of getting jobs later on.

Sign on wall outside of new library which is sponsored by the Central Bank of Armenia

Though the collection of Armenian, Russian, and English books is small in the library, everything is new….. no musty-smelling, faded-paged, book-mite eaten books from the 70’s. The library itself is bright, welcoming and sparkling. The staff is eager to have many patrons and is open to any new ideas of how to use their facilities. One of the students Dave and I tutor is a smart, university bound high school senior. She has already learned  new skills of how to secure a library card, check books in and out , pay attention to renewal and return dates, and knows the difference between to borrow a book and to lend one. Astrik will probably read ALL the books in the English section of the library and increase her vocabulary accordingly.                
BOOKS: a personal note…………………………….

New English textbooks and old text focused on poetry, both in my classroom at Dilijan State College

As I was straightening the bookshelves in our new classroom, taking inventory, adding new books and materials, etc., I ran across a small book which was on shelves before I came to the college as an English teacher.  I had never noticed it before.  Written in 1973, the book ….and a time to teach poetry  caught my eye even though we do not teach much about poetry in my classes. I opened the book to find a foreword written by Adrian W. McClaren, English Consultant for the Southeast Area of Memphis City Schools in 1973.  Memphis, TN., and the nearby area was David and my home for most of our adult life.  I took the book to our apartment to show David of this connection with our past.   Mentioned in the foreword were names we both recognized. Alan Ford was a graphic arts specialist, computer whiz and teacher in the early 70’s at the school where I was a school nurse. He helped me with numerous visual aids for health education classes I taught at his school.  Dave recognized the name of Mrs. Dorothy McGinnis who was his art teacher at White Station High School in Memphis in 1954. There he made a fish-shaped cutting board under the tutelage of Mrs. McGinnis. That very cutting board has been used by David and me over the years and is now in a storage unit awaiting our return to cooking in the U. S.  Mrs. McGinnis’s efforts live on through that piece of art work as well as through the little book I found by accident.       
I was so surprised to find a book written in Memphis, TN., and now on the bookshelf in my classroom in Armenia half the way around the world.   It’s amazing how a small connection through one book can bring back so many memories and briefly tie two vastly different worlds together.   As one gets older the adage “it’s a small world after all” truly has renewed meaning.
May your large world become smaller as you learn of other places in the world, and may books be a continued part of your life, as they are of  David’s and mine.  Hard cover, soft cover, electronic, it doesn’t matter!
Judy with students reading from new textbooks at Dilijan State College
Happy Reading!    wherever you are.