Saturday, February 19, 2011

Another Busy Weekend!

I'm having something of a busman's holiday this weekend, checking out artisan and tourist items. I thought we could take a day during the week to do this, but we've just been so busy! Thursday was our counterpart's first day back from a week away, so we debriefed from the craft fair and discussed a rough agenda for the next few weeks. Then we prepared a display of items from the "permanent" (non-Valentine's) collection for the buyer from the U.S. Embassy commissary, who is fast becoming one of our best customers. She came on Friday morning and took a variety of items - and also gave us a good idea of what else she is interested in, which will help in new product development. And then we started to prepare for our trip to the south - we'll be away for most of the week. Our objectives - introduce ourselves as a resource for the artisans, interview them so we can get pictures and stories for the web site and other marketing efforts, review any product ideas they have, and provide feedback on existing products. As we looked over the permanent collection, we kept finding products to return, either because the quality is suspect or because they didn't sell. I don't want us - coming down there for the first time and here only temporarily - to have to be the bad guys, but somehow the pile of things to return kept growing. We're meeting at the Homeland Handicrafts office later today to finalize both our presentation and what we're bringing. Fortunately, we also have money to deliver to them, so at least they will welcome that.

Woke up yesterday morning to hear there had been an earthquake while I slept - 3.2 on the Richter scale, epicenter 9 km away. It shook my host mother/sister, but I slept through it (maybe because of the salt before bed). I went to the Peace Corps office and talked with some volunteers who have worked with or are working with Homeland Handicrafts. They have mixed experience - more or less the ones whose items sell are happy and the ones whose items don't aren't, but it was interesting to hear from someone other than our counterpart. There is work to be done!

Then I went to the Vernissage, the weekend craft/flea market. It's big, and there are lots of different things there! Bags and hats made of old carpet are my favorites so far. Ceramics, jewelry, carved wood, knitted items, embroidered items, stone items, old Soviet coins and medals and more more more. Pomegranates, crosses, backgammon sets, things that looked traditional and things that looked like they could have been from anywhere. Ideas of what to make and what there is already too much of. Ideas of what to bring back for friends and family? More research required for that. I liked Vernissage and will be back - didn't see everything, but about an hour of being there was enough for one day.

Then I went to some of the tourist shops in town, to see what they sell. More pomegranates, more crosses, some jewelry, some ceramics and wooden things. Again, I think it helped to see what was there. And since I was in the neighborhood, I went to the Blue Mosque - a quiet oasis, decorated with beautiful color and design. Earlier this week, Brian and I went to a carpet shop, again to get an idea. This one was high-end, with a showroom on Fifth and 29th in Manhattan. Check out - if you want one, let me know - less expensive to buy it here and have it shipped! All wool, natural dye, traditional and modern patterns. I can't stay away from rugs!

Last night I went to a dance performance at the Opera House, with Jeanne and Gordon. An impressive display of talent, and beautiful costumes. A mix of traditional (groups of men and women dancing separately) and modern (one man and one woman dancing together). This afternoon before the office I'll go to the National Folk Art Museum, again as part of my research - Lonely Planet mentions woodcarving, lace and Armenia's finest crafts, which reveal the exotic influence of the East in the culture here. Right now, I'm at the Peace Corps office (and so far I have it all to myself!) to make a bit of a dent in my email. I'm looking forward to the trip south, to see some of Armenia and to see how the people live and work. We have a busy agenda - when we're not driving we're in meetings - without a lot of time for exploration, but I hope there's at least a little time to walk around each place. Back at the end of the week.... More then.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Little Things

I still appreciate the hot shower every day, and the just-about-constant electricity (with a flicker here or there every so often, at least so far). I had a breakthrough with my host mother/sister last week when she let me start the shower without supervision (there are seven knobs/valves to turn in a set sequence, plus the lighting of the gas). After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was water only for a little while each day and electricity for a little while or not at all (I can't worry too much about that nuclear plant leaking, because we need the electricity it produces!). The first few sets of Peace Corps volunteers here lived with those hardships.

And I'm eating more mindfully here. I eat breakfast too early for Zina and dinner too late for her, so I am usually alone in the kitchen. In my own home I might read a New Yorker or listen to a podcast (well, if I had my computer, that is), but here I instead find gratitude for the food or think of an intention for the day or the evening. Zina's kitchen is decorated with a line of postcards that she's received from previous guests, and there's one of the Wrigley Building and Tribune Building right in my line of sight, so sometimes I gaze at it and think about what might be going on in other parts of the world, and I wish everyone there well. Or I listen to the radio and try to pick out words I know (including "Barack Obama"); if there's a song in English I might contemplate the lyrics. There was something in the air that night, that stars were bright, Fernando. You're my first, my last, my everything. Sorry seems to be the hardest word....

I've mentioned the clean streets, sidewalks and trash cans. But I haven't mentioned the bathrooms (or have I?). That's because everywhere I've been there's been a Western toilet, with paper, that flushes (though in one or two instances it doesn't flush the paper - there's a separate receptacle for it in those cases) and a sink with soap and water. In the case of my home stay, the toilet is in one room and the sink and shower in another room. In Morocco, I frequently found myself saying that I was not meant to live in a napkin-less world. Here, napkins are rare, but on every restaurant (and my home stay) table there is a box of tissues that are meant to be used as napkins. I'll also note here that for the past week or so, I've avoided smoky restaurants and have been much happier. It means a bit of a restaurant rut already, as I stick to the few known non-smoky places, but for the most part they also have good food and wi-fi, so stick with them I will, and perhaps I will hear of or discover more.

There's an Armenian restaurant in Chicago calked Sayat Nova. Had I thought about it, I might have held one or both of my birthday/farewell dinners there. Sayat Nova was a great poet and composer here, and I walk on Sayat Nova Street just about every day as part of my commute to either Homeland Handicrafts or the Peace Corps office. A trip to that restaurant is definitely in order on my next trip to Chicago!

In other news, I may have been wrong about St. Sarkis Day. Yesterday I was told that Sunday was the day that people jump over the fire - a previously pagan ritual that somehow was incorporated into the Church rituals here - perhaps a purification thing, though I am not clear on it. The 18th is the day when you eat the salty rolls, and you go to bed thirsty. The person who gives you water in your dreams (not in person) is the one you are going to marry, and you don't have to know him beforehand. In other words, I could try this for myself and see if it works.

And speaking of see if it works - I was in the Peace Corps office and the kind IT person (and I'm not just saying that because he might be reading this) asked how my computer was doing. I told him I called the Apple store and they told me the display was not in yet, even though they had told me it would be about a week. He told me that at Peace Corps they use HP computers, and when they need repair, they are told it will be about a week and it ends up being about a month. Somehow I knew he was going to say something like that. I hope it's less than a month. In fact, I hope they call me tomorrow! Maybe if I go to bed thirsty and dream about my computer....???

Language Learning

We started tutoring last week and so far it has been great. In retrospect, I wish Peace Corps Philippines had given us a use-it-or-lose-it tutoring allowance and help in finding a tutor; it's a much richer experience if you learn some of the language. Both there and here, I can do my job with only English, but I know it would have helped to know some Tagalog and I am already using some of the Armenian that I've learned. Our tutor has been a Peace Corps LCF (Language and Culture Facilitator) several times and she has interesting stories and memory tricks to help us remember some of the words.

First we learned all of the sounds that exist in Armenian and not English - some of them occur in Moroccan Arabic, so we've used them before. We've learned greetings (she says Armenian is the only language in which good morning is literally "good light"), pronouns, to be, some question words and some numbers - and we have started on the Armenian alphabet. The regular volunteers have language training for four hours a day, six days a week, for three months; we'll have it twice a week, for an hour and a half, for three months, with none at all next week and other travel coming up, and I will appreciate all of it. I know already that there is so much work that there will be the temptation to skip, but to me it is a priority and we just have to fit it in.

Some of my favorite things - colloquial for yes is ha and for no is che - if you want to say "isn't it?" or "you know?" you can say "ha che?" All words have stress on the final vowel, and the letters are always pronounced in the same way. "Jan" after someone's name is like Japanese "San" crossed with "my dear." A common phrase is "problem chka," or "no problem;" there is an Armenian word for problem, but now the English word problem is common enough (at least when something's no problem). Lav is good and vat is bad, so-so is vochinch or kamuts-kamuts. The word for I is yes. No gender - the word for he, she and it is the same, na. Snorhakalutyun is thank you - believe it or not, that flows off trippingly off my tongue now, though stesutyun, goodbye, doesn't yet. There is an easier goodbye - hajoghutyun, meaning good luck, is the word - it's easier because it is often shortened to hajo. Hello plural or formal is barev dzez - to be less formal, use just barev. What is inch, how is inchpes (though for how are you, you can also use an informal how, vonts). For a yes or no question, the structure is the same (the adjective, and the conjugation of "to be" that automatically tells you the subject) - it's just the inflection that makes it a sentence as opposed to a question. Hima (now), that is probably enough for lsor (today)!

In other news, one of the PCVs we were supposed to visit next week slipped on ice, broke her ankle in three places, and is being med-evac'd back to the U.S. If you are medically evacuated and you can't make it back in 45 days, Peace Corps medically separates you, end of service. I hope she makes it back! And I am once again glad I broke my computer as opposed to a bone. We're working on other options for our trip....

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Fair Valentine's Day

On Saturday, Jeanne, Gordon and I went with a colleague of Jeanne's and some of her friends to the Matenadaran, Armenia's ancient manuscripts repository. There are more than 17,000 Armenian manuscripts and more than 100,000 medieval and modern documents (no word on whether they are preserving every Twitter tweet, as is the Library of Congress). Most of the collection is for research, but there were some interesting preserved and restored works on display, not only in Armenian but in other languages and of other cultures. Sometimes, an original of another language was lost and only the Armenian translated copy remains. There are some beautiful miniatures, calligraphy and other illuminated works. Armenians considered their books such a treasure that when Genghis Khan came through and demanded their gold, they said no. When he said give me your gold or I will burn your books, they gave him the gold. In the lobby were signs explaining highlights of the collection and the restoration process - with a prominent USAID logo.

Saturday afternoon and into the night we worked to get ready for the fair - arranging the room and making signs. Sunday was a twelve-hour day - don't worry; I full intend to take comp days (maybe in the spring and/or if any visitors are coming) to make up for the extra time I've put in - I figure I'm up to about three days already, and I started just two weeks ago yesterday!

The fair itself was a mixed bag. On the positive side, each of the focal points came to represent their products, and they did well - pricing, setting up their displays, demonstrating, making eye contact, selling without pushing. On the down side, there weren't a lot of customers for the first several hours. What was it - the non-ideal location? The day? Time? Occasion? Publicity? The first customer was my host sister, who felt she had to buy something to be supportive; I know she doesn't have a lot of money so I felt a little bad about this, but she was so glad to be invited that maybe it was all right. I accidentally undercharged her and made up the difference with my own money. After that, one of the Peace Corps staff members, Gordon and Jeanne purchased the most. I kept detailed notes as to what people were looking at and reacting to, and Brian interviewed all of the participants to find out what might make future fairs more successful, so it was a good learning experience. The next one, March 6, is for International Women's Day, a big occasion here. That one, though, is sponsored by someone else and Homeland Handicrafts will just have two tables, so I hope there will be a lot less work for us. I'm glad it is over. Yesterday the buyer for the U.S. Embassy came back - she had sold some things! - and took some of what didn't sell at the fair, and she'll come back later this week and look at the "permanent collection."

In other news - the bells are back to ringing on the :47 and the :23. Maybe whatever it is gets reset frequently. And the days are getting noticeably longer! Dawns and sunsets have been beautiful the last few days. No news on when the Apple store will get my computer display. On the other hand, I had sent myself an envelope of New Yorkers and a box of books; I heard from the Peace Corps office that they have arrived! I will pick them up tomorrow.

And a final note for today - I went to a couple of supermarkets to buy ingredients to make a dessert for Brian's birthday, and I might be mistaken, but I did not see any Laughing Cow cheese! It's the staple cheese of many a developing country - can it be true that it isn't available here?

Friday, February 11, 2011

There are Always Ups and Downs...

I was on Wednesday night that, as I was going to bed early (again), my host mother/sister asked me if I was sad, and the waterworks started. I said it was just too much work! She said that wasn't right; she's hosted a lot of Peace Corps people and most of them don't have enough work and they are doing secondary projects. She is right! We definitely have too much work. This week three friends from home have commented on my adventure, and my comment back has been that so far it doesn't feel like an adventure. That's my reminder that it can, should be and will be an adventure! Here I am in the former Soviet Union, in the developing world, in Western Asia (or Eurasia), in a new country with a lot of history and not a lot of tourists. It's up to me to experience it - and to share it with you!

A good night's sleep and a hot shower and a good breakfast help get every day off to a good start at least, and tired as I am I haven't skipped yoga or meditation (well, I didn't do yoga on the day I flew in or the days of orientation). I know that part of my stress is my computer woe - I'd stopped by the Apple store on Wednesday, somehow knowing they hadn't gotten the display yet, and still managed to feel disappointed when they told me it wasn't in yet. Those little things do make a difference when you're tired - I had also opened my Peace Corps mailbox only to find it empty. When will my New Yorkers come? I've missed three already, and I'd identified it as one of the things I couldn't live without! Maybe I should have had them sent to Edie's and accumulate there.... Maybe I should start that now....

And I came to a somewhat frightening realization this week during the OCSE meeting - we're working on neddy projects. Some of the Small Business Development volunteers in Morocco were assigned to work with artisans, some with cooperatives and some with neddies. These are training centers where young women learn sewing and crocheting skills and make small projects - the classic is the crocheted chicken. Now, mind you, those volunteers who were assigned to work with neddies liked their assignments and their service. But I was glad I had a different assignment. When Rose and I went to Sidi Ifni, we visited the Artisana that was mentioned in Lonely Planet. But we couldn't find any artisans or products. We wandered into one room and there were some sad-looking women knitting. I told Rose that that would make me run screaming into the night, and each month or so after that we would send each other neddy reminders, so we'd be even more thankful we were where we were. Now, there are some nice products on the Homeland Handicrafts web site, and there are some nice products in inventory - beautiful embroidered pillows, for example. But some of the products we were shown in the meeting were - well, I think you get the idea. Some of the skill level is quite good though, and it's up to us and to the people at that meeting to help raise the quality level and the caliber of the product offerings. But when you're tired, it helps to be proud of what you're working on.

We had reason to feel uplifted yesterday. The buyer for the U.S. Embassy commissary had seen some of the Valentine's items and wanted to get some for her shop. We spent the morning packaging, tagging and making an attractive display - and it looked like a nice selection! She came and took multiples of several products. We still have enough for the fair, so we told her not to bring them back for Sunday when she could still sell them on Monday. And we've been working on other aspects of the fair - we'll still be working for a large part of tomorrow and all day Sunday - but after that Wednesday low and the adventure reminder, I feel less tired and more energized. Plus, I am going to the symphony tonight! The Armenian Philharmonic is playing Brahms' Tragic Overture and Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 (Eroica), sandwiching the Heroic Ballade by Arno Babajanian.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Getting Ready for Valentine's Day

On Monday we met with the people from OSCE, the focal points for the artisan groups in the south, and the PCVs - that is, those who could make it through the fog. Two focal points were delayed, so we had another meeting on Tuesday. Both were productive but exhausting - we reviewed new products, had a progress report on each group, introduced Brian and myself, and heard what they might need from us. It was the first time Tim heard our backgrounds in detail too, and he seemed pleased with how well we fit HIS needs. At the end of the second meeting, I turned to one of the PCVs and said that if I were in Morocco that would be enough work for the day - and then I would have gone home to read, cook, or play cards, or maybe done some challenging errand such as going to the post office or buying vegetables. But both times we went back to the office and kept working!

Valentine's Day is a big holiday here, in part because it is Western, and in our craft fair we have many products with hearts on them - go to the Homeland Handicrafts Facebook group to see them, because they are not on the web site (and will they be? Seasonal items vs. a standard product line is one of the strategic questions we will work on). Heart key chains, stress relievers, magnets, heart-adorned tote bags, pillows and cosmetic bags, rose-covered candle holders, vases, picture frames and stemmed glasses, crocheted heart bookmarks, scarves and garlands, and, as of the meetings, candles, fingerless gloves, and items made out of crocheted plastic bags. Plus we picked some items out of "inventory" that we can sell at Sunday's craft fair.

Yesterday was more work on the fair - price sheets, tracking sheets, some advertising and promotion to get people to the event. Still in progress - table and other room decorations, tagging and packaging the items. One thing discussed at the meetings was getting the artisans to tag and package the products before sending them up to Yerevan. That doesn't work in every case because the sewing skills are not adequate, so things such as pillows and bags are finished here. We encouraged each group to apply for a grant for a sewing machine and training so that they can get their skills up and keep more of the labor costs (and therefore more jobs) in the regions.

Another thing that came out of the meetings is our first field trip (well, our second, if you count the one the day we swore in). The OSCE people are going to visit the Women's Resource Centers in each of these cities; that is the partner NGO. While they meet with board members and beneficiaries, we will meet with focal points, PCVs, and the artisans. This will be the week of the 21st - a little sooner than we might have gone on our own or with Tim, but it'll be nice to go with the OSCE people and in their vehicle.

Sunday is also St. Sarkis Day, an Armenian holiday (that moves with the Church calendar). The Artbridge owner told us that on St. Sarkis Day, women eat a very salty version of a sweet roll and they don't drink anything. The saltiness makes them thirsty, of course. The first man to offer them a drink of water is the man they will marry. For more serious information go to There's a lot of history here!

Monday, February 7, 2011

And More Culture

I was invited to go skiing this past weekend; there's a ski resort in Armenia and some PCVs were going. I thought it would be fun - never had the chance to go in Morocco, after all - and then I remembered the ballet tickets and didn't want to worry abut getting back in time. On Saturday I met a PCV with a big knee brace and crutches... Yep, she had been skiing. Now I think I can wait until I get a chance to visit my friends in Utah or Colorado....

Yesterday we did go to a museum after all. The Cafesjian Center for the Arts ( has some beautiful glass sculpture. Chihulys that seem to be everywhere, but also some edgy glass done by Czech artists. There was also a mural that depicted important points of Armenian history, and a Model N Ford, a model ship and a model train. The Cafesjian Center has weekly concerts; I hope to get to some of those. The museum is inside the Cascade, with galleries at each of the levels; the Cascade itself was a neglected relic until Mr. Cafesjian helped to rebuild it. The sculpture garden outside has, coincidentally, works by several of the artists whose works I just saw over Thanksgiving in the New Orleans Museum of Art Sculpture Garden - Fernando Botero, Jaume Plensa (who, I just learned, also did the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park), Barry Flanagan (I think also I saw some of his work in the Smithsonian's National Sculpture Garden earlier this year). It was nice to be with art and to feel inspired.

The day wasn't without work though, so I never felt completely relaxed. While I did Internet, Brian came to Artbridge to brainstorm. He didn't mind that I didn't give him undivided attention, but I felt bad about that. And then we had the dinner with Tim and the PCVs - it was good to get their perspective and important to get some background prior to the meeting, but it was still work, and as I said sometime last week, I need more downtime. We had a crunch last week and we have a crunch this week, and we may have a crunch through the beginning or even the middle of March, but if it goes much longer than that I will burn out and start to be really cranky if not downright unhappy. At least I like the project and the challenge and the opportunity and the people, and at least I feel imbued with the volunteer spirit and the belief that I can make a contribution, and I'm learning and experiencing some of Armenia. That'll keep me going for a while.

Actually, we met with only two of the three PCVs - the third couldn't get over the pass because of the fog. And in addition to learning more about the way business is conducted here we learned more cultural things - how if people have fewer items than you they will cut in front of you at the supermarket, that they think there are earthquakes because during the Soviet era the Azeris tunneled under Armenia to drill for oil and drained the country and now it is settling, that they have a close sense of personal space, that they think you will die if you open a window in a taxi or in the minivan "marchutny" (sounds familiar), and (even more familiar) that a little store is called a hanut (same as in Morocco! As Tim said, one less word for us to learn). And speaking of words, I'm using some more Armenian, for greetings and the like. I've been studying the transliterated lessons at home. Most of the Peace Corps language book is in the alphabet, so I can't get too far without the tutoring. The funny thing is that as I try to use Armenian, my Darija is coming back to me - it must be in the same part of my brain. And of course it doesn't hurt that Brian knows it too.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Culture and Culture

On Friday we went to a section of town called the Iranian Market, where you can buy fabric, foam and other raw materials for crafting. You can get materials in the regions, but the supply is inconsistent and the prices more expensive, so Tim has been doing a lot of the buying here (where the supply is also inconsistent) and sending the materials out to the artisans - with someone going back and forth, or with a taxi willing to take it as a favor, or via another transport option that works on a given day. Not necessarily sustainable, but so far that has been the reality. My daily walk goes past some fancier stores, and it was good to see a more lived-in area. We also passed the Blue Mosque, which is used by the Iranian embassy personnel and is open as a sign of good relations between Armenia and Iran (so much gets shipped from there that they have to have good relations). I want to go back there and see it - on a warmer day.

I also want to go to the Vernissage, the outdoor flea/craft market, but can wait for a warmer day and for no more ice on the ground. Our day of climbing the Cascade was sunny and warmish; since then it rained a couple of days and then it snowed and then it has been colder and icy. I can wait; I'm also eager to visit the tourist shops in town to see what craft items they sell. I've passed some antique rug shops too - I should check them out, no? Just to see what they have?

Friday night a group of us (Gordon, Jeanne, some of the mid-career and older PCVs and a Fulbright scholar one of them knows - it just happened that way; we heard that the other PCVs in town were at the new Pizza Hut) went to an Armenian restaurant that also had traditional music. The food was great - eggplant salad, bulgur wheat pilaf, dolma (stuffed grape leaves), chicken with rice and apricots, and a dish made of beef, garlic, yogurt and mushed-up lavash. And the music was good too; it was especially enjoyable to see Gordon, who stayed in India after his Peace Corps service to learn the Carnatic flute and who plays it still (including at the place where I did my yoga retreat...small world), enjoy it so much.

Last night we went to the ballet! Peace Corps paid for one museum visit/tour, last weekend, and for one cultural event, this - but it's not so pricey that we can't go again on our own. The ballet was Gayane, one of Armenia's treasures; it includes the Sabre Dance, music that is well-known to us. It was a great performance - the sets, costumes, music and dancing were great. The crowd was mixed in age and in dressiness, given to outbursts of applause at spins, lifts or other displays of ballet excellence. What a treat!

I'm at Artbridge right now, for lunch and internet. This week I'll buy one of those Internet sticks, and then when I get my computer back I can do Internet from home. More culture is on tap for this afternoon; Gordon, Jeanne and I have tentative plans to go to a museum. There are a lot of them in Yerevan and a lot of weekends! We were planning to go to one last Sunday, but then I fell. Who knows; I could end up here all afternoon, talking and doing internet.... Tonight Brian and I are having dinner with Tim and three PCVs from the south who work with the NGOs and artisans there. Tomorrow we'll be meeting with those PCVs, the NGO partners, and their financial sponsor-to-date, the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). The funding is for three years and it is halfway through; the NGOs have to start thinking about what will happen when the funding ends.

So I posted about the bells yesterday, and then last night and this morning they chimed on the hour and the half hour, no longer on the :23 and :47. Not nearly as much fun, but probably better for noting the time.

And elsewhere in the world, there's this thing called the Super Bowl later today. I asked one of the PCVs I met yesterday if and where they were planning to watch it; she said somewhere north of town. She also mentioned a place in town where she thought the Marines might watch, but she described it as hard to find. It's on in the middle of the night here anyway. Perhaps if the Bears or Jets were in it I might make more of an effort to see it, but since I haven't seen one since 2006, I can skip this one too. And a final cultural note for today, on Peace Corps culture - here, the PCVs call each other on the phone, as opposed to texting. Brian and I text, but maybe I will get used to talking on the phone again!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

And More Bits and Pieces...

Earlier this week we met one of the NGO partners, a man from the south. He talked about his town, which was about half Armenian and half Azeri. One day during the conflict all of the Azeris left - yes, they all left in one day. One of the young men who used to play with his kids came back to the town as a soldier from the other side. Tim had first come here to help build housing for Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan - and years later, some of them still haven't moved into their housing - that would be admitting they aren't going back. The most successful resettlements happened in places where an entire town of people relocated as a group - the social structure was in place.

Tim gave us some more background - some of this I might have said already, and some I will supplement as I read or learn more. Armenia has lost 40 percent of its population since independence. There's so much unemployment. But many of this recent diaspora don't get along with the people of the older wave of diaspora. There are many Armenians in Russia, in certain professions such as asphalt and bread baking. In Western Armenia and other parts of greater Armenia, the Armenians were the businessmen and merchants; they've always been a strong people.

I hear bells! I'm not sure where they come from, but they chime every half an hour, on the :23 and the :47. So far I've woken up to them - I've set my alarm for just after, in case I am sleeping soundly. I've also heard them in the middle of the night as I'm still adjusting to the time - and when I'm having trouble getting back to sleep I might hear them three or four times in a row. And speaking of adjusting, I'm enjoying my iPad more now that I've been using it more. I have to correct the auto-correct sometimes, and it's hard to type on it for long periods of time, so I've come back to the Peace Corps office this weekend to go through email. It has other limitations (can't access categories on the EvEx blog, for example - and of course having to be near wifi to get Internet), but I do think that if I were traveling, I could take only it and be all right. The Peace Corps library has been an interesting place to be today - I think I have now met most of the 99 volunteers in country, coming in and out! Still, I have managed to get a lot done. All right, I admit it, I'm stressed without my computer! I'm beginning to think that when I get it back I'll still be stressed though.... The hotel where we stayed when we first arrived (and which is near my home stay) has a pool that people who aren't hotel guests can use. It's a little more chlorinated than I'd like, and Gordon and Jeanne went over to check it out and it was crowded, but maybe I can use it occasionally anyway or find another pool that is close. At least I am walking everywhere so far!

I've also heard and read about oligarchs, corruption, three sets of books, hiring based on who you know rather than what skills you have, taxes being such a problem that there's a big underground economy, people who can't work cooperatively because they don't trust each other.... I think I can say all of this since it's generic enough. I've met some of the regular volunteers in the business sector who seem somewhat frustrated by their inability to get something done here, or they're resigned to it and they're doing something else such as teaching to make their service meaningful. It seems easy to tell Tim that in order to grow he has to form a real organization, a legal entity, but in the developing world it's never that simple.

And for the mundane - my favorite breakfast so far is still eggs with the tomato preserve Zina made over the summer, but I know I can't have that every day. On Thursday she made rice with potatoes - not a lot of protein in there, or fruit/vegetable, so my least favorite so far.... Yesterday I had a bowl of oatmeal, which is more oatmeal than I have eaten in my entire life (that wasn't baked into cookies, that is). I don't care for cereal, hot or cold, but I ate it. She said we have to have it once a week because it's healthy. On the other hand, I am very, very happy to have a hot shower every day!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Random thoughts

Did I mention that there's a lot of park space in Yerevan? It'll be full of cafes in the spring, but it's pretty now, too. On one of the hikes at my yoga retreat, I learned that there's one tree - is it the beech? - that doesn't lose its leaves in the fall; its branches have brown leaves all winter. There are a lot of those trees here! And the birds! Armenia is a bird-watcher's paradise. I read that there are something like 365 species that come through here, vs. 450 in all of Europe. There's also a lot of great sculpture here. I think I'll start a photo series. I had Doors of Morocco and Jeepneys of the Philippines (well, that was more a concept than a reality). Sculpture of Armenia seems to make sense.

On our field trip last week (which you'll read about when I get my computer back...), we climbed out of the valley that nestles Yerevan and into the southern Caucasus. It reminded me a bit of the Middle Atlas - the treeless part, that is. It might be a microclimate and it might be deforestation and it might be some of each. Maybe it looks more like farmland in the spring, but now it looks barren, with the occasional quarry or non-operating factory. We overshot our destination and ended up in Sevan, the biggest town by Lake Sevan, but didn't see the lake. Our destination, Charentsavan, has old Soviet apartment blocks and no village charm - at least we didn't see any. The PCV there said that it was her seminar site in training, and when she got it as her final site she cried. I could relate to the seminar-site-being-final-site, but of course I was thrilled to get Azrou. I look forward to seeing other parts of the country, and I know there is some beauty to be found, but if I end up in the office more and Brian ends up in the field more, that's okay too, and I can do weekend day trips to tourist destinations.

I thought couscous would be found everywhere every day in Morocco, only to find that it was a Friday lunch and only-special-occasion-other-times food. Well, in Armenia I expected yogurt to be plentiful, only to find that it's a once-in-a-while evening thing; perhaps an accompaniment to borscht or another dish, or mixed into a beverage called tan that I have not had yet, or used as a soup base. Also, what we think of a lavash is not the lavash eaten here. Here it's soft - more like a thin wrap - and you tear off pieces and either roll your food into it or you eat it with your food. And while you can get American coffee and sometimes fancier drinks such as cappuccino, true Armenian coffee is what we might call Turkish coffee (but don't call it that here!), finely ground with a thick sediment at the bottom.

We met with our tutor yesterday. She's been one of the Peace Corps language teachers for years and loves to teach. We'll have tutoring twice a week for now, 20 minutes on the alphabet and then an hour lesson and then time for questions and practice. The PCVs get three months of four hours a day, and we won't have that time to spend on it, but I look forward to learning what I can. For now, Brian and I will do it together, and at some point we may switch to solo lessons.

This is a culture where people don't want to say no or to ask for something - because they don't want to bother you. It is also a culture where if you order something in a restaurant and they bring you something else, they will say, "this is better."

One final cultural note for today - we were advised not to make eye contact or smile at strangers who we pass on the streets, lest that be misconstrued. People here don't greet or smile at each other. I find that I have to make a conscious effort to look unfriendly...

Thursday, February 3, 2011

It's Still Just the First Week...

Computer update: I called the Apple Support Center yesterday and they said they had to order a new screen for me; they don't have one in stock. So it'll be at least a week. I'm working out of the Peace Corps office today - we're aiming for one day a week here, to regroup and plan ahead. I may come back again this weekend to catch up on email and on the news. So much is happening in the world right now! I've gotten small updates on Egypt but want to read more about it.

There hasn't been much downtime so far. I've had a lot of downtime in the past - oh, eight years? Twelve? I need downtime - including more exercise time. This week so far has been the crunch of getting the airport order ready; we spent a couple of hours putting tags on yesterday, and then we delivered it to Artbridge, where the buyer also buys for the airport. She had seen some prototypes but this was the first time she had seen the completed product, and it was a learning experience to see her reactions.

We also started going through the inventory of existing products, so that we can build a database. Town, province, artisan, local NGO, local PCV, hours to make, materials, pricing, a product photo, how many sold so far and in what venue, and any particulars about the artisan. We made it through a box and a half out of six or seven total boxes. And we talked about the upcoming Valentine's Day fair - that'll be the next crunch. There's also a fair for International Women's Day, which is March 8. And I still haven't quite adjusted to the time difference. There's definitely going to be enough for two of us to do! Oh, and our counterpart is going away for a week, leaving us to do the fair!

The posts in the computer talk about the rest of orientation, an introduction to work including a field trip that we took, and my home stay and host sister. When I wrote that last one I hadn't decided what to do about dinner. We've all decided to pay our hosts to cook dinners for us, at least for a while. Breakfast was part of the rent negotiation; we'll eat lunch out and that's going to add up. Tuesday she made a lovely lentil dish, and yesterday she made pumpkin with rice, milk, dried apricots and cinnamon. Tonight will be borscht. Food costs a lot here - this was a bad weather year for the fruit harvest. And I think an oligarch tried to corner the market on eggs, so eggs are twice as expensive as they were last year. Everything's expensive here, because it's all imported. I didn't bring common toiletries because they're heavy - but they're expensive here; maybe twice what they cost in the U.S., or more. I thought I might get a bathrobe - I saw a not-very-nice one at the supermarket - maybe one that you might get at a CVS at home - for the equivalent of $82. No bathrobe! Maybe that's why I think $350 for an Apple computer screen seems reasonable!

Today we went to the U.S. Embassy, a fortress-like building on the outskirts of town, on the river, with a nice view of Mt. Ararat, for a briefing with the regional security office. Nothing we hadn't already been told, but more detail. For example, if there's a leak in the nuclear reactor, stay inside and put duct tape and plastic on all the windows until they send notice at it's safe to go outside. And if there's an earthquake? Usually it's good to be in a doorway, but maybe not in Armenia. On the Eurasia plate, there's an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 every three years - in Armenia, Turkey, Georgia or Iran. Note, he also said that our biggest danger here is the traffic - so I'll just go with that for now...

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Week Begins, The Work Begins

The good news - there is an Apple support center in Yerevan. I took my computer there and they said that they could fix it. I have an iPad to use in the meantime, and the Peace Corps computers, and other options. The bad news - they said they would call yesterday with a quote, and they didn't. As my counterpart said, Welcome to Armenia. I hope it is fixed soon.... About all I can do is hope! I'm thinking that at some point I can post the blog entries that I wrote before my computer (literally) crashed; so what if it's not in chronological order? I'll add photos, too. In the meantime, my back is bruised and feels more sore than it did on Sunday, but I think it's nothing serious. It snowed yesterday - unusual for Yerevan, they say, with several inches on the ground - and I was very careful as I walked!

Monday was our first day at the office. The Norwegian and Finnish Consulate, where we work, is actually our counterpart's apartment. But a nice place it is - vintage on the outside and modern on the inside. The apartment block was used by artists, composers and other cultural figures during the Soviet era. Tim bought it from a Bolshoi ballerina. Our first morning was spent listening, asking questions, taking notes - lots of information! The business has grown organically to this point, and now it is time to set a mission, vision, strategy, plan for the future. We spent the rest of the day and most of today putting together product and packaging for a big airport order that is due tomorrow and also for a Valentine's Day trade fair. Valentine's is one of the big gift-giving holidays here. I sewed together sets of crocheted hearts into bookmarks - I'm quite proud of how they turned out, since I don't think I'm much of a seamstress! I also tied ribbons on packages of frames, glasses and boxes filled with chocolates and decorated with artisan-made foam roses. And Brian and I set up a workspace for ourselves in Tim's former guest room. It's quite nice!

Last night my host sister and I did laundry. She describes her machine as semi-automatic. You put the clothes into the machine along with soap and then fill it with water from a hose. You agitate it with a stick, and when it's all stirred, you plug it in and it automatically agitates for 12 minutes. You move it to the other basket and send it through one spin cycle, to remove excess water (which goes back through the hose into the sink). Then you hand-rinse in a bucket in the shower corner (with warm water - so much better than the ice-cold hand-washing I did in Morocco; in the Philippines, I had brought it around the corner for women to do by machine - wash, dry, iron, fold). Another round in the auto-spin cycle and it's mostly dry. Hang it (we put a clothesline in my room for the unmentionables) and voila! I didn't have a lot of laundry, but what I had turned out to just about fill the machine and the space for hanging/drying.

We also made the front page of the Peace Corps web site with a link to its Facebook page and twitter feed, celebrating the swear-in of Armenia's first Response volunteers. Earlier versions referred to Brian and me as the married volunteers rather than Gordon and Jeanne! Oops.