Saturday, March 24, 2007


My Babushka died today. She was 86 years old. She was a strong, believing woman who raised her three children alone after my grandfather died in 1960, just eight years after they had arrived in the United States from Austria. She had some fascinating stories. We will miss her very much.

I'm flying back to the States on Monday. Jeremy will meet me at JFK and then we'll travel together to Valley Cottage, NY, for the funeral. I'm sad that she never got to meet him, but I know that she would have liked him.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Mauritanian thieves stole my beanie!

It's true, they did! My friend Josh is a Foreign Service officer in Mauritania (west coast of Africa, I didn't know either). A few nights ago, thieves broke into his house. They stole his computer, among other valuables, and the green-and-gray beanie I knitted for him while we were in training in Washington. He's very upset about it, but I'm kind of flattered that they wanted the beanie. Andnow I have an excuse to break out my knitting needles again and correct the mistakes I made on the first hat. It was supposed to be a winter hat, but I made it too short, thus the beanie. I don't have a photo of Josh actually wearing the beanie, but here's one of us at a party while we were in training in 2004.

While we're talking about Josh, I should note that he is going to Juneau for home leave right before Jeremy and I take our trip there this June. I'm bummed that we won't be able to meet up in Alaska (it being Josh's first time there and all). But Jeremy and I are planning to pay him a visit at his next assignment (Sydney) during one of our R&Rs from Kabul, which I'm really looking forward to.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Can't get enough of Armenia (or Masha)

Well, I just can't seem to escape Armenia. I just got tickets to head back to Armenia in 4 weeks. I'll be over there for 2 weeks. You know, just got to fill up the passport. But it's really a chance for me to be humiliated with how much Armenian I've lost. Masha gets the pleasurable experience of ridiculing me in public and correcting my unpronounceable Armenian. She started last trip when we went and saw my host family. Wasn't pretty. This trip will won't be much prettier. Have to break out my old sign-language techniques from early language training.

But really, it's kind of a mini-birthday present to me (from Masha) and a way to feed my need to see her. I know that I'll be spending the next 50+ years of my life with her, but it feels too long since I last saw her (I know that it was only January, but hey cut me some slack) ;)

It'll be a fun two weeks. I'll be working on my thesis paper for grad school, so I don't know how much fun that part will be. But hopefully I'll get out and maybe see my host family or head down to Vayk. Definitely see some old friends (one who has a new baby) and just check out this year's new crop of Armenian hooch. Anybody know how the mulberry harvest is supposed to be? You know, priorities!!!!! ;)

Speaking of priorities, true to a woman who is getting married, she is already scouting out friends' homes where she can store her wedding dress away from my prying eyes. Too bad I can't just search her pockets like she did while searching for the engagement ring.

Well, I'm sure that we'll post some pictures while I'm there, so check it out. Hopefully the weather will be nice and we'll be able to get out and enjoy the evenings (and spy on the couples in Make Out Park).

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Trip to Shirak Marz

On March 6, Irina (my Armenian colleague), Ruben (our driver) and I set out for a two-day trip to Shirak Marz, the northwestern region of Armenia. Shirak sits in the corner of Armenia formed by the Turkish and Georgian borders. One of its cities, Spitak, suffered a tragic earthquake in 1988, which registered 6.8 on the Richter scale, killed more than 25,000 people, and devasted the entire region. We didn't stop in Spitak, but did spend a lot of time in Gyumri, which also suffered a great deal of damage. Gyumri is the center of the region and the second-largest city in Armenia. Some effort was made to rebuild it, but reminders of the disaster are everywhere.

We stopped in Gyumri for a cup of Armenian coffee (that's what it's called here, but you may know it as Turkish coffee, Greek coffee or Arabic coffee) and then continued north to visit a couple of villages. Though spring has sprung in Yerevan, and to some extent in Gyumri, it definitely is still winter in northern Shirak Marz.

Our mission was to talk to people about the upcoming parliamentary elections, which will occur May 12. Unsurprisingly, we learned that politics is secondary to people who don't have gas or running water. The people of Ashotsk, the first town we visited, were happy with their current parliamentary representative, because he paid out of his own pocket for diesel fuel so that the snowplow could clear the path to the main road.

Poor quality roads are a chronic problem for the residents of Armenia's poor and remote villages, where most make their meager living by growing vegetables or milking their cows, and need an open artery to sell their products.

Many village residents are earthquake refugees from Spitak or Gyumri. Partially built apartment blocks, meant to house those who lost their homes in the earthquake but abandoned for lack of funds to complete them, are a common sight in the region.

We spent the night in Gyumri, at the one-story hotel Berlin (German-built, hence the name). The next morning, we met with human rights activists, the deputy marzpets (regional governors), and representatives of several political parties. As we drove from meeting to meeting, I couldn't help but notice how many statues there were.

Though I saw no statutes of Lenin in Gyumri (which was formerly called Leninakan), there was a prominent statue of Stepan Shahumian, the leader of the Baku Bolsheviks. Shahumian was a buddy of Lenin's, and translated the Communist Manifesto into Armenian. He was captured and killed by anti-Bolshevik forces in Transcaspia (now Turkmenistan) in 1918.

This is definitely my favorite statue in Gyumri. It is Charles Aznavour, a French singer of Armenian descent who one of the most famous Armenian diasporans in the world (see also Cher - born Cherilyn Sarkissian - and Dr. Kevorkian). As far as I know, Aznavour has lived his entire life in France, but he operates a charity in Armenia. There is a square named for him in Yerevan, as well. Last summer, he came to Yerevan last summer during his farewell tour, and sold out a concert in Republic Square, with tickets selling for more than $100 a pop.

This is Gyumri's World War II monument. It's not particularly noteworthy except for the fact that I think the woman looks like she is serving tea in a very adamant fashion.

On Wednesday, we left Gyumri, and stopped in several towns on the way back to Yerevan. Among them was Azatyan, whose faded sign still bears the seal of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic. (It's much easier to forget, while in Yerevan, that Armenia used to be a Soviet country. Out in the regions, the Soviet Union doesn't appear quite dead. The picture underneath the Azatyan village sign is of a six-inch layer of cow dung, drying so that it can be cut into bricks that later will be burned for heat.

My experience upon returning to Yerevan after trips like this always seems the same. First, there is relief at returning to my comfortable, heated apartment with 24-hour running water. Once that wears off, discouragement sets in as I count the flashy SUVs on the street and note that, although life for the Yerevantsis has become easier during the two years I've lived here, life in the regions is as difficult as ever.

Women's Day

Today is International Women's Day. It's like Valentine's Day in this part of the world, only you don't have to be in a relalationship to enjoy it. Everyone gets into it. I was at the grocery store this morning and they were selling donuts with "March 8" written on their tops in icing. A woman behind me in the checkout line wished a happy holiday to the cashier girls. Yesterday, during one of our stops in Azatyan, a village a few hours from Yerevan, the head of an NGO gave me a flower, and my colleague Irina got a strange little panorama made of pebbles and a tiny ceramic urn. Not sure the significance of the latter, but our (male) driver Ruben definitely got nothing. (Stay tuned for a longer blog entry about our two-day trip to northwest Armenia).

Today all the restaurants were packed because one of the hallmarks of International Women's Day, at least as observed in Armenia, is the fact that women aren't supposed to cook or do any other work. International Women's Day is now kind of a squishy holiday as observed by international organizations who have turned it into a human rights thing, but really it was the brainchild of socialists. American socialists at first, according to Wikipedia, and then by decree of the U.S.S.R. Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, which ordered that the day be observed "in commemoration of outstanding merits of the Soviet women in communistic construction," among other things. You can read more about it here. You'll note there is actually quite a bit about Armenia in this article, but despite what it says about March 8 being replaced by April 7, IWD is definitely observed here.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Bridal Brunch

Mimosas, pasta salad, silly games and heart-shaped paper ... must be a bridal shower!

Carina threw me a very fun bridal brunch today. A bunch of my American and Armenian friends came, and they all wrote marital advice, ranging from the unprintable to truly sage wisdom, on little pink, heart-shaped pieces of paper. We played games where we unscrambled words related to matrimony (which I was terrible at) and then a game where we wrote down a bunch of famous people's better halves (which Liz and I won). Then Carina pulled out a questionnaire she had had Jeremy answer. She read us the questions and then three answers, one of which was Jeremy's, and we had to guess. He told everyone that the first time we met I was wearing a leather mini skirt, Ugg boots and a tight turquoise turtleneck sweater that matched my eyeshadow. Honey, that was the SECOND time we met. Sheesh. Get it straight!

Saturday, March 3, 2007

King Jeremy

Today a beggar told me that she had heard people talk about my husband, and that there was a prophecy that he was going to be a king and would never have to work. She said he is very smart on both sides of his brain, and that all the people sitting on the benches were talking about him.

I guess that's good to know.