Monday, April 30, 2007

Queen's Day

Today is Queens Day in the Netherlands. The Dutch folks had a party tonight, and it was quite an international affair. They rented out Yerevan's new hip Irish bar, Shamrock, and lots of Armenians, dips and other expats were there. I walked in and felt both at home and out of place. Out of place because everyone was wearing orange (it's the Dutch thing to do), and despite the fact that I attended U.Va., home of the orange-and-blue Cavaliers, for four years, I do not own any orange clothing. At home because, inexplicably, they were playing Steve Earle's "Transcendental Blues" - the whole album - on the stereo. It is one of my all-time favorite albums, and I've never met anyone else who owns it. I tried to find out whose CD it was so I could give them a big hug, but I had no luck. "What, you mean this isn't Dutch music??" No, that it ain't. Steve has done his share of drugs, but he is definitely from Texas.


Last Saturday afternoon, a bunch of us went to Echmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Church (often called the Armenian Apostolic Church or, inaccurately, the Armenian Orthodox Church). I'd been there before, but only into the main church and to the office of the church's spokesman for a work meeting. This time, we got a behind-the-scenes tour thanks to Hakob, whose main job is as a guard at the National Democratic Institute office in Yerevan, but who moonlights as an Echmiadzin tour guide.

Our first stop was the main museum, which is closed to the public because its many valuable and sacred artifacts are poorly secured. Lots of neat stuff there, such as this tapestry that was made by diasporan Armenians in China.

I could not for the life of me get a non-blurry photo of it. The most interesting thing about it is that, though its makers were Armenian, Christ, the thieves and his disciples all have Asian faces.

There were lots of very intricately embroidered cloths and tapestries and vestments, like this one:

And of course, no Armenian museum is complete without a paean to the Armenian alphabet:

But the most important artifact in the museum (if it is indeed real), is this fragment of the Cross of Christ. I've never seen one that large, so I admit I have my doubts. But what really bothered me was that, if the folks at Echmiadzin truly believe this is a piece of the Cross, what is it doing in the museum? Shouldn't it be in the church?

So after the museum, we went into the main church ...

... which was built above a pagan fire temple, the ruins of which you can still see on the special tour:

The story goes that Christ came in a vision to St. Grigor Lusavorich (Gregory the Illuminator, credited for introducing Christianity to pagan Armenia in 301 AD), and instructed him to destroy the temple and build a church in its place.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Snow!!! Snow!!! It's not supposed to snow!!!!! What the ****!!!

So, it snowed yesterday. And how do I know that? Well, due to airline issues, I'm still here. My new flight is set for Sunday, so I'm in good old Armenia for another 5 days. And if that isn't enough, it snowed!!!!! Damn snow. It's 65 degrees and sunny on Monday. Masha and I were out playing cards, enjoying some hot chocolate and teas at some of the nice outdoor cafes that have sprung up around the Opera square in the last couple of years. No more trees in the area, but the shady umbrellas that have taken their place are a nice touch. Still waiting until they brick all the grass, but I geuss that progress is still a couple of years away. They did spray paint some of the brick green on some of the boardwalks. Wonder if that is their version of "greening up Yerevan"? After all, it was Earth Day on Sunday.

Anyway, I digress. So on Monday, Masha and I are outside playing cards. On Tuesday, after I find out I'm not leaving until Sunday (flights aren't a regular thing in Armenia unless you want to fly to Moscow, and I'm not quite up for that adventure yet), it's raining. And then it's snowing. Huge clumps of the stuff. So, Masha and I drag some friends out and we spend 4 hours INSIDE a tea shop, lamenting the weather. Try it sometime and let me know how depressed you get.

Anyway, so after a depressing day (but highlighted by the fact that I get to stay another 5 days with Masha), we came home, made lasagna and watched a movie. I was going to put in "300" (yes it's out on DVD here), but since we had watched Apocalypto on Monday, I didn't think that Masha could handle all of the blood and guts for a second night. So, it was a "Swingers" night. She'd never seen it. Don't think it's going to be in her top ten listh, though. She did marvel at how Vince Vaughn's body has kind of gone downhill since that movie. Tonight I think we'll try "Spys Like Us". You can never go wrong with a classic.

Well, now I'm back to my paper. 22 pagos done, but I haven't touched it since last Thursday or Friday. Need to get back to it.
Anywho, enjoy yourself and your Starbucks. I'll be here, typing away and yelling at someone to make the snow stop!!!!! I'm supposed to be on vacation!!!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

German Chocolate Fiasco

Yes, I'm being a little dramatic. The cake was not a complete fiasco, because it did taste fine. It just looked like dog food.

Let me back up. Jeremy's birthday was Sunday, and he requested a German chocolate cake. I was a little intimidated, because Jeremy's mom, Carol, is renowned for her German chocolate cake, and I had never made one before. So, I melted the chocolate, beat the eggs, greased the pan, folded the egg whites into the batter, and put the thing in the oven. Then I set about making the frosting, since we can't get the canned stuff here. The cake looked very pretty when it came out ... except apparently I had not greased the pan enough, and the whole thing fell apart when we tried to remove it. I frosted it anyway.

Then we went to City Diner, the new place to eat in Yerevan, for a birthday dinner. I brought the cake. Didn't have any birthday candles, so we had to make do:

Jeremy liked the cake.

So did Andrew.

I guess that's good enough for me.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

I'm Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!!!!!!

I just wanted to let you all know that I'm safely in Yerevan, albeit after some adventures. First, the airport has a new terminal. So, that was nice, but of course it's not totally finished. They get you off the plane, put you on a bus and then drive you past the old terminal and up to the new one. Gotta show off the new stuff before it's even finished. But it is nice inside and the visa stuff is a lot easier nowadays. They actually have a line system and give you the forms on the flight to fill out, so that's helpful. And for those that can't figure it out, they have a nice little stand that flashes electronic numbers that tell you which visa station is open. All very helpful, when people actually figure out that they are supposed to pay attention to them. But alas, no such luck today. It's still the "elbow in the eye, shove with the hip" fight to be first. Ah, good times in Hayastan.

After all that, Masha and I proceeded to get ourselves stuck in the elevator at her apartment for an hour. Got in
the elevator with my bags, hit the 3rd floor button, got to the 3rd floor, but the doors wouldn't open. The lights on the buttons went out, the buzzer didn't sound after repeated pushes, and there was no phone inside to call for help. So Masha had to use her cell phone to call friends in the building, who went down to alert the guards. And then the adventure really began. Just so you know and are informed as to proper Armenian "elevator opening" procedures: First, you tell the passengers to hit the elevator buttons to see if that opens the door. Damn, we hadn't thought of that, but alas that didn't work. Step Two: Try a pry bar. Apparently the pry bar didn't work (but they tried for a good 30 minutes). Step Three: Just use your hands to open the doors. Uh, yea, because the pry bar didn't work, the hands will. Finally came Step Four: After about an hour of trying brute strength, they got into the elevator shaft above us and manually opened the doors with the safety lever on top. Asked as to why they just didn't start with Step Four, its because it's not proper procedure. Maybe we should have bribed them to just skip to Step Four. Ah, good times.

Well, now I'm here. I've driven Masha to work, driven to the market, went back to the Embassy and had lunch with Masha
and now I'm just lounging. Trying not to fall asleep so I can get over this jet lag. Just relaxing and trying to avoid writing my paper for graduate school. I'll let you know how that goes.

Monday, April 9, 2007

3 Days and 32 Kids

So, my life isn't as interesting as my wife's right now (hence the limited blog entries on my behalf), but it does have its moment. The most recent one involved a 3 day trip to Illinois's capital, Springfield, for a conference. It was actually just an excuse to reward about 32 students who had volunteered the most hours during the campaigns for state and local offices. There was a stop off at an historical village that was recreated to resemble a village that Abe Lincoln would have lived in before he became famous. As the village was a living village, with actors and animals roaming around and living as they would have in the century, it was somewhat of a wake up call for them. Kind of fun to watch them go around and not understand why their cellphones didn't work (part of the point don't you think).

Anyway, we then went off and did a college tour and had breakout sessions with four state lobbyists. Then it was roommate selection and check in. Now, if you have ever tried to select roommates and make sure that one student isn't rooming with someone they go to school with, you get the constant complaint of "why can't I room with my bff?" (Best Friend Forever if you are little behind on the lingo). Not pretty, but they got over it. Now the staying up until 3 AM to make sure that there were no cross bedroom rendezvous wasn't that fun, but the sleep deprivation did have a great effect on my personality by the third day. Anyone say LOOPY!!!!!

But the students were great and four of them even led 3 breakout sessions with about 100 students/teachers per breakout session. It was great watching them lead discussions, ask questions and engage other youth. It was great for them and people were pulling them aside afterwards to ask them how many times they had done this
(uh, first time). That's right, Mikva is all about great students (or finding those diamonds).

While the three days and nights were long on face time, short on sleep, watching these students from 10 different high schools interact, dance, bowl, play games and exchange phone numbers was amazing. There isn't much opportunity for students to meet others from other parts of Chicago, so giving them this opportunity and then watching them take advantage of it was awesome.

But I'm definitely too old for this!!! Not as young as I once was. Thank goodness for a nice relaxing vacation to Armenia.

Sunday, April 8, 2007


So, X.B. stands for XPUCTOC BOCKPECE (khri-STOS vos-KREH-seh), which, in English, means "Christ is Risen!" It's the Paschal greeting, to which the proper answer is, "BOUCTUHY BOCKPECE" (vo-EEST-ih-nu vos-KREH-seh), which means "Truly he is risen!"

Church was very nice. There were probably upwards of 400 people there when the service began around 11 p.m., so it was good that Fr. Vladimir decided to have the service outside. The Greek deputy chief of mission (second to the ambassador) was there, and when the choir sang the Paschal hymn, "Christ is risen from the dead," in Greek, he joined in enthusiastically, which was very endearing. The police were there too, outside the fence. I presume they were there to keep people from harassing us, as they didn't seem to have any other purpose (they themselves were not harrassing us). I was hit on for the first time ever during a Pascha service (though not for the first time during any service - during my first and only trip to an Armenian church for Sunday services, a man tried to butter me up, then groped me). This time, the young man in question spent a good hour trying to butter me up by professing interest in Orthodoxy (he was Armenian and not Orthodox), following me around during the procession around the church and asking all sorts of questions about the service. It was only once he began waxing poetic about my beauty that I finally told him to get lost. I also met an Armenian-Russian-American woman from LA whose parents (one Armenian, one Russian) were from Sukhumi, and who was visiting a relative for Pascha.

Despite the several abnormalities (service outside, the mack-daddy), Pascha in Armenia was Pascha. That's one of the nice things about Orthodoxy - the service is the same, so no matter where you go, you are always home.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Almost Pascha!

Well, I'm back from the States. It was a whirlwind and sad trip, but it was good to be with family, and good to see Jeremy. There are little moments where you realize that your husband/fiance is becoming family, and one of them for me was when Jeremy helped my brothers, father and uncle carry Babushka's casket to the hearse, and from the hearse to her gravesite.

It's Holy Saturday today, and as I write, the bells of the nearby Armenian cathedral are tolling. They have been tolling for about three hours, actually, which I don't quite understand, as it's not Pascha yet. I'll be going to church in a few hours for the midnight Paschal liturgy, which will be interesting. The church is under renovation, so its cavernous nave is off limits. We have been having services for the last six months or so in the offices, which can only accommodate about 60 people if you really pack 'em in. This morning after the liturgy, the priest announced we would have Pascha services outside. It's supposed to be about 40 degrees with showers, and it's a four-hour service, so we'll see how that goes. In any case, Holy Week has been a good one this year; despite our sadness about Babushka, these last few days of Great Lent really help put it all in perspective, and helps us to remember that she is not gone. Memory Eternal.

Levon's Divine Underground

Katie visited from D.C. a couple weeks ago, so on a Sunday afternoon, she and I, Taline and Sonya drove out to the Yerevan suburb of Arindj to visit Levon's Divine Underground. Though the name would be fitting for a hip club or a punk band, it actually refers to a network of subterranean caves dug by one man - 66-year-old Levon Arakelyan. Levon has been digging these caves for 22 years. He says that God told him he will need to dig another 28 years before he is finished, and before the reason for his digging is revealed to him. This is Levon.

The directions to Levon's house read something like this:"make a left at the post office, park at the end of the road, walk down the dirt path and take a right at the rusty pipe." When you get to Arindj, you basically walk around asking folks where Levon's house is. This is his house.

We banged on the door for a few minutes, until Levon popped out. Didn't bother asking us why we were there; apparently the sight of four Western-looking girls with cameras was pretty self-explanatory. We walked through this door ...

... and entered into Levon's underground world. Levon began digging after his wife, Tosya, asked him to dig her a pit to keep her potatos fresh. He dug a couple of meters (the deeper the hole, the colder the potatos), and then decided he quite liked digging. He kept going.

That was in 1985. He did not have an overarching vision. Levon says that directions come to him in dreams and visions. Once he begins his day's work (he told us he digs 18 hours a day), he knows how many centimeters he will dig, and in what direction.

When you enter Levon's Divine Underground, you descend on a staircase made of what appears to be soft clay. Levon digs the rooms without any support structure, a fact that sat uneasily in my mind, particularly when I considered that Armenia is earthquake-prone. Still, Levon has had thousands of visitors and no one has been buried alive yet.

This is the prayer room. Levon considers himself a religious man, though he usually spends his Sundays digging. After he had completed the room, he says, he realized it was the perfect place for people to make a wish. He asked which of us wanted to make a wish in the room, and then made the rest of us clear out into another room while each took her turn.

Above are Levon's tools, and a giant pile of the dirt he removes with them, sitting on the street outside his house.

The End.