Tuesday, October 26, 2010

You gonna eat that?

Last week was a rite of passage of sorts when I experienced khash for the first time. I had heard about it pretty soon after I arrived in Armenia and had heard stories from other volunteers whose host families had served it earlier this year. My host family is traditional in that it is a dish normally made only in the colder months (“only in months that have an R in them”). It was originally a peasant tradition but has since been popularized throughout the country (and throughout the diaspora, I am sure, since the one Armenian restaurant in New York City has it on its menu) and is seen by some as a delicacy. A party is normally built around the serving of it.

For those who don’t know, khash is a soup made from cow hooves and sometimes other parts of the cow (stomach, tongue). It is cooked for about 12 hours and usually served in the morning. It is accompanied by bitter greens, pepper salad, sliced radishes, lavash (Armenian thin bread) and a lot of garlic. Oh, yeah, and lots of vodka. You are served a bowl with the soup and a piece of hoof, but you remove that and put it aside on a plate, smother it in garlic and cover it with lavash. You then put lots of lavash in the bowl with the broth – some people put enough in so that no spoon is needed – and a lot of garlic. After you are done with the soup, you eat the cartilage, etc, from the hoof. Yum.

The soup part

The hoof part

As far as our party went, I was lucky in several respects. First, my host family has several kitchens on their property and the khash is cooked in the outer building so I did not experience the aroma of the cooking hoof, which I understand can be unpleasant. Second, there was no evidence that I could see that anything other than the hoof had been put into the soup. Third, I was given some leeway since it was my first time trying it and they know that some Americans don’t like it. The fact that I am not a very picky eater and have eaten virtually everything that they have given me before helped. Fourth, did I mention there was vodka available?

Truth be told, the soup part wasn’t too bad – it was basically very fatty chicken broth since there were no other cow parts once the hoof was out. The hoof stuff really didn’t have any taste at all beyond the garlic but the consistency did me in. I declined to eat it with my hands as everyone else was doing, instead opting to cut off a couple of pieces and roll them in lavash with a healthy amount of the pepper salad. I managed two pieces that way and called it quits. I did get points for trying. Albert jokingly gave me a hard time since his 17 year old grandson had finished his and only had clean bones on his plate. I told him that after I had 17 years of practice maybe I could also.

As I have mentioned before, I have also been very lucky in that both my current host mother and the first one are very good cooks and I have experienced a fair amount of food variety, I get served meat often and the food they cook is spicier than usual here. I have not experienced the piling on of food that is said to be typical here, whereby you get seconds as soon as your plate is empty whether you want it or not. (As a guest, though, I typically get larger portions, including the biggest hoof-piece.) Avoiding the whole piling-on is probably because the host families go to conferences before we arrive to explain the cultural differences and one is that we mean it when we say no to more food. And some of the meal components can seem a little unusual at first but I have gotten used to it.

For example, I now frequently have hot dog omelets for breakfast. I have also had breakfasts with fried potatoes (sometimes with nothing else). But since hot dogs are in the sausage family, and potatoes are potatoes, this is not thematically different than sausage, eggs and hash browns. And the rice I sometimes have for breakfast is obviously related to Rice Krispies and puffed rice. There are usually cookies and candy on the table at breakfast.

Lunch and dinner are often a variety of things. Pasta is eaten quite a lot here (they call it pilaf) but often it is cooked in a frying pan and served with butter and Armenian matsun (yogurt) although Emma makes a tomato sauce that is delicious. Dolma (chopped meat and rice rolled in grape leaves or cabbage leaves) is also frequently eaten. Meat is relatively expensive so you see chicken a lot more than beef or pork and normally dark meat, which is preferred because it is more flavorful. And no matter what else is served, I normally also have sliced salami, cabbage salad, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers on the table as well as a basket of bread and lavash. The cheese that is ever-present is normally home-made or bought from the market from someone who made it herself. Like most other things here, the cheese is incredibly salty but people tend to add salt to everything anyway (notice the salt bowl next to the bread in the picture below).

A typical lunch spread

The best is when there is a khorovats (barbecue). Armenians love to barbecue and it may be done for a special occasion or an occasion may be built around it. Every house has a set of skewers and the preparation of them is a big deal. Like a shish kebab, the meat is alternated with vegetables and slices of potatoes are sometimes used as end-caps. Spices may be rubbed onto the meat for extra flavor. Some houses have in-ground pits to cook in and other times it is cooked over a grill. And no Weber grill is needed – a few cinderblocks, a metal grate and some wood to burn work fine. When it is done, the meat is piled into a bowl lined with lavash, which is one of the best parts when you eat that at the end after it has soaked up the juices. I have had beef, pork, chicken, fish and quail prepared this way and it was all very good.

Khorovats pit

I can honestly say that there have been very few things that I have not liked in the five months I’ve been here. Aside from the home cooked meals, there is also street food you can buy such as pirozhkis and kebabs that are pretty cheap and very tasty. There are also cakes everywhere, particularly when you are in someone’s house and are urged to have coffee and eat. What I do miss though is multi-national variety. In New York, I ate Thai, Italian and Mexican food regularly and there were dozens of other types of food right nearby including two Ethiopian restaurants. I have had Mexican twice since being here (in Yerevan) which was pretty good and I hear that there is a good Chinese restaurant also. But I am enjoying what I have.

I am happy to report that the weather has reverted to real autumn-like weather following the cold spell we had a few weeks back. I am still wearing my Smartwool socks to bed, but the house doesn’t seem so cold in the morning (or maybe my body has already started adapting to the temperature). While I have no illusions that the winter won’t be cold, it is nice to have some cool, sunny and comfortable weather first. Some of the cafes are closed for the season still but you can still sit outside in the park and some of the cafes still have their outdoor areas open when they can.

Some of the beautiful days were last weekend for Gyumri day and it was quite a spectacle. A stage was set up in the town square and various musical acts performed throughout the afternoon and evening, as did several dance groups performing traditional Armenian dances. From what I am told, the event is not an anniversary of the city but is a carryover from Soviet times and that part of the reason it was so crowded was because school directors and other officials were told to make sure it was (maybe because the Prime Minister was in attendance for part of the day). Whatever the reason, the crowd didn’t seem to mind being there and there were large groups of dancing teenagers throughout. I was content to stand aside, take pictures and soak it all in but a group of the kids pulled me and some of the other Americans into their dance circle. As Armenians are very proud of their heritage, many people were thrilled to see foreigners taking part. The whole event was televised live and Emma and Albert told me they saw us on TV. I suppose I am quasi-famous in Gyumri now.

Conga lines seem to be universal

As far as work is concerned, I have a couple of English language clubs starting this week and next. One of them is conversation based, one will be a business class/club and a third involves watching movies and discussing them. I will also be helping to develop project plans for my organization, both for services they will provide directly and for a village within the diocese that they want to help. That village was populated by refugees 20 years ago and has no gas, water that doesn’t run to the houses, no school and very limited services so there is a lot that can be done. I am sure that will keep me busy.

Sad news in our house is that Gosha is no more. He had disappeared for about a week a while back and Albert mentioned that he was gone. He told me that he didn’t know where he had gone and if he had not returned by the time Emma and Albert come back from Russia he would probably get a new one. Well, Gosha did come back and was even more listless than before except when he was eating the bones from the khash and other meals. Soon he became visibly sick, he was limping around and making noises of pain while he slept. Albert put him down the other day. But, there is already a replacement in the works that will come back from Russia with Albert. He will probably be named Gosha also.

There was also another dog near work that got attached to me since I stopped and petted him whenever I saw him instead of throwing rocks as many are used to. Although a puppy, he was soon being kept off his leash. I don't know if he was the one I saw someone dragging to trash pile the other day (it had probably been hit by a car) but now his doghouse is empty. Life goes on.

Monday, October 11, 2010

And the Multicolored Leaves are Falling from the Trees

I saw a really bad concert the other night. It was an Australian born, German residing singer who draws inspiration from cheesy early 70s German films and performs solo with an electronic drum and a video screen. He sang in German, wore a red jumpsuit and looked from a distance like Crispin Glover. It reminded me of skits from Saturday Night Live. As with the other concert I attended here a few weeks back, the audience was all over the map demographically and was probably drawn more by the novelty and the free admission. The uptick in performances in Gyumri is one sign that fall is here. That and the temperature.

Fall has come to Armenia and how sharply the arrival can be felt is quite a shock. The last day of September, I was wearing a short sleeve shirt during the day and it was pretty hot in the afternoon. A couple of days later, the rains had arrived and it was significantly colder. The nights had already been cool during September, but now the lack of insulation in the house makes itself apparent. My nose is literally cold by the time I go to bed. While I still don’t mind bucket bathing, it is a little tougher when the bathroom is about 55 degrees. And I am again extremely thankful that I am not dealing with outdoor plumbing anymore - I have heard from some of the other volunteers that do have outdoor plumbing that their host families use the “chamber pot” approach when the weather gets cold. Glad not to face that decision.

It is also time to rotate my clothing stock. Luckily, my winter clothes had arrived before the end of September and the wool socks that Mom sent have come in handy much earlier than I had expected. It is time to store the shorts that I brought, although I never wore them despite the heat during the first few months here. [Regardless of heat, it is very unusual to see anyone wear shorts here and we are advised to dress like the locals. As a matter of fact, the usual Armenian male uniform of head-to-toe black knows no season – I saw it all summer long although I did not adopt the look myself – there is only so far that I’ll go to try to fit in.]

The Uniform of the Young Armenian Male

Since the beginning of October, the weather has even been changing drastically within the course of a day – driving rainstorms alternate with beautiful clear skies.
The temperature can drop by what I estimate to be 10 degrees when clouds roll in and the sun is still strong enough for it to feel hot when the storm passes. You can have a thunderstorm with hail while seeing a clearer sky across town. The rain adds challenges to walking since the unpaved roads are now muddy minefields – although not as much dust gets kicked up, which is a plus.

Mid-Road Lake

And this is nothing yet. The temperatures have only gotten down to the 30s at night and this is one of the regions that are supposed to have the coldest winters in Armenia. The Peace Corps provides us with space heaters but mine won’t arrive until the first week of November. Until then, I have a nice warm comforter, a sleeping bag and lots of wool socks. I have started getting into bed earlier at night just for the sake of keeping warm. I am starting to understand the wisdom of the Snuggie (but that is NOT a hint).

Fall also means it is time to store up food for the winter. Many of the delicious vegetables that I have gotten used to will soon be unavailable, so most families can them and store them in their basements. It can be a social process, and Emma’s sister spent a few days here helping with the tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and onions that Emma was preserving. Potatoes are a staple here and we are all told to expect to eat them more often than we already have been - I helped to load about 100 pounds of potatoes into the cellar the other day so I know that the mashed potatoes I sometimes have with breakfast will continue.

Albert and Emma - my host parents

Emma is a great cook and she loves to make soups. While they were delicious a few weeks ago they are even better now. She and Albert also like spicy peppers and they are amazed that I can eat them without choking. In comparison to the vodka shots that Albert and I have with dinner every night (some of which could be paint thinner) the peppers are nothing. And now the grapes are ripe, so now the wine and vodka can be home made.
Albert spent a few afternoons this week cutting the vines, squeezing the grapes (by hand, not by foot) and setting the juice to ferment. It is gonna be rough sledding when this stuff is ready to drink, but I’m up for the challenge.

Fermenting wine with a wee bit of sediment

All of the winter preparations are taken in stride by the people here, even if we complain about the cold, the pending monotony of food during the winter, the lack of plumbing and the electricity shutting off intermittently. When I think about how things used to be here, I realize that I have it easy (after the earthquake, a nuclear power plant was shut and conflicts with Turkey and Azerbeijan meant that most Armenians went the first few winters after independence without electricity or heat). The first three groups of Peace Corps volunteers were in Armenia then, so I bet they wouldn’t want to hear our complaining either.

Armenia has lasted for thousands of years, surviving occupations, genocide, earthquakes, wars and economic collapse. One thing that you notice when talking to an Armenian is the pride they take in their traditions and their survival – they are not happy about what they have been through (who would be?) but they are proud that they are still around to talk about it.

And one of the qualities that I admire about the Armenians is being resourceful, probably stemming from many years of doing without. By that I mean that alternate uses can be found for many things, rendering other expenditures unnecessary. Why buy a mop when you can take clothes you don’t need and attach them to a stick?

If not that, you can use them as a doormat. A bed that you no longer need can become a comfortable seating area in your back yard, covered with coats you no longer wear. While living in Solak, I loved walking around and seeing what people had used to create the fences around their properties. I saw the front ends of cars, headboards, refrigerator coils and (my favorite) an entire bus.

And, recently, the lock on my bedroom door (which had apparently been problematic for years) finally broke. Albert went into his workshop and emerged with a box full of locks and replaced the faulty one with another he had been saving just in case. Considering that he had built the house himself on the site of where his old house had collapsed during the earthquake, I should not be surprised that he had spare parts lying around.

All this is not to imply that recycling is an ingrained part of the culture here. Although a lot of properties have car, truck and bus carcasses on them (presumably for spare parts), there are many littering the landscape (presumably since the usable parts had all been taken).

The garbage situation is atrocious, and in many villages, people simply throw it in the nearest stream or ravine. One of the other volunteers here in Gyumri is in the Environmental Education program and I recently helped her organization in cleaning up a street to clear it of garbage. While many people seemed happy with what we were doing, others asked why we bothered since it would all replaced with new garbage in short order. In Solak, we joked about a tourism slogan of “Look Up!” because if you can ignore what’s on the ground, the scenery is really gorgeous.

Creekside in Solak

But the best example of the indomitable spirit I have seen here is the kid next door. Our street is not paved and has ruts and holes all over and the sidewalks are a mixture of concrete, asphalt and paving stones, much of which has been made even more uneven by tree roots. But that doesn’t stop the kid from trying out his rollerblades. He’ll be damned if you tell him he can’t do it.