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.