Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Renewal and Remembrance

While not quite an adventure, experiencing Easter here was different just like everything else is. And this year was even different for the Armenians because it happened to coincide with the national day to commemorate the victims of the Armenian Genocide.

Some Easter traditions I learned about are similar to the US. People color eggs although the church would prefer that they only be colored red to remind us of Christ’s blood. Using onion skins as a natural dye is preferred but I saw dyes of other colors sold in the markets so it is clear that many people don’t follow that guidance.

While some may engage in an Easter egg hunt, the more popular tradition is to have “fights” with Easter eggs, hitting them against someone else’s to see whose shell will break first and the winner gets both. We were told about kids making eggs out of wood or coating their eggs with other things to make them harder to crack to improve their odds.

Candy is not as popular as an Easter treat, probably because people eat candy here on a regular basis. Nonetheless, I did see jellybeans and candy similar to marshmallow peeps for sale in one store the other day so maybe another US tradition is creeping in over here. They have no “Easter Bunny” here and I was at a loss to explain why we have a holiday mascot that can’t reasonably provide colored eggs on his own.

But in keeping with the fact that Christianity is the state religion, the religious traditions were key. Last weekend, I witnessed the observation of Palm Sunday. As in the US, virtually everyone seems to go to church on Palm Sunday even if they do not regularly go. One difference, though, is that I did not see any real palms anywhere, and someone in my conversation club confirmed the obvious reason – because they don’t have palm trees here (people in the club were surprised to hear that there are palms in New York churches since we don’t have palm trees there either). Here, people brought branches from various plants to have them blessed, mostly willow branches as preferred by the church. Many vendors had set up outside of the main church so you could buy some in case you didn’t have any. The branches are then kept in the home until the following Palm Sunday.

This past Saturday, people again went to church to light candles from a common flame, similar to what I saw at Christmas. Again the vendors were set up outside the church, this time selling plastic bottles with the bottoms cut off as a shield to protect the candles from blowing out. While there was not a service in progress while I was there, I did see a lot of people going to the altar to kiss an icon there. While women often wear a scarf or head coverings of some sort in church, it is not mandatory and the younger women seem to follow that tradition less than older women do. To visit the altar that day, however, all women had to have their head covered and someone was there to make sure that was adhered to. Temporary ones were provided to those without and I even saw two women sharing a longer one. Men did not need to have their heads covered but the women substantially outnumbered the men in the time I was there.

Both times were solemn affairs, but I did notice, as often before, people taking cel phone calls in the church.

I did not go to a church on Easter itself but did attend an Easter meal. A few weeks back, some of my fellow volunteers happened to meet a relative of Gyumri’s mayor (his brother’s daughter-in-law to be exact) and she invited all of us to lunch. It had many of the characteristics of other celebratory meals I had been to (lots of food, freely pouring wine, scotch, vodka and brandy). Traditional Easter dishes were served (rice with raisins, a salad made of potatoes, beets and cream, Armenian pastries, fresh and dried fruits, nuts). Toasts were made to the United States, to Holland (a pair of Dutch tourists cycling through Armenia had joined us), friendship between our nations and other things.

My lunch companions and host

We had also been told to bring pots with us to take home some food that was to be cooked for Easter. While I did not get a potful of my own, I sort of inherited a pot of soup that a fellow volunteer did get and would not be able to eat since she was to be out of town. Leaving the house, we saw a pair of sheep’s heads lying on the lawn, so I think I have a pot of sheep khash in my refrigerator now (see my earlier post about cow khash). Yum.

While Easter is normally a joyful holiday in Armenia (including a text message I got from the main Armenian church – imagine getting a text from the Vatican and you get the idea), as I noted above it was also Martyr’s Day, the day of remembrance for victims of the Armenian Genocide. It marks the day in 1915, when Armenian leaders, writers, thinkers and professionals were rounded up, deported and killed in Constantinople (now Istanbul) under the “Young Turk” government. Meanwhile, over 5,000 of the poorest Armenians were killed in the streets and in their homes. Although numerous prior atrocities had been committed by the Turkish Government against the Armenian people, this day marks the official beginning of what is referred to as the Armenian Genocide.

To this day, the Turkish government denies the occurrence of an Armenian Genocide. And while the US Ambassador attended a memorial service, the fact that President Obama has not yet used the word “genocide” in commemorating the event is a very sore point with the Armenian people and the Armenian diaspora.

Every year on April 24, masses of people go to the genocide memorial in Yerevan to lay flowers in memory of the victims. I visited the memorial last summer and, while there are always flowers there from the people visiting on a given day, the quantity brought on the commemoration day is understandably much larger.

Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial

The memorial flame and flowers last summer

April 24, 2011

But not all of the remembrance events are the same either. On April 23rd, for the 11th consecutive year, a youth group in Yerevan has held a torchlight procession, including the burning of a Turkish flag. The government, which has been working for some time on rapprochement with Turkey, disavowed the action, which was responded to with an Armenian flag burning in Istanbul [article here].

While rain had been in the forecast for Easter (as it has been raining most of the month) it turned out to be a beautiful day. A good day to be both happy and solemn as you wish.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Series of Unfortunate Events

In the past couple of weeks, a few things have happened that have made life a little more difficult. I have written before about the exploding water heater, the subsequent (short lived) absence of water and the month long absence of hot water. That is all in the past now. Next was the dog bite. I was on my way to the gym I joined (yes - I found one and a discussion of that as compared to the ones in the US warrants its own post sometime later) and was taking the shortcut I had discovered from my apartment to where it is located. The shortcut goes through a residential area, although one that is a bit more, shall we say, rustic. It passes through an area with "domik" housing and where steps have been fashioned into the hillsides for passageways. Between the sets of steps there are dirt paths that wind between the houses, many of which have irregular property lots. And the area also has a lot of dogs.

It has always been unclear to me about whether the dogs you see roaming around are stray or belong to people. My Gyumri host family's dearly departed Gosha, for example, used to disappear for days and wandered around on his own. You sometimes see people walking dogs on leashes but that is a rarity and I have only once seen a dog on a chain outside its house. So the dogs I pass in this particular area could be guarding individual houses or they may just be stray.

In any event, sometimes I pass through and the dogs just watch me and don't make a sound. Other times one starts barking and every other one in the area joins in. One dog at the top of the hill that sometimes started this chorus I nicknamed "The General" as I seem to recall a kid's movie with a "leader" dog who passed messages through a community of dogs. But I digress. I had been told a while back that the ones guarding a property will usually only bother you if you cross onto their property so I never worried too much as I keep to streets and stay out of other peoples' business. We had also been warned in pre-service training not to look dogs in the eye or you may provoke them. I don't know if the first is true but I can tell you the second probably is. Walking up the hill, the General started barking at me. I was in a bit of a mood so I stared at him to show I wasn't scared. But when I passed, he lunged and bit my calf. I spun around, threatened to kick him and moved my arm is if to throw a rock and he backed off. I discovered the skin was broken in five places even though my pants didn't appear torn. On the way back later, he started again but this time I had a rock, raised my arm as if to throw it and he backed off (and - yes - I walked there deliberately so as to not let him win). Since then, I have continued to walk in that area but have noticed dogs are more scarce since then (although not entirely absent). Some do still make a fuss when I pass but I have adopted the practice of keeping a rock with me just in case. As I have written previously, dogs here tend to be maltreated so the threat of harm to them is usually sufficient to make them back off. I had been hesitant to get into that mindset so as to not perpetuate it but now we see how far that got me. But I also wonder about the reduced presence. I have heard about "round ups" where people shoot stray dogs periodiocally and sometimes (relatively) domesticated ones get caught in one. A fellow volunteer tried without success to save her neighbors' dog who got shot recently. Yes, there is a problem but I wish programs like another volunteer suggested (to neuter strays and create shelters) would be adopted. There is one in Yerevan, but again...this ain't Yerevan. So, I have been receiving rabies shots although they are not as painful as everyone but me seems to have heard about (it's five shots in the arm over four weeks - not 14 in the abdomen). I need to make a five hour round-trip journey for each shot that takes five minutes to administer, but at least I have more dedicated reading time.

Then last weekend, while exercising at home, I managed to spill water on my laptop. Yes - I know it is foolish to keep an open bottle of water next to a laptop but there you have it. I learned that the recommended way to address this is to put the computer into a bag of rice for a few days to absorb the moisture but apparently I learned that too late as I had booted the thing up a few times already since the spill. I had some local experts look at it to see if it can be fixed and am exploring other options (like getting a new one brought to me) while I use the various internet cafes in Gyumri. But I have now heard that the keyboard seems to be shot and maybe more so I need to take another trip to Yerevan to find a quality repair person. As a result, my posting has been (and probably will continue to be) delayed until I can write at leisure somewhere where I am not charged by the hour. And someday, I will be able to file my tax return, but that is an entirely different issue. But, at least I have more dedicated reading time. What is surprising to me about all of this is how calm I am about it. In the past, I typically got very worked up about things, even when there was nothing I could do about it. But it is evidence of the effect that a slower-paced environment has on me that I now do what I have to do and get on with things. There are worse things than unplanned trips to Yerevan. The dog bite is better than the broken ankle that another volunteer suffered recently. I am lucky that I am in a country with internet access and in a city where internet cafes are plentiful although I need to again get used to not having access whenever I want it. I can make an electronic estimated tax payment until I can get my return filed. I was probably spending too much time on the computer anyway. As they say here "vochinch" - which literally means "nothing" but one of the uses loosely translates to "What are you gonna do?" And did I mention that I have more reading time?