churches, customs

A visit to St. Elizabeth’s Church, the Russian Orthodox Church in Wiesbaden…

Although we will have lived in Wiesbaden for four years at the end of November, there are still a lot of places in Hesse we haven’t yet seen. A big reason for that is COVID-19. Things have really only been somewhat normal since April of this year. There are a few other reasons, too… one of them being sheer laziness and feeling slack because not that many people read my travel blog anymore. Nevertheless, I still enjoy writing it and taking photos, and I know there will come a day when I’ll look back on these memories with fondness. So, with that in mind, I let Bill talk me into another excursion today.

St. Elizabeth’s Church is also known as the Greek Chapel. It was built between 1847 and 1855 by Duke Adolf of Nassau, to pay respects to the death of his 19 year old wife, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Mikhailovna of Russia. The couple had only been married a year when the duchess died in childbirth, as did their baby daughter. The duke was so bereaved that he decided to build the church around the duchess’s grave in her honor, using money from the duchess’s dowry. It is now the site of the largest Russian Orthodox cemetery in Europe, outside of Russia itself.

I had long been wanting to visit St. Elizabeth’s Church, a beautiful golden domed Russian Orthodox church on Neroberg, a hill overlooking one of Wiesbaden’s most tony neighborhoods with very grand homes owned by wealthy people. This church is the only Russian Orthodox church in our fair city, and besides being lovely, it offers some beautiful views of the city. There are also other things on Neroberg, to include a vineyard, a couple of restaurants, a pool, a climbing forest, and lots of walking paths. To get up to the church, one can either drive and hope to find a parking spot, or hope to find a spot at the bottom of the hill and take the Nerobergbahn, which is a funicular that goes up and down the hill. It’s also possible to walk or bike up there, but that’s definitely not for people like me. 😉 Especially in August!

Bill had warned me that today there would also be a large climate change protest in Wiesbaden, with many people riding bikes to rally for Earth friendly policies. Remembering last week’s Stau on A3, I was hoping we wouldn’t be hindered by the crowd. Fortunately, as you will see in the photos at the end of this post, we were leaving Wiesbaden, as they were coming in. Based on what we saw in Wiesbaden itself, there’s going to be quite a party going on. I know there was a food truck festival going on, too, but after last week’s shenanigans at the wine fest, we decided the church was a better bet today.

It took us a few passes to score a parking spot near the Nerobergbahn, and when we did find one, Bill had to parallel park. That shouldn’t have been hard in a 2020 Volvo with parking assist, but I don’t think Bill trusts it. Fortunately, he was able to park the SUV, and we made our way to the funicular, where we purchased tickets going up and down the hill. It’s important to note that the current 9 euro train passes don’t work on this funicular. You have to buy tickets, which at this writing, cost 5 euros per adult. If you just want a one way ticket, it’s 4 euros. They also have special rates for groups, families, and kindergarten groups with children. The ticket can also be combined with tickets for the climbing forest, which appears to be an adventure/tree climbing/zip line park for people more fit than I am. 😉

The funicular runs until 7:00pm at this writing, and there are two wagons that continually go up and down. The car is enclosed, so face masks have to be worn. As much as I hate masks, it makes sense, since it gets kind of chummy in there. If you score a standing place on the caboose, you don’t have to wear a mask. The ride is about three minutes or so, and you don’t see much as you go up and come down. Still, it beats walking.

When we got to the top of the hill, we went to a nearby Biergarten and had a snack, since I was a bit hangry and needed a bathroom. There were lots of people there, and I heard several different languages. I felt a lot less grouchy after Bill and I shared a Flammkuechen (Alsatian pizza) and washed it down with beer. I don’t even like Flammkuechen much, but I didn’t want a Schnitzel or a piece of cake. It was just enough, and after we ate, we walked around and got photos. I really just wanted some pictures of the view of downtown Wiesbaden, and the beautiful Russian church.

I already had Russia kind of on my mind, thanks to an advice column I read yesterday in the Washington Post. A woman wrote about how she’d married someone from Eastern Europe, and his family shows love by pushing food on guests. She explained that she has a lot of food issues, and isn’t comfortable eating a lot. I noticed a lot of the comments from Americans, most of whom either have no experience with Eastern European cultures, or no appreciation for other cultures. I commented that I empathize with the letter writer, since I had been a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Armenia, which is a formerly Soviet country. Food is a big part of their culture, which is all about hospitality. One of the first phrases we learned as Peace Corps Trainees was how to say “I’m full.” in Armenian. We were also taught how to signify that we were appeased, so the host(s) didn’t feel the need to keep bringing out food. Leave a little food on the plate.

Someone else commented that they had also been an Peace Corps Armenia Volunteer, years after I was there, and was going to write the very same thing! And I had also mentioned that Armenians would always comment when I lost or gained weight, too. That was another aspect of that culture I remember with somewhat less fondness. Sigh…

Anyway, I thought of that exchange as we decided to visit the inside of the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s two euros per adult to go inside. One thing I had forgotten was that Orthodox churches don’t allow people to go inside with bare legs. Bill and I were both wearing shorts, so the lady behind the counter apologized and asked us both to put on wrap around skirts. It was a little embarrassing, but then I remembered the Armenians (and Greeks, now that I think about it) were the same. We had to cover our legs to enter the churches and not wear revealing clothes. I also told Bill to be careful not to cross his legs. That was another caveat we got in Armenia, lest some little old lady chastise us for being disrespectful. I smiled at Bill and said, “It’s taboo.” And now that I have looked it up, I see that my memory serves me correctly. Of course, it didn’t come up anyway, since the church doesn’t really have anywhere to sit. I mean, there aren’t any pews or anything. Maybe a couple of chairs.

Photography isn’t really allowed inside, but I snuck a few photos anyway, since I had to wear a skirt. No one noticed. I did appreciate the smell of incense and the beautiful Russian choral music. St. Elizabeth’s Church really is a very lovely church and well worth a visit. I’m glad we finally made the trip to see it.

After our visit to the church, we walked back up the hill to the overlook, where we saw a World War I memorial and gazes at Wiesbaden from the vantage point of the hill, in view of the vineyards. It was very beautiful. I might have liked a few fewer clouds, but given how dry it’s been here this summer, I’d say the clouds were probably Heaven sent.

Here are today’s photos…

Well, that about does it for today’s post. I’m glad we went out today and got to know our city better. It sure is POSH.

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Uncategorized

Sweet false hopes… but BrewDog saved the afternoon!

A few days ago, The New York Times ran an article about Khachapuri, a popular dish made of fresh bread, cheese, and egg, in Transcaucasian countries, to include Georgia and Armenia. I lived in Armenia for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and while I can’t say I ate a lot of Khachapuri when I lived there, I’ve come to appreciate the milder versions offered outside of the country. When I lived in Armenia, the dish was made with stinky cheese, which I could not abide. When it’s made with milder cheese, it’s more delicious to me.

Anyway, when I saw the article in The New York Times, I was reminded of the times Bill and I have enjoyed Georgian food. We went to Georgian restaurants in Stuttgart and Frankfurt, as well as several in Wroclaw, Poland. The Frankfurt restaurant was a bit of a disappointment, but the ones in Stuttgart and Poland were awesome. I did a Google search and learned that much to my shock, Wiesbaden has an Armenian restaurant unsurprisingly called Ararat. I looked them up, and it appeared that they were open today. So Bill and I ventured out there to see if it was a good place to eat.

The restaurant is located in an area of Wiesbaden that is known for its Eastern European population. That’s where one can visit the Mix Markt for eastern goodies. It’s in a residential area, and probably gets lots of locals as visitors. It also looks like they host a lot of parties and such, with live music.

We approached, and the door was open. There was a young guy on the phone and a young woman. The proprietor came out and said they were closed on Sundays, even though Google and their sign said they were supposed to be open every day.

I couldn’t resist, and asked in Armenian if they were from Armenia (Hayastan), since the place also advertises Russian food. Their faces lit up as they answered yes, in Armenian, and asked if I was Armenian, too. I actually answered “no” in German, then explained in Armenian that I know some Armenian. Then I said in English “I used to live there.” What can I say? It’s been 25 years since I last had to speak Armenian on a daily basis. Anyway, I could hear them commenting and chuckling as we walked away. We’ll have to call and find out when they have regular hours. I’d love to try their horovats… or shashlik, if they prefer.

We went back to Wiesbaden and parked at the Kurhaus, then walked into town. It didn’t look like anything exciting was happening, so we headed to BrewDog, where we ate a couple of months ago. I knew they’d be open, because they don’t take a pause. It was almost 2:00pm.

We drank a couple of beers and each tried something different from the last time we visited. I had a “Cluck Norris” sandwich, which was fried chicken breast with avocado, red onion, cajun mayo, and coriander with a side of fries. Bill had a roasted chicken sourdough bowl, which was basically a big salad with pieces of chicken and a piece of toasted sourdough bread. His dish also included chilli, chia seeds, and avocado.

We enjoyed the music, and I took a few new selfies, because I was wearing makeup and the lighting was good. Plus, since it wasn’t super hot outside, I wore something besides a t-shirt and shorts. While we were sitting there, a waifish blonde girl came in and dropped off a keychain with a note. She was quick as a flash, and we watched her go in and out in a matter of a minute or so, before she went across the street and did the same at a cafe. This isn’t the first time this has happened to us. I’m not sure where she was from, but I would guess it’s an eastern nation, and this is their way of collecting money. They try to sell little trinkets to sympathetic people who are trying to eat. I don’t think she had any luck.

Below are a few photos. I didn’t manage to get any of Ararat, although I’m sure we’ll try to visit again when they’re open– after we’ve called to verify. The owner had a very kind face and seemed super friendly. But I don’t mind that we went to BrewDog, either. That’s a fun place!

I really do hope we can try Ararat. I love finding new restaurants, especially when they offer different food than what is available everywhere! And I have missed Armenia… and Armenian people!

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Armenia, book reviews, Georgia

Cross post: A review of Yes You Can! Have a Second Life After 60

This book review also appears on my main blog. I am reposting it here, because it’s about travel and living abroad.

Yesterday, I mentioned that I had downloaded the book my former Peace Corps colleague, Loretta Land, published in 2019. I spent a good portion of today reading it, finally finishing it a little while ago. Loretta’s book, Yes You Can! Have a Second Life After 60, appears to have been self-published in 2019. Loretta died in January of this year, so she evidently just made it under the wire to fulfill her goal of writing a book. I remember back in 1995, when we first met as trainees for Peace Corps Armenia, Loretta told me she was going to write a book about her experience. Little did I know that after our service ended, Loretta would go on to work in Armenia, the Republic of Georgia, Uzbekistan, Ghana, and China.

Loretta’s overseas adventures began in Armenia, when she decided she wanted to be a Peace Corps Small Business Volunteer (SEAD). Originally, she’d planned to go to Fiji when she was 63 years old. This was because she figured she could do her two years, then come home eligible for Social Security. But she writes that God had other plans for her, and she, along with 31 others of us, got the chance to come to Armenia instead, two years sooner than she’d planned. As she mentions frequently in her book, God’s plans don’t always line up with ours.

Loretta Land was the eldest member of our Peace Corps group, A3. We were the third group to come to Armenia and probably the first group that didn’t run into a significant number of problems. Loretta explains that A1, the first group, had arrived in Armenia in the dead of winter and things were not quite up to speed. A lot of people in that group either quit or found jobs. A2 was a smaller group that arrived just as the first group was finishing up. Likewise, that group endured a lot of hardships. Quite a few people quit or found jobs. Our group arrived when things were still pretty tough in Armenia, even in the capital city, Yerevan, but logistics had worked out enough that things were pretty livable. We did have a few people quit and/or get medically separated, and one woman decided to marry her host brother rather than serve (she never swore in). But, by and large, our group was pretty resilient and most of us did our two years.

I didn’t get to know Loretta as well as I would have liked. We both lived in Yerevan, but she lived on the other side of town. I always had great respect for her, as she was always so kind, productive, and caring. I admired how she had decided to come to Armenia and be of service to the people there. And boy, was she of great service to the people. I was very impressed with all she managed to do while she was a Volunteer, as well as afterwards. She came back to Armenia to work on a couple of occasions, and I guess found that she preferred living abroad in developing countries rather than working in the States. She did have a three month stint working in Americorps (formerly called VISTA), but ended up resigning from that and coming back to the former Soviet Union.

Loretta’s book was fun for me to read, mainly because I knew a lot of the people in Armenia she mentioned, as well as some of the situations she writes about. However, the fact that I was in Armenia with her also presented some problems. I’m kind of a stickler about editing, and as much as I enjoyed Loretta’s book, I also think it really needed a few rounds with an editor. Because I knew a lot of the people she mentions in Armenia, I know that a number of names were misspelled, and I don’t think she did that on purpose. Any of us who were in Armenia at the time she was would know the people she mentioned.

She also got some facts incorrect. For instance, on more than one occasion, she mentions that the Soviet Union consisted of thirteen republics; it actually consisted of fifteen. I knew this, but double checked just in case. She mentions that the wife of the U.S. ambassador who served Armenia when we were there was Korean. Actually, she was Vietnamese. I double checked that fact, too. And she mentions that abortion is illegal in Armenia. This is incorrect. I actually knew several women who’d had multiple abortions, as it was the main source of birth control. I actually went to a meeting to discuss the abortion situation in Armenia. A couple of A1s who were working in Armenia had done some work on the abortion issue and we had a discussion about how rampant it was. And I also double checked that fact, too.

Large portions of Yes You Can! consist of letters and emails Loretta lovingly wrote to her children. I enjoyed reading the letters and emails, although sometimes she addressed people within them without explaining who they were. I’m sure her family members and friends know who they are, but this is a book that was being sold on Amazon and presumably read by strangers. So the lack of explanation could be a problem for those reading who didn’t actually know Loretta. She repeats herself a few times, which adds to the length of the book, which according to Kindle, is about 670 pages. An editor could have helped her pare down some redundancies and make the book shorter and easier to digest. There are lots of footnotes, too, which I sometimes found distracting and/or unnecessary. The title of the book implies that it might be a “how to” book, when it’s really a collection of stories about Loretta’s experiences overseas.

I know it sounds like I’m being very critical, and I am. But my criticisms don’t mean I didn’t like Yes You Can! I’m actually really glad I read Loretta Land’s book. She managed to accomplish so much, and she made so many lifelong friends. One thing that puzzled me, though, and I wish she were still around to explain, is why more than once, she writes “I never learned how to love.” She mentions that she went to high school at a boarding academy because she had no home to go to, although she also mentions that she was the youngest child of six. She doesn’t really explain her upbringing, nor does she explain why she says she “never learned how to love”, when it’s very obvious to me that she was a person who both loved, and was loved very much by other people.

Above all, I am just really impressed by Loretta’s bravery and her fortitude. I was in my 20s when we lived in Armenia, and I thought it was tough living there. I think Loretta’s living conditions were harsher than mine were. I didn’t have electricity much during the first year, but I did always have running water. Loretta apparently didn’t have much of either. She faced some truly frightening situations, too. At one point, early in our Peace Corps stint, Loretta was actually threatened by the Armenian Mafia. She writes of two other situations in other countries in which she was afraid for her life. I did have a couple of scary incidents myself, but none involving the Mafia!

I mentioned in yesterday’s post how grateful I am that I had the chance to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. One reason I am grateful is because I got to meet people like Loretta, who was very inspiring. I really looked up to her, and now that I’ve read about how she spent the last years of her life– serving and teaching other people– I admire her even more. She really lead a fascinating life. She mentions that one of her sons predeceased her. I’m sure the rest of her children are amazing people. I already read about her son, Andy, who is a hospice nurse and climbs mountains. A few years ago, Andy was climbing Mount Everest when there was an earthquake an an avalanche. Andy managed to survive, but not before Loretta was interviewed by the news. I later caught up with Loretta on Facebook, amazed that she looked and sounded just like I remembered her years ago.

So, despite my criticisms, I am glad I spent the money and took the time to read my former colleague’s book. It was a treat to read, but mainly because I knew her. She was a wonderful woman. I’m glad she managed to accomplish this goal she had before her time on Earth came to an end.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

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Armenian products

High anxiety…

Another week has passed, here in the land of perpetual COVID-19 lockdowns. Angela Merkel has managed to get a law passed that gives the federal government in Germany the ability to set emergency COVID-19 conditions for the entire country. Since vaccines are still very slowly rolling out here, there are many areas of “high infection” rates. That means, that in addition to the crap that’s been happening since November 2020, we now have curfews from 10pm to 5am, with exceptions allowed for medical emergencies, exercise, reporting to work, or walking alone. Gathering outside of one’s own family is still technically forbidden. And shops and services are mostly closed or offering services by appointment, and only with negative COVID test results.

Meanwhile, Bill has gotten us appointments for either Moderna or Pfizer vaccines on the Wiesbaden installation, although I am not going to get “excited” about it until it becomes more official. What really sucks is that Bill is supposed to leave for another business trip after the shot, so hopefully I won’t get too sickened by it. I will be alone again for about three weeks, like I was in March. And yes, I am pissed about that, since nothing else is open and it’s been ages since we last did anything fun or interesting.

We did have a funny experience yesterday, though. After I dumped the trash into the bins, I checked our mailbox, where I found a coupon from an online wine shop and a notice from DHL that we had a “brief” that needed signing for. I immediately felt a wave of dread, since it’s been my experience that letters that require signatures are not good news. I started thinking about who would be sending us registered mail and why they would be doing it.

It’s true that in the past couple of years, we have been involved in a couple of legal proceedings. Both ended in our favor, more or less. One proceeding wasn’t about us suing or being sued, but Bill was asked to be a witness and testify, which he ended up not having to do, after all. The other was regarding a legal matter we had with our former landlords. 😉

I told Bill about the slip and he got worried, too. We were thinking about any of the scenarios that might prompt registered mail. I wondered if maybe we had gotten a package from a friend of mine in France, or our monthly Ararat box was coming. But the slip said “Brief”, which in German refers to a letter, not a box. So we worried until 11:00am, which was when Bill was supposed to be able to go to the nearest DHL pack station (which are replacing a lot of German post offices) and find out what was up.

Bill came back from the store and gassing up the Volvo about an hour later. My stomach was doing flip flops the whole time as I pictured disaster that would lead to many headaches and heated rantings from yours truly. When he walked into the house, he said that the “letter” wasn’t at the pack station, but he’d go back a couple of hours later to check again.

So there we were, worrying more about the mysterious letter that needed a signature. I even looked up the topic on Toytown Germany, which confirmed that letters you have to sign for are often bad news. But then I remembered a couple of times when I have gotten letters to sign for that were positive or neutral things, and hope crept back into my consciousness. Still, I can’t help but anticipate disasters. It works out well that way. If I’m wrong, I’m happy about it. If I’m right, I’m somewhat mentally prepared.

I was sitting on top of our rarely made bed with freshly laundered sheets when Bill came back the second time. He was holding the May installation of our bubble wrapped Ararat box, which apparently was supposed to be delivered on Friday. I must have been in the backyard, because I was definitely home all day, as usual. We had nice weather, for once, so I probably was sitting on the patio with the dogs and didn’t hear the doorbell. I guess since it came from Armenia and went through customs, we have to sign for the box, although I don’t remember doing it for previous boxes.

Bill said he’d gone to the pack station and, once again, the clerk said she couldn’t find our “letter”. She said it looked like it had been delivered already, and we should check with our neighbor. Ironically, on Friday, I did accept a box for the neighbor. Bill was about to leave when the clerk spotted the box of treats from Armenia and said, “Entschuldigung!” She held up the box and Bill let out a big sigh.

Boy, were we relieved… And how nice it was to get it on Genocide Remembrance Day, which is the day Armenians all over the world remember the millions of people who died during the mass extermination efforts perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks. Every month, we get our Ararat box and I am impressed by the products coming out of Armenia that didn’t exist when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer there. Armenia has come a long way! But then I started thinking about why we were so traumatized by the prospect of signing for a letter in Germany.

Overall, living in Wiesbaden has been a good experience. I do miss how beautiful the Stuttgart area is, and we had a lot of fun down there, dining in many wonderful restaurants, taking trips to the Black Forest and other local areas, and making friends. Wiesbaden is less dramatic, on the whole, and not as pretty, but we’re comfortable here and we’re getting a new experience of living in Germany. It’s definitely different in Hesse, so it’s good that we get to try that. However, we’ve been very stressed out the whole time we’ve been here, for a variety of reasons.

Bill’s job is a good one for him, but it requires a lot of time away. That wasn’t so bad pre-COVID-19. I was even used to it, having been an Army wife and having seen him work at AFRICOM, which also required a lot of travel. He would go to Africa and come back with some novel viral sickness that he’d pass on to me. Then we’d go on a nice trip somewhere, spend a lot of money, eat interesting food, and I could blog about things other than our neighborhood, my dogs, and COVID-19. But now, he just goes to Bavaria for long stints, works his ass off, and comes home exhausted. It sucks for both of us, because these aren’t fun trips and they last way too long. And Bill hasn’t had a break in ages.

I don’t know a lot of people up here. In some ways, that’s good, since there’s also much less stupid drama. However, it would be nice to have a local friend I could hang out with. I get lonely sometimes, and I have little reason to get dressed every day. That’s not what I was planning for myself when I decided to go back to school years ago.

We spent a good portion of our first year here dealing with the trauma caused by our living situation in the Stuttgart area. It took weeks for us to feel comfortable and at home where we live now, and then we had to contend with dealing with our former landlady, who was trying to make us out to be terrible people (which we’re not– especially Bill). She was trying to shame us into letting her steal our security deposit, which she had no legal or proven right to do. So we had to take legal action in Germany, which is something we’ve never had to do anywhere.

That experience clouds what were mostly good years in BW… Overall, I loved living down there. But now we have a bitter taste in our mouths over having to sue… and the memories of the mean and vindictive, shaming behaviors levied at us by someone whom we feel was dishonest and abusive. I am glad we sued. She totally deserved it, and I hope she’s learned from the experience. But it sucked for us. We didn’t take any pleasure in it, and would have preferred not to have felt the need to do it.

Here it is 2021, over two years since we left that place, and we’re still thinking about it and scarred by it… to the point at which getting a notice to sign for a letter makes us nervous. We had no reason to be nervous. Even if it had been legal paperwork, we do have legal insurance and an established relationship with a competent lawyer. But still, that was an emotionally and psychologically trying experience. We are not keen to be involved in anything else involving lawyers… at least not in a country where English isn’t the dominant language. Having to read legalese using Google Translate isn’t fun.

It really doesn’t help that we haven’t been able to get to know and love Wiesbaden over the last thirteen months. Ordinarily, I would have been looking for fun things to do, like I did in the Stuttgart area. But we have no such luck here… so I’ve been buying too much stuff, trying to learn guitar, and daydreaming about trips instead… and reading way too many comments by neurotic Americans.

Ah well. At least we may soon be vaccinated, which could mean trips will be possible again. And when we can go somewhere, I’ll probably drop a lot of money on a really nice experience. So I’ll try to keep hanging on for that reason, and remember that not everything that needs a signature is going to signal doom.

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anecdotes

Repost: Choucroute Garnie… one last tenuous connection with Anthony Bourdain…

Today is Easter, and we are going to be getting takeout from a favorite restaurant. I hope to write about that meal later today or tomorrow. But, for right now, I would like to repost this essay I wrote about the late Anthony Bourdain, just after he died in June 2018. It originally appeared on the Blogspot version of my Overeducated Housewife blog, when I was living in the Stuttgart area. I don’t have a specific reason for sharing this today, other than I think it’s a good post. Actually, it reminds me a bit of what we’ve lost since COVID-19 came along. I am so ready for another day trip somewhere… and new photos, especially for this blog. I miss travel and eating in restaurants.

Edited to add: Looking back at my original piece, I see it was preceded by another post I wrote just after Bourdain’s death. I had just discovered his show, Parts Unknown, about three weeks before he committed suicide. I had watched it because he visited Armenia, which is where I spent two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 1990s. I was enthralled by Bourdain’s show and was looking forward to watching more episodes. But then, seemingly out of the blue, he killed himself. So did famed handbag designer Kate Spade. The post that preceded this one was about how depression really isn’t the “common cold” of mental illness. It can be very serious and even fatal.

A couple of weeks ago, Bill and I went to Ribeauville, France for Memorial Day weekend.  Since January 2017, Bill and I have visited Ribeauville, in Alsace, four times.  We’ve found a sympathetic apartment owner who doesn’t have a problem welcoming Zane and Arran.  Aside from that, Alsace is a very beautiful area that isn’t too far from where we live.  It makes for a convenient place to get a weekend away.

Last Friday, Anthony Bourdain killed himself in Alsace.  He was staying in Kaysersberg, a town Bill and I had been hoping to see during our last visit.  We never got around to going to Kaysersberg on our last trip, but it’s definitely a must see the next time we’re in Alsace.  Especially since last night, Bill showed me Anthony Bourdain’s final Instagram post…

This is a screenshot of Anthony Bourdain’s last Instagram post.  He put it up exactly one week ago.

I know a lot of people who read this blog regularly might not necessarily read my travel blog (although this is being reposted on my travel blog in 2021).  Those who haven’t read the travel blog probably missed my recent tale about the dish pictured above, Choucroute Garnie.  

Choucroute Garnie is a very popular dish in Alsace that includes Alsatian style sauerkraut, sausages, charcuterie, other salted meats, and potatoes.  Many restaurants in Alsace serve it, and my husband, Bill, happily enjoys it.  In fact, below is a picture of Choucroute Garnie he ate when we visited the quaint town of Eguisheim, France in February 2017.

Bill enjoyed Choucroute Garnie at Caveau Heuhaus in Eguisheim.

Although a lot of people like this particular dish, it’s not something I would voluntarily order.  I don’t like sauerkraut very much.  Actually, I don’t really like cabbage because it upsets my stomach and makes me fart a lot.  I will eat cabbage to be polite, but I don’t care for it and would avoid ordering it in a restaurant.  While I do like sausage and other pork products fine, I also wouldn’t necessarily order a big pile of them as pictured above.  One sausage is fine for me.  I don’t need to eat a big plate of pork.

On the first night of our most recent trip to Ribeauville, Bill and I decided to have dinner at a restaurant we had not yet tried.  Our experience at this establishment was disappointing from the get go and continued to get worse.  I had decided on an entrecôte (rib eye steak) for dinner, but our waiter somehow heard “choucroute” instead.  I was a bit suspicious when he didn’t ask me what sauce I wanted or how I preferred the steak cooked.  However, he took off before I’d had the chance to say anything and we didn’t see him again until his colleague tried to deliver the dish pictured below…

The Choucroute Garnie I didn’t order.  Bill says it wasn’t as good as the one he had in Eguisheim.

Unfortunately for our waiter, I was tired, hungry, and way over the bumbling service we had already experienced at that point.  He came over to argue with me about what I’d ordered and actually had the nerve to say, “You couldn’t have ordered entrecôte.  If you had, I would have asked you what sauce you wanted and the temperature.”

My acid reply was, “That’s right.  You didn’t ask and I wondered why.”

He scurried off with the choucroute, but then came back and tried to get me to take it, since cooking what I’d ordered would take time.  I really didn’t want the choucroute, but I was especially exasperated that the waiter had accused me of lying about my order and was trying to sell me something I didn’t want.  

Bill, prince of a man that he is, took the choucroute and I took his dish, which was potato pancakes with smoked salmon.  I had actually been eyeing the potato pancakes anyway, so it was initially no big deal.  But then I realized that one of the potato pancakes was very scorched.  I didn’t bother to complain because, at that point, I just wanted to get the hell out of there.  But I did turn the experience into a snarky blog post and a few people in my local food and wine group thought it was funny.  When I saw Bourdain’s final Instagram post last night, I was reminded of my own recent experience with Choucroute Garnie.  It was just something else, besides depression, I’ve had in common with the late chef.

People who read this blog and those who know me personally may know that I have suffered from depression for years.  It’s not nearly as bad now as it once was.  I no longer take medications for it and I don’t have the same distressing symptoms I used to have.  However, I do sometimes get very pessimistic and “down”.  I think about suicide often, although never to the point of making plans or carrying them out.  It’s more like fleeting thoughts of how life is kind of wasted on me, since I don’t really enjoy it much.  I see people with warm, loving families who are dealing with life threatening illnesses or injuries and they just want to live.  Here I am feeling kind of apathetic about my existence.  Although I do enjoy many aspects of living, I don’t necessarily have a zest for life.

A lot of people probably think I have a pretty charmed life.  If I were looking at me, I might think the same thing.  I have a wonderful, patient, indulgent husband; I’m basically healthy; and I get to travel a lot.  While I don’t really make money, I do have a vocation that I’m free to pursue with no hassles with editors or people paying me to create content.  I don’t know if anyone cares about my writing or music, particularly on this blog, which doesn’t bring the hits it used to.  However, writing it gives me something to do with my mind and a reason to get up in the morning.  It gives me reasons to read books so I can review them.  Believe me, although I’m frequently bored and sometimes depressed and anxious, it’s not lost on me that some people might envy my freedom and ability to see the world.  I agree, those are wonderful things.

I really don’t know why I have these deep seated feelings of shittiness.  I think there are probably a lot of factors, some of which are hereditary and some that are situational.  I usually feel worse when I express something negative and someone tries to be “helpful” by telling me how wonderful my life is.  I probably ought to keep my negativity to myself, but that’s not necessarily helpful, either.  Whenever someone, especially a person like Anthony Bourdain, takes his or her life, people are shocked and wonder why they never “reached out”.  I have found that reaching out often annoys other people, most of whom would prefer it if you’d just get over yourself and didn’t involve them in your problems. 

I do want to express one thing that I’ve recently realized.  Despite feeling insignificant most of the time, I know I have made a difference to a few folks.  When we moved here in 2014, I decided to promote my travel blog in the local community.  I’ve gotten some negative feedback from a few people, but for the most part, my posts are well tolerated or even outright appreciated.  I notice the ones I write about things to do locally and/or local restaurants are especially popular.  I recently wrote one post about places to go to “beat the heat” in Stuttgart.  That one has really taken off.  I’ve seen a number of people come back to it repeatedly, since it offers enough suggestions to last a good portion of the summer.  It makes me feel productive when I see that people are inspired by my experiences.

It occurred to me the other day that while I may never know who has been affected by my writing, in a way, I will have helped some people make priceless memories of their time in Europe.  The people who read my posts about obscure places like Ruine Mandelberg, Glaswaldsee, or the Burgbach Wasserfall, especially if they take the time to see them for themselves, will have memories that, in a small way, I helped them make.  I know that may sound like an egotistical statement to some people, especially since I have also been affected by other people’s writing.  However, knowing that a few people are taking my suggestions and making memories of their own does give me another reason to keep writing and going to new places on the weekends.  It gives me a purpose for being here, other than just to wash Bill’s underwear and make him laugh.  I’m always looking for new things to see and write about.  In the process of visiting and writing about different places, my own experiences in Europe are also enhanced.  I’m never sorry after having explored somewhere, even when something goes wrong.

When I lived in Armenia in the mid 1990s, I often felt like I was wasting my time.  I got a lot of negative feedback from my Peace Corps bosses as well as my local counterpart, who felt I wasn’t doing enough.  I was in my early 20s, hampered by depression, and kind of overwhelmed by what I was supposed to be doing.  I didn’t feel assertive enough to start, say, an English club or hang out with the kids.  I remember the summer of 1997, as I was planning to finish my assignment, going through some rough times all around.  I couldn’t wait to leave Armenia, and yet the prospect of going home was very scary.  When I did finally get home, the homecoming I had eagerly anticipated was pretty much ruined by my dad’s entrance into rehab.  As bad as I felt in Armenia, I felt even worse in the year after I returned home.  I felt like such a burden to my parents, especially since I wasn’t even sure my time in Armenia had been productive.  I started becoming very despondent and hopeless.  That was when I finally got treatment for depression.  
Things gradually got better.  I learned how to wait tables and about fine dining.  I studied voice and attended to my depression for the first time.  I made some friends.  Finally, I landed in graduate school at the University of South Carolina, which was fulfilling, although it didn’t lead where I thought it would.  I earned a MPH, MSW, and ultimately an Mrs….  

Before I decided to go to USC, I remember interviewing at Western Illinois University and telling the director of a Peace Corps Fellows program that I knew that I’d made a difference simply by going to Armenia.  He visibly recoiled at that statement.  I think he thought it was an arrogant thing to say.  Actually, it was a statement of fact.  I was in Armenia at a time when there were few Americans there.  There were people I met there who had never seen an American in person before.  I know a lot of them still remember me and always will.  Even knowing that, though, didn’t erase my feelings that I hadn’t done enough and that my time in Armenia didn’t amount to much.

It wasn’t until almost twenty years after I left Armenia that I found out that– for real– I actually had made a difference.  Facebook put me in touch with my very first Armenian teacher, who still works for the Peace Corps, as well as one of my best former students, who is now a high ranking director in the Peace Corps Armenia office.  I didn’t have anything to do with his decision to work for the Peace Corps, but the fact that my former student remembered me and I didn’t permanently turn him off of Americans means that my time in Armenia was well spent.  Maybe I wasn’t the most hardworking or dedicated Volunteer, but I still made a difference.  And maybe people in Stuttgart think I’m annoying, obnoxious, and arrogant, but there are people who like what I do and it’s affected their experience here in a good way.  So that keeps me going… at least for now.

If you’ve managed to read this whole post… which is a lot longer than I’d intended it to be… I want to thank you.  Thanks for giving me a reason to get up in the morning.  Thanks for reading about how Anthony Bourdain and I tenuously have a couple of things in common, even if it’s just being served Choucroute Garnie in Alsace and visiting a few of the same places, like Alsace and Armenia.  Knowing that even a few people like what I’m doing means a lot more to me than you’ll ever know.  And maybe someday, in Bourdain’s honor, I’ll order the Choucroute Garnie in Kaysersberg…  But I’ll be sure to take Gas-X, too.

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We got our first Ararat Box…

Several weeks ago, I was hanging out on Facebook when an Armenian guy I follow posted about ordering Ararat Boxes for his staff as Christmas gifts. He described the boxes as being full of yummy treats from Armenia, as well as a great fundraiser for good causes benefiting Armenia. Since I spent two years living in the Republic of Armenia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was interested in finding out more about Ararat Boxes.

So what are Ararat Boxes? They are boxes filled with snacks, stickers, and other goodies made in Armenia. The official Web site says that they put in 18-20 different items, everything from candy to teas and coffees. Every month is different and you don’t know what you’ll get. You can purchase the boxes once, or do a monthly subscription. When I showed the Web site to Bill, he decided he wanted to try it. He bought a three month subscription for the 2kg box ($49.95 for a single box, less if you subscribe). There’s also a 1kg box available that costs a bit less ($29.95). Shipping is available worldwide, and costs $15 for the big box and $10 for the small one. You can pay easily on the Web site, which calculates everything for you. The boxes come directly from Yerevan, Armenia, and arrive covered in bubble wrap, adorned with Armenian stamps and script that looks like a bunch of coat hooks.

An ad for the Ararat Box.

This project was created by Renderfrost, which is a large IT company based in Armenia. Renderfrost has over 10 million worldwide users and is one of the biggest video platforms on the planet. It currently employs 80 people. Last year, people from Renderfrost came up with the idea for Ararat Box as a way to support small businesses in Armenia. They traveled around the country, visited 150 different businesses, tasted over 1000 products, and selected items that would be featured in the box. Each month, different vendors are featured, which means the boxes change. Ararat Box is also involved in charities, and donated 400 boxes to children in Artsakh, whose fathers are currently engaged with the military on the front lines of Nagorno-Karabakh.

We received the January edition of the box yesterday. It got hung up in Belarus for some time, waiting at the customs office. Here are a few photos.

Of course, there’s no wine or brandy in these boxes… bummer! Those are my favorite Armenian exports of all. But I was pretty heartened to see all of these cool Armenian snacks. When I lived in Armenia, one of my side projects was using Armenian produce to create recipes and potential products. I worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on that, and they even gave me a stovetop electric oven to use, which was a pretty big deal. Most of us had to rely on propane stoves and makeshift ovens crafted from big pots and kerosene heaters. You get pretty innovative when you’re a Peace Corps Volunteer in a developing country where there is no reliable electricity or running water. Things have gotten much better since the 90s, though.

A review in Armenian. I must admit I only understand a little of this these days.

I remember that back in the 1990s, most of the snacks available in Armenia came from Turkey or Iran, unless you wanted to buy something local at the shuka. It was very possible, for instance, to buy beautiful local fruits. Armenia has some of the most gorgeous produce I have ever seen. Or you could buy sunflower seeds or dried fruits and nuts. But chips and candy and the like were often sourced from other places. Although it was interesting to see the kinds of products you could find in Yerevan in the 90s, (I once found a package of Chips Deluxe cookies priced at the AMD equivalent of $7), it’s good that Armenia now has its own products.

Each box comes with a handy guide in English, explaining about the products and the best ways to enjoy them. Bill and I have so far tried a few of the snacks, all of which are of good quality. We look forward to seeing what will come in the next two boxes. I have a feeling we could extend the subscription!

Although I can’t deny that I was ready to leave Armenia in 1997, it will always have a piece of my heart. Living there changed my life for the better and really opened my eyes to the world. I still have friends from Armenia, as well as so many memories. It’s great that I can share the culture with Bill and we can enjoy these products together. And, on a more personal note, it really does make me excited to see the place where I did my service obviously improving in leaps and bounds. It makes me feel like I really did contribute something by going there and bearing witness to how things once were, compared to how they are today.

Edited to add… We just got our February box. Yes, it arrived just one day after the January box. We are now flush with Armenian snacks. Here are a few more photos!

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German Christmas #9

I just counted the number of Christmases Bill and I have spent together in Germany. We’re now up to nine. That’s 2007, 2008, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and now, 2020. Bill spent a few more Bavarian Christmases here before we knew each other, when he was a lieutenant in the Army. Technically, we were in France last year for Christmas, but we still put up the tree at home and opened presents in Germany… so I count that as a German Christmas, too.

Yesterday’s Christmas was very nice. The best part of it was the lack of drama, which is a feature in almost all of the holidays I’ve spent with Bill. We really get along well, so being together on Christmas is a pleasure. There’s no fighting. Bill and I have both experienced enough holiday fights to last us the rest of our lives.

Anyway, our day went like this. Arran woke us up at 5:30am, as he always does, to go out for a pee and have his breakfast. Bill came back to bed and Arran snuggled into my arms. I slept until about 8:30am; these days, that is unheard of for either of us. We got up and had breakfast, then opened presents. I always get Bill more presents than he gets for me, so our gift exchange is always lopsided. This year, I decided to get him some really silly things. Here are a few photos.

There were other gifts, of course. I got Bill new shirts, a singing bowl (got one for myself, too), an Anova vacuum sealer and bags for his sous vide (a gift from several years ago that he uses a lot), and a really cool puzzle from Thailand made of wooden shapes. Bill got me a guitar repair kit, a couple of music books, a couple of t-shirts from Prairie Artisan Ales (in Oklahoma), and a guitar amp, which he gave me earlier this month to use with my new guitar.

My mother-in-law sent me a digital picture frame for the computer and, for both of us, a very interesting looking cookbook by a TV chef from eastern North Carolina. I was not familiar with the chef, but the pictures in her book make me think we’ll have a lot of fun with her southern recipes. We got so many new books that I am going to have to buy a new bookshelf.

My favorite gift of all, though, was a video Bill had sent to me by Vartoush Tota– otherwise known as Mary Basmadjian. Mary Basmadjian is the “Funny Armenian Girl”, and her videos are all over Facebook. I happen to love her comedy because I lived in Armenia for two years in the 1990s, teaching English as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I haven’t been back there since 1997, but I’ve been wanting to go. So Bill requested a video shout out from her, including a script that he wrote. It was a total surprise and I loved it! I didn’t think I would get such a kick out of a “shout out” video, but I totally did!

This was my FAVORITE gift!

After we opened gifts, Bill went to one of our favorite local restaurants, Villa Im Tal, and picked up our Christmas dinner. We usually like to cook for holidays, but since COVID-19 has impacted restaurants so much, we’ve ordered food for Thanksgiving and Christmas this year. I’m not sure what we’ll do for New Year’s, though. Maybe that holiday will be a bit low key.

Anyway, this was our fabulous meal… Bill broke out the china and fancy silverware for it, too.

I’m not sure why Bill ordered duck for me. I think I would have loved the prime rib just as much. I did taste it, and it was sinful! I liked the duck too, and we do have leftovers for today. The biggest surprise for me, though, was the soup. I didn’t find the color of it very appetizing. I have a weird thing against beige foods, I guess. But– after the first spoonful, I was eager to finish the rich, velvety soup. The croutons were surprising. Some of them managed to stay crunchy even though they were saturated. There was also salmon in the soup, which balanced the base. It was delicious. I’d love to have it when it’s not take out. I also liked the dessert very much– cubes of chocolate cake artfully arranged with fruits and cream. God, I miss dining out, but this was a nice compromise. I think Bill said it cost about $160.

Villa Im Tal is also offering a New Year’s Eve dinner, but the choices for that don’t look quite as appealing. They involve a lot of liver and caviar. If we did order one (and I guess they still have availability, since they included an ad for it in our order yesterday), we’d probably go for the middle choice.

We finished off the evening by watching a few Rankin & Bass children’s specials from our childhoods. These were classic Christmas shows that came on TV every year. They probably still do…

If you were an American kid in the 70s and 80s, you’ve probably seen this.

We watched three specials, but had to quit after the third… There’s only so much Rankin & Bass I can take in one sitting. I switched to reading more of John Bolton’s book, which I hope to have finished very soon. I’m ready to start a new book that has nothing to do with politics.

All in all, it was a great Christmas. Noyzi and Arran had fun, too. Especially at dinner time! Bonus– I also got some housework done, so I don’t have to do it today.

One last thing… I made a music video the other day. It’s a pretty Christmas song that Olivia Newton-John did for the collaboration effort, Liv On, with Beth Nielsen Chapman and Amy Sky. I thought it was a moving and unusual holiday choice, so I decided to cover it. I used photos and video from our 2016 Ireland trip… Wish I could be there now.

Hope you had a nice holiday, too!

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25 years ago…

The featured photo is a very faded picture of Mount Ararat, which I took from the third floor of the school where I taught, Ruben Sevak School #151.

On August 22, 1995, thirty people joined me at the Hotel Dvin in Yerevan, Armenia, where we all swore in as official Peace Corps Volunteers. We had spent twelve, hot, exhausting, often frustrating weeks being trained in our disciplines, the Armenian language (eastern dialect), and cross cultural issues. We also got a lot of shots and some basic first aid and CPR training.

Our group originally consisted of 32 people, but one female trainee was placed with a host family with a son. She ended up deciding to marry her “host brother” instead of swearing in. I remember being very surprised by that decision, since she had seemed to be one of the more driven trainees. She didn’t seem to like me very much at first, but then was curiously nicer to me once she heard me sing. That’s not the first time that’s happened to me. On the other hand, some people like me less after they hear me sing. It’s a double edged sword.

I remember August 22, 1995 well because it was such a good day. I felt very accomplished for having finished training, especially since I had never planned to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. I had mostly decided to serve because I was having trouble finding meaningful work and wanted to escape Gloucester, Virginia and my parents’ house. My older sister, Betsy, had been a Volunteer in Morocco back in the mid 1980s, but she was a lot more driven and accomplished than I was. She went to a much more prestigious college, was fluent in French, and even worked in the Moroccan Embassy in Washington, DC before she was a Volunteer. I was kind of average by comparison.

My training group in 1995. We visited Garni and Gerhardt, two must see places in Armenia.

In December 1994, I was working three unfulfilling part-time jobs that paid peanuts. I couldn’t make enough money to break out on my own. I remember that Betsy had joined the Peace Corps and launched into a very fulfilling career. She’d earned a master’s degree at yet another prestigious university and traveled the world, having learned Arabic in Morocco. I longed for something more like that for myself, instead of selling lattes and menswear, temping at the College of William & Mary, and putting up with bosses with whom I didn’t mesh. One day that month, I decided to send away for an application.

When I got the application and saw how long it was, I started to lose hope. It required six references, and there were medical and legal sections that had to be completed, as well as lengthy questions to answer in longhand. I threw the first application away, because I was sure I would never get accepted.

A couple of weeks later, I realized that I had nothing to lose by applying. The worst that could happen is that I’d get rejected. Rejection is nothing new for me. I’ve been rejected by countless would-be employers, friends, and boyfriends. I even got rejected by three of the four colleges to which I applied. I was not a great student and didn’t have excellent SAT scores. But I did get accepted to Longwood College (now Longwood University). I ended up flourishing in college. That was where I discovered my musical ability, and that discovery changed my life forever. I thought that maybe the Peace Corps would be like college was. Maybe I would go there and life would change for me somehow. For better or worse, I had to take a shot at it.

So I was filling out the application on the evening of January 15, 1995. The phone rang. My dad answered it. It was someone in the family letting us know that his older sister, my Aunt Jeanne, had died of an inoperable brain tumor. I figured that might be a sign that I needed to mail the application. Two days later, as we drove from Gloucester, Virginia to Sylvania, Georgia for my Aunt Jeanne’s funeral, I dropped the application in the mail.

One week later, I was invited to an interview in Arlington, Virginia. One of my sisters happens to live in Arlington and her condo was within walking distance to the Rosslyn Metro station, which would easily get me to the office where the Peace Corps recruiter was. I put on an ugly red and black suit went in and spoke to a woman named Bethe (that was how she spelled her name). She’d been a Volunteer in Thailand. I noticed she wore pantyhose, but she hadn’t shaved her legs, so her hair was matted underneath the nylon. Anyway, we hit it off fine… and she said she would nominate me for an assignment Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) in “Central Europe”.

Well… Armenia is about as Eastern European as a person can get… or maybe it’s in extreme Western Asia. It seems to depend on whom you ask. But although Armenia is a tiny formerly Soviet republic, I had heard of it before I got the offer to go there. My fourth grade teacher, Bryan Almasian, was of Armenian descent. He told us about Armenia at a time when most people in my tiny hometown never would have heard of it. People of Armenian descent weren’t exactly all over southeastern Virginia in the early 1980s. So when I got the invitation to go to Armenia, I was excited.

I had decided to join the Peace Corps at an advantageous time. It was right after the fall of the Soviet Union. A bunch of eastern European countries opened up, as well as a number of former Soviet republics. Since I grew up during the Cold War, it was exciting to me to get to see part of the former Soviet Union. And although moving away for two years was kind of scary, being stuck in Gloucester was even scarier. A lot of talent has “washed up” there, as my former best friend would say. I hadn’t enjoyed growing up in Gloucester and ached to move somewhere else… although now that I’m a lot older, I see its appeal a lot more clearly. I still don’t want to live there again, but I can now see why a lot of people I went to school with are still living there today. Although I am not a Gloucester native, it’s probably the closest thing I have to a hometown. I moved there at age 8 and lived there off and on until I was 27. I still know a lot of people there.

Getting ready to go to Armenia was challenging. Unlike my sister, who had at least a year to prepare for her move abroad, I was invited to serve about six weeks after my interview with Bethe. That meant I had to complete legal, dental, and medical screenings very quickly. The legal screening wasn’t hard. I was only 22 years old, so I didn’t have any divorces or child support issues. I didn’t have children to worry about. All I had were student loans, which at that time, we were allowed to defer (I think the rules have since changed). I went down to the jailhouse in my town, having called first to tell them that I needed to have my fingerprints taken. I remember the folksy woman on the other end of the line telling me to arrive before 5:00pm, because that was when the “weekenders” showed up. I was so naive at the time I didn’t know what that meant. I had not heard of people who serve jail time on the weekends so they can work.

I had to go to the dentist, but that was no big deal. Unlike Betsy, I was born without wisdom teeth, so I didn’t need to have them extracted, like she did. I was also born without two of my permanent teeth and, at age 48, still have one baby tooth left. The other one was extracted a few years ago when it abscessed. Now I have an implant.

The medical screening was a lot harder. Because I was still under 23, I had access to medical care at the military bases near me. Actually, I think I could have gone there even if I hadn’t had access, since the Peace Corps is a federal agency. I grew up going on military installations for medical care, but I had never seen a gynecologist before. And my health screening for the Peace Corps was my first experience with that exam. It was given by a rather unkind Air Force major, who really traumatized me. To this day, I rarely see doctors, mainly because of the way she treated me. Fortunately, I was “healthy” down there, although she promised me I’d get really fat in Armenia (actually, I lost a lot of weight during training, but later put it back on). I’m just glad I didn’t have to pay for that treatment, especially since it still affects me now.

The rest of the medical part wasn’t that bad, except that they took many appointments to accomplish. Also, I got a nastygram from the Peace Corps medical office because they said I was “too fat”. However, I stayed mostly physically healthy during my time abroad. I wasn’t one of the ones who was medivacked. I did eventually have problems with really bad skin infections that required several heavy duty antibiotics to cure. I’m pretty sure I got the infections in Armenia, or perhaps Turkey (they started on a visit to Turkey). Other than that, I didn’t have health problems, despite being fat.

Most of us were still in Armenia in 1997 for the “COS” (close of service) conference. This was taken in T’sakhadzor.

On May 31st, 1995, after lots of meetings and a night in a Washington, DC hotel, thirty-two of use got on a plane to Paris. We spent twelve hours there before we boarded a flight to Armenia on the now defunct Armenian Airlines. I will never forget that very “unique” flight. It was like a time warp to the 70s. Actually, since the flight to Paris was my first since 1978, it wasn’t that different from what I was used to. There was a lot of smoking on the plane, people standing up in the aisles, and flight attendants wearing uniforms that looked distinctly Soviet. They were passing out warm beer and paper cups of water that probably came from the lavatory. Forget about a movie or assigned seating!

This was also about the time that Christopher Reeve was in the news, having fallen off his horse while stadium jumping in Culpeper, Virginia. Ten years prior to Reeve’s accident, I was at the same showgrounds where he fell off, participating in my first horse judging competition. I fell off my horse many times. Fortunately, I never got seriously injured.

Once we arrived in Yerevan, at about 3:00am, we were confronted with what life would be like there. The airport was mostly dark, because there was little power. The toilets were disgusting, because there was little water. Two guys were unloading the luggage, so it took forever to get out of customs and into bed. Some of the members of the group that had arrived in 1994 were at the airport to welcome us. The airport in Yerevan is now much better than it was when we arrived in 1995. Back then, it was very Soviet looking and kind of crumbling.

Actually, a lot of things that were crumbling in 1995 are now looking a lot better. By the time I left Armenia in 1997, things were noticeably improving. For instance, in the summer of 1996, the government determined that Metzamor, the nuclear power plant, was safe to use. They reconnected to it and suddenly, we had power 24 hours a day. During my first year in Armenia, there was only power for a couple of hours per day. Having electricity all the time was a game changer and morale booster, and I was there to see it happen.

When we arrived in 1995, there weren’t many western style stores at all. Most everything was behind a counter and we had to ask to buy them. By the time I left, honest to God supermarkets were opening, although they still didn’t trust people to shop on their own. I remember being “minded” when I stopped by a grocery store in Yerevan. Someone would watch me to make sure I didn’t steal anything, even as they’d let me get it off the shelf for myself.