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

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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.

We got our first Ararat Box…

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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 come 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 had 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!

German Christmas #9

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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!

25 years ago…

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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.

Me and Stepan at school. I was suffering from giardia at the time, hoping not to crap my pants. I grew out my bangs in Armenia, too… it took forever.

Perhaps the most awesome thing about my time in Armenia was that one of my students later went to work for Peace Corps Armenia. I knew him as a sixteen year old. He’s now a professional, helping people like I was when I was a Volunteer. It makes me very proud, even though I had little to do with his excellent command of English. He was already fluent when we met. However, I can take comfort in knowing that having me as a teacher didn’t completely turn him off of Americans!

It’s hard to believe that twenty-five years have passed since I became a Peace Corps Volunteer. I completely believe that I went to Armenia for a reason, and it led me to where I am today. I certainly had little trouble adjusting to Germany after having lived in Armenia for two years. My time there was often difficult and challenging, but I now mostly remember the best parts of it. I’m proud of myself for making it through, even if I wasn’t one of the people who had spent my life planning and preparing for a Peace Corps assignment. It truly was an honor to serve, and I learned so much. I hope others learned from me… or at least didn’t mind that I was there.

I meant to post this yesterday, but half of my post got wiped out, and I was so disgusted that I decided to wait to finish it this morning. I’m glad I waited. As usual, the end product turned out better after I slept on it.

Takeout from Rocco’s Italian Grill and Bar in Bad Soden…

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In the interest of supporting the restaurant industry while we’re all social distancing, I suggested to Bill that he visit Rocco’s Italian Grill and Bar in Bad Soden and pick up some barbecue for last night’s dinner. Bill and I ate there several months ago, before this virus crisis started. We had a delicious Sunday lunch in full view of the restaurant’s glorious bar. We brought home leftovers and vowed we’d go back there sometime.

Last night was the night, although we had to get the food to go. Bad Soden isn’t super close to us. It’s on the way to Frankfurt, which is maybe 25 minutes away. Bill called ahead, requesting beef short ribs and beef brisket, two items that we don’t see a lot of here in Germany. He brought them home last night, along with two sides of fries. Yeah… big present for my ass! Bill says the lady who helped him spoke perfect English and was very friendly. And a big bonus is that since everyone is staying home, parking was plentiful.

Lately, I’ve been ordering shitloads of Armenian wines and brandy from an Armenian wine and brandy boutique in Brussels, Belgium. I’ve shared the boutique with people in my food and wine Facebook group. I suspect they’re getting a lot of business from Germany. I’ve also ordered Armenian wines from other vendors, like Weingood and Belvini, both online shops in Germany. Hopefully, my liver will survive the pandemic. I probably should get more into coffee drinking.

I bought us some Dutch treats, too. I got Bill lots of cheese because he’s a fan, but I also found some other goodies from the Dutch chain, Henri Willig, which we discovered during our last trip to The Netherlands in January 2019. Maybe we can’t visit these places right now, but we can at least enjoy some food and beverages, right? Who cares if my ass gets so big it has its own Web site? Seriously, I am missing traveling.

But at least we have take out, right? I look forward to enjoying more beef ribs today.

Five of my most memorable travels…

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Bill and I have been really lucky.  We’ve both gotten to see some pretty amazing places, both together and apart.  Before I married Bill, I was an Air Force brat.  Then I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia.  My parents didn’t take me on a lot of trips when I was a kid.  I think they relished having time alone, since I was their youngest.  However, because of their travels, my experience living in England and seeing Tunisia, and my sister’s globe trotting experiences and Peace Corps experiences, I was inspired to also be a Volunteer.

While I can’t say I was the most dedicated Peace Corps Volunteer, I can say that the experience changed my life for the better in many ways.  One way it changed me was by waking the travel bug within me.  I’ve gotten to see some pretty extraordinary places, though Bill’s experiences in AFRICOM are starting to eclipse mine.  So I thought today, I’d write a short piece about some of my favorite and most memorable travels so far.

5. Turkey and Bulgaria- 

About twenty years ago, Peace Corps friend and I took a bus trip from Yerevan, Armenia to Istanbul, Turkey.  In those days, life in the former Soviet Union was still pretty primitive.  It was also cheap.  My friend had loaned me the money for the trip… $500 in cash.  And it was PLENTY of money, especially once we got to Turkey and I had access to an ATM.

Northeastern Turkey is an extraordinarily beautiful place.  I probably felt that way especially since we went through the border crossing from hell between Georgia and Turkey.  Suddenly, traffic lights worked and there were minarets everywhere instead of churches.  As we passed through Turkey on our primitive Armenian bus (on which we were the only Americans), I gazed at the gorgeous landscape.  It was like being in a fairyland.

We visited Bulgaria on that trip and spent some time in Sofia.  Then we went to Sozopol, which in 1996, was a very cheap resort on the Black Sea.  I understand it’s gotten a lot more popular since our visit twenty years ago.  I’d love to go back, though…  Sozopol is beautiful.  We spent three weeks on our Turkey and Bulgaria trip and I’m hoping to return someday.

Here’s the proof…

 
4.  Pinasca, Italy-

Bill and I visited beautiful Bella Baita in 2008, when we lived in Germany the first time.  Bella Baita is an adorable little B&B six kilometers up an Alpine mountain.  It was a very special trip.  We found it when we were looking for accommodations near Turin.  Bella Baita is actually about 30 km from Turin, but it turned out to be a great place to unwind.  Run by an American and Italian couplewho are chefs, Bella Baita offers some very unique experiences, as well as a very authentic taste of a real Italian lifestyle.  Best of all, Bella Baita is very economical and the town of Pinerolo, which is not far at all, offers wonderful restaurants, charm, and a great farmer’s market.  If you arrange a cooking lesson, Marla and Fabrizio will take you to the market to pick up your ingredients.

The view of the French Alps from Bella Baita…

3.  Sanda, Scotland-

Sanda is a privately owned island off of Argyll and Bute in Scotland.  Bill and I have visited there twice.  What makes this place memorable, besides the fact that it’s pretty much uninhabited, is that both times we’ve visited, there have been some seals there to put on a show…

A natural formation…

And one of many seals!

 

Sanda is unspoiled and ruggedly beautiful.  Both times we’ve visited, we’ve gone via a Hebridean Cruise.  Hebridean Cruises are special in and of themselves, though they are not cheap.  We were onboard in March 2016 and I’m already pining for my next voyage.

2.  Slovenia and Croatia-
 

Bill and I just got back from our first visit to Slovenia.  We’ve seen a lot of Europe, but I think Slovenia is now one of our favorite places.  It’s right next to Austria and Italy, yet isn’t really like either of those places.  There are good wines, exotic foods, friendly people, and affordable prices… not to mention some stunning scenery.  Slovenia is also very close to Croatia.  We haven’t had the chance to explore Croatia for more than a couple of hours, but it’s definitely now on the list.  I have a feeling we’ll love it as much or more than Slovenia.

Beautiful Vintgar Gorge.  Next time we go to Slovenia, we’re hitting Lake Bohinj!

 
1.  Armenia-
 

I have to mention Armenia.  I lived there for twenty-seven months in the 90s and haven’t yet been back.  Nevertheless, my memories of Armenia have been a big part of my life for twenty years.  I made some good friends, Armenian and American, and saw some awesome places that were not sullied by tourism.  Of course, things have changed a lot since the 90s, though I still remember people from there and they remember me.

Something tells me that if I visit Armenia, it will be an unforgettable trip.  And if you are a Christian, it’s an especially fascinating be.  Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion.  If you like good wine, good barbecue, fresh lavash, and excellent brandy, Armenia is your place.  And the people really are some of the warmest, most hospitable people you’ll ever meet.

Lake Sevan– courtesy of photo-armenia.com.

 

I really would love to take Bill to Armenia and show him some of my favorite places…  Hopefully, I still remember some of the language!

Peace Corps cookbooks… I wrote one for Armenia!

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This photo was taken at Lake Sevan in June 1995.  This man was kind enough to pose with his horse and even let me sit on the horse for a photo.  I would have posted a food pic, but all of my Armenia pics are in storage.

Yesterday, I read an interesting article about Peace Corps cookbooks.  I found the article because the Peace Corps shared it on Facebook and that’s where I get all my news and ideas, don’tcha know?

This topic is near and dear to my heart, because in 1997, when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Armenia (group A-3), I inherited the Peace Corps cookbook project.  The cookbook project was originally taken on by a guy who was posted in the town of Talin, Armenia.  He had high hopes of putting the cookbook together, but was not able to get to Yerevan very often.  Back in 1997, not everyone had computers or access to the Internet.  Since I lived in Yerevan and was heavily involved in cooking projects during my second year as a volunteer, it seemed natural that I would complete the cookbook.

The very first Peace Corps group in Armenia, appropriately called A-1 (it’s not just a steak sauce anymore), had made a cookbook too.  Theirs was very short and not at all comprehensive.  It was also very primitive, since resources were in short supply when they were serving.  Seems to me that A-1 also lost about half of their group to early terminations or people finding jobs.  They had a really rough time of it, having arrived in Armenia during the dead of winter only a year after the fall of the Soviet Union.  I remember hearing horror stories about them living on candy bars and Cokes because they were paid in drams and, at the time, storekeepers only wanted Russian rubles or American dollars.  Also, at that time, there simply wasn’t that much in Armenia, especially in Yerevan.  As a member of the third group, I saw life change pretty drastically over my two years, especially in the capital.

In any case, I used the A-1 cookbook as a base to start the second edition of the cookbook.  It took weeks to do the work and I mostly did it on my own, using remnants of A-1’s cookbook, recipes already collected by the guy who had started the project, my own recipes, and those I managed to collect from other volunteers.  I also used an Armenian cookbook provided by our country director, who happened to be of Armenian descent, and  I included recipes I culled from an 80s version of Peace Corps Senegal’s cookbook.  There was a guy in my group who had previously been a volunteer in Senegal and had graciously let me borrow his tattered copy, which gave me ideas about what should go in our cookbook.  I remember titling the cookbook Bari Akhorjag (Good Appetite) and getting an Armenian woman to type the title in Armenian on her word processor so I could put it on the cover and it would be spelled properly.

The Peace Corps Armenia cookbook was truly my first real attempt at getting published.  I suppose I could and should have asked for more help with it, but in 1997, there was a strong move to get volunteers out of Yerevan, especially teachers.  I think I was one of two school (d’protz) teachers posted there, not including the ones who worked at the local university.  I had the time to do the work, was located near the computer, and had a real interest in cooking.  In fact, I remember baking homemade rolls, banana bread, and apple pies for the Thanksgiving dinner put on by our country director, and cooking a large meal for the A-4s at a hotel restaurant in Jermuk.  I made vegetarian manicotti and fresh bread that was very well received.  I was glad to do it, since I was invited by the Peace Corps Medical Officer.  I had never been to Jermuk and it’s a really nice town.

I spent many days in the Peace Corps office putting together the cookbook.  I even drew the art on the front page, which consisted of my crude renderings of fruits, vegetables, and foods and Fujika heaters in the four corners.  Fujikas, for those who don’t know, are Japanese kerosene space heaters.  I don’t know if Armenia volunteers still use them, but in my day, we each had two of them as well as a propane stove.  Most of us did not have access to an oven (I didn’t until USDA gave one to me), so we had to get creative.  I remember writing a chapter in the cookbook about using Fujika heaters as ovens (it involves using a very large metal pot).  When you’re bored, hungry, and cold, you can come up with surprisingly creative and innovative ways to make things work.

I wrote a chapter on food safety, as well as places to find ingredients.  Since I lived in Yerevan, I had great access to ingredients, relatively speaking, but even living in Yerevan was no guarantee that you could find what you needed.  Shopping was often a multi-stop affair that took awhile to accomplish.  Also, you were limited by what you could carry or take on public transportation.  In 1997, Yerevan was becoming decidedly cushy and a lot of western style stores were opening, though they were usually too expensive for Peace Corps Volunteers to patronize.

I added a glossary of food and kitchen terms, as well as a metric conversion chart.  I remember sitting there thinking about what kind of information would be useful to volunteers and, if it seemed appropriate, I added it.  Again, in retrospect, it might have been good to have someone work with me, but no one volunteered to… and truthfully, I like working alone.

I distinctly remember writing a chapter on beer and wine.  In 1997, Pete’s Wicked Ale (which I think is now defunct) was all over Yerevan.  You could find it in the smallest xhanut (store), while you might not find any butter or flour.  I wrote about Pete’s Wicked Ale and said it was decent.  That was before I learned how to drink beer properly.  Actually, when I first got to Armenia, I liked mass produced American beers, which mostly weren’t available in Armenia (though I did once see some Schlitz being offered at an insane price).  I learned to like European beers in Armenia because Armenian and Turkish beers were terrible.  They may still be terrible now.

The first edition of the cookbook was ready on my 25th birthday, June 20th, 1997.  It was so well received that we did a second run so some of the expats in Yerevan could have a copy.  I also brought a few home to give to people who had supported me during my time away.

Beautiful Lake Sevan… the water is freezing cold, but gorgeous.

It was kind of exciting for me to live in Yerevan from 1995-97.  I got to watch that city change on a daily basis.  When we first arrived there in 1995, Yerevan was only marginally less spartan than some of the towns in the regions.  While life was a bit more convenient there, it was still a place where you weren’t guaranteed running water or electricity.  In fact, during my first year in Yerevan, we only got electricity a few hours a day.  Some people illegally hooked up their apartments to the metro or hospitals, which always had power.  They had what was called “left lines”.  I didn’t have a left line.  At one point, I went six weeks with no power because one of my neighbors had rerouted my electricity to his apartment.  He didn’t know I was living there.  Yerevan was also much more expensive than living out in the regions was.  I had to pay my own rent for several months and there were a couple of times when I literally didn’t have food to eat because it had gone to paying rent.  I later taught English to adults working at NGOs and got my rent covered.  Technically, I wasn’t supposed to do that, but it was a widespread practice to make up for budgetary shortfalls.

One of my other projects during that time involved using dried Armenian fruits and vegetables and creating recipes.  I was working with several business volunteers and the USDA, which even provided me with an oven so I could do the work.  I can’t tell you how awesome that was.  In my mind, it beat teaching, a job that is certainly very important, but for which I have little talent.  I am a creative person, though, and I found that my creativity came in handy in Yerevan. I used just about all of my creative gifts, from singing in the opera house to writing to cooking.

I’m sure if I went to Yerevan now, it would be totally different to me.  I understand that now, most volunteers don’t serve there.  While I wanted to live in Yerevan and I got to experience some things living in that city that I wouldn’t have out in the country, if I had to do it over again, I would not have chosen to live in Yerevan.  It was very stressful being so close to the powers that be.

Anyway… I think of the cookbook project as the one thing I did in Armenia that really had a lasting impact, even if it ultimately only impacted the Americans serving there.  There is a copy of the 2010 version on the Internet now and I’m proud to see that my name is in it a few times.  Some of the things that were in my version of the book remain in the 2010 version, while other things– perhaps not as relevant as they were in my day– are now omitted.  I’m sure the part I wrote about Pete’s Wicked Ale has been struck.  I haven’t seen that beer in years.

I went through much of my service wondering what the hell I was doing in Armenia and whether or not I was making a difference.  I can see that my time there did make a difference, though I also know that had I not written the cookbook, someone else would have.

I wish I had brought a copy of my version of the Peace Corps Armenia cookbook with me to Germany.  It would be fun to read it again.  But it’s somewhere in Texas, with all my other crap.

Twenty years ago today…

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I wasn’t going to blog again today, but thanks to Timehop, I realize that today is a very important anniversary…

Most of the people I joined the Peace Corps with in 1995…

At about 5:30 pm on May 31, 1995, I boarded a United Airlines flight from Dulles Airport in the Washington, DC area to Paris, France.  I remember that flight very well.  It was years before 9/11, so it was a relatively laid-back experience.  There were 32 of us together; we’d just been through a briefing at the State Plaza Hotel in Washington, DC.  I remember being excited about going to France, even if we were only going to the airport.  It was my first time abroad since my dad retired from the Air Force.  In fact, that was the first flight I had taken since we came back from Mildenhall Air Force Base in 1978.

I was 22 years old… just weeks from turning 23.  As the lone Peace Corps Trainee from Virginia, I was the only one who hadn’t flown in.  My parents drove me to my sister’s apartment and she dropped me off at the hotel.  I wanted to get the hell out of Virginia and my parents’ house.  I was ready for an adventure.

I was excited to have been accepted to the Peace Corps.  I joined at the right time.  I’m not sure if they would have taken me at a time other than the mid 1990s, when the Soviet Union and all the satellite countries that had been communist during the Cold War were becoming “free”.  A lot of spaces were open for those who wanted to be Volunteers.  I didn’t have a particularly impressive academic or volunteer record, but I did have a sister who had served in Morocco in the mid 1980s.  I qualified medically and legally, even though I got a nastygram from the medical office about being overweight.  I also managed to find six people who were willing to recommend me.

I joined the Peace Corps hoping to launch and wanting to do something worthwhile… something more than selling chocolate and menswear and temping in offices, which is what I’d been doing prior to joining.  I had a degree in English with double minors in speech and communications.  I went to a fine public school in Virginia, but not one that most people had ever heard of.  It was the kind of place where people tend to go to “grow up”.  I was the only one in my group who originally hailed from a southern state and one of the few who hadn’t attended a prestigious private university.  I was also one of the few who didn’t have politically liberal leanings, though I have become a lot more liberal since 1995.

Though I felt grown up when I decided to go to Armenia for two years, some might say I still needed to mature when I arrived in Yerevan at 3:30am on June 2, 1995.  We had spent twelve hours in Paris and because I wasn’t a seasoned traveler at that point, I just hung around terminal 1 all day.  Some of my new friends chose to venture into the city.  Hanging out at CDG for twelve hours while jet lagged was a pretty dreadful experience.  To this day, I can’t hear “Driver’s Seat” by Sniff In The Tears and not think of being stuck at CDG on my way to Yerevan.

I remember the flight to Armenia being rather scary.  We were on what looked like a Soviet era plane with a lot of flight attendants wearing what looked like Soviet era uniforms that were too big for them.  People stood in the aisles during the whole flight and smoked.  There was no assigned seating and they passed out warm cups of water and warm beer.  The plane shook for much of the flight and I seriously worried about crashing more than once as we flew over the Black Sea.

We landed in Yerevan at about 3:30am and there was little power in the airport.  In Armenia in 1995, the infrastructure was pretty poor.  The only places that had power 24 hours a day were hospitals and metro stations.  I’m sure the landing strip at Yerevan’s airport had power, but I remember walking through darkened hallways when we got off the plane, right there on the tarmac.  Thank God I didn’t need to use the ladies room.  You could smell it before you saw it.  Members of A-2, the second Peace Corps group in Armenia, were waiting for us, cheering us on, and passing snacks to us.  Remember, it was before 9/11.  It took several hours for everyone to get their luggage and get cleared by customs.

I remember my first glimpse of Armenia beyond the airport.  I was struck by the huge, concrete, ugly buildings. I saw lots of laundry strung up on balconies, lots of dust, trash, and Soviet era tackiness.  I wondered what the hell I had signed up for.  It wouldn’t take long before I was very accustomed to all of those previously foreign sights.  Even today, when I go to a former Eastern bloc country, I feel at home.

We arrived at Hotel Armenia at about 9:00am, which at that time was not affiliated with any first world hotels and was divided by the “old side” and the “new side.  Hotel Armenia is now owned by Marriott.  Naturally, we were all exhausted and just wanted to go to bed.  Once we got to the hotel, we had to endure a briefing and a strange meal.  If I recall correctly, our first meal included salty mineral water from Jermuk, hot tea, terrible tasting Pepsi that reminded me of brown Alka Seltzer and only reinforced all the Soviet era stereotypes I’d heard of in the movies, salty fish, fruits, vegetables, and stinky cheese.  I remember lots of grandiose chandeliers only outfitted with a couple of light bulbs that shone dimly.  I also remember immediately learning the words for cucumbers, tomatoes, apples, apricots, and eggplant.  They were all in season when we arrived, so we were fed a lot of them.

We stayed on the “old side” of Hotel Armenia, because it was cheaper than the new side.  I remember hot showers were only available for about two hours a day– one hour in the morning and one in the evening.  I remember the floors in the bathroom at the hotel were covered with brightly colored linoleum.  There were very fancy looking crystal light fixtures in the room, but not all of the lights worked.  The beds were twin sized and not particularly comfortable.  When we left the hotel, we had to leave our keys with the dour looking women who sat in the hallway, as if on guard.  The keys were all attached to heavy “keyrings”, which made it difficult to walk away with them.

I saw so much change over the time I was in Armenia.  I wonder how it must seem to people today.  I know there are many things that haven’t changed since the 1990s, but I know for a fact that Yerevan is different.  I lived in Yerevan during my tour.  At that time, it wasn’t all that cushy.  The first year, most people endured life with no power a lot of the time.  I remember reading a lot of books by kerosene lamp.  I had running water everywhere I lived, but a lot of my friends didn’t.  To get hot water, I had to put a bucket of water on a kerosene heater or my propane stove.

I never got as good at speaking or reading Armenian as some of my colleagues did.  I didn’t work very hard at it.  But I ended up enjoying a very unique experience full of music, food, and fun.  I got to use a lot of the talents I was born with, and people were actually glad I was using them.  I was not just plugging away at some job that paid enough to live on, but didn’t really excite or interest me.  Peace Corps was the one place where my talents– all of them– were truly welcomed.  When I later became an Army wife, it was a surprise to me that my husband, who had been an Army officer, recited the very same oath as I did on the day I swore in.  I recently told some of the folks in our local Facebook military group about swearing in.  Some of them were surprised that as a PCV, I swore to uphold and defend the Constitution, just like they did.

I interacted with a lot of people and many locals knew who I was, even though it was a large city.  There were very few Americans in Armenia in the mid 90s.  A lot of people knew me because I sing and being a very white, blonde, American woman who sings in a place like 90s era Yerevan can get you noticed.  I used to go to the jazz clubs in Yerevan and sometimes I’d sing with the band.  During training, a few of my friends and I would sit at the bottom of the Cascade Steps, drink beer, and play music.  We put on quite a show for the locals.  I’m sure it’s totally different now, though I haven’t had the chance to go back, despite all my travel since then.  I see now the Cascade Steps have been spruced up and there are now bars there.

When I left Armenia in 1997, I flew business class on a new airbus being leased by Armenian Airlines (which no longer exists).  I had a whole row to myself and it was a very pleasant experience.  It’s hard to fathom how different my flight into Armenia was from my flight out in 1997.  One of my sister’s colleagues went to work with the USDA in Yerevan not long after I left.  They all knew and remembered me.  I was one of a very small group of Americans in a place where Americans had previously been forbidden for decades.

A view of Mount Ararat from my school in Yerevan.  It was a clear day.

Armenia really changed my life… not in the way I hoped or expected it would, but in other ways.  My Army officer husband was impressed by my service and the fact that I am also an Air Force “brat”.  It was one of the things that made me attractive to him.  In fact, there were some things about Peace Corps service that were similar to military service.  For one thing, I too had a pair of hideous government issued “birth control glasses”.  I also had to endure a very thorough physical, though maybe not like the ones Bill experienced.

Thanks to the circumstances of his career, I have continued to travel abroad, though not to places like Armenia.  I have been visiting many decidedly first world countries since my Peace Corps days, unless you want to count a couple of brief trips to the Caribbean.  But those trips were on all inclusive cruises with SeaDream Yacht Club.  I have to admit, I almost felt embarrassed to be taking such an expensive cruise when I visited some of those islands in the Caribbean.  There is a lot of poverty there.

My husband, on the other hand, has gone to many austere countries due to his work.  When he went to the Republic of Georgia in 2008, right after the South Ossetian conflict with Russia, I warned him that he would get sick on arrival.  I told him to bring back some wine.  He did get very sick and he did bring back wine, which we both enjoyed.  Since that trip, he’s worked with at least one person who knew me when I was a Volunteer and was once, in fact, my colleague.

I remember this so well…

I won’t lie.  I left Armenia on August 21, 1997 and I could not wait to get out of there.  I had had it with living the Peace Corps lifestyle and dealing with the problems I encountered when I lived there.  I was ready to go to Europe for a month, travel by train, go home, get a job, and live the typical American lifestyle.  At age 25, I thought it would be easy, especially since I had all this great “international” experience.  It didn’t turn out that way, since I have never had a job that has paid me by the year or offered generous benefits.  I was preparing for that career when I met Bill, having gotten into grad school in part because of my Peace Corps service.  I doubt I would have gotten in on the strength of my rather average college grades and GRE scores.

My life has not worked out the way I planned it to– I thought I’d have a career and a family of my own.  I never thought I’d live abroad again, let alone twice again.  I never thought I’d be someone’s second wife… the wife of an Army officer whose constant moves made it difficult for me to practice the profession for which I was trained.  My husband’s career has made it possible for me to do what I always wanted to do, which is write.  And sing… and travel…  Fortunately, he doesn’t mind my dependence on him since I keep him entertained.  I don’t have kids of my own, but I do have dogs.  They annoy my German neighbors with their rambunctiousness and worry me when they fight.

The phone number at the end of this PSA is the very same one I used to call over and over during the lengthy application process…

I was not one of those people who ever planned to join the Peace Corps.  I mainly joined because I needed to escape.  My sister had done it and flourished.  I thought it might be a good thing for me to do, too.  But I wasn’t one of those people who planned for twenty years to be a Volunteer.  My decision to join was sudden and impetuous.  I filled out my application the night my aunt died of brain cancer and sent my application as I was on my way from Virginia to Georgia for her funeral.  My acceptance was surprisingly seamless.  As if I were in a dream, I successfully completed my Peace Corps assignment.  I never expected to be accepted, let alone finish the two years.  But I did it and it did change my life.  I know I got a lot more out of the Peace Corps than I put into it.

The Peace Corps wasn’t necessarily the “toughest job I’ve ever loved”.  I did enjoy a lot of it.  I made a few friends who I think will be friends until I finally die.  I learned a lot and there isn’t a day that passes that I don’t remember those 27 months I spent in Armenia as part of the third group to serve in the Peace Corps in that country.  It’s hard for me to fathom that it’s 2015 and they are now on group A-23.  I was a member of A-3, most of whom are pictured above at our “close of service” conference held in April 1997 in T’sakhadzor.

I have had the good fortune to run into people I used to know twenty or more years ago.  I’m happy to say that we mostly still get along, though I know there are some people from that time who would just as soon forget I exist.  I don’t expect many people who shared 90s era Armenia with me will ever read this, but if they ever do, I want to offer a virtual handshake and a hearty congratulations.  We did it.  It wasn’t easy.  And it was well worth doing.  Shnorhavor!

A more recent Armenia volunteer’s video about her time in Hayastan…  Makes me feel very old…  On the other hand, those apartment buildings are so familiar.

Blast from the past…

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My body language says it all…

 

Yesterday was Throwback Thursday on Facebook.  One of my friends wanted to see a photo of me when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer.  A lot of my photos from that time period are in storage in Texas.  However, I do have some pictures from a trip I took in June and July 1996.  My friend Elaine and I went by bus from Yerevan, Armenia to Turkey and Bulgaria.  Our first stop on our trip was in Istanbul.  Even though Armenia borders Turkey, we couldn’t go there directly because Armenia and Turkey had no diplomatic relations.  We had to access Turkey via Georgia, which was in itself its own adventure.

Northeastern Turkey is one of the most beautiful areas I have ever seen in my lifetime.  It seriously looks like a fairyland.  The above photo was taken not long after an arduous ordeal at the Georgia/Turkey border, just a couple of days after my 24th birthday.  We were stuck at the border for most of the day and had spent a lot of time drinking vodka and waiting for the customs people and border guards to let us through.  We’d been sitting in a big field near the border that was filled with wildflowers… and little piles of human excrement.  Unfortunately, there were no bathrooms at the border, so many people had just copped a squat behind bushes.

Maybe an hour or two after the border crossing, we stopped for watermelon and more vodka.  At this point in the trip, we had been traveling for maybe 24 hours.  I was tired because I can’t sleep on buses… or at least I couldn’t in those days.  It took another two days to get to Istanbul.

Our bus from Yerevan to Istanbul.  About half of the seats were taken out to accommodate goods.  This bus went from Yerevan to Istanbul every week and was mostly used by people buying stuff in Turkey to sell in Armenia.  It was mostly empty on the way to Turkey, but was probably loaded to the gills on the way back.

The man in the first photo was an obnoxious Armenian guy who would not leave me alone.  He kept grabbing me and talking to me.  At one point, he commented on how fat I am.  When this picture was taken, he was trying to bond with me.  Just imagine… we’d been on a hot bus for more than a day.  He hadn’t bathed, brushed his teeth, or used deodorant in some time (if ever).  He was sweaty and reeking of cigarettes and vodka.  In the photo, I’m cringing, yet still somehow able to smile.

Another shot of our watermelon break.  Notice how the guys are squatting.  I always called that the “Armenian squat”.  You’d see men squatting like that all over the place.  I’m sure people around the world squat like that, but I never noticed it as much as when I lived in Armenia.  These folks were pretty nice to Elaine and me.  We were the only Americans on the bus, so we were invited to the party.

Back when I was there, Armenians loved having their picture taken.  When the guy in the photo saw me pull out my 35 millimeter camera with actual film in it, he insisted on striking a pose with me.  I don’t remember the guy’s name or even if he told me what it was, but he was just one in a string of males on that journey who offered unwanted attention to Elaine and me.  The funny thing is, we were both looking a bit scruffy during that trip.

Those were the days when I earned $5 a day as a Peace Corps Volunteer, so there was no money for anything other than the necessary and the practical.  Moreover, Elaine actually loaned me $500 so I could go with her to Turkey and Bulgaria.  After a year spent in 90s era Armenia, Turkey was like a modern wonderland.  Aside from the sexual harassment, we had a fabulous time.

You might notice the raw spots on my legs.  I think the wound on my left leg was caused by a shaving mishap.  I was trying to shave in the dark (had no electricity in my apartment) and I accidentally skinned my shin.  Both of my legs were also horribly chafed because a couple of days before we took off for Turkey, we attended a fundraiser for hungry horses at the Yerevan Hippodrome.  The organizers let us ride some of the horses.  I made the mistake of wearing shorts (which I NEVER did when I rode horses all the time).  While in the saddle, I rubbed some of the flesh off my legs.  Despite the injuries, that remains a great memory for me, because it was the first time I’d been on a horse since 1990 and I found I could still ride with relative ease.

I have wonderful memories of cantering effortlessly around the ring on a stallion, the very first one I ever got to ride in my lifetime.  That experience was well worth getting chafed legs.  I remember the guy asking me twice if I knew how to ride.  I have never been obviously athletic.  I promised him that I did know how to ride a horse, so he let me go.  People were surprised by my skills; most of them didn’t know I practically grew up in a barn.  Sadly, since that day, I have not been riding.  I have also not done any other three day bus trips on no frills transportation.  I can’t say that is my favorite way to travel, but it was definitely memorable and special.  I’m glad I had the opportunity.  I’d love to go back to Turkey now that I’m married.  😉

A review of Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing

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Last night, I finished a delightful book written by esteemed food and travel writer Anya Von Bremzen. I had never heard of Von Bremzen before I picked up her book, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, even though she is a well-known food writer who has published books and written articles for many well known food magazines.  And as I read her memoir, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, I didn’t know who she was.  It wasn’t until I reached the end of her book that I realized that the story I’d just finished about her “weird” past had led to her becoming a James Beard award willing food writer.

I didn’t read Von Bremzen’s book for food, though, even though the title mentions Soviet cooking.  I read it because I remember the Soviet Union and even lived in Armenia for a couple of years after the Soviet Union fell in 1991.  I moved to Armenia in 1995, just a few years after the mighty Soviet Union collapsed into oblivion.  When I was growing up, the Soviet Union was this big threat.  The people were mysterious, living behind the “Iron Curtain”.  We had no Internet in those days, so my curiosity was piqued.  Once I lived in Armenia and saw remnants of Soviet life up close, I was even more curious.

A couple of months ago, I stumbled across Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking and thought it sounded fascinating.  I had been wanting to read the perspective of someone who had lived grown up in the Soviet Union.  Anya Von Bremzen was born there in 1963, in an era of bread shortages.  She grew up in a communal apartment building where eighteen families shared one kitchen.  Her mother, Larisa, was not a fan of communism and discouraged her daughter from learning the songs about Lenin that were taught in school.  Anya had attended a special kindergarten for privileged kids, where they were fed caviar like some kids are given cod liver oil.  Her mother told her not to talk about the “special food” she got at the school.

In 1974, Anya and her mother left the Soviet Union under the guise of “reconnecting” with Israel.  Since they were Jewish, it was allowed.  Anya also had a childhood form of scleroderma, a disease that is deadly in adults.  That was given as a reason for their departure, though it turned out Anya’s scleroderma was “harmless”.  Via Rome, Anya and her mother moved to Queens, New York, where Anya polished her piano skills and eventually earned a master of arts in piano performance from Julliard.  Anya’s father, Sergei, stayed behind in Russia and eventually sent Larisa a letter asking for divorce.  He turned out to be an interesting character– Anya writes about how he eventually lost all of his teeth, but rather than missing them, he found life without his teeth “liberating”.

Interspersed within Anya’s life story and tales about the food she missed from the Soviet Union.  She includes fascinating tidbits about the Soviet machine when it was still powerful and innovative.  One of my favorite tales in this book was the one Von Bremzen wrote about Anastas Mikoyan, an Armenian Soviet statesman, who was one of Josef Stalin’s top performers.  Miokoyan eventually became the People’s Commissar for Food.  In 1935, he and his wife were sent on a goodwill trip to America to travel around tasting American food, visiting factories and production plants, farms, and slaughterhouses.  Mikoyan tried popcorn, Coca-Cola, hamburgers, ice cream, and hot dogs and he brought new ideas back to the Soviet Union.  In fact, Mikoyan’s cutlets, basically his version of the hamburger, were still enjoyed when I lived in Armenia.  Ice cream was Mikoyan’s biggest love and he was responsible for popularizing it in the Soviet Union.

Anya Von Bremzen writes about her first reactions to American food.  She writes of how grossed out she was by cold Pop Tarts, her mother not having learned that many people prefer them toasted, and super soft, spongy white bread.  I imagine her reaction to American food was much like my initial reaction to Armenian and Russian food.  I had trouble with borscht, dolma, and eggplant, all of which my host family served me during my first weeks in country.  My very first taste of lamb (which was actually probably mutton) was in Armenia.  I didn’t react well to it.

I also enjoyed reading about Anya’s family.  She writes extensively of three generations and the history of how she came to be.  She includes stories of food and drink and how they impacted her family relationships.  I was particularly interested in how the foods she missed from her homeland delighted her when she went back to the Soviet Union years later to visit her family.  Despite her extensive training in music at one of the world’s most prestigious schools, Anya turned her fascination with food into a dream career.  At the end of the book, she even includes some beloved Soviet recipes.  

Though I can’t say that everything Anya writes about was appetizing to me, as someone who has lived abroad and missed home, I could definitely relate to how much she missed Soviet food.  I felt the same way when I lived in Armenia and missed American food.  Much to my shame, I even remember spending $7 on a bag of Chip’s Deluxe cookies weeks after my arrival.  I would definitely not do that today, but I’m much worldlier now than I was in 1995.

I learned a lot reading this book.  It’s not just about food and family; it’s also about history, politics, and geography.  Since I have been to three of the former fifteen Soviet republics, I could relate to Anya’s book on a personal level.  For me especially, this book was pretty fascinating… especially as Anya describes how she felt on the day the Soviet Union fell apart.  She was in Abkhazia, an autonomous area in Georgia, when Mikhail Gorbachev came on television to tell his countrymen that the Soviet Union no longer existed.  How weird that must have been.

If you are interested in reading about the Soviet Union and what it’s like to be from a place that no longer exists the way you once knew it, I would highly recommend Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking.  I found it a true delight and even learned a few new Russian words.

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