Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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Today, I received a package I had been eagerly awaiting. It came from County Clare, Ireland, and was decorated with stamps and stickers. The lady, name of Anne, who had sent me my order from Luka Bloom, had drawn little musical notes next to my name, which she had written in cursive that looked a lot like my own… especially after I’ve had a couple of beers.

The mailman asked me in German if we didn’t have a post office box. He was a young lad and I hadn’t seen him before. He’d also caught me off guard when he spoke German to me and I was standing there in a nightie with no bra on. I responded in English and he understood, just at about the time that I mentally translated what he’d said. No matter, since I wouldn’t have been able to speak German back to him. Isn’t it cool that my Irish music got to me on St. Patrick’s Day? Especially since I wrote to Anne to ask her to send it to Germany, even though I have a U.S. billing address and there was no way to add a different delivery address in their order form. It was no problem to make the change– and if I hadn’t, God only knows when the APO would have sent it to me.

So who is Luka Bloom (born Kevin Barry Moore)? He’s a fantastic indie folk musician and the brother of Christy Moore, another great indie folk musician. I was introduced to Christy Moore by an honest to God Irishman with whom I used to work at a Presbyterian church camp in Virginia. Funny thing is, my Irish friend, who lived near Belfast and most definitely not a Brit, was a Catholic. He ended up marrying one of the other counselors, a lovely Black woman from Stafford, Virginia. They have been together now for over twenty-five years and have six or seven children… I’ve lost count!

My Irish friend sent me a mix tape when I lived in Armenia and it had some of Christy Moore’s music on it. I liked it so much that when I got back to the States, I sought it out and stocked up my music collection.

Anyway, Christy Moore recently plugged his brother’s latest album, Out of the Blue. I am more familiar with Christy Moore’s music, so I decided to pre-order the new album, as well as a couple of others that looked interesting. As I’ve gotten older, I often find myself drunken downloading music or buying CDs from street musicians others I don’t know well. I’m very seldom disappointed in the results, but then I have very eclectic musical tastes. Luka Bloom’s new album, by the way, can be downloaded. I decided to get a CD because he was signing them. I also bought a CD that I couldn’t download, and another came with a download I got from the site.

Other than listening to my new CDs, I have no other special plans for today. I might not even have any whiskey or beer, because I’ve kind of been enjoying letting my body go booze free. I’m hoping Bill will be home sometime between tomorrow night and Friday night. After that, I suspect my teetotaling will conclude. I haven’t been totally faithful to the wagon during this latest marathon TDY, but I have found that I’ve not really wanted to drink alcohol so much… which is a relief, given my colorful family history.

I’ve found that I like Luka Bloom as much as I do his brother. Right now, I’m typing this and listening to one of the albums I bought, remembering when Bill and I took our cruise from Scotland to Northern Ireland with a stop in Carlingford, which is in the Republic of Ireland.

Our guide was a local guy named Dermott who bore a passing resemblance to Joel Osteen and had a charming Irish lilt. He told us about how Carlingford has an annual Leprechaun hunt (April 17th) to raise money for the town. Then, he started talking about Northern Ireland vs. the Republic of Ireland.

It turned out Dermott was Irish, but was born and raised in Newry, on the northern side of the border. He spoke of how in the 80s, the border checks were brutal. Guards would literally take cars apart, looking for bombs and contraband. Then he said he hoped one day Ireland would be reunited– it became clear that Dermott had Nationalist leanings. That got a rather disgruntled reaction from the elderly Brits who were on the cruise. Bill and I had no real skin in the game, except for our own Irish heritage. Turns out that other than the Irish surname I got from Bill when we married, I am actually more Irish than he is.

Then, Bill proceeded to annoy the Brits, who just wanted to get away from Dermott (I got the sense they thought he was an ingrate). Dermott was talking about Irish folk tales. Bill happens to love Irish literature and actually studied it in college. And then it seemed that he knew more about it than the guide did… The guide had heard the stories from his father, while Bill had studied it at American University and written papers on it… I got the sense that the other cruisers were irritated with both of them by the time that excursion. Luckily, there was a lot of booze on the boat.

Bill and I have been to Ireland a couple of other times. We went in 2016 for our 14th anniversary. One of my funniest memories from that trip was running into a bunch of 12 year old boys on a crowded train to Kilkenny, where we were going to tour the Smithwick’s Brewery. The kids were hilariously witty. When they found out Bill had been to Iraq and we were from America, they asked all kids of cheeky questions. The poor beleaguered “den mom” who was with them kept giving the look. But I swear, we about died laughing when one of the kids said, “Nobody vacations in Ireland! It’s AWFUL!” Then, a few minutes later, he asked us if we considered Canada our “goody two shoes neighbor to the north.”

The third time we went was to Dublin, to attend a marathon concert featuring Paul Simon, James Taylor, and Bonnie Raitt. The six hour concert, in and of itself, was reason enough to love our visit. But we also stayed in a fabulous hotel– the Merrion– and we had high tea. It was a marvelous time. I really miss travel… especially carefree travel. Here’s hoping that COVID-19 will be arrested soon, so we can go back to Ireland and raise a pint with those lads who were on the way to Kilkenny, who are now closer to 18. Seems like whenever we go to Ireland, we make at least one new friend and many new wonderful memories. At the very least, I come home with new stories… perhaps more than I do in some of the other places we’ve been.

From Luka Bloom’s latest album, Out of the Blue. I’m listening to this as I type this.
And one by Luka Bloom’s brother, Christy Moore. Believe it or not, this was the first version of “Fairytale of New York” I ever heard. It’s a cover… but it’s a damn fine cover!

Well, that about does it for this wistful post. I sure am ready to fast forward to our next trip. But barring that, I’d just like to fast forward to seeing Bill again. I have really missed him.

Goodbye, Mad Scientist…

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As I have mentioned more than once in my main blog, 2020 has been a hell of a year for a lot of people. Between us, Bill and I have lost three loved ones in less than two months. I lost a cousin and a different cousin’s spouse. Bill lost his father. My cousin and Bill’s dad both died in November. Last night, we found out that we also lost a good friend in a guy we have been calling the “Mad Scientist” since 2008.

I found out about the Mad Scientist’s death by chance last night, as I was looking up his Greek restaurant, Agais, in Entringen, Baden-Württemberg, a place where Bill and I enjoyed many meals and lots of wine. It was where I tried retsina for the first time, and learned to enjoy t’zatziki, a yogurt and cucumber sauce much beloved by anyone who enjoys Greek food. It was also where I learned the Greek word “γιαμας” (pronounced “giamas”), which is roughly equivalent to the English expression, “cheers”.

I became a late convert to Greek cuisine, having tasted it for the first time in Vaihingen (a part of Stuttgart near Patch Barracks) at a little place called Taverna Faros. Taverna Faros had wonderful food, and we ate there a bunch of times during our first six weeks in Germany back in 2007. At the time, we were living in the Vaihinger Hof, a rather crappy but cheap hotel located in Vaihingen, which, over the years, has hosted many people moving to Stuttgart. I’m not sure the Vaihinger Hof is still open these days, since Air BnB has provided alternatives to living in hotels. But we were there for six weeks, and got very familiar with the restaurants in Vaihingen, since there were no kitchen facilities at the Vaihinger Hof.

Taverna Faros was where I tried dorade and gyros for the first time. Unfortunately, the proprietor was rather abruptly forced to shut down because he allegedly didn’t pay his taxes. The place where Taverna Faros once was is now known as The Auld Rogue. It’s a very popular Irish pub, and if you explore this blog, you’ll see that Bill and I visited there many times when we lived near Stuttgart from 2014-2018. Every time I went in there, I remembered that it was once a Greek place, and later became a disco, which we never visited.

Anyway, in the fall of 2007, after six weeks in the rather dirty but lovingly staffed hotel, we finally found a house in a little town called Pfäffingen. It was just a few miles west of the great city, Tübingen. Agais is located in a little village called Entringen, which we frequently drove through on our way to the military installations in the Stuttgart area. It was about 2 kilometers north of Pfäffingen.

Since I had recently discovered a love for Greek food, I told Bill I wanted to try Agais. We kept passing it every time we had to go to Patch or Panzer Barracks, and I was very curious about the food. So one night, we stopped in for dinner. It was probably in 2008, since we moved to our house in November 2007 and it took us awhile to get acquainted with the area. I remember when we walked in, there was no one there. But then a smiling Greek guy with wild, curly dark hair appeared.

Our old friend.

At first, he thought I was Greek. If you were to see me in person, you might be as baffled as I was by that. I’m short, blonde, and very buxom, with blue eyes. Personally, I think I look very Celtic, which stands to reason, since my people were mostly from the British Isles. But the Mad Scientist initially spoke Greek to me. When I reacted with a baffled expression, he realized we are Americans and switched to English. He welcomed us heartily, and we sat down at what would become our usual booth (the only one in his restaurant, actually). He turned on Greek music– from Zorba the Greek. The walls, painted white and bright blue, were covered with personal mementos.

I remember after enjoying our first nice meal at Agais, I told the proprietor that I thought we’d be regulars. He said, “I think you should.” When we got home that night, Bill said the guy reminded him of a “Mad Scientist”. So that’s what we’ve called him ever since. His wife, Renate, is German and cooks the food.

Of course, the Mad Scientist had a name. I think he went by the name John in Germany, but I found out last night his real name was Ioannis. He was born December 27, 1938 and died on November 9, 2020, just one day after we lost Bill’s dad. I don’t know what ended John’s life, but in recent years, I did notice that he was not as vibrant as he once was. I don’t know for certain, but I suspected that he might have had a stroke during the five years we were out of Germany. I say this because when we first met him in 2008, he spoke perfect English. When we saw him again for the first time, back in 2014, he struggled to speak English and, in fact, may have even had some trouble with German, which he’d also previously spoken perfectly.

During our first two years in Germany, we stopped by Agais many times. We also brought visitors there. Those first couple of years, John was quite healthy. He told us that he used to work in Canada as an engineer. He moved there with his first wife, whom I think was Greek. Their marriage broke up, so he married a German woman, who brought him to Germany to live. That marriage broke up, and he married another German woman, the one we know as Renate. They had a son who, during our first tour, was attending the university in Tübingen. Sometimes, we’d see him in the restaurant, helping out. He looked a lot like his dad, complete with the wild, curly black hair.

Although I’ve had Greek food I’ve liked better, Bill and I loved to visit Agais because we could always count on an entertaining evening. John loved to chat about all subjects, and we’d talk about everything from American politics to Greek/Turkish relations. He learned how we liked our food, and we could always count on getting pistachio nuts and candy at the end of the meal, as well as ouzo. John was also famous for giving out eucalyptus drops, which will clear out your sinuses and are great to have around whenever you’re sick with a cold or the flu. I carried them around in my purse for years after we moved the first time.

In 2009, we had to leave Germany a year earlier than we expected. We never got the chance to say goodbye to John and his wife. I always regretted that, since they’d shown us such a good time when we were in Germany the first time. The five years we were back in the States, I thought about them a lot.

Just before we moved, they had opened up a “vacation apartment”. It still operates today. I remember on one of the last visits we had before we moved “home”, we happened to dine there at the same time John and his wife were hosting several obnoxious German couples. I wrote about that incident when it happened and the story can be found on this blog. The short version is, these couples were staying in Entringen and had been dining at Agais all week. They had sort of taken over John’s restaurant, dictating which music he should play, and running him ragged. I noticed they were casting derisive looks at Bill and me.

I understood much less German then than I do now, but I could tell at least one of them was making fun of us. And we also heard them disparaging the Swiss. When they finally left, John asked us if we understood what they were saying. Bill said we hadn’t. Chuckling wickedly, John said, “Those people have been here all week for marriage counseling. They’re here in a last ditch effort not to get divorced!” Apparently, there is or was a marriage counselor in Entringen of some renown, and the annoying jerks at the table near us were there to receive services.

When Barack Obama got elected, I remember John was excited. He said he was glad to see a black man in the White House. Then he added, “But I think he might get shot.” We were shocked at the time, but given the fact that John was an older man who had lived through the Kennedy administration and watched America from afar, I could kind of see where he might have gotten that impression. Fortunately, Mr. Obama survived his time as our president.

In September 2014, Bill and I finally visited our old friend again. We walked into his restaurant, and it was unusually busy. His wife saw us and recognized us immediately, giving us a huge grin and a welcome. It took John a couple of minutes, but then his eyes widened and he smiled and said, “You are back in Germany!” It was at about that time that we realized that he was not the same man he was in 2009. But we made a point of visiting him occasionally when we were living in Jettingen, which was probably a 15-20 minute drive from where he was.

I wish we’d had a chance to see him once more before we left the Stuttgart area about two years ago. I would have liked to have been able to say goodbye. Unfortunately, we never got around to it. The last time we saw him was in September 2018. I noticed that over the years, the portion sizes were smaller and the prices were a bit higher. And he’d stopped handing out pistachios. I don’t think it was necessarily because he was trying to be stingy. I think business had gotten rough for him, especially after he got sick (and he did confirm that he was sick for awhile). But his English did improve, even if it wasn’t as fluent as it once was. And we still loved to visit his restaurant, remember old times, and make new memories.

It looks like his wife is carrying on with the restaurant and apartment, although Germany is now back in lockdown mode until at least next month. On their Web site, it says they’re doing some renovation work. I hope she can keep the place going during these tough times.

Agais is the one place that bridged our two stints near Stuttgart. It’s the one constant of both time periods, a place where we were always warmly welcomed. A lot of the restaurants we used to love to visit during our first stint went defunct long ago, but not Agais. And we could always count on John and Renate to show us a nice time. I will always remember the “Mad Scientist” fondly. He was a very good man.

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.