churches, customs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are today’s photos…

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

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Armenia, book reviews, Georgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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anecdotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill enjoyed Choucroute Garnie at Caveau Heuhaus in Eguisheim.

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

On the first night of our most recent trip to Ribeauville, Bill and I decided to have dinner at a restaurant we had not yet tried.  Our experience at this establishment was disappointing from the get go and continued to get worse.  I had decided on an entrec√īte (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 entrec√īte.  If you had, I would have asked you what sauce you wanted and the temperature.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Uncategorized

We got our first Ararat Box…

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

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

An ad for the Ararat Box.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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25 years ago…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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Poland

Big business in Poland, part three

We landed in Wroclaw a little bit late on Sunday afternoon. Our flight was delayed by about a half hour. I was feeling grouchy because, once again, we didn’t eat before we traveled and I wasn’t wanting the cheese sandwich being passed out on the plane. Fortunately, getting out of the local airport was a breeze. Wroclaw has a small but very modern airport, and it was super quick getting out of there. The cab driver spoke English and whisked us to the Sofitel Wroclaw, which was one of the hotels authorized for this trip.

As we drove into town, Bill and I marveled at how much more upscale things are looking in Poland. We knew they were coming up in the world during our last visit in 2008, but we were especially impressed by how clean and modern things are looking in 2019. It’s hard to believe that when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1995-97, Poland was a Peace Corps country. I could have easily spent two years in Poland teaching English which, by the way, just about everyone seems to speak almost fluently! We did not have that experience in Poland even in Wroclaw back in 2008. In fact, Bill and I still laugh about how, while visiting Jelena Gora in 2008, we stopped at a McDonald’s and no one there spoke any English. We had to use a picture menu to get what we wanted. This time, I have yet to encounter anyone in this town who doesn’t speak English as well as I do. Here’s a link to a story by an older Peace Corps Volunteer who served as an English teacher at the end of the Peace Corps’ time in Poland. I must admit, I could relate to his experiences, even though I was in Armenia and quite a bit younger.

Another thing I noticed, besides the excellent English skills, is that this town is full of Americans. I’m not sure if all of them are here at the same conference Bill is, but I have heard plenty of folks speaking English with an American accent. In fact, a lot of them were on the same flight we were on Sunday afternoon.

A Polish soldier was sitting at a table checking people in to the conference, so Bill approached her after he checked us into the hotel. Our room this week isn’t nearly as luxurious as the Jumeirah Hotel was, but it’s also not nearly as expensive.

After we dropped off our bags, we headed across the street for food. Wroclaw has several Georgian restaurants, including one called U Gruzina, which is supposedly fast food. I adore Georgian food, so Bill and I went in there for some substantial eats. The place was packed, so we sat at a low level table in the corner, ordered a bottle of Saperavi, and some Georgian specialties. I had Chinkali, which are basically sack shaped dumplings filled with spiced meat or cheese. They’re also very popular in Armenia, as is Khatchapouri, which is what Bill had. They had several varieties at U Gruzina. He chose one stuffed with cheese, potatoes, and bacon. I am a little shy when it comes to cheeses from Transcaucasia, since a lot of them are strong. The cheese at U Gruzina was mild… almost a bit like mozzarella.

Dinner was surprisingly economical I think we spent 125 Zloty before the tip, which is about $32. Tips are appreciated here. Most folks give at least ten percent for good service.

We walked around the big square after dinner, where preparations for the Christmas markets have been going on all week. They’re just about finished setting up as of today. Too bad we’re going to miss it. I did get some pictures on Sunday night, as well as a street performer who was eating and breathing fire most impressively. When I am back at my big computer at home, I’ll make a video and share part of his performance here.

After we walked around a bit, we stopped by a bar called Literatka. They seem to specialize in coffee, cocktails, and vaping. Fortunately, the vaping and smoking went on behind a glass wall. We had a few cocktails and listened to 80s era music. For some reason, they seemed to enjoy using passion fruit in their drinks. They were okay, but I was more impressed by the heavily pierced and tatted out waitresses, as well as the rather disappointing toilet. Ah well, it was a nice welcome to Wroclaw. The bartender spoke English and was very cute and elfin looking. She probably makes good tips.

More in the next post!

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Another American in Jettingen!

Last night, Bill and I decided to go to Taverne bei Dimi’s for our Friday night Greek fix.  It turned out to be an interesting evening, mainly because there were more English speakers than Germans there.  In fact, we noticed one German couple sitting between our table and a large table of Germans and at least one Brit.  Everyone was speaking English.

The waitress was one I hadn’t seen before.  She seemed to be German and was very pleasant.  Dimi was happy to see us, too, and offered a wave as he served lots of food.

Bill and I decided to have something different and ordered a sampler platter for two…

We got two of these beautiful farmer’s salads.  I was enjoying filling up on the vegetables until I got an unusually hot pepper!  I could have used some yogurt!

This was our platter.  It came with Dimi’s yummy fries, bifteki, souvlaki, gyros, and pork steaks, as well as plenty of t’zatziki.  We managed less than half and brought the rest home.  This was a pretty good deal, too.  For two people, it was 27 euros.  

 

While we were eating, an older black gentleman and his son and daughter arrived.  I knew he was an American immediately because he wore a wedding ring on his left hand.  He sat down with the group of Germans and their British friend, but I noticed he kept looking over at us.  He eventually came over and introduced himself.  It turns out he and his family live in Oberjettingen.  His wife is German and he is a government civilian who wished to become a contractor because he’s about to be rotated out of Germany.

So he and Bill talked and it turned out he was trying to score an interview with Bill’s company.  Bill, being a “pay it forward” kind of guy, promised to talk to his boss.  I’m kind of a big believer in fateful encounters.  As I mentioned last week, I have a knack for running into people I used to know.  I also have a knack for doing things that end up benefitting others.

When I was in the Peace Corps, I helped out a beautiful young Armenian woman who was hoping to go to college in the United States.  I didn’t know her, but had noticed she had posted an ad in the Peace Corps office looking for people who had attended certain private east coast colleges.  She needed to be interviewed by alums in order to be accepted.  I happened to know a couple of people who had gone to the colleges she was interested in attending, so I took her number and passed it on to my friends.  They both talked to her and were very impressed.  She ended up getting a full scholarship to Bowdoin College.  She also got accepted to Hamilton College, which was the other school she wanted to attend.

I know about this because I ended up meeting her one night while visiting another friend.  She was dating an American teenager who was the son of a professor who worked for the US Department of Agriculture.  When she found out what I’d done, she thanked me profusely.  The Peace Corps does attract a lot of graduates of small, private, liberal arts colleges, but the odds there would be two local alums available in Yerevan was pretty slim.  Fortunately, someone noticed her ad and knew two people who could help her.

I am certainly not responsible for her success.   She was a very bright and engaging young woman who impressed my friends, who were alums.  All I did was help set the conditions for her success.  I’m thinking that maybe Bill can do the same thing for the man we met last night.  I think it’s a good way to foster positive karma.  I don’t know how my Armenian acquaintance’s story ended.  I’d like to think she enjoyed four years at a very exclusive school.  But I didn’t even know her well enough to be able to Facebook stalk her.  I only remember her first name.

Anyway, this guy we met last night has very good reasons for wanting to stay in Germany.  His son is in high school and plays football.  If they have to move, it’ll be to Fort Polk, Louisiana.  Granted, I haven’t been to Fort Polk, but I have heard it’s not exactly the greatest place to be.  And if you are a civilian, there’s no telling how long the government will keep you in an assignment stateside.

So, I’m hoping things work out for our new friend.  In any case, it’s nice to know we aren’t totally alone out here on the edge of the Black Forest.

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anecdotes

Peace Corps cookbooks… I wrote one for Armenia!

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.

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anecdotes

Twenty years ago today…

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.

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friends, Germany, restaurant reviews

Back to the Neuer Ochsen…

Bill and I dined at the Neuer Ochsen again this weekend because an old Peace Corps friend of mine, Erik, is in town and wanted to get together.  Neuer Ochsen is in Vaihingen, where there are plenty of restaurants and I knew several would be open today.

As it turned out, Erik was running late and he didn’t have a cell phone.  We also weren’t so clear on where we were going to meet, so we both ended up waiting in the wrong areas for each other.  But then I got the bright idea to check the restaurant and there he was.

We had a very good lunch… indeed, I had the same thing I had last weekend and so did Bill and Erik.  We talked and laughed for about two hours.  I hadn’t seen Erik in 17 years– he was starting his Peace Corps assignment in Armenia and I was finishing mine.  Now that he works for the government, he’s here on business.  The funny thing is, he and my husband will be hanging out this week thanks to their work.

I think it’s funny when my past intersects with Bill’s present.  It was a nice way to spend the afternoon.

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