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From Anne Arundel County to Armenia

My first days as a senior Peace Corps Volunteer

I have a view of Mount Ararat from my bedroom near Artashat in Armenia. The peak dominates the landscape, flat land that doesn’t see much rain. The mountain, the national icon of Armenia, is now in territory claimed by Turkey, but people here still consider it their own.
    Every day in Shady Side, I was awed by the beauty and size of the Bay. In this landlocked country, I look out upon another wonder of the world: Noah’s mountain, the peak where the Ark is said to have run to ground.
    I live within five miles of the Turkish border, closed because of century-old tension between Armenia and its neighbor. All around are lookout towers, small huts on stilts from where the Armenian army can stay watchful, night and day. Between 1915 and 1918, the Turks killed as many as 1.5 million Armenians living on the other side of the mountain. Borders were redrawn. Every day the mountain reminds Armenians of the relatives and land they lost.
    In this village, much the same size as Shady Side, there are no bars and restaurants. Certainly no dry cleaner or bank. The roads are compacted dirt with no sidewalks. Some men work on Soviet-era cars in front of their houses. Others try to keep the all-pervasive dirt off their Mercedes. As in America, people choose to spend their money in very different ways.
    Older women sit outside in the sun, hailing everyone who goes by and taking particular interest in the sudden influx of Americans. Twenty of us are here in an intensive 10-week language program to prepare us for two years’ service in this country the size of Maryland. Everyone knows we are here and are eager to talk. They ask questions about our families, and houses, and life in America. They marvel at American house prices. The average wage here is $300 a month. Every house keeps chickens — my host family has five — and a garden with apricot, cherry, walnut and apple trees. There is a cow in the garden two doors down.

•     •     •     •     •

I am involved in a program the Peace Corps has been running for a quarter century at the invitation of the Armenian government. For now, I take daily language lessons every day, followed by classes on the country’s economy, politics, social and cultural norms.
    Lunch is red bean salad or coleslaw (cabbage is big in these parts); lavash (paper-thin bread) rolled into a burrito and packed with egg, spinach and cheese. An old plastic bottle is filled with tap water. There are Pepsi and Cokes.
    After class, I stop to mime a chat with Malan in the small local shop. Her shop is next to the hairdressers where I might have a blow-out next weekend. I could easily do my hair at home though, where Elsa and Gevorg have a beautiful tiled bathroom with a hot, powerful shower. But going to the hairdresser is a good way of getting to know my neighbors.

Liz Barron and her Armenian host Elsa.

    I have my own bedroom, much bigger than the one I left in Avalon Shores. Someone — I don’t yet have the language skills to find out who — has painted the walls in the manner of a French chateau. It might be Alla, Elsa’s daughter, who has taken cake-decorating lessons. Now that I have seen what she can do with royal icing, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was the one who turned the first-floor bedroom into Marie Antoinette’s boudoir. It is possibly the most beautiful bedroom I have ever slept in.
    My house in Southern Anne Arundel County is often described as eclectic, because it is furnished with a million yard-sale finds. By pure serendipity, Peace Corps has placed me in the home of people who like color and pattern as much as I do. I don’t suppose my luck can hold.
    This month, I will move on to another family and another part of the country where it is likely that life will be much more basic. Other volunteers have told me about their lick-and-promise washes deploying a teakettle and wet wipes, and many houses in this village still have outhouses. For now, I count myself lucky to use a washing machine and Western toilet.
    Elsa is in her 50s, like me. She is a great cook who makes a delicious Armenian soup called sepass: yogurt, stock and barley served hot with cilantro. Eaten with bread, it is the ultimate comfort food. There is always a chopped salad of an imaginative and colorful variety, a bowl of plain yogurt to use as a relish and a platter of fresh dill, watercress, tarragon and cilantro. The children eat the herbs in handfuls.
    Dinner is served with homemade apricot juice and followed by coffee, strong and dark in tiny cups. Over dinner in the kitchen, the family quizzes me about my day’s learning and laughs when I pull faces and try to act out incidents I don’t yet have the words to describe.
    The smallest grandchild, Gayane, who is 3, knows the most English, for she listens to preschool rhymes on her mother’s iPhone. I don’t yet have a phone data plan and the house has no internet. The lack of digital access is the thing that we volunteers find most difficult. Most of our group are in their 20s and have boyfriends, girlfriends and family at home who expect to talk or message with them every day. It’s just not possible.
    Armenians also thrive on closeness. All are welcome, and grown children stay close. Elsa’s daughter Alla and her husband Ararat and their children Arsen and Gayane live just a few doors away. Alla’s sister Lala and her brand-new husband Edgar live in the nearest town. Lala is working in Moscow this week, but she calls home every night. Elsa works in the house all day and has her grandchildren after school. Gevorg, her husband, goes out to work but I have no idea what he does. I only know how to say volunteer and teacher and he is neither of those.

•     •     •     •     •

After dinner, we sit in the living room and watch Indian soap operas dubbed in Armenian, an ancient language dating from 450 BC. At the best of times, I can be overly dramatic. It is probably dangerous that I am picking up vocabulary and accompanying hand gestures from Bollywood actors. The coffee table in the living room is always piled with chocolate, wrapped candies, pomegranate, orange slices, dried fruit and cake. Neighbors, family and friends will be in and out all evening and must be (over)fed.
    Will I enjoy two years in Armenia? Ask me again when I will be sworn in as a fully fledged Peace Corps volunteer. I could be working in a big town or in a tiny mountain village where it is winter for six months of the year, and where the water and electricity supplies constantly fail. Just as I move in June, the apricots will be ripe in Elsa and Gevorg’s garden and it will be time to make jam.
    Ask me then.


One of the Peace Corps’ missions is to educate Americans on the culture of countries where volunteers serve. To know more about everyday life where Europe and Asia meet, follow Barron’s blog at marigoldmoment.com. We’ll be updating her assignment in Bay Weekly.