Ahlan Wa Sahlan!

January 11, 2010

Januray 11, 2010

Happy New Year and Greetings to all! I am writing from the second stop along my journey – Amman, Jordan! I arrived here four days ago, after a week of unbelievable amounts of feasting in Armenia to celebrate the New Year! Upon arrival in Amman I thought I would never want to eat again after the the holiday excess, but instead I am reveling in new-found falafel and hummus! Yum. My first few days in Amman have been lovely, especially because it is sunny and warm here, which is a welcome respite from ice-covered Yerevan. Since I just got here, let me give you a brief update on my last, and by far most exciting, month in Armenia!

My first few months in Yerevan were, for the most part, spent studying, practicing, studying, and practicing. My oud skills and Armenian skills were pitiful when I arrived, and the learning curve was high, but I threw myself whole-heartedly in the task, and both I and my teachers were very pleased with the result. By my last month I felt I was ready to try something new, test my language skills in a new environment, and challenge myself in new ways! So, in order to broaden and deepen my understanding of the music I was studying, I signed up for folk dance lessons and began singing lessons as well! Both of these endeavors were completely new to me, as I’ve never  formally  studied  either before, and I really had to start from the basics. Learning the new vocabulary was the first task, as such important words like “knee,” “shoulder,” and “chin,” which had somehow escaped my notice before. Where was a kindergarten-style body-part chart when I needed one? Luckily, I had patient teachers and made many wonderful new friends through the dance group, which made me sad to leave Armenia, but I am looking forward to finding a way back soon!

In late December my sister and parents came to visit for the holidays, and together we gave an impromtu concert of my great-grandfather’s music (fyi suniproject.org) at the Toumanian museum. Then the new years celebrations began. We naive Americans had no idea what to expect, being used to our one night New Years Eve parties being the extent of the festivities. In Yerevan, the celebrating begins on New Years Eve, continues through the night, through the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th (christmas eve,) 6th (christmas), and all the way to the 12th, which is called “Old New Year,” because before Soviet times the New Year was celebrated then, and apprently they never gave up the habit! The tradition during this time is to constantly have a big table set with all sorts of delicacies including pork poast, khaladyetz (congealed fatty meat broth), various salads, meats, cheeses, pickles, fruit, pastries, cakes, and of course, lots and lots of wine and vodka for the unending toasts! This table is always at the ready, because spontaneous guests can show up at anytime! For friends, neighbors, relatives, it’s a total free-for-all, all doors are kept unlocked, and you can drop in on anyone without so much as knocking. It’s magical! But the only problem is that everyone you visit insists on feeding you a full meal, so every day one can expect to have 5-6 dinners.

I will leave you with a description of one of the most unique meals that I encountered in my last month, known as Khash, and very well loved in Armenia. It is a broth made from cooking the feet of a cow for a very very very long time, until the meat comes off the bone. You serve each guest a bowl of the fatty broth, with bits of foot meat floating in it. Then each guest adds huge amounts of salt, garlic, and dried lavash (flat bread), to their bowl. It is customary to drink vodka with the meal, and since it is traditioanlly eaten as breakfast, as early as 7am, the first toast is “Bari Looys” (Good Morning). How appropriate it was that my breakfast on my last day in Armenia turned out to be Khash! That’s a serious sendoff!

Over and Out,



Curds and Whey

December 2, 2009

Mount Ararat from Khor Virap Monestary

Excerpt from Grandma's Birthday Fruit Composition

Rabbit on Bell

Battling the Steel Bull

Mount Alagyaz over Yerevan

Genocide Memorial

Khor Virap Monestary and Turkish Border Fence

Khachkars at Lake Sevan

High Class Brand!

December 2, 2009

Dear all,

Hello again! I apologize for my writing lapses! The last few weeks have been very busy, with guests coming in and out, excursions to Lake Sevan and Khor Virap monestary, lessons, and the most important of all, grandma’s 80th birthday, which involved about a week of preparation, cooking, etc, and then another week of nonstop guests and entertaining! I definitely learned what it means to “set a table” in Armenian.

After recovering from the Grandma’s birthday week and our various guests, I have begun two new projects! What with all of my oud study and attending various concerts of folk music, I decided that in order to more deeply understand the music I am studying, I must also understand the songs and dances that go along with the melodies! So, this week I have finally begun both singing and dance lessons. I have been playing instruments for nearly my whole life, so while learning the oud was new in many ways, the fundamental concepts were familiar. However, I have always counted myself among those unfortunate people who do not dance and do not sing. So these new lessons are definitely a new challenge to take on! Despite my apprehension, my first few trials were very successful and I have met a lot of other lovely young people through the dance group that I have joined!  I have one month left in Armenian, so I am hoping to learn as much on these two new fronts as possible!

I realized that this is the first time I will be away from home for the big American holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and of course, Halloween! I hadn’t thought of this until Halloween rolled around and I was the only person in the city who seemed to notice! I was at my oud teacher’s house on October 31, and after our lesson I was helping him translate an English email that he had received. There was a picture of a Jack-o’-lantern somewhere on the computer screen, and I saw it and said:
Me: “It’s Halloween today!”
My teacher: “What?”
Me: “Today, it’s Halloween!” I didn’t know the Armenian word for “pumpkin,” so I pointed at the Jack-o’-lantern on the screen.
My teacher: “Isn’t that a tomato?”
Me: “Yeah… It’s probably a tomato.”

Learning Armenian provides a lot of opportunities for amusing misunderstandings. For instance, a friend and I were talking about music and I was extremely surprised to hear her say, “I like listening to animal music.” I couldn’t figure out what she meant until weeks later when I discovered that the word for animal also means “live.” That would explain the signs outside of grocery stores advertising “animal fish.”
It is winter now in Yerevan, and the weather has become chilly! Luckily, its still sunny and there is no snow…yet! The biggest change is due to Grandma’s strict diet rules, which are dictated by the season. In summer/fall we ate a lot of eggplants, peppers, tomatos, and cucumbers, but now that the weather has changed we have switched to meals of beans, lentils, salted meats, and everybody’s favorite breakfast: sour cream mixed with curd and topped with jam!! yum…

More updates hopefully to follow!


October 14, 2009

October 12, 2009

Dear Loyal Fans,

Hello again!! Since I last wrote I have happily recovered from my harrowing trip to Gyumri! My dear adoptive grandmother cured my residual stomach troubles again with the same regimen of yogurt and a mysterious pink liquid and all is well. When I returned we began our household preparations for winter: i.e. pickling!! We have spent the last week pickling cucumbers, carrots, green beans, ochra, peppers, celery, greens, and garlic! Delicious. Now our house smells like vinegar and we are waiting for mushrooms to arrive in the market so that we can start pickling those as well! After spending hours cleaning, chopping, and processing vegetables, my grandma likes to say to me, “You know, Anoushig Jan (dear little Anoush), I don’t know how useful all of this oud studying will be for you in the future, and I imagine you will continue to use your Armenian, but learning how to cook will definitely come in handy!” I think she likes to imagine that she’s preparing me to be a proper Armenian bride. Her house is a sort of Armenian finishing school, if you will! Truly though, I spend at least as much time cooking with her as I do practicing my oud or studying Armenian! And not only is it a delicious entertaining endeavor, it’s also a valuable cultural experience! I am learning when and how certain foods should be prepared and eaten, and in what seasons and for what reasons different edibles should be consumed. For instance, After breakfast one should drink tea with sugar, but after dinner, one should drink tea with jam. Also, if you have a fever, you should eat raspberry preserves, to reduce your temperature, and if your goal is to lose weight, you should drink garlic tea before you go to sleep.

Over and out,

Ajap Sandal

October 6, 2009

October 5, 2009

Dear Loyal Fans,

Hello again! It has been a month since I last wrote, but what a month it was!! Since my last update I have had many little adventures, and one big adventure. A few days after my last post I went to my oud lesson at the conservatory, expecting the same routine lesson, but there was a surprise in store! Half way through my lesson a mother and daughter who I didn’t recognize entered the room, oud in tow. It turned out that the daughter was also a student of my oud teacher, but since the family didn’t live in Yerevan, they couldn’t come regularly to lessons. Through our initial introductions, I discovered that they were from Gyumri (a.k.a. Leninagan), the second largest city in Armenia (with a population of approx. 300,000, to give you an idea of how tiny this country is), which was the site of the 1988 earthquake. I mentioned that I hoped to visit Gyumri someday, and without missing a breath they said “No problem! Come home with us!” Long story short, two weeks later I took them up on their offer and after our lessons we all piled into their car: mother, father, three sisters, two ouds, and me.

The trip was beautiful, with snow-capped Aragatz, the highest mountain in Armenia to the East, and Ararat, which much to the chagrin of all Armenians, is now in Turkey. On the way, however, they fed me a meat-filled Russian pastry, known as piroshki, which made me sick. By the time we reached Gyumri my stomach was gurgling and, unfortunately, they didn’t seem to believe me that I didn’t feel well and insisted on feeding me what was their idea of the appropriate food for a guest the whole week, which turned out to be innumerable cups of coffee, cake, and bowls of plain cake frosting. Needless to say, my poor belly didn’t recover until I was safely back in Yerevan and my adoptive grandma once again cured me with a diet of yogurt and oatmeal.

Apart from the food fiasco, Gyumri was a fascinating place, much calmer and quieter than Yerevan, partially because many people left after the earthquake. The city has still not fully recovered, and the remnants of fallen buildings still lay between new houses and stores. The people of Gyumri are renowned for their sense of humor and they definitely lived up to their name, as my hosts were always laughing and joking. I spent a lot of time playing music with my hosts and we also got to see a rehearsal of the Gyumri folk music ensemble.

Additionally, the mother of the family turned out to be a sort of fortune-teller, in the old style, reading my coffee cups and interpreting my dreams, with a surprising amount of accuracy. For instance, on my last morning in Gyumri, I woke up eager to get back to Yerevan and was packing my bags when the mother came in. I asked her how she slept and she replied that she had slept well. I asked if she had had any dreams and she said yes, she dreamt that her daughter was putting makeup on me (in fact, the day before they had decided that it would be fun to give me a makeover, which they did). In the dream, the daughter was coloring my eyebrows with eyeliner to make them a little longer (the mother had insisted they were too short!). She interpreted this for me, saying that it meant I had two journeys, one which had already passed, and one which was supposed to take place, but which wouldn’t be completed as expected, that it would have some problem. I brushed this news aside, since I am abroad for a year after all, and I already know that I have many journeys coming up. But her declaration came to pass sooner than I expected. A mere five minutes later a friend called to say that the roads were closed due to icy conditions and we couldn’t go to Yerevan after all. Sure enough it snowed all day, and it was still September!!

Now I am happily back in Yerevan, and the weather has returned to normal, sunny autumn weather. Watermelons are gone from the markets, sadly, but now we have delicious apples, grapes, and peaches. My musical skills are progressing, although my teacher repeats the same speech at every lesson, that I must practice more! My Armenian is also coming along nicely, and I am able to express all of my thoughts, albeit in very simple language.

Thanks for checking in!

In Addition: I had a request for a recipe from one of my dear readers, so here it is! The name is Ajap Sandal, which definitely isn’t Armenian (maybe Turkish?), but it’s a common and delicious dish here. It can be made with or without meat, here I will give the meaty version, with meatless notes to follow.

Ajap Sandal:

1/2 kilo meat

1 onion

3-4 eggplants

3 bell peppers

hot pepper

4 tomatos

greens (dill, parseley, basil)

5 small potatos

4 cloves of garlic

salt, pepper

1/2 kilo meat: boil for approx 1/2 hour or until cooked. Turn off heat, cover, let sit.

Stripe peel eggplants, chop in rounds/chunks. Let sit in water and a little salt for approx 1/2 hour.

Chop 3 bell peppers and a little bit of hot pepper (to taste).

In a separate pot, melt butter on low heat. Add 1 chopped onion, turn up heat, let fry.

Pour out eggplant water, squeeze out eggplant chunks.

Add salt to onions, when brown, add eggplant and a few spoons of the meat broth so the eggplant cooks faster. Add peppers and hot pepper and some more broth. Cover pot.

Meanwhile, peel 4 tomatoes (pour hot water over them, let sit 5 minutes, then remove skin). Chop In chunks.

Check on eggplant, add more broth if necessary, mix frequently.

Clean and chop a bunch of greens (dill, parsley, basil).  When eggplant is softening add greens and chopped tomatoes.  Mix, cover, let cook on low heat.

Meanwhile, clean, peel, chop potatoes into 1/6ths, let sit in water.

Uncover pot, let boil on high heat for a little while so that some tomato juice boils off. Chop 4 cloves of garlic. Add salt and hot pepper to taste.

Meanwhile,  remove meat from broth. Remove bones and chop into small chunks. Add to vegetables and boil on high heat. Add potatoes and garlic. Mix and turn down heat. Cover partially, let simmer approx 45 minutes. When potatoes are cooked, it’s done! Serve with bread.

Variation A: Without Meat

Boil potatoes separately, save potato water.

Fry 1 onion in oil in a pot. Add 4 chopped eggplants, 3 chopped peppers. Add some potato water to soften eggplant. When eggplant is soft add 3 chopped tomatoes, greens, garlic, salt, and pepper. Add potatoes and potato water. Let cook all together. Enjoy!


September 8, 2009

September 7, 2009

I have been here for 7 weeks already and everyday is still full of new words to learn, new places to go, new people to meet, and new delicious edibles to taste!
Since last we met I have learned a lot, especially on the linguistic front. My language skills have finally begun to “open,” as they say here, i.e. I finally feel like I know what is going on some of the time! My cooking stills also are blooming, and I recently learned to make the most favorite of Armenian dishes, dolma, which is pictured above.
I also finally got up the courage to go for a run in the city, which was surprisingly successful and met with much enthusiasm by the masses, including a sweets-vendor who gave me a free donut as a reward for my efforts. Last Sunday I went on an excursion to Sevan (Lake and adjacent town) with one of my new relatives and her colleagues from work, and together we hiked through the hills, mingled with a herd of cows, and picnicked in a forest! It was delightful day, some photos of which are above. On the oud front, I am getting a complete overview of Armenian folk music through lessons and concerts. Now that summer vacation is over the buses and metro are much more crowded, and school-children are running around in their black and white uniforms. Also, since the school year has begun, I am having music lessons in the national conservatory, which offers many opportunities to observe Armenian youth culture and to meet other musicians and oud students!

So, in summary, all is well, peaches, apples, and grapes are in season now, and thanks for checking in again!

– Anoush

Barev Dzez!

July 21, 2009

August 25, 2009

Hello All!

Here is the first post from my year abroad with the Watson Fellowship! First stop: Armenia!

I’ve been in Yerevan for a full month now, but it still feels like I just arrived! Every day, every bus ride, every trip to the market is another adventure full of new sights, sounds, smells, and many many opportunities to try out my new vocabulary and to butcher verb conjugations and noun declensions.

I’m living just close enough to the center of the city to be able to get to concerts and other events easily, but far enough away that I’m out of the touristy café area. This means that no one in my neighborhood speaks English! This was frightening in the beginning, but it meant that I got a lot of practice, so now my Armenian is functional!

I’m living with a lovely and loving grandmother, who feeds me delicious Armenian dishes and is teaching me how to cook! Conveniently, she is a retired doctor, so she knows exactly which unlabelled pink liquid to feed to me when I have an upset stomach from sampling questionable foods out in the city. All of her relatives have very sweetly been showing me around the city and introducing me to various Armenian delicacies.

I was lucky to find two wonderful teachers, one for Armenian, and one for oud, so I have been kept busy practicing and studying. The learning curve is steep and they both have high expectations, but the practicing is always worth the effort because they feed me fruit and cookies after my lessons! My oud teacher doesn’t speak a word of English, so that was an immediate test of the premise of my project that “music transcends language barriers.” Thankfully, it was a successful test, and now my Armenian has progressed to the point that I can understand his directions, although I still get lost sometimes when he begins to reminisce about the good old days of the Soviet Union. He enjoys telling stories, so sometimes our lessons (which are supposed to be 1 or 1.5 hours long) stretch on to 3 or so hours.

I am enjoying learning my way around the city, and I now can get around by metro, bus, or minibus all on my own! Yerevan is a very pleasant place to be, it’s small enough that it’s easy to navigate and to travel around, but still a capital city full of interesting destinations. There are many musical events to attend, folk music concerts and folk dance recitals, where I can observe the oud in action, as well as many classical music events.

Oddly enough, the biggest culture shock that I experienced came from being abroad but not in a Muslim society. For the last few years, all of my experiences abroad have either been in Yemen, Egypt, Turkey, or Syria, which are very different countries, but have a lot in common. I got used to the fact that while abroad I would dress conservatively, not drink, and be sensitive to a religious atmosphere. But here, women dress in even more revealing outfits than in the US, and everyone drinks vodka all the time.

In conclusion, I am really enjoying my time here so far. I feel blessed to finally have the opportunity to fulfill my dream of exploring Armenia, learning Armenian, and being able to focus on music. Also, the fruit here is amazing! It’s the harvest now and the markets are overflowing with delicious grapes, plums, tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons, peaches, figs, and cherries. In addition to learning oud and Armenian, I’m also learning how to cook from my new grandmother, and I hope to have a full recipe-book by the time I return to America.

Thanks for checking in, and hopefully I’ll get around to writing another report soon!