Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Friday, January 21, 2011

Yerevan, Echmiadzin, and Gori

We decided to take advantage of our last week of winter break to take a trip to our next-door neighbor to the south, Armenia. One of Melissa’s teaching counterparts, Gohar, was going to visit her son and daughter in Yerevan, and kindly invited us to go along. So Monday morning we hopped on the marshrutka and set off. We’re about 15 miles from the border, and even with the stop to get a visa, the trip was not much longer than that to Tbilisi.

That afternoon and evening, we walked around the city with Gohar to get our bearings. The central square (hraperak) was in full holiday regalia, with a big New Years tree, dozens of Santas, kiddie cars, and horse carriages.

On Tuesday, we went to Echmiadzin Cathedral outside of Yerevan, the center of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The cathedral itself is beautiful, and in its museum are all kinds of relics and treasures from the whole of the Armenian Church, including, for example, the spear that's said to have pierced Christ's side.

The grounds were also really nice, and we particularly liked these sculptures, carved into the trunks of still-standing dead trees:

Afterward, we saw another church and convent nearby, and then went to visit Gohar’s sister in the district of “Bangladesh,” so called for its crowdedness and distance from the center. There we had some delicious Armenian food (ishli kufta) and spent a really nice time talking and visiting.

Wednesday morning we visited the Genocide Memorial that crowns a hill overlooking the city. The museum itself was closed, but an eternal flame burns for the victims and a small forest of evergreen trees has been planted by heads of state, governments, organizations, and individuals who have recognized the genocide.

Afterward, we walked around the city some more, visiting the nearly-finished Cascade, a waterfall fountain with a variety of museums and exhibits inside. The water was off for the winter, but I’m sure we’ll be back sometime when the flowers are blooming and fountains flowing.

Chihuly pieces from a gallery inside the Cascade:

From the top of the Cascade, we walked through a park to the statue of Mother Armenia and her rather oversize sword staring protectively toward the West. In this photo it appears that she is about to smack some Ferris wheel riders:

We then made our way to the matenadaran, the Armenian manuscript library. One of the really fascinating things to me about Armenia’s sense of self is the great importance placed on writing and literacy, and the matenadaran is a monument to that value.

Afterward, we headed to the famous Grand Candy shop and cafe for some ponchiki. I don’t know if they were as good as the ones Melissa made, but it was still a fun time.

On Thursday, we went to the Armenian State Museum, which featured a really interesting exhibit on Bronze Age Armenia before marching on through the centuries to almost the present day.

On Friday, it was time to go. We went back to Tbilisi, rather than to Akhalkalaki, so that we could do a little more domestic traveling over the weekend. It happened to be Old New Year (according to the Julian calendar), so we decided to go to visit our first host family in Kortaneti. They have a tradition that will be familiar to my family members of hiding a coin in a loaf of bread – the one whose piece has the coin will have good fortune that year. Looks like 2011 will be grandmother’s year.

On Saturday, we decided to take a day trip to Gori, the birthplace of Stalin. A big statue of old Joe used to stand in the center of town. It was taken down last summer and now there’s a New Year’s tree in its place.

We visited the palatial Stalin museum, which included the house where Stalin was born (itself now housed in a huge stone and marble pavilion) and a hall of gifts to the leader.

The Stalin museum:

Stalin's office recreated:

A gift to Stalin from the workers of an accordion factory:

We also managed to visit the cave city of Upliltsikhe outside of Gori, an ancient site where pre-Christian temples, churches, pharmacies, and the royal residences of the kings of Kartli piled on top of one another. We had the place almost to ourselves (save for a policeman chasing a runaway horse around and looking very like a Keystone Kop), and it was fun braving the high winds and tromping in and out of the caves and marching down the long tunnel to the River Mtkvari.

We were back in Kortaneti for the night and spent some good time with our host family (once again promising ourselves that we’d brush up on our Georgian) before heading back home on Sunday. School was due to start today, but it looks like for pretty much everyone that date has been pushed to Monday. So it’ll be back to work and a new semester of challenges and (hopefully) accomplishments. We’ll keep you posted!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Happy New Year!

Akhalkalaki rings in the New Year with gusto. The market is jammed in the weeks before with everyone in town and from the surrounding villages stocking up on candy, fruit, drinks, decorations, fireworks, presents, produce and the obligatory whole piglet. Our central park was turned into a meat market, and you could hardly turn a corner without finding a box of live geese or a cow (in whole or in part) waiting to be served up as part of the New Year’s feast. Meanwhile, walking the streets was a nerve-shattering experience as the local youth made full use of the truckloads of cheap firecrackers being sold like chewing gum at every store counter and stall in town. Decorations popped up everywhere – a big New Year’s tree in front of the town’s Culture House was the focus, but lots of people had lights or other decorations up.

One of two New Year's trees in our house

Every woman in Akhalkalaki was busy cooking in the last days of December, a feat made more impressive by the lack of electricity for 4 of the 5 days leading up to the New Year, and every family lays out a kingly table for the guests. We had (among other things) a whole piglet, chicken, ham, Canadian bacon, cabbage rolls, stuffed grape leaves, half a dozen different salads, two kinds of cake, scads of fantastic (and beautiful) pastries, a wide range of cheeses, nuts, candies, and dried fruit, bottles and bottles of wine, champagne, vodka, champagne, and soda.

Our Family's New Year's Table (more was to come)

2011 is the Year of the Rabbit

On the 31st, people tend to go to the church in the evening to light a candle, then go home to greet the New Year with their families. All day long the Russian, Armenian, and Georgian TV channels are showing their own Rockin’ New Year concerts and holiday movies with the same standing as It’s A Wonderful Life or a Charlie Brown Christmas. Shaen and I had been working on our renditions of "Jingle Bells" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," with me on guitar and he on drum and (English!) vocals. We gave a lot of concerts over this holiday season, and I think it went really well.

At midnight, there’s the champagne toast and then a general rush for the doors to witness the sometimes alarming and altogether dramatic spectacle of every single household in a city of 10,000 people simultaneously setting off a month’s accumulated fireworks, bottle rockets, screamers, fountains, smoke bombs, sparklers, M80s, and various other pyrotechnics. Not quite to the scale of a DC or Boston Fourth of July, but with a kind of immediacy that a display put on by trained professionals with a fire crew standing by just can’t match.

Then, an hour later, we did it all over again, this time on Moscow time.

Father Winter brings New Year's presents to kids just like Santa Claus on Christmas in America, and Shaen was really excited to find a card game and a miniature foosball table. (He had persuaded his grandmother to give him his present early, so we had already met the laser-blasting, missile-firing, walking, talking robot).

A few days later, Melissa coming back from Tbilisi was able to surprise him with a gift from her mother, which he wore for about 4 days straight (when his parents made him take it off for bed, he got up at 3 am and put it back on).

Lilit was likewise happy to show off her new outfit from the Kuhlman household:

The next day, January 1, the visiting began. Fortified by a hearty breakfast of grape-leaf dolma, we settled in to receive guests, and then set out on our own visits. The next four or five days were a food and visit-filled blur. It was a great chance to spend time with our friends and acquaintances here in town and celebrate with them. We managed to stumble through a few toasts in Armenian, and somehow survived the week without exploding a la Mr. Creosote.

It’s a really nice tradition, though by the end everyone is exhausted. It’s expensive, too; even people who really can’t afford to feel like they have to lay out a lavish table. People shake their heads over the amount of food that goes to waste, and more than one person said that they would prefer a one-day celebration with family and close friends. Still, we were really glad to be here to celebrate the New Year with new friends, and as usual words can’t even express how kind and hospitable everyone has been to us.

Another milestone: today marks 6 months since our swearing in – we’re officially 25% through with our service as Peace Corps volunteers!

Tomorrow we leave for a week-long trip to Armenia with one of Melissa’s teaching counterparts. We’re excited to see our neighbor to the south and we’ll be back with stories and pictures before school starts up again on the 20th.

Happy New Year to all of you reading this, and we hope 2011 brings you all the best!