31 December 2009

An early lesson in personal finance

New Year's seems to be a much bigger deal than Christmas here in Armenia, and many people give New Year's gifts to one another. In December, little stands pop up everywhere to sell holiday lights, ornaments, and good luck trinkets for New Year: figurines, mini snow-globes, calendars, stuffed animals, candle holders, and so on. The vast majority of this merchandise is representative of the next sign in the Chinese zodiac, and it is especially common for the animal - this year, it's the tiger - to be shown with money, in the hopes that the item will bring its bearer good fortune in the new year. For example, here's a calendar I bought a couple weeks ago, not only because we needed a 2010 calendar, but also because I found the image rather amusing:

Last January, someone gave us a piggy bank - actually, it's a cow bank, since it was for the year of the bull - and every time we had a 10-dram coin (the Armenian equivalent of the penny), we gave it to Nathan to put in the bank. He enjoyed collecting and counting the coins, and when we discovered a few weeks ago that the bank was nearly full, we had to figure out what to do with the money. A couple days after Christmas, Nathan told me he wanted a police car...he had realized that even though he had so many toy cars, that was one he didn't have. We told him he would have to buy it with his own money, since he had received enough gifts already. So he and Jarred counted all the coins in his bank...the total was 2,900 dram (US$7.67)! We put the coins into a zip-lock bag, labeled it, and last night, Nathan proudly brought it to Mankan Toy Store at 24 Mashtots Avenue.

Amongst the crowd of holiday shoppers, little Nathan picked out his police car. A young, English-speaking store employee was nearby, and when she saw me pull the zip-lock bag out of my purse, she realized right away what was going on. "This is his money?" she asked, smiling broadly. She scooped up Nathan, took the money, and pushed her way through the crowd to the check-out counter. She explained the situation excitedly to the cashiers, and everyone seemed thoroughly charmed, not a bit annoyed at the prospect of having to count all those coins. They trusted the amount I wrote on the bag, so while one clerk happily counted Nathan's change, another gave him a little shopping bag, though he didn't want to use it, of course.

By the time we got home, it was very clear to us how proud Nathan was that he had bought the police car himself. We asked him questions to make sure he understood fully how the police car had come into his possession, and he replied without a doubt that he had purchased it with his own money. He played with it all evening, and even took it to bed! It just goes to show that even a 2 year-old can learn about the value of saving.

At home with his new toy, a wiser Nathan puts his change back into the bank, off to a good start in 2010!

Although I do not yet comprehend why Armenians so unquestioningly use the signs of Chinese zodiac, but do not follow the lunar calendar (anyone care to enlighten me?), I can certainly appreciate their association of the astrological signs with the idea of wealth. Wishing all our friends and readers a prosperous New Year -- happy saving!

19 December 2009

Malkhas Jazz Club

Yesterday was Jarred's 28th birthday, and to celebrate, we went out to his favorite jazz club in town, Malkhas (Nathan stayed home with our nanny). Jarred has been there several times with friends, but this was my first visit. How was it, you ask? The desserts and drinks were pretty good, and though we came home reeking of cigars, the place wasn't actually that smoky. But what about the music? I don't have many words to describe it... I guess my rating falls somewhere between extraordinary and transcendent.

Here's a sample:

All the musicians were unbelievably talented. The first band played a mix of jazz and Dixieland standards, folk-rock and pop covers, and original/improv 12-bar blues in four fabulous sets; I especially liked their rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely?" Yet even their original compositions were peppered with homages to Gershwin, the Beatles, and one-hit-wonders The Champs ("Tequila!"). I don't know which I enjoyed more: the fast-paced numbers or the slow, soulful harmonica solos. Regrettably, my camera battery died before I could record this first band's final performance of the evening, which showcased the harmonicist's impressive technique during a lively call-and-response with the pianist.

We stayed at the club long enough to enjoy the first set of the second band, whose vocalist sang a passionate "Besame Mucho," followed by "Take Five," in which he performed the melody -- and the supporting parts during the instrumentalists' solos -- entirely in scat! This second group played much more sophisticated, modern jazz arrangements than the first band. Toward the end of their set, club owner and namesake Levon Malkhasian cut in to show off his own utterly astounding jazz piano skills (a common occurrence, according to Jarred). What makes someone a virtuoso? If that man doesn't qualify, then I don't know who does! Again, I regret not coming to the club prepared with a fully-charged camera battery.

If you're ever in Yerevan, don't pass up the opportunity meet some of Armenia's most outstanding musicians at Malkhas. And if you do go, give us a call so we can come with you! For us, last night's show was a wonderful experience well worth repeating.

By the way, if you want to watch more of what I did manage to record, visit our YouTube page or simply do a search for Malkhas Jazz Club videos.

17 December 2009

Sharan Craft Center

I've been hearing about a local craft shop that is popular with foreigners since we arrived in Yerevan over a year ago. Then recently, I overheard the school director's wife talking about a folk art and craft studio right in our neighborhood. It turns out both places are one and the same: Sharan Craft Center.

I admired their high-quality merchandise at the International Charity Bazaar at the Marriott downtown back in October, but didn't visit the craft center itself until about a week ago...all this time, it's been a mere 5-minute walk from our apartment!

Sharan is a wonderful place employing talented local artisans who produce beautiful items for home and family: knit sweaters, caps, scarves, and mittens; holiday ornaments and Christmas stockings; hand-embroidered potholders, wooden kitchen utensils; casual bracelets and hair accessories for women and girls; and adorable dolls and other little toys.

I don't think they have their own web site, but I did find TradeExpressions.com, which has some information about the studio, plus a few items available for purchase -- though I'd say they are WAY overpriced compared to what I paid in-store.

I also found this interesting article from the Armenian Reporter.

12 December 2009

precious moments

Last night, Jarred and I were cooking dinner. Lately, Nathan enjoys participating in kitchen activities, even if it's just doing the dishes, so as usual, he had pushed a chair up to the counter. First he helped me wash the rice, then he proceeded to taste everything he could get his hands on...chopped tofu, green onions, and bok choy.

After a while, I noticed he was no longer in the kitchen. I turned around to look for him, and saw him sitting at the computer, completely entranced. We were streaming WUCF, our favorite Orlando radio station, on Windows Media Player, and he was staring at the visualizer. When I asked him what he was doing, he replied, "Nathan is watching this movie...I've never seen that!" As the 'randomization' changed, he grew more and more amazed. I'm so glad I had the camera handy!

23 November 2009

valuable lessons learned this fall

From Angela:
Turnips make adorable jack o'lanterns, but they don't last long...4-5 days max.

When trying to catch a house centipede, move quickly before it climbs all the way up the wall -- or worse, under your bed.

Butternut squash makes perfect 'pumpkin' pies...thanks to PickYourOwn.org.

Don't plan an entire week of lessons around a computer lab with sketchy internet connection.

When working with butternut squash, don't be surprised if a stubborn, waxy residue mysteriously and suddenly coats your hands and fingers.

There are no laws in this country that prohibit the burning of dry leaves, even if it creates a chokingly-thick cloud of smoke that envelops the entire neighborhood.

You can find any computer program you need available for free online.

Watch out for scorpions.

If you want to roast pumpkin seeds, don't leave them out to dry within the reach of a two year-old, unless you don't mind hundreds of them all over the kitchen floor.

From Jarred:
Having kids screw around in front of a camera can be a great way to teach the concepts of theme and main idea.

No one puts on a fireworks display like Disney.

Kids who normally throw away the whole fruits that accompany their school lunches will change their mind and eat them if you first take them home, mash them up, mix them with sugar, butter, and flour, and bake them at 350 degrees.

Never underestimate your child's abilities and potential.

11 November 2009

These Boots Are Made for Walking (...or are they?)


It may seem like a strange topic, but believe me, boots are an important part of Yerevanian culture. I'm not talking about snow boots, construction boots, or hiking boots (all of which should have a place in everyday life here, but inexplicably don't). The kind of boots I'm refering to are these:

Sexy, black leather, knee-high, spike-heeled, fashion boots.

Once October rolls around, THE BOOTS begin to appear on the streets, in shop windows, and on the feet of fashion-forward Armenian women everywhere. In many cases, you can actually hear them coming long before you see them!

In many parts of the U.S., particularly in Florida and other states that don't experience 'real' winters, any girl who wears boots like these would probably be [mis]taken for...ahem...a Lady of the Night. Here however, it seems for virtually all women aged 18-40, they are a necessity.

Are they inspired by Julia Roberts?

Lynda Carter?

One of the many reincarnations of Catwoman?

...Who knows? In any case, here's my photo tribute - or rather, triboot - to this fabulous, forever-iconic footwear!

Yes, this is normal grocery shopping attire!

This one's starting young.

Of course, they're not always black, nor do they always have such high heels. There are many variations in color, material, and overall design...

Hey, these really are Wonder Woman's boots!

Hey, I'm not judging. Don't believe me? Scroll up and take another look at the first picture in this entry -- those are mine! (Don't worry, they're not real leather...and they're lined with faux fur to keep my legs toasty warm all winter!)

Now, if you think this post about Armenian women's footwear is interesting, just wait until I write about the men's shoes! Thanks for reading... hajo!

27 October 2009

Tips for carving a turnip lantern

Pumpkins are not widely available here in Armenia, and I only found 2 nice ones at the farmers' market in our neighborhood. I didn't want to carve them up -- at least not yet -- so today Nathan and I had a great time carving this traditional old Irish jack o' lantern from a turnip instead...that is to say, I did all the carving, while he happily munched on the pieces I removed! Nathan didn't understand what I was making until I carved the entire face. Once it was finished, he began to laugh, saying the turnip had a silly face, and he spent a few minutes imitating its spooky grin for the camera. Then he put on his smock and we painted the turnip with orange food coloring.

This was my first time carving a turnip, so I don't claim to be an expert by any means...I'm not even good at pumpkin-carving, for that matter. However, I plan to try making more turnip lanterns in the future. For those of you who have never carved a turnip before, you might want to give it a try, too! I can't yet discuss long-term results, but for now, here's how I would compare it to pumpkin-carving:

  • Turnips are smaller than pumpkins, which can mean a difficult and potentially frustrating job if you have big, clumsy hands.
  • The inside is solid, so it's a bit of a challenge to hollow it out -- I used a couple different sized kitchen knives and a dinner spoon. Please use caution!
  • No roasted pumpkin seeds as a reward for your hard work.
  • If you want to adorn your front porch with your little veggie lanterns, I imagine it would be difficult to appreciate them from a distance.

  • Turnips are smaller than pumpkins, which can mean an easier job if you have small, nimble fingers.
  • They're cheap.
  • You can make a bunch of cute little lanterns in less time.
  • No slimy, stringy pumpkin guts all over the place.
  • No gross pumpkin guts smell.
  • You can leave them ghostly white, or paint them any color you like -- green for a witch, black for a cat, or orange for a pumpkin!
  • A little tea-light candle fits inside perfectly.
  • Turnips were probably the original jack o' lanterns, since pumpkins are a North American crop, and Hallowe'en originates in England and Ireland.
  • It's just different!
Have a happy Samhain/All Hallow's Eve/Snap-Apple Night/Celtic New Year/Hallowe'en!

26 October 2009

QSIY Fall Festival 2009: A little slice of Americana

Armenians don't celebrate Halloween, and not many people here are familiar with the holiday. We have a big celebration at the school, obviously, and a few other Halloween parties take place at the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. Marine House, and a couple of clubs and tourist venues downtown, but that's about it. Nathan's Armenian nanny, whose 23rd birthday is on October 31, brought Nathan to the school on Tuesday evening for the festival, and she said it was the first time she had ever seen such an event. Another Armenian, a part-time teacher at QSI, asked Cheryl, the 9 year-old class teacher, "Why do Americans like getting scared?"

Annoyingly, this year's Fall Festival took place earlier in the evening than last year's (the sun was just setting when everyone went home), but it was still a tremendous success. We had plenty of fun activities for kids of all ages, including a new skee-ball style game created by Jarred's combined 10 & 11 year-old class,

a fortune-teller,

an egg walk,

the always popular "Whack the Teacher" game, organized by the high school students,

and more. Here you can see two of my 8 year-old boys hiding out and eating popcorn instead of assisting with our class game.
Apparently, Power Rangers costumes now come with built-in muscles...either that, or these are the beefiest 8 year-olds I've ever seen.

As usual, Grand Candy generously supplied the school with sweets for the trick-or-treat parade through the school building, and the PTA brought in a ton of food and prizes for everyone.

All the students line up for the parade.

The dessert table: SUGAR OVERLOAD!

We had an amazing display of costumes, with more students and teachers getting into the spirit than last year.
The director and his wife are quite the odd couple in this getup.

Old wedding dress from a thrift store: 5000 dram. A few packets of red food coloring: 900 dram. A bouquet of red roses (hung to dry for 2 weeks): 1500 dram. A fabulous zombie bride costume that can be used for years to come: priceless!

Ms. Maria the mermaid

Three of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Pestilence (Josh Olson, center), War (Steve Donatelle, not pictured), Famine (Jarred, left), and Death (Eric Bousman, right).

Famine goes a little nuts.

Even non-QSI students (younger siblings of students and children of teachers) came dressed to impress.
Avery, one of Nathan's playgroup friends and younger sister of two QSI students, is undoubtedly the cutest little witch ever!

Baby Ari's first Halloween...he makes an adorable teddy bear, doesn't he?

And of course, I simply must post photos of the absolute most charming little baseball player in attendance at the festival:

I'll be putting lots of photos in the October Photobucket album: more Fall Festival pictures, my class trip to Byurakan Astrophysical Observatory, and Nathan's playgroup Halloween party... so keep an eye out (don't take me too literally, guys and ghouls).

Oh, and happy 18th birthday to my brother Galen!