15 December 2012

The Author-Illustrator

I recently told Nathan that my brother Cavan had just had his first real art exhibit, and showed him pictures of the event; Nathan was intrigued.  The next day, I read him the Caldecott-winning illustrated storybook of the legend of St. George and the Dragon.  That did it.  He suddenly lost interest in his long-time dream career as a "driver," and now says he is an artist and wants to attend an art school.

When I mentioned to Nathan last month that the school library was holding a contest for the best fairy tale, he was inspired and immediately created an original story of his own.  He told me his ideas, and I jotted them down, giving him simple guidance like prompting, "What will be the problem the characters must solve?  All stories have a problem."  When he finally had his story straight, he set to work on the illustrations.

I don't think he had much competition, but his book won!  He earned a certificate, a Ranger Rick bag, a couple sheets of stickers, and a free copy of The Usborne Encyclopedia of Animals.  Below are scans of all the pages.

As a bonus, I am also including here scans of another book he made -- this one was a class project.

 Bugs are tiny.

 Bugs annoy us.  Bugs crawl and fly.

Bugs eat plants.

Nathan is so pleased with his work, and I'm so proud of my creative little guy!

08 December 2012

Spreading the joy

I seem to be having some camera issues, but I still managed to capture two videos of Nathan getting into the holiday spirit.  Click "More info" for details about each.

12 November 2012

Camping in Armenia's Lori Region

Not counting the backyard sleepovers of my childhood, I had never successfully gone camping in my life until this past September.  The Blackmer-Baima-Schwab Road Trip Team took advantage of the Independence Day holiday for a three-day camping getaway in Lori marz, one of Armenia's northern regions -- arguably the most beautiful region in the country.  We managed to visit six historic sites at a leisurely pace, three of which were "new" for the Blackmer family, and all of which were "new" for Diane.  And of course, the entire concept of camping was something new for Nathan.

We drove north from Yerevan towards Stepanavan, and made an unplanned first stop in the tiny village of Amrakits to visit their 19th century Russian church, a remnant of imperial Russia.  The roof and domes were rusty with neglect, chunks of the outer walls were missing, and large cracks crisscrossed what remained; it makes me wonder about the history of the place: why would what was surely once the centerpiece of village life fall into such disrepair?  Without knowing any specifics, I can only presume that, under Soviet rule, the people were forced to abandon their place of worship...and there have simply been no funds for (or interest in) restoration since independence 21 years ago.  Another photo-op for 21st century tourists arises from the tragedies of 20th century Armenia.

Despite everything, it seems daily routines in Amrakits go on much as they did generations ago.

A few minutes after leaving Amrakits, we found ourselves at Lori Berd, a site we first visited in 2009.  Aside from restoration work in progress on the entry arch, the place was much as we remembered it, yet even lovelier on such a warm, sunny day.  Nathan, big-boy adventurer that he is, enjoyed the place much more this time around.

On the front steps of the makeshift church.

Looking down onto a medieval bridge spanning the Urut River.

Nathan scans for signs of invasion atop his trusty steed (actually a now-headless horse-shaped tombstone, though its carved stirrups and other tack are still clearly visible).

Heading east from Stepanavan, we made our way through several villages, the road conditions progressively worsening, until we reached Hnevank, whose main church has undergone significant restoration in recent years.  Because of its relative isolation and the surrounding open, grassy areas, it was here that we decided to set up camp for the night.  We began to collect and chop firewood, and I was mesmerized by a small herd of cows that came down the hillside to graze around the monastery.  Following a splendid rose-gold sunset, we sat around the campfire, chatting over a pot of homemade vegetarian chili and sweet cornbread before turning in for the night.  While Jarred extinguished the fire, and once Nathan was snoring inside the tent, I stood by myself for a few moments outside in pitch darkness.  Without any settlements in view, and without air, noise, or light pollution, the silhouette of the ancient church against a starry night sky is a sight I will never forget as long as I live.  (If only I were a painter!)

Nathan excitedly collects branches as a self-motivated employee of the "wood factory."

Waking up to a crystal-clear morning on the Debed gorge.

After a successful first night of camping, we sat down to a breakfast consisting of tea and Diane's banana muffins -- unfortunately, the apples we had picked from a nearby tree were too tart for us, so we offered them to the cows, who happily devoured them.  Then we packed up and drove eastward along the rough road until we rejoined the main highway north of Vanadzor.  Along this well-traveled road are a number of popular tourist destinations, including UNESCO World Heritage Sites Sanahin and Haghpat, the latter at which we stopped for lunch.  As we had been to both locations before and there weren't any significant differences (aside from the pretty fall foliage), I decided against taking photos, instead choosing to stroll leisurely among the tombstones -- really, they're everywhere, impossible to avoid -- and absorb the timeless magnificence of the architecture and natural setting.

Continuing northward, we reached our final destination, the village of Akhtala and its spectacular fortress and monastery of the 10th century.  As we entered the main church, mass was just finishing.  After the service, we spent some time talking to the priest, who told us about the church's history and the colorful frescoes that have adorned its walls since the early 1200s. These were more numerous and well-preserved than any we had seen elsewhere in Armenia.  We asked him for permission to spend the night on the church grounds, which he granted us.  He even invited us to join him, along with some of his congregation, for dinner -- but as we had already brought our own food and did not wish to impose ourselves further, we politely declined.  Once the village folk had left for the evening, we set up our tents, ate a "foil dinner" of potatoes and vegetables cooked right in the campfire, and had such a relaxing time that Nathan fell asleep in his seat by the fire.

Walking the grounds of Akhtala Monastery

Breathtaking frescoes from wall to wall, floor to ceiling

Sleeping comfortably on an air mattress in the tent

Rise and shine!

Peering through an intricately carved doorway into the ruins

Nathan has fun playing among the strewn fragments of once-majestic archways and columns

A modern monument featuring two wedding rings welcomes visitors just inside the fortress gates

Before we knew it, it was time to go.  We stopped for a quick breakfast at a riverside cafe, where we met a couple of Turkish truck drivers on their way to deliver goods to Yerevan.  After a wonderful meal of fresh bread, locally produced cheese and honey, and savory summer salad, we bid farewell to Ben, who wanted to hitchhike to Georgia to continue his vacation.  The rest of us, in Jerry Jeep, followed the M6 as it wound its way south between the emerald hills of Lori, hugging their every curve.  Within a few hours, we were home, busily preparing for school the next day -- though I must admit my head was filled with such lovely, dream-like memories, I found it hard to concentrate on my work for a couple days.  Can you blame me?

From the road below, one last look at awesome Akhtala, illuminated by the morning sun

Thanks to Diane and Ben for many of these beautiful photos.  And Ben, as you return to your home state of Texas this week and readjust to life in the U.S., know that we will miss everything about you: your unique wit and wisdom, your compelling conversation skills, and our fun-filled friendship.  Best wishes from the Blackmer family!

29 September 2012

Nathan B., Third-Culture Kid

Lately, Nathan has begun to feel the effects of living in an international community.  Friends and classmates come and go, sometimes temporarily, sometimes forever, and he knows now that even the school principal is not a permanent fixture.  At times he accepts these changes easily with a simple "goodbye" or "see you later," but at other times it's quite difficult, leading to long, tearful conversations at home.

He thinks often of former classmates now living in other countries and suggests we visit them, and sometimes he shows me photos taken 2 or 3 years ago and asks me to identify people who look vaguely familiar to him.  And while he has always enjoyed plane rides, he recently brought home a piece of schoolwork that surprised me.  He had been instructed to cut out pictures of various things (a spider, the sun, a playground, a snowman, a bear, a cake, etc.) and paste them under one of two headings -- things that make him happy and things that make him sad.  When I asked him why he had placed the picture of the airplane in the "sad" category, his explanation revealed that he associated the airplane with goodbyes -- ends of vacations, farewells to friends and family members, and the possibility of not seeing them for a very long time, or maybe ever again.

This "separation anxiety" took an interesting turn one night a couple months ago, when Nathan wanted to know why he had to sleep in his own bed and not with Mommy and Daddy.  In answering him, I got to a point where I mentioned that one day he would find a person he loved, and might get married, and that they would then share a bed in their own home.  Instead of being comforted, though, he was disturbed by the idea that he would one day live away from his parents, and told me with certainty that he would not get married because he wanted to live with us forever.

When school started and Nathan was hesitant about signing up for after-school activities, I tried to reassure him that they would be fun classes where he could make friends with lots of kids, and that maybe even some of my high school students might participate.  He brightened at the idea, and asked if one particular student of mine, who had always been a friend and role model to our youngest students, would be in Arts and Crafts with him.  I reminded him that she had graduated last spring, and that she was now studying at a university in Canada. Well, he was very upset about that, and nearly cried, and said he didn't want her to leave the school.  That led to him saying that he never wanted to grow up, never wanted to leave QSI or Yerevan... I finally consoled him by suggesting we could write her an email, which we did the next day, and he was able to tell her that he missed her and wished she could come back.  Sweetheart that she is, my former student replied and said she would be back to visit her family at Christmastime, and that she would bring Nathan any gift he wanted, which made him pretty happy.

Despite these confusing and sometimes heart-wrenching moments, Nathan continues to impress us and everyone who knows him with his energy, wit, and independence.  Without knowing it, he teaches us every day about the complexities of being a third-culture kid.  He knows he's American, yet refers to Armenia as "my country"; his favorite foods are pizza and khachapouri; his best friends are Chinese, American, Korean, Greek-Armenian, Lebanese-Armenian, and German-Danish -- and they all learn together under the supervision of a teacher from Fort Worth,Texas!  Some of his current hobbies include  drawing and painting, watching Spongebob and Star Wars, playing Angry Birds and football (soccer), and singing songs in English and Armenian.  Things he dislikes include cigarette smoking, spicy foods, and people who don't take him seriously.  He's the top reader in his class, willingly takes on household chores and other responsibilities (and earns an allowance for his good work), enjoys our local outings and travel adventures, and makes friends wherever he goes because he knows that silliness transcends barriers of language and culture.

We're proud of Nathan's confidence, intelligence, and physical strength (for which we are eternally grateful to the cardiology team at Arnold Palmer Children's Hospital).  At the same time, he is a caring, affectionate, and compassionate little boy.  We can only hope that the lessons he is learning about love, friendship, and identity -- though sometimes painful -- will stay with him as he grows and as we find ourselves in new surroundings.  I feel that these experiences are preparing him well for his upcoming role as big brother to an Armenian sister, as well as for other challenges he will face in the future.

07 June 2012

Southern Armenia, take two!

A couple weeks ago, we took Jarred's parents for a weekend excursion to popular sites in the Vayots Dzor and Syunik regions.  It was a nice opportunity to one-up our first trip back in early April 2011, which was cold, rainy, and overall, a rather bleak experience.  Well, this time around couldn't have been better -- not only was the weather unbeatable, but we had Jack and Michele along for the fun!  Since I already wrote about most of these places in last spring's post, I'll just share my favorite pictures from this trip with a few brief comments.  (Thanks to Jack for some of the photos.)

Third time's a charm: on our third visit to Khor Virap, we could finally see Mount Ararat!

 Another unforgettable stay at Gohar's Guesthouse in Yeghegnadzor

I find this picture, taken at Tanahati Vank, particularly striking because it's MICHELE IN ARMENIA!

Answering the call of Nature

Kotrats Caravanseray -- not filled with snow!

Karahunj on a clear, windy day

Bold explorers of Tatev

St. Gregory Church of Goris, scarred by an Azeri artillery shell

A 13th-Century bridge spanning the Arpa River... last time we could only gaze upon it from a distance.

Blue skies, red cliffs, and the glory of Noravank.

A happy ending!

What a wonderful time Nathan had with his grandparents, and what fun we all had together!  Late May-early June really is the very best time to tour around Armenia -- after the spring rains, but before the oppressive heat of summer, clear skies and the whole country in bloom.

I'll soon post all the best photos from the trip on Photobucket and will add the link here.  I'm also considering making a separate post about some interesting flora and fauna we observed during this trip.