27 April 2013

Why we're still in Armenia... (Part 1)

“How long have you been living here?” people often ask us.

“Since 2008,” we reply.

After they get over their surprise at our response, and after the predictable series of questions – “Are your parents Armenian?” (they aren’t) and “Was your son born here?” (he wasn’t) – there is one more thing people invariably want to know: “Why Armenia?” At this point, Jarred and I usually look at each other and reply, “It’s a long story…” and we may or may not explain further, depending on how much time we have and whether we feel the person is genuinely interested.

I guess the short version is, quite simply, “We’re here for work.” It’s true we arrived in Yerevan as QSI (Quality Schools International) newbies, and though we spend most days isolated from the “real” Armenia in the English-speaking international school bubble, we have come to appreciate so many things about Armenia itself, its people, and the opportunities we’ve been given in this special place. It’s why we renew our contracts with QSIY year after year.

What is it we love so much about Armenia? While it would be difficult to put into words every moment, every feeling, every kind spirit that has touched us, the next few posts will attempt to answer that very question. None of these things are unique to this country, but because this is the only place we’ve lived outside the United States, they have endeared Armenia to our hearts forever.

The Goodness of Fresh Food

A bread delivery van in Vanadzor

One thing that still strikes me when I’m at work is when I see my Armenian colleagues preparing their lunches. While I’m unzipping my Thermos-brand lunch bag and popping a Tupperware of leftovers into the microwave, they’re peeling and chopping fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and herbs to make a salad, sometimes with a side of salty local cheese, sliced into little rectangles. Or maybe they’re cooking some buckwheat or boiling eggs or potatoes on the stove. It’s not that my leftovers are bad – Jarred cooks delicious, healthy dinners for us every night. It’s certainly a step up from the frozen meals (organic varieties, but still) we would stockpile for our quick-nuke lunch breaks at work in the US. But why is it that the idea of making my lunch from scratch, right there on the spot, never occurred to me before coming here?

Fortunately, we have managed to eliminate a lot of processed foods from our life, perhaps because there is so little of that here. There just aren’t any TV dinners, canned soups, cake mix, refrigerated cookie dough, microwave popcorn, or instant mashed potatoes (which I never liked, anyway). Sure, you can buy boxes of breakfast cereal and processed cheese products, but they’re not cheap because they’re all imported from Europe or Russia. Occasionally, we’ll buy a couple cans of beans (it’s more convenient than having to soak dry beans overnight and then boil them for hours) or corn (it’s not a major crop here, so rarely is there any available fresh), but at any given moment, you’ll never see more than 4 cans of anything in our pantry. Everything else is fresh from the market or frozen – which usually means we froze it ourselves. Nathan has so little exposure to prepared, packaged foods, he actually asked me one day, “Mom, why are there so many cans in my play kitchen?”

Here’s a typical scenario: we’re on one of our out-of-town adventures, we’ve been on the road for hours, and hunger strikes. There’s not a drive-through, vending machine, or bar-grille in sight. What to do? Depending on what part of the country we’re in and the current season, there are usually a couple of options. If it’s just the munchies, the easiest solution is to keep an eye out for the next village. There’s almost always someone sitting by the highway who has taken the trouble to drag out a few crates of apples, pears, peaches, candied nuts, or other home-grown produce, hoping to make a sale. And it’s always cheap! If you want a full meal, however, you may have to drive a little longer. But in certain regions, notably Lori and Vayots Dzor, and near Lake Sevan, there are quite a few charming roadside restaurants where you can enjoy a feast, prepared to order: fresh bread, lavash, cheese and vegetable plates, khorovats (barbecued meats and vegetables), fresh fish, local honey and sour cream, and more. On top of this, the restaurant usually overlooks some seriously picturesque mountain scenery – no extra charge for the view! You won’t get that at a Cracker Barrel on I-75.

The best souvenirs from a weekend in the countryside.

One of our favorite places to stop is Gntuni, a bakery in the town of Aparan. Buns stuffed with potatoes, mushrooms, cheese, chicken, or sausage; cookies and sweet pastries; hot, flaky khachapouri… I can’t say enough about all the yumminess at that place – and it’s all prepared right before your eyes. In the last few years, this bakery has become so popular, it’s always crowded with people taking a break from a bumpy marshrutka ride, and there’s also a new supermarket attached. Aparan is best known for its bottled water factory – and some cruel jokes about the intelligence level of the locals – but really, its claim to fame ought to be Gntuni.

Gntuni bakery in Aparan (Photo credit: Diane Baima)

From the world's most flavorful tomatoes to mouthwateringly sour spas (yogurt soup) to hot-out-of-the-tonir bread so honest-to-goodness natural that we joke it goes stale after 12 minutes, fresh local food is a major reason we love Armenia.

1 comment:

Megan said...

i love that you mention the foods in here as such a strong point in staying. i agree with the foods there. in the caucasus i ate so pure and natural it was insane. i live in norway now and it is no different than the US except that there are less options here. in the US i could easily go to whole foods or an organic market...in norway i can't! when i bit into my first tomato in armenia i about died of excitement. and then i bought 20 more. i had never tasted something so real. how sad is that?!?!