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The Season to Be Grateful

In Armenia, we say yerakhtapart

     Green Bean Casserole is my least favorite part of a traditional Thanksgiving, which is a pity, because my hometown in Armenia is famous for the quality of its green beans. At this time of year, though, with snow already on the mountains, the only beans we see are kidney shaped and devoid of pod.
     We have turnips and carrots and potatoes, so my Thanksgiving guests — other Peace Corps volunteers from my part of the Caucasus — will not be short of roughage and root vegetables when the big day comes.
     I’ve never seen a turkey here, but I know who to ask for a chicken, freshly plucked. When it comes to pie, there’ll be walnuts instead of pecans, and apricot preserves instead of apples. We’ll eat our pies with smetna, the Russian word for heavy cream, soured and truly delicious.
    As Chesapeake Country slumbers, we — eight hours ahead on the clock — will be toasting friends and family with homemade red wine, mulberry vodka and perhaps a tot or two of cognac. By the time you wake up by the Bay, we’ll be more than ready for a nap.
     Here in my cold, old city, surrounded by basalt needle rocks like upside down icicles, we will throw another log on the wood-burning stove and count our Thanksgiving blessings.
    I’m already working on my Christmas list, for there are days when even the most resilient Peace Corps volunteer needs to keep cheerful thoughts front of mind. Those are the days when you go to bed at 7pm just to get warm, when it’s too icy to venture out and when it’s cabbage for dinner — again. On days like those, it is hard to remember the Armenian word for grateful — yerakhtapart — and even harder to feel it. 
     So nine months into my sojourn here in this former Soviet country, who and what makes me glad at heart?
     Oh, there are so many people and things.
     There is Anahit, the 15-year-old student who loves the poetry of Walt Whitman and who volunteers her time to teach younger kids the basics of English. She is the best of Armenian womankind — ambitious, hard-working, generous, imaginative and always eager to learn.
     There is 13-year-old Natalie, who lives upstairs. She and I spent many nights working on a terribly difficult jigsaw of the United States. Her little brother Robert tore up the completed puzzle before I could photograph it, so Natalie painstakingly did it again. That girl knows determination, responsibility and perseverance, and I am thankful for her. 
     There is Ara, the person I rely on to solve every cross-cultural crisis. Ara has moved fridges, organized rides, made phone calls, filled me in on history and politics and taught me chess. He has invited me to meet his family and eat dinner at his home.
     There is Borio, the four-year-old who touched my heart through his joy in blowing bubbles.
     There is Elsa, my first host in this country, a Caucasian kindred spirit even though she doesn’t speak a word of English. I lived with her when I could barely say thank you, shnorhakelootsyun, in Armenian. 
     There are wonderful, colorful things in jars: beets and black walnuts and pine resin that will soothe any sore throat. There are apricots, peaches, raspberries and mulberries: jewels in sweet syrup. There is Trinity 6100 rose wine, the color of fresh-cooked shrimp, wine to fall in love to. There are small, white chocolate balls in wrappers printed with pandas. Candy that melts your heart as it melts in your mouth. There are eagles, bronze colored with white under-wings. There is world-class ballet you can see for $15.
     There are bigger things too, of course. I am grateful to Samvel the surgeon who removed my gallbladder in a Yerevan hospital. I am so much better without all the rubble inside me.
     I am grateful for the freedom of movement that comes with an American passport, and for the means to make the world mine.
     Here in Armenia, those who can afford an airline ticket to anywhere are often denied a visa to travel abroad, even for a vacation. When they speak to me of their dreams of America, the longing in their eyes and voices is almost too much for me to bear.
     I am grateful, too, for my friends in Southern Anne Arundel County who write and send photos. I am grateful to Patsy Peters, who keeps my garden looking great while I am away, and to Jim Prout who makes sure the house will still be standing when I get back. I am grateful to Judy Kelly for nagging Jim.
     Most days, when I miss the Bay — and my kitchen … and corn … and grits … and oysters … and peanut butter — I am grateful that some day not too far off I will enjoy these things again. None of my choices are available to the people I live with here. I know how very lucky I am.
Liz Barron is spending Turkey Day in Armenia where she is serving as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer until June 2019. A resident of Shady Side, she explains how she will spend the holiday far from home. Follow her experiences at ­