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From Shady Side to Armenia

My homes are united by festivals, but oh for an oyster!

     I could use a fried oyster right about now. Or one freshly shucked by Shady Side’s Gross watermen.
     I long for any kind of seafood, for Armenia is a landlocked country. We do have river trout, but they can’t compete with the bounty of the Chesapeake now that there’s an R in the month once again. As my friends and neighbors get ready to spend a crisp, clear afternoon at the Captain Avery Museum for this year’s Shady Side Oyster Festival October 15, I’ll be preparing for the first snow of winter — and wondering whatever possessed me to move to a country that is effectively shut November to March because of extreme weather.
     I did have a great summer, however. There is no humidity here, and almost every weekend brings a local harvest celebration: a community get-together to share food and drink and enjoy good times before the nights close in. This summer, I watched an old-fashioned tug of war at the sheep-shearing festival, contemplated a go on a bouncy sheep and marveled at the skills of a tightrope walker. I ate raspberries by the pound in the rosy haze of the raspberry festival, and got thoroughly sticky at the honey festival. You should taste the honey here; it’s meadow by the mouthful.
     In my hometown of Goris, in the south of Armenia, we are famed for our Mulberry Festival. In a field filled with mulberry trees — the fruit, dark purple and larval white, is known as toot here — everyone gathers to ­sample each other’s wares.
     Most of the food is free, for Armenians are generous and hospitable people and still new to capitalism. But the farmers and householders do sell packaged mulberry products: vodka, wine, jam and syrup for sore throats. A liter of wine is sold in a Coke bottle. It costs 1,000 Armenian dram: $2 U.S. Half a liter of vodka, again sold in an old soda bottle, is $3. Should a kid dive into mother’s handbag looking for water, a glug or two of homemade ori — the Armenian word for vodka — would strip the skin from a toddler’s throat.
     Sitting on a hay bale in the shade, I ate pistachio nougat and drank a tot of vodka while I watched people eating mulberries straight from the trees and took in a couple of men playing nardi, the Armenian name for backgammon. I got chatting to a gay couple from Australia. They had just come from Iran, a couple of hundred miles south of here, and were on their way to Georgia, many hours of travel north.
    “Try the beetroot with the sheep cheese,” said the taller Aussie. “And get your mulberry wine from the French guy over there.”
     Homosexuality is illegal in Armenia and, let’s face it, not popular in Iran. I asked the less lanky antipodean if they had felt under threat. “Not at all,” he said. “Iran is surprisingly secular. It was Ramadan when we were there, but no one we stayed with was fasting. Everyone was very friendly, glad to see us. It’s not at all like you see on TV.”
     Three teenage boys rode by on a hijacked donkey. Vodka may have been involved. An Armenian grandfather showed off his overdressed baby to this American grandmother. A Japanese American with a man-bun sampled the green beans, fish dolma and red currants. Ten-year-old boys in itchy vests of Armenian design got ready to dance. The duduk player blew out his cheeks one last time. His instrument, uniquely Armenian, makes a beautifully melancholy sound that’s a mix between a kazoo and Irish pipes.
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     The wistful wail of the duduk made me yearn for the alt-grass sound of the Eastman String Band, floating over the West River on an autumn day. Fall here in Armenia will be beautiful, but I miss the sounds and smells and salt of Chesapeake Bay and the familiar rituals like the Shady Side Oyster Festival.
 
 
Liz Barron, a resident of Anne Arundel County, is spending two years as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Armenia, a small republic in the Caucasus, between Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iran. Follow her blog at marigoldmoment.com and continue to read about her Peace Corps experience in Bay Weekly. 

Bari Galust Hyastan. Good luck. Goris is a beautiful town to be a volunteer in.