Sunday, June 24, 2012

Roosevelt Island Ride

Have you ever seen a happier Dominic?


Me neither... at least not in this city.

The joy exhibited in the photo to the left is a result of the fact that about a month ago Dominic and I got some new wheels. Well, not exactly new wheels, but new to us. Thank you Jon, for heading off to Brazil and leaving us your spare bike! We have a whole new lease on life in NYC.

As it turns out, several of my bucket list agenda items involve exploring the city outdoors. Now that we both have bikes it's all possible. You wouldn't believe how much you can see while dodging taxis, pedestrians, horses pulling carriages, men pulling carriages and dogs. It's fantastic.

We took our first trip into the city only to leave the city by tram. After hauling our bikes to 60th on the D train we cut across to 2nd Avenue where, for a quick swipe of your Metro card, you can travel by gondola to Roosevelt Island.

Roosevelt Island is small. You can easily ride a lap around the entire thing in an hour, but we took our time and stopped to check out the landmarks like this old-fashioned lighthouse.

It was a beautiful day. After our lap we stopped for lunch, took naps and read on benches overlooking the Manhattan skyline and the East river.

After crossing back over there was one thing we wanted more than dinner: 16 Handles. I know there are a lot of options when it comes to frozen yogurt, but this place is the best. We found a bike lane and rode four miles out of our way to eat cups of fro yo. Beware, they charge by weight and let you control the amount and type of toppings...

Monday, June 18, 2012

Culture in Woodlawn

Dominic and I spent father's day enjoying the cool, sunny weather in Woodlawn. Woodlawn is just about the furthest north you can get in the Bronx, but is conveniently tied to our neighborhood by a parkway where we can take our bikes. Nothing like leaving the Dominican Republic for Ireland and Puerto Rico in one day.

Woodlawn is heavily populated by an immigrant Irish population. There are pubs everywhere and walking down the street you can easily hear strong accents from people of all ages. In the restaurant where we stopped to have lunch there was a sweet pedal/Celtic harpist named Alice who played a tune for us and inspired me to take up lessons. She recommended starting with the piano, but don't you think the soothing sounds of a harp would help release tensions in our busy, noisy apartment building?

On our way home, we stopped at a park that has always been on our morning running route. We hadn't ever paid attention, but today to our surprise we realized the Bronx has a remote-control car race track just minutes from our house. Sure enough, this Sunday there's a race competition at 9 a.m. It's a funny little hobby, but the Puerto Ricans seemed devoted.

Having bikes has been one of the greatest joys of our summer so far. As we rode along the parkway we enjoyed seeing the families gathered to celebrate the holiday. There were certainly open fires, littering and barbecuing, but with so much culture (i.e. music) keeping people happy and the park festive, I couldn't see why we would complain.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Tsiran Miran

Without a doubt, Armenian apricots are the sweetest, juiciest, tastiest apricots in the world. As it turns out, they decided to ripen just in time for my visit. 

On one hand, I was delighted with my timing. I'd be able to eat as many apricots as my heart desired and they'd be straight from the field. Talk about eating local. On the other hand, I couldn't have come at a busier, more stressful time for the village of Surenavan. 

On Tuesday morning I decided to call my dear friend Alla to schedule my visit. I had gotten myself all ready to spend the day catching up and seeing her family, but I quickly realized just how busy it was when Alla even said she was headed to the field to help and couldn't meet until that night. This was going to be a hectic week.

It didn't take long for me to change my plans though. At Heriknaz's pleading I threw on a pair of jeans despite the 90+ degree weather and headed down to try my hand at apricot picking. How hard could it be? Let me tell you, it's not easy. 

Obviously the apricots ripen in the sun, so the higher in the tree you go the better the picking is. Balancing on tree limbs is one thing. Balancing while reaching for the best fruit is even tougher. You'll see above that Sourik* (left) and Gevorg (right) have their shirts tied at the waist and just drop the fruit down through the neck hole until the weight's too much and they have to unload. This, in addition to pesticides, children, is another reason why we wash our fruits and veggies before eating.

Here are my two little monkeys Samvel (left) and Hermine (right). They're Donara's two youngest (after baby Sara) and best buds. 

The climbers unload their shirts into huge white bins that the stronger boys carry across the field to where the women are organizing the crates. Souren, Donara's oldest son, (above) was showing off his weight lifting skills by carrying it over his head. It's an impressive feat actually, I bet that crate easily weighs 30 lbs. He will dump out this bin on one of the nearby tarps. 

The women sit next to the tarps with two 1.5' x 3' crates. When I arrived the first day Donara told me that the organizing was hard work and that I wouldn't be able to do it, but I was determined not to sit around the house like a bump on a log all week so I told her I'd study her methods and then try it out with her supervision.  

You stand up the first layer of apricots with the bottom facing up. I added a little touch of style by lining up the seams which I think got me bonus points when she graded that first crate.

You follow up with a second layer, making sure to squeeze the little ones along the side so a lot of shifting doesn't take place while they're being transported by truck or plane to Moscow. Once the second layer is laid you've set up a nice little bed to put the biggest, ripest, roundest apricots on top on their sides. This looks great and keeps everything in place.

Look at that excellent organization! It's hard work, but you get to reward yourself with an apricot or two along the way so who can complain? 

It takes about 20-25 minutes - depending on the selection nearest you on the tarp and the size of the apricots that day - to fill one crate. The first day, four of us did 70. The next day 60. Thursday, the team filled 150 crates. These three weeks will be the busiest this village sees all year. Everywhere you go people are running to their fields, tractors are motoring by, boys are packing up to spend the night in makeshift houses to guard their goods. It's quite a sight. It's a big deal though. Some families make enough from their harvest to do expansive home remodeling projects. Some are able to have their children's weddings. My family talks of buying a small apartment in Yerevan with this year's earnings. Beyond basic living expenses, a strong season opens opportunities for families to do what we might do with a hefty tax return. 

My host brother, Gevorg, contracted with 'a rich man' from Hoktemberyan who will buy our apricots and sell them at a huge markup in Russia. He sent the workers to organize the crates to make sure he wasn't getting cheated. Apparently if he didn't do this the tendency for farm owners it to put poor quality produce at the bottom of the crates and the good stuff at the top. One day, the rich man and his posse showed up to check on the workers. There I sat, organizing right along beside his hired help. He came up and asked who I was and what I was doing. Donara and the ladies explained that I was the American family member who liked the work, did a good job, and wanted to help. He walked over, messed up my work (I was on the third layer of this particular crate) and agreed. I felt pretty proud of that. 

The weather this time of year is excessively hot, but we all had to eat. Each day around 2 p.m. we would gather on a crate-made table for cheese, sour cream, bread, bologna, tomatoes, cucumbers, water and fruit soda. When Heriknaz (my host mother) heard I wouldn't touch the bologna she also sent some zucchini and green bean dishes that were fantastic. 

Working in the field is good, honest labor. It's exhausting, but in a very different way from the work I do on a regular basis. I had time to chit-chat with Donara and the ladies. I had time to think about how happy Dominic and I would be owning a farm. I was able to actually produce a product and watch my work stack up before my eyes. It was a really rewarding experience. 

*Sourik is 73 years old. He works harder in this field than just about anyone and inspires everyone to keep up despite the heat, lack of sleep and discomfort. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Cultural Norms

Armenians have three comments for me no matter what:

1. You've gotten skinny. 
2. Why didn't you bring your husband?
3. Are you pregnant?

It's not just me, observations about weight and family status are top conversation topics for Armenians. Telling someone they look fat or skinny is like telling someone it might rain today. It's just a topic of discussion. 

My host mother, Heriknaz, is worried about Dominic and I. I didn't have the guts to explain family planning or how in America the norm is to wait for a bit between the wedding and pregnancy, so she just thinks we have a problem. In the typical Armenian village, the wife can get pregnant as soon as her wedding night so the very idea that someone could be happily married for almost three years and not have children is pretty unbelievable for dear Herikaz. 

So, Heriknaz took it upon herself to combat my issues herself. A true tatik, (grandmother) she fed me constantly and purposely prepared only my favorite Armenian dishes. We went to four different churches to light candles and pray that I might return to America and have a baby. She was a woman on a mission.

Sara (held by dad Gevorg) is enjoying the church tradition. Heriknaz (right) is all business.

You can't tell in the photo above, but she's asking the Lord to give Dominic and I a baby boy this month. The prayers are specific, direct and hopeful. I love her for dedication. 

Friday, June 08, 2012

Seeing Suren. Sarah in Surenavan.

Kill the sheep,

Prepare the pig BBQ,

Start the fire,

and set the table because...

Souren is home!
It feels unbelievable, but exactly six years ago I arrived in Armenia to set off on an adventure called the Peace Corps. When I left the country in 2008 I had loosely promised I'd return in five years or when the family's eldest son Souren returned from the army, as it turns out we arrived on the same day. 

In the village for the week my hope is to see as many people as possible, let everyone know how thankful I am for their patience and generosity during my service, and enjoy seeing the status of some of the small contributions I made while in the country.   

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Bedford Mosholu Community Association

I have written about the Bedford Mosholu Community Association before, but since last night was our final meeting (perhaps forever) I couldn't help but dedicate one more post to the value of this organization and the people I've met attending the monthly meetings. As Dominic says: "This is America at it's best".

Barbara and her team run the show around here. They know what they want, they know what it takes to make sure our elected officials don't neglect our little pocket of the Bronx, and they are the best connected citizens I've ever met. Barbara's in the white shirt next to a police officer in the photo above. This photo was taken right before she reminded him to make sure the 'No BBQ pit' sign was posted on the parkway before the Fourth of July celebrations begin.

 I'm standing next to Grace our treasurer in the photo above. Would you believe these two have been married 60 years? Grace is a diva and one heck of a story teller. When she was trying to get me to sign up to be a block watcher she told me of how she once saw a man get shot outside an ice cream parlor. Last night she told me how she overcame her shy and timid personality at age 43 by taking a job with Avon. If you ask both of them how they've kept their marriage together for more than six decades they'll tell you: "Always respond with, 'Yes, Dear'."

This is Mary (above). She is in charge of mailing out the postcards that remind people to come to the meetings the first Wednesday of the month. At age 97, there's nothing slowing her down - she has to keep up with Grace!

Here's Barbara, my friend Mary, and I. Mary moved to the Bronx 27 years ago for 'only one year'. She said it could happen to us as well and we kindly told her it probably would not. I asked her how she stays fit and healthy and she says her body's strong from overcoming the NYC pollution. All that grit and grime go straight to these lady's spirits and they become resilient, invested citizens. They're out and about on these gritty streets at 9 p.m. to make sure they know what's happening in their neighborhood.

I'm not a politician, but I do care about the place where I live. I hope we find another community association as active as this one where we move. It's nice to be involved.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Wave Goodbye

To grad school that is. We may have finished our tenure at Fordham University this weekend, but we're not quite ready to say goodbye to the Bronx. There's still so much to experience!

Case in point: Wave Hill. In 1843 Wave Hill House was built as a country home from George W. Perkins (a J.P. Morgan partner). He was a generous man, so in 1960 the family decided to give the land and home to the City of New York. Thank you, Perkins-Freeman family for this cultural institution.

Dominic recently inherited a bike from Jon so we rode the 4.5 miles into Riverdale to check out the views of the Palisades and the Hudson River from our corner of the city.

I wanted Dom to be able to celebrate his monumental accomplishment of graduating with significant honors by relaxing and taking a moment to rest. What did he do?

You can take the student out of the library... 

He has been adjusting to life on the job hunt well in my opinion. In addition to printing resumes and reviewing cover letters, he made this strawberry fruit leather in our dehydrator last night. A man of many layers, that Dominic is.