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Saturday, 22 December 2012

Gingerbread was brought to Europe by an Armenian Monk. Whaaat?

The following blurb is copied from Wikipedia.  Another thing we Armenians can brag about. 

Gingerbread was brought to Europe in 992 by the Armenian monk Gregory of Nicopolis (Gregory Makar) (Grégoire de Nicopolis). He left Nicopolis Pompeii, to live in Bondaroy (France), near the town of Pithiviers. He stayed there 7 years, and taught the Gingerbread cooking to French priests and Christians. He died in 999.[1][2][3]During the 13th century, it was brought to Sweden by German immigrants. Early references from the Vadstena Abbey show how the Swedish nuns were baking gingerbread to ease indigestion in 1444.[4] It was the custom to bake white biscuits and paint them as windowdecorations.
The first documented trade of gingerbread biscuits dates to the 17th century[citation needed], where they were sold in monasteries, pharmacies and town square farmers' markets. One hundred years later the town of Market Drayton in ShropshireUK became known for its gingerbread, as is proudly displayed on their town's welcome sign. The first recorded mention of gingerbread being baked in the town dates back to 1793; however, it was probably made earlier, as ginger was stocked in high street businesses from the 1640s. Gingerbread became widely available in the 18th century.

Originally, the term gingerbread (from Latin zingiber via Old French gingebras) referred to preserved ginger. It then referred to a confection made with honey and spicesGingerbread is often used to translate the French term pain d'épices (literally "spice bread") or the German term Lebkuchen (bread of life, literally: cake of life) or Pfefferkuchen (pepperbread, literally: pepper cake). The term Lebkuchen is unspecified in the German language. It can mean Leben (life) or Laib (loaf), while the last term comes from the wide range of spices used in this product.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

"Saint Agnes's Eve" – January 20 – St Agnes, Patron of LOVE for Catholics – St Sargis Patron of LOVE for Armenians

The  night of January 20 is "Saint Agnes's Eve", which in Europe is regarded as a time when a young woman dreams of her future husband. In Armenian tradition we have a similar night about which, last February, I wrote on my blog. 

This superstition has been immortalized in John Keats's poem written in 1819 – "The Eve of Saint Agnes".  

St. Agnes, the patron saint of virgins, died a martyr in 4th century Rome. The eve falls on January 20; the feast day is on the 21st.  

According to tradition, Saint Agnes was a member of the Roman nobility born circa 291 and raised in a Christian family. She suffered martyrdom at the age of twelve or thirteen during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian on 21 January 304.

Here is the story.  
(When you're done reading the story of St. Agnes continue to read about a similar tradition in Armenian culture)

On the twenty-first of January in what is customarily believed to be the year 304 A.D., a thirteen-year-old Christian girl, Agnes of Rome, was martyred when she refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods and lose her virginity by rape. She was tortured, and though several men offered themselves to her in marriage, either in lust or in pity ("Catholic Forum"), she still refused to surrender her viriginity, claiming that Christ was her only husband. She was either beheaded and burned or stabbed (sources vary), and buried beside the Via Nomentata in Rome. She became the patron saint of virgins, betrothed couples, and chastity in general, and iconographers almost always represent her with a lamb, which signifies her virginity. The eve of her feast day, January 20th, became in European folklore a day when girls could practice certain divinatory rituals before they went to bed in order to see their future husbands in their dreams. Fifteen hundred years after her death, St. Agnes' Eve would translate itself into one of the richest and most vivid literary and artistic themes in John Keats' poem. 

(John Keats has been my favorite English poet – In my Romantic years, eons ago. I was obsessed with Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn.") – 

The Catholic Encyclopedia says: Of all the virgin martyrs of Rome none was held in such high honour by the primitive church, since the fourth century, as St. Agnes.

The following story on Armenian Saint, the patron of LOVE.


             We Armenians have our own patron of LOVE, and he is Sourp (Saint) Sargis. The origins of the beautiful legend of Sourp Sargis are unknown, but this legend has made him the most popular saint for Armenians.

             There are a few different versions of the Sourp Sargis tale. I like the one which portrays St. Sargis or "Sergius" as a Roman commander a miracle worker whose army of 40 soldiers defeated an enemy of 10,000.

             According to the legend, after the great feast to celebrate their victory, all forty soldiers and St Sargis himself were tricked and intoxicated by a "ruler" who then asked forty damsels to thrust sharp daggers into the hearts of sleeping young men and kill them (and we complain of violence in today’s movies!). Just one of the girls, enchanted by the beauty of Sargis, disobeys the order and instead of killing St. Sargis, she kisses him. Sargis awakes, and distraught by what he sees, he jumps on his white horse, not forgetting his savior (of course), and dashes away while a powerful storm rages outside...

             Since then, a rider on a white horse has become the symbol of love in Armenian culture. The holiday of Saint Sargis doesn't fall on a specific date, but is tied to the calendar in a similar fashion as Easter. It always falls on a Saturday, usually during the first week of February. It is believed that the night before St. Sargis Day is the coldest night of the year. That superstition was certainly true in Tehran as I was growing up, but it is not always true in Southern California.

              There is an interesting tradition in Armenian culture (same as European) connected to St. Sargis day. On the evening before the holiday, unmarried girls and guys pray to the saint, asking for his help in their love affairs. Before they go to bed they eat a special salty cake with no other food or drink, so that in their dreams they will see their destined lover or their future spouse giving them water.

              My mother remembers one night when she had not yet met my Dad. On the Friday of Sourp Sarkis, after her aunt made her eat the salty cake, she dreamed that she was at work. She used to work at the Iranian National Railroad as a draftswoman. In Iran, at work places it was customary to have a guy to serve tea to workers. Mom dreamed that she was very thirsty and she asked the guy in charge of the teahouse to give her water.

              The following morning her aunt asked her if she had had a dream. She answered that she had seen Mammy (the guy at the teahouse) giving her a glass of water. Little did my mother know that she would meet my Dad at her office and they would get married. At the age of 92, she still remembered the glass full of clear water that Mammy gave her in her dream.

              My Sourp Sargis dream came to me a few years before I met my husband. In my dream I was in a store and I was negotiating with the owner of the store, who was a young guy. When I told my dream to my mom the next morning she said maybe you'll meet a young businessman and marry him. That's what happened! I met the most ambitious guy who at age 21 had his own advertising business.

              When I was raising my own family here in America (as we say "Odar aperoom" on foreign shores), I was somehow distracted by daily challenges and never told my daughters about the tradition of Sourp Sargis. So they never had significant dreams foretelling their future husbands.

              In Armenia it is acceptable to celebrate the Feast of St. Sargis not only according to church rites and prayer, but also according to various folk traditions. This year the holiday fell on February 4, and I was lucky to find a clip on the Internet showing a reenactment of the legend outside of the Sourp Sarkis church in Yerevan. At the end of the ceremony, which included dances and a play, a young guy dressed in costume as the Saint, rode on his white horse. The audience, parents and youngsters, were outside of the church watching the play. They were all bundled in warm clothes from head to toe.

              Don't you think, there must be a connection between all these traditions? The Armenian Saint Sargis, the American St. Valentine and St. Agnes. Another version of the legend tells that St. Sargis same way as St. Valentine was martyred by an Iranian king.  And isn't that interesting that all of those holidays fall in the dead of the winter? You be the judge...

Monday, 19 November 2012

If I had My Life to Live over –– quotes by Don Herold

Words. by Don Herold

Of course, you can't unfry an egg, but there is no law against thinking about it.

If I had my life to live over, I would try to make more mistakes.
I would relax. I know of very few things that I would take seriously.
I would go more places. I would climb more mountains and swim more rivers.
I would eat more ice cream and less bran.

I would have more actual troubles and fewer imaginary troubles.
You see, I have been one of those fellows who live prudently and sanely, hour after hour,
day after day. Oh, I have had my moments. But if I had it to do over again, I would have more of them – a lot more.

I never go anywhere without a thermometer, a gargle, a raincoat and a parachute.
If I had it to do over, I would travel lighter.

If I had my life to live over, I would pay less attention to people telling us we must learn Latin or History; otherwise we will be disgraced and ruined and flunked and failed.
I would seek out more teachers who inspire relaxation and fun.

If I had my life to live over, I would start barefooted a little earlier in the spring
and stay that way a little later in the fall.
I would shoot more paper wads at my teachers.
I would keep later hours.

I'd have more sweethearts.
I would go to more circuses.
I would be carefree as long as I could,
or at least until I got some care- instead of having my cares in advance.

I doubt, however, that I'll do much damage with my creed.
The opposition is too strong.
There are too many serious people trying to get everybody else to be too darned serious.

The following is similar words. by Erma Bombeck

 IF I HAD MY LIFE TO LIVE OVER - by Erma Bombeck

(Written after she found out she was dying from cancer)
I would have gone to bed when I was sick instead of pretending the earth would
go into a holding pattern if I weren't there for the day.
I would have burned the pink candle sculpted like a rose before it melted in storage.
I would have talked less and listened more.
I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained, or the sofa faded.
I would have eaten the popcorn in the 'good' living room and worried much less about the dirt when someone wanted to light a fire in the fireplace.
I would have taken the time to listen to my grandfather ramble about his youth.
I would have shared more of the responsibility carried by my husband.
I would never have insisted the car windows be rolled up on a summer day
because my hair had just been teased and sprayed.
I would have sat on the lawn with my grass stains.
I would have cried and laughed less while watching television
and more while watching life.
I would never have bought anything just because it was practical,
wouldn't show soil, or was guaranteed to last a lifetime.
Instead of wishing away nine months of preg nancy ,
I'd have cherished every moment and realized that the wonderment
growing inside me was the only chance in life to assist God in a miracle.
When my kids kissed me impetuously, I would never have said, 'Later.
Now go get washed up for dinner.' There would have been more 'I love you's' More 'I'm sorry's.'
But mostly, given another shot at life, I would seize every minute. Look at it and really see it. Live it and never give it back. STOP SWEATING THE SMALL STUFF!
Don't worry about who doesn't like you, who has more, or who's doing what
Instead, let's cherish the relationships we have with those who do love us.

Friday, 16 November 2012


My love affair with Armenia...
It began when I stepped into the old Zvartnotz Airport in Yerevan.  My husband and I were traveling with a group from California. For most of us, it was our first visit to Armenia.

After a layover in Paris, we boarded an Armenian airline to Yerevan.  The flight attendants, young Armenian women with over-sized figures, had white outfits which added to their size. They all also wore heavy makeup – a hallmark of Yerevan.

The flight was scary.  The airplane seemed in disarray, with loose seats and water dripping from the sides. However, we were impressed that Armenia had an airline. 

The year was 2001. Ten years earlier, in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia had gained its independence.
On one hand, the bruised and battered country was adjusting to the separation from the former Soviet Union and trying to find the road to recovery. On the other hand, the country was slowly emerging from the dark years of not having electricity and water because of the six-year war (1990-96) with Azerbaijan.  The war had taken thousands of lives, consumed the vitality of the country and put Armenia in a distressed situation.  

I grew up in Iran with a sense of "Garod" - a nostalgic feeling towards Armenia. (There is no exact translation in English for the word "Garod.") Armenia was a forbidden destination because it was one of the Republics of the Soviet Union.  

It was not until the '80s when the Iron Curtain was slowly pulling back and the doors to the Soviet Republics were opening. We Armenians could visit our homeland, and we could experience what our literature and the verses of our poets had praised about its beauty.  

Everyone in our group, including myself, was so excited that we had finally arrived in our ancestral homeland, a place that belonged to us but which we had never set foot in.  

It was late evening when we arrived in Yerevan.  The dimly-lit airport looked deserted. Like Soviet-era government buildings in movie scenes, it was cold, unimpressive and outdated. The interior walls with pink and grayish marble looked very tired and gave us an inkling of what to expect entering Yerevan.

After a woman officer stamped our passports, my husband asked to take a picture with her.  To my surprise she accepted and got up from her chair came out of the cabin to take a picture.  I still cannot believe that a governmental officer was willing to have such a photo taken. The snapshot shows my teary eyes and how I'm holding back my emotions.  Sometimes I wonder if there is another people with so much deep feeling towards their motherland.

We arrived at Hotel Ani, just before midnight. The hotel was totally refurbished and tastefully decorated with Armenian-themed furnishings and interior design.  The spacious lobby and the elongated check-in granite counter put us in awe.  I had not expected to see a swanky hotel.

After we got situated in our rooms, our tour director told us we could have a sandwich at the café next door. The street was again dimly lit, but it didn't prevent us from noticing the extremely wide sidewalk.  It was another jaw-dropping experience.  I could not believe how wide the sidewalk was. Besides the "Champs Élysée," boulevard in Paris, I had not seen such wide sidewalks anywhere else.  

The following morning, our first day in Yerevan started with a visit to the Genocide Museum.  It was a heart-wrenching experience to view the exhibition of the tragic pages of our history.  From there, our tour bus took us to Victory Park to see the imposing 51-meter statue of Mother Armenia, a commanding upright figure of a woman symbolizing the powerful Armenian woman by holding a heavy sword at her waist.  

On the way back from Victory Park, we were ushered to the manuscript museum which is one of the richest depositories of ancient manuscripts and old books in the world.  

Visiting all those monuments and museums, and traveling through the streets of Yerevan and seeing the multitude of stylish buildings – although in dilapidated condition – put me in awe. The wide sidewalks and public art throughout the city were incredible.   It was hard to believe that all these architectural gems in Yerevan were built during Soviet times.

Growing up, all I had heard was anti-Soviet propaganda and how our homeland Armenia had suffered under communism.  But now in Yerevan things were different from what I had expected.

It seems there was a gap in my education.  I was not aware that under Soviet rule, Yerevan was reconstructed with an urban plan very close to European cities like Paris or Vienna. 

After two weeks of traveling in Armenia, we returned home charmed by all the beautiful sites we had visited in Yerevan and throughout Armenia. I decided on a whim: "Given a choice, Armenia is where I'm going to retire."

Yes, Armenia got under my skin.   I was hit by the "love-bug."  As Frank Sinatra left his heart in San Francisco, I left mine in Yerevan.  

FAST FORWARD, JULY 2012 – to be continued....

Celebrating the feast of Blessing of the Grapes in Armenia

My grandmother refused to eat grapes each year until the day grapes were blessed at the church by the priest.  

Each year, on the Sunday closest to the date of August 15, the Armenian Church, all over the world, celebrates the Blessing of the Grapes. The feast predates Christianity, and has its roots in pagan times.  Originally, it was a traditional homage to the gods.  Today, the blessing of the grapes has become a religious ceremony dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

When I was growing up, there was a kind of red grapes in Iran that were small, bead-like and had dense clusters.  They were the most delicious grapes you'll ever eat.  They are called "Yaghouty" meaning "ruby-like." 

The Yaghouty grapes come early in summer, and they're gone before the blessing of the grapes.  When I was young, I was so sad that grandma had never tasted Yaghouty grapes.  I remember I would insist that she try just one small piece, but she would refuse.

She had other rules, too.   For instance, she would not touch a needle to sew anything after sunset on Saturdays until Monday morning. She was very strict in complying with her rules.  Sometimes I wonder why I didn't take after her and make rules of my own. Instead, I raised my kids with a "lassez-faire" attitude.  I'm not sure whether I was right or wrong.  

I was surprised recently to learn that my friend Sona, with whom I was traveling in Armenia, had this practice in common with my grandma. She also refused to eat grapes until they were blessed.  

We decided make it special for Sona to break the fast while we were in Armenia.  We looked around and came upon a church not too far from Yerevan, built in 1212 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Coincidentally, on the day of the Blessing of the Grapes,  the church was going to celebrate its 800 years of existence.

We did a little more research, and learned that the church was located not too far from a village named "Aghtsk," where a yoga retreat had recently been established.  What?

A yoga retreat at a village in Armenia was the last thing I would have imagined.  We decided to stay at the retreat for a week, and on Sunday, St. Mary's Day, visit the church and attend the mass for the blessing of the grapes.  

the yoga retreat pictured from outside

The retreat was a labor of love completed by Al Eisaian and his wife from Glendale, California. I asked Eisaian about his purpose in establishing it.  He told me that, as many Armenians living outside of Armenia have adopted the country and contributed to its development, they too wanted in their own way bestow a gift to the Armenian homeland by building a yoga retreat.

They bought an existing home on the top of a hill in the village, added a few more rooms, and very tastefully remodeled the whole building inside and out. They kept the indigenous color of red on the outside walls and added a generous wrap-around terraced balcony.

It won't be an exaggeration if I say the building, especially the bathrooms, look like they have sprung out of the pages of Architectural Digest. It took them six years to complete the renovations to the building, and it happened that Sona and I were their first official guests!

interior of the Yoga retreat
We stayed there for a week.  At the village, we learned that pilgrimage to the church, on St. Mary's Day, is a well-kept tradition. Nouneh, the assistant director at the retreat, had a hard time finding a car that on Sunday could take us to the church. Everybody wanted to take their own families that.  Finally, after many inquiries, Nouneh was able to arrange for a local man to drive us up to the church.  

The road was winding and it took about 20 minutes to reach there.  As we got close to the church, we noticed colorful umbrellas that vendors had set along the path.  There was a huge crowd, and police was monitoring the traffic.  We arrived at the church before noon. the mass had not yet concluded, and the grapes were not yet blessed.  

Usually, old Armenian churches are constructed in two parts.  First you enter an anteroom which is a large hall with many pillars, and from there you enter a smaller room where the altar is and where the mass is conducted.  We bought candles and lit them in the anteroom.  

At the altar, the priest and the deacons in their colorful and decorated silky robes were conducting a beautiful mass.  Sona could sing along with the choir.  I envied her because she knew all the words by heart.  Fresh flowers were placed at the foot of the altar, and when the mass was over they brought grapes in plastic grocery bags and they made room for grapes by rearranging the flowers.

There, we met Mykael Mykaelian, who introduced himself as the Godfather of the church.  Every year, someone is selected as the Godfather.  He invited us to his home in Yerevan for an offering of "madagh," which is a meal prepared from the meat of a sacrificed animal.  Invitations like this are common in Armenia but we declined his offer because we had other plans.

"Madagh" is a mercy offering intended for the poor and needy, but it has turned into the food served on St. Mary's Day.  The tradition of sacrificing an animal can be traced back to the Old Testament and the book of Genesis.

Four years ago, on the day of St. Mary’s feast in 2008, I was in the city of Nice in France. The Armenian church there was celebrating its 80th anniversary and the "blessing of the grapes." They, too, provided free meals to the crowd from their morning sacrifice of the lambs.

Celebrating the Blessing of the Grapes at an old monastery church was a memorable experience for Sona and I.  We tasted another tradition of a country steeped in history.  On the way up to the church and down, there were numerous cars stalled with their hoods up, a testament of the poor conditions our people live in.  The driver charged us 12,000 Dram, about $30, to take us up to the church and back to Yerevan.  It was totally worth it.  

One of the many cars we saw with their hoods up