Armenia may have its problems, but ask anyone on the street what you should do for a particular ailment, and they’ll have a solution for you. They’ll say it with conviction, accompanied by colorful stories of how it has worked for others, and unwritten guarantees that it will work for you. Now, you may expect that I’m going to devote this entire column to the magical healing properties of Armenian cognac or Russian vodka, since they’re prescribed for most everything from the common cold to fatigued muscles, but I’m not.
It must be because I grew up with home remedies that I’m so receptive to them now. Mosquito bites were a regular nuisance on the open plains of North Dakota, as was the unbearable itching that followed. I don’t recall hydrocortisone cream was so readily available at that time, and if we had to pull out the calamine lotion that meant the mosquitoes had chased us straight into the poison ivy. Instead of either, I often made a paste of baking soda and water in the palm of my hand, and then rubbed it on the bites. It wasn’t pretty, and it eventually brushed off, but it worked.
A lot of things work, it turns out. During my first months in Armenia, one of my friends got a wicked sunburn on her back at Lake Sevan (the warnings are true: it really is closer to the sun than it appears). She returned to her host family’s home in pain a day later and the house grandmother took charge. Tatiq commanded her to remove her shirt and lie face down on the bed. Then she dumped a bowl of matsoun (yogurt) on her back and spread it around. The yogurt soothed her skin and took out the burning feeling that my pale skin knows all too well. I was converted.
The Peace Corps provided us with a book called “Where There Is No Doctor,” from which I learned that yogurt does more than relieve a sunburn. Who knew that you could address (close your eyes, guys) yeast infections by inserting a tampon that had been dipped in yogurt? There was much to be learned from that handy resource, and it holds a space on my bookshelf to this day.
Cognac isn’t the only way to cure a cold. Not bathing, eating hearty servings of soup, consuming multiple cloves of raw garlic, and drinking tea are among the more common refrains, but they don’t stop there. Once I had a nagging cough for which my friend’s mother served me grated radish mixed with honey. I ate it willingly, and it didn’t taste as weird as it may sound. They were genuinely befuddled that it hadn’t worked by the next morning. Maybe I’d forgotten about the rule on not bathing.
For several years in Yerevan, I lived just a few blocks from an Indian (and Indian-operated) restaurant called Maharaja near the Yerdasartakan metro station and the jazz club called Paplavok. Health advice was included with the service, though not advertised. When feeling in ill health, I would visit the restaurant and list my concerns, and then they would suggest a menu item to fix what ailed me. Extra spicy soup for colds, lassis for digestive issues, plain rice for stomach aches. “Eat your vitamins, don’t take a supplement,” the owner, and then-medical student, told me. Indeed, I ate a whole lot of my vitamins there.
No doubt the most memorable remedy ever applied to me happened at the massage parlor one day. I had regular massages, but I’d gone that day because my body ached from the onset of the flu. The masseuse felt my head and said I had a fever. “Can I massage you with vinegar and aspirin?” she asked as though this were part of her normal intake procedure. “As you wish,” I muttered as I flopped onto the table. Honestly, had she suggested something involving a ouija board and ear candling, I probably would have agreed—I was miserable. The unlikely concoction seemed to bring down my fever and set me on the right track. So what if I smelled like a tossed salad on the cab ride home?
During my recent time in Armenia I noticed that there appears to be a growing knowledge of remedies for type 2 diabetes. One cab driver told me that he manages his blood levels by occasionally drinking a liter of water mixed with the juice of two lemons and a mashed head of garlic. (God only knows how we got on the topic in the first place.) And a friend told me of a potent herbal powder mix imported from Syria and sold at the Haleb stores in Yerevan that is sure to bring your blood sugar down to a normal level. Of course, I brought some back for family members with diabetes. I’m not sure how well received it was in a small unmarked plastic bag with a twisty tie, and a description with directions scribbled on a receipt.
I was a little overzealous during a trip to the shuka (market) to buy dried fruit this summer. I love dried fruits in Armenia. Pears, watermelon rinds, plums, apples, cherries, apricots, you name it. I love individually dried fruits, dried fruits with nuts in them, fruit lavash, and sweet soujoukh. So you can imagine what happened at the market and how much I ate after I got home. An hour later, holding my gut in vain, my friend Gohar pulled out her homemade apple cider vinegar and mixed two spoonfuls with a cup of water for me to drink. I was surprised by the good taste and how quickly it aided my digestion. Gohar, on the other hand, was not surprised—she never misses an opportunity to use home remedies. The next day, she used some cucumber peels from our dinner to cleanse and refresh her face. Ingenuous.
There’s much to be learned from home remedies passed down for generations in Armenia. I’m sure there are many home remedies that I’ve yet to try. Stinging myself with nettles to invigorate my central nervous system, for example. (Though I still have scars from an encounter with some unidentified weeds on a hike in the mountains about 10 years ago.) Stinging nettles sound painful, but given the success I’ve had with what’s been suggested in the past, I won’t knock it ‘til I’ve tried it.