Photo by Carlo Bevilacqua
Vardan, a friend of a friend, insists that I should meet a “real” Armenian family.
We meet near his grandfather’s house in Bangladesh, a suburb of the capital Yerevan, so called because of its distance from the city center. Nothing is Neo- Classical here. Soviet tower blocks, charred by decades of exhaust pipe detritus, block out the sky.
As we enter the staircase of a block of apartments, Vardan apologizes for the smell of urine. Here, as in other former Soviet cities, communal space is little-valued. Entry-halls and elevators are for the stashing of cigarette butts and the relieving of bladders. Behind the door of each home, he assures me, everything is different.
His grandfather’s apartment proves him right. The walls are lined with books, faded Armenian classics in neat cloth binding. Crosses and makeshift devotionals occupy the many corners. The sofas are covered with traditional fabric; carpets line the floors. The steam from cooking dolma fills the room.
As we are introduced, Vardan’s family set upon me. They embrace me as I am passed from one to the next: Lilit, Vardan’s younger sister in impeccable miniskirt; their mother Anahit; grandfather Nikolai and his wife, who introduces herself only as Tatik (Grandmother). Eventually, she relents, allowing me to call her Babushka instead.
When we start talking about Armenia, they grow excited. Nikolai leads me out onto the balcony. The terrace – on the 7th floor – overlooks the gray and dilapidated towers of Bangladesh; Nikolai does not see them. He points beyond the buildings, at the horizon: at the spiking outline of Mount Ararat, clearer here than anywhere else in Yerevan. “You see, our history is there,” says Nikolai. “All our history is there.” I no longer see Bangladesh either.
When I return to the living room, I find that plates have already been set. I had expected to stay only for a chat, a cup of tea at the most. But Lilit is helping her mother and grandmother lay out a cornucopia of dishes: coriander-steamed beans and home-cured meats. Babushka has done the pork, Vardan tells me; her husband the beef, with cucumber and tomato salad, fresh bread, dolma with strong yoghurt. To drink there is strong coffee, lightened with fresh milk that is newly boiled on the stovetop for extra safety.
Lilit notices that my ring, the traditional comedy and tragedy masks that serve as the international symbol for theater, matches her necklace. She beams with excitement. I ask her if she is an actress.
She laughs. “I’m a schematics engineer,” she says. “But I love art – all kinds of art.” She hopes to travel to Italy with her brother but the visa process for Armenians going abroad, even on holiday, is a laborious one. I tell her about my visit to the 5th century Mayr Tachar – the Mother Church – in the town of Echmiadzin, which I have just returned from. She sighs. She believes in God, she tells me, but she does not go to church as often as she should. “Only once or twice a month.”
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