Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Tkemali

Gnank, Kara, gnank, Iren.

A dark cloth hung in the sparsely-furnished main room over the corner where the bed stood. Kara invited me into the kitchen, where we perched on low stools, and sipped tea. She began counting the stitches in her latest knitting project: a long, red sweater for her daughter, with the word, "Iren", in large, black, Cyrillic letters, embroidered on the back. Iren was named for a queen, which suited her; Kara was, in my eyes, close to royalty.

Watching Kara move was a lingering pleasure. Her long chestnut hair shimmered and shifted slightly while she fetched the kettle, and she lifted it behind her ears in a slow gesture. Her eyes were bright green with hazel flecks, in striking contrast to her creamy complexion, and the high-arching brows, which announced an Armenian heritage. "I am only half Armenian," Kara said apologetically, with an unusual intonation to her Russian, her curved lips pursing slightly. "Nowadays, it is not considered the 'thing'--most Armenian men want a full-blooded Armenian woman, so, being half-Russian, I was lucky to find a husband," she explained, while my eyes followed the aquiline line of her nose in profile, and I found it difficult to imagine her having trouble finding a spouse.

Kara told me many times, how difficult it had been to live in Yerevan, when Iren was a baby. "The electricity and hot water would come on for maybe an hour a day," she said. "We wore three or four sweaters. Winter in Yerevan is no joke. When the water came on, we would wash everything and ourselves until it ran out." When Iren was tiny, she told me, they had bundled her up like a mummy, so she wouldn't get sick.

Uncovering a large glass jar, Kara pushed it towards me across the table and asked if I had ever tried tkemali. "It is a green plum sauce, made from my relatives' plums. There are hardly any trees left in Yerevan, we burnt them all for fuel, but these were from the countryside," she said. The speckled eyes gleamed in a spurt of homesickness. She spoke to Iren in Armenian, and the little girl answered.

I tried the tkemali on some black bread. The color of it was mostly green; I tasted tart fruit, and sweetness, some spice, and the pungency of garlic, mint, and coriander. "I like it," I admitted to her. Kara ladled some of the sauce into a small jar as a gift for me. We discussed which stores were most likely to have milk, or sour cream, and what was new at the detsky mir (children's store) down the road. Kara asked me, as she often did, about life in the United States, and I tried to explain what things were like, how commercials should not be believed in, and that most people, such as myself, did not look like they had just stepped out of a Hollywood movie.

When I brought it home and opened the jar, I noticed the tkemali was nearly the same shade as Kara's eyes. While it lasted, I had the luxury of spreading it on a little bread, or on some hot noodles, and would close my own eyes and imagine that I was in an Armenian orchard, some time before the earthquake struck and the war with Azerbaijan began, and that Kara and I would be sitting, chatting contentedly under a plum tree, until I heard her soft voice saying, "Gnank..." "Let's go ..." and the illusion would dissipate.

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