table is so filled, guests must lean back to let
more dishes in. And more come, as if Ararat's
icy head is a mound of food and spring's thaw
has opened a stream that ends in this flat on
Between where I am sitting on one end and where
Artur and Yulia sit at the other is a carpet of
cuisine beginning with platters of pickles and
cheese and olives and ending with four different
salads. The cheese has been laid out in twists
that intersect with slices of meat onto which
the olives are laid, not at all haphazardly, to
create an artistic culinary mosaic even the hungry
hesitate to disturb. The salads are topped with
the white of half a boiled egg into which toothpicks
hold slices of cheese that form tiny "sails",
as if the cut cabbage and carrots make an ocean
on which the egg boat floats. Greens have been
carefully shaped in an oval bowl to look like
a nest, on top of which a carrot has been carved
to form a flower with a black olive as its pistil.
At each end of the table are a collection of
drinks: Coca-Cola, Fanta, Jermuk, wine, vodka,
juice. . .
There are 15 of us around a table that in most
civil societies would seat eight. Elbow room is
not an issue at Armenian tables and I've come
to believe that they crowd as many guests around
a table as possible if for no other reason than
the joy of reaching over each other to get at
But first comes the ritual of being seated. I've
seen it last up to half an hour, even when few
guests are present:
"Nsteq (sit), nsteq."
"Che (no), che. Duk (you) nsteq."
. . . And on and on in some battle to see who
can be the most polite, then sitting to violate
most rules of dining etiquette. Armenians make
eating sport, a test of endurance gladly attempted.
Creases have barely formed on seated trousers
and skirts before the scene erupts into elbows
moving past faces and arms reaching with empty
utensils on the outbound and full, dripping forks
and spoons on the retreat.
I have a nose that could benefit from alteration,
albeit not by the means to which I am exposed
each time I sit at such tables. Forks glide by
at nostril level then back again hauling half
a hog, a potato or a slab of cheese.
Throw in Diaspora, and this is a culture with
at least two languages, neither of which apparently
has equivalent words for "please pass".
And on a Sunday afternoon on Habalyan Street
or the dozen other addresses I am privileged to
indulge in such scenes, there is no more fun and
tasty place to be.
On this day I look at these young faces around
me. They are descendents of a generation my parents
knew as the "starving Armenians". It
is an image hard to conjure at this table.
We are here to celebrate Hayk's birthday and
his and Tatevik's second anniversary. The guests
are former comrades from his army days in Karabakh.
And they are faces that have become familiar to
me over five years.
Karen and Valery and Egishe and Hovik and Mais
and Artur. I saw most of them first in army uniforms.
Today I see them next to their new wives and I
meet three children that have been added to this
extended family in the past two years.
I have spent summer nights with some of them
in Karabakh fighting bugs and eating bachelor
food. This day is considerably different.
They have, if not careers, at least jobs now
and one of our toasts this day is for the good
fortune that two of these couples now own their
These are not fancy people, nor extravagant.
They travel by minibus or drive modest cars and
if their tables are not always this full, they
at least have the means for making it so on special
days like this.
I am often asked if things are getting better
in Armenia. In this house on this day, things
are pretty fine.