A Short Story

Hagop was from Baku. He moved to Yerevan at the age of 17 to honor his father’s dying wish so that he could study architecture there. It was the right career path for his son, he believed, and being a structural engineer by profession he thought it best that his son realize what he could never possibly accomplish in his lifetime. In Yerevan, Hagop encountered scorn and jest from people he came into contact with, including classmates and some professors, for being a Russian speaker, as his Armenian was poor.  At the end of the semester he left Yerevan and returned to Baku to continue his education there. After a short stint in the military, which was obligatory, he went to Moscow to complete his studies. Then his mother called him back to Yerevan to be with her and find a wife. He quickly found a job and soon settled down to have a family. Unexpectedly, the Soviet Union began to crumble and he found himself out of work along with millions of others shortly after Armenia declared its independence.

It was January, 1994 and the war in Karabagh was raging. Due to the brutal cold, there was no ability to heat the home properly with the absence of natural gas and unpredictable allocation of electricity. Hagop’s family wore several layers of clothing to safeguard them from the numbing chill. By chance of luck he was able to land his hands on a wood-burning stove though a personal connection, but since there wasn’t a consistent supply of wood to be had they also burned old newspapers, cardboard boxes and books he deemed to be of little personal value. Special padding prepared from old clothes and odd pieces of fabric was used to completely close the gaps in door and window jambs. They all huddled around the stove in the living room where it was installed and only left that room to go to the toilet or outside the apartment.

Hagop had thought about going to fight as a volunteer soldier but he thought it best to stay put and care for his three young children as best as he could manage. Work was virtually non-existent as the state architectural firms had closed three years prior. Joining the army was not an option for him, whether or not it meant defending his own people, as his ancestors were from Karabagh. He could never muster the courage to kill a man. His conscience would never have allowed it, and he thought he would probably go insane if he did not heed its demands. He still had Azeri friends in Baku. What would he do if he encountered an old pal on the battlefield, he thought? Would he be able to kill him? He deduced he could not, that it would not be possible for him to even wound another man. Besides, he had never handled a rifle in his life. When he served in the military during the Soviet area he was part of a special intelligence unit and was not required to wear fatigues or train for war. He practiced shooting a pistol—that was his only experience with a gun. Perhaps, he pondered, he could manage to donate some of the money he made from selling dollars on the street, which was his only source of income. It was a long shot, but nevertheless it was the only thing he believed he could do to participate in the war effort.

With the little profit he made from the currency exchange trade he was able to buy a kilo of cheese, a kilo of sugar, a box of tea, some bread, assuming it could be found, cigarettes for himself and other essentials on which his family could survive for an entire month. If there were more foodstuffs to be had in the markets or stores lined with empty shelves for most of the week, he bought them. Given the situation the country was in, in the midst of a bitter war with a trade and energy blockade imposed by its nemesis to the west, he was bestowed good fortune to place that much on the table. 

The spot where he chose to work was on the stairway at the foot of Gassian Street leading into the underground circular passageway at Paregamutiun Square. He stood on the steps about 20 feet below the initial decline downward to stay out of sight from policemen walking the beat.  There were others doing the same a few steps below him as well as in the adjacent stairways. Once in a while he would be detained by the police or even the KGB as the national security service was still commonly known, but he was always released within a few hours after they determined he posed no threat and persuaded him to be back with a carton of cigarettes. It was a routine procedure. But the streets were practically devoid of men as they feared being suddenly whisked away while out and about and sent directly to the front lines. It was not a rare occurrence. There was always the need of fresh soldiers. Men who knew how to actually hold a rifle properly and shoot were few in number. Save for some specially trained regiments of volunteer soldiers, many of whom made the long trek to the front from abroad, the men were generally unprepared for combat. Their courage and determination led them to battle. Their legs simply put motion to the purpose of their convictions, gun in hand, motherland to protect. One way or another they would eventually learn to fire straight. They had to. It was a struggle for self-determination.

Hagop arrived at his spot every morning at eleven, then he would wait. There were days when he didn’t sell a single dollar. He waited in the scorching heat or in the bitter chill of late afternoon. The climate meant nothing to him, he became impervious to temperature fluctuations. He was able to tune out discomfort because it didn’t matter. The family needed to survive. He channeled his energies to the task, lingering in the moment.

But he didn’t want very much from life. In a perfect world, he would sit and draw, that’s all he cared about. Just sit and draft architectural plans, with the hopes of being able to support his family in the process.  To him it didn’t seem to be an unmanageable demand, but given the circumstances before him at the time, he would have a while to wait before he could turn his fortune round.

One winter morning as he walked up Kievyan Street towards Paregamutiun Square, managing as best as he could with his tread-less rubber-soled shoes to stay erect along the ice-coated sidewalks, he saw from a distance a primer gray school bus with its windows painted. He suspected what was waiting for him but he was not about to run back home. He had a job to do.  The bus had parked in the middle of the square. It was silent, no motor running, and it seemed that there was no one about or even on board it.  He stopped on the curb and studied it, listening carefully for the slightest proof of life, but there was nothing, no sound.  He stepped off the curb and began to walk across the street, which was void of any other vehicles. There was something not right, he was sure of it, but he went along with his business as if nothing was unusual.  Three officers emerged from his stairway as he approached it and grabbed his arms, the third held onto the back of his wool coat and inadvertently tore a portion of the center seam that ran down the middle. They forced him towards the bus and when they approached the doors folded open. He was pushed up into the bus and landed in a seat at the front. About 20 men were seated in the rear, completely motionless and mute, gripped in terror.

“Where are your papers?” one of them asked him.

“In my coat glove pocket.”

“Give them it to me.”

He reached for his passport in which was inserted other bits of identification papers with seals stamped on them. One was an invalid driver’s license, another was his architects union card.

“Let’s see here… Mkrdichian, Hagop of Vartkes. All right then, Mkrdichian of Vartkes, what are you doing out here, anyway?” the officer asked.

“Going to work.”

“To sell dollars, right brother? We know all about that, we’ve been watching you for some time without you having a clue. Well, we’re here to officially inform you that those days are over. You’re off to Stepanakert.”

A vision of Hagop’s children shimmered before his eyes. He began to panic. “I hold a PhD,” he blurted.

“Bullshit.”

“I do. I swear it.”

“Prove it. I don’t see anything in your papers that indicates you have a higher education.”

“I can show you my diplomas.”

“Then give them to me. Why didn’t you show them to me before?”

“I don’t carry them around, they’re at home.”

“At home? That’s useless to me. We’re here together, now,” the officer smiled. “In another 10 minutes I think we’re going to be great friends. We’ll probably figure out that we’re related somehow. I bet you’re from Mush. And I bet your grandfather was born there, and kept chickens in the garden, planted vegetables there and made a nice little home for himself and the family. Am I right? My grandfather was from Mush, too.  In fact, his wife’s maiden name was Mkrdichian. You see, I told you we’re cousins, if not by relation then through association at least.”

“Too bad my grandfather was really born in Martuni.”

The officer’s tone suddenly changed and his brow tightened. “Now I’m going to tell you like I would my dear brother—sit down and shut your mouth. I don’t care about your motherfucked diplomas, sisters or whatever else.”

“Look, I only live a short distance away, on Kievyan Street. I can call my sister, she can bring them here to show you.”

“How are you going to call her, pal? You see any telephones around here? Or do you have one up your ass?”

Hagop pointed out the bus doors, which were still open. “Listen, that grandpa over there… you see him? In front of that green kiosk, selling cigarettes. He has a phone, I can pay him to call my sister, and she’ll bring the diplomas. It’ll take five minutes for her to come here. I swear it.”

The officer gazed at him for several moments and frowned. His voice relaxed and the arrogance faded.  “Alright, Mkrdichian, let’s call your sister. Come on.”

They made their way to the kiosk.  The old man stared blankly at Hagop and the officer, wondering what they wanted from him.

“Is your phone in order?” Hagop asked him.

“Yes, sure it is,” the old man said.

“Then hand it to me. I want to make a local call.”

He looked at Hagop, then caste his eye on the officer again before passing the Soviet kitschy, blood orange-colored rotary dial phone to him.

“How much for the call?”

“Ten dollars, brother,” he said.

“What? Wait a minute… why so much?”

“Seems you need to make a very important phone call by the looks of things. My service is presently in high demand, so you have to pay more, brother. That’s the way it goes.”

“Man, will you look at this? Capitalism is in full swing in Armenia. How sweet,” Hagop retorted. “Here’s your ten dollars. Now I have a phone call to make. Hand it over.”

 “You tell her she has ten minutes, no more. Then we get moving,” the officer shouted.

Hagop tried the line twice before the connection was made. “Hello, Hasmik? I’m fine, but listen to me carefully. Bring my diplomas to Paregamutiun immediately. Don’t ask questions, just do it.  Be here in five minutes, you understand? That’s right, in five minutes.” He hung up.

“She’ll bring them, she’s coming now. You’ll see, in just a few minutes now,” Hagop confirmed.

“Yeah, alright, I’m sure she will,” the officer said patronizingly. “Might as well smoke while we’re waiting, right? Give me a cigarette, Mkrdichian. You light up too, you like you need one.”

Hagop put a cigarette in his mouth and offered one to the officer from the pack. The officer grabbed it from him, placed one cigarette between his lips and pocketed the rest. Hagop lit a match for the officer before lighting his own cigarette. Then the officer snatched away the matches as well.

“So tell me something Mkrdichian, did you ever serve in the Soviet army?” the officer asked.

“Yes, of course.”

“Where did you serve?”

“Kiev.”

“What regiment?”

“Special intelligence unit, third department.”

The officer studied Mkrdichian’s eyes. He sensed no fear in them. “You better not be bullshitting me, you understand?”

“Yeah, I know….”

“I’ve never done this for anybody, I want you to know that. For no one! I can’t figure out why I’m even doing it for you. It makes no damn sense at all. If it turns out that you’ve been messing with me you’ll be dead, got that asshole?”

Hagop looked at him, but said nothing. He smoked and looked the officer in the eyes. Zen had taken hold of his senses and thoughts. Every pore in his body was dry, his eyes were vivid, gleaming like diamonds, conveying assurance, in full embrace of his destiny.  There was no indication that he felt anxious or was in distress.  He was in communion with the moment.

“There’s something about you I just can’t place. It’s obvious you’re not like those poor saps on the bus.  I can tell just by talking and looking at you that you sure as hell are different from them. And right now I’m dying to see why. You don’t seem very scared for one thing, which is strange considering that those bastards are shitting their pants.”

The officer looked at his watch. “You don’t have much longer to show me what you need to. You’d better pray that your sister shows up in the next two minutes, let me tell you something.”

The wait was agonizing. He was suspecting that his sister was not able to find all the necessary documents as she erroneously fumbled through the wrong piles of papers. By the time the week was out he would be dead, he thought. It was a morbid moment he found himself in. He imagined his weeping children who went malnourished and lived uncomfortable, wretched early years of their lives. An irrelevant, absurd formality would deliver that horror to them, he guessed.

They were standing close by the bus and the officer was getting agitated. He was fidgeting and looking at his watch at 10-second intervals.

“She hasn’t shown up so we’re out of here. Come on, get on board. We’re late as is it.”

Just then Hasmik began calling out to Hagop from the far side of the square. “Wait Hagop, I’m coming. Wait one minute!”

When she came up to them the officer roughly took the papers from her. “So these are the diplomas? Thank you very much. Now you may leave.”

Hagop looked at her and nodded his head to indicate that she should walk away, fast. She knew he didn’t want her to interfere, and in any case, it may have made more problems for them if she opened her mouth. 

The officer examined the documents carefully, reading each line of text and scrutinizing every seal. A lit cigarette hung from the side of his mouth, and some ashes dropped onto the diploma he had been examining. He did not brush them away. 

“Let’s see here. A PhD in architecture… and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, some other uninteresting papers….” he said, shuffling through the documents between his hands. 

“Wow, look at this, there’s even an award certificate for a youth piano recital competition. Man, you certainly loved to study, didn’t you? What a smart boy we have in our midst, it’s amazing. Indeed, very impressive.” the officer taunted. His peers looked on, snickered and smoked. 

Hagop remained still and said nothing. His diplomas and identification papers were handed over to him. The officer stared into his eyes again. He saw that the captivating brilliance of them was still there.

“Go home, Mkrdichian.” The officers boarded the bus and it departed the square.

***

On his way home his conscience became strained and he felt a tightness in his abdomen, the same he endured during times of acute stress. He pondered the incident with the officer, and the circumstances that led to his salvation from ill circumstance. The discomfort persisted for several days while the memories of that fateful day were still fresh in his mind, despite his contentment that he, after all, would not be separated from his family. But by end of the week he was concentrating on his business affairs.

The only thing that Hagop appreciated from Levon Ter-Petrosian as a president was the man’s insistence to prevent any intellectuals from going to war. In that way, Ter-Petrosian, whom Hagop hated passionately for the wartime blunders he believed the man was making, was oddly his and his own family’s savior. Yet for years after that episode he felt an gnawing sense of guilt that started to plague him immediately after he had learned that the other lost souls onboard the bus had all been killed in battle, including the very officer who spared him.  

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Being Creative

I’ve made a New Year’s resolution to be more creative than usual this year. In all earnestness I am going to attempt to make real headway in completing my novel. It’s hard to say where I will get with it, but the important thing is to try. Being creative is a state of being that anyone who has an artistic bone in their body strives to reach. It is an existential plane of being; one reaches nirvana every time a major work in his or her own eyes is finally completed. For me at least, if several weeks pass without being able to really write something meaningful I feel a profound sense of disappointment in myself and I become irritable, frustrated with my incompetence and lacking imagination. But when I write an article or story that I am proud of to some degree the disappointment is replaced by profound gratification. I suppose it’s the same for all writers, musicians, artists or designers. There is the constant need to create, and when you aren’t producing you feel partially dead.

Currently I am working on the restoration of a short film I made in 1999. It was my fifth or sixth project, and the last that I shot using super 8 mm film, which is a wonderful, magical and versatile medium of capturing moving images. Usually you need a considerable amount of light in most instances, but being the experimental maverick that I am I never bothered using a light meter. On this film, called Carriage of Dreams, it waned on the actors’ patience as on one occasion at least the result was complete blackness because the room I shot the scene in wasn’t lit properly. The transfer to VHS was deplorable, although the film was shown at the AFFMA film festival in Hollywood back in 2000. Out of over 3,000 entries my film was one of about 40 that were screened, a major accomplishment in my artistic career. Now the film is being transferred to high-definition video, so a lot more detail will be noticeable and hopefully the images will be significantly brighter than depicted in the VHS version. Once the restoration is complete I will undoubtedly put it up on the Internet on one of these gimmicky, amateur video-on-demand Web sites. Maybe there’s a site that caters to smalltime filmmakers, I’ll have to research that. The thought of putting it on YouTube is not very appealing, but that option may have to do. I will also be posting a short story I am just about finished with here as well very soon. Maybe some fragments of the novel will make their way here, too throughout the year. That way I can get some feedback from friends or random people. Tings….

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Food Can Be Beautiful

I just read an interesting article in the New York Times about how a homesick Mark Twain one lonely day in Italy decided to devise a menu of his favorite foods. I thought I would do the same on this Thanksgiving Day to follow, albeit distantly, in the genius writer’s footsteps. As the writer of the article Andrew Beahrs points out, most of the foods he described are now unavailable or are illegal to consume. However, for the most part all the morsels and meats in the list below should be yours for the savoring, depending on the part of the world you are residing. Without further ado, and in no particular order of preference:

Grilled filet mignon. Served rare, with béarnaise sauce or “au poivre” with toasted green peppercorns (or both).

Slow-roasted aged prime rib. Sliced at the table and served rare, with pureed potatoes, creamed spinach, and buttered popovers accompanied by a vodka martini with extra green olives. I savored this meal at the House of Prime Rib of San Francisco nine years ago with my faithful dining companion, Chrissy. And as I remember I had a peculiar, tingling sensation that numbed my body, which started in the back of my head and gradually made its way down through my chest to my loins, where it blossomed. It was perhaps the most fabulous, memorable dining experience I have had to date.

Barbecued wild boar chops. Seasoned with salt and pepper. It is a specialty of the Syunik region of Armenia, and if done right it’s superb. Tastes like beef, but better.

Roast duck. Preferably with orange glaze. In my university years I cooked up a frozen duck that I purchased from the supermarket, and again Chrissy was present. Unfortunately I didn’t realize at the time that the duck had to be placed on a rack within the roasting pan to let the fatty drippings drip down away from the bird. It was a pleasant, but greasy disaster.

Sautéed frog legs. Dressed with lemon, garlic, and a little oil. I first tried them at the age of 8 at a family New Year’s bash. Another remarkably memorable meal.

Brussel sprouts. Braised and served in a rich cream sauce topped with ground black pepper. A great accompaniment to roast turkey.

Chi kufta (a.k.a., kheyma). Twice-ground (or else pureed in a food processor) lean beef, such as bottom of the round, with very little fat, mixed by hand with fine ground bulgur and spices such as allspice and ground black pepper, then formed into a round or oblong shape about one to two inches high, or optionally bite-sized pieces, topped with chopped parsley and white onions; served uncooked. Optional condiments include sea salt, extra virgin olive oil, ground cumin, black pepper, and a hot pepper paste made from habanero or other sorts. This dish is found in Western Armenian cuisine and I believe Lebanese as well. Chi kufta has been served to me just about my whole life, and thus I’m unable to pinpoint the first time I ate it—I am guessing at my grandmother’s table. I have never had an unpleasant experience with this excellent delicacy.

Yellowfin tuna nigiri. Served with wasabi mustard and lite soy sauce. Accompanied by other types of choice nigiri and select sushi rolls that don’t contain imitation crabmeat, it makes a light, but satisfying meal.

Steamed young asparagus. Cooked full-length, topped with pure butter. This can even be eaten as a standalone dish without meat. Absolutely fantastic. Perhaps the best asparagus I have had grows wild in Armenia’s Lori region—in the spring vendors pick and sell it along the roadside.

Hamburg à la Linda. My mother’s invention. Ground beef, with about 25 percent fat, flattened in a shallow pan and seasoned with salt, pepper, and Worcestershire sauce, topped with sliced tomatoes and green peppers, then broiled for 20 minutes. Served with authentic Lebanese or Syrian pita bread. This simple meal was a childhood favorite, and to this day I swoon when I smell it sizzling in the oven.

Roast leg of lamb. Marinated in dry, red wine overnight with garlic cloves, black pepper and dried rosemary. Served medium rare. Can be accompanied with rice pilaf seasoned with cinnamon, blanched almonds, and white raisins. A hearty, scrumptious meal.

Roast chicken with garlic, lemon and tarragon. Click here to read my recipe.

Dolma. Ground beef mixed with rice, salt and pepper, then stuffed in tomato, green pepper, zucchini, or eggplant shells. The meat mixture can also be rolled in grape or cabbage leaves. They are packed in a pot and pressed down with a heavy plate, then covered and simmered in water with tomato paste. The stuffed grape leaves (or Sarma for some Armenians) should simmer with whole cloves of garlic in the pot and optionally, baby-back lamb ribs, without paste. Served steaming hot with yoghurt (or matzoun as the Armenians call it), optionally mixed with crushed garlic. Many Middle Eastern cultures make this dish but Armenians excel in its preparation. A great meal for frigid, winter evenings to warm the bones.

Sini kufta. Two layers of ground beef mixed with bulgur, with a layer of ground beef sautéed with diced onions, parsley, pine nuts, salt and pepper sandwiched in between, placed in a shallow pan. Several diamond-shaped cuts are made through the layers prior to baking the meat in the oven. Served with yoghurt. This is another Western Armenian delight.

Chicken piccata. Perhaps one of the simplest chicken dishes you can prepare. With a basic rice or potato side dish, you can’t go wrong.

Mante, or more aptly put, Armenian wonton soup. A smidgen of ground beef mixed with diced onions, parsley, salt and pepper, is placed onto a piece of flat dough cut about an inch square. The sides of the dough are pinched to reveal part of the meat mixture on top. The wontons are then assorted on a cookie sheet or in a shallow pan and toasted in the oven. After they are done, the wontons are simmered in chicken broth, but they should maintain their form and not fall apart. Served in a bowl topped with yoghurt mixed with crushed garlic and sumac. Perfect for meat and garlic lovers who enjoy a hearty soup now and then. It’s fun to make, too.

Typical Lebanese mezze. Plates of taboule, hummus, baba ganush, lebane (strained yoghurt dressed with olive oil, crumbled dried mint and paprika), and mahamara (a red pepper, pomegranate and walnut or pine nut paste mixed with finely ground breadcrumbs). Lebanese cuisine is exquisite and most importantly, it’s very healthy food.

Caesar salad. But prepared the way it should be, tossed with a coddled egg and grated Parmesan cheese, then topped with freshly ground pepper. Anchovy fillets packed in Italy are a must. Obviously, you can’t use anything but romaine lettuce.

Crisp, ice-cold wedge of iceberg lettuce, topped with thick, Roquefort dressing. This is a sensational prelude to a fine meal of beefsteak (naturally served rare).

Fresh walnuts in the shell. Wet walnuts, in other words those with kernels that are still moist having just fallen from the tree, are sweeter than dried ones. If the shells are thin enough walnuts can be cracked between the fingers in pairs.

Oysters on the half shell. Served at any restaurant that sells fresh, quality fish. Topped with a bit of lemon, horseradish and Tabasco sauce. It’s best to slurp down this manly mixture right from the shell so as to savor the juices, radish and spicy vinegar that delicately tinge your throat as you swallow.

Beverages to wash it all down:

My favorite beers: Pilsner Urquel, Kilikia, Harpoon IPA, Bass Ale.

My favorite wines: Rioja, Côte du Rhône, Areni (from Maran Winery only).

Tan. A simple yoghurt drink, with water and salt to taste.

A good, clean carbonated mineral water. Especially that bottled in Jermuk, Armenia. San Pellegrino is great, too.

Cold, freshly squeezed orange juice. Classic and unsophisticated, but very refreshing.

If you’re going to eat, might as well eat heartily.

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Being Good

For several years I have been obsessed with the idea of trying to be a “good” person. Yet when someone asked me the other day what that means to me, I could not immediately come up with an answer. I believed that to be good you must be good to others. Selflessness and humility are traits of being in such a state of self-perception. Apathy is shunned with proactive, yet self-perceived gestures of good faith favored. If you think of the welfare of others close to you before yourself, perhaps that is also a sign of being good. And if others react positively to your deeds which you as well as they perceive as embodying good (or else naiveté), then you are successful in honoring your pledge to yourself. My concept of good is related perhaps to a personal idea of moral good as opposed to a religious good, as I do not feel intensely passionate about my Christian faith, although I consider myself Christian. Actually lately I have been influenced by the concepts of Zen Buddhism. Nevertheless, at times I am lead astray by thoughts revolving around negative issues and scenarios in which I have been placed by work associates, friends, or unknowns.  Situations arise where I am slighted by someone’s words or actions directed at me, and subsequently I become obsessed at trying to find the root cause of the problem, how the situation could have been handled differently, in what ways, positive or negative, could I have reacted at the time, and so forth. Nevertheless during such moments negative thoughts are usually prominent. They run contrary to my pledge to be a good person, again something that is a subjective concept, perhaps a selfish one.  Thus I am left to wonder–if I strive to be good by doing good for others, am I in reality bad due to the negative thoughts about my relations with others as a consequence of a situation which led to my having such thoughts? When I choose to ignore the presence (outside of my home) of those who I perceive to have wronged me by words or actions or both, am I indeed being far from good? Does not a good, moral person forgive those who have insulted him as he believes they have? And how does he absolve himself of such a crisis, how can he come to terms with forgiving someone who has caused him much anxiety, anger, or grief? These questions perhaps cannot necessarily be immediately answered, yet they are things to ponder. The concepts of good versus bad have intrigued millions of souls perhaps since the dawn of modern man. Yet it is disconcerting that no cohesive, common answer about the differences between the two concepts exists across all civilized cultures.

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Live and Love Life



Live and love life

Fear not the pain and pleasure

Uncertainty and circumstance

The unknown and revelation

Live to feel, strive to discover

Live so that others rejoice

In the karma you radiate

The same which inspires and comforts

Those who admire you and are in awe

Of your triumphs of the will

Instill a rapturous life

And be resolute

Your tomorrows are brilliant

Enlightenment is your destiny



Live and love life

Remain true to your convictions

And do not permit uncouth minds

From breaking your aspirations

Love your life, love yourself

And bask in the vibrant day

Bringing new hopes and reveries

That cannot be decimated

When love dominates the soul

Love so that you will be loved

And let your life conjure peace

Harmonious and in communion with eternal tranquility

Which you fortify in your heart

For us to rejoice in the love you emanate

Just live, love and be.

 

Copyright © Christian Garbis 2008

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Wine in the Afternoon

About 10 days ago I ventured out to wine country in the Santa Barbara region of California with my friend Hamlet. From Los Angeles it is a two-and-a-half hour drive there cruising at a comfortable speed of 70 mph. He did some research the night before our venture and stumbled upon some information about Cambria Winery. Using the amazing technology of GPS, the man in the wallet-sized black box told us how to get there while simultaneously displaying driving maps with all the roads clearly visible on its screen. He even chastised us when we were heading in the wrong direction.

Santa Barbara county is mostly arid and a borderline desert. The fact that anything at all can grow there is truly miraculous. Despite the dry, steamy weather grape vines are abundant and stretch for hectares into the distance, blanketing the scorched earth. In one vineyard I noticed that at the end of every row of vines some roses were planted-we assumed that the gesture was a symbolic offering for good fortune. There was no one around to ask what the meaning of it was.

After a few lefts and rights we finally made it to Cambria. The winery is one of the oldest in the area with a history of over 20 years. Just outside the building that houses the oak barrels in which the wine is aged for several years there are four rows of large stainless steel vats about 10 feet in diameter and nearly 60 feet high. The wine is kept there for a year according to what we were told before they are transferred into the oak barrels, depending on the vintage. Yet some wines are bottled after maturing for only one year in the steel containers. There was also a café deck complete with tables, chairs, and shade umbrellas. But inside was where the wine sampling could be experienced.

We approached the wine bar and after a few moments the jovial, bearded gentleman there started pouring away the whites. He started with a Pinot Gris before switching to Chardonnay. I am not a big fan of white wines, especially Californian, so I did not experience very much enjoyment from what was being poured into our glasses at first. I could not even finish my sample of the first white he poured and instead dumped what was left in my glass into Hamlet’s as he seemed to like it. After four samples of the whites we thankfully switched to the reds, namely Pinot Noirs and a Syrah or two. One Pinot Noir, a 2006 vintage “clone”, won some kind of an award apparently, so the people at Cambria seem to know what they are doing. Those wines are typically light in color, not an intense red as for instance a Côtes du Rhône has. And the Pinot Noir was generally lacking in character to some extent, smooth but boring to my palate. The 2005 Tepesquet Syrah we tried, however, was the type of wine I was hoping to taste. It was vibrant, with strong hints of carob and cardamom. The color was a deep dark cherry, and it was beautiful. Of all the wines we sampled it was the one which impressed me the most and was very reasonably priced at $19 compared with many others which were selling for well over $25.

Hamlet asked his mother to pack some cheese, fruit, and bread in a thermos container for the afternoon’s adventures. We noticed that beside the wine bar was a refrigerator which contained some soft drinks as well as cheeses. I noticed there was double crème brie for sale, so I purchased one and we headed out to the deck with a bottle of the Syrah. It was a fabulous fromage-et-vin infused afternoon, the kind you read about in a Hemingway novel, complete with the smoking of small aromatic cigars. We didn’t want to leave but other adventures were waiting for us in the city, namely the hunt for fabulous sushi. Besides, they unfortunately didn’t have any tents handy for us to camp in.

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Apricots

 

My eyes are full of apricots

Each one is honey ripe, the dew runs down

My fingers with each one I split

Her flesh is sensual, drenching wet and warm

Seductively succulent to the core

Sometimes the worm is there by the stone

To partake in the formidable feast

He never refuses to wave hello

Even when my desire compels me to devour

Whether she withstands the pelting spring hail

Or crashes to earth after a whooshing gale

Cracking her delicate skin

Apricot entices, she wears a golden grin

Then she giggles in ecstasy of the caress

Before thrusting her lover into sublime nirvana

 

Copyright © Christian Garbis 2008

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