Hasmik crossed the square and returned with a packet of sugar, bought from the first of three small stores, each of which sell a little bit of everything. We began to hope that our breakfast, first mentioned 30 minutes ago, might soon appear. Hasmik was not the only person to pass the single table set outside the Mkhitar Gosh Hotel Two priests drove up in a Nissan, their long dark robes, ornate cross pendants and bushy beards looking out of place in the front seats of the near-new station wagon. Around us, women in flowered dresses, sleeveless cardigans, bright socks and flat mules began to set up stalls selling tat for tourists–people visiting Goshavank Monastery, high on the hill above the square. Just as all three shops in the tiny village stock the same items– hair dye, church candles, cognac, school socks and gata–so all the stalls compete to sell pomegranate charms, bags of herb tea, and items hand-crafted from stiff polyester fabric printed in traditional Armenian designs.
“Just how many people need a wine cosy?” we wondered as Hasmik once more crossed the square, visiting the last shop in the row of three this time. “And wouldn’t those waistcoats be itchy?” Hasmik came back with a box of salt.
By now the two priests were walking round the monastery grounds, looking at ongoing renovations to the main church and tutting over weeds sprouting from the roof of St Hripsime’s chapel.
The church complex has USAID-sponsored signage in Braille in five languages. Blind visitors from England, France, Germany, Russia and of course Armenia, know all there is to know about Mr Gosh and the history of the church. Some probably have rueful tales to tell about the perils of broken paving and steep slopes for the site is hard for even the fully sighted to navigate. Stands for other noticeboards surround the multiple domes, but they are all empty. It’s not clear if the signs have gone away or have yet to arrive.
A man in a hi-vis vest busied himself with path-sweeping as the priests passed by. He had started work at 9am on the dot. Yesterday, we’d seen him finish at 6pm, just as the cows came home through the square. Now the herdsman walked his cattle the other direction. The herd nudged past men playing nardi in the shade, and edged down the hill in front the apple tree and a couple of storage shacks. In all the excitement I didn’t see Hasmik embark on her third shopping trip. As she returned with a bag of rice we asked for a second cup of coffee.
“I’ll bring it now” said Hasmik. “and then I’ll bring some Melissa tea.”
“No hurry” said my brother, perhaps a touch sardonic.
Two young men in a Soviet era jeep rattled a few times round the square and then hared off up the hill. A badly battered Lada stopped where it could be seen and the driver unpacked a scale, boxes of plums tomatoes and grapes, and a sack or two of peppers. The back seat of the car was stuffed to the ceiling with other produce. People collected to shop, but Hasmik it seemed had no need of fruit or veg.
About 10 o’clock, the bread van stopped outside the hotel. Anahit emerged from the kitchen and bought three flat loaves– tonir made– and many batches of bread. Anahit picked what she wanted, tucking the flat loaves under her arm while she instructed the bread man to fill a plastic crate with everything else she needed.
Anahit and Hasmik are by far the most glamorous creatures in Gosh (pronounced Gauche). Anahit is manicured and bejeweled and owns a selection of sparkly tops. He hair is pink and the front and gold at the back. She is slim, serene and stately. Anahit was widowed four years ago and surely has no shortage of suitors today. Hasmik has hair that Rapunzel would envy Both women sport hair clasps that look like the belt buckles of medieval kings. They are magnificent. That’s both the women and the hair grips.
Hasmik struck out for one of the tourist stalls and came back with a handful of Melissa– lemon thyme. Anahit brought to our table a basket of freshly-cut bread, a bowl of soft-boiled eggs, local cheese and butter, and home made blackberry jam. We could see the bramble hedge that spawned the jam. We could hear the chickens who laid the eggs. Hasmik followed up with a French press filled with lemony tea, and some slices of ice-cold watermelon. The haze lifted over the mountains. A van full of German tourists creaked round the corner and reversed into a parking space. The parking attendant raced towards the van but was too late to assist. He had been chatting to the man with the limp who tends the square’s khorovats barbecue. Even before visiting the church, the Germans bought traditional aprons made in stiff, new fabric It was going to be a good day for the women trading on the square. Perhaps most people who stay at Anahit’s hotel don’t get out of bed until they know the bread van’s been. Those people miss out on a lot.