Lena stood near the doorway to the living room. As I looked toward her to say my goodbye, her gaze moved to the floor. Her shoulders began to pulse up and down, and my heart sank. I walked over and placed my hand on her back. You never want to make your mother cry, do you?
Okay, so technically speaking, Lena is not my mother, though she offered me no less care. I met her on a sunny September afternoon when I arrived by taxi to her guest house in Dilijan, a quiet town in the northeast of Armenia that was once a retreat for artists and composers. Dilijan is situated in some of the greenest land in Armenia and is sometimes called “Little Switzerland” because of its forests and alpine meadows.
Lena’s home sat off of a bumpy side road a 10-minute uphill walk from the small town center. As I stepped inside, she smiled broadly and showed me the large space I would have to myself, including a living room filled with family photos, prayer cards and paintings of nature scenes and village life. Woven rugs covered the couch and chairs, and a plush lion rested on a pillow with a gold-link chain around its neck. The two-room bedroom area held four beds and a crib. White curtains hung over the large windows that offered a view of Lena’s small home across a narrow gravel and dirt road.
Lena and I shared only bits of common language. A fellow guest translated our initial greetings. We then relied on props and exaggerated smiles and head nods to communicate. When I offered a word or two in Armenian, Lena “aaahh”ed and laughed in appreciation.
That evening, Lena prepared dinner—always an option in Armenia’s small-town guest houses. The meal included rice with golden raisins and cinnamon; tolma (cooked cabbage leaves stuffed with meat); fried eggplant; and fresh garlic bread with melted butter. I filled my plate. Without asking, Lena then filled it some more, pouring the remaining rice on my dish and encouraging me to eat more fried potatoes. As the finale, I drank a glass of a tasty yogurt drink that Lena said was a probiotic. I thanked her for the food, and Lena took my smiling face in her hands. “Ohhhh, bella,” she said as she smiled back at me.
It was not the first time I had gotten such affectionate care in Armenia. The owner of a guest house in the southern Armenian town of Goris hugged me every time she saw me. Hospitality is valued in Armenia, and I sensed I got extra minding as a solo female traveler. Lena’s care, though, went beyond the warmth others offered.
My plans for Dilijan were to do some walks in the woods, maybe visit the local art museum or Haghartsin, a 13th century monastery that sits on a mountainside in a forest of green trees. I woke, though, with my belly tightly ballooned. I squirmed under the sheets and doubled over as I walked to the bathroom. My throat expanded with the sensation that I might throw up. I went back to bed, knowing my plans would have to wait.
Lena arrived to make my breakfast. I put my hands in a crossing motion in front of me and patted my stomach. “Ohhhh…,” she said, placing a hand on her left breast. “Coffee?” she asked. “Tea?” I declined and put my hands in a prayer position next to my head to indicate that I would rest.
Lena left but returned to check on me throughout the day. “Bridget!…” she called out in a sing-song voice. She stood near the foot of the bed making an eating motion with her hands in front of her mouth. “Yam-yam?” she asked each time as she looked at me with wide, hopeful eyes. I touched my stomach. “No, thank you” or “che,” I replied.
She had chestnut-colored, shoulder-length hair, wore no makeup and was dressed in a jean skirt and sleeveless burnt orange cotton shirt. I guessed her to be in her late 50s.
Lena kissed my cheeks and used her lips to check my forehead for fever. She wrapped her arms around herself and mimicked shivering to ask whether I was cold. Though it was warm outside, the room had a chill. I piled heavy blankets on myself, and Lena propped a space heater on a chair next to my bed.
On some visits, she searched for ways to entertain me, checking whether I wanted to watch television or pointing upstairs with a bright look. “Turistas?” she asked, wondering if I would like to talk to a couple I had met the day before.
By late afternoon, I began to feel better. I took a short walk, passing a dog sleeping in the sunlight that filtered through the trees, as well as several men huddled around a small table to play a board game. I bought bananas from a woman selling fruit and vegetables in town.
Near bedtime, I was sitting in a living room chair when I heard a faint whisper. “Bridgeee…” I turned toward the doorway. Lena was there, now wrapped in a pink terrycloth robe tied snugly around her waist. “Yam-yam?” she asked. “No, thank you,” I said with a smile, pointing to the bed to explain that I was going to sleep soon.
Though she seemed to understand, a short time later I heard the whisper again. “Bridgeee…” I looked over. Lena stood in the doorway with a loaf of bread on a cutting board in her hands. She wore a sheepish grin. I laughed. Lena let out a giggle.
She walked toward me with the bread, holding it out for me to touch. She spoke in Armenian, coyly tempting me with the fresh-from-the-oven bread as we both continued to laugh. When she left, she pointed toward the kitchen to say she would leave the bread on the table for me.
The next morning I kept the lights off as I got ready, hoping to give myself some time before Lena checked on me. On my way to the shower, we met. “Coffee?” she asked. “Tea?” I sat down for a breakfast of bread (“hats,” as Lena taught me) with butter; lavash (a flat bread that is a staple in the Armenian diet); cheese; cucumbers and tomatoes; sausages; and salami.
As I prepared to leave, she stood in the living room in her pink robe, her hair still matted from sleep. The tears came, and she motioned with her hands that I was thin and not eating. We hugged. While I had known all along that my stomach that would be fine once I gave it a rest, I could never fully convey that to Lena.
Her tears subsided, and Lena held up a finger for me to wait. She scurried out the door to fetch her laptop from across the road. It had a keyboard with both the Armenian and English alphabet. We sat at the living room coffee table and typed messages to each other on a translation site. “I was so worried about you,” she said. She told me that she loved me. I was welcome to stay longer or to come back for free anytime. She would take care of me.
Lena called a driver she knew to take me to visit Haghartsin. “Good man,” she assured me as I walked to the car, taking care of me to the end.