CAZENOVIA, New York. This town in central New York is home to the largest concentration of Freedonian-Americans in the nation, a fact that binds old-timers to newcomers such as Inglitzka Moribundaz, who was recently persuaded by her daughter Taonkyka to emigrate here. “I thought she’d never leave,” Taonkyka laughs. “She watched too many westerns in the fifties, and thought in America people were shot in the streets. I told her that was only in Chicago.”
Thursday afternoon finds Taonkyka holding a coffee klatsch to introduce her mother to some of her neighbors in this tightly-knit community, and the laughter flows as freely as the chikorskiu, a bitter blend of coffee favored by natives of Freedonia, a land-locked central European country formed after World War II from fragments of Belarus, an abandoned Six Flags Over Moldova amusement park and surplus modeling clay.
“Perhaps your maman would like to come visit mine,” Taonkyka says to Vlladadima Nousrtrz, who lives two blocks away with her mother, Zliesku.
“I don’t know,” Nousrtrz says. “She likes to stay home and dust her gew-gaws, she has become the Queen of the Tchotchkes.”
“My tchotchkes can beat her tchotchkes!”
Knowing the matriarch’s tendency to scour yard sales and thrift shops for figurines, the other women in the room chuckle–except for the newest arrival to these parts, whose eyes narrow to grim little slits. “She is no Queen of Tchotchkes,” Inglitzka says with a menacing tone. “I am Queen of the Tchotchkes!”
And so began a cold war to rival that between the United States and the former Soviet Union in the 1950s, complete with a tchotchke arms race, spying, defections and saber-rattling reminiscent of Nikita Khrushchev’s threat to “bury” America at the United Nations.
“You can have that plaster of Paris figurine when you pry my cold, dead fingers off it!”
The word “tchotchke” is Slavic in origin and refers to a small object that is decorative rather than functional. “It is the most shape-shifting noun in any language,” says linguist Armand Neirsdorf. “It can be spelled tshotshke, tshatshke, tchachke, tchotchka, tchatchka, chachke, tsotchke, chotski, chochke, tsatske or tshatshke, which makes it a favorite of crossword puzzle makers and hold-up robbery note writers.”
The extent of the looming threat to Zliesku Nousrtrz’s reign wasn’t clear at first because Inglitzka Moribundaz had yet to unpack her knick-knacks, but once word of the scale of her arsenal got out, it sent shockwaves through the neighborhood as Freedonian husbands began to fear for their meager savings. “I do not want to work like donkey until I drop dead in a cabbage field,” says Klozko Nousrtrz, Zliesku’s husband. “I would like to retire to a cabin on Lake Erie and watch the turnip barges pass by.”
Erie Cup barge race.
The threat of mutual assured tchotchke destruction has even spawned a disarmament movement of sorts, with schoolchildren prompted by their non-Freedonian teachers urged to make signs that they hold up to demonstrate their opposition to the increased share of household budgets devoted to the purchase of useless bagatelles. “NO MORE TCHOTCHKES,” reads the cardboard held up by twelve-year-old Dsushina Nuboradzk. “I WANT UNICORN LUNCHBOX!”