September 1993 (1.3)
Pages 6-7, 29
by Susan Cornnell
So, here you are in Baku, Azerbaijan. How did you get here? If you're a woman, it's most likely that one day your husband came home from the Embassy or the offce and said, "Honey, have you ever heard of Azerbaijan?"...well, the rest is history.
You tried to anticipate what you'd need most when you moved here. Despite all your planning, the reality is that, unfortunately, most of your stuff is tied up somewhere in storage, or on a cargo plane, or in a warehouse somewhere in some other country.
So here you are - living in a hotel room. You don't speak Russian or Azerbaijani, and you can't seem to fnd anyone who speaks your language. Your husband is working hard. You're trying to learn how to cope with the bazaar, a hot plate, and a hotel laundry that seems to starch everything and shrink your gabardine slacks to doll's size. Welcome to Azerbaijan! That's the bad news.
Here's the good news. There's a beautiful world outside your hotel room - a land - rich in history and culture; a people - warm, generous and hospitable, and a city - full of charm and excitement just waiting for you to embrace it.
Take it from me, I've lived here nearly a year and I can tell you that the more you explore and get to know these people, the more you'll come to love your new home. But it all depends on getting outside of your own four walls! Here's how to get started.
Orientation to Baku
The best way to get around the city is with someone who knows the place. There are quite a few foreigners in Baku, and as they are a very close-knit, friendly family, all you have to do is knock on any Embassy door, and you've met a friend. You'll fnd embassies from USA, England, Turkey, China, Germany, Pakistan, Israel, Russia, and other countries here. As well, there are personnel from Medicine Sans Frontiers, the United Nations, and various other organizations and companies. Naturally, you'll need to get around physically. Baku is a great city for walking, and it's safe, if you're a woman, to walk around during the day on your own. There's a fne map available in both English and Russian.
Of course, the ideal situation is to engage a driver who speaks English. Not only are they affordable, but they'll provide invaluable information to help you learn the "lay of the land".
If you're intrepid, try the Metro. Baku prides itself in having built the frst subway system in the East more than 25 years ago. The Metro is extraordinarily clean and amazingly cheap - three-ruble tokens (about 3 cents). You're safe riding the Metro anywhere. You'll fnd that it provides an incredible slice of Azerbaijani life and it is a wonderful place to feel close to the people as you watch the faces of the beautiful Azeri girls, Russian babushkas, and children on their way to school.
I've witnessed so many acts of kindness daily on the Metro. Everyone helps each other off and on, holding doors for latecomers like me. Once when I got on the Metro I had two big bags and there was no place to sit. An elderly woman motioned, "Give them to me." And so she held my bags on her lap for the six stops so I could be more comfortable.
But let's get on to the practical matters. Where can you shop? The "Ploschad Fontanov" or "Fountain Square" is literally what its name implies - a palm-studded broad expanse of park with fountains which is surrounded by an array of marvelous little shops, cafes, and restaurants. Here, you'll feel the pulse of the city. On any day, you can browse book shops, snack on Snickers chocolate bars bought from the various "Komissyon" or "Dukan" shops or just sit for hours and "people watch."
A word of caution about the "chai-khanas" (tea-houses). Basically, they're exclusively male domains. If you're a single woman, you probably won't feel very comfortable if you stop there alone, but if you're with a small group of women, and, if they recognize you as foreigners (which isn't hard to do), you'll fnd them, on the whole, overly-solicitous and congenial in their service.
Shopping for Food
Don't panic. You'll fnd food at what they call the "bazaar," and if you've ever traveled in the Middle East or Asia, you're familiar with the set-up. It's a vast open market displaying every type of produce imaginable. Fruits, vegetables, dried fruits, nuts, and exotic spices are in abundance. You can even fnd canned tuna from Japan and ripe cheese from Holland.
The bazaar is really an incredibly unique experience. Don't go there alone until you've learned the fne art of negotiating, and even then, you'll need someone to help you lug all your purchases around. It's not like you'll be pushing a grocery cart around to a check-out counter. Though you can easily spend two hours here, your bill isn't likely to exceed $10 for an entire week's groceries. The meat, poultry and fsh are not what you're accustomed to. They're not trimmed of fat, inspected, or neatly packaged. Chickens may actually be alive, lamb just recently butchered, and fsh just fresh from the Caspian.
So, what about panty hose, clothes, and chocolate? You'll fnd these items at the "Komissyons" or "Dukans" which are the hundreds of small, entrepreneurial shops scattered throughout the city. A word of caution - the availability of goods changes hourly.
Let's say you need a pair of sunglasses. Typically, you would "cruise" a few shops, get an idea of the prices, then, maybe, go back to the original shop the next day and buy that pair of gold-rimmed Ray-bans you saw tucked between the pasta from Turkey and the Coca-Cola. Wrong! The main principle for successfully buying anything is that "if you see it and like it, then you'd better go ahead and buy it." Don't hesitate for a moment because you won't fnd it there the next hour, much less the next day.
Then there are the "Univermaqs", the State-owned department stores. Frankly, most of these are rather unfulflling experiences, although like everything else, the situation changes from day to day. Here you can get your basic Soviet-made utensils for living - fabric, clothing goods, inexpensive rugs and sometimes mineral water and tea and lots of stuff in spray cans and bottles.
For those of you with expendable hard currency, there are two stores. The "Albatross" on the Boulevard and what everyone calls the "Vienna Store" on the way to the airport. All Western foods and goods are available, the prices are Western, too. If you actually had the foresight to bring a microwave oven, you can even fnd foods packaged for microwaving.
Oh, by the way, you'll need to buy bread. And you'll fnd the best bread in the world in Azerbaijan (apologies to the French). The two main kinds are the long, fat Azeri bread ("chorak" in Azerbaijani) and the round Russian bread ("khleb" in Russian). You can always identify the bread stores by the long lines waiting outside. That means on rainy days, you might wait, at least, for an hour. Your best bet is to buy bread at the bazaar or "con" someone into standing in line for you. However, waiting in line gives you a great "slice" (pardon the pun) of life here as you listen to housewives chatting and watch kids playing and there's always a bit of drama whenever anyone tries to cut the line.
The bread is handed directly to you from the oven while it's scorching hot. There's no saran wrap, no bags, and no tissue paper. Be sure to bring along your own bag--not the plastic kind as it will melt onto the bread. It's easiest just to wrap the loaf in a newspaper--then slip it into your tote bag. Bread costs about two cents a loaf (US currency equivalence).
Shopping is an adventure and part of your every day life in Baku. It's a challenge and thrill though I'll admit it can be very frustrating if you have a particular item in mind. The best thing to do is adopt a pragmatic attitude. If you don't see it, then you really don't need it; and when you see something you really want, buy it immediately.
When you're invited to an Azerbaijani home, understand that they may have spent all day preparing for the occasion. It's a bit rude to think you can just drop by for a meal. Dinners are an event. Realize that the majority of the population has never personally met a person from the West, much less entertained them in their home. So it is an honored occasion--for you and for them--and you shouldn't treat it lightly.
Bring a small gift (something from abroad is especially treasured) and if there are kids, be sure to bring something for them. Flowers are in great abundance and are warmly received - however, make sure that you bring an odd-number; even-numbers are associated with mourning - so don't bring a dozen roses.
In Azerbaijan, it's not polite to stay for less than a couple of hours. Once I unexpectedly stopped by at some friends' home and tried to get away with just a few words at the door. The next thing I knew, they had taken my bag off my shoulder, hung up my coat, cleared the table and almost instantly flled the table jams and fruits. Neighbors were called and we shared a wonderful evening together.
A couple of times, I've been entertained in grand style at the home of complete strangers. Why? Because my friends' homes were too small and simple to host their American guest. It's not that uncommon in Baku to take over your aunt's apartment and get the whole family to shop, chop, and cook for a special guest.
And the expense? How do they handle it? It's not unusual for them to spend a month's salary to entertain. Sometimes, it's true, they can't afford much; but whatever an Azerbaijani has, little though it may be, it's yours. Azerbaijanis are so generous with the things they own, with their time, and their affection.
Despite their own generosity, I've found Azerbaijanis ever so polite and shy about accepting gifts themselves. I discovered this after a young woman moved in with me. I would offer her tea or breakfast and she would decline. Finally, after a week when I had not seen her eat or drink anything, I asked a friend who explained that in Azerbaijan, it's customary to decline the frst three offers. So with that, I went home and asked my new friend, "Want tea? Want tea? Want tea?" And she accepted.
A typical dinner involves many sets of plates. First, there's the appetizers. There are dozens of little dishes both for serving and eating. Of course, they always serve the guest, spooning delicious delicacies onto your plate - tomato wedges, sliced cucumbers, "Capital" ("Russian salad" made from potatoes and other vegetables in a mayonnaise-like base) shredded beet salad, fresh green herbs--like purple basil, dill, parsley, mint, and cilantro. Then there's yoghurt dips, feta, and pickled vegetables. And, of course, caviar and smoked sturgeon. But that's not the end. In fact, as one Azerbaijani put it, "That's just the "Hello-How are you?" - the introduction to the meal.
Next they bring out an entire new set of dishes for the soup course. (Remember, the only dishwashers here are the two-handed variety.) Bread is essential and there are always two pieces at your right hand, no matter how much you eat, it is instantly replaced. Afterwards, all these dishes are cleared away and dinner plates are brought.
If the family is reasonably well off, there will be several main courses. This is why a meal can take several hours. Again, they heap your plate up with pilov (rice pilaf), fsh, chicken, and "dolmas" (grape leaves or vegetables such as peppers, tomatoes and eggplant) stuffed with meat and rice. Finally, a reprieve.
Yet the "piece de resistance" is yet to come - tea and desert. Azerbaijanis are especially fond of cakes although the ingredients are usually diffcult and expensive to get. For example, four has been especially scarce lately. Sugar is often a treat, cocoa is a rare jewel. Nonetheless, for honored guests, every string is pulled. Supplies which have been hoarded for months are broken into. Exquisite China tea services, which have either been handed down or given as wedding presents, are gingerly taken down from the glass cabinets in their living rooms.
And, of course, coffee, candies, chocolate, wonderful homemade jams - all served in tiny dishes. And fresh fruit depending on the season - must I go on?
After one of these marathon eating sessions, you don't want to eat for days. Last New Year's, I was invited to two such dinners. Believe me, I thought it would be Valentine's Day before I could eat again!
Azerbaijanis are sensitive, poetic people. When they invite you dinner, they've just shared an important time with you. Their incredible generosity is changing my own attitudes about hospitality. For me, it's no longer, "Thanks, it's been fun." I fnd myself more and more adopting the Eastern attitude of sacrifce, commitment, and the celebration of "Let's be friends forever!"
From Azerbaijan International (7.4) Winter 1999.
© Azerbaijan International 1999. All rights reserved.