Wandering ’round a Winter Wonderland

Baku, Tuesday 27th February 2007

It is late on Tuesday night, we have had distinct chill with regular snow showers for the last three days and Spring is feeling very far away.  My little open fire is roaring away valiantly across the room from me and I know that the bedroom will be wonderfully warm when I retire for the night.  I still can’t help but notice that this city was designed for the many months of hot weather it usually receives rather than for the few days of ice and snow that occur at the other end of the annual weather spectrum.  Roll on Summer.

Last night saw an other leaving party and it became a substantially longer soirée than the previous Monday, hence the belated report.  There is nothing in the diary for next Monday yet but with several days to go anything is possible.  Some sleep might be good; perhaps I’m getting old…  If I had not enjoyed such a busy weekend I might be feeling a little less tired of course.  Starting with Friday night (as most weekends do) I was at The Wok for a farewell dinner that later begat the aforementioned farewell party of last night.  The dinner was a long, leisurely and lubricated affair so a lie-in on Saturday morning seemed entirely appropriate.

Saturday’s lie-in was also justified in the context of preparation for my first DJ gig in Baku which was scheduled for that night.  A leaving party was the occasion once again, this time being held at the hostess’s apartment.  Shirley has allegedly held some memorable parties during her time in Baku (I missed them all through being in London and Paris) so being asked to DJ at her final event seemed rather touching.  As all of my vinyl and many of my CD’s are currently in storage in England I made it clear that I would be bringing a limited musical palette to the proceedings but all was expected to be well.

As it transpired, the majority of the crowd was of a more commercial and Latin-flavoured mind than my disc collection could satisfy.  I therefore happily stepped aside to let a nice chap called Reynaldo play some of his salsa and similar during a busy part of the night.  Reynaldo had stepped forward and asked very politely if he could borrow my equipment to play so I felt no qualms about his taking my place.  A second party-guest-cum-DJ, Florian, proved to be more of a concern though.  He initially walked up with the rather assertive offer of “if you want to take a break I can play for fifteen minutes” just after I had first spoken to Reynaldo.  My response had been politely non-committal but evidently I had misjudged the calibre of the man.

Reynaldo’s set of Latin dance numbers had been hesitant but well chosen and the dance floor had responded well.  After about half an hour a track he had started came to a sudden halt followed by a few seconds of silence before a contrasting piece of American pop music suddenly crashed in with its first couple of bars missing.  I looked across the room to see that Florian had assumed the decks.  What followed was quite a hideous experience on several fronts: the choice of songs, the utterly talent-less way in which they were thrown together and the ill-mannered arrogance of the man who was executing said horror with the full dancing support of the group of friends he had brought with him.  To add insult to injury it transpired that he had not brought a single disc of his own but had raided Shirley’s collection and was putting a random assembly together using what he could find.  Never before have I heard 2-Pac followed by Nirvana followed by The Blues Brothers mixed by the DJ equivalent of a one-handed myopic dentist wielding a pick-axe and I hope the experience will never be repeated.

Thank goodness for Sunday night and the restorative tonic that it provided.  A new nightclub called Infiniti has recently opened in town and I noticed a couple of weekends ago that it was advertising a proper club night with a list of DJ’s and musical theme for the event.  Not only was the basic concept a first in my experience of Baku (all the nightclubs I have visited play the same commercial music very badly) but the theme was also a novelty: drum and bass plus some electro breaks.  Ten ’til six on a Sunday night was not the best timing for a commuting soul such as me but I vowed to go and show my support regardless.  I arrived shortly after ten and some very current d&b was in full swing.  Various older styles were visited over the following hour or so before a quick switch to the electro breaks that rapidly mutated into electro house, then tech house then hard trance; not quite what it said on the tin but a very encouraging mixture of music considering how there has been nothing like it on open offer during the whole year I have been here up to now.  Next week the same venue is hosting electro, breaks and trance according to the flyer: I’ll be there.

A.

Spring lambs please

Baku, Monday 19th February 2007

Brief words tonight as I was unexpectedly invited to a leaving party this evening and having readily accepted (it would be churlish not to) I am home somewhat later than planned.  While I ended last year thinking that my social life was on the verge of extinction I have started this year finding quite the opposite.  The much diminished expat fraternity still comprises a select number of decent folk to get out and about with and I also find I am becoming more involved in the city scene through Azerbaijani friends and acquaintances.  While it is early days yet I think the language lessons might be helping the latter: much as I am still far away from reaching conversational levels of competence I already recognise more words or parts of words in conversations and on the radio than I used to.  It inspires a bit of confidence and helps broaden understanding of local life.

As regular readers are no doubt aware of to the point of ennui, socialising within city limits is based almost exclusively around eating and drinking (and will forever remain thus until some radical initiatives are taken by local business or government or both).  On the rare moments where alternatives present themselves I embrace them with glee and one such occasion was last Thursday evening when The Wild Quartet performed at the Philharmonic.

Three Austrian sisters playing flute, violin and ‘cello provide the name of the group and a fourth woman on piano completes the quartet.  The poster advertising their performance proposed a programme of popular pieces by European and Russian composers.  As it transpired they divided the evening into a first half of ‘classics’ and a second half of more ‘modern’ compositions, the latter comprising a piece by Shostakovich as a seemingly token Russian offering while the rest were most definitely European in origin.  Fortunately the foursome played with a deft touch and evident enjoyment of the music that combined to produce a highly enjoyable performance.  I was even prepared to forgive the preponderance of Strauss and waltzes during the ‘classics’ half that perhaps one must expect of an Austrian ensemble.  Their choices from the works of Austria’s other favourite son certainly helped redress the balance, a lively rendition of the overture from The Marriage of Figaro being one of them.  Goodness only knows where else in the world they perform but look out for The Wild Quartet, they’re worth a listen should you happen across them.

Sunday evening also provided a ‘first’ not just for my experience of Baku but for my experience in general when I attended a Salsa party.  There seems to be a committed crowd of Latin American dance fans in town and the subject has come up fleetingly in conversation a few times since I arrived here.  Last weekend it was suggested almost casually that there was a dance going on and why not go along; so I did.

XCite (sic) is a relatively young discotheque in town that makes most of its money by charging a horrendous door fee on Saturday nights and playing equally horrendous music on the dance floor while emptying your wallet at the bar faster than a card sharp can clean out your chips at the baize.  I have had the recent misfortune to find myself there on two Saturday nights within three weekends after which I can confirm that the DJ’s are not only typical Baku butchers of Texas Chainsaw Massacre quality but they appear to play the same tunes in the same order each week as badly as the worst commercial play-listing radio stations.  Set against such thoroughly unprepossessing expectations it was a very pleasant surprise to go there for a Salsa evening and find the place much improved.  The DJ’s where still somewhat short on finesse but the music was good and – most importantly – the crowd was made of decent, ordinary folk who were united by a common interest in music and dance.  Having never danced a Latin step in my life I was not about to bound onto the floor and cut some rug but it was instead a pleasure to sit for a while and watch some people who knew what they were doing get out there and strut their funky stuff.  There was Salsa, Tango, Rhumba and various other flavours on offer and the dancers ranged from new-comers to competition couples: all good fun.  The XCite party apparently takes place on one Sunday a month with other venues providing floor and music most other Sundays.  Perhaps I will venture forth…

In the meantime, Bentley Boy Dave is allegedly in town this week (though not on Internet Messenger or answering his text messages thus far) and that is likely to result in a lively mixture of work and play over the next few days.  No rest for the wicked…

A.

A bouquet of Australian roses for me please… (as if!)

Baku, Monday 12th February 2007

Tongue
Здравствуйте. Salam. Hello.

It has taken a wee while but finally after a year in the country I am taking some language lessons. As I mentioned a few scribbles ago, moving house has made it abundantly clear to me that surviving in this city is going to require at least a basic grasp of Russian or Azerbaijani when speaking to anyone beyond the confines of the office or the immediate vicinity of the Hyatt buildings. Smiling inanely while waving hands around to form limp gestures simply doesn’t earn any sympathy from anybody and it makes me feel like a prat. Struggling to pronounce several new vowel sounds consonant combinations correctly might not impress too many people in the coming weeks either but at least I will be heading in vaguely the right direction.

Being one who prefers not to do things by halves I have decided to go the whole hog and learn both Russian and Azerbaijani simultaneously (or perhaps it is due to indecision – I will let you choose…). Russian came first and is now scheduled for an hour on Tuesdays and an hour on Thursdays. Two lessons into the course I am just about getting to grips with the thirty-three letter Cyrillic alphabet (dusty memories of Classical Greek GCSE are helping slightly) and I can enunciate the difference between “it is a table” and “it is a chair” like a true pro. Grammar at this stage is minimal but I have been warned many times that it will become very challenging once I start getting deeper into the language. Thankfully my teacher, Irana, appears to be a wise woman with the patience of saint and an unflappably positive demeanour: she will help me find the way I am sure. An other step forward tomorrow.

This evening I have had my first lesson in Azerbaijani (it appears that the recently discussed linguistic move away from “Azeri” to “Azerbaijani” is becoming official as it is the latter that features on the cover of my textbook). The alphabet features only a handful of deviations from the familiar but some of the sounds ascribed to those letters are going to require some care and practice to pronounce. I already knew that Azerbaijani is similar to Turkish but today I have learned that small elements are comparable to Russian a more significant portion can be linked to words in Arabic. My teacher, Nushaba (an other very buoyant individual it would seem – must be part of the job description) has a liking for describing the history and relationships behind words that suits me perfectly. If only there had been someone like her around when I was studying linguistics at college. We will be spending what should be fruitful hours together on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Sweetbread
The British Council has been running a series of events aimed at bringing a bit of British culture to those who wish to sample it. The latest offering was three nights’ performance by Station House Opera of their show “Roadmeal Sweetbread.” As a company they seem to have produced a variety of innovative shows in numerous parts of the world and garnered some fair critical acclaim in the process; I felt compelled to go and see for myself.

With a cast of two, minimal props and a plain, white, two level construction as a set (which serves primarily as a viewing screen), the piece explored the interaction between the two actors and continuous pre-recorded video footage that was projected on the screen behind them. All the footage had obviously been shot locally and fresh and was designed to mirror the live action with some carefully chosen deviations. Barely a word was spoken as the two actors worked with great precision to click track and occasional music cues that synchronised their efforts with those of their doubles on screen. Elements of slapstick comedy and other visual humour combined with some darker moments in the action to give a largely well-paced show that the full-house audience seemed to engage with and enjoy. I was pleased by their success and would be interested in seeing more of their work should the opportunity present itself.

Trotter
Within a few days of arriving in Baku I was told about a traditional meal called xaş (pronounced “hash”); it tickled my curiosity and I had been wanting to try it ever since. A bit like England has its traditional Sunday lunch xaş is a traditional Sunday breakfast here. If you are not eating homemade xaş as somebody’s house guest you are best advised to contact a restaurant that has been recommended to you and you have to order in advance. Put simply xaş is a soup made by boiling up a calf’s trotter for eight hours or so and as that means starting it off at around midnight the advance order is mandatory. As you might imagine, there is very little flesh and the broth is mostly fat. The soup is therefore served very hot and you are advised to get it down your neck pretty quick before it starts to congeal. One final detail: the meal is traditionally consumed with copious amounts of vodka.

Getting up early on a Sunday to eat hot glue and drink hard spirits might sound mildly horrifying to some but it appealed to my sense of adventure and last weekend came the time to see what all the fuss was about. Four of us met at 08:30 outside a bright pink building down a quiet street within which we were shown to a private room. A vodka was rapidly chosen (as well as some water and cherry juice as chasers) and our waiter was equally prompt in bringing bread and an assortment of pickles (vegetables, fruits – everything gets pickled here and most of it tastes surprisingly good). Not long after we were each presented with a large, deep bowl of xaş.

You are literally served a boiled trotter in its broth – not a single other ingredient has been added during cooking as far as I can tell. The broth smells reassuringly familiar in a beef stock sort of way but it has to be said that as a visual experience and a textural invitation the sight of the trotter and its attendant lumps of fatty tissue leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately the tradition extends to adding salt, pepper, vinegar and fresh garlic to your bowl so that the flavour is tweaked to suit your personal preferences. I found a combination that worked for me and got stuck in. It soon becomes clear what the vodka is for. After several spoonfuls of broth and a couple of bites of fat you can start to feel the inside of your mouth growing a slight coating of the stuff. A quick toast and a shot washes it all down and you can start again. Repeat until replete. Four soups and a significant amount of vodka later we rounded off with some glasses of tea and were back on the road by about 11:30. When I got home I followed my friends’ advice and had a nap. Would I do it again? You bet I would.

A.

Better late than never (hopefully)

The January Sales and builders: not an ideal combination at the best of times and certainly not in countries where you don’t speak the language I have decided.  Ever the model of organisational skills I neglected to pack any significant winter woollies when I returned here after Christmas so I thought I had best make one of my rare forays out to try my luck with the season discounts as the temperatures are still a trifle brisk in these parts.  For the benefit of any particularly eager historians who might be reading, such an excursion last occurred in 1992 or thereabouts and resulted in the purchase of long, dark, Crombie-esque overcoat.  Excluding the brief flurry of activity witnessed by a limited number of observers during the late-Parisian period I am a very occasional clothes shopper.

With full-blooded, oil-money-fuelled consumerism currently spreading like wildfire through the connected elite of Baku there are quite a few recognisable names on the high street here for the occident-raised shopper: Tommy Hilfiger (heck, “Hilfiger” has just passed my U.K. English spell-checker – what does that say about Microsoft?), Benetton, Sisley, Next, Mango and Morgan are just some of the retailers who have established branches here.  They all appear to share two significant limitations both of which are easily measured.

First of all, pity the woman who is any size above a UK 10 and looking for something to wear: with the average young Azeri woman being seemingly pocket-sized, the local shops stock to suit the and racks are full of correspondingly diminutive garments.  Secondly, the prices are simply ridiculous.  My friend Matthew delivered a perfect summation when I told him I was looking around the sales: “oh, you mean that period where the prices that might be aimed at expats actually come down to a level that expats can afford?”  He was speaking in jest but the implications are plain to read.  I visited a couple of shops where; either by accident or design – I cynically imagine the latter; the trousers I looked at were both half-price having been reduced from just short of AZN200 (approximately USD230).  Using the oft-quoted statistic that the average wage in this country is USD100 a month that makes the original asking price of those trousers in excess of two months’ salary.  As a finger-in-the-air estimate that would make the same trousers cost about GBP3000 in London, probably more.  They were not that good, let me assure you.  In the end I dallied but briefly in the ‘western’ shops and ended up buying from some more local establishments – simply because they were the only places whose offerings came close to my requirements.

First of all I bought a hat in a subway: there was snow falling and being fanned by a strong, cold wind outside so head-wear had become mandatory.  This was not just a random purchase from a street hawker though – subways in Baku have a certain charm of their own.  The latest ones have escalators with motion sensors to turn them on for you as you approach and take you down into caverns of glass-smooth polished red and grey marble with (unfortunately) loud Azeri pop music playing through tinny little speakers before an other motion-sensitive escalator takes you up again.  Having been originally impressed by the number of open-air escalators on offer in Paris’s La Défense and then decidedly dismayed by their inability to function I find these ones in Baku quite remarkable (so far).

My hat-seller was not in quite such a Gucci spot (I see the spell-checker is happy once again…) but he was doing well enough.  Fizuli Square is approximately the size of a football pitch and has correspondingly lengthy subways beneath it that have been around for quite some time.  If they were bare concrete tunnels with inadequate lighting and the smell of stale urine that seems to pervade most such places in my experience I would hesitate to venture beneath that particular area of ground but beneath Fizuli Square one finds instead an established and bustling subterranean market selling all manner of clothing, electrical goods and tat from stall to stall and all in bright, dry and relatively clean conditions.  Having tried hats in several shops topside and found my head to be suffering a similar fate to that of the above-UK-size-10 woman, I was more than happy to try my luck below ground at my friend’s recommendation, especially considering the weather conditions at the time.  The plain black flat cap I eventually bought was still a bit smaller than ideal but for four quid I was not about to argue, especially when it made my return to the bitter outdoors a whole lot more bearable.

After much casting about I found trousers at Mavi – a Turkish store – that came closest to my requirements.  They were a fraction of the cost of the ‘western’ offerings and even came with some high-quality adjustment free of charge when I discovered that best size available needed the leg taking up a bit.  Alas the quality of service might not be matched by the quality of manufacture as I wore the trousers for the first time today and on hearing a strange “pop” this evening as I got home, I discovered that half of the stitching on the main waistline button had decided to give way (and for the record no, I have not grown that fat).  Naturally I removed the trousers and dug out my needle and thread with which to repair them (as one does) at which point the doorbell rang.

Not wishing to answer the door in my boxer shorts I hastily donned some alternative trousers, serenaded by repeated doorbell ringing during the process.  I opened the door to find a wizened old man in rough clothes standing there looking ever so slightly aggrieved and expressing himself in fluent Azeri.  My command of that language being non-existent I attempted to ‘phone Iftikhar – my landlord – to find that his mobile was off.  Switching to Akif the estate agent brought better results, which was just as well because the frequent lip-smacking sounds emanating from my almost-visitor were becoming disconcerting.  I passed Akif to the man via ‘phone and their conversation was happily concluded within ten seconds, resulting in the man departing.  It transpired that he too was looking for Iftikhar as he had come to collect building materials from the shed in the back yard (or similar) and not found what he wanted.  Suffice to say that when I next meet Iftikhar I may mention to him my lack of enthusiasm when it comes to offering a reception service to his discontented builders…