Time has been flying Exocet-syle. Brief highlights of the last three weeks:
Two weekends ago was International Women’s Day. As far as I am aware it still passes relatively unmarked in England but the commercial response here is large and growing ever greater.
The actual day – the eighth of March – fell on a Saturday and the government decided to announce the following Monday as a public holiday to make up for it. Leyla and I used the resultant long weekend to escape the madness that was gripping the city and visit the southern regions.
As with our trips north and west, we drove through a couple of hours of rugged, dry country then reached greenery and in this particular direction the foothills of the Talysch mountain range. Our accommodation was a wood cabin in the hills just off the road between Masalli and Yardimli; very pretty, very peaceful.
The people running the place were charming and looked after us well. Amongst the wholesome, fresh-made foodstuffs they provided were rich butter, creamy white cheese and honey served in its comb; gorgeous.
Five minutes’ walk up the road was Isti Su (Hot Water) – so called because of the hot spring that issues from the hillside there. It is productive enough to supply ample water to a dozen or so bathing cubicles, the use of which is currently quite reasonably priced in these nascent days of Azerbaijan’s tourist industry. We both took a hot, sulphur-smelling dip and felt suitably healthy while doing so.
All too soon it was back to the city, back to work and back to the seemingly growing list of tasks to complete in preparation for the wedding. We achieved a definite step forward in that respect when I obtained my Certificate of No Impediment from the British Embassy. I had to swear an oath before they would give it to me (a detail omitted from the guidance notes supplied) but give it they did, after which I went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (twice) to have it approved and thence to the Palace of Happiness (seriously: the name of the wedding registry office) to start the process of setting the marriage date.
This brings us to last weekend, the Saturday night of which saw me perform my first non-DJ gig for many years. My friend, David, sings and plays guitar; I pretend to sing and can just about remember how to play bass. We had been sticking a collection of popular cover versions together for a while and decided it was time to offer them to an adoring public.
Several times past I have written about the band that plays at Finnegan’s on a Saturday night. We get on well and it was not difficult to arrange an hour’s warm-up slot prior to their performance. Our set was literally put together on a shoestring (one of my laces sorted out a cabling problem for David’s guitar) and we were as rough as one might expect of a nerve-filled first-time gig but the songs were recognisable, we had a good time and it sounded like the audience did too.
Here and now we are in the midst of Novruz Bayram: an annual celebration of the start of spring dating back to pagan times. In its conception and its traditions it is comparable to May Day in England but if the same amount of public holiday time was devoted there as it is here, it would have to be called May Ten Days this year: the nation officially went on holiday on the twentieth and is expected to stay that way until the twenty-ninth.
The unprecedented length of the holiday this year is matched by the amount of effort made to prepare for its public celebrations in Baku. The Old City seems to have been very much a focus for the activity. Two major public gardens just outside the wall were rapidly overhauled in the nick of time; at least four large stages were set up in the area for performances of traditional song and dance; the national television station sent in a huge OB crew and the army provided ample armed men to surround the lot.
Road closures on the nineteenth and twentieth as part of these preparations brought parts of the city to a total standstill for hours. Strangely this seemed to be totally accepted. While your average Baku motorist drives like every split second counts and will hoot the horn at the slightest perceived obstruction, on these two days almost every driver would not only sit quietly, they would switch off their engines and even their stereos if waiting for anything longer than a few minutes. Walking around parts of town that are habitually loud and frantic and finding them instead to be eerily quiet felt most strange.
This evening I have just returned home from a lively party where young folk met to wear traditional national dress and perform traditional dances to traditional music. Younger people of Azerbaijan are feared to be turning their backs on national traditions as much as those in other countries have (imagine a crowd of London twenty-somethings holding a Morris party this May Day…) so there were several good reasons to go and join in with this crowd.
The national costumes on display were most elegant with bright hues and flowing fabrics to be seen in all directions. While the dance moves look very restrained and simple, in practice they involve careful nuance and require some serious effort to coordinate. My skills were found lacking so I was happy to stand back and watch for most of the time.
Once closing time had arrived, the music stopped and the party organiser made a brief speech to everybody. The DJ then dropped “Rolling” by Limp Bizkit. If he was trying to clear the place, he failed as the majority of the young men and women present promptly started head-banging vigorously in their wool hats, head-scarves and sequins. He switched back to an up-tempo traditional number after that and the crowd switched just as fast back to the appropriate dance. The message seemed clear: play what you want and let’s party. I like it.