Sunday, 27 September 2009

Chicken or Egg?

A colleague of mine is a young Croatian girl, living in the UK for many years. Her life is here now. A job, a partner…stuff like that.

Her brother is in Australia. Her sister is somewhere in the UK. And her mother, at 73, is alone back in Croatia.

That mother of theirs is a difficult woman, my colleague tells me. She is diabetic, but says she wants to die and would not take any more pills. Without pills, she gets more difficult. It is a vicious circle. She is pretty mean to every carer they pay to look after her. She is impossible, she says.

And I feel for her. She is worried and sad. So I ask if her siblings help.

I am an only child, you see, and people tend to have strong opinions about that. I have been told that I must have had a deprived childhood. I have been told that I must be disfunctional. That I am terribly selfish because I am an only child. I am spoilt and egoistic. And all of it is my parents’ fault.

But, all the social stereotypes and assumptions aside, I always thought it was the fact that I am an only child that made my immigrating to another country so complicated.

I thought, one of the main reasons I might consider having another baby, is so that my daughter never has the sole responsibility for me (or my husband, whoever carks it first. He is a bit older than me, but English people are arguably healthier than Azeries) when I am old and fragile. I thought, perhaps when you have siblings, some family issues are easier. One of you looks after the mother one week, and then another one takes over. Something like that.

No,-my colleague said- my sister cut all the ties off long time ago. She just asked to let her know when our mother passes away, so she could attend the funeral. My brother is too far, but talks to me on the phone.

I felt pretty sorry for the girl. With two siblings, she is an only child too.

She said her mother was bitter and miserable. Hard to be around. Not wanting to be in a home. Not wanting to have a carer.

But: what came first?

Was the mother always a nasty piece of work, and that is the reason her kids grew up and don’t want anything to do with her?

Or, is it the fact that she spent her whole life looking after three children only to be left to die alone at 73 (with some of her kids not even bothered whether she is still alive) that made her bitter?

I did not ask.

I got home, and my family was waiting for me. Husband, who does not quite understand my issues but tries his best. My only child, who said she missed me “150 times” And my mother, who is still visiting, but has to go back soon. She stayed a little longer this time- again!- because I just really, really wanted her to. Maybe, it is because I have no siblings. Or maybe, it is because we are just very lucky to be this close.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Ever wondered what people REALLY think?

This is not a separate post. It is more like a PS to the previous post. Apologies. I wanted to put it in the comments section, because really, it is about your comments. But I wanted everyone to see, and was not sure everyone bothers to read comments except for me. I love them. :)

For two different reasons, these two comments arrived by email. These are two different guys, and both wanted to tell me what they really thought about my last posting. I enjoyed reading these, so I thought I would share them with you. I know one of them is pretty harsh. Another one is just interesting. further comment from me. Enjoy! And do send me comments and let me know what you really think. There is an option to remain anonymous, you know.

No 1

"I tried to respond to your blog today. I don’t have a Google account, don’t know what a URL is and am too impatient to figure out how to get on it. Please find what I wrote attached below. I would seriously tell your friend to pound sand and husband to think back on all the places he has been and things he has done.

After watching people eat rice out of a barbequed goat with their fingers, sitting in a Russian Sauna naked while people whip sweat around and over each other with 2 week old used birch branches, doing Sushi in Almata with a naked Kazak woman serving as the plate, sharing a water cup on Aeroflot with 20 other passengers (thank god I was first)and then there is the Russian dried fish routine where they beat the fish on any hard surface until it starts to break up then 20 little hands start ripping at it.

Who the hell cares about a hair on the floor, god does anybody think their own hair does not fall on the floor and is it also against Miss Manners laws if a hair falls out and hits the floor itself without you noticing.

Lets put things in perspective here, I remember sitting in the Italian restaurant in Baku with 3 Chinese managers newly allowed out and watched them spit everything they did not like from a fabulous meal on the floor, the chef had good reason to be majorly pissed for me bringing them there.

If somebody said anything to me about flicking a hair on the floor I think I would have to leave before I laughed at them

No 2

"People in Baku are too impatient, too eager to say something, too
enthusiastic! " - Sorry dude, I have to call bullshit on this one. The
reason for them talking out of turn is the same one they have for
driving like shit, not being able to stand in a queue, and other
anti-civil behaviour - no one gives a shit about anybody other than
themselves except for those that wield some kind of power over them be
it a senior family member, boss, etc. They are obsequious with those
people. Everybody else can essentially go fuck themselves as far as
civil behaviour is concerned. Of course this is not a blanket
statement that applies to "everybody" but, in my observations, it does
apply to the vast majority.

Wanted to put this in the comment but did not want to start a flame war."

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

My personal manners guru

Tonight, we are watching The International. With Clive Owen. No further comment.

Husbands can be annoying creatures, and any woman who had been married for at least five years (to the same man) and claims nothing he does or says irritates her is a shameless liar. If you are single, I would not recommend you hanging out with women like that, because that might give you an unrealistic outlook on marriage. If you are married, you should know better.

There is one thing my husband does that winds me up big time. He corrects me. But I guess I have to be grateful.

Because different cultures have different understanding of good manners.

I was raised by so called intelligentsia back home. Our family had generations of impressive figures, such as famous poets and doctors. (With an occasional Bolshevik, but that probably felt right at the time.)

So what I am saying is that I always thought, perhaps naively, that I was brought up well, had good manners and knew how to act in public. I thought I was pretty civilized.

Until I got married and moved to the UK.

We all heard that there are some cultures where it is easy to insult someone by doing something simple. I would guess you are thinking: Japan. We all heard about the Japanese etiquette and westerners making fools of themselves. I even remember studying a case in my business school. About an American businessman who never managed to seal a good deal in Japan, because he threw his business card across the table.

Back in Baku, I had so many colleagues and friends from abroad that I felt well accustomed to the western culture- way before I relocated. So, I thought I knew it all.

And here I am. Making myself look common and disgusting at my friend’s house. Without having a clue that I was making a social faux pas.

I was invited for lunch on a Friday afternoon, and everything was very pleasant. I had washed and blow dried my hair that morning, so I left it down. The problem with that is that:

a) It is long.
b) It is dark.
c) It falls out a lot.
d) When it does, it is more obvious- due to all of the above

So we sat there chatting, surrounded by wine, pizzas and quiches. Suddenly, I noticed a couple of my hairs, as usual, stuck to my sleeve-right there, on the table. I hate when that happens, so I complained that my hair falls out a lot, apologised and picked them both off. Without thinking, I just dropped them on the floor. It was something I would have done at home, on the street or in the gym-anywhere. Because I simply would not think about it. My friend looked down at them landing, and told me it was gross.

Curious whether I was actually being that awful, or my friend was being too fussy, I thought I would check with my personal manners guru.

Husband was horrified. He told me it was awful! Rude! Common! Disgusting!
Basically, the worst thing I could have done in a decent company. He said it was as if I suddenly started picking my nose at the table.

Oh, no!

I thought of all the occasions when my hair falls on the table, my clothes or floor without me even realizing, and got depressed. I must appear common, after all.

I often notice these days, when I go back, that people talk with their mouth full. Depending on the menu, the sight can be pretty revolting. Shashlik is the worst, as it takes a long while to chew each piece, and Azeries are impatient to jump into a conversation. Which leads us to another social taboo in the UK, and something Azeries don’t seem to mind as much: interrupting someone else speaking.
People in Baku are too impatient, too eager to say something, too enthusiastic!

And the one I personally always forget. Reaching across the table to get something. That one is a tricky one, because I know why we do it. To not bother our neighbour. Why ask someone’s help if I can reach that salt? So what that my sleeve is in his plate and my armpit is in his face?

There was a time, when I did not think about these things. Nowadays, trained by husband, I can’t possibly miss them. Things I never even noticed before, my hawk eye picks up straight away. And yet…..

PS Told my mother about the hair situation. Oh-she said- I hate when you do that, that IS disgusting. You pull them off your clothes, and dump them on the floor or ground. Oh…, - I thought. It is not cultural then. It is me.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

House of Flying Daggers....and well behaved toddlers.

She may be the beauty or the beast
May be the famine or the feast
May turn each day into a Heaven or a Hell

Me, I'll take the laughter and her tears
And make them all my souvenirs
For where she goes I've got to be
The meaning of my life is

She (Tous Les Visages de L'Amour) by Charles Aznavour and Herbert Kretzmer

Not sure what you would expect from that preface. It is not really relevant to this posting. I just love that song and tonight, after a couple of glasses of an exceptionally nice red vine, I was singing it at the top of my lungs, whilst cooking in the kitchen. My poor family. My poor neighbours.

We all know that a Chinese restaurant full of Chinese people is a good sign. I am talking about somewhere like London of course, not China.

But in London, that is a good sign. And my favourite dim-sum place-Royal China is one of those trusted and reliable places.

And whenever I go there, I never fail to notice just how well the Chinese children behave. OK, OK, calm down! I appreciate there must be some really badly behaved Chinese kids somewhere out there, but for some reason, the best behaved ones clearly visit my favourite restaurant, on the days I do.

Once, a long long time ago, in some other life of mine, when I thought I would rather have my ovaries surgically removed than breed, we arranged to meet a bunch of people for a relaxing lunch at Royal China.

In that other life, I used to be incredibly judgmental towards people with badly behaved kids. I just had no clue. So, that day, I looked at our friends with their small boy, who screamed and climbed on his father’s neck, whilst kicking and scratching, and thought: How could anyone, ever allows their child to behave like this?

If the parents of the boy bothered to glance around, they would have noticed that almost at every other table there were Chinese children of various ages. They sat there quietly, gripping their chop sticks, chewing and staring in horror at our friends’ possessed toddler.

Why is that, I thought to myself, that those kids are so well behaved? Is it a cultural thing? Do Chinese parents, even the ones who have been living in the UK all their lives, share some secret parenting skill, passed on from generation to generation, that makes their kids sit properly at the dinner table? That makes them respect the adults?

A director of a college told me once, that she felt she had no real power any longer. She said, a few years ago, she would have been able to walk up to a group of fighting students and they would have stopped and listened to her. Because she was the college director. Not anymore. These days, she says, they would tell her to F off.

Because they can.

Because, the truth is- in this country, there is absolutely nothing adults can, or would dare to do that kids would worry about.

And it starts when they are little. You are not supposed to tell them off too much. Don’t be too strict- that might limit their creativity. Don’t shout at them too loudly, don’t say NO too often…
Do not smack their bottom-even if that bottom deserves a good smack. And that is with your own children.

Imagine trying to be a teacher in the country where you have no power over your students.

I am not sure why I brought this up tonight. Maybe because my own child has started pushing the boundaries every single day.

Yes.-- I say to her.
Noo-o-o!- she shouts back, stamping her little foot.

I keep reassuring myself that since I managed to train a Rottweiler, I surely should be able to train a little girl. But some days, I despair. I still am (a little) judgmental in some extreme cases of particularly badly behaved kids, but I do understand now just how hard this game can be.

PS I dedicate this posting to a good friend, who is about to have twins. I hope her parents share some Chinese parenting wisdom with her, because personally, I would no recommend the current western practices.

Oh, and I just can't draw children, can I? This one looks like it might be a husband having a tantrum on the shop floor, whereas it is meant to be a toddler.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009



This is not my usual style of posting. More like a little sneaky mini-posting that goes in between postings.

It is just that…

There is a new magazine coming out in October back in Baku. It is similar to INBaku, and the lovely Scottish lady who used to be the editor there, will now be the editor here. She asked if I wanted to contribute, so of course I said yes.

So scary azeri will now appear in magAZine.

And then we thought it might be fun to add a scary azeri cultural issues column. It could be anything at all, as long as it involves culture clash: love, friendship, money, food, politics, religion, manners… (or the lack of them)-anything at all.

Of course, for a number of reasons, I can not be as outspoken or offensive in a magAZine as I would like to be. But yet, you can be sure I will try.

But, but, but…. in order to get the ball rolling, it would be great to have a couple of real questions from expats and/or locals who experienced cultural differences and found each other odd.

Of course, we can always make questions up ourselves- and I would not be Azeri if I had not thought of that option-but where is the fun in that?

So…If you can think of something funny or bizarre and would like to discuss, can you please email me on or leave a comment?

I will then pick a few best ones (or the ones I can answer) and they will appear in the next issue of magAZine with scary azeri’s replies.

I know what you might be thinking now. You are thinking –Who the hell do you think you are, some culture clash expert?

Well, in a way, I kind of am. I have lived in the UK for almost 10 years now; and am married to a Brit. I also am from Baku. I therefore know what I am on about. And even if I don’t, I will sure have an opinion on it anyway.

So please, please, please! Give me a question and keep an eye on the new magAZZZZZZine! First issue is out in October. I think.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Ability to cope

One day, a long time ago, when husband and I were squatting at a friend’s place in London(whilst we searched for our first house) we had a visitor.

There was a ring on the door, and our housemate answered. A tired middle aged woman in a very long skirt, with grey unwashed hair, asked if she could please make a phone call. Our housemate, despite having lived in a big city long enough, let the stranger in. And for a while after that, we all sat on the sofa, watching her pacing the room, muttering one thing over and over again. That she just could not cope.

What is wrong?What happened?- we kept asking, but she just shook her head and kept repeating in a total desperation: “I can’t cope. I can’t cope!!!!”

Fortunately, husband had some experience of dealing with mental patients from the days he used to be a doctor. We managed to find out who her social worker was, and soon the visitor got taken away.

I often thought about her though. I was wondering –How does it happen?

She must have moved into this big city when she was young and full of hope, plans and ambitions. Maybe, she even had a cute boyfriend and a good job. At what point did it all suddenly get too much?

But the more I live in this country, the more I can understand.

Living in the UK is stressful.

A few nights ago, coming back from drinks with local friends, I noticed all the parking spaces were taken by the devoted church goers. (It was a Sunday, you see and we live near a famous church. This guy allegedly went to the states where he was personally touched by God.)

It is OK- husband suggested-park in front of our drive and move it in the morning, as long as you do it before 8am when the restrictions start.

It was my wedding anniversary that day. I had a day off, and was going to take things easy in the morning.

But I forgot I was not allowed to take things easy these days. I got a call from a work contractor as early as 7:30, and my dog decided he had the urge to be sick. My child wanted to “make stuff” before breakfast, and my mother urgently needed to know what I planned for dinner that night.

So.... I just forgot. For just one hour or so, my brain focused on 10 and not 11 things. And I missed the 8am deadline. My neighbour knocked on the door: the warden had just issued the ticket. I ran outside, frustrated. I never before understood the passionate loathing that Brits share for the parking wardens- until that day.

Please!- I begged the young warden- Come on! I live here! I parked outside my drive!

Yes-he nodded happily- I know, I am sorry. I already issued it and can not take it back.

This is when you wish you were in Baku. I would have slipped a 5 pound note in his sweaty palm, and that would be the end of it. Or, ten years ago, I probably would have just smiled and got away with it.

Instead, I went home and called my poor husband at work: to tell him just how much I hated this f**** country.

Where else in the world- I ask you, people!- can you get fined £35 for parking outside your own drive?

But most importantly, it is about deadlines.

There is always a date by which you have to do things. £35 if you pay within 14 days. If you forget to pay by then, it becomes a £70.

If you forget to pay your taxes. If you forget to pay your bills. If you forget to apply for a car tax disc.

Remember this, remember that…remember to fill some more forms. More paperwork. More taxes. More letters.

Please fill this form, and return by post by such and such date. Please let us know if you will attend parents meeting at your child’s new school. No, please don’t call us. We prefer papers that you have to fill in, and and send to us. More paperwork.

You fight the system every day and you try your best to remember everything. You learn this country’s rules. You set up direct debits. You learn where speed cameras are. And so you might feel, on occasion, that you are in charge, and everything is under control, but that probably means you just forgot something. And when you relax a little, it will sneak up on you. And you feel like the system is trying to get you. To turn you into that mad woman who wandered the streets of London, muttering to herself that she could not cope.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

A bit of excitement on a dull Tuesday morning never hurt anybody.

He was brutal.

Looking at his gentle youthful face and slender body, one would never expect him to turn out to be such a sadist. Whenever I saw him before, he always smiled gently and said hello, ever so politely, and never appeared intimidating or threatening.

He mentioned to me when we first met, that if I decided I fancied it, I should just ask. That’s his job he said. I did not have to give him any advance warning, just check if he was free.

And today, I saw him doing nothing. He looked bored, and was polishing the equipment. I was not entirely alone: a couple of my friends were nearby. I decided it was probably OK to ask, and walked over to him.

-So?- I said- Come on then. Can we do it now?
-Yeah, sure! -he replied, and led me to the corner, picking up some mats and throwing them on the floor.

OK, I might have said that before, but it is worth repeating- to reinforce that image in your memory- before we go any further: I am a respectable married suburban woman.

First, he made me sit very close to him and interlock our legs together. Then, he gave me a ball to hold. And then, he told me to "go down". I looked up at him suspiciously, searching for any sign of harassment. Surely, he was winding me up? But he had a very straight face on. He was not smiling. He did not even blink.

Come on! Down!- he commanded, and I suddenly realized it was not such a good idea after all.

When I could not breathe any longer, he told me to change the position.

Right”-he said to me and my friends, who were sitting next to us-“Watch, everybody. Now, you lie down this way, with your head underneath your partner…”- he ordered.

I obeyed, glancing at my friends to judge their reaction. We were supposed to go for a coffee after that session. I was not sure anyone would want to be seen out with me after this ever again.

No”- he said- “Your head has to be right between my legs

Eh? Surely, I thought, my husband will object to that?

I barely knew the guy. I did not even remember his name, to be honest, and he was not my type. That had never happened to me before. I looked around to ensure nobody else was watching. I chose to strain my neck and look ahead, where a large poster showed a gorgeous girl kicking her leg really high up in the air, her stomach muscles toned.

Right. Just breathe deeply and look forward, not up- I thought to myself -Focus on the girl, and breathe.

Legs up!”- he ordered. I lifted my legs up, and he pushed them away roughly.
Keep bringing them up!”- he shouted as I paused to catch my breath.

After that session, I could barely walk. My legs shook as I stumbled on and out, and into the car.

And all I wanted is to look like that girl on the poster. Maybe one day. I surely suffered enough abuse today.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Every parent's worst nightmare

So was he or was he not?

Was Michael Jackson a pedophile? Or was he just a very….OK, hold on- VERY strange guy?

A very pretty friend of mine is a single mother with a 14 year old daughter.

The other night, over a dinner and a glass of wine- as you do- I asked her why she was still single. How was that even possible, I asked, to remain single when she looked like that?

And she told me that she found it very difficult to bring a man into her life- and her house- when she had a young daughter.

Of course, I told her to stop being paranoid. That while she was still young, and her daughter was only a child, she needed to get out there and try to sort her personal life out.

But on my way back, driving in the dark, I was alone with my own thoughts and fears. And while only a few years ago I would have thought the woman was crazy to see a pedophile in every stranger, I now am a mother of a little girl myself. And I live in the UK.

I have no idea why, but since I moved here, every time I open a newspaper, I worry I might see yet another cute little face smiling at me: Missing. Dead. Dismembered. Little body found naked in a ditch. Every parent’s worst nightmare.

Back home, when I was about 10 or so, I remember crossing the road near my house, when a Volga pulled over, and an older man asked me if he could give me a lift. When I continued walking, he offered me some grapes. Like I was that stupid.

But overall, it felt safe. Of course, lack of any honest media helped. Even if something happened around us, we could not read about it in a newspaper.

Yet, I am convinced it had something to do with the neighbourhood community culture that was, and I hope still is, so strong back home. Neighbours knew what everyone was up to. They watched what you bought, and what you were wearing, and whether your rubbish bins were smelly.

So it must have been pretty hard to steal a child back home.

We used to play in the yard since we were little, with no direct supervision. We could spend all day outside, only interrupted by our mothers calling from the balconies, shouting across the yard: lunch time!

But modern western cultures are different. You are on your own. You could be living next to your neighbours for years without knowing anything about them. You will smile politely and say good morning, but you might as well be a walking zombie and nobody will notice.

So I wonder if we all just expect the worst now.

Like this friend of mine who is still single, because she is paranoid of bringing a strange man into her life.

I would like to think that majority of people are not sick pervs. I would like to think Michael Jackson was actually just really weird. And very different. But... had it been my child he had invited for a friendly sleepover, I would have taken no chances.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

We aren't getting THAT intimate, honey.

Tonight husband is watching Once Upon a Time in Mexico. It has Johnny Depp in it, so I am not complaining.

Husband says: "Wifey, I am sorry, but I would"- (talking about Salma Hayek of course, not Johnny Depp) and I nod in appreciation. Oh, and William Defoe is in it too- this movie is exciting on so many levels.

This might seem like a bizarre topic for a blog. But then again, you know me by now. I like bizarre topics.

During my (younger and fitter) years I was a member of the university dancing group.
We would occasionally get invited to visit international youth festivals hosted by other universities abroad but our uni of course, could not afford to send us in style.

So, our very first trip to Turkey had to be in a bus, via Georgia, for about 2 days. The Soviet Union had just collapsed and it was a dodgy time to be traveling across the neighboring borders in anything other than a tank. But we were young and brave, and eager for adventure.

In the end, my worst memory of that long journey was not the fact that we had to be escorted to the Turkish border in the pitch black of the night by a convoy of two Georgian police cars (one in the front of the bus and one behind) And not the suspicious guerrilla types with Kalashnikovs who stopped our bus in the middle of nowhere to check who we were…..But the toilet experience.

I remember us taking a toilet break somewhere between Azerbaijan and Georgia. Please don’t test my geography here- I have not got a clue where we were, or whose territory (technically) that was. It was a wooden cabin in the middle of nowhere. Holding my breath, I glanced inside and ran right out. My brain was telling my body I had to consider using the facility while I had a chance. My body said: No, thank you. I am fine, honestly.

My dislike of public toilets goes back to the nursery summer camp when I was about five years old. A few days after my parents had dropped me off, they received a phone call. I would not do a poo in the camp toilet. It was one of those Asian style toilets- the squat type, with no toilet seat and a big open hole where, if you looked down, you could see stuff no civilized human being should ever get to see.

The Soviet teachers tried everything. They threatened me with an enema (quite commonly used on constipated children back home, which still horrifies my husband) but- nope, no poo. My parents had to take me home.

But it is not just the dislike of the filthy public loos that is the issue for me. I have always had this worry of needing to go to the toilet somewhere else but my own house. I do not like to do it anywhere where other people might suspect what I am up to.

Which creates a lot of uncomfortable situations in life. A weekend away with a new boyfriend, for example. Hotel rooms have bathrooms separated from the room by a flimsy little door and a very thin partition. Not my idea of a romantic atmosphere.

Or the western house layouts.

Back home in my Baku flat we had a corridor leading into a bathroom lobby, where another door was separating toilet from the bathroom. So if you were in there, you could enjoy some proper privacy.

In the UK, it is pretty normal to have one or more bathrooms upstairs, one of which is normally on suite of the master bedroom. Sometimes, it has a proper door. Sometimes- a symbolic folding type, which does not close properly. And a friend of mine bought a house in the states, where there was no door at all between their master bedroom and the toilet. I mean-no door at all????

So we were discussing whether it is a cultural attribute, or more of a personal choice and attitude towards bodily functions. Is it a sign of intimacy soooo advanced that it is just beyond my grasp? Does it depend on how long you have been together? Do you reach the stage where you are happily brushing your teeth whilst your partner is on the toilet?

If that is sign of a healthy relationship, then I am in trouble. But also lucky that even though we were brought up in such different cultures, I had never had to explain certain personal boundaries to my husband.