Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Innocent and Pure. Guess who?

Just a few days before Christmas, I ventured out into central London. Crazy, I know. But I had no choice: as usual, I left it till the last moment. A few days before then, we had heavy snow in our suburbs. I shall discuss the impact of weather conditions on the UK transport network another time. Maybe, in my next post.

But that day was just gorgeous. The snow was everywhere, and the sun was out. Something Russians consider normal is a special pre-Christmas magic for the Brits.

I had to get all the way to Covent Garden, as Husband developed a passion for Carhartt clothes. And of course, we don’t have Carhartt anywhere near us. So I took the tube into London.

Making my way through the over-crowded streets, trying to focus, I suddenly got stopped by a stranger. If you have lived in a big city, you know that being stopped by a stranger on a street is not a good thing. I glanced at the guy, and he appeared pretty normal. That, of course, did not mean anything. He started talking and my first thought was that he was trying to sell me something. I then realized he was not asking for any money. He said something about me walking out of that shop, and how he noticed me because I had a special aura.

Ah,- I thought to myself, -he is not trying to sell anything; he is just crazy and will now stab me with a knife. And nobody will notice what exactly happened, as they all rush about in the pre-Christmas shopping frenzy.

But he had no knives in his hands. He just kept telling me something about people and auras. He said most people get born with a clean aura but it grows negative with age, but me...I was innocent and pure, he said. I laughed nervously. He said he was an accountant these days, but eight years ago, he used to practice meditation. And he just saw this amazing aura around me.

OK, now he is going to ask me for some money- I thought, smiling and nodding (trying to look both polite and in a rush to be somewhere), because he needs it to support some aura-cleansing school of his.

But then he just said “Bless you, have a nice Christmas!” and disappeared in the sea of shoppers.

Excited and grateful that he was not going to kill me, I waved and wished him a great Christmas too; and walked off, glancing behind me. Once I was sure he was not following, I realized I had not considered another, more realistic option.

That’s it! - I thought, unzipping my bag to grope inside it- he was a distraction thief. He was bullsh**ting me about auras, whilst his partner was stealing my wallet. But everything was still intact inside the bag.

So I kept walking, smiling. The cynic in me was convinced something just did not go according to the plan. Perhaps, I was holding my bag too close to me, or was not distracted enough. But that little innocent and pure one was asking in a tiny sheepish voice inside my head- But what if? What if he was just a nice guy, who believed in good auras? And what if he just really liked mine? That is not entirely impossible, is it?

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

About Islam

OK, first of all, I must apologize: I had no intention of talking about Islam today. I lied. Just noticed that as soon as I mention the word Islam, it brings a lot of traffic to my blog. So I cheated. I know, I know. Not fair. Tough.

Now, back to the real topic. You might be looking at this picture and thinking it was taken in some cosy suburban bistro. Well, the truth is... Net. This hmm...thing is proudly hanging in my kitchen.

I would just like to know. Is it possible to have a partially bad taste? A bad taste in specific stuff?

Because, I would like to think I had a good taste. For instance, in clothes. I am perhaps, a little conservative in my choices, but not dreadful. I remember that one hooker in Baku, who always (after she got married to a rich expat, and viewed herself as a ladyeeee ) dressed in one shade of the same colour. She particularly favoured light blues and pinks. She must have thought it was a sign of elegance and chic. Also, it was simply a very safe choice. If you have bad taste and are worried people would guess as much, it is easier to just go for the same colour, rather than risk matching any other to it.

But back to me, if you don’t mind.

I am pretty sure I am not as sad as that hooker when it comes to my wardrobe selection. Or music. Or furniture. Or jewellery. Many other things, really. But, clearly, not when it comes to things that go on the walls.

I already told you i had once bought some very bad paintings, whilst pregnant in Baku. That time, I blamed pregnant brains for that lack of judgement. But this time... I bought this thing. Nobody influenced me, nobody forced me into it.

How is this possible, I ask you? Honestly, am not a chushka with no taste. But clearly, when it comes to things that go on my house walls, there is some uncontrollable chushka switch in my brain that just operates of its own accord. And now I have this thing on my wall. Husband, of course, hates it. Friends hate it. And I myself can see what they mean. But something just happened to me and I liked it, and bought it. The more I look at it, the more confused I get, because I do not really want to live in a suburban bistro in mid 70s'. I would love my home to be modern, stylish and cool. But I paid for it and announced to the world that I loved it. So I have to live with it. A bit like that expat with his hooker wife. He always knew what she was. He knew what everyone else thought. So, he and I have something in common. We both now have to live with our (embarassing) choices.

Monday, 21 December 2009

A very, very short one

A neighbour stopped by today. The one I dislike. I really dislike him. When we first met, he kept asking how and where I had learned English so well. I thought he sounded incredibly patronising. Husband explained that he is a old teacher. They all sound a bit like that, so I should not take offence. But I remained unconvinced.

Today, he wanted to let me know they would be away for Christmas. So that we would keep an eye on his house. I told him we would also be away, for a few days.

-Why don’t you ask Cathy?- I said, referring to our mutual neighbour.

-Who?- He leaned his head to one side, his lips stretched over his teeth in a fake smile.
- Cathy- I repeated.
-Kat-iya?- He asked, smiling.
- No- I said patiently, feeling like the Indian lady in Little Britain- Ca-thy.

He looked puzzled.

Cathy- I repeated.

Oh, Ca-thy!- he said, screwing his face up a little- I thought you said Kati-ya.

I smiled back.

-It is because you expected me to say Kat-i-a- I said.

He just kept smiling. I really, really dislike him.

Friday, 18 December 2009

100 posts

It is a bit of an anniversary for this blog today. 100 posts. Since it is an important round number, I thought I would write about something nice.

It must be the snow outside or this season’s mood I can’t help but get into, but I am just full of love at the moment. Love for my friends.

Usually, some of them would occasionally do something that might irritate me. Or that I might consider rude, ignorant or selfish. However, nobody annoyed or upset me for a suspiciously long time. (Except for Husband. And the child, of course. Oh, and the dog.) Maybe I am just getting softer and more tolerant with age. Oh, whom am I kidding, it is not going to last.

But, while it does….

My friends.

I know I talked about the importance of friends in my life already. But this Christmas spirit is contagious, even for an atheist. I just am full of this warm and bubbly feeling of gratitude and affection. This time, for my local friends.

My life would be pretty miserable here, in the UK, if not for these pretty ladies. The life of an immigrant can be lonely. Really can. You miss your culture, your family, your ways of doing things, your food, your social life. And yet, I realized a couple of days ago, sitting in a village café with one of my best local friends, that I have actually got some really nice ones, you know. Yes, it took me a while to collect them.


a) Brits are quite hard to get close to, compared to people from some other, more approachable, cultures.

b) I am quite fussy. I don’t like boring people. Even if they are nice. I also really dislike people who make things up, are pretentious or fake.

Yet, I have managed to find some really great local friends. Friends without whom my life would be pretty miserable.

They ask me for lunch on cold rainy days and feed me with tasty things. They pick my child up from school and take her to their place, so I could have a few more hours to run my errands. They baby-sit for me when I want to go out. They listen to me moan. They share morning coffee with me whilst husbands are at work, and they laugh at my jokes. They gossip and they advice on good shops and bargains. Most importantly, I realized that should I ever need help, they will be there for me.

They are the best. Don’t forget that I must shock them often. Despite having assimilated quite well, I am still from a different planet. I must sometimes appear rude, tactless or plain weird. And yet, they accepted me the way I am. I am just a very lucky girl.

PS. Go ahead, click that "borriing" box. See if I care. Warm and bubbly.

Monday, 14 December 2009

What’s the Russian for ‘funny’?

I thought it was time for another guest posting. This time, I would like to introduce a crime writer from Scotland, Bill Kirton. Since I am now toying with the idea that one day I will actually write a book (which might, of course, never materialize, like most of my great ideas) I started reading blogs, written by real writers.

I love the opening paragraph on Bill's website:

This is what male crime writers often look like – upturned collar, the stare across the shoulder, the ‘would-you-trust-this-man-as-far-as-you-could-throw-him’ expression on the face. Well, that’s the way we have to look. The sort of things we do to our characters don’t go with cheesy smiles or concern for other people. Except that they do. Most crime writing’s about people – their fears, frustrations, excesses, their tragedies and needs. And, of course, their motives for doing the unspeakable things they do…...

For some reason, I always think of that photo when I read his blog. And I just love the way Bill writes. There is just something about it.

It is very easy to do a guest posting on my blog. You either have to get me to admire your writing, or just pay me. Now (as the joke goes) that we know what I am….I give you Bill Kirton.

When Scary asked me to write a guest blog I was flattered. ‘What about?’ I said. ‘Anything you like,’ she said. ‘You used to teach French so maybe something about language and culture. And try to be funny.’ (We’ll ignore the kiss of death of those final five words.)

But she’s right. It’s the obvious thing to write about. The first time I came across Scary was when she wrote a comment on my own blog. She said something about not being a native speaker and my immediate assumption was that she was French. That’ll surprise those of you who know her but it’s a good example of how we perceive not the truth but something which makes sense through our own perceptions. My ‘foreign’ language is French and the top line of a French keyboard reads azertyuiop – so my first thought on seeing the letters ‘azery’ was a French connection. (Even though I live in Aberdeen and there’s been lots of oil-related contacts between Azerbaijan and Aberdeen companies for several years now.)

Anyway, so this blog has to be about language, culture – and it’s got to be funny. So let me get the serious bit out of the way first. I know next to nothing about Azerbaijan or indeed any of the former Soviet countries. My own politics (to the horror of my American friends) are vaguely socialist – but not in the way the Soviets interpreted (distorted) the concept. My socialism is that of Jesus (although I’m an atheist, too) – in other words surely it would be better if we all tried to help and respect each other’s uniqueness and beliefs rather than fighting. OK, serious bit over.

So, can someone writing in Scotland say things which sound funny to an Azerbaijani or a Russian? I mean, if you were all in a theatre and I fell about like Mr Bean, Norman Wisdom or Jim Carrey, that might work – but all I have here are words. So does language-based humour translate?

Because words aren’t just labels, they’re things, truths. We all know that Eskimos have a whole range of terms for snow – they need them. But why do Russians (apparently, and correct me if I’m wrong) have separate expressions for light blue and dark blue, making them not shades of the same thing but two distinct primary colours?

It used to be ‘I think, therefore I am’. Not any more. Our words and accents can give away our social class, religion, intelligence, nationality – all sorts of secrets. Take our lovely host, Scary. She’s open, upfront, witty, funny and honest about all sorts of things but sometimes her words get her into trouble – she writes them with one intention, others read them through different perspectives and form opinions of her that may be miles from the ‘truth’ of who she is. (By the way, she wanted me to say something nice about her – so that’s it.)

OK, so language is a vital part of how we perceive the world and the way we express who we are. It’s about perceptions. But so is humour – it’s about perception.

Arthur Koestler said it depended on what he called ‘bisociation’. Usually, we hear and experience things in a single context and there's no surprise or disorientation involved. But with bisocation, you get a second, totally different context and it’s the suddenness of the contrast between them that triggers the laugh. A cry often heard in the old melodramas was ‘You scoundrel, you deserve to be horsewhipped’. It had a clear, single context. But look at the Groucho Marx version. ‘You scoundrel, I'd horsewhip you if I had a horse’ – two completely different contexts.

So much for language then. What about culture?

If the ‘foreign’ culture has a different set of references, can bisociation work? Well, yes – and to an even greater degree. To begin with, let me give a personal example. First, you need to know (my apologies if you do already) that when the French call to attract attention in a crowd, for example, they tend to yell ‘Coucou’. In English, the equivalent is ‘Cooee’ (pronounced coo-eee). An acquaintance (who should have known better) saw a friend of hers in the distance amongst the crowds outside Notre Dame in Paris and called out ‘Cooee’. The punchline (of this true story) is that the French word for testicles is couilles, pronounced coo-eee. I leave you to form your own scenario of a mostly French crowd reacting to a woman shouting ‘testicles’ in front of a medieval cathedral.

We pretend to resist national stereotypes, but the tired (but persistent) British cliché is that Germans have no sense of humour, Italians cry a lot and pinch women’s bums, and the French have disgusting lavatories. Equally, all Polish people are plumbers and Russians love being thoroughly, catastrophically miserable. (It’s something to do with the Steppes and Tchaikovsky apparently). Pasta in English is chips, French bread isn’t really bread because you can’t slice it, most continentals have got a word for queue but don’t know what it means, and so on. So what are the chances of me being funny with an Azaerbaijani who doesn’t speak English? How can I tell him/her that:

Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe.
All mimsy were the borogoves
And the mome raths outgrabe?

Or how can I convey to a Russian with no English the truth of Ogden Nash’s observation that:

A shrimp who sought his lady shrimp
Could catch no glimpse,
Not even a glimp.
At times, translucence
Is rather a nuisance.

The effects depend so much on specific words.

But I’ll end with an actual joke and a surprising revelation from a friend who taught Russian. He was talking (pre-Glasnost) with his Russian language assistant. A shortened version of the joke he told her was as follows:

After a business meeting, two men relax with a round of golf. One is a club member, the other his guest. Afterwards, the guest wants a shower but has no towel, so the friend lends him his golf towel. (These towels are very small). The guest hurries into the shower and, still in the cubicle, he hears female voices outside. He’s obviously come into the ladies’ rooms by mistake. He’s in a dilemma. He has to hurry to catch his plane and the women aren’t in a hurry to leave so he’ll have to walk past them. But he only has the small towel. Should he use it to cover his private parts – thereby having the embarrassment of having to actually look the women in the eye as he leaves – or should he cover his face and just run past them? He decides to cover his face and rushes out. The three women are naturally shocked. The first says ‘How disgusting. Well, at least it wasn’t my husband.’ The second says ‘No, you’re right. It wasn’t your husband.’ And the third says ‘He wasn’t even a member of the club.’

But the point of telling you this joke is that the Russian to whom my friend told it had already heard it back home, where the whole context obviously wasn’t a golf club and the punch line was ‘He doesn’t even live in the village’.

So maybe humour can free us. Maybe we share more things than we think. Maybe the curse of nationalism and separateness can be overcome. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, faced with how absurd life is, we could all just enjoy it, and keep laughing at it?

Monday, 7 December 2009

Why I would never move to Singapore

La cucaracha, la cucaracha,
ya no puede caminar
porque no tiene, porque le falta
las dos patitas de atrás.

Back in Baku, I lived on the 5th floor of an old building. Below us, on the 4th floor, there was a mad, but reasonably clean family. However, the family above was filthy. I know that because I often shared lift rides with the woman and her smelly rubbish bins.

For many years we had an ongoing battle with cockroaches. Every time the filthy neighbour would finally spray some anti-cockroach stuff, they ran down the drainpipes- right into our flat.

Fortunately, I have not seen cockroaches in the UK. Not the fat, glossy black type I am talking about. OK, I once noticed a cockroach at work, but it looked tiny and pathetic compared to those in Baku.

During the university years I would spend nights working on a project. I sat in the kitchen, under a bright pull-down lamp, carefully drawing endless lines with black ink on an A1 size board. And, as the night fell, they came out to play on the kitchen floor. I once witnessed something that could have been a cute picture, should the actors have been say, cats. Or dogs. Or any other animals- as long as on no more than four legs. It was a family having a nice time. There was the hugest, fattest and glossiest daddy cockroach, a slightly smaller mommy, and a couple of little baby roaches. Babies played close to the mother, while daddy searched for food.

I could never kill those black cockroaches the way my father did- by stepping on them. They were way too big and made that nasty popping-cracking noise. So I used my own method. Not anyhow more humane, yet effective. I would boil a kettle and just splash the bastards. That night, I murdered the whole happy little family.

The filthy neighbours eventually immigrated, and an Indian family moved in.
Whether they are too hygienic, or their food is just too spicy for Azeri cockroaches, but my mother has been enjoying a cockroach-free life for a few years now. And I have not seen any more of them for years, either here, in the UK, or back home. Yet, wherever I am, I always glance down as I walk into a bathroom at night. You just never know what might be running under your feet when you switch the light on.

On a trip to Singapore, a friend of ours was telling us we should move there for a while. Just think- she said- you could have a housekeeper… your life would be so easy here

Hmmm...- I thought-…tempting, very tempting.

However, at a dinner that night, she told us about cockroaches in Singapore. They sounded terribly similar to my childhood friends. Only bigger. Most importantly, they could FLY. If there is one thing that is worse than a big fat black cockroach, it is a big fat flying cockroach. So, I decided to stay in the UK. As far as nasty insects are concerned, this country is not that bad. At first, I thought British homes were completely creature-free. I was naive, of course.

Because, in British homes, we get spiders.

Allegedly, the huge ones we see in our houses are the male spiders. They normally live outside, but come in the homes by accident- desperately looking for a girlfriend. Boys, eh.

Husband likes spiders. Should he come to rescue me from one (or the other way around), he would try to catch it in a glass and set it free. He also thinks my fear of them is pathetic. And these days, after many years and after many, many spiders, I normally cope OK. Especially since I discovered that even the biggest ones do not make any noise when you squash them.

However, there was that one morning I had to wake husband up.

He was not very happy; it was too early and he was deeply asleep. He mentioned how attractive he finds independence in women. How tired and sleepy he was. And many, many other things. As he stumbled into the bathroom, half asleep, he crouched down next to the bath, and stared at the spider. The spider stared back.

Finally, husband spoke.
This is the biggest fucking spider I have seen in my entire life.
- - he admitted thoughtfully. And then tried to wash it down the drain. Like that was going to work. I get paid for planning things to fit into spaces. I knew the spider was way too big. As the water pushed him down, we could see his long hairy legs grab hold of the edges, pulling himself back out- in a fast and furious fashion.

In the end, husband had to butcher the guy with my foot file.

Still, it is winter now, and there are no spiders, flies or wasps in my lovely home. Just a large smelly dog snoring next to me. But that is quite different.

Friday, 4 December 2009

About good looks, Cherie's mouth and Putin's torso

Wow, cool. Steven Seagal has just cut a huge boob open ( on a dead girl) and took a chunk of silicon out.

My mother is concerned about this posting. She is concerned on two levels, both equally important:

a) She is worried I am stepping into politics, and, as some of us know too well, it is not a wise move.
b) She thinks I might appear really stupid. Because saying what I am about to say here is not something smart and serious people would say.

But I think:

a) I am not into politics enough to discuss it on this blog. I would have to feel strongly about it, hope I could change something and be a little less cynical than I really am.
b) So what? I am just messing about.

I told you before I was a shallow person, and that I liked good looking people. I like to surround myself with pretty things. Even my Rottweiler is devilishly handsome.

And I can easily dislike someone based on their looks. And I am sorry, but I feel the same way about politicians. I mean, just look at Putin. How can anyone be liked when he has a face like that? A Russian friend of mine, by the way, tried to convince me he was a sex symbol back in Russia. A sex symbol. That, I guess, explains his apparent confidence behind the naked torso photos we were all unfortunate enough to see in the news.

So I just wanted to show you this photo- for those of you who happen to read this blog but have no clue where and what Azerbaijan is.

This is our first lady.

How about that?

Don’t you think having such a good looking first lady is something to be smug about?
In fact, I would argue that Azeries have one of the best looking first ladies in the world. Never mind Mrs Obama’s arms.

Not only does Azeri first lady look good, she also seems very civilized. She wears short skirts and does it elegantly. Do you realize how cool that is for a Muslim country? Every time I see a picture of her, I think of that scary old man who was trying to lead the country in a completely different, burka-wearing direction. Again, just look at this guy. See what I mean? Appearances matter.

A friend of mine, a bigger patriot and a passionate revolutionary deep inside, was outraged.
Anyone with that much money can look this good!- he spat out.

OK, I said, I appreciate that. But I still think it is pretty cool, considering what we could have ended up with. So, I was proudly showing her photo in Russian Harper's’ Bazaar to my English friends, who for a while had the first lady with a mouth that did not look human. Neither did it look like a mouth. Plain scary, if you ask me.