Saturday, 30 January 2010

Cultural Shenanigans

These are the last two culture shenanigans Q&A pages, from December and January issues of the MagAZine...Hope you can read them. Any suggestions and more questions are more than welcome! By the way, I could do with some questions from locals for a change. I am sure there are plenty of weird things expats do, that make you go "what the...???"


Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The lesbian made me.

We have a lesbian at work. A real one, not like this male girl on girl fantasy kind. A proper gay lady who has been with her partner for many years. In fact, so many that they sound like any old married couple. So no, definitely not the fantasy kind.

As an Azeri woman who had never met any lesbians before, I was not entirely sure at first. I mean, can I even say lesbian? Or am I supposed to say gay? What is the appropriate etiquette around her? Do I pretend I don’t know, and avoid the subject altogether? Or do I act like I am used to gay women and see nothing unusual in it? Because of course, it is quite unusual for me.

However hard it might be to be a gay man back in Azerbaijan, to be a gay woman must be ten times worse. No wonder I had never met any. I suspect all lesbians in Baku just waste their lives trying hard to hide their natural instincts and pretend to be someone they are not.

So, I had no idea what it must be like- to be friends with a gay woman. Sometimes, girls do things in front of each other that we would not do in front of men.
For example, say you are wearing hold-ups and one of them is sliding down your leg. You would pop in the bathroom and lift your skirt up to adjust it. But what if your lesbian colleague is there? Should you assume she is also a girl and would not care? Or would it be a bit of a treat for her, just like it would for a man?

But, despite my clumsy uncertainty at first, the lesbian and I ended up becoming good friends.

I discovered she was pretty cool and very, very funny. Not only that, and the fact that we both hate the same people and therefore, can bitch about them for hours; but we also discovered we both love listening to music at work. Which creates a bit of a problem for our male secretary, who, on a number of occasions, hinted that our humming in unison is incredibly annoying.

But we, of course, think that we sound great. In fact, we said, we are so good we might form a band and try ourselves on the X Factor.

All we needed now was a catchy name.

And then, the other day, she told me about this friend of hers. Whenever they went out, she said, and stayed too late and got too drunk, he would get home and tell his wife that “the lesbians made him”.

And suddenly, I knew what the right way to handle it was. I was impressed and relieved. Impressed that she was so comfortable about it all that she could make a joke like that. Relieved that she knew I would get it.

'This is it!, - I said to her,- this is what our band will be called!'

The lesbian made me

We could be like the next Jedward. A scary Azeri mama and a lesbian.

Giving it some further thought, we decided we might allow the nervously giggling secretary to join us. He could play guitar at the back. That way, he could not complain about us humming at our desks all day long.

See, it all worked out in the end.

Monday, 25 January 2010

A short story for Women's Forum

Tonight, Husband is watching a Jason Statham movie. He actually watched it last night already, but tonight, my visiting father in law wanted to see what happens in the end.

I was at a coffee morning today. With my mummy friends and
(a lot of) children.

Amid the usual talk about second and third children plans, cinema news and birthday parties, I mentioned that I wrote a little short story, which was going to come out in an online magazine back home. In three parts. With my sketches, which I actually got paid for!

And nobody asked me any questions. There were a couple of polite smiles from two people and no reaction at all from one.

Nobody asked me what the story was about, if it was any good, or in fact, anything at all. I am not saying it is a huge deal. But still... Out of politeness, would you not fake a little interest? Like, "Oh, that's great!" Or, at least, just the "Oh...?" would do.

I am not saying they all have to read it, or love it. People have their own lives and interests. And some of my friends dont even know what a blog is, let alone online magazines. And yet...I felt a little frustrated.

Oh, never mind.

I just wanted to say. The women's forum is going to publish this story of mine in three parts.

Let me explain. Not that I am making excuses in case you decide it is crap...

I just wanted to give you some background info.

I have not- except for in my (much!) younger days (back home, and in a different language)- written short stories before. And then I came across a short story competition in a UK magazine. So I thought I would try.
There was a theme- Uncertainty.
And a word limit. So the story is somewhat structured around those parameters.

Needless to say, it did not win. I did not really expect it to. However, it was done, and just sitting there. And it is based on a real story. So I thought I would offer it to Women's Forum. I thought they would like the topic. And they said: "Yes, please!"

They also said: "We like it"

And if someone likes it, and wants to pay me for it, why would I complain?

Yes, it is a bit embarrassing. And scary. So, as I say- be kind!
It is the first try. Here.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

“They don't help Christians, they behead them”

So, yesterday was the 20th of January. Black January.

A GV journalist commented on the Azeri blogger’s article , daring to suggest that both sides should acknowledge that truly horrible things were done to each other.

And straight away, he got attacked by someone who seemed to have been blinded by his hatred. The guy probably did not even read the comment. He saw the Armenian name and jumped to conclusions. I can just imagine him hitting the keyboard, spitting those words out, not pausing for a second to lsten to what was being said. Attempting to translate a common Russian expression literally into English failed, but the overall mood was pretty clear. But why, I asked this journalist, are you so surprised? Media has always been guilty of selective coverage. And readers just see what they want to see.

I have never realized how balanced the UK media actually is, compared to the US, until I went to NY and was sitting in my friend’s living room, flicking between channels, when she shouted at me from the bathroom:

-What are you doing???!!! You can’t listen to that! That is the Republican news channel!

I was amused: You have news that are openly pro one party and not the other? You mean, you have a news channel that is not even pretending to be balanced and unbiased? ( But then again, what about the Telegraph in the UK?)

And today, as I was thinking about this, I got an email from my friend. Just in time. She likes to send me articles from the Israeli news, which usually focus on how fair and noble Israel is. And portray the evils of the Muslim world. She also likes to send me various articles published in the UK, which, in turn, portray Israel as the only evil and cruel side.

And what I am saying to her is: Chill, girl! Of course, media is biased. Come on! A properly unbiased media simply does not exist. However frustrating it might be to the offended side.

So, today she sent me this.

Briefly, for those who don’t speak Russian, this article claims that the “Muslim world does not give a damn about the pain of Haiti”

According to CBS news, they say, no Muslim countries sent any help to Haiti.

Can this be true?- I thought, and Googled it. And,of course, CBS aid lists come up.

With a long list of countries... none of which is a Muslim one. But there is more than one result in my Google search. And so, more information comes up that claims otherwise.

So, have any Muslim countries made any donations? I guess, all it comes down to is who you chose to trust. As well as where you live. As well as what your chosen TV channel tells you.

It is a bit like believing in God. To start with, you just have to decide whether you are a believer. Then, I guess, chose which one you particularly fancy. There are plenty to choose from. Or you can believe in evil aliens, like Tom Cruise. Whatever is your thing, you stick to it, don't you. You don't sit there, wondering if others have got it right and you have not. You are convinced that your views are the only correct ones and everyone else is a moron, right?

So, isn’t it the same when it comes to what news you chose to believe? You just have to choose what you want to hear and switch to that channel, avoiding the others.

It really is up to you whether you want to think that no Muslim countries wish to help Haiti. Or believe that they do, and the anti-Muslim, pro-Israeli countries try to portray them as a nasty heartless bunch. Like this one comment I noticed in Yahoo! answers: “They don’t help Christians, they behead them. “

So, there is plenty of biased news on the net to pick from, whatever point of view you are trying to prove. Just pick one that your friends will approve. Pick the one that goes with your society and religious views. Pick the one that will let you sleep peacefully at night.

Monday, 18 January 2010

A dying out breed

I have been thinking about this since my interview for Women’s Forum.

Somebody said something to me that I have not heard in years. He (or she?) said that I was a weak example of the Azeri people since I did not speak any Azeri.

When people ask me what my first language is, I say Russian. They then assume I must be Russian. And even my dark hair and clearly non-Slavic features do not help. If they are genuinely curious, I attempt to explain. But they don’t really get it. And if I were them, I would not get it either. Because, it is so complicated, it would take me forever to even begin.

And yet.... I could try.

I was a city girl. And the city spoke Russian. Russian was the main language during my Soviet childhood. Everybody I knew spoke it. At school, and later, university, we had two language sectors. And the kids from the Russian sector would never associate with kids from the Azeri one.

It was like living in two parallel worlds.

Speaking Russian to me was never a matter of choice. I was born into a Russian-speaking family, and It defined who I was. Those days, Bakuvians were openly snobbish towards people from villages. The peasants. Chushkas. And chushkas spoke Azeri. Russian-speakers did not respect anyone who could not speak Russian. What I am saying here is neither fair nor pretty. But it is the truth I know.

Russian was the language of the best available careers, theatres, schools, universities and books. Speaking Russian was the sign of belonging to a certain social group. Just like your accent can tell a lot about your background and social status in the UK.

And then Azerbaijan became independent. And speaking Russian was suddenly not so great.

The degree of hatred towards Russia and the Russian language varied from one ex-Soviet republic to another. When, in 1990, my mother took me to Vilnius on a summer break, everyone was telling us that Lithuanians hated the Russians and their language so badly, they would refuse to speak to us. I could not really understand that. If two different neighbouring countries have one language in common; and it is the only way to communicate, why would they chose not to? Does national pride have to get expressed in such pathetic ways?

And in Baku, things were changing. And it had to happen fast. But the problem is, you see..Nobody would love something if it is forced upon you, often aggressively. Speaking what you were raised to believe was your own language became socially unacceptable on the streets of what you once thought was your home town . It could get you into trouble. Dirty looks, nasty remarks and verbal abuse were becoming the norm.

And everything inside me rebelled against that aggressive change. I did not like being forced to speak the language, even if speaking it was a must. What about providing good education in Azeri? What about making it so great that you would want to send your children to Azeri sector schools?

These days, things are changing. Almost everyone in Baku now speaks Azeri. Proudly, without being assumed to be chushkas. There is a whole generation of young Azeries, who don’t speak a word of Russian. And , to be honest, why should they? The country belongs to them, not the Russians.

But as for me, I will remain what I have always been. Someone who belonged to the society that no longer exists. And it is too late for me to change.

There are things I hate about back home, and there are things I love. I listen to some Azeri songs and I think the language can sound so beautiful. But do I ever miss not being able to speak it properly? Not really.

Just like my great-grandparents chose to study in French before the revolution; I wanted to learn and speak the language that had more to offer. From educational, cultural, career, future point of view. And I hope that one day, Azeri language will also become the one that people would want to speak. Not because they must. But because it has a lot to offer.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Cheap potatoes

One day, not so long ago, my mother was going to a little girlie get-together with her friends. Everyone was to bring something along, so mother made a cabbage pie. Her friend, whose flat they were gathering at, highly respected my mother’s cabbage pie making skills.

The friend lived out of town, and my mother took a bus.

Right next to her sat a very old, Russian babushka. Babushka’s husband- also very old-was standing nearby.

My mother is an incurably sociable type. She apologized to babushka. The pie was freshly made, and still hot. It was a long journey across Baku, and the babushka had to put up with the smell of cabbage.

Babushka smiled a toothless smile. She said, casually, that they have long forgotten the taste of a cabbage pie. Slowly, as the bus kept making its way through the busy streets, babushka told my mother about her life.

She told her how lucky they were, her husband and her. They had each other. They did have three children, she added, but one of them had passed away; and the other two left the country. Their old neighbours died or immigrated, and the new ones were doing their best to pressure them to move out of their little flat. Things that mean neighbours can do to elderly people. Shout abuse, threaten them, drive fast and too close past them, trying to intimidate..that kind of stuff. Bullies like to bully those who can’t fight back. Those who can not bribe police to protect them.

Their pension is very small. But, she added, they were coping.

For instance- look!- this potato is not bad, is it? And it only cost 10 qəpik per kilo.

They travel across Baku to the big central market, where potato is cheaper. In their local one, it is 60 qəpik.

She was not asking for anything, she was not moaning. She was just grateful she had a listener. My mother, embarrassed for her cabbage pie, awkwardly pushed a 5 manat note into the little wrinkly hand. Babushka tried to refuse the money.

That is just too much! If you gave me one manat, it would be plenty- she said.

My mother told her she had no other cash but wanted to help. Babushka took the money.

‘God bless you’- she said, walking out at her stop. My mother watched the old couple slowly shuffling away, holding hands and carrying the old fabric carrier bag with cheap potatoes. And of course, my mother cried.

Monday, 11 January 2010

An honest answer to a stupid question

Ever since we moved to the UK, I have been thinking how great it would be to move abroad.

Unlike some of my Bakuvian girlfriends, also married to foreigners, I have never experienced what that might be like- to be an expat. I met my future husband back in Baku and, for a brief moment, he was an expat. However, as soon as he proposed to me, he whisked me away.

And chucked me straight into the real world. I did not get to experience lazy afternoons near a pool, over a game of Bridge, sipping Piña Coladas, while discussing part-time volunteering work with poor children. Nope. Not me.

I did not even get to use any of my background or language skills in London. I got thrown into a big, fast city full of people who did not care if I spoke any Russian; and whose English was a lot better than mine. So I had to get a normal job, just like the locals.

But why am I talking about this now? Oh, yes. Husband got offered a little consultancy work abroad.

Not a proper expatriate package, not a long term contract. Just a quick trip for a week. Somewhere rich and hot. A kind of place where locals are not too keen on infidels.

So I got excited, because- who knows? It might lead to more opportunities, open more doors...What if he met someone who liked him so much they would ask us to relocate? Bridge games, Piña Coladas and volunteer work could, after all, be my thing.

Yet, part of me suddenly felt uneasy. Because, I know what expat life is like. I know how different things can seem in locations far away, where the air is hot and humid and girls are tanned and cheap.

-You are not going to be blyadying, are you?- I asked him, using the Russian word for a "whore"-something we just do between ourselves.

But really, what is the point of asking that question? It is just like those silly USA entry clearance forms:

- Have you ever been involved in a terrorist activity?
- Oh, now that you mention it, yes I have indeed! My name is Bin Laden. Shall I spell it for you, officer? B for Burka....

So yes, a pretty pointless question. What do I expect him to say?

Yes, I will jump off that plane and land right on top of some local girl’?
Or: 'No, of course not, darling'?

And before you start giving me lectures on trusting my man...come o-on! We say in Russian: “Trust, but check. “ Let me translate: Trust, but don’t be an idiot. Things can happen.

But mainly, it just got me thinking. He is only going for a week, and I am not entirely comfortable with the thought. I know there will be heavy drinking. I know there will be all expenses paid. I know there will be young girls and men who think it is OK, as long as far enough from their real world.

Would I really want us to relocate somewhere like that for a while? Probably not, to be honest. I complain about my boring suburban life in the UK. About ridiculous mortgages and lack of exciting social life. But in a way, boring is OK. I am used to this boring now, and boring feels like home.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

That cruel game called dating- Part II

Veni, vidi, vici

Tonight, husband is watching “Belly of the Beast”. You just know it has to be good. Honestly, how many movies does Steven Seagal make in a year?

So this friend lived in Hungary for a while. We were talking about him dating Hungarian girls.

I have never been to Hungary and never knew that they might have such a fascinating way of picking up girls. My friend was telling me about meeting this gorgeous Hungarian girlfriend, and mentioned that he ‘grabbed her‘ as she walked past him in a bar.

Grabbed her?

If anyone tried to grab me in a bar, a date with that man would be the least likely outcome. The very thought of a stranger grabbing me in a public place out of the blue, without at least some sort of verbal foreplay, makes me quite uncomfortable.

So of course, I wanted to know more. How is that possible? Did they really end up going out after such an introduction?

My friend explained that he would not have had a chance had he tried any of his more subtle, western approaches. In the US, he explained, it would be the norm not to call the girl for a couple of days after you’d met; not to appear like a desperate stalker. In Hungary, unless you grabbed the bull by the horns, you lost your chance. You have to act quickly, without any hesitation. No games are played. No prelude. You come, you see, you conquer. He saw this girl in a bar, they made an eye contact (Oh, that’s OK then.) and so, as she walked past him, he just grabbed her.

I thought of back home, and my dating days. Oh, those sweet and sour days...So many years passed since then!

Nobody ever grabbed me as I was walking past. To be honest, I never really liked meeting men in bars. Must be a cultural thing. Azeri girls spend all their lives fighting off strangers. Because we are so used to harassment at every step we take.

You chat to a taxi driver and he will assume you want him right there and then. You smile to a waiter and he will ask for your phone number. You walk past a construction site...Well, you just don’t walk past construction sites.

So if you are a cool chick back in Baku, you are probably very good at brushing men off. It is an automatic reaction.

Once, a long time ago, in my single days, I was visiting Druggie in London.

She and I were in a pub, having a few drinks, when this bloke just appeared out of nowhere. He must have been sitting nearby for a while, but I had not even noticed. He walked up to us and, looking straight at me, asked if I would have a dinner with him the next night. The conversation lasted a few seconds. He barely had time to finish the sentence. I glanced at him quickly, said ‘no, thanks ‘, and continued with my conversation. Druggie was shocked. She thought I was incredibly cruel and rude.

“Poor bloke must have been sitting there for ages, gathering up the courage to walk over here!”- she said.

But I just shrugged my shoulders. Back home, guys expect you to say ‘no’. At least once.

From my experience, unless you meet someone via someone, who knows someone, who worked with someone, it is just not worth it.

But that is back home.

A secretary at my very first job in London was telling me how she met her boyfriend. She came out of the gym one night. He pulled up in a car and asked if she wanted a lift. She glanced at him and thought she might have seen him in the gym. The car looked good too. So she got in.

I listened and smiled. I was so incredibly happy for her. Happy that she was not raped, cut into a thousand tiny pieces, placed in a suitcase and thrown down the Thames.

So yes, I have heard a lot of interesting dating stories in my life. But this Hungarian one beats them all. It goes against everything I thought I knew about men and relationship, against my instincts. I always thought that certain basic principles work everywhere. But this? A man grabs you in a bar, and you smile, land on his lap, snog him, have sex with him straight away...and he respects you and does not think you are a bit of a blyad?

Wow. I really want to be open-minded here. But either I have no idea about these things, or my friend was hanging out in a kind of a bar where you meet that kind of girls. There are plenty of bars like that all over the world.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Another Scary Interview

Gave an interview to WOMEN'S FORUM. Check it out here.

Part II about dating is to follow soon!

Stay tuned, guys!

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

That cruel game called dating- Part I

in which we had too much red wine and might have generalized a little.

So this single friend of ours was complaining. He said being single in his late thirties was similar to being gay, as people immediately try to set you up.

Oh, I have a gay friend!

So what? Just because you have a gay friend you think we must be destined for each other?

People think if you are approaching 40 and are still single there must be something wrong with you. Whether you had been married before, or have always been single, they just wonder: Hmm...How come? What is going on?

So, over a couple of bottles of red vino, our discussion led us into talking about dating when you are slightly, as I'd say in Russian, overripe.

Well...-he said- You see... It is complicated for someone like me.

First of all, he explained, he did not know where he wanted to live. Having worked and lived in a few fascinating places around the world, he was not sure he wanted to spend the rest of his life in the states.

Therefore, American women are no good. Because, majority of them would want to stay in their home country. Age is also an issue. He prefers younger girls, not just because their bodies are hotter, but because it is pretty scary to date women over 30.

The most dangerous age, he explained, is between 30 and 35. That is the age when girls panic about their clocks ticking and go crazy, desperately searching for husband material, so they could quickly have those babies. The older ones are also scary, he said, even though, some had by then already given up on the idea and are a little more relaxed. Also, with older ones, you more often meet those who had already been there- done that. They had a partner and kids, and now are just having fun. He talked about unhappy relationships and dangers of getting trapped by having children...

As I sat there, my mind captivated by this brutally cynical, yet realistic outlook, I just could not help but imagine, for a brief second, what it would be like for me, in my – can I still say “mid”? – thirties, to be single again.
Being analyzed by single men. The ones who would either assume I am going to be up for quick casual sex just because I had done the whole married thing once already, or that I am desperate to catch a new husband- to pay my bills. The ones who would secretly wonder what might be wrong with me. The ones who prefer younger bodies untouched by childbirth.

An unpleasant chill went through my (slowly but unavoidably) aging body. “Better try to be nicer to Husband”- I told myself.

But why is it that our society is so unfair to women? Because, however hard I argued that night, in this cruel game of dating in your 30+, men are generally better off.

But why should they be?

Why is it assumed that older women are any less physically attractive than older men?

Looks are not as important for women”- my friend suggested.

I laughed. I thought it was quite funny. If you think that women look at Brad Pitt and wonder about his intellect, then trust me, you are wrong. Would women really prefer a baldy with an old saggy bottom- unless, of course!- it is supported by his money? So, if you are an older single male, and not rich, what is it that you think puts you in a better position?What have single men in their late thirties got that makes them anyhow more datable than women of the same age?

But! Let’s stop being so cynical, I say. Because, sometimes things just happen.

Not by analyzing what wicked trap might be set up for you; or who might be right or wrong for whatever reasons. One day, She will just appear in this friend’s life. She might be young or she might be somewhat older. Her arse might not be as tiny and perky as he might ideally wish for. She might be American or Russian. But she will be just right for him, despite of all the things he would normally analyze and scrutinize. I appreciate that with age, we all tend to get a little more cynical. A little more negative. And i just hope that one day, my friend would still find that ability to forget all the logic and simply enjoy falling in love.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

The duck and I.

The New Year’s Eve is a majorly chmominating event. You always feel like you should be having an exciting evening. Even if you are a big fat chmo* for the rest of the year, you feel that,somehow, it is absolutely critical that you try your best to not be a chmo on that one night. And it is no good telling yourself that it means nothing to you and it is just another evening. Deep inside, you still know what it really means. That you are a chmo. `

I ask my local friends about their plans.

Oh, we are invited to our friends’ place!”- they say excitedly.- “With a few other couples. For a sleep-over with children!” Or “Oh, we are going to a party!”. Or “Oh, we are going to Barbados!”.

And I admit, a couple of years ago, I would feel like a chmo. Because, I have not been invited to an exciting party. With a lot of good-looking, young and trendy people laughing and drinking cocktails all night long. And it does not even matter that, realistically, I might not even want to go. It is like being asked to marry someone. You might not want to get married, but it is still nice to be asked.

Yet, none of this is important now, because it is not just me and Husband anymore. It is me, Husband and a duck.

There is just something satisfying about having a duck for New Year. Honestly, who needs cool friends and cocktail parties if you have a duck?

A duck makes everything OK. It also makes your New Year sound a lot better.

Just compare this:
-So what did you end up doing for the New Year?
-Oh, nothing really, we just stayed in.

With this:
-So what did you do for the New Year?
-Oh, we stayed in and had a duck...

Straight away, you are elevated from the chmo position to a position of someone cool, who might have had a few party invitations, but decided that she preferred a quiet, cosy evening with a duck.

So I am quite satisfied with my New Year’s Eve now. Also, this year we had a visitor from abroad- a friend from the states came to see us. Why would a handsome single American male in his late thirties chose to spend his New Year’s Eve in an English suburb with a married couple, an old smelly Rottweiler and a loud 4-year old is beyond my comprehension. Yet, I can work with that. I mean, I can make that sound cool.

What did you do for the New Year?
Oh, a friend of ours came over from Chicago....

So, I sat there on the sofa, G&T in my hand, surrounded by tasty smells coming from the kitchen, and I thought to myself: this is cool. This is what the New Year should be like. In the company of Husband, G&T, a good friend (who decided we were an exciting enough company to fly across the ocean for) and....the duck. Yes, very importantly- the duck.

*In case you are new to this blog, CHMO is an abbreviation for Chelovek Moralno Obosranniy. (Russian) Means a Person Morally Shat Upon. I cannot think of a better expression for a total loser.