Experiencing Azerbaijan

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Location: Kansas, United States

Monday, January 17, 2005

After the New Year...

I have just returned from an hour at the seaside. I watched the changing light and the way the changing light reflects off the water. In the building cloudy sky, the light on the water looked like molten lead. The surface of the water gave the impression of being a flexible solid that I could have slid upon were I so inclined. Two ducks were riding the waves. Oh, to be a duck on the Caspian Sea! To be intimate with that water and survive! Last week Sharabani Hanam's grandson was here and he was gracious enough to take me to the sea side after dark.the moon and the stars and the sea.so very beautiful.

Today when I arrived back from my walk, the landlady gave me a bowl of borscht for my supper. I was cooking a chicken, but I put the chicken aside and had the borscht and a bowl of yesterday's yogurt for supper. Ihave talked about the food here before. The food is delicious-bread being the most extraordinary-let us call bread (corek) `10,' and radish greens (turp) stewed with rice `1.' I would give the rice (plof) a `9,' though I know there would be substantial debate on my scoring of the bread and rice. Food here is a passion; it is not something that people eat to stop from being hungry. Last week I went to a student's home for supper. This is thefamily where I often eat so we are all comfortable with each other. His mother made buranyi plof, one of my favorites. Buranyi is a mild, sweet, delicious squash. It is steamed and served diced with plof. Plof is buttered rice and sometimes made with gazmaq-an egg and yogurt concoction placed at the bottom of the rice pot and, when cooked, is browned into a rich, satisfying chewy mass. Anyway, I ate two admittedly smallish plates of buranyi plof but the family urged me on and on. When I turned my head to the TV (Vengeance or Clone.I don't remember which), the father scooped more plof onto my plate. Ahhhhh!! Baste.enough! The mother sat with a sad look on her face: Janet doesn't like my buranyi plof, my student translated. One day at school I mentioned to this student that I was going home for lunch and that lunch would be cheese and an apple. What else would I eat, Cavid asked. Nothing, I said. Oh, teacher, that is not good.that is not enough you must have something more.

And I can tell you about another conversation stopper. I was visiting with my landlady's family, the grandson previously mentioned and his family, in Baku. Since I am talking about food, I have to describe my visits here. When I arrive, tea is immediately served. Tea, cakes, jam, fruit, cookies and candy. We dally over the tea and eventually stop eating. The mother clears the table and I goof around with the kids and while we are playing, the mother is fixing the meal. After an hour or so, she calls us to come eat. We dally over the meal and eventually stop eating. We clear the table and immediately the mother brings out the tea and cakes, jam and fruit, cookies and candy. I have never stayed for two meals in one day so I don't know if we would repeat this series endlessly or if we would have a three or four hour break. So, that sets the stage. Last week, we were eating, as usual. My entire wardrobe was becoming uncomfortably tight, again, and I had been dieting during the previous week. I told the grandson, "I haven't eaten bread or rice for one week." "What?!" "I haven't eaten bread or rice for one week." This simply could not be taken in. "What did you say?" "No bread, no rice for one week." "You have not eaten bread or rice for one week?" "No!" His expression was priceless-total disbelief. He turned and told his mother. He had to repeat himself to her also. When she understood she looked at me and HER expression was priceless. I could not have excited more shock and disbelief if I had said I was a secret agent from the moon.

Well, I did go on about the food but it is a problem. I was talking to Lynne, the Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in a nearby village. She lives with a family and this family has three or four `gunags,' or get-togethers, at their home every week. This is a bit wearing on Lynne who before joining the Peace Corps lived alone. I asked her just what it is about these frequent parties that most bothers her. She said she could sit with the group-15 to 20 people-and enjoy part of the evening, but that the grandma and everyone else kept trying to get her to eat and when she said "No" to something, they said, Don't you like it? Oh, Lynne doesn't like my________. Because of the language problem, Lynne tries to knit during these parties so she can be with the people but not frustrated out of her skin by trying to understand and talk to 20 people speaking a different language. Lynne is trying to count stitches and people keep putting plates of food in front of her and she loses count. It is a little funny, but I do feel for her. If I hear of a deranged woman with knitting needles chasing a group of Talysh women around the village streets of Vilvan, I will immediately know who it is.

Most all fresh food is bought at the bazaar and I braved the muddied, cobbled streets today for provisions. Most vendors are honest but I sometimes feel that I have been cheated because I am a westerner. And I don't know if I have been cheated or if they are just laughing at the stranger with the funny haircut and the shiny new zambil, the indispensable, woven shopping basket. I have narrowed my choice of vendors which makes shopping much more convenient and eliminates the feeling that I am an object of a private joke. I go to the same woman for apples and she calls me her sister. I go to another woman for parsley, cilantro and dill. Her greens are usually fresh and because I always go to her, she picks out the best looking bunches for me. I have a choice vendor for mandarins and cucumbers. I quit going to the crazy onion man and found another seller for large, solid yellow onions. The small red onions I will still buy from anyone. Recently I found a good vendor for nuts and dried apricots. Today I bought a pound, actually, a half kilo, of dried apricots, a half kilo of shelled English walnuts, and a quarter kilo of hazelnuts. He assured me that they were all "yakshi" or `good.' The cost, by the way, was less than seven dollars. This young man is very nice and remembered me from the week before. I have the feeling that if I am a regular customer, I can trust him. Across the aisle from this young man is my new, favorite vendor-the butter man. Previously, I have bought butter by the ½ inch block at the shop down the street.In truth, I don't need to be so cautious in buying a quantity of butter as it lasts a long time on my kitchenshelf-the kitchen being almost as cold as a refrigerator. But, while doing my holiday baking, I started buyingbutter by the kilo and found this man at the bazaar. He looks like a Balkan/Azeri version of Bud Abbot of Abbot and Costello, and I like his smile. The situation with this `Abbot' is a culture issue that I really didn't anticipate: strangers touching my food. And it isn't just Abbot touching my food; it is the question of what else he has touched before he touched my food. Ok, I don't want to get lost in this endless circle. What I see in front of me is enough. He licks his finger to get a grip on the plastic bag, wiggles an opening then blows into the bag to open it. He uses a fantastic yet simple tool to cut the butter.a string tied between two narrow wooden handles. He estimates the proper weight then garrotes off almost exactly the correct amount. He delicately shaves a bit off or a bit on, and it is his delicacy of movement and his obvious love of butter that keeps me coming back because as many of you know, I too love butter. He wraps my purchase; I pay; he gives me a smile and a slight bow as I take the butter and carefully place it into my zambil. I suppose bread suffers the most from touch. Everyone gives the bread a squeeze before buying. I do. The vendor may give it a squeeze to advertise its quality. Customers squeeze the bread to see if it is hot or crusty or stale. A customer at a tandoor bakery will go down the line of loaves pressing each until she reaches the loaf that meets her particular needs. Bread, unless it is cold, is not sold in plastic bags. If I plan to go to my favorite tandoor bakery I take a small cloth to wrap around the bread to carry. If I stop on impulse, they give me a piece of newspaper to protect my hands from the hot bread. Or my favorite thing to do is to buy the bread straight out of the oven and hold it gingerly, passing it from hand to hand, tearing off the crusty bubbled edge.

Well, dear friends, this is the point where I must stop.unless I take a break and wait for more inspiration. After a recent deluge, yesterday was sunny and today looks like it might be the same. What do sunny days mean here? It means that one does laundry because it might get dry on the same day. I washed clothes yesterday morning; today I will wash towels. There is no hot water from the tap so I heat the water, mix it with the very cold tap, and scrub a dub dub. I will only mention that I take "showers" the same way. This subject leads to the title of my next letter: From Clean to Cleanish-One Woman's Story.


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