26 January 2012

Things Azeri People Like

Tea. "Like," is an understatement. "Love," would be an understatement. "Subsist on," gets a little closer to the heart of it, but focuses too much on the consumption. Having tea in Azerbaijan is a social activity, a integral part of life. Mothers "decanting" tea to cool it off, pouring it into the saucer and holding it up for their children to sip, is the equivalent of a bed time story. Or a hug. It's all very ritualistic. Sugar cubes go in the mouth, not the cup. Candies are plopped in the cup, never the mouth. Jam can be added to tea or eaten with a spoon alongside it. As soon as one kettle is done, another is brought to a boil. We have never consumed so much tea in our entire lives. Azeris seemed to consume no liquid aside from it.
Bread. Sure, everyone likes bread. (Sorry, celiacs). But does everybody place it out in the yard for birds and animals to peck away at because it's too holy to put in the garbage with everything else? I didn't think so. Here, a man prepared long, flat loaves to replace the ones he'd just taken out of the oven at a restaurant. As soon as those were in, he would go about making more. And more. And more. Diners kept a piece of bread in their left hand as they ate with their right, using it to nudge food onto their forks or, topped with a small mound of something, making it into a separate utensil. Soups and stews were doubled in size with the addition of bread. Pieces would be ripped and dropped into the bowl until all liquid was soaked up. Then, the bready mash would be eaten. Of course, along with some more bread.
Outdoor Sinks. The omnipresence of this outdoor sinks were the result of another thing Azeri People like- washing their hands. A sink was placed outside the front door of every restaurant or tucked away behind a curtain right when you walked in. No one sat down without cleaning their hands first and we were beseeched by every host to make use of the sink upon arrival. In fact, we always made sure someone actually saw us wash our hands. That way, we wouldn't have to do it over again.
Statues. Sure, everyone likes statues. But Azeri people had a knack for them and really liked sprinkling them around public spaces. In almost every instance, the statues would depict regular people. In Baku, midriff baring women hailed a cab and baseball cap wearing men talked on cell phones. In Lankaran, two men laughed on a bench while another, stooped over with his hands clasped behind his back, consulted an information board. Behind this statue in Sheki you can see Heydar Aliyev waving from a billboard. Which brings me to my next point...
Pictures of Heydar Aliyev/Heydar Aliyev Museums/Heydar Aliyev. Former President Heydar Aliyev's picture is everywhere in Azerbaijan. Billboards show him in front of the flag or candidly laughing. Businesses hung enormous portraits of him shaking their CEO's hand. One cell phone company simply put up a banner with Heydar Aliyev, you guessed it, talking on a cell phone. Every town had a Heydar Aliyev Museum and at least one bust of the man. Anything that can be named after him is. You can tell his son, the current president, doesn't feel too competitive with his deceased old man.

Honorable Mentions

Cayxanas (Tea Rooms).
I know I already said "tea," but this deserves its own honorable mention. Behind almost every door in any Azeri town is a cayxana. Most have no sign at all, just a rumble emanating from inside and the shadow of a dozen black caps in the foggy window. Men sitting in tea houses, sharing kettles of tea and nary a drop of alcohol, become rowdy and congenial. Tea houses are their bars, diners, elks lodges, pool halls all rolled into one. They seemed to spend their entire day here and grew silent and wary any time I entered their realm. Tea houses are like secret clubs and they are fervently male only.

Private Dining Rooms. Speaking of rooms, if an establishment served more than tea, they always had at least one private room in addition to the main dining space. This is where, most often, the police would go - some of the only people who eat out regularly. Sometimes, we were hidden away in one if there was a big party going on. In one restaurant, our private room was a mini picnic table in an faux beer barrel. Very cozy.

Having Their Pictures Taken. Exhibit A. Exhibit B. Exhibit C.

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