Are We Ready for Spring?
Friday, February 1, 2013
As we turn the calendar pages from white and wintery, I thought I’d share a few last thoughts with a couple more of the photos I uncovered this week.
This is the view I saw every day in the late ’90s. This was my neighborhood, so to speak.
This picture above was the view from the (then) AmCham office, looking out from the back of the hotel.
I used to walk from my apartment, off to the left a few blocks, to the AmCham office when it was here in the Radisson Hotel building, ISR Plaza. Sometimes after work I would walk to a little market about 1/4 mile off to the right, before heading home for the evening. Most days though I would head out the front door, and cross the Fountain Square in search of friends for dinner, ultimately ending up at the Wharf or the Sunset Cafe, both of which had opened by about 1999 or so.
Fountain Square was, and I suspect to some extent still is, the heartbeat of traditional Baku.
Any day, any time, you could wander over just to sit a while, watching families stroll by, or meet friends for a drink at a sidewalk bar and have a meal.
In warmer weather, I loved to watch people from the open deck of the rooftop restaurant as groups of young girls walked arm in arm, or children played on old soviet park toys by the fountains. It wasn’t uncommon for little kids to take their shoes off and play in the fountains- and more than a few little boys went further than that on hot summer’s days!
But here in these pictures, in the middle of winter, look how many people are still out on the Fountain Square…
Here, in front of the hotel the scene changes from the quiet narrow streets of the neighborhood beyond my office windows. On this iconic square, in full view of all those Stalin-era apartment blocks, not far from the legendary Maiden’s Tower and the Opera House (which was said to have been fashioned for an Italian opera singer who refused to sing in Baku until a “proper” opera house was built) sits that other famous landmark… the first McDonald’s in Azerbaijan.
Talk about a study in contrasts!
Today, though, this impression must seem positively “quaint”, judging by what I saw after the Eurovision Song Contest. I don’t recognize the Baku I knew in the early ’90s.
My first impressions of Baku, several years before McDonald’s came to town, were centered around families, walking on the fountain Square on evenings that were too hot to sleep, girls in modest skirts (getting smacked on my backside by an old lady- a real babushka- crying “Bruekii! Bruekii” meaning “pants! pants!” because they were considered wrong for women to wear), and never wearing sleeveless tops.
By the time McDonald’s arrived, MTv had changed everything. MTv was probably a symbol of the outside influences that were already taking hold in Baku- not yet in the regions (the rural areas) though. By the time McDonald’s arrived, there were plenty of girls looking for a place to see and be seen, a place to wear their tight skirts and make-up. And if this sounds like “those girls”, well, there were more than a few ex-pat guys that were not unhappy about that freedom either.
McDonald’s is not to blame for changing the culture. The culture had been covered with an iron fist for 70 years and when the lid came off, the markets opened, cell phones arrived along with Euro advertising, well, what would you expect?
Over the 10 years that I lived in Baku, I witnessed a startling transformation, perhaps inevitably, in the culture within Azerbaijan.
When I arrived, the culture was real, at home in every family. Within minutes of the first conversation you had with any of the young people, you would hear how Azerbaijan was world famous, how they adored Jack London and Theodore Dreiser (bet you have to go look that second one up to figure out why that would be important to them), how Azerbaijan was noted for oil production and Mugham music, or it possessed 9 out of 11 climatic zones and that 20% of their country was being occupied. It was part of their heritage to have a common view of the world. They all knew “the dance”, they all knew the epoch dastans and the poet Nizami. They knew all this because it was handed down from father to son, mother to daughter. Young people were brought up to revere and respect the “Agsakal” (those with ‘white sideburns’), to stay home and help cook when one of them passed away.
The difference from then to now is bittersweet. I know young people want all that is new, and yet, I can’t help but think of how much is being lost. Not only in buildings, but in the heart, where real things matter.
One of these images, built centuries ago over time, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the other, built over the span of months for a pop event, well it remains to be seen how long it lasts.
When the Azerbaijan spring comes, I wonder what we will find? Are we ready for Spring?