Good steam, she said, after I almost blew up the boiler!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Tanks in the Old City of Baku. What's the price of stability? The 3rd coup in 5 years

What’s the price of stability? The 3rd coup in 5 years

I first arrived in Baku, in the mid 90’s, just as Azerbaijan was getting itself together – the tanks had left the streets, the subway bombing was over, and the latest president was settling in. Beyond the sadness over so much tragedy, there was an air of anticipation that had not been felt in a long, long time according to the friends I was staying with.

The sorrow over loved ones lost in the war would be revisited on the anniversary of their death that year, with a funeral dinner to which everyone would come. The national outrage that became known as Black January* would continue to be remembered on January 20th each year. My friend said in Soviet times they had money, but nothing to buy. Now they were seeing things to buy, but had no money. Indeed, the government had not paid many workers in 5 months when I arrived.

Against this backdrop, it was interesting to see free enterprise setting up shop like a snake oil salesman in our own wild west.

I walked most everywhere in town as I went from the university where I was also teaching, to my own office, or to a downtown cafe. I looked in many of the shops as I passed by- the combination cheese and shoe shop being my favorite. The meat shop also sold nylons from time to time.

One morning I needed small batteries for my travel clock and the family I was staying with showed me a place near the bazaar where you could buy anything- including sacks of USAID rice marked in English, “Not for Resale” as if everyone could read English in those days… We found old Soviet light bulbs, parts to radios, old keys, sponges, loose unwrapped bars of soap, and boxes of “BARF’, an Iranian laundry powder (the word is supposed to mean “snow”… a rather unfortunate choice of names for the export market). With the economy being newly opened, Turkish and Iranian goods were everywhere, but so were Italian, Polish and German. British goods were still too expensive and US goods were too far away to be distributed here yet.

There were big bazaars where you could go to buy fruit and meats, and those that sold furniture and household items- things that the newly ‘middle class’ could use to fix up their dacha. I loved going to the bazaar- when I arrived it was still a relative novelty to see an American woman wandering around, and rarer still to find one who could speak a little Russian or Azeri and wanted to chat.

I went with my friends to the bazaar one Saturday morning shortly after I arrived, when I was still hunting for my own place. We went to the fish stall to buy some sturgeon for kabobs.

There was a big tree stump in the middle of the stall- whether the stall was built around the tree or the stump was hauled in I don’t know, but the stump was the butcher block. “$15/kilo,” he said as the sturgeon was laid out on the stump and slit open. The butcher took a small scoop and ran it down the middle and dropped the contents into a bucket lined with a plastic bag. “What’s that?” I asked, referring to the 5-gallon sized bucket of black stuff. “Caviar,” my friend told me. “Do you want some? We can have it free with the fish.” That was how we ended up having caviar, with bread, butter and cheese for breakfast those next 6 months. (And why I am sooo over caviar to this day!)

After our morning excursion, it was time to head home to their flat. We were having family for dinner that night (I say “we” but I mean they were, though it seemed everyone was related- if not by blood, then by circumstance) and I need to get some laundry done before they arrived.

If you think food shopping was unique, you’ll enjoy laundry day…

Water wasn’t always on- you got water, or you didn’t. When water came, everyone showered and washed. There was a line that hung across the courtyard where we hung clothes. Though I preferred to hang my washing out at night if I could, sometimes I got home from the library too late to allow that, mainly because the window through which the line was attached was in the boys’ bedroom and I would awaken them with all the squeaking of the pulleys. This week I had to do wash on Saturday, whenever the bath tub was free, if water was still running.

My usual routine was simple: I would fill a kettle with water when it came, boil it and add it to a bucket of cool water, spoon in some BARF and soak my underwear. Then, when the tub was free I would drain the clothes (saving the water for another load if I could), then rinse and wring them for hanging.

This day however, since the little kitchen was busy with preparation for dinner, I thought I would save time and stay out of the way by taking a shower and rinsing my clothes at the same time. Since everyone else was busy, I would be the first to take my shower.

The bathroom was a closet sized space with a half sized tub- a sitzbath, if you will- with a wooden stool to sit on while you showered. No curtain, just a drain in the floor. At the shower end of the tub was a 3 gallon hot water heater that had to be lit when you got ready to shower, all the while hoping the water would continue. Once lit, it was good for the whole family if they hustled. Water rarely flowed very strong due to so much calcification in the pipes. But I learned I could shower (and wash my hair) in three litres of water. That was the beginning of many discoveries. Another would be about Soviet gas pressure…

Figuring that lighting the pilot was in the “how hard could it be?” category, I decided not to bother anyone else- I would do the “American” thing and be self sufficient.

Life Lesson: American ingenuity works in America, but it doesn’t always work everywhere. When in Rome, as they say- with good reason!

Taking a long piece of rolled up paper, I went to the stove and lit the paper, hurried around the corner to the bathroom, turned on the gas. I opened the little door to light the pilot, and kaboom! I burned my fingers, singed the hair on my arms and eyebrows- and sent soot flying everywhere! Not to mention scaring the daylights out of the household! Fortunately, no damage was done, except to my pride. I was on boiler probation for the rest of my stay.

Whenever someone in Azerbaijan takes a shower, it is customary to wish them ‘Slocum Parum’ or “Good Steam”. Apparently, I had gone against the cultural grain, tried to do it myself, and had gone off without letting anyone wish me “Good Steam”. I ended up with sooty undies and singed eyebrows as a result.

So the next time you get up a good head of steam about something, remember this lesson. Make it ‘Slocum Parum’. I wish you “Good Steam”.

4 thoughts on “Good steam, she said, after I almost blew up the boiler!

  1. Pingback: Culturally Speaking, Who Are You… the Chicken or an Egg? | Life Lessons

  2. Pingback: The Potemkin Games: Is Sochi’s Legacy Corruption or Stardom? | Life Lessons

  3. Pingback: Am I Shocking and Shameful For Speaking The Truth? #Sochi2014 | Life Lessons

  4. Pingback: Give Me Back Old Baku: Why Am I Afraid of Change? | Life Lessons

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