Ex-Pat Living: Care To Take A Walk On The Wild Side?
Every so often, as an expat, do you get the urge to take a walk on the wild side?
For whatever reason, in Baku, I did. I decided to take a chance and accept an odd invitation that landed me in a very strange situation, totally out of my element, on my own.
And, you know what? I’m thankful that I did! I must say, it was one of the most memorable, most enjoyable experiences of my years in Baku, Azerbaijan. Total serendipity!
What brought this to mind was a post by Valeria, over on La Vale and Her World on An Example of The Expat Attitude Put into Practice.
Reading Valeria’s “Carpe Diem” comment reminded me of that night when I had carpe’d myself right into this very unique French-speaking evening.
In those days in Baku, we happened to have a French Ambassador who was what they call an “Orientalist“, meaning he was a scholar of the eastern world, truly literate in eastern history and very appreciative/supportive of native art forms.Ambassador Guinhut was good friends with a Turkish friend of mine, someone who had spent his early career years in Paris and spoke fluently with the Ambassador any chance he could. It was delightful to see them in conversation during the intermission at the Opera in Baku. Of course, when the Ambassador approached us as we conversed, I always practiced my best “Bonjour/Bonsoir” and then kept silent to allow the two Francophones to converse.
I did the obligatory follow along, nodding, head turning to view each speaker, smiling when they smiled, adding uumm, ah, uhuh, adding a small laugh when they laughed. And so it went for a number of weeks during Opera season.
Then one day at my office, a courier from the French Embassy delivered an invitation. Dinner and a concert at the Ambassador’s residence. Oh, la la! I felt like I hit the big time. I was (almost) an “A” Lister (well, ok, not even remotely, but so what, I was on the list.)
Unfortunately for me, I found my friend (“sponsor”?) was out of town. Hmmm… to go or not to go? Well, I reasoned, I had been to the Embassy many times on business. I was a bona fide acquaintance, whom he knew to be a fan of Azerbaijan history, just as he himself was. So, how bad could it be to go alone?? Et qui sait? (Lesson learned? Always a bad question to start off with!)
On the appointed evening I presented myself at the Ambassador’s residence for a light French supper and a casual concert by local Azerbaijan “Mugham” musicians. Mugham is an interesting musical art form, being both very old and perpetually new, like American jazz, always open to interpretation and improvisation as the mood strikes the artists and the audience. I always found it fascinating to see the energy between musician and audience.
Good evening, hello, I’m… Every last person who entered after me spoke fluently – and only- in French. Oh, %#@$. I’m in deep. I absorbed parts of the instructions for the evening… something about the first course (premier plat) would be soups and so on. And I thought I understood the Ambassador to say that there would be break for music and then the second course (deuxième plat). Ok, so when in Rome…
Things were going along well enough. I continued to nod and smile and as I brought my plate into the parlour, the Italian Ambassador, Alesandro Fallovallita, sat down beside me. I smiled because I knew he spoke English in addition to Italian. What I did not know was that he ALSO spoke fluent French! Mon Dieu!
At this point, I should confess, je ne parle pas français. Sure, I’m fairly adept with languages and had taken some (ancient) high school French. But on this level? No way! Yes, I can look up these clever phrases from the computer English to French translator… works pretty well online (Mais non?). But in person, in 1990s Baku? Not so much- no smartphones, no internet, no phoning a friend for a lifeline. Talk about a deer in the headlights…
“Mr. Ambassador, please excuse me, I don’t speak French.” Looking very puzzled, he replied (in English thankfully) “But how can this be? You laughed at all the jokes, and followed all the directions flawlessly.” “Mr. Ambassador, thank you, you are too kind. But, did you notice the lovely lady sitting across the room from us while Ambassador Guinhut was speaking? (He nodded) “I watched her eyes for my cues. When she smiled, I smiled. When she laughed, I laughed. I made sure to follow her in line in case I had misunderstood any part of the instructions for the event. That is all. I am a complete fraud… just one who understands the heart of the Ambassador and shares his love of this music.”
Ambassador Fallovallita winked and promised to keep my little subterfuge between us. Every time I saw him at official functions after that he winked but said not a word.
My expat lesson in all this? Be authentic. Be honest and enjoy who you are. But… maybe, every once in a while, take a walk on the wild side. You never know what kind of wonderful adventure awaits you. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? (Wink, Wink!)
Extra Treat: While we didn’t have anything this elaborate in the Ambassador’s home that night, it was just as engaging… try it and see if your toes can keep from tapping!