Thursday, February 23, 2006

Happy birthday Xumar!

Whenever you walk in Fountain Square and hear the electronic voices calling, "Pabroak a Shalla!" you will think of me. As the Siberians say, you are often dendrubie, or sometimes, sadly, denbruzie. Take a flaxnor to Novosibirsk and ask them! Perhaps you are enjoying gouruk now, da? And birthday cake. Goodbye, and happy birthday!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Sea Police, mirrors, and other perquisites...

Baku is so alien to anyone's conceptions of serenity and peace that my psyche is still in shock one week after landing here. Unrelenting noise and anonymous, casual aggression are everywhere: in the way people push each other on sidewalks, the shouting, the aftermarket car horns that blare at 120db.

Any major city is affected with these ills, of course: the rattier parts of Chicago's Bucktown or south side, west LA, Downtown Eastside in Vancouver.

But in Baku there is almost no escape from this disturbing social contract that codifies a thousand petty abuses every day. And then there are the grim Khrushchevkas, Leningrad Projects, and Stalinkas that are everywhere in Baku as well as the rest of the former USSR: mile after mile after mile of monolithic worker housing blocks, huge pods of hulking concrete organisms in an endless urban sea of grey.

Unlike the typical five-story Khrushchevka plan, the Leningrad Project apartment buildings can be ten stories high and take up a city block. And the Stalinkas are even larger. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev promised that there would be affordable housing for everyone in the Soviet Union, and the resultant spawning of these structures (named after him in casual usage) in the 1950s and '60s did just that: everyone had an adequate place to live. But on aesthetic grounds alone, what these things must do to the soul on a profound and cumulative level should have obviated their construction.

In late 2005, I vowed not to live in a Khrushchevka, so I resided briefly in the Old City and was blessed with a relatively happy existence, aided somewhat by the fact that the Cafe Mozart, the favorite haunt of my primary source in the Azerbaijani government, was a five-minute walk.

And now? Back in a Khrushchevka. Five hundred dollars a month - the two months' rent in advance has totally erased my bank account, and what I get in return is the coldest place I've ever lived in. Oh well.

For three nights last week, I stayed at the apartment of my friend Nina - single mom and possessor of a razor-sharp mind. Actually, it's Nina's mother's apartment. About 500 square feet, with one bedroom. I slept on a cot in the spare room. (I like cots.)

In the bedroom sleep Nina, her daughter, her mother, her grandmother (visiting from Russia) and her teen-aged brother. On Saturday night we had a birthday party for her grandmother. Lots of fun, and we all drank vodka - except for the abstemious Nina.

Her friend who lives next door had a deal for me: I could live in her apartment, which she no longer needed. Well, actually, she would be in the apartment most days. But she would usually sleep at her boyfriend's house. Usually. Otherwise it was mine.

The living room looked like what I imagine is similar to the sitting room in a fin de siecle New Orleans bordello that might have catered to "high class gentlemen": spectacularly florid gold draperies, off-white carpeting, overstuffed cream colored love seats with gold trim. Her bedroom was in a loft gained by ascending a spiral staircase. The bed itself was draped in crimson with lighting afforded by a soft, red incandescent lamp. At the end of the bed, across the stairway entrance, was a large mirror.

She wanted $500 a month.

The following day, I continued my search, which included a visit to an apartment with a partial sea-view, right downtown (not all that far from my present place). There was too much traffic noise, however, and it was $600, so I rejected it. But one feature in its favor was the 800-channel satellite TV.

"You can get 1200 channels if you want," declared the real estate agent as we watched a soft-core Italian porn game show. Evidently, viewers call in every few minutes to vote on who disrobes. I wonder if the TV in my current apartment gets that show.

On the way up the stairs, I noticed an office with "POLIS" stenciled on the doorway.

"A police station?" I queried.

"Yes, police. The building is very safe."

"That's nice," I replied.

"But they are not regular police."


"No. They are the Sea Police."

"So if I ever have trouble with a tuna, I'll know who to talk to."


Enough trivia. Will post something on the failed Paris peace talks in the next couple of days. That's why I'm here, after all.