Baku – Culture Shock

Baku, where East meets West, where Islam co-exists with capitalism and where Ladas and Mercedes fill the street. A place of contrast.

Carpets and cars in Baku

I have arrived in Baku and am currently participating in an AEGEE-summer university, where I get to learn Azeri, which is related to Turkish. We are approximately 13 participants and at least as many organisers from the universities in Baku.

 

Russian Orthodox church in Baku
Russian Orthodox church in Baku
Cars

The first thing I noticed as I arrived in Baku was the noise. The streets are full of honking cars and police indicating through speakers that they want a car to pull over. It seems that car drivers will honk at anything; when they are about to turn a corner, when they stand still for red light, when they have to slow down – all the time, honk honk. The very first night all the honking had me going crazy, but after a little while I have become so used to it that I hardly notice it anymore.

A pale yellow Lada
A pale yellow Lada

 

Even with all the honking and all the making-sure-that-everyone-knows-your-here, accidents still happen. On our way home from the beach one day, after having had a marvellous swim in the oils of The Caspian Sea our bus hit a blue Lada which was parked around a corner.

Don’t worry mum, no one was hurt – except the Lada off course, which was severely smashed in on the side. As sorry as I feel for the proud Lada owner, it was the way the incident was handled by those involved which fascinated me.

They fled the scene! Together!

They rendezvoused in a back alley to handle the finer details. All the way through, in the back of the truck sat 13 or so young westerners with a very surprised look on their face. All of us wondering: why did they flee?

It seems that very often there is no such thing as a car insurance in case of an accident like this. Instead the norm is to handle this at the scene and for the driver, who’s fault it is, to pay up or offer to have someone he knows repair the damage.

The reason that this is handled quietly and not turned into a great deal is that no one is interesting in the long arm of the law to get involved. The police is corrupt and if they catch you out it will cost. Police means bribery or court or something else much more expensive than a visit to the cousin’s auto shop. Therefore, the matters on hand are handled as soon as possible and preferably down a back alley. And with the scare of police involvement they also seem to be handled relatively unproblematic.

 

Conflicting norms of behaviour
Baku rooftops
Baku rooftops

In Azerbaijan the culture of gentlemen persists. The man holds the door, carries the bag, pays for the drink. Though this is not completely uncommon in Western Europe, it is nonetheless seen as a real treat. In Azerbaijan it is custom. Personally, I have always prided myself that I could pay for myself, carry my own stuff and even open the door for a guy once in a while.

Therefore, I wont be late to admit that it took some time getting used to. However, letting go of my own feminist independence, it felt nice to be surrounded by observant and considerate guys.

However, I never came past the discomfort of physical helpfulness as I have chosen to call it. It is not an unknown fact that in the North where I come from we tend to be less physical in for example our greetings. We do not kiss and hold hands, but instead hold an invisible line of respect for each other’s personal space.

In the South and also in Azerbaijan people are much more physical in the platonic sense of the word. Though I attempted to be open to the difference in culture, I felt incredibly uncomfortable when each time I went into a store to buy water (which is basically every half an hour due to the heat) or every time I got a little behind from the group, someone would grab my shoulder and lead me as if I was a child.

This shoulder grabbing was particularly terrifying when I had to cross a street. I know they mean well and only want to protect me from the wild driving of the Baku streets, but it only lessened my possibility of reacting to a car.

Fortunately for me, the Azeri guys have also been taught that one shall be open to other cultural norms of behaviour, and after a talk or two, I have been given a bit more space around me.

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Another difference which I observed is in communication. I often asked questions out of curiosity or in order to get some basic ‘just in case’ information. But it took me a world war to get them to tell me the name of our closest metro station. The first answer I got to the question was: “but you have our number, you don’t need the name!”

It seemed a personal insult to them that we didn’t trust that they would take care of everything and find us and bring us home in case we got lost. In this way, I often find myself insulting them without even knowing that I do so. On the other hand, I find it ridiculous that if I get lost they imagine that I will be able to call them on my mobile and if that succeeds then to explain where I am. It seems so silly.

But time is the best friend with such cultural differences, and as the days go by we seem to adapt to the circumstances and each others understandings of the given context. The accident with our bus is a perfect example of this. The situation to me was extremely odd and asking what happened I got the standard reply of not to worry. But after a bit of fancy communicative action à la Habermas; they came to understand that I was only curious and I came to understand why the bus driver acted as he did. We have now agreed that I should start all my questions with a “I find this culturally interesting, so please explain…”.

 

Friends in Baku
Friends in Baku
Young people in love

It is rather common to see men kiss and hug each other as greetings in the streets. But you rarely see a man touching a woman for other reasons than to protect and guide her.

Question: “What about all the young couples in love?”

Answer: “They seek out the dark corners of Russian cafés!”
At least that is where I met them. Walking around for a coffee one day, I and some other girls from the language course happened upon a small and dim Kafe in the basement of a larger building.

The Kafe, it seemed, was run single-handedly by a grand babuska, speaking Russian and looking very authoritative. The room had red lamps and hearts in various sizes all around. It was in every way a place which screamed “secrets”, and around at the tables and behind large Soviet-style curtains couples were having their little piece of privacy. Here they could hold hands, sneak a kiss and just be together for a little while.

I have a feeling that these two weeks are going to be a clash of cultures.

 

Greetings from friendly locals
Greetings from friendly locals

Zofka

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