William and Mary Law School

Some Cultural/Social Observations

Hospitality
Azerbaijani people are very hospitable, in nice way that an old world grandma would be.  The ladies at the office have a lunch arrangement, and while I pack my own because I’m not sure how they divide up who does and pays for what, they’ve continued to share their salad and bread lunches with me.  :-)  Likewise, my landlady has knocked on my door a couple times with food, and when I knocked on her door to make pizza, she made cake while the pizza was baking (and sent me home with an absurd amount of it). Even retiree/part-time fridge mechanic Rasim knocked and handed me a kebab. (Rasim also fixed my fan for me, which has made life a lot more bearable, as the high temps are killer when the only windows open to a small corner of the space. I really wish I knew how to repair things!)  It’s a really generous culture, and I’ve appreciated it and tried to reciprocate where I can.
 
Family Life
Baku’s a very safe city, so kids bike and rollerblade and run and play with parents nearby but not hovering.  Also, kids stay up late.  From what I can tell, when it’s a family with children, the family does everything together.  So when my landlady invites me for a walk starting at 9:30, the whole family, including her 10 and 5 year old, come along and, if not rollerskating or biking around the area, sharing tea with us at a cafe on Bulvar.  I’ve been heading to bed at midnight and heard a pre-schooler outside.
I also learned a few things about weddings from the second-in-command of the office.  First is that it seems like marriages are generally civil ceremonies, not religious, (as often in Russia) and there are numerous cultural expectations that go along with them.  One is that the groom’s family pays for the furniture (although in telling me about her niece’s wedding, it became clear that this is not such a hard and fast rule that rude in-laws can’t get away with flaunting it...).  Another thing I’ve observed is that, actually a lot like Russia, people don’t smile in photos very much.  In general, American culture is very smiley, but despite getting plenty of smiles in real life from Azerbaijanis, in photos, nope.  I am not sure I will ever figure out why folks don’t smile in family/friend photos.
 
Tea
I love tea;  I don’t have to have a cup every day, but whenever I do have it, I enjoy it, and I get a tea-related gift from family approximately every other Christmas.  Tea is very important in a lot of cultures, and I guessed rightly that tea would be pretty common in Azerbaijan.  But I didn’t expect that every day in the office they’d have it set up to make tea in the best way (well, at least according to the history and traditions of this part of the world). Basically, you get wonderful tea all day if instead of making it by the cup or put, you make a tea concentrate (a high proportion of loose leaf to water in a small pot) and then dilute it to your preferred strength with just-boiled water (you don’t need much).  This way, no tea gets wasted because of being cold - the water brings it right up to temp - and it’s also better than tea bags or even a brewed pot (and I say this as a Mrs. Tea owner).
One other thing I learned, and I may have mentioned it, but it bears re-mentioning, is that they like sweetened tea, but don’t put any sugar into the tea itself.  Instead, they’ll put sugar cubes or even small candies into their mouth to suck on while drinking and sweeten it that way.  I’ve tried this and it sort of works, if you are looking for lighter sweetening than I am and aren’t the person who always crunches the hard candy (which I definitely do... like the owl in the tootsie roll pop commercial).  One of the ladies at the office asked about what they do in Russia (sugar or jam, but in the tea), and I think she said that Azerbaijanis also use jam sometimes, but they also put that in their mouth.  Might be worth a try, but it could lead to an excessive use of jam. :-)
 
Shopping
As in, for groceries, because that’s basically all I buy.  The larger supermarket is pretty convenient, and the smaller one is kind of funny (like a large produkti from the Soviet Union - you can pick up a few things yourself, but many things are behind the counter, and because it’s large, to get water, eggs, and bread is three separate transactions.  The first time I went to it I was all ready with my bag, but unlike Russia they give you the shopping bag for free, and also unlike Russia, I’ve never gotten a hard time about not having change (I was asked once because the cashier was short, and didn’t get a dirty look about it... Azerbaijanis = less grumpy than Muscovites).  
 
Anyway, that’s it for now.

Best,
~N~