The dark-haired woman in high heels slips a key in the door and pushes it open. I follow her into the apartment. The hall is long and wide with a glitzy chandelier. She shows me around. The bathroom has a plunge pool big enough for six people. A black marble cocktail bar glitters in the lounge. Huge windows offer a view of the bay at dusk. Lights twinkle from distant oil rigs on the Caspian Sea. “Big apartment,” I say, trying to sound interested, but Sabina can probably tell I’m not.
She smiles at me over her designer spectacles. “Mike, you’re new in town, but trust me, I’m an estate agent and this is not big. Not for Baku. You want big, I’ll show you big. I have apartments with 11 or 12 rooms. That’s big. Big rent, too. Like to see?” Sabina waits. I shake my head and gaze at the oil rigs.
Five minutes later we’re riding the elevator 19 floors down to the street. Sabina drives me back into the city centre in her dusty Mercedes. She sounds tired and disappointed when we say goodbye – she has showed me twenty flats today but still no deal. “I’m here for two years, I don’t want to rush it,“ I say. Sabina shrugs and drives away. Maybe she’ll get lucky tomorrow, when we start again.
Azerbaijan got lucky after the First World War, because the Russian Empire had collapsed and it became the first modern Parliamentary republic in the Muslim world. Women in Azerbaijan won the right to vote, long before women in the USA and UK, but Azerbaijan’s flirtation with independence was short-lived, because Lenin sent his Red Army troops to grab its oil and by 1920 the country was under the spell of Communism.
Russian is still widely spoken here today but, as in Romania, Moscow’s influence has waned. The Azeri people seem confident of their new place in the world – the Communists are gone and the oil is still bubbling, bringing jobs, infrastructure and foreigners who need apartments, but not always big ones at over $2000 per month. Sorry Sabina.
Next day, a friend-of-a-friend introduces me to Ali, a fast-talking guy in a black suit. Ali works for a different estate agency and assures me we’ll find something cheaper and more central. I’m glad because Baku is a charming city of old streets and wrought-iron balconies – ‘Paris-on- the-Caspian’, some people say, although they probably forgot about the potholes in some of the pavements.
Azeris like to look smart – well-fitted jackets, shiny shoes, carefully cut hair. However, they seem to wear as much black as possible, as if they’re all going to a funeral. But their quick smiles suggest otherwise – they seem friendly, ready to help foreigners and extremely tolerant: in almost every street there are neon signs for Gay Bar, Gay Club and Gay-Time. Eventually, I spot the diacritic under the first letter. It’s not even a G, it’s a C, and Çay means tea: Tea Bar, Tea Club, Tea-Time. For a Turkic people, they don’t drink much coffee. But the men do hold hands. A lot.
Physically, Azeris are dark like Turks and like most Romanians. So, every time my Romanian wife and I go into a café or shop, people talk to her in Azeri or Russian. They cannot believe she’s not local. Nor can they believe I am wearing a brown and white tweed jacket. They eye me up and down as if to say: why not black?
Saturday morning, our man-in-black meets us outside McDonalds, on the edge of a large pedestrian square with swish fountains and modern steel sculptures. Ali has several apartments to show us and we follow him through narrow back streets dodging fast cars. Walking ahead, he points a finger. “See that guy in the Jeep? He killed 140 Armenians, single-handed.“ My head spins towards the Jeep and I see, stuck to the rear window, a colour photo of a beefy guy in combat gear carrying a huge machine gun across his shoulders. He looks like Rambo, except he’s grinning at the camera. “He went into an Armenian camp at night,” says Ali, “Shot them, stabbed them, blew them up. Eventually he got killed too, but he’s a bit of a hero, to some people. That’s why you’ll see his photo.”
“What’s his name?” I say, but Ali can’t remember. Besides, he’s on an urgent mission himself: Operation Apartment.
The first flat we visit is, allegedly, 250 years old: walls one-meter thick with high, carved ceilings and an ancient but freshly varnished wooden floor. It’s a spectacular property, like a Venetian palace, but it lacks daylight. Sorry Ali.
After an hour of zapping around the city centre, we choose a flat with a sunny lounge at a decent price, in a classy-looking block built during Stalin’s era. Later, walking through the elegant streets, I feel sad, despite my excitement at a new home in a new country. Eventually, I realize why: Baku is how Bucharest might look today, if not for Ceausescu and the people who helped him to wreck so much of Romania
The story above was first published in my ‘Frictiuni’ column, in FHM Romania, Feb 2011. It reappears here by kind permission of S.C Sanoma Hearst Romania SRL.