Get married in Azerbaijan?
Every Saturday morning, Tania comes to clean my apartment in Baku. She’s a middle-aged Russian lady, very jolly, with dark hair and missing teeth. My landlord recommended her.
We communicate in sign language because Tania doesn’t speak much English and all I know is niet, from my time in Yekaterinburg when I would get offered vodka morning, noon and night. Tania is an ex-schoolteacher. Times are hard. I make her cups of tea and we get along fine during her visits.
She works hard but not very fast. It takes her about four hours to clean my place. Most of the time I try to keep out of her way, give her space. Around 3 pm she usually points to my ironing: shall I do that, too? I say ‘niet’, and she leaves.
One day, Tania thrusts a glossy card into my hand on her way out. It shows a lurid photo of a huge dining hall, its tables exquisitely set with flowers and candles. Will I come, to her daughter’s wedding? Da, Tania.
When she is gone, I phone a local friend who advises me to take an envelope with some money as a contribution, because Azerbaijani weddings get expensive for any family.
On the night, the taxi ride takes forty-five minutes at Formula 1 speed. I used to think some Romanian drivers were too fast and irresponsible. But compared to drivers in Azerbaijan, they are snails. By the time I walk into the reception hall, I’m ready to throw up.
The place is packed, about 400 people, the men dressed mostly in black, the women in bright frocks and heavy make up. The band has ten members belting out folk music on a variety of bizarre looking instruments. Waiters hurry around like an army of ants, filling glasses, serving food. The celebrations must have cost a fortune and soon I’m wondering: how can Tania afford it? Why so elaborate?
She greets me with a kiss and takes me to meet the happy couple. The bride and groom sit on thrones onstage, behind a big table laden with food and drinks. They’re young and dark-eyed and very good-looking, gazing down like a king and queen at the rest of us. I give them my envelope, pose for photos. I leave the stage and sit at a table with seven other guests. My grinning neighbour Ali has a Borat moustache and points to the circle of bottles: “Russian vodka?”
Over our sumptuous meal, we chat about football. Ali is curious about wages in the Premier League. I watch the guests dancing an Azeri version of the hora and I ask him about the logistics of this wedding. Ali rolls his eyes, as if to say: Crazy huh?
“The bride’s dress cost €500 to hire, for one day,” Ali says, “Her jewellery cost €5,000, a gift from her husband. They saved for two years. It’s all show. Peer pressure. You want some Russian vodka? Please, drink some Russian vodka. Which brand you want?”
The dancing seems strictly regimented – men with men, women with women. The bride descends from her throne like she just won the Oscar for Highest Heels, and wobbles around to a few lively songs. Two little girls in white dresses hold her train up, hopping around after her, making sure she does not trip and break her Louboutin shoes. It all looks very sweet. Those musicians are talented and fast. Ali sips his drink and whispers in my ear: “Peasant tunes.”
“They sound pretty good,” I say.
Ali looks a bit worried and tells me: “Have some Russian vodka.”
I’m tempted to dance the hora but maybe not. Last time I tried that, many years ago, at a lavish wedding in the lovely village of Miercurea Sibiului, Romania, I kicked some guy up the ass.
Towards the end of the night, a convoy of guests carry flaming torches into the hall and stand in rows, opposite each other. Down this corridor come a couple dressed in traditional clothes, like they’re from medieval times. The place is so crowded I watch them on the flat screen TVs instead, like in a sports bar. The medieval couple carry a bowl of fire to the top table and give it to the bride and groom. It looks like an accident waiting to happen. 400 guests barbecued at wedding party. I glance towards the exit, just in case. Ali pats my shoulder and tells me: “We’re Zoroastrians, fire worship is part of our culture, from years ago. Have you visited our famous temple, where the fire comes out of the ground?”
I shake my head but promise him I will try, if I get out of here alive.
It’s late. Time to call the F1 Taxi service. I say my farewells to Tania and wave to the happy couple. The bride is too busy dancing to notice my departure. The two little girls are still dancing around after her, holding her train, dreaming of being queen for a day. They look very sweet, until a third, smaller girl approaches and tries to hold the dress up too. They scowl and push her away: Hands off, bitch.
(This story first appeared in FHM in December 2011 and reappears here with permission from S.C. Sanoma Hearst Romania SRL).