Azerbaijani Hospitality

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On Sunday we were invited to dinner in the home of one of our Azerbaijani friends.  He is the man who works as a garage attendant in our building, and is one of the kindest people we know.  We have always called him Tommy Lee, because we think he looks like Tommy Lee Jones.  The boys like him because he shakes their hands, gives them hugs, and always greets them with a smile (Mike too!).  I like him because he is one of the few men in this country who smiles at me and addresses me as a person, even though I’m a woman.

This is Tommy Lee’s wife.  He also treats her kindly, and her smile was so warm!

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If you know how Mike and I speak Russian, and then imagine a meal where the only common language is Russian, then you can understand what amazing people these are because we had a wonderful time!  Tommy Lee, whose real name sounds like “Iriyat,” drove us out to his home in the “suburbs,” where neighborhoods are divided by stone brick walls that surround green courtyards of fruit trees and herbs.  He was proud of his tarragon, and at one point we were all out on the porch munching tarragon.  Jake and Eli included!  Things are rustic, but also perfect in their own Azerbaijani way.

Tommy Lee’s wife and daughter were there, as well as his 2-year old and 4-year old grandsons.  We brought them Play Do as a gift, but I think that was a mistake.  I was mortified at the little bits getting ground into their beautiful carpets!  The women acted like they didn’t notice, but I’m sure they must have thought we were crazy.  While they were busy finishing things in the kitchen, I was out in the living room with the kids trying to keep the mess in check.

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The guys were all outside grilling.  Long shish kebabs of lamb chops and chicken, including all the parts (neck, legs, bones).  I never knew you could put a whole chicken on a shish kebab!

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Inside, the ladies were putting the finishing touches on the rest of our simple table, with stuffed peppers, tomato salad with cilantro and dill (tasted a lot like fresh salsa), carrot salad, plates of cucumbers and herbs, big bowls of lamb and rice dolmas, and plates of fresh lavash and tandoori bread.

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There were two pitchers of homemade berry compote.  Compote is Jake and Eli’s favorite!  I was thankful, as usual, that as a woman it was not my job to share a liter of vodka with the host.  We’re not sure whether to be proud or concerned that for Mike, drinking half a liter of vodka in one sitting is no big deal.  There is just something different about it here, the way it’s done with food and pickles and conversation.  By the end of the evening, we had drained it all.  It is not about drinking and nobody gets drunk.  It is just about having a good time.  Something that maybe Americans can’t claim to be the “best in the world.”

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We talked for three hours, sharing our lives and getting to know each other in a language that neither of us spoke very well.  Tommy Lee’s wife and daughter knew only Azeri, so we did a lot of smiling :).  We learned that Tommy Lee had been a University professor back when Azerbaijan was part of the USSR, and that he wasn’t so fond of the changes that have taken place in his country since it turned to “capitalism.”  I won’t digress into why I put that word in quotes, but let’s just say even in its most evil form, true capitalism is probably better than what is happening in Azerbaijan right now.  Now, a University professor works 6-7 days a week, sitting in a basement garage watching our car.  I can see why he might be skeptical.  This is the man whose patience and quiet persistence finally taught our little boys how to shake hands and say hello.

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We had a great time!  Thank you, friends, for trusting us enough to invite us to your home.  It is an honor we’ll remember forever.

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