In what seems like three months at ‘the easternmost point of Europe’ I’ve made a few observations that I’d like to share with you.
The locals are very friendly. From the moment I stepped off the plane, they’ve been there to guide, assist, and generally make life easy for the Eurovision traveller. And this is a genuine friendliness, dear reader, not one that’s been put on for show.
The driving here is like a white knuckle ride. There is always traffic around. In the rush hour; during the heat of the day; even at 3am when some of us leave the Euroclub slight the worse for wear. There is no yielding when driving, you take a chance getting out into a road or changing lane. But I have yet to see a car with a single dent. So either they drive really well or the panel beaters here are really efficient.
The language is a little incomprehensible. If you can speak Turkish, you’re apparently at home as that and Azeri are mutually intelligible. But otherwise there seem to be 20 different ways of saying ‘Thank you’, there is the character ‘Ə’ (a schwa if this character doesn’t come out in the blog) that appears in every word and is pronounced as the ‘er’ in ‘water’, and you can pronounce a word perfectly and they sometimes still look at you blank. But that happens to me in my home country too.
The taxi drivers do not do any form of ‘The Knowledge’ in Baku. The general rigmarole is this: you tell the driver where you want to go, usually a landmark. He consults the map you show him with said landmark on it. He then asks a couple of mates where it is. He then asks you again and repeat this a second time. After this, we agree a fare or the meter starts. Because of the one-way system in the city, a 1km journey takes 2km. thankfully, if you get one of the many London-style cabs, the fare isn’t excessive.
The city is very safe. We’ve walked around it at all hours (bearing in mind the midnight starts to the shows) and no-one seems interested in mugging or harassing you. The locals like to promenade along the promenade (surprisingly) until really late – families with children, groups of teenagers, pensioners – all intent on taking the air rather than menacing each other. A few of my associates stand out a little and get more attention, but that’s through curiosity more than seeing ‘rich’ Western Europeans as easy pickings.
Finally, you never go into a cellar bar. I’ve heard it’s been done and the individuals involved soon realised the mistake. Once you see the ladies of dubious virtue sipping drinks, wearing skimpy outfits and watching for unwary travellers to fall upon their lair, you’re stuck. If you’re in a mixed group you do stand a chance of getting back passed the pimps with the same amount of money (less the price of a beer, obviously) you arrived in there with. But if you’re alone, then I pray for you, my friend.
I must add that despite all of the above, this has been one of my most favourite Eurovision experiences. I’m glad I came here as it’s like nowhere I’ve been to before. It’s not efficient-yet-dull like some Nordic cities. It’s not provincial like Düsseldorf. It has no uneasy air like some other capital cities I’ve been to. It’s not stupidly big like İstanbul. It’s a vibrant city on the up, with all the trappings of a capital. No doubt Baku does have problems, but all big cities do.
President Əliyev, if you’re reading this, I’d like to thank you and your countrymen for making this a fortnight I’ll never forget.