In Azerbaijan, there's no shortage of hospitality - a part of its Oriental culture. And visitors for the Eurovision Song Contest have plenty of chances to experience it.
Today I got a hug from Roman and had a beer with Thomas D. But the morning got off to a rather grey start. And not just because it was raining. After five hours of sleep, my first task was surviving the hotel shower here in Azerbaijan.
Even at home, you'll have no trouble finding hotels with leaky showers, but this was the first time I've had four mechanics with a single screw wrench with me in the bathroom - all accompanied by two cleaning ladies who chirped, "Welcome to Azerbaijan!"
As the day unfolded, it's a line I heard a lot. From the waiter at breakfast, the taxi driver, girls on the streets: Everyone seems welcoming. And they're not the only ones - the president smiles a welcome, too, as he looks down from his campaign billboards.
Bargains at the souvenir stand
It rained overnight, but it's already 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) again. Nobody but the ESC tourists are roving through the old city in this heat, and even the visitors are taking plenty of breaks. On every third corner, there's an info kiosk welcoming you with a map or an audio guide that leads you through the labyrinth of alleyways here, past mosques, the old city wall and old stone buildings. I still end up gettting lost but run into a policeman next to a souvenir stand.
"Welcome to Azerbaijan!" he calls in English from some distance. In the subsequent conversation in Turkish, it turns out that he's not an officer at all, but rather the owner of this small empire of kitsch. Since my husband's at home, I can make a grab for it. I spot some Oriental slippers right away, and this golden-lavender towel looks like my comforter at the hotel. Or maybe the puppet in traditional garb mounted on a plush donkey? But, ultimately, I settle on a refrigerator magnet in the shape of a caviar canister for the price of two manats. I don't have my husband here to carry everything around, you know.
A trip to nowhere
Mindful of the taxi driver's lack of directional sense yesterday, I decide to make sure to get on my way on time today. After all, the German Embassy has invited us for a reception. Unfortunately, it's on the other side of the city. Good news for the taxi drivers.
My driver welcomes me heartily to Azerbaijan as I get in, but waits for three kilometers to mention that he doesn't know where the German Embassy is. I rush to give him the address, but he says he doesn't know it and asks if I want to make a call to find out.
Unfortunately, I've called outside of business hours, as a friendly voice informs me in German, English and perfect Azerbaijani, which doesn't help the driver very much. It's no wonder that they can't take the call. They're all off in the garden celebrating with Roman Lob as I sit in a taxi to nowhere. Nonetheless, I get some interesting insights into life on the streets here. Local pedestrians angle between the cars as they race by, crossing eight lanes of traffic. Everything seems to be racing by, but nothing goes wrong. Not even a passing cat gets run over - although it occurs to me that I haven't seen any cats or dogs yet since I've been here.
Potato salad and a hug
An hour and a half later, I'm eating potato salad with hot dogs and feeling like I'm at home. No warm welcome here, but beer and every German dialect imaginable. And then, in comes Roman - Roman Lob, our star for Baku.
I never would have thought that I - as a woman of respectable age - would get a thrill from being hugged by some whippersnapper in a photo. But he's very charming. He's a fan of potato salad, too, but after a week in Azerbaijan, he's mostly missing sauerkraut. Thomas D, his mentor, would rather have a cold beer. So cheers, Thomas, and good luck on Saturday. My solidarity earns me a "Vote for Roman" sticker, but I won't say just yet who my favorite is…
Little security problem
The trip to Crystal Hall goes smoothly. After all, the bombastic building is hard to miss. So I head in for the rehearsals in the auditorium, which is lit up like a rainbow.
That was the idea, at least, but apparently the security team hasn't internalized the slogan, "Welcome to Azerbaijan." Last night, I forgot to log in with my press ticket, and now I'm being punished for it. They search my backpack and audio equipment. My water bottle gets sniffed and then passed on for a second smell test. "It's really just water," I say shyly. Finally, I'm allowed to pack up my empty bottle and continue on. I've passed the test and don't belong to the feared Islamic fundamentalists.
Finally, I enter the Crystal Hall. Everything's of extraordinary scale here, as far as the eye can reach. There's an indoor laser show and an enormous screen that can be seen even from the very last seats. Last year's winners, Ell and Nikki, are singing on screen, and then comes our Lena with her just-off notes and a daring cut in her dress. Rounding it all out, some musicians in traditional dress drum while all of the screens light up with "Welcome to Azerbaijan."
The evening ends surprisingly well: my driver to the hotel has GPS! I've never made it to Qafgaz Park quite so fast. "Welcome, how do you like it here with us in Azerbaijan?" the hotel doorman says as I walk in.
Author: Suzanne Cords / gsw
Editor: Rick Fulker