I've been thinking about the difference between anticipation and arrival, these last couple of days, my first days in Baku, Azerbaijan. Before a trip to a place unknown to me, I read history and geography, look at maps, read about culture too, and politics, but I avoid making a list of sights to visit or any other kind of "want list". I like to think that somehow I will manage to find my way, by stumbling into unexpected places or people or learning once I'm there. If I go with a list I feel that I'm setting the trip up as a "these are my expectations, now the place has to meet them".
But this formless version of trip planning also leaves me with vague anxieties in the weeks before I leave. What if the place and people are, for reasons known or unknown to me, ungenerous and impenetrable? What if I am going to feel closed out?
That edginess pre-trip is part of why I haven't written here for about two weeks. I don't like the way the edginess takes over, becomes like a pretrip queasiness, and I think each time: "surely by now I should have learned to NOT feel like this!"
Once I'm on the plane, it goes. In this case the first flight took me to Istanbul and a six hour wait for the flight to Baku. In the end there was confusion and delay on that flight, so that we arrived (given hour changes too) at about 3 in the morning. AFter changing money I shared a taxi into town with a guy I'd met during our inteminable waiting around for the flight. The taxi ripped us both off in the end, the hotel I had booked through bookings.com had no room for me, and altogether it was a bumpy hour or two before I was in a bed in a room, as daylight started lightening the sky.
None of those messinesses were a worry, and indeed I am never fussed ahead of time about that kind of thing. Dealing with it all also gave me my first glimpse of the working people of Baku, those who are stuck with the overnight front desk responsibilities at small hotels, with sweeping the streets, with opening a small corneer store early, and other poorly paid work. And all those people were delightfully nice, generous-minded, tolerant of my feeble attempts at Russian.
That emotional ease and welcome on arrival has continued. The guy up the way from my hotel in the Old City (no traffic here, so wonderful) runs a fruit and veg store, a small one. Outside it is a large tree that creates a hanging out zone for passers-by and people in the neighbourhood. There is conversation, banter, shared pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds, and other undemanding exchanges, from early morning until well after dark. The proprietor sits outside too, then gets up each time someone walks up the slope from the tree into his shop.
Two nights ago when I went in to buy something, I'd already spent some time hanging around, answering the odd qustion and watching the ongoing scene. And so the shopkeeper already knew I was from Canada, that I am travelling alone, that I have two grown male children, and that I plan to leave Baku tomorrow, heading northwest towards Sheki and area. I bought a couple of pears and a cucumber, for a total of about 50 cents. Today as I came by after a long morning out photographing at Yalish Bazaar and other doings, he greeted me with a raised hand and a hearty "salaam" then turned to the guy he was with and explained I was a tourist from Canada.
I feel as if in this short time I've become a temporary part of the lane. I'm greeted by women, waved at shyly by little kids, and given a nod of acknowledgement by the men.
All of this is to tell you that there is an unimaginable gulf between the anticipations bred of anxiety on the one hand and the reality of arrival on the other. And in my experience it is always this way. Wherever we are, human beings are just that, human. We are all social animals, curious about each other, and curious about the stranger. As a visible stranger (my clothing and the way I walk give me away) I get the benefit of that curiosity. And I welcome it of course, even when, as can happen, it feels intrusive, or it would if I were subject to it in my home town.
This brings me to another word I would like us to toss on the trash pile, at least in the food context, but really in every context, and that is "exotic".
I saw something on FB the other day referring to spices and a talk that would help people make "exotic" foods. What are we doing here with this idea? Everyone's home food is a solid reality. And the foods we don't know about are not exotic, they are just foods we don't know. I feel that the word "exotic" is part of the kind of "Orientalising" that Edward Said wrote and talked about.
If and when a food or cuisine is unfamiliar to us, it seems valid to me that we are curious, just as the people here in Baku have been curious about me. And that curiosity is a kind of welcome too, as in, "I would like to know more". It's a respectful interested kind of curiosity that seeks to get closer, not to create distance.
But if something or someone is described as "exotic" the word and idea create a distance. It's not the distance of respect. It's the distance of that other kind of attitude to a stranger, which is a compound of mistrust, fear, and a kind of self-protective mocking. I find it ugly and not something that we ever want in the world of food and culture that I engage with.
And so please add "exotic" to the pile of words to discard, along with those others I wrote about earlier this month.