On 3 July 1986, on a whim, my parents packed my ten-year-old brother and me into an old Zhiguli and we set off on a journey to Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku. My father’s uncle, Stepan Grebenyuk, was married to Tamara Balasanova, an Armenian with roots in Karabakh, the now disputed area in southwestern Azerbaijan, and my dad had lived with them in Baku during the year of his parents’ tragic divorce when he was a teenager. He loved both them and the city dearly.
It took us two hours to reach Crimea from our home town of Kakhovka in southern Ukraine, and only then did we realize that we hadn’t actually told our Bakunian family that we were coming, so a telegram(!) was swiftly dispatched. We then loaded our stuffy Zhiguli “brick” on to a ferry and slowly chugged along the Black Sea towards the exoticism of Sochi. My mum still talks about the palm trees, the alleys, the beaches… it was like entering another universe. We kept moving, the sweltering dry air and winding roads making me feel ill, my parents cursing their wanderlust. Finally we stopped in Abkhazia by some picturesque lakes. A modest old tent was erected and a couple of foldable chairs and a tiny table set up, then we fried some sausages over a camp fire before it was time to rest.
On we drove through the Georgian hills, through the western region of Samegrelo down to sub-tropical Batumi. We got lost in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, and had to ask a man in a car to direct us towards the motorway. My mother still remembers his kindness – even though he was going the opposite direction to us, he took us all the way out of town, leading the way. We then motored through the Alazani Valley towards the arid and angular Azeri mountains, their craggy multi-coloured sides resembling the geometric patterns of ancient Eastern rugs.
I only remember snippets of the journey (I was only two), but my older brother Sasha recalls playing chess with Bakunian boys in the courtyard and on large balconies where Armenians and Azerbaijanis sat together drinking strong tea spiked with wild thyme, leisurely tossing dice over ornate backgammon boards.
We decided to visit the Caspian Sea, seven of us rammed into our Zhiguli, stopping on the way by the roadside. My parents don’t believe me, but I clearly remember a huge clay tandyr oven, its incandescent mouth filled with golden molars. An industrious vendor kept sticking more of these huge oval teeth inside the oven’s mouth. It turned out to be the freshest bread we had ever experienced. We ordered one, the size of a massive oblong platter (or at least it seemed enormous to us children). By the time the second bread was passed to Uncle Styopa through the car window, the first bread had disappeared at the back.
We kept driving on towards the vast inland sea, the removable tinted screen
covering the rear window doing nothing to protect us from the blistering sun.
All I remember is the oil derricks; monstrous metal storks bobbing their heads
up and down, and terracotta hills forming a striking geometric backdrop.
We finally reached the beach. It was so wide and so endless that it afforded my 28-year-old mum the opportunity to have her first driving lesson. Women at the wheel were still a rarity at the time – in fact, I remember my mum dropping me off at my music school six years later and little boys from my class giggling and pointing at mum’s tiny Fiat Uno saying, “A woman at the wheel, tee hee!” I still recall the mixture of pride and embarrassment that I felt at that moment. “My mum’s so cool, why are they giggling?” Confusion.