It was late, it was cold, it started to rain, that night in Azerbaijan. I’d been driving a lot, and was tired. I couldn’t find a decent place to spend the night. Too mountainous, too little shelter from the wind. It was getting dark – I ran out of options. But there was a little group of young men hanging out on the street, so I asked if there was a hotel, pension, whatever would do for a night. No, nothing. 60 km further – maybe. Buying time to think, I put on my rain gear when one guy tells me I should follow him in his car. He guides me to a dodgy building and invites me to stay at his place. I’m not sure. But I need to decide – one way or another. I think I can trust him, but Harry being out on the street doesn’t make me feel good about it. He makes a quick phone call and a second car arrives. Another guy. And a child in the back, which adds a plus to the situation. The men are cousins and I should follow them. Where to? I have no idea. Soon we arrive at a big house, where they are already awaiting us. I’m welcomed by the parents of the inviting man; toys and a laundry basket on the stairs make me feel completely at ease now.
Within no-time the table is filled with sweets, bread and tea. Cousins and their wives appear from I don’t know where; children are standing in front of me – staring and pointing at whatever I brought inside with me. We’re communicating with a few words in a shared language, Google translate, hands, feet and smiles. Phone calls are made to spread the news about a stranger on a motorbike whom they provided refuge. After the obvious family, country, spoken languages, number of brothers and sisters questions, a not-so-common one arises: if I can play ping-pong. Yes I can. We’re moving upstairs – everyone. A ping pong table in a big room. Yeah – I like playing table tennis, and I love being allowed to join in on an activity rather than always being seated and treated like a queen by hosts. They’re fairly good players and fanatical even more so. Counting in a mix of languages, the family championship evolves. Grandpa can’t stand watching his son – who drank a vodka or two already – losing. And so he takes over, as soon as he gets the chance. The atmosphere is relaxed, enjoyable. The women are chatting with the youngest ones being rocked in their arms or laps; the other kids are chasing each other in between collecting the ping pong balls for the players. Nice – really nice to be here.
Meanwhile the parental bed is being prepared for me; father sleeps on the couch and mother moves in with the daughter-in-law next door. In the morning they ask me to stay another day. We’re driving up the mountain by car, because there’s still too much snow on the road. Father and 2 sons take the chance of this little outing – we’re ending up at a local amusement area where first of all we eat. Then, bowling’s on the program. Grandpa and I battle for the bowling champion title, while both brothers play table tennis again. Upon return home, the neighbor’s boy asks me to play chess. It’s been ages, but I try to remember all the rules. He’s not shy to correct me when I make a false move – nor to whip me off the board on the first possible occasion. I thank him for the opportunity to play with Azerbaijan’s chess master-to-be and he shines with pride.