We were in a town of which Lonely Planet would later write: ‘there are no valid reasons to visit’, and I would mostly agree. Unless you had your back to the Soviet-built concrete city and were looking out over the Caspian Sea, there were so few reasons.
Hardly a tree to shade under, scarcely a café to find, barely a colour painted, rarely an exhibition to visit, infrequently a small shrub on the roadside, intermittent water flowing from taps, and hot, hot days.
Comfort levels were decreased significantly by a pre-departure suggestion that we all wear culturally appropriate clothing that covered up arms and legs. Unfortunately, it was 1994, and so the footwear of fashionable choice was Blundstones and socks – even with long summer skirts (yep, for real).
Instead of being culturally sensitive we were gawked at by young Russian girls with fashion fusions of shoestrings, thin lace, leopard print and fire engine red lips. We could only answer their pointed fingers and sniggers with “Avstralians”.
Over the few weeks that this place was home, we ate some uncomfortable things. Sundried sardines, fermented goats milk, a little bit of horse, a good deal of offal, mutton cheeks served from the cooked skull, and for some lucky friends, an eyeball.
When you’re in environments like this, things really do go better with Coke. And vodka.
The ink on my Fine Arts degree was still wet at this point, and someone suggested I might like to meet some local artists. Everything I’d seen to this point was grey Soviet Realism and mostly in the form of domineering civic statues. Through a translator, we made a time of the evening to meet these folk in their home. We hailed a Fiat and handed over a series of 3 numbers that identified their apartment on the grid of the city road structure; street and suburb names are so Western World.
Inside the apartment, the walls were clad in exquisite, colourful, delicate and symbolic art. Everywhere, every room. The classical music was soft but drowned out any remembrance of the dirty streets. The room was cool. Cool enough to sip the hot brewed floral tea. Soon more recognisable food was served like cakes, fruit compotes and chewy meringues. And freshly made dolmades from vine leaves imported from Azerbaijan.
Twenty-three years later, the emotional response within me as I recall this meal is palpable. Every reminiscence of it moves me and stirs my soul. These people lavished my heart with love.
In the same moving way, I read this passage about the disciples of Jesus fishing all night then coming into the beach.
When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it and some bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught…Come and have breakfast.” (John 21:11-13)
Breakfast at the end of a long shift!
Or when Elijah was terrified of what Jezebel had threatened him with and ran for his life.
He came to a lone broom bush and collapsed in its shade, wanting in the worst way to be done with it all—to just die: “Enough of this, God! Take my life—I’m ready to join my ancestors in the grave!” Exhausted, he fell asleep under the lone broom bush.
Suddenly an angel shook him awake and said, “Get up and eat!”
He looked around and, to his surprise, right by his head were a loaf of bread baked on some coals and a jug of water. He ate the meal and went back to sleep. (1 Kings 19:4-6)
The ministry of a meal at a point of desperation.
During the meal, Jesus took and blessed the bread, broke it, and gave it to his disciples: Take, eat. (Matthew 26:26)
He gave us a meal. This gift came out of a dark and hard moment in his life.
There are times when the modest gift of bread (or meringues) are delivered by the hand of God to establish how great his love is for us.