So a move to Baku is on the agenda. Of course, your first priority is to find a home, somewhere where you will feel happy and comfortable for the period of time you are planning on living here. You make a mental list of your criteria, obviously depending on your circumstances, requirements and budget. Then, unless you are allocated an ambassadorial residence or a company owned abode, you ask around for recommended real estate agents and off you go on a recce, invariably with big dreams of an airy spacious home which meets all your requirements and which, coincidentally, is going for a song. This, after all, is Baku and not New York, Tokyo or London, so how bad can it be, you think. Ha! And here you are in for your first major culture shock!
When we first arrived in Baku, a mere eight months ago, we were put up in a so called suite in the Hotel Monolit Plaza in Badamdar, a place which still sends shivers of revulsion down my spine. The ‘suite’ was a depressing symphony of dark blues and browns with the smallest bathroom cubicle imaginable, threadbare towels, an unpleasant smell, dirty goldfish bowls in the reception area, a dark basement dining room where you couldn’t necessarily expect coffee for breakfast and where service generally was practically non existent. Believe me, I was motivated to find a home, like yesterday! My husband has come to Baku as an independent doctor, so we did not have the advantage of a company umbrella, so to speak, but we were put in touch with an agent, Sabina of T&M Global Estate Agents, who luckily spoke near perfect English and had lived in the US herself, so she understood what we were after. A huge bonus!
Being of a pragmatic disposition, I figured that the less I spent on rent, the more I’d have to spend in trips home to the UK, so I trotted off on my mission, all guns blazing. What can I say, after the seventh Soviet style block in the back of beyond, where common parts smelled of cabbage and inhabitants looked like actors in a film noir, where lifts, if there were any, looked like cages from which you would never be released and apartments had the whiff of never ending, airless depression, I rapidly changed my mind about our rental budget. Up it went to dizzying heights by London standards but, apparently, very much average by Baku expat standards.
Over the next few days I mustered every last positive thought, while I viewed property after property with Sabina and a succession of other agents. I soon learnt that having different wallpaper on every one of your walls, often what we might call clashing in colour and design, is very much de rigueur in Baku. Enormous central chandeliers in every room are considered highly desirable to the detriment of cosy little table lamps, brown, black, gold and pink or orange are often the favoured colour schemes, furniture is heavy and voluptuously ornamented, large leatherette sofas with back cushions of multi design florals abound, ceilings have elaborate modern moulding, windows are heavily draped, often with three layers of curtains. Strangely, many kitchens don’t have ovens. Then again, I saw a kitchen with a gold lame curtain in front of the oven, loudly screaming fire hazard, and another which was fantastically well kitted out and looked space age modern but where oven and fridge had been installed in such a way that did not allow either appliances to be fully opened. Somewhat unusual, to say the least!
Bathrooms are rarely ensuite, often unheated and frequently very busily tiled in, to the expat eye, shall we say, unexpected colour combinations. Most extraordinarily, many bathrooms contain humongous ‘bath pods’, very large single or even double jacuzzi bathtubs with all manner of gadgets, set in a PVC screened glass enclosure which dominates the entire bathroom. Conversely, you barely ever find plain tiled bathrooms with a ‘normal’ bathtub or even a freestanding or roll top bath.
To the expat mind frame which usually defaults to contemporary, clean lined, white walled properties, Azeri decor and furniture might take some serious taste adjustment but there are some fabulous bonuses too: Many apartments and houses are very generously laid out with large rooms and high ceilings, often with beautiful parquet flooring, almost all boast rather grand entrance halls and there’s frequently lots of storage, there are big flat screen TVs in every room and views from balconies or roof terraces that you’d kill for at home.
Eventually, I found what I thought was my dream apartment, centrally located with floor to ceiling windows with an incredible view over the Caspian, plain super modern ensuite bathrooms, white walls, chic, sleek and sparse Italian furniture in neutral colours, all brand new, and with a very impressive kitchen. The rental rate was pretty astronomical but hey, who needs to go back home when you can live like a film star in Baku?! I envisaged family and friends visiting and gasping with pleasurable surprise at my marvellous home here; I mentally gloated at the Facebook photos I was going to post which were going to cause green eyed envy among my friends in London! But I rejoiced too soon, the landlord purported to be too busy to let his flat. I understand from friends that this is quite a regular (non) response. This highlights a really important issue: when renting a property in Baku, it is imperative that you have a cooperative, helpful landlord. There are plenty of hair-raising stories doing the rounds of tenants suffering gas leaks and other serious maintenance issues to which some landlords have reacted with shoulder shrugging, have dragged their feet organising repairs or even, as I heard once, made a comment of ‘If you don’t like it, get it fixed at your expense.’
So, back to Square One. Having stipulated that I wanted a modern, contemporary apartment with light Western style furnishings and no wallpaper, my agent Sabina was reluctant to offer me an apartment she had on her books which she described as ‘antique style’. Close to Fountain Square, on the first floor of an old building, I was already less than impressed when I entered by the scruffy entrance adorned by graffiti and reeking of cat pee. Then, all of a sudden, Open Sesame! The heavy front door swung open and I found myself, well, in nothing less than a palace! A sitting room the size of a ballroom with beautifully detailed hand painted plaster on walls and ceilings, marble columns, heavily inlaid parquet flooring, tall carved doors and windows, a pretty good sized eat in kitchen, two elegant bedrooms, a generous dining room, three fire places and two large balconies overlooking the treelined street and yes, you guessed it, a giant bath pod in the one and only bathroom. All the furniture was elegant and upholstered throughout in a pale grey velvet with opulent pale grey drapes to match. I had walked straight into a historic home fit for an Azeri princess!
After some hefty negotiation, we secured this property, ultimately paying substantially less than the original asking price. However, it is worth noting that there is always a 14% tax on top of rental asking prices unless you do not require evidence of tenancy, for your residents visa, for instance, in which case some landlords will waive the tax for cash payment. We were lucky that our landlord is charming and very helpful and, in fact, the estate agents, T&M Global, manage the property which means that when we need repairs, they are usually seen to pretty quickly. As per usual, we had to pay a deposit and the rent three monthly in advance with two months mutual notice period.
Of course, there had to be a fly in the ointment….. We vacated the ghastly Hotel Monolit Plaza at speed, acquired a few nice household items for our new home and delightedly ensconced ourselves in our new palatial abode, feeling quite like Lord and Lady Muck. At bedtime, we had barely snuggled under the sheets, when we shot bolt upright, thinking we were experiencing the rumblings of an earthquake. These tremors, however, had absolutely nothing to do with fault lines or tectonic plates, they were entirely due to the heavy basses being pumped out by the PA system of the ‘Hiss’ nightclub 50 meters down the road. By 4 am, they had cranked up the decibels even further and we were singing along to Rihanna because sleep certainly wasn’t on the agenda. By 7.30 am we were eating our muesli to intense beat box sounds. And this, dear Reader, went on for four long, horrific sleepless months. From 11.30 pm to 8 am every day, all hell broke loose. ‘Isn’t that illegal?’ I hear you ask. The answer is that yes, it is but this being Baku, that doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference. After many tantrums, tears and text bombs to the DJ and finally diplomatic involvement by the landlord, the nightclub agreed to move their speakers from directly under our bedroom to directly under our bathroom. The earth still moves for us every night as the basses thump away and house music blasts out of our WC every time we need to use it but it’s better than it was and with my little ritual of Bio Ears Ear Plugs (the best ever!), Sleepytime Tea before bedtime and Aromatherapy Deep Relax oil, we manage to get our eight hours of Zzzzzs and, besides, it’s amazing what you can get used to……
As for the bath pod, it has seven different snazzy shower attachments, a jacuzzi, a steam room function, a radio and even a small TV. You need a doctorate to work it all out. If only it had enough hot water capacity to have more than one hot shower at a time or a bath to cover your knees at least…… Welcome to Baku, as they say here.
My advice to newcomers is to carefully check the areas you might want to live in and explore them before you rent. Badamdar, Genclik and the area near the Hyatt Hotel, for instance, are popular for families, there is a very established expat enclave around the Absheron Marriott Hotel with (more or less) expat oriented apartments, Fountain Square and its surrounds is excellent for being central but can be noisy and the Old Town is highly atmospheric if sometimes difficult to access by car or taxi`. Allow for a completely different design taste and use your imagination to adapt it to your preferred type of home. Make sure you have a cooperative and helpful landlord and check absolutely everything, every appliance, the aircon/heating and every piece of equipment, before you sign a contract and this too, examine with a fine tooth comb. Negotiate for any items you may want or need, usually they are supplied. Finally, embrace the opportunity to live the Baku way. So what if there is the odd power cut or things don’t run quite as smoothly as you are used to? Your home base, wherever it may be, with all its familiar ways, will always wait for you but this is your chance to try an altogether new adventure. Grasp it!