These days, the European Games are on everyone’s mind here in Baku. It’s an exciting time as we all watch the infrastructure being put into place, ready to host the 6000 athletes from all over Europe from 12thJune to 28th June 2015. It’s Baku’s big opportunity to shine, to enhance Azerbaijan’s profile and become a force to be reckoned with on the International sporting scene, paving the way for further important events such as the Formula One in 2016 and UEFA Euro 2020.
One of the people making it all happen is Protocol Manager Anita Engbrecht, a young German from Fulda near Frankfurt who has been living in Baku for almost three and a half years. Her job is to run a team of 22 volunteers at the Aquatic Centre who will be looking after the EOC members, the ambassadorial representatives, members of parliament and VVIPs, to make sure they are well accommodated in their respective hotels, are transported smoothly to the venues, are comfortable and present in the lounges and green rooms of the sporting venues and that they are all in the right place at the right time and happy. In other words, a challenging feat of organisation, diplomacy and last minute problem solving which also involves flag validation, arranging translation services and the million and one other minutiae of huge significance to the Games and the International community gathering in Baku. No doubt, it takes nerves of steel and the ability to think on your feet but this young woman is completely unflustered by her considerable responsibilities, capable and competent.
I have seen her in action on a much smaller project, the annual German Christmas Charity Bazaar, for which she put to good use her organisational talent and people skills, resulting in a donation of AZN16000 to UAFA, the chosen NGO.
Barely into her thirties, slender and with model good looks, Anita has been married for almost 10 years. Her husband, Johann, 36, is the representative for the Commerzbank in this region. They live in a comfortable house in Badamdar with their two dogs, an Alsatian and a Doberman, who protect their mistress loyally during Johann’s many business trips abroad. Anita and Johann’s story is a sweet one. Their parents knew each other in Germany and were part of the same community. Growing up, she thought he was far too arrogant, he thought she was far too young. In the end, they found to each other and now make one of Baku’s power couples; Baku’s answer to Posh and Becks, perhaps, but without the embarrassing celebrity pretensions and arguably with more brains.
Both are scions of an interesting background. Their ancestors were what is known as Volga Germans who migrated to Russia in large numbers on the invitation of a German princess, later the infamous Russian Empress Catherine the Great. To tempt them to settle in her vast country, Catherine exempted these settlers from many of the rules governing her Russian population, giving them fertile land, religious freedom, tax advantages and military exemption to name but a few. They were encouraged to maintain their German culture, customs and language. After the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union during WW II, many Volga Germans, who despite not being Nazi supporters, were seen as collaborators and either imprisoned in the Soviet labour camps or forcefully deported to Kazakhstan. Almost one million Germans resettled there, continuing to maintain their ethnic identity and language, much against Soviet prohibitions. In the late 1980s, along with many of their compatriots, Anita, who was five years old at the time, and her family returned to live in Germany. This is where she went to school and later to university, where she completed her B.A. in Business Marketing.
Anita credits her upbringing not only with giving her the ability to speak fluent Russian alongside her German and English as well as some French and Azerbaijani, but also with providing her with a kind of bi-culturalism which helps her assimilate much more easily into life in Azerbaijan.
“As a German I am an expat here but I am lucky to understand the mentality of the Azerbaijani people perhaps better than most and I find it easy living here and enjoy engaging with the local culture and people. The language obviously helps me to communicate and that is a huge advantage.” she says.
“Many expats make the big mistake of comparing their life in Baku to that in their home country. You have to take every country on its own merit. Comparisons are futile. Don’t question the logic, just accept things as they are and don’t overthink them or you will never be happy.” she advises.
She points out that Azerbaijan is a very young country and has come a long way in a very short time. “Rome wasn’t built in a day”.
Although she agrees that Azerbaijan is a patriarchal society, she admires the fact that more and more women are being promoted to high-level management or leadership positions. She’s also impressed with the fact that quite a few Azerbaijanis of her acquaintance hold down full-time jobs as well studying in their spare time. “They don’t sit back, they want to make something of themselves.” she says.
What does she find challenging, I ask her. “The traffic chaos, of course, and the fact that because men and women socialise in separate groups, I can never join my husband at the invariably men only business dinners. That was difficult, especially in the beginning when I had not yet made friends of my own here.”
In the run up to the European Games, Anita works long hours but before she took on her demanding role, and in her leisure time, she very much enjoys cooking. She’s involved with a group of women of many different nationalities who each invite the others to their house and teach them how to cook their respective national dishes before sitting down together to enjoy the results of their efforts. She also loves travelling, Singapore, Barcelona and Bali being three of her favourite destinations, apart from her trips back home to Germany, two or three times a year, to catch up with her large family.
I see before me a young woman barely more than half my age, tolerant, intelligent, open, a true citizen of the world. Her positive can-do attitude is bound to rub off on those who come into contact with her, professionally or privately, making not only for successful International relations during the forthcoming European Games but also facilitating increasingly greater understanding between the expat community in Baku and the local population which can only be of tremendous benefit to all.