Baku Perspectives

Eighteen months ago I relocated to Baku in Azerbaijan. It was a decision that came pretty much out of the blue. Leaving my family, friends and home to set up somewhere else had not really been part of my plan, much as I like to travel, meet new people and explore new places. Naturally, there is a huge difference between visiting a foreign country on a temporary basis and setting up home there, semi permanently for some length of time. We’d been on a fascinating 48 hour flying visit to Baku in 2007 but in reality, everything about Azerbaijan was a complete mystery to me and I had very little inkling on what to expect of the country and of expat life in general. First thing I did, of course, was to trawl the internet on any info I could get and I found some interesting, informative sites there (see side panel for useful expat sites). I asked around and by sheer coincidence, a London friend was able to introduce me to a lovely English woman here in Baku whose brain I could pick by email and who fast became a very helpful friend. I bought books to help me gain an insight. Lonely Planet Azerbaijan, The Hedonist’s Guide to Baku, Time Out Baku, Azerbaijan: Customs and Culture by Nikki Kazimova, Azerbaijan by Mark Elliott, Ali and Nino, the quintessential historical Azerbaijani novel by Kurban Said, The Oil and the Glory by Steve LeVine. And still, from afar in the UK, I was groping in a fog, unclear on so many small and big everyday issues and what it actually feels like to live in Baku.

While I have found my own personal level of happy comfortable expat existence here, often with the help of both expat and local friends, I have still not mastered or understood so many things about life here. I’ve not yet travelled the country much beyond Baku and everyday, I learn something new. There are adventures, pleasant surprises, interesting details, wonder, frustrations, misunderstandings, enthusiasms, head shakings, eye rollings, giggles, resignation, moments of success and equally, moments of dense mystery or, very occasionally, even rage.

We are all, each and every one of us, as different as leaves on a tree, we all have a different viewpoint, different priorities, circumstances and life experiences, different visions and expectations, different mentalities and characters. I cannot begin to give a conclusive or objective opinion on what it is like to be an expat in Baku but I can reflect the varying subjective impressions of expats living here.

The (Dis-) appearing Woman. Work by British Artist Sarah Knill-Jones in her 2015 solo exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, Baku
The (Dis-) appearing Woman. Work by British Artist Sarah Knill-Jones in her 2015 solo exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, Baku

Inspired by artist Sarah Knill-Jones’ wonderful recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, The (Dis-)appearing Woman, which so poignantly and expressively showcased painted photographic images and sound bites of expat women and the personal impact of geographical displacement on them, in contrast with views of locally resident Azerbaijani women, I too have collated in brief the views of many expat women here. Sarah bears creative witness to individual moments in time within, what might be termed, a randomly thrown together expatriate community and their local counterparts, and mirrors it in her brilliant work. My anonymous quotes below, reflecting a variety of responses, are intended to merely help inform expat newcomers on practicalities and what to possibly expect from their life here, in the form of different views.

The women I have asked for their contributions are of many different nationalities and ages, most are married, some are not, most are here to support their husbands, some work here themselves, some have children, some have been here quite a few years, others are fairly new arrivals, some are knitted in to a larger company structure, some are here quite independently. Many of the views do not reflect my personal opinion, some do.

Food & Shopping

Shopping in Baku
Shopping in Baku

“Although it’s better now than when we came two years ago, I am still struggling to find the things I need. I miss nice lamb, veal and all the crispy fresh nice salads we can get in almost all other countries. And berries………… It’s just a bit depressing to do the shopping here and especially when you find nice recipes you want to cook and know you can’t get half of the ingredients………Well at least I have learned a lot of substituting ………Price levels are also way too high…..

Access to things I am used to cooking with are limited, driving to five different stores to hopefully get everything I need is annoying. No Asparagus or snow peas, no jalepenos, cake flour, only ice cream in the summer (and not great at that) and no natural food/organic food. Food is often hit or miss regarding quality. Also we miss Amazon-or just internet shopping in general.”

“Extremely limited craft availability, i.e .scrapbook, sewing etc”

“I really miss one stop shopping like Walmart and Target and wish they could have something like that here.”

Food is fabulous.”

I don’t really much like the local food. It’s a bit predictable and always the same but there are nice fresh vegetables, though always seasonal. In terms of food shopping, there are some good supermarkets here but you have to get used to Russian labelling. There’s nothing I particularly miss, I can find almost everything I need here although not always in the same shop. You have to look around. ”

“The vegetables and fruit here are organic and seasonal. They taste much better than at home. Because it’s so seasonal you don’t have the variety. I had to get used to that. There are no ready meals like at home.”

Accommodation

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“I haven’t really seen any nice houses in Baku? There might be some, but most of them are old fashioned, in bad quality and over priced….My tiny house in Stonepay is more expensive than my beautiful huge modern house was in Beijing….”

I love the US embassy houses and housing community. The houses are large with huge rooms and those who live around us treat us like family. I am not lonely here and feel very welcome in the expat community both at school (TISA) and at home at Grand Park (Stonepay) where we live. I wish those who I lived around at home in the US could experience what it is like to be in a neighborhood and at a school where everyone is welcoming to everyone else and where they also are very happy to help you with anything you need.”

“Home: Robbed, rat infested, ceiling fell in, no lights on very old knackered stairs. No heating or hot water despite it being November. No light, dark and depressing place right next to 4 lane highway downtown so lots of noise till 4 am… XXX <organization name> refused to move me despite my asking and telling them it was not up to H&S standards. I was never given a choice. Turned out the Accommodation officer was up to something with the landlord and my ‘allowance’ was all used up on this slum….”

“Rent is very expensive.”

“Most expat homes are nice and spacious but the furniture and colour schemes are something else. They do love their drapes and chandeliers here and have a preference for heavy dark furniture.”

Traffic

Parking in Baku
Parking in Baku

“Dangerous! No rules and crazy drivers!”

“I HATE HATE HATE the traffic. I come from DC in the US and I know all about bad traffic, but at least there for the most part we follow the lanes and the laws of the road! The incessant honking at each other when it is clear you cannot move your car drives me crazy and I also cannot stand when I am waiting at a traffic light to turn (as the first car) and several cars decide to come up on my left and my right and turn in front of me.”

“The driving and parking is terrible. Not so much unsafe as completely incompetent. People drive into a junction, block it and then honk like mad. And they absolutely cannot park.”

Environment

View to the Caspian
View to the Caspian

“The dust and dirt. I hate to see all the garbage all over the town, disgusting!”

“Dirty”

“The city centre is very well presented, very clean. The streets are always cleaned. The wind blows away any pollution.”

“The drains smell.”

Lifestyle, Making Friends & Culture

Tea, Azerbaijan's national drink
Tea, Azerbaijan’s national drink

“Bulvar – I love walking there in the summer time and watch all the beautiful Azeri girls strolling. Evenings are the best as then everybody’s out with family and friends. The Beach Clubs – feels like we are on vacation! Will I come back to Baku when moved from here? I don’t think so. We have had a wonderful time here with lovely friends and lots of good memories, but I don’t think I ever have fallen in love with Baku so I don’t see me coming back here”.

The friendly people here, local as well as the expats. It’s very easy to get lovely friends here!”

“The prayers from the mosque – love it!”

“Quite a lot of lovely restaurants with good food, maybe not like being in London, but new ones popping up all the time.”

“Pushing in front of queues/cutting in—big one for me”

“Easy to travel to new places, compared to the USA.”

“I was surprised to find things so ‘unmuslim’ here. I hardly ever see veiled women, quite the opposite, they dress quite provocatively, and you don’t hear a call to prayer. There’s lots of alcohol drinking and everyone smokes everywhere and the many nightclubs go on all night.”

“I can take over your whole post with how it feels to be Black here. Non-stop paparazzi….”

“The most obvious difficult thing I found when coming here is the language barrier. I wish I got to know more Azeris and I don’t want to be a typical expat acquainted only with a small circle of other expats but hey, what can you do? I tried. As an Arab/Muslim, I thought I could relate more to their culture but surprisingly I had some culture shocks. For instance, openly drinking alcohol here is quite normal as opposed to the Arab world. Most women here dress more liberally than Arab women but are much more conservative. According to some of my husband’s Azeri friends, even chatting up a girl here is very difficult which isn’t the same at all where I come from….. Apparently, boyfriend/ girlfriend relationships here are virtually non-existent. In the Middle East, even though it’s quite frowned upon, but most girls have had some sort of relationship outside of marriage but again we dress in a more conservative manner. Not that I am judging but I am just stating the differences.”

“The whole putting sugar in your mouth thing when drinking tea is definitely a culture shock.”

Most medication is freely available without prescription but some meds are just not available or not available in the right format or dosage, so one worries about falling sick.”

 “It’s a very pretty city, lots of nice restaurants and shops. I enjoy living here.”

“First I thought everyone here was “bitchy” but it turned out that it’s not part of their culture to smile at strangers. Overall, people here are friendly (even though they don’t appear so at first). Very safe place to live in. One of the safest place I’ve ever lived. Beautiful city.”

 “At first, I was quite taken aback by all of the staring. I felt like everyone here was staring at me. Also in a few of the markets I did not like being followed. Once those who have been here for a while explained to me that it is the culture for them to follow you to help you (unlike in the US where of course I just assumed they thought I was trying to steal something) then I felt a lot better about it.”

“I have lately found the Azerbaijani people to be very nice. Once you get to know them they are very nice.”

“The city itself is beautiful and we are quickly finding some good restaurants to eat at as well.”

“For the most part I am very happy here.”

Baku
Baku

“People at work: rude, in your face, they whine and complain the whole time…and lie. Shallow (they go on looks and perceived wealth) spend more time doing their make-up than doing a job. However, outside XXX <organization name> people could be really charming and sweet. I had some wonderful experiences with strangers being really kind.”

“The city is beautiful and if I were to come here on a holiday it would be fun. Fantastic cultural heritage of which they are proud.”

“I find the superficiality annoying. It’s all about making an impression but there’s no solid substance to back anything up.”

“Azeris always seem suspicious and don’t seem to have much of a sense of humour. They don’t seem all that friendly but they can be very helpful all the same, though the staring can be disconcerting. Overall they seem to be quite inconsiderate but not maliciously so. Also, there is lots of bureaucracy but somehow there are no enforced rules.”

“It’s very safe.”

“Everyone looks the same, is the same short height and build, has the same hairstyle and dresses the same. There is very little outward individuality.”

“You have to get used to the lack of service here.”

“Baku is quite provincial.”

“Local people don’t have any time for dogs and treat them like vermin but they will go to the shops to buy food for the stray cats.”

“The young women in Baku seem to have an inflated sense of entitlement.”

“Today I ran for four miles and got stared at 47 times.”

Expat Life is life in a goldfish bowl. There is lots of curtain twitching and power play among the expat women but it is also a very helpful community.”

“It is a very noisy place. There is always loud music, day and night, and car stereos blaring and people shouting.”

I miss cinema and theatre and street artists and interesting lectures and availability of English language books.

 Children & Schooling

Bumblebee Montessori in Baku
Bumblebee Montessori in Baku

 “TISA – the school is really good. A nice caring community for our kids with really good educators. My daughter has blossomed up since attending TISA.”

 “More family time here than in the USA, it’s a family oriented society.”

“Azeris take their tea very seriously. My daughter started Russian lessons in a Kindergarden and they actually gave her tea. For Kindergardeners!”

 Work

Archaeological Excavation of Old Town
Archaeological Excavation of Old Town

“Machiavellian does not begin to describe the internal workings at XXX <name of organization>. Had five different contracts presented to me (all wrong) in seven months. Disorganised mess. Seven people in an office for two. Fighting for the basics like resources. My boss was threatened with imprisonment because the financial department were so incompetent. Finance didn’t talk to HR for some reason….. Basically DON’T expect employers to follow contracts – they are moveable ideals. Don’t trust employers – have a way out for when things fall apart…. My time working in Baku was the worst in an international career.  Worse than Saudi, East Timor, Burma…..and others. Really untrustworthy behaviour.”

“Lots of unannounced last minute changes can be frustrating. Also a lack of initiative from co-workers.”

“It’s heart breaking to see the incredibly low salaries of the local people, in contrast to the generally very well paid expats, especially in view of the expensive cost of living. It’s not surprising that they try to get ‘tips’ whenever they can.”

Weather

Beach Club
Beach Club

“The weather – short winter and a long summer. The wind can be a bit annoying but hey we can’t have it all.”

“ Nice to have 4 seasons”

“Great climate! Half the year is reliably dry, sunny and hot.”

Some weeks ago the Black/Blue and Gold/White dress was going viral on the internet. In essence, this was a picture of a striped dress with a bolero jacket. Some people saw beyond any doubt that it was black and blue, others were unshakeably certain that the very same dress was gold and white, a very few saw a different one of the two colour combinations every time they looked. There is a solid scientific explanation for this intriguing phenomenon, which can be read up on here http://www.wired.com/2015/02/science-one-agrees-color-dress/

What’s important and interesting about this experiment, is that both sides were ready to swear that what they saw was the only correct reflection of reality. Wasn’t it blatantly obvious? How could gold ever be mistaken for black? Or blue for white? What it proved, was that we can all look at the exact same thing, experience an almost identical circumstance, and yet come to such very different conclusions. Clearly, there is never just one way of seeing things or one truth, however much we like to believe that we have the right answer. To put it more prosaically and quoting my wonderful great grandmother, opinions are like bottoms, everbody’s got one.

Over the next few blog entries, I will post longer individual reflections of Expat Life in Baku, naturally,once again, each from a different perspective.

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