Karen Stigant is a British woman who has lived and worked in Barcelona for the last eight years. She came to Baku last summer to teach English. Below is her view on expat life in Baku.
Guest Blog by Karen Stigant
This time last year I’d just started thinking about taking a year off from my regular job in Barcelona, and looking for something further afield. I was, eventually, offered teaching jobs in 3 locations: Almaty (Kazakhstan), Querétero (Mexico) and Baku. I picked the short straw, as they say….
But it’s not all been bad. My experience here has been very mixed, really, but the fact that I’m counting the weeks until I leave is an indication of how much I’m looking forward to the end of my contract, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend Baku to a woman alone. That’s the big problem, really: women just don’t do anything on their own. They don’t go anywhere on their own. Even having a coffee alone attracts stares and murmurings from others nearby. It’ll change, over time (I hope), but at the moment the girls stick together in groups and are rarely seen alone.
Groups – there’s the rub. I think I’ve learned that I’m more introvert than I thought, because I’m tired of going out in big groups. I’m so tired of repeating my story to total strangers who a) I’ll probably never see again, and b) aren’t in the least bit interested anyway – and why should they be? I’ve attended some pretty grim gatherings since I got here, and it’s just confirmed what I knew already – an expat lifestyle is not for me. This is my 3rd time living and working away from home, but Baku is by far the least friendly city, and certainly the most difficult to meet like-minded souls. I have to add here, I guess, that age and gender are no doubt major factors, in that people appear reluctant to invite an unaccompanied woman of a certain age to gatherings that are predominately couples (although I can’t for the life of me see the logic in this).
The man/woman thing is difficult to grasp, and I can’t help but feel so very sorry for the women whose husbands control every aspect of their lives. One of my colleagues has a husband who, on the rare occasion that she goes anywhere without him, e.g. meets a friend for tea/lunch, he drives her and waits outside until it’s time to drive her home. Some of my lovely women students at AzTV station complain to me how their brothers veto any business trips abroad, and don’t even think about a holiday with a friend…
Public transport is lamentable. The metro has to be the busiest, most uncomfortable on the planet. I’m no shrinking violet when it comes to pushing old ladies (they’re the worst – even in Barcelona) but I’ve been almost reduced to tears on several occasions on the platform at 28 May metro station, hemmed in by a million others. The bus is slightly better. When it stops to let you on. But the drivers are psychopaths (sorry, but it’s true – no other word to describe their erratic behaviour) who break every rule in the book and change their route on a whim. The first Azeri I learned was how to yell, “Stop!” when the driver sails past my bust stop. The only way to travel, really, is by private taxi or London cab. Or walking (if there’s pavement).
OK, good points….. the food! I love the selection of restaurants but don’t like the inflated prices (and I miss fresh fish terribly). Don’t like customer service, in restaurants or in shops. In restaurants they ignore you and in shops they hover over you. Oops, I was trying to be positive, I forgot. I love that total strangers come up to me and ask where I’m from, and then want to chat. (Actually, if I’m totally honest it depends on my mood, really – sometimes it just irritates!).
The weather’s not bad!
My job’s great and has been the source of huge satisfaction. I’m enjoying the challenge of working in an environment that doesn’t rely on technology. Our staff room has no computers and the reference book selection is minimal and old, with books published 20 years ago. The more up-to-date editions are pirated and come from Iran, so – hilariously – any photos of arms or ankles are doctored, and the text is often changed to remove any reference to alcohol, dancing, or physical contact. The outdated course books we use are reflected in the staff’s attitude to teaching, unfortunately, and some of my colleagues are extremely unwilling to try new methodology. It’s very much a case of, “OK, sit down, and open your books at page 12…..”. I’m in charge of twice-monthly workshops intended to introduce fresh ideas into the classroom, but my enthusiasm is not infectious, and the teachers clearly feel resentful that I’m here to shake them up. Understandably, they no doubt also resent the fact that I get paid so much more than they do.
Thank God I have a lovely boss, who’s far from a typical Azeri. Unlike my colleagues who rarely go out at weekends, she enjoys going out for dinner, lunch etc. and we’ve enjoyed some fun times together. She’s well-travelled and her daughter lives in London, so she’s got a different mind-set from the average Azeri woman. My students are, mostly, amazing – both the men and the women are part-horrified and part-fascinated by the fact that I “abandoned” my son (a student in his early twenties) to come and work here, and we have great chats. My classes are a learning curve for both them and me.
The practicalities of living here appear to present similar challenges to us all, no matter if you live in a new, modern apartment or an old soviet block like mine. Electricity, gas and water can disappear 3 or 4 times in a week, and I do worry, sometimes, about the safety aspect of such old systems. The electricity, in particular, is a cause for concern as half the sockets are dodgy and plugs hang at weird angles from walls. (I feel comforted by the fact that the local fire station is only minutes away!)
One of the hardest things to get used to (in fact I’ll never get used to it) is the traffic. I dislike these huge, oversized cars that are over 6’ high and almost as wide. Penis extensions, I believe they’re called in Europe. I hate the way they create three lanes in a 2-lane road, all the while honking and honking their horns incessantly. It’s easy to believe – in fact it’s pretty obvious, really – that half the drivers, including the bus drivers, buy their licences. I’m appalled at how acceptable it is to chat on the phone while driving. In fact it’s rare to see someone with two hands on the wheel. Mobile in one hand, fag in the other, that’s the ticket!
The lack of awareness regarding recycling is also hard to deal with. I can’t believe how much paper is thrown away at work. They look at me like I’m totally crazy if I suggest saving the paper that’s used only on one side. It upsets me every time I take my rubbish out to the yard, and all the glass, plastic, paper etc. goes in the same big stinky bin. Grrrr.
The nepotism, that is so much an acceptable part of life here, gets to me at times. It’s integral to the fabric of society and is, unquestionably, the only way that people see themselves getting anywhere. From the top to the bottom, it’s unwaveringly “the way we do things here”. Nobody questions this, it’s just the way it is.
I’m actually quite an optimistic, upbeat person (at least I thought I was!) but I have tried to be perfectly honest, and the stark truth for me is that Baku is not a very attractive place to live and work. The biggest drawback for me, of course, has been lack of social life, since the vast majority of women I’ve met want to keep weekends free for hubbies. I’ve recently met some Fulbright scholars who are lecturing at Baku State Uni, and they’re good company and happy to meet for weekend dinners, which is lovely. (And they’re men – hurrah! How I miss my lovely chums at home who just happen to be men). But until recently I’ve spent most weekends here in Baku with myself for company and there have been times when I’ve felt a bit fed up with DVD’s on a Saturday night.
Despite all of this, the time has flown and now I’m getting into a panic that there’s still so much I want to do and see before I leave. It’s been a fascinating period for me, and not for a moment have I felt like packing my bags and leaving. Meeting my son in Prague for Christmas helped enormously, as did my recent trip home for the TEFL conference, and I still have lovely things to look forward to before I leave, so perhaps that’s the secret of a happy life in Baku – plan frequent, regular escapes! (But that in itself speaks volumes, does it not?).
Yesterday my boss took me for a great lunch and I had to tell her that I’m not going to renew my contract in September. She wasn’t surprised, but was very happy when I told her that I’d be glad to come back for a month or two, perhaps to do some teacher training or something like that. So despite it all, I’d happily return for a limited time. There’s something about the place that makes me smile as I do that lovely walk from my flat into town, when I wordlessly greet that huge, fabulous statue of Neriman Nerimanov as I walk past. I hate to think I’ll never see that view of the Caspian again. I love the weirdness of Baku, the quirky, the mad, and the sheer bonkers situations that I’ve found myself in during the past 6 months. Looking back, it’s like a lengthy black comedy, and the masochist in me wants more of it.
- N.B. The opinions expressed by the author of this post are not necessarily those of Fizz of Life.