Just over 12 months ago I arrived in Baku together with my husband. We had visited six years previously on a 48 hour medical mission, so we had a vague inkling what Baku was like but wow, had it changed in the interim! Back then, the only Western type hotel was the Hyatt and even that was pretty basic. Bulvar did not exist in its current form, nor did Fountain Square, there were no malls, no high rises and the renovation of Icheri Sheher was only just in process.
Even in the last year, much has changed and emerged. Along with a plethora of new Euro American type restaurants and designer shops, there’s a Buddha Bar in Baku now, a Harvey Nichols is just about to open, and, of course, there’s one International event after another on the calendar: The Polo World Cup, the European Games in 2015, F1 Racing in 2016, important matches of the European Football Championship 2020, you name it, it’s all happening here! Baku is set to become a big player on the International scene.
For me, this last year has been a fascinating experience. It was initially difficult leaving my adored family, comfortable home and bad tempered but lovable cat behind and stepping into the unknown. Living in one place for nigh on thirty years means that you have your little routines well set up, your tight knit circle of friends an invaluable support system, your familiarity with your environment facilitating smooth passage through everyday life. Then the new adventure: the language barrier, different food, new routines, changed parameters, insecurities, boredom, a whole new ball game. To begin with there were all the frustrations associated with finding a home in a completely unknown place. Which is the best area to live in? What is an average price to pay? There are local interior design taste preferences which might not tally with your own and totally different legal (?) requirements. The sheer expense of rental property in Baku was an unexpected shock as was the penchant for wild wallpaper and much dark and gold furniture. Then, once settled in, the realization in the darkest hours of night that here there are no effective rules governing noise pollution.
Shopping was an all new adventure with unfamiliar brands labeled entirely in Russian, certain food items on sale only in some shops but not in others and some favourite food not available at all or only intermittently, with no guarantee that you might come across them again. Trips back to the UK saw return suitcases full of mouthwash, Nespresso capsules, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, washing powder and preferred cosmetics and, a year on, they still do. Then again, you soon learn to substitute with local goods. In many cases, this can offer an improvement. Fresh food is seasonal in Baku, organic and fresh, so while you might not be able to indulge your craving for blueberries, papaya, sweet potatoes or kale, you can find delicious new things like the tart little green Alcha plums which look like mini apples and which you eat with salt, jewel like pomegranates with their divine juice, fabulous purple basil and much more besides. Butternut squash, aubergines and courgettes abound and make for wonderful ingredients in curries, chillies or roasted by themselves. Ooooh, and the bread here in Azerbaijan! Freshly baked warm tandir is like manna from heaven! Feta cheese too, tastes especially good here as do tomatoes. The amber coloured çay (tea) is thirst quenching and with a tea spoon of the local fruit preserves or some honey sweet baklava (paxlava), you get your sugar kick right there at the same time. Obviously, this being a predominantly Muslim country, you can pretty much forget bacon sarnies and due to the oily Caspian, fresh fish is not as plentiful as you may wish for but caviar (ok, not on a daily basis, perhaps) and qutab (stuffed pancakes) make up for that. Sadly, good wine costs a small fortune but I guess there’s always vodka and beer for a jolly evening, in or out.
Skype, FaceTime and Facebook were and are essential for keeping in touch with loved ones at home, despite the frustratingly super slow but expensive internet, and the International Women’s Club with all their different events are great to pave the way for new friendships. However, the bitter drop for a newbie to the expat experience such as myself, is dealing with the sad fact that just when you’ve made a warm connection with someone you really like, they might just up and go without so much as a by your leave and take a little piece of your heart away with them. Tough stuff. Meera, Audrey, Mary, Kirsty and June, I wave to you from afar.
Having taken the bull by the horns and immersed myself enthusiastically into my new life, I settled well into an increasingly cold and windy Baku, negotiated a non Christmas without my family by my side, adjusted, adapted, enjoyed the new challenges, adventures and experiences. It was all good. I remember reading a very interesting article on the incredibly informative expat web forum Families in Global Transition, FIGT for short (see side panel for link), which highlighted the emotional waves expats go through, indicating that after the initial euphoria, there usually follows a dip into negativity, succeeded by more highs and lows at various times. Not I, no way! Hadn’t I weathered the storms and was well ensconced? This was so not going to apply to me! Then, right on cue, after a trip home in January, I got the Baku Blues. I developed a special kind of sneer and finessed my hoitytoityness. Absolutely everything was better at home, sooo much more sophisticated and interesting. I considered myself stuck here in a hopeless backwater where nothing worked and people were out to fleece me, where taxi drivers and home maintenance people were simply hopeless, where waiters cleared your plates while you were still eating, where there was no social life comparable to that of London, fashion was dead, there was no decent theatre and anyway, everything! Bah humbug to Baku.
One day, sitting on my balcony, basking in the very first rays of spring sunshine, I revelled in the incredible blueness of the Baku sky and realized that, in fact, the sky in Baku is almost always bright and blue, summer or winter. I became aware that the asthma I often suffer from in the allergy trapping Thames Valley in London was hardly bothering me here. My local greengrocer gave me a few herbs and a couple of lemons for free because he was so delighted that I spoke to him in my pidgin Azeri, my friendships here were developing into warm and inspiring relationships and I was meeting more and more interesting, fabulous people. A comforting familiarity was setting in and without even noticing, I had become adept (mostly, not always!) at dealing with the idiosyncracies of life here. All of a sudden, things looked bright and happy. So far, so good! As yet, I haven’t looked back but then I’m lucky enough to go on breaks back home on a fairly frequent basis, so I get the best of both worlds. Maybe that makes a difference. My wonderful children with their partners and my much loved mother-in-law have visited us here and have shared, for some days at least, in our new life. A trip to Qatar and others to Germany, France and Georgia have peppered our daily routine with exciting interludes. More visits from family and friends are planned and there’s much to look forward to.
The lovely husband too has faced some substantial changes in his working life. Previously an International specialist in Obstetrics and Gynaecology practising at a busy London hospital, he worked inhumanly long hours and was frequently called out at night, at weekends or during family festivities. His work was extremely challenging and included multiple births, conjoined births, HIV pregnancies, life and death operations, repeated miscarriage treatments, complicated medical conditions and many emergencies, lecturing to students and expert medico legal reports in which compensation suits rested on a knife’s edge decision; work he loves and is passionate about but which is nonetheless indescribably draining. Here in Baku, his working hours are easily manageable, there are no emergencies and he can focus on sharing his expertise and profound experience with the young and forward thinking medical professionals.
So what have I learnt in precisely 377 days in Azerbaijan? I’ve learnt that engaging and participating beats moping around and leads you to some thrilling unexpected surprises. I’ve gained knowledge of a part of the world that I knew next to nothing about. I’ve realised that I can do very well without some of the things I considered so essential to my well being and that there are tons of exciting new possibilities to examine, adopt, reject, incorporate. I’ve been reminded that my way is most certainly not the only way and I’ve enjoyed the benefits of stretching in to the newness of it all. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not all a bowl of cherries and I can still throw a world class strop or two but then, I’d be doing the same at home too. The usta that has to return eight times to fix the dishwasher is no more or less irritating than the London trains that won’t run because there are leaves on the line. Most of all, I’ve learnt that fear is entirely in the imagination and that when you jump, the net will always appear. Always.
Baku, I thank you for this thrilling opportunity to know you, for opening my eyes to some things I hadn’t seen before, for giving me the experience of a lifetime, for your brash beauty and your challenging sharp edges. As I enter into our second winter here and the next 12 months, I ask you to keep your skies blue, your tectonic plate firm, your people, local and expat, friendly and warm and this little ship that is me, stable and happily bobbing along on the waves of life.