Now that we've departed Baku and had some time to reflect on our years there, I looked back at the Expectations of Azerbaijan that we wrote upon our arrival to see how right (or wrong) we were!
Expectation #1: Although Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, it practices a liberal form of the religion. I predict we will see more mini skirts than headscarves.
Actuality: Azerbaijan very clearly identifies as a Muslim country, with prominent mosques and Islamic holidays. But practicing Muslims were not overt about their religion and many Azeris would not describe themselves as religious at all. We were not deprived of bacon or alcohol and women did not have legal restrictions on their dress or activities. There were headscarves, but they were definitely outweighed by the mini skirts.
Expectation #2: We will grow to appreciate four seasons of weather after four years of living in perpetual summer. Baku gets windy, but the temperatures will actually be milder than the DC area.
Actuality: Baku very clearly has four seasons. Winter temperatures generally stayed above freezing. Baku rarely saw snow and completely shut down whenever it did, due to hilly roads, no snow plows, and inexperienced winter drivers. Summers were warm, with temperatures in the 90s or 100s. Baku did have the most intense wind I have ever experienced. It could make a winter day absolutely punishing, or create a wardrobe malfunction in the summer by blowing up your skirt. I adapted to the four seasons, but as a true lover of summer, I'm not sure I fully appreciated all of them!
|Baku's wind could make for a crazy hair day!|
Expectation #3: Jeremy will finally go skiing for the first time in 5 years. Although Baku is not a ski town, there are ski resorts within a few hours drive.
Actuality: We had a fabulous time skiing in the Caucasus! In addition to a side trip to Georgia, we spent several winter weekends skiing at Azerbaijan's first ski resort, Shahdag. Only a 3-hour drive from Baku, it was the perfect distance for an easy 3-day weekend getaway. Since skiing in Azerbaijan is still not a popular pastime, the slopes weren't crowded and lift tickets were wonderfully affordable. Surrounded by multiple ski-in hotels, we could relax at the mountain for the entire weekend, enjoying fun skiing, stunning mountain scenery, relaxing massages, and the all-you-can eat breakfast buffet!
|Jeremy not only skied but also snowboarded at Shahdag|
Expectation #4: We will have to learn to keep a straight, stern face. I've heard that smiling at strangers is interpreted as flirting! I'm hoping once I've become acquainted with someone, it will then be okay to smile at them.
Actuality: Most Azerbaijanis don't walk around with smiles on their faces. In their culture, a straight face is viewed as dignified and resolute, whereas unprompted smiling is viewed as frivolous and naive. So the American habit of smiling at practically everything can be misunderstood. Additionally, Azeri women are often quiet and modest around men they don't know, so a confident American woman who approaches a man with a question and then smiles in appreciation can also be misunderstood. And, yes, sometimes it was seen as flirting. We had a good laugh with a female American friend who thought the men at the grocery store were really friendly and helpful until she realized that all her smiles as she tried to communicate her shopping needs and understand the foreign food labels had led to the wrong impression! We certainly shared many smiles and laughs with our Azeri friends and colleagues and did not feel the need to constrict our American smiles.
Expectation #5: We both hope to play more soccer, or find another team sport to get involved in.
Actuality: I played soccer a grand total of two times. I was a hit both times, because I was the only woman on the field! Sports are more of a male domain in Azerbaijan, so the Azerbaijani players were a bit surprised to play with a woman who could hold her own on the field. Jeremy played off and on with a couple different soccer teams. More so than soccer, we played Ultimate Frisbee, which was more low-key and co-ed, making it more appealing to me.
|Friendly US vs. UK embassy match. |
Jeremy's in the blue goalie shirt; Erica's behind the camera.
Expectation #6: Azerbaijan will be more developed than Kenya or Cambodia, both of which are developing countries that receive significant amounts of monetary aid from donor countries. Azerbaijan has its own wealth in oil and natural gas.
Actuality: Azerbaijan was absolutely more developed than Kenya or Cambodia, my prior two overseas assignments. Azerbaijan has more modern buildings, better highways, and a centralized public transportation system. More foreigners were in Baku working for businesses rather than nonprofits. Baku also had a larger middle class, bridging the gap between those pinching pennies between paychecks and the rich elites.
|Flame Towers and other Baku buildings seen from the Bulvar|
waterfront promenade, with Jeremy and friends in foreground.
Expectation #7: We don't know a lot about the local cuisine, but I'm dreading potentially two years of Russian Borscht and meat & cabbage pies. Hopefully that won't be the case! Jeremy is crossing his fingers that Azerbaijani food will be better than Cambodian food.
Actuality: We really liked Azerbaijani food! It is most similar to Turkish cuisine, with some Russian and Iranian influences thrown in. I previously wrote about some of the mainstays of Azeri cuisine, so here I will tell you about my favorite foods that I'll miss. Qutab is a piece of flat bread (very similar to, but thinner than, a tortilla), filled with meat, pumpkin, or herbs, folded in half, and then fried briefly on a butter-coated skillet. My favorite was pumpkin qutab - they were great snacks or appetizers. Three sisters dolma is one of a variety of dolma common in Azerbaijan. This dish is a trio of a tomato, green pepper, and eggplant stuffed with ground meat. For dessert, I absolutely loved shekerbura, a wonderful pastry filled with nutty, sugary goodness. It is most commonly eaten during the spring new year Novruz holiday, but can be found in pastry shops year round.
|Erica with a traditional Novruz plate. The two |
yellow, semi-circle pastries are shekerbura.
Expectation #8: Baku will be the safest overseas city we've lived in yet.
Actuality: I would say I felt safer in Baku than in any city I've ever lived in, even in the US. Azerbaijan takes its security very seriously, so there was a visible security presence at most buildings and public spaces. Petty and violent crime was very low, and even as a woman, I rarely felt unsafe.
Expectation #9: I'm worried about encountering more of a language barrier. In Kenya, English was an official language. And in Cambodia, English was readily spoken. I feel that English will be less common in Azerbaijan, so I'll really have to work at learning the local language, which is called Azerbaijani or Azeri.
Actuality: Azerbaijanis often automatically assumed that foreigners spoke Russian (Azerbaijan borders Russia and was part of the Soviet Union). If I opened my mouth to speak English or Azeri, sometimes it was as if their brain didn't process it, because they only expected to hear Russian. This could stall conversation even before it got started. Taking into account the limited time I spent in language class and on homework, I felt comfortable with the skill level I attained in Azeri, thanks to Vusal, my fabulous language teacher. Vusal and I became friends, and we engaged in a cultural exchange, with him taking me to Baku's museums and me introducing him to nachos at Hard Rock Cafe!
|Erica, Vusal, and Jeremy at Azerbaijan's History Museum|
Expectation #10: Although I've never been a rug person, we will buy at least one rug. Azerbaijan is known for its oriental-style rugs.
Actuality: We purchased 4 carpets! Two were fairly small, one was a hallway runner, and I designed a custom-made carpet to take a unique piece of Azerbaijan with me.
|My very own Azerbaijani carpet|
We went to Azerbaijan not knowing much about the country and not sure what to think about it. We were hoping, at best, for it not to be terrible. But, over time, I really grew to love Baku - the people, the city, the food, our friends, our neighborhood. It just goes to show the value of maintaining an open mind and allowing yourself to be pleasantly surprised to find out how wrong you were.
|Jeremy and Erica on Baku Bay|