Saturday, June 2, 2018

Return to Baku!

When I departed Baku one year ago, I wasn't sure if I'd ever be back.  But I was ecstatic when the opportunity arose for a return visit.

One reason to visit was the Formula 1 2018 Azerbaijan Grand Prix.  Although I'm not into car racing or Formula 1, I had attended the inaugural Baku Formula 1 in 2016, had a great time, and was looking forward to a repeat experience.  Happily, Formula 1 did not disappoint.  In addition to offering an energizing atmosphere with good friends, the race was described as BONKERS by one journalist:  after banging wheels multiple times, the two Red Bull teammates finally crashed into each other, knocking them both out of the race; a car crashed into the wall only five laps later; with less then four laps to go, the lead car locked up his tires and fell to fourth place; one lap later, the new lead car punctured a tire and did not finish.  A crazy race indeed!

Baku Formula One Baby!

While I was back in town, I also joined the Baku Hash House Harriers for a run.  The trail setters led an adventurous course through abandoned oil wells in the outskirts of Baku.  And we finished at Yanar Dag Fire Mountain, where we roasted marshmallows on the flames that literally emerge from the hillside.  I could not have asked for a more Azeri Hash experience!

Those flames were HOT!!

But the principal reason for my trip was the wedding of my colleague and friend Aleksey.  He and his bride Elnara had a fabulous wedding reception with all Azeri panache I was hoping for.  We were greeted at the entrance by a larger-than-life photo of the bridal couple.  There were several more of these photos hung in the reception hall.  In the picture below, you can see Elnara and Aleksey towering in the background of our dinner table.  

Elnara and Aleksey were never far from us all night

Of course, there was an amazing amount of food and drink, including some of my Azeri favorites:  tendir bread, kebabs, shah plov, vodka, shekerbura pastries, and lots more!  There was also plenty of music and dancing.  We were treated to a wonderful traditional Azeri dance performance.  The emcee  serenaded the happy couple on multiple occasions.  And the guests were thrilled by cameos of well-known Azeri pop stars, who happen to be friends of the bride.  

Traditional Azeri dance performance

But the best part of the evening was being reunited in Baku with my fabulous colleagues.  We had a great time eating, dancing, drinking, laughing...and doing the requisite Azeri wedding complaining that the music was too loud and and we all ate too much!

Back together with the Embassy Baku Pol-Econ gang

Monday, July 3, 2017

Farewell Baku

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

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Baku Hash House Harriers

Ever since moving overseas, I had heard about "The Hash," but never strongly considered participating in it.  "Hash" is the nickname for the Hash House Harriers, a running club founded by British expats in Malaysia in 1938.  Today, Hash groups have spread all over the world, especially in major cities with expat populations.

There were two reasons I never had much interest in the Hash before.  First reason - I don't like running.  Now, those of you who've known me a long time will say "What?!?  But you ran track in high school, and you play soccer.  What do you mean you don't like running?"  I don't mind running as part of a sport or competition, but going out for a jog ranks pretty low on my list of enjoyable activities.  Second reason - What I had heard about the Hash made it sound a bit like a cult of weirdos. People often mentioned the Hash with a bit of a raised eyebrow, so I worried what I might be getting into if I participated.

But here in Baku, I kept meeting more and more people who were actual Hashers.  And they weren't weirdos!  Eventually, curiosity got the best of me and I decided I needed to check it out.  Plus it didn't hurt that the group was meeting the following Sunday just two blocks from my house.

For each run, one Hash member volunteers to be the leader, selects a starting point, and maps out a route to the ending point.  But the rest of the group does not know the route or the end point.  They only know the starting point, and then have to follow chalk arrows that the leader has drawn on the sidewalk along the route.  On my first Hash, I immediately thought, "Well, this isn't running, this is a scavenger hunt, what fun!"

Once we reached the end point, I finally got to see why mentions of the Hash were often accompanied by raised eyebrows. The tagline of the Hash is that it's "The Drinking Club with a Running Problem."  Every run ends with a bucket of beer, drinking penalties given out for any faux-pas anyone had committed along the way, and drinking songs sung with lots of rhyming sexual innuendo.  A little bit weird, yes, but not too weird for me!

So, I kept returning and eventually Jeremy (who REALLY didn't like running) started going as well.  After you go enough times and prove you aren't just a "tourist" checking out your options, you get formally initiated as a Hasher with a flour and beer bath.  The Baku Hash has been an important part of my physical, mental, and social well-being in Baku, so I'm glad I overcame my initial reservations to become part of the Hash family.  On on!!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Azerbaijani Food

Azerbaijani food is not well-known in America.  To bring you a little more familiarity, I will highlight what I see as the key elements of Azeri cuisine.  Of course, these items are usually served with a variety of accompaniments, and there are many other dishes that make up Azeri national cuisine.  But I consider these four items as the staples that you will see on all restaurant menus in Baku and on many home tables, especially on holidays and special occasions.

First and foremost is bread.  Bread is eaten with every meal.  Sometimes it is thin, tortilla-like bread called lavash. Sometimes it is standard sliced bread.  But, what I think of as Azeri bread is called tendir.  Tendir is actually the name for the brick oven that is used to bake the bread.  These tendir bakeries can be found on practically every other corner of Baku.  Bread is baked throughout the day, and customers can purchase it fresh out of the oven for 50 cents, so hot that you can barely hold it.  And good tendir is fabulous all by itself, without butter or anything on it.  You just tear a piece off and enjoy!

Tendir bread - already half-eaten before the photo could be taken!

Something else that is found at breakfast, lunch, or dinner is tomatoes and cucumbers.  Sometimes they are served whole - cherry tomatoes and baby cucumbers that you just pick up with your fingers as a side dish to whatever else you're eating. Sometimes they are cut into big chunks that fit nicely on top of a hunk of tendir bread.  And sometimes they are chopped up in small pieces into what's called shepherd's salad.  Whichever way, Azeri tomatoes are some of the best you will eat anywhere.

Tomatoes and cucumbers, plus other sides and of course bread!

The main dish at many Azeri meals is kebabs.  In America, we think of kebabs as meat on a stick, cooked on the barbecue. In Azerbaijan, kebab just means grilled food, cut into bite-size pieces.  So you can have chicken, beef, or lamb kebab, but also salmon, eggplant, or potato.  And while it may possibly be a on stick while cooking, it is not served that way.  One of my favorites is lule kebab - ground lamb molded into a small roll before grilling.

Mixed kebab platter

The finale to any Azeri meal is tea, although it is also drunk with breakfast and throughout the day.  It is generally strong and served with lemon.  It does not always come with sugar; sometimes I have to remind the waiter to bring sugar. Occasionally, tea is served with jam with small pieces of fruit in it.  Instead of sugar, you can put a couple spoons of the jam, including the fruit pieces, into your tea to sweeten it.

Tea time, with all the sweets of an afternoon tea set!

I hope my descriptions have whet your appetite.  And if you disagree with my choices of the defining features of Azeri cuisine, or think I've left off an important food, let me know in the comments.  When I asked my friends about this topic, I received a laundry list of selections, so I know there's more discussion to be had on it!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

My Azerbaijani Carpet

I'll admit that I've never been a carpet person.  I've gone into carpet shops in Azerbaijan and other countries, and even joined group "carpet shopping" trips.  But I would just look at carpet after carpet, and none would interest me.  Nonetheless Azerbaijan has such a proud carpet-producing history and culture that I wanted to have an Azerbaijani carpet of my own. In order to satisfy this urge while also having a carpet that would interest me, I decided to have one custom-made.

After asking around, I choose Brothers Carpets in Baku as my carpet maker and went to their shop to start the design process.  I flipped through their picture book of carpets, looking for design elements I liked.  I quickly settled on this buta example as the basis for my carpet.  The buta is a popular decorative motif in Azerbaijan, and is familiar to Americans as an element of the paisley design.  I love the buta shape, and wanted it to feature prominently in my carpet.  I added and subtracted some other symbols until I had exactly the design I wanted.

The buta basis for my carpet

The next step was picking the colors.  One of the reasons I hadn't found an Azeri carpet I liked was that most of them have a lot of deep, dark reds.  I wanted a carpet with brighter colors, especially bright blue.  I picked a bright blue as the background color for the whole carpet, and then added green, yellow, and orange to the traditional red, white, and black carpet colors.  

Yarn colors for my carpet

With the design and colors set, the carpet maker mapped out the diagram of my carpet.  This was done on graph paper, creating an exact drawing of the carpet, showing precisely where each color and design element should go.

My carpet on graph paper

Using this diagram, the weaving could finally begin.  Two women hand-wove my carpet in their home workshop in Baku. It's a large carpet - 3 meters x 2 meters, which is roughly 6.5 feet x 9.5 feet.  It is also 65 knots per square centimeter, which I'm told is high density and means higher quality.  But not knowing much about carpet production, I'll just have to take their word on that.  What I do know is that it required a lot of work - 9 months to be exact!

Weaver working on my carpet

But after all that work, I am now the proud owner of my own Azerbaijani carpet, with designs and colors that I love!

The blue buta carpet of my design

 And the carpet quickly received the ultimate seal of approval - my cats rolling around and stretching out to nap on it!

Bellini and Cosmo signal their approval!

Monday, January 30, 2017

Baku Evil Eyes

One activity that Jeremy and I have gotten more into here in Baku is Ultimate Frisbee.  Before I go any further, I will beg the indulgence of Ultimate devotees by stating upfront that I will explain Ultimate very simply and surely use incorrect terminology and commit other faux-pas against your dear sport.  Please forgive me.  I'm not an expert or even a die-hard player, but I do enjoy tossing a disc on the occasional Sunday.

For the uninitiated, Ultimate Frisbee is a real sport.  I think the simplest explanation is that it's like soccer but with a frisbee. If you'd like to know more, you can get a better description from this website or watch a cool video of awesome catches.

Jeremy makes a throw

While Jeremy and I have played Ultimate in both Portland and Nairobi, we've played more here in Baku, especially me. There's a great team here called the Baku Evil Eyes made up of Azeris and expats from all over the world who warmly welcome players of all abilities.

Adyl throws past Jeremy's kung-fu defense

Last summer, I played beach Ultimate for the first time.  I learned a few things from that experience: 
1. My bikini top was not designed to double as a sports bra.  
2. Caspian seaside sand gets really freaking hot in the midday sun.  
3. Azeri beach goers will stroll right through your field with no understanding that they are interrupting game play.  
4. It is possible to stub your toe on sand...multiple times.  I actually did it so badly that I had to take a break from all running activity for many, many weeks afterwards.

Beach Ultimate at the Caspian Sea

Another first for me was playing in an international tournament.  Ok, well, maybe it's a stretch to call it an international tournament.  But the Evil Eyes traveled to Tbilisi, Georgia to play against the team there.  Despite chilly temperatures and a rough playing field, we had a great time and the Evil Eyes won the final game in a very tight match.

Jeremy (center in gray) and Erica (orange on right) run downfield

True to form, I managed to injure myself there too.  During warm-up...yes, warm-up...I missed a catch and got a disc right in the mouth.  At first, I was afraid I might have cracked a tooth.  Luckily, the only damage was a fat lip with a nasty cut on the inside.  It gave me a crazy lopsided grin for a day.  And made it a bit difficult to eat all the khinkali, khachapuri, and wine at our victory feast of Georgian food that night!  But, as you can imagine, I persevered through the meal!

Erica's attractive fat lip

All this talk of Ultimate makes me realize I haven't played in a while.  Who's in for disc on Sunday?

Baku and Tbilisi players at our "international tournament"

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Delighted by Dubai

Dubai has been on our bucket list ever since we started our international life.  In fact, when we first joined the Foreign Service, and anyone asked Jeremy what he hoped our first assignment would be, he answered without hesitation:  "Dubai." The city has created a larger-than-life image for itself, with its indoor ski slope, palm tree island, world's tallest building and more.  And it did not disappoint!  I found the city to be amazingly fascinating!

Dubai Marina skyscrapers

Of course, it's impossible to visit Dubai without noticing the architecture.  Love it or leave it, the buildings of Dubai were built to make a statement!  And I loved it!!  If you're gonna build an apartment, or office, or hotel, why not make it interesting?! As we went through the city by taxi or metro, my face was continually glued to the window, staring up at all the passing buildings.  And I'm a total sucker for colorful lights at night, so I loved the technicolor skyline after the sun went down.

Sand, sea, salt...and skyscrapers!

When you're in Skyscraper City, you can't miss seeing the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa.  I personally found the visit to the observation deck on the 124th floor overpriced and underwhelming.  The elevator ride up was the coolest part - with anticipatory music and colorful graphics display.  Once out of the elevator, looking down on Dubai was boring to me.  However, when I looked out further towards the horizon, I was struck by how suddenly the surrounding skyscrapers and buildings gave way to barren desert, clearly demonstrating why Dubai is called an oasis in the desert.  Back down on the ground, I will admit that the Burj Khalifa is a stunning building, especially with its twinkling lights after dark.  I'd just much rather enjoy it from the ground looking up, rather than the other way around.

Jeremy at the Burj Khalifa

The glittering skyscrapers, along with the flashy sports cars revving their engines on the streets, were very visible symbols of the posh, showy aura of Dubai.  When we went to palm tree island (AKA The Palm Jumeirah), there were staff stationed at all entrances of the Atlantis Resort to be sure only registered hotel guests entered the premises.  No other tourist riff-raff allowed!  Entrance to the seven-star Burj Al Arab was similarly restrictive.  When we arrived for afternoon tea, we were stopped well before the entrance to verify our reservation before we were allowed to proceed.  I've never experienced such entrance restrictions at hotels - I guess I haven't been to enough ritzy places!!

Afternoon tea at the Burj Al Arab

While Dubai was fascinating all on its own, what was equally intriguing to me was comparing it to Baku.  Since arriving in Baku, I have heard many people say that Baku is seeking to emulate Dubai.  Finally seeing Dubai for myself, I could see the resemblance.  Baku has built many new buildings in recent years, many with unique architecture and flashy light displays.  (I blogged about some of them in a post earlier this year.)  And while it's not gotten to the point of restrictive hotel entrance policies, Baku has a modified version of high-class showiness.  From gleaming new cars flashing at you to move aside on the streets, to "face control" monitors looking you up and down before allowing you into a dance club, to companies charging more for telephone numbers with desirable number combinations, Baku has its own way of letting you know if you've made it into the exclusive club.

Thankfully, neither city lets this flashiness take over all aspects of its character.  A little bit goes a long way!  I'll close out with a picture of my favorite experience from the trip - Dubai Fountain.  Each night, the fountain puts on a fabulous performance combining three of my favorite things - fountains, music, and lights.  I was in heaven!

Dubai Fountain performance