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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Baku Top and Bottom Ten

Now that all of our things are gone and we're counting down the days until we get on that plane, it's time to reflect on the past two years in Baku.  As I watched the movers pack up my kitchen, I thought of the many happy memories we've had in our house over the last two years.  It's been a good two years without any major trauma and plenty of good times.  We've had a great time here and made some great friends.  But now it's time to leave, which is also okay because as nice as Baku has been, it's not home.  No place is home for us, home is wherever our family is together.  One day we'll stop moving around the world, go back to our home country, settle down, and have home mean the place where our family is from.  But until then, it's okay to leave after a few years and go somewhere new.

But for those of you who want to know what we liked best (and worst) about Baku, here's the list.

10.  The weather.  With the exception of our first winter here, which was very unusual for the whole continent, Baku's weather has been very moderate.  The winter temperatures hardly ever dip below freezing and usually stay in the forties and low fifties.  In the summer it gets above ninety for about six weeks, and then only sporadically before it dips down into a long, warm fall.  After two years in Cairo, it was nice to actually have winter and have summer that didn't start in April.

The weather.  So the winter didn't get very cold but it lasted forever.  The weather never really ever warmed up enough to make swimming for more than twenty minutes at a time pleasant.  Our main pool, the CMR, never got above seventy-five degrees.  And for a girl who grew up spending all summer hanging out in ninety-degree pool water that's just not right.

9.  The food.  But I suppose you could say this about a lot of posts.  Brandon claims (and he's not kidding) one of the reasons he joined the Foreign Service was because of the food.  The food here is quite delicious, especially when you count all of the Georgian restaurants as part of "the food" here.  We have more things to add to the list of Food We'll Never Have So Good Again - fresh tandiir bread, still hot from the oven with a crisp crust that shatters all over the car while you eat it driving home because you just can't wat, gutab, saj, and lula kebab.  And I haven't even mentioned the amazing fruit.  We'll spend the rest of forever trying to recreate the food and never get it quite right.

The prices.  I pride myself in trying to shop like a local as much as possible, but even when I shop like a local I'm still amazed by the prices of some things here.  The children think that bananas are a rare treat because I'm too cheap to buy them at $2.75 a kilo.  I usually order everything I can off the internet because shopping locally really adds up.  This Christmas, however, we got stuck and ended up buying some Duplos (two sets and a truck) for the children - for a low low price of $180.  Ouch.

8.  The nice parts of the city.  Baku has spent a lot of time and money prettying itself up.  And we've really enjoyed all of the efforts.  I remember the first time Brandon and I stumbled on the Bulvar and were shocked and amazed at how nice it was.  There was nothing even touching it in Cairo, and we were expecting Baku to be much more like Cairo than it actually is.  There are several nice parks and lots and lots of places to walk around and a pedestrianized shopping area downtown.  It's pleasant to be in places that don't have piles of garbage with stray cats picking through them.  And you just can't beat eating dinner overlooking the Caspian on a warm June evening as all of Baku promenades by.

Road construction.  And construction in general.  The price of all of Baku's new niceness is construction.  There is construction everywhere in the city, including the roads.  There is an interchange of tunnels and overpasses that has been under construction since we moved here and still isn't finished which is unfortunately the most direct route to a few key things in the city.  And this construction makes pretty miserable traffic downright awful when you get stuck in it.  When it's all done, I'm sure it will be lovely, however.

7.  Our neighborhood.  We were really lucky and got put into a gated neighborhood with more Western-style houses.  Not only does our house have closets, we even have a laundry room.  But even better than the houses are the neighbors.  We have nine or ten embassy families living in our neighborhood so there's always someone around for the children to play with.  I've loved not having to drive anyone to playdates.  I just have to wait until around 3:30 or 4 and then the doorbell starts ringing and the girls are off with friends until dinner.  Having someone you can call for a cup of sugar or bit of baking soda or even a ride is pretty nice, too.

Our yard.  When we filled out our housing survey, we mentioned that our shipment included a half-dome climber and swing set and a yard to put them in would be quite nice.  When our sponsor was driving us home from the airport he mentioned that unfortunately they couldn't put us into a house with a yard big enough for the equipment.  I thought at least we had a yard that the children could play in, but I was wrong.  Instead of a yard, we have a mud pit surrounding our patio.  It started out with a little grass, but two years of gardeners' inattention and flooding and drought methods of yard care have killed what grass it did have.  I gamely tried to grow vegetables in pots for two summers in a row, but there wasn't even enough sun for that.  Sometimes I daydream about one day being able to have a garden and a lawn.

6.  The holidays.  Have I mentioned how great it is to live in a country that celebrates Muslim holidays, Persian holidays, and Soviet holidays?  I think I have.  But I'll say it again.  It's fantastic.

No parking.  I don't have a driver, but when I have to run errands (only every few months) I really wish I did.  I don't care if he drives my car, I just want him to park the dang thing.  I'm pretty sure the only parking lot with lines I've seen in the city is in the embassy compound.  It's a good thing I perfected my parallel parking skills in college because I have really used them here.  And my backing skills when I realized that I can't turn around because the driving lanes are too tight.  I dream of big, wide American parking lots with vast driving lanes and spacious stalls that let you open both of your doors at once.  I know that big box stores and their big parking lots are not cool anymore, but I don't care.  Call me a destroyer of the earth as much as you want as long as I can keep my parking lots.

5.  Getting out into the countryside.  Azerbaijan really has some lovely countryside, and we've had a great time exploring it.  See previous posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.  Most people don't think of Azerbaijan as beautiful mountain scenes, but they should.

How far Baku is from the pretty parts.  Unfortunately for our gasoline bills, Baku is at the very tip of the ugly part of Azerbaijan and you have to drive at least an hour an a half before you get to the pretty parts.  Which makes for a pretty long day trip when you're hauling four children around with you.  I'm looking forward to being a little closer to the mountains for the next posting.

4.  Everyone here loves children.  I love living in areas of the world where children are still cool.  A few weeks ago I was pushing everyone through the grocery store tossing the usual cheese, milk, eggs, and butter into the cart when a gaggle of admiring store workers pointed to the children and held up four fingers questioningly.  I nodded my head.  Yes, they're all mine.  Then they pointed to my pregnant figure and held up a fifth.  I nodded again.  They all smiled enthusiastically like it was the best news they'd heard all day and congratulated me roundly.  It's nice to be seen as a hero and not a blight on society.  I also enjoy my children being petted and admired instead of looked at like little vermin that shouldn't be let out of the house.

Everyone here loves children.  So having a fan club can be a bit of a distraction when you're trying to remember what you're planning on cooking dinner for the week while answering four different children's incessant questions while trying to keep those horrid Euro-style four-turning-wheels shopping cart from bashing into the shopper trying to squeeze past you in the aisle.  I'm looking forward to shopping with a little anonymity.  Just sayin'.

3.  The embassy community.  Can I tell you how much I love small embassy communities?  I think I already have, but I'll say it again.  For some people it's a fishbowl, but for a Mormon who's used to being in a tight-knit congregation with lots of open-invitation activities, it's wonderful.  So wonderful that I hope to stick to small embassy communities for the rest of this gig.

The traffic.  There's something that makes any rational mind scream in frustration when it takes over an hour to travel three miles.  I don't know a single person here who doesn't list the traffic as one of their top aggravations.

2.  The people.  We've found the Azeris to be a perfect mix of friendly, helpful, tolerant of crazy foreigners, and standoffish.  After living in Egypt where all twenty million Cairenes would have (when we were there) taken you home for three weeks to be your best friends, it's nice to have some personal space while still being all of the nice things that Egyptians are.

The driving.  All of the above things don't count when everyone is behind the wheel of a car.  After some time driving and being amazed and incensed by the stunts drivers here pull routinely, I had to just stop asking why anyone would do that because I realized that I would go crazy.  All I can say is that DC driving (and parking) holds no fear for me anymore.  None.

1.  And of course, the best thing about Baku has been our friends.  We have made wonderful friends and will always remember everyone that has made us feel loved and welcomed.  Even though there are some things about this lifestyle that I could do without, the friendships we make at each post make those annoyances just annoyances and nothing more.  I'll always remember Baku by those who have made our life more rich over the past two years.  And I'll always miss it too for the same reason.

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