You know I love the Notes from the Field Days! And kicking off our series for this year is a return visit to Baku, Azerbaijan with Liz Nunziato. If her name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve visited her own blog, Adaptation House, in desperate search of what to do with that Drexel item A or that Drexel Item B that is just driving you crazy. She reports on various adaptations and hacks that people have come up with on their standard issue furnishings over on her site, but she’s tracking all sorts of inspiration on her Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram. She’s also started the #adaptationhouse hashtag for Instagram as well so that you can follow along to all adaptations that people are making all over world with their Drexel loot.
Liz takes us on a tour of her world in Baku, home to a huge cultural mind melt of traditional age-old cultures and seismic shifts due to oil wealth. She’s also sharing the good advice that someone once gave her about working in this lifestyle (hint, it has to do with expecting less and appreciating more, something I should add in my own “notes to self”). We profiled Baku a few years ago when the city was on the verge of being home to the Eurovision contest but from the pictures below, it seems like the city is changing by leaps and bounds. Come take a look!
Diplo-mat or Diplo-spouse (or other)?
Other: I’m the spouse of a D.S. Agent, which means my husband is a Federal Agent working for the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service abroad.
Three words to describe your current post:
Incongruous, Cosmopolitan, Proud
Best thing about Baku:
From local food to European imports, ski trips to beach days, you can have almost anything you really want while in Azerbaijan – you just have to go about it differently (and be prepared to pay!).
You have visitors in town for the weekend at Baku, what does the weekend look like?
We’d want to do different things depending on the season, since temperatures can get extreme. In the hot, dry summer we love the many beach clubs about 20 minutes outside the city. The Caspian is beautiful but not for swimming, so they all have giant pools right next to the sea. Our favorite places also have hammocks, swim-up bars and restaurants, with huge water slides and playgrounds for our son.
In the winter we’d stay closer to the city center and check out some of my favorite cultural highlights like the incredible Heydar Aliyev Center and Yarat art gallery. I also love to show people the dichotomy of shopping available in Baku. From the mall boasting shops like Tiffany & Co. and Tori Burch, we can walk to a bazaar for spices, hand-made goods and quirky little local stalls.
The dining options are incredibly varied, so depending on our visitor’s taste we could have dinner at a fancy restaurant on the Bulvar, a small seaside grilled fish place, or even the Hilton 360: a bar which rotates once per hour at the top of the hotel.
During any time of the year, we’d be sure to take guests on a walk through Icheri Sheher or “inner city”, which is the charming ancient walled city that still sits inside modern Baku.
If you’re in Baku, you must try:
- Some pilaf with lamb and Nar Sherab (pomegranate sauce).
- The funicular ride up to Martyr’s Alley and the most breathtaking views of Baku.
What are your go-to sources for learning about the culture or things to do/experience while you’re at your post city?
When I first moved here I found the Baku Expat Community group on Facebook to be an invaluable resource. To learn the best sights and eats you can actually check out Baku on TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet! Azerbaijan hosted Eurovision in 2012 and the first European Games in 2015, so there has been robust tourist traffic on those sites.
Most difficult about living in Baku:
Getting where you need to go without any address. All the street names and numbers in Baku were changed in the early 90’s, but many of the old Soviet signs are still up so the system is hopelessly confused. Couple that with taxi drivers who don’t know the expat destinations and a completely useless GPS (because of the aforementioned double address problem), and it can be a real challenge. You need to know at least one major landmark near your destination to help your taxi or driver get there. My first survival Azeri phrase was “I don’t know the address, but I will show you the way”.
Driving out to the Surakhani region to visit the Ateshgah (ancient Zorastrian Fire temple) and Yanar Dag (huge hillside fire that burns continuously from a natural gas source) when my Mom came to visit. We had no idea it was Guban Bayrami, the Muslim festival of sacrifice, and everywhere we went the streets were crowded with lambs to be sold for the holiday!
When did you realize you were far from home?
When I paid 7 manat for an expired Starbucks Frappucino, and was very excited to have it.
More recently, when my 3 ½ year-old son saw my husband and I kiss and said “Oy!”.
What’s the most important thing about re-creating your home at post?
For me, it’s the ability to reflect my personal style in our living space. This is such a huge deal that it became the theme of my blog. It won’t matter if Baku or the Ballston Metro is outside your window if you feel uncomfortable inside your own home for 2 years. I’m lucky in that our apartment was a pretty blank slate to work with: many FSO families here get stuck with the glitzy wallpaper, gilded doors, and massive draperies that Azeri people love in their own homes.
1. My iPhone for Face-timing family and friends: thank God the internet is fairly reliable!
2. Our water distiller: Tap water is not potable here. Although that is a reality at many posts, it’s easy to forget Baku is one of them when you just came from your shopping trip to the Gap.
3. My iMac: I’m a freelance graphic designer, so my computer lets me continue to work for clients stateside. Not having to worry about finding a job on the local economy (which is possible but a huge headache) or at the Embassy was priceless.
One thing you thought you couldn’t live without but have had to?
Starbucks! I’m a coffee addict and this is a nation of hard-core tea drinkers, so my options were initially terrible. That being said, the first and only Starbucks in Azerbaijan JUST OPENED here a month ago.
Expect nothing, and you will appreciate everything.
What’s your daily uniform?
The people of Azerbaijan are cultured and fashion-forward, and the vast majority of Muslims here are very tolerant. As a woman I can wear whatever I want and feel comfortable. In the winter that means boots for walking city errands, jeans, and any top under a warm coat – the wind off the Caspian can be brutal. Layers are important because the locals love to crank their heat in restaurants and shops during the cold months. Most summer days the temperature tops 100, so sandals and a sundress are my top choice.
You’re having guests over on Saturday night, what’s on the menu?
BBQ Pulled pork on homemade Hawaiian sweet rolls. The Embassy BEA store is one of the only places in town to get pork here, and it’s always a pleasant surprise for guests when we serve it. As long as you can embrace making things from scratch – which I love to do anyways – you can find ingredients to make most American-style side dishes and complete the taste of home.
For D.S. Agents, the post assignments are about 50/50 domestic and foreign, so we are looking stateside again. Believe it or not, I would love if my husband got posted to the tiny field office in Buffalo, New York: it’s our hometown! Since Baku is too expensive and difficult to reach, we have not seen our large families in almost 2 years. But after that? Rome, please!
One thing you wished someone had told you before arriving?
Baku has many options for shopping, dining, and entertainment, but be prepared to pay for it all. If your goal is to save money while living abroad you must be careful here. Simple things like grocery expenses will add up fast here because of import prices.
Life here can be great, but your happiness depends on managing your own expectations. Looks can be deceiving! A lot of things in Baku appear like their American counterparts, but the reality of the experience is much worse. For some people this can be more frustrating than not having the thing/place/service available at all.
What are three of your own favorite posts?
All photos by Liz Nunziato – check out more of her adaptations over at Adaptation House! Thanks for the tour of Baku, Liz!