First thoughts on Baku

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Amazingly, it's already been two weeks since I arrived in Baku, yet at the same time, it’s only been two weeks since I arrived in Baku.  The time flies past, but I think I've accomplished quite a bit.  Things at work feel pretty good.  The office is filled almost entirely with former colleagues from the London and Sochi games, so much so that it feels like we all went on an extended summer holiday and now we're back to whip up another ceremony or two.  People have shuffled around among departments, but the faces are familiar which is comforting.

I moved into my apartment this week and have been happily settling in for several days now, wandering from room to room, moving furniture back and forth to get it just right, happily unpacking and banishing suitcases, opening cupboards and putting things in drawers.

Here's a look at my new place.

The building is nice, with a very wabi-sabi aesthetic in places.  I'm in the top right hand corner, and no, the screened balcony is not mine.

Pointy stairs
It's four floors and 112 steps up a pleasingly pointy staircase.  I should have buns of steel by the time I've spent eight months going up and down those stairs several times a day.

I really like the apartment.  It's a short walk to the Metro station and the commute to work takes about 45 minutes, which is a nice amount of time with the crossword in the mornings. Perhaps best (and potentially most dangerous) of all - there is an absolutely excellent cafe and bakery on the ground floor of the building which is where I'm sitting now having just polished off a passable cappuccino and a transcendent almond croissant.  They also do a quite lavish breakfast in the mornings, which I enjoyed yesterday.

And Baku itself is great.  Visually, it reminds me a lot of all the parts of Russia I lived in - Moscow, Krasnodar, Sochi.  The mix of modern and traditional architecture and dilapidated back streets feel very familiar, but there's also an Islamic influence, since Azerbaijan is very much an Islamic place.  The look is familiar, but in some important ways it's very different. Without slagging off Russia too much, I think it's fair to say that the Azeri people have, err, a greater gerenosity of spirit than was the norm in Russia.  The people just seem happier and friendlier here.

I walked around the Old City a bit this morning and it was quiet and lovely.  The more I walked around the more it felt like I’d expected it to feel - a bit like the Diocletian's Palace in Split, and bit like Venice, and a bit like anywhere old and walled and mostly pedestrianised.

A bit of the Old City.  (Called İçəri Şəhər in Azeri.  Pronounced EE-chair-ee SHAY-her.)

And it’s not just a tourist attraction.  Like those other places I listed, people actually live in the Old City.  In fact, several of my colleagues on the ceremonies have apartments there.  I suppose I could have too, if I’d expressed an interest.  And come to think of it, I wonder why I didn’t? (Oh wait, perhaps it was the reports that some people who started in the Old City have since moved out due to the somewhat intermittent nature of the power supply.)  Still, my experience with these kind of places is that the local inhabitants can be a bit brusque with tourists.  Naturally it’s not surprising that you’d get a bit tetchy after the one thousandth person stops right in front of you to take a picture when you’re in a hurry to get to the Metro. I was purposely trying to be discreet, but I saw an Australian woman who was a few steps ahead of me chatting happily with some local men who even posed for a picture.   And a bit later on I passed an old man in an open doorway and gave him a little “Salam” (Hello) and he smiled and returned the greeting.  So… friendly.  Happy.  Nice.

And when I was running yesterday, I was stopped because a car was partially turned into a driveway in front of me but could go no further because it was blocked by a swinging gate.  I went around the front of the car and opened the gate for the driver and he was genuinely thankful.  He did that thing where you put your hand on your heart when you say thank you, like he was thanking me with his whole being.  Again, just nice.  I can’t help but think that in Russia that driver would have been honking and yelling at whoever was supposed to be opening the gate for him.

But here’s an anecdote that simply blew my mind.  There is no big grocery store near my apartment, but there are tiny shops a short walk away - a few different ones for fruit and veg, a fishmonger, a bakery, and so on.  There’s also a small market that’s more like a grocery store with a reasonable selection of packaged stuff and meat and dairy and such.  After I’d unpacked a bit on Wednesday night I went out to gather a few staples so I’d be able to have breakfast the next day and wandered among these shops collecting stuff as I went. Included among these was a bag with a few small pastries I intended as a treat for my first night in the apartment.  I finished up at the little grocery store and went back to the apartment.  After unpacking my purchases, I couldn’t find the bag from the bakery.  I searched up and down for it, and finally figured that I’d absentmindedly put it somewhere very odd (in the closet, behind the boiler, under the couch...) and would find it months from now, transformed into a swelling bag of green fuzz.  The next night I went back to the market again. This was only the second time I’d been in the place, but when I came to pay the guy at the till looked at me, reached behind him, and handed me my bag of goodies from the night before.  I’d obviously left it behind and he had saved it and remembered who it belonged to and gave it back.  Seriously? How charming is that?

So that’s Baku so far.  Naturally there’s a lot more to say, and while work is still at a dull roar I hope to find the time to say it.  Funny, but when you’re not spending every spare minute bailing out a narrowboat, there’s a lot more time for life.

So far, so good.


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