From an Expat Point of View
BY GEMMA BIANCHI SLATER
AZERI OBSERVER EDITOR
When I first moved to Azerbaijan over seven years ago, I myself originally came as a ‘trailing spouse’ as the wife of an oil worker. That seems like a long time ago now. I’ve had parents and sisters and cousins and friends all visit me in Baku, to which I can safely say, I have visited the fire mountain, ‘Yanar Dag’ about thirteen times! Although life looks very different to me now, I often reflect back on those days with fond nostalgia. How do they occupy their time, you may wonder? What do they do all day without the job they left behind to travel to a foreign country with their family?
Let me tell you, these expat spouses become culinary experts, house-managers, translators, logistical specialists, mature students, but the most exciting of all: tour-guides!
Life as an expat spouse
Take a bunch of (mostly) educated women. Take away their careers. Put them all in the same compound. They live in the same streets. Their kids go to the same school. Their husband’s all work together. You all play together. Every possible social gathering is inter-mingled with other ex-pats. There’s no escape. You bump into them at the grocery store. When you’re out to lunch. When you’re out for coffee. Out for dinner. At the gym. Your kids play with their kids. Even your dogs have playdates!
Don’t get me wrong though please. These women (and men – there are accompanying male spouses as well!) are lovely, friendly, accommodating and helpful, but even the most sociable amongst you can admit it can get a little claustrophobic at times.
No wonder they’re desperate for travel and adventure; not necessarily from the country but from the people you spend every living, breathing minute with from the moment you walk your kids to school, to the moment you close your door at the end of the day.
These women have been Managers, they have degrees. They’re teachers and nurses and work in computer software and marketing.
Some of them even have PhD’s! And now they’re here. Ex-pat wife. Travelling spouse. Trailing spouse. Housewife. GULP.
They join the PTA, they work for charities such as orphanages, refugee camps and animal sanctuaries. They become experts in baking and canning and knitting and running the Rainbows and Brownies, they join the choir, they play tennis or go to the gym. They sew the costumes for International day and Spirit days – (it’s not politically correct in an international environment to call it Christmas or Easter or Halloween). They join a book group, or a curry club or a Bunko (dice game) club. Or they choose to study through online distance learning.
You think your life was busy before? There’s no time for a full-time job when you’re an ex-pat. An ex-pat lifestyle becomes your full-time job. You learn to steer yourself through the minefield of culture clashes – resulting in what I call a number of ‘Lesson Learned’ moments, becoming an expert shopper of where to buy the best cheese/wine/meat/orange jaffa-cakes, because there isn’t a Tesco/Walmart hypermarket where you can buy everything under one roof. Although, when the supermarket chain ‘Bravo’ first opened, a few expats were known to actually cry with dizzy joy when they realized it sold Waitrose products. When you’ve been paying through the nose for a tin of Heinz Baked Beans or a box of Kelloggs Corn Flakes, or had to learn to love the taste of local wine because you can’t get hold of your favourite tipple; or when a new market opens up selling your much adored but missed food products, you say a little prayer.
When your visitors come over, you learn to become the expert tour-guide on all things Azerbaijani, treating your guests to carpet shopping in the old city, drinking chay (tea) with jam during an excursion to the fire temple.
After living this life for over seven years (as well as achieving my MSc in Human Resources Management), I’ve also taken on a little adventure or two. I’ve been fortunate enough to have many friends and family visit. Honestly, they have no expectations of what to expect; and that’s exactly why they end up having a fabulous time! When they tell their friends and family they’re visiting us in Azerbaijan, most people say, Azerbay-where?
By the way, even though the rest of the world pronounce it ‘Azer-bay-zjahn’ because that’s how the Russians prounouced it during Soviet-time, but the Azerbaijanis actually say ‘Azer-by-jan.’
However! By the time they leave, they’ve experienced pink salt lakes, mud volcanoes, a burning fire mountain, a former Silk Road pilgrimage fire temple, with afternoon tea at the Flame Towers. Sensing a theme here? It’s not called the Land of Fire for nothing. This is just a tip of the (fire-scalped) iceberg of all the inspiring and breathtakingly beautiful sights of Azerbaijan and it’s capital, Baku.
Trust me, they all know the correct way to pronounce Azerbaijan when they leave.