An English Girl in Azerbaijan

1916

From an expat point of view

BY GEMMA BIANCHI SLATER

AZERI OBSERVER EDITOR

As the British Editor for Azeri Observer, people occasionally ask me if I get treated differently for being a foreigner living in Azerbaijan? And I think I can honestly say no, as I don’t often advertise this fact…

Okay, there was this one time I treated myself to a night at the Fairmont Baku in February and I happened to mention it and they instantly upgraded me from a city view room to a sea view room – thanks very much, it was AMAZING! But really, I don’t need to. The fact that I’m a foreigner is enough to be treated like a Queen and I’m not even joking. Waiters fall over themselves to give the best service at a restaurant; Bolt taxi drivers drive carefully and will drop you right to your door. I even had a couple of mishaps ordering from Wolt, whereas the food was two hours late a week apart and when I sent a message to the Wolt customer services, I was instantly credited with 50AZN both times!

When I look out at the Caspian Sea and admire the build progress of the Crescent hotel and the palm trees on the picturesque Bulvar or see the lights slowly switch on around the capital city at dusk to reveal the luminescent flame towers change from the colours of the Azerbaijani flag (green, blue and red!) to the undulating flames, I feel so lucky to see Baku becoming one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Eurasia map. I’ve even contemplated buying a property here, and am wondering how it’s possible to gain citizenship (Mr President, I’d be awfully obliged!) as I feel myself privileged and ever so lucky to be here. Okay, the UK has its perks, don’t get me wrong (the National Health Service for one) but there’s something so special about Azerbaijan that I call it home.

I even saw Azerbaijani actor, Taleh Yuzbayov in Starbucks in the downtown in April 2021 and interrupted his coffee time to tell him what a huge fan I was of his work (especially asking him to add additional English subtitles to his YouTube videos!) and he promptly invited me to his December movie premiere! Unfortunately I was out of the country at the time, but was ever so thankful for his consideration and generosity. And is it a coincidence that every time I ask Elmar from the London office at Azerbaijan Airlines to book me a return flight to Heathrow, I always seem to get a row of seats to myself?

The Azerbaijani people are polite, courteous and hospitable. Whether it’s a free fruit plate after dinner or a free pot of special tea from a friendly waiter, they ingratiate themselves so you always walk away feeling satisfied and looked after. Over my eight-year tenure, there are a few things I’ve noticed about Azerbaijani’s and I wonder if you’ll agree with me….

Facts I’ve noticed about Azerbaijani’s:

 

Azerbaijanis can’t eat a meal without bread 

Never ask a waiter for some bread. They look at you like you’re some kind of weirdo. Like, uh yeah of course I’ll bring bread? Is the sky blue? But I get away with it (lest I forget) because I’m a foreigner.

 

Azerbaijanis can’t drink tea without a biscuit, or a sugar cube (to suck)

To drink tea without some kind of sweet treat will cause them to gasp. They literally think: What, you mean you want me to drink this tea by itself?

You can’t leave an Azerbaijani household without feeling so full you think you’re going to burst

The hospitality of the average Azerbaijani is the absolute best you’ll ever find. Should you be lucky enough to be invited to be their guest then be ready to be treated like royalty. The best china comes out and the table is packed full with Pilov, dolma, kebab (both normal and lula), the freshest of vegetables, crunchy or soft tandir bread, paklava and assorted sweets with enough tea to sink a ship.

And as soon as you finish one round, they whip the plate away from you before you have the chance to say nush olsun (Bon appetit!) and reward you with a fresh plate for your next helping. Honestly I’m happy to eat with the same plate anytime I have seconds or thirds, but that’s a big no-no!

Azerbaijanis are multi-lingual

Many of them speak up to four languages: Azerbaijani, Russian, Turkish and English. Some of them are even learning German, French or Spanish to add to their already expansive list! They put us Brits to shame. They say to me, how many languages can you speak? Shamefaced, I say, uh one? Okay, I can haggle the price of a taxi (On besh manats [15 manats] from the city center to Ganjlik? Yox! Besh! [No! Five!] ), or order a basic meal (Toyuq? [Chicken?] Um, pomidor? Salat? [Um, tomatoes? Salad?] ) if I was stuck alone in the village in my broken Azerbaijani but it’s not exactly the same thing.

 

The art of defensive driving – especially roundabouts!

No matter how busy the Four Seasons roundabout is, or the nail-biting experience of 20 January where I have to close my eyes, the Azerbaijanis have mastered the ebb and flow of driving in such a way that they somehow avoid hitting each other. It’s a marvel. I also love the ingenuity of the Azerbaijanis. Big traffic jam on a highway? Let’s drive over the sand-dunes in the intersection to get around! Genius.

It’s these kinds of idiosyncrasies that make Azerbaijani people fun and interesting. No matter who I speak to when I’m travelling; back in the UK or meeting new people, it seems to be my ‘go to’ that telling everyone how amazing Azerbaijan is, is number one on my agenda. I worry that I bore people silly with my reverence but I can’t help it.  Eight years in Azerbaijan have turned me almost native.