BB and I have been on a trip, just the two of us, to Azerbaijan – a corner of the former Soviet Union and a refreshing change from the hot and dusty desert. My mother mistook it for Afghanistan, I, admittedly, had to google-map it, and then the week of our trip it made news headlines by being crowned the winner of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest! Here are six things I found out …
● BB is a little too used to flying with Emirates. We travelled on a low-cost carrier to the capital Baku – a perfectly good airline, but, on finding our seats, he was not impressed. “Where’s the TV?” he huffed, looking everywhere, including under the seat, to see if it was hidden. “Where’s the blanket?” he asked later, genuinely confused that all the trimmings were missing and I was having to pay for everything.
I was just happy to be on a flight that was only three hours long – plus it was loads better than when I flew solo to Berlin on a budget airline a few years ago. That flight, with its free-for-all-boarding, was all about the element of the unknown, including mysterious delays and the strangest noise on arrival, like someone was sawing off a wing. Dubai to Baku was on time, we had assigned seats, and there were no unnerving noises.
● There was one slightly unnerving passenger, however. He thought I was Russian (which I was secretly quite pleased about as being Russian sounds so much more exotic than being a Brit) and wanted to take us on a boat ride on the Caspian Sea. Seated nearby, he persisted in talking to me and, being British not Russian, I politely tried to engage. He looked like he’d had a productive trip to Dubai – the route is a well-trodden one by Azeri people, who come to the UAE to buy electronics, which is why you see so many passengers on the flight with huge plastic bags stuffed full of gadgets, even wide-screen TVs.
● Tourism is a concept only just beginning to take shape in Azerbaijan, as I found out when applying for our visit visas beforehand. We were only going for two days, but I was asked by the visa man if I had a letter of invitation from the Ministry of Affairs and from my friend’s husband’s company. “Erm, no,” I replied, thinking that was it, game over. Luckily, visa man, who was actually really friendly, was persuaded we had no ulterior motive for visiting, other than to see my dear friend and her family, living in Baku as her husband works for a gold mine. On arriving, we still had to get past passport man, though. Not so friendly, he went through my passport with a fine toothcomb, reading every stamp and peering over the counter at me, probably wondering why my hair was a totally different colour in my photo.
● Sightseeing with limited time and four children under the age of seven is never easy, but we did really well considering. Baku is a cosmopolitan boomtown, with glass-clad modern buildings mushrooming at an astounding rate – being built on a petroleum-funded surge of optimism and in stark contrast to the stone mansions and old, shabby Soviet apartment blocks. We visited the city’s walled ancient core, where carpet sellers ply their trade from Ali Baba-esque shops; climbed the 29m-high Maiden’s Tower; and did some people-watching at Fountain Square. I managed to capture BB’s attention momentarily by telling him we were looking at flying carpets, but his favourite thing was the fun fair on the seafront boulevard.
● I discovered the joys of having a driver, who can nip here, there and everywhere – to pick up a birthday cake, do the school run, bring you home after a boozy night. While it may sound like a luxury, having a driver in Azerbaijan is essential if you don’t want to go grey overnight. On the roads, battered Ladas and shiny Mercedes race for pole position, paying no attention to lanes or each other. It made Dubai driving look orderly, and that’s saying something.
● Expats in Azerbaijan are a hardier bunch than us. They’ve lived in all sorts of interesting places, including Vietnam and Uganda (and that’s just my friend). One British mum I met had just moved from Zambia. A much smaller expat community than in Dubai, they face challenges on a daily basis – power outages, the driving, the language barrier. Healthcare is a concern as the doctor may have simply bought his licence – so, in an emergency, patients are medevaced to London or Dubai. As with all expat societies, there’s a feeling of transience, so if a child is off school with a cold, his classmates think ‘that’s it, he’s gone, moved on!”
BB, straight out of the desert these days, insisted on wearing his fleece for the first day, despite the warm 30-degree temperature, and I’m sure has no idea yet how spoilt we are here in Dubai with its shopping malls and facilities.
But Azerbaijan is a fascinating place – a unique meeting point of ancient historical empires. And outside Baku, there are timeless, orchard-clad villages surrounded by the soaring Caucasus mountains. Expat life there has wonderful perks too – a great sense of community, spacious villas, drivers and maids. And if the materials proffered for junk-modelling at school are anything to go by (champagne boxes as opposed to the Weetabix boxes you’d find at British schools), expats in Baku know how to enjoy themselves!