Monday, February 27, 2017

Our life lately

Lately, I've been posting more informational posts about Baku, but I would like to give you all a little update on us.
This morning, a FB post memory popped up in my feed today. It was from 2 years ago, when we found out our assignment to Baku, Azerbaijan. We didn't really know what to expect as we had never heard anything about this country, and were just hoping that it would be nicer than our previous post, Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. We have been in Baku for about 5.5 months now and are very happy here.
We have very little to complain about. Of course, it's not Germany and life is not as easy as it is in the US, but it's a pretty good place to live, especially compared to many other posts we could have been sent to.
Since the cost of living is generally lower than it is in the US or Germany, we are able to have a comfortable life here while still reaching our savings goals - yay!

We really love the city. It is such a beautiful city, they call it the "Paris of the East" for a reason (there are 21 more "Parises of the East," but of course, Baku is the one and only true "Paris of the East").
There are many small parks throughout the city where William can run around, wave at everybody, and chase the birds.
We love that there are so many things to see and do in the city as well as outside of Baku, and usually prices are very reasonable.

The downtown area is full of these beautiful buildings, hence the title "Paris of the East"

This is the first time we live a city life. We live about a 10-minute walk away from the embassy, and it only takes about 20 minutes to walk to the main downtown area, and 5 more minutes to walk to the Boulevard. An Uber taxi ride to the downtown area takes about 4 minutes and only costs about $1.

We also really like our new home. When we first arrived, I was not too sure about our apartment that we were assigned to. We never saw any pictures of it before our arrival, so we weren't really sure what to expect. When we entered the house, it wasn't love at first sight, but after decorating it with our stuff, moving around furniture (not our own), hanging pictures and new paintings that we bought here, it has become a very cozy apartment.
Something that we really like about our apartment is that it feels very private. It feels a lot more private than our row house in Jeddah. Well, except the loud noise from the kids from upstairs running around at night and sometimes even waking up William #apartmentlife

After - I'm not a fan of the government furniture, especially the green-gold corduroy-like couches, but I think I did decent job working with the furniture (or rather drawing attention away from them)

Melissa: I'm still staying at home with William. I recently applied and got interviewed for a position at the embassy to slowly go back to working. Although we both like to have more of a "traditional" family, I feel it's good to stay at least a little bit connected to the work field.
Unfortunately, with the recently ordered hiring freeze, embassies around the world can't post any new position openings, interview people, and offer a job. By the time this freeze is over and I get a security clearance, we're probably already moving again :-/ Oh well...
But besides that, I'm very happy here. I enjoy being at home, spending time with William, cooking and baking, and making Anthon happy with good food.

Korean food is among our favorite cuisines. Unfortunately, there is no Korean restaurant here, so I'm learning to make more and more Korean dishes

Anthon and I have been married for almost 7 years now - crazy! We still have a wonderful relationship and we both feel that we lucked out. We share our love for cooking, baking, making music and traveling. Something that I love about our relationship is that it is so drama-free. We are both pretty easy going and we're good at communicating with each other. So, we hardly ever argue, and if we do, then it's usually over within an hour and we end up cuddling again :-)

Anthon really likes his job as the Facility Manager of the embassy. He likes his co-workers and we hang out with many of them on a personal basis. Luckily, there are several people that live very close to where we live, which makes it easy to hang out.
Anthon and I have been interested in cooking for a while, but recently, Anthon decided to take his cooking skills to a new level and he now follows several food vlogs for inspiration. He bought a very nice pan a few weeks ago, and has been working on mainly egg dishes so far #wewillneverbeskinny

Hanging out with co-workers and making Russian Pelmeni for the first time

                                     Besides being the best husband, he's also a great "Papa" 💕

It was Anthon's birthday yesterday! 

Most foreign service people, and just expats in general, have a house help and I swore to myself a while ago that I would never get one. I like being at home and I actually like doing household chores.
But when we first got here, William was still soooooo clingy and whiny and it was difficult to get much done. In addition to that, we were looking for a babysitter who could watch William when we go out for our weekly date night, when I need to go to the orthodontist every 2 weeks, and other occasions.
So, after talking to many embassy folks, we decided to give it a try and hire a house help. Most, if not all expat couples and families here have some kind of house help, nanny or even a driver.
I honestly wasn't sure if I would like having somebody at my house all the time (more like 3 days and 2 nights/week), but our house help has been a huge blessing. It feels like having a good friend or a favorite aunt with me during the day, so I don't feel lonely here. She also helps me understand the culture better, negotiates prices for me when we're out and about, and helps with translation. We are both a taurus and understand each other's character very well, and have a very similar work ethic, which helps a lot. We both do whatever needs to be done in the house. I think we have found a good balance of working together while having a lot of fun with each other.
Since I don't have to worry about some chores now, I do get to spend a lot more time with William, which is great. William might be a single child, but he always has somebody to play with :-)

I was a little worried at first that I would loose "my purpose" as a house wife, but I'm surprised that 4 hands are almost not enough to run a household. There is always more to be done. Story of every housewife's life :-)
We had to adjust our budget for having a house help, which is not super cheap here, and sometimes we miss having that money more to spend, but it's still so worth it to have her. She has become part of our family and calls us her "children" :-) We love her!


William is 22 months old now. I feel like he's finally getting a little easier. Until recently, he was soooo clingy. He wanted to be held all the time and could not play by himself, but he's getting much better, and he's starting to be able to keep himself busy while mommy is cooking or taking a shower.
And that's when people hint to us to start thinking about the next one. But we are not there yet.... like zero. William has been a real tough baby, and I don't think it's only because we are first time parents. We've been around other kids a lot and I think William was just not a chill baby. Every time I see a cute baby, I just think to myself how glad I am that this stage is over. We're not sure if we want to go through all this again... at least at this point.
It's honestly getting pretty annoying to hear all these hints about a second baby.
It is one of the most personal decisions that you make as a couple, and for us, annoying (but I know well-meant) comments are not going to influence our decision.
So, if you see me the next time and I have a little tummy, it's probably just fat from all the taste testing of Anthon's new dishes, and the good food here in Azerbaijan. Especially the delicious traditional Azeri bread "Tendir" and honey, and the doughnut-like "Poncik".

Ponçik - sooo yummy when they're fresh, and they only cost $0.08 each!
It's so hard to resist when I walk by a stand that sells them... so, I usually just give in :-)

So, here are a few things that William likes right now at 22 months:

- rice, apples, pomegranate seeds, salami
- counting 1,2,3 and saying "wooow"
- kissing (he gives us kisses aaaaall the time and makes a loud and long "muah" sound with it)
- waving at everybody and say "bye-bye"
- pretend phone calls consisting of two words: Hello (which he pronounces as "anno?") and Bye-Bye
- kicking his soccer ball in the park, puzzles
- rhythms (he claps a certain rhythm all the time, and imitates the beat of every music he hears)
- massages: we massage him with oil every night after his bath and before bed. That's pretty much the only time he will stay still for longer than 5 seconds. He just lays there, totally relaxed. He especially likes foot massages
- walking in mommy's shoes
- climbing on tables
- Ipad (it's been a life-saver on car rides, flights, eating out, etc)

The climbing phase has officially begun. I was even right there cooking and didn't notice that he had climbed up. He's sooo quick and quiet! Oh boy! 


This is how he dances :-)

1, 2, 3


And a few other silly things

What William doesn't like:
- potatoes (any shape, trust me, I've tried to feed him soooo many different potato dishes, different shapes and textures, different seasonings, but he will not eat potatoes)
- actually most foods, he is such a picky eater, he doesn't even eat pancakes, muffins or bananas which most children love
- diaper changes, especially his pants on during diaper changes (he will kick them off like a crazy rodeo horse), getting dressed, brushing his teeth, being put in a stroller (we call him our little free-range chicken)
- sitting still (3 seconds is his max)
- and as we found out last weekend, he doesn't care about carousels either :-)

Anthon put him on so many different things, but he just didn't like it :-)

But besides that, he's a really cute boy. It's cute to see how much affection kids can already show at such a young age. And it's amazing to see how fast they learn things. Sometimes, when I buy toys like puzzles that I bought two weeks ago, I oftentimes think that it will take him a while to get the hang of it and play with them, but then you give it to him and he just starts putting the pieces into the right places.

So yeah, this was a little update on us.
We are excited to travel to Tbilisi, Georgia next month for a week and see what the city is like. Anthon's parents are going to fly out to Tbilisi to meet us there, which will be fun. We have heard many good things about the city and the food there and can't wait to try some fresh Khachapuri. We've been to a Georgian restaurant here in Baku once and really liked the food.
This spring, we're also going on a longer trip to Germany, Italy and Southern France, which I think is going to be one of our most awesome vacations ever. I've always wanted to see the lavender fields in the Provence and see the cities along the Cote-d'Azur.
So, if you have any sightseeing or food recommendations for any of these places, please let us know!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Baku's Boulevard

The last couple of Saturdays, we stayed at home all day long. After a busy week, we had no desire to go out in the cold and do something when we can stay in the warm, not spend any money and just relax. It takes especially a lot of motivation to get William dressed in a warm jacket, boots, hat, scarf and mittens while he's screaming like we're killing him. And then once he's in his stroller, after a lot of screaming of course, we have to keep him happy and content pretty much the entire time he's in there and distract him with snacks, peekaboo, and chasing Anthon.
But last weekend, we finally managed to go out and do something fun. And it felt great!

It's still cold outside, but it was sunny and so we decided to walk along Baku's Boulevard.
We really enjoy walking along the promenade. The city has done a great job protecting this area, keeping it very clean and making it look beautiful with all the different kinds of trees, fountains, cafes, carousels, and malls.

I thought that the Boulevard was a relatively new landmark, and was surprised to find out that it is over a hundred years old.  The Maiden Tower, that is now about 150m away from the seaside, used to be only 5-10m away from the water in 1806. Along the shore, rich oil barons built their beautiful homes.

In this drawing from before the 19th century, you can see that the Maiden Tower was right at or in the water. In 1806, it was already 5-10m away from the sea.

In the course of time, the Caspian Sea receded and some land was reclaimed along the shore.
Around 1880, Baku's Mayor passed a decree that every ship coming in from Iran had to pay taxes in form of fertile soil to further help build up the seafront.
Four years later, the construction of one of the major avenues in Baku was built along the shore to connect the oil fields south of Baku with the oil refineries in the north west. This avenue is today called the Neftchilar Avenue, the "Oilmen Avenue". At this point, there was still no Boulevard.

The seafront that was built up with the fertile soil tax.
The building in the background is the Maiden Tower.

After a few years, however, enough soil was collected to also develop a broad, about 700 meter long seafront right next to the Neftchilar Avenue from the Socar circle to where the Children's Puppet Theater is now located.

Extended seafront

The black building in the left background is the Maiden Tower.
You can see the oil barons' houses near the Maiden Tower along the sea where the soil hadn't been filled in yet

In the beginning of the 20th century, all kinds of trees and shrubs were planted and a few years later, the history of the "Boulevard" officially began. 
 In 1910, another project started to beautify the boulevard and make it an area for relaxation. A luxurious restaurant was built, several pavilions, a casino that later became the Children's Puppet Theater as we know it today, and a bathing house. Unfortunately, the bathing house had to be closed again in the late 1940s due to poor maintenance and poor water quality due to the oil extraction and lacking waste management in the Caspian Sea.

The Boulevard around 1900 with the Maiden Tower on the upper left side of the picture

The Maiden Tower and on the right the House of Hajinsky, some time after 1910 after all the trees and shrubs had been planted 

The Maiden Tower and the House of Hajinsky today.
The houses of the oil barons seen in the previous picture are now gone.

In 1936, a 75-meter high, derrick-shaped parachute tower was built for extreme activities. But after a fatal accident in the 1960s, parachuting from the tower was banned, and the tower was turned into a weather forecast table. I've always wondered about this rather unattractive tower in the middle of the Boulevard, but that makes sense now :-)

Throughout the years, the Boulevard has been modified and extended.
In the last 7 years, several landmarks were built at the Boulevard including the
- shopping mall Park Bulvar
- a National Flag Square with a ginormous 35x70 meter flag
- the beautiful multipurpose sports and concert arena Baku Chrystal Hall where the Eurovision Song Contest took place in 2012
- the 60 meter high Baku Ferris Wheel also called the "Baku Eye"
- Baku's first open-air cinema
- Azerbaijan Carpet Museum
- Baku Water Palace at the southern end of the Boulevard, which was built to host the aquatic sports events during the First European Olympic Games in 2015.

There are also several smaller buildings like the
- Mugham Center, dedicated to a traditional Azerbaijani folk music style, and the
Mini-Venice complex where you can ride a gondola around. Mini-Venice was already built in the 1960s, but it was greatly expanded in recent years. There is at least one restaurant in that building, but we haven't been there yet and don't know whether it is good or not.

Park Bulvar Shopping Mall


The Azerbaijan Carpet Museum, shaped like an unrolling carpet

Mugham Center

Still under construction, but this is what the Caspian Waterfront Mall next to the carpet museum is going to look like.

The "Baku Eye" ferris wheel, and in the background the Flag Square and Baku Chrystal Hall at night. It is only 5 Manat ($2.62) per person for a ride in the ferris wheel. 

National Flag Square, and to the left Baku Chrystal Hall, where stars like Rhianna, Jennifer Lopez, Shakira and Eros Ramazzotti have performed at.
Baku's Aquatic Center at the southern end of the Boulevard

View over Baku at night from Dagüstü Park. The view over the city is much better from here than from the Ferris Wheel (click here to see the Dagüstü Park location)

Today, the Boulevard is about 6-7km long (uninterrupted), but there are plans to extend it to 15 km. I've even read numbers up to 26 km, but that will probably take a while since the recent devaluation of the Azerbaijani currency, the Manat, has slowed down many projects.

Here are a few pictures of our walk along the seashore last weekend. 

"Nar", one of the two Mascots for the first European Olympic Games that took place in Baku last year

While we were there, we also visited the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum which I might write about later.
But I think that's enough for today.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend, everybody! 

Monday, January 30, 2017

Icerisheher - Part II: Palace of the Shirvanshahs

When my mom was in town over the holidays, we walked around Icerisheher and had a local breakfast at one of the small huts there. The walk from Baku's Fountain Square to the restaurant in Icerisheher is quite lovely.
I should probably apologize for the bad quality of my pictures. I have a nice camera, but lately, I've become a little lazy carrying around the big camera as taking pictures with my Iphone is soooo much more convenient.

As I mentioned in my last post, Icerisheher was built like a big defensive system. There were about 70 of these semicircular towers, but only a few survived or were rebuilt. 

When Anthon and I walked around Icerisheher for the first time, there was a traditional music group playing Azeri music. There were also several small outside cafes that are now closed during the winter. 
We were pleasantly surprised at how clean the streets are, as you may be able to see in the pictures. Cleanliness is very important to Azerbaijanis. Jeddah's old downtown Al Balad was pretty filthy and smelly, so we appreciate having a very clean city to walk around here. 

There are quite a few of these restaurant huts throughout Icerisheher. Some are just cafes where you can smoke shisha, but there are several other huts that offer traditional Azeri bread called Tendir. It is made in these clay ovens. 

Here is a video that I found on youtube that shows what a traditional Azeri breakfast looks like, and how Tendir is made. 

Video link: Azerbaijani breakfast and tendir making  (it ends at about 4.44min)

It was a national holiday when we went and many stores were closed that morning, so our tendir breakfast place was quite busy with tourists (mostly Middle Eastern) and local people, but luckily they had a free table for us. 
The hut was nothing fancy, but it looked quite cozy with all the traditional decorations on the walls and ceilings. 

We weren't really sure what to order, so we just ordered the "traditional" breakfast. It came with fresh bread, several kinds of white cheeses (some salty, some mild, some creamy), butter, very delicious honey, olives, a few vegetables and scrambled eggs with tomatoes and cheese. The scrambled eggs with tomatoes looked like Shakshouka which we had quite often in Jeddah, but the Azeri version is soooo much better (in my opinion)!
I loooove freshly squeezed orange juice, so I ordered some and it was very, very good.
For three adults, we paid about 60 Azeri Manat, which is about $31 - not the cheapest breakfast, but totally worth it for this wonderful and delicious cultural experience. 

When you enter the Mangal hut where we had breakfast, you can see older ladies with white aprons, headscarves and gold teeth make bread, dumplings, and qutab (a thin rolled-out dough that is filled with herbs, meat, pumpkin or other cheese, then folded and griddled on a convex griddle like the black and brown one in the picture, and served with melted butter on top).

After our delicious and very filling breakfast, we headed over to the Palace of the Shirvanshahs. We had apparently walked by it several times before without noticing that it was right there behind the gate. 
We paid 4 Azerbaijani Manat per person for the entrance, which is currently about $2.10. 

The complex consists of the palace as the main building, a divankhana/stone pavilion, burial vaults, a mausoleum, the shah's mosque with a minaret tower that you can see in this picture, and the remnants of the palace baths. 
The complex was built during the 15th century by Sheykh Ibrahim I of Shirvan, who transferred his capital from Shemakha to Baku after a devastating earthquake. 
Similar to the Maiden Tower, surprisingly little is known about the buildings. Historians are not sure if the palace was built as a memorial or as the ruler's palace. Less than 100 years later, after the conquest of Baku by the Safavids, the palace already began to fall into ruin, so we don't have too much information about it today.    

I found this map of the palace complex very helpful. 
Right next to the ticket booth is the Divankhana, which is an octahedral vaulted stone pavilion. It is located in the middle of a little courtyard that is surrounded by a gallery arcade.

The vaulted stone pavilion. On the left side, you can see a little bit of the gallery arcade.

A beautiful, ornate portal of the pavilion with Arabic calligraphy

As you enter the main Palace through a high portal, you find yourself in a octahedral room, which leads to other areas of the palace. Today, there is a little museum inside with neat Azerbaijani artifacts like the ones in the pictures below.
The Azerbaijan region has always been rich in natural resources such as copper, gold, silver, iron ore and fossil fuels. Since Baku is situated along the Great Silk Route, the city could trade its resources with, for example, precious stones that weren't found in the area.

A copper Salver dish used for baking and serving national sweets
Copper Sarpush, used to keep pilaf warm and protect the dish from dust and insects

Traditional clothing hadn't changed much until the early 20th century, when Azerbaijanis started wearing more European-style clothes. Until then, men wore loose pants held by a belt, a tunic made of wool, silk or satin (depending on their income) and a turban or Arakhchin cap. 

Women wore skirts with waist-length blouses. On top, they wore jackets like the one in the pictures, padded according to the season. The hair and head of women were always covered with an Arakhchin cap and a veil or scarf. 

Santur - a stringed percussion instrument that was widely used in palaces during the 12th-15th century. 

A salt bag for storing the precious mineral during journey

Bath Shoes - awesome, huh? I would love to see how they walked in these shoes.
They definitely look cooler than our plastic flip-flops these days. 
Probably the most interesting object at the museum - a mustache keeper/trainer!!!!
The description says "used by men to keep one's mustache in shape during sleeping"
      After a few minutes at the museum, we walked around the palace complex, and took a closer look the mausoleum, mosque and the remains of the bath house.       

Nice view from a top the palace complex. You can't see it in this picture, but there are some stairs in the lower left corner that lead you to the mausoleum and the other buildings. On the left side of the stairs, there is a small entrance to a place where you can dress up in traditional Azerbaijani clothing and take pictures. I would have loved to take pictures with Anthon and my mom, but the two were too cool for that :-/
I didn't see any prices listed and the photographer was busy with a small family, but it was probably not that expensive as things here generally seem to be reasonably priced. 
When you keep going down the stairs and turn right, there are a few rooms that talk about the Bayil Fortress that was build during the 13th century, but sank into the sea during an earthquake in 1306. 

The mausoleum of the sufistic state astronomer Seyd Yahya Bakuvi (15th century) on the left 

Entrance to the Royal Mausoleum/Dynastic Mausoleum of the Shirvanshahs

My mom and husband didn't seem to be too interested in exploring the complex, so we rushed through the rest and must have somehow missed entering the mosque. But we did see the remains of the royal bath house.

So yeah, that was our little excursion to the Palace of the Shirvanshahs. I hope you liked learning more about this relatively unknown palace complex. If you're town, this is something worthwhile to see.