Baku, Azerbaijan Report of what it's like to live there - 01/29/13

Personal Experiences from Baku, Azerbaijan

Baku, Azerbaijan 01/29/13

Background:

1. Your reason for living this city (e.g. corporate, government, military, student, educator, retiree, etc.):

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2. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

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3. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

East Coast. Four hours from Frankfurt.

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4. How long have you lived here?

(The contributor is affiliated with the U.S. State Department and has been living in Baku for a year, a second expat experience.)

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

There are several housing areas. In downtown, close to the embassy, are apartments, some across the street from the embassy. Most are walkable to the embassy. Somewhat further out (2 miles) are private, walled houses that are in 'neighborhoods' that consist of badly-paved alleys. During rush hour is is faster to walk than to drive. Even further out are two other housing areas, Badamdar and Grand Park. Badamdar is more private, large residences in walled compounds. Grand Park is a walled, gated neighborhood with non-walled houses and some small green areas. The commute time from GP and Badamdar is about 15 minutes in the morning and anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour in the evening. All of the housing is very large and most are quite nice. Almost all have three floors and a small garage. The yards are often, however, a lot of pavement.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

You can get 85% of the things you can get in the US - but you will certainly pay more for some of them. The grocery stores downtown are at least 25% more expensive than the ones farther out. Milk is atrociously expensive - anywhere from $1.50 to $3.00 a liter. This is a very dairy-fat-loving culture, so you have an amazing selection of butter and sour cream with fat content all of the way up to 42% - but no fat-free items. Pretty much anything basic you can get, and in the summer produce gets very cheap; most fruits and vegetables going down to about 50 cents a pound. Cherries are delicious here, and very cheap. In the fall I was able to buy apples for applesauce for 25 cents a pound. Beef and lamb are available as butcher counter cuts, but they don't look like anything in the US, and even ground beef is $10/pound, since the price is the same for any cut. Anything imported is more expensive, and various types of cheese are even more, with Parmesan cheese topping the list at $15 a pound.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

We had a consumables allowance, so we brought expensive/hard to find items. Peanut butter, coconut milk, olive oil, liquid laundry detergent, dryer sheets, chocolate chips, hygiene items, toilet paper, baking mixes, wheat (and a grinder - whole wheat flour is nonexistent), sunscreen, mac and cheese, whole wheat pasta, corn tortilla flour, cornmeal (although you can buy dried corn locally and grind it if you have a grinder).

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

There are an increasing number of fast food restaurants. Cinnabon, Papa Johns, Schlotzky's, McDonalds, and a few others. The prices are some more than in the US. There are lots of Georgian restaurants, some decent Asian ones, a good Italian, and Azeri restaurants. The cost (without alcohol) is slightly less than the cost at a mid-range US restaurant.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

No unusual ones that I've come across. There are some mosquitoes in the summer, but they aren't very bad.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Pouch. Anything else is unwise.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

It is very available; local women will come up to you and ask if you're looking. Good help, however, is usually best found in the expat community. The going price is between $5-$6.25 an hour. Most helpers in the expat community speak some English and will do a variety of tasks. However, if you like things done a certain way you have to be repeatedly specific.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Yes, but I've heard they are all quite expensive (more than US$1000 a year per person).

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

We don't use credit cards because of foreign transaction fees, but some stores and restaurants claim to accept them. My husband cashes checks for our money because the ATM has a very low limit of $350 per transaction. We've heard about 'safe' ATMS, so we only use the one at the embassy.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Yes. There is a Catholic church, and a few smaller Protestant groups. Just ask around the expat community.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

If you're with the embassy, you can get AFN. Otherwise, satellite? For newspapers, there's the internet.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

I came without a word of Russian or Azeri and have learned about fifteen words since I've come. That said, I stay home all day most days and so have very little contact with the locals. My husband speaks both, so when I go out to the grocery store he's with me. If I need a translator, I call my housekeeper. Most people have drivers who will act as translators.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Like in any non-first-world country, they would have a hard time here.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Don't bring anything with low clearance because of potholes and rough roads. That said, every other car in the city is a Mercedes, so a sedan can make it. The clearance is mostly for peace of mind, and for getting out of town. Some of the villages have amazingly steep and rocky roads. I don't know much about service, except that's it's a better idea to have your driver take it in. Most people have drivers, as the embassy provides a transportation allowance for children in school which covers the cost of a driver. BP also has an allowance for drivers. Most people complain about the traffic and driving, but I get along fine without a driver.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

Don't bring anything with low clearance because of potholes and rough roads. That said, every other car in the city is a Mercedes, so a sedan can make it. The clearance is mostly for peace of mind, and for getting out of town. Some of the villages have amazingly steep and rocky roads. I don't know much about service, except that's it's a better idea to have your driver take it in. Most people have drivers, as the embassy provides a transportation allowance for children in school which covers the cost of a driver. BP also has an allowance for drivers. Most people complain about the traffic and driving, but I get along fine without a driver.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes, DSL at most houses, and cable in Grand Park. We haven't paid a bill yet (after a year), but I've heard it runs around US$40-50 a month.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Several friends have brought i-Phones without any problems. Bring your unlocked phone because they are VERY expensive here. That said, the cell phone plans are all pre-paid and cost $.04 per text and $.12 per minute.
Several friends have brought i-Phones without any problems. Bring your unlocked phone because they are VERY expensive here. That said, the cell phone plans are all pre-paid and cost $.04 per text and $.12 per minute.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

Some people have dogs and cats, but I don't know what they do for care.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Some of the schools will hire English-speaking teachers. There are some jobs at the embassy. If you really want to work, you can, but don't expect your dream job.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Women here dress up whenever they are in public, wearing four-inch stilettos even in the snow. Men also dress well; it's uncommon to see anyone over 25 in jeans. Shorts are seen as indecent.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

This is a very safe country for foreigners, since it is a police state. There are cameras everywhere and the governments takes no pains to hide them so everyone knows that they are watching and acts accordingly. That said, all embassy houses have bars on the windows and security systems.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Perhaps if someone is sensitive to air pollution, it might present a problem. The medical care here is abysmal, as most doctors have bought their degrees. There is basic care, and an English-speaking clinic, but anything beyond that is sent to somewhere with better care (London, Dubai).

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

I've heard that the air quality is bad, but compared to our previous post (Cairo), it's not so bad. However, it's not something I'm sensitive to, so I haven't taken much note.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

The weather is very pleasant. The winter is not too long, with the weather very rarely going below freezing. The fall and spring are quite long, with summer only being hot (over ninety degrees F) for six to eight weeks. There is always a breeze, which is nice in the summer and not nice in the winter.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There are two schools, BIS, a QIS school with a rather old and crumbling structure. The other, TISA, is an IB school in a western-style neighborhood with nicer facilities. I homeschool, so I can't speak for the quality, but most people I know are happy with them.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

S friend with an ADHD child has been able to obtain a shadow teacher for their child.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

There are several pre-school and daycare options - English-speaking and local schools. I have no experience, however.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes, mostly through the schools. A karate class meets in the clubhouse in our neighborhood.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Relatively large considering the size of the city and country. There are lots of oil people here, the embassy is smaller - about 70 US employees.

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2. Morale among expats:

It depends on what you bring to it. Anyone looking for a European experience will be very sadly disappointed. Anyone else who is looking for a reasonable family-friendly place for a few years is pretty happy.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

There is a very active community at the embassy here, so there are usually dinners, events at the Marine House, small family parties. Since the embassy is so small, it's really easy to make friends. There are also several social groups for expat women.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

It's a good city for families who have small children. Right now the embassy community has lots of small children. Older children might become bored because there isn't much mobility for teenagers. For those who enjoy music and theater, there's a lot to do, and also reasonable number of good restaurants. Most of the socialization is within the community, which is a very strong community. I imagine it wouldn't be very exciting for singles.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

I haven't heard either way, but as it is 98% (secular) Muslim, I wouldn't imagine there would be much in the open.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Women don't drive here much. As a woman driving I get some strange looks, but no problems. Any religious proselytizing is strictly illegal, but quiet alternate religious activity is allowed. As for personal prejudices, I haven't had experience either way. From what I've seen, Azeris view foreigners fairly tolerantly and like a mildly funny joke.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

We have really enjoyed the friends we've made here, and the relatively small size of the city. There are also some very pleasant public places in the city.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

There are various small villages and towns to go to in the mountains (in the summer). We've enjoyed swimming at the beach. There are various small natural sights - burning hillsides, mud volcanoes, petroglyphs - and small cultural sights. A ski resort opened this winter. The bulvar is pleasant to stroll along in the spring and fall, and the old city is quaint.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Lovely hand-made rugs, including authentic Persians from Persia, copper vessels.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

There aren't any particularly special advantages. It is a reasonable city to live in, with good housing, and a good variety of cultural options. It is easy to travel to the mountains or to Georgia.

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11. Can you save money?

Yes, if you're reasonable. If you come with State, the COLA, differential, and language pay turn into a 50% salary bump. We are a family of six, don't travel much, cook from scratch most nights, and don't buy lots of parmesan cheese, so we're able to save about half of my husband's take-home pay. If you don't have extra pay incentives, it would be harder.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes, definitely. We would have extended if it would have been possible.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

fast sports cars, first-world expectations, need for bacon, and sweatpants.

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3. But don't forget your:

patience for illogical driving, ability to use squat toilets, and desire to make good friends.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Ali and Nino: A Love Story
by Kurban Said, Azerbaijan, 4th: with excursions to Georgia (Azerbaijan (with Excursions to Georgia))
by Mark Elliot

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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6. Do you have any other comments?

This is a good, fairly quiet post for those who are looking for one. The embassy and expat community are very close and sociable with lots of opportunity to make friends. The housing is also very generous. We've had a great time so far.

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