The Mountain Men

IMG_4716Each morning as I arrived at school and left in the afternoon, I walked through the guard shack. It was how I began my work day and how it ended. The guard shack was occupied by some of the friendliest, caring individuals I have met. They were quick to make me practice my Russian or Azeri, which I very much appreciated. They cracked jokes and tried their best to make conversation in English. (Except Mehman, he often refused to speak English.) It was a real pleasure getting to know these men over the past two years. They made each day a little brighter. Each one had many stories to tell far beyond the simple greetings exchanged as we passed through their doors everyday. 

IMG_4733Xayyam is the “Mountain Man,” as he likes to say. He acts tough and serious, but has a gentle heart. He works hard to do his job and takes it very seriously. He makes sure everyone is taken care of and has exactly what they need. He even bought medicine for me when I was sick. We sometimes take for granted the hard work he puts into helping the school function, but I hope he realizes how much he is appreciated.

Seymour is the level-headed one in the group. He is friendly and gentle with a kind smile. He is a great family man, trustworthy, and an excellent friend. He seems to beIMG_4738 really good at reading all situations and making sure everyone is taken care of at all times. He makes me stumble through my Russian, but helps me out along the way. I appreciate his persistence. 


Mehman is a singer, a poet, and a romantic. While he often refuses to have a conversation with anyone in English, we had quite complex discussions with one another on occasion (Him speaking Azeri, me speaking English). Mehman loves to make people happy. Whether it be dancing to his own tune or acting out Hamlet’s famous soliloquies, he will most certainly get a laugh or two out of you. 


Samir is very helpful with all things. He is kind and hardworking. Samir is great to talk to because he seems to know a little something about everything. Samir has a contagious laugh that really brightens up my day. He and his wife had a sweet baby girl in last fall. He simply beams with pride whenever he has an opportunity to share pictures or talk about either of his kids.


Vaqif is quiet and sincere. He is a former teacher and serviceman. He kindly gave Zorra a home when I left Baku. If Vaqif is in the guard shack, he will greet you with a bright smile, always. Vaqif always works on Sunday nights, which means his friendly face greets you as you come in for work on Monday mornings. What a great way to start the week, really!

IMG_4723I am thankful for this group of hardworking men! I miss the friendly conversations and great laughs I had with these guys to start and end each workday. I wish they were here in Minsk with me! 



Pip Pip, Cheerio!

One of the perks of teaching overseas is getting to travel during holiday breaks. So far I have visited Other parts of Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Germany, and now London. With each trip I take, my list of places I want to go gets longer! Instead of the list getting shorter, my mind fills up with ideas for my next trip to the same place or a new one. So many adventures in my future!

Here’s a short recap of my London trip:

Day One: London Bound! After several extremely busy weeks at school, we finally made it to Novruz break. I was heading to London with another teacher from school, her daughter, and a friend. They headed over the day before me, so I was traveling solo. Except, rarely does one travel solo when you are part of an international community. I showed up at the airport and bumped into a former student of mine and her sweet family. While traveling solo is fun, knowing people on your flight makes it even more fun! The little one read to me while we waited for our flight. How cool is it to see how much progress your students have made since they were yours? They sat right in front of me on the flight, which was a great treat. The older one highly recommended one of the kids movies on the flight, so naturally I watched it. Once we arrived in London, they helped set me in the right direction for my hotel and we parted ways. I successfully made it to the hotel by myself! It helps when the signs are in a language you can read and people speak English. 

Day Two: I hate shopping. This is a true statement. However, there is something so refreshing about visiting a country where I can shop for clothes I like and food I miss. I spent the majority of this day shopping, but I did not buy a single thing. Talk about self-control! Delicious Meal of the Day: Pizza Hut

Day Three: I accidentally went shopping, again. This time, I bought a couple of things, but I did not go too crazy. Next stop, the London Eye! I’m not one for touristy things, but the girls wanted to go on the London Eye at sunset, and I’m a real sucker for sunsets. I’ll admit that I would have been content just being in that area at dusk, because it was perfect for pictures, but in the end I am glad I went up. It was a fun experience and now I can say I have done it. Delicious Meal of the Day: Sushi

Day Four: “After all, I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.” On the plane ride over, I watched Notting Hill, so obviously I had to visit! What a beautiful little area of town. You start off with some quaint shops with trendy dresses and neat knickknacks, then wander on down to the antique shops with some great finds. We decided to stop off in a pub called The Oyster Bar. Talk about delicious! At our table we had calamari, bacon cheeseburgers, oysters, fish, and the best French fries I’d had in months. The food was incredible and the atmosphere was the cherry on top. Delicious Meal of the Day: Oyster Bar. That burger was seriously yummy. 

Day Five: Started off our day with a full English Breakfast at a pub. I wish more countries did breakfast as well at the Brits. Next stop, Natural History Museum. I am a failure at enjoying nice things and only lasted two hours before I left to do something else. I admit, what I saw was incredibly interesting, but museuming alone is not my cuppa. I promise if we visit a museum together, I will be more civilized and stay longer than two hours. Really, I promise. Once I ducked out of the museum, I decided to treat myself by getting a fabulous haircut and eating at Chipotle. This is also the day I decided to find some of the foods I can’t get in Baku, but thought I might find in London. If you’re in London and looking for quinoa, I highly recommend Holland & Barrett’s. They’ll hook you up. Marks & Spencer won’t actually have what you’re looking for, BUT the information desk will do absolutely everything they can to help you find it. Shout out to Harry & Megan at the Marble Arch M & S for working so hard to find quinoa for me! Delicious Meal of the Day: Breakfast AND Chipotle, because guacamole. 

Day Six: I museumed again. This time, the British Museum. Thanks to Cheryl for the recommendation! I lasted a whole three hours at this museum! Mummies, Japanese history exhibit, barkcloth, Parthenon Sculptures, and so much more! After my embarrassingly short visit, I headed to the West End area of town to see some of the theaters. I almost went to see a show, but changed my mind and settled for a movie in English instead. It’s the little things, really. Final stop on my London adventure was the same pub where we enjoyed our English Breakfast, this time for Fish & Chips. Delicious Meal of the Day: Fish & Chips, obviously.

Day Seven: Pouring rain. Drenched as I make my way to Heathrow to head back to Baku. Arrived home and was greeted by no electricity in my apartment, because that’s just how it is sometimes. Delicious Meal of the Day: Egg white omelette with avocado at the airport. 

Community [a feeling of fellowship with others]

I have called Baku “home” for a year now. It has been a year of learning, growing, and even grieving. I have made friends from countries all over the world. I have learned many things about the cultures from which these new friends come, as well as the cultures their families have created by mixing home country culture with Azerbaijani culture. Each family or person adapts to and interacts with their surroundings so differently. Ultimately, though, we all have one major link that brings us together. Each of us left our home country and came here. It does not matter what brought you here. Diplomat, teacher, student, child, business man/woman, spouse, etc. Together, we create this culture and community of our own. We lean on each other, depend on each other, lift each other up in tough times, and simply live life together.

The past several weeks have been extremely hard emotionally. I have felt isolated and alone. Without going into detail, my close friendship dynamics changed drastically. Suddenly, I struggled to see my community. I started spending less and less time with people outside of school. It is really easy for me to get to that point. Go home after school. Do not go out on weekends. Make excuses, so you do not have to be social. I know we all go through periods like that. I went on this way for a few weeks, with occasional exceptions of social outings. I began to feel mopey and depressed, which only leads to more time alone. Sometimes we do just need time alone, but there is a point when we need to stop saying no and just say yes.

I said yes this weekend. I balanced a good amount of time at home with time socializing. Each day I devoted time to my community. I invested in families from my class. I learned more about Turkish culture. I had lunch with a new friend. I listened to the stories this community has to share. In the end, my soul feels rejuvenated. My spirits have lifted. I have a new, fresh outlook on my community and life here in Baku.

He has blessed me beyond measure with this community. I am overwhelmed with gratitude for each and every member. I am ashamed that I took them for granted the past few weeks.

They, you, are all so important to me. Thank you for loving and supporting me.

Toy: Rəqs Yemək, Qeyd [Wedding: Dancing, Eating, Celebrating]

Over the past year, I have gotten to know a wonderful young woman named Ulviyye (“Ulya”). She serves as one of my three incredible assistants who help make my classroom functional each and every day. In Spring, Ulya announced she would be marrying Gunduz in the Fall. Such wonderful news! 

Now, weddings in Azerbaijan are quite different than those you might attend in the States. Buying the right wedding gift is never an issue, since you are simply expected to give in the form of money. The tradition is that you give enough to cover your meal, which is more food than you could ever eat, plus a little extra. The standard amount depends on the wedding venue. There are boxes in the back set up with envelopes for you to place your gift in and write your congratulations. You place your envelope in the box that corresponds to the party who invited you. It is pretty straight forward. It also makes figuring out an appropriate wedding gift in the land of Az that much easier. 

Alright, so the food. I mean, so. much. food. Kebabs, fruits, vegetables, olives, nuts, Russian salads, blinchikis with cream cheese, potatoes, baked chicken, and bread. Plus, you have almost any kind of drink that might quench your thirst. Alcoholic? Non-alcoholic? Juice? Water? Vodka? Tea? So many options! It’s a good thing, too, because you will be needing a lot of hydration! At an Azerbaijani wedding, you dance. A lot. We even had a pretty solid three song set just for those of us who work with Ulya. You dance and dance. Sometimes you form little mobs around the newlyweds and dance around them. Every so often, they form a line and dance hand-in-hand around the entire room. It’s basically an Azerbaijani conga line. Traditions here aren’t so different from home, I suppose. 

Now, I am sure there are a million things I could explain more after some research. Most of the articles I found online refer to old traditions, so I am not 100% sure on what the differences are between old and new. Hopefully once Ulya returns to school later this week, I will learn more and pass along my newly founded knowledge. 


Meet the Parents

The title of this post is a bit misleading. Before this past week, I had actually met all of my students’ parents. I was convinced there was one dad I had not met, but I was wrong. I met him my first day in Baku, so I will blame my total lapse in memory on jet lag. I am allowed to do that. Luckily, he was not terribly offended that I had gone four months convinced I had never met him. Otherwise, each parent has picked up their child from school, attended a class party, or watched their little ones perform. The men and women who would be sitting down to “talk business” with me were no strangers, but boy did it feel that way! By Monday, I felt as if I was beginning a week of intense interviews and critiques. I thought surely this would be the most dreadfully awful week of teaching I would ever experience. Let me just tell you, I was immensely mistaken.

At our school, our wonderful administrative assistant, Guzel, took the time to call and set up all of our meetings. Come Tuesday, we were simply given the schedule and that was that. All I had to do was make sure I had marks given to all my students and their portfolios in a semi-presentable order. Unfortunately, no assessments were given to my student prior to my arrival, so I had to test and assess for any and everything I felt was covered before I arrived and since. Those little guys really surprised me with how much they know! For what is expected of them according to the school by the end of the year, some of them are really on track for the 5 year old class! I was so impressed and prideful of their wonderful accomplishments! How exciting to know that I would have so many positive remarks to make regarding these fantastic children when their parents arrived!

Now, I will not take the time and rehash the 17 meetings I went through on Thursday and Friday. I believe it is enough to say that I had nothing to worry about. Some of these moms and dads sat at the table with me just as nervous, if not more so, which was entirely comforting. They were afraid of what I would say, and I of their words. We were able to exchange positive marks, create goals for their child, and get to know each other more during our 20 (sometimes 40) minute meeting. At the end of each meeting, we bid our farewells, both having a strong feeling of pride and knowing exactly what needed to be done to continue to help their child grow.

Some of my parents are very busy business men and women, so I rarely see several of them throughout the year. As I sat across from one young man’s parents, I felt an overwhelming sense of gratefulness and support coming from them. Not only were they thankful for what I had done with their little boy over the past four months, I was thankful for all the work and effort they put into his education at home. It was an incredible feeling to know that we both appreciated so much what the other was doing. Obviously, our priorities went hand-in-hand. We wanted this little guy to succeed and reach his fullest potential!

At the end of our meeting, something noteworthy occurred. Many times at school or church, greeting someone feels awkward to me. We will say “Hello” or “Good morning” to each other, then they will ask “How are you?” I will respond with the typical, “I’m good, and you?” Almost always, the response is merely, “Thank you.” This always bothers me. I feel as if it puts a stop to the conversation immediately. I never know what I could say next to keep us talking. Usually, I will just let it end there and carry on with whatever I was doing. Well as I was wrapping up this meeting, I checked to see if they had any questions. They had one for me, but it had nothing to do with their son. They asked, “How are you?” Wow. I had never found myself so surprised by such a simple question. Suddenly, I understood. My first response was, “Thank you!” It was as if I had never been asked the question before. I was overcome by gratitude and comforted by their concern for me. Sometimes I forget that it is a pretty big deal to be living in a new country at only 22. Many of these families recognize that and truly care about how I am doing personally. It felt so nice to hear those words with sincerity and concern. I wonder when was the last time I asked someone with such interest and sincerity, “How are you?”


Saying Goodbye to a Loved One from Across the Ocean

Two weeks ago today, I received an urgent message from my mother at 4:30 in the morning. At that time, we were still working out the kinks for communication, but by the time I arrived at school, the news had been delivered. This was news I wasn’t expecting for another decade or longer. On January 8th, my Uncle Mike passed away from what I understand to be heart failure. He was just 50 years old. This man is truly the only uncle I have ever known, and the last living male in my mother’s family. My mother and her two siblings were adopted by my grandparents. My uncle was essentially the last of her family, period. 

I have numerous memories of being visited by Uncle Mike in the many places we have lived over the years. He was always so happy to spend special time with us girls, whether it involved a trip to the mall for Sunday clothes, a visit to the pond to feed the ducks with discount bread from the Sunbeam shop, or an exciting day at the park! Memories I will hold forever in my heart. 

His heart for the women in his family was bigger than many men I have met in my life. In the center of us all was his sweet Annabelle. In 2000, Uncle Mike became the proud father of his one and only child. He had been preparing for this day with us girls for almost 24 years. He was an absolute wreck! I remember visiting him when he and Annabelle’s mother were still expecting. He would play board games with us and talk about how excited and anxious he was to meet his daughter. When Annabelle arrived in late Summer/early Fall, it was as if Uncle Mike had finally received what he had waited for his whole life. His relationship with his father was not a positive one, ever, so this was his opportunity to give Annabelle everything he had missed out on in life. Most importantly, love. Over the past 13 years, I watched Uncle Mike give Annabelle a father who cared, encouraged, provided for her wants and needs, loved unconditionally, was authoritative, and worked harder than most to do each of those things. His utmost purpose in life was to raise Annabelle to be the best version of her she could be. He was totally and completely dedicated to the well-being of this young woman, his only blood relative. What an incredible relationship to look back to and admire. 

My biggest prayer in this tragedy is for Annabelle. I can only imagine the emotions that overcome her in the loss of her father. A young woman, only 13, has lived out my biggest nightmare from childhood. I was in constant fear of my father’s passing due to his poor health, but God continued to keep him in my life, and still does. I pray that she is surrounded my a community who will lift her up with love and encouragement. I pray that those around her fill her heart with positive and loving memories of her late father. When she’s missing him the most, I pray that something small reminds her of his love and she feels him there beside her. I know he will never leaver her side, even if he cannot be there physically. I hope she is able to accept this tragedy and use it to grow and become the incredible woman he was guiding her to be. I pray that one day she has a family of her own to love like her father did before her, and share the many stories he gave her in their time together. 

One day, I hope I can look at my life and say, “I have loved my family as Uncle Mike loved his Annabelle. 

Annabelle at the Park

Şəki [Sheki]

Leading into break, I was preparing to travel to Belarus to visit my dear friends. Unfortunately, I ran into some issues that kept me from going this month, so I have changed my tickets for Spring Break. This seems like a much better time to visit, and I think I’ll be much happier when the trip comes around.

As I was preparing to move to Azerbaijan, I read a blog about life in Baku. The author encouraged newcomers to travel outside of the city a few times to help create a feeling of returning home after each trip. I think this is an excellent idea for any country, not just when living in Azerbaijan. Since I had to move my trip to Belarus, I was concerned that staying in Azerbaijan all break would be hard for me. We have three full weeks off for the holidays, so I could imagine becoming homesick and depressed very quickly. Luckily, a group of teachers and their families from school were headed to a city in another part of the country, Şəki [Sheki]. Şəki is considered one of the oldest settlements in the Caucasus. Much of its history dates back about 2,500 years. To be perfectly honest, I knew nothing of this city before traveling there, but I knew I had to get out of Baku! As we arrived after our 6-hour drive, though, I was pleasantly surprised by its incredible, ancient architecture and beautiful scenery. What a drastic difference between Baku (cars, pollution, people) to Şəki (mountains, fresh air, space)! It is as if I took my first breath of fresh air since I boarded the plane in Gainesville. Everything has happened at such an accelerated rate over the past [almost] two months, so along with the poor air quality in Baku, I have also felt the pressure to perform and stay busy. Suddenly, I was given the opportunity to breathe and slow down. I am not sure I truly understand how much I needed this getaway, but I do know I am so refreshed and content now that I have returned.

I was one of the only ones on the trip who had not been to Şəki before, so I missed out on some of the informational parts of the trip. I know I can just google information on the different sights we visited, but instead I’ll just share the information I already know. Şəki was a stop on the Silk Road, actually the largest. Below, you will find several pictures from the Caravanserai, which is the trade post where travelers would stay with their camels. We also spent time at an elaborately decorated palace called Khanserai. Click each of the pictures below for a description of what it is and any other information I have about the photo.

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and I will spend it wrapping presents, baking cookies, attending a teacher’s party, and spending the night at an American family’s home. I am so thankful that I do not have to wake up to an empty house on Christmas morning. I will not be home with my family, but at least I have a sweet family here to make me feel warm and loved. Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas from Baku!

Seasons Greetings,