2015 - 2016 Azerbaijan - Azeryol Baku
When I first started telling people I was going to Azerbaijan, I pretty much had the same response across the board. Where on earth is that? Is that a real place? When I pull out a map to show them, the shock value increases. Ohmygoshhhhhhh it's like - the middle east? Is it safe? So far it's been nothing but safe. However, with the recent terrorist attacks on Paris, it goes to show that anything can happen, wherever you are. But yes... (mom) I'm still being as safe as one can be.
When I first drove in to Baku (which ended up being at four in the morning, finishing off the nine hour road trip from Georgia with my manager - you can read up on it here) the city didn't look real. Everything looked brand-spankin' new. The hotels were ginormous, the massive apartment high-rise buildings were pristine, and everything seemed to be lit up and on display. The main road from the airport into town is apparently called the Belt of Happiness - an extravagant production with sand-coloured concrete walls lining the roads (paid for with the bundles of oil money in the city) intended to hide the woeful shacks behind them. It is quite clear that there is no middle class. And driving through town you are able to see the vast differences of how individuals are living their lives here. Neftchilar Avenue, which means Oil Workers' Avenue in Azeri, is where the heart of the Happiness Belt lies and holds all the designer boutiques - Tiffany, Gucci, Dior, Burberry, Bottega Venata - stores that I will definitely not be shopping in (let alone allowed inside).
There are definitely a few major differences within the country and my new club specifically, which took a little bit of time getting used to. Here's a compiled list of tidbits of information that I will be adding to as the season progresses!
- Police cars are everywhere. However, their idea of controlling traffic is belligerently yelling thru their loudspeakers. This has virtually no effect.
- Driving is a free for all. And if you're walking across the road, it's definitely at your own risk.
- Baku set the world flagpole record with it's 23,000-square-foot Azerbaijan flag (on a 531-foot-high flagpole) until last year when Tajikistan topped it by about ten feet. Apparently the president boycotted a scheduled conference in Tajikistan after that. #realproblems
- They have no local fashion designers and no local fashion customs. They need to hire international agencies to do the display windows. Interesting.
- If you are wanting to workout in Baku, be prepared to see all the women in full snow/track-suits on the cardio machines. Prior to putting on their suit, they are in the change room wrapping themselves in what looks like saran wrap. All to cut the kilos.
- Our team works out / takes over the male-side of the gym. I guess we're just badass like that.
- At the turn of the 20th century, Baku was pumping half the world's oil and foreign investors were comin' in hot.
- The Soviets pretty much killed the oil industry when they took over Azerbaijan in 1920, but now, the three wavy Flame Towers flicker every night with the light of 10,000 LED's; an emblem of the city and a note to the world: Baku is back.
- Most of the nation's income is off the books. Hollaaaaaaa shadow economies!
- Baku hosted the First European Games this past summer.
- At our home games, 95% of the individuals in the stands are men. 100% of them are wearing all black.
- The state language is Azeri but it seems like everyone can speak and/or understand Russian as well.
- There's no way I would be able to safely maneuver myself in a car, so on the off days I head to different places in the city via the metro. Luckily it's extremely cheap and very easy to navigate through.
- Azerbaijan became part of the USSR in 1922. It declared independence from the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.
- We play in skorts. I know you're jealous.
- The bulk of our sweatsuits are white. It has become a running joke between us foreign players on who can spill the least on their suits. Or most.
- Team colours: black, pink, florescent green. Accented with gold. Heeyyyooooo.
- Walking along the street is not as peaceful as back home. Unless you enjoy the constant sound of car horns.
- Wind storms are a thing. I love feeling all warm and cozy inside my apartment, until the day my windows break apart. It can literally sound like the end of the world outside.
- Free days with my foreigners usually consist of meeting in the city center to have coffee and lunch. And coffee and coffee. #addiction
- We are not allowed to go home in between morning and evening practices. We have a hotel that is right beside our gym where we go to rest. Aka nap the afternoon away.
- Before all CEV home matches we stay in a hotel. The evening before our game we give in our cellphones, get them back after breakfast, and give them back again before afternoon naps. They will be returned to us after the match. If we win.
- Every morning on the road / at the hotel, a designated player has to call the coach and wish him good morning.
- Furniture stores are everywhere. And I mean everywhere. If half of them were to be changed into coffee shops I would be a very happy individual.
- Taxi drivers don't reeeeaaalllyyyy actually know where they're going.
- Our team's age range is between 18 and 35.
- Grocery shopping is an adventure in itself. Large shops such as Costco, Safeway, WholeFoods etc. etc. don't exist here. I have about five different stores that I go to for certain foods. And to buy any "North American" things... you're going to be forking over some cash.
- People stare. A lot. When you stare back, nothing happens. And it's just plain awkward.
- We went to the MockingJay 2 movie in English and were the only ones in the theatre. Spoiled.
- Our apartments are very, very large. And very, very strange. The decor is a mash of gothic meets modern.
- Baku JUST got a Starbucks. Unfortunately (or fortunately for my bank account) it is not so close to me.
- On the grand boulevard, a charming little sea side walk, you can find a couple Soviet-era ferris-wheel rides sprinkled along. I have yet to go on one - but I will!