Looking east over Baku. That’s the Caspian Sea on the right and the Absheron Peninsula stretching into the distance.
On Friday, Saturday, and part of Sunday, we flew 8,400 miles, crossing twelve time zones, two continents, and one ocean. For the next two weeks we were legally barred from venturing beyond the front door of our new apartment, which, with its heavy metal frame and multiple keys and deadbolts, looks like something one might find separating guards and inmates.1 Fitting.
What we found on the far side of that door is much more welcoming. Our new home, a dozen floors up in a beige apartment building, has bright hardwood floors, newly planed and sealed, and large windows which look out on the Caspian Sea and the city of Baku, with its futuristic towers and Old City, its wide boulevards and narrow streets.
Off the living room is the kitchen, which is a large, mostly empty space with counters and cupboards along one side and all the appliances one would expect, including a fridge which someone had generously stocked for us, top to bottom, with vegetables. I ought to have expected this, since someone from the school had emailed us before our arrival to ask if we were vegetarian. Apparently the term “vegetarian” in Azerbaijan refers to someone who eats ten pounds of plants a day, like a baby manatee. Regardless, we were determined to not let any of it go to waste, so Rachael roasted vegetables each day of our two week quarantine. In the end the only thing we threw out was a few beets which came to resemble under-filled water balloons. It turns out that, from a purely biological perspective, one can only eat so many beets.
On the other side of the apartment are three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Idara is sleeping in one of them, Oren and Rachael and I are in another, and the last one is currently our work from home office but will be transformed, post-pandemic, into a spare bedroom for anyone who decides to come visit us here on the far side of the world (Xoş gəlmisiniz!).
The first days of our two week quarantine were a heady mix of feeling tremendously grateful for the welcome we received from our new colleagues and neighbors while also not really wanting to be here at all.
We hadn’t been in our apartment for two hours before our school librarian showed up with muffins and a card, and shortly thereafter our neighbors from across the hall were at our door helping us arrange lunch and dinner. We heard a steady stream of knocks over the next few days, with people stopping by to bring us food,2 to loan us money so that we could pay for delivery (no ATM visits while in quarantine), or just to say hello.
And yet none of this could make up for what we’d left: A comfortable house in Portland where Idara and Oren could spend as much time as they wanted with their grandparents. Meeting up several times a month with my siblings, Oren and Idara’s cousins, my folks, and Rachael’s aunt and uncle. Doug firs and big leaf maples and white oaks and sword ferns and flickers and squirrels and sometimes, if you listened carefully, an owl.
Now we were confined to an apartment that, even with the contents of our suitcases and the vegetables in the fridge, was almost empty. And while you’d be surprised at how little you need to get by, there’s a reason it’s referred to as “getting by.”
I couldn’t help but make lists in my head of everything that was different here, and worse. We have windows and a balcony with beautiful views, but I couldn’t enjoy them because I was afraid of the kids falling from them. And while the floors look nice, the sealant is rough and imperfect. The kitchen sink is shallow and the cabinets are crooked and feel like they’re made of cardboard. The markings on the stove are impossible to decipher so I kept turning on the wrong burners. The washing machine only uses hot water (scald a pig hot, in fact), and any load larger than a pair of socks would have it shaking and vibrating as far as its hoses would reach. We had two brightly lit, tiled bathrooms, but they always smelled like someone had forgotten to flush.3
This was all inside of our apartment, but I was finding things to dislike about the outside, too. The city is a beautiful mixture of old and new, but when someone loaned me a pair of binoculars I was able to see that in addition to looking “stone castle” old, it was also “industrial revolution” old. There were smokestacks in the distance, and gas flares, and drilling platforms in the sea. The empty lots near our building were covered in trash. And when I stepped out on the balcony I was reminded of the weather, at least in January: very similar to Portland, except much windier and somehow even more grey.
In retrospect, it wasn’t that everything was different, or even that so many things seemed a step down from our former lives in Oregon. It was that no matter where I looked, whether it was inside our apartment or out through the windows, I was reminded of a question, the question: “Did we make the right choice in coming here?”
My low point, and hence my upswing, came in the middle of our fourth or fifth night. Oren was fussing in his crib a few feet from our bed. Of course this was just the jetlag, but then he coughed, which launched my brain down a deep rabbit hole in which he’d contracted COVID on our journey and had already transmitted it to me and Rachael, and at least one of us would have to be intubated, or medevaced, or worse.
One way to stay busy during quarantine – indoor birdwatching. Now we can look for them outside.
When I woke up the next morning I grabbed a bar of soap to see if I could still smell it (I could) and then checked on Oren to see if he looked like he had COVID (he didn’t). Then I remembered that I’d been through this before, in different times and at different places, and that this, the smells and the sights and the disappointment and the acceptance, this was why I was here.
As the days of quarantine wore on, with Rachael and me taking turns working and joining video calls, I kept noticing how unfazed Idara and Oren seemed by this whole endeavor. They had good days and bad days, sure, and jetlag was every bit the pain I’d expected it to be, but on the whole they were their normal, playful, buoyant selves. Idara put together puzzles and Legos and asked us to put on the soundtrack from Coco so she could dance and twirl around our empty living room. Oren toddled around, emptying the few drawers he could find in search of valuable items he could throw in the trash.
We’d ripped them away from everyone and everything they knew, dragged them through the gauntlet of long-haul air travel, and plopped them down inside of an apartment they couldn’t leave, at least not for the first fourteen days. And somehow, at least for this initial period, they’d just rolled with it. Maybe I could roll with it, too.
Idara’s first day on a swing after two weeks of rolling with it.
At first this bank vault-style door had me feeling nervous about the relative safety of Baku, but then someone told me that our apartment used to house American diplomats. This also explains why one of the bedrooms is effectively a safe room, with multiple keys and deadbolts which go into the floor and ceiling. One day during quarantine Idara accidentally locked herself inside. She couldn’t remember which key she’d turned so I sat on the other side of the door from her, and as if I were coaching her through an escape game, helped her turn the keys in the right combinations to get out. ↩
My understanding of the 1950s or 60s is that whenever someone new moved into the neighborhood everyone else had to bring by cookies or brownies. Maybe that was just in the movies. Anyway, one of the main things I fell in love with about living overseas is that even in the midst of a pandemic, this ethic of community inclusion and support survives. ↩
Eventually I found that the sinks had no traps. With no trap, the smell of the sewer was constantly seeping up into the bathroom. Thankfully, the flexible tubing that drained the sink had just enough length in it for me to create my own trap. Problem solved. ↩