Studying Abroad: Gone to Azerbaijan

“Flame Towers” in Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku.

Hannah Wyman, Editorial Board

When I told people that I would be spending my second semester in Azerbaijan, the most common response was, “Where’s that?” Azerbaijan seems to be somewhat of a mystery to foreigners. Very few know of Azerbaijan and what people do know usually comes from war movies or because of the failed Trump tower located in the capital. I like to tell people that although Azerbaijan is technically part of Europe, it is not the “romantic Europe.” Not the kind of Europe where women daintily eat macaroons while overlooking the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the kind of Europe where wizard children go to school at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Azerbaijan is an entirely different and unique part of Eurasia all on its own.

Azerbaijan is a relatively young country. The small nation gained independence from the Soviet Union during 1991. Sandwiched between Southwest Asia and Southeastern Europe, Azerbaijan is surrounded by the Caspian Sea, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Iran. Currently, the Novruz holiday is being celebrated (March 20-24). Novruz is a traditional family holiday, which celebrates the new year, and the coming of spring in Azerbaijan. Mountains of food, the gathering of family, and quirky traditions all make up how Novruz is celebrated. Every Tuesday in the month leading up to Novruz, people jump over bonfires. I have yet to find a fire swell enough to jump over, but there is always tomorrow.

I’m currently located in Baku, Azerbaijan. Baku is the nation’s capital and also where about of 90 percent of the country’s population is located. It’s amazing and I am in awe of everything about the city. How did I get here, you might ask? Well, by 30 hours of plane rides and killer layovers, obviously, but also due to Fulbright. My mother received a Scholar and Research Fulbright to work with Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy University for four months. Upon being offered the chance to travel along, I knew I would hate myself if I said no to such an opportunity. I’ve never imagined studying abroad before. To me, travel has always been a goal for later on in life when I had a steady income and completed higher education. But living in Azerbaijan for four entire months was just too good of an experience to turn down.

Back to Baku. I’ve never lived in a city before (let alone the capital city of a foreign country), so everything is seemingly the opposite of my life back home in quaint Edinboro, Pa. Like any city, Baku is filled with enormous skyscrapers and people who are always in a rush. Stray cats hang out in alleyways and the smell from street food vendors hangs potent in the air. Cigarette butts litter the marble sidewalks and tunnels. Even though people are always busy and the city never sleeps, I quite like it. The fact that Baku is the capital city always seems to escape my mind. Sometimes I wonder why all the roads are blocked off and why the traffic is dreadful. It’s usually because the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, is out and about.

To get places, I usually go by way of taxi or walking. Because everything is so urban, a walk to places like Bella’s, my favorite pizza place, or the seven story shopping mall complete with its own movie theater is only around 10-15 minutes. It also beats taking a cab. The driving here is not very good and definitely too dangerous. The other day, my sister Eve told me that everyone here drives like I do: not very well. Once I was in a taxi and the driver honked at the police car in front of us to drive faster. It was amazing. Plus, I don’t think pedestrians have the right of way here, considering the number of times I’ve glimpsed death crossing the street. Pray for me.

It’s always sunny in Baku. It snowed a mere two inches one day and school was canceled. Then the snow melted away and it went back to being sunny. Although it is winter, the temperature barely drops below 39 degrees Fahrenheit (or 4 degrees Celsius, because they use the metric system here. They also spell things the “British” way, which means fiber is “fibre” and analyze is “analyse.” I also don’t have 30/50 vision. It’s more like “negative four” or something. In school, I “sit exams.” Not to mention how I take the “lift” to throw out the “rubbish.” But I digress.) I believe the title of “windy city” should be taken away from Chicago and awarded to Baku. The wind is completely and utterly insane some days. Fair warning, if I don’t come home it’ll definitely be because a giant gust of wind swept me away like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.”

I’ve been lucky enough to have visited a number of the many notable attractions that Baku has to offer. There is a plethora of things to do and places to see; it is difficult to know where to begin. So far, I’ve been down to the Caspian Sea shore, wandered around the Heydar Aliyev Center, stood inside the Maiden tower, explored the Palace of the Shirvanshahs, taken pictures of the Carpet Museum, and precariously teetered on the cobblestone streets of the Old City. I enjoy walking around and looking inside the shops in the Old City. Street vendors and store owners stand outside and try to persuade people to take a look at all they are selling. Inside their shops, there is a strange yet endearing mixture of rugs and plates and figurines and jewelry and other seemingly random objects. However, there is still so much I have yet to do.

Before flying out of my homeland, I was warned by many that being an American tourist is dangerous currently. However, I am very fortunate that Azerbaijan is an extremely safe country. In fact, being a tourist from America has perks. For example, one would think that the language barrier would be an issue. Although many people speak Azeri, Turkish, and Russian, many also speak English. The exchange rate is also in favor of Americans. Azeri currency is such that one manat is equivalent to two American dollars. And despite the staring, everyone here is so very kind. They are extremely helpful and eager to please. All the people that I have met so far possess an admirable amount of pride for their country. All they want is to show others how wonderful it is too. More than once I have gotten in a taxi where the driver is delighted to learn that I am visiting from the United States. The driver usually smiles and bellows words like, “Trump. Boo! Donald Trump! No!” Sometimes, this is accompanied by a thumbs down. Once, even two thumbs down even though he should’ve had his two said hands on the wheel but like I said, the driving is not the best. At least he is passionate about politics.

Because it is (probably) against the law for me to float around for so long without any schooling, I began school two weeks post-landing. Currently, I attend School Number 6. School Number 6 is notable for being the same school the Azerbaijani president attended when he was younger. #SchoolNumberSixPride. The school houses grades 1-12 which means I’m tripping over small children all the time. I’m enrolled in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Students who are in IB take their classes in English and are usually looking to attend college outside of the country. There is also a local side for students who take classes in Azeri or Russian. I don’t know much about the local side; I have been warned not to mix with them by my IB classmates.

Unlike at GM, everyone is required to wear a uniform which consists of a school-issued shirt adorned with the School #6 logo and black or grey skirts for girls and grey slacks for boys. Honestly, I can’t wait to be able to wear pants to school again. Last year, I did my argument against school uniforms in Mr. Jenkin’s class. The irony is not lost on me now. Standing at six stories tall, School Number 6 certainly is a change of pace from GM high school. There are even two buildings. The main building stands opposite of the sister building. They are connected by an underground walkway which I have found to be dark and confusing. I have classes on the first floor and on the top floor in the library of the main building. Because the classes are so small, there is only a single room dedicated to each grade. Other classes usually take place at one of the tables in the library.

Instead of being in grade 11, I am a DP (Diploma Programme) 1 student. The graduating class of 2018 consists of me and four other students, thus most of my classes are with only one other person. Due to this, classes are much more one on one. This is good because the teachers are able to teach at any pace and mold lessons around their students. This is bad because it makes it harder to avoid eye contact when they ask for someone to do a problem on the board. My class schedule is something I still have yet to become accustomed to. It can be compared to the likes of college in that one doesn’t have the same classes every day at the same time. For example, on Mondays I have English, Biology, Chemistry, and free period and then Theory of Knowledge. Tuesdays are French, a free period, another free period, Math SL, and then one last free period. During free periods, whoever is not in a class can usually be found in the library. I probably spend most of my school time in the library, for I have nine classes and seven free periods a week there. In fact, as I am sitting and typing these words now, I am indeed on the sixth floor in the library. Consequently, I face the six story hike an average of  five times a day. This is almost comedically the reverse of the previous quarter in which I sat in Mr. Korb’s room for over half of the school day.

Each period is an hour long and school runs from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (excuse me, 15:30). In the morning, Eve, Robin and I take a taxi to school. Upon walking in the building, we usually hear them play the national anthem and wave to the security guards (this is a joke because the security guards are intimidating) before heading to homeroom. After school, we walk back to our apartment building and sometimes buy donuts or fries from a street vendor on the way. It all makes for a very busy weekday. I like it very much, despite all the difficulties.

I feel as if everyone always complains about their hometown. More than once have I sighed the words, “Ugh, I can’t wait to get out of here.” It was not until I left when then I realized how much I appreciate Edinboro. Previously, I was unaware of how much I depend on the familiarity of everything. There’s some quote from the movie Juno about how you don’t realize how much you like being home unless you’ve been somewhere really different for a while (or something like that). But honestly, I’m very thankful for having such a great hometown. I’m very lucky to have a place full of people I look forward to reuniting with. Some things just can’t beat home.

Fortunately for me, I will indeed come back to America to eat Olive Garden breadsticks and pet my dogs eventually. For now, this experience has been life changing and I wouldn’t want to change any aspect of it at all. Azerbaijan is a wonderful country, quirky customs and all. Every day is different, and every day I experience something new. To conclude, I highly recommend Baku. You won’t find anything like it anywhere else. Rate 10/10.

Advisor Note:  Hannah Wyman is a junior at GM and a chief member of the Lancer Ledger editorial board.  She is currently studying abroad in Azerbaijan, which is a country in the South Caucasus region, situated at the crossroads of Southwest Asia and Southeastern Europe.