Thursday, May 2, 2013

We've Moved to Word Press as of May, 2013 is the new location

Thanks for checking in today...

Just wanted to let everyone know that we have moved over to Word Press now.  Check us out at:

 --            ---

I wanted to keep all my writing projects together, so you can find this travel & culture blog on Word Press next to my Strategy & Planning site, - just in case that strategic thinking sort of thing interests you at all. :)

Come check us out over on the Word Press self hosted sites.

Thanks again,


Thursday, March 7, 2013

Food for Thought...

Last night as I read the post by @Naomi_Hattaway (, I fell asleep with thoughts of food and friends around the world.

So when I woke up at 3:52 this morning, as often happens, my mind was already connecting the dots. I went to my cookbook shelf and pulled out copies of my cookbooks cum memorybooks/souvenirs from my time in Azerbaijan and decided to take some photos to share.
Naomi had written: "We were coming together once a month to teach each other recipes that we had brought with us from our previous locations, whether expat assignments or from our childhood kitchens.  During the process of dissecting those recipes, we were in turn creating another layer, a deeper foundation to build on as we all continued on in our journey. "

I doubt that #Judy Rickatson ever imagined when she guided this  cookbook project, "Recipes for Friendship"  for the International Women's Club of Baku, that a decade later back 'home' ( a term I use loosely these days) in Alexandria, Virginia, a transplanted Texan would be using her recipe for Brisbane Stew. Let's see, Canada, England, Baku, Brisbane, Houston, Alexandria... yep, that pretty much circles the globe in friendship. What's more, it's a gift that keeps on giving, as I left another copy in my flat for the next family of expats coming in.

 As I flipped the pages of this little memory book, I remember Donna Hill (another Canadian, wife of Doug Hill, Amoco/BP) telling her story about having to take defensive driving- being a kind Canadian, she was reluctant to ram the offender's car.  "Couldn't I just maneuver around him?" Not gonna happen... let's have another go. Finally on the third try, as Donna relayed this story, the instructor stepped on her foot on  the accelerator and forced the car into a collision path that she had to use all her skill to minimize and speed away from. She passed and, I imagine, to this day is a very safe driving, avoiding many collisions as she goes.

 I saw recipes from Sheila Churchman... and remembered the Churchman family from the Wharf restaurant- arguably the central ex-pat hangout in the early years, now sadly gone before their time. Actually the tragedy was that most of her family perished together just before Christmas in 2007.  Dave and Sheila had lived in Saudi, Kuwait, Baku and other "high risk" places, and yet it was a gas leak in Colfax, LA that triggered the explosion that caused the deaths of Dave, Sheila, Dave's mother "Miss Mary", and later their son Don.

I remember sitting at the Wharf one Sunday afternoon, having a bowl of Sheila's vegetable soup. People always went to the Wharf more to meet friends than for the food, but the vegetable soup was always good... except this day.  I asked Sheila if they had changed her recipe and she said they hadn't.  But upon tasting it she realized something was horribly wrong.  Upon investigating, she found the chef they had fired recently had changed the recipe before he departed- from 1 Tbsp vinegar to 1 CUP of vinegar!  That would do it!

 (Anyone who remembers Sheila knows this page, illustrations, captions and all, is perfect for remembering Sheila! And we do, fondly.)

Others who contributed to this little gem of a memory book are scattered around the world now- I see on Facebook that the talented artist who handled the many illustrations, Yelena-Alona Dontsova-Ref is now married and living in Tel Aviv. Many more of these ladies have gone on to other expat assignments, while some have retired and gone to England, Canada, and the USA.

Being there so long, and not being with an international support system, I spent a lot of my time in local restaurants or in the homes of my students and staff.  As I was leaving for a holiday in Germany during my first year there, one of my students gave me an Azeri cookery book.  These photos below are particular favorites.  

First the ever present Shashlik- simple (if you have a mangal) and hard not to find something to like- grilled tomatoes (my fav), potatoes, onions, beef (of some kind) or chicken. Sprinkle a little sumac on and you're ready to eat. Second, the Azerbaijan/Soviet era "champagne".  During my entire decade there, every single bottle was labeled 1984- not just some, but all of them. It got to be a game after a while- I went to enough local dinners in homes and that was always the drink of choice for the host to offer, and always 1984... all can I can say is, it must have been a heck of a year!    

Food for thought and many happy thoughts about food and friends.

 Bon Apetit!  Nush Olsan!  Afiet Olsan! Priatnova Apetit!  Happy memories!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Are We Ready for Spring?

As we turn the calendar pages from white and wintery, I thought I'd share a few last thoughts with a couple more of the photos I uncovered this week.

This is the view I saw everyday in the late '90s. This was my neighborhood, so to speak.

This picture above was the view from the (then) AmCham office, looking out from the back of the hotel.

I used to walk from my apartment, off to the left a few blocks, to the AmCham office when it was here in the Radisson Hotel building, ISR Plaza. Sometimes after work I would walk to a little market about 1/4 mile off to the right, before heading home for the evening. Most days though I would head out the front door, and cross the Fountain Square in search of friends for dinner, ultimately ending up at the Wharf or the Sunset Cafe, both of which had opened by about 1999 or so.

Fountain Square was, and I suspect to some extent still is, the heartbeat of traditional Baku.

Any day, any time, you could wander over just to sit a while, watching families stroll by, or meet friends for a drink at a sidewalk bar and have a meal.

In warmer weather, I loved to watch people from the open deck of the rooftop restaurant as groups of young girls walked arm in arm, or children played on old soviet park toys by the fountains. It wasn't uncommon for little kids to take their shoes off and play in the fountains- and more than a few little boys went further than that on hot summer's days!

But here in these pictures, in the middle of winter, look how many people are still out on the Fountain Square...

Here, in front of the hotel the scene changes from the quiet narrow streets of the neighborhood beyond my office windows. On this iconic square, in full view of all those Stalin-era apartment blocks, not far from the legendary Maiden's Tower and the Opera House (which was said to have been fashioned for an Italian opera singer who refused to sing in Baku until a "proper" opera house was built) sits that other famous landmark... the first McDonald's in Azerbaijan.

Talk about a study in contrasts!

Today, though, this impression must seem positively "quaint", judging by what I saw after the Eurovision Song Contest. I don't recognize the Baku I knew in the early '90s.

My first impressions of Baku, several years before McDonald's came to town, were centered around families, walking on the fountain Square on evenings that were too hot to sleep, girls in modest skirts (getting smacked on my backside by an old lady- a real babushka- crying "Bruekii! Bruekii" meaning "pants! pants!" because they were considered wrong for women to wear), and never wearing sleeveless tops.

By the time McDonald's arrived, MTv had changed everything. MTv was probably a symbol of the outside influences that were already taking hold in Baku- not yet in the regions (the rural areas) though. By the time McDonald's arrived, there were plenty of girls looking for a place to see and be seen, a place to wear their tight skirts and make-up. And if this sounds like "those girls", well, there were more than a few ex-pat guys that were not unhappy about that freedom either.

McDonald's is not to blame for changing the culture. The culture had been covered with an iron fist for 70 years and when the lid came off, the markets opened, cell phones arrived along with Euro advertising, well, what would you expect?

Over the 10 years that I lived in Baku, I witnessed a startling transformation, perhaps inevitably, in the culture within Azerbaijan.

When I arrived, the culture was real, at home in every family. Within minutes of the first conversation you had with any of the young people, you would hear how Azerbaijan was world famous, how they adored Jack London and Theodore Dreiser (bet you have to go look that second one up to figure out why that would be important to them), how Azerbaijan was noted for oil production and Mugham music, or it possessed 9 out of 11 climatic zones and that 20% of their country was being occupied. It was part of their heritage to have a common view of the world. They all knew "the dance", they all knew the epoch dastans and the poet Nizami. They knew all this because it was handed down from father to son, mother to daughter. Young people were brought up to revere and respect the "Agsakal" (those with 'white sideburns'), to stay home and help cook when one of them passed away.

The difference from then to now is bittersweet.  I know young people want all that is new, and yet, I can't help but think of how much is being lost.  Not only in buildings, but in the heart, where real things matter.

One of these images, built centuries ago over time, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the other, built over the span of months for a pop event, well it remains to be seen how long it lasts.

When the Azerbaijan spring comes, I wonder what we will find? Are we ready for Spring?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Why Does Counting Sheep Only Leave You... Hungry?

This week as I have been sharing online with other expats at the #ExpatriateLife ( and the  #worldcolors photo project, once again memories of foods and things I haven't thought of for years have come back... ok, some like a bad meal, others like an old friend.

(  #Naomi Hattaway had these lovely photos that made us smile. When #Judy Rickatson posted a note about a departing expat who gifted her a  "cooler full of meat from her freezer (also in Baku). She used to bring it in twice a year from New Orleans, packed in dry ice. Given the limited range and poor quality of the meat in Baku at that time, it was treasure indeed"  it all reminded me how central food was in our lives- what you found, didn't have or wished you could get- were frequent topics of conversation. Food was also a social part of life for most, if not all, of us.

The story that made me smile was remembering what would become my epic quest for pot roast.  In my head, I reasoned that I could find potatoes, I had carrots, and I certainly knew how to ask for onions in Russian by then. So why not?  Of course, this is almost the equivalent of an inside joke for anyone who was in Baku at that time, or has been an expat in a similar place. Why not, indeed!

The adventure took place not long after I got settled in my first apartment- I had lived with a local family for a few months while I located my own apartment and office so this was several months into my first year there. And one day it hit me that I had been having either fish or lamb (not the fluffy white one in the photo, thankfully!) since I arrived.  Once the realization hits you, it becomes all you can think about. It's like cabin fever.

To illustrate the extent to which some food was a luxury, I once paid $7.45 (USD) for a 12 ounce bottle of Cran-Apple juice.  A month's salary for the Ph.D. whose family I lived with was $50 - when he actually got paid, that is. So I had blown roughly half a week's salary for a bottle of juice.

One of our early restaurants, The Ragin' Cajun, was owned and operated by Marie and Charlie, a colorful couple from New Orleans. I remember Marie calling the "phone tree" to say she had ketchup. The conversation went something like, "I've got ketchup; what'd you have?"  Which turned out to mean that she had found real Heinz Ketchup somewhere- maybe the states or in Continental (this was way before Ramstore) and had secured the whole case.  I told Marie I had Cran-Apple Juice.  Now keep in mind, I didn't actually want any ketchup.  I actually liked the juice. But if you had ever gone to the Hyatt in the very early days and tried to get a hamburger, you would understand the instant attraction.

They really tried, they did... but, sometimes tomato sauce with horseradish mustard and cucumbers, on a water buffalo patty, surrounded by a crumbling kaiser roll, well, sometimes it will make you do strange things.

So after paying all that for a bottle of juice which I then traded away for a bottle of gen-u-ine Heinz ketchup, I felt emboldened- nay, compelled- to go look for a pot roast.

Of  course, that I didn't actually have a crock pot or a pan to cook it in was beside the point. But that did become the first consideration. So I looked everywhere for a couple weeks and, finally, I found a crockpot in, of all places,  the TSUM (I can't do Cyrillic characters for the "Centralny Univermakht).  It only cost me $90.00 (USD). Yep, you read it right.  (It was actually quite a nice one though and lasted me all the years I was there, until I gifted it to another expat when I left). But that's not the half of it- getting the crockpot was just the start of this adventure.

Fortunately the crockpot had the right plug and didn't need a converter like my hot rollers did (I know, who brings hot rollers?).  So I got everything all set- I went to the Bazaar and got some veggies; went to Continental and got some bouillon cubes (thank heaven for Maggi products!).  Next to the butcher for beef.

I could get cheese and shoes at one shop. Nylons in the butcher shop across from the Metro, so you would think I could get a small pot roast. But alas, it was not to be.  Nyet, he told me. It is finished one hour before.  So I went back to Continental and asked the young lady if they could get me a pot roast.  Of course, I had to explain what a "pot roast" was, but once she understood the concept, sure, come back tomorrow. Which I did.

Next day, hurrying out a little early from my last class for the evening, I raced across the park that separated me from my pot roast store. (It's good thing I didn't run into to anyone I knew- most certainly I'd have passed them right by.) I arrived just moments before they closed for the night and they wrapped up what from all appearances, looked to be a fresh cut of meat about 2 inches thick, no bones and about 8 inches long.  Cook it long enough and slow enough, and it should be melt in your mouth goodness! I could hardly wait. I hurried up to the cashier before she closed out and she rung up my purchase... "Zat will be AZM 334,720 (manats)" she told me, without batting an eyelash.

What?!  Doing the exchange rate of the day calculation in my head, I came up with about $64 (USD). I don't know what I expected, but clearly this was not it.  But I was in way too far to turn back now. I swallowed hard, and kept the prize in sight.  I rationalized it to myself, saying, if you think about it- really- a crockpot in the states might be about twice what a steak is.  Using that logic, my $90 crockpot was clearly a bargain!

Well, anyone who has been around this kind of  adventure story before knows it can't end well, and the rest is anti-climactic. I'll spare you the details and just wrap it up by saying: I cooked that sucker for 4 days and it never did get tender enough to eat. After the 4th day, I stuck a fork in it and flung it out the window in the dark of night into the courtyard for the neighborhood cats and dogs.

Then... I caught a taxi over to the Hyatt and ordered a "cheezeberger".

P.S.  I asked the chef at the Hyatt what went wrong with my pot roast, and he told me water buffalo never would get tender that way. .....Nush Olsan! (Bon Appetit)

Saturday, January 26, 2013

White Snow...  and the 7 Memories

Ever have one of those weeks where everything runs in circles?  Where you set out to do one thing and have that deja vu feeling about something else?

This photo is from exactly 10 years ago this week. 

I happened across it while looking for a picture of something "white" for a contribution to the fun #worldcolors project being put together by #Naomi Hattaway ( ) and  #Anne Lowrey from Part Time Traveler. 

It's a beautiful snowfall on the Fountain Square in Baku. Can you guess what the building in the center is? Believe it or not, this is the first McDonald's in Azerbaijan.  I remember looking out over the Square from my office, thinking how much had changed since I arrived.

I spent nearly 10 years in Baku.  I write now to capture things I remember, memories that bubble up now and then, mostly to have a way of telling the stories to my daughter who was at home in high school in Houston when I left, but had already entered a Ph.D program by the time I got back... Wow, so much time had passed for her, and yet for me, in ancient Baku, often it felt like time stood still. Until I saw this.

Circle around to the reason I was looking for a white photo in the first place... 

Quite by accident I came a cross a blog post written by someone I knew in Baku. This was the deja vu moment, like I was back there again.  #Judy Rickatson writes in her #ExpatriateLife blog  about first arriving in Baku, and what this new world looked like to her then.

What caught my eye was a line: "Many afternoons were spent staring out of my apartment window, happy my husband had a good job, happy my son was settling in school, happy to be having the adventure of a lifetime, but desperately lonely."  The reason it caught my eye was that it was the same thought I was having as I stood there looking out at McDonald's in the snow, feeling as if it were a million miles away. My daughter was away in college, I was now divorced, and halfway across the world from anyone I thought might care.

And yet, I read this week that there was Judy, and who knows how many others, not many blocks away, staring out the window, having the same feelings of loneliness. As if the white snow had put a blanket around us, isolating us.

So the lesson I take away from all of this, is to reach out when I can.  I had thought company spouses were well connected, and I didn't think I had anything to give, being over there by myself. But I see now, how many of us need, and in so many ways.  Most of us get through it and come out better for it on the other side, but how much richer and more joyous would our lives be if we remembered that whatever emotions we are feeling today, there is someone feeling that same emotion. Maybe next door or down the street, or an email away.

Now when I look at that fresh white snow, I remember that no one knows what's underneath. I have to remember to go join others and play. I have to send some emails, to say I'm thinking of some friends today.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Would you recognize corruption if you perceived it?

A conversation the other night reminded me of a meeting I had in Baku…

In light of recent admissions by formerly admired athletes, we were having this conversation about defining honesty and moral courage. One thing led to another and, not wanting to get too heavy into this subject, I recounted the story of a meeting I had had with a pretty high ranking government official some time ago in Baku. 

It had a twist I hadn’t expected to find there.

The conversation had come about because of an interview I had given where I was asked about corruption, specifically if there was corruption in Azerbaijan. Being as diplomatic as I could, while still recognizing the reason we were there was to bring market reforms, I referred to the then recently released Transparency International Corruption Perception Index which indicated that, yes, there was a strong perception of the c-word[1].

The Minister had a driver fetch me to his office to talk about that interview.  He began by asking why I “always say bad things” in the papers.  I responded by saying that I didn’t only say unflattering things, but the positive bits had been edited out mostly- just like anywhere else, scandal sells papers. And this definitely seemed to have touched a nerve.

So in what I thought was a keen grasp of the perception situation, he asked me to indulge him a moment.  "If I want to mail a letter in the United States, what will it cost me?” I answered that I thought it was about 34¢ at that time.  “How long will it take to deliver it?”  “Three or four days, I suppose, depending on where it’s going.” He continued,” And if I want it to go faster, if I want better service? Can I not go to FedEx and pay more for overnight delivery?” I replied that was certainly a good option. At that point, the Minister, looking very satisfied, replied, “So what is the difference? Here if you want something to happen today, you pay more money. It is same thing, no?”

I had to smile.  In the perception game, he had a point. Is it corruption if everyone’s doing it?  If it’s an open secret that you pay for what you get?  At what point does a practice go from legit to extortion or vice versa?

We had a long conversation that day, a kind of friendly debate. He knew he was wrong from a rule of law perspective. And that really was the one that mattered, after all. I heard that a few years after I left, he ended up out of office and a new scandal had taken this one’s place.  Something about bribery and a lot of foreign currency being where it didn’t belong.

The lesson I had always shared with my students in the University was this, “No matter what the Truth is, pay attention to what Truth is perceived to be, for people will always act on what they perceive to be the Truth.”  

Apparently athletes and government officials perceive things in similar ways. It is same thing, no?

[1] In the Corruption Perceptions Index 2001   “The CPI also registers very high levels of perceived corruption in the countries in transition, in particular the former Soviet Union. Scores of 3.0 or less were recorded in Romania, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Ukraine and AzerbaijanPeter Eigen noted: "The leaders of the countries of the former Soviet Union must do far more to establish the rule of law and transparency in government. This is crucial to their economic progress, and to the development of an open society."

Sunday, July 11, 2010

National Pride and the Excellent Slacks...

It's been quite a while since I have been able to write, and for that I apologize. Certain things about working in this area make life challenging at best! But, here we are...

When last I was preparing this post, the Olympics were on. (I did say it had been a while!)

There was a moment that made me think about the choices we make, the lessons we learn and the things that really matter.
Bob Costas made a comment on the opening day of the Vancouver Olympic Games that really made me smile. Looking at the photo above, you can see why... In the often conservative opening ceremony march of the athletes, we rarely find countries stepping right out, making such a sartorial statement. Ok, yes there is usually there is a quotient of cool, but what country was this, to be so bold?

As Bob Costas announced the delegations filing by in alphabetic country order, Azerbaijan being among the first, parlayed its position into 15 minutes of fame by wowing the audience with its team apparel. Bob Costas immortalized the Azerbaijan delegation noting the team was sporting "an excellent pair of slacks".

I loved that moment, quite frankly.

For Azerbaijan this was the most wonderful compliment they could receive. What pride to hear broadcasters around the world announcing -anything actually- about your country, and for a small country in an Olympic venue dominated by Russia, China, the United States and of course in these Games, Canada, this was recognition that money could not buy.

More than the money or the fame though, for Azerbaijan it was a case of national pride. We often hear about wearing your heart on you sleeve, or flying by the seat of your pants, but in this case Azerbaijan had shown its national self in the traditional colors, shapes and symbols of its country with every step it took, every day of the Games.

Not many people would know the symbolism evident in those pants, with the three colors, red, blue and green being highly symbolic, colors of the flag, each having a meaning for the nation, and the shapes as well speak to the roots for the country. It was fun to know the inside story on the message being displayed with each step in the march. To feel the national pride from the smile of each athlete.

But it also reminded me of a summer in Baku when I was at my lowest point. The summer of 1999. Recently divorced, frustrated by the inability to move forward, unable to go back home- I felt stuck. I was writing a column for Azerbaijan International magazine and found it hard to write about "positive changes" when I just wasn't seeing any.

I had been in Baku, teaching and working, for 4 years that summer. I wanted to see the results, to see changes in Baku, and I wanted to get on with life in a new way. Summertime meant that nearly 150 kids, many of whom were my students, were about to go to the USA for a school year as future leaders exchange students- both to learn about the US and, just as importantly, to teach others about Azerbaijan and its culture. I wanted them to be proud of their country but things that had happened that year made me doubtful that they would be.

That's when the Life Lesson was given to me, by my students, naturally.

And this is the importance of the "excellent slacks".

From the week I spent with these kids preparing them for their year long journey, I wrote an article about growing up and what they had taught me on that long dusty bus ride to the seaside Sanitorium (health "resort"- Soviet style, remember!).

During the hot bumpy bus ride- think open windows for air "conditioning"- these kids started singing their recently adopted national anthem... just let that sink in for a moment. Regardless of how big, how modern (or how not modern) their country may have been, it was theirs to love and support.

And here with the excellent slacks, was another moment just like that. I'm sure those hearts all swelled with pride as they saw their delegation being recognized, maybe not atop the medals podium, but on a world stage just the same. I was reminded anew what an awesome feeling appreciation can be.

As Memorial Day and Independence Day have come and gone, this little example of national pride makes me wish for an excellent pair of slacks, too.