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Kia Armstrong, Baku

Who are you?

I have lived in London for most of my life but also in Germany, Pakistan, Venezuela, Australia and most recently, in Baku. I am married to a gynae/obs consultant and I have two children and three stepchildren, all adults. An art historian and journalist by education and training, I have also worked as a marketing executive, delicatessen owner, antiques and art dealer, property developer and interior designer, depending on where I was and which opportunities life was throwing at me at any given time.Life is all about flexibility, right? And I would always rather swim than sink! I very much enjoy new challenges, solving riddles, meeting people and finding out what makes them tick.

My interests include but are not limited to travel, reading, writing, eating, theatre, art & design, yoga, complementary medicine & nutrition, people and most especially, my family and friends.

I have a house in Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, which I love to visit.

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

Just over two years ago, my husband, an international expert on repeated miscarriage, was considering semi retirement from his frantically busy London medical practice, when a high profile client of his offered him the opportunity to work in Baku, Azerbaijan. Our children had flown the nest and we were up for an exciting new adventure. So without much hesitation, we found a live-in house sitter and cat minder for our London home, packed our bags and headed into the unknown. At that point we had only vaguely heard of Azerbaijan and, in fact, had to read up on where exactly it was and what we might expect there.

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Completely contrary to how we had imagined Baku to be, we found a super slick modern city with gleaming high-rise buildings on the shores of the Caspian Sea, plenty of western style shops and chic restaurants and a thriving expat community. Azerbaijan is a secular Muslim country but these are vodka-drinking Muslims and in Baku you rarely see headscarves or even hear calls to prayer. It’s all very relaxed! Young women are dressed to the nines in skintight mini dresses with sky high heels and status handbags, young men cruise the streets in luxury cars and there are more designer shops along the long seaside promenade than you can shake your Gucci wallet at! In this oil and gas rich country, you are certainly well advised to keep this wallet well stocked with crisp notes. Living here costs an arm and a leg!

What challenges did you face during the move?

Finding a home that lived up to my very western interior design ideas proved difficult. Eventually we found the perfect place but compromises certainly had to be made!

Are there many other expats in your area?

The very active expat community of around 10,000 people, mostly associated with the oil industry, is wonderfully welcoming, tremendously helpful and provided us with friends we will never forget but, of course, life as an expat also means life in a goldfish bowl, occasionally with plenty of gossip to muddy the waters.

What do you like about life where you are?

Despite the high level of bureaucratic corruption in Azerbaijan, it is a reassuringly safe country with next to no crime. The country’s geographic location is another fantastic bonus to all who visit or live there. Our trips to fun and funky Georgia, desert hot UAE and enchanting Iran have left indelible impressions, Dubai and Istanbul are virtually on the doorstep, and even Europe is only three to five hours’ flight away. Azerbaijan has much to offer, such as the charming South close to the Iranian border and the heart stopping cragginess of the Caucasus in the North.

What do you dislike about your expat life?

We loved the fantastic summer weather but shivered in the cold winters, with their arctic winds blowing off the sea.

The locals are kind and polite but smiling at strangers is not their thing. Their initial aloofness takes some getting used to. Speaking Russian or Azeri definitely helps, not just with communication but also with reading product labels in the supermarket. Many’s the time I ended up with a completely different purchase in my shopping basket than the one I had intended! Only about 30% of the population speaks English. Service standards are considerably lower than one might expect, often a source of intense frustration.

As for the traffic chaos, well let’s not even go there! It’s all about driving into the centre of a junction, blocking it and then hooting incessantly. Ah yes, the noise….now that’s another bugbear we had to learn to accept. But then again, where else do men still stand up on the metro to let a woman sit?

What are your plans for the future?

Recently returned to London, I look back on our two years as expats in Azerbaijan with great fondness; they have enriched our lives beyond measure. Did I ever fall in love with it? No, I didn’t, but I enjoyed it very much. Would I have preferred a posting to Rome, New York or Bangkok, you bet! When all is said and done, our Baku adventure remains one of the glittering jewels in the necklace of our life experiences.

You can keep up to date with Kia's adventures on her blog, Fizz Of Life.

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