I have to say that the Christmas we spent in Azerbaijan is one of my most memorable Christmases. I’m sure that’s because most of my Christmases are more of the same, and this one was wildly different. But I think there’s something more than just that. Jesse and I had been married only two years, and the whole Peace Corps experience was great for helping us figure out how to navigate the world as a twosome (instead of solo, or with the direct help of our families… we were pretty much just us).
Here’s how our holiday season went down. Since Azerbaijan is a former Soviet Republic, they have a pretty big Russian influence. Azerbaijan is a Muslim country, but in December, a bunch of ‘Christmas’ decorations, and Santas started showing up. To Azeris, these were New Year’s decorations, and Santa was Shaxta Baba and Qar Qiz. Shaxta Baba means grandfather frost and Qar Qiz is snow girl. Because of this leftover holiday influence, we were able to buy a metallic tree at the bazaar, and my sister, Jen, sent us some ornaments. These are still some of my favorite ornaments.
On Christmas Eve, we went to the capital to meet up with some other volunteer friends. If you haven’t been in the Peace Corps, you might not understand how the other volunteers truly do become family. It is the sort of shared experience that brings people together quickly and (I think) permanently.
We ate dinner at a Mexican restaurant with a Filipino band singing classic rock hits in Santa costumes. A far cry from our typical Christmas Eve feast.
After dinner, we wandered all around Baku singing Christmas carols at the top of our lungs. Normally, we would try to blend in and not call attention to ourselves. This night, we needed to assert our otherness. I didn’t feel at home, so I didn’t want to act like I felt at home.
We found an English language church service (although the priest pronounced manger as mang-er, rhymes with banger) and we took up a whole pew. It was then that I felt my first real pang of homesickness. I remember a family with two young children sat in front of us.
The next morning was Christmas. Since we were poor volunteers, we packed seven of us in our hotel room with one full size bed. When everyone woke up I had put Pop Keks and mandarins in everyone’s shoes.
We weren’t at home, with our families. But we sort of were.