Park Bulvar in Sahil

Park Bulvar in Sahil

It’s the last day of the Novruz holiday, so after cleaning up my classroom and preparing for tomorrow, I headed off to Park Bulvar. It’s my mecca mall in this city. One of my simple pleasures is brisk walking along the tree-lined Bulvar and having lunch or dinner at the top floor’s food court. International choices abound from Japanese to Russian to Chinese to Sbarro, which is American-Italian.

But my fave food vendor is Sultan’s, which serves salads, kebabs, Azeri main courses and desserts. The food is healthy. The food is delicious. But the reason I keep coming back is because of the servers’ friendliness, smiles and flexibility. The man who I think is the supervisor can also communicate in basic English. The older I get and the more I travel, the more I appreciate excellent customer service because I tend to frequent places that I like, and it always makes me happy when I have a positive and friendly transaction. I will refrain from commenting on the opposite 🙂 But let it suffice to say for now, that in Baku you get an equal amount of positive and negative customer service, of people who genuinely care about other people and love their job, so I tend to cling on and only visit places where I sense a happy vibe.

Salad bar at Sultan's

Salad bar at Sultan’s

Sultan’s salad bar offers plenty of healthy eats. They have the usual lettuce and cucumber, but they also have red beets, cucumber pickles, jalapenos, a variety of beans, red cabbage, and my mystery leaf, which I will tell you about later.

I usually order the chicken kebab and couscous, but today I asked if I could change my couscous into salad. The supervisor was very flexible. Most restaurants stick to the prescribed menu, but he gave me half a salad and the kebab for 5 manat – a very reasonable price for a meal in Baku.

Chicken kebab and half a salad from Sultan's at Park Bulvar

Chicken kebab and half a salad from Sultan’s at Park Bulvar

And just to back track a bit, yesterday, I found a green grocer and I bought this mystery leaf that I love! It’s a bit spicy and I love how it tickles my tongue! But I’ve never seen this leaf before.

76_petrushka

Today, I asked Sultan’s servers about it and they said it was “petrushka”. So I looked it up and apparently, “petrushka” is the word for parsley in Russian 🙂 I can see how it’s similar to the parsley we have in the Philippines and the ones I’ve tried in the States. They look similar and they taste similar but they are different. Petrushka is definitely worth trying!

After eating lunch, I explored the new grocery store at the Park Bulvar’s basement. It’s called Bazar Store and it’s a popular chain in Baku. I wanted to see if they sold kefir and this is what I ended up buying–

74_salmon kefir and a glass

The kefir is deeeliiicious! This brand (I will not yet attempt to decode the Russian name :)) tastes exactly like lassi. It’s 95 quepic, but I don’t mind because it’s a good investment on my health. The salmon is 4.20 manat for 100 grams. I have yet to try it. And I know that you’re probably wondering why there’s a glass there. Believe or not, the usual grocery store I go to, doesn’t sell glasses in boxes so I’ve never bought from them because I tend to break glasses. When I first arrived, I bought six pieces and only one is left! I was able to find six chic small glasses – I wasn’t too fond of the the tall glass designs – for 2.15 manat. Considering that I didn’t buy them from Sederek mall, I would say it’s a steal.

I’m definitely coming back to the Bazar Store, even if it’s just for the kefir. But yes, I did see a reasonably price Russian caviar which I want to try during one of my cheat days.

Not that I’ve been lax. No, I haven’t. I’ve been walking for at least 30 minutes a day and eating salads. But, of course, along with salads, there’s been yummy-salty-moldy Azeri cheese and this Tiramisu ice cream I discovered at Park Bulvar. Then there’s the SCRUMPtious cheesecake at the Baku Roasting Company and the local nutty-tasting beer – Xirdalan. Literally quenches your thirst!

So today, I’m taking a step towards shaving the fat off my diet, and curbing my sugar and caffeine addiction.

And I’m launching my Healthy Eat regiment with kefir!

Jala kefir from Citimart in Sahil, Baku.

Jala kefir from Citimart in Sahil, Baku.

Kefir has been touted in the international community as a health drink, good for your digestion because it’s of full of bacteria and enzymes. I decided to find a bottle at Citimart, Sahil and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s 75 quepic for the Jala brand and it is filling! I consider it a meal in itself.

71_kefir

The texture is very similar to India’s lassi. The taste, well, it’s a little sour, or let’s put it this way, it’s like slightly moldy cheese in semi-watery yoghurt form. I know that I’m not making this sound appealing to many of you, but I really do like moldy cheese and the lassi-like texture. I loooved it! And I’m thinking of making kefir a regular afternoon snack. For more information on what kefir is and it’s nutritional value, please visit http://www.kefir.net.

I’ve also decided to replace some of my winter staple food choices with healthier options. Here’s a peek at my list–

1. I love Jala’s 100% sugar-free juice. Especially the peach and pineapple flavors. I’m not 100% sure if it’s sugar-free, but it is good. It’s now been replaced with bottled water flavored with fresh lemon slices.

2. Speaking of water, I’ve taken to qazli, sparkling water, ever since I arrived in Baku. I love the kick and it has no calories. But it bloats me. Again replaced with bottled water flavored with fresh lemon slices.

3. Jacob’s 3-in-1 latte, I feel sad to say goodbye to you. (Sniff sniff.) You have kept me awake for the past nine months! But alas, this will be replaced by sugarless teas.

4. Goodbye ice-cream and paklava. Hello, fresh apples and oranges.

5. Instead of white bread, I’ve found tasty rye bread at Citimart. More on this rare find in another blog entry!

So this is my brief list. I think it’s a good start. Of course, Saturday or Sunday will be my cheat day so I have more gastronomic adventures to look forward to!

How about you? Are you upgrading your diet this spring?

First tree with blossoms in the park in front of Icherisheher.

First tree with blossoms in the park in front of Icherisheher.

It’s spriiiing! I’m delighted to see blue skies again, and anticipating white and lilac blossoms, as well as the tulips last year’s Baku-dwellers are raving about. The days are warm, the nights are chilly but I’m simply happy because it’s spriiiing again!

Lots have happened since my last blog entry. Not able to share everything just yet, so I’ll be cryptic 🙂 Let it suffice to say that winter is over. My mourning, black drape shroud–that’s over. And the dead, it’s been raised to life. (Giggling as I scribble this.)

Life has overtaken writing. My students are growing up. Fast. Old acquaintances from India have become friends, and friendships that have budded late last year are continuing to blossom. There were new books read and book reviews left unwritten. There were new haunts to explore, although my fave still remains the same–Nargiz. (Will rave about this find in another entry!) Then, of course, I caught the winter flu and ended up teaching as my fever flamed on.

But rainy winters devoid of snow, thankfully, end.

White blossoms near School 6.

White blossoms near School 6.

Spring also means significantly cutting down on my unlimited craving for cheese and ice cream! Just discovered this little market behind Chiraq bookstore that sells greens with all these spices that tingle on my tongue for 20 quepic per bundle. The little shoppe sticks prices on their veggies and there’s a helpful storekeeper who knows basic English. What more can a hopeless foreign-language-learner ask for?

69_greens

I’ll also be trying kefir for the first time in a moment. It’s a drink that’s originated in the Caucuses, and health nuts are raaaving about it.

It’s spriiing! Excited to chase sunshine as flowers blossom on the trees along the Bulvar.

Today is a day of mourning in Azerbaijan, and I was glad to spend it with my friend F, who told me a little bit about her country’s history.

Lunch with F at Nargiz in Fountain Square

Lunch with F at Nargiz in Fountain Square

On January 19 and 20, 1990, the USSR army invaded Baku. They didn’t want Azerbaijan to gain independence in spite of the Soviet Union’s collapse. As a result, hundreds of civilians were killed in street skirmishes. The exact number is under dispute.

The deaths are commemorated with red carnations.

These red carnations are taped all over the Baku metro station walls.

These red carnations are taped all over the Baku metro station walls.

After lunch, we visited Martyr’s Lane, or what is better known as Şəhidlər Xiyabanı. Visitors can buy red carnations and place them before the portraits of the martyrs.

Şəhidlər Xiyabanı

Şəhidlər Xiyabanı

It’s a precious way to honor people who died for their country.

Şəhidlər Xiyabanı.  The flame inside this edifice never dies.

Şəhidlər Xiyabanı. The flame inside this edifice never dies.

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60_baku city mall

I absolutely loooove my Sundays.

Last week, after church service, a fellow Pinoy, let’s call him G, invited me to hang out with his friends in Baku City Mall. I’ve never been there and, well, I’m cringing as I type this, I needed sweatpants. (Yes, I’ve caved in. I’ve been freezing in the shorts and leggings that I sleep in.)

Baku City Mall in Bina, reminded me of Greenhills minus 95% of the population. The mall has several wide aisles, where each aisle focuses mainly on either shoes, women’s clothing, men’s clothing and, as you’ll find out, jackets. There were also several shops that sold household items. The quality of things sold are slightly better than Sederek Mall and the prices are also higher. A pair of sweatpants costs ten manat. I’m sure I could’ve gotten the same thing for two manat in the Philippines.

The wide aisles of Baku City Mall

The wide aisles of Baku City Mall

G, in his old jacket, posing.

G, in his old jacket, posing.

Ten minutes after arriving in the mall, G’s friends revealed the true reason for bringing him there. They wanted to buy him a new jacket! (The mastermind of this is, well, let’s call him A.)

Now Baku is a goooorgeous city. There’s the Bulvar that faces the Caspian. There’s Icherisheher which houses buildings that are hundreds of years old. It is an international heritage site. There is park after park after park which are lined with trees imported from Italy. So naturally, people want to look good. Azeris love dressing up!

G, on the other hand, is an environmentalist. He avoids using paper plates and he hopes his next adventure will lead him to Palawan, where he will be mentored by a farmer who propagates organic culture in a self-sustaining environment. In other words, G didn’t care about his three year old olive jacket with a tattered sleeve. He didn’t need a new one so he didn’t buy one even if he could afford it.

But A, a fashionable Azeri, cared. He insisted on buying G a jacket and he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. So we trudged from store to store along the jacket/winter coat aisle as I kept an eye out for sweatpants.

These were my fave men's jackets.

These were my fave men’s jackets.

Now in case you’re not familiar with Pinoy culture, we have this trait called “hiya”. We like giving things and doing things for other people, but when others give or do things for us, we feel awkward and shy about it, so our first instinct is to say “no”. So as we trudged from store to store to store, A would wave jacket after jacket in front of G, and G would say, sometimes in English, sometimes in Azeri, “I really appreciate what you’re doing but I don’t need a jacket. Thank you.”

A did not listen, perhaps because he couldn’t understand G’s tattered sleeve, or perhaps because he had a generous heart, so off we went to another store. A insisted that G try some jackets. G slightly relented and explained to A, sometimes in Azeri, sometimes in English–“We Filipinos, we like doing things for other people. But it’s hard for us to receive.”

“You don’t like this jacket,” A would say sometimes in Azeri, sometimes in English, as he pulled the jacket off G and returned it to the store owner.

“What do you think of this jacket?” A asked me as G pretended to try another black one. After an hour of saying no, G probably figured that A wasn’t going to cave in. He also probably decided that intercultural understanding trumped “hiya”. So I mentioned the store with my favorite jackets and we walked back there.

G fiiiiinally finds a jacket!

G fiiiiinally finds a jacket!

A's triumphant smile!

A’s triumphant smile!

“One of these days,” G promised as we hopped on the bus going to the center of town. “I will cook you guys pancakes.”

Dinner at Nargiz in Fountain Square.  We were all happy.  G got a new jacket. Boy I does not like buying clothes in Bina. Girl A got blue boots and pants.  Boy A found shoes and sexy gloves.  And I bought my warm and comfy sweatpants.  I love Sundays :)

Dinner at Nargiz in Fountain Square. We were all happy. G got a new jacket. Boy I does not like buying clothes in Bina. Girl A got blue boots and pants. Boy A found shoes and sexy gloves. And I bought my warm and comfy sweatpants. I love Sundays 🙂

My box of hope.

My box of hope.

I received my box of hope today. With all my clothes inside, methinks. Fedexed. I haven’t opened it. I’ll probably open it tomorrow. Or the next day. And unpack my clothes. Clothes left in hope.

Grief is good once you decide to walk through it. I’m treating this as a death, because whenever we lose people we love, it is a death. And I’m saying grief is good because I’ve decided to walk through it. Carry my cross. Surrender.

Unwrestle.

One thing I am grateful for, in receiving this box of hope, is that I once again see a glimpse of the person I thought I knew. Good heart. Generous spirit. The man who took responsibility. It got lost somewhere.

But with this box of hope, I see a glimpse of it again, and for that, even if my heart bleeds, I am grateful today.

For this box of hope.

Russian Alphabet flashcard app by www.hamdouchi.com

Russian Alphabet flashcard app by http://www.hamdouchi.com

It’s our back-to-school-week, as well as my back-to-learning-Russian week. You may be wondering why I’m learning Russian instead of Azeri, the official language of Azerbaijan. Isn’t Russian outdated in this part of the world? Isn’t Azeri the language of the Azerbaijanis’ hearts?

My answer is really simple. I have 13 students in my class. (I was blessed with one new student this week so I now have four girls named Leyla in my class! But I will save that story for another blog entry.) The majority of them speak Russian as their first language, and the ones who don’t can understand many Russian words. So guess who was the only one who couldn’t speak a word of Russian in class?

Also, most Azerbaijanis can understand and speak basic Russian. It will also give me access to a bigger part of the world, including–Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, to name a few.

After a month of being in Baku, I made an effort to learn the language. I downloaded a couple of apps and hired a tutor. I was able to learn the alphabet, but after a few weeks, I was COMPLETELY overwhelmed. There are too many words to memorize. The words have soooo many syllables. Gender? Russian has three genders for their nouns? You’ve got to be kidding me! I need to memorize all these words before my tutor comes!

So like most frustrated students, I quit.

Thankfully, I have friends who have encouraged me to get back on the learning wagon. I also admire them because they’re making an effort to learn a new language by putting in quite a few hours per week. For now, I’ve decided to make my own curriculum using my resources and to practice speaking whenever I can.

Here are some of my decisions and methods to help me learn the language.

This an iphone app called 50 Languages.  I'm not sure if I would recommend this or not because I have yet to maximize this app.

This an iphone app called 50 Languages. I’m not sure if I would recommend this or not because I have yet to maximize this app.

1. Invest one to two hours per day learning the words. I do this when I have breaks in school and in the evening.

2. I’m learning the same words that I teach my students. This week we learned about the people in our school community and three-dimensional shapes. Since the words were relevant to me, I was able to remember them more easily.

3. I’m now focusing on words that I can use in everyday life. I downloaded this app called The Spacing Effect. I don’t recommend it because the audio that I paid for doesn’t work (so I have to check the words’ pronunciations through Google Translate) but the app propagates a learning philosophy that matches mine. I’m learning words like, “I want”, “How do you say…” and “chicken”. The app also doesn’t encourage drilling. Instead, I learn the words, and then the next day, the words come up again, and if I get it right, it will probably come up again a few days later so it gets stored in my long-term memory. If I don’t get the word right, it will come up again the next day. This releases me from the self-pressure of memorizing too hard which leads me to frustration.

The Spacing Effect app for Russian.  I don't recommend this because the audio I paid for doesn't work.

The Spacing Effect app for Russian. I don’t recommend this because the audio I paid for doesn’t work.

4. I’ve stopped worrying about grammar. My goal at this point is to express myself in Russian. Grammar inhibits that so I’ll save it when I’m more confident about my speaking skills.

5. I’m applying my knowledge of speaking Russian whenever I can. In school, in restaurants, in stores.

I want to connect, slowly.