Xenia in Baku
To everyone we do hope you all had a joyous Christmas. We are now back in Baku and trying to get back to normal. What with the earthquake of late November and the subsequent aftershocks driving us out of our apartment and then being back in the good old USA for three weeks we feel as though we have been a bunch of gypsies going from place to place without a home of our own.
It was certainly good to see Fr. John and everyone at Holy Cross Church in Medford, NJ and we are certainly glad that you are enjoying the reports of our lives here in Azerbaijan. Following our visit to New Jersey, we spent two weeks in Dallas celebrating Christmas at St. Seraphim Cathedral. Christmas Eve Divine Liturgy was the first time we attended a service in the new cathedral. If you ever get to Dallas you really need to visit the Cathedral, it is just magnificent. We even managed to drive down to Beaumont Texas to visit one of my god-daughters, Kyra Welborn. Her dad, Sub-deacon David was the Bestman at my wedding.
We started the long flight back to Azerbaijan on Thursday, January 4, first flying from Dallas to Chicago, then connecting onto an all night flight to London. The flight left Chicago at 8:00 pm and we arrived in London at 10:30 am. Xenia got in some quality nap time on the flight and so did her parents.
British Air has equipped the Business Class sections of their flights to London with fully flat sleepers. You can actually lower the seat down into a totally flat position. We had a four hour layover in London and then continued onto Baku arriving in thereat 11:30 pm on January 5.
All our luggage actually made it, in fact the first piece of our luggage to arrive in the terminal was the Christmas Tree! Yes, Christmas Tree. We bought a new Christmas Tree in Dallas and shipped it back. When we moved here, the Christmas Tree that was supposed to be shipped with our household belongings, made it minus one very important section - the center pole to put the branches into. The customs agents thought it very funny that we were bringing a "New Year's" Tree into the country.
A custom here in Azerbaijan, actually left over from the Communist era, is that on New Year's Eve at the stroke of midnight, Father Frost comes to the homes of all the children bringing the good children gifts. Father Frost resembles Santa Claus and rides in a sleigh, comes down the chimney, etc.
Everyone puts up New Year's Trees in anticipation of Father Frost's visit. Baku was still decorated with many lights and signs and banners commemorating the New Year when we got back. This being a Moslem country, and all the leftover relics of the communist era still being in place, New Year's is the big celebration for everyone. There were also still signs in Baku of the earthquake damage, in fact several buildings were in the process of being demolished. Our apartment building had been totally repaired with all the cracks sealed up and necessary repairs made.
Upon our arrival in Baku, we had to immediately switch gears and drop behind the rest of the world 13 days. By the time we finished clearing customs and getting all our luggage, it was very early Saturday morning, January 6. You all know it as Theophany, we know it in Baku as Christmas Eve. After getting up Saturday morning, Nia raced out to do food shopping while Xenia and I put up the new Christmas tree. We had told Xenia that even though she had received gifts in the United States that Santa Claus had left, in Baku Santa Claus was making a special visit to all the children who attended St. Michael's Russian Orthodox Cathedral. So Xenia spent the day talking about Santa Claus. She also asked if we were going to go out and buy a fireplace and chimney because Santa needed a way to get into the apartment. Nia explained to Xenia that Santa was going to come in via the door from the balcony.
Following the old customs, in the evening we had our Lenten Meal of 12 foods proceeded by the singing of the Troparion and Kontakion of the feast and lighting of the Christmas Tree. Maybe next year we will know the Troparion and Kontakion in Russian. We decided not to go to Christmas Eve services at the Cathedral for a variety of reasons including we had already been through the service in Dallas we were all back just one day and suffering bad jet lag. At the Cathedral, they had a Christmas Eve Divine Liturgy at 8:00 am with Vespers of Christmas Eve at 12:00 noon. At 10:00 pm there was Compline and Matins with Christmas Day Divine Liturgy in the main Church beginning at 3:00 am Christmas Day. Before Xenia went to bed Christmas Eve, we explained to her that even though Santa Claus was coming that night, the next morning we would be getting up to go to the Cathedral to wish Jesus a "Happy Birthday". Therefore we would not be opening any of our gifts until we wish Jesus a "Happy Birthday".
That night, due to the jet lag I awoke at 2:00 am and just could not sleep. I got up and what do you do at 2:00 in the morning, turn on the TV. Well I am glad I did. Moscow television was televising a live Christmas concert from near the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. It was unbelievable. Russian Christmas songs that I have not heard for a very long time. Yes they did sing "Heaven and Earth" and concluded with the Troparion and Kontakion of the Feast. Who ever would think that you would see that on Moscow TV! All day long Russian TV was carrying various Christmas Specials.
Xenia awoke early on Christmas morning and proceeded to tell us how she heard the bells from Santa's reindeer during the night. She ran into the dining room where the tree is and looked at all the wonderful things that Santa had left for her. However, she did tell us that we have to go to church and say "Happy Birthday" to Jesus before opening any gifts.
We got to the Cathedral for the 9:00 am Liturgy. Since the main Church was used for the 3:00 am Liturgy, the 9:00 am Liturgy was held in the side chapel.
Well let me tell you, what an absolute mob scene that Cathedral was. The side chapel was packed, the main church was packed, and it spilled out into the courtyards. We have all heard about how the Churches are packed during the holidays, it was so crowded that it was frightening. The pushing, the shoving, people constantly moving in and out. There were piles of flowers that people had brought in to put before the icons. Enterprising entrepreneurs (gypsies) had set themselves up on the street outside the Cathedral selling flowers to be brought into the Cathedral. Since the Bishop had served the 3:00 am Liturgy, this service was just a regular Divine Liturgy with the festive first, second and third Antiphons.
At the time for the communion of the clergy, I told Nia that if we hoped to receive communion we needed to start trying to get to the front of the side chapel - easier said than done. We proceeded to slowly to push and shove our way forward. Xenia started getting very upset - remember her view is just everyone's behind. So we finally picked her up and proceeded forward. A couple times I thought that we would never make it. Luckily, as we got towards the front, one of the Monks saw us and pulled us through the crowd. As the time for communion drew near, we had ----- another earthquake!! Not a big earthquake but enough to shake the buildings. Adds some meaning to "In the Fear of God, and with Faith, Draw Near". The priest, Fr. Sergi, was turning away more people from communion than he gave. He would say to them that they have not properly prepared themselves. Following communion, we fought our way to the back of the main church for the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy. Communion took about 55 minutes.
At the end of the Liturgy, we again fought our way forward to venerate the cross. After venerating the cross, as I carried Xenia towards the back of the church she says to me that she wants to say "Happy Birthday" to Jesus. So, carrying her, I pushed and shoved my way up to the front of the church so that we were in front of the Icon of Jesus. I told her that was Jesus and that she could wish him a "Happy Birthday." It became apparent to me very quickly that she did not understand when she said to me "Where's Jesus?" Anyway, I told her that was Jesus' picture and that she would have to say "Happy Birthday" and that He would hear her. She still had a confused look on her face but finally said "Happy Birthday." It will be awhile before she fully understands.
With the main responsibilities for Christmas accomplished, it was now "Let's open presents!." So we got back to the apartment and quickly settled into opening all those wonderful items that Santa Claus left. We did not even try to get Xenia to take her afternoon nap. With the new Barbies and other great toys, she was just too excited so we let her play all day. Following Christmas dinner, it was early bedtime for Xenia and her parents.
The New Year also brought us the realization that our little kid is slowly growing up. Tuesday, January 9 was the first day of school for Xenia. We decided to enroll her into "Toddler Town" the preschool for the "International School of Azerbaijan." It was felt that she needs to grow accustomed to being with other children and developing social skills. The school is not too far from us. The class is limited to 12 children with two teachers. One teacher is Hungarian while the other is British. The class is a real international mixture, however most of the children are British. All instruction is done in English - "Queens English." So Xenia may just pick up an English accent. Xenia goes to school three days a week, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 9:00 to 12:30. She gets a snack and a full lunch. So far so good. The first day after all the picture taking, as mama with tears in her eyes, kissed Xenia good bye, Xenia just wiped the kiss off her mouth with her shirt sleeve and ran off and started playing. Xenia keeps talking about school and how she wants to go back.
We celebrated New Year's again on January 14. There was a hierarchical Divine Liturgy that morning with one bishop, 12 priests, 5 deacons and other numerous sub-deacons, taper bearers, and monastics. During the Liturgy we had one priest elevated to Archpriest and one deacon ordained a priest. All of that combined with the fact that it was St. Basil's Liturgy, it was a very long Sunday service.
Everything else is getting back to a bit of normalcy. With Xenia now in school, Nia has some time to do other things without this little one constantly tugging on her and saying, "Let's go." There's a lot of work here in the office as we are planning to drill our first oilwell in the Caspian Sea this spring.
Last Saturday, January 20, was a national day of mourning here in Azerbaijan. It commemorates the eleventh anniversary of the invasion of Azerbaijan by the Soviet Army. Back in 1990 as Azerbaijan was first trying to free itself from the yoke of Communism, the Soviet Army invaded the country to try and restore communist authority. Many people died during this invasion as the Communist tanks and soldiers were patrolling the streets of Baku. On every January 20, the people go the Park of the Heros to pay respects to those that died during this conflict as well as all the other wars Azerbaijan has been involved in.
The park is located just up the street from us. They closed off the street in front of the apartments to accommodate all the people going to the park. The park was mobbed. We went up there at about noon and the crowds were huge. In Azerbaijan, the red carnation is a symbol of mourning, there were red carnations everywhere. People walked through the park, tossing red carnations onto the various graves. Other groups brought in huge flower wreaths which were placed at the memorial at the far end of the park. We were having one of those rare Baku snows that day so that added to the surrealism of the moment.
Speaking of snow, it started snowing on the early morning of January 23 and continued into the 24. We had about an inch of snow, a big snow for Baku. It certainly kept the traffic off the streets. However, with the lack of sanding and salting equipment, the roadways and sidewalks became very slippery. Xenia played in the snow but with the wind blowing real hard she did not want to stay outside too long.
That's it for now. Hope everyone is well and hopefully we will have more of the continuing story next month.
Nick, Nia, and Xenia
Other articles in the "Xenia
in Baku" series