Xenia in Baku
September 20, 2000
Dear All ---
Greetings from Baku. Sorry I have not emailed you sooner and told you how we are all doing, but I have been just up to my eyebrows in work. I am being kept very busy, there is really allot to do. However the days go by very quickly and it is really hard to believe that we have been here already for almost eight weeks.
So far everything is going real well. We are adjusting to living in an apartment after all those years in houses. Our balcony faces east, so we see some pretty spectacular sunrises over the Caspian Sea most mornings. It is actually nice being up on the eighth floor - lot more quieter than the lower floors. Nia and Xenia are adapting to their new life here in Baku. Xenia just loves the playset on the apartment grounds - and with all the sand around keeps busy digging big holes. There is also a basket ball hoop out front. I searched all over downtown Baku and found a basketball for her. Of course I have to lift her up so that she can dunk the basket ball. We have two drivers and a SUV. The drivers drive us wherever we want to go and help out with translations where necessary. Exxon supplies us with Health Club privileges so Nia and Xenia spend two days a week there. They have two Olympic sized swimming pools - one in door the other outdoor, all types of work out equipment, tennis courts, etc. They even have all types of play areas for kids. Trying to get Xenia out of the swimming pool at times is tuff - she just wants to stay in the pool. I do not think that she realizes yet that we will be back. Our maid showed up for the first time the second week we were here. I call her the white tornado. Of course Nia had to "clean" the apartment before she came - did not want to show a stranger what slobs we are. Anyway, this woman - who speaks no English, was here for 8 hours, completely cleaned the entire apartment, including windows inside and out - we are on the 8th floor and here is an approximately 60 year old woman hanging out the windows cleaning them. She also washed all the clothes, and ironed everything - including the sheets, towels, my underwear and socks. She even washed all the cleaning rags and ironed and folded them and put them away! The maid comes once a week. Nia at first did not really want a maid but she thinks differently now. Last week the maid went out on the balcony and scrubbed, on her knees, with a scrub brush the entire tile floor. Then she washed down all the furniture. This week she took out all the throw rugs and beat them clean. Xenia calls her Baba Salmas.
Nia is getting good at negotiating with the street vegetable dealers. We have learned that you have to be careful with the fruit you buy. Always cut it up before eating - you never know what might be living in the fruit. Also, our drivers who are natives help out a lot The American food products are very expensive here so we have been trying some of the local brands and brands imported in from Russia, Germany, Iran and the Arab countries. Most of the food is very good the only problem at times is the consistency is not there. Also, you never know what might be available. One week its diet Pepsi, the next week diet Coke, the following week diet nothing. The Azeri beer is worthless however the beer imported in from Georgia and from Russia is very good. Every one smokes around here except for the Americans. All the restaurants have two seating areas, smoking and chain smoking. It really takes a bit of getting used to all the cigarette smoke. A pack of smokes - American that is - sells for about a dollar - remember no taxes. Local brands are very cheap.
Weekends are spent either at the pool or canvassing the local flea markets and junk stores. Nia just keeps drooling over all the antiques available. She is really getting brave, actually going down into people's basements and looking at icon collections. It is really unbelievable the items that are floating around here. Many of the icons appear to be personal icons of individuals. Of course, when looking at icons you have to indulge in some tea and cookies. The tea is coming from a working samovar and it is served on real china - the china is probably also from the Russian Empire. The only problem is due to antiquities laws many of the items cannot be removed from the country. We are waiting for the weather to cool down a bit more and then we will start various treks out into the countryside to see the sights.
We are now regulars here at the Cathedral. The services are all in Slavonic and as I look at all the old people, I at times I think that I am seeing my grandparents. After services one Sunday, we were summoned to the Chancery Office to meet Bishop Alexander's secretary, Hiermonk Alexey. He had our letter of introduction and wanted to know, (he speaks some English) who was the head of our church, in America? I gave him all the particulars and he was satisfied. He just wanted to make sure that we were not part of as he said "That church under Vitaly." [ie. The Russian Church in Exile]
We were looked at real strange when we first arrived but now people are slowly trying to communicate with us. It was just very strange for these people to have Americans show up in their church and then to find out that the Russian Orthodox Church does exist in America. All those years of communist rule really isolated these people. Many of the people here have never ventured out of Baku. They actually thought that the church only existed in Russia and that all Americans were Catholic.
In order to receive communion here, you must go to confession - no exceptions! So every week everyone who wants to go to confession gathers in the back of the church, in a little room. The room is actually where they have an adult baptismal font. Anyway, the priest, I guess who happens to draw confession duty that week, starts reading all the pre-confession prayers. Afterwards, everyone approaches and confesses to the priest. It is a little different for us - the non-Russian speakers. Basically we get the prayers of absolution read over us. I can understand some of what the priest says - " Remember to obey the Ten Commandments, say your prayers daily, thank God for all his blessings, etc."
At communion time, first all the children receive communion. Xenia thinks it is amusing to watch the other little children cry. Xenia just opens that mouth real wide and in it goes. After the children, are the distinguished visitors from America, and then the rest of the congregation. Following communion, instead of bread and wine, they have bread and hot tea. After the first time we received communion, a whole bunch of old women surrounded us and started accusing us of being Catholics. Another woman, came up to them, and in Russian, told them that they were all stupid, and that the Americans were "more Orthodox than you old ladies could ever hope to be!" The clergy are very strict about who goes to communion. I have seen them stop people in line and tell them no. Once, an old woman tried, I have to assume her grandson, to have him receive communion. The priest yelled at her that the child has never been baptized and therefore cannot receive communion. Other times, the clergy have told people to get out of line - you did not properly prepare!
As I said, now when we come into church, the people smile at us, pat Xenia on the head and in some cases are trying to talk to us. On September 3, we were in church and Nia took Xenia out to the courtyard for a little while. While they were sitting there, an old Baba started yelling at Nia and shaking her finger at her. Nia kept telling the old woman, to no avail, that she could not understand her. The old woman finally leaves, and Nia says to Xenia: "I have absolutely no idea what she was yelling about." Another woman sitting out there, leans over to Nia and says in broken English "She said, the baby is cold and needs to have a coat on!" Come September around here, it is now winter and children need to wear coats -even though the temperatures that day were in the low 90's.
Several weeks ago, after services, one of the priests came up to me and in pretty good English introduced himself as Fr. Sergi. This is Fr. Sergi number two. Fr. Sergi had studied English at the foreign language institute in Baku 20 years ago and when he learned that there were Americans attending the church was anxious to meet us and start speaking English again. He told me that there have been some people here in Baku from Philadelphia and that he knew there was three Russian Churches in Philadelphia. Fr. Sergi, along with his practicing his English again, wants to know everything there is about the church in America. I am giving him copies of everything that we get, The Orthodox Church, The Dawn, etc.
Bishop Alexander has still not been here for a Sunday Divine Liturgy. I am still trying to figure out how many priests they have at the Cathedral. A new one seems to show up every week. By my count they have 6 priests, two deacons, four sub-deacons, and we have seen some nuns.
Xenia is probably adapting to her new home better than the adults. she is finally starting to call our apartment home instead of the hotel. This is a very child friendly society so people are constantly making a fuss over her. Everytime we go food shopping, the merchants give her a piece of candy. Last week, she finally had enough of everything. She comes walking out of her room, with her Tweety Bird suitcase all packed with toys and announced that she is leaving Baku and going back to New Jersey. We asked her how she was getting there and she said that she was driving. We asked her why she was going back to New Jersey and she said that: "They have no Graham Crackers here I go back to get some!"
September 1 was the Day of Knowledge here - also known as the first day of school. All the children wear the same thing - boys - white shirts and dark pants, girls - white shirts, dark skirts and big ribbons in their hair. On the first day it is traditional for the children to bring flowers for their teachers. In front of most of the schools there were bands playing and parents and grandparents all dressed up taking their children to school.
Right now I am in Doha, Qatar. I have been here since last Saturday for meetings. It is hot as blazes here - about 110 during the day. All of our stuff arrived from the US last Monday so it looks as though when I get back most of my weekend will be spent unpacking and putting things away. Hope all is well with everyone at Holy Cross.
PS: I Just finished talking to Nia - she and Xenia were at one of the local bazaars today where they were selling cow and camel heads!!!! Or any other part of the animal you may want.
Nicholas Worontsoff, Jr.
USA Direct Telephone: 713-767-9352