I’ve been following the Mpls-St. Paul Winter weather from the comfort of an internet cafe in Masalli, Azerbaijan – that’s in central Asia. While the snowfall amounts for Minnesota seem above normal, I can say that the 2 snowfalls here of big fluffy flakes also seem not normal. Many mornings I can see snow on the top of the nearby Talysh Mountains but nothing to stick on the ground. That is not to say it doesn’t get cold, because I definitely dress warmer than I ever did in Minneapolis. Before I left for Azerbaijan last Fall, I read that this country is about the size of the state of Maine, yet has 9 different climate zones. I suspect I’m in one of the warmer zones since there have only been a few days with frost on windows. I’m not proficient enough in the Azeri language to ask which climate zone or to say “cold enough for ya?”
In December, my host mother took me to the local bazaar to buy a pair of thick black woolen tights made in Turkey, and I wear them daily underneath a pair of black tights from Target. One pair is for warmth and the other for quality and appearance. I’m glad to put on both pairs every morning knowing they will keep me warm while I teach in a chilly school.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I follow the local customs here regarding personal appearance so that means women wear skirts or dresses. I only wear jeans or slacks at home or when I go to the internet cafe. Each week I decide which of my 2 black turtlenecks I will wear, then select one of my 2 black skirts to wear with a red jacket or a wool turtleneck pulled over the black one. Get the picture? Two outfits alternate each week and no need to worry about what to put on each day. No head covering is required in this mostly Muslim country.
For outerwear, my host mother lent me her beautiful gray wool coat with black paisley stitching from last season. I have my black wool scarf plus gloves from home that are lined with Thinsulate. At the bazaar I also bought a pair of tall and warm black boots with rhinestones on the side to complete my Winter weather attire. I walk about 1½ miles home every day from school, so staying warm and dry trumps fashion.
In general, Azerbaijanis dress more formally than Americans do and they take great pride in their appearance. Women offer the compliment of “mubareck” (congratulations) when someone has new clothing. While black is the most common clothing color, rhinestones, sequins, fabric and patterns make each sweater, skirt, or dress unique. I marvel at shops in the bazaar that sell only straight black skirts yet no two skirts are the same.
I will end by mentioning my biggest fashion faux pas. Reading last Fall that Azerbaijani roads get muddy, I packed a pair of brightly-colored rubber garden boots from the Ace Hardware store on Hennepin Avenue. On one rainy, muddy day I put them on to walk to the internet cafe. My horrified host mother stopped me as I was about to go out the door, “No, no. Those are farmer boots. You can’t wear those. Those are for farmers.” I chuckled to myself, and wondered if anyone really cared. Sure enough, two men I passed on the street pointed at them and laughed. I smiled and laughed right along with them.
Peggy (Margaret) Reinhardt is a Minneapolis Wedge resident currently teaching English in Azerbaijan as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer. She maintains a blog about her service: http://inspiredtoretire.blogspot.com/