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  • The second time I lived in Baku I had a fat grant, so I got a gym membership at the main moneyed expat mecca, the Baku Hyatt Regency. It was expensive, but for the first time I got to see how the other half lived overseas, the BP and Halliburton guys, the top embassy workers, the young third-world trophy wives. And this was the nicest gym I have ever been. The locker room had cushy lounge chairs and people to bring you food or pillows if you want to take a nap. Two different saunas, dry heat and wet heat. The gym had multiple of everything you’d need, all the latest equipment. There was both an indoor and an outdoor pool, and multiple hot tubs. Indoor running track, indoor racquetball/squash/handball courts and outdoor tennis courts, well, a bunch of stuff I never used. A lounge with a big screen TV where I might be able to catch some actual baseball without all the soccer-lovers bitching and moaning.

    The irony was that I had this swanky gym membership where I was surrounded by mostly white people (many of the workers were even Russian), while I lived in a normal, everyday Baku apartment – cheap and falling apart. Indeed, soon after I got the membership, the shower in my apartment basically just broke, so I ended up going to the swanky expensive gym just to take a shower. I could have tried to get the water situation fixed, but the complexities of that situation had already dragged on for months. I just decided to go to the gym. Besides, the gym showers were just so damn nice.

    One night I had finished showering and shaving and walked over to my locker to get dressed, with only a towel covering me. I sat down on the bench at my locker, and beside me was another man, middle-aged, good-looking, nice clothes and expensive shoes, some local head of a multi-national oil services firm or something like that, I don’t know. And I didn’t care, I was drying off my balls and getting dressed. But he just sat there and looked at me, his eyes scrunched as he tried to put two and two together. I just kept doing what I was doing. Finally he said “What do you do?”, which was basically code for, what the hell are you doing in this gym you tattooed obviously working class freak? I was not really surprised by this, since, honestly, I didn’t fit in there (which I liked). I told him I was a historian doing research. He wasn’t going to buy that, I was no academic. And this reaction was not something new to me, many times in my life people have underestimated my intelligence just by looking at me.

    He decided, in all the arrogance of his class, to test me. In my interactions with them I have found these expat businessmen types usually know some history. They are travelers, and they like to read history books on the plane. They are intelligent, and history is their hobby. So he looked at me dismissively and asked me “What’s the difference between Hitler and Stalin?” My first initial reaction was to say “Fuck you, like I need to prove myself to you?” But instead, I kept getting dressed, and I said “Stalin was not communism or the Communist Party. Hitler was Nazism and the Nazi Party. Communism and the Soviets existed before and after Stalin. The real Nazi Party did not exist before Hitler, and the Party and the Third Reich did not exist after.”

    He looked at me stunned. I had just shut him up, left him speechless. I had just taught him something. In my head I said “How do you like me now, bitch!” but instead I just put on my shoes and walked away. He didn’t say another word, and neither did I.

    I was a PhD student studying Russian and 20th Century European history. I had taken numerous classes and read hundreds of books on both Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany. One of my PhD exam questions was on comparing Communism and Fascism. He had asked the wrong question to the wrong person. But what he had forced me to do, right there on the spot, was to break all that knowledge down into a sound bite, a couple simple sentences that, while not addressing the complexity of the question, is a correct answer to the question. I obviously have remembered what I said that day, and I have since incorporated that idea into the history classes I teach. So thanks expat businessman, for teaching me I can still learn something from assholes. And for reminding me that while spoiled fancy expat land is a nice place to visit, it is not where I belong.
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