About the Blog

I recently accepted a position from Teach and Learn with Georgia, a Georgian Ministry of Education program designed to bring native speakers of English into classrooms around the country. I will be moving to Georgia in August of 2014 to begin my assignment.

Before this latest adventure, I studied at Bogazici University in Istanbul Turkey and at Azerbaijan University of Languages. I speak English German Spanish, Turkish Azerbaijani and Uzbek and am currently trying my hand at Georgian.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Well guys, I’m back for more. Sunday was probably the most chill day I have had here in Baku, which means that at home it was still pretty nuts. I got to sleep in for the first time in weeks which was a beautiful moment. I had forgotten what waking up not tired feels like. It’s awesome. You should try it. I did homework in the morning and studied my vocab some since I had two tests on Monday. I tried to help my host mother in the kitchen and was rewarded. I am now considered competent enough to pulverize mint with my fingers. I am moving up the ladder baby, watch, I’ll be slicing cucumbers by the end of the program. She talked to me for most of the time and I understood but it was really difficult to respond sometimes. This was not just because it was all in Azerbaijani but also because we were talking about things like how rocking life was under the Soviets. I have very little to say on the matter seeing as I come from the arch enemy of the aforementioned power and also was born after the breakup of the USSR. My responses therefore consisted of head nods and appreciative noises when she talked about the lack of wealth disparity, having jobs for everyone and friendly relations with neighbors of various ethnicities. It’s so hard to sort fact from fiction especially since I know I come from a place where a very different bias exists in the people, media and history books.  It’s very difficult to know what to think. Azerbaijan is so old and so chock full of national pride you can’t really tell what’s going on. I have come to expect cynicism and sarcastic comments about all manner of things from my American compatriots but that doesn’t seem to exist here.
    Getting back to Sunday, I went with my host mom sister and aunt to an outlet mall of sketchy amazing. It was really empty and prices still seemed super high to me. About half was still under construction but it was an exciting car ride to say the least. My host sister had a gigantic fight with my host mom about buying an item at another store and cutting off the tags when she got home because she liked it and her mom didn’t (nor did I if I’m honest and I was asked you can be assured). I want to tell her, pick your battles sweetheart. One jumpsuit is not worth this. Save it for something big. I suppose I fought a lot with my parents at 18 but I also knew that I was heading out soon and would get freedom at college. That doesn’t seem to exist here until you get married. I’d have a long wait. I then went to the local park and wrote in my journal for a bit while they duked it out. When I got home all was settled and I had time to do some writing for this and other applications and to study some more.  For dinner we had amazing plov, one of the national dishes which consisted of rice, lentils, dill, chicken, egg, potatoes and garlic yogurt on top. There seem to be about 6000 different types of plov, all of them tasty and labor intensive. We’re learning how to make it on Thursday. Considering how well I usually do cooking plain rice this should be awesome. After dinner I announced my intention of going for a run. My host sister decided to come with. She wanted to go right away and after several wardrobe changes (no long sleeves aren’t good when it’s still 75-80 out, no jeans aren’t good either you’ll want to be comfortable, no I’d skip the flip flops your feet will die) we set off. I tried to explain breathing rhythm and going slow but I don’t think it set in. As a result we went an average of 50 feet before stopping to run in place or catch some breath depending on who you were. I made it a super short run due to my fear of killing her and she was shocked when we went home so early. She asked why it was so short. I didn’t even try to answer.
Tonight I met up with a friend from MSU, friend meaning I facebook stalked him after reading in the State News that he was from Azerbaijan and cajoling him into a coffee date. Luckily I did not creep him out too badly and so we met up and went to the bulvar and then out bowling. It was so much fun to chat with someone about the country and get real feedback about why things are the way they are. I can’t express the kind of questions I want to ask in Azerbaijani and often I find that answers aren’t in fluent enough English for me to fully understand. Ergo this was lovely. Also, he made a fantastic host. I have yet to meet an unkind Azerbaijani. They might stare at me all day long but they are unfailingly polite, friendly and pleasantly surprised when I tell them I’m in country to study their language.  I think everyone is pleased when people learn their native tongue but with less commonly (with Azerbaijani read: never) taught languages, people seem especially pleased.  My conversations aren’t complicated but I did get to turn down a proposal today. Sorry guys, here to work on my Azeri, not an Mrs. We all laughed though and when I can make people laugh at my words for reasons other than me being incomprehensible I’m pleased. This week we went to Qiz Qalasi (Maiden’s Tower) as well as the Nation History Museum. Yes there were cannon for those of you who know how they haunt my life. They remain in the picture. The view from Qiz Qalasi was stunning though and the breeze was fantastic. We also learned how to sew miniature hats and listened to a lecture about gender relations in Baki about which I was highly skeptical. I’m sorry but I just I don’t think that the Soviets “solved” problems. They repressed them to the point where they could pretend they didn’t exist. And now everyone is surprised when these practices come back into being. Suppression is not a solution. It reminded me why I want to go into public health, since so many people still see simple regulation as the answer.  People won’t stop drinking if you make it illegal. It’s been tried.  Also the lecture seemed to look down on people from the regions as very backward and on women who wear the hijab as the same. If it’s her decision I don’t know why it’s so backward. Hot yes. Also the use of the word “traditional” makes me cringe due to all the anthropology training. I’m off on a trip to the regions (rayonlar) this weekend. I’ll be in Lenkeran which is near the Iranian border (I promise, no backpacking) and hopefully we’ll crash a wedding. I had a great day today, one of those I-love-this-place-where-I-am-living type days. I’m starting to feel much more at ease at class, with the people around me, with the language and with so many aspects of Baki. I walked around by myself, spoke Azerbaijani, took the metro and gave directions to a Turkish tourist. I’m telling you, life is good here in Baki. Plus I got my Resident Card today which means I am super legal and legit living here in Baki. I do love an ID card with a photo shopped picture. But that’s Azerbaijan, it makes you either want to shake your head or laugh at loud. You may as well do the latter. That’s my plan at least.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Hey guys. So I haven’t died (yet) I just don’t have internet at home which makes posting a little more difficult. First and foremost the dirty dozen is no longer a dozen. We lost a member this week to food allergies. He left on Friday to go back home. He was my commuting buddy so it was a little sad. It also made it feel a little like we’re living in Agatha Christie’s And then there were none. Everyone’s eyeing each other. Will that one get Baku belly and be shipped out? They’ll definitely get heat stroke. A car crash for them. I could totally see a car crash. I am continually amazed that I haven’t died yet under the wheels of an automobile here. My walk to class consists of going down a street that is supposed to house 6 lanes of traffic (usually about 8 cars are vying for position) with no sidewalk on one side and the sidewalk on the other under construction. When I say under construction what I mean is that it is strewn with bricks, gravel, wire, dirt, mud, Fanta bottles, cigarette packages and if it is the afternoon power tools since these seem to get left out for the lunch break (approximately 11am-3pm). The crosswalks are secretly meant to eliminate all pedestrians from the city I think since they are typically in places where it is physically impossible to cross the road without serious physical impairment resulting. I will be fearless when I get back to East Lansing and probably try to walk along several highways. Also the past week has been nuts in terms of stuff to do. They keep us pretty busy here. For example:

We went to the American Embassy which coincidentally had the slowest security I have ever seen in my entire life. You think the TSA is slow? They haven’t got game compared to the locally hired guards here. It amazes me because everywhere else I think the security guards really don’t care. We went to the American Councils office, listened to a lecture about nation building in Azerbaijan (it isn’t done yet), had a tea/dance party (if you want me to try and dance again it had better be spiked tea next time), met our peer tutors, had a trip to the history museum cancelled due to visiting dignitaries stealing our English language guides, celebrated the fifth anniversary of the American Center in Baku with speeches that no one listened to and baklava and went to an Azeri language opera. This was three days. Plus we have 5 hours of class a day and approximately 1-2 hours of homework. I swear I will send postcards. Just maybe when I get back.

Classes have been remarkable. We have three teachers and each focuses on a different subject. We have speaking, reading and grammar every day. I have one other student with me in the intermediate class and sometimes we annoy each other but mostly we try to help each other out since we’re both hanging on for dear life. Nervous laughter abounds. I know that my Azerbaijani is improving really rapidly but I keep wanting it to go faster. I still sound like a total idiot when I speak. But I have started just chatting with Azerbaijanis. I talk some with my peer tutor but also with shopkeepers, children, a lot with my host family, while writing in my journal, asking directions and when trying to visit nonexistent galleries in Icheri Seher.

Actually that’s a really good story. On Saturday we went to Qobustan, which is about an hour outside of Baku to look at the petroglyphs there. They are really beautiful and fascinating and the museum is state of the art but you have to ask yourself, who thought it was an awesome idea to go to the desert at noon in late June to wander around? Also they got snacks for us on the bus which consisted of bread and water. This is kind of a bread culture (to put it mildly) and it’s so funny to watch all of us Americans get so frustrated with getting fed bread and hot tea constantly. There were several suggestions of what should be done with the bread, none of which seemed very practical or unlikely to result in international incidents. Anyway after Qobustan we got back and I walked to Icheri seher with a friend on the program. She wanted to see the Center for Contemporary Art there. We got there and walked past it once. When we went in we discovered a room with some student paintings on the wall. Also Salim, who must be the most lonely employee I have ever met. He came upstairs and chatted and then brought us down to the basement which seems to be the place where they have poetry readings/other hippie type activities. He made us cay and we chatted in Azeri for more than an hour. Eventually we were able to get away after photos, a cigarette (for him) and turning down various offers of free tours around the city. I do know his entire family’s life history now though. We’re tight. Monica (the friend I was with) is in the beginner class so I ended up doing all the talking. It was fun to stretch my wings a little though with no fear of falling into an ocean. We then wandered the old walled portion of the city for a few hours, stopping to take photographs of the 6 million street cats, children playing outside their homes and a visit to the local coin museum (60 qepik or about 80-90 cents with your student card). I spent the night at the Bulvar, a park which stretches along the Caspian for miles, sitting at an outdoor cafĂ© with some kids from the program, and just laughing at the ridiculousness of being in Baku studying Azerbaijani for the summer. Because really, who does that? It’s good to have friends that you can laugh with about the strange things our host families do (like rearrange your clothes every day or make you do shots of the tap water) the various local superstitions, the heat, the humidity, the intensity of speaking Azerbaijani all the time and just the general reality of being on a CLS. I can recommend it so far, but with the inserted comment that you’d better have hutzpah. You will want to scream, laugh, cry, do pushups, run away, explore, drink 6 gallons of water a day, order something other than the local beer/food/water/soda/doner, run into traffic, demand personal space, hang out with your family, retreat to McDonalds for an infusion of Americana and air conditioning and then get up and do it all again. Welcome to Baku my friends.


Monday, June 18, 2012

Well guys, I’m already a bad blogger. Life has been a little crazy this past week. I traveled to Washington on Tuesday, arriving in time to miss all of that day’s orientation. Full points me. I think no matter what airline you travel you will be late. This is as sure as death and taxes. Wednesday was absolutely nuts, with planned group activities from 8:30 until about 6. We did so many question and answer sessions I thought I was going to lose my ever-loving mind. I had no more questions to ask. I was out of questions. We had two men from the Azerbaijani embassy come and visit us which was pretty cool. The one guy had perhaps the most stern face I have ever seen in my life. We decided that he looked like either the security for the chatty diplomat or the bouncer for the embassy. This was during lunch but no one talked because the man kept looking around and we all thought he was pissed at us for eating so we sat there in silence. If it hadn’t been such a serious moment it would have been hilarious. They brought us a book collection about Azerbaijan in official embassy bags. The books are cool but then we were all terrified that they would put our bags into the over weight category when we checked in. Luckily, everyone packed light.
A little about my group now. We are the Azerbaijan dirty dozen of 2012. Six women and 6 men, we come from all over the country, from New York to Idaho. None of us study the same field nor have the same reason for learning the language. Three are grad students, several have just graduated and the rest of us are working on our BA’s. We vary a good deal in age as well. I’ll be 20 in July; the oldest on the program will turn 30 later that month. Some of us have definite plans; some just wanted an adventure and spun it well in their application. Everyone deserves to be here no doubt about it. They have the balls to be here which I think deserves praise in itself.
On Thursday I wandered around DC with some of my fellow travelers visiting the art museums and the like and that evening we were taken to the airport, to inhabit airplanes and terminals for the next 24 hours or so. We had a pretty easy timeline but the flight from DC to London was somehow just terrible. I have no idea why, probably because I couldn’t sleep and was sitting next to strange folks. In London we went through security again and then sat in a strange dreamlike state, surrounded by shoppers and stores and people who seemed to have energy, which was extremely disorienting. We got on our flight, which serviced Baku and Tblisi since apparently there aren’t enough people who want to go to either to fill up a plane. The flight was still maybe ¾ full at best. After another 4 hours in the air and a total of 9 time zones crossed we arrived in Baku. We stepped off the plane into the open air and were herded by a group of men in no one type of uniform (since that’s pretty boring) into a bus which drove us approximately 50 feet to a doorway. Why we had to take a bus is a good question. Any ideas would be much appreciated. We cleared immigration with a bit of hassle since all visas to Azerbaijan are dealt with in Baku. Since we were coming just after Eurovision, of which every spectator needed a visa, the office was a little swamped. We never decided how it was that some people got 90 day visas, some 60, some 70 and a couple 30. The 30 day visas run out in the middle of the program, and so penciled in at the bottom are instructions that the visa will in fact last much longer. Many important looking stamps were put over top seal the deal. So too are most of the visas lacking photos. A signature and stamp in its place will suffice. The first 30 plus another month penciled in visa caused a bit of healthy skepticism but we all got through. After collecting our baggage we were met by CLS staff with cell phones and laminated cards printed in English and Azeri informing the reader that we are American citizens and observe the right to call the embassy. This is since the first night last year some of the participants got stopped by the police and paid a hefty local fine. A “local” fine. The policemen got fired later for messing with them but the program organizers did not want a repeat performance, hence the cards. The drive from the airport was a little surreal. New walls with a Turkish/Persian flair had been built all along the highway. They weren’t high though and every so often you would see glimpses of what I can only call slums. I had wondered why from the air there were large swaths of land with very few lights. I think it was these neighborhoods. Azerbaijan has a huge number of Internally Displaced Persons from the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. These neighborhoods are a result of that and migration to Baku, which is far richer than anywhere else in the country. The streets were a combination of Ladas, a Soviet made car that will last till Armageddon, and new Mercedes. The new architecture in Baku is all glass and neon lights.
That first night we got money at the ATM, went to a small local baqqal (store) and bought water and minutes for our phones, which we are responsible for always keeping on and with enough money on it to make phone calls etc. We walked around HeydarAliyev Park, named for the first president of Azerbaijan in the Post-Soviet era. His son now leads the country. Pretty much everything is named after HeydarAliyev, so at least it’s easy to guess what something is called.  The next morning we walked to the Azerbaijan University of Languages, where we will be studying. We learned about the university and the program, were introduced to our teachers and our peer tutors (though they knew who they were paired with and we still don’t know) and got an address from the Director of the University who seems to be very influential in the current government. We had lunch and I got my first verbal lashing for using Turkish rather than Azerbaijani words. I think this might be a theme this summer. As a perfectionist I don’t deal well with rejection so I think I need to lower my expectations for this summer. I am just going to struggle, especially since the only other person in intermediate Azerbaijani has a full summer of intensive training under his belt. Here is the diving board. Off I go.
After lunch we had a talk about the expat community in Baku in which we essentially learned that we shouldn’t hang out with them and that it’s about 80% male so they were very excited that we were coming in. It’s very rich, very insular and very debauched from what we heard. Then we had some Azerbaijani language classes in which first I was incredibly embarrassed that I knew nothing and then got pissed and thought, “Dammit I’m just as capable of doing this as anyone else, I will get this”. We had a short time to check our emails etc and then we met our host families. I’m living with the Haqverdiyev family. First goal is how to pronounce the name. I have a host mother Saida, a sister Nigar who is 17 and a brother Tamerlan who is 13. I think I’ve shared about 3 words with Tamerlan but Nigar and I get along very well. I think I shock her a bit. I may become the bad American influence. Whoops. That night we chatted and I unpacked, we ate and then I worked for a bit and slept really well. Today, Sunday, we went as a group to get more photos taken for various IDs (which were then photo shopped which I feel like makes them less useful for identification), got metro cards, saw IceriSeher (the Old City), the QizQulesi (Maiden’s Tower) Bulvar (the boulevard along the Caspian) and a mall. Baku is a beautiful city in its own way. It’s a strange mix of so many different eras and socioeconomic realities. The pre soviet Russian Empire architecture is gorgeous, then comes Soviet chic and now ultra-modern. The parks in this city are perfectly manicured and yet look eerily similar. It’s a dry city and hot as all get out. There is a breeze that comes of the Caspian. They have a saying here that the breeze is their gift from God, to make Baku habitable. Hopefully I’ll get something to make it so for me too. If you have a specific questions please ask. My own thoughts are still very confused, hopefully I’ll sound a little more composed later.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

I just realized that I did not include a map of where I am going. Azerbaijan is the brown country just north of Iran. Baku is on the peninsula jutting out into the Caspian Sea. Looks exciting!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Well hello everyone! As promised I set up a blog for this summer, one that will hopefully even be updated on a regular basis. I don't leave until Tuesday for DC and orientation so right now I am just preparing. As of now I have a large pile of clothes on my bedroom floor, so I'm pretty much good to go. I've been doing lots of research too though. I watched the Russian, Montenegrin and Turkish entry for Eurovision this year, which was held in Baku. I did forget to watch the new James Bond with Daniel Craig though, which is supposed to have been partially filmed in Baku (my guess is about 3 seconds of the credits).
 For real though, the reports I have heard coming out of the country have been mixed, but I not only expect but appreciate that. If they were too rosy I wouldn't trust them in the slightest, if they were too negative I would vanish during orientation and then burn through my stipend check in DC. Instead it looks like I'm going to Baku.
For those of you who don't know, I'm going this summer not because I stuck a pin in a map (though that sounds like good fun) but because I applied to go with the Critical Language Scholarship program, run by the State Department and American Councils. After 7000 essay drafts which my loving older sister tore to shreds and 6 months filling out paperwork I found out in March that I had won my all expenses paid trip to Baku with the Holy Grail of less commonly taught language scholarships. Then I started taking pretests, signing all kinds of documents and reading the CIA world factbook page, thinking, "I'm going where?". Azerbaijani made sense for me being closely related to Turkish and it is a good chance to expand my cultural knowledge further into Central Asia. Everyone I talked to, from the single Azerbaijani student at MSU to my Turkish teacher to my guidebook told me that Azerbaijani would be easy to pick up from Turkish. After my oral pretest where I needed an example to understand that I was being asked to count and asked my interviewer to repeat "Goodbye" I am feeling a mite bit skeptical. Oh well. Bring it on. Being lost dazed and exceptionally confused has never bothered me before. Let's go exploring! I hope you'll come with me on the journey.