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.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

 Did I mention that it's hot in Baku? I think this guy has the right idea.

Bibi Heyat Mescid (mosque). Those are some of our teachers and students going toward it.

This is Baku from Dag Ustu (Top of Mountain) Park. For all its quirks it is a beautiful city.

Well friends, I’m still alive and back for more. Last Sunday after writing I went home. Now this was harder than it sounds because it was raining. Not super hard but a good steady rain. As a result the streets around my neighborhood (where it is hilly) flooded. As in there was a foot of water rushing down the road. I adjusted my pack, removed my shoes, hitched up my skirt and went home. I may have rained down some curses on whoever designed the infrastructure and drainage systems for Baku as well. It was cathartic, you can’t blame me. At home I met grandma (I think my home is a revolving door of relatives) who started every conversation with me in Russian before seeing my blank expression and asking if I spoke Russian. I told her every time that I spoke Azerbaijani and yet when we watched the new she insisted on sounding out Hilary Clinton for me. Ok, Nene, I know who that is. Got it. My host mother scolded her but I think her memory is not what it might be. I don’t really know what happens in Azerbaijan when your senses go. It seems like most people’s bodies give out for sooner than their minds so I don’t know that there is a plan.

This week we had midterms on Monday, which went surprisingly well. Our teachers were very kind about the whole thing and I actually got complimented, so I was in a bit of shock from the whole experience. It was a strange reminder that we have goals this summer. Or are supposed to. Afterwards I found my way to Azerbaijan’s Catholic Church, built with funds from the Azerbaijani government and basked in its silence for a while. It’s an incredibly modern structure, far more light than the European Cathedrals that I’m used to. Even the choice of building materials amplified the simplicity, elegance, and soft white light that filled the space. It lacked the usual ornaments but didn’t feel empty. Rather it exaggerated the sense of sanctuary created by a church sitting on a frankly ugly street corner, one that is hot, loud, dusty and under construction. The merciful quietof the sanctuary wrapped itself around me and I fell silent. As a site it felt almost womb-like, though whether this represents God’s more feminine role as both Mother and Father of humanity, the rebirth through Christ or the infancy of the RCC in Azerbaijan I cannot know. I felt remarkably calm after I left whichever it was.

 Tuesday we went bowling with our peer tutors after class, which was fascinating because the idea of women being athletic hasn’t quite made it here yet. The sport option for women is volleyball. As a result watching some of them bowl was quite amazing. We all laughed and had fun though, and our entire group went and for the first time in a while I felt really connected to the whole bunch. It can be difficult when we are in different classes and constantly working on different stuff to build group trust and harmony. Tuesday was a good day. The entire week I was rather lazy if I’m honest, enjoying time spent at home doing non-stressful activities like reading, writing emails and trying to think about my future (ie ordering books for classes at State that start in less than 6 weeks).  It can be difficult to remember that I have a life outside of Azerbaijan, Baku and learning Azerbaijani. This is what my life is and has been for weeks. It can be difficult to switch gears and realize that my “real world” is still there and I have stuff to take care of in it.  I live in a dream world where everything else is strangely suspended. The transition back home may be just a little bit rough.

We listened to the Director of the Azerbaijan University of Languages (incidentally also a Member of Parliament and Azerbaijan’s representative to the European Community) speak to us about politics in the region on Wednesday after class. I think the quote that most stuck with all of us was “When you are playing with Russia on a geopolitical stage, you are playing a game without rules”. Good times. The man is a skilled politician though, because he can talk his way around and out like no one’s business. I am not sure whether he answered our questions or not. It was very difficult to tell. His English is amazing though and he has the in on all of Azerbaijan’s relationships with surrounding countries as well as being an excellent representative of the official line so it was fascinating to listen to him talk. I asked about Turkic groups in Russia and that was what prompted the awesome quote. Essentially, Azerbaijan can’t complain about what happens in Russia. Because Russia still enjoys a great deal of control and power in many if not most of the former Soviet Union. I definitely enjoyed getting to hear about Azerbaijan from another point of view, hopefully if I eventually put the kaleidoscope of information together that I’ve heard I’ll be able to form my own picture of it. Piece by piece, it’s coming along.

And then I watched part of Invictus because it was Mandela Day around the world, including the American Center in Baku Azerbaijan. And who doesn’t love a good Hollywood movie sometimes? We’ve been reading about the arts in Azerbaijan and we got to watch an awesome animated film about Dede Gorgud (the Turkic book of tales and heroes) and the Azerbaijani version of Cyclops, who in this case is a child of a nymph? (pehriz) and a shepherd and has an insatiable appetite and must eventually be slayed in the eye due to invulnerability everywhere else on his body by the long lost son of the Oguz Turk leader who was raised by lions. Yes it was that awesome and it is on youtube. I love it when this stuff happens. These are the kind of random moments that I treasure. I had another one when on Thursday after class I went with Monica to the zoo here in Baku. We had a devil of a time finding it, but did manage to pick up some nail polish for ourselves. The pollution here in Baku might be termed, well, bad and so we needed something to help with the disgustingness that is underneath our fingernails. Hence, nail polish. We did find the zoo and go in and look at the animals. It was kind of depressing due to the really small enclosures and the fact that they were completely tame and willing to let you pet them since people feed them all the time. The facilities are such that I do not think that they will be getting a panda at the Baku zoo anytime soon. That is a nice way to say it. There is however, a nice little café at the entrance where we sat and started doing our homework. After a while I was done and was drinking my last of my pot of chay (hello, caffeine addiction, long time no see) when a voice behind me asks me if I’m foreign. I wheel around and the two men at the table behind us beckon me over for conversation.

This being Baku I go over and end up having a fantastic chat with these guys in Azerbaijani about what I’m doing here and why the US is interested in Azerbaijan. The one man was a lawyer, who like all people it seems was juggling two or three phones, but despite my lack of skill in Azeri and his nonexistent English he really wanted to get to the nuts and bolts of the issues. And so we did. I was amused by the fact that they could tell we were foreign because we a. spoke English b. were reading/studying and c. were girls who wore no makeup. Women in this country tend to paint it on so I guess that does make us a rarity. I never thought about it before he mentioned it though so the conversation taught me something new. He was deferential, endearing and exceptionally hospitable too, as are the vast majority of Azerbaijanis. When I told him we really had to go (because we did, not in a “oh please get me out of here” type of way) he proceeded to pay for out drinks in a thouroughly non-creepy manner. In America I don't usually let strangers pay for me. It is weird. And if they are men I do not typically trust this outpouring of the milk of human compassion. I am suspicious of the strings that come along with it. This is Azerbaijan though, where there are creepers but most people just want to be hospitable and help you out. This makes me very annoyed when I do meet the creepers, if for no other reason than that they are being really terrible Azerbaijanis and not being kind to their guests. I feel like yelling at them that they suck at their own culture probably would not make a difference though. Anyway, Nazim, my lawyer friend, was not a creeper and it was a pleasure to meet him, as it has been for the vast majority of Azerbaijanis I come across. The random street corner/café/bus stop type of conversations are the best way to learn the language and get to know the people in my opinion, which is probably why I end up spending inordinate amounts of time wandering the city by myself.  

This weekend has been a blessing to me in so many ways, we had class in the park on Friday and despite the incessant noise of traffic I did find it rather enjoyable to be in the open. I went out to dinner at a Turkish place with friends and we had the chance to laugh and chat and plan for the coming weekend when we are taking the train far from Baku to parts unknown. My family was gone so I got to have the apartment to myself for a short while and feel in control of my life again. I ate what I wanted and slept where I wanted and spoke English at home. I chatted with my family for hours and on Saturday we got to go to religious sites including the spectacular Bibi Heyat Mosque which looks out over the Caspian and is the closest to a Muslim shrine that I have ever been to. It was beautiful mesmerizing and I have to admit pretty quiet considering that it was the first day of Ramadan on Saturday. We also went to the Catholic and Orthodox Church, a synagogue and the Atesgah Fire Temple. Then we got to have free time and go exploring around the city. Lovely.

Today I met up with my peer tutor Gulnara and went to the pool. I was not sure what to expect and I thought that it would be exceptionally awkward but I ended up having an amazing time. I taught her the basics of how to swim and dive since she knew neither and she seemed to love the chance to learn. We chatted and got to know each other a little but I also felt like I was getting the chance to do something for her rather than just expecting her to hang out with me and amuse me for a while. I’ve never taught anyone anything resembling a useful skill and it was really wonderful to see how quickly she had improved after only an hour or so of trying it out. It makes me wonder if our teachers feel the same way watching us. It makes me understand better why it is that people choose to go into teaching. It was a great feeling to do something that not only gave her a skill but also gave her a chance to be athletic and unique in a culture that seems to force people into very distinct types. It’s hard to explain but valuing each person’s unique abilities and attributes doesn’t seem to apply to fashion or to education yet here. I think the strong Soviet influence that requires uniformity still holds far too much sway over the young. It’s good to see people working to break that mold and to be something that they aren’t expected to be. I try to break the mold every day in the States, so to see it here where it can be so much more difficult is heartening and to see the look on her face when she finished swimming the length of the pool for the first time is something I doubt I will ever forget. This is a country that brings you up short unexpectedly, a place that just when you think you have it figured out turns itself and gives you yet another facet to explore.  Its depths are something that I don’t think I will ever reach, which makes me all the more excited to try. Let’s go exploring friends!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Well friends, it’s a Sunday afternoon, I’m sitting in the Baku McDonald’s and deciding what I can say about this past week. It’s been a bit of a tough one, with lots of emotional ups and downs. Tuesday was tiring but I finally worked up the courage to look the soldiers who are always in the park on my way to school in the morning. I was a little shocked to find his gaze as unsure and frightened as my own. This particular soldier couldn’t have been more than 21 and his youth shone through in that gaze. There was also something just a little flirtatious in his glance, just a hint, but enough to make me smile and then look down. I had a dream the other day about being stopped by the police so I’m still afraid of them but the fear is waning. That look was a good reminder for me. Then while walking past the Turkish embassy I had a man greet me with “Sene Gunaydin” which is Turkish rather than Azerbaijani. I’m not sure why he assumed me to be Turkish but it again made me smile. The miniscule shared moments with the people here continue to amaze me. They can be frustrating, charming, thought provoking, overwhelming, hilarious and often encouraging. I am continually propped up by the hospitable Azerbaijanis I meet, thrilled by my basic knowledge of their language and their admiration makes up for the worst day of class.

I did have some class issues this week, mainly stemming from the frustrating and obvious preference of my teachers for the other student in intermediate Azeri. A few days I tried to show him up with amazing written passages before realizing that it was fruitless and I should instead enjoy my privileged position as the resident apparent idiot and use it to full effect. I have also considered making up a tick to perform every time they lavish praise upon him and seeing how long it takes them to notice. Or turning class into a drinking game. These options are still on the table and I will decide in the coming week which seems the most feasible. Should hilarity ensue you will be the first to know. The beginnings also signed the language pledge this week which means we cannot speak anything but Azerbaijani in class, on University grounds, with our peer tutors, on official trips and excursions and at home with our families. Naturally conversation has gotten a little lighter in depth of material covered and volume of words. Also we look forward to lunch off of university grounds a lot more.

Tuesday I had the chance to watch my mother cook which was a little terrifying but also incredibly enjoyable because her manic pace was coupled with incredible knowledge of her national cuisine and a passion for showing her hospitality through food. She also seemed exceptionally pleased that I wanted to learn. Granted I am not competent enough to do anything but I did get to slice up some tomato for dinner. I also get to pour my own tea and run my own shower. I’m maturing so rapidly.

I was trying to explain to a friend outside of the program the other night (in English) how one of the biggest stressors and reasons for my frustration in this country is feeling so helpless and childlike all the time. I cannot express myself at anything approaching that what I can in English. I struggle to sound like a 6 year old. I am never an expert in anything because I’m not a trained linguist or specially trained in the history or culture of the region. Those are the only options for being an expert. I fell as though I can never share any of my knowledge and as a result sound profoundly idiotic most of the time. At home everything is taken care of for me. On program events we are herded around in large groups and told what to do and when to do it. I crave my alone time because I decide what to do, how I get there, how long I stay and who I speak with. It’s so liberating and so rare.

Moving right along to Wednesday. I had my normal routine and we listened to a divine muğham concert after class. I suppose you could call muğham the national music but it’s much more than that to many Azeris. Muğham is an art form that was transformed by hundreds of years of Azerbaijani musicians into something entirely unique and distinct to this land, something distinguishable to the trained ear as a mark of nationality. And so we listened and drank in the sounds and the deep richness of the singer’s voice, the beautiful way the musicians played off of one another, letting inspiration take them into the realm of improvisation and the others falling back to listen. Two of the musicians were father and son and so it was wonderful to see their interaction on stage, the father leading the son and then letting him take control. The delight on the father’s face with his son’s talent and skill in a field they shaved a passion for. It was pure joy to watch.

And then I had a birthday party. We had cake and candles which almost burned off a friend’s eyebrows and the ubiquitous cay, with soda and chips to round out the rather strange meal. I was sung to and toasted in the Azeri style, with people giving me speeches about my current and future good fortune and then we spoke English. It was delicious and forbidden and I enjoyed it a great deal. At home I spoke with my family for nearly 2 hours, which was a wonderful gift and then my host family threw me a party, with various relatives (I believe a brother’s wife’s sister and her child were there among others) and they gave me presents presumably to furnish my future home but all Azeri themes. It was an unexpected outpouring of love for a stranger. And then the food came out. I was treated to a feast of Lenkeran eggplant, lobye (the long green beans common here) the eternal bread tomato and cucumber, Russian salad, which is a mix of carrot egg meat and potato minded and in a dilly mayonnaise, meat wrapped in flat lavash bread and topped with an onion salad and smoked fish. I ate more than I thought possible. And then they brought out the plov, great quantities of rice and chicken, topped with tart cherries to cut the richness. We drank a bottle of extremely sweet red wine, I was toasted yet again and I listened to the family gossip about various weddings. After a break to digest and finish my homework we had chay and, the piece de resistance, a beautiful homemade cake, complete with candles and a wish. I stayed up till I thought I would drop listening to the rolling conversation and the hiccups when my family switched from Azeri to Russian and back again. I didn’t speak much but instead absorbed the experience of it all, trying to savor every detail. I slept well that night, feeling safe in the knowledge that I was surrounded by people who cared about me.

I finished out the week with a visit to the State Carpet Museum complete with Azerbaijani tour, a performance at the State Pantomime Theater which left me half perplexed and half amused and a divine dinner at a Georgian Restaurant. Saturday I went to the museum of Modern Art with a friend and we worked on how to tell time because a picnic lunch lying in the grass in a park. This was tainted in the end by a creeper coming up and asking us our age and whether we were lesbians. He then assumed us that it was his birthday and that he had studied psychology at the University of Freiburg. He provided a profile of me then, including favorite color, nationality and age when I lost my virginity. We were on our way out when he started quoting prices at us. I am far too expensive for you man, don’t even try it. The night was saved by a boat ride with Elvin and his friend Kemal and the chance to talk through and laugh at some of our crazy experiences. Sitting on the bulvar, drinking chay, watching the spectacular party being put on to celebrate the 42nd anniversary of Heydar Aliyev’s entrance into politics and staring out over the Caspian I realized that while I may be run ragged by this program and speak terrible Azerbaijani, the most important thing for me is finding what I love about this country and region of the world. And in those moments with friends who can explain and laugh with me, and give me an insider’s view into their own country I find that love. My love of this country has nothing to do with its physical richness, its impressive growth or its mystifying and often impossible language. I love Azerbaijan for her people, in all their variety and peculiarity. They make this experience survivable. And I thank them for it.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The ladies and I in Quba

The view from the roof of the valley

The Cemetary

Okey dokey friends. Now you get to hear my wonderful stories from Quba town. I'm glad you all seem to be patient. We left from the University only about a half hour late and took off. Roadtrips with our group include lots of talking, the teachers at the front doing Azerbaijani kareoke and dancing in the ailes, and sing alongs in Azeri with interesting results (I swear I'm trying but I just don't get the rhthmic structure of the music here, slyabbles seem to just come and go as desired). Reina Xanim usually leads the charge with endless enthusiam. When you're coming off of 4 hours of sleep this is somehow less appealing though if I'm honest. They have been trying desperatly trying to teach us how correctly dance and sing but we really are kind of terrible. My peer tutor, Gulnara, had to go to a wedding last weekend so she couldn't come. It was interesting to see the interactions between all the people on the bus adn think about their motives. The peer tutors were like little kids who were allowed to walk to school alone. It is very possible that for some of them this trip was the first time away from some relative or another. It blows my mind a little bit but I can also understand then why you would be so excited about it. I wonder if we seem strange them, students who abandon family and travel halfway across the world for months at a time to study a language we don't speak. Come to think of it most Americans think we're a little strange so I shouldn't expect any other judgement. The teachers also seemed to be enjoying their holiday from responsibilites and family. All the Americans were excited because we didn't have class. We stopped at a roadside market for a quick stretch and bathroom break. It was dusty and crowded, with cars vying for position and peoepl everywhere, kids selling corn, vendors with hot food, qutab and kebab and stores lining the edge with presents, water, chips and alcohol. There was also a mosque along the edge and a mountain where people go to pray.

We got to Quba after a little over two hours and pulled into the hotel at the edge of town. Quba is the name of both the region and city north of Baki. It borders Dagestan Russia to the north and so yet again I was faced with a border that I didn't really want to cross. But it is nestled in a river valley in the Greater Caucasus which makes it one of the most picturesque places I have ever seen. we walked into the central courtyard of the hotel and first marveled at the swimming pool that they had and once we tore our eyes away from the exceptionally appealing water were starstruck. The river stretched ot beneath us, the bank covered with lush fruit trees, small homes and winding paths. It looked like a fairy tale. The view from the roof was even better. We were given chay at a long table as they emptied out rooms lining the courtyard for us and offered more of the American pizza fed to us on the bus. What is it that makes people think that Americans like hot dogs and lunch meat on pizza? I swear I was fed the same recipe in Peru a few years back and it wasn't good then. I don't understand it. After chay we dropped our things off in our rooms and I marveled at the huge space given to me and one other person and enjoyed the toilet paper in the bathroom. It doesn't take much to please me. We reboarded the now oppresively hot bus to see Quba proper.

First we were taken to the hill on the other side of the river. We had an amazing view and a chance to wander through the Jewish cemetary. Across teh river from Quba is Qirmizi Gesebe or Red Settlement, which is a seperate town of Jews from the hills and now more commonly from Israel and the States. It's an ancient place with a seperate language from the surrounding countryside but the achitecture on the various synagoges is amazing. But I get ahead of myself. I took off by myself in the cemetary because really, no one needs that much together time. It was overgrown in many parts, which added to its charm, with headstones written in the mind spinning combination of Hebrew and Cyrillic Azerbaijani or Russian,  I wasn't sure which. The grass was brown due to the heat of the place and many of the stones stood at odd slants from the passage of time. The further you got back from the entrance and the nearer the edge of the slope you walked the older the graves got. Many were from the Soviet period and I was surprised that such obviously religious burials were allowed. Down in Qirmizi Qesebe proper we tried to go into a school (or synagogue, it was never actually made clear) and had an enormous discussion with the 15 or so boys sitting outside. Because what day did they take us on? Saturday also known as the Sabbath. Full points. It feels reassuring when things don't work out here, it feels so much more natural that way. We got to go eventually and the boys because our posse for the rest of the trip which was actually really fun. They ventured a few phrases in Azerbaijani with us but they seemed as confused as everyone as to why we could speak it but not Russian. Afterwards we got to go to a mosque in Quba proper.

I reserve a special place in my heart for mosques and mosque visiting. I went to quite a few in Turkey and I found that no matter the confusion and bustle outside a mosque will be clean, quiet and peaceful. This mosque was no different. It was solely a man's mosque but we snuck in and didn't get in trouble so they must have not had a problem with us. I had a short conversation with a man sitting outside and he was thrilled to hear that we were all in country learning Azerbaijani and as with everyone else because people in this country are too kind, told me my Azerbaijani was good. Inside the mosque was small and circular, with simple painted patterns on the walls in blues and green. A few men came in for namaz while we were there and I got to observe the differences in the prayer stance for Sunni and Shia muslims. Namaz is an act that fascinates me because of its repetivive almost trancelike nature. To watch someone go through the entire ritual is often to see a person go from being hot, out of sorts and rushed to something approaching a calm restfulness. You can see the way the muscles in the back and neck loosen as the ritual enters its thrid or fourth cycle of stand, bow, kneel and prostrate. To watch this act is such a beauty that you feel yourself refreshed and cleansed. While I know that it is not cooler inside the mosques that I visit, it feels like a climate change. The atmosphere is one of seclusion from the world and leaving all that is worldly at the door. Shoes may be dirty with the dust of the world but by leaving them outside people also seem to leave their outer shells and come inside as part of a greater whole. The shoes make the man, some say. By removal of the shoes is the removal of societal inequality, of profession, of cares and troubles and the entrance into a state of childlike freedom. Removal of the shoes means that you have arrived at a home in this country, where you are either enthusiastically greeted as a member of the family or a welcome guest. We were welcome quests in that mosque and the 5 minutes or so I spent inside reminded me what it is about the culture of this land that I fell in love with.

I reluctantly left and we were escorted to the hotel where we spent the remainder of the day eating, drinking cay, writing postcards and homework, wandering down to the river for conversation and quiet reflection, frolicking in the pool with "dad"--Josh, our resident director, who is 25-- and having conversations with the other guests of the hotel, who decided that I was a good muslim girl because I wore a scarf on my shoulders (my blue bra was showing through) and I refused their offer of shots of vodka. I suppose that does make me a good muslim girl. Full points me. We went to bed far too late after laughing and attempting to dance in the Azeri style while our teachers cheered us on.

The next morning we had an elaborate breakfast of hot food and cay (naturally) and chatted with each other and the teachers. I went to the roof of the hotel for a while and enjoyed the view of the river valley, which in a strange way reminded me of my father's home in Germany, with the meandering river, the green hills, the friendly villagers and the overwhelming and inexplicable feeling of being at home in a place that should be entirely foreign to me. We boarded the bus and visited various natural panoramas, ignoring our teacher's advice at every opportunity, in part to prove that girls can climb hills and run around and be athletic (and rebellious). We went to a rest center and I napped in the grass while attempting to not get hit in the head with a volleyball and we ate yet another delicious and enormous meal at a long family table. I love eating with my teachers becuase they turn into not our teachers but our mothers, telling us to eat eat, and that if we don't clean our plates our future spouses will be ugly. They tell us funny stories, encourage our attempts at Azerbaijani and laugh when we laugh together at the ridiculousness of sitting on a hillside in Azerbaijan sipping cay and telling jokes about Stalin. It's just that kind of place.

We had to leave unfortunently, but only after a visit to the most disgusting squat toilet I hope I ever encounter. I hate to ruin the story but there it is. We went to a carpet factory (actually two because we went to the wrong one first) and saw the ladies in action. They are amazing, that's all I can say and those carpets are worth every penny. Then with a Peace Corps Volunteer to lead us we played baseball with some of the guys from Quba. The bases were carpet squares, we switched off gloves every inning because we didn't have enough, had to hit to right field to avoid hitting the new windows in the school, tried not to impale ourselves on the glass shards around home plate or break a leg in the trench near first, kept no score and had the most enjoyable time playing baseball I've ever had. We laughed and cheered each other on, never turning it into a competition, between genders, countries or teams. We just played. I can't think of anything I could have enjoyed more as a end to a perfect weekend. We drove home and I finially got back to my apartment ready for a shower and some home cooking. No one was at home.

After a few seconds of intense cursing I pulled myself together and made some decisions. The door was locked. I had no key. My sister's phone wasn't working. I had no idea where they were. I made the choice of asking the next neighbor I saw if they knew what was going on. This being Azerbaijan he took me up to his apartment, introduced me to his family, his wife gave me cay and filled me with food, his daughter friended me on facebook and chatted with me in English and when my family came home they took me back, telling me that I was welcome anytime. I'm telling you, the people in the country will bend over backwards, and then walk on their hands to take care of you. I didn't get as much sleep as I wanted that night but I got to meet some of my amazing neighbors and was reminded that I cannot get into too much trouble in this country because people are looking out for me. They want me to be happy and safe and full while visiting their nation. They want me to love this land as they do and to understand that they genuinely love me for being their guest, invited or not. I felt so relieved when I was brought into that home. I felt so happy when they brought me that cay. And I felt so welcome when they started making up a bed for me in case no one came home that night. They would have taken me in off the street and put me up, just because I was there. The fact that I am trying desperatly to learn about their country might help, but I think everyone who looks for it can feel the love in this country. I know I've been engulfed in it.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Well guys, I apologize for the delay. Good news though, my family now has wifi that I can use! Perhaps I will actually start updating this on a regular basis. Crazy thought. They also now have air conditioning but it is not hot enough to use it yet. It really isn't too hot in Baku yet so long as you don't go anywhere or do anything but sit around. Or if you are a Bakuvian. Hence my issue with the heat. Now to update you on the craziness that is currently my life.

Last week in class we learned about celebrations in Azerbaijan and compared them to ones in the US. I now can tell you, in Azerbaijani, the differences and similarities between Novruz Bayrami and Christmas. Also between US and Azerbaijani weddings. The girls on this trip are discovering that first of all getting married quite young is not unusual. Two girls on the program went to a peer tutor's house and were informed that they needed to get married as soon as they are done with school. They are currently 21 and 22 years old. I think maybe the biological clock starts ticking sooner here or something. Anyway, getting married is a long and complicated process which requires extensive information gathering by the entire family on both sides about the other side, bargaining on the part of the parents and the boy's family convincing the girl's family that their son/nephew/grandson/vaguely related male relative deserves their daughter. Me and Matt, the other guy in my class, had to practice with our imaginary son. Quite impressively he had discovered a new element, won a Nobel prize and had tenure at UC Berkley and was only 25. We make pretty great kids, what can I say. Then I laughed until I cried. My grammar class is a struggle for me, mostly because my goal here is not to speak in the passive tense with a primary focus on the object of the sentence in the conditional. I would like to buy stamps and not get so lost that I die. I don't ask for much.

In terms of after class cultural activity we went one day to Shirvanshalar Sarayi, the palace of the rulers of Azerbaijan from 861 to 1539 though most of this time the capital wasn't in Baku. Then we went to the 4th of July party (on the 3rd) at the embassy and the police watched me change my dress in the street (as in every policeman in Baku, I swear they'll be talking about me for years). No worries I didn't show anything more scandalous than my knees and shoulders, but it was liberating to do something so rebellious here. I felt American. My new mantra is "do something scandalous every day". It's not too difficult to achieve.Then I watched a bunch of middle aged diplomats and bureaucrats hit the American beer. I can't blame them, it's America's birthday. We ought to enjoy. Also I saw the Caspian Dreamers perform (look them up on youtube, it's awesome). They had 4 fangirls at that party, all members of our group. And they were still the most popular ladies men at the place. Did I mention there are not many expat women? Mostly I think it was an event to try and hire as many of us as possible because practically no one in the US can speak Azerbaijani. I will be in demand someday! We also listened to a lecture about Azerbaijan's exports (have you heard of oil?) went to the Teze Bazar (fresh market), where the meat and cheese section smelled a little less than teze. So I bought raspberries instead. We learned how to make qutab from our teachers (a flatbread filled with greens and then grilled and slathered in butter) and listened to them laugh at how wretched we were at it. Friday was a treat though because I spent the afternoon hanging out with friends and learning how the grammar actually works through a special tutorial session, finding out our activities would be curtailed because we are doing 3 extra every week, had a short stop at home to Skype with my sister Mary and then we went as a group to the philharmonic of Baku. I will say for the Soviets, they produce great musicians. It was so beautiful. I felt calm wash over me as I sat in the theater and I realized that currently I am content with my life. I do not have the frustration of the first week or the euphoria of the second, but instead a happy medium where I have no desire to be anywhere else, or to change anything about what I am doing. My Azerbaijani is coming along to the point where I speak it in my sleep. I am making friends. I know the city. I do not know that I can ask for much more. I will update you all about my weekend trip to Quba once my homework is done. It is a good story, I promise. Until then goruserik!

Monday, July 2, 2012

                                              The Lenkeran River and the Talish Mountains in the Distance
                                                  The Bazar in Lenkeran
                                     Me and my peer tutor Gulnara at the top of Qiz Qalasi with the flame towers in the background
Hey Guys! I survived (and thrived during) my trip to Lenkeran. To round out last week we did learn how to cook the national dish, plov, kind of. I stood in the kitchen for a while watching the teachers cook and slowly turning in a circle so as to rotisserie myself on the massive stove and oven that they had going in the school kitchen. Then I decided to peace out and sat and did homework instead. We were fed the fruits of our nonexistent labor, which was delicious and I discovered that my teachers are also good Azerbaijani housewives who tell me to "eat, eat!". Also Azerbaijani children are told that if they clear their plate their future husband/wife will be gorgeous. I figured it couldn’t hurt, right? Friday we went to the botanical gardens and got rained on. We all tried our best to lose the tour and ended up being the loud but kind of funny Americans. We can’t seem to get away from it. We also saw the saddest looking raccoon I hope I ever see in a tiny cage in the gardens for no reason that I can think of. Part of you really wanted to just shoot it and put it out of its misery.

Friday night at 11 I caught the train to Lenkeran. It was, as expected, Soviet-tastic. I can highly recommend it to anyone who wants to have a super bizarre experience. Monica, Matt and I ended up traveling together in a cabin the size of an American closet with an Iranian gentleman. He and his friend came in and asked us questions for a good hour before we expressed that we seriously needed to go to sleep or we would die. They wanted to know who we were, what we were doing, were we really learning Azerbaijani, what we knew about Iran, did we want to go to Iran and whether they could practice their English with us. So yes, they were maybe spies. Please please please US government still hire me. I promise I was not friends with the Iranian spy. It was actually really funny because they dressed in clothes tighter than I’ve seen since being on campus surrounded by sorority girls. Like paint those v-necks were. It sucked when I wanted to sleep though because then I didn’t feel super comfortable changing into pj-esque clothes and ended up sleeping in jeans on the most uncomfortable bench anyone has ever invented. The toilet also looked like something out of 1984, all metal and pipes and bolts. Should you ever need a good horror/torture scene in a movie please, go to Azerbaijan and use the train bathrooms. Best set ever. I slept pretty well considering and woke up to see a lush rich environment of cay plantations out my window. We pulled into Lenkeran at about 8:30 and were met at the train station by Daniel, a Peace Corps Volunteer in town. We played "pick out the American" but he made it easy by wearing overalls and a cowboy hat. We walked to the home he shares with his wife along the train track. Seeing as only 1 train runs along it and it had left the station after dropping us off it was pretty safe. We saw one of the army barracks in town mustering for the morning (and did not take photos) before arriving safe and sound.

After an amazing American breakfast of granola and coffee we went to the bazar for shopping and chatting and bought souvenirs and food. I suck at bargaining as per expected but seriously, when the hand knitted socks are 2 manat a pair ($2.40) I can’t feel good about knocking 50 cents off the price. I may be a student but a can shell out that much. We went and got lunch at a cayxana and were put in a different room to avoid upsetting the all-male clientele. The food was amazing though, local levengi (roasted chicken stuffed with mashed walnuts and what tastes like salt, much tastier than it sounds) plov, tandoor bread and the inevitable cucumber and tomato. Cay was served as well and for the 5 of us a huge meal was 16 manat. The regions are much much cheaper than Baki but also a world apart. Lenkeran is a town of about 40,000 but it seems like everyone has a garden with birds and a cow that wanders through town eating and comes home every so often to be milked. People fish out of the river while standing waist high in the water, spreading their nets by hands in the morning light. Lenkeran is also the largest town in Southern Azerbaijan, about 15 miles north of the Iranian border, squeezed between the Caspian and Talish mountains. It’s a beautiful town, but as per all places in Azerbaijan it has issues. The mayor is new since the last one was so corrupt he finally pissed off the local population. Teachers get their jobs by buying them, they still don’t have gas lines and underage marriage happens on a regular if not frequent basis. We got the chance to meet a few more Americans in the Peace Corps working in the region and they were quite the bunch: hard working, funny, a little jaded but still passionate about their work and forming relationships with those around them. They all went to a giant wedding on Saturday night. They ran out of seats so we didn’t get to crash so instead I went to bed at 10. It was awesome.

The next morning we got up, chatted, enjoyed the quiet and then headed out to Lerik. This is a small village about an hour’s drive from Lenkeran which is nestled right in the mountains. We got the phone number of a girl in the village whose dad was really active in Community Based Tourism with the comment that I should call her since she wore the hijab and it would be inappropriate to have a man call her. After a terrifying but exhilarating ride in a taxi we arrived in Lerik, got stared at by the police (who ended up calling Elchin, our guide since foreigners had showed up in town) and heard their comments about us "Yeah, their foreigners, but they speak Azerbaijani, they said on the phone that they’re students..". We were taken to the family home, introduced to all the neighbors who stopped by, fed, and taken up into the mountains. It was one of the most stunning places I have ever encountered in my life. I cannot tell you in words how beautiful it was. We had a storm over the weekend so it was raining just a little bit and the fog hung low over us. Visibility was severely reduced but you could catch glimpses of the mountains across the valley, the sparse vegetation and grooves running vertically that made them look like the ribs of a sleeping animal. Small farms came in and out of your vision, a small square with a metal roof, perched on the side of the hill, surrounded by farming paraphernalia, eking out its existence as much as its inhabitants were. You felt as though you were traveling back in time, working towards the middle ages, when there was inevitably a swirling mist and the ominous caw of a raven. The grass looked almost golden from the strange combination of low light and a thin sheen of water. The roads were dirt turning slowly to mud and without anything resembling order. The dominant colors were gray and brown but wildflowers in brilliant sunray colors, yellow furze and brilliant orange and red poppies popped up when despair seemed imminent. I wish I could tell it better than this but I am physically incapable of finding the words to express the beauty of the place.

We ended up driving around for a couple hours, playing tag with the advance party of bodyguards for a government minister in a convoy of black SUVs, watching the climate change 3 or 4 times, driving in and out of rain, exploring caves and scenic overlooks, visiting a tiny village and getting an handful of delicious cherries to eat on the ride home, learning the word for calf, listening to Talish rather than Azerbaijani act as the dominant tongue, being informed that the Iranian border was on the other side of the hill, guarded by soldiers with automatic weapons, looking at old Soviet "factories" (with watchtowers, coincidentally situated on the border?) and laughing and chatting with Elchin. Back at his home we met more family, got fed again and took a photo of his beautiful family before the heart stopping trip back to Lenkeran which no longer fazed us due to Elchin’s driving style. We caught the train back to Baki last night, sharing the cabin with a monosyllabic young Azerbaijani, studying and having everyone on the train come down to our car, look in, listen for a bit, laugh, point and then walk back. I discussed the feasibility of charging entrance for looking at the Americans. We slept (briefly) and made it to the University for classes, discussion and an after school dance class that got increasingly silly as the time went on. Eventually we just asked if this was legit or if they just wanted to see what they could get the Americans to do. If you need a comic act for an event coming up in Baki, just give us a ring 48 hours in advance so we can clear our schedules. Because we’re funny. I suppose I should let you go now, I’ve included some pictures this time as a reward for reading the stream of consciousness convoluted monologue that I produce. I hope that you all have an awesome week, because if this city and country is an amazing as I think it I know I will. Goruserik!