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!