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.