Friday, January 30, 2009

"Oh My God!"*

*Imagine that coming out of a pre-teen's mouth. Now imagine you're in Azerbaijan.

With family ties being as such, it is not outlandish to think that I would teach a ‘cousin’ in one of my classes. Ayten is in my sixth form class. She reminds me of a stereotypical American pre-teen. She honestly cracks me up. With her shiny Azer-boots, pink glittery shirts, and hair up in a braid, she lives in her own world where everything revolves around her.
I’m not trying to make her sound like a bad kid. She is incredibly sweet and taken quite a fancy to me. On my part, I find her hysterical. She just talks and talks to me and blows kisses to me when I pass her in the hall. The kids here really aren’t much different from the kids at home. They just speak Azerbaijani.
Early in January, Ayten asked me translate something for her. She had heard it on television and wanted to know what it means. Oi, I thought, my language skills are good for expressing my needs, so/so for expressing desires, weak for expressing my thoughts. But I have to give it a try. I’ve learned with middle school aged kids that her question could range from something really profound/taboo to something incredibly vapid. I was truly hoping for the latter. What she wanted me to translate lies somewhere on a whole other level; Ayten wanted me to translate, “Oh my God.”
Part of me still cracks up at this. I did the best I could. How do you describe why Americans say this much less translate it. Is there a translation? Do I go into the moral ambiguities of taking the Lord’s name in vain? The best I could do is to explain we say it when we are shocked, surprised, or dismayed. It’s like when Azerbaijanis tisk, or clap their hands in dismay, or say, “Vy, vy, vy.” I think she actually got it. As for the translation, she got, “Ay menim Allahım.” She giggled at the translation. I have to laugh myself. It takes an outsider to make you realize how ridiculous something can be.
The application of what you teach is the best way to tell if you taught a lesson correctly. My sixth form students had to write compositions about English speaking countries. When they read them, I noticed that many of them were perfect. No grammar errors, correct sentence structure, and all articles were included. There is only one explanation for this; they copied their compositions out of the fifth form book. My students were shocked when I pointed this out to them. (That’s right, Ms. Amy is not stupid.) Ayten in astonishment said, “Oh my God.” She used the phrase in the correct situation, so I guess I taught it well. She almost sounds like a good American pre-teen when she says it. It kind of takes me off guard and cracks me up.
At the end of my two years, if over half the kids in town are saying, “Oh my God,” it is not 100% my fault. I have to share blame with the hazel-eyed pre-teen who asked me what it meant.

Family Ties

In Azerbaijan, examining a family tree is like looking at a never-ending string of connecting dots. It kind of reminds me of being in south Louisiana where EVERYONE knows EVERYONE through some relative. My grandmother used to come grocery shopping with us in Lafayette, and she would start talking to people. Next thing we know, this person is a long lost relative or related to one of Momo’s neighbours. This is impressive because she only had 3 neighbours. I have relatives in Lafayette that I know I’m related to, but I don’t know how. (There are some MAJOR exceptions between family relations in Azerbaijan and Louisiana, but I’m going with the theme that everyone knows each other.)
Through my host family I’m ‘related’ to a fourth of the faculty at Mekteb 1. Considering the school’s faculty is fewer than 50 people, this is really not too hard to believe. As far as I know, I’m not related to any counterparts at Mekteb 1, but I am related to Vagif, my counterpart at the Internat. I lose track of how I’m related to most people in Lerik. I tend to default with they are somehow related to my host dad since he is from Lerik, and my host mom is from Bilesuvar. While most parents seem to have two or three children these days, my host parents always seem to come from families of four or more children.
I know that I have fallen into a spider’s web of relations, distant relations, and friendships here in Lerik, but I kind of like it. I don’t feel like a complete stranger here, but a guest who everyone knows. Like a spider’s silk, the seemingly tenuous and fragile connections I make here are much stronger than even I realize.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

One Month As a PCV!

12 January 2009
Dearest everyone,
It’s been a bit, right? 11 January marked a bit day for both AZ05 and AZ06. For me and my fellow AZ06 kids, we completed our first month as PCVs. AZ05 kids have 8 months left. Everyone says when you hit the first year, you wonder where all the time went. Well, I’m waiting for that moment to hit me.
Unfortunately, we lost our first AZ06 on 31 December. It was a complete shock to me, and I am sorry to see him go. He is a good guy, and I wish him all the best. We all have our reasons for being here, and we all have reasons to leave.
But I aim for this to be a cautiously optimistic monologue of my life here in Azerbaijan. While a bit late, I had two Christmas celebrations here in Azerbaijan. The first one came in the form of going to Baku for New Years. I was finally settling into my life in Lerik, my routine of observing classes, my almost perpetual silence at home, and so on. School was not as scary as it once was. I can see potential in my counterparts, and I am starting to get along with some of the other teachers. Regardless, I have been living for New Years. I miss having unbroken conversations in English. I miss my Masazir crew. Frankly, I need to leave Lerik so that I can fully appreciate it. (Dismiss the last statement if you want, but I later found it to be true.)
Before the sunrises, I am up and ready to catch my 7am bus out of town. My host family tells me that there is only one bus out of town, and I fully intend to be on that bus for the next 5 or so hours to Baku. Getting on the bus, I sit down next to a neighbour. What luck, I think. But I cannot tell if it was a lucky thing or not looking back. She fed me the whole way. I brought yol yemeyi (road food) with me, but apparently, I looked like I was starving or something. Because every half hour she was giving me bread, raisins, mandarins, walnuts, etc. But then again, we had a small conversation, and sitting next to this lady, I realized that my language skills were not as bad as I thought. I understood most of what she was saying.
On a side note: please do not worry. I am not starving. Far from it! I am looking forward to spring when I can start cooking for myself and running.
Well, despite the rain, wind, and later snow, I made it to Baku and the Peace Corps office in one piece. I probably knocked Marina over when I saw here. I was so happy to see her. The AZ05’s kept looking at me with a look that said, “You haven’t seen here in 3 weeks.” I know it’s only been 3 weeks, but I saw Marina and Sara every day for 3 months. Three weeks without them was hard. By the end of the day, I met up with Sara, Hiba, and Andrea at the hotel where most of the PCVs were staying. It was a fun reunion, even if the accommodations were sketchy.
I knew that my friends here were becoming my family, but it was not until I was at site that I realized that they are my family. No one else but these people knows what I am going through (exactly). No one else can drop everything and visit or offer their floor if you need to escape. It was nice to see everyone doing well and compare new stories of host families, work or lack thereof, and our dreams of what the future will bring. There was a surprising lack of digestive issue stories, or I’ve just gotten used to them. It’s hard to tell. Baku itself was a whirlwind of sleet, strong winds, and squares with Christmas trees and people dressed up like Santa Claus, the Azerbaijani version of Santa Claus, and a Shrek. It was amusing to see what Christmas elements Azerbaijani culture has incorporated into their culture.
The three best things about Baku for New Years was the people, the food, and the people. First the people. My people, I was happy just to see my friends. I will make Azerbaijani friends; I feel like I’ve already started. Sara, Hiba, Marina, Laura, Rachel, and Corey are people that I lean on when the times are rough, good, and everything else. It’s not the place, it’s definitely the people. Second is food. Falafels, Indian food, and coffee. Need I say more. My belly was so happy. Third quality is the people. You think that I’m doing to go on once more about how I love my friends. Well, you’re wrong. The people of Baku just don’t care that you’re American. They don’t care that you are different. I just love not sticking out where ever I go.
New Years Eve, we went to an ex-Pat hang out. I met someone from Lafayette, Louisiana. I go halfway across the world and meet someone from my hometown. Small world! He works in oil and was heading back to Lafayette on the 8th.
New Years Day, we were snowed into Baku. We couldn’t leave the city; Peace Corps said no travelling, and buses weren’t running because of ice on the road. Even if the buses were running, I’m not sure how I would have gotten to the bus station on the icy roads with my bag full of books and other goodies from Tony. (Tony, you are awesome, and the books are wonderful!) I was really bummed because all I wanted to do was go home to Masazir. Ana and Ata were waiting for me. I know this because I kept getting text messages from them.
The good news is that I did make it to Masazir to see my host family. Ana was so excited that I came home that she nearly ran me over. It wouldn’t have been hard since my balance was off. The lake in front their house now was a frozen pond. Nice to see that some things just don’t change. Ana sat Sara and down, and we started talking about sites, families (at our site and stateside). Ana says lunch will be ready in 15 minutes. I thought she was just going to reheat something, which would have been great since I love Ana’s cooking. Oh no. Not with Ana. She made Sara and I dolma right then and there. Tunar walked in with a goofy grin. I cannot wait to see the little man he will become in two years. Gunay ran in and gave me a huge hug and numerous kisses on the cheek. She is still my comrade in arms. She is just the best little host sister anyone could ask for. Tunar keeps walking in and out, talking or singing. The house in Masazir is never quiet.
Sara and I after lunch go to dinner at her host family’s house. Going from meal to meal is what we kind of do in Azerbaijan. I can definitely say that I am never hungry. Being in Masazir made me realize that my Azerbaijani was not so bad. I had frozen up in Lerik or something. Maybe even convinced myself that I couldn’t understand. Ana kept saying that I know Azerbaijani so well. She was so proud of herself. Hey, she is definitely responsible for my language skills. It was hard to let go of Sara again. I was catching the early bus in the morning and her bus was late morning. But we knew we would see each other again soon, so with a hug, we went down our respective roads home.
I come home to Ata telling me that the buses probably aren’t going south. The south has too much ice on the roads. I look at him sceptically. I want to stay too, but I should go home to Lerik. Ata and I make plans to go the bus station early, and Ana tucks me into bed. I am sharing a room with Gunay tonight. Ana and Ata have taken over my room. That is probably for the best because it’s not my room anymore. AND now I really feel like one of the family sharing a room with my host sister.
As Ata foretold, my early morning trip to Baku yielded nothing. No buses to Lerik, so I am stuck in Masazir. There are definitely worse places to be stuck. Ana was happy I would be home for a couple more days. I had mixed feelings. I was happy to be home in Masazir, but I was ready to go home to Lerik, and I was curious to what home in Louisiana would be like in two years. Masazir is only home because of my host family. I know that. Lerik was quickly feeling like home: the whole community. I know the post office people, my neighbours, my colleagues, and even some of my students. Don’t be too proud of me yet. I still am very overwhelmed here.
In Masazir, I was brought from one relative’s house to another. I talked as much as I could. It was overwhelming but good. I played with my 5 and 6 year old cousins: Fidan and Fatima. It felt as if I belonged, and I relished that feeling. But I also remind myself that I lived 3 months in Masazir. Today makes one month in Lerik.
Monday, I tell myself that I am getting back to Lerik no matter what. School starts on Tuesday, and it is time to get back. Ata, Ana, and Marina’s host dad bring me to the bus station. Again, no buses to Lerik, so I’m just going to take the bus to Lənkəran and a taxi to Lerik. Ata wants me to stay home, but I tell him that I must go. Peace Corps says I must go back. He tells me that if I ever want to quit Peace Corps that I can come live with them in Masazir. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that if I quit Peace Corps that they would send me on the next plane back to the States. Ata puts me on the bus, tells me to listen to the lady next to me, and gets off the bus with what I think is a tear in his eye. Ana told me that when I left Ata was sad for a couple of days and he refuses to take my signs down in my old room. Ata is a good man. They are just good people.
My trip to Lerik was pretty uneventful. Same old, same old. The lady next to me kept trying to feed me. I kept trying to sleep. Early afternoon, I made it home to Lerik. I was happy to back in my beautiful town. Lerik is truly gorgeous. I walk in to find my second Christmas on 6 January; my Christmas packages from my family have come in! I can’t tell you how happy I was to see the package slip. I unpack from my trip and for all practical purposes ran to the post office. Well, considering the ice on the ground, I walked as fast as I could. I was super excited.
At the post office, I tried my best to talk to the people there. It is hard. The post lady told me that here in Lerik that they are Tallish. Rebecca, the PCV here before me, could speak Tallish and Azerbaijani. I just smile and keep trying. I wonder what things they will say about me when I leave. The main postman and I try to figure out the forms that I need to sign. He keeps asking me if I can carry the three large boxes. I tell him, I can do it. I’m not sure if I can do it, but I know that I will do it. These are my Christmas presents. Don’t you know that they give you super human strength?
I did manage to get my three packages home. I went into my room, put on the Christmas music Tony sent me, and opened my presents. It was honestly one of the best Christmas experiences that I have ever had. I could feel my family’s love for me. It was warm and comforting.
As mentioned earlier, I got warm clothing, yak-traks to prevent me from falling on the ice (funny story below), and coffee. It was a very merry Christmas. It’s not the things, but in my own way, I celebrated Christmas with my family. Unwrapping each gift (yes, they were individually wrapped) created a connection to Louisiana. No one could take away that feeling.
Tuesday evening I went to prayers with my host mom. Wednesday marked the beginning of Ashurah – a time of reflection and mediation during the month of Muharram. Azerbaijan is predominately Shiite. “Among Shiite Muslims, it is a day of special sorrow commemorating the martyrdom of the Prophet's grandson Hussain and his followers at the battle of Kerbala in Islam's first century. It is commemorated in Shiite communities with re-enactments of these events and is a time of mourning.” The prayer gathering was interesting. I loved being a participant observer.
The gathering consisted of women and children. When we entered the room, I was led to a staff with the hand of Fatima on it. I kissed the hand and pressed it to my forehead, and my host mom knotted a coin into one of the scarves tied on the staff. The women sat on the floor of a living room in a large circle. One older woman led the prayers. The women sang their prayers, hitting their right hands onto their legs to keep the beat. The prayers like the call to prayer were hauntingly beautiful. It was also a great way to get to know older female members of the community. I really want to be able to talk to them. They are all such sweet ladies.
The prayer leader also prayed for the women who came. She prayed to Allah that me and my American family are safe and healthy and His guidance over my future plans. I was really touched by the sincerity of the prayers. Lerik is a close community. Wednesday, my host mom and sister went to the mosque in a village 5km away. Most of the community walked to the mosque, but I decided to stay at home. I felt ok being a participant observer during prayers at someone’s home, but I am not ready to enter a mosque. Especially for a holiday that is so important.
Now for the ice story, Fridays I go to the boarding school. So I begrudgingly made myself get out of bed and started for the boarding school. I wear my Yak-Traks on the way to the post office and any other long distance, but I decided against wearing them to the boarding school because I do not wear them inside buildings for long periods of time. Of course, this decision leads to one thing: I completely bit it on the ice. I was walking down the narrow passage between the stadium and houses when my foot slipped forward. I tried to save myself, but there was no saving myself. Down I went on my right butt cheek! Ouch. I was sore for two days. As far as I know, no one saw me. However, I do not doubt that someone might have. Lerik is just as bad as Iota. I am sure there are reports of all my comings and goings.
So I did my things at the boarding school and talked with Vagif. He is seriously the cutest older man, ever. He is just adorable. We will have to work on our teaching together, but I know that will just have to come with time. I accepted an invitation to meet him and his wife the next day for lunch.
Lunch with Vagif and his wife was so much fun. They live up a hill about 20-30 minutes from my house. His wife has decided that I am her youngest daughter and I am invited to stop by any time I want. This is awesome because they are so much fun to be around and they have lots of fruit, which I am apparently now welcome to pick. I like this arrangement, for I now have someplace I can potentially live when my contract is up here in April.
Lerik is becoming home. I have neighbours, friendly people, places that I am getting used to. But here comes the kickers. I’ve only seen half the town. Lerik is built in the nooks and crannies of the mountains. I realized that I have seen school 1 and school 3, but where is school 2. I asked Vagif, and he told me that the other half of Lerik is a 30-45 minute walk from the town centre. I have places now to explore.
This week has brought the first week of teaching, and it is so exhausting. But for every distressing moment, there seem to be two or three good ones that make it all worthwhile. Today I taught 6th form conversation. I had a whole 45 minutes devoted to hello and good-bye. The children made up their own dialogues and performed for the class. Each pair was rewarded for their efforts with the class clapping. On my way home today, I heard one student call out, “Amy! Good-bye!” It kind of warms your heart.
Much love,