Experiencing Azerbaijan

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Location: Kansas, United States

Sunday, August 29, 2004


Azerbaijan is an interesting mix of European, Russian, Asian and Middle Eastern influences. The Azeris are reclaiming their national language and identity. Russian is no longer mandatory in schools but many young people perceive Russian as the language of power. Everyone assumes I speak Russian. But, as the Public Diplomacy Officer says, it is time to
recognize that the country speaks Azeri and send Azeri speakers to the region--not Russian speakers. Where I am, southern Azerbaijan, there is an ethnic language, Talysh. One of my colleagues said there are several words in common with English. That was surprising. When I get in the swing, I hope to do a little grammar work in Talysh.

I spent 4 days in Baku, a city of about 2 million people but I don't look for it to remain that high because of the homicidal drivers. Oh my. Unlike China where the drivers are maniacs but can never really build up speed because of all the women, children and peddlars in the street, here the streets are deadly. There are few stop signs/light and I gauge the average speed on the average speed at 40-50 miles an hour. I do not jest. When the drivers are on the wider avenues the speed is at least 50. You may recall from my China diary that if a pedestrian or driver made eye contact, there was some cultural formula for "deciding" who had to yield. Here, it is much, much simpler. Pedestrians ALWAYS yield and God help you if you don't. Elchin said one of the visiting scholars to America last year (not one we knew) was run over and killed, and he, Elchin, knows it was because he simply forgot that Azeri drivers do not yield.

Frankly, I am distressed today. Baku is filled with cats and Lenkoran is filled with dogs. It is too hot to bay at the moon in the daytime--the dogs sleep. At night, the dogs come out and fight. I was awakened last night, probably 20 times, by the local pack. The weather was extremely hot
and muggy, I had to leave my windows open, so the mosquitos kept me company, and about every 15 minutes, the dogs had an argument. I am not quite sure what to do. Well, obviously, I need to develop higher sleeping skills.

The program people brought me down to Lenkoran on Thursday, we ate lunch, and met with a group of local teachers, the Azerbaijan English Teachers Association. I think I disappointed them when I could not produce a program on American methodology. I was almost awake at that time. They too were very nice and I do hope to meet with the group and be of
genuine help after the semester gets going.

Then, we had 2 hours to find an apartment. If I sound like I am gritting my teeth, I am. Complaining actually. The university was going to locate 4-5 apartments or houses for me to choose from but someone forgot. They did think of one. The apartment was under renovation but I say, in the next earthquake, (I really don't know if there are earthquakes here) they
won't have to worry about renovations. We looked at 3 living situations and I finally unpacked in a palatial house that is about 50 ft by 80 ft, and is maintained as a fantasy of the sweet landlady. The ceilings are about 16 feet AND every ceiling is carved wood and accented by complicated plaster work.

The living quarters are the second floor and the first floor is a large, screened, cement space much like the canning kitchens of old. The landlady, Sharabani Hanam, spends her day downstairs, on the phone, cooking, sitting and doing chores. She never stops and she won't quite accept that I don't speak Azeri. The best part of the arrangement is the back yard where chickens, fruit trees and vegetables dwell in the shade. I am free to use the garden at any time. This morning I carried my coffee out and she came to sit with me. She gives me the names of items in sight and checks my pronunciation on other words. I have observed some of the grammar but can't generate it yet---and of course, my vocabulary is as extensive as an
eight month old so the conversations are not terribly interesting to her. Azeris are a tea drinking society so my coffee is a little funny but she knows it is because I am American.

I forced myself out into the sun today to shop for small house hold items. Down the street is a shop where two young girls work--apparently all day. They are very sweet and are helping me with numbers. I arrived back home and because of the tiredness, I hit a low moment. It was hot, I was worried about doing a good job, and of course, the dogs and I were up all night partying, so I wasn't at my best. I put on a blues CD on my discman and was contemplating the uplifting quality of dipping into PG Wodehouse, and the grandson came up to invite me to dinner with the family.

You know, it is difficult to do the right thing in a brand new culture and I hesitated thinking I should say no. Also, it is a strain when there is little vocabulary in common. But, I threw off the mantle of self pity and accepted. The daughter, son-in-law and 3 grandsons are visiting from
Baku and the seven of us ate at a table in the garden. I was very grateful. The grape vines dangled from the arbor, cucumbers climbed the sides, the chickens jabbered among themselves. They seemed a genuinely happy family. They will return to Baku in 2 weeks, so Sharabani Hanam (Miss Sharabani) and I will be on our own.

My colleagues at the university earn $40 a month. Such stamina!Electricity is definitely iffy here, even in the capital. Some families have their own generators but you can imagine the noise. Neither Baku nor Lenkoran are peaceful places. Initially, Lenkoran deceives the
visitor. Palm trees, lazy dogs, slow paced walkers---then ZOOM!! Homicidal maniac, or vicious dog, or generator noise, or Azeri pop music blasting out from a store front. The store across the street exists apparently to play loud music and house a maniac dog.. So, when I was looking at my apartment, I noticed the refrigerator was very old. I said, "If this refrigerator does not keep food cold, can you change it?" Their promise, "When there is electricity, if the refrigerator is not cold, we will change it."

Basti! Basti! Enough! Enough! I look forward to settling in, finding ways to adjust, doing my best to bring a little light to my colleagues, and learning enough Azeri to get by.


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