Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Benoit French-ifies Lenin

Benoit the French teacher and the man formally known as Lenin in Yevlax, a city 30 minutes south from Mingechevir

ex-Soviet sentiment

Lenin...or part of him


firstly, i apologize for my last of correspondence with just about everybody. i hardly have internet access anymore. something happened with my phone line and i just can't seem to get a connection speed fast enough to email.
during this past week azerbaijan celebrated its most important holiday: novruz. it is a sort of celebration marking the spring solstice. and, as the spring has come, so has the warmer weather. i am no longer using an electric petch (heater) and taking baths via bucket has gotten a lot easier. unfortunately, during this seasonal change i also became sick. it isn't so bad...i can still do most things. at first i had a sore throat and was very congested. now, i'm still congested, though not as horribly, and i have a gross wet cough. but i definitely think things are improving.
despite being sick, i've had a number of excursions and visitors. first, a troupe of european tourists and workers in baku came to mingechevir. most of them were polish, but a german, a frenchman, and dutch woman trickled in there as well. european guests are great: they are cleaner than pcvs and tend to be less broke as well! after all, they are teaching in baku or are EVS (European Volunteer Services) volunteers...and are therefore more compensated than myself.
we hiked to the mingechevir reservoir and then the next day a few of us continued on to the city of yevlax to find the famed halved Lenin statue. i'll post pictures of that statue soon enough. afterwards, i traveled west to a village close to georgia called qaraxanli ("with black king") to visit a pcv named lorena and to meet up with an EVS volunteer and another PCV traveling back from tbilisi. boy, is the village life different! i never got harassed. not ONCE. everyone knows their local pcv and so, there seems to be no need for harassment. it was a nice break from the onslaught of harassment that seems to come towards myself and my visitors in ming.
a day or so later, i traveled to barda for a real deal passover seder. it has been years and years since my last seder and the experience was nostalgic and fun. we had a great matriarch rule over the dinner (Shira, another PCV) and everything was definitely liberal in its politics and egalitarian in its understanding of gender roles. also, most people at the dinner weren't even jewish. most importently: i got to eat matzoh ball soup (vegetarian!). mission accomplished.
in other news: i'm losing my housing June 1st. What will I do? I don't know. Stay tuned.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

My Peace Corps Wife is Leaving Me

Peace Corps is a funny, random, and strange experience from the start. PC tends to throw you into a mix of people with whom you may have very little in common, but from whom you'll expect a great deal of support and sympathy for the trials ahead. After a couple days of staging in Philly and then a couple days of staging/training in Baku, PC splits us up into training clusters. These clusters will learn together, live near each other, travel together, etc for the your first three months of PC.
When you first arrive to PC, I think it is fair to say that no one really knows what to expect. We all have different expectations, or lack thereof, and they tend to clash with other expectations as well. It is a weird time.
My cluster had four people in total: Kathy, Linda, and Andrea. More than half was through training PC re-divides our clusters into language skill. As a result, Andrea and I had to travel to another cluster site for language classes. We would walk along the beach for 30 min together each morning, have four hours of language classes, try to find lunch somehow, and then travel and sit together through our CED (Community Economic Development) sessions together. And then we'd travel home together. That is a lot of together! And that was our fate, not our choice. But I was lucky...if you had to be stuck with someone, you could only be as lucky to be stuck with Andrea.
The moment finally came when we trainees found out where our sites would be for the our two years of service. Woe and behold Andrea and I were both placed in Mingechevir doing either bank or quasi-bank like activities. Also, our host families at site were placed within walking distance from each other and far from the city center. At this moment we finally realized: Andrea and I are Peace Corps married. In other words, through the twist of fate of throwing yourself into some random country halfway across the world the PC gods decided our experiences would be intertwined...married.
And so it was. And it was a good marriage. But then tragedy struck: injury! Some time in February of 2009 Andrea began experiencing foot pains. No doctor in the country of Azerbaijan ever figured out what the problem. Consequently, when Andrea went to the US for her vacation during Christmas of 2009, she was able to see a proper podiatrist for the first time. The US podiatrist said that her x-rays were far from proper and that he couldn't determine a thing. Andrea re-took her x-rays and the podiatrist found her problem: an untreated injury that turned into a dead bone in the foot. How could Andrea solve this problem? Only one real answer: surgery.
Andrea somehow made it back to Azerbaijan with a shoe inset and many watchful eyes asking themselves if this was a wise decision. Without getting into details I'm not an authority on, the powers that be decided after about 3 weeks returned to AZ, Andrea would have to be "medically separated" after all. Medical separation means we get booted from country (with all our benefits! woo hoo! and with health care for that particular problem for life!) within only a matter of days, sometimes within a week or two.
So in short (or long?), my PC wife is leaving me. She has been by my side for over 19 months. Even if I didn't see her daily, I could always take for granted the fact that Andrea would be there. Not just in country, but a walking distance away. And now, she is leaving Wednesday.
When you first meet your fellow PCVs you never know the fate that will befall them. I certainly didn't guess this. But, Andrea must take care of this foot problem ASAP and I'm glad she will finally get the care she needs.
I'm gonna miss her.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

scenes from baku part 2

i'm thinking a couple of friends can see the humor is this one (above)

studio 0.54...about 0.54 % as good as studio 54

scenes from baku

some of the girls from the university of languages in the capital. i used to say the actual word of the capital, but then i learned that half of my blog's audience is boys searching the term "capital of az girls" and landing on my blog. so to protect these girls, this has been edited.

Monday, March 15, 2010

plot thickens

This past Saturday I gave a presentation to over 100 Azerbaijani students on American Ethnic and National Diversity and American Youth. I was helped by two PCV friends, Chris and Colleen, and the whole presentation was under one hour. Overall, I think the presentation went over really really well, but I will try to impart to you what giving a presentation, such as ours, is actually like.
First of all, I should say that the presentation was given at the American Center at the Languages University in Baku. The presentation was part of a series of a events called American Days in which different speakers come in to speak about a variety of subjects. The event is hosted by the university and also on behalf of the US Embassy. The American Center was small, but very nice and filled things that are legitimately American like art books on abstract expressionism and Rolling Stone magazines.
Again, the center was actually rather packed. We had no idea how many people we'd be presenting in front of. I think there were about 200 students there initially, but by the time we presented maybe 50-100 of them left. Hard to say. The crowd was mostly receptive...I even saw one girl wearing an American flay scarf around her neck. It is an interesting feeling to enter a room filled with kids who are willing to come to university on a Saturday just to hear more information about your country. It made me feel really eager to present as honestly as possible. Curiosity deserves to know.
We started our presentation on American ethnicity and diversity with School House Rock's video called, I think, The American Melting Pot. You can find it on Youtube. The video definitely conveys how a lot of Americans view their own culture. First, I guess I should explain that Azeris often tell Americans that they are not actually American, but in fact something else. For example, just last week a man asked me, "What is your nationality?" I answered, "American" and he said, "No, that is not a nationality. Are you English? What are you?" Often, Azeris default to English, because Americans speak English. It is a somewhat novel concept (I don't know why, considering their Soviet past...) that a person doesn't speak what they are, if that makes sense. Azeris speak Azeri, the Spanish speak Spanish, the English speak English, etc. You get what I mean.
So, an important part of the American identity is conveying that "ethnicity" doesn't really matter in terms of "American-ness". You can be whatever and definitely still be, without a doubt, American. Well, to convey this the School House Rocks video shows Lady Liberty looking into her cook book....she reaches the American Melting Pot recipe and then WHAM: listed first are Armenians and then Africans (which is pretty offensive considering Africa isn't an ethnicity, it is a continent). We knew this before presenting and we noticed Azerbaijani wasn't on the list. This bothered some of our spectators. We, of course, got asked why Armenia was listed before Africa. If this had to do with how important Armenians are to Americans, etc. But, besides a couple of questions and Azeri "tsk tsks", we were able to move beyond the viewing of the word Armenia. For more information about why that is offensive, google it or write me an email.
Moving on from there, I showed a slide show of my friends and co-workers from the states. Growing up outside DC meant that most of my friends were first or second generation immigrants or just colored differently. I grew up with first generation friends from: Hungary, Russia, Haiti, China, Japan, Chile, Argentina, Brazil (many from Brazil), Honduras, Guatemala, Switzerland, Great just goes on. I showed pictures of my inter-racially married couple black man married to a woman who grew up in Croatia, but who are both definitely American. I showed a picture of a gay ex co-worker and spoke about homosexuality. That was a difficult topic for the translator. She stumbled upon the word homosexual and hesitated to repeat it. She started uncomfortably giggling. People in the crowd, other Azeris, ended up translating the word for her. I wouldn't continue until the word was translated for the crowd.
Surprisingly, during the question and answer period at the end of this presentation it seemed that most Azeris were very interested American Indians. I was asked, "Do you know deny that the United States committed genocide against the American Indians?" This was strange question for me for a number of reasons: firstly, Azerbaijanis have a different understand of the word genocide than we do. They tend to use it more often then the word was originally intended (this is my opinion only, I cannot really go into detail about this online). Secondly, my Jewish ancestors, came to the United States between 1910-1920. In this sense, none of my actual ancestors engaged in violence with American Indians. However, as an American I do think it is important to understand the violence upon which my nation was founded. I told the questioner that I was actually taught in school about this violence and that I did not deny it. I didn't really know how to respond to the word genocide in this case. I was also ill-equiped to answer questions like: Is the American Indian population increasing or decreasing? I think after this I'm going to look up the definition and read it again.
The second presentation on American youth went more quickly due to a lack of time. It seemed like these Azeri kids really wanted to get their questions out and I was happy to oblige. Some of their questions actually pertained to the topics I presented, many did not. I learned later that there were Azerbaijani government agents in the audience as well, either just keeping watch or asking pointed questions. As a PCV I cannot comment on American policy in a public venue, so I had to watch my words and answer to questions like: Do you really think the United States is the most democratic?--Most democratic WHAT wasn't told to me. Or questions about the US in Iraq, etc. The ex philosopher student in me really wanted to talk about democratic theories etc, but what the students were really trying to get at was: How nationalistic are you? Do you think America is the best and most democratic nation in the world? Do you think the US has ever made mistakes? And, well, I absolutely do not think the US is perfect, but it is novel in Azerbaijan to criticize your own government. In a way, it would be important for Azerbaijani youths to listen to a person criticize their own government as an example of freedom of expression and freedom of expression is essential to any functioning democracy.
The Azeri students were incredibly kind and curious to talk to us at the end of our presentation. Over all, again, the experience was a positive one. If anything, I merely wish there was more time.