First things first, happy holidays to all! As I discussed in my last post, things are a little different here. It’s not that we don’t have the fanfare of the holiday season; it’s that the celebrations are for new years instead, which IS a very important holiday here. They do not celebrate Christmas, which is understandable given that it is a Muslim country. What doesn’t make sense is that Santa Claus has become some creepy fat guy that has no association with Christmas whatsoever. In fact, most people have never even heard of Christmas (Milad Bayrami in Azeri), which makes it even stranger when you hear classic Christmas songs like, oh I don’t know…”It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like CHRISTMAS” blasting from the outdoor speakers of every store in the city!!!
Anyway, my fellow volunteers have done an amazing job of making it feel as much like the holiday season as humanly possible! Christmas parties were arranged by AZ7s throughout the country. I went to Sheki with 40 other volunteers. Our weekend included a white elephant gift exchange, cheeseburgers and fries, pancakes, and a screening of Elf. It certainly was not like being at home eating my mom’s roast and taking Gretzky (my dog) to the beach, but it was a wonderful weekend all the same.
Currently, I am still in that beginning stage of being at permanent site. I associate this initial stage with waiting. I’m busy, don’t get me wrong, but I wait on other people…A LOT. My goal right now is to meet as many people as possible; I’m keeping it simple. I have many meetings everyday, and I try to entertain every request to go somewhere and meet someone who heard of the new American in town. However, much of this socializing is associated with monotonous waiting. Dates and times are set, but they are often not met. People run late a lot, and occasionally they don’t shown up at all and give no explanation for their absence. I have no schedule of my own. My life is revolving around other people’s schedules right now. I knew to expect this, but it still can be difficult to manage, especially for a Peace Corps volunteer. We are prepared so well for our service. We go over a million scenarios, and talk ad nauseam about everything to expect at site. By the time training comes to an end, all we want to do is get to site and get started. However, once we get here, we quickly see exactly why we are here. Despite how enthusiastic and hopeful many of my counterparts are, we can’t just jump right in. If it were that easy, we would not be needed here in the first place. The ultimate vision of sustainability in all that we do means that patience and consideration are necessary above all else.
Living in Balakan, so near to Russian, means that I hear a lot of Russian everyday. I hope to begin studying it once my Azeri improves. Every time my family switches to Russian at the dinner table, I nervously suspect that they are talking about me. I quickly realize that they could speak about me in Azeri and I STILL probably wouldn’t understand what they were saying!!! This is strangely comforting and depressing at the same time! Anyway, according to people from Balakan, Russia is apparently the international language, and it is assumed that everyone knows it. Let me give you an example.
Last weekend I took a bus from neighboring region Zaqatala back to Balakan. The bus was overfilled, and needless to say, like every other day of my new life, I stood out. A middle-aged man started talking to me. Once I responded to the first question in Azeri, other passengers realized that I wouldn’t bite and began speaking to me as well. The man cut in and began asking more questions, everything from how much money I make per year to why I still was not married considering my age (standard in this county). He then asked if I spoke Russian…a very easy question to understand. I gave the even easier response that I did not speak Russian, but spoke a little Azeri. It was as if I hadn’t said anything at all. He went on speaking to me in Russian as if I were Ivan Drago from Rocky 4. Despite my multiple attempts to explain that I DID NOT SPEAK RUSSIAN, he just went on giving me his life story in Russian. Eventually, another very kind Azeri man hit the guy in the arm and along with a phrase that I did not understand (but must learn!) frustratingly explained that the American did not speak Russian. The man dramatically turned back to me, looking as if he had just seen a ghost. “You don’t speak Russian? Every American speaks Russian. Everyone in the world understands Russian!” Incorrect my friend, I am sorry. The man finally, yet reluctantly, accepted my answer, although I assume he’ll be just as confused the next time he bumps into an American on a bus.
I suspect that such confusion stems from what people were taught during Soviet times, which I forget were not that long ago!
On a final, hopefully amusing note, I wanted to explain one of the strangest and most ironic cultural differences I have experienced in this country. Because I am so close to Russian, my family has mostly Russian television channels. This has made this cultural paradox all the more evident. Azeri’s, in general, are very physically and sexually reserved people, especially out in the regions. Exposing bare legs, being shirtless, and showing too much public affection (between different sexes) is all really frowned upon. Because of this, Americans generally get a bad rap as being loose, moralless people. What I find amusing is that my family finds it perfectly acceptable to watch uncensored, “Most Shocking” Russian sensationalist programs that show everything from suicides to limbs being bit off by animals, yet when Leo kisses Kate on the bow of the Titanic, the entire family gives a disapproving shake of their heads and the channel is immediately changed, only to return to it 5 seconds later once the kiss is over. Seriously, everything from the most romantic to the most innocent and nonsexual, physical affection is a just a big “no-no”. While watching TV at night, my family smirks when I turn white and nearly throw up because a man falls out of a moving car on the highway and gets run over by a Mac truck; that’s entertainment. However, when Princess Buttercup and Wesley kiss in the Princess Bride, now that’s just plain inappropriate!
I really like my new family, but this is one cultural difference I will NEVER understand.
|The view of the moon from my house|
|This might be too small to see, but in this Azeri sports encyclopedia, it says the first ever hockey game was played between university students at a Montreal University in 1879. MCGILL!|
|The Heyday Aliyev statue|