Sunday, September 17, 2017

Добро пожаловать в Россию! - Welcome to Russia!

Всем привет!

Nine days have now passed since I arrived in the so-called "Third Rome," that being Moscow. And it's already a time that I can tell will stick out distinctly and prominently in the course of my life, that has already given plenty of eventful and noteworthy memories.

I left my home in St Louis on the 1st of September, but much like I did when I left for Egypt five years ago as a high school exchange student, I traveled with my dad to his hometown of New Brunswick, New Jersey, and stayed at my grandmother's house for a couple of days, visiting with relatives, spending time with her, and going into New York two days in a row to explore the city and visit my good friend Sikander.

My East Coast visit was fantastic, as I used to go pretty often in my childhood but hadn't been back for a few years, and in particular gained a new appreciation for New York. But the truly Russian part of my journey began on the 7th of this month, when I said goodbye to my dad, and boarded an Uber to JFK to catch my direct Moscow-bound flight.
Unfortunately, my ostensibly toll-dodging driver took me on a route to the airport through Manhattan and Queens, rather than on the highway and over the Verrazano Bridge, that got me to the airport dangerously close to my flight's departure. At first the drive was rather relaxing, but as I began to realize just how close to the departure time we would arrive - forty minutes prior as a best case scenario, mind you - I began to panic. There have been few times in my life that I've felt as powerless and helpless as I did in the back of that Mazda in Queens, squirming in my seat with my anxiety soaring through the roof, thinking that I'd miss my flight for sure. But, lo and behold, we did reach the  airport with forty minutes to spare, and so I rushed through checkin and security as fast as I possibly could, only to find that by some miracle the gate was not even a minute long walk from the place where I exited the security line, the boarding line was super long, and we ended up sitting on the tarmac for forty more minutes before takeoff due to heightened air traffic.
I was rather frustrated, as I was looking forward to spending a few hours at the airport and having that be a time of nice calm introspection, especially seeing as I was about to leave the country for nine months, and even more so because I love flying out of JFK, as it's full of people from everywhere, going everywhere, and embodies everything I love about the dynamic fusion of humanity that is New York City in travel form. But given the circumstances, I was glad not to miss my flight, obviously.

The flight to Moscow was fairly uneventful. I wrote a lot in my journal and also a nice poem. I watched Enchanted in Russian to fulfill my desire to watch a Disney movie in my target language when I saw that the inflight entertainment sadly lacked Moana, and understood little. I slept for a while between meals. I watched a little documentary on the IFE about the Kaliningrad region, Russia's detached little exclave of territory situated along the Baltic. And by that point we were getting close to landing. I was in the dead center of an aisle, so I had to crane my neck from one side of the plane to the other, back and forth, to catch any kind of glimpse of my new city as I descended upon it. At first glance, with lush green patches of deciduous trees and grey high-rises visible in the distance, it didn't look drastically different from landing in some of the cities that I'm familiar with in the American Midwest. But as the wheels touched down, the Russians on board applauded thereafter, and the landing announcement came on, I knew I was in for something different. "Дамы и господар, добро пожаловать в Россию..."

As I waited in line at passport control, and the full extent of my jetlag began to truly set in, I remember thinking about how crazy it was that I was really here, seeing a human and routine side to the terms like "Russia," "Moscow," and "the Kremlin" that we toss around a lot in the States as abstract political monoliths. Now officially in the country, I took a cab with a company recommended to me by one of my Russian professors back home for their set prices. This promptly led to another insane driving experience upon arrival to mirror the one I had while trying to depart. You see, my dear friends, this taxi driver of mine tried to speed through a toll both at the edge of the Sheremetyevo Airport complex, so that he could make it through while the boom barrier was still up for the car ahead of him, and not have to pay. But his plan went somewhat awry, as I was jolted from my jetlag and disbelief-induced stupor by him crashing into the boom barrier so hard that I thought for sure it would break through the windshield. We both turned around to assess the damage, and the boom barrier was broken, bent all the way to one side. And upon seeing that, this man's response was to hurriedly turn around and speed away.

Добро пожаловать в Россию.

The rest of the ride passed comparatively uneventfully, and I met my two Beloiter friends Brett and Qiao in front of the entrance to the Russian State University for the Humanities, relieved to have some kind, familiar faces to guide me through the craziness of this arrival. Having already been in Moscow for a week prior to my arrival, the two of them were a little fresher with their Russian and familiar with the different required post-arrival rituals and procedures, so they shepherded me around to all the places necessary to register for my placement test, get my room assignment, my пропуск (an ID needed to enter the university and one's dorm), and just get situated.

From there, the memories I have of the first day honestly get blurry. I had to check out for a while and take a nap, as I was hopelessly jetlagged and sleep deprived at that point. I spent several hours in Brett and Qiao's room, talking to them, their Italian friend Michele, and some kids from Dickinson College in Virginia, which also has a direct exchange with RSUH like Beloit does, who they introduced me to.

The first couple of days have already presented some pretty great adventures. I've been to the Red Square twice, once with Qiao and an Armenian-Russian friend of his from RSUH named Tigran, where I got to admire the colorful majesty that is St Basil's Cathedral, thinking about how crazy it was to be seeing something I'd seen so many pictures of in my Russian language and culture textbooks right before my eyes. Irakli, the Georgian-Russian vice-rector of RSUH, who studied abroad at Beloit in 1998 when the partnership between our two institutions had only been active for three years, took us out and treated us to dinner to a Central Asian restaurant, and it was delicious. We managed by some miracle to navigate the unfathomable bureaucratic clusterfuck that is obtaining all the necessary documents to extend a Russian student visa in-country with little to no English assistance at any point along the way, and now our passports are in a bizarre no-man's land for a month as our visas get approved by all the necessary parties before being processed. My friend Kate, who was an exchange student in Ann Arbor five years ago, came to visit from St Petersburg, and we got to hang out and have lunch in a beautiful park while she was in town to get a Belgian visa to study abroad in Leuven this semester. Yesterday I went on a truly beautiful and restorative adventure in which Qiao and myself were led by our two friend Liuba and Alisa, who studied at Beloit last semester, with some friends of theirs and other international students from RSUH into the woods on the shores of a reservoir outside of the city by Domodedovo Airport, where we sat by the water, cooked food, played music on a guitar brought by one of their friends, and just reveled in the quiet comfort of the surrounding nature and the present company. And today Qiao, Brett, and I went out with Alisa, Tigran, and our German friend Angelina to Zaryadye Park, which just opened a few days ago, and then for a long walk around the city.

All in all, things are looking up. I have my schedule finalized now - on campus I'm taking grammar, speech practice, literature, and language of mass media, and additionally I'm taking an official Beloit course online called "Moscow in Transitions" with my Russian advisor Donna back home. I had my first day of classes, which passed fairly uneventfully. I'm in class with Brett, Qiao, and Michele, and so far have only had one full day, because our schedule is unbelievably light in comparison to what I'm used to - three days of classes a week, none of which start any earlier than 10 (like can every semester of college just be like this please??). The two professors I've had thus far, Evgeniya for grammar and Maya for speech practice, have both been very kind, patient, and skilled in their teaching.

And overall I'm just finding myself getting increasingly settled in and comfortable in Moscow. It's truly a beautiful city, with an architectural mix that I find alluring - in particular a lot of the low-hung, palatial twentieth century buildings, which are lovely baby blues, pinks, and greens, look magical when the late afternoon light shines on them. I love how the architecture and metro both kind of reflect the city's history - as far as the architecture is concerned, some buildings are very grand, ornate, and colorful, and make entire streets look as though they've been transplanted directly from Western Europe. Others are very imposing, monochromatic, symmetrical, and almost sterile-looking, clearly betraying the city's past as the beating heart of the Soviet Union. And others yet are modern as can be, freshly constructed and with immense glass facades. And the same goes for the metro as well; some carts have digital displays depicting their current position along their route, and glide effortlessly through the elaborate maze of underground tunnels in graceful silence. Others that are clearly a little more aged lack any indication of their whereabouts beyond sticker maps of their routes, and noisily bounce and clatter their way along, reminding me a lot, in fact, of the metro back in Baku.

Even just after a nine-day sojourn, this is proving to be a rewarding and informative experience. But I won't pretend even for a second that it has not come without challenges. Indeed, I was thrown off by how challenging it all was at first. Even for a person like me that's lucky and privileged enough to have experiences where I'm used to traveling and have had chances to live in a variety of different places, many in places very different from the ones I've grown up in, the beginning of this experience truly threw me for a loop. At times I'm kind of hard on myself in that regard, because I expect myself to be able to deal with pretty much anything as a result. But it's not right to think like that, because that completely ignores the diverse and multifaceted elements that go into defining any particular experience and making it unique. I'll be honest in saying that the first four or five days here, I found myself afflicted by strong culture shock, a sudden sense of panic and overwhelming over just how long I'm going to be away from my country and home, and some of the most intense and painful homesickness that I've ever experienced in my life. The object of which in particular was Beloit, as I've not been away this long since I started studying there as a freshman, consider it one of my homes, and very dearly miss a lot of close friends and people on campus, and the community and place as a whole. At times it's been so bad that I've legitimately worried about my mental health, and the pain I've felt has pushed me to the limits of what I thought I could deal with and even made me challenge basic conceptions I thought I had about who I am, and what I do.

But all in all, the important thing is that, particularly within the last few days, I'm steadily on the up and up. I feel increasingly more comfortable in my surroundings, confident in my linguistic gains, and welcomed by the community and friend groups I find myself becoming a part of, all of which work wonders on my mental health and have been healing the pain immensely.

I don't mean to scare anyone with the content of this post, I just want to be real about what I'm feeling and show that things are not always perfect, and that this in no way makes an experience like this any less valid or rewarding. I think in some of my past experiences abroad when I was younger, I bottled up and stifled a lot of the negative emotions I was feeling, because admitting to myself that I was feeling that way made me feel like a failure, and that's bullshit.

Anyway, thank you guys for keeping up with the first installment of my Russian adventures. I will be back soon enough.


Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Music that is special to me - International Disney and Penn Masala

Hello, everyone! Hope you're all having a good day.

First of all, I just wanted to acknowledge the most recent changes that I've made to this blog, overhauling its name to "Russian to Finnish," the new description and little flag icon, and so on. This switch was made in preparation for my swiftly upcoming junior year of college abroad in Russia and Finland! In ten days (which feels so surreal to write), I will leave for a semester at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, Russia, with which my home institution of Beloit College has a long-standing direct exchange partnership, followed by a semester studying at an as of yet undisclosed location in Finland, as the external organization I'm going with, ISEP, has yet to place me in one of my three top-choice Finnish universities, those being the Universities of Helsinki, Turku, and Tampere. This year will be the culmination of so many academic and personal goals for me that I've carried within me for so long - in Russia I will be able to deepen my fluency and cultural knowledge of a language and an area of the world that has come to captivate me in my college years and out of which I've forged a major and an academic path, and in Finland I will finally get to explore a place and begin to learn a language that I've yearned to since I was eleven years old.

As nervous as I may be from the prospect of being away that long in unfamiliar places, and just from the generic jitters that come from such a prospect, my heart is overflowing with joy and anticipation. I'm so excited to share my thoughts, reflections, adventures, and even faux pas as I embark on this long awaited journey.

Anyway, that was a slightly longer-than-expected explanation. This post, as the clever among you may have guessed from the title, is about music which is special to me! Specifically international Disney songs and Penn Masala.

Anyone who has ever talked to me for more than five minutes will surely know that I'm a giant language nerd, and anyone who has ever talked to me for more than twenty will probably know about my love of Disney movies.
In many ways, they're two things that have always been connected, and indeed have built off of and fed each other to some extent.
I enjoyed some of the classic Disney Renaissance movies to a great extent in my childhood, in particular The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Fox and the Hound, and in more recent years have also seen and grown to greatly appreciate Mulan, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Moana. on. Or, more appropriately, Il Re Leone, La Sirenetta, La Bella e la Bestia, Red e Toby, Mulan, Il Gobbo di Notre Dame, and Oceania, because I actually watched most of those videos, along with a lot of other shows, films, and children's media, in my native language of Italian throughout much of my childhood - one of the many ingenious methods used by my parents to ensure that we maintained a certain level of bilingualism in our Italian-American household.

For a couple of years, I didn't really watch them that often. And in sixth grade, when I was twelve years old, between hosting an AFS exchange student from Italy in our house (and meeting his AFSer friends from around the world and hearing more about my own mother's memories of her time as an AFSer from Italy to Tennessee back in 1978 as a result) and checking out these books about different countries from my local library, I began to fall deeply in love with foreign countries, cultures, and in particular, languages. Strangely enough, however, for quite a time I made these giant lists of languages that interested me, basically adding any of them that I came across in those books I mentioned that seemed interesting, getting them up to fifty strong - but without ever really knowing how most of them sounded spoken.
About a year later, I was perusing the Internet as per usual, and for some reason found myself listening to the familiar tune of the song "the Circle of Life" from The Lion King, but in the warm and rich Italian version sung by Ivana Spagna that I had listened to countless times in my childhood.
Suddenly, the thought popped into my head that if an Italian version existed, surely there would be others in dubs of other languages that interested me.
So I typed in "Circle of Life Arabic." Then Finnish. Then Brazilian Portuguese. European Portuguese. Hungarian. Dutch. Japanese. Chinese. Anything that interested me, and that I could think of. I still to this day have very vivid memories of those moments, as I sat there, spellbound, searching for that one simple and familiar song in language after language, finally listening to the true sounds of these foreign tongues that had interested me in theory for so long already, bewitched by the unfamiliar tones and cadences that linked them together, which further ignited a burning desire within me to know them, to decipher them.
In that moment, I knew for sure that learning many languages was a direction which I wanted my life to take.

This wasn't just limited to "the Circle of Life." In the coming days and months after that defining day, I began to search for the other songs from The Lion King soundtrack and other Disney movies I'd seen in different languages, and what has ended up happening since then is that I get temporarily obsessed with different, specific songs for periods of time, searching through all the different versions I can find on YouTube, to the point where I come to associate the songs with different times in my life. For seventh grade, it was "the Circle of Life." For eighth grade, it was "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," also from The Lion King, and "Colors of the Wind" from Pocahontas. For ninth grade, it was "Honor to Us All" and "Reflection" from Mulan. For late tenth grade into the beginning of eleventh grade, it was "I Won't Say I'm in Love" from Hercules. For eleventh grade, it was "God Help the Outcasts" and "Heaven's Light/Hellfire" from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and, of course, the mother of all overplayed songs that year, "Let It Go" from Frozen. For freshman year of college, it was "I See the Light" from Tangled. And for this past year, unsurprisingly given my multiple posts about my favorite versions of "How Far I'll Go," would be the entire Moana soundtrack, but particularly "How Far I'll Go" and "I am Moana." 
The latter has become one of my favorite songs of all time, a beautiful tune fusing the comforting and encouraging words of Moana's grandmother Tala, and an empowering inward determination to overcome her obstacles and achieve her goals. It's a song whose versions I listen to in times of uncertainty, happiness, joy, achievement, anger, and even devastating sadness, and I find it always helps me to feel better.

In any case, as can easily be seen, these Disney songs in different languages are something truly special to me. Aside of often espousing positive and empowering messages of finding or being yourself, or containing nostalgic childhood significance, they have been a force that has inspired, driven, and helped me to learn foreign languages, which is my greatest passion in life. And as someone who has enjoyed and followed Disney dubbing for different movies closely for quite some time, it's fascinating to see the different ways in which the field has evolved. For instance, back when I first started to enjoy the dubs, the Russian ones were a little lower-quality from an acoustic standpoint, and it was difficult to find the official soundtrack versions on YouTube. Now, they've honestly stepped up their game immensely, and the Russian Moana soundtrack is one of my very favorites.
New languages are constantly emerging. Recently Mulan and The Lion King have been dubbed into Armenian. The Lion King has been dubbed (albeit sometimes with admittedly dubious quality) into Turkic minority languages from Russia such as Abaza, Karachay-Balkar, Kabardian, and Crimean Tatar! Several movies have been dubbed into Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Indonesian, Malay, Marathi, Romanian, Persian, Serbian, Slovene, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese, and voiced over into Georgian and Uzbek. Sometimes for specific movies where a particular language might be geographically or culturally pertinent, a special dub will be made, such as the Zulu dub of The Lion King, the Tahitian and Maori dubs of Moana, and the Navajo dub of Finding Nemo (okay that last one doesn't make a huge amount of sense but come on how cool is that???).

Observing developments such as those I've just mentioned makes me indescribably happy. There is truly power in representation of different groups, and the availability of media in different languages. I know for me that even outside of my immense passion for languages in general, growing up as a bilingual child, my consumption of this media in different languages was one of the most effective and enjoyable forces that ensured my continuing skills in my native language growing up in a place where I was not surrounded by it day by day. Especially for languages that may be lesser-spoken or endangered, children are the future, as the hope for continuing use of the language, so ensuring that they have materials and resources at hand such as these that can not only be used, but enjoyed, are a priceless asset to language survival.

So thank you, Disney. Your foreign dubs have inspired and empowered my dreams in so many ways, and for that I will always be grateful.

And now Penn Masala!
Penn Masala is an a cappella group from the University of Pennsylvania which mainly does fusion songs between American pop and Bollywood hits. I first heard them when they made a brief appearance in one of the Pitch Perfect movies which I saw during a movie night my freshman year of college, and being captivated by their vocal talent and multilingual songs.
From there I listened to a ton of their old albums from over the years, and have avidly followed and thoroughly enjoyed the two others that have been released since I started listening to their music.

Somewhat similarly to the different Disney songs, I've listened to some Penn Masala albums so much that they've come to remind me of different times in my life. Panoramic reminds me of my very first semester of college, the cool breezes and fiery foliage of autumn in southern Wisconsin, walks to early morning classes, and the jittery adventures as I began to discover and expand my passions and academic paths. Resonance reminds me of the end of my first semester, my long-awaited and incredible return to my beloved Turkey, and the beginning of the second semester. And their most recent album, Yuva, reminds me of the still cool but sunny Midwestern spring as my most recent semester of college came to a close, and my greatly anticipated first return to Ann Arbor that soon followed.
Having been a part of an a cappella choir my senior year of high school and greatly enjoyed it, I always love listening to other groups singing a cappella, and Penn Masala's immense talent is no exception. By listening to their music, I've come to discover and appreciate the original versions of the Hindi, Urdu, and Bangla hits that they include in their masterful mashups, which are often combined based on connected themes and messages within the songs. Most of their music is very energetic and bouncy, which always makes me happy when listening to it, and most of what isn't is calmer and more soothing, the sort of thing that I love listening to in order to fall asleep.

Penn Masala has eventually become one of my favorite musical groups. Their talent and innovative musical multilingualism has brought me much happiness, and introduced me to the linguistic and musical beauty of some of the world's richest and most fascinating cultures.

*There doesn't seem to be an all-album video up on YouTube for Yuva, so I'm just going to link some of my favorite songs from that album, among some favorites from the others. Enjoy!*

In any case, I hope that beyond all the gushing and fangirling, I've managed to get my point across, and perhaps even interest some of the rest of you to take the plunge with me.
If you search for pretty much any song - or clip, for that matter - from a Disney movie you love in a different language that interests you, or a multilingual version, chances are you'll find it. And if you check out Penn Masala on their YouTube channel, iTunes, or Spotify, for all the reasons mentioned above and more, I guarantee that you won't regret it.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Be back soon. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

The truth of studying Turkish in Azerbaijan

Herkese merhaba.

As promised, I'm back to spit some hot fire of truth on what it's like to learn Turkish in Azerbaijan. Disclaimer: this is purely my own opinion, based on my own experiences and observations having been someone who has studied Turkish in Azerbaijan. I in no way claim to represent CLS, American Councils, or any other organization, or their views and policies.

Okay, so let's start with a little linguistic background:
The only official language in Azerbaijan is Azerbaijani, which is a Turkic language of the Oghuz branch. It shares a lot of common grammatical, phonetic, and syntactical similarities with Turkish, and the two languages are reputed to have varying degrees of mutual intelligibility, even as high as 90%. However, Azerbaijani preserves a lot of older Arabic and Persian-based vocabulary, never having been subjected to Ataturk's reforms in Turkey that purged these in favor of more ancient, Turkic-based root words, as well as many Russian loan words as a legacy from their belonging to the Soviet Union. What language people speak natively at home varies by family and experience, but nearly everyone in Azerbaijan is bilingual in Azerbaijani and Russian, as those who grew up in the Soviet Union were educated in it, and it continues to be an important language of business, international outreach, and education in Azerbaijan today. Interestingly, this is not based on ethnic affiliation; by and large, most Azerbaijanis who speak Russian at home or with their families are not ethnic Russians themselves, but simply ethnic Azeris who chose to use Russian, often as a way to indicate appreciation for Russian culture, or as a slightly bougie status symbol.

Turkish is widely understood in Azerbaijan, as most people in the country grow up with extensive exposure to Turkish through their consumption of Turkish media, and the two languages are, as previously mentioned, connected through many shared linguistic roots. In many cases, the younger generation is typically more adept at understanding and especially at actually speaking Turkish, as it's only been in more recent years that this consumption of Turkish media has become commonplace. Back in Soviet times, most outside media was coming in from Russia, especially given the fact that Azerbaijani identity grew largely due to Russian influence as a "divide and conquer" method to separate Azerbaijani and Turkish identity to prevent them from allying with Turkey and fleeing Soviet control.

In all honesty, at least for me, learning Turkish in Azerbaijan was a very frustrating experience much of the time. Much as people claim to be able to understand or speak Turkish, or that the two languages are "the same," it often feels like neither of those are true. Even native speakers of one of the two languages often struggle to make heads or tails of the other, and so for me and most of my group, as imperfect speakers that only really knew haphazard Turkish at best, making sense of Azerbaijani beyond a very simple level was near impossible.
Locals find it difficult to perceive this difference, somewhat optimistically calling their language "Azeri Turkish" and saying "Why? It's the same," when asked to speak "Istanbul (read: ACTUAL) Turkish."

I'll be honest in saying that a lot of the time, I struggled to communicate with people. Even though I did find myself picking up on bits and pieces of it over time, I was never able to understand it beyond a most basic level, and certainly not at a true, native fluidity and speed. It got frustrating, to the point that at times I would avoid speaking to people in public at all costs because I figured that it was pointless - we wouldn't be able to understand each other anyway. I was never able to have meaningful conversation with my non-Turkish speaking Azeri host mother without her niece there to translate for us.

The reason I'm writing this post is for it to serve as something of a reality check and insider perspective for anyone who might be planning to embark on some program to study Turkish in Azerbaijan, as given the current security situation and travel warning out on Turkey by the State Department, a number of, particularly government-funded, programs for Turkish study have been moved to Azerbaijan.

Be prepared for people to adamantly insist that they are speaking "the same language" as you when you have absolutely no idea what they're saying. Be prepared for there to be a glaringly obvious discrepancy between what you're learning academically, and literally every other aspect of your day-to-day life on the ground. Be prepared for what you study in the classroom to feel like it has no practical value as soon as you step off of campus into the real city. Be prepared to be frustrated and aggravated at times - potentially frequently. Be prepared to feel discouraged and angry at times, to feel like you're not accomplishing what you came to do, that you can't. Be prepared for your frustrations to occasionally amount to so much that you resent being there. Be prepared to cherish any truly Turkish-speaking teachers, friends, language partners, or host family you may have, as they will be the most crucial force in the improvement of your actual Turkish language skills.

Be prepared to be exposed to a truly fascinating, dynamic, and multilingual place with a diverse and unique history at the crossroads of so many worlds. But that is not, ultimately, what you set out to learn.

I'm sorry that this is somewhat negative, but these are my honest feelings on what this experience consisted of for me. And I think that since organizations and locals on the ground alike can be very big into the whole bullshit "they're basically the 'same' language" narrative, it's important for people venturing into such an experience to be aware of the reality of what they're getting themselves into.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Final Azerbaijan update and return

Hello, everyone.

So this is going to be my last little blurb on the blogosphere under the current "AzerbayCANIM" title, before I overhaul the blog a little in preparation for my junior year abroad in Moscow, Russia, and Finland.

I dropped off the grid a little towards the end of my CLS program, and I apologize for that. Usually in my past exchanges, I would blog much more meticulously, writing every so often (usually on a weekly basis) and making organized lists, careful to discuss everything noteworthy that I wished to share in detail. But for some reason, this time around I didn't feel the need to be so zealous about it, content instead to just write more periodically, giving more general and nebulous accounts of my feelings, the everyday.

The time that passed since my last post was probably one of the best periods of the whole program. In these last few weeks, I'd basically hit my stride. The challenges were still challenging, but I'd reached a point where overall I felt like I'd come to an understanding, made my peace with them, and knew how to roll with the punches. I reevaluated my goals, and came to acknowledge, validate, and be proud of my own gains in Turkish, aided by the gracious praise and support of my fellow CLSers. I grew closer to a number of really awesome people, who I hung out with on a continuously regular basis. There were unexpected five-hour conversations about love and the universe resulting from just casually bumping into people; wanderings along the Caspian coast; meals at some of Baku's few and far-flung foreign restaurants; and an amazing evening on our last full day in town that ended with the five of us lying down by the edge of the water, a bizarre but beautiful atmosphere of peace and quiet in the air (as it was nearly 2), and I sat there thinking how that was such an unexpected and beautiful way for it all to come to a close.

Two days ago, we returned to the States. Given how far away Azerbaijan is, grueling travel time is part of the package if you're not on Azerbaijan Airlines' single direct US-bound flight to JFK, and so we left the country on a 5:15 am flight to Frankfurt. My goodbye with my host family was heartfelt and sad, but also felt rather rushed. We took a bus to Heydar Aliyev International Airport together from the university, with our final view on the dynamic and dramatic neon flashes of the city's oil money architecture lighting up the night just as they had done when we took that same bus ride in the opposite direction, immediately following our arrival.

After check-in, I hung around with my friends Giovanna, John, and Jordi as we tried to buy our time before seeing Giovanna off, as she was flying directly to her family in Italy rather than back to the States with us. That goodbye was by far one of the most emotional, and it was hard to get started on it so early.

I stayed up long enough to watch a bit of the sunrise over the Caspian, my mounting deliriousness furthering my disbelief that we were leaving, before crashing against the window.
Our four hour layover in Frankfurt passed uneventfully enough; I splurged on sushi, a salmon sandwich, and a smoothie, because I was tired, hungry, wanted to treat myself, and still had a little left of my stipend to blow. Not really much noteworthy happened, at least that I remember, because I was kind of sleep deprived to the point of losing it at that point. Our RD Cat was flying to see her American family in Philadelphia before flying home to Istanbul, so we saw her off there before getting on our flight. I feel lucky to have had Cat as my RD both on NSLI-Y and CLS; with some of the obstacles I faced, particularly the craziness of switching host families, it was really nice to have a supportive and determined person who I already knew and felt comfortable around at the helm.
The flight back to DC was standart (a common Turkish-based inside joke of ours meaning "so-so"). I watched Aladdin, went around having people sign my travel journal as I always do. I actually spent a lot of time standing up. Not much else to report.

Landing back in DC felt very surreal. My sleep deprivation at that point was pretty aggressive, and after two months of adjusting to the complete unknown, it all threw me for a loop.
With many of us that were left at that point leaving for gates in different areas, we said our goodbyes near one of the entrances to the interterminal train. Slightly delirious hugs and sweet parting words, which were heartfelt in the utmost, but slightly rushed and sudden, which left me feeling, for sheer lack of better terminology, shook. My community of CLSer friends were by far the silver lining of my program, a source of fun, learning, and support in the times when I most needed it, who I saw nearly every day for two months, and so just suddenly being by myself waiting for my flight home to St Louis was very strange.

That airport has been a site for so many important and sad goodbyes for me. First coming home from NSLI-Y, and now CLS as well. I felt very wistful and nostalgic sitting there alone, flashing back to all these moments from when I returned from NSLI-Y and sad goodbye to my friends from that program in basically the same place, and also flashing back to when I arrived back in June for PDO, so full of excitement and anticipation to delve headfirst into the unknown, reveling in how bizarre it was to be back in these familiar spaces with all of the lived experience I'd looked forward to now behind me.

I read the notes they'd left in my journal by the gate, which were moving and empowering testaments to how amazing they are as people, and cried a little.
The rest is kind of a blur at that point, and not all that interesting to boot. Flight to STL, mostly spent sleeping; Uber home and spending a night by myself because my family was out of town and had a delayed return due to a canceled flight; seeing them again, etc.
As disappointed as I was not to see them an extra night, it was kind of nice after two months of so much craziness and intense activity to have a while completely by myself to process everything.

And so an adventure that I'd aspired to since high school came to an end.

I've only been home two days at this point, and haven't done too much yet, as I've been mainly focused on trying to shake off my intense jetlag and prepare my visa application for my next big adventure to Moscow, coming up on September 7.
Being back has been great so far in terms of seeing my family, being in an environment that I feel fully comfortable in culturally and can navigate with far less difficulty and second-guessing, and enjoying all the things I missed while I was away.
To part ways (for now) with wonderful people that I connected so well and so easily with was not easy. But I feel lucky that I made friendships that made parting ways so hard, and hope to see people again soon.

This summer was one of the most insane and complex experiences of my life so far. As much as I tried not to have any expectations, and indeed even arrived not really having any clear idea of what to expect, I think that deep down I thought CLS would be like NSLI-Y, and Azerbaijan would be like Turkey, neither of which are true, the latter far more difficult to deal with. I'll be blatantly honest in saying that Azerbaijan is not an easy place to live, and trying to study Turkish there has a lot of unique challenges that were extremely frustrating, to the point that at times I admittedly even resented being there. But after I came to terms with the frustrations I was facing, allowed myself to acknowledge them and handle them in healthier ways, I was able to focus on taking full advantage of the Turkish immersion I did have in class, and enjoy the beautiful things that I was able to see and experience as a product of being in Azerbaijan specifically.

In spite of the real and numerous frustrations I faced, I came away from this experience with amazing friendships, greatly improved Turkish skills, and overall a stronger, more knowledgeable, and more experienced person, and I'm grateful for it. Whatever may have been, the view of gray gorges and lush emerald forests from the Gelersen Gorersen castle ruins in the mountains by Sheki, the gently rising and falling waves of the harbor in Bulvar, the winding cobblestone streets of Icheri Shehir, the supreme tranquility of the Grand Synagogue in Qirmizi Qesebe, the cool mist of Ilisu Waterfall, and so many more places, will always hold a special place in my heart.

Thank you for everything, Azerbaijan. I will always be proud of and miss this life-changing experience, and hope to see you again someday.

In coming days, I think I will write a little more on some subjects related to my CLS experience, namely a post on difficulty/going home early/changing host families, and also a post going into greater detail of what it is like - or at least, I should say, what it was like specifically for me - to learn Turkish in Azerbaijan, as between CLS, Indiana University Flagship, and others, there seem to be a number of Turkish language programs that, for better or worse, are set to take place in Azerbaijan for the foreseeable future, and I think there's a lot to be said about that, which I intend to put in my two cents in on.

Anyway, thank you all as usual for reading, and for following my chronicles and thoughts as I ventured through this adventure that I'd dreamt of for four years.

Another beautiful mashup from Smellsliketwinspirit!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

A year since two big firsts

Hey guys!

So as the title of this post would suggest, a year has gone by since a very auspicious and important day in my life, which was July 27, 2016.

On that day, I left my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, as a true home base for the last time, just days before my family packed up my entire childhood home and moved to St Louis, Missouri, and embarked on my twenty-five day adventure in the Land of Fire and Ice (or, as it's also known, Iceland).

Now, from the Land of Fire (a well-deserved nickname for Azerbaijan) a year later, I've been thinking a lot about everything that's transpired since that day, pertaining to those two particular aspects.

When I left Ann Arbor, I was very scared. As adventurous a person as I would like to consider myself, and as much as I love to travel and explore the world in pursuit of my diverse and expansive linguistic passions, I have roots. I have many places that I love and miss and feel nostalgic for when I leave them behind, and as the place that was the backdrop for all of my childhood and adolescence, every fun day of school and budding friendship, every distant dream for the future and ill-fated crush, Ann Arbor stands above them all. Before I left last year, I had never permanently called another place home. My family had always lived there; Ann Arbor and my old house there specifically were comforting fortresses with my past life and memories written into the very walls, my rocks that I knew I would go back to, and know that I could be my complete and whole self there.
Leaving it behind forever terrified me.
And for a long time until I visited Ann Arbor again for the first time since our move this past May, I missed it deeply and intensely, to the point that at times even just thinking about Michigan would make me want to cry.

When I finally returned to Ann Arbor in May, it soothed and nourished my spirit in a way almost nothing else had for all the months I'd been away. Here I was again, wandering the streets that I always used to, seeing all these people and being in all these places that were familiar and comforting to me, finally back in the place where I grew up.
But at the same time, it also provided somewhat of a reality check.
Being back, as amazing as it was, was sort of strange, as not being in our old house anymore, it not being ours at all anymore, threw my entire center of gravity and perception of the town off kilter. It almost felt like a different place at times. Occasionally, particularly on a few occasions when I was driving alone along roads that I always used to take home from school and from downtown, jamming to my favorite music on the radio, I forgot everything else, and for a split second it felt like nothing had ever changed, like I had never left, like my old life was mine once again.
But in general, it helped me realize that although it is a place that I grew up in, that I will always miss and feel at home in and love, I don't live there anymore, my old life there doesn't really exist anymore, and it's just...different.

But that wasn't a sad thing. It wasn't a brutal, off-putting reality check; it just kind of helped me to make peace with the fact that we'd moved, and once I'd been back, seen my beloved hometown and caught up with many childhood and high school friends, soothed my spirit and put a lot of those turbulent feelings to rest, I started opening up myself much more to our adopted city of St Louis, and feeling much more at home there.

And as for Iceland.
I cannot believe that it's been a year since the time that I spent in that beautiful country.
I went to Iceland because I'd carried a dream within me for five years to study its unique, ancient language, and then ended up falling head over heals in love with the otherworldly landscapes, frank and friendly folk, and little traces of their history embedded into the land in unexpected places.
I'm hoping to return to Iceland again, potentially as early as next summer if all goes according to plan, in order to deepen my fluency in Icelandic.
I'm not even sure what else to say. It's so surreal to think about how a year ago, I had just arrived in Iceland, and was exploring the sights in and around Reykjavik largely on my own, acquainting myself with the country's cultural and population center before venturing off to the remote and ethereal Westfjords to begin my Icelandic study, the roots of my passion for the country and its language and culture taking full bloom like the swift-growing blossoms of the Arctic summer, and now a year later I'm reflecting on it from Baku, searching for bits and pieces of Turkey and improving my knowledge of its language in this beguiling city at the crossroads of the Turkic, the Soviet, the Persian.

From the Land of Fire and Ice, to the Land of just Fire.

I'm incredibly lucky to have had all these opportunities for adventure, to bring my dreams to life. And to have so many incredible places that I can call home.
And I won't lose sight of it.

^And here enjoy a beautiful acoustic mashup of a Hindi and an English song by two talented Beloiters!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Things I've Noticed: Azerbaijani Edition

Hello, everyone.

As of today, I have been in Azerbaijan for a whole month, reaching the exact halfway point of my stay in this country.

Though many an exchange student will roll their eyes at the whole "cultural iceberg" and culture shock stages cliches (I know that, having heard all about them in many orientations for three different programs, I am no different), there really is something to be said for them. I came to this country, and after the first couple of days, stunned by the inevitably dazzling experience of arriving in a completely new country, I found myself fairly comfortable and at ease, and therefore expected the rest of my stay to be relatively easy and therefore experience little further shock.

This was far from the truth.

Although my experience here has been quite positive and enjoyable overall, this week, for sheer lack of any more accurate terminology, has kicked my ass.
Halfway through the program, I've found myself struggling with lack of sleep, personally-induced stress from feeling like I'm not achieving my (admittedly often unrealistic) goals, the inevitable difficulties that come from trying to learn a language in a place where (let's face it) it's not really spoken, and even tensions acting up within my own classroom as a result of all this.

In all honesty, this week has been the most challenging in my entire stay so far. I've been pushed to my limits mentally, physically, and emotionally, and faced more struggles from my time in this country than I ever imagined possible.
But I'm happy to say that now, I'm much better off, and have found my way out of the immense slump I was in earlier this week, which feels wonderful. I've finished off the week with some good times with good friends, and I'm feeling back on top of my game.

In order to celebrate this, I'm going to carry forth a little tradition of mine:
I realized a while back that, during my exchanges in Egypt and Turkey, I wrote two posts, both titled "things I've noticed" over a year apart, without even realizing it, and thus decided to make that a regular thing with countries I spend significant amounts of time in, continuing the series for my stay in Iceland last summer.
And now, having been here for a month and gotten a decent feel for what life is like, I felt it was only fitting to carry on the tradition with Azerbaijan.

So here we go.

1. This is by far the most universally multilingual nation I've lived in so far.
It's really quite fascinating. Almost everyone is bilingual in Azerbaijani and Russian, which is spoken fluently by everyone over 35 or so, since they were educated under the former Soviet Union, and many people to this day still send their children to Russian schools. Interestingly, some ethnic Azeris seem to prefer to use Russian in their everyday lives and speak it even at home with their families, seeing it as a symbol of prestige and class. Aside from this, many people understand and "speak" Turkish - in reality, though many people claim to speak Turkish, the reality is more that they understand it fluently due to growing up with plentiful exposure to Turkish television and music, but cannot really speak it themselves (something that causes much frustration for me and my Turkish-learning cohort). Aside from this, many people study European languages too, particularly English and German. The near universal multilingualism in this country is truly something to be admired.

2. There are many cultural influences at play as well.
Azerbaijan is, first and foremost, a Turkic culture, descended from the same Central Asian nomads as Turks, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and so forth, and their connection to this heritage and these other peoples is something that many people here greatly value. However, given the Shia heritage, numerous Farsi loanwords, and ties to Iran, there is a definite Persian undertone to Azerbaijani culture that Turkey, for instance, lacks. And, of course, you can feel the Soviet influence and legacy in architecture, political attitudes, widespread knowledge of Russian, and just the general feeling of the place. People sinuously and constantly move back and forth between these diverse cultural influences as they move through their daily lives, and it's really quite beautiful. 

3. Azerbaijan is very secular.
This is the third majority-Muslim country I have lived in after Egypt and Turkey, and it's by far been the most secular of the three. Though there are quite a few hijabi women to be seen, most of them are tourists from the Middle East; though there are plenty of mosques, the call to prayer is really quite scarce, and most people, even if they do pray five times a day and consider themselves to be practicing Muslims, are much more culturally so than religiously. Generally people here drink, don't fast during Ramadan, and don't live very closely by the religious teachings of the Koran all that closely. For the roots of this greater secularism, you don't have to look very far - the Soviet Union's outlaw of religion is undoubtedly to blame. However, most people (at least judging from my own personal beliefs and upbringing) are still quite conservative around many social issues from a liberal American's perspective, but simply in a way that resembles the general Soviet mentality, rather than in a religiously devout way. 

4. Driving here is INSANE.
I like to joke that the countries that I've lived in have been a downwards progression in terms of driving standards - i.e. I thought Italy was bad, then I lived in Egypt; I thought Egypt was bad, then I went to Turkey; and then after Turkey, I thought no country's driving would ever phase me again.
But then, I came to Azerbaijan. 
To even say that lane lines are a suggestion here would be an immense exaggeration. People act as though their just meaningless decorations on the road that were painted there by people looking for a way to entertain themselves. Cars move with speeds and erratic, sharp motions that are truly scary, and every time crossing a road as a pedestrian is a miniature test of faith. 
And through it all, pedestrians traipse across the roads with confidence that seems like it should cost them limbs, somehow making it across unscathed without fail. 
I think that my attentiveness, hesitation, and fearfully swift scuttling across the streets is honestly one of the main ways that people might be able to tell my foreignness.

5. Public transportation here can be frustrating. 
OK, I'll preface this by admitting I had a rough experience getting home today that I'm still bitter about, but I'm going to try (sort of) not to let that show too much. 
Between getting back and forth from home to school everyday, and the significant amount of wandering that I've done both on my own and with my CLSer friends, I'd like to think that I have a fair grasp on Baku's public transportation now. 
From my old host mom's home, I would take the metro, but as my new host family does not live within walking distance of any metro stops, I'm forced to take the 61 bus to reach the Azerbaijan University of Languages. 
Baku's metro and busses alike are both crowded, hot places that get crowded to standards that most foreigners (particularly claustrophobes like myself) find truly nerve-wracking. 
The metro, in spite of its lack of air conditioning, is a little better in my opinion, because it rarely gets crowded to the point of not being able to move, and though there's rarely space to sit, you at least have some freedom and control over your own movement even in the most crowded of times. 
In the bus, there's no such thing.
Even when, to my American eyes, it looks at least twice as full than it ever should be, people will still keep coming on, somehow sardine-canning themselves into space that doesn't even look like it's there, smoothly migrating towards the back of the bus so that more space is created as people begin to get off. 
There's also a lot of etiquette that seems to be unspoken or intuitive for most locals that is lost on me as a foreigner much of the time - you're supposed to take off your backpack or purse and hold it in front of you if you're holding one; you're supposed to offer your seat to older people, anyone with children, or to a woman if you're a man, but then sometimes if you do offer your seat to someone they'll take it as a sign of you thinking you're old and get offended; etc. 
Since many of these signs are lost on me, and many people think that I'm a local and expect me to get it automatically, which provokes frustration, and I hate crowded spaces, I'll admit that I often resent the public transportation here, and often miss the more reasonable standards for what constitutes a "full" bus back home. 

6. As I've mentioned, I'm able to blend in here quite easily.
This is true of Turkey as well, and since Turks and Azerbaijanis have such a close relationship, I was unsurprised by this. On the one hand its nice, because as long as I don't open my mouth I can coast on through my experience here completely unnoticed, anonymous. However, it has happened on many occasions, actually, that people here have actually approached me with questions or asking me for directions in Azerbaijani, which I do not speak, and my knowledge of the two languages I've studied which they would be likely to understand, Turkish and Russian, is also quite haphazard, so I usually just give up and tell people I'm foreign unless their question is particularly simple or I'm feeling up to a challenge. 

7. Food here is very salty and oily. 
That's all really. It causes me to drink plentiful fluid all the time, which I guess could be seen as a positive side effect.

8. Tea is practically sacred here.
Though it's certainly preferred in Turkey, there still is much more of a tea-coffee dichotomy there, whereas here, essentially no one drinks coffee in there daily life, reserving it as something to get out of the house in coffee shops or restaurants. Tea reigns supreme in home cooked meals, offerings to guests, and in public spaces like the canteen in our university. It's a little lighter than Turkish tea, usually filled about a quarter of the way with actual tea and then topped off with hot water, and people usually don't put sugar in it, but will instead eat something sweet with it like jam or candy, alternating back and forth between a sip of tea and a bite or spoonful of the sweet food, or even going as far as to drink the tea with a sugarcube wedged in between their teeth. The heat at which it's normally consumed has been a frequent topic of amazement and horror among my group. I swear, Azeris heat their tea to the temperature of the sun and then down it like it's nothing, even children. I can barely even touch mine for fifteen to twenty minutes after it's served to me most of the time.

9. There are still a lot of hard feelings towards Armenia.
I'll try to keep this as unbiased and simple as possible.
Basically, there is a region called Nagorno-Karabakh which historically belonged to Azerbaijan, but in the 20th century under the control of the Soviet Union it came to be populated by a majority of ethnically Armenian residents. However, this was not really an issue for a long time, as both Armenia and Azerbaijan were under the Soviet Union. When it collapsed and the two countries gained their independence, they went to war over Nagorno-Karabakh, and after an intense and bloody conflict with losses and atrocities committed on both sides, there came to be a ceasefire that has remained the status quo for twenty or so years, in which Armenian forces captured and occupied Karabakh, which has now declared its independence, though it remains unrecognized by any nation, is essentially controlled by Armenia, and remains recognized internationally by most of the United Nations as part of Azerbaijan's integral, sovereign territory. 
It's still a very prevalent and widespread topic in everyday life, with deep wounds that still have not healed, particularly as the 600,000 or so Azeri refugees from Karabakh and their descendants have resettled in the rest of the country. 

10. Politics here are interesting.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the country has been governed by two presidents: Heydar Aliyev, largely lauded as the father of the modern Republic of Azerbaijan, and his son Ilham. People have an intense admiration and love of these two leaders that I would say even rivals the Turkish love of Ataturk. They're everywhere, with portraits hanging in public spaces and in people's homes, and plentiful monuments, cultural centers, libraries, and the like dedicated to their accomplishments and lives. 

11. Turkish and Azerbaijani are both similar and different. 
Though they are very closely related, I still find Azerbaijani very difficult to make sense of. Locals are unaware of how different their language can seem from Turkish to me as a foreigner with a very haphazard knowledge. I like to joke that Azerbaijani looks like Turkish alphabet soup threw up on a keyboard, with most of it being familiar but also with some interesting changes, such as "q" making a "g" sound, whereas q is not used in Turkish at all, and a funny, unique upside down "e" that makes a sound like the "a" in "cat." Although the grammatical structure is very similar, verbs are conjugated differently, and the vocabulary is very different, with the numerous Russian and Persian loanwords in the language betraying the country's distinct heritage. It's not quite as Turkic as modern Turkish, as Azerbaijani has lacked anything comparable to the thorough linguistic reforms of Ataturk. 
Azerbaijani also has undergone an excessive number of alphabet changes, making for quite an interesting story. It was written in Arabic letters like Ottoman Turkish, then switched to Latin ones even before Turkish did, then to Cyrillic under the Soviet Union, and back to Latin after the fall of the Soviet Union, though it's still quite common to find inscriptions and written materials in the old Cyrillic variant. 

12. The carbon footprint leaves something to be desired.
Azerbaijan has largely funded its post-Soviet development through increasing amounts of oil money, and that has had its impact of the environment. As theorized by Gianna's residential director David, there is also a general lack of awareness and consciousness left over from Soviet times, when maintenance of such issues was the sole responsibility of the state. 

13. The landscapes change a lot. 
The area around Baku is essentially a desert, and as such is very dry and arid. But when we went up to Sheki, which was located in the high mountains of the Caucasus near the Russian border, we got to see an entirely new side of the country, with lush forests, towering mountains, some of the distant ones even sporting snowy peaks, and waterfalls. It was really magical to see the landscapes change in the four-or-so hour bus ride.

14. People are quite touchy-feely.
Friends kiss each other on the cheek in greeting, hold hands when walking, and just generally are up in each other's business a lot more here. Though there are still definite pressures and unfair expectations around gender roles at times, it can be refreshing and even amusing to observe: I've seen a lot of groups of guys hanging out where they tousle each other's hair or even help their friends when they're trying to get it looking just right. I like that people feel comfortable doing that sort of thing openly, it's sweet. 

That's all I can think of off the top of my head.
Hope y'all enjoy!

Sunday, July 2, 2017


Even with this being my third homestay exchange and fourth overall, this experience has thrown me some unique challenges that I honestly did not expect.

One is consequential, a product of simply being where we are, and that is the matter of the target language itself.
I'm sure that many of you smart folk will quickly catch on to the fact that it's a little strange that we, as a group of Turkish learners, are not doing our language program in Turkey, which is due to the fact that it is not possible to go to Turkey on US government funds right now, as the travel warnings from the State Department prohibit it.

Overall, I believe that moving many of the State Department funded Turkish programs to Azerbaijan is an innovative option which presents many unique opportunities. This is a place that most of my program-mates and I would not have come to, certainly not for an immersive experience like this, anytime soon; I in particular as someone interested in intersections between Russian language and Turkic ethnic identity have had a blast getting a good preview of how those things meld in Azerbaijan; and we're quite well looked after by the Embassy staff and the Azerbaijan University of Languages higher-ups, as they are very keen to ensure that we have good experiences and learn as much Turkish as possible.

Also, given that sending to other, possibly more immersive Turkish environments like Northern Cyprus is (unsurprisingly) not an option, it's certainly far better to have Turkish programs here than none at all.

But, evidently, Azerbaijan is not Turkey. The immersion that we are getting here is admittedly not the same, and in spite of all the positive thinking I'm trying to do in order to focus on all that I'm getting out of my experience here, I find it hard to break out of that mindset sometimes. It can be very frustrating, because many people, whether it's host families or strangers on the street, can understand our broken Turkish, but can only reply in Azerbaijani or Russian, which most of us highly struggle to understand effectively. Oftentimes even people who claim to have relatively high Turkish skills will snake back and forth in the same sentence, or even mix the two in pronunciation, in a phenomenon which I have informally dubbed "Turko-Azerbaijani."

Even so, speaking of focusing on the positives, my language skills have been tremendously streamlined and improved, even just in the two and a half or so weeks since we arrived. Being once again immersed in Turkish in both academic and informal environments has reminded me of how much I love this language, and how much I missed studying it. I'm going to do everything in my power to ensure that I never go as long as three years without studying it again.

The other main challenge in my life here as been a host family switch.
I will leave the details out and keep things relatively vague here for privacy reasons. Suffice it to say that it was a mainly circumstantial issue that brought out some people's true colors, it was handled about as well as it could have been, and it's worked out for the best. Shoutout to the higher ups from the CLS program, and my wonderful RD Cat, for handling the entire situation gracefully, courageously, and taking good care of me, and to all my CLSer friends for showing me nothing but support and understanding through the entirety of that hot mess experience. I may have felt afraid and uncertain, but thanks to the aforementioned folk, I never felt alone.

With this being my third homestay, experiencing a host family switch for the first time was immensely surreal, as it was just about the last thing that I expected out of my time here. Nevertheless, I'm quite glad that if it had to happen, at least it happened this time around, when I'm older, more experienced, and somewhat thicker-skinned than either of my homestay experiences I had as a teenager (in which I was luckily blessed with some very lovely families).

I now live in a slightly different part of the city with an older lady named Valida, and her 25-year-old niece Subiye, who has lived with her for a few years since moving to Baku to become an Azeri language teacher.
They're both very kind, welcoming, and overall badass women, and I feel very lucky to be living with them.

In terms of the normal life and progression of the program other than those things, I've been having a great time.
We had five days off of school for Bayram (Eid al-Fitr), or the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, which I spent with a big group of my program friends traveling to a beautiful city in the north of Azerbaijan called Sheki, where we had a great little adventure among the lush Caucasus mountains and waterfalls, and quaint Ottoman architecture that reminded me of the beautiful villages I visited around Bursa.
Yesterday we went on a group excursion to Qobustan, an area about two hours out from Baku, and there we saw an otherworldly beautiful assortment of giant stones with 5,000 year old petroglyphs carved into them, as well as the geological phenomenon of mud volcanoes, which were surprisingly cool (many of us ended up doing spontaneous face masks haha).

A few weeks ago, I had the amazing opportunity to attend a Tarkan concert. Tarkan is one of Turkey's most famous and widely known pop stars, whose music was one of the first ways I ever heard the sound of the Turkish language, so it was incredible to see him perform in person, and be able to jam out to many of my favorite songs of his.

Classes are quite challenging at times, but going well overall. Our teachers are nice, and we're learning so much from them.

Life here in Baku is amazing overall. I'm lucky to be here, learning Turkish, living yet another of my abundant dreams.

I will be back soon to write my "things I've noticed" post.

Bye for now.

(One of my favorite Tarkan songs)