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!
Nico





Sunday, July 2, 2017

Changes

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)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Geldim

The past seven days of my life have been defined by an insane and incredible reintroduction to so many things I love, and first time introduction to so many new ones as well.

Every morning, I wake up to the warmth of the newly risen sun and the gentle breezes from the Caspian that define this city, enjoy the culinary miracle of an Azerbaijani breakfast with my host mom, and then take an inevitably crowded but short ride on the Baku metro to the Azerbaijan University of Languages, there to begin another day of my Turkish classes with my fellow CLSers. 

This has been my life on my CLS Turkish program so far. 

It's been wonderful and crazy being an exchange student again. Though I'm a little older now, and the greater experience and maturity I have this time around have made me somewhat better equipped, it never fails to amaze me how much this feels like my year in Alexandria, Egypt, and my summer in Bursa, Turkey. So many feelings and experiences remind me of how I felt then as a teenager. The subtle and soothing satisfaction that comes from slowly increasing familiarity with a place initially as unfamiliar as another planet. The exhaustion that comes from full immersion in so many different spaces. The meek repetition of painfully simple words in interactions where a local, be it a new friend, a host family member, or a random local off the street, hit you with a barrage of incomprehensible gibberish. The thrill of the constant, light head spin that come from said gibberish slowly but surely revealing its nuance and beauty, as hard work translates into increased comprehension. 

And the infinite patience, kindness, and attentiveness of welcoming host families. 

I'll save most of my country-specific feelings and observations about my time here in Azerbaijan for my "things I've noticed" post, Azeri style. 
But for now I will say that this place is a beguiling, confusing, and beautiful crossroads of so many worlds that I know, having lived in or studied them: Middle Eastern, Turkic, Islamic, Soviet...The people here fuse and sinuously move between them constantly, in all kinds of spaces, practices, or sayings. 

The morning after my last entry, I left home for my pre-departure orientation in DC. Even that was a little adventure in and of itself. I finally got to meet my friend Peyton, a NSLI-Y alum who I've been in touch with for several years, for a bit at Capitol Pride. I got to do a little exploration with my programmates, and I remember in particular our lovely second evening at PDO, where a group of us walked all the way down to the Washington Monument and sat down in the grass, talking, laughing, and getting to know each other with the Monument and a soothing pastel sunset in the background. It felt so right, especially seeing as exactly two years prior I had been exploring the same haunts with people from my AFS Returnee Leadership Summit, which was a lovely formative experience that came with some wonderful friendships and memories, and it made me feel so sentimental and happy to be in the same place, having fun with these friends with whom I was about to share this upcoming adventure, thinking of all that had happened since the last time I was there. 

Our journey to Baku was, well, long; between a grueling seven-hour layover in Frankfurt and an eight-hour time difference to begin with, we felt ravaged by the time we landed. Not to mention the random European asshole who yelled at me and a group of my new friends about Trump aggressively as if we were directly responsible for the downfall of American society. 
What made the journey tolerable was the company, the supportive and caring gestures shared between my group even in the angry din of sleep deprivation and jetlag. We also got to meet a group of Azerbaijani and Turkmen FLEXers (FLEX is a government scholarship for youth from ex-USSR countries to study for a year in the US in high school) headed home on our flight to Baku. 
Also Cat, who was the residential director for my NSLI-Y Turkish program in Bursa, is the RD for this program as well, and so it was wonderful to have a friendly and familiar face to welcome me to an unknown place after such a grueling journey.

After another day of orientation-ing, we went to our host families. Mine consists solely of my host mother, a very loving and friendly lady named Leyla, who speaks four languages, works magic in her kitchen, and as any good teacher would, has demonstrated infinite patience and forgiveness of my childlike Turkish and the communication issues that often result of it. She has already shared so much of her home and life with me, telling many stories of her abundant travels and growing up in Yerevan, Armenia, in a highly educated family full of published professors. I honestly have lucked out so much in my host family placement. 

Classes started a couple of days in, and so far that has been amazing as well. In Turkey we are not, and as Turkish learners it's sometimes difficult to communicate with locals (more on that in my next post), but even after just a few days of classes at AUL, it's clear to me that they're doing all that they can to facilitate maximal improvement of our Turkish skills, which is to be commended given the circumstances. I placed into the intermediate level class, which initially came as a bit of a surprise, but I now think was an ideal placement; I feel challenged, but the grammar is also understandable, accessible. My class does two lessons of grammar with Rena Hoca, an infinitely kind and patient Azeri teacher who is completely fluent in Turkish, and then another lesson of speaking after lunch with an equally friendly teacher whose name I admittedly don't recall, who is from Istanbul.

One truly amazing element of the experience has also been having my dear, dear friend Gianna here with me. We met on our NSLI-Y program almost three years ago, and she's here on the CLS Azerbaijani program. Being as close as we are, but from two such far away regions of our own country, it's amazing to be in a situation where we can just casually go wander and hang out for a whole summer to begin with, let alone the fact that we're doing it in such an amazing, dynamic crossroads of a new country to both of us. I cannot expressed how privileged I feel that we're able to continue our Turkic language adventure together, that we started together. 

In general I also feel quite lucky to be with the people from my program. It's a little different from the exchange groups I've been with in the past; in spite of the fact that it's by far the biggest, people keep in touch a lot more. We have an extremely active WhatsApp group chat, and friend groups are generally much more fluid compared to NSLI-Y, where there were very clearly defined cliques. This time around pretty much everyone is friends with one another; there are definitely people I've talked to more than others, but overall when we hang out, I find myself having great conversations with whoever from the group I happen across. 

Though we've not yet left Baku, we've been able to see and do some amazing things even within the city. We've visited the Old City of Baku multiple times, most recently the Shirvanshah Palace, getting a chance to see the quaint beauty of the khaki brick towers and ornate domes of its buildings. We went to Atəşgah, an ancient Zoroastrian temple, and Yanar Dağ, a place where a natural gas deposit leads to permanent flames. 

Time passes strangely so far. Even if there aren't a ton of things that we do, every day feels like it contains a week's worth of experiences with all we've seen and done, and the sensory overload that comes from being in and adjusting to such a different, new place. I honestly cannot believe that we've been here a week (barely), because it easily feels like a month (something else that reminds me a lot of my high school exchange experiences). 

As it's quite late now, I should go and get ready for bed. For now, I think that this has been an accurate depiction of how my adventure here is begun. 
I hope you've enjoyed reading it, because I have genuinely enjoyed writing it! I will be back soon for the Azerbaijani installment of my "things I've noticed" series. 

Thanks for reading. 









Saturday, June 10, 2017

T minus twelve hours

As the title would suggest, I'm leaving in twelve hours.

I will leave my house early tomorrow morning to fly from St Louis to Washington, D.C. to join my program-mates at our pre-departure orientation and officially begin my Turkish-Azerbaijani adventures.

To be perfectly honest, I'm not even really sure what to write about right now. I'm sitting up in my bed, looking all around me at my room's newly decorated glory comprising of maps, flags, and photographs, with my bags all packed away in the corner, a few clothes drying at the foot of my bed, and a couple of books that I have yet to put into my backpack strewn about the room.

Enjoying a few final moments of introspection and contemplation as a dream of mine comes to life before my eyes.

For the past couple of days, I've been very busy and happy, mainly due to hosting my dear friend Paula at my house, who is soon to set off on a CLS adventure of her own in Gwangju, South Korea (which I will write about in due course). But due to how busy we were, I haven't begun to truly process and realize my own feelings on my rapidly approaching departure.

Until today, that is.

As my mom and I drove through St Louis on our way back from some final pre-departure errands and a quick stint at the pool, watching a delicate rosy glow envelope the crimson skyline, I began to think of the rumble of the engines, the stomach-drop of the ascent into the air, and the fact that at this time tomorrow, I will be in a completely different place, with people who I mostly have never met before, on our way to a place we know so little of, our new home for the next two months that has become so tantalizingly tangible.

How a dream of mine that I have fostered and aspired to ardently since high school, since my NSLI-Y program, is about to become my fully immersive and all-encompassing reality.

And how I'm going to be revitalizing and bolstering my knowledge of a beautiful, dynamic language that is so deeply special to me at last.

My heart is overflowing with excitement and joy, and I cannot wait for all that awaits.

I will sign off with my two favorite lyrics from all the different dubbed versions of "I am Moana" (y'all knew I had to weave a Disney reference into this somehow), the opening and closing lines of the Norwegian and Danish dubs of the song respectively, that I find particularly beautiful, empowering, and appropriate for the coming times:

Jeg vet en jente fra øya, gav godhet til alt hun holdt // I know a girl from the island, she gave greatness to everything she held;

Du tror på mig, jeg finder vej // You believe in me, I will find the way.

Thanks for reading.