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.