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)