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!

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