Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Duck...

I have remarked a few times recently how normal my life seems now. I am fully aware that my definition of normal is completely different than it was 6 months ago – I never saw livestock on the sidewalk in Herndon – but I have settled into a routine and I have gotten accustomed to things here. And then, there are those occurrences that remind me just how far away from my “normal” I am.

The other day, I was sitting in the family room with my host mom, my host sister Shams, one of the other sisters who doesn’t live with us, Aysel, and her baby; eating yummy lavangi and actually having a conversation in Azeri with them. A nice lovely bonding moment with the host fam.

Shortly into the meal, Aysel’s husband and a friend come in with a live duck. A live duck! They deposit it in the family room, and let it wander around, quacking away. The baby was quite interested. I think the rest of the Azeris were more interested in my expression of shock. I mean, come on, never in my life have I had a live duck in the family room before. It was something of a spectacle. And, kinda awesome. After a few minutes of entertainment, Aysel’s husband took the duck to the hammam (bathroom).

A few minutes later, I got up to take my dishes to the kitchen. The door to the hammam was open, so I peaked in to see the cute, funny duck. And there he was - not so cute anymore, and definitely not so awesome. He was still moving, but he was headless.

That’s right. My host family killed a duck in the bathroom. And ate it for supper.

Yup. I am definitely not in the same normal anymore.

The First Snow...

We got our first snowfall last weekend. It started on Friday evening and lasted through Sunday morning. It is beautiful. I love snow. It makes me happy.

There are a few side effects, though, that make even snowfall different here in the AZ...

- Warm in my bedroom is now 49 degrees. Which is better, I must say, than Ashley's house where he has no heat, so warm in his house is at least 10 degrees colder.

- I wear ridiculous amounts of clothing. When I go out, I typically have on 2 pairs of socks, long underwear and pants, a long underwear shirt, longsleeve t-shirt, sweater, plus, of course, my coat, hat, scarf, and gloves. I sleep in almost as many layers - including the hat and gloves.

- The frost picture? That's my bedroom window.

- Our well froze, so we don't have any water. We haven't since Sunday. It won't get fixed, probably, until it warms up. And this isn't unique to just my host family. Most of my neighbors and sitemates have no water either. Tom's pipes burst. Ashley is melting snow for water. I'm lucky because my younger host sister drags big bottles of it up for us to boil for drinking water. I am looking forward to being able to bathe - or even wash my face -again!

- The Ministry of Education decided that because of the snow, there would be no school in t he entire country for 3 days. That part is awesome. I FINALLY get snow days!!!!

Yeni Iliniz Mubarek...or...Happy New Year!

New Year’s in Azerbaijan is a the big winter holiday. They celebrate it much like we celebrate Christmas, with a Yeni Il (New Year) tree and visits from Shafta Baba (Santa Claus). Schools and offices shut down for the week, and you can hear holiday greetings everywhere you go.

I had a low key New Year in Lankaran with my sitemates, but it was great. We played cards, set off a bunch of fireworks, and went down to the park for the fireworks display at midnight. It was, quite honestly, perfect.

I got this text message from my counterpart – one of the teachers I work with – on New Year’s Eve. There is a disclaimer – Azeris are very flowery and affectionate. We get lots of “I love yous” and “I miss yous”, etc in virtually any conversation. That being said, I thought it was a pretty good wish to share.

“My dear Jane. I wish you all that you wish for yourself. Let your life to be as you imagined. Never ask such questions what to do. I kiss you.”

I fully expect the coming year to be one of the most interesting of my life, and I hope that I can make it fulfill that wish. And, as we start 2008, I hope the same for all of you. I’m not gonna kiss all of ya, though. I’m not that azer yet.

A Very Azeri Christmas...

Christmas is always weird and hard when you are not at home. My first Christmas away from the Flegals, a few years ago, was horrendous – as many people reading this probably not-so-fondly remember. To be honest, I fully expected this year to be 10 times harder. I mean, here I am, 6000 miles away from the people I love most in the world in a place that doesn’t even celebrate Christmas. How could that possibly be a jolly holiday?

And yet, to my surprise, this Christmas has been one of the neatest experiences I’ve had here in the AZ so far. My “holiday” began on December 20th with an azeri holiday. Qurban barami (the sacrifice holiday) is a muslim holiday where families sacrifice a sheep and share part of it with those less fortunate. Luckily, I didn’t have to watch the actual slaughter, but I did get to go to the feast that Joyce’s host family had. Lots of it was absolutely delicious – and lots of it was parts of a sheep that I hope I never have to eat again.

Then, off to Barda for a Christmas party with a bunch of other volunteers. Jason, the host, had his own version of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree, complete with lights and beer bottle caps ornaments. Not quite the Christmas parties of America – fancy clothes, sparkly make up, tons of festive food, and the fire crackling for ambiance. Instead, we were bundled in layers and most of us had (hopefully) gotten to bathe within the last week. We were lucky the electricity stayed on and the gas for the petch fir didn’t go out until midnight, so we stayed as warm as could be. And, it was awesome.

Christmas Eve found me on a marshuka on my way to Baku. I have to say this – 5 hours on a bumpy, cold marshuka still bears working at Payless on Christmas Eve. No question. The xanim (older lady) next to me made me – and I do mean made me, they don’t let you say no! – eat some of her food. It was bread filled with jam and nuts. Actually, fairly close to my mom’s sticky buns. If I close my eyes and pretend really hard. Which I did.

A group of us decided to come into town early for out Peace Corps meeting to try to go to a Christmas Eve church service. There are a few ex-pat churches in Baku where we thought we would be able to go. It turns out that the only one having a service that night was the Catholic Church, where they do both English and Russian services. The English service that night was the midnight mass. To kill time before church, we went to a nice dinner at the Mexican restaurant (Baku has a little bit of everything), then walked around Fountain Square – which is all done up with lights and decorations for New Years – singing Christmas carols. And then off to church.

And here is where it became the perfect Azeri Christmas for me. Sitting in a church, next to some of my best friends here, in clothes that I had been wearing for the past 3 days. The service was close enough to what I’ve always been used to and yet far enough away that somehow it brought everything together for me. The very farmiliar Christmas carols, the priest with the Russian accent and his mispronounced words (manger became man-grrrr). The same words of the liturgy sung to a completely different tune. And there, in that weird mix of known and unknown, I realized that I am exactly where I am supposed to be right now. Honestly, wow.

And then it was back to the hotel – 7 of us crammed in one room. I thought it was crowded when Kara, Kate, and I shared a room on Christmas Eve! At about 8am, all of the cell phones started chiming with text messages and phone calls from home – our Christmas morning was the end of their Christmas Eve. Santa Claus (by way of Carolyn) did indeed visit our crowded little room – leaving mandarins in our shoes and giving us DVDs borrowed from the Peace Corps lounge. We spent the morning hanging out in our pjs, eating mandarins, and chatting. Then we headed to McDonalds for a lovely Christmas brunch.

Over the course of the day, all of the other AZ5 volunteers trickled in, until the 13th floor was overrun by us. We had Christmas dinner together – pizza and a fair amount of alcohol. Not turkey and Christmas log, but a good alternative family dinner. Throughout the night, people disappeared for the phone calls from home – most of which were bittersweet. We all had our moments of being sad at being so very far away from our nearest and dearest, but our odd little Peace Corps family was together, so we were able to get past those sad moments and enjoy our first Christmas in the AZ.

This is one of the most interesting Christmases I’ve ever had. Of course it was hard at times, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I am in one of the coolest, hardest places I’ve ever been. My life is something I wouldn’t have even been able to imagine at this time last year. And I am surrounded by amazing, wonderful people who have become my family away from home. I am incredibly lucky.

Merry Christmas!