Sunday, May 25, 2008

Summer Vacation...

Well, the final week of my first year of school is upon me. Like almost every teacher and student on the planet, my dominating emotion is YAHOOOOO!!!!! The old kids' rhyme, “no more teachers, no more books, no more teachers dirty looks” has been running through my head for the past few weeks. Even when I was a kid who really like school, there was just something about getting to that last day and having the prospect of summer stretching before you. Ahhhhh.

Originally, I had a very lazy summer planned. I feel like I've earned it. I'm traveling in June – which will be awesome. Outside of that, I was just gonna hang out, continue some of my regular clubs, maybe go help some of the other volunteers with projects. Spend a lot of time in the direct line of my fan to survive the heat, maybe do a little sunbathing in Tom or Ashley's yard. Sounds like a great plan, right? Like every teacher a student, I worked hard during the school year. I deserve a break. And, I was definitely looking forward to my lazy summer. Until I had the idea.

One day a couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in one of my lessons, honestly, bored out of my skull. I started thinking about all of the ideas that I have had of projects and things to do. Originally, my thought path was for clubs and things next school year. And then I thought about the 3 months looming ahead of me. And I decided.

The idea is an English Summer Day Camp. It is 4 weeks long, 5 days a week, 4 hours a day. Here's the part that I love about my camp – each week is going to have a different theme. The first week is just English language. Get the kids comfortable(ish) is English, get them prepped for some of the stuff they'll do in the following weeks, get them to have fun with learning. The second week is Arts and Crafts. The third week is Sports and Games, and the fourth week is Drama and Theatre. (That's kinda the selfish one – I actually get to kinda use my lovely theatre degree that has been sitting idle for the past few years.)

It took a bit of work to turn the idea of the camp into something that is really going to happen. I am enlisting the help of my PCV friends – each week 5 to 9 different volunteers are coming down to help. I had to get permission from my school director (essentially the school principal – you don't do anything without getting his approval). I had to prepare information for him in English and Azeri. Luckily, my director is awesome and he is really into the idea. I had to explain it to the other English teachers so they can help me explain it to the kids. I had to hope that kids would actually be interested in coming.

The response has been awesome. My friends are really into coming to help. The kid response is even better – if a little overwhelming. I expected to get 30 – 50 kids who wanted to come. I had a moment of panic on Friday when I was counting the applications in so far and I already have over 75 students signed up. And the deadline is Tuesday. I still think I might be in over my head, but it is also so completely awesome that so many kids are into it and excited about it – it kind of inspires me.

So, here is the shameless plea part of this blog... I need supplies. I certainly don't have the funds on my Peace Corps living allowance to get much and, in a lot of cases, the stuff just isn't available here. I can't ask the kids to pay – kind of defeats some of the purpose. So, I'm asking you. Or, rather, I am offering you an amazing opportunity to support a really cool Peace Corps project, and help provide something for these kids and this community.

The Flegal family is heading up the donations part of this. If you are interested, please email my mom at or She has a list of the things I really need – things like paint and chalk and yarn and jump ropes. There is a time constraint – to get stuff to Azerbaijan in time, she needs to mail it by mid to late June.

I want to thank the people who are already helping and those of you who will! It is really amazing for me to see and feel the support from everyone at home. This experience is going to mean so much for my kids, I love that you all are enthused about helping me and helping them.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Just Some Pictures...

I know, I know... I haven't posted anything in forever. I'm just bad at this internet thing here. Anyway, as an attempt to make it up to my fans, I thought I'd share some pictures I've taken recently of things that have made me smile. Enjoy!

The first is a sight that made me so happy I could cry... Almost everyone at home know how I feel about Coca Cola. Seeing the truck here...awesome!

These are fishing nets, strung out to dry. Being right on the Caspian Sea, Lankaran is a big fishing town. Men put the nets out at night, then bring them in in the morning, taking to fish to the bazar to sell (on several occasions I've seen fish so fresh they were still flopping), and letting the nets dry through the day.

This is a building right by my school where they sell bread (that's what corek means). I have always liked this building, so I finally took a picture of it.

This is me (obviously) at the local history museum. The pot I am holding is dated to 1392. And the museum had no problem with me picking it up. I have a feeling the folks at PRD would not be big fans of me handling ancient artifacts for the fun of it. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should, right?

This is one of the parks in Lankaran. I just like that they have a map of Azerbaijan made out of plants and flowers.

This is a fishing shack on the beach. I just liked it.

This is at the bazar - and a common practice all over Azerbaijan, referred to by many as the Loaded Lada. That's cabbages filling it up.

This is a painting on the wall in my school. I think it is rad.

This is one of my favorite things about Azerbaijan, that I didn't know until just recently. They have these fields of roses all over. And they are all in bloom right now. It is this amazing spot of beauty in a place where that is so often missing.

Renting in the AZ...

So, I moved into my apartment in March, thrilled that I had my own home. Now, when you rent in Azerbaijan, you don't pay a security deposit or sign any silly leases. You just pay the first month's rent and move in. At any point, you can move out, or the landlord can ask you to leave. But, I was confident (well, really, REALLY hopeful) that I wouldn't encounter anything like that. I was quite happy to believe that I had just settled in to my home for the next year and a half. Silly, silly Jane.

One morning, after I had been here for about a month, Ruhangiz – my counterpart who helped me find this apartment – called and asked if I would be at home that evening – she had something to tell me about my apartment. “But, don't worry,” she said. “It is not bad.” Cool. No problem.

So, she came over, we chatted for a few minutes. In true Azer style, I offered her some tea. Then, she told me her news. My landlady's son was coming from Russia for the months of June and July for his daughter to get married. Ok. Sounds neat. (Sidenote, the daughter getting married is 15 years old. She and her fiance have only met on the internet. And that is not too far off from the usual way of marriages here.) Then she drops the bombshell - that means that I will have to live somewhere else for those 2 months. WHAT?!?!?!?!? Not neat. Definitely not cool. Definitely a problem.

Needless to say, I kinda freaked out. I liked my apartment. I did NOT want to move. I absolutely did not want to go through the ordeal of trying to find a place again. How did they not know this a month ago – and why didn't they tell me? This is SO not fair. My counterpart tried to help, she even suggested a couple of solutions – live with one of my friends for those months or go to Baku for the time. Lovely – except that both would get me kicked out of the Peace Corps. When I told her that, she suggested I just don't tell them. Ok-aay. I'm kind of not a fan of lying to my employers – and the concept of getting caught was way scarier than, say, calling in sick when I wasn't really. So, after some thought, I decided not to take her advice and resigned myself to start looking for a new place to live. Ugh. Crap. Yuck. Unfair. And again, crap.

The next day, my counterpart agreed to go to see the real estate agent that found this apartment after school. Let the hunt begin. On the plus side, at least I had a month to find a new place. About the time I expected to hear from Ruhangiz, my phone rang. It was my landlady. Hmmm. Now, my azeri isn't great. And it is even worse on the phone. Normally she only calls me to see if I got water or to invite me to her house or to come over to mine. Those conversations I have learned the pattern of and fair pretty well in. This time, I only understood half of what she was saying - “Jane, getma (don't go).” “Qal (stay).” During the call, I had no idea what “qal” was – I looked it up in the dictionary after I got off the phone. I kinda thought she was telling me there was a problem with the water. Then I thought I was supposed to go to her house. I really just had no idea what was going on. I kept telling her I didn't understand. Finally, I think a bit exasperated, she told me that Ruhangiz was coming to my apartment.

I hung up, and almost immediately there was a knock on my door. My counterpart, out of breath from my 4 flights of soviet steps, was here. She told me that now I DON'T have to move out. I can stay until I leave in 2009. I was, of course, thrilled, but skeptical. How could things have changed over night? Not wanting to believe it, I asked what happened. The explanation – I am a yaxsi qiz (good girl) so the son found another place to stay while his family is here. All I can say is, thank god for being a yaxsi qiz.

I can honestly say, that 24 hours is probably the most stressed out I've been here. Panicked, angry, worried. Not a fun experience, but I survived, and now, it makes a pretty darn good story!

A Real American...

So, today, in my seventh form lesson, I was asked if I was a real American. Wow. What was intended as an innocent question started to make my head reel with the answers and possibilities to what that question could mean. Now, I know that what they were intending to ask was if I was Native American – they had just come from their geography lesson where they were learning about North America. But, the way it was asked, “are you a REAL American?” totally captivated my brain.

For my students, I gave a short(ish) answer. “I think you are asking if I am Native American. No. Native Americans – also called Indians (surprisingly, this distinction helped them understand the difference between “real” and “native” quite easily) are the ones you are learning about and they are the people that have always been in America. I am not a Native American, but, I am a REAL American. And my friends are real Americans. In America, most people immigrated and settled there. My ancestors (definition of the words ancestors inserted here) come from Ireland and Germany and who knows where else, but I am a real American. My friend's ancestors come from Korea, but she is still a real American. Americans come from all over the world.” When I got off of my “real American” soap box, I think they kinda got it – or maybe I just gave them a really long-winded answer when all I needed to say was, “nope, I'm not an Indian.”

But, then, throughout the rest of the day the question stayed with me. What is a real American? How do I define myself as an American? Because I am 100% real American. And how is my idea of that being affected by this experience – living in a completely different country and culture?

Some of it is definitely geography – I was born in Virginia, so I am American. My parents and grandparents were all born on U.S. soil, so I am American. But there is so much more to it than that.

I think it is a mindset. To be American is a way of thinking, an attitude, a frame of mind. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness - isn't that kinda what defines Americans? We believe in these things so strongly, that they have shaped our national definition.

I have every opportunity I want set before me. I am living in a country where girls can't go to restaurants and have to be careful about socializing with boys. And I come from a place where a woman might be the next president. I have gotten to choose every step, every path I have taken with my life. And when I return from here and choose the next path to take, I can literally do anything I want. Anything.

I am idealistic. “No” and “because” are never legitimate answers to my questions if I believe they shouldn't be. I get to rock the boat and try and change the world. And, even more importantly, I believe I can.

There are things I just don't understand because I am American – and I will never be able to truly appreciate them. I have never had to live through the pain and turmoil that is part of the very recent history of the people I currently live with. I don 't really understand what it is to struggle. My life has been so easy, comparatively, it is a joke. I am privileged, simply because of where I was born. And even now, I am living through the day to day struggles of a developing country with a time limit. I leave after 2 years. That is not the case for the people I am working and living with. This is their life.

I am free to have all kinds of thoughts about myself and my country. I can think and choose and say whatever I want. I can be the biggest patriot out there – or advertise how bad I think America is. I can be somewhere in the middle. I can question the choices of my bosses and my nation's leaders. And, if I don't like them, I can stand up and say something. Not everyone in the world has that privilege. And I view it as a god given right.

My definition of self – and what being American is has definitely been affected by being here. How could it not? I see how incredibly lucky I am. I see how naively egotistical I am. I think I am becoming a better American by being here. I know I'm becoming a better person.

But here's what keeps my mind reeling – if I were to ask any of my friends or family this question – what is a real American – their answer would be different. And still completely true and 100% American. Because the definition of each of us is also the definition of American. There is a foundation we share, but we all have our own experiences and beliefs and challenges that have shaped us and our view of our nationality. So, that brings me back to the beginning - what is a REAL American? And how can that ever be truly answered?