Thursday, May 31, 2007

Soundtrack To The Last 18 Days

What I have heard of "traditional" Azeri music (ie what those guys are playing on accordians on the boardwalk...) on this trip has been greatly overshadowed by the ever-present, penetrating, gut-thumping dance music coming from MTV, low riding Mercedes', iPhone's and basically every taxi I've been in while here.

That, plus all the really tight dark clothing, makes me feel like I'm in a continous nightclub.

From what I can tell, most of the music are just really bad dance remixes of old songs (Truly, Madly, Deeply, anyone?), with the added bonus of having music videos that border on soft porn (there is one involving an entire marching band made out of one woman with a really short skirt that is particularly hilarious).

That said, here is my fondly created playlist from hours upon hours of listening to MTV while working in my hotel room:

September "Looking for Love" (Everybody's looking for luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuv")

Justin Timberlake, "What Goes Around (Comes Around)" (I love this video!)

Black Eyed Peas, "Fergalicious"

Black Eyed Peas, "Glamorous"

Nellie Fertado, "Say It Right"

Gwen Stefani, "Sweet Escape" (Great summer music, I have to say"

Some woman with too much makeup hollering "This is my DEStinATiON!!!!" over and over again to a house beat.

Akon, "Don't Matter" (I hear this one at least once every thirty minutes, I swear..)

Daddy FT Sandy Rivera and Trix, "Lollipop" (I'll lick your ice cream and you can lick my lol-lol-lollipop.....")

Shakira and Beyonce, "Beautiful Liar"

Natasha Bedingfeld, some song where she sings about how much she wants to have (your) babies.

Paris Hilton, "Nothing in This World"

Cascada, the aforementioned "Truly, Madly, Deeply" remix. Done with chubby women in leotards. I'm so not kidding.

Mika, "Relax (Take It EEEEeeeasy!)"

Some Turkish song that takes place in junior high.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Random Things Learned

Tualet (too-ahh-let) = toilet and Buket = bouquet!

Be careful walking down the street on a hot day in a country where central a/c has yet to hit the mainstream. Lots of leaky window units make a veritable lake of the street below! (and a mess of your hairstyle!)

While it's important to eat what the locals eat, beware of descriptions like "Oh, it's just liver and such." If you think it will give you the runs, it probably will.

That being said, don't be afraid of salad or other green things. Your colon will thank you, I promise.

Also, the US Embassy is mostly full of crap when it comes to 'security advisory's'. If had followed the briefing that I received before leaving about "not traveling outside of Baku on any roads, anywhere" I would've missed a great opportunity to see Xinaliq and getting to know some awesome Azeri's.

There are Have's amd Have not's, sure. But there are also Have Nothing's and I Have Better Than You!

I need to drop 20lbs right. Now.

Oh, Miss USA, despite having tripped on stage and being BOOED by an unruly, ungrateful, Mexican crowd, has taught us all what grace and poise are under pressure. Miss Smith, you are my new hero.

And on the way home, I'm totally asking the guy next to me what the results of his TB test was!

Monday, May 28, 2007

Two Holidays for One

Happy Memorial Day, everyone!

.....And if you're in Azerbaijan, Happy Republic Day!

And to Ismayil, whose response was "Of course not" when I asked him if there would be any celebrations today : the military parade that just passed by my hotel has proven you wrong! :P


Wow, for the first time, I don't really even know where to begin...

Last week, I met up with one of the employees of the new office, Aybaniz, here in Baku. We hit it off and she invited me along on a trip with her alumni group to a "local village". She was decidedly short on details, but I was so excited to get out of Baku (temps topping the mid-nineties this week) that I accepted immediately. Also, sometimes with the best adventures - it's best to act first and ask questions later.

Of course, when I was crammed into a non-airconditioned van early Sunday morning staring out the window at the desolate semi-arid, oil-donkey dotted landscape while whizzing in between cement trucks and lost cattle, I had other thoughts. But...whatever.........

Turns out that Aybaniz's group were a bunch of mid-thirties alumnae of a program to study English abroad, so I ended up having some great conversations - from the war in Iraq all the way up to Borat. After about two hours, the landscape changed from semi-arid to lush green forests. At 11:30, we stopped for tea at a campsite nestled deep in a lovely gully, where one had to run nimbly up and down rickety metal steps to get to covered platforms where the tables were situated. It felt a bit like the Swiss Family Robinson!

We lunched on: raw tomatoes and cucumbers, feta cheese, roast tomatoes, roast potatoes, juicy lamb kebab and fruit juice. Plus, of course, plenty of that yummy bread! Then we had to wait around for the tea - which, I'm learning, is quite a production. We had thick bitter tea with plain jam (or, some people sucked on sugar cubes and drank the tea at the same time). Having grown up on bitter tea - I really liked the sensation of intense sweet and bitter together.

After a quick pit stop to the squat toilet, we were off again for a two hour drive through the beautiful Greater Caucasus Mountains. The views were so amazing - the lower sections belied a picturesque scene of enormous waterfalls in the distance bisected by large swaths of green pasture dotted with yellow flowers. Further on, the pastures gave way to jagged rolls of the earth's crust, pushing up perpendicular to the earth , exposing the layers like a big rock cake.

As we wound up and down through the mountains, I couldn't help but notice the lack of guardrails as we teetered through the switchbacks. At one point, you could look straight down into the rapid rushing of a mud black river 2,000 meters below. Noticing my white knuckles, my seatmate sardonically remarked, "Hey, if we die, atleast we'll have something pretty to look at as it's happening!" (Um, yeah.)

As we got closer to the village, snow capped peaks pushed their way into the horizon. It was so unreal - something out of a Hans Christan Anderson via Istanbul - storybook. The sun shone down, the sheep were fat, and I literally felt like I could touch the mountains. No sign of the Ricola guy, though.

Anyway, after we rounded through the rocky ravine and crossed over the river, we had another thirty minutes of climbing through the windy, barren, rock-strewn, heather before getting to the base of Xinaliq.

Xinaliq has the distinction of being the highest elevated village in all of Azerbaijan - and, as one student told me, all of Europe. (Wait, what? Europe? Since when did Azerbaijan become part of Europe?!) Anyway, living near the rooftop of the world, the people of Xinaliq have through the ages, developed their own language and own distinct culture. In fact, if my little internet search is correct,

"Khinalyg (Xinaliq) is amongst the most ancient and still active places in the world, the history of Khinalyg is 4,000 years old. Before the conversion to Christianity of Caucasian Albania in the 3rd century, and Islam in the 7th century, the people of Khinalyg were followers of the prophet Zoroaster, who established Zoroastrianism. Because of the high altitude and remoteness of Khinalyg it managed to survive and withstand many invasions and therefore many historical sites in Khinalyg are still intact and are considered as holy places for Zoroastrianism."

After 4 1/2 hours in the car, I felt like I was at the end of the world.

The tiny village (which I later found out hosted about 1,800 people), looked so old, that instead of being perched on top of the hill, it actually grew from it, in stone shelter shaped warts. We pulled into the main square and tons of little children, in dirty sweaters and ruddy faces, fell out into the street. I was struck immediately by two things: 1) the merciless, unrelenting wind and thoughts of how bitter cold the winter must be here and 2) how none of the children asked us for anything (unlike at the Mua Mission in Malawi). In fact, it was so untouristy it was Peaceful.

As I wandered through the city - isolated both from my travelmates and the villagers - I watched two women taking advantage of the beautiful sunny and washing their rugs in a horse trough. A small kid peeked her head out from a doorway, underneath wildly flapping laundry, chirped and quickly - shyly - slipped back inside when I waved at her. Three little boys shouted "Salaam! Salaam!" from a rooftop at me, as I trampled below them. Overall, it seemed, people were happy to see us, but also shy and content to let us wander through their village.

Most stone buildings were in tact, with sheets of corregated iron covering a few sides, others were partially built (it seems like that way for most buildings in Azerbaijan) or partially abandoned. Dirt was everywhere. Horse patties lay either drying in the sun, or stacked as fuel along each house. The local mosque was closed - and really, the only reason I could see that it was mosque was because of the half-moon on the top. Otherwise, it was just a decrepit as the others.

Besides children, I didn't really see alot of adults milling around. I was surprised, as this touted "tourist destination" seemed to house neither tourists nor anything much to see (except, of course, the amazing views).

But...standing on top of the highest hill looking down into the valley below while the wind whipped through my ever snarling hair - that was quite a feeling.

And one fraught with lots of funny, insightful musings, not the least of which was, "Now how did I come to be HERE?"

M is for More to Come,

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Traffic, Redefined

So I said I would write about the traffic here .......but I have yet to come up with good words to describe it, besides this: totally friggin' crazy.

My new pastime is just to camp out at a busy street corner (luckily, there are tons of 'em) and just watch. It's not so much the volume (yes there are alot of cars - but) it's more what crazy things people do with them. Like, blowing through a cross street while traffic is oncoming. Or when the opposite light is green and yours is red, and well, you go anyway.

Or, I even watched one where the whole intersection was just helter-skelter-man-for-himself with cars perpendicular to each other; big busses blocked by oncoming traffic as they try to cross, mid stream; tiny cars pushing their way forward, while pedestrians weave their way in and out of the slowly pushing traffic.

And of course, a whole lot of honking.

Mostly I'm not so much terrified for myself while I'm in a car - or even as a pedestrian (I'm not going to step into THAT mess thankyouverymuch. I'll wait for the light. I'll wait all night if necessary.) Not that that helps much, but whatever. Even IN the crosswalk at a red light, I've almost gotten run over (crazystupidtaxidriversIhavenoluvforyouscumsoftheearth). Heck, I almost got hit by a military truck the other night!

Anyway, what really gets me sucking air through my teeth and cringing my eyes though, is watching other people jump in front of cars, baby carriages being launched into the stream, mother's on cell phones and drivers on crack - literally, drivers who SPEED UP when they see pedestrians. I've seen people jump out in front of cars ten feet away, and stand in the middle of a five lane highway with cars going 40mph on either side of them.

It's so incredibly nuts - I'm one part agonized over watching them and another part, sickly fascinated. It's great entertainment, after all.

And hey, no translation necessary. :)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Man Cannot Live by Phyllo Dough Alone

.......but I can!!

Now, I've eaten a lot of good pastries in my time (and come back from a semester in France a good 20lbs heavier for it), but nothing, I mean, NOTHING beats the baked goods here.

I first noticed this in a cafe my second or third night when I ordered my meal (kebab anyone?) and out popped this basket of AWESOMELY baked bread. Fresh baked, too. It was just gooey enough so that you knew it was fresh, but just firm enough to not be gross. It was like super fluffy focaccia, and it was perfectly - PERFECTLY - golden.

So of course I gobbled that up and registered that, hey, I should come back here for the bread alone! (The kebab was....O.K.) But, I try to make a point not to frequent the same place too many times when I'm on my own because hey....why waste my time going back to the same old thing when there are so many NEW things to try?

But then it happened the next night, at a different restaurant. And the next.

And then I found the mouthwateringly wonderful bakery/cafe around the corner from my hotel. I had a doner there and the bread almost made my pants fall off. It was that good.

After sitting through an entire meal (again, O.K.) watching the crowds come and go from the bakery below, I decided to dawdle over the pastries and see what I could find.

Sweet mother of pearl, I still can't get over it. I had to tear myself away with no less than THREE types of baklava (cheese, pistachio and walnut - the walnut was the best because it had juuuust the riiight amount of honey. Yum!) and a huge slice of what I thought was pumpkin cake (but turned out to be graham cracker cream cake - double yum!) Then tonight, I went back again and had a filo-dough shepard's pie.

I don't CARE if I come home 40 lbs overweight with a moustache, this stuff is amazing! In fact, I think I might just buy a whole case of it and roll around in it on my bed before I go home next week.

I'm sure the cleaning lady would love that!

I have to go now, my mouth is watering so much I'm at risk of damaging my computer.....also, I think I still have some of that graham cracker cake lurking around.....

Thursday, May 24, 2007

When I Saw This, I LOL'd

Look, I know this is a family show, but I couldn't resist. Would you eat at a place with a logo like that (look closely at the yellow sign), and a name like "The Camel's Toe"??
Um, no thanks.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Post Script: Goose Egg

Shout out, if I don't wake up tomorrow, it's because of this enormous goose egg on my forehead. In my effort to slip into a quiet corner of a restaurant unnoticed, I slammed my face against a stone archway. So much for trying not to draw attention to myself!

I'll Take a Little Optimism, Please

So I had lunch today with a friend of friend. Nice enough guy - especially to take time our from his day to eat with basically a total stranger. Typical expat, too (and I say this with all the love in my heart) - a bit strange, a few personal quirks and long, curly shaggy man hair. Kind of alterna-hippy/IT dude all grown up (no 'Member's Only' jacket though.) Fine, to each his own. Like I said, nice guy.

He also came fully loaded with a six pack of cynicism.

Again, I say, 'Fine, to each his own.' Except, that I'm getting a bit tired of everyone being so damned world weary that they're not impressed with anything anymore. And maybe it's not world weary, per se, but it's a kind of jaded cynicism that seems to infect expats, on average, around year two or three.

It infests from there.

Granted, in some people - they come born with it. In others, well, they are just happy-go-lucky until the day the croak. I think it exists as kind of game that other foreigners play - in one part just to let off steam and in one part to show off how much they know about the local culture. But boy does it suck the fun right out of a newbie, trying to understand her surroundings and not get hit by oncoming traffic.

With this guy, it was mostly: "You know, five years ago in Baku, I could get a taxi anywhere in the city for 25 cents. Now, forget about it." Or...

"This place is entirely corrupt, run by a clan system. They infiltrate some development firms and then block others from being hired. Essentially, your project is run into the ground." Or...

"I've been here too long, man. It's time to go. This place, it's changed so much" (and always for the worse).

And, as the newbie, you always have to kind of balance your "Aw shucks it can't be that bad" with the all-knowing nod that doesn't bely your excitement at being in a new place with new rules and new people and a new culture and new food and new souvenirs and new -

My especial favorite is this guy whom I am working closely with while here. I was warned beforehand that he's kind of a "Debbie Downer", so was thusly prepared. However, after three full days of listening to him complain about the city, I finally asked him today what he DOES like about Baku.

After thinking carefully for a moment he said, "You know, I don't like anything about this city."


Now, I am not a Pollyanna by any stretch of the imagination. If something sucks, I'm not afraid to admit it. And, it's important to keep a level head. Yet, looking on the bright side of things is kind of a defensive mechanism - it helps you cope with endless lines of bureaucracy, tedium and generally suck-a-tude. Plus, I'm sure there's a study somewhere that says it's good for the health.

So, I don't know if it's a post-Soviet thing, or an expat thing (I could write about expat world wearism for hours, but I'll spare you. Just know, if I ever get like that, please shoot me.) But whatever it is, someone needs to do a parachute drop of Valium here, stat.

Come to think of it, my first clue should've been the 'sleeping aid' that turned out to be an anti-depressant..........!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Ichari Shahar, the Old City of Baku

Maiden's Tower
Old City Fortress Walls

Today I went into the Old City of Baku, which is surrounded by ancient fortress walls. I did take photos, but given my predicament, I've borrowed some from other websites until I can post my own. The fortress was built in the 12th Century, initally right on the waterfront, to protect Baku from invaders.
I had a map from the hotel - and had even printed off some items of note from the internet to find here in the Old City - but of course, I pretty much got lost right off the bat. The funny thing about the Old City, I read, is that some streets just lead to, literally, nowhere. They wander off in all sorts of directions, getting narrower and narrower until you get to a dead end. I had read that thes streets were planned like this so that invading chariots would be forced to go single file - as they are much easier to pick off that way.

I did think about this as I wandered down a few narrow backstreets and was forced to double back.

I eventually found the Maiden Tower, the most famous landmark in Baku. It also supposedly dates back to the 12th century. As one website claimed, "The name of the Tower-Maiden's-is explained by numerous legends concerning a determined young lady pursued by a despotic local king (sometimes identified as her father), who reportedly imprisoned her in this Tower. According to the legend, rather than becoming his lover, she committed suicide by throwing herself from the Tower into the Caspian Sea".

Um, gross.

Anyway, it was cool to see. You can even see where mortar fire has pockmarked the tower. I was thankful to get inside, out of the hot sun and climb the five or so levels to the top for a spectacular view of the city and out into the Caspian. Unfortunately, I was followed in by a pack of 13 year olds, screaming and pushing and generally being obnoxious. Plus, the stairs were so narrow, you had to wait to descend until everyone had climbed up. But over all, I got my two (1$1.60) worth.
After that I poked around some carpet markets, but as I wasn't in for haggling today, I kept my distance from the shopkeepers who kept braying at me to "looknoneedtobuyprettyladyjustlookonemomentcomeinside."
By that time, I was getting really HOT. In an effort to look less conspicuous, I've taken a drab color vow - that is, to only wear black/grey shirts, dark jeans and my huge (thank god they cover most of my face) Mary Kate Olsen sunglasses while out on the town. (On a side note, I also found some lipstick, so I feel less of a ghost than I did a few days ago.) That being said, I really didn't expect it to be so HOT and very sunny today, so I was pretty sweaty after dragging myself through the dusty old city.
Luckily, it was nothing that a big old Magnum ice cream bar couldn't fix!
After that, I set off to find another museum. Yesterday, I managed to find and get into the Folk Arts and Rug museum. Today, I was determined to find another one. I say determined because the map I have from the hotel isn't the best on the cultural front - however, it does have tiny little red flags for each place you can find a United Colors of Bennetton at. Sigh.
I didn't find the first museum I was aiming for, but I eventually stumbled across the National Museum of Fine Arts. It was in a crumbling old building, I found out later that "...was the former palatial residence of Claude de Burr and designed by Nicholas A. von der Nonne in 1888 and constructed around 1891." Too bad now most of the paint was coming off in large chips and half the windows were cracked.
I wandered around in the Western art wing, wondering why one earth I had paid money to look at third rated Dutch artists from the late 19th century paint windmills and chipped pottery, until I met Ismira.
Ismira works at the museum and directed me towards the Azeri portion of the gallery. She was young enough (20) to have learned English in school - I've found the cutoff age for English speakers to be around 30 here. Anyway, she was directing me towards more crappy Dutch art when I frustratingly said in English, to really, no one in particular: "Isn't there any Azeri art in the Azeri Art Museum?"
She understood atleast the Azeri Art part and took me into four rooms with rugs and traditional mettalurgy. Alas, that's where either her knowledge of Azeri art or English failed her, because she couldn't tell me much about the pieces. However, I had my captive. I wasn't letting her go that easily.
I had her tell me her name, and told her mine. I pulled out my map and asked her if there were any more art museums close by. She called over a few friends and they excitedly started searching the map for the Sanil (?? I think) metro stop. Then Rima, an older woman, joined us and I was HER captive. Through Ismira she peppered me with questions, "How old are you? Where are you from? Are you married? Do you have babies (she said this one, making the International Gesture for Baby - two arms swinging in a cradle in front of her bust). ? Where is your husband?
I laughed and told her I left my husband back home. Ismira translated and we all laughed. Clearly, I was anomoly. Also, terribly ridiculous because they couldn't stop laughing -and not in that nervous "I am so embarassed by my English" sort of way, but in the "This woman is insane and we can say anything about her in front of her and she is going to smile like an idiot" way.
Oh well, it was really my first encounter with meeting (non skeezy) Azeris actually IN Azerbaijan. And it was nice, you know, to connect with someone, even if in an awkward way.
This thought has been bouncing around my brain this weekend: Not only is traveling to a different place culturally isolating, but there are times when it's necessary to be inconspicuous -and times when I really crave a human connection. Because of this, I try not to speak (accent gives me away, as does the obvious English) and as such there are often whole hours that go by as I'm walking the city where I don't say a single thing. I eat supper alone. I eat lunch alone. I work out, alone. I try not to make eye contact with men, who invariably stare at my non-dark hair. I pretend that I am invisible, to make myself less vulnerable.
And while I'm not really sad about this (it's only temporary, really), it is a weird feeling. It's hard to choose when you want to be seen and when you don't. For me, it's a bit like being suspended in time. Or moving about an empty city. I don't want to be seen by someone who will bother me, I do want to meet people and learn about their lives. So it was doubly nice - even if they were laughing at me - to have made an impression, to have been seen by someone (who didn't make kissy noises at me) and to have been a part of someone's day, not just a random woman who walked through your photograph.
Let's hear it for the small things -

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Randomly Random Azeri and Other Factoids

The second largest city in Azerbaijan is called Ganja. That's right, Ganja. I bet all their clocks are set to 4:20, 24/7. Heh-heh.

To call the hotel elevator, instead of up and down buttons, one must push the floor number on a keypad in the hallway next to them. The keypad then flashes which elevator (A,B, or C) will be arriving to take you to your floor. It's a weird sensation to walk into an elevator and not have to push a keypad. It's even more embarassing when there is more than one person waiting for an elevator and one arrives and no one can remember where it is going.

Naps are nice. I've forgotten how great it feels to relax - and how exhausting it is to be in another culture.

Azerbaijan and the northern part of Iran used to be one country, and that portion of Iran is still sometimes referred to as "Southern Azerbaijan". The Russians divided it in 1828, but there remains quite a significant Azeri population there. Who knew?

Azerbaijan has nine of the eleven climate classifications of earth - from arid to subtropical. You can probably pass through about five of these in the course of one day...just kidding...No I'm not..

For a 70% Muslim population, I haven't seen a whole lot of hijabs. And only one woman wearing the full costume, down to her feet (not quite a burqua, because her face was exposed).

Azerbaijan also claims to have the most mud volcanoes on earth. Recently, I feel a bit plagued by mud volcanoes, as there has been this pesky one in Indonesia I've been keeping my eye on (where I am managing another project). It's quite fascinating actually - the government decided to drop giant balls of concrete chained together down the gaping whole, which has spewed over 4 miles of mud since last May. Are you kidding me? Giant balls of concrete? Hilarious! Why not give it a peanut butter sandwich and see if that shuts it up? It's like a geologic soap opera! But I digress...) So yes, Azerbaijan is supposed to have alot of mud volcanoes.

Azerbaijan claims to be the first democratic republic in the Muslim world, in 1918. Then it got taken back over by the USSR.

Women were able to vote in Azerbaijan before they were able to in America. Yet, I sitll work with a disturbing amount of men.

Hum, do you ever feel that the more you know, the less you know? There is so much about the geographic and political history of this area that I NEVER EVEN KNEW EXISTED.

That's all my brain can hold for today -

Friday, May 18, 2007

See, Hear, Taste, Smell, Feel

Today I stood on the street corner and saw a car go up a one way street, the wrong way, while traffic was oncoming. I watched some kids climb up a big statue of Lenin's head and dance around in an empty swimming pool. I saw an old woman sitting on the curb, selling wilted radishes and carrots from what I can only assume would be her own garden. I watched a little girl throw a flower at a car, twenty feet away. The flower slipped out of her hand and landed on her head. I witnessed a squadron of miltary officers practice marching up and down outside our new offices (next to the Ministry of Military Affairs). I tried not to look as a man wearing a purple velour jacket and NO SHIRT sat next to me a breakfast. (Nice chest hair, Vlad!)

Today, I heard about four hours too much of Turkish MTV, including "Fergalicious" about six times. In fact, I think I've heard almost every slow song I love turned into a dance remix by Azeri singers. I heard several police sirens, two babies wailing and a boat pull in from the Caspian Sea this morning. I think I heard an old man hiss at me as I crossed the street. I heard an accordian being played along the board walk. I listened to a traffic jam. I heard one Chinese accent, three Australian, two English, several Azeri/Russian/Turkish, three Italian and one German accent.

Of interest, today I've tasted really yummy palak paneer, a grainy banana, a package of mixed nuts (including pumpkin seeds!) and one half of a bounty bar. Oh yeah, and some mineral water, but that stuff doesn't really taste....except mineral-y.

I have a cold so I didn't really smell much. But what I could catch a whiff of smelled pungent (perfume), sweet (lilacs!) and damp/moldy.

After a long day, I felt a bit sticky, a bit cold, a bit hot, gritty and kind of damp. I also felt tired. I also felt some silk scarves, as Baku is on what used to be considered the "Great Silk Road". My nose has felt raw. My head feels pretty full and heavy. My eyes feel itchy. For a little while, I felt light-headed. Overall though, I'm feelin' ok!

Hope you are "Five Sensing" your way through wherever you are, too.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Your French Can't Save You Now

You know, normally I'm not a person that gets easily unnerved with language barriers. Happily, I was cured of all my dignity while living in Japan. There's nothing that undermines your serious facade better than having a child poke you in the breast and say "Kimo-chee!" (That feels nice!). I mean, really.

So after that, I feel like there's nothing more I can do to make myself look like an idiot, I might as well go ahead and have fun with it. And I've come to the conclusion that it's often more fun - and just as effective - to pantomime what you need, anyway. Besides, isn't something like 80% of communication actually come from your body?

But today I hit a wall - well, I car, actually. (That reminds me, I'll have to tell you about the traffic situation in another posting - but just believe me when I say - it's bad.) Turns out that Azerbaijani is a Turkic language , with roots both there and in Arabic. Also, it's useful to remember that Azerbaijan was, for 70 years, part of Russia. It's not very helpful that I HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO SPEAK ANY OF THESE LANGUAGES.

Not a big deal, right? English is the new lingua franca, right? WRONG. Today I spent three hours in a car with a driver who only spoke Russian, darting in and out of stores trying to get quotes from people who only knew Azerbaijani. I mean, at least in Japan I knew how to say "Hello", "Goodbye" "Otoiru (toilet)" and "I am Hitoyoshi (watashi wa Hitoyoshi desu!)". Here, there's none of that. NONE.

Although today (and I could've reasoned this out on my own, had I thought about it), I learned that to say hello, one says "Salaam" (as in Salaam Alaykum, a common arabic greeting - oh yeah, did I mention they speak Arabic here, too?) And to say thank you, you say "Çox sağ" (ha ha, I know what you're thinking but it's wrong. Try saying it this way: 'chuck sow'.)

Ok, just as I get this down, I get thrown the Russian. He's a nice guy, but there are lots of awkward - well, everythings. I have a list of the streets and shops where I'm going, but he needs to call his friend, Imron (whom I've met and is the driver on another project of my company's, so I trust him). He then puts me on the phone with Imron and I tell him where I need to go, then Imron gets on the phone with Elyar and relays the message. This happens at every place I go, except when I tell him the name of my hotel. That, he knows. At one point, when I was looking for a bookstore, he actually put me on the phone with his brother. At another, he was all "Don't you speak Russian??" (To his credit, he did say this in English).

My response was, "Vous comprennez francais?" (the only other language I even remotely know. I obviously wasn't going to try japanese on him...)

Right. No dice.

So I was thinking, as this poor Russian guy whisked me all over town, what an absolute outsider I was and how pretty ludacris my whole position is. Here I am, trying to rent office space, get utilities and buy furniture - all in language (and culture) of which I have no INKLING of an idea. The other associate who was going to go was atleast fluent in Turkish - me, all I have is my spirit and good looks (and even those are fading fast!)

If that wasn't insult enough - I'm also hiring for a few positions - and spent the better half of the morning digging through resumes of people with at LEAST four languages (English, Azeri, Russian and/or Armenian/Turkish). Jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeez. I am dum!

Anyway, the thought frittered across my mind (not for the first time) that I am crazy, my job is crazy and my boss just might be nuts for sending me here.

Also, that four years of college French have been an utter WASTE.

After I got done digesting this little speck of humble pie, I asked the driver how to say Thank You in Russian. As we zoomed in an out of traffic, through back alleys and even onto the sidewalk at one point, the conversation went like this:

"Elliot (at this point, I still thought his name was Elliot)
"??" (unnerving me by taking his eyes off the road...)
"Elliot, how do you say thank you? in Russke?"
"Um, Çox sağ? You know Çox sağ, yes?
"Çox sağ yes yes, tank you."
"Ok great. Çox sağ is Azerbaijani. Thank you is -
"and whatwhatwhat is Russke?"
"Russian. Russia. Soviet. Red. Lenin. You know the whole thing."
"Oh Ruskayoreoiovadksisak?" (atleast, that's what I thought I heard)
"Çox sağ Azerbaijani; Tank you is Engl - Oh! Spasiba! (spa-seeeee-ba)"
(me, thanking the makers of the SAT for that little trick): "Spicey bar"
"No, Spaaa seeeeeee ba"
(Eliyar taps on breaks, slows down): Spa (me: spaaaaaaaaaaa) Seeee (seeeee) baaaa (baaaa).

He seems relieved when I finally get it. And write it down.

He even laughs when I use it later, as he drops me off. Hey, just because I'm under qualified doesn't mean I can't learn!

M is for Man Am I Tired,

The Wish List

As usual, upon arrival to "X" country, I normally go through a phase of "Damn! I wish I had brought..."
This time is no different - after walking around for two days now, observing local culture and trying to get away from my computer (and generally not succeeding...), here's what would be on my list:

1) sudafed/dayquil/claratin/anything with an antihistamine. Sure, I could go to the local Apotek and try my hand at something, but my travel companion tried that for a sleeping aid and we discovered this morning that they'd given her an antidepressant! Hilarious - but hey, at least she felt better!

2) Lipstick. and more black clothing. But mostly, bright red lipstick. I feel like a freak over here.

3) Hairspray - this one I did manage to find. And for the first time in over 10 years, I purchased an AEROSOLE can. Yes yes I can hear mother nature weeping, but hey, atleast I'll be able to keep the hair off my face while watching the world melt away...

4) DVDs - the next three weeks are looking awfully filled with CNN and the BBC, as those are the only English channels available. Oh, and some old US movies on pay-per-view for $20 a shot (would YOU pay that much to watch The Grinch??)

5) Office supplies - I actually toyed with this one, but decided against it. I may find them yet, it's just that they are not readily at hand right now as I need them :(

6) My network files - I was told I'd have access to them here - liars! What a pain.... especially seeing as I keep getting these nasty messages in my inbox, reminding me I'm over my limit. Boooooo.

7) Aloe kleenexes - these free hotel ones are starting to feel like sandpaper.

8) Mace, or atleast the facility to say "piss off!" in Azeri.

9) While we're at it, let's wish for a million bucks, too.

Ok, back to work. No more lists tomorrow, I promise!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Baku or Bust

In the last 72 hours I have...
Officially finished grad school by walking across the stage... (hooray!)
Run into an old roommate who owes pretty much everyone I know a ton of money...
Put my mom, sister and brother in law on a plane...
Put my HMF on a plane...
Put myself on a plane...
Drugged myself to sleep... (it worked! I didn't arrive totally catatonic!)
Decided Frankfurt was kind of an industrial town...
Accidentally got my passport stamped there anyway...
Read the news in French...
Seen the Black Sea by plane...
Been on a plane to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan...
But arrived in Baku, Azerbaijan....
Was welcomed by, literally, a smoking mass of people...
Been mistaken for a prostitute (I think that's what he was saying...
Been the only woman (without children and/or under the age of 50) in an airport at 10 pm...
Waited for an agonizing long time for the XR kiosk to open...and nervously changed money...
Arrived from the airport and went straight to work...
Slept in the most comfortable bed EVER!
Forgotten hairspray...
Killed a computer battery...
Became the new owner of a bright pink RAZR...(strictly for work purposes, of course...)
Eaten Sheep cheese...
Seen the Caspian Sea from my hotel window...
Come down with a cold...
And gotten back to work!

Have landed safely and no worse for wear - however, I did forget the hookup from my camera to the computer so pictures will have to wait until I get back! More postings later...

Thursday, May 10, 2007


So yesterday, among the thousands of things I'm supposed to be doing in preparation for my trip, I left work a bit early to pick up my cap and gown, and graduation tickets for this Sunday.

Technically, I graduated in December (I've even got the signed diploma, so I'm in the clear) but as I told the registrar "I paid $45,0000 for this - I want my Glory Day!"

It felt weird to be on campus again, especially now that I've moved (relatively) far away. I felt weird to think of my first semester, and how much I relied on that campus for internet access, gym membership, social atmosphere, cheap eats and free cups of coffee stolen from the Social Studies building.

Since then, I've seen good friends move back to Italy, been through 13 roommates (!), one free (surreptitious) art class, the best year long internship of my life, a trip to Malawi and the longest paper I've ever written (85 pages and counting). Being on campus yesterday reminded me that I've quietly closed that chapter on my life and moved into "Full Time Job-hood."

It's nice, where I am and I'm excited about the future. But it's also nice to look back and see where I've been.

M is for no more matriculation (for now),

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Perks of Living in DC

One of the many perks of living in DC is that, if you look hard enough, you can find pretty much anything from any corner of the globe. (We're no New York, of course, but it's darn close.) It helps that most countries have embassies here, which means dinners, national holiday celebrations and more than a few summer festivals.

In preparation for my pending trip to Azerbaijan - the HMF and I found this exhibit to go to last night, at the US -Azeri Chamber of Commerce based in Washington, DC. It just so happens, randomly enough, that my company belongs to the USACC. I had heard about the exhibit through a work colleague of mine, who was on some listserv and passed it along. The paintings looked interesting, there was free food (which in DC, usually means free wine, too) and the confluence of my impending trip/USACC membership made me feel comfortable enough to try it out. I mean, why not take advantage of what DC has to offer?

So after work on Friday, we headed down to a little side street on Georgetown and into a tiny house claiming to the be surfiet home of expatriate Azeri business people in the US. The exhibit was small, but the paintings were beautiful in their application of paint, even if they were a bit too pink... The HMF and I milled around for a bit, nibbling on the free cheese and wine, but soon we felt a bit conspicuous- we were obviously not Azeri and there weren't a lot of people for us to hide behind.

Just as it was getting uncomfortably awkward, this young woman came over to us. First she found out I was heading to Azerbaijan (which made her very excited), then we discovered we were both formerly of Minnesota and after a bit more conversation, it was revealed my HMF knew her sister through an old colleague..! I tell ya, I can't bring that guy anywhere. He's the social equivalent of a lego - he's connected to everyone!

After chatting with Laila, who then introduced us around, things went a bit easier. I made some good contacts for my trip, learned a bit more about Azeri culture, a few good restaurants to try out while I'm there and - I'm not sure, but I think I got asked out on a date - for September. (When we are both in Baku, we get to know each other a bit better, yes?)

All in all, it was a lot of fun, and made me even more excited for my trip. Put to my HMF later, it was my 'bonus round' of work, but infinitely more fun. Here's to using the DC schmooze pool to my advantage!

M is for Manat,

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Random Slogans

It seems that my upcoming trip to Azerbaijan has thrown a few friends and family members for a bit of a loop. I'll admit, I had to find a map, too. Some friends and work and I decided to come up with a few slogans that the Azeri government could try to use to lure more unsuspecting Western tourist dollars (and awareness) to their borders.

10) Azerbaijan: We're Not Random, You Are!

9) Azerbaijan: The Friendly Muslims.

8) Azerbaijan: Like Armenia, Only Better.

7) Azerbaijan: Putting the Ass Back in Caspian.

6) Azerbaijan: Look Us Up! (Please use a post 1991 map).

5) Wait.......where?

4) Azerbaijan: At least We're Not A "-Stan"

3) Azerbaijain: Bordering two of the worlds five hottest conflict zones! (Chechnya and Iran, not to mention their own internal war with Armenia...)

2) Azerbaijain: We've Got More Oil Than You (nyah nyah nya-nyah nyah!) :P

1) Azerbaijain: Now, Soviet Free!