My family watches the news on TV and although I don't understand it, almost every day there is video footage of Bush, McCain and Obama. I asked my family who Barak Obama is. They had no idea. I showed them a picture of the Dalai Lama and the 14 year-old knows who he is, but though he was an American. The rest don't know. My family has no books or newspapers, which is typical of the families in my neighborhood. I think a few of the reasons are that many books are not translated into Azeri, families in my community do not have a tradition of reading for pleasure and translating books for such a small demographic would be very expensive.
Many of the TV shows are in Turkish, which is widely understood here. Also, many adults speak Russian, as the parents can choose for their children to study Azerbaijani or Russian in school. When people recognize the Peace Corps trainees as foreigners, they often try to speak Russian to us, which is really confusing as we are trying to figure out why we don't understand any of the words they are using.
Two weeks ago when I was in Mingachevir, a lovely city some distance away observing a Peace Corps worker, I went to a softball game that another PC worker was coaching for Azeri boys. They were quite good at the game. We were joined by some friends of the Peace Corps people who were visiting from the capital, Baku. They were all Europeans, part of a program for young European Union people to work on community service projects in needy countries. They were from Iceland, Germany, Spain and France. We taught the Europeans how to play the game. After awhile, I noticed an elderly shepherd with about 10 sheep and lambs start to cross the outfield. I went to admire his sheep and afterward, curious, he kept the sheep in the outfield while he watched the game. The sheep seemed oblivous and just kept munching grass while balls flew all around them.
Sheep and shepherds are everywhere in my neighborhood too. When I ask, most say that the sheep are raised for producing cheese, but I also know that sheep are commonly eaten in Azerbaijan. Every morning I greet the geese outside my home with "Sabahiniz xeyr, gaz". Good morning geese. They are about the only ones that don't correct my speech.
I realized that my family is one of the few in the neighborhood without running water. Actually, it does run a couple of times a day. They keep the taps on at all times with the bathtub plugged up. The bathtub fills up with water and the excess drains into the floor drain. It also fills up the hot water heater, which is only turned on once in a while. The water is then removed from the tub a little at a time for cooking (they boil it first), to wash hands in a large ladle (we have no sink) and to flush the toilet. I also "shower" by ladling water. Two of the other three trainees in my group that live in the neighborhood have hot and cold running water, although two have toilets that don't flush without a bucket of water being poured down it.
Did you ever hear Americans complain about people who live and work in the US and don't speak English? Well, right now I sympathize with all of those people. We have been here for five weeks, live with families who don't speak English and we have at least four hours a day of language instruction six days a week. In the evening, we go home and try to talk with our families the rest of the night. For the most part, we are unable to put together any kind of sentence within a reasonable timeframe and vocabulary that we learned yesterday is a total mystery today. I can't imagine how anyone who works full time and has a family who doesn't speak English to them can learn the language. One of the great things about being here is that our families are very patient and praise us for the slightest improvement. Strangers go out of their way to help us and wait for us to try to figure out what to say. Pantomime rules the day sometimes.
My language instructor gave me a toast to say at a wedding that I went to. He warned me that if I misprounounced the last word, instead of saying "May you be happy" I would be saying "May you be dead". I will be thrilled when I have the vocabulary of a two-year-old.
We had the opportunity to meet the Peace Corps Azerbaijan Country Director this week. He is the head honcho of the Peace Corps in Azerbaijan. Zoltan Szigethy was born in Hungary 69 years ago, fled to Germany when his family was forced to leave by the Russians, lived in Germany for five years and moved to the US as a ten-year-old. After an interesting career that included being an urban planner and retiring twice, he joined the Peace Corps several years ago.
Zoltan, as he prefers to be called, was a Peace Corps volunteer in 1963-65 and gave an inspiring talk about the responsibilities we have in representing the United States as well as some principles that he lives by. He reminded us that we are committed to improve the lives of the people with whom we live and work, and not to complain when we serve under conditions of hardship. . He spoke of our need to integrate ourselves into the communities we live in and cooperate with them, learn with them and respect them. Sometimes we are the only American our Azeri friends have known or will know, so what we do will represent Americans to them.