Friday, December 31, 2010

More on Sweden AND Malta

I flew from Sweden to Malta, which is a tiny country of about 400,000 people south of Sicily.  It consists of 3 islands, two of which are inhabited.  It was a British colony until 1964, when it became independent and is now part of the European Union. 

I flew on Ryanair, which is how I got from Berlin to Stockholm )for only $15!!)    Malta is interesting, but not exotic, people speak Maltese, but many know English.  Not surprisingly, fish is a big part of the diet.  Much of the main island is taken up by villages and farms.  The capital is Valletta.  I stayed in a small fishing village for four days and near Valletta for two days.

The new thing that I did was to Couchsurf for the last two days that I was there.  This is a concept I learned about in Peace Corps.  There is a website,, where you sign up.  You list a lot of information about your interests and travel and indicate whether you are willing to host people at your home or if you are traveling and want to find a place to stay.  When you stay with someone, it is free.  Of course, you don´t choose to host or stay if you are not comfortable.  There are reviews and comments for each time you stay with someone.  In Azerbaijan, some of the volunteers hosted Couchsurfers and so I met a lot of interesting people who were traveling around the world,   I learned a lot from these people.

Before you go somewhere, you look at profiles for the locations you want to stay, contact someone and ask if you can stay with them.  I stayed with a young Hungarian couple with a baby.  They make a living in Malta by lifecoaching, teaching yoga and dance.  They are Bahai and have made friends there with other Bahais.   They are a talented couple who have lived in different countries over the past few years.  Ireland was nice, but too cold.   They wanted to live in an English speaking country that was warm, so they just pulled up stakes and moved to Malta. 

But back to Sweden for a minute.   While I was there, I took a tour of the Reichstag.  This is theSwedish  Parliament.  Ordinarily, I wouldn´t have been interested, but I was struck by how pleased Swedes seem to be with their government.  They commented that they don´t really understand why people in other countries seem to be so angry with each other and their government.  Also, I know the Swedes are firm Socialists.  I wanted to learn more about their system.

A lot of Swedes commented on how they are firmly in control of what goes in in their government.  Of course, there are only 9 million people, but Illinois has about 10 million and there is a lot of unhappiness over the way things are going.

Swedes have one house in their Parliament, having voted in the ´70´s to reduce from two houses.  They just eliminated half of their representatives overnight.  They said it saved money and they didn´t feel they needed two houses.  They also don´t elect their Prime Minister--the speaker suggests someone and the nominee is voted on by the Parliament.  About half of the Parliamentarians are women (they shook their heads about how few women are in our Congress) and people become eligible to run at age 18.  They have one 18-year-old in their current Parliament.

The Prime Minister can be removed at any time by a vote of no confidence by Parliamentarians.  Since there are currently 8 political parties represented, compromise is essential to do anything.   Many times instead of voting yes or no, representatives abstain, which is considered fine.  An average of 82 percent of the citizens vote.  When asked at the tour what are the controversial subjects, the guides initially didn´t come up with anything, but citizens in the audience, after thinking, said that there is some controversy about changing the medical insurance program to include full dental and to have assisted suicide become an option for the terminally ill.

They are very proud of what they call the welfare state.  That is a good word in Sweden.  Health care is adminsitered locally by private doctors.  Normally, there is a nominal copay for going to the doctor, but for the hospital, there is no bill.  They are proud of the fact that a medical appointment must be provided for non-emergencies within three days and surgery must be performed within 2 weeks.   Sweden spends half of what America spends on health care and cover all their citizens.  Swedes are healthier and live longer than Americans. 

New parents can stay home and be paid for about 6 months.   Employees cannot work more than 40 hours, except for those in Parliament.  If a business needs someone for more than 40 hours, they need to hire someone else.  I saw this as a problem in Azerbaijan.  There was a huge unemployment problem, but it was common for someone to be hired to work 11 hours a day 7 days a week.  I don´t know why this was allowed when so many people were out of work.  Besides, the person was burned out quickly and usually had to quit. Many Swedes seem to agree that new parents must be supported to have healthy citizens and that people need time off to have a good life.  So it is institutionalized.

They were also proud of the fact that they have over 100,000 Iraqi refugees living in Sweden as well as refugees from Somalia.  One of them was a barista at my hostel.  He hadn´t learned English yet, but appeared to be fluent in Swedish.  Swedes told me that they don´t understand why the US doesn´t allow Iraqis who have served as interpreters for our troops and have put their lives at risk to emigrate to our country, the way we helped Vietnamese who helped us in that war.

Many Swedes seem to be happy about being in the EU, although they have kept their currency, the krona.  They say being in the EU helps their businesses expand to new markets and they can move to other countries to work and live with no paperwork.  It also helps their businesses to hire the best people.   They have also seen an increase in tourism and like the fact that they can have more of an impact on international matters. 

Now it is New Year´s Eve and I am in Seville, Spain.   The flight from Malta was $54 on Ryanair.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


I don't like winter and am not a big fan of Christmas.  Probably because I spent most of my life in Chicago and it is very cold and unpleasant there in the winter.  The wind is like a knife and subzero temperatures can last for a couple of weeks or more.  Christmastime is stressful for many, with too much to do and involves buying a lot of stuff.

But I am enjoying this winter time in Stockholm.  There are a couple of inches of snow blanketing everything and a very light snow has been falling most of the time for three days.  It is very pretty, but not very cold and not windy at all.   Very few people are driving anywhere--most are walking or taking public transportation.

Stockholm occupies 14 islands-- a few tiny-- and most are a few square miles.  There are attractive bridges connecting them--no interstate highway type bridges--with sidewalks on each side.   They have an old city section, with buildings from around the 1600s and  a huge park that was the royal hunting grounds.  The rest of the city has very tasteful low-rise buildings, no real eyesores except a Ramada and Sheraton Hotel. 

I have been walking around the city for six days now.  I have looked in the shops because I am enchanted with what I am seeing although I am not a person who ordinarily enjoys shopping.  While Swedes are out in the shops, they are carrying very little.  Most of the outings seem to be about looking at decorations, meeting in cafes with friends and buying some food or decorations.   Kids are being pulled through the center of the city on sleds and dogs are everywhere, mostly wearing little coats.    Today I saw a couple with a medium-sized dog approaching an escalator in a department store.  At the bottom, the dog paused, the woman scooped him up and dropped him off at the top.  They did this two more times before they arrived at the shoe department, where the dog napped under a chair.

Most of the goods in the stores look beautiful and interesting and very artistic.  For example, children's toy stores are popular and they are filled with lots of books, puzzles (especially world map puzzles), wooden toys, such as railroads, blocks, dolls, (but no Barbies--these are little girl and boy dolls like Pippi Longstocking), quality action figures of zoo animals, warriors, and doll houses and furniture.   Young girls do not dress in sexy clothes and most women wear sport clothes and are slender and athletic-looking.

There are computer and phone stores, of course, but there doesn't seem to be much interest in all the electronic equipment that Americans have.  People seem to do a lot of reading--book stores are everywhere-- and almost everyone speaks English, but with a Minnesota accent!

Swedes are known, of course, for their beautiful modern furniture and home designs.  Turns out there is a lot more than IkEA, which is a Swedish company.   For a country that is smaller in population than Illinois, they have a lot of companies doing business in the international market--a few that most consumers know about are IKEA, Ericsson (cell phones), Brio, H&M, Electrolux and Astra Zeneca (drugs). 

Walking around different neighborhoods (the city is only a little over 1 million people), I am really impressed.  The quality of life seems good, people look healthy and fit, I don't see any rundown neighborhoods or even cars in bad conditon, most people take public transportation, the buses are new and gleaming and run on natural gas, escalators stop running when no one is on them and start again (slowly) when one steps on them.

I don't see much of what we refer to as "stuff from China".   Swedes seem to buy less and of higher quality.  I am sure some of the IKEA stuff must be made there, but many of the goods here are made in Scandinavia and Germany.

Tomorrow I leave this beautiful, snowy place and fly to Malta, if the Stockholm airport weather cooperates.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What I Couldn't Say Before

Just like someone serving in the armed forces, when I was in Azerbaijan in the Peace Corps, I lost some of my free speech rights.  This is because we are not supposed to get involved in political issues in our country and we are not there to criticize or even praise the government.

So when I spoke about Azerbaijan, I didn't say that a huge and frequently discussed problem for Azerbaijanis is the corruption in the government, the lack of a free press and freedom of assembly.  The problem takes a few forms--many students in primary and secondary school as well as in universities are expected to pay or can pay teachers bribes.  Some are for nothing in particular, others are for better grades or for not attending school (to work) and be counted anyway.

Others are to get jobs (a teacher is commonly expected to pay up to 5 years salary to get a teaching job), keep jobs, get a drivers license, stop police harassment, get a break from the armed forces, a better assignment or to get out early.  Some doctors pay enough bribes that they don't need to really study.

Some people appreciate the convenience that the bribes afford them--are you a university psychology major and not good at statistics?   Pay and get a passing grade.  Need an A instead of a B?  Pay and get it.   But others hate it.  When I held English conversation groups, the participants chose bribes as their most popular topic of conversation.  This situation is a major reason that many Azerbaijanis are highly skeptical of democracy--bribes were reportedly minimal in the days of the Soviet Union. 

I never realized how important freedom of the press is in America.  Government and business try to get away with a lot of stuff, but in the end they can't, because someone will squeal.  In Azerbaijan, the press is tightly controlled.  The newspapers and TV report on nothing controversial.  Americans and those who can read English or Russian on the internet know that the 12 year old son of the  president of  Azerbaijan owns over $40 million of real estate in Dubai, but regular Azerbaijanis have no idea.  Conservative Muslims find their mosques shut down and themselves in jail.   Those who try to have community meetings without the approval of the local government find their meetings broken up. 

Azerbaijanis are not upset enough about these problems to do much about them.  They even approved a constitutional amendment to let their president stay in office indefinitely.  Part of it, I am convinced, is that even a bad situation like this could be a lot worse.  When the Soviet Union fell, the country completely fell apart.  No electricity, gas, everyone out of a job, no currency, no government.  The first two presidents couldn't provide much of anything and when a former Soviet official who was the former head of the KGB appeared on the scene, they threw over their president and accepted him. 

After his death, his son became president.  Azerbaijanis have most of the basics and don't want to go backward.    We volunteers felt smug about this difference between Azerbaijan and America at first, but then we realized that we have corruption too, some in the same form and some different.   People in Chicago know that both Mayor Daleys had corrupt administrations, but they keep electing them.  New York had a law that the mayor could only have 2 terms, but Michael Bloomberg ran again and won. 

We gain advantage for our own children in schools, not by bribes, but by excluding the poor from our neighborhoods through zoning and economic segregation so we don't have to compete with them.   We don't want to watch news or read articles that conflict with our opinions.  We say we don't like the moral values of different groups of people, but we don't really know any of them.

So while I was bursting with the news early on, now it seems like a weak postscript to my Azerbaijan experience.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Hats with Earflaps

I am in Sweden now and am staying in a hostel, like I did in Berlin.  I had never stayed in a hostel before and didn't know what to expect.  But since I will be traveling for almost 6 weeks,  I didn't want to spend money on hotels.  

Actually, it's fine.  I researched a hostel for Berlin before I left Azerbaijan.  The one I chose had a location better than most hotels, I could walk most places, it offered free walking tours, a wealth of resources, like computers with internet, a library of travel books, knowledgeable employees and guests with advice about what to see and do, and an opportunity to meet other people.   They pointed me to a laundromat a couple of doors down and gave me advice on how to get back and forth to the airport and to navigate the transportation system, all advice having a basis in cheapness.

With that experience under my belt,  I researched another hostel for Stockholm.   This one is different because Stockholm is different.   Because it is a smaller city with a more conservative outlook and in a colder and much more expensive place, the common areas of the hostel are different--and much bigger.  People don't eat out as much, so they have a big industrial kitchen and communal eating area.  There a living rooms on each floor with books and wifi and movies every night.  In Berlin I was out getting half-price California rolls or pho; here I had a sandwich. 

I flew from Berlin to Stockholm for $15 on Ryanair.  They have a lot of add ons, like preferred seating, checking a bag, buying a soda or sandwich, but I didn't pay for any of that.  I even had to stuff my purse in my bag, since the rule says only one piece of carryon is allowed; otherwise the charge is 35 Euro.

We arrived in Stockholm at an airport that is far from the city.  On the bus ride in to the city, the countryside was flat and snowy--it reminded me of the opening scenes of the movie Fargo.  The sun set about 3:30 p.m., but the city is lit up and  looks pretty and Christmassy.   Stockholm is made up of 14 islands, the oldest of which I will look at tomorrow.    There is an old city, a palace and the park is made up of the former royal hunting grounds. 

The first time I saw women in Berlin wearing knitted wool helmets with earflap and braids hanging down, I thought it looked pretty crazy, but now I am used to it and may look for one for myself tomorrow.  The navy watch cap is getting some strange looks.   The Swedes like the knitted helmets too.

Monday, December 13, 2010


I didn't know what to expect from Berlin. I really like it. Because it is the capital of Berlin with over 4 million people, I expected highrises and a corporate look. That's not it at all. It is a low rise city due to a spongy soil, so 4 or 5 stories is tops. This makes the city quite pedestrian friendly.

Everything looks very clean and well maintained, but the best thing is the public transportation. There is little auto traffic here because of the excellent tram, huge and extensive metro system and buses, some double decker. Most of the time, however, I walk.

Berliners call themselves 'poor, but sexy'. Because most corporate work is in other German cities and expats apparently keep a low profile, Berlin is cheap, cheap, cheap to travel and live in. Music, art and tourism keep people busy. There are over 175 museums. It is full of young people who are artists, musicians, free spirits or just people who like a balanced life.

Consumerism is at a minimum, with luxury brands looked down on by many as mindless and conformist. One of the first things I noticed is that I have truly not seen an obese person in Berlin. I was surprised, because drinking is popular and on the 'obese country list', Germany is near the top. Maybe because of all the walking, but even middle aged and older Berlin women look like they can crack walnuts with their thighs.

Berliners seem proud of the fact that anything seems to go here, such as nude or alcohol free nights at clubs, dogs in shops and restaurants, and apparently universal acceptance of gays. People appear to be friendly. In Azerbaijan, every day I met people who thought I was Russian and spoke Russian to me. Here everyone thinks I am German and tries to start up conversations.

I started my trip with a walking tour of about 7 hours, which was free, tips accepted. It gave me a lot of ideas for what to do on subsequent days. The tour was totally in English and I was with a few Americans, but mostly Brits and Australians. We came across an anti American protest about the death penalty and in particular one American citizen on death row. The international community apparently thinks this guy's trial was unfair and biased. They also point out that countries that still have the death penalty have major human rights issues. Besides America, countries executing the most people are China, Saudia Arabia, Iran and Pakistan.

Since the walking tour, I have visited the German Democratic Republic (Communist) Museum, which was really interesting and hands on. It showed homes, cars, consumer goods, clothing and other everyday objects from East Berlin. I also visited the Sunday flea markets, the Christmas markets (basically a big carnival with food, hand made goods, alcohol, ice skating and rides), Hitler's former bunker (a paved over apartment parking lot) and a fabulous bookstore full of English books (haven't seen such a place in 28 months).

Before I go I want to see the Brandenburg Gate again, some of the art museums and the Reichstag, the Parliament building.

Friday, December 3, 2010


I'm leaving my town in a few days.  This week I have been visiting a lot of people to say goodbye.  It is difficult.   I know a few of my friendships can continue and a few people will even come to America.  But for most people I know, I probably won't see them again.

Recently, visas to Azerbaijan for most foreign travelers are limited to 7 days instead of the former 30 days.  This has really taken away the incentive for family and friends of volunteers to come to Azerbaijan. 

I have published 77 posts to this blog and plan to continue for a little while so that I can cover my readjustment to America.   But before I go back, I will visit Berlin, Stockholm and Malta for 6 days each, then go to southern Spain and maybe Morocco for 16 days. 

My daughter, Kelly, came to Azerbaijan for three weeks in September 2009.   While we were traveling in Georgia, she wrote this in her Facebook blog:

I met a Hungarian traveler today who's taking 6 years of vacation (wish I could do that...) and travelling the world through Couchsurfing. He's been on every continent except Antarctica (which he is planning to get to) and has only about 60 more countries to visit until he has been to every country in the world.   We met again later in the day while I was eating dinner outside so I invited him to sit down with me.  He had so many stories about the different places he had been.

He told me a story someone had told him:

"A young man cared very much about the world, so he decided one day that he was going to change it.  The young man worked very hard for 10 years, and eventually he realized that he could not change the entire world.   So then he decided that if he could not change the world, he could change his country.  For the next 10 years, he worked for his country before realizing that he could never fully change his country.

So he decided to work for his city, and worked for 10 years for his city, but it did not change much.  Then, the man decided to change his family.  By this time he was 70 years old and did not have the means or the energy to change anything else.  In his old age the man realized that when he was young, he should have started by changing himself.   By changing himself into what he wanted to be, he could change his family, and his family could change the community, and then the city, and then the country, and then the world."

This story encouraged me to keep being who I am.  As Ghandi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."   I may not be able to change the world in my lifetime, and I'm not out to.   Not everyone understands words and listens to speeches.   But they can feel your actions.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


I wrote two posts—the first about two years ago and last year about my experiences in trying to learn the Azerbaijani language. Since I have been at this for 27 months now, I am confident in saying that learning this language is the hardest thing I have ever done. I believe it was harder for me than it was to raise my children.

When new volunteers come to Azerbaijan, we spend about 4 hours a day for 3 months in language lessons. We live with a host family who usually knows no English and when we are done with our training, we continue our language studies while living with a new host family in our assigned region and working with people who may have little or no English. We are surrounded by Azerbaijani language all day.

This language is not quite as easy for Americans to learn as a language like Spanish or French. One reason is because sentences in those languages are said and translated in a similar order as English. For example, “She wants to buy a red shirt” in Spanish would be constructed “She wants to buy a shirt red”. In Azerbaijani it is constructed “Red shirt to buy wants she.” Making sense of a longer written sentence is difficult, because it is as if all the words for a sentence are put in a box and juggled.  When you hear several sentences in a row, it is very difficult to put the words in the proper order to tranlate them in your head to English.  It is also difficult to put  the words in the right order when you speak.

The other difference is that words often have endings on them, for conjugation or adjectives. For example “it” is dog, “itlər” is dogs, “itlərimiz” is our dogs. But if “our dogs” is a direct object in the sentence, an extra “i” is added at the end, making it itlərimizi”.

There are some things that are easier in Azerbaijani than in Spanish. Nouns do not have a gender. Actually, even pronouns like “he”, “she” and “it” have no gender—they are the same word, “o”. So “O gedir” means “He/she/it is going.”

Anyway, at the end of my 3 months of training, I scored “intermediate low” and was supposed to be at “intermediate mid”. Most of what any Azerbaijani said to me was unintelligible, as was the TV and most signs.

In addition to doing my regular Peace Corps work, I spent the next 6 months in intensive study with a teacher and homework. I lived with a host family and my co-workers spoke little or no English. I met a lot of Azerbaijanis and spoke with them in my limited Azerbaijani. I passed the test and continued to study, last February reaching “advanced low”, where I remain.

I have felt quite confident for over a year going anywhere in Azerbaijan and feeling like I can get what I need. I can have a polite conversation using bad grammar with anyone about limited topics. A more in-depth conversation involves more effort and some misunderstandings, since my vocabulary is not large and I mangle sentences. But TV is still unintelligible as is much of conversation between Azerbaijanis. People tend to speak with me slowly using easy words like they are talking to a toddler.

A highlight, though, is that Azerbaijani is similar to Turkish and when I was in Turkey this summer, I was able to communicate with Turks. I plan to study Turkish language when I return to America.

One of the frustrating things is that in Spanish, for example, if you translate unknown words in a sentence, you can get the meaning of the sentence. When I see a sentence I don’t understand in Azerbaijani, many times I will look up each word, but I still don’t get the meaning of a sentence, since the words are “out of order” in English and the endings all have to be translated too.

Meanwhile, my fellow volunteers were going in several different directions in their language learning. A few were language stars, picking the language up easily and not needing to study—just being exposed to Azerbaijanis was enough for them to progress quickly. These few still say that they are not able to read a newspaper, for example, and TV is not easy for them to understand, but Azerbaijanis recognize their skill are quick to compliment them on their achievement.

Most volunteers did okay and progressed after training, learning new words connected to their work and lives in their new town. They studied off and on, but plateaued early and do what they can with the fairly limited language they have.

And another group, mostly composed of the older volunteers, didn’t learn much in training and gave up soon after they got to their worksites. Some are only able to say greetings, a few nouns for things they need to buy, and a few commands. This limits what they can do and experience in the country, but while they won’t continue to try to learn the language, they try hard to find meaningful work with the limited language skills they have. If they are English teachers, it is okay on the job, but no so good after school in interacting with Azerbaijanis. It also limits where they can go in the country and most of us like to travel. It is common for these volunteers to need another volunteer or Azerbaijani English speaker as a “handler” for certain tasks, such as paying a bill or solving a problem, since they can’t manage a conversation themselves.

Azerbaijanis usually know at least one other language and understand Turkish from watching Turkish TV. They are usually reluctant to speak a language unless their grammar is good and much emphasis is placed on being able to speak a second or third language well. I have found that many Azerbaijanis are puzzled about why most native-born Americans don’t have a second language that we speak fluently.

I explain how large our country is and how I could drive from my home for many hours in every direction and not encounter anyone unable to speak English. Also that if we are studying something, we want to use it; another language is something we may never use. I tell them that I spent about 5,000 hours in high school and college studying Spanish, but was not motivated because I felt I would never use it. If I had spent that time learning something else, it may have enriched my life.

Because of this emphasis on language competence, when volunteers speak limited and grammatically incorrect Azerbaijani, it can affect the way we are perceived here. I sense that some Azerbaijanis think I am not intelligent. And I have seen that for those volunteers who can’t say much at all, Azerbaijanis are mystified and sometimes insulted that the volunteers came here and choose not to study and learn the language.

Unexpectedly, though, a insight came to me from this language learning experience that has nothing to do with Azerbaijan or Azerbaijani language.

We all know Americans who are angry because immigrants, especially Mexican immigrants, usually don’t learn English. Of course, this phenomenon is nothing new--my relatives who immigrated to America as adults many years ago, reportedly never learned English. Typical of most immigrants, they settled in a community made up of people from their country, where the children learned English and the parents mostly didn’t.

For those who want the first generation to learn, I have to say this:

When already well-educated Peace Corps volunteers come to Azerbaijan, they are provided with native-speaking teachers, good materials, plenty of time to study and are surrounded by the language wherever they look. Yet after two years, some can’t say much of anything and most are not fluent.

Mexican immigrants come to America because some Americans are very anxious to hire them—otherwise they would not come. They usually work long hours for little pay. They tend to live in places that English speakers don’t and most have family responsibilities.

If most Peace Corps Volunteers under very supportive circumstances aren’t able to become fluent and many aren’t able to say much at all, why do we expect that Mexican immigrants should become bilingual?

The surprise for me in this case is that Mexican immigrants have nothing to do with my work here. But I am changing my thinking about them because of what I am experiencing in Azerbaijan.

I didn’t expect that my opinions about countries and cultures other than Azerbaijan’s would change. The only way I can figure out how much I have changed is to go back to America, to my friends and family, watch their faces and listen to what they say as we interact.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


I was going to write something about the topic of “was the Peace Corps what you expected and do you think you have had an impact?” Then “Seva” called me today and we met. The experience of spending time with her today wrote this post for me:

Seva is 18 and attends her second year at a prestigious public university in the capital city of Baku. She grew up in my town and I lived with her family for about 6 months. Her mother wanted me to live there while Seva was in the second half of her last year in school so that her English would improve and she would do well on the entrance exam. As in many countries, university tuition is free for those scoring well on the exam. Those who score very high qualify for more prestigious universities—those who don’t do well normally don’t attend university.

We spoke English for about 30 minutes each day, and usually spent the time talking about her future, her interests and current events. The family was nice and I spent a lot of time talking with her mother about family, traditions and her daily life in Azerbaijani. Seva rarely left the house other than to go to lessons and had no friends. She studied many hours each day for the entrance exam. Her mother wanted her to be engaged soon and married while she was still in university.

Seva wanted to go to Baku to study if she qualified and eventually spend a year studying abroad, but her family is conservative and she was not able to express her desires confidently. We worked on that and talked about what some of her options would be if she were able to go to Baku to study. Meanwhile, I could see that her English was progressing rapidly.

She did well on the English portion of her exam and on the overall exam and decided to major in English. When she was accepted into the university, her parents were very proud and supportive, even allowing her to live with roommates in Baku. When I have gone to Baku, we have gone to a restaurant where a lot of English speakers go and we had American food. She loved the place and was amazed to see it.

Now she is a very confident girl, who is active in various English-related organizations in Baku, excited about life, reads books for fun, has made new friends and has told her mother that none of the girls in the second course (our sophomore year) in Baku are engaged or married and she wants to wait too. She feels that she is getting a good education and that she has a bright future. She is now looking into study abroad programs.

We met today in my town and we promised to see each other in Baku before I leave. She told me that I was her first American friend and once she knew me, the doors opened for her to a new world.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


This post is sort of like a dinner made of leftovers. As I get ready to leave Azerbaijan next month, my mind is filled with a jumble of things I want to do or complete here. I dropped a few of my thoughts in the blog.

When I came here, I wondered if 27 months would seem too long or not long enough. Some of the volunteeers I started with left early for different reasons—mostly medical. A few are staying a few months to a year longer.

For me, 27 months seems perfect--three months of training and two years doing my work. I feel so much more competent than I did when I started and feel compassion for the volunteers who will be starting their new lives as I leave. We try to share our knowledge as much as we can, but there are rough spots and adjustments for everyone that can’t be smoothed over, they just have to be experienced.

One of the things I have tried to do in this blog is to help people to understand what it is like to live here. I am not the caliber of writer to convey what it is really like, especially what it is like to live in a Muslim country. However, I recently read a book that seemed really authentic to me in its description of the contrast between America and a totally different country. I felt like I was there. That book is Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.

Greg is the guy who has been building schools for young children in Pakistan and Afghanistan for over 20 years. Most schools built by well-meaning foreigners there have been burned down or otherwise destroyed, but most of Greg’s schools have not. He operates in a way that is similar to what the Peace Corps does.

He doesn’t do things for people—he helps them do things they want to do. The community must demonstrate their strong desire for a school, they have to have strongly committed village partners to keep the school running, and be able to supply all the labor and source materials to build and maintain it. Greg doesn’t do anything before he gets to know the people of the community and is trusted before he begins working with them.

In the book, he describes his relationship with warlords, Taliban and mullahs—and why all of these people are not automatically bad guys like we read about in the press. He could not have done his work without having productive relationships with these people. He conveys the frustration, the learning curve, the relationship building and the excitement of a finished product very effectively.

After finishing this book one morning before breakfast, I had a chance to have a lengthy chat with one of the women in my host family. She just turned 69 years old and has been a teacher all her life. I respect her intelligence and insights. I was curious about something and know her well enough to ask a lot of questions that might be annoying.

I have written before about how volunteers constantly hear from 40-plus year old Azerbaijanis how much they miss the Soviet Union. They miss full employment, being part of an important world power, producing food and other goods for the other 14 countries and financial security.

When I lived in America, I had never heard any of this. It is an article of faith in America that Mikhail Gorbachev is a respected figure and Ronald Reagan is often credited with assisting with the fall of the Soviet Union. However, most Azerbaijanis despise Gorbachev for being an agent of the collapse. They are incredulous and angry when they hear that Ronald Reagan is given credit for assisting because they don’t feel the US had anything to do with it. They feel the collapse was due to oil prices and other mismanagement by Gorbachev. Also, they are incensed with the idea that Americans would think they had the right to try to change the government of another country.

The one thing that I never hear is anything bad about the former Soviet Union. So I asked my family member to tell me about some things that are better now or that she did not like about living in the USSR. She thought for awhile and said she couldn’t think of anything. I prompted her by saying that I had heard that people could not ordinarily leave the USSR, that they did not have quality consumer goods and had food shortages.

She said that it was great to be able to travel to the other 14 countries in the Soviet Union and that now most people are too poor to leave their city, let alone travel outside the country. She said they don’t have quality consumer goods now and that they never had food shortages.

After more prompting and more thought about any criticism of the Soviet Union, she said that in Soviet days some of the best fruit and vegetables from Azerbaijan were sent to Moscow. She also said that she thinks men are not as rude to women as they used to be. (The country has become more socially conservative since the Soviet days.) That is all she could say and that is typical. I don’t know what to make of this except that I have heard political observers in America say that Americans vote using their wallets and their sense of security as a guideline. They don’t mind giving up some of their rights or those of others if it will make them feel more secure or prosperous. So maybe this is all just human nature.

I have spent a lot of time in my blog talking about the things I like about this country. People have asked me what criticisms I have of Azerbaijan. After two years, I find I don’t really have any—and that is not because I couldn’t find any if I looked. It is because this is not my country. As a non-citizen, I am not invested in it and feel my opinion shouldn’t count. I am a guest here and am not here to change the country. Do Americans like it when Europeans tell us how we should be more like them? Remember Freedom Fries?

I am here to help Azerbaijanis make the changes they want in their personal or professional lives, to tell Americans about Azerbaijanis and to tell Azerbaijanis about Americans. That is it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Leaving Azerbaijan Soon

I am leaving Azerbaijan December 9 because my 27 months will be over. I will miss my new friends here very much, but am glad to be going home. I miss my friends and family. But Iwon’t exactly being going home, since I don’t have one in America. And never having been to Europe, I don’t want to fly over it on the way home without stopping, so I will visit Europe for 5 or 6 weeks first, then head to America.

When I get back to America, I plan to visit my family and friends first, then find a place to live, probably in Washington, D.C. I will have a guestroom and hope my Azerbaijani and American friends will visit me there.

In the meantime, I am wrapping up my work and visiting places I haven’t seen yet. Peace Corps had a wrap-up conference for us and one of the things they talked to us about is “reverse culture shock” and the issues of re-entry to America. I am glad they did, because I have felt for some time that my friends and family will notice that I have changed. Although they have always thought I was not exactly mainstream.

According to the material they gave me, some of the shock is related to the role we play here. We are treated as special people and we look different than others. We are viewed as experts and many people want to entertain us and get to know us. We have a support network of other volunteers who understand us and also a great administrative staff support network at the Peace Corps office in Baku.

A lot of volunteers go from this situation to unemployment and no home waiting for them in America. We cannot claim unemployment benefits, but are given about $7,000 as a readjustment allowance, plus a ticket home or the equivalent in cash.

Since we have not seen most of our family and friends in 27 months, they will, of course, have changed and moved on with their lives. Returned volunteers routinely say that their families and friends are not very interested to hear what they have been doing for 27 months. I don’t want to bore people and hope I won’t. But, the Peace Corps warns that it is our changes in values that are the biggest issue.

Our handbook says “Many return to the United States determined not to lose values learned and practiced during their Peace Corps service. For example, back home, returned volunteers often become more sensitive to the lack of respect some show toward the values of other nations and may strive for a simpler life-style.”

Some of the statements in the handbook are pretty serious. Like ”Do not judge your country and your compatriots too soon or too harshly in the beginning. You used to like this place and these people; you can probably (!) learn to do so again, if you are patient.”

And “Try to avoid the temptation to publicly compare the States unfavorably with the country you served in, for example. This practice may rub people the wrong way. They may ask you, ‘If it’s so bad here, why did you come back?’ Talking to other returned volunteers enables you to vent your frustrations and reassures you that you are not losing your mind.” As far as losing our mind goes, we are offered 3 free counseling sessions in the US as part of our close-of-service package.

Comparing the US unfavorably with Azerbaijan is not something volunteers here do all the time. In fact, much of the time, we wish things here were different and more like the US. But unfavorable comparisons do get woven into our conversations. And we don’t just compare the US with Azerbaijan, but with other countries too. This is because most of us travel to other countries while here, many have lived in other countries before and we meet other foreigners, diplomats and businesspeople here. They compare their countries and culture with ours, Azerbaijan’s and other countries they have visited.

I am confident, though, that some of the things volunteers talk about among ourselves would sound strange to a non-Peace Corps American. Such as how much we will miss eggs laid by chickens we know, how great it is to hang our laundry outside on a nice, sunny day without worrying about what neighbors will think, how we don’t miss driving and love all the public transportation available. Some topics that we discuss Americans would understand, like how much we love buying fresh, locally grown, organic food without packaging, how great it feels to be in a country with a low incidence of violent crime and how much more hospitable than most Americans Azerbaijanis are to guests.

One of the ways I am aware that I have changed is that I don’t drink or eat fish anymore. I was a fish-eating “vegetarian” when I left. I never enjoyed drinking and had a glass of wine or a beer now and then socially. But since I don’t enjoy it, I am not going to do it anymore just to fit in. Worldwide, the fishing industry is a mess, with overfishing a big problem. (Remember all the cheap orange roughy in the 80’s? They were pretty much fished to extinction.) I don’t like the idea of eating farmed fish. So I’m not eating fish anymore.

I never much cared about buying or owning expensive things and this feeling has intensified here. No one in America was impressed with the old Corolla I had before I came here. But now I am going to try to live in a place in which I won’t need a car at all. I realize now that I don’t need a lot of clothes in my closet. Five or six pairs of pants, a few sweaters and shirts, a dress and a couple of skirts and blouses sounds perfect. (KG in STL, are you freaking out yet?) Any more would be too confusing. However, hand-made carpets now interest me a lot and I have bought several. I never had the slightest interest in hand-made carpets before.

Another way I have changed is something that America and Americans can do nothing about. Most of the people we meet in this part of the world are from countries that are much smaller in area than ours and of course, much smaller in population. This type of country is attractive to me, since one can easily become familiar with each region of the country and cultures are more similar, which can lead to fewer divisions and other problems. Everything just seems more manageable in a smaller country. When friends and family are all within 200 or 300 miles, life is easier and families can remain closer. In America, family and friends can all be American, but be separated by thousands of miles. It’s difficult to stay close.

Being such a big country, too, America spends a lot of its money on wars and other defense issues. Many smaller countries have high-speed rail, better roads, great metros and public transportation, free wifi everywhere in cities and free university for smart kids. People live longer, healthier lives because the countries are able to spend tax money on things that improve the lives of their citizens rather than be locked into defense spending.

Another area that stands out is that most countries don’t have our Electoral College system—they have popular voting systems in which everyone’s vote is counted. Since 1948, Massachusetts Republicans have voted in vain in presidential elections. Every year since then, all electoral votes have gone to the Democratic candidate. If I were a Republican in Massachusetts, I would wonder why I should trudge over and vote if I knew in advance my vote would not count.

Most of us try to keep up on what is going on in the news in America. But we experience things without actually having been there—so we experience America like a foreigner. For example, I read about a Delaware Senate election debate in which the separation of church and state was mentioned. During the debate, Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell said “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?”

Her opponent replied that it was in the First Amendment. “Let me clarify,” O’Donnell continued. “You’re telling me that separation of church and state is in the 1st Amendment?” Her opponent replied “Government shall make no establishment of religion.” “That’s in the 1st Amendment?” she asked.

Almost 40 percent of voters know this, but support her anyway. This makes me feel shocked and confused.

And then there are movements like the Tea Party that we didn’t have in 2008 when we left. As a former banker, I am always interested in the money part. This is what I don’t understand about them:

When proponents say they want to cut government spending by billions of dollars but won’t identify the specific defense programs, Social Security, Medicare or other services they want to cut — or the amounts, how can Americans take them seriously? They also don’t explain how this will make us more competitive and grow the economy instead of leading to a death spiral like it did when Hoover tried to end the Great Depression by cutting spending.

Aren’t these Tea Party people the ones who sat silent or cheered when we launched two wars and a new entitlement, Medicare prescription drugs — while cutting taxes — but now, suddenly seem to be angry about the deficit?

And then I don’t understand those who blame unemployed people for needing unemployment payment extensions when statistics show that in St. Louis, for instance, there are 11 unemployed people for every job opening. How is laying off more people or cutting off any sort of payment to them going to help or save us money?

So for my friends and family—at least for a few months, expect me to try to locate live laying chickens, hang my laundry outside, spurn that tuna sandwich and have a mostly empty closet. But I will enthusiastically accept washing my clothes in a machine, buying peanut butter and having a great-tasting cup of coffee whenever I want.

Monday, September 27, 2010

New Blood

This weekend I was lucky enough to go to the airport and meet the 8th group of future Peace Corps volunteers coming to Azerbaijan. All 63 of them arrived on a flight from New York. Last year I met 59 volunteers and the year before that, my group of 60 arrived.

This year’s group, like the ones before, was about 2/3 women, with about 8 older volunteers and about 35 who are between the ages of 22 and 24. Four or five are racial minorities and a few joined with their spouse.

The trainees got off the long flight after brief greetings, piled on three buses with their luggage and took off for three days of orientation before being delivered to their training site host families in local communities for their 11 weeks of training. Most will make it and become volunteers in December and disperse to new locations all over the country.

So who are these volunteers and why do they join?

Volunteers seem like a typical cross-section of well-educated Americans. They come from most areas of the country and different religious backgrounds. The great majority have college degrees, and most are white and come from middle-class backgrounds. The only other things I can think of that most have in common is that the great majority love to read, are very down-to-earth (no princesses) and are politically liberal.

Just like in any organization in the US, people join for different reasons. Many have traveled extensively and are adventure-seekers. They love having unique experiences.

Others have been teachers or worked in the helping professions. They join for altruistic reasons. A few people join to add experience to their resume and do something interesting and rewarding.

Some haven’t been able to find a professional job in America and are waiting out America’s economic problems. Some older volunteers are at the end of their careers and do it as an enhancement to their retirement, while others would like to retire, but can’t afford to. Peace Corps service means they don’t have to support themselves for two years and have an opportunity to buy health insurance when their service is over.

Some people aren’t ready to make the decision to either join the world of work or get their masters degrees. Peace Corps volunteers seem to be much more interested than typical college graduates in getting their masters degrees. Most volunteers either have a masters’ degrees or want to get them. Relatively few have work experience after their masters’ degree.

A few people in the group that left last year went back to their previous profession or re-retired. Some joined masters programs. Some found professional jobs and a few went on to different adventure opportunities. But many seem to be unemployed, working part-time or underemployed.

We are supposed to serve for two years after our training, but some people choose to leave or have to leave. Reasons for leaving are medical issues, family problems, violating rules or in some cases, volunteers just don’t like it here.

The job is a hard one. Problems that most volunteers notice in some other volunteers are depression, alcoholism, excessive partying, worrying about family members and situations back home, failure to integrate into the community, homesickness and negative attitudes toward Azerbaijan.

On the other hand, most volunteers don’t have significant problems; in fact some volunteers love it here so much that they apply to stay longer, up to a year longer.

One of the benefits of coming here that I didn’t realize beforehand, is that I learn a lot about other areas of America from talking to volunteers. Now I feel that I have friends all over America as well as all over Azerbaijan.

Although we come from different states, professions and fields, I am proud of most of the volunteers that I work with. They are hard workers, use their talents, develop new ones and grow in the process.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Azerbaijanis Get Things off Their Chests

I thought that since Azerbaijanis watch American movies on DVD (but they aren’t on TV much here), study about America in school and see news about America on TV, they would know more about America—we wouldn’t have to explain the basics to them.

Some things we expect to explain—like the fact that in America we usually don’t have individual water tanks in our home in which water is placed by the local utility several times a week. We don’t ever run out. It just comes. From where, many of us are not sure. And that we rarely have gas or electric power failures, schools have heat in the winter, that most stuff in America works most of the time and that many Americans like to buy Japanese and German cars because they are concerned with quality over patriotism.

Also, we expect to explain that our public transportation system is lousy and expensive, comedians make fun of our president and other national leaders every day and people love it (this is illegal in Azerbaijan), we eat a lot of processed food, we don’t have two kinds of cheese—we have hundreds of kinds, we have a lot of restaurants, many of which serve foreign food (restaurant food in Azerbaijan is monotonous) and that people often eat out, that women who drink and smoke are not necessarily slutty.

But I didn’t think I would have to explain that we are not all rich, many Americans don’t have homes, the government doesn’t give us homes, renting is not anything to be ashamed of, some people (including children) are homeless, the quality of the food here is much better than American food, why most Americans are overweight, poor people are usually forced by economics and zoning to live in neighborhoods by themselves with few resources, most of us don’t find spouses for our children and most of us don’t get nervous if our daughters are not married by age 22—in fact we are often nervous if they are.

The list goes on: Clothing is cheap in America and quality is good, as in most countries in this part of the world, men are not required to join the armed services, in America about 1% choose to join and get a good salary and training, 20 percent of children in America live in poverty, most poor children receive a poor education, most poor girls have unplanned pregnancies in their teens, most American baby boys are circumcised (Azerbaijanis think it is only a Muslim tradition), Americans are mostly too busy or are not qualified to take care of elderly, ill parents in their homes, and many Americans have lots of books in their homes and read for fun.

Also: Most wealthy Americans don’t feel a need to use their wealth to eradicate poverty, it is common for some upper and middle-income Americans to blame the poor for their poverty, high schools and universities in America offer elective courses, you don’t have to know your major before you start, majors can be changed, university is not free for most students, most people don’t mind if you walk in their home with your shoes on, many states are radically different from others culturally and topographically and America is 50 times larger than Azerbaijan.

Some things I don’t want to explain: why the American people wanted to start two wars back-to-back, even though no other country in the world thought this was a good idea (Azerbaijan was one of the Iraqi “coalition” for 5 years and did non-combat work. Many Azerbaijanis say they helped so that America would help them in any future war with Armenia, a naïve thought at best. Georgians were also in the coalition and some told me that when the war started with Russia, they were stunned and angry that we did not support them against the Russians the way they supported us), why American women appear to enjoy sex, why women who have sex before marriage are not slutty, and how Americans prevent pregnancies instead of ending them in abortion. I try to avoid political discussions, but with the news on every day, it is hard to escape politics, especially with my host family and their guests.

Of course each volunteer answers these questions differently. We usually say that many Americans think “A” because of “B” and others think “C” because of “D”. In conversation after conversation I have found that at the end of the discussion, they usually ask me what I think, don’t comment on the flattering things about America and then scold me on behalf of America and tell me to pass it along.

So here is two years worth of Azerbaijani indignation in a nutshell:

How can you have all that money and have no cheap way for poor people to get to a workplace? If Azerbaijanis can efficiently move the poor around rural regions, and have a beautiful, expanding subway system in Baku the equivalent of 18 cents a trip, why can’t America?

Why do the wealthy not make it a priority to help the poor and not isolate them?

Pregnant unmarried teens are a complete scandal and not taking care of your elderly parents at home is a shame.

Why do you tolerate guns? We have no guns and our murder rate is next to nothing.

What do Americans accept eating processed food and not know where their food is coming from?

We understand why you start wars now—because you don’t have to go. How do you feel about sending mostly poor boys off to their deaths when you don’t want to go yourselves?

Why don’t you listen to other countries before you start wars? We know the Soviet Union was a very powerful country and very unsuccessful in Afghanistan. You don’t have a different plan than the Russians, so why did you think you would succeed?

How can you do things like eat in restaurants when people, including children, are living on the street?

I try to avoid these discussions because I have found I don’t get anywhere. If I have to say something, I say that our culture is different and we value different things. We have more emphasis on self-reliance. We also tend to think of solving our problems with force since we have the largest military in the world. And when we want a war, we don’t think much about the cost at the time. We want the war and no new taxes and not to have to go ourselves. Later when we are not so angry, we change our minds.

I also tell them it does not seem practical to put restrictions on teens to keep them from getting pregnant and we are not as liberal as some other countries who distribute free contraceptives to those who want them. All of this sounds pretty lame to them. My last resort to get them off the topic is really pretty easy—I whip out a People Magazine or a Brides Magazine. The men huff and walk away and the women forget about nursing homes and start critiquing the dresses!

Friday, September 3, 2010


Like Turkey and Iran, Azerbaijan has a long history of carpet-making, both at home and in carpet workshops. When I arrived, I never thought I would be interested in hand-made carpets. First, I don't have a home to put them in. Second, I have seen oriental, Turkish and Persian carpets and thought they were attractive, but never thought of having any of my own. While I have been here, I have seen many carpets in homes and slowly learned about how carpets are made. I visited three carpet workshops and two carpet museums and have learned about different types and patterns of carpets from different regions of the country.

Pile carpets made at home are particularly interesting to me, although the ones made in workshops are made the same way on the same type of looms. Carpets have been made at home for hundreds, maybe even a thousand years and it takes a very long time to do the different tasks necessary to produce a carpet. The tasks haven’t changed much during this time.

I recently bought a carpet which was made at home sometime after 1950 and is from the Quba (Guba) region, which is in the northern part of the country, bordering Russia. This area is beautiful farmland and mountains; farming is done more with donkeys, horses and wagons than tractors and combines.

This carpet is typical of carpets made at home. The process is to first get wool from local sheep or even from the family’s own sheep. The wool is then washed several times in a local river or stream where the water is very clear.

The family chooses a design, usually a traditional design from their region of the country. Designs are handed down in regions similar to the way the designs of American quilts are handed down. The colors are dictated by the design and the dyes are made from plants that grow in that region. Before or after the wool is chosen, the family begins to gather the plants that will be used to make the dyes. Because most of these plants are available only seasonally, the process of gathering plants can take up to a year.

During the time this carpet was made and even today, many home carpet dyes were made from natural colors because plant dyes are free and chemical dyes cost money. Also, properly done, natural colors will not fade. Pomegranate skin is known for producing a good red color. Saffron, which is abundant in Azerbaijan, is used for yellow. Blue colors are usually chemical dyes because plants producing a good blue color are hard to find in Azerbaijan.

The wool is spun into yarn and when dyes are available, the yarn is dyed. Then the loom is set up in the house. Homemade carpets are not huge, because the loom must fit into the small main room of the house and still have room for the family to live. This carpet is about 5 x 8--as large as can be made in many homes. Carpets are mostly produced during the winter, when crops are not being raised and livestock does not require a lot of attention.

The carpet I purchased is wool on cotton; cotton is grown in Azerbaijan. You can tell it is wool on cotton from looking at the fringe. The cotton is stretched vertically on the loom, where the knots are made with wool. The cotton ensures a strong carpet. This type of carpet can be much more intricate than wool on wool carpets because cotton can be spun finely and the knot count is generally much higher.

Making a carpet involves sitting on the floor in front of the loom looking at a pattern while making rows of knots of the proper color. The work goes very slowly, especially for a wool on cotton carpet, because of the high knot count. A carpet this size could take 8 months to a year to make, longer if the carpet maker doesn’t work at all during the summer. Once several inches of yarn are knotted, the yarn is sheared to a uniform length with special large scissors. Once it is complete, the colors are locked into the carpet by soaking it with cow or horse urine or vinegar and salt solution. It is then rinsed repeatedly (luckily!).

Families usually made carpets for weddings and they are normally kept in the family. They can last 150 years or more of normal wear, so after several generations, sometimes a family owns too many carpets and sells a few. Most families do not make carpets at home anymore, but may buy them. Some rural families still make carpets at home for weddings. A few carpets are made in workshops. There is no way to speed up the work, as the carpets are still made the same way, except for the fact that chemical dyes are more popular. So new carpets are more expensive than older ones and few people in Azerbaijan can afford to buy them. Older carpets made at home are valuable also and will become more valuable because the supply is limited. A government certificate is necessary to be able to send carpets out of the country.

The traditional way of cleaning a carpet is to first beat it on a clothes line, then put it outside on the ground and run water from a hose on it (if running water exists—otherwise buckets are used). If still dirty, it is scrubbed with a brush and vegetable-based soap and rinsed again. The carpet is then put in the sun for several days. The sun does not fade the carpet if natural dyes are used. Carpet dealers do not recommend sending it to a carpet cleaning company where harsh chemicals may be used.

In October, I am visiting two regions of the country in which carpets are made. Maybe I will get a small, new carpet there for my future home.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Farm

A couple of weeks ago I went to a farm. Not a really big deal, since there are plenty of farms all over the world. But this one was interesting to me because it was so remote and because they farm in a very traditional way.

The farm is not reachable except with four-wheel drive vehicles in dry weather. I took a mini-bus to a small town and from there we found someone with a four-wheel-drive vehicle. We waited about an hour to get more passengers for a cheaper rate. I was surprised we made it in this vehicle or any vehicle because the terrain was so rough and rocky.

When we arrived, we found the farm to be 8 or 9 acres, but this is not a problem for livestock grazing, because the animals can graze on open land. The grasses grown for animal feed and to sell also appeared to be on open land. The home was old and made of fieldstone with a wooden roof, doors and windows, which were very dilapidated. There was no kitchen per se, but a place in one room for the electric oven and a propane gas tank. In another room the kitchen implements were kept.

The family was excited because they just got electricity, so they now have an electric oven for baking and don’t have to use the tandir wood-burning oven outside anymore. They can also turn the lights on and stay up late in the winter. They don’t have a refrigerator but they do have a satellite dish attached to the roof, although I didn’t see a TV. From May to September they could really use a refrigerator, but getting one there could be difficult. They also have no gas, but use the propane tank.

Water is outside--about 50 yards from the house. A small tap runs from a spring. There are these spring taps every ½ mile or so and people drink and use the ice-cold water without boiling it. Everyone says how healthy it is. At this tap, the family washes dishes, themselves and gets water to drink. The animals drink from it too.

There is a “barn”, which is a low building about the size of a garage. This is where the cows and sheep stay in the cold winter and eat the hay. The chickens must be kept warm to lay eggs, so they live in the tiny barn among the cows and sheep, which generate enough heat to keep them laying eggs.

The family was in the midst of harvesting long grass for the animals to eat. There are no machines to cut it and on the steep mountain slopes, machines may not be practical. So they use scythes and the farm is dotted with huge haystacks.

The animals are several cows, a few sheep, geese, chickens and turkeys. The geese were being plucked for down while I was there. It consists of chasing and grabbing a goose (done this time by a 6-year-old boy) and then handing it to a woman who yanked out the down for about 3-4 minutes for each goose. The geese screech the whole time. She collected enough for a couple of pillows

One of the sheep was slaughtered while I was there and it was quite an operation to get it cut up. They had to eat it in one day since there is no refrigerator.

One of the days, we took a walk and visited 5 different spring taps. It is traditional to drink out of each one and wash your face and put your feet in the water, which is considered good for sickness and to maintain good health. The sun was shining, the fields and mountains were lovely, sheep grazed, turkeys enjoyed the sunshine and small homes dotted the countryside.

One of the most interesting things we did was to find plants for making herbal tea. My family pointed out flowered bushes or smaller plants and we cut the flowers, leaves and branches from the plants. We laid them on a sheet on the ground back at the house and a couple of days later they were dry. I then cut them in one-inch lengths and put them in a box. We made the tea by filling about half a coffee press loosely with the cut up tea plant, added boiling water and waited for a few minutes. It was delicious.

Different varieties have different healing properties. The type we gathered and others are sold cheaply in our local bazaar by women who go to the country and gather the plants just as we did. But it was interesting to gather and process it ourselves. If you want me to mail some to you, email me.

The downside of this type of life is obviously the isolation, the huge amount of physical work involved, a lack of bathing facilities and no toilet--bucket baths are the norm and the outhouse is primitive even for an outhouse.

One of the huge advantages is the healthy environment. Even people in my city comment on how people who live in this area are rarely ill and about how many live to a long, productive old age. They drink mountain spring water, encounter no pesticides, don’t eat any processed food, eat freshly made yogurt, eggs and homegrown vegetables and fruits, work hard physically and have a low-stress life. They don’t multi-task, worry or even know about world events, get mail or worry about finding or losing a job.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Seatbelts, Garbage and Broken Stuff

Lately I have been thinking about how it is human nature to not notice something that people elsewhere think is a problem. For example, when I was in junior high, two-piece swimsuits were popular. I didn’t let the fact that my ribs stuck out like a skeleton stop me from wearing one.

When my children were tiny, I would proudly take pictures of them to work. I guess I wasn’t very discriminating, because the office grump once took a look at the latest picture of my baby daughter and asked “So what’s wrong with her?”

Sometimes we volunteers are lucky enough to get a ride in a car. In our first few months in Azerbaijan, we would scramble around the back seat looking for a seatbelt. Now we know that usually either there isn’t one, or it doesn’t work. Recently another volunteer and I rode in a car with a new volunteer. When she nervously looked around for her seatbelt, we rolled our eyes at each other.

Another example is in housing. The Soviets built many apartment buildings to try to provide decent housing for workers. People could move from really primitive conditions in very old, obsolete homes to high-rise buildings with indoor toilets, running water and elevator access to the higher floors. Some volunteers live in this type of building and we all visit people who live in them. Besides the amenities, though, they feature mazes of wiring coming out of holes in the walls, stairwells that are dark at night (and sometimes during the day), litter everywhere and broken steps.

Azerbaijanis don’t consider the state of the common areas to be a reflection on them or that it is really any of their business. (The interesting things is that when you actually walk in the apartment, taking shoes off and putting slippers on is mandatory and most apartments are much more neat and orderly than American homes.) The volunteers mostly have come to accept these bad outdoor and stairwell conditions. We carry flashlights, step around the trash and ignore the wires.

Quite a few of our volunteers work with English teachers in schools. We were shocked at the condition of schools on our first few visits. The buildings typically look poorly built with cracked walls and crumbling steps. Often there are broken windows and trash all over outside. Playgrounds and athletic equipment are rare. Many blackboards are in such bad condition that chalk doesn’t work on them anymore. The bathrooms are usually unspeakably filthy and most teachers plan their days so they don’t have to use them. For some reason there are usually women who work as cleaners in the schools mopping the floors constantly but not cleaning the bathrooms.

Recently I went into a classroom to meet some students for a summer project in which we had to move the desks and chairs around. The desktops, as in many schools, were pieces of warped plywood covered with graffiti and carvings. They were perched precariously on metal frames. Most of the desktops were no longer attached to the base. The chairs at one time had all featured plywood seats and backs, but most of them now lack backs and some lack seats. I realized that the state of the school didn’t bother me anymore and I just got on with the project.

What most of my fellow volunteers have to keep reminding ourselves is that in American schools attended by poor children, these same conditions can exist. In addition, poor children in America can face weapons, crime, drugs and hunger, and may be homeless or pregnant. Kjds in Azerbaijan usually have nutritious food to eat, weaponless communities, drug-free schools and almost no crime. I have never heard of a homeless or pregnant student.

Last month, the New York Times reported that over 250 schoolchildren were shot in Chicago during the past school year. A new teacher had been greeted by her new students by being asked how many times she had been shot. When she replied she hadn’t, her students showed off their bullet wounds and several had been shot on different occasions. This would be totally shocking to Azerbaijanis, but Americans are apparently used to hearing about it.

Azerbaijanis have strange ideas about Americans—that we are all wealthy, our lives are easy and that since women are “free”, that women have no problems in America. When we tell them what things are really like, from our own different perspectives, they see problems that we have accepted as a matter of course.

One stems from the fact that Azerbaijanis help poor family members. It is common for one family member to partially support a poorer family member, buy a relative furniture, pay their medical bills, repair their home. Last winter, the hot water heater went out in my home. My host mother took the train to Baku to get the money from her sister. She also got money regularly from different relatives to buy clothing, pay utility bills and buy food. This woman’s husband moved to Moscow to find work. One in eight Azerbaijani men is working in Russia. The husband makes enough to support himself, but not his family. We recently had repairmen at our home for 7 weeks, painting and repairing things. The bill was paid by a nephew who works in Moscow and knew the house was in poor shape.

Of course, America is not a monolithic place, and I have noticed that in America, people I know who are from Mexico or who are black are more likely to help support their relatives than Americans as a whole. One volunteer whose family comes from Mexico says she suffered little culture shock in Azerbaijan, since many parts of the culture are similar.

So when Azerbaijanis learn that Americans, including children, are homeless, they can hardly believe it. They are also shocked that some people go to a food bank or soup kitchen to get food instead of getting food from their relatives. And that people have their utilities cut off for non-payment, but their relatives may not feel the obligation to pay the bills for them.

I try to tell them about our culture of personal responsibility, how jobs used to be available to many people who needed them, that Americans need to save a lot of money to cover medical bills, their old age and university expenses. Many Americans feel that unless they have money saved for all of these things, it is premature to give to their relatives. And that they may feel that their relatives should work harder or smarter and make better choices, such as not drinking or taking drugs. I also tell them that many Americans feel that incentive is important and can be taken away when relatives give money. I also point out that we are very charitable to strangers or foreigners who have suffered in disasters.

Azerbaijanis I know aren’t buying it. They say that when a family member needs help, the family should give them the money they need, children shouldn’t suffer because their parents can’t provide for them and that the best security is in knowing that when you need help you will get it.

A lot of volunteers still shake their heads when they see fields full of trash, people throwing trash in beautiful natural areas and in the lack of environmental regulations in Azerbaijan. But we soon realize that most Azerbaijani families generate very little garbage, use their own containers at the bazaar, buy few packaged items and live in fairly small homes, which require little electricity.

We Americans in Azerbaijan prompt ourselves to remember that we pollute the earth and air in many countries with our consumer culture, have 5 percent of the world’s population but produce 25 percent of the greenhouse gases, we pollute our own waterways with the excrement from huge factory pig and chicken farms, we blow the tops off mountains in West Virginia for cheap coal and don’t clean up the mess and don’t heed the pleas of many other countries of the world who fear that our carelessness will affect the existence of their countries. Then we have to admit that even though we are looking at a field full of trash or a dirty apartment stairwell, this Third World country of Azerbaijan is doing a better job on the environment than we are.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Travels with Dave

Random things that happened to me and my son; he visited Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey with me for three weeks:

On our first day together, we were in Istanbul. Due to unfortunate circumstances we only had one card to use to get cash. Most of our transactions needed to be in cash. We went to an ATM and pulled out some money. We forgot to wait for the card to come out of the machine. As we walked down the street a Turkish man chased us down to return the card.

Weeks later, in Azerbaijan, we bought a small handmade carpet in Baku. We went into a restaurant and left without the carpet. The waiter chased us down the street to return the carpet.

To minimize the culture shock, I planned to start with him in Istanbul, work our way through Turkey, then less-prosperous Georgia, then to rural Azerbaijan. We later visited the sophisticated capital city of Baku, but at the border, the vibe was very rural. After we crossed the Azerbaijani border, Dave could tell he was not in America or in Turkey anymore. Our bus was actually a beat-up van with homemade seats. A chicken was sitting placidly in a bag next to us. As the driver shifted gears, the shifter broke off. He looked at it contemptuously and threw it aside. After that, when he needed to shift, he reached way down to the floor to a tiny nib that remained.

Shortly, the engine sputtered and died. The driver rummaged around the back of the van, emerged with a two liter soda bottle and dumped the contents in the gas tank. I had to inform Dave that this was normal—spare gasoline in two liter bottles is even sold by the side of the road.

Earlier on a van going from western Georgia by the Black Sea to the capital city of Tbilisi, I asked where we were. To my surprise the driver said “South Ossetia.” It looked pretty bucolic.

Neighbors can be strange in Azerbaijan as they are in America. But a different kind of strange. A week later as we prepared to take the midnight train from my home to Baku, my host family was entertaining guests and we walked in and out of the gathering. A man suddenly appeared with a bouquet of flowers. My family introduced me and my son to him—he was a neighbor that I hadn’t met. As he handed me the flowers, he spoke to me in halting English saying, “I have a Ph.D. in animal insemination and I would like to get to know you better.” Dave was amazed that he would say this to me and said he may try this as a pickup line at home in America.

Friday, August 6, 2010


This post is for the new crop of volunteers, who will arrive in late September to begin their training. They read the blogs of current volunteers for clues on what their lives will be like and how they should prepare.

Most volunteers spend a lot of time choosing the stuff they will bring with them. They figure that for 27 months they will not be able to buy much here and their favorite foods will not be available. I remember the time I spent trying to guess what I should do before I left. So here are my suggestions for AZ8 (the 8th group of volunteers coming to Azerbaijan).

1. Most things are available in Azerbaijan. If not, you will travel to Georgia or elsewhere and buy stuff or people will send you packages. So don’t panic.

2. Put aside some clothes in a separate box that you may need or want here and leave them at home. Make a list of what is in there and take it with you. When/if you want the stuff, your relative or friend can pull it out of the box and send it.

3. I have bought summer sandals, t-shirts and other things in the bazaar. I live in a larger town and there are awesome second-hand clothing stores here with gently worn things from Europe for men and women. There are at least 10 of these stores in my city and most volunteers can visit my town. I got a beautiful Italian wool coat for $10; also jeans, sweaters, etc.

4. If you are CED like me, you may be packing the wrong stuff. I packed like I was going to be hiking for 2 years, only to find out I needed business attire like I had worn in my bank job in America. I had the wrong clothes.

5. The PC suggestions on long skirts for women are okay, but Azerbaijani women have asked me why my skirts are so long and Azerbaijani women in my town don’t dress as conservatively as my first clothes. (Things are changing for women teachers. In my town, at some schools teachers wear jeans. Of course, PC volunteers don’t wear them.) I rarely wear skirts now.

6. Essential recommended clothes for women and men are a couple of pairs of black tailored pants and good walking shoes. Casual shoes for men and women are everywhere and are cheap. And if you are CED, I recommend a nice coat to put over your business clothes—a trench or wool coat. I walked around in business clothes under a ski parka until I found my second-hand wool coat. Not good.

7. People preparing for the Peace Corps spend a lot of time buying and choosing stuff. My recommendation is totally different. You won’t know what you need, so pack some of the things listed above, warm winter clothes, a few things for summer and don’t worry. You can buy it here or have it sent. Here is the top recommendation:

8. The Peace Corps has language training materials that are to be downloaded from the site for study before coming. Most people spend weeks choosing and packing their clothes, but come unfamiliar with the language materials. New volunteers come here not knowing how to say hello, goodbye, thank you or any of the basics. You will meet your host family soon after you get here. What will you say to them?

Your success depends in a large part on how well you know the language. This will affect your relationships, your experience, where you can travel and is very important.

You should know these 23 lessons by heart. Put them on your iPod and start studying them at least an hour a day. If you don’t have time, stop shopping and reading blogs.

Also, you won’t need a lot of reading material at first. This is because instead of reading English books and watching English movies, you should be studying Azerbaijani. Besides, the Peace Corps lounge has thousands of books that other volunteers have left behind. So if you don’t have a Kindle, don’t worry about bringing a lot of books. Some volunteers talk about all the movies they have watched and books they have read, but can’t speak Azerbaijani. Don’t be one of those people.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Happy Dog Story

I wrote this article for the Peace Corps Volunteers' Azerbaijan newsletter.

I sent a dog from Azerbaijan to America. She has a good home with my sister in Wisconsin, everyone who has met her loves her, she is happy and healthy running around in the country and swimming in Lake Michigan with her new golden retriever sister.

But I don’t recommend that you do this. It was a crazy idea from the start and it is a miracle that it worked out.

To tell you why, I will go back to last summer, when I moved in with a new host family. Living outside the door of our house was a small brown dog of about 20 pounds. She lived there because my family fed her scraps once a day. She greeted me daily for months and if I paused from my walking, she tried to put her front paws on my legs. I never fed her, touched her and tried not to look at her.

I am a dog lover, but I felt that this dog needed to adapt to being a dog in Azerbaijan. She needed to go hang with other dogs, avoid humans, find her own food in the garbage, scrap it out. I thought to myself that making friends with a dog is not sustainable in Azerbaijan and that spaying and neutering are.

This dog was persistent. All through the fall and into December she greeted me whenever I came and went, walked me to the marshrutka (mini-bus) every day and waited with me. She would walk down the street right behind me and bump her nose against my legs. I still didn’t touch or feed her.

But I became increasingly concerned when I saw that she would not budge from our doorway to find shelter at night. Rain fell on her, snow fell on her and she would spend days wet. As I slept in my room at night, I knew she was right outside my window in the open on nothing but frozen ground. She was afraid of the feral dogs in our neighborhood and knew that men did not live in our house or come to our door. She could avoid kicks of men and boys by staying outside our door.

I also noticed that she was eating rice, bread and little else. She would dig up dirt with her nose and eat it. I could find no one who wanted a dog or could offer it shelter through winter.

Around January 1, she gave birth to 5 puppies and dug under a fence across the street to make a nest for her puppies. Some of the neighbors felt sorry for her and provided a cardboard box and some straw. But it was January, windy and at night, bitter cold. The water in the street was constantly either frozen or very cold.

At this point, I decided I had to start helping her. I bought some dog food and began feeding her. I started talking with her and touching her when she took breaks from the pups. I pulled her pups out of the gutter when they started walking and fell in. Her fur was thin and so was she. When I bent down to get them out of the gutter, she would slip herself between my body and my outreached arm and press herself against me. She was a good mother, with fat puppies. I wanted to send a couple of the pups to America, but could not get through the red tape and eventually they grew up and disappeared.

When they left, I could see that she would go right back to living outside our door and become pregnant again soon. She did not seem to be in good health and continued to eat dirt. But she continued to greet me happily. I really admired her spirit of continuing to be optimistic in spite of the fact that this life did not suit her. I decided I had to make a commitment to help her as much as I could. But how much I could help her would depend on what she would be willing to do.

I knew a vet already who could do most procedures, except a spaying operation, and took her there for an exam. Beforehand, we practiced walking on a leash and I eventually coaxed her into a taxi to get her there. The neighbors stared.

I had no luck finding a vet who could spay dogs until a fellow volunteer found someone at the Agriculture University, which is located in my town. He agreed to do it, but I knew I couldn’t pluck her off the street, have her spayed and dump her back on the street again. So I had to find her a place to stay. I left my perfectly good host family and moved to another family, people I knew, who agreed to give the dog a chance to live in the garden of their home.

After I moved in, it turned out that living in the garden meant tied up in the garden, that they were afraid of her and sometimes she got off the chain. Not a good solution, but she stayed while she recovered from the operation. (The post-op instructions I received were to feed her tea and soup for two days. She refused both because she is a dog and after awhile I gave her water and eggs, which she wolfed down.) I had to find her another place to stay while I figured out how to get her out the country.

In the meantime, The Dog and I (I didn’t name her, thinking it was bad luck) took walks all over town, causing a stir wherever we went. And my sister visited Azerbaijan, met her and decided to either keep her for me or her, or find a home for her (she has a husband who was skeptical) in Wisconsin. But our plans were to travel through Georgia and Turkey, so she couldn’t take the dog back with her. Besides, the airlines have a lot of rules and paperwork, which we were not prepared for. I had a lot of travel plans for the summer, so having a dog was not in my future.

Just when I thought I’d have to put her back on the street in her old neighborhood while I figured out what to do, my vet friend found a relative she could stay with for a couple of months, if necessary. He convinced the wife easily, but the husband required quite a bit of vodka in order to agree.

So she moved into their garden (also tied up) and I went to their home every day to walk her and check on her, except for when I was in Baku, the capital city, (twice) for The Dog’s flight-related paperwork and my sitemates picked up the slack. No one felt like flying to America with the dog, so we found that Lufthansa Cargo ships show dogs, racehorses, all kinds of other animals and has a good record and a special animal building for layovers in Frankfurt.

The details and paperwork overwhelmed me. I met everyone involved in Baku from the cargo people to the passport people/vet office to Customs, the city veterinary office and the document translator. Then on the other end, I had a friend arrange to pick her up in Chicago and hold her until my sister came from Wisconsin.

Frankly, this took away from my Peace Corps duties. While I think that walking around town with her every day and making friends with little boys, who ended up liking her and petting her was good, it took away from my other projects. I was distracted.

The tension was thick as the day of the flight approached. I had all the documents I thought I needed, but who knows what I didn’t understand that I needed?--I was speaking to everyone in Azerbaijani. Azerbaijanis helped me quite a bit, but once I got in the taxi for Baku (171 miles away) with The Dog, we were on our own. Well, almost. Our PC country director had given permission for her to relax at the PC office before the flight. We hung out in the yard, she had a bath with the car-washing hose and she searched for fallen berries to eat.

I was supposed to be at the airport at 10:00 p.m. About 6 p.m. is when they called to say I should come back in nine days because Customs is not open on Sunday. This was Sunday. I headed to the airport. At the cargo dock, I was quickly surrounded by huge, curious guys who looked like bouncers—they lug cargo around for a living. I told my Lufthansa contact that I had nowhere to go with her, they were the ones who scheduled the flight for Sunday knowing Customs was closed and she had to go or I would need to stay at the cargo building with her for nine days.

They figured it out. After awhile, they produced the crate, I said goodbye, kissed her while the giant loading dock guys watched us and left the rest to Fate.

My kind friends, the Harles, in Naperville, Illinois, picked her up at the airport and gave her excellent care for several days, including an oatmeal bath at a groomer. Afterward, my sister came to pick her up and they made the six-hour trip to her home in Wisconsin. My brother-in-law is no longer skeptical; he loves her and wants to keep her. She hustles around her rural neighborhood and goes to the state park on the weekends. She has gone to doggy class and even day-care for socialization with American dogs.

The real miracle of this story is not all of the people who helped me, although the support I received from everyone, including many Azerbaijanis, was tremendous. The real miracle is that this little dog is so unusual. She was not able to adapt to life in Azerbaijan, but was able to do everything I asked her to do to adapt to America—walk on a leash, ride in a taxi, accept physical exams and shots without objecting, walk confidently into an operating room when she had never been inside a building in her life, know not to urinate inside, not object to having me walk up to her on the street and shove worm medicine down her throat, and go from a crate in an airport to charming people in Naperville, Illinois within an hour. For awhile, her life changed radically and frequently and she kept accepting the changes.

So when I see a dog in my neighborhood scrounging his own food or lying in the sun enjoying the good weather, I toss him part of my candy bar and hope that he is finding some enjoyment in life. I don’t think I’ll ever meet another dog like The Dog.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Traveling ın Turkey

I haven't seen my son in almost two years. He was in the Navy and couldn't just up and come over to Azerbaijan. Most volunteers have come home due to a family wedding; illness or just because they mıssed theır famıly.

So since he recently left the Navy, he decided to come and visit. We met in Istanbul last week and are traveling through the rest of the country. This blog post is really just an endorsement of Turkey as a vacation spot and an interestıng country. Neither of us had ever thought much about Turkey and only thought of coming here because I am in this part of the world and the other options are not so appealıng--Iran, Turkmenıstan, Armenia, Syria, and the part of Russia that is having a lot of civil unrest.

Of course, Istanbul is an interestıng city wıth a lot to do—historical sites, a beautiful city on two continents and in three parts, all separated by water. Lovely palaces, beautiful parks, interesting places, such as the Grand Bazar, with over 4000 merchants, the Spice Bazar and a wonderful public transportation system, although we walked most of the time.

Istanbul is extremely clean, the parks are outstanding, we felt very safe and there are interestıng things to do everywhere. The Turkısh people are very welcomıng and everything is well-organized.

We next went to Gallipoli, the site of the WWI battle, because my son is a history buff. We then saw Troy, the ancient cıty—I didn’t know that there are 9 cities here built on top of each other. It was interestıng to see the different excavations.

We then took an overnight bus to Cappadogia, an area wıth giant rock formations and soft rock cliffs into which are built whole cities. We are stayıng in a cave hotel carved out of the rock. What a lovely place. Tomorrow we will go to some cave citıes and explore a canyon.

We are so impressed wıth the bus transportation—clean, effıcient and they go almost everywhere. We had a butler on our Mercedes bus giving us drınks and snacks. It ıs inexpensive. The bathrooms in the bus statıons are immaculate.

As we traveled on the bus, we saw many cities along the way. They are immaculate wıth beautıful apartment buildıngs and wonderful infrastructure. The architecture is interesting and attractive wıth beautiful mosques everywhere.

Everyone has been very kind to us and some people on the bus have even invited us to their homes.