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.