Saturday, April 18, 2009


15 April 2009

If you’ve ever been to Azerbaijan (and possibly several other countries) and learned a bit about its culture, chances are you know about these places. Personally, I’m a fan of them.

“Çayxana” means “tea house”, and they’re very prevalent around here. I’d say just about every little village has at least one, and they’re not hard to spot. If you’re walking down the street in a typical town, you’ll see an establishment, often with a patio area. Little tables will be set up out front and inside with small receptacles for holding sugar cubes. I must add that these establishments are traditionally for men only. Now, women may be able to go to them, but it might attract some interesting attention.

On any given day, you’ll see men seated at the outside and inside tables, taking sips from little glasses with a teapot between them. This is where many men convene just about every day. They relax, talk, and play chess or backgammon. From an American perspective, it’s an interesting thing to see men do. I joke with my friends sometimes about this. Picture the typical dudes’ get together in the States. Chances are they’d be hanging around the bar, tossing beers and talking trash. Well, the same macho men do that here, except they’re grasping little tea glasses, and a pot with flowers painted on it sits between them.

I love it! Despite my admiration for beer, who says it’s imperative for a dudes’ get together? I, for one, am a fan of caffeinated beverages, and a pot of tea on a sunny afternoon after a days’ work isn’t a bad way to do it, especially if you’re with your friends. My sitemate Charlie and I get together at least once a week at the çayxana of our choosing (There, of course, are several of ‘em in Oğuz.). We sit down with some tea and shoot the breeze for a while. Charlie mentioned that it’s become almost a motif of our experience.

There may be differing opinions regarding the çayxana, but, to me, there’s something very relevant about them. It’s good to know that people value slowing down and enjoying each other’s company. We often have to run around here and there, and we forget about the simple pleasures that bring us to life.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Takin' a Little Run

10 April 2009

When you’re living and working in a different culture, you realize the importance of healthy habits that keep your mind, body, and spirit up to the task. These can range from reading, writing, prayer, playing a musical instrument, or whatever activity it may be. I write this web log partially because it feels good to write. It helps me put things in a better perspective.

Several times a week, I also like to hit the road and jog a few miles. It’s an activity I’ve always enjoyed. It’s interesting, though, doing it in broad daylight in a little village in Azerbaijan. It isn’t too common here, as many volunteers can testify. Running in public, with no particular destination in mind, can attract some odd stares and maybe even some harassment here and there. I can remember one time, when I was living in Ceyranbatan, in which my friend Charlie’s host brother saw me running by, and he looked at me curiously and asked, "Hara? (Where?)". Many volunteers avoid the varied reactions of the locals by either not running at all or heading out when people aren’t around. Some friends of mine in the rayon of İsmayıllı run at about six in the morning (It also grants them the liberty of wearing shorts.).

Thus far, in the ol’ village, that hasn’t been my style. At about five P.M., I head out the door and get my exercise in. This is partially because I tried the whole "running in the morning" thing. While it was nice to jog in the quiet with no one around, it wasn’t so nice to not be able to see where I was going. I fell hard on my left ankle the second or third time I did it, and I called it quits after that. Luckily, my ankle healed, and now I just run in the sunshine when others are out walking, drinking çay and playing backgammon, or playing volleyball (They’re really good at volleyball, by the way. I get put to shame when I step out there.). Sure, it attracts some attention, but not all of it’s bad. I get smiles and waves from the men drinking tea by the store. Women do the same while they’re walking down the road. Kids yell out, "Hi, John! How are you?!" which can be annoying, but at least it isn’t negative. I’ve even had some "followers" recently, but they generally taper off after about fifteen yards. It also appears, at least around here, that not all people find it necessarily "weird". I’ve gotten good reviews from various people. One man told me, "You know, John. I see you running a lot out there, and that’s a good thing. Folks around here, they don’t run, but you do. That’s good." Some women may also say, "John won’t get fat because he exercises" (It also, on a side note, has been good to maintain a healthy appetite. People appreciate that.).

Anyway, it’s just good to know that my strange, American ways aren’t necessarily strange to everyone. By being an English speaking foreigner in a small Azerbaijani village, I’m already pretty weird. What difference does taking a little run make?

Saturday, April 4, 2009


4 April 2009

There’s a verb that exists in the Azerbaijani language that really amuses me. It’s "qonaq etmək", which, if translated literally, means "to do/make guest", with "qonaq" being the word for "guest" and "etmək" the word for "to do" or "to make". Okay that doesn’t make a whole lotta sense, but let’s try and translate this in a better way. According to my big, clunky Azerbaijani to English dictionary, "qonaq etmək" means "to entertain", "to treat", or "to feast". Ah, perhaps it’s ringing a better bell with you now.

Being or entertaining a guest is a big part of the culture here, or anywhere, really, but I’ll concentrate on how it’s done here. We Peace Corps volunteers typically just say that were "going guesting" every now and then, signifying that we’re heading to an Azerbaijani’s house to eat and spend time with their friends and family. Let me paint the picture for you:

You approach the host’s house, and they warmly welcome you, immediately telling you to take off your shoes and put on a pair of slippers. Then you walk into the house and sit right down. In my experience, there’s never been the American custom of showing the guest around the house. You come, and you sit, and the T.V.’s usually on, too. I guess it serves as an extra diversion for the people’s attention. As you get accustomed to the surroundings and Turkish pop songs are playing on the tube, çay is served, along with various little cakes and candies. You gotta love this custom that would get you slapped by your mama if you were back in the States. Folks here eat sweets before and after dinner. Priceless.

After having a spot, or several, of tea and chatting it up with other folks at the table, the sweets are taken away, and the meal comes out. An interesting aspect I’ve experienced that isn’t so common back home is that the women are often going back and forth from the kitchen while only the men sit and eat. I suppose the locals are used to it, but I keep wanting to say, "Come, sit down. We got things to talk about," while they’re pacing to and fro.

Nonetheless, the food is tasty. It typically consists of a few dishes. One of them is dolma. You’ll rarely guest at someone’s place and not have this. Dolma is either grape leaves or cabbage stuffed with meat and rice. It’s good stuff. Then, of course, there’ll be plenty of fresh bread to go with it. I’ve become a world-class bread eater since being in this country. Every time I go for a run nowadays, I can feel it there, weighing me down, but it’s so good that it’d be a crime if I refused it.

Also, they might serve up some cutlet, which is cooked ground beef patties, kind of like a chop steak or burger, without the bun of course. Sometimes it’s served with scrambled eggs, too (providing enough fat and protein for the next few days). They also might serve some turkey or chicken stew with potatoes, and, of course, no bout of guesting would be complete without dovğra. It’s a type of yogurt-based drink with cilantro and other little greens in it. It’s served hot or cold. When I first tried it, I was like, "You gotta be kidding." I can remember when Charlie first gave it a whirl, at his host family’s house in Ceyranbatan. I was sitting next to him, and when I asked, "How is it?" he responded, after swallowing and making a priceless face, "It’s interesting," which, for some reason, made me laugh consistently throughout our meal there, perhaps to the chagrin or simply confusion of the host. Anyway, I’m getting off topic. Yeah, it seemed kinna weird at first, but it grew on me, and Charlie, too. It’s definitely an acquired taste.
Being the good hosts that they are, the Azerbaijanis will also insist that you eat more and more…and then more. My old football coach, Darly Hayes, would’ve been pleased. You gotta be careful, ‘cause, you know, you gotta save room for dessert, which is, well, what you had before dinner, with more çay. Oh, well, what the heck. Indulge. Life is short.

I’d say guesting is a pleasurable experience, and it’s certainly a testimony to the hospitality of folks that’re glad to have you. I’m also amazed to see the word "qonaq" have such a strong presence in the Azerbaijani language: "çağrılmış qonaq" (invited guest), "çağrilmamış qonaq" (uninvited guest / intruder (I guess it wouldn’t be good if you were this person.)), hörmətli qonaq (respected guest), şərəfli qonaq (guest of honor), qonaq getmək (to visit, to pay a visit), qonaq gəlmək (to come to see), qonaq qəbul etmək (to receive visitors / guests), qonaq qalmaq (to be on a visit), qonaq otağı (living room). If the handful of phrases with the word “qonaq” is any indication, I’d say it’s a big part of the culture, and that says a lot about these folks.

Heç nə

1 April 2009

You gotta love living in a village, because I hear this phrase all the time. As I was walking back to my host family’s house on this beautiful spring day, I said hey to a few folks sitting on a bench. I asked them, "What are you up to," and they responded, "Heç nə (nothing)."

I get that response a lot, especially when I ask someone what he’s doing. Now, it may seem that doing "nothing" is probably not a good thing, but let’s think about it for a minute. I’ll give an example. In the town of Oğuz, where the rayon is centered, there are a few Internet cafes. These places are usually packed with little kids playing computer games. It’s really annoying when you’re trying to write an email to your mom and dad. Or let’s just ponder, for a second, the typical couch potato, wherever he may be, watching the tube all afternoon. I mean, he’s doing something, but that something may not be better than nothing, which is why I’m a fan of the village life. A lot of the time, when you’re walking around, you may ask someone, "Whatcha doin?" and he may say, "Nothing," when in fact, he’s simply walking around himself, or chatting with his buddy, or…I dunno…sitting on a rock. I’d say that’s about as edifying an activity as anything else. Can’t you think of some fond moments in which you were doing just that? How much more does a person need?

It reassures me that simplicity ain’t bad. We can’t help but want this or that, and the material world certainly isn’t bad, either, but if we can’t hang out and shoot the breeze with our buddies, what are we worth? What have we gained? Heck, Man, if something is gonna detract me from life’s simple pleasures, then I’ll take nothing over that. Would you agree? Just goes to show life isn’t that complicated.