Saturday, February 26, 2005
Verbs, Glorious Verbs
Then, you learn a few verbs. Entirely new conversational options immediately become open to you. The world suddenly seems brighter and more full of potential.
I have begun to learn verbs.
The only thing that my intense young Azeri teacher looks askance at more than me coming to class hung over without having completed my homework (who ever said people move to foreign countries to advance in their personal development?) is my failure to practice speaking.
Despite living in Baku and working with a staff of Azeris, I really don't get that many opportunities to practice. My staff rarely converses with me in Azeri at a level I can understand, so I don't speak much outside of class.
Except with taxi drivers.
John is a 60+ year old driver who usually parks outside our building and often serves as our personal chauffeur. He took me downtown last night in his shuttering Lada sedan, yammering on as usual in a staccato mixture of Russian and Azeri.
But for the first time, I actually began to understand what he was asking me.
I credit the verbs.
In our brief ride, we discussed his hometown of Sheki and the high quality of its halva (a extra sweet and sticky version of baklava) and piti (sheep fat soup). I explained to him that I like Nasemi Bazaar near my house, but not the Teze (central)Bazaar because it is too expensive. We agreed that the US has 50 states and is very big. We lamented that I hadn't had a good day at work.
None of this would have been possible if I hadn't been learning verbs. I'm hoping that John will begin to charge me the local price
Monday, February 21, 2005
RIP Dr. Thompson
I wonder if the good Doctor had ever been to Baku.
Wednesday, February 16, 2005
I could say it was because I've been too busy. That would be a lie.
I could say I started to feel guilty, but that wouldn't really be the case. I know it would be "culturally sensitive" for me to learn, but that wasn't a compelling rationale either.
I hate learning languages. In my experience, the process is frustrating and devoid of satisfaction. I have enough frustration in my daily work life and there is little incentive for me to take more on voluntarily.
Besides, which language would I learn?
Russian, without question, is more useful beyond the borders of Azerbaijan and is widely spoken in Baku. But it is the "colonial language" and all my meetings and activities are conducted in Azeri. Furthermore, Azerbaijan uses the Latin alphabet so no signs are written in Russian letters. Most importantly, however, Russian is really hard.
According to Azerbaijanis, Azeri is spoken everywhere that matters and is practically the world's second language, after Chinese. Everyone knows that half the population of Iran is ethnically Azeri and it's only a matter of time before they rise up and demand re-unification with the anavatan (motherland). When that happens, people who know Azeri will be in a strong position to dominate the greater Caspian region.
There are political considerations too. Everyone who's "educated" speaks Russian. But if you're REALLY educated, and politically aware, you speak Azeri. That's important in my line of work. Indeed, out in the regions, very little Russian is spoken at all, but not because there are a lot of well-schooled shepherds who reject symbols of the colonial oppressor. Knowing some Azeri can help you quite a bit out there when you need to order some greasy kebabs or find the pit toilet.
So Azeri it is.
What really forced the issue, however, was the conclusion that I needed a positive alternative to the temptations presented by Baku's night life. Surprisingly, the prospect of facing my intense young teacher at 8:30 in the morning has been enough incentive to stay home and study a few nights a week.
So, after two months, I can make insightful observations such as "that man has three wives." Vendors at my local bazaar are so thrilled to hear me ask for a kilo of potatoes in their language, they reduce their foreigner mark-up by half, at least.
Indeed, it has occurred to me that learning a language isn't that big of a deal, if you devote more effort to it than scanning the book while sitting at a traffic light on the way to school.
Had I learned that lesson 20 years ago, I might be in a position to rule far more than just the greater Caspian region.
Sunday, February 13, 2005
Carpetblogger apologizes for any misunderstandings, but does not take any responsibility for conclusions drawn by the audience.
"Neither alcohol, nor any other intoxicant, was involved in the unfortunate incident in St. Petersburg. I am not that old, either."
Saturday, February 12, 2005
Meet Patches O'Hoolihan
I apologize in advance for the delay.
The Producer, the 4th oldest player in last week's Ultimate Frisbee Championship tournament in St. Petersburg, broke his arm during the third game.
Apparently, there was a Soviet-style news blackout in the former Leningrad that prevented him from reporting his accident to the authority until five full days after it had happened. By that time, he had returned to Baku and I had left for Warsaw.
"Well," he reasoned, assuming incorrectly this would justify the delay, "you couldn't do anything about it anyway."
Astute readers might recall that the Producer has a piss-poor record of revealing the true cause of his injuries. The broken ankle [from rock climbing] comes immediately to mind, as do the facial contusions from slipping on ice in northern Canada [outside a bar].
Reportedly, the injury was a result of a collision with a wall. Forgive me if my initial reaction was something along the lines of, "was that what REALLY happened?"
"There's no way I could pay off all the witnesses," he claims.
His trip really did turn out to be a cultural experience. It included a surprise trip to a Russian hospital where his arm was set, according to the German Doctor in Baku, badly.
The German doctor sent him to a Turkish orthopedic surgeon who concluded that, while the fracture was in a weird place near his elbow, it was so small it would be best left to heal on its own. He got a new brace and sling, in which he must remain for about six more weeks.
His team, which finished 19th out of 20 teams, christened him Patches O'Hoolihan, after the coach in "Dodgeball" who met an untimely demise just before the big game (go get it if you haven't seen it).
Thursday, February 10, 2005
Please stand by
Saturday, February 05, 2005
Just a typical Friday night in Baku
It doesn't get any better than this.
Boom towns are alike all over the world
"I'm not sure it's such a good thing, living in a boom town. It's basically a high-end carny atmosphere."The character who spoke this line in a short story I just read by Thomas McGuane called "Gallatin Canyon" was speaking about Four Corners, Montana. But I bet he got the idea on his last trip to Baku.
Thursday, February 03, 2005
A death in Georgia
The circumstances of his death are clear: he died of carbon monoxide poisoning. I can't emphasize enough how plausible this is. Gas supplies are erratic all over the country. It's the middle of winter. Everyone uses cheap portable gas or wood heaters to heat their homes. To our logical western minds, that's the end of the story.
But not in the South Caucasus. Its plausibility is precisely why conspiracy theories and rumors have sprung up in Baku like mushrooms in shit. Because no one trusts anyone, everyone's motives are suspect and nothing is transparent, any scenario -- no matter how absurd -- is conceivable if enough people believe it. There is no such thing as an accident here and a ulterior motive can be applied to the most innocent incident. Shadows of doubt and subtle gradations of truth put every scenario on equal footing.
I've heard all of the following today: Maybe the Russians learned their lesson with Yuschenko -- dioxin poisoning was too obvious. Everyone knows Zhavani was gay and he was caught with a lover. He was found with an Azeri. Defeated in Urkaine, the forces of evil have shifted their efforts to snuffing out the rose revolution.
Or maybe, he just didn't leave his windows open.
On one hand, it's impossible to believe everything, but on the other, it's foolish to believe nothing. I've been trying to think of a post that encapsulizes this very dynamic because I operate under it every single day: how can you live in an environment where a sinister explanation can be applied to the most innocent-seeming incident without becoming a paranoid freak?
Tom Friedman's cheerleading for the war in Iraq diminished his credibility in my eyes, but he's got this one right.
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
After we visited for the first time in 13 years in October 2003, I wrote about the disorientation I felt returning in a city that had changed radically in the intervening years. The Warsaw I remember was characterized by freezing cold, gray, featureless buildings and the bitter complaints of Poles who believed things were bad and saw no prospects for improvement.
The only thing that remains is the cold.
Even though I've seen it, it's still hard for me to accept that Warsaw is Europe now. The slick westernized capital with computerized post offices, a new subway and buses that adhere to schedules bears little resemblance to the city I lived in. It's hard for me to get my head around the fact that I am going to Warsaw, of all places, to escape the petty frustrations and casual annoyances that plague daily life in Baku. And to shop at H&M and eat Thai food!
Poland provides a powerful example of a society's capacity to change. I hope that this trip causes the folks I'm travelling with to step back and take a look at the big picture.
I hope it does the same for me.