Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Holidays

The Holidays:

Every Peace Corps Volunteer accrues several days per month of service for vacation, and so it was that in December and January I took several vacations, the first to Germany for Christmas and then to Georgia (Azerbaijan’s neighbor to the Northwest) for New Years.

I delighted in visiting friends I have known most of my life in Cologne, Mulheim, and Dusseldorf.  Especially interesting were the Christmas Markets set up in the center of Cologne near the majestic Cologne cathedral, offering specialty items to eat and drink, and varieties of hand-made Christmas decorations.  The traditional Christmas Markets are truly festive, even in the unseasonably warm weather and mild rain, which we experienced.  Christmas Eve no less brought record high temperatures in some parts of Germany.  We visited relatives and enjoyed festive meals, but the traditional Christmas Eve goose dinner, complete with red cabbage and potatoes was especially fantastic.  On Christmas Day we attended special Christmas mass in the Cologne cathedral with the Archbishop, Cardinal Meisner, delivering the Christmas message.  The choir and the pomp were quite impressive.  The next few days involved visiting more old friends and their families. And thanks to my German friends I brought back to Azerbaijan some German chocolates and stollen cake to share with Azeri English teachers here.






Interestingly, Germans are also curious about my Peace Corps service in Azerbaijan, and most were aware of the fact that the Eurovision Song Contest took place last May in Baku.  They remembered some of the television footage of Baku and wondered if the rest of Azerbaijan was like Baku…well, not exactly, I had to truthfully answer—it is after all a Peace Corps country.

They asked about my work, and I described some of the ways in which I promote community economic development and the advancement of teaching English as a second language.  I told them it is remarkable the level of enthusiasm on the part of some of the better English teachers to improve their skills, especially since they have little or no opportunity to travel outside the country to practice their English with native English speakers; hence they try their best to take advantage of my training programs and my assistance.  However, I told my German friends, how much an English teacher (almost always a woman) is able to actively pursue career development is dependent upon her husband.  In Azerbaijan, a woman must traditionally adhere to what her husband allows—she can only work, if he allows it, and only as much or as often as he allows.  Recently, one English teacher wanted to meet an extra day per week to practice English and improve skills, only to have her husband deny her the opportunity.  In the course of discussing this I discovered from my German friends that until the 1970’s it was the law in then West Germany, too, that a woman could not work without the permission of her husband.  Well, when a society removes such restrictions on half its population perhaps it has a positive result in economic development, since Germany has definitely become one of the strongest of economies and even has a female head of state, arguably one of the world’s powerful political figures.  Angela Merkel serves as the Chancellor of Germany with her husband’s blessing, I am sure, but she did not need to get his permission first.

Members of the younger generation in Germany were almost incredulous that once Germany had such a law, forbidding a woman to work without the permission of her husband.  But then one young German man asked me, why would a man even want to forbid such things of a wife, and why would he want to have such control over a woman.  I tried to explain that it is traditional in Azerbaijan, and ostensibly the man’s responsibility to protect his wife (and other female family members).  Since he carries the burden of her safety and her reputation--and the family's reputation, it is the man’s duty to decide what is right and best for her.  In turn, this supposedly allows Azeri women to be “free” of responsibility for many things, since decision-making (and subsequent mistakes) is to be carried by male family members, as long as the wife obeys the husband.  The young German man thought for a moment and replied, he would never want to have such a huge responsibility and burden—for one thing, he said, it is too much work to carry that responsibility, and it would impinge on his freedom, too, as a result.  He said, “Give me a wife who can make her own decisions for herself.  She will certainly be smart enough to know what is best for her, and that will allow me to be free of such a huge responsibility; besides, I would probably make the wrong decisions for her.  It is best that we both have freedom of choice and decision-making—both the man and the woman.”  Hmmm, some food for thought, though several generations ago a young German male might not have had such progressive attitudes as today’s German young people.  Societal norms always seem to be in an on-going state of flux.  What winds of change will blow in Azerbaijan’s direction for coming generations?


New Year’s was spent in TbilisiGeorgia, a town with a very definitely old-world charm.  And wonderful food!  The Georgian bread boat filled with cheese and egg, or cheese and vegetables, is delicious.  The bread itself is baked in a tandoor oven in local basement bakeries.

Tbilisi has what seems to be a church on every other corner--and hilltop, ancient Georgian Orthodox churches, resplendent with colorful frescoes and icons.  And one large cathedral, north of Tbilisi, a UNESCO heritage site completely surrounded by a fortress, serves as the spiritual center of Georgian Orthodoxy and was the Eastern most outpost of Christianity for centuries.









I and my Peace Corps travelling buddies made friendship with an American Fulbright student, who showed us around, helped us order meals (the Georgian alphabet looks like a series of curley-ques, to the uneducated quite indecipherable), and she even took us to the baths to experience the traditional sulfur scrub.  What a great way to usher in 2013!


January is also the month for an important Azerbaijani holiday, albeit solemn and sad--Black January marks the time 23 years ago, when Soviet troops rolled into Baku squelching uprisings, which upon reflection marks the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.  The martyrs of those street battles are honored all over Azerbaijan in cemetery ceremonies commemorating the events and honoring the fallen heroes.

A major event this January has been the Peace Corps Mid-Service Conference.  What a great event this was, leaving me enthused for the months of work that yet lie ahead.  My grant proposal was successful, we came in under budget, and even all the governmental forms don’t seem all that daunting.  The last few weeks have even been rather mild compared to last winter’s freeze, so all is going well.  To the entire experience, I can only say: what an honor, privilege, and opportunity!

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