Symbolic Criticism

The EU parliament recently criticized Azerbaijan’s lack of a free press.

“The widespread practice of harassment, prosecution, and conviction of opposition journalists [in Azerbaijan] is alarming,” Tunne Kelam, an Estonian MEP, told the session. “We call on Azerbaijani authorities to release the journalists in jail without further delay. This concerns also two young bloggers.”

Here’s the link from Radio Free Liberty.

Of course, the two young bloggers reference are Adnan and Emin.

Identity

One of the hardest parts of coming home from the Peace Corps is the identity crisis that comes with re-entry to the United States.  As open-ended and confusing as Peace Corps service may be, there is a very clear mission when compared to the “what now?” realization that newly minted RPCVs are forced to deal with.

This also comes into play when you talk to people who don’t understand the Peace Corps experience.  Unless you’ve done Peace Corps, talked frequently with someone who did, or kept up with a PCV’s blog, you’re going to have a hard time picturing the experience.  I rarely mention it to people I meet any more.  In the same breath, I’ve become pretty apt at judging whether or not people who ask “what have you been up to?” are just being polite or not.  I usually just tell people I was teaching English for two years in the former soviet union.  A true statement that doesn’t even begin to describe it all.

Making My Way Back to America

Returning back to America after 27 months in Azerbaijan was made much easier by traveling after Peace Corps service.  My itinerary, which started in Istanbul and stopped in Vienna two months later, took me from East to West, and at the same time took me from the developing world to the developed one.

Almost everything made more sense to me the further west I went.  I commented to a friend in Berlin that of all the places in the world that I’d been to, Berlin was the most similar to America that I’d seen.  She was a shocked by the accusation, but I quickly assured her that such a claim had more to do with where I had been recently than it did with the city of Berlin itself.  The more time I spent in the West, the more comfortable the idea of returning home became.

As I traveled, going home seemed like it was simply the next destination on my journey rather than having the story of Peace Corps and Azerbaijan abruptly end.  I was becoming used to being in an unfamiliar place again, which you would think would be part of being a Peace Corps Volunteer, but doesn’t quite apply.

Part of this deals with how normal and comfortable Peace Corps Volunteers become with their host communities and nations.  I’ve had a hard time describing Azerbaijan to people now that I’m home because things that would have stuck out to someone passing through faded into the background for me.  The bizarre things that I experience in Azerbaijan become quite normal during my Peace Corps service.

Spending time with new people in strange places like Transylvania in Romania helped me remember how to navigate an unfamiliar place again.  I remember being really glad that I’d been able to conquer the metro system in Kiev when I finally arrived in New York and had to find my friends house on a rainy October evening by myself with nothing more than an address and a subway stop.

Such a task might have been overwhelming in the past, but I didn’t really think twice about it.  It might have been the resourcefulness that PCVs feel when they are given a task that appears unfamiliar to them, but I think a lot of it had to do with the time I took after Peace Corps to cruise around and put everything in perspective.

That night in New York, I had the same euphoric feeling that I bet happens to almost every Peace Corps Volunteer when they return to the U.S. after two years.  I was giddy standing in at the passport control and felt like high-fiving the lady next to me when I saw my backpack come around the corner at the baggage claim.

As I searched for my friend’s house, I was listening to my ipod, which had been my faithful companion for both my Peace Corps service as well as my trip around Eastern Europe.  Between songs I heard a couple people next to me talking.  Since I had developed the habit of eavesdropping on people to try to figure out what language they were speaking over the past couple of months, I paused the music and started to listen in to what they were saying.

I stopped dead in my tracks when I realized that they weren’t just speaking a language that sounded like English, but English itself.  After taking the long route, I’d made it home.

Thoughts on life after Peace Corps

The primary purpose of a blog kept by a Peace Corps Volunteer is to relay the story of life in another country as an American volunteer to those who are curious.  It’s so hard to describe the experience to someone back home, that small, consistent updates, anecdotes, and photos have become the best way to let people know what Peace Corps life is like (or at least what we want family members to think PC life is like).

Lots of PCVs also write a few posts before they  leave, like I did.  It’s a way to frame the way the blog is going to look, give background to how they got to where they are, and publish the ubiquitous packing list that so many PCVs like to publish.

Unfortunately, the story that often goes untold is the one about life after the Peace Corps.  Seeing old friends and family, showering, and using a washing machine all seem so great that there isn’t much to write about.  People know about that stuff.  Daily life, which was once an interesting narrative in itself, becomes too common for anyone to care about.  Going grocery shopping in the Peace Corps is an interesting experience.  Going shopping in America isn’t.  Not for Americans at least.

It’s unfortunate that this part of the story is often left out.  There’s an experience there that needs to be told.

Coming home has been confusing at times.  I thought that I was totally comfortable and back like nothing changed, but one night I realized that I didn’t feel like I had anything to say to anyone.  I was tired of saying that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer because that wasn’t my identity anymore.  Besides, there was no way that they could really understand what I was telling them.  Not in the way I would want them too at least.  I was also tired of saying that I was unemployed because it just reminded myself that I didn’t have the same purpose in my life that I recently had.

There have also been some nice surprises in coming back.  Seeing family members that I hadn’t seen for two years really reminded me of the great support that I have.  Having friends that are excited to see you let’s you know that you were missed while you were gone.  And of course, the comforts that America affords have been great.

I don’t want to make this post too long, so over the next few weeks I want to write about life after Peace Corps Azerbaijan.  I hope that it will be a way for me to clarify some of my experiences as well as give others insight into some of the challenges of returning to the U.S. after Peace Corps service.

Things to come?

I read this article about Peace Corps Volunteers getting denied entry into Turkmenistan.  I can’t help but think that this is the future of PC in Azerbaijan as well.

The decision to bar 47 volunteers from the U.S. government-run program from the former Soviet state comes amid fears energy-rich Turkmenistan is reneging on commitments to open up after years of isolation under an eccentric autocrat.

Sound familiar?

Rila Monastery

My trip to Sofia, Bulgaria included a short day trip to the Rila Monastery, a UNESCO World Hertige Site.  I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at this place, but was pleasently surprised when I walked through the gate.  I’ve got some photos uploaded here, which show off the cool Bulgarian architecture and the colorful frescos.  My preview:

Live from Bulgaria

I’m in Veliko Tarnovo, the former capital of Bulgaria.  It’s a pretty great little mountain town in the middle of the country.  For those familiar with Azerbaijan, think of Sheki on steroids.

Bulgaria has actually been a pretty great surprise for me, as I had pretty low expectations.  I was going to head to the beach, but after I read the rainy weather report in Istanbul, I did a last second itinerary change and made my way to Sofia, where I caught up with a friend that I went to school with at Yonsei in Korea.  It was great to not only catch up, but get to learn about Bulgaria from the local perspective.

So as I’m chillin’ at Hostel Mostel before I head to Romania, I thought I’d post some more pictures that I took from Istanbul.  Check the photos here.  Of course, here’s a preview: