Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Merry Christmas! Milad Mubarek!

I hope this note finds you all healthy, happy and in a joyful spirit!

A year ago, Joey and I were happily living our lives in Durham, running around preparing for Christmas. This year, our lives couldn’t be more different. We’re now residents of a small country between Eastern Europe and Central Asia called Azerbaijan. We’ve left all we know and love – like our amazing family and friends, steady jobs, day-to-day comforts, speaking English – all so we could jump into our Peace Corps adventure for the next 2 years.

As we approach Christmas, we’ve done a lot of reflecting on our past and present lives, and those memories help make our holidays away from home more bearable. Just this year alone, 3 babies were born, one is on its way, one best friend and one sister got engaged… that’s big stuff!

As you might imagine, since we’re in a Muslim country, the Christmas hustle and bustle is non-existent here. However, there is one exception. Yenni Il, (New Year) is a celebration that resembles secular Christmas but just a week later. There are trees, lights, decorations of ornaments and colorful garland, and Shaxta Baba (the scary-looking Santa in the picture above). Shaxta Baba carries a long stick, he can be skinny or fat, and he brings a present to children for the New Year. Here in Quba near our local library, a super tall tree has gone up and will be decorated within the next week or so. With the first big snow of the year coming, it’s bound to be a great celebration full of great food. Before we left our last host family in Masazir, the kids were super excited to put up their Yenni Il tree as a surprise for Joey and me. The excitement is here, but the outcome and timing is a bit different.

We now live with a great family who have taken us in as their own, and we’re figuring out what our jobs will look like and learning our Peace Corps community as well. Right now, our Christmas spirit can be seen as we sneak in a Christmas movie on our laptop before bed, cooking Zielazinski pizza with new ingredients but the same love, and playing and laughing with friendly game of Rummikub with our host family! If we can’t have our wonderful family and friends from back home, we’re making efforts to incorporate the joys within our control and to be as happy as possible.

For Christmas day, Joey and I will travel about 5 hours by bus to a town where some other Peace Corps Volunteers are hosting a holiday extravaganza. We’ve heard rumors of Christmas cookies, eggnog and even a Christmas movie at the local movie theatre! Since we’re still settling in with the language skills, it’ll be nice to be around people who we can easily communicate and celebrate with.

We’re slowly settling into this quiet mountain town where the people are friendly, the air is fresh, and we get to see the landscape of the beautiful Shagdag mountain range on our daily walk home from work. It’s an enormous change, but I think we’ll make it.

We wish you all the happiest holiday season, and want you to know that the Zielazinskis in Azerbaijan wish you a year of happiness and joy!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Quba Life

It was tough to say goodbye to our wonderful Masazir host family, but after a two-hour drive north we are now settling into Quba life as Peace Corps Volunteers. It’s a much slower pace than we’ve been used to during training and we are loving it! Our host family has been very gracious with our weak Azeri language skills, and they seem to enjoy our company as much as we enjoy theirs. We have 2 host brothers who are simply hilarious! One (17yrs old) absolutely loves Michael Jackson, and the other (13yrs old) loves to smile and try saying things in English while making funny faces. This combo keeps us laughing and learning!

We have had a very warm welcome from the community that Joey and I will be working with. Basically, we’ve eaten a lot of food and had a lot of tea within the first 48 hours of our stay. We’ve had personal tours of the town by my counterpart Ayjamal, who enhanced our learning by speaking super slow Azeri and using lots of gestures. She’s an amazing woman who’s already introduced us to some high-level education ministers from the region, gotten us from place to place, and has cooked up a mean Azeri meal!

Highlights so far:

· Guba sits at the base of the Shahdag mountain range, and the mountains are directly behind our house. WOW! It makes us feel like we’re in a North Carolina mountain town, especially walking along on the main road.

· Sunday we crossed the river into the “Red Settlement,” which is the Jewish village, but the clouds settled in so much that afternoon that we could really only see one row of houses. We’ll be back since we’ve heard there is some pretty amazing scenery and homes.

· Yesterday was basically an “eat sweets day.” The ten (!) English teachers at Joey’s school had a special party just for us, and we were able to chat with these amazing teachers and the Director of the school. There were homemade cookies and an incredible chocolate and banana crème cake made just for the occasion. It was a wonderful afternoon – since I’ll be working with youth, this is a great network for me to establish.

· We eat honey every morning because our host dad is a beekeeper. I hope to learn a little of his trade this summer!

· At night, the stars look like a big pillow falling out of the sky. This makes those evening trips to the bathroom a little bearable.

· Yes, it’s cold but the air is clean, the people are kind and we’ve got our own gas stove heater in our room. Life is good and very quiet.

The Graduate(s)

Just after swearing-in

Hillary and I are finally out of training and we are officially Peace Corps Volunteers! 

We’ve endured eleven weeks of intense language, cultural, and technical sessions, and we are now ready to start work in our permanent site.  As you know, it’s been a tough couple of months for us, as we’ve had to mentally and physically transition into this new world, so it was really nice to finally get to the “graduation” point in our program.
Ours is the eighth Peace Corps group to be sent to Azerbaijan, and thus we’re known as the AZ8s.  On Thursday, December 9th, all AZ8s came together at the Cultural Palace in Sumqayit to be officially sworn-in as Volunteers.  The ceremony included speeches from the Peace Corps country director, training director, and Azeri officials.  We had been told that there would be media coverage of the event, but I’m sure none of us were prepared for the dozens of television cameras that were present the entire time.  And as luck would have it, we were seated in reverse alphabetical order, so Hillary and I were on the front row.  (I even got interviewed by a TV crew who very politely stopped asking me questions when they realized that my Azeri is actually pretty awful!)
It was a great ceremony, with lots of emphasis on our service across the country.  We even met up with Hillary’s counterpart as well as the director of my school in Quba, who had traveled the 3-plus hours to be a part of our day.  When the event concluded and all the pictures had been taken, I spent a few minutes with some AZ7 Volunteers who assured me that it just gets better from here.  Honestly, I can’t wait.  Quba, I hope you’re ready!
Joey and Hillary with our amazing language instructor, Dunya

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thanksgiving, AZ style

Thanksgiving this year was unique and a lot of FUN! It actually started off as an ordinary day since we had 4 hours of language class but once we jumped out of the school doors, our holiday was on!

A few weeks ago we chipped in for our turkey. It arrived on Saturday with lots of squawking and the oohs and aws of Joey and I and especially the family as it ran around the yard. As it goes, our new friend was in the food trajectory by Sunday morning when it was killed and plucked all before noon! Our host family was excited to host our training group especially since our host mom was even more excited to help us celebrate our anniversary. (Yes, we did get an anniversary song that sounds a lot like the birthday song in Azeri)

Since we had been to the market on Wednesday, (also a lot heavier to carry groceries though a market and then on crowded pubic transport than sticking them in your trunk), we were ready to get this cooking feast started. Our group consists of 3 men and 3 women and we all jumped in and started our individual tasks. Cutting fruit & vegetables, crying with cut onions, pealing potatoes and grinding walnuts for the stuffing were just a few of the tasks going all at once! It is important to note that my host mom was very flexible during this process. Her only criteria for letting us actually be in her kitchen was that we keep it clean but watching men contribute in her home became a point of interest and sometimes laughter! I think her sons were watching with similar interest and her daughters might have had a seed planted that they might one day choose a man that would help in the household. (fingers crossed)

The meal came out beautifully. We had a roasted chicken stuffed with walnut stuffing, fruit salad, macaroni & cheese, garlic mashed potatoes, garlic bread, veggies, with the most popular last 2 dishes, 1) hacked up turkey and plov (Plov is rice with lots of yummy stuff in it and the turkey needed to be hacked up since it was cooked on the stove with the rice) 2) Onion rings, which might have been the biggest hit and possibly a tradition all of us want to continue.

As an anniversary gift to ourselves, Joey and I committed to make a pumpkin pie together which came out as great success the night before. I’m pretty sure that means then next year of our marriage will come out pretty well too! Although it was not a great Azeri hit for their taste buds, all the Americans were very impressed.

As we ended the evening watching ‘Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving’ with our host sister and brother, it was like icing on our Thanksgiving cake. Sitting with family, laughing at what we don’t understand (for a change they didn’t understand the words) We have lots to be thankful for here and back home and we are thankful for this Azeri style event that was unique and special to us. That hospitality makes us happy and humble to live here for the next two years!

We hope you had a lovely celebration back home and have had the opportunity to reflect on what you are thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Good Morning, Students!

We're slowly making our way through our pre-service training, and I just finished the practicum (i.e. student teaching) portion of the program.  For the past two weeks I've been teaching English classes each day, for grades ranging from 3rd to 10th.  It's been a huge adjustment getting used to the Azeri classroom environment, but I've had an absolute blast getting up in front of the kids and doing something that I love to do.

Here's a short list of my experiences teaching Azeri kids so far:
  • Franzied, exuberant arm-waving.  Imagine a sped-up, jittery tomahawk-chop, and you kind of get the idea.  Some students even stand up to wave their arms so they can be called on.
  • On the other hand, the kids in the back of the room are not at all used to any sort of attention at all.  So when I include them in the lesson, they light up with happiness and confusion.  
  • Students normally stay put in their seats, so getting them up and moving around is a totally new thing for them.  They pretty much lost it when I had them do a grocery shopping role-play.  One kid started to get sassy though, so I made her sit back down.
  • The lower grades are still working on the English alphabet and forming the right sounds.  I spent an entire lesson on the letters M and S.  This resulted in 45 minutes of me doing improv about milk, and singing Morrissey songs.  Believe me, I killed!
  • I had a great lesson on prepositions.  My 5th grade class went crazy when one student was UNDER the desk, another was ON the table, and the teacher was IN the box.  They also really enjoyed learning about colors and definitive statements: the jacket IS pink, it IS NOT blue!  You're damn right I was wearing an 11-year-old's fuzzy pink jacket when I taught the lesson.
  • After my teaching my first class, the Azeri teacher I was paired with looked at me sternly and said "very interesting," and quickly left the room.  By the end of practicum, I had the teachers cracking up as much as the kids, and engaging the students with a smile.  (I sealed the deal by handing out chocolate bars to the teachers we worked with.  All part of my community integration project!)

When the two weeks of student-teaching was over, we found that we were famous in our school.  Now when I walk into the building, I hear shouts of JOEY TEACHER! HELLO HOW ARE YOU I AM FINE!  One day, one of my students was hanging around after school, and I was practicing my broken Azeri language skills with him.  When I made a mistake, he giggled about it, and then said "Jory Teacher, you... is nice."  Great things are tough to come by here, but that was one of them.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Quba (Goo-ba)

It’s official, after we are sworn in on December 9th as offical Peace Corps Volunteers, Joey and I will be moving north to a town called Quba (the Q is a G sound in Azeri). Since we have not yet been there to visit, I’d like to share what information we’ve heard. All the information we have so far is though Azerbaijani’s perspective and a short paragraph we received. So for all of you out there in the land of constant internet access, you have the opportunity to know far more than us within minutes.

  • Nestled within the Caucasus mountain range (it’s the first finger of AZ
  • Founded in the 18th century
  • Known for its apples
  • If it’s going to snow in AZ, the first snow will hit in Quba
  • It stays cold for 6-8 months
  • There are beautiful waterfalls
  • City folk vacation in Quba because of its mild summers
  • Known for its famous carpets -- you might just be able to watch them being made !
  • Near a unique Jewish community
  • Because of the mountains, to go anywhere west, we’ll have to go south through Baku first. We hear it could be a 30-minute to 3 hour drive to get to and from Baku
  • All the Azeris we talk to are really excited and are looking forward to visiting us. Believe me, they are honest when it’s not a place that isn’t that nice.

Joey and I are really excited to explore our new home next month. We will be living with a new host family, which we understand has 2 teenage sons. We’ll be there throughout the winter and will have the opportunity to find our own place come spring. I will be working with the Ministry of Youth and Sport and Joey will be in a school (he should get more information this week). We feel really excited about this next stage and learning more about Quba is making our eagerness even greater!
If you are inspired to come visit, Welcome!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

If you were a goose, what would a great joke sound like?

Sadly, Joey and I don’t have the answer to this title question, but we’ve definitely speculated that a joke must be involved in goose conversations to makes all the neighbor geese go into a tizzy. If it’s an awesome joke, it makes those 5am outbursts a bit more bearable! We have manages to get used to the roosters, but those geese are a piece of work. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if the level of humor is on the pun level… but that’s ok.

Falling out laughing is also what the locals seem to do when we ride on public transportation. Backpacks don’t help us blend in. Our Azeri skills seem to be comical in our efforts to get off the packed vans. Joey really did make a lady laugh out loud with his request to exit, which is pretty hilarious since public transport is pretty solitary with the exception of the music.

I ate a whole pomegranate (nar- the shorter Azeri word.) without making a mess, laughing and actually talking Azeri to my 7 year old host sister Nargiz who reminds me of my beautiful nieces back home. This is a girl with very few front teeth, always tries to catch my eye, loves to make funny faces in between her amazing grin and giggles and when we don’t understand each other (often!) she will pinch my cheeks. She typically is the best part of my day! By the way, we have nar trees in our garden and they are in season!

Where we’ve been and what we’re doing

Last week Joey and I traveled to Kurdamir & Shamika, which is basically central Azerbaijan to visit current volunteers. We had the most amazing time learning about where we might be in a year from now and how it really does come together, even if we’re not so sure right now. Joey and I both were able to observe within the roles we’re assigned (Joey teaching English & me working with youth) and it’s really exciting to know that by the first of the year we will be our site making things happen. Until then, we are appreciating our lives with our host family, learning an amazing amount of information and spending quality time with the other trainees.

Google Gobastan and AZ mud volcanoes. We were at these cool historic and natural places with the Caspian Sea in the distance last weekend with our PC group and had a blast– Once I have enough time at the Internet café, I’ll be sure to post some pictures.

As of this week, we have now had our site placement interviews our mid point verbal language exam. We’ve been working so hard and picking up the pace this week with an extra 3 hours of language training on top of our regular 4 hours, 2 hours of other training and basically 2 hours of travel. Apparently training is designed to toughen you up! With our placement interviews, this was basically the time where we talk about our interests and ourselves, then our program managers figure our where we best fit in the country. (I’m picturing super complex desk moves from my past…not easy!) Joey and I continue to make it a challenge since it’s always harder to place 2 people in the right site but we feel pretty confident about our abilities and flexibility. We have the potential to know our permanent site within the next few weeks, so it will be really exciting to learn about our new home and our future opportunities.

MAIL – Please feel free to write us! We have found out that most mail takes about a month for us to receive it so this is a great next 2 week to write us. It’s possible we will have our permanent address within then next two weeks, so this is it until December. If you’re inclined to send a package, you might want to go in with a group since we’ve heard they’re pretty expensive to mail. We would happily accept any treats you think we might enjoy. Here’s the temporary address!

PCT Hillary & Joey Zielazinski
Peace Corps Azerbaijan
Sumgayit Şahari
Azerbaycan Pr. 15
Merkezi Poçt


Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Quick Rundown Of Life In Azerbaijan

The past few weeks have been perhaps the most demanding and confusing of my life.  Hillary and I are currently making our way through pre-service training, which includes intense language classes and technical training for the jobs we'll do once we're at our permanent site.  Our daily routines include lots of walking to and from the bus-stop, dealing with amazing amounts of dirt and mud everywhere, and overall feeling confused and bewildered by this strange, beautiful place.  It's hard to really explain what we're going through, so here's a brief list of a few of the things we've experienced here:
  • Wild dogs roaming the streets
  • Crazy howling wind and debris -- making our walks interesting and/or awful
  • Various animal parts on the street -- a goat leg here, a cow jaw there
  • Not one, but TWO different butcher shops proudly displaying a cow head on a cinderblock in front of their store.  Fresh beef, y'all!
  • Seeing a lamb getting skinned on the street in front of my school.  The lamb's head was about two feet away.
  • Being treated like celebrities by the children at the our schools.  Everyday we're greeted with shouts of HELLO! WHAT IS YOUR NAME! WHERE ARE YOU FROM! OBAMA!
  • On the bus home from school, there was an engine problem... so the bus drive opens up a compartment INSIDE the bus, take out a wrench, and fixes it WHILE HE IS DRIVING.
  • The thrill of managing public transportation here all by myself... only once did the bus miss my stop, and I had to walk 4 blocks down the highway.
  • Teaching the children at our host home how to high-five, as well as the 3 Japanese words I know (thanks, Kayo!)
  • The family car at our house has no passenger seat -- that way we can fit all 8 of us in it on the drive to school each day
  • Doing laundry by hand for the first time in my life
  • Eating a fresh pomegranate plucked right off the tree
  • The victories in the small connections I'm able to make -- with the custodial staff at my school, local shopkeepers, and the kids in on my street
There's much more to this story, so please stay tuned.  As we figure this place out, I'm sure we'll have much more to say about it.  Right now, we're on a day-by-day basis, with plenty of ups and downs.  We miss you all so much, but as you can see, we're keeping busy.

Take care, all!!

/ / / /

Sunday, October 10, 2010


We’re over a week into our Azeri host family life and loving it! The first few days were intense. Meeting anyone for the first time is a bit overwhelming and then add in some hot temperatures on top of it all is an exhausting AND an exhilarating adventure.

Backing up a bit, the first 3 days we arrived in Azerbaijan, we were in a pretty swanky hotel with all 60+ PC trainees. It’s a remarkable group full of passion, diversity and energy. After those 3 days of basic learning’s about Peace Corps and Azerbaijan live and language, we were let loose outside of the hotel walls and delivered to our host families. Despite what they shared with us when offered the positions, Joey and I are able to live together during this training period, so we’re really off to a good start by challenging each others language growth and decompressing every evening.

As of this earlier this week, it seems like the weather has turned to autumn. Pretty amazing winds, which we think are coming off the Caspian Sea, are making our walks home a little more challenging and the howling noises whipping across the house are becoming familiar sounds. Our family has a television but we rarely get to see the weather and with communication being a bit challenging, I actually have no idea if this is normal or just a short-lived front coming through. All I think I know is it seems like we are also entering fall with all of you! (more to come on our family)

General Schedule Until December: we typically have language training 4 hours a day, eat a quick lunch, take a quick bus/van, walk 45 minutes and then get to our next training from 2:30-5ish, then walk home about an hour. Because of Joey’s teaching curriculum, he’s now on a slightly different schedule, but still includes lots of travel excitement and walking. After doing laundry by hand this weekend and this weekly routing, I’m pretty sure my corporate waistline will diminish quite a bit.

Also, at this point in training, we don’t have a lot of free time, which means writing on the blog (which is in Russian? At the internet cafe computers - now we'll use our laptop!!) is pretty challenging. Hopefully this will regulate as we continue to get our bearings straight.

More to come on Azeri life, cuisine, etc but we still have to figure our how to translate what we’re eating before then.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


After an eight-hour flight to Germany, a four-hour flight to Azerbaijan, and an hour-long bus ride to our hotel, we've finally arrived in Sumgayit, the city where our pre-service training is taking place.  We were graciously retrieved from the Baku airport last night by the smiling, reassuring Peace Corps Azerbaijan staff.  Today was Day One of our official in-country training -- learning logistics, expectations, and just a wee-bit of language lessons.  It's been a very long, but very good, day.

We're still so happy to be surrounded by such an amazing group of fellow volunteers, as well as the incredibly helpful support staff here in Azerbaijan.  Tonight we had dinner with a group of volunteers who arrived here just over a year ago.  Great conversation, and extremely reassuring thoughts from them all.  Hillary and I also found out today that we will be living together with the same host family for our ten weeks of training -- up to this point, we thought we would be enjoying a long-distance relationship, living in different homes.  Thanks, Peace Corps!

Oh also, I did have a minor meltdown trying to figure out how to iron my shirt this morning, but it quickly passed... things are much better now that I know how to say hello, thank you, and goodbye.

That's all for now... tomorrow's another full day!

Sağolun!  (That means adios!)

 / / / /

Thursday, September 23, 2010

About to board our flight to Azerbaijan!

HELLO!  I'm writing this from Gate 4 in the Lufthansa terminal at JFK International Airport in New York.  The past few days have been a blur of house cleaning, car-selling, tearful goodbyes, and authentic Mexican food.  Yesterday we flew from Raleigh to Philadelphia for our first official Peace Corps Training Session.  As soon as we started talking to our fellow Volunteers, we could tell we were in the right place -- there's 63 of us going to Azerbaijan, and everyone here is smart, outgoing, and kind.  We had a great dinner last night, and then promptly fell asleep.  Today, we rode a bus from Philly to New York, and took a scenic tour of Brooklyn on the way.  Made it through the ticketing line, and on through security.

We've got just a few minutes till we board our plane -- first we fly into Frankfurt, Germany and then we fly to Baku, Azerbaijan.  We'll end up at our destination around 9pm Friday night.  Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to GO FOR IT!  We'll keep you updated.

Much love!!

 / / / / /

Thursday, September 16, 2010

And the fun continues!

Indian food for lunch, then off to pick up new glasses and contacts.  Got a quick pep-talk from the cashier at Ten Thousand Villages, who had served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo.  Later, we waited in line at the local CVS for the H1N1 vaccine, and flipped through celebrity hairstyle magazines.  (Did you know that all celebrities look exactly the same??)  When we got home, there was an incredibly kind and wonderful letter in our mailbox from the Tulsa County Bahais.

We finished our day together with the last installment of Picnic Thursday with our Durham crew.  Melissa outdid herself -- oven-baked ham, baked beans'n'ham, and bacon-wrapped asparagus.  We then rolled ourselves a few blocks over to the Nasher Museum to see Superchunk play outside on the lawn.  Dear lord, it was an amazing show.  I can now leave Durham as a happy man.

Tomorrow we work to get as much packed as we can.  Wish us luck!

 / / / / / 

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Just seven days left in the States!

The countdown is ON!

Today, I woke up early and went to the Durham DMV to renew my license. Then I bought a pair of glasses as a back-up to my back-up pair. Then I yelled at Time Warner for the internet outage that lasted all morning. I paused briefly for breakfast at Mad Hatter's. Back at home, I sold the futon to our neighbor Linda, and helped cram the mattress into the back of her Volvo stationwagon. I sold some CDs at Off Beat and made enough cash to go buy the new Superchunk album at Chaz's Bull City Records (that guy RULES). Grocery shopping at Kroger, then I attempted to clean up and pack some things in the dining room/office. Around 8pm, Tim and Kim and Lee came over for awesome ribs and farewell cake. Listened to the new Arcade Fire, and watched Louis CK clips online.

Overall, a pretty great day.

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