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