The National Pastime
So everyone knows that the national pastime of America is baseball. My favorite day in the spring is Opening Day at Fenway Park. It marks the start of baseball games every night and the anticipation of October. I LOVE baseball season. Here, the national pastime isn’t a sport, it doesn’t even have a season, but it definitely takes skill and a strong constitution. In Azerbaijan, the people go guesting. This is exactly what it sounds like, a person goes over another person’s house and sits there for a few hours and then returns home. However, it takes a little skill on the part of the Peace Corps Volunteer.
The people who train us tell us that one of the most important things that we can do at site is to go visiting others in your community. I was nervous about this. I am this weird, awkward entity within the community, who is going to want me at their house? However, Kate and I get tons of invitations to go to people’s homes and guest. When guesting, it’s like Thanksgiving, you DO NOT EAT before you go to the house. I have been in two different kind of situations so far: One situation is that you get to the house, no food is made, but there are tons of sweets and tea that people put out for me to eat, and I have to eat them. I, being the proper guest, eat as many sweets as I can. I get my fill for sure. Then the host INSISTS on then making me food, after I have stuffed myself with cookies. I always say “No, please, no I am full.” This does not work my friends. I always get something to eat. I leave the house about to explode most of the time. The second scenario is when I go, there is a TON of food served, and no matter how much I protest, more food is served. If we as Peace Corps Volunteers don’t eat everything, people often consider it an assault on their cooking abilities. Everyone here thinks they cook the best out of the people in their community, and I affirm all their notions. I am just stirring the pot I am sure (“Amy said I cook the best plov.” “No she said I cook it the best!”) but it’s worth it to keep the food coming. I think that maybe they just think I don’t understand what I am saying and that it’s cute that I tell everyone how they’re the best cook. I intend to keep it this way.
There are a few activities for after-eating entertainment. My favorite is looking at pictures, because then you get a little view into the person’s life. What Azeri’s do on vacation, who these peoples’ families are, who they love the most, their children at age 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… etc. I recently got my own pictures to share, which is really cool. I asked my family to send pictures of my new niece and my sister’s wedding. These are very interesting to people, so I bring them with me guesting. The Peace Corps has three goals: to transfer skills to the host country, to teach the natives of the host country about American culture, and to teach people in the US about the host country’s culture. I am fulfilling the last two goals just by going guesting and writing about it! People are always so interested in how weddings are different from America, and I like having the visual aids.
Another option of entertainment when guesting is the toy video. People own videos of about 20 different people’s weddings. These videos are like 4-5 hours long, and they are unedited, which means a lot of boring footage. They are interesting when you see them for the first 10 times, then it gets old. Everyone’s wedding looks the same, and to sit and watch the video of people you don’t even know get married just to spot a 2-second cameo of your host-sister’s aunt’s son’s friend is a little crazy. The thing I take away from these videos is how to dance. This is a dancing culture, and I always look RIDICULOUS dancing at toys, and I need to learn to dance. Being an athlete my whole life, I should have some grace, but there is definitely no elegance to the way I dance. The Azeri-style of dance is a little like flamenco, but more smooth. They are poised and beautiful when they dance, and I am not. A little background: my poor mother tried to get my sister Jessica and I to do some sort of “girly” activity. We were little tom-boys who played tee-ball, soccer and basketball. She decided to enroll us in a gymnastics class. After a few classes of somersaults and walking across the balance beam, we quit. Our teacher had a heavy Eastern European accent and we couldn’t understand a word she said. Ironically, here I am in what some maps consider Eastern Europe (when it is really Western Asia) with people teaching me how to be graceful again. I have come full circle from my days of a blossoming Nadia Cominichi.
Anyways, I am slowly learning, and will be a dancing machine when I get back. I tend to dance with my host sisters in the living room, and although refuse to dance a lot at weddings, I will be a regular John Travolta when it comes to my host sister’s upcoming wedding. I will try to throw in the “lawn mower” somewhere in there as a shout out to my dance-challenged friends out there, but overall, I will try to be dripping with daintiness and overflowing with grace.
Back to the guesting. After sitting for hours watching this video, I usually excuse myself away in a tactful way (at least tactful enough with my language abilities) and leave the house. I am full for hours after and will not eat for a few days, which is a feat for me. If I see the person on the street in the upcoming days, they ask why I haven’t been back to their house yet? I usually respond by saying I can’t eat anymore, they nearly killed me the last time I went. Instead of invoking an alarmed response, the person usually smiles to themself and walks away.
While the national pastime doesn’t have an audience of millions nor does it have widely televised hearings for steroid abuse (although I have in the past referred to the xanims as the Linebackers of Azerbaijan), this national pastime does require some grace, strength (of will) and the right mindset. It is loved by all Azeris and I am starting to love it as well. Now that the weather is getting nice, I am dreaming of Fenway Park, Jerry Remy, and the Sox, but I appreciate the way the Azeri women try to make me feel like I am at home here.