A Week of Normal
So last month I spent what has probably been my favorite week in Azerbaijan, doing what comes naturally to me: coaching soccer. For the past eight summers, I have been travelling all over Southern New Hampshire coaching at a soccer day camp. It was the same schedule every Monday through Friday: 9am-3pm spending all day with kids 2-18 years old. It has been an experience that has taught me patience, not only with children but with my adult co-workers too. I learned humility as well, because let’s be honest, I make a fool of myself easily, and when all kids’ eyes are on you, it’s easy to embarrass yourself. I have made great friendships and learned a lot while having a good time doing my job. This summer has been the first summer where “Week 1, Day 1” never came. I didn’t get to see the familiar faces of the regulars and I wasn’t greeted with Fritz’s morning song. No ball pumping, handing out shirts, shouting reminders about drinking water and putting on sunscreen or teaching the awesome game we call lightening. This summer was going to be drastically different, or so I thought.
At the beginning of June, I went to Baku to swim a leg of a triathlon (I was abysmal, by the way. I thought I was in shape, but alas, soccer does not work on arm muscles at all!). While in Baku, my friends and I went to a reception for American Citizens at the Ambassador’s House. There, I met a man who works at the Embassy, and closely with the Peace Corps volunteers. He was looking for soccer players to help with a project. I said “Perfect! I am a soccer player/coach, what do you need?” He then told me the best news ever.
There is a program in the US State Department called “Sports United” that sends famous athletes all over the world, promoting the United States and also promoting a healthy lifestyle. One of these programs was being held here in the form of soccer. The famous people who were coming were former US Women’s National Team player Cindy Parlow (if you don’t know her, look her up!) and MLS coach and US Soccer goalie coach John Cone (the two are married). I was so excited when I found out. She has been one of the players I looked up to in my career, who played on the 1996&2004 Olympic Gold Medal teams, and the 1999 Women’s World Cup winning team. The only catch that the Embassy worker told me was that the program started in a week and a half, and I would have to be away from site for 2 weeks. I said “No problem!” and threw my hat into the ring.
My job for this program was to help Cindy and John in whatever they needed. They first day, they didn’t need much, so I just played around with the kids, what I do best. I was able to speak with them and play games, do a few parlor tricks to gain some street cred, and I even got a group of girls playing in front of a group of boys. Let me tell you what a difference it is to have a soccer session with a group of Azeri girls vs American girls playing in front of a group of boys. If my Merrimack High School girls are playing in front the boys, they play 10 times harder and more aggressive than what they normally do. Their favorite practice has to be when we scrimmage the Freshman Boys team. It’s mine too because I love to see them beat up the young guys. I have shamefully debated internally on whether or not to pay some of the “cutest boys in school” to come out to the games and cheer my girls on. They thrive on the attention to their athletic abilities. The Azeri girls, however, do not like playing in front of boys. They do not like to show the boys they are sweaty, and they do not under any circumstance play WITH boys. Boys don’t play with girls here either. You could argue that the same is in the United States, but I have coached girls who play with boys, and those are some of the best players. Even at a young age they will play together. At camp one year, I had a portly boy of about 7, Chris, who was forced to play with a bunch of 5 year old girls. These girls were extra-girly, talking about unicorns and chasing butterflies whenever we had a water break. This kid was our joker of the group, making the coaches laugh at every turn, and he was a great sport. We were playing “World Cup” and the teams had to choose their own team names. I asked Chris what his team name was: he sighed and dejectedly said, “Pink Flamingoes”. The girls had obviously chosen the name. Well, in this game the kids have to shout the team names before they score, so we had these kids running around shouting “Terminators!”, “Killer Bees!”, and “Thunderbolts!”. Well, you know who the first one to score was? Chris was served a ball, and with no help from his flower-picking teammates, he lunged after the soccer ball, doing a split I had no idea pudgy kids could accomplish, and put the ball in the back of the net, shouting “PINK FLAMINGOES!!” While he had to work with girls who ultimately didn’t help at all, he was a great sport about it and won the game in the end. I think that boys and girls are encouraged to work together a lot more in America than in Azerbaijan, so getting these girls out there on the field in front of the boys felt like a big accomplishment.
Over the next few days in Baku, I accompanied John and Cindy on a tour of Baku, to the AFFA (Azerbaijani Football Federations Association) headquarters where Cindy lead a talk on how to incorporate women’s soccer into this country. I was also able to talk to a few women’s coaches and ask them about coaching in this country and starting up women’s soccer in the regions. Soccer is only available to women in Baku and maybe Ganja and Lankaran. The regions do not have the assets to sustain women’s soccer out here, and AFFA needs to be the organization to promote soccer for the girls in the regions. Anyways, after Baku, we headed on a trip up to the north part of Azerbaijan. Cindy and John got to see what the other half lives like in this country (Baku vs the regions is a stark contrast. Baku is like a normal European city while the regions have a distinctly different village feel to them). They were also able to see what the Soviet influence has done to development here, even 20 years later. The coaches here stress playing over having fun, and training sessions are very regimented. It was interesting to see how the outside world views the kids here. There were, just like in the States, kids who behaved and misbehaved. It is exponentially worse for someone who has no clue what the kids are saying. When kids are laughing at every word you’re saying, it is hard to know whether they are laughing at your accent or laughing at you in general. You have to have a certain amount of self-confidence to do work with kids out here. Lucky I have embarrassed myself so much in my past; things just roll off my back now. Most of the time I was asking the kids to calm down or to stop talking so that Cindy or John could talk and the kids didn’t listen very well. It was chaos for a lot of the trip, but the good points were worth the chaos.
My favorite part of the trip was in Guba. I was given my own set of girls to work with, no translator or anything. I ended up playing some games from my repertoire and they had a great time. However, it started to rain and the girls were shuffled under an overhang to get shelter from the weather. A note on water in Azerbaijan: girls hate to get wet, and even more so, women and children are terrified of getting sick. Water from the sky will get you sick in the eye of every old woman in this country. Hell, everybody here believes that drinking cold water in the winter will get you sick. Also everybody thinks that drinking a lot of water after a workout makes you fat. They usually tell me this after I have gone on a run in the dreadful heat and am chugging out of my water bottle, Are they insinuating something…? Anyways, the women at the field who was there to specifically look after the girls yelled at them to stay out of the rain or else they’d get sick. Meanwhile, a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer and I told the girls, “Get out there and play, when is the next time you will be able to play with a US National Team player? Rain won’t hurt you!” Well, we got the girls out on the field playing in the rain, a HUGE deal, but I think we made a mortal enemy out of that old woman. She was shooting daggers at us the whole time.
While all this soccer was happening, my favorite sporting was going on as well (no, not Wimbledon!). Yes, I was able to watch the World Cup, and cheer for the US in all their games. Not to mention watch the games with two people who know Landon Donovan and Jozy Altidore personally. No need to mention I was floating on cloud nine the whole time. I remember last summer when the Confederations Cup was playing, all of us coaches would show up to training sessions at the last second trying to make excuses. The boss knew exactly why we were late: Howard and company were making their best international tournament appearance ever, and we didn’t want to miss it! Up until about two weeks before the 2010 World Cup began, I thought I would be missing most of the cup, but here I was watching every game! I got to see the Yanks get two goals taken away by referees and come out atop the group anyways. I got to discuss who was better, Brazil or Spain. I was in my element.
That week of soccer felt normal and extraordinary at the same time. I was able to do something that I have been doing for almost the last decade, while meeting a hero of mine and working as her peer. I still miss daily routine of 9-3 laughs at soccer camp, but I got a taste of it here in Azerbaijan with an extra kick! (Pun intended, yukka yukka) Between English lessons, computer courses, guesting and weddings, I have been able to dig out a soccer niche for myself. One week of normal was as abnormal as could be in my new life in Azerbaijan, but I realized soccer will always help me bridge cultural gaps.
So I have decided to make this an interactive blog, because I want to hear from you all too. Since I talked about being embarrassed a lot in this blog, I want your best embarrassment stories of yourself or an embarrassing moment of mine that you witnessed.
Pictures: First one is of me and my American soccer camp co-workers, miss you guys! Middle picture (from left): Kate, Sierra and I after the triathlon. Last picture (from left) John Cone, Cindy Parlow, Myself, Tim the Embassy intern, and Brent the US Embassy worker in the back.