Language Adventures #1

Ceyranbatan Travel Blog

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It is time for me to pull an Ira Glass moment on you now.  Here I have three stories, all with one theme, brought to you in the tradition of This American Life.  I have been in Azerbaijan for a week now so naturally the theme is language.  Even more specifically, they are three stories about the moment in a conversation where the listener is supposed to interpret something the speaker is saying, except that the listener, me, doesn’t speak the language very well the delay in understanding itself can sometimes be funny.

Here they are: Water for 60 cents, What the hell is this?, and Monkey.

Thanks for letting me be Ira Glassish.

Water for 60 cents:

I had forgotten to pack a water bottle for my time here in Azerbaijan, and unfortunately I had lost the one that I had bought in Germany on my way over here.  It was a good thing that I had learned a little bit about how to buy things and I was close to a small shack/store with some stuff in it.  Need dictated that it was time to test the language a little bit, and to be honest I was a bit excited to give it a spin.  If anyone reading this really knows me, you know that I tend towards doing things, not thinking about things, so I walked over, completely alone, and started looking for whoever owned the little shop.
There was a man outside, but apparently he didn’t own the store.  Instead, he told us to wait one minute (at least I think that is what he said) and walked around the shop and started yelling for someone to come.  Pretty soon a boy, perhaps 12 years old, came running at full speed down this little road towards us.  He was wearing a full suit and tie and has some keys in his hand.

After a couple salams (hellos) passed between the boy and I, I ask him how much water cost (a phrase I had been going over in my head for at least a minute prior to this meeting).  He first pointed to some coke, then I pointed to the water.  He smiled, grabbed the water and said “altmush qepik.”

I promptly gave him a 10 qepik coin (worth around .8 cents) and he started laughing at me saying “altmush qepik, altmush qepik.”  I quickly realized that altmush is 60, not 6 and understood why he was laughing so hard.  I smiled, gave him a 50 qepik coin, said baguslayin (sorry) as he gave me the water.

I was talking to Chris, who eventually ended up at the same store to see what I was doing (or came with me, I never remember the small details), and we both thought it was funny that the little boy in the full suit ran down the road so fast just to sell us something worth 60 cents.

The real interesting thought is that he almost did it for 6 cents.

What the hell is this?:

As expected, the roads here are crazy.  There are either no rules, or nobody cares enough to enforce them.  If you are used to this kind of condition, as the people living here, it isn’t surprising.  For Americans who had never seen this kind of driving, it is a funny site.

We quickly understood the offensive gesture of choice as our driver cut off nearly every person on the road.  The people he wronged soon would catch up to the small bus, show the driver the backside of their hands and sneer.  Of course, the driver would return the gesture and keep on going.  There was even a road, jammed with traffic on both sides, where the driver would offensively gesture to every single car he could see.

We found a way around the traffic jam and sped off again towards our destination.  Now, this part is a little bit difficult to explain because I didn’t really understand what was going on except for one thing that the driver said.  The road was almost completely empty and there was a cop car with its lights blazing, driving on the wrong side of the road, towards us.  The driver said “Bu Nadir!,” offensively gestured towards the police car, and then drove on past it.

Bu Nadir means “What is this.”  From the way he said it though, I would have added an angry “hell” right there in the middle of the statement.  I was confused about what the hell it was too.


The family I am living with has one of the cutest, and most annoying, little girls that I have ever seen.  I am not sure if she loves to hang around me because I repeat everything she says, because I am white or because I sound so funny when I talk, but whenever I am in the room she constantly tries to impress me.  She loves saying things to me, the longer the sentence the better.  I absolutely love it though when I understand what she is saying.

One night, right after dinner, we were all sitting around watching the television.  As usual, I was sitting there with my dictionary and paper pad, working on language and practicing to their approval.  The little girl was also running around trying to be cute in front of me.  Then, the entire family got into a little game of asking her who I was.  “Kimdir? Kimdir?” they would ask her, until I started saying “Kimiam? Kimiam?” which is the way you ask “Who am I?”  She smiled at me and said “meymumsan.”  The entire family started laughing at this, and at the confused look on my face.  I asked the brother who spoke a little bit of English what “meymun” meant.

He replied, telling me that meymun means “monkey.”

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photo by: cbstevens