Music and Meteorology

Baku, Sunday 29th January 2006

I miss my music.  A couple of weeks ago I wrote that the only thing I forgot to pack was my currency; that was not strictly true.  Like a proper idiot I did such a good job of hurriedly putting much of my music equipment and discs into storage before leaving England that I stored my travelling CD wallet as well.  The result is that I’m sitting in the middle of Baku with no music of my own save for the two CD’s that I received for Christmas.  Most of you will know me well enough to appreciate that while this situation is not quite as dire as that of the fish out of water, it is probably comparable to that of the poor whale that swam up the river Thames last week.  What was he thinking?  Thankfully unlike the hapless whale I am neither at death’s door nor surrounded by anxious would-be saviours trying to rescue me (though Ayaz the driver did force “Chris Rea’s Greatest Hits” upon me a couple of nights ago: ‘On The Beach’ is aging surprisingly well…).  Instead Deep Dish’s “George Is On” and “Diary of a digital soundboy” by Shy FX and T Power are doing sterling tag team shift-work on my eardrums; Kris, Rich, Monica: thank you again!

The situation is further aided by the rather swish home cinema sound system that at time of writing is putting some healthy amounts of sub-bass into one of T Power’s squelchier d&b tunes.  Yes, I have finally moved into the apartment.  No more for me the running skirmishes with hotel housekeeping on a Sunday as I try to relax while they try to kick me out and give the room a thorough seeing-to.  This space is my space and my oh my isn’t there a lot of it.  Just the combined floor space of the living room and the hallway of this place is probably bigger than that of the whole flat I was living in three years ago in Brighton Road, Surbiton.  Add two decent-sized bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms and a very generous kitchen and you will understand how I sometimes feel like a marble rattling around in a tin dustbin.  It doesn’t help that all the floors are wood laminate and the place is virtually empty so my footsteps really echo.  My employment contract offers to freight “500 volumetric kilograms” (offers as to the definition of a “volumetric kilogram” gratefully received) to my doorstep so I am seriously considering getting my bass, my DJ rig and as many boxes of records as possible shipped out here pronto.  Should make for a memorable house-warming party if nothing else…

Of course size isn’t everything (allegedly) and there’s more to this apartment than its dimensions alone.  The décor for example is the most balanced of the ten offerings I saw in the process of seeking lodgings yet nonetheless gives the impression that the designer fantasised about an explosion in an ice-cream factory during its creation.  The wood floor is a warm toffee tone, the walls are half vanilla, half caramel, the doors are chocolate and the three piece suite is part hazelnut crunch, part strawberry.  That may sound like a hideous combination and I agree that even Willy Wonka might think twice before specifying such a scheme on paper but as you’ll see in the attached photo, in this space it actually works quite well.  It is augmented by what I can only assume must be a very carefully selected range of ornaments in that there are very few of them.  What I haven’t worked out yet is what complex criteria of taste and insight were applied when choosing said ornaments as they barely relate to each other let alone the apartment.  They’re so awful they’re great.  I don’t yet know which is my favourite; maybe the guinea-pig-sized velour lion with the fake fur mane and the bright red tongue; perhaps the similar size faux-bronze elephant balancing the clock on his back (with cheapo battery-powered movement therein of course).

Paintwork, soft furnishings and ornaments aside it is quite obvious that pride of place in this apartment goes to the television, as indeed it did in all the others.  Obviously the consensus amongst the landlords of Baku is that expats watch lots of television and don’t do much else.  I didn’t see a single decent stereo system on display in any of the places I visited but each of them exhibited a television the size of a shed door, a DVD player and usually a multi-speaker cinema sound package as well.  I’ve got the full monty here as I mentioned earlier but I don’t watch a lot of television and buying a DVD is one of life’s little pleasures I have yet to experience.  Should the mood ever take me I could pop downtown and pick up a copy of any of the latest films for a couple of quid but the fact that many of them are literally camcorder-in-cinema recordings is just one of the reasons I didn’t feel tempted to buy “King Kong” today.

No sir, for those occasions where I feel the urge to vegetate in front of the screen there is more than enough amusement to be had flicking between the thirty or so television channels that come as standard here thank you.  Baku may somehow fail to register on both of the Euronews weather maps (that’s European AND World) but I seem to be sitting under an international television hub.  While the only English-speaking channel appears to be BBC Prime (shame) I’ve discovered music channels in Azeri, Turkish, Russian and even Polish – none of which is MTV I might add – and they’re all great fun.  Alongside some popular favourites from the ‘Western’ world (although I really think the Americans should have kept The Pussycat Dolls to themselves) there’s a healthy dose of local content to enjoy, especially from Turkey.

It would appear that traditional styles remain very strong in Turkish pop.  I particularly remember a chart video featuring a striking female singer backed by fifteen to twenty musicians playing mostly traditional instruments, all dressed in evening wear.  If you watched with the sound off you could imagine it was an opera recital but listening to the song it had a definite modern sound to the production.  Unfortunately Turkish rock bands seem to have got it the other way around.  The ones I’ve seen so far look like they know what they’re doing but play simply awful music that sounds like it’s been lifted from a cheap rock compilation album that was originally released circa 1982.  Where did it all go wrong?

While the combination of musical old and new may be producing mixed results in Turkey it’s being taken in totally new directions here on the streets of Baku.  I strolled to the end of my street to find a taxi last night and agreed the journey with a young man on the corner.  His car turned out to be an older example of the ubiquitous Lada and it sounded suitably tired as he cranked the engine a couple of times to get it started.  I was expecting the usual racing start into the traffic as soon as the engine fired but this was not just any old taxi.  Before pulling away my driver took a moment to fire up an LCD video screen he’d fixed to the middle of the dashboard and start his compilation DVD of current American pop videos.  My jalopy ride downtown was accompanied by the latest from the likes of Ludacris, Eminem and Britney Spears in full digital sound and vision.  Once we’d reached journey’s end my driver offered me his card and invited me to call any time: I appear to have this MTV wagon at my disposal.  Just imagine, I could spend all my spare time and even all my travelling time watching music videos – my cup overfloweth.  It’s not me though.  Small doses here and there are entertaining but each time it’s some-one else who’s calling the tune.  I still miss my music.


Baku – Brightening

Baku, Sunday 22nd January 2006

It’s approaching eight in the evening in The Britannia Pub, Gabrielle has just handed over to Queen on the stereo system and the large television in the corner is showing a satellite sports channel.  For all intents and purposes I am sitting in a typical old-style English pub that just happens to be a bit far from home.  Except I’m not.

One of things you soon learn about Baku is that anything you recognise here as ‘something from home’ will not be so familiar on closer inspection.  There is a process of local reinterpretation at work which combines knowledge, guesswork and flair in varying ratios and can produce some amusing results.  At the simple end of the spectrum you have examples like the ‘chicken provensal’ (sic) that I ate here a few nights ago.  It contained chicken and a healthy dose of tomato but there the resemblance ended as it looked and tasted quite different from Provencal dishes as served in France or indeed England.  Still a perfectly enjoyable meal mind.

At the more intriguing end of things you have places like this Britannia Pub.  As it’s a Hyatt hotel bar rather than independent premises it was probably destined to suffer a mild dose of schizophrenia regardless of how the décor was executed.  That doesn’t excuse a tartan carpet in strident red and green with an orange trace though.  I don’t recall green Venetian blinds being too common in English pubs either.  At least the choice of ornaments while being equally naff is a bit more endearing.  The two painted tailor’s dummies (one for “golfing costumes” and one for “boating costumes”), the two foot long nineteenth century warship and the ornate wooden championship board from the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (“Presented by His Grace the Eighth Duke of Beaufort on 12th June 1880” don’t you know?) are so OTT they’re inspired.  My favourites however have to be the two commemorative rowing blades hanging from the ceiling; if only because one of them purports to have been won by Kingston Rowing Club at the Thames Regatta of 1872.  Small world isn’t it?

The plan was to write this in my newly acquired apartment and tell you all about my new lodgings but things are taking a little longer than planned (the landlord has had to return some damaged-on-delivery furniture) and I should be receiving the keys tomorrow evening.  From what I remember of the place – which isn’t much having seen it briefly as one in a series of stops during a magical mystery tour of town one night a week and a half ago – it should make for interesting accommodation over the coming months.  More news next week I hope.

In the meantime, other highlights of the week.  The delightful doctor who conducted my medical in such amusing fashion seems to be becoming a recurrent theme.  When I went back to the clinic to collect the certificate I was expecting to dash in, pick up the paperwork and dash out again but no, it was not to be.  The wrong certificate had been issued (an Offshore rather than and Onshore certificate) so the receptionist had to produce a new one and get it signed; enter stage right our delightful doctor.  She sat me down in the consulting room, talked me through all the test results and eventually autographed the certificate.  I observed in passing that I was surprised to see the blood test showing me as type O positive as I had always believed myself to be A positive.  Doctor was very surprised to find that I’d never had a type test done before but otherwise left it at that.

Five minutes later I’m in the car heading for the office and my ‘phone rings.  It’s the doctor.  Apparently there are two systems used to express blood type: a letter system and a number system and I’m not O but zero which equates with A.  Thank you doctor, have a good day.  Two minutes later the ‘phone rings again.  Actually, you can’t be zero because it doesn’t run zero, one, two, three but rather one, two, three, four and you are type O.  Thank you doctor, have a good day.  Two minutes later: sorry, no you’re type three on the number system which means…  Right now I am completely baffled by the thought of what’s going round my cardiovascular system.  As luck would have it (good or bad, you choose) I am returning to the clinic next month for the second shot in the hepatitis series and Doc has said she’ll sit me down with the two different blood type tables and explain what’s going on.  Anybody want to offer odds on how long that will take?

On a more sombre note, Friday was the annual day off (I was corrected when referring to it as a national holiday) to observe the national day of mourning for Bloody Monday, also known as Martyrs’ Day.  I was here at the same time last year and remember it well.  Bloody Monday was 20th January 1990, the day when Russia ordered tanks into the streets of Baku (Azerbaijan was still part of the USSR at the time) to quell alleged violent protests.  The action is widely perceived to have been an over-strong reaction by the Kremlin to a perceived rise in the desire for independence among states in this area.  There is no excuse for the deaths of several hundred innocent civilians, mostly run over by tanks or shot, many of whom were women and children.

The date is seen as key to the identity of Azerbaijan.  All flags are flown at half mast, shops and restaurants are closed and no music is played in public places.  There is a cemetery on a hillside near the centre of Baku where the victims of Bloody Monday have been interred.  According to a newspaper report I read, this cemetery is visited by a constant stream of people all day and when all national television stations go off-air for the day except for two, at least one of them runs live feed from the cemetery for the entire day.

Russia’s action arguably had the reverse effect: Azerbaijan gained independence the following year and it has been said that the pace of change was accelerated in the wake of Bloody Monday.

At the yard we observed a minute’s silence at noon in recognition of the day.  The fire alarms were sounded at twelve and we all filed out into the cold to congregate for the minute.  It was the most un-silent minute’s silence I’ve yet witnessed and strangely enough it seemed to be the Azeris who were the most chatty.  Once we’d got back inside I asked a colleague about it.  She replied that many younger people simply aren’t too fussed about remembering.  Coming from England where we still observe a stricter silence for the two World Wars I found it surprising that people should apparently care little for an event that took place right on their doorstep far more recently.  Perhaps it can be read as a sign of the younger generation’s disillusionment with the current government but that is purely conjecture on my part.  It doesn’t sit easily with my memories of last year when I went to an art gallery full of paintings by school children expressing their thoughts on the event, many of which were very emotive.  I ain’t no political commentator.  If you’d like to know a little more about the event it’s worth having a look at for some video clips, news cuttings and opinion.

Well, it’s coming up bedtime and the battery in this laptop has just about had it; time to go.  In the course of this last hour or so I have observed that Paris St. Germain have beaten Troyes in the French League One today so I expect there will be jubilation in the Reidor household (Sabrina’s dad is a PSG supporter).  It also looks like Maria Sharapova has won her fourth round match in Melbourne and Liverpool have just lost 1-0 to Man U in the English Premiership.  There’s been a darts match going on behind me for about twenty minutes but I haven’t got a clue what the score is.  It’s been a bit like a typical evening in an old-style English pub really…


First news from Baku

Hello all

A belated Happy New Year to those of you I haven’t seen for a while and my apologies to those of you I haven’t seen for so long that you’re wondering what this “Baku” thing is about in the first place.

The story so far: I’ve arrived for a six-month assignment, my first week has flown by and yet somehow it already feels like I’ve been here for ages.  It’s probably the waking up in the dark and leaving the office in the dark that does it.  That and being thrown in at the very very deep end job-wise but that’s an other story.

As time to type e-mails is scarce round here, I scrawled a few thoughts on the attached Word document during Sunday afternoon.  Hopefully you will be able to open it and read it but if not let me know and I will send it in an alternative format.  Praise, comments and criticisms of the writing will all be gratefully received as I’m planning to send a similar chunk of news every week or so.  Let me know how keen or otherwise you are on that idea and I can stop sending the stuff or continue according to your preference.

Keep well.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Baku, Sunday 15th January 2006

Late afternoon, grey light under grey skies outside the window.  The first snow of the year has been falling for an hour or so and the road outside is a muddy waterway.  It’s only during the infrequent rain or snowfall that you realise how much dirt there is around here: Baku is a sprawling city in the middle of a semi-arid desert region which is regularly swept by winds – a vast dust trap.  Add to that the muck being dug up in the hundreds of building sites that the new oil money has spawned and you have a city that is mired in mud.  It’s a shame because the labour-intensive litter removal policy and the apparent absence of pet dogs make the streets of Baku a relatively clean place to be on a dry day.  As it is, it’s rained every day since I got here…

In some ways my first week has been much like my previous visits: same hotel with mostly the same staff, same erratic sleep patterns and same psychotic traffic where four cars out of five are Ladas and every single driver thinks he’s Valentino Rossi on a qualifying lap.  Almost hard to believe it’s been a year since I first came here.  It’s not been a dull week though.  After a painless journey on Saturday (aside from leaving my currency in London like a fool) and quiet, acclimatising Sunday it was heads down and at it on Monday morning.

We have two main sites on this job: the Hyatt office (right next to the hotel, usefully) and the Zykh yard – about 5 miles away – where the main offices are located and the actual platform is being built.  I’m based at Zykh but as my agency had booked me in for a medical examination at 11:00 on Monday – expected duration: one hour – I started the day at Hyatt and planned to be at Zykh by early afternoon.  What a silly idea that was.

The driver delivered me to the door of the medical centre at 11:00 precisely; a fine effort given the weight of traffic; just a shame it was the wrong door.  A bemused nurse escorted me round the block to the correct door and introduced me to the receptionist there who promptly handed me a form to fill in.  After 10 minutes I’d written down all the details that I thought any doctor would ever want to know about me prior to an examination, at which point the receptionist looked at an answer I’d supplied to one of the questions and handed me an other form to fill in.  I should point out that both forms appeared to duplicate the questions asked in the detailed company form that I had brought with me.  Still, once I’d eventually ticked this, written that and scribbled my signature in all sorts of places I was eventually told I could take a seat.  It was 11:20.

Stage One was a physical examination – the usual height, weight, blood pressure etc. – conducted by a female doctor who seemed more keen on discussing the finer points of the English language than getting the examination completed and who took a very maternal interest in my wellbeing.  Once we’d converted metric to imperial a few times, sorted out a few irregular verbs and agreed to waive the prostate test she concluded the examination by advising me in very earnest tones that if I want to find a girlfriend in Baku I should avoid all girls in bars as they all have diseases.  Not the sort of thing one expects to hear from a woman one has only just met.  It was now around 12:00.

After an other pause in the waiting area I was collected by a nurse for Stage Two: a sight test, a blood test, some booster shots for my vaccinations and a drugs test by urinalysis.  My eyes were at there usual level of mild impairment, the blood extraction hurt as always and the booster injections seemed pretty tame coming straight after it.  Not having done a drugs test before, I wasn’t expecting it to be on the spot (the blood was going to take a few days after all) but it was.  The nurse produced a multi-tipped litmus paper device that tested for so many narcotics I couldn’t even recognise half of them.  Tension mounted as elements of the test device failed to register a reading.  A second nurse was hailed and after a rapid exchange in Azeri/Russian a second test device was produced.  Just as well I’d provided a pretty full cup…  Luckily all the elements of the second test worked well and we all left happy.  It was about 13:00.

Stage Three was a chest X-ray.  Why a thirty year-old desk jockey needs a chest X-ray I don’t know but I wasn’t in a position to argue.  I was collected from the waiting area by the nurse who’d brought me round the block from the wrong door; perhaps she was the only one permitted to step outside…?  We got into a freezing cold ambulance and drove to the city hospital – a glum and cheerless place that made Kingston Hospital look like a holiday camp.  After sitting in a narrow corridor for a while amidst a selection of morose-looking individuals (and that was just the staff) my nurse ushered me into the X-ray room.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that my nurse was tiny young woman with a pleasant voice and a warm smile.  It took me a while to realise that the loud, deep voice-of-doom addressing me through a loud PA system from a radiation-proof bunker adjacent to the X-ray room actually was her voice.  No other English speakers in the area though apart from me so it must have been her.  Standing alone in a cold marble cell, accompanied by nothing but a radioactive device of uncertain age and maintenance history, can have interesting effects on one’s senses.

Shirt off, zap, shirt on, out.  All done in about two minutes and then back to the corridor of pleasures for a bit more waiting.  Someone eventually appeared from a side door and gave an enigmatic nod to my nurse (“he’ll live” or something similar) after which we were back into the ambulance and back to the clinic.  I can’t help thinking we must have been doing some serious queue-jumping there; one of those uncomfortable episodes where you simultaneously appreciate and despise the privileged position of being an oil company expat in a country where money talks.

Back at the clinic I was finally told I was free to go.  It was 14:30.

Getting to Zykh for the afternoon was obviously not going to happen so I called, explained and re-arranged.  Not a problem.

Next stop was my agency’s office but the rest of the day and indeed the week can wait for an other occasion.