Get me to the church on time

36,000 feet above the Black Sea, westbound, Sunday 26th March 2006

“The thing about travelling Economy is that you get much more personal space.  In Business Class the cabin crew are constantly hassling you.  I flew Business from Dubai to Singapore and it was dreadful.  I was sitting there sound asleep and the stewardess woke me up to ask if I wanted breakfast!”

So said one of my colleagues over dinner last night as we discussed my imminent departure for London over antipasti of warm green asparagus with parmesan cheese.  They were comforting words at the time and they sprang to mind once more as I rose at 03:00 this morning to meet my 05:20 car to the airport (and for those of you who are wondering: no, I do not spend an hour and a half in hair and make-up each morning – clocks went forward an hour at 04:00).  Shower, breakfast and packing were all dispatched in the mild daze of someone who is still not an early morning person even at the best of times.

Once I’d got down to street level I discovered that Saturday evening’s icy gale was still blowing with plenty of vigour and my bones started to chill nicely as I waited in vain for the car.  Fifteen minutes of refrigeration seemed about enough and I was concerned about missing the flight so I placed a quick call to the duty agent.  Thirty seconds later a white, nineties model BMW 5-series miraculously appeared with its profusely apologetic driver explaining that he had been told the pick-up time was 05:00 (read between the lines what you will…).

The driver was a pleasant young man in his twenties and eager to chat.  He reckons it’s getting harder and harder for people to find work in Baku these days and many people are not able to find jobs when they leave university: similar in Britain I replied.  He has a strong work ethic however and believes that doing any job is better than doing nothing, hence he is driving people at night.  I agreed with his principle but was not awake enough at time to ask how a young man in his allegedly lowly position managed to own and run a German luxury automobile.  Most young men in Baku find the cost of running a Lada high enough: living in a rough apartment and barely buying enough food to feed the family are seen as acceptable trade-offs against being able to drive the streets.

We parted with a handshake and smiles at the airport having not exchanged names.  Goodness only knows who he is or what he does when he’s not being a driver but when I wished him good luck in his future endeavours I meant it.

Heydar Aliyev International Airport (named after the much-loved previous President of Azerbaijan) moved into brand new terminal buildings a couple of years ago and they still look very bright and shiny with the name in red neon on the outside and swathes of pale marble flooring on the inside.  It even has its own shiny taxis: if the usual range of Ladas and Tofas aren’t to your liking you can step off the ‘plane and into a burgundy late-model VW Passat, safe in the knowledge that you can’t get a taxi like it anywhere else in town (and similarly sure that you won’t pay such a huge fare anywhere else either from what I’m told).

Taxis are there for people to enjoy at Arrivals though.  At Departures the entertainment is the intriguingly laborious security set-up which seems to be part obstacle course, part Krypton Factor.  There’s a bag scan and metal-detector arch as soon as you walk in; the same again as you pass into the check-in hall; then a man at a desk to see your ticket and passport before you go to the check-in desk to show them to the airline staff.  Then there is Passport Control; once you are called for your flight there is an other bag scan and an other arch as you go through to the gate area and this time you are expected to put your shoes through the scan, take your laptop out of its bag to be scanned separately and submit yourself to a pat-down regardless of whether the arch goes “beep” or not.  I think it must be a combination of Soviet work hierarchy and western anti-terrorist paranoia.

By the time I’d jumped through all those hoops it was a relief to tuck myself into my window seat in the BA World Traveller section of the ‘plane and think about relaxing for a few hours.  Take-off was smooth and I settled down into a nice snooze.  The next thing I know:  “Excuse me sir, would you like any breakfast?”


Sprint into flight

Baku, Sunday 19th March 2006

After an unusually quiet ‘weekend’ following a mildly frenetic working week, it’s that cosy Sunday night time again: just me and my laptop in the apartment and the usual attempts to net butterfly thoughts while trying to write something coherent as a bulletin.  My original plan was to take a long walk this afternoon and photograph some striking sights around the city, observing my surroundings in the process and writing about them on my return.  There is evidently a city weather controller I failed to pay though: outside the light rain and strong wind have combined to state clearly that walkers with cameras are not welcome today.

Instead I have stayed in and read the first two thirds of an other much appreciated Christmas present – a biography entitled “The Real Life of Anthony Burgess” – and what a cracking read it is too.  I must confess that aside from a single viewing of the Kubrick’s screen adaptation of his novel “A Clockwork Orange” and a vague awareness of the controversy that surrounded that film’s initial release, I knew virtually nothing about Burgess until today but this afternoon’s reading has proven most illuminating and entertaining.

The chapter relating Burgess’s experiences as an expatriate worker definitely struck a chord.  His posting was to the then British colony of Malaya just before independence was declared and Malaysia was born.  My recent fleeting visit to Malaysian Borneo granted me an appreciation of the story’s setting that helped fill in much of the background detail but what struck me most was the manner in which Burgess as an individual approached his situation.  While I have sat here writing about living in bubbles and bemoaning my linguistic deficiencies Burgess just strode out there into the country and made a point of learning Malay from scratch to degree standard (certified) while turning his back on expat society and mixing with the people of Malaya.  The linguistic devices he used as aids were simple yet brilliant and reading about them reminded me how much I’ve already forgotten parts of my own studies in linguistics.  In addition his thoughts about multi-cultural societies and the use of English language around the world appear similar to mine but with the added dimension to them that probably only a literary author can give.

Matters became more immediate yet when the narrative turned to Burgess’s visit to Russia with one of his intentions being to develop the English/Russian slang dialect he created for “A Clockwork Orange.”  I’ve yet to visit Russia but again the linguistic context and the portraits painted of the situations he encountered bore direct comparison to the experiences I have had with Russian people and culture here in Baku.  Burgess and I are obviously totally different people and I am not about to try to emulate his approach but it is proving fascinating and encouraging to read about his life and his exploits, especially when the story has been researched and written so well by the biographer.

Meanwhile I sit here in the knowledge that this time next week I will be back in England.  The Burgess biography includes a brilliant quote of Graham Greene’s reflections on the effects of smoking opium which includes:

“Never has one slept so deeply a whole night-long sleep, and then the waking and the luminous dial of the clock showing that twenty minutes of so-called real time have gone by.”

I have not smoked opium but I can sympathise with the feeling.  The calendar says I’ve been here two and a half months but I can’t say it has felt like two and a half months (however long that period of time is supposed to feel).  It is nonetheless perceived by most of us as being a pretty long time, particularly in this case by those who have been missing me and also by me while missing them.  The perceived brevity of my first stint here will no doubt seem like an eternity though compared to the fortnight I will have to spend with friends and family in America and Europe before returning to continue my work.  It matters not.  I will as ever endeavour to make the best use of the time allotted to me and only mourn the things I failed to do once that time has expired.  Look out folks, here I come.


Climb that mountain

Baku, Sunday 12th March 2006

Dear oh dear…  I’ve just watched England receive a sound thrashing from France in the Six Nations tournament and had it topped off by the sight of Thierry Henry scoring both goals in Arsenal’s 2-1 victory over Liverpool: quite a successful day for French sport.  The defeat in the Six Nations is tolerable in so far as England did not play nearly as well as they could/should have done.  I’m just wondering what sort of gibes and mockery to expect in the office tomorrow morning, bearing in mind that the Engineering team is half French and includes a healthy number of Scotsmen too.

It could have been worse.  My manager, Nathan, spoke to me yesterday and invited me to watch the match with him and a group of said French engineers: lend a bit of weight to the English presence.  I readily agreed (as one does) but arrived at the appointed venue to find them all absent – turned out they’d gone elsewhere and Nathan had neglected to update me.  No doubt he had to endure a whole match’s worth of ribbing from our French colleagues while I simply cringed at the mess on screen while receiving sympathetic comments from my friend Ayla who’s a devoted AC Milan fan but thankfully doesn’t have an axe to grind about rugby.

No, all in all it’s not been a bad weekend.  Once the working week had finally finished on Saturday afternoon I had the project pre-sail-away party to look forward to in the evening.  Even though I had been warned by several colleagues that it might not be much good, it was nevertheless going to be a change from the Saturday night norm.  It transpired that food and drink were in plentiful supply, the speeches/awards section was relatively brief and the atmosphere was very buoyant: a good time was had by all.

For me the evening got off to a curious start when I walked in and noticed that the band from Finnegan’s were playing.  Time rolled on and I couldn’t help wondering what on earth Finnegan’s was going to do without them on a Saturday night.  As it turned out they were obviously doing the double as at ten o’clock they finished, packed and cleared so astonishingly quickly and quietly I had to raise my metaphorical hat to them: true pro’s.

It was a shame they couldn’t stay as to my tastes the music took a definite down-turn after their departure.  The following hour or so was filled by a selection of what I can only describe as professional karaoke singers.  Apparently these singers are very popular in Baku and the restaurants where they hold residencies are never empty; plus being BP we obviously had the cream of the crop performing for us.  The fact remains however that I can’t work up a great deal of enthusiasm for someone singing cover versions of pop songs to badly produced backing tracks running off a laptop.  In my mind they should make better use of the computer technology or ideally charge the little extra to get some live musicians involved: there are enough of them out there and they’re good enough.  Aside from being surprised by one of the women sounding uncannily like Sade when singing “Smooth Operator” I found the whole set rather off-putting and instantly forgettable.  The DJ who closed the evening didn’t do much for me either but the dance-floor was well populated all night so the event organisers had evidently made the right choices.

A brief moment that raised an eyebrow: I’ve recently been lead to believe that Smirnoff vodka has about as much to do with Russia as Newcastle Brown Ale has to do with Peru.  Imagine my surprise when I saw a colleague brandishing a bottle of vodka with that very name written on the label in Cyrillic text.  No doubt I will find out more later…

As the official party finished at midnight the next stop was the nightclub beneath the hotel that was our venue.  Officially named The Chevalier but known by most of my colleagues as The Tunnel (a previous name I think), it’s a typical over-priced, under-atmosphered hotel disco where the only thing I found worth commenting on was the incongruous combination of having a DVD of DJ Tiesto gig playing muted on a giant screen while the hotel’s DJ span the usual commercial mish-mash of music as the soundtrack.  I’d hooked up with a small group including Alan the Ops Manager by this stage (a man of legendary night-out capability) and he wasn’t too impressed either.  We moved on.

Next stop Finnegan’s and the band were there in full swing, bless ‘em.  It was an other relatively brief stop but I managed to fit in a quick caterwaul at the request of a friend who will be leaving the country on Thursday and wanted to hear the song one last time.  Alan, Phil and I then jumped in an other taxi and changed venue once more.

Blackjack’s is one of a trio of establishments that form what is affectionately referred to as the Pubic Triangle: so called because of the plentiful and often aggressively sociable ‘professional’ women who are often found there.  Visiting this area is known as “going to the dark side” and I remember meeting some women with striking dress sense (bright red PVC anyone?) and one-liners to match when first I was introduced to the area (by an other Ops man funnily enough…).  Last night the early trading must have been good because when we got there the place was pretty relaxed and you could actually drink a beer without getting nudged and questioned all the time.  In the newfound peace I discovered that despite the place being an evil den of iniquity it also has a DJ who plays the best electronic dance music I’ve yet heard in Baku.  With luck I might find that he plays in other, more salubrious venues too.

Bedtime was pretty late as you might imagine so I had a bit of lie-in today before setting out for my afternoon adventure.  As I haven’t visited a barber since leaving London my barnet has been getting a bit bushy to say the least so I have been making inquiries about how best to rectify the situation.  While there are reputedly numerous Turkish-style barbers around town who do the full gentleman’s pampering monty I’ve yet to hear any recommended and I’m too chicken to just walk into a place at random and try my luck when my language skills are so poor.  Instead I visited Sergei.  My colleague Nadia is very particular about her hair and is happy with his work and my manager Nathan has become a happy client of his too: no further recommendation was required.

We arrived a little late but Sergei was running later than we were so I sat down and had a flick through Maxim fashion edition in Russian for a few minutes.  Looks like Bryan Ferry is aging pretty well and Anton Corbijn is still taking photographs that appeal to me.

My time came and I moved to the chair: an excruciatingly uncomfortable, low-backed affair that forced me to lean back and place all my weight on my lower ribs.  Sergei turned out to be a slight man with little English but engaging grey eyes.  I mention the eyes because they were highlighted by being the only part of his face not obscured by the surgeon’s mask he was wearing.  Nadia translated my hair requirements to him in Russian, assured me that the mask was simply to cover something that had had done to his teeth and then promptly disappeared off to the pub with Harald.  So there I was: abandoned by my friends, incapacitated by a ridiculous chair, at the mercy of a man wearing a surgeon’s mask and wielding some very sharp scissors.  Lovely.

There was of course nothing to worry about as I soon discovered.  Sergei has the softest touch of any barber or hair stylist I have yet encountered and is a most fastidious exponent of his art.  All I required was a light trim but he went about the job with disarming attention to detail and reassuring dexterity.  I could imagine he would probably make an excellent surgeon!  The results look good and the whole cut, wash and dry cost a fraction of what it would have done in London or Paris; at least there was one good result in the day.


March Hares

Baku, Sunday 5th March 2006

Once tomorrow night has crossed the threshold into Tuesday morning I’ll have been here two months.  Does it feel like a month has passed since I was last sitting here writing very similar words?  Time again proves difficult to quantify.

So, after two rapid months in Baku am I able to pause, reflect and say that I’ve achieved anything in that time?  I think so, yes.  Work-wise, after a particularly intense couple of weeks’ labour I can say with confidence that I’m gaining control of the situation (at least as much control as you can have when herding cats) and progress is being made.  As for my learning while travelling, well, I think I must be getting somewhere.  At time of writing I have just learnt that today is a day of forgiveness in the Russian religious calendar.  The story behind it is unknown to me but nevertheless I have just made a friend very happy by saying “God forgive you” via text message…

My integration into Baku society might actually be proving more successful than I thought: there’s a possibility that I might actually be Russian and simply haven’t known it all these years.  It was a curious moment of discovery.  I’ve been in and out of our office at the Hyatt Tower quite a lot and I’m on nodding terms with most of the security staff who sit at the front desk.  A few days ago one of said chaps beckoned me across and asked “are you Russian?”  “Erm, no, I’m English, from London” was my slightly baffled response.
“Are you not Russian?  There is a man who comes here, he looks exactly like you, he is Russian.”
“No, I’m English.”
After which we exchanged smiling farewells and parted.  Am I due an untimely meeting with my doppelganger? Who knows…

Being Russian could certainly have its advantages round here, as much as being English sometimes has its disadvantages.  Being born a citizen of England, I come from a race of people most of whom comfortably and arrogantly expect to have their language understood everywhere else in the world and for whom all prices are measured against their equivalents in Pounds Sterling.  Here in Baku most people speak three languages spread across two and a half alphabets and at the moment there are three currencies in circulation.  Furthermore these sums do not take into account the additional linguistic skills required of Muslims in order to read the Quran and conduct prayer and this is a Muslim state.  Do I feel inadequate?  Occasionally yes.

Starting with the languages, Azerbaijan has its own language, Azeri, which in family terms is a close relative of Turkish.  Indeed, one of my colleagues who has recently left the project to study a PhD in a Turkish university assured me that the languages are so close it is not too difficult for a Turk to understand an Azeri’s speech and vice versa.  This is where the ‘half’ alphabet comes in: Azeri and Turkish use the same Latin alphabet as English but with different sounds ascribed to some of the letters and a few additional letters that we don’t see in English at all.  For instance, “Azerbaijan” is written “Azərbaycan” in its native form.

Having been a member of the USSR for several generations, Azerbaijan has understandably received a large amount of Russian people and culture.  An Azeri colleague told me that this Russian influence is being pushed to the background with each successive year of independence, in linguistic terms if nothing else.  Bearing in mind the awful events of “Black Monday” that I wrote about earlier I can understand why that distance is being created.  That said though, we have just had a five day ‘festival’ celebrating the partnership between Russia and Azerbaijan during which Vladimir Putin came and visited for a couple of days.  I’m told the amount of blacked out cars and gorillas with ear-pieces around the Hyatt hotel had to be seen to be believed…

Leaving aside the political swings and roundabouts, the Russian connection provides us with an other language and an other alphabet.  Having studied Greek and I can read most of the Cyrillic alphabet but the ‘extra’ letters are still a bit of a challenge.  As for speaking Russian – that is definitely going to take some work.  I’m used to nouns having genders but I think this is the first language I’ve met where the verbs come in masculine and feminine forms as well.  The ‘teach yourself Russian’ CD-ROM that a colleague gave me in Paris has turned out to be a minor nightmare.  I will be investing in a phrasebook or two during my visit to England.

The third language obviously is English – I’d be scuppered otherwise.  Most English spoken here does seem to be learnt as English unlike in Paris where the American language schools seem to be in the majority.  While we’re mentioning France, I find it very humbling that several people I’ve met here speak very good French as well: after seven years of studying French at school and a year working in Paris I’m still linguistically paralysed in France outside the familiar confines of a restaurant or a taxi cab!

The French connection continues into the currencies.  Azerbaijan has been using the Manat (AZM) for goodness knows how long and roughly speaking the exchange rate is around five thousand Manats to the US Dollar, a little under ten thousand to the British Pound.  As of the first of January 2006 we now have the New Manat (AZN) which is worth five thousand of the old Manat and is therefore virtually equivalent to the US Dollar (currently slightly stronger).  This is being phased in slowly over the coming year: at the moment we have One and Five New Manat notes plus the gapiks (accent on the second syllable) which are the coins constituting the hundredths of the New Manat (like cents or pence).  The larger notes will follow later and both currencies are accepted everywhere in town during the transition.

The connection I was referring to?  The New Manat has been designed by the same person who designed the Euro.  You can tell he wasn’t trying too hard as the differences are virtually indistinguishable.  He probably loaded up the Euro drawings on his computer, cut and pasted a couple of images and had the whole job burnt to CD-ROM in time for lunch.  The One New Manat note is very similar to the Five Euro note and the Five New Manat note is virtually the same as the Fifty Euro note.  The real fun comes with the gapiks as the fifty gapik coin appears to be identical in size, weight and composition to the two Euro coin but is worth roughly thirty Euro cents.  I know several expat colleagues who are looking forward to trying their fifty gapik coins in various ticket and vending machines across Europe!

Currency number three is the good old US Dollar, as is to be expected in an oil town I suppose.  Typically it is reserved for the larger transactions – “For Sale” signs in car windows quote dollars for example – while day to day transactions are carried out in Manats.  You can however pay for your coffee and cake in dollars if you smile sweetly enough as a colleague of mine once demonstrated.  The charge for a single entry visa upon arrival at Baku airport is also forty US dollars rather than two hundred thousand old Manats.  I’d imagine the dollar will be quietly side-lined as the New Manat settles in but in the meantime it’s still a popular choice as a ‘solid’ currency.  Strangely enough, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the Russian/Soviet history I have not seen one single instance of the Rouble being accepted as currency here.  It is welcome only in the currency exchanges, just like the British Pound.

It has been said to me with confidence that the nation with the world’s highest average IQ is Armenia.  The way people go about juggling all these languages, currencies and cultures with such apparent ease here in neighbouring Azerbaijan, I can’t help wondering if that level of innate intelligence might be not just national but regional.