Hurrah for May Day?

Baku, Sunday 30th April 2006

This has been a week of arrivals, departures, hand-overs and celebrations.  The arrival strangely enough has been a new person on my team at work.  This runs contrary to the current demobbing trend but business is business and this is Baku business where not-what-you-know-but-who-you-know is particularly prevalent.  I have taken on a local young lady to help with data entry and in doing so I have done a favour for a colleague who in turn was doing a favour for an other colleague.  As one often finds in these situations the young lady in question may not be the ideal candidate for the job.

The ‘interview’ did not bode well: she barely said a word and much of what I said to her had to be translated into Azeri for her by a colleague.  She did however seem to grasp the principles of the job pretty well when I showed her the various databases and spreadsheets on my computers.  She claims to have just completed six years at medical school so from amidst the uncertainty I plucked a thread of optimism and hope that I might be able to point her at a PC and leave her quietly getting on with things once she started.

Come Monday morning it rapidly became clear that the tables were turning.  The mute display at the interview must largely have been a result of nerves because we have managed to communicate quite easily in English since she arrived.  Of greater concern is her apparent total unfamiliarity with computers.  I find it hard to believe that someone can qualify as a gynaecologist in the twenty-first century and not learn how to operate a PC (and I have seen that Baku medical centres are definitely computer driven) but sometimes she genuinely looks at her computer like it’s just landed from Mars.  I’m tempted to say that the whole medical school story is a fake but I’ve seen her reading a detailed book on anatomy so if she is faking she’s putting a bit of work into her cover.  It will be interesting to see how we progress…

First farewell of the week was to ‘The Skipper’.  He and I first met in the Paris office and we enjoyed several lengthy evenings out together during his visits.  His work is now done and we met for a quick drink on Wednesday night before his departure for England.

The main hand-over was from the T&I team to the Hook-Up team.  They have successfully Transported and Installed our platform to its site out in the Caspian and it is now standing triumphantly above it’s wells.  The Hook-Up team now have to drill into the first well, plug in the pipeline to shore and get everything set up so that the gas can start flowing.  They’ve got some serious work on their hands; in the meantime I joined the T&I team at a large meal on Thursday to celebrate having passed an other significant milestone in the project.

Further celebrations took place on Friday as I marked my transition into my thirty-second year.  In keeping with office tradition I started the ball rolling by arranging to have a very large cake bought and shared amongst my colleagues.  In the evening I dined with a friend at Scalini’s: a rather good local Italian restaurant.  We are both friendly with the people who run the restaurant and they kindly provided a surprise birthday ‘cake’ consisting of several desserts on a plate crowned by a miniature firework.  Chocolate cake, chocolate mousse, tiramisu, panna cotta, ice cream – sheer gluttony (accompanied by a glass of Prosecco of course).  To top it all off my boss just happened to be dining with some of the Ops team at the other end of the restaurant and she insisted on signing off my bill with hers: bonus.  I concluded the evening with Long Island Iced Teas and friends at The Lounge before retiring to bed thoroughly contented (and just early enough to get up for work the next morning).

Birthday Dinner, Part Two took place last night at an Eastern restaurant with the Project Director, my boss and a few other chaps from the management team: an unexpected pleasure and much appreciated.  I finished the evening and the week with a farewell as a group of us met at Finnegan’s to toast bon voyage to an other departing colleague.  John’s not only a good fellow but he’s helped me a great deal with finding my feet in this new job; I’ll miss him.  We made quite a night of it.  One song, several hours and too many G&T’s later I eventually found my bed and stayed in it for a very long time.  Next week should be a little more peaceful but who knows…


The Streets are Alive

Baku, Sunday 23rd April 2006

It’s high time I wrote a few words attempting to describe the intriguing, organic, evolving phenomenon that is the local traffic.  My choice of words may appear more biological than mechanical thus far but this is entirely deliberate: as a cohesive entity the Baku traffic is undeniably developing new traits and predatory tendencies.  If it sustains this current rate of development it won’t be long before Sir David Attenborough pays a visit to make a documentary about it for the BBC.

There are so many little ‘episodes’ during even the smallest trip through Baku that one soon becomes inured to them: I’ve been meaning to write this since January but the ‘novelty’ has somewhat worn off!  Last night though I experienced one of those little moments that brings everything briefly back into focus.  It was relatively inconsequential but I saw a Saab in Baku for the first time and nearly died; not from the shock so much as the fact that it was heading along the pavement straight towards me and the young woman behind the wheel showed no interest in stopping.  Apparently it’s perfectly legal to park on the pavement in this city (and many people do) but I had not seen it used so effectively as a vehicular thoroughfare until then.

This parking rule is one of many contained in the Azeri equivalent of The Highway Code that I am assured exists (I have recently asked to borrow a copy and will be interested to see if I receive one).  The trouble is simply that many drivers here don’t care a jot about the rules.  For a start, until the price went up recently it was cheaper to buy a bent driving license than it was to undertake tuition and sit the test to gain a proper one so that’s what most people have done.  The money saved on the license transaction can then be used to bribe the traffic cop if he ever pulls you over for any reason (and so on and so on).

Ignoring red lights, breaking speed limits, driving the wrong way down one way streets, using the wrong side of the road – all rules are there for the breaking except one: in any incident involving a pedestrian the pedestrian is always in the right.  My experience with the Saab seems to suggest otherwise and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve nearly been hit crossing the street at red lights but it might explain how people walking down the middle of a six-lane road at rush hour manage to do so unharmed.

Ah yes, rush hour; what a beautiful experience that is in Baku.  Leaving for work at twenty past seven I manage to miss the morning rush hour as it doesn’t start until eight or so but leaving the yard at six in the evening is bang on peak time.  I’ve driven through rush hours in many places but I think Baku currently takes the prize for being most entertaining.

Lane discipline here is a bit notional at the best of times but once the traffic jams start it’s pure law of the jungle – aim for any gap you think you can get in to, even if it’s non-existent.  One of the more memorable examples involved the car I was in, a local bus and a right hand bend.  We were ahead of the bus and turning into the bend and the bus driver thought he’d try passing us on the inside.  Unsurprisingly the bus driver soon found there was not enough room to do this but that didn’t stop him being thoroughly incensed by the perceived injustice of it all.  He braked so late he missed us by two inches, beeped his horn very loudly and started gesticulating wildly with an angry glint in his eye.  At which point we saw that he only had one hand.

The drama is fuelled by the occasionally convoluted routes the traffic is forced to take.  Much of central Baku has been loosely modelled on the grid system with one way streets alternating block by block in each direction but this logic can be totally confounded in some areas.  Two favourites are the way that we have to drive round five sides of the square to pick up one of my colleagues from his apartment and the way in which traffic wishing to cross a certain bridge drives right up to the foot of the bridge and then has to turn ninety degrees right, drive half a mile up the street and turn back on itself before re-approaching the bridge from that side.  A cynical colleague once joked that the latter change was probably requested by a businessman wanting to have traffic routed to drive past his new shop; in this town I would not be surprised to be told that that’s precisely the reason!

With the interpretation of red lights being so variable junctions are entertaining at the best of times but they become even more fun at peak time.  Baku drivers are some of the most trigger happy horn users I’ve yet heard: they’ve even got the Neapolitans beaten.  There seems to be a direct relationship between the impatience of the driver and his/her readiness to lean on the horn and at junctions it sounds like everybody behind the front row has the patience of a Formula One GP grid.  An element of telepathy must also be involved as some drivers start hooting even before the lights have changed, evidently having foreseen the imminent change and feeling terribly disappointed that the people in front did not predict it too.

In outline the situation differs little from that in other cities around the world (such as the aforementioned Naples).  The beauty is in the detail of there being so many different types of horn sounds in Baku – an other rule that everyone loves to ignore.  There are several different types of police siren in use, reproductions of old klaxon sounds (not sure I see the point of that one myself) and even reproductions of the massive horns used on eighteen-wheel trucks (often used by tatty little Ladas).  Some drivers even install a range of sounds and alternate, just like the little yellow three siren horn I had on my bike as an eight year old but bigger and louder.  In any given group of horn bashing drivers at a junction you can usually hear at least four or five different types in full song at various pitches and rhythms; sometimes it almost sounds orchestral.  Current king of the horns so far is definitely the silver Nissan Primera I was stopped behind a few weeks ago.  That car is so far unique in my experience for having a horn sound that is a twenty second sample of jet engine firing up – utterly useless but inspired!

The police have a very simple solution to the horn situation: if you get stopped for using a non-standard horn you need to have a lot of dollars in your pocket to stop them ripping it out and/or impounding you and your car.  As for the process of stopping you in the first place: they obviously realise that sirens aren’t so effective any more so they shout at you using a very high power amplifier linked to a microphone in the cab and a speaker on the roof of the car.  It’s surprisingly effective.

One other rule that is never broken: if an incident occurs involving a motorbike that is deemed to be outside the main flow of traffic, the motorbike is always in the wrong.  No doubt this rule is one of the reasons I have seen so very few motorbikes on the road here; it’s certainly one of many reasons that have stopped me jumping on a machine while I’m over here.  An other one ironically enough concerns the validity of my license.  Apparently if you don’t hold a driving license from Azerbaijan, USA or a former Soviet state your license is only valid here for three months.  If you wish to drive here after that period you have to pass a driving test as set by the Azeri government and be officially registered with the traffic police after its completion.  I didn’t ask what it would take to buy your way out of that one…


Back in Baku

Baku, Sunday 16th April 2006

Here I am back in the City of Wind (as Baku roughly translates) and it’s gusting up a small gale outside; popping out to get the groceries was quite an exercise!  Hopefully this will be but a temporary disruption as up until a few hours ago the weather has been calm, sunny and very warm; the sort of weather I rather like.

Thoughts so far on returning to Baku are positive.  My two weeks’ leave already feel like they were a very long time ago but such feelings no longer surprise me, especially after a busy week like this one.  Things got off to a flying start when the ‘plane touched down early (no pun intended) and I used my multi-entry visa for the first time to whisk through passport control and out of the airport rather than playing the queuing game for the single entry version.  The young man with the BMW who drove me to the airport for my departure was there to meet my arrival and took the “short route” to Zykh yard when I told that was where I needed to be.  This involved driving along a series of unmarked, broken and weathered roads through a landscape of oil fields and clusters of residential buildings that looked similarly neglected and hard-worn.  Driving through a semi-desert at daybreak surrounded by such sights provided an effective reminder that England was now many many miles away; “Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more…”

As the route was unknown to me I didn’t have a clue where we were until all of a sudden we crested a hill and I saw the three legs of the platform pointing towards the sky about half a mile ahead of us.  A check of the watch revealed that it was quarter past seven: the platform had been due to sail at seven but was evidently running a little late.  Good: I’d made it in time.

It turned out there was an unexpected crosswind blowing and as the platform was due to follow a narrow dredged channel to leave the quayside the Transport and Installation (T&I) Team were waiting for conditions to soften before they cast off.  By late morning the sky was blue, the sun was shining and the wind had abated so cast off they did and away she sailed: thirty-six thousand tonnes of platform with two tug boats ahead for towing power and two tug boats aft to provide steering trim as required.  After all the trials and tribulations the project had been through during the previous four years it was quite a proud (and some cynics would have said unbelievable) sight to see.  Well done everybody.

The day’s work ended early so that we could all relocate to the City Lights Bar in town and enjoy a couple of drinks courtesy of BP while watching the platform cross the bay.  The venue was perfect: a bar with an open terrace at the top of a seventeen storey tower about half a mile back from the coast.  Unfortunately the weather was less perfect: this was apparently the first proper hot, sunny day of the year which might go most of the way to explaining the impenetrable mist that shrouded the entire bay: we couldn’t see a thing.  It mattered not: the bar was still open and the buffet was offering a good selection of Thai cuisine from the restaurant across the hall so we had a good afternoon’s party.  City Lights was only booked from four ‘til seven so once the allotted time was up my colleague John and I adjourned to our ‘local’, The Lounge.

The Lounge is not one of the cheapest bars in town but so far it has proven to be one of the best.  It’s low-lit, high ceiling interior of dark wood, local rugs and ‘velvet’ soft furnishings is complemented by walls covered in a variety of old art and music ranging from jazz and blues through soul to half-decent house depending on the night and the time.  The owner has a strict music schedule but Ziba who runs the place manages to make tasteful alterations here and there.  Efficient, courteous and friendly staff complete the warm ambience and once you become known there you soon become ‘one of them’ in that everybody shares a sharp and occasionally dark sense of humour that you automatically become party to.  Banter and small wind-ups are the order of the day but always with a smile rather than with malevolence.  The head barman, Ali, is undoubtedly the leader in this area and he has got dead-pan one-liners down to a fine art.  He also fashions very impressive model dogs from Champagne corks (one of which now lives in my apartment) and mixes some of the best cocktails in Baku.  I have a weakness for Long Island Ice Tea and have been frequently disappointed by short-shooting bandits mixing them in various parts of London.  Ali – bless ‘im – takes a pint glass full of ice, starts with the five full shots and gets the flavour spot-on.  They’re lethal but they’re marvellous; as it was my first night back you can imagine what John and I ordered.

The rest of the working week has mostly been a big catch-up exercise as you might imagine.  Away from the office it has been great fun meeting friends from England and learning more about Azerbaijan.  Sam, her partner Jon and her mum have come to Baku to visit Sam’s sister Vicki who’s partner, Dean, is working on one of the BP oil projects (clear as…?).  The six of us met for dinner last night at a traditional Azeri restaurant in the heart of the old city named Karavanserai (spelling may vary), so called because that is the type of building in which it is situated.  They were the equivalent of motels for the camel trains that plied the Silk Route a thousand or so years ago and one or two such buildings still survive in Baku today.

The light was fading to dusk as we walked through the short, arched corridor into the central courtyard where the camels would once have been tethered for the night by the stone water trough.  The perimeter of the courtyard consisted of small alcoves (within one of which a live band with traditional instruments was playing) and entrances to the small rooms that were the sleeping places for the weary travelling traders.  We had one of these rooms set aside for us for our meal.  It must have been approximately ten feet by ten feet but with a ceiling of about fifteen feet – cosy but airy at the same time.  The walls and the seats were festooned with traditional rugs and cushions and the only glaring modern additions to the space – aside from electricity – were an air-conditioning unit and a television (we couldn’t explain the latter, perhaps the motel role lives on…?).

As the English translations in the menu were not especially well executed we placed ourselves at the mercy of our waiter who supplied us with a some very enjoyable mixed starters, some mixed kebabs (served on a superb miniature brazier) and some very drinkable Azeri red and white wine (you would not believe the number of people I’ve heard denigrating the local wine).  Once the bill arrived it transpired that our waiter had not simply decided to give us all the most expensive items on the menu (thankfully) and even with some curious extra charges on the bottom (one of which was for the live music – a first) we walked away feeling we’d had a good meal in a good place and not been taken for a ride (which, let’s be honest, can not always be said for a fair few hapless tourists in London).

This morning I crawled out of bed at an unfeasibly early hour for a Sunday so that I could join my colleagues Rod and Steve for a drive out to the mud volcanoes.  These curious phenomena are apparently caused by the simple settling of the land mass forcing methane gas to the surface rather than anything as high-pressure and volatile as the forces that produce fire volcanoes.

We drove along the coast an hour south of Baku to reach the site.  The first half of the journey was along the highway and took us past several desolate-looking, Soviet-built towns as well as numerous decaying industrial sights and sites from the era such as rusting old oil platforms that will never be taken out to sea and crumbling old factories that ceased work many years ago.  This sort of landscape is home for thousands of people who have seen no different.  For a Londoner it’s an other potent reminder that life can be very different away from Stella Artois and “Eastenders”.

The second half of the journey was along a rough dirt causeway into the semi-desert (luckily we were in a 4×4) and took us right into the heart of nowhere.  After the final steep ascent to the volcano plateau we stepped out of the car and heard nothing but the wind, some birdsong and the irregular rhythm of bubbling mud.  If a civilisation from the dark side of the moon came to visit Earth and landed here they’d feel right at home.  The mud plateau is a cracked, pale grey with a fine dust covering and the pools of liquid mud are mostly circular and edged just like the images we’ve been offered of the moon’s craters.  There isn’t an obvious smell (somehow we half-expected an odour from the methane) and the liquid mud is cold not hot.  The liquid varies in viscosity: the lighter vents fizz like fresh-opened soda while the heavier ones belch (and occasionally explode) with greater percussion and drama.  Most of the vents were between a few inches and a couple of feet across and had built themselves into small cones.  The largest by far was a light viscosity vent that was about fifty feet in diameter and looked like a fizzing pond.  Being there was an almost otherworldly experience.

Not far from the mud volcanoes is the alleged most easterly example of Roman stone inscription (we went, we saw, we think the weather has virtually eroded it) and some far older cave pictures carved into the limestone that abounds further inland.  The vast empty plain that currently constitutes this part of the Caspian coast used to be part of the Caspian seabed in days of yore.  Once we’d got up the hill to the cave art site we looked out across the plain, looked at the obvious signs of water action on the limestone around us and tried to imagine how thousands of years ago the waves might have been breaking just beneath the rock shelf we were standing on.

Lurching from the past back to the present, it sounds like the wind may be moderating outside and I am now able to hear the familiar groan of the concrete mixer down below.  The baby building on the corner continues to mature at a rate of knots and may now be of school age: it managed to gain two storeys above street level while I was away.  I guess the third is being added now.


Bumpy return

After a hassle-free and unfortunately almost sleep-free flight I’m back in Baku and back at the desk.  It’s like a morgue round here: at least half of my colleagues have finished their contracts and disappeared while I was away.  To be expected at this stage in the proceedings I suppose…

The driver who ferried me from airport to office this morning took the “short” route as he called it.  This seemed to involve ignoring the main route and finding his way across a network of broken roads and navigating by sense of smell as I didn’t see a single sign post or street name.  Add to that the accompanying sights of day-break across ragged oil fields and the transition from London to Baku could not be more immediate or complete.

I’ve just got back to the desk from watching the platform finally sail.  It’s going to take 4 tug boats 6 hours to maneuvre the platform out of the harbour along a specially dredged channel: I don’t envy the skippers.  A good sense of achievement all round.

Ranting and Revelling

London, Sunday 9th April 2006

An other Sunday, an other flight.  This time I’m sitting in the BA lounge at Heathrow Terminal 4 awaiting the overnight to Baku and everything appears to be running to schedule.  If you’d asked me a few months ago I would never have imagined that I would ever spend three consecutive Sundays flying long-haul.  I’m told BA are offering double mileage points this month too…

After three months of the “Englishman abroad” this evening’s scribbles will be more the “Englishman comes home” as I have just completed an almost but not entirely full week back in dear old Blighty.  From a national perspective first impressions have not been favourable I must confess.  I picked up a copy of The Spectator in the lounge at O’Hare and the contributors were near-unanimous in their desperately dark descriptions of the British political status quo.  The Sunday papers offered little consolation and I landed in London half expecting the end of the world or at the very least a riot or two in Parliament Square.  Neither occurred of course; unsurprisingly as for some reason the latter very rarely does occur these days.  How can the English appear to be so terribly concerned about their rights and yet take so little interest in expressing this concern to a Prime Minister who appears to be quietly removing rights one at a time in alarmingly rapid succession and breaking several codes of conduct in the process?  I’m not about to launch into some huge political polemic here because I’m no good at it but I will say that I do find the situation puzzling and unsettling.

On a more frivolous note, I ate a dinner last night that left me wondering whether the hitherto unrelated evolutionary paths of the English language and English cuisine might have suddenly crossed: let us talk about pie.  It doesn’t seem like it was all that long ago when all pies had a base, sides and top of short-crust pastry encapsulating a filling; they had the structural integrity to stand on a plate and be cut into slices for all to enjoy.  In the course of evolution this former staple of the English kitchen appears to have been marginalised to the extremes (packet pork pies at one end and occasional home country cooking at the other) in favour of a new design.  Pubs and restaurants across the nation have for several years been serving pots of stew with piece of puff pastry balanced on top and calling those pies instead.  To my mind this new approach reached its zenith*/nadir* (*delete as applicable) when I ordered pie last year in a restaurant claiming to offer ‘the best of traditional English cuisine’ and I was presented with one of said impostor pots rather than a juicy slice of short-crust-coated joy.

It was therefore with no little curiosity that I ordered steak and ale pie with chips and “puréed root vegetables” last night in a self-proclaimed luxury hotel that makes very loud noises about its old English heritage.  Alas, it would appear that evolution has taken one step further.  I was presented with a very designed rectangular plate upon which six large Bauhausian chips were carefully stacked in one corner next to a perfect disc of purée to complete one ‘half’ of the composition.  At the other end of the plate was a tall, slim serving of beef and mushroom stew with a piece of puff pastry balanced precariously on top.  The filling of the pie is now expected to stand upon its own two feet with neither crust nor pot to aid it and I am left wondering what actually defines a pie.  On this evidence the presence of a casing is no longer prerequisite; either that or the hotel will shortly receive a reprimand from the trading standards office surely?  If I put an apple on a plate and balanced a biscuit on top of it could I serve it as “apple pie?”  If not would peeling and slicing the apple be enough to make the difference?  I have not gone so far as to look up the definition of “pie” in the dictionary but it is tempting.

Linguistic and culinary bluster aside, I found plenty of time to enjoy being English during the week.  Spending three nights living on the edge of Wimbledon Common and visiting such places as Richmond Park and Hampton Court Palace reminded me how England’s green and pleasant land can still look exceedingly pleasant on a sunny Spring day.  Finding some brilliant records in Portobello Market and being driven around Kensington in a Nissan Figaro with the roof down were similarly anglophile moments (the latter all the more amusing when you compare the size of a Nissan Figaro with that of the Nissan Armada I was driving the week before).  Sharing those experiences with Sabrina made them all the more pleasurable.  The differences between the English and the French may have been garnering very negative press of late but we managed to spend seventy-two hours putting them into a definitely positive light.

An other definitive and positive experience was sharing the occasion of a couple of dear friends of mine signing their civil partnership.  They did me the honour of timing events so that I could be present as witness and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.  While any mention of the “W” word and all associated was strictly taboo we nevertheless managed quite easily to turn a ‘low key’ event into a most joyous celebration.  Many thanks and congratulations to the happy couple.

It has as expected been a whirlwind holiday and now Baku beckons.  One hatchling visited, two matches witnessed and eleven time zones dispatched in one fortnight is not bad going though.  That said, I can count at least as many people if not more who I wished to visit during those two weeks but was not able to.  I’ll be back in a couple of months with one birthday and one celebration of as yet undisclosed nature in the diary so far and I will endeavour to catch up with a few more folk in the process.  In the meantime ‘our man in Baku’ will soon be back on duty.


Trans-Atlantic Connections

Chicago, Sunday 2nd April 2006

It’s a little after 22:00 and I was expecting to be 36,000 feet above Canada by now.  Instead I am sitting in the BA lounge at O’Hare having just been informed that the aeroplane I should be aboard is about to land in Detroit (diverted by bad weather) and will hopefully turn up on Chicago tarmac around 23:00.  Methinks an other bottle of draught Guinness may be landing on table beside me somewhat sooner.

After a blurred forty-eight hours catching up with a few friends and family in England during Sunday and Monday I have spent this week in America playing the role of best man for an old friend who took his wedding vows in Bloomington, Indiana yesterday.  With a bachelor party to lead in Chicago, the intricacies of the ceremony to master in Bloomington and the transport of a group of twelve between both places to help coordinate it was a challenging role but ultimately a very rewarding one: everything went swimmingly, we all had a great time and the newly-weds are a very happy couple.

Details of the bachelor party are traditionally not shared outside the party group but on this occasion I think a very small exception can be made as one of our afternoon activities was a marvellous discovery (as recommended by the bride so the exception must be permissible, yes…?).  Take a set of half-size dodgem cars, stick a basketball backboard at each end of the driving area, divide the drivers into two teams armed with cut cut-down lacrosse sticks and throw them an air-flo ball to squabble over: this is how you create Whirlyball.  The game we played was half an hour of mayhem, multiple crashes, shouting and lunacy and we all laughed ourselves into stitches.  Has anybody ever seen this game outside America?  It’s certainly not one I’m familiar with and some of us are thinking there must be a market for it in the UK; it’s a hoot.

Chicago to Bloomington is 250 miles by road, we did it in convoy and we did it in style.  I drove the lead ‘car’ which was a Nissan Armada: a Japanese interpretation of the current ‘it’ car of America, the SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle).  The “Sports” part of that designation is far fetched to say the least (SUV’s make Range Rovers look tiny) but there was enough utility in the spacious interior to comfortably accommodate lots of people and luggage and the 5.6 litre V8 under the bonnet.  It hated the long, fast curves of highway slip roads (in fact it hated most corners) but it loved cruising around town looking big, bright and bulky and it commanded some respect on the Interstates.  Perhaps ‘Show-off Utility Vehicle’ would be a more suitable moniker.  I wouldn’t want to own one but it made perfect sense as a visitor’s hire car in the US.

Driving south out of Chicago you leave the city through a sprawling old industrial zone dominated by aging steel factories and railways.  Cross the Illinois state border into Indiana and the story initially remains the same.  The first signpost is for a town called Gary: a place notable for being the birthplace of Michael Jackson but otherwise barely worth lifting off the gas pedal for.  After that it’s over a hundred miles through flat, empty farm country with the occasional tree or small town providing surface relief.  The flatness reminded me of northern France; the large-scale arable acreage, still bare at this time of year, was reminiscent of August in the Transvaal.  Further south the terrain develops gently rolling hills with growing numbers of trees and things start looking a bit more familiar to an Englishman abroad.  Take a couple of junctions off the Interstate and you suddenly find yourself in Bloomington.  Majestic desolation is suddenly replaced by blocks of tidy, fresh-looking buildings and a sense of cheerful bustle, especially during term-time.

Bloomington is the home of Indiana University and much of the town’s fabric is the buildings and the students of the University.  The wedding events and accommodation were at the University’s Memorial Union building and arriving there was just like driving into a film set.  The main campus buildings are mainly built using a local pale grey stone and following a vaguely… well… English academia sort of design (I can’t think of a better way to describe the mixture of influences on show).  The streets around them are lined with fraternity and sorority houses proudly displaying their house names and often loudly proclaiming their house music policies during parties in the evenings.  Each way you turn you can spot college students looking exactly as you’d expect them to if you’ve seen any recent American college-based film or television show.  A couple of 18 year-old chaps in our party are studying courses at universities in England: once they started meeting some of their opposite numbers at IU they thought they’d died and gone to heaven.  I realised this year is the tenth anniversary of my graduation…

Friday night was the rehearsal dinner which I am told is a key part of the wedding tradition in America.  The bride’s parents had around thirty people round to their house and treated us all to a magnificent feast.  Mother Nature also decided to present a grand offering that night, sending not only a hugely impressive electrical storm but a tornado or two to go with it.  Sirens are sounded when some one reports a tornado sighting and I heard my first tornado siren that night; similar to a WWII air raid siren but less dramatic.  We all dutifully relocated to the basement for a while and watched The Weather Channel until we heard the sirens stop.  Thankfully it transpired that we did not find ourselves too close to the action, the roof was still on the house and the local neighbourhood was intact.  The evening continued as planned and the party adjourned downtown to Nick’s English Hut which actually looked very German to me in terms of the bar/restaurant layout downstairs.  Indeed the only punning nod to Englishness was the way that upstairs in the games bar they served the draught beer in jars.  I briefly toyed with the idea of ordering a jug just to see what would happen but I reckoned I would probably have ended up with a pitcher so I left it.

Saturday was the big day and this is neither the time nor the place to wax lyrical on the subject; suffice to say once more that it was a great success for all concerned.

Now it’s suddenly home-time.  An hour ago we came back into Chicago up Lakeshore Drive: one of the more scenic routes.  Driving from the Indiana billiard table into Bloomington was a pretty good contrast; doing it into the waterside heart of Chicago takes the experience up by several notches.  In what feels like moments you are transported from open country to high-rise architecture, tended parks, sandy beaches and an eastern horizon of water as far as the eye can see.  My drive through Chicago was just like the bus drive I took from Port Authority to JFK in New York City several years ago: a tantalising preview of what looks and sounds like a fascinating city.  In both cases I have promised to return and I will.  Just need to sort out this flight to London first…