Home is where…

Kingston upon Thames, Tuesday 30th May 2006

Somewhat like the football match I’ve just finished watching, last week was very much a game of two halves; the first half in Azerbaijan feeling noticeably different from the second half in England.

In Baku the farewells started early with two leaving parties to attend on the Tuesday night.  The first was for a couple of divers who were leaving the project, one of whom, John, I had got to know during shared time in the Paris office last year.  He and his departing colleague had hired the semi-open top floor of a town bar (suitably named Ocean Deck), invited the whole diving team (locals and expats alike), put a few hundred dollars behind the bar and laid on a small buffet to round things off.  The way John tells it – and I have no evidence with which to contradict him – the divers on these projects rarely get invited to any of the ‘main’ project events so he thought it a good idea to use ye olde leaving do as an excuse to get the team out for a knees-up.  Well done that man.

Second stop was at an other hired venue, this time the bar of a nearby Lebanese restaurant.  The host here was Mazen: a member of the engineering team, thoroughly decent bloke and a man who has done a lot of good work for the IM cause too.  He cheerily told me how he was flying straight to Athens via Turkey the next day to meet his girlfriend for the first stop in a lengthy holiday before probably starting a new project back at the Paris HQ.  Good on him I say and I hope he’s having a grand time: from my perspective he’s earned it.  My closing memory of that evening is being persuaded to sign up for the pool table and very nearly getting seven-balled by a pint-sized young woman (named Kamilla, I think) who appeared to be wiping the floor with all comers.  One of those games I doubt I’ll ever get to grips with…

Wednesday morning was the first chance I had in several days to run a report out of the database after numerous prior technical hitches and annoyances.  Initial news was disappointing (somehow even my conservative estimates always come out too high in these situations) but I managed to nudge the Category A total over the 99% mark by early afternoon before feverishly e-mailing instructions and spreadsheets to all and sundry in an attempt to keep people working on the IM in my absence.  Remember what I came back to after my last leave I’m not expecting to see any great progress when I return but at least the foundations have been laid (again).

Between leaving the yard, having dinner with Annalie and meeting several friends at The Lounge, Wednesday evening was filled with a lot of farewells.  Much as I was looking forward to meeting my friends and family back in England I found that Baku seems to feel a bit more like home with each successive departure.

My first contact with home turf was not entirely favourable.  Landing in a warm and sunny Heathrow slightly ahead of schedule was an unexpected pleasure in terms of both weather and timing.  Having to then sit in the ‘plane for over half an hour waiting for buses to take us to the terminal building soon tarnished the shine though.  Indeed the taxi I had booked had abandoned hope and was just on his way out by the time I cleared Arrivals and had to be sent back for me.  Thankfully the weather held and a sunny stroll across the Thames from Waterloo to Cambridge Circus via the ‘new’ Hungerford Bridge helped perk me up again as I weaved through sun-drunk Londoners on my way to meet a friend for the evening.  By Friday morning it was cold and wet again though: normality had been restored.

Saturday was the date with fate that occasioned this period of leave in the first place: DJ-ing for a friend’s thirtieth birthday party in Wiltshire.  Part of me was relishing the idea of catching up with friends and getting the chance to play again; the other part was quietly concerned that after several months in the musical wilderness without touching a mixer my performance could seriously suck.  All cool, my brother and I loaded the car and headed west.

The venue was a charming terraced cottage in the heart of an old market town; there was just enough room left to dance by the time I’d set up the decks and the PA in the front room.  I started at nine and we made a boisterous start.  I stepped down at four and by that stage I’d be asked to turn the PA up so many times I’m sure we could be heard two or three villages away.  While no one in that room is likely to say my technical skills were at their peak that night, we all enjoyed a fine night of good music and good company, not retiring ‘til well after sunrise.  How we didn’t attract a single irate neighbour or a member of the local police remains a mystery to me (Londoners would have had us in jail by 11pm).  I guess it goes to show that there is still a sense of neighbourly tolerance and goodwill to be found in parts of this land.

Special mention should be made of my saving angel of the evening.  Two of the guests were Swedish sisters, one of whom spotted me stretching tired muscles late in the evening and suddenly declared that she was a professional masseuse.  Intent thereby declared, with a generosity of spirit matched only by the strength of her grip she gave my neck and shoulders a couple of brief, granite-grinding work-overs between a couple of mixes for which I was extremely grateful.  Having heaved heavy equipment around all day and semi-stooped over the decks all night I woke the next day feeling pain in most of my muscles but not in my shoulders or neck.

The drive home on Sunday encompassed some prime “green and pleasant” – including Avebury and its famous standing stones – and the theme of Great, Green, Britain continued on Monday when I popped up to Oxford to see two Dutch friends who had unexpectedly called to announce that they were in the country.  I’ve felt part home-comer part tourist during these visits as the countryside is at once both familiar from birth yet alien from recent memory which is programmed with the drier, dustier images of the land surrounding Baku.

It is a distinction that becomes more pronounced when looking at the people and places of my home town.  As one might expect, coming back to Kingston I have noticed how people look, walk, talk and act in very different ways from the people I see in Baku (both local and expat).  It strikes me however that rather than feeling like I’ve come home from a strange land I’ve arrived in one instead.  No doubt much of the change has occurred within me but I’m pretty sure the townsfolk are changing too.  I’m glad I have my friends and family to provide reference points otherwise I might find myself feeling slightly lost.  England may have scored a decisive victory in the second half of the football match; the result for the second half of the week is less certain.


London’s Calling

Short week for me this week as I’ll be flying back to London on Thursday – can’t wait.  That said, I’m starting to wonder what to expect when I land.  According to the pictures on Euronews on my TV (I still don’t understand the Russian VO), Blair’s government is on the verge of destroying itself and the Eurovision Song Contest has just been won by a part-KISS-part-GWAR metal band from Finland; maybe I’d be safer staying here…?!

Music and Travel

Baku, Sunday 21st May 2006

My, what a week; Monday feels like years ago.  Work has been pretty rubbish as the database server has been out of combat for much of the time but extra-curricular activities have been plentiful and entertaining.

Starting with Monday evening, I paid my first visit to The Philharmonic: a very grand music venue with an interior allegedly modelled on that of the Monte Carlo Casino (which I have yet to visit so I am unable to verify the claim).  The occasion was a classical music recital hosted by the Baku Rotary Club and sponsored by the project with a programme of solo tenor and soprano pieces plus a couple of ‘cello solos and brief bit of Rachmaninoff on piano.  Overall it was a good show with the cellist being a particular highlight both in terms of his playing skills and his choices of music.  Unfortunately the ‘live’ acoustics of the venue were unkind to the soprano (a colleague of mine) and her rather robust voice combined with a couple of songs that were really more technical than musical (Constanza’s Aria from The Abduction From The Seraglio is one of the few pieces by Mozart I don’t like) proved more challenging than engaging.  The theme continued after the show during dinner in the venue’s restaurant where the lacklustre background muzak playing on the stereo was frequently joined by the strident tones of a cockatiel caged a few feet away from our table.

Tuesday is a bit of a blur.  I think the weakness of memory can partly be attributed to the shock of seeing Pat (Project Director) walk into the bar and buy us all a round of drinks at the very moment we were about to depart.  As the drink was a second Long Island Iced Tea the double-whammy was complete.

Wednesday was John’s birthday.  He, I and Annalie decided to have drinks at the City Lights bar (on the 17th floor of the Plaza downtown) followed by dinner at the Thai restaurant across the hall.  Pat invited himself along at the last minute too but in spite of the bad day he’d had he turned out to be good company and we enjoyed a pleasant meal overlooking the bay as the sun went down.  After dinner a nightcap at The Lounge was obligatory for John and me, naturally.  We had the situation under control up to the point that Ziba; the manager; arranged for a ‘birthday cake’ dessert plate to be brought across from Scalini’s next door (with the firework, as I had on my birthday), after which we got far too comfortable and left far too late.  Thursday morning was a bit of a trial…

Thursday evening was a rarity.  Baku is a city full of jazz fans but aside from the annual Jazz Festival you rarely if ever see international performers here.  That said, somebody somehow had offered an invitation and it had been accepted and guitarist Al Di Meola had come to town to play a one-off gig at The Philharmonic.  I’ll be honest: I’d never heard the guy play a note and all I knew of him was reading his name off the cover of an album he did with Paco De Lucia and John MacLaughlin but having not seen a decent live gig for months I was more than happy to take my chances; and the boy done good.  The soundman initially had some fun fitting the breadth of a 5-piece electric band into the venue’s acoustics and some of Di Meola’s more widdly-widdly fusion moments disagreed with me but the sound levelled out and the improvisation work was inspired, especially some call and response parts he did with the drummer and the percussionist.  I’m told his albums are more commercial and even without being told that I probably wouldn’t feel the urge to buy one but as a live act he was well worth the price of admission.

The weekend got off to a most unexpected start on Saturday afternoon.  I had just got back up to my end of town after work when I saw four motorbikes parked across the road from the Hyatt that were very obviously fitted out for a long journey.  Naturally I went over to say hello.  The bikes were four BMW GS’s of varying ages, all owned by four Israeli men who are riding the Silk Road from Israel to China.  They’ve seen “The Long Way Round”, they’ve got a bit of sponsorship and they have a TV show in Israel taking an interest in their progress but they decided against the luxury of a chase car to carry the supplies and they’re riding purely for the pleasure: on a budget and on their own terms.  So far they are three weeks into their journey having gone Israel-Cyprus-Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan (Syria and Lebanon were deemed no-go areas on the mainland) and they aim to complete the whole journey in three months.  They gave me coffee and an Israeli cigarette packet for my brother’s collection, I gave them my maps of the city and my copy of Bike magazine’s “Guide to the World” supplement (which, ironically enough, gives both Azerbaijan and Israel a very high risk no-go rating according the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office: we all smiled at that).  With Baku being a virtually bike-free zone it was great to share some motorcycle company for a couple of hours and remind myself what I’ve been missing back home.  The guys are scheduled to catch the ferry to Kazakhstan on Monday: in some ways I would love to join them.


As the wind blows

Baku, Sunday 14th May 2006

One of the things that has been amusing me during this job has been the stories behind some of the people I have met.  John in Paris for example had a host of recollections to share.  As the son of a cross-border Irish/Northern Irish marriage in the 1930’s he soon found himself living with relatives in south-east London/Kent and witnessed the first flying bomb arriving over London in World War Two (it landed at the end of his street).  He later went into a career in engineering, highlights of which include rocket testing for the Ministry of Defence, designing hovercrafts and being part of the engineering team that produced Concorde.  Being of a generation raised on pocket calculators and now pocket computers, it came as mild but not altogether surprising shock to be reminded that the world’s only supersonic airliner was created by engineers using slide-rules: they were the height of calculating technology at the time.

Here in Baku it has more often been the case to discover that some-one has had an interesting episode outside the realm of engineering.  I met a financial advisor called Gary last Monday and he was very keen to chat about almost everything except the finance.  We got to discussing music and it transpired that his one claim to fame is being an ex-drummer of The Cure.  No doubt much has already been written in great detail elsewhere about the band but I have not read much of it and listening to how a schoolboy band playing weddings and bar mitzvahs suddenly gained a singer from ‘the rival school’ (Robert Smith) and went off to Amsterdam to change everything – it was quite a story.  Pleasingly it was a story told without bitterness or rancour; Gary and the band parted on good terms at the time and are still in friendly contact now.

The same can not be wholly said an other colleague’s (called John, again) musical situation.  John is a guitarist who gigs here and there and goes back to being a draughtsman every now and then when the bank account needs topping up (hence his being on the project for a few months).  Back in the seventies John played in David Bowie’s band and they toured the Aladdin Sane album together.  The tour forms the backbone of book that John has nearly completed chronicling his experiences in the band.  One detail that probably won’t be mentioned though is the fact that he sang on “Space Oddity” and hasn’t received a single penny in royalties for the work.  Several music industry lawyers have said that there is a strong case but as the proceedings would take a year or more and the lawyers charge stratospheric hourly rates John has been happy to let it lie.  He and Bowie are still on conversational terms via e-mail; that particular subject is just left untouched.

Outside the office it is often a pleasure to meet people from Azerbaijan or elsewhere who’s conversations can shed a bit of light on parts of life that were previously little- or unknown to me.  This afternoon I went out on what was planned to be a photography tour of the city.  I decided to start at the City Lookout: a point on top of the hill bordering the old heart of the city with great views across the bay and most of Baku.  Whilst catching my breath at the top of the huge set of steps leading up to the view point I heard a man say “hello” several times and eventually looked round to return the greeting to him.  Two minutes later he and his two friends had sat me down at the nearby café terrace and ordered tea and we spent the ensuing couple of hours comparing life in London with life in Baku and his studies with my work and so on.  Some of the differences are vast, some of the similarities very close and sometimes in unexpected areas.  Photography went out of the window but who cares: there will be an other sunny Sunday.  Shamil (for that is his name) has taken a liking to my non-American English accent and we have agreed to meet again next week.  It will be interesting to see what else we can learn from each other.

After bidding farewell to Shamil and his friends (and taking a couple of photographs) I strolled down into town and met Ayla and after discovering that the shops we planned to visit had both closed early we headed up to The Lounge.  We sat down at the bar and next to me was an Englishman who’s face I recognised from previous visits but I had not been introduced to him.  In the interests of courtesy I introduced myself and when we exchanged the obligatory ‘what do you do’ question it transpired that he was part of the Central Engineering team of BP Baku.  Alas, the conversation went rapidly downhill from there as he started holding forth about how so many people working on the Shah Deniz project had been so incredibly fortunate with their postings to London, Paris, Norway and Singapore and how Baku was such a terrible dump compared to other expat postings around the world.  This last point was enunciated in suitably brash tones and at some length with Ayla (Azeri and proud of it) sitting not three feet away.  Apparently his words did not carry quite that far (believe me, I checked) but I have still formed the opinion that the man is a prig of the sort who is no doubt giving English expats a bad name the world over (and that’s before we start discussing the other deficiencies in his manners…).  Shamil one minute and prig-boy the next: variety truly is the spice of life!  Tomorrow dawns an other day…


Where’s the sun?

Baku, Sunday 7th May 2006

It’s hard to say whether the change is genuinely in the season or simply in my state of mind but it feels like Summer has finally started to arrive in Baku this weekend.  When the wind blows it’s now almost warm rather than bone-piercingly cold.  The cloudy days are often only a light veil across the sun rather than a dark smothering.  The rain, finally, might be stopping.

It’s been a long time coming: normally by this time of year it’s sun all day and the temperatures are way up in the twenties and beyond.  As it is we’ve rain almost every other day and temperatures in the low ‘teens for the last few weeks; London and Paris have been warmer than Baku in the weather forecasts for days!  The citizens of Baku have been most bemused by the whole affair.

The rain has had its advantages though.  I stepped out this afternoon and as I approached a corner I briefly caught the evocative aroma of fresh-cut grass.  Living in a city in a semi-desert I would never have expected to encounter such a smell but on rounding the corner I discovered a man mowing a ragged patch of roadside grass that had obviously managed a major feat of growth in the last couple of weeks.  There are many hardy olive trees and conifers around the city but at least as many dead-looking trees as well.  It turns out they are deciduous varieties that are very much alive and they have rapidly sprouted foliage, seemingly overnight.  Other planted areas of the city are sporting flowers in radiant bloom and even the stray/wild cats around town seem to look a bit glossier and healthier right now.  I hope there is time enough for it to last: ‘proper’ Summer apparently comes on as fast as the flick of a switch and once that happens there’s no more rain and the temperatures hit the forties with alarming regularity.  The buds and blooms are likely to wither just as fast as they have grown.

This weekend has also seen a little change in social patterns at long last.  Saturday night was chosen as a deliberate “new venue” night and a group of us resolved to venture forth and try some different places.  First stop was Soho Lounge: apparently a popular haunt of well-to-do young Azeri folk rather than expats and so it proved.  The dark red walls did seem slightly too effective a combination with the very subdued lighting but just enough light remained to read the extensive and reasonably priced cocktail list.  I started the evening with a Mojirinhia: a half-Mojito half-Capirinhia (did I spell that correctly?) that was allegedly created at that very bar in 2003.  Don’t go rushing to book your ‘plane tickets; they appear to have taken two perfectly good cocktails and significantly diminished both in the process of combination.  Next time I’ll stick to the ‘Classics’ list.

Second venue was a place called Chillout.  Upstairs was just that with a full ultra-violet lit dark décor and laid back tunes like Smokebelch II by The Sabres of Paradise playing on the stereo (Beatless Mix for the benefit of fellow trainspotters) – very appealing.  Downstairs was a bit more lively with a fully equipped DJ booth (only the second place I’ve seen in Baku with turntables as well as the CD players) and few more Watts in the PA system.  The DJ was rather disappointing in the usual Baku-butcher style but it was early and I guess they were saving the main fun for later.  I’ve read and heard a bit about the place and I think I will bring a record bag over after my next leave and see if I can blag a set one night.

Third and final stop was a bar called Mirage and even though they appear to DJ with CD’s only I’ll happily tidy up my digital skills to get a set in there.  The place is tiny and looks almost baroque with its high ceiling, ‘crystal’ chandeliers and red ‘velvet’ curtains all around.  A couple of huge mirrors are strategically placed to make the room look much bigger but it’s still essentially a rather intimate space.  The intimacy does nothing to hurt the atmosphere though and when you’ve got a group of people enjoying decent house music played well through a good PA system the atmosphere is darn good.  I can’t remember the last time I danced in a club or bar (it certainly wasn’t this year) but I managed a few moves last night and eventually tumbled into bed around five-ish.  How did it take me four months to find that place?

Today has been a more sedate affair built primarily around the need for a haircut.  As I did not have the patience to wait for Nadia to book me a repeat appointment with Sergei (I would have loved to have gone back and seen him without the mask, really) I asked Ayla to book me in where she goes.  No need for a lengthy discourse on the subject this time: in round and out with no fuss and the results look fine.  The hair washing stations seem to have been designed to accomodate pygmies rather than six footers but everything else there was far more comfortable than at the previous salon.  I think I’ll probably be heading back that way when the next trim is required.

Talking shop briefly, in case anybody is wonder how things are going with my new team member: she has had moments where she can prove truly exasperating but seems to be settling in relatively harmlessly so far.  Luckily the Document Control guy she’s sitting next to has taken her under his wing and seems to have received the requisite canonisation for patience so I’m letting him steer her in the right direction.  More news may follow…