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.