Local heat, global chill

Baku, Sunday 27th August 2006

Summertime continues hot and currently humid outside.  I am cooling quietly in the air-conditioned shade of my apartment having just returned from a rather late lunch at the Sunset Café.  As I think I may have mentioned before, it’s a pleasant place with a vague American diner theme to the décor and the menu and music almost to match; though that is a relative term: today it ranged from “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” by The Police to a hideous rendition of Marley’s “Redemption Song” by Stevie Wonder.  I know the man who owns Sunset and I know he’s very particular about his music – how he came to allow that last one into the collection I don’t know…

The same man also owns Scalini’s (the Italian restaurant where I celebrated my birthday), The Lounge (familiar territory) and a new place he has just opened in the Old City called Mediterranea.  I tried Mediterranea for the first time last night and it’s got a lot going for it.  The restaurant is housed in one of the old caravansaray (excuse spelling) and at the moment all dining takes place on the roof terrace running four sides around what was the old courtyard but has long been covered to provide a large indoor space.  Sitting there on a warm evening with a light breeze and sights like the old mosque and the Maiden’s Tower within easy view was very conducive to a good meal.  The small live band playing Azeri folk music on traditional instruments added to the scene: they were genuinely talented and playing to accompany dinner rather than putting on a loud ‘show’ for the night as the band did in Mugan Club that time a couple of months ago.  Definitely a thumbs-up for ambience; next to the menu.

The bar and restaurant scene in Baku is never far from conversation (not surprising when eating and drinking is about all there is to do here) and it seems that each new restaurant that opens strives to offer that little something different that will both attract people to try the place and then make them like it enough to keep coming back.  It’s a tough job as news spreads around the grapevine pretty fast and places can rise and fall in favour faster than a volatile day on the stock market.  As the name suggests, Mediterranea seeks to offer a selection dishes from around the Mediterranean coast.  In reality this falls primarily into a mixture of Italian and Turkish food which is to be expected given the circumstances but not such a bad thing for all that.  I chose a few Turkish dishes and enjoyed a perfectly good meal rounded off with a Turkish coffee: very much a nostalgic treat as I had not drunk one since my Summer job in Cyprus ten years ago.

Being the only wine drinker at the table I did not get a look at the wine list on this occasion but I did inquire after their range of beers.  The names offered were exactly the same as those to be found at The Lounge (no surprise) and did not include Efes – a glaring omission to my mind as it is a popular Turkish beer that is readily available in Baku and would probably sell very well in restaurant offering Turkish food.  Surely it would be worth adding it to the ‘family’ collection?  I found out later that evening that the owner is trying to remove Efes from his drinks list altogether as he does not like the beer.  Puzzling as I don’t recall ever being offered an Efes in The Lounge, Scalini’s or Sunset; what was there to remove?

Back to this afternoon and after my pint of Iced Tea (non-Long Island variety) at Sunset I decide a beer might be nice; excuse me, what do you have?  The Lounge-familiar list that was recited excluded Miller (odd in an allegedly ‘American’ venue) but did have an unexpected substitution: Efes.  A-ha; last night’s conversation at Mediterannea suddenly made a bit more sense.  I thought it best to order one if they are not going to be around much longer.  The bottle and glass duly arrived (a year in Paris got me very much back into decanting bottled beers) and I poured while musing over the eccentricities of Baku business that make a man offer Turkish beer in his American bar, American beer everywhere except in his American bar and no Turkish beer in his Turkish bar – even if he is trying to stop stocking it.  I then noticed a bit of small print on the bottle: sprayed on in the same fine, black ink that you see used for best-before dates was a piece of code and text that included “..LTD… LONDON…E10.”  It would appear that I have just drunk one of the most pointlessly high mileage beers on the globe: produced and bottled in Turkey, shipped to England then shipped all the way back to Azerbaijan.  No wonder the restaurant owner wants to lose the stuff: it must be costing a fortune!  Surely this can’t be the same line of provenance for all the Efes in Baku?  I’m going to start looking at the next few Efes bottles I order now just to find out.  This is even better than the time I was sitting in St. Maarten drinking Red Stripe (advertised as “the Jamaican beer” in England) to find that what I was drinking had been brewed under license in Bradford, England just like the beer offered back home.  I don’t think I’ll ever understand this thing they call ‘business’…


Elvis has left the building…

Baku, Sunday 20th August 2006

As this week has mostly been full of work, work and more work I have not been outside the office enough to observe or do much that merits writing about tonight.  I will start then by borrowing someone else’s story for the week as I feel there certain elements that might raise a wry smile for readers in England and possibly elsewhere.

When I wrote last I mentioned that Ayla had sustained a “back injury” which in turn had obliged us to postpone a drive out to Mardakan beach.  It transpires that last weekend was just the tip of the iceberg and a long, joyful experience with Baku medical profession was about to commence.  By that stage she had recently been rushed to hospital in agony at three a.m. on the Friday night and diagnosed with a trapped nerve in her spine.  Treatment was a torso-sized elastic bandage, a large injection or two of unidentified medications and a collection of painkiller tablets to take home.  So far so good…?

Last Monday there was an other agony-filled rush to the hospital, the result of which was the passing of a rather large kidney stone.  Diagnosis was suitably amended and one of the numerous tests undergone during the episode was an ultra-sound which showed that there was an other, smaller stone in Ayla’s other kidney that would move its way out eventually.  A whole new set of injections and tablets were prescribed to both deal with the aftermath of the first stone and help deal with the second.  The doctor also ordered extensive dietary limitations: no alcohol (not surprising), no salt, no tomatoes, no fried food, no carrots (?) and no meat, fish or poultry apart from boiled chicken or boiled beef (?!).  The salt and tomatoes were off the menu for ever, the rest for three months.

Apparently the second stone wasn’t expected to do much for several weeks or months; so it decided to come out on Thursday.  More tests were ordered, the course of injections was extended, the tablet count went up a few notches and Ayla was told to go back to the hospital for yet more tests on Saturday.  This she obediently did, the upshot being that the diagnosis has been amended once again: it’s not the effects of the kidney stones that have been making her feel rotten all week but the fact that she has a massive kidney infection.  Cue yet more tablets, yet more injections and – the silver lining to the cloud – a near-total lifting of the dietary restrictions that were imposed previously.

The inability of these doctors to provide a decent diagnosis first-off is apparently nothing to be surprised about; in the last couple of years Ayla has been told she’s got cancer and tuberculosis amongst other things and all has been proven false.  The annoying part is that these doctors are part of a private health cover provided by the company Ayla works for.  Leaving aside the fact that this supposedly makes them some of the best available but they’re awful, it makes Ayla ‘an insurance job’ which means she’s being used to milk her company for every dollar that can be invoiced rather than being actively cared for.  Ayla has a sheaf of papers testifying to the numerous tests she has been put through this week (including one for AIDS: completely unnecessary but worth a few bucks mark-up on the invoice).  She has been invited to be hospitalised for three weeks: not because she particularly needs to be but because three weeks in a hospital bed would be an other big number on the invoice.  The bucket-load of tablets that has been prescribed includes medications that can be bought in identical doses in a different box for a third of the price but the doctor has simply chosen to prescribe the most expensive brand available.  That last point is especially annoying because the cover doesn’t include prescriptions so Ayla is footing that particular over-charge herself.  Healthcare may well be a constant source of debate and criticism back in England and in many ways justifiably so but stories like this can alter the perspective slightly.

On a brighter note, it has been a pretty good weekend.  Friday saw the final Engineering Team meeting and dinner under the current manager’s leadership before he leaves for his next assignment.  We all went out for dinner and bowling at an alley where they have a natty trick of turning off the lights over the alleys and switching to ultra-violet.  It’s then that you discover that not only the paintings on the walls but the house bowling balls are all fluorescent and the whole effect looks very striking.  There’s a definite novelty value to throwing a marbled black and grey bowling ball down the alley and having change to luminous green half way between you and the pins…!

Saturday was John the guitarist’s last day in town and a couple of us joined him for dinner in the evening.  After a bit of sushi and chicken tepanyaki I became the official recipient of ‘the guitar’ with Jimmy taking a ‘phone camera shot of John and me posing for the handshake as he passed it over.  ‘The guitar’ is an old acoustic that was given to John by an other guy on the project just before he left the country; John has now passed it on to me and no doubt I in turn will pass it on to someone else when I leave.  I very nearly denied myself the opportunity to do so: Jimmy and I carried on to the Chillout bar after dinner and after a few Long Island Iced Teas we eventually walked out of the place leaving the guitar behind by mistake.  Thankfully I went back there this evening to find that the guitar had been put to one side and I have now brought it safely to the apartment.  Perhaps I will finally learn how to play a few chords now…


Has anyone seen the plot…?

After all the drama surrounding those marvellous calculations last week I’m sitting here still none the wiser as to what is likely to happen and I’m trying to get on with some ‘real’ work again.  I imagine the subject will come up in conversation again before long, at which point some progress might be made; hey-ho…

In the meantime I have been looking forward to a wedding in Europe coming up soon and the last thing I needed to read last week was that England’s airports were limiting all passengers to a pair of knickers and a toothbrush per person thanks to an assumed alleged potential plot to perhaps declare Lucozade a new WMD (or similar…).  This morning the BBC website is declaring that the security alert level has been brought down a notch so there may be hope yet; going to leave it a little while longer before booking my travel to London though.

The road more travelled (review)

Baku, Sunday 13th August 2006

Might well have been the hottest day of the year today.  No thermometers available to check with unfortunately but it felt (un)comfortably into the mid-forties out there this afternoon.  Reports in the morning should confirm the official figures; in the meantime I can say that I got my laundry dry in record time.

Partly due to the heat and partly due to Ayla having sustained a back injury we decided to postpone the trip to Mardakan beach so this will not be the comparative piece I was threatening to write.  I feel instead prompted to look back upon my old commute to the yard; not the most thrilling subject when taken at face value I admit but then this isn’t London…

Now that work is a sub-ten minute walk to a relatively ordinary office it provided a moment for reflection to take the half-hour drive to the yard a couple of afternoons ago.  For the first few months I was here the driver’s route used to include a pick-up from the edge of the Old City.  That meant every morning we would drive from my apartment along the top of the ridge that forms the western side of Baku bay before heading steeply downhill towards the sea.  Just before the downhill section there is a break in the buildings that allows a clear view across the whole of the city and the bay for a moment.  Once Winter had started turning into Spring and the days had lengthened sufficiently I could take that moment to look out across a city and a sea glowing amber as the sun rose on the other side of the bay.  Our run would then take us down the full length of Boulevard with the grand old buildings to the left and a gleaming sea to the right.

The route was changed eventually and latterly we would start by taking a more direct route round the other side of the city.  It’s not nearly as scenic a drive as the previous route but it is much better for people-spotting as it takes in other differing parts of the city.  As we always set out at about the time the city was starting to wake up (there is no morning rush-hour as such) it has been intriguing to observe certain morning rituals take place.

Take butchers for example.  We pass at least three butchers’ shops on the route to Zykh and watching them start their day has been an education to say the least.  At 07:30 in the morning the day’s wares are either standing outside the shop chewing the cud or are about to be separated from their freshly despatched whole as it hangs draining.  None of your pre-packed-from-the-abattoir cuts here: Baku butchers do it the old fashioned halal way with their bare hands.  Countless little vignettes viewed from the window of a passing car have given me a pretty a detailed view into the whole process and I have to hand it to them: these men can probably transform a cow into over-the-counter produce quicker that most English folk could roast one of the joints for Sunday lunch.  I think they will also cut to order if you ask them: I was standing at the kerb waiting to cross the street one morning last week and a guy drove past with the entire right side of a freshly butchered cow filling the back seat of his Lada.  He must have been planning one very big dinner party.

The roadside fruit and vegetable sellers are a little less dramatic, if only because they don’t seem to have a morning ritual or if they do they start so much earlier than everybody else that it is never seen.  It appears to the casual observer that they offer a round-the-clock service and never shut.  You will find them in all sorts of places ranging from main thoroughfares through to streets that are so out of the way you wonder how they ever sell anything to anybody.  Some just put their crates on the ground, some have small kiosks, some operate out of an old car or truck.  With the latter it took me a little while to realise that these people aren’t driving to their plot every morning, selling for the day and then driving home again: these vehicles are permanent fixtures.  They will never move again and constitute business premises for trading and storage.  Perhaps they will even be handed down through the family as such.

Roadside cigarette sellers are a common site around Baku and there is a particular street on the route that several colleagues nick-named Fag Alley because there were so many sellers there: about ten in the space of two hundred yards.  The set-up is simple enough: each man has a board with one packet of every type of cigarette he sells strapped to it and he sits next to the board by the roadside to catch the passing trade; stock is kept secure nearby.  Driving down Fag Alley used to be particularly atmospheric on a dark Winter’s morning as the men each had a single electric light bulb hung over their boards and the short line of glowing pools of light looked part comforting, part desolate in the pre-dawn chill.  Alas, it would appear that Fag Alley is no more.  Perhaps the sellers kept their wares in the nearby building that seems to have been demolished or in the old car at the end of the street that has been moved.  Now when you drive down that street you still see men sitting motionless on chairs by the roadside facing the traffic but there isn’t a single cigarette on offer.  It’s slightly eerie.

Regardless of how the journey winds through the city centre all routes to Zykh yard pass through the state oil refinery.  This came as quite a surprise when I first visited as while I do not have a great deal of experience in this industry I nevertheless think it unlikely that many people would choose you have a main road running through the middle of a potentially dangerous industrial complex such as this.  Not only is there the road though; right next to it is the railway that even now in times of far greater road traffic and much reduced oil production is still used daily to take oil to Georgia and possibly elsewhere.  This railway is separated from the main road by little more than a six foot breath of pavement or dirt in many places and is frequently crossed by side roads leading to parts of the refinery or other premises.  I have yet to see evidence of any accidents on the rails but I have seen a car crash that came very close near one of the level crossings.

A ‘jobsworth’ from the British government’s HSE department would no doubt go into polemic overdrive at the sight of such apparent disregard for human safety but to some extent (s)he would be missing the point.  The refinery was built during the Soviet era and to my recollection it was a part of the Soviet way to celebrate and promote industry, glamorise it almost.  In such a context I imagine it would seem quite reasonable to have all the giant distillation columns, storage tanks and pipe racks well within sight and reach.  It would perhaps be desirable to have great railway trains running next to the then lightly trafficked roads so that people could see the ‘fruits’ of their labour travelling forth (though some might dare to question the destination).  For it is only within the context of such a mindset that I can explain there being a children’s amusement park sitting in the midst of it all.  On the inland side of the road (the non-railway side thankfully) is the Luna Park.  I have not been in there but driving past I can see a swing boat, a ferris wheel, a waltzer and several other rides all nestling together next to a collection of refinery storage tanks.  It seldom looks busy but it appears to be open for business.  On my way back to town after that visit to the yard the other day I saw a wedding party parked by the gates for photographs and possibly a spin on the rides and they were not the first I had seen.  I suppose to draw any sort of comparison in England one would have to look back to the industrial revolution and I expect there were some vaguely similar juxtapositions at the time.  It still seems rather odd in this day and age though…


Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Baku, Sunday 6th August 2006

Much of the week just gone is missing from my memory; not due to alcohol-induced loss (for a change) so much as to a combination of work-related fatigue and pressure.  The end-date for this project is suddenly looming near and I have a new boss who works in a very different manner from the previous one, on top of which he is imparting a sense of urgency in clear terms.  The result has been several late finishes trying to meet tight deadlines and I expect they are to become the norm rather than the exception as the thirtieth of September draws closer.  Thankfully the weekend has been a good one…

There was one memorable event during the week that warrants a mention.  I have spent much of the last few days working in our Hyatt office where we share a building with a variety of other businesses and a few embassies, one of which is the Israeli embassy.  You can’t miss them as they have their national flag flying outside the window; at the time it was about twenty feet above my head as I was sitting at a desk by the glass doors leading onto our small street-front balcony.  It had been a pretty hushed morning in the office that day so it came as quite a surprise to hear a loud, rhythmic chant of massed male voices come cutting through the quiet and the double glazing all of a sudden.  I looked outside and identified the source of the chants as a group of sixty or so men holding laminated A4 pages above their heads standing in the middle of the road facing the office.  Squinting through the reflected sunlight I managed to read “ISRAEL STOP” on some of the pages, at which point the purpose of the group became clear.  The men were perfectly calm, stood perfectly still and simply let their voices and their printed matter do the talking but it still took less than ten minutes for the police to arrive and briskly disperse the crowd (without any sign of aggression I might add).  The group had obviously done their homework though as there were several television and press cameras in evidence: I’m sure they made the news that evening/next morning.  Sure enough, a couple of days later I received a cautionary e-mail from my agency warning expat staff to steer clear of such demonstrations just in case etcetera etcetera.

Saturday evening and the weekend started with a siesta: late home from the office, put an hour on the alarm clock and out like a light; life-saver!  Next stop was Rasputin: a restaurant down town specialising in “home-style” Russian cooking.  I can’t recall whether or not I’ve mentioned the place previously but I’ve been there once before and while the music was terrible the food was an enjoyable education.  On that occasion I learnt that a pickled tomato is actually a pleasant thing to eat.  This time around the music was even worse (one singer and his Casio keyboard ‘live’ rather than the recorded stuff) but the dinner was again very good – proper Russian beef stroganoff is a very different beast from the version offered in Britain.  As they had apparently run out of Russian beer (don’t ask me how – the place was empty) I elected to have a couple of glasses of decent Russian vodka with dinner instead.  There is a ritual to be observed here.  The vodka is served very cold and the measure is typically slightly larger than a standard British single shot: around 40ml I’d guess.  The traditional method is to order your vodka with pickles – what we know as gherkins in England.  You then drink the vodka as a single shot, take a breath and chomp on a slice or two of gherkin.  Being a lover of both good vodka and good gherkins I find the combination decidedly pleasant, plus it is far less fiddly (and palate-destroying) than the old tequila-salt-lemon trick.  Oh, and the best Russian vodka in the house?  “Putinka” – it would appear the President Vladimir has brand named after him.  It’s not a bad drop either.

After dinner it was off to The Jazz Club to see a friend from work play a gig.  Regular readers may recall my mentioning John a month or so ago as a guitarist/draughtsman who used to gig with David Bowie.  During his time here he’s got his hands on an imitation Stratocaster, hooked up with a bass player and a drummer and got himself three Saturdays at the club.  As I missed his opening gig last week due to the Lounge’s birthday party I made very sure I was along for the second one and I’m very glad I did.  His set was a mixture of originals and covers in a very bluesy vein; his singing was good and his guitar playing was very fine.  The man hasn’t read a page of music theory but has picked up all his guitar knowledge by ear and through experimentation.  The result is a very fluid and distinctive style which a friend who was sitting with me said sounded much like J J Cale but as I’m not familiar with that artist I can’t offer any comment; I just know I liked what I heard.

At the end of his set John promptly scared the life out of me by inviting me up on stage to play bass.  Having not been in a band for the best part of three years now my playing is a little rusty to say the least but I accepted the invitation and managed to busk my way through a couple of minutes of twelve bar blues in a fairly presentable manner and even with the fear I enjoyed myself.  It was worth it for the chance to borrow the bass player’s instrument if nothing else.  The choice of musical instruments in Baku shops is very limited and mostly Japanese yet this guy had somehow got himself a Marcus Miller signature series five-string Fender Jazz bass.  I realise that won’t mean much to a lot of folk but I know at least one reader who will appreciate where I’m coming from – it was great.

This afternoon I accepted Ayla’s invitation to take a drive round the north coast of the Absheron peninsula (it being a body of land jutting eastwards into the Caspian with Baku in its south-west corner).  The good news about leaving the main city is that the road surfaces get a great deal better as more money is spent on maintaining them.  The bad news is that the reason for that spending is that the nutter drivers are even more carefree and dangerous than they are in the city and they’re doing their thing at much higher speeds on the open roads.  I soon lost count of the number of blind overtakes, corner-cuts, swerves, meanders and purely freestyle manoeuvres that I witnessed during the trip; these people are something else.

Our journey took us right into the heart of dacha country.  Apparently in the not so distant past you could take an open view across the countryside and see a loose assortment of houses heading down the gentle slope to the sea.  Nowadays the view is very different and very obstructed as the new oil money funds the construction of increasingly extravagant palaces with higher and higher walls around them.  I obviously don’t have the memories of the earlier views that Ayla has but it wasn’t difficult to imagine the difference: it was a little sad.

Sadder still was a stop we made at an old holiday resort where she used to spend the Summer as a child.  It’s a walled area that used to be totally secure and private, not too different from a holiday camp like Butlins in England from the way she described it (albeit without the red-coats).  There used to be thick forest, immaculate roads to ride bikes along, a theatre, a little grocery shop where she’d buy ice-cream and a two storey building with a terrace on top and arcade games below.  Nowadays the place is a refugee camp.  The forests have been almost obliterated, the roads are riddled with potholes, the theatre stage has gone, the grocery store is bricked up and the derelict remains of that two storey building have washing hanging out to dry on the terrace.  Old English holiday resorts like Morecombe still possess a certain faded grandeur even though their heyday is nearly a century past.  Within less than twenty years this place had gone from vibrant children’s haven to rotted husk.

At one point while we were inside we parked at a junction and got out of the car for five minutes while Ayla pointed out some of the places and described how it all used to be.  We stepped out of a black BMW limo and I obviously didn’t look like a local-born man: within a minute or two a couple of young boys had come towards us warily and were giving very curious looks.  Other people soon followed.  Listening to the story I looked at the place and the people while the growing number of people looked at me.  It was not the first time I had felt like a stranger in a strange land but it was certainly one of the most acute.  We left soon after.  Driving up to the place we had been listening to a Paul Van Dyk mix.  On the way out I switched to Cypress Hill’s Temples Of Boom – it seemed far more suitable for my mood.

The vague plan for next week is to visit Mardakan which is the current renowned beach resort of the area.  It will be interesting to compare it with the place I saw today.