Holidays? Really?

Today and tomorrow are national holidays here in Azerbaijan and the office is very quiet indeed this morning.  I might well go home early myself to celebrate as I believe I am permitted to observe these holidays as a full time expat.

Many thanks to those who wrote back after last week’s story: perhaps I have indeed been overlooking a great career opportunity.  It goes without saying that two days after sending that story I received a text message from Sveta asking if my friend wanted a massage; a post script may yet need to be added…

Mild Technophobia

Baku, Sunday 22nd October 2006

Thankfully the weather has recovered a bit since I last wrote: the temperatures while still reduced are now close to warm and the rain has more or less stayed away.  Watery late afternoon sunshine is currently lighting the view of the city outside my window and the sky is a clear blue marred by only the occasional cloud.  Only a day of ferocious wind served as this week’s warning of what to expect once Winter has truly arrived: cold, unrelenting and at the Terminal undoubtedly gale-force.  Preparations are under way.

Just the one little drama at work this week: my laptop decided it didn’t want to work properly any more.  A common occurrence around the world I know but it’s not until you personally experience your own first laptop failure that you realise how much you rely on the thing.  It was first thing in the morning at the Terminal, the office was cold, I was cold and half asleep, the laptop was on the docking station booting up and I had gone to get a compulsory coffee.  When I returned to the desk I was confronted by the dreaded “blue screen of death” that has struck fear into the hearts of so many Microsoft Windows users.  My attempts to restart the machine were met by little more than the sight of an illuminated battery light and the sound of a CPU cooling fan wasting its breath.  At this point I realised I was in a small building in the middle of nowhere and that my work and much of my personal life had become deeply imbedded within a malfunctioning electric chocolate box that I was unable to repair by myself.

Telephoning the IT helpdesk did not produce any magic remedies: just wait for the technician to come is all I was told and I knew exactly what that meant: a long wait.  Expat staff start at eight, local staff start at nine and the technicians are obviously all local people.  The twist in this example though is that the Terminal’s technician starts his day at nine down at Villa Petrolea (BP’s regional headquarters in the city) and then gets a shuttle bus to the Terminal, typically arriving at ten or so.  I had two hours to kill, a beginners’ guide to SQL in my bag and not a lot else.  Four chapters, many more coffees and a few moments of sleeping-sitting-up later the technician arrived.

To cut a long story short, the technician and I spent a few hours going through all the usual hard drive-related tests and fixes to find ourselves straight back at square one shortly after lunch.  I was told I had to go the IT workshop at Villa Petrolea to see a guy so off I went.  Said guy was away from his desk when I arrived and he did little more than send me somewhere else once he’d eventually returned.  Technician number three actually took the job on and I finally walked out of there mid-afternoon with my perfectly healthy hard drive slotted into a replacement laptop and everything working properly.  I have learned my lesson and I am going start backing things up on a more regular basis!

Outside work the main event of the week has been the Caspian Drilling Company’s (CDC) tenth anniversary dinner.  CDC is a joint venture company formed by Global Santa Fe of America and the Azeri State Oil Company and as such is one of the bigger players in the local oil and gas industry.  Ayla has been working for them for six years which is how I got invited to an other big meal at the Guba Ballroom and got to see some of the Baku oil world’s main figures.

There was for example an old man in his eighties who apparently ranks amongst the top ten geologists in the world and who knows the sub-sea geology beneath the Caspian like the back of his hand.  Virtually every single oil and gas strike made off the coast of Azerbaijan has been guided by him; it is unclear whether a successor of any sort is being prepared for him or whether the offshore mineral wealth of the nation rides on this man’s shoulders alone.

The Energy Minister and other government officials were invited but did not turn up.  This did not stop the local television news service coming along and shooting snippets of the dinner for several hours.  They obviously didn’t have a live outside broadcast planned but were going to compile some footage for a feature piece.  As they had not been invited Ayla was a little unimpressed that they were there at all but at least they kept their intrusion down to a relative minimum.  I won’t be looking out for the transmission.


Honeymoon’s over?

Baku, Sunday 15th October 2006

Much of this week has washed past in a muddy grey blur.  Being non-stop busy accounts for most of the blur but the weather has also contributed handsomely to the muddy greyness of it.  Rain and thunderstorms of epic proportions pounded the city during the small hours of Thursday morning seemingly hell-bent on washing every last brick and being into the Caspian.  The inadequacies of the city’s street drainage soon made themselves known as roads and junctions rapidly transformed into torrents and ponds of brown water.  Loose soil at roadsides has been washed into the streets to leave treacherous slicks as the water recedes; potholes have been gouged out a little deeper by the flow.  The lighter showers that followed now seem to have stopped (fingers crossed) but the low, threatening clouds persist and the temperature is not climbing back up too fast.  Looks like Autumn is coming.

A far more pleasant part of the week has been Dave the database man coming to visit from Aberdeen for a few days.  As Dave virtually built the database I’m working with his help is ever welcome and as we’ve also become good friends during the year it is always good to see him.  This time around I have both learnt some new technical details and browsed his memories of the older projects at the Terminal to aid with my new job.  We had a couple of beers and a toasty in the process and when we said farewell on the last night of his trip it was sad as ever to see him go.

Ah yes, the new job.  Seems to be settling slowly into place now; in so far as a perceived source of change can settle into an environment where everyone is happy with their routine and the idea of change can be somewhat frowned upon.  The blokes on high who create the grand plan, allocate the budgets and sort out the contracts appear to have caught up with my existence and have finally ‘approved’ me for duty; that’s the progress.  The next and by far more interesting step will be integrating with the ground level people around me.  As there isn’t a person at the Terminal already who does what I do there’s no reason why I should automatically be viewed as a threat to anybody.  There’s so much other change going on there though that the overall atmosphere seems to be getting unsettled.  Fun to be had no doubt…

One little story that seems to have fizzled out to some vague conclusion now might be worth telling.  A closer expat colleague of mine who left the project a couple of months ago; let’s call him Julian; was pretty chatty about most aspects of his life but would rarely speak about his love-life or lack of it in Baku.  The closest I got to learning anything was when I once had words with him after he had said something unsuitable to Ayla and he claimed that he “had arrangements.”  On his final night in Baku the three of us met in The Lounge for a couple of farewell drinks.  It was early and the place was virtually empty.  Unexpectedly an Azeri woman in jeans and denim jacket with peroxide blonde hair and impenetrably dark, large sunglasses walks straight in, straight up to Julian and exchanges greetings.  With a handshake that was barely the brushing of two fingertips she was then introduced as Sveta; silence soon followed.  Less than two minutes later Sveta was gone.

Naturally I was curious and demanded an explanation.  Apparently Sveta had been deeply in love with an other expat who had left the country several months previously and was still very emotional about the whole thing.  Her relationship with Julian was apparently ‘just good friends’ and he was ‘looking after her’ since the other man’s departure.  It all sounded a little bit fishy to me but I was prepared to go with it.  The whole episode soon left my mind.

A couple of weeks later I received a text message from an unknown number saying “Hi Alastair.  How r U? I am Sveta, R U remembering me?”  This was a bit of a poser as I can name at least four Sveta’s I know – it is a relatively common name in Baku.  As I happened to be in England at the time I could not exactly go and speak to many people asking which Sveta it might be either.  After sending a politely confused response I established that she was the Sveta I had brushed fingertips with that evening and that she was still text messaging Julian since his return to England.  When I explained that I too happened to be in England at the time she replied “Ok.  I hope will see U for talk and drink.  I am missing alone.  I am sorry.”

This was all starting to look a bit much.  First of all how on earth did Sveta get my number in the first place (it is not widely published) and if she’s in direct contact with Julian why should she be asking me to get in touch with her?  We’d barely met!  Julian had expressed an interest in coming back to Baku with his next job and I am guessing he passed this on to Sveta as she seemed most keen to discuss his work with me.  Not wishing to get involved in the situation I did not contact Sveta once I’d returned to Baku.  I did however quiz Julian on msn Messenger and when I asked him if he’d passed on my ‘phone number did not give a straight answer.  That will be a “yes” then…

Sveta was not about to give up though.  A week after I’d got back I received the following text message on a Monday morning: “Good morning Alastair.  How r U?  What news about Julian work?  I am sorry. Sveta.”  A perfectly pleasant and courteous text message it may have been but I did not answer.  The next day I received: “Hi Alastair.  R U ok?  Please ask from your friends maybe need massage.  I am doing good massage.  I need make money.Please.  I am sorry..Please answer.  Sveta”.  Again I did not answer.  A week and a half later: “Hi Alastair. R U ok? I know U have girlfriend.  Please send me client for massage.  It is my job.  I need make money.I am not bar girl please try understand me.Ok?”

Now I’ve lead a fairly varied life so far when it comes to work.  Roles I have filled to earn an honest wage include ambulance driver, road crew, booking agent, wedding DJ, SCUBA divers’ training body and a bit more besides.  You name it I’ll probably try it but pedalling a woman’s personal services?  I have to draw the line somewhere!

In the interests of proving the right or wrong of the situation Ayla and I decided to put Sveta’s claim to the test.  I sent a message back saying: “My friend Ayla would like a massage on Sunday if you are free.”  The name Ayla is quite rare and Sveta may not have immediately recognised it as a woman’s name but if she did recognise it as such and still made the appointment we would incline to believe that she was genuinely a masseuse rather than a woman who uses a massage parlour (if you get my drift).  It was Thursday night.  I received a reply on Friday morning: “Hi.  I got your text now.  I will text U on Sunday.  Thank U very much.”  So far so good?

Sunday rolls round and all is quiet.  Then a text message arrives: “Hi.  I hope U r ok.  U said ur friend need massage”.  This might have been good except the time of receipt was after half past six in the evening – way too late for ‘normal’ business hours.  Ayla and I concluded that we were probably not dealing with a bona fide masseuse and sent a reply saying sorry it was too late.  Sveta came back with “Ok, Thanks” and no more.  That was two weeks ago and Sveta has not been in touch since.


…and in the meantime…

Looks like the work situation might almost be coming into some sort of shape now but until I see it on paper I’m not placing any bets.  Working in an operations office after spending two years in a project office is like the difference between rush-hour at Kings Cross and a Sunday afternoon in Marton-cum-Grafton.  Things are getting done here (I’m told) but at such a comparatively glacial pace it is taking some getting used to.  A Team Dinner is planned for Thursday night so I should get to meet a few more of my new colleagues and learn a bit about what’s going on here; looking forward to it.

Meanwhile the nights are drawing in and the sun is rising ever later but the days are still vaguely warm (low twenties) and the sun still shines most of the time.  It’s the high winds of Winter I’m not looking forward to: rather fierce on occasion I am told… …and here I am in the middle of a semi-arid plain…

Repasts and Rugby

Baku, Sunday 8th October 2006

Time I got back on to one of my familiar subjects: the highlights of this week have been two very different and both very enjoyable meals.  The first of the pair was dinner at a restaurant named Fayton: an establishment that Ayla had long recommended to me as the best restaurant in Baku for sampling properly prepared and cooked traditional Azeri cuisine.  Having tried dining there twice before; to be defeated by the World Cup on the first occasion and a private party the second; this was a third-time-lucky attempt and I’m glad that we finally succeeded.

The Fayton is a basement premises just next to the Baku Jazz Centre where we saw Barbara Leah Meyer perform.  As you step into the first of many seemingly isolated but interconnected areas the ambiance seems very intimate with the low ceilings and its numerous supporting pillars of exposed brickwork.  Some nineteenth century-looking pictures and traditional rugs on the walls complemented by one or two pieces of furniture of a similar period give a nod towards the affluent days just before the first Baku oil boom.  Most of the other restaurants in town that aim for a period-feel décor manage to miss by a mile but this place had the balance about right.

The menu is extensive and I had a brief skim through it before readily accepting Ayla’s offer to order everything.  A traditional Azeri meal often involves a selection of little dishes served together rather than three courses served in rotation ‘western’ style; this meal did not disappoint.  Our starting selection is best listed for simplicity:
• Green salad
• Assorted cheeses
• Assorted smoked fish
• Assorted pickles (gherkin, aubergine, plum, onion, chilli pepper (stuffed), mushroom)
• Some sort of bi-product of the cheese-making process (untranslatable, very tasty)
You’d be surprised how good a pickled plum can taste…

This opening salvo of fine food was swiftly followed by stuffed pancakes; freshly made, folded into quarters and designed to be eaten with fingers.  Some were stuffed with a herb that tasted suspiciously like a good flat-leaf parsley; the others with minced lamb combined with pomegranate – gorgeous.

At this point the main dish was on the verge of joining us until Ayla suddenly realised that she hadn’t ordered caviar – one of the prime educational dishes of the meal.  Our waiter had already produced a small charcoal burner upon which to place the main dish and was apparently a little perturbed that we should order an other ‘starter’ so late in the day but he duly made the necessary changes.

While I am not a highly experienced caviar consumer by any means I have tried a bit here and there over the years and gained an idea of what’s about.  What with the Caspian being the home of the stuff I’ve also had a few servings in Baku.  To be honest I have never been madly impressed by caviar; the overall impression I’ve had is of sub-pinhead sized spheres of firm jelly that taste of little more than salt.  What was all the fuss about?  Turns out that’s the low quality product; the high quality version is an altogether different beast.  The eggs are two to three times larger for starters and more grey than black.  This gives a much rounder, more pleasing texture and the flavour while still somewhat salty is also far fuller, tasting more of fresh ocean air than the sharp brine of previous experience.  The overall effect could be considered a more civilised variation on eating good oysters: similar fresh sea flavour minus the slightly gung-ho aspect of having to launch each mouthful down your gullet like a shot of liquor in a shell.

With the caviar lesson suitably learnt and enjoyed it was time to take couple of steps up the lifecycle; our main course was sturgeon.  I did not know until a couple of months ago that the sturgeon comes in three or four different varieties.  We ordered stellate sturgeon which is reputed to be the smallest, most tender and most flavoursome of the varieties and again was an educational highlight dish of the evening.  The fish itself was very fine: tender white flesh on the non-flake variety and a very clean flavour (which for a Caspian fish might be said to be a surprise).  The manner in which it was served was also a treat and very traditional.  The Azeri kitchen includes a circular concave iron dish about sixteen inches in diameter that resembles an extremely flat ‘proper’ wok (no flat bottom).  The fish was combined with fried onions and a good sauce in this dish and the ensemble plus the charcoal burner sat next to us radiating gentle heat most merrily.

As Ayla does not drink much wine and the Azeri wines are not especially fancied anyway we took an other traditional turn and washed down the meal with a small bottle of good vodka.  It was the first time I’d ever tried drinking vodka in such a manner but it complemented the food surprisingly well and didn’t have any worrying effects on my sobriety  A fine meal all in all at a restaurant I would happily visit again.

At the other end of the scale we have last night’s Baku Rugby Club Dinner.  This is an expensive ticket-only event held after the annual rugby match between Azerbaijan and an other national team.  This year’s opponents were Greece and by all accounts the home team took a bit of a serious beating this year but the party spirit was still strong.

Held in the Hyatt Hotel’s most expensive function room the food was rather disappointing to be honest but the ticket price did include free drinks until midnight and variety of entertainment throughout the meal.  A mediocre live band, a dubious dancing couple (accompanied by Jive Bunny for goodness sake!) and a chap with knives pretending to be a Cossack were not much to write home about but a couple of pretend belly dancers rounded off the evening with some good work round the tables and they were preceded by an entertaining speech from former England player, Jeff Probyn.  He was apparently back by special request having done a great job a couple of years ago and while I wouldn’t mark him too highly on overall comedy skills he did do a great job of relating some funny career anecdotes to a crowd of rugby-savvy diners.  Would I go again?  Possibly.