The Pipes are Calling…

If you know anywhere I might be able to obtain some intelligent small insects – redundancies from a closing flea circus perhaps – do please send me the details as soon as you can.  One of my current tasks at work involves hunching over a set of finely detailed diagrams and making numerous tiny amendments using a pen with a nib finer than the last needle to pierce my flesh: I am sure I can train a diminutive arthropod or ten to do a far better and faster job of it.

Joking apart, work is actually going well at the moment.  Our close-knit little team is making quantifiable progress in the face of frequently hefty obstruction and we are aiming to chalk up a couple of major achievements before the end of the year – as long as we get the graft done in time.  Very good news for us all as contractors and for me in particular as the one expat member is to have had our contract extensions for next year confirmed: the company-wide rationalisation process has not come for my head yet…

In between diagrams and databases we still have the weekends and the last one was most festive.  While a number of kitchens around the city will have been filled with the aroma of turkey dinner as Thanksgiving was celebrated, I was invited to a different party on Friday night: the third annual 23:11 Party.

Three years ago, some bright fellow decided to start a network linking Azerbaijani students who are studying or have studied abroad.  The idea appears to have been a success as the several hundred who gathered in the Savannah Club in Baku that night were attending but one of many parties scheduled to take place around the world that night under the aegis of the network.

The Savannah Club was a place I had neither visited nor heard of before and it looked pretty new.  The under-sized lobby and cloakroom leads down into a far more generous dance floor and bar area, beyond which lies a pool hall and bar of extravagant proportions.  Exactly who decided that papering walls with zebra- and giraffe skin-effect patterns would be a great way to link name and space I will never know.  Thankfully the person who spec’d the sound system did a good enough job to keep the ears leading rather than the eyes.

Clearly a success as far as I could see, the party had a good crowd, good music (in Baku terms) and even a quick fire act as a cabaret to give a bit of ‘wow factor’.  Admittedly, having worked on events in the UK with the likes of Lucifire in the past I did find the sight of people twirling fire in seemingly Alpine dress a bit anticlimactic but everybody else loved it.

Costume continued into Saturday under a different guise as the Baku Caledonian Society arranged its annual St. Andrew’s Day Ball.  As with last year’s event the society flew in a pipe band for the weekend and as with last year’s event the government refused permission for the band to march in the city centre.  The compromise on Saturday afternoon was to march round Stonepay: an American-suburbia-in-miniature housing complex just up the hill from central Baku.

Pipe band lead by the chieftain of the Baku Caledonian Society

While many people say they can not stand the sound of bagpipes, I must say that it strikes a chord in me and joining the band on that cold, windswept hillside was a pleasure.  The musicians probably had a great time too as it must have been their cushiest gig of the year: a wee dram, march for two songs, a wee dram, march for two songs, a wee dram, march for three songs, game over (and probably an other wee dram).

They did a grand job, both on the afternoon’s march and at the ball that evening.  Quite how they managed to match the biggest instrument with their smallest member is anyone’s guess but the little lass on bass drum was fine.  As was the shaven-headed man on side drum who had such a look set on his face while playing, it was hard to tell whether he was in rapt in musical concentration or contemplating something far darker.  I am told he cracked a terrific smile in the bar at the end of the night so let’s go for the former option.


“Does my drum look big in this?” …the Pipe Major smiled…

For better, for worse

Wedding: a word with which to conjure wildly worldwide.  The formal joining of two people in the presence of witnesses and the celebration thereof can come in many forms.  In Baku it could be argued that ‘the wedding’ as a concept is the ultimate social function, based on the numerous reports I have heard.  Last Saturday I got the chance to find out for myself, firsthand.

Some of the traditional elements of a Baku wedding can be traced to Islam, others to paganism and others seemingly to straightforward pragmatism.  Meanwhile many of the new elements have been cheerfully imported from western Europe but they in turn have become so rapidly established that inventive flourishes take place here that I have neither seen nor heard of ‘back home.’

We were treated to such an innovation shortly after the bride and groom arrived.  The tradition of the first dance – where the bride and groom are expected to take the floor before anybody else – is apparently not followed here but it looked like one was performed that evening.  I think it was the circle of half a dozen three-year-old girls dressed in white with angel/fairy wings pirouetting round the newly-weds as they danced that gave it away.

Two perhaps obvious points that are worth mentioning: first – while arranged marriages used to be customary they are pretty much over and the replacement is a fast-track version of free choice (i.e. marry quickly once you have met).  Second – while the bride can still occasionally be expected to wear at least a portion of red (to signify virginity I am told), the western white gown in all its forms has become the norm in this city (see photograph).

I should also explain why I am describing these things in the context of Baku as a city rather than Azerbaijan as a nation.  Should you have the occasion to be invited to a wedding in a rural town or village, you are likely to encounter a far more traditional ceremony and the foundations of the traditions may in turn vary from one region to the next.  It is not unfair to suggest that some Azerbaijanis outside Baku could view the city’s approach to wedlock as too ‘free and easy’ and decadent, perhaps downright sinful in some cases.

Decadence could even have crossed my mind briefly as we entered the “palace of happiness” where the celebrations were due to take place: one of countless such venues in Baku that cater solely for weddings, to the exclusion of all other premises.  The high-ceilinged, white-painted, halogen-lit square hall with gold drapes was set to accommodate five hundred or so guests at round tables of fourteen while leaving space for two stages and a generous dance floor.  Each tightly packed place at each table bore three plates stacked on top of each other in telescoped sizes, one knife, one fork, one spoon and two wine glasses.  All the remaining table space was filled with so much food-bearing crockery that I actually had to move plates to free the base of my glass before lifting it to my lips.

The vast central expanse of each table was filled by a lazy-Susan of cart-wheel dimensions to aid the passing of food around all seated.  Its centrepiece was a metre-high flower arrangement surrounded by a cordon of bottles advertising the array of drinks on offer while the outside edge carried food that soon literally became plate stacked upon plate; and this was just the starters.  Were we trying to re-live the closing days of the Roman empire?

As the evening wore on the waiters would occasionally whisk a dish away to wherever before replacing it with an other dish forming part of an other course but at no time was there ever a space larger than a wine glass left on the table.  Having been warned about the quality of the vodka served at such occasions and having discovered on arrival how truly frightful the ‘Champagne’ could be, I ordered cold beer for the rest of the evening.  This being November it appears that Cold Beer is no longer readily available as it constitutes a health hazard and the waiter made great theatre of finally producing an ice bucket containing two bottles of beer and miraculously carving a niche for it on the lazy-Susan.  I made sure the subsequent bottles went into the bucket at least twenty minutes prior to opening.

Alongside the repeated warnings about the catering, the other oft-repeated advice concerned the non-stop loud music.  Having cut my teeth and bruised my eardrums on numerous rock/metal gigs and club nights over the years I felt capable of handling the worst that could be offered and thankfully I survived with ease.  Forget the art of conversation though: discourse conducted while sitting directly next to each other required shouted levels of diction while leaning together.  Everybody else on the table could be contacted solely by sign-language unless your words coincided with a rare pause between songs.

The music itself was a ripe old mixture.  Azerbaijan has a strong oeuvre of traditional songs and dances that has so far survived the USSR and current western erosion.  Played by a live band of drummer, percussionist, bassist, two keyboardists, a sax/clarinettist, two singers and an occasional accordionist, these pieces provided the initial impetus and became a recurrent theme.  As the night wore on they were interspersed with a growing number of assorted Russian and Turkish pop songs performed by ‘live’ singers working to track.

‘Traditional’ moments in the evening’s entertainment also included the formal, flame-lit procession of “burning grass” from the door to the newly-weds’ table (apparently a pagan ritual to ward off “bad eye” that has been newly introduced to weddings here) and some sword dances performed by men in black tunics wearing hats made of long-wool sheep fleeces.

A less entertaining tradition was the pair of men with their black cases.  They sat together by the door, one with a sign in front of him saying “son’s house”, the other with a sign saying “daughter’s house.”  Their job was to collect money from the guests, noting name and amount given in one of two books depending on whether you claimed to come from the bride’s side or the groom’s side of the proceedings.  Donations are expected to meet or exceed a certain level so that the cost of the function can be covered and there can ideally be a little left over for the marrying couple.  The custom does not meet with unanimous approval these days.

Team Pic. Looking like a proper English… (photograph used with permission)

Some readers may be wondering why I have yet to describe the wedding ceremony itself.  In England and surrounding parts it is traditional even now to spend a significant amount of time exchanging vows in a church, registry office or suitably licensed/consecrated place before adjourning to a second venue for celebrations.  English custom also permits the issuing of two different invitations to the nuptials: one to the full ceremony plus party and one to just the reception.

Being a colleague of the bride and being invited for six in the evening, I assumed myself to have a reception-only invitation; how wrong I was proven to be…  The couple’s entrance was filmed and relayed to large screens around the hall as they walked in through the main door at a corner of the square room.  They were then stopped right there and the camera switched to a woman in a suit with a hand-held microphone.  She spoke for about a minute and a half, after which the bride and the groom both said “yes”, after which they and their witnesses signed a register, all relayed by camera of course.  That was the full ceremony apparently; and here was I thinking they would have been to a mosque, church or government office beforehand; silly me.

Admittedly I have innate bias on the subject: my earliest wedding memories are of an uncle and aunt marrying in a Greek Orthodox church in London when I was about four years old.  We seemed to be in that church for ever and both my brother and I eventually tired of walking in a circle in front of the altar carrying two huge candles joined by what to my young eyes looked like a net curtain (my apologies to Orthodox Greek readers).  The reception was so much later in the proceedings it no longer registers in my memory.

The point being that even when you strip away the church or theatre from the actual core, a bare-bones wedding takes longer than a minute and a half in my experience.  Exchanging vows, reading the law of the land, appealing to witnesses; I can not think of a place where so much can be compressed into (or expunged from) so little time.  The Azerbaijani language can be far more economical than the English but not to such an extent.

As noted above, wedding parties appear to be very big in Baku, both in terms of business and in terms of social calendar.  The former can be survived as a corollary of the latter perhaps but let us not diminish the actions of the two people who form the core of the occasion.  I fear that the marrying couple is becoming pawn in the greater game enacted between commerce and social posturing in this city.  Please don’t let a good union be led astray or cast asunder by the machinations of it all.

A tenor and five afloat

“Oh I do like to be beside the seaside” as the refrain goes.  The Bay of Baku may have shores of concrete rather than of sand and oiled waters that will forever be murky rather than gin-clear but the latter is partly due to nature and both are to be accepted in an industrial city.  Topographically the bay is a very pleasing crescent shape with a ridge rising in its lower horn and aside from an island placed centrally between them like the star in the national flag there is no land obstructing the view across the Caspian to the far horizon.

With both a small history of messing about in boats behind me and a continuing interest in the subject, I have enjoyed observing what traffic can be seen in the bay.  My apartment overlooks a new-ish yacht club that has its moorings empty save for a couple of high league gin-palace MV’s and some more workman-like sloops huddled apologetically at the far end.  The international ferry terminal is just round to my left by the commercial docks but both seem very subdued.  To my right are naval yards with vessels unsurprisingly static.

The only regular sign of life in the bay is pleasure boat that takes paying punters (me once included) on a forty-minute trip from a quay on the boulevard half way out to the island and home again several times a day.  I had been hoping to go a bit further.  Seasonally there is a small flotilla of around a dozen sailing dinghies that mysteriously appears on occasional sunny summer afternoons and then disappears just as unexpectedly.  After several sightings I am still none the wiser as to where the group hails from.  When it was suggested recently that hiring a boat for a day’s sailing might be a nice idea, my curiosity was definitely aroused.

One of the advantages of Baku being a small city is that most reasonable inquiries can be quickly answered through someone knowing somebody and this boat trip was no exception.  I insisted on inspecting the vessel before committing to it and this was not a problem but it did entail entering a living and working naval dock to do so which came as a slight surprise.  The twenty-five foot sloop was far beyond its first flush of youth but leak-free, orderly and serviceable – we booked.

Being a band of five and numbering two non-Azerbaijanis amongst us we asked to sail from the yacht club in the interests of diplomacy but it could not be done so we started our Saturday outing by strolling as a group into the naval yard.  Thankfully the ratings seemed less concerned by our presence than the gate-keepers had done.

All at sea with our trusty skipper (photographs used with permission)

This corner of the bay evidently enjoyed shelter from the majority of Baku’s sometimes fearsome winds as the first I thing saw on the water was a couple of fours out for exercise in racing shells just like those I used to row on the Thames.  There was even a small grandstand of raked seating to be seen beyond them that suggested regular competition and I was told that rowing teams have been a part of Baku for many years.  The Caspian does have its millpond days but for the majority of the time those rowers must have it pretty tough; hats off…

Our skipper was a spry old fellow of uncertain, grey-haired age who soon demonstrated that he knew the waters and the vessel like the back of his hand.  We flew under navy colours but he claimed never to have served; a courtesy flag from or for the yard I guess.  While his former career was never actually divulged it did become clear that he loved to sail: he built the boat himself over ten years (materials were hard to come by during Soviet times) and it was his pride and joy.

The weather smiled upon us, providing sunshine for warmth and a fresh force four/five to move us along smartly.  The plan was simple: strike out towards the island (an hour or so under way), drop anchor off its shore and eat lunch then return to dock; easy.  For a change, everything actually went to plan too.

On many occasions I have heard the island referred to as “Snake Island” and I had thought this name a creation of folks who had gone walking across the land and been frightened by the odd serpent appearing in their path.  I learned that day that you do not actually have to set one foot on dry land to learn how Snake Island got its name: at least half a dozen of the little fellows actually swam out to meet us while we were at anchor.  It was a very pleasant surprise for me, a bit more of a shock for one or two of my companions.

Snake Island had an other surprise in store: its Soviet naval graveyard (I know, I should probably read more guide-books…).  Half a dozen or so semi-beached, rusting hulks lie resting there, including allegedly the largest Soviet Navy vessel ever to sail the Caspian.  All are sheltered on the mainland side of the island with oxide colours to camouflage them by day and no superstructure protruding above the island’s highest point to betray their silhouettes by night.  I would love to take some SCUBA gear and investigate below the waterline one day; don’t fancy my chances though.

Navy no longer (photograph used with permission)

After a leisurely lunch we weighed anchor and set forth on an easy reach home; the skipper even let me take the tiller for twenty minutes or so which was great fun (and a bit of a workout).  It was great to get close to the sea again, especially after a year working in the semi-desert.  Once the winter is over it might be time to set sail again.

Almost as a post script (with my apologies to the artist – no disrespect intended), it should be noted that the proposed José Carreras performance I wrote about earlier did actually take place while I was away in England.  Apparently the main sub-species of audience were still evident at the Opera Ballet that evening (young man chatting/texting on mobile, two women talking incessantly et al) but their numbers were suitably reduced and one was able to enjoy the beauty of tenor and piano in relative silence.  Mr. Carreras is reported to be in fine voice and sounding most lovely.

For those who might be wondering (as was I), the reason behind Mr. Carreras’s appearance has been explained thus:  Chopard have recently opened a boutique in Baku, Mr. Carreras is apparently a close personal friend of the family and he has been invited to all of their recent openings.  Whether or not he gives a public performance on each occasion I do not know but there certainly are many people who are glad he did so this time.

P.S.  Photographs have now been added to “Up hill and down dale” – finally.

Sell, sell, sell…!

Forgive me reader, it has been four weeks since my last submission.  Much like any other good mouse or man, I planned to pop back to England for a quick visit and keep writing all the while but it was not to be.

It is not for lack of access to a mouse and keyboard that I have erred, indeed quite the opposite: I seemed to spend too much time staring at computer screens during the trip.  The difference was that word-processors and blog editors were replaced by numerous elements of that strange and marvellous beast that is ebay.

On the surface it looks so easy.  Something to sell?  No problem: take a couple of photographs, scribble a few lines to describe further details, start the auction and watch people go crazy over bidding for your fine offering.  As if€¦  This is neither the time nor the place to go picking through the finer nuances of the ebay selling experience, suffice to say that as a first-timer I learned a lot and learned it fast while expending far too much time and effort on the sales of a full edition of the Marshall Cavendish “Quest” series (wot? – ed), a job lot of Amiga computers plus peripherals and software, my car and my motorbike.

Those last two were the most important sales and the most painful but having spent nearly three years out of the country I had realised it was time to face my petrol-head addictions head-on and kick a couple of habits cold-turkey.  The car although posing as bullet-proof was quietly dying on the kerb in my absence while the bike had far outstayed its welcome in the garage of a very generous friend.

Riding the bike to and from its MOT test reminded me of how much I had been missing and even added a rare scene to deepen the pang: show me an other rider who has enjoyed a laughing conversation through the window with a white-van driver while waiting in traffic for someone to finish a ninety-nine point turn and I will show you my collection of hens’ teeth.  The car left on a trailer, an other one of my faithful pan-European conveyances to succumb to the evil tin worm.  Thankfully both vehicles returned a fair price and I still have my Niva here to keep my fingernails dirty.

Work continued away from the screen with various bits of administration and some required visits (to my savings at the Northern Rock for example – topical humour for British readers) but there was also time to enjoy being back with the family.  The start of my visit was timed to overlap with the last few days of my aunt and uncle from South Africa being in town.  They are fellow petrol-heads and music-lovers and seeing them is an all too rare pleasure.  Just before my return to Baku there was my brother’s birthday to celebrate and we did so merrily.

Brief moments were also grabbed to see London and Yorkshire and catch up with a few friends.  It has to be said that my bullet-point memories of London after this visit are all fiscal: beer is now averaging over three pounds a pint, petrol is topping a pound per litre and cigarette machines (even after introducing a nationwide ban on smoking in public spaces last summer) have suddenly sprouted slots in them to accept bank notes as well as coins – they are that expensive.  In Baku we have been watching inflation rise at a fair old rate recently; London seems to be playing catch-up.

It amused me during this visit to see how Russia is quietly stepping ever deeper into England and how things that I first encountered here in Baku can now be found ‘at home’.  Forget Abramovich buying Chelsea or an other tycoon buying TVR for his son (actually don’t get me started on the latter), the two examples I saw were both aimed at the drinking heart of the nation and were somewhat more subtle.

Baltika 3 is a Russian lager that has been available in England in bottles for many years.  While in Baku I have discovered that it is one of a full set of beers numbered from 0 (no-alcohol) to 9 (makes Special Brew look tame) encompassing, light, dark and wheat varieties across the range.  How pleasant a surprise it was to find Baltika 5 offered on tap in a pub in Balham: just a shame it was extremely expensive and did not taste as good as the bottled stuff here.

Russian Standard is touted here as a premium vodka and is charged for accordingly.  I used to believe the hype until I bought a bottle, put it in the freezer and found it full of ice when I returned.  In mitigation, there is the possibility that I was sold a fake bottle but my trust has somewhat diminished nonetheless.  I notice that there is a television advertising campaign for Russian Standard on UK channels at the moment…

In the meantime, oil is predicted to break the hundred dollars per barrel mark this week and I am working in plant that pumps over eight hundred thousand barrels of the stuff per day.  The way things are looking the gap between London and Baku may well continue to close and at an accelerating rate…