Summertime Snooze

One-thirty in the afternoon.  Hot sun burns bright in a cloudless blue sky.  BBC Weather says it is forty degrees Celsius and rising which means it is probably hotter.  Sitting on a shaded veranda with a light breeze helping the cooling makes the temperature bearable.  “Hello again” summer on the Absheron peninsula.

Everyone else is asleep at present so I am taking the opportunity to scribble for a few minutes before resuming family duties.

It has been a longer break than planned since the last post was published.  Chiefly this was due to the charger for my laptop deciding to expire gracefully over the course of a busy few days.  By the time it had most definitely ceased to function, I had landed in Baku.

Thankfully there is the “Alma Store” here (alma is apple in Azerbaijani) which is dedicated solely to service and repairs while retail space is at a different address.  Thanks to that differentiation I was able to pop in, agree the fault with the friendly technician, purchase a replacement charger and be on my way again in a matter of minutes.  With Apple seeming to have more-or-less standardised prices around the globe the wallet surgery wasn’t too painful either.

As with previous summers, most of our time is being spent out in the ‘countryside’ of the northern coast rather than in central Baku so there is little to report from the city.

That said it is good to report that Kefli is still in business with its range of rather enjoyable local wines.  There is also a new coffee shop on Khagani Street called Barista & Chef that is well worth a visit.  The decor and the staff dress code both appear rather NYC/London inspired, the service is very friendly and the drinks are produced to a high standard.  I chose the “Charlie Choco Factory” milkshake and was very satisfied (see picture below).

There is a third cookie sandwiched between the two large ones…!

Away from town we are mostly following a routine of visiting the beach in the morning and retreating back to the shade before it gets too hot.

There have also been some social get-togethers, one of which involved a dacha garden, kebabs on the barbecue and of course some samovar tea.  As it has been a few years I could not resist posting a photograph of the latter (below).

Samovar tea – hot stuff.

Snooze time is nearly over and I had better get ready for the children.  More news soon.

Bacchus in Baku?

The original post for summer 2016 in Baku was half-decent.  I recall writing about the discovery of an excellent outdoor PA system at Barrels’ Playground – so good it made progressive house work.

This was also the trip to Baku that put Azerbaijani wine on the map.  Specifically the bar, Kefli where all you can buy is locally produced red, white, rose and sparkling from an extensive list.  The poor examples of previous experience will hopefully disappear soon while these better ‘new’ wines step forward to take their place.

Setting sights high at Kefli

Summer in the garden

Found this photograph of the samovar in action from summer 2014.  I think the story that went with it involved tortoises and an eccentric uncle barbecuing excellent kebabs.  It was certainly a hot, hot summer.

Turn, turn, turn

Belated season’s greetings and apologies for the lengthy pause between postings.  It has been a busy and mobile period.

Leyla and Medina are both well.  The latter was five months old yesterday and she celebrated in a laughing and smiling style that has become joyfully customary.  I feel truly fortunate to have such a happy child.

At time of writing I am back on home turf for a few days to enjoy the holiday period before diving into a new and likely very demanding job.  November saw the conclusion of my part in the Skarv project after three and a half years.  To borrow a comparison that might be familiar to the home mechanic: the team I was with had the task of compiling the workshop manual for machine that was designed and constructed by the project; the manual is now ready to be handed to the owner/operator of the machine.

Next up is more of the same but for a different project, a different machine and a different company.  It is with no small sense of trepidation that I have parted ways with BP (amicably) and started working for Eni – similar line of business but a different company as one might expect.

November was a lively mixture of completing final procedures for one job while sorting out preparations for the other and simultaneously getting packed and ready for moving everything out of Oslo.  The strike on Wednesday 30 November and the doom-laden predictions for Heathrow played their part in that just to add spice but we muddled on through safely in the end.

The first two weeks of December took me to Stavanger on the south-west coast of Norway where I started my acquaintance with the new job.  Aside from two days of ice and snow the weather was a constant blend of strong winds and heavy rain which made me quite glad to depart; not a place I would recommend too highly as a holiday destination.

Next stop was a week in Baku to catch up with family and friends and introduce Medina to them.  It has been three and a half years since I last visited and the city has changed at a rate that shows little sign of slowing.  If you manage to blink and miss the massive new terminal buildings under construction at the airport, the expansion of the main airport road from four to eight lanes and the lit ‘artwork’ lining it all the way to the city should catch your attention.

The buffing and lighting continues in the city centre where the facades of the buildings lining the major roads have been scrubbed up and lit as if trying to wrestle the ‘city of light’ title from Paris in some way.  Step back a block or two and the old Baku of darker streets and pot-holed roads remains, augmented by frequent piles of rubble in some areas as charming old low-rise buildings are demolished to make way for, well, whatever grand plan might fill the gap eventually.  To give an idea of scale: the area between Fizuli Square and the Heydar Aliyev Concert Hall (Samad Vergun Street) used to be a neighbourhood but is now a muddy hole around twenty metres deep covering an area about the size of half a dozen football pitches.

Public transport is putting on a smarter face now with the battered old minibuses replaced by newer, larger buses (getting a bit battered too) and the taxi fleet showing similar signs of renewal.  It is even possible to hail a ‘London’ taxi in Baku now: same shape as the LTI machines but purple instead of black and a copy made in China (hopefully under licence) rather than the ‘real’ thing.

Major hotels such as Hilton and Marriott have arrived in the city with vast new buildings and other big western brands are also arriving in ever greater numbers to relieve the wealthy elite of their cash.  Debenhams and Versace are one thing, the gleaming showroom for Bentley Baku I think is quite an other.

While the rate of progress is impressive, I have reservations about how ready the city will be for hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in a few months time.  Leaving aside the time, money and effort required to obtain a visa before flying which might surprise a few Shengen-familiar Europeans (the buy-on-arrival service was stopped over a year ago), I am not sure how ready the city infrastructure is for what could be a huge number of visitors in a very compressed period.  Time will tell.

We got back to London from Baku just in time for Christmas and have been enjoying catching up with people as best we can while unpacking boxes from Norway and re-packing before flying on to our next stop for the new job: Korea.  It’s back to the shipyards and the kimchee for us, Hyundai at Ulsan this time rather than Samsung at Geoje.  Some people think we’re mad.  We probably are but so far we are looking forward to it.

‘Freedom’ of speech?

A friend of mine from Azerbaijan has brought this news story to attention via Facebook:

In short: two bloggers in Azerbaijan have been detained and tried with very little access to outside support and could face a couple of years each in prison.  This is occurring in a country identified as a democracy.

For those who might say “so what?”, Reuters have picked up on the story and UK MPs are putting an early day motion together on the subject.  If they can take an interest, so can we.

This post has been cobbled together in a hurry.  Feel free to shoot holes.

Three Weddings and a Project

A new record for tardiness: I promise I will get better.  Honest.

My excuses this time; in addition to the usual work-related pleas; include arranging and participating of two wedding parties in two countries.  Organising everything was quite a challenge (I can see why most people in Britain plan a year or so in advance rather than a few months) but the results were very rewarding.

In Baku we dared to be different.  For our venue we hired a restaurant rather than a ‘wedding palace’, our meal was served in courses rather than piled on tables, there were quiet moments for conversation rather than non-stop full-volume music.  We enjoyed the result and so did our guests, some of whom are still talking about it now.

In south-east England the choice of wedding venues for a last-minute planner is far from broad.  I chose to err towards grand and struck lucky.  Hampton Court on a sunny day made a lovely backdrop to a beautiful bride (in The Perfect Dress) and its Garden Room was the right size to host a happy gathering of friends and family.  Afternoon, evening and night managed to pass in a flash; a sign of a successful event…?

A big thank you to everybody who joined our celebrations: in person, through a gift, through writing – all.  Our married life – now together in Oslo – has got off to a fine start in such good company.

A small footnote: may I ask the anonymous donors of a single malt and a crystal vase at Hampton Court to identify themselves – I wish to say thank you directly.

…or some other circumstance

Barely a week married and my wife and I are separated.  This is not due to any disaster that has befallen us as a couple; we are still very much in love and planning a long and enjoyable life together.  We knew a long time ago though that we were unlikely to spend all of that life in Azerbaijan and the time to move is upon us.

At time of writing I am in London for thirty-six hours having moved lock, stock and barrel out of Baku.  A flight in the morning takes me to a new job in a new country with new challenges.  Leyla and I are both looking forward to what lies ahead.  The temporary disadvantage is that we are unable to travel simultaneously and Leyla will have to ‘catch up’ with me later.

Having spent over two years living and working in Baku, it is not without a backward glance or two that I depart.  My time there has involved significant learning, the making of friends and the gaining of family.  I will most certainly be back.  In the meantime, the Englishman in Baku is about to become the Englishman elsewhere.

’til death do us part…

Last Saturday, 22nd March 2008, Leyla and I signed the register and officially became husband and wife.

We chose to celebrate with a small group of family and friends at the Japanese restaurant, Mado.  My new suit was ready for its first outing but TPD is waiting until June so Leyla wore a lovely dress in red silk, made from material bought during our trip to Nepal last year.

The official who came to conduct the ceremony was very brisk.  In the course of the few minutes she spoke, she asked me one simple question – had I really thought about marriage – which was easily and honestly answered in the affirmative.  We and our witnesses then signed in the appropriate places, the formalities were complete and it was time to party.

Dinner was a marvellous melange of sushi and other Japanese specialities.  After the meal, those of us who wished to carry on adjourned to the Jazz Center (sic) for further fun and live music.  The evening seemed to pass far too quickly; probably due to a heady combination of adrenaline (slight pre-event nerves perhaps) and joy.  Not even sleep could take the smile off my face that night.

The Happy Couple (picture courtesy of David Duguid)

If every day was a holiday…?

Time has been flying Exocet-syle.  Brief highlights of the last three weeks:

Two weekends ago was International Women’s Day.  As far as I am aware it still passes relatively unmarked in England but the commercial response here is large and growing ever greater.

The actual day – the eighth of March – fell on a Saturday and the government decided to announce the following Monday as a public holiday to make up for it. Leyla and I used the resultant long weekend to escape the madness that was gripping the city and visit the southern regions.

As with our trips north and west, we drove through a couple of hours of rugged, dry country then reached greenery and in this particular direction the foothills of the Talysch mountain range.  Our accommodation was a wood cabin in the hills just off the road between Masalli and Yardimli; very pretty, very peaceful.

The people running the place were charming and looked after us well.  Amongst the wholesome, fresh-made foodstuffs they provided were rich butter, creamy white cheese and honey served in its comb; gorgeous.

Five minutes’ walk up the road was Isti Su (Hot Water) – so called because of the hot spring that issues from the hillside there.  It is productive enough to supply ample water to a dozen or so bathing cubicles, the use of which is currently quite reasonably priced in these nascent days of Azerbaijan’s tourist industry.  We both took a hot, sulphur-smelling dip and felt suitably healthy while doing so.

All too soon it was back to the city, back to work and back to the seemingly growing list of tasks to complete in preparation for the wedding.  We achieved a definite step forward in that respect when I obtained my Certificate of No Impediment from the British Embassy.  I had to swear an oath before they would give it to me (a detail omitted from the guidance notes supplied) but give it they did, after which I went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (twice) to have it approved and thence to the Palace of Happiness (seriously: the name of the wedding registry office) to start the process of setting the marriage date.

This brings us to last weekend, the Saturday night of which saw me perform my first non-DJ gig for many years.  My friend, David, sings and plays guitar; I pretend to sing and can just about remember how to play bass.  We had been sticking a collection of popular cover versions together for a while and decided it was time to offer them to an adoring public.

Several times past I have written about the band that plays at Finnegan’s on a Saturday night.  We get on well and it was not difficult to arrange an hour’s warm-up slot prior to their performance.  Our set was literally put together on a shoestring (one of my laces sorted out a cabling problem for David’s guitar) and we were as rough as one might expect of a nerve-filled first-time gig but the songs were recognisable, we had a good time and it sounded like the audience did too.

Here and now we are in the midst of Novruz Bayram: an annual celebration of the start of spring dating back to pagan times.  In its conception and its traditions it is comparable to May Day in England but if the same amount of public holiday time was devoted there as it is here, it would have to be called May Ten Days this year: the nation officially went on holiday on the twentieth and is expected to stay that way until the twenty-ninth.

The unprecedented length of the holiday this year is matched by the amount of effort made to prepare for its public celebrations in Baku.  The Old City seems to have been very much a focus for the activity.  Two major public gardens just outside the wall were rapidly overhauled in the nick of time; at least four large stages were set up in the area for performances of traditional song and dance; the national television station sent in a huge OB crew and the army provided ample armed men to surround the lot.

Road closures on the nineteenth and twentieth as part of these preparations brought parts of the city to a total standstill for hours.  Strangely this seemed to be totally accepted.  While your average Baku motorist drives like every split second counts and will hoot the horn at the slightest perceived obstruction, on these two days almost every driver would not only sit quietly, they would switch off their engines and even their stereos if waiting for anything longer than a few minutes.  Walking around parts of town that are habitually loud and frantic and finding them instead to be eerily quiet felt most strange.

This evening I have just returned home from a lively party where young folk met to wear traditional national dress and perform traditional dances to traditional music.  Younger people of Azerbaijan are feared to be turning their backs on national traditions as much as those in other countries have (imagine a crowd of London twenty-somethings holding a Morris party this May Day…) so there were several good reasons to go and join in with this crowd.

The national costumes on display were most elegant with bright hues and flowing fabrics to be seen in all directions.  While the dance moves look very restrained and simple, in practice they involve careful nuance and require some serious effort to coordinate.  My skills were found lacking so I was happy to stand back and watch for most of the time.

Once closing time had arrived, the music stopped and the party organiser made a brief speech to everybody.  The DJ then dropped “Rolling” by Limp Bizkit.  If he was trying to clear the place, he failed as the majority of the young men and women present promptly started head-banging vigorously in their wool hats, head-scarves and sequins.  He switched back to an up-tempo traditional number after that and the crowd switched just as fast back to the appropriate dance.  The message seemed clear: play what you want and let’s party.  I like it.

His and Hers Not-So-Dark Materials

The weather round these parts seems to be betting weirder with each successive season.  In the last two months, Baku has seen more snow and ice than it has for many years.  It appears that winter is pretty much over as today has been one of several recent warm, sunny days.  Those last few occasions did not end with a shroud of mist descending upon the city at the end of the afternoon though – one that a stiff wind is failing to shift.  The sun now set, it looks like Hound of the Baskervilles weather out there just now.

Wedding plans are moving forward smartly.  TPD still eludes us but the perfect dressmaker should soon be enlisted and all will be well.  Materials and measurements for my suit are already in hand.  A friend of the family is a tailor and he is not only doing a fine bit of work but he is doing it for a good bit less than I paid for an off-the-peg, made-in-Azerbaijan dinner jacket a year or so ago; result.

The amount of paperwork we are expected to produce, have translated and get stamped at various notaries’ offices and ministries (all for a fee of course) is impressive.  Time was I would have been moderately horrified by the excessive bureaucracy of it all but I appear to have become accustomed to Baku officialdom.  The idea of our paying a notary to annotate and stamp photocopies of our government-issued papers so that the government can accept them as part of our government-registered marriage does not seem like a time-wasting and money-making exercise at all.

While the dress might be proving to be a challenge, the rings are sorted.  I had a plan to get Leyla’s ring made via a friend but time shortage combined with the travel requirements put an end to that idea.  We went for an extensive search of Baku’s many jewellery shops and had almost drawn an other blank until we stopped by the local branch of a well known European boutique.

After half an hour or so in the shop we found a marvellous ring in just the right size.  Not only that, there was a complementary, larger design available that suited me (useful seeing as the one other good ring I had seen and liked could not be obtained in my size).  One small problem: the shop did not accept credit cards and I am not in a position to produce a substantial amount of cash from my hip pocket.

A quick look at the company’s website proved their Baku branch to be genuine (always worth checking as there are several companies ‘represented’ here that are probably unaware of the fact) and provided contact details of their stores in London.  After a few ‘phone conversations with a very pleasant man called Jean-Francois and with my credit card people, I had two rings ready and waiting and the means with which to pay for them.

Dad to the rescue: my father volunteered to go and collect the rings from the store for me.  We timed everything carefully so that I could call once he had arrived, the transaction could be concluded between the three of us and everyone would be happy.  I am pleased to say it worked.

Next step is reception venues.  We have a place confirmed here and a place on hold in England.  Details will follow.