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.

Ahead one quarter

It has now been three months or one quarter of a year since Medina was born and so far all continues to go generally well.  So well in fact that we were able to mark the event with a couple of neighbours visiting that evening and no major dramas unfolding.

Three months old is the time for the major inoculations to start here in Norway and Medina duly took a hypodermic in each leg to celebrate.  Not an enjoyable experience for any one concerned but Medina took it on the chin as it were and was probably the strongest of all of us.

Developmentally Medina is getting better acquainted with her hands, is becoming a lot more vocal and has started to laugh occasionally.  She is also rolling onto her side with a little assistance and complaining less when placed on her front.  Next stop crawling and before we know it she will be tearing around the place like a racing car.

Below the customary photograph

Happy after bathtime

So far so good

An other month has flown by and Medina is now one sixth of a year old.  She has met all of her grandparents and her uncle. All being well we will introduce her to both great grandmothers over the Christmas/New Year period.

Feeding and growing are both going swimmingly – to the point that some items of clothing have been outgrown. Leyla and I are both greeted with a heart-warming smile of recognition each day. At time of writing Medina has slept through the night three nights on the trot and while we are not counting chickens yet (there was a false dawn a couple of weeks ago) we are hoping that this might herald a period of better rest for all of us.

Below is a photograph taken this evening (hence the imperfect light) to show a hint of that smile.

Sugar and spice and all things nice…

Many thanks for the good wishes and messages in response to the last posting.  All is ticking along well here and as if the job didn’t make time fly by quickly enough already, parenthood has raised the rate a little higher and Medina is one month old already as of yesterday.  Here are some photographs from the day to celebrate:

Now We Are Three

After a killer madman in Oslo and riots in London it is pleasing to have some lighter news to share.

On Thursday 28th July at 12:01, Medina Elizabeth Robson joined our family.  Weighing in at 2.7kg (6lb in old money) she took eleven days of extra persuasion to depart the comfort of the womb but on arriving here has immediately taken to life with vigour and animation.  Both she and Leyla are doing very well.

The birth and the first four nights afterwards were all at Oslo’s Ullevål Hospital and its associated “Hotell” and a quick pause must be made to say thank you to the staff there.  Every person we met was friendly, professional and supportive to us and made our stay as pleasant as they could.

Having heard from numerous friends and colleagues how parenthood will “change your life forever,” I spent plenty of time attempting to gird my loins for the big day.  It is of course impossible to do so.

The birthing process was lengthy and in places mildly harrowing.  The moment that the newborn child was placed in my arms was an indescribable combination of wonder and euphoria.  The first week of the three of us living together was a sleep deprivation exercise that the SAS would be proud of.  There were times when the continuity of the human race seemed a miracle.

A week further down the line we have all caught up some of the lost sleep and the family is taking shape.  I am grateful to find that Medina appears to be a calm and happy baby who will eat anything and can sleep through a hurricane.  Leyla and I are starting to find our feet as parents (we think) and we are being aided and abetted by Leyla’s mother who has come to help us keep the house in order for a few weeks.

Fatherhood is proving to be a very engaging experience.  Either it will make me write a great deal more than I have done recently (and if so I will try not to become too much of a bore) or it will consume me to the point of blogging near-silence.  Let us see.  In the meantime here are a few photographs of the girl in question:

Medina at two hours old…

…at two days old…

…and at two weeks old.

Silence Shattered

There has been an explosion in central Oslo this afternoon, somewhere around the offices of the government and a prominent national newspaper.  I work three or four miles away and heard it.  The news networks have been picking up the thread with alarming speed.

Leyla and I are both safe and well.

Nordic Spring

What a remarkable spring season it has been here.  I recollect relentless grey and rain punctuated by occasional sunshine last time I spent this period in Oslo.  This year the sun and rain have reversed roles and the weather has generally been glorious.  It made Constitution Day on 17 May a real pleasure: all the school bands marching merrily under blue skies and everyone looking fine in national dress or formal wear.

Oslo really works hard to capitalise on the better weather.  No doubt there are plenty of city folk who have been rushing out to log cabins in the countryside every weekend possible to commune with the great outdoors but for those of us who stay in town there has been much outdoor activity to enjoy.

The Oslo Music Festival took place a couple of weekends ago which saw thirty-odd stages set up around the city with an eclectic range of bands and dancers performing free of charge throughout the day.  Most weeks something has been organised by the fjord at Aker Brygge: celebrations of Oslo Race Week, a seafood festival, a Danish weekend, an Italian weekend and so on.

This weekend marks the transition from spring to summer.  The public transport timetables have shifted down a couple of gears, the city’s What’s On guide is starting to look a bit less packed and conversations at work have been turning to time off.  July is typically the month of exodus where people travel for their holidays and the city goes quiet.

As if to mark the occasion the weather has turned a rather English shade of grey but so far remains dry.  Hopefully the start of the tennis at Wimbledon will keep the rain away from Oslo for a few days yet.

Back in white

Been a few weeks back in Oslo now; finding it a mix of the familiar and the forgotten.

When I first landed at the beginning of March everywhere was snow and ice yet still perfectly functional (take note, Heathrow Airport).  Oslo was in the middle of hosting the World Nordic Skiing Championships and the pride, patriotism and party atmosphere were palpable.  The stretch between the parliament building and the National Theatre hosted amongst other things: numerous ice sculptures, food, trade and souvenir stalls, a set for live television broadcasts and a stage for major live music performances.  For my sins, I did not follow progress closely enough to know the final scores but I know that Norway won quite a few gold medals.

Once the skiing was over Oslo reverted to being the much quieter city that still manages to surprise me.  The relative lack of hustle and bustle here seems all the more unusual having just spent two years in a far more provincial location that conversely seemed much more lively.  This has to be the most laid back capital I have yet experienced.

The length and depth of the last winter may have contributed to quiet.  Record low temperatures were recorded in various parts of the country and Oslo saw over five months of snow.  Thankfully the thaw set in here last week and as if to emphasise the fact this last weekend was a feast of sun and blue skies.  Cherished cars and molly-coddled motorcycles all suddenly appeared on the streets like emerging butterflies.  I have never seen so many different models of Corvette in one day.

It has been grey clouds, wind and rain all day today but spirits remain high.  The fjord remains unfrozen, the street-sweepers are clearing the grit away and days continue to lengthen.  Spring is here.

Within The Circle

Last weekend saw an other couple of feet of snow fall in Oslo, after which a steady freeze has set in.  Hats off to the city authorities: they seem to have snow ploughs in a wide enough range of sizes to suit any road or pavement and the thoroughfares while becoming a little icy in places of late remain impressively clear.  They are however bounded by snow banks as high as my elbow that are little trouble for pedestrians but make life a challenge for anybody who parked a car on the kerb in certain parts of town during the snows.  I saw one man near our apartment spend near an hour digging his car out a few nights ago.

The aforementioned freeze is hovering around the minus ten Celsius mark in central Oslo, dipping to twice that just outside.  Leyla and I decided several weeks ago to leave the city for Valentine’s weekend.  We chose to seek the Northern Lights in Tromsø: a city historically known as The Paris of the North but also northerly enough to be well inside the Arctic Circle.  With the temperatures in the south being so low, what would we find in the polar region…

As it transpires, the coastal location of Tromsø makes it far warmer than the more inland capital.  It was a balmy minus three when we arrived last night and after checking in at the hotel I happily stepped out without an overcoat.  We have since learned that the lowest temperature yet recorded here is minus eighteen; surprisingly warm and seemingly very un-Arctic.

Tromsø also has a beautifully scenic location.  Our hotel is barely one hundred metres back from the fjord and the room has a clear view across the water (over the top of some rather trawler-ish vessels admittedly) to snowy hills and mountain peaks beyond.  Getting there from the airport involves the complete opposite however: a tunnel that is over a mile long and doesn’t just go from point to point but has a couple of junctions with roundabouts along the route; it makes Heathrow look a bit tame.

Twilight in Tromsø from a hotel window

The world’s most northerly brewery; Mack; is located here and a pint (well, a zero point four or zero point five litre) of the pilsner tastes far better in the local bars than it does in Oslo.  Brewery tours are only available Monday to Thursday though so that tale will have to be related anon.  There is also an aquarium here that doubles as an informative insight into the broader life and environment at the poles.

For those who are interested in the numbers, the Arctic Circle is drawn sixty degrees north of the equator and Tromsø is a few minutes south of seventy degrees.  This places the city firmly inside the boundary and equally firmly inside the zone of the Arctic winter, during which time little in any light can be discerned in the sky during day for two or three months.  At this time of year there is daylight but we couldn’t resist a dark laugh when sitting at dinner last night and The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” came over the sound system.

This evening we joined a guided trip to see the Northern Lights.  It involved a drive of half an hour or so out of the city to a Sami settlement where we sat round a fire in a traditional tent drinking coffee and eating reindeer soup before stepping out to watch the skies.

The clouds that were obscuring much of the view when we arrived had magically cleared during the intervening period, leaving a vista of stars to behold.  Hesitantly, a small glow of the very palest green started to form in the east before arcing above us to the far west in a band of light.  After a while a second band followed, the beginnings of a third later still.

While the ethereal glow spread, swirled and retreated above us, our guides started explaining how the colour and activity of the Lights runs in seven year cycles and how this year appeared to be the lowest part of it.  At that point, as if listening and insulted the heavens suddenly filled with shimmering, dancing, pink-edged explosions of effervescent light.  An all-encompassing, circling, spiralling pattern pulling the eye to all corners of the sky; dwindling softly yet almost as swiftly as it had arrived.  Genuinely breath-taking.

Step back in time

After the half-metre of snow that fell this time last week, the weather backed off a bit, only to throw an other foot or so of snow at us yesterday, followed by what appears to be the prompt start of a small thaw today.  The city is wall to wall slush but with daylight hours spent outside the office being a rare and precious commodity here at this time of year, we always find an excuse to get out during the weekend.

The most commonly heard exhortation is “go skiing” and there are times when it does sound a bit tempting.  We hear almost as frequently though that so many folk head for the slopes over the weekend that there are queues everywhere: not so attractive.

Today we plumped for a walking tour of the Akerselva – the river that runs through Oslo – and it transpired to be the complete opposite to the reported slopes experience, with only the two of us accompanying our guide (luck – last week’s group apparently numbered twenty).  She was a sprightly woman who teaches German and Art History to A-level students when not leading tours and she clearly takes pride in her work.

During a scenic two-hour stroll down the river banks, we learned how a wealthy businessman had gone to Manchester in the mid-nineteenth century to study the cotton mills and met an other Norwegian there, after which the pair of them essentially imported the British industrial revolution to Oslo and planted it on the banks of the river.

The Akerselva is too steep and narrow to be navigable.  It was used instead to provide motive power for the machines that worked cotton and canvas and the mills that ground grain to flour along its length.  Parts of the river still bear terracing and sluice gates that were no doubt created to drive the now-departed water wheels.  Many of these surviving features stand next to the original buildings and it is clear that not only the technology but the architecture of the British experience was imported: all tall red brick and curved windows.  Many of the buildings have been converted into offices and some apartments.

As one might expect, very little of the original industry remains today.  We started the tour in a place called Nydalen which translates as New Valley.  Now it is nick-named Silicon Valley in recognition of the fact that IT companies are the majority of those that have moved here during the area’s rejuvenation.

Shortly after we set out, we were pointed towards a factory that still produces nails as the sole ‘intact’ survivor of those times.  Further downstream the administrative offices can still be found of a soap manufacturing company (production having moved out of the city), the city’s staple beer, Ringnes is still being brewed by the riverside and there is a flour mill that has been bought by a (whisper it) Swedish company.

This latter example provided a slightly deeper insight.  Our guide related that during her childhood, Norway used to look to Sweden as a great place where everything seemed to be better.  Now apparently the tables have turned and 25,000 Swedes a year come to Norway looking for opportunity.  She attributes it to Norway’s discovery of oil in between times.  With the political history of the last few centuries as a background, it looks like the change is being received with mixed feelings.

We finished the tour drinking hot chocolate by an open fire in an attractive new restaurant at the foot of the Old Aker Church.  While the business was new, the premises were an old building from the mid-nineteenth century that had been carefully restored by a father and son team.  Looking at the number of Sunday dinner diners who were starting to arrive as we left, it appears that industry will continue to succeed in this area in one form or an other.