Here come the auditors…!

Baku, Sunday 26th November 2006

The local weather is as capricious as ever. Last week I sat here surrounded by miserable cold temperatures and grey skies; today I have been strolling around a sunlit city under blue skies with temperatures just back up in the double figures. London remains reported as warmer though, I notice (see whinge last week).

It has been quite an out-and-about week this week in terms of evening entertainment. This is probably just as well seeing that the one night I did stay in – Monday – became my first night shared with a power cut in the apartment block. I knew they could happen often enough during the day because I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve come back from work to find that my alarm clock has reset itself. Finding myself plunged into darkness on a Winter’s evening was not a lot of fun though: there is only so much romance one can find in candlelight when feeling rather chilled in one’s own living room with the water cut off as well (I can only assume electric pumps rather than gravity feed). Thankfully power was restored within two hours and so far it has reverted to only disappearing during the working day (albeit with alarming regularity).

Event of the week was undoubtedly last night’s St. Andrew’s Ball: an impressive annual charity dinner arranged by the Baku Caledonian Society. I was invited at rather short notice and discovered later still that the dress code was black tie. As my aging dinner jacket is currently languishing in a wardrobe in England I duly set out to learn how best to hire or buy such an outfit quickly in Baku. After a couple of days’ inquiries the general wisdom appeared to indicate that hire was going to cost the same as purchase so Friday night became my rush-out-to-buy-dinner-jacket night. Annalie volunteered to join me as she planned to buy a necklace for the same event, so it came that we found ourselves dropped off in a particular part of town at seven o’clock with a rough hand-drawn map to a shop in hand and an hour to go until closing time. The map turned out to be more of a hindrance than a help as an attempt to use it followed by a quick ‘phone call took us straight back to where we had started and the shop that we had both looked at and thought it would most likely be the one we were after.

As Baku does not appear to be overflowing with shops that sell dinner jackets it is probably fair to say that the staff in this shop has seen their fair share of last-minute merchants such as me: I am sure the phrase “fool in a rush” was emblazoned across my forehead as I walked in there at the end of business hours the day before a black-tie event that the whole city was likely to know about. Those people certainly know their stuff though. We whipped through a quick selection of jacket, trousers, shirt and shoes and even though I could not supply a decent size for any of it (UK and Azeri clothes sizes have as much in common as their respective languages as far as I can see) I nevertheless found myself standing in a very presentable outfit on first pickings; the only thing I changed was the trousers. Then it was time to pay.

Our friends, Riz and Natalya who recommended the shop had made it very clear that a discount should be demanded. Things got off to a troubling start though when the figure that they had quoted for the suit was doubled by the shop staff. Annalie was quick to ask why there was such a difference and the instant reply was: that is the hire price, if you wish to buy it is this much – general wisdom appeared to have fallen flat in one fell swoop. It did not help that the shop did not take plastic and I had specifically obtained a certain amount of cash with which to settle the transaction.

As luck would have it, Natalya had supplied the map and Riz had given the directions over the ‘phone to get us back to the right place. In the process he mentioned that the two of them would be visiting the shop that evening to pick up a shirt he had ordered and, low and behold, they walked in just as the discount negotiations were about to get tough. I felt a little sheepish handing over to a couple of local people to conclude the deal in translation for me but it certainly made everything a lot faster and simpler and while the final price still exceeded my planned budget I walked away with a good outfit for a reasonable outlay and was very grateful of the assistance.

Saturday night rolled round and away we went. The dinner was hosted at the Gulastan Palace: a large ex-restaurant-now-venue-for-hire on the hillside overlooking the city and the bay. I had heard about the place and seen it but never visited before, mostly because I had not been to any functions that were large enough. The Scots presence in Baku is such that the guest list for the St. Andrew’s Ball numbered seven hundred and only The Palace was big enough to accommodate everybody.

The Society certainly laid on a very impressive evening including a twelve piece marching pipe band and a six piece ceilidh band, both flown in from Scotland specially. Dinner was disappointing (as can be expected to some extent with a large event) but the drinks were free-flowing, the atmosphere buoyant and my immediate company most congenial. The only small cloud on my otherwise clear horizon that night was a textbook case of Sod’s Law.

Sod’s Law does not feature in the Oxford English Dictionary or the Encyclopaedia Britannica as far as I am aware but if it did I feel the definition could easily read something like this: Sod’s Law is going to an exclusive, ticket-only event for seven hundred people and discovering not only that your ex-girlfriend who you have not seen since the break-up is there but that she is backing directly on to you at the adjacent table during dinner. Sod’s Law is further refined when later in the evening you exit the huge dinning hall through its tiny door at the same time as said ex-girlfriend is entering the hall through the same door (warning: difficult verbal exchanges may follow).

Ayla’s little monologue at the doorway was a far from pleasant conclusion to what had been an uncomfortable couple of hours spent looking very much the other way during the meal. As it was I remained unbowed by the experience while she and her accompanying ex-husband left rapidly very soon after the exchange. I was also lucky to have some fine friends around me: Annalie, Zamina (my agent), Farah (my manager), Dawn and Rati (two further colleagues) were proven once again to be fine women all as they talked up my spirits and looked out for me during the evening. While there may be times when I feel lonely out here it can never be said that I am alone.

It being that time of year, we get to do the whole thing again next week for the Performance Unit Leader’s Quarterly Awards Dinner. Same place, same time and as Annalie is making the arrangements it should be a good old knees-up too. More news will follow no doubt.


Large woolly jumper time

Baku, Sunday 19th November 2006

Winter has almost reached Baku I fear. Jack Frost may not have enfolded us in his cooling embrace just yet but if the last two days are anything to go by he has just rung the bell and is standing at the door expectantly with a smile on his face.

Today has been cold, grey and still, almost as if the weather has been resting to recover from the exertions of the day before. Yesterday started with rain of epic proportions and along with it the discovery that many of Baku’s road were obviously not built with drainage in mind. The drive to join the main highway on the way to work reminded me of riding an inflatable dinghy on a choppy sea: we were bouncing around everywhere because the puddles hid the pot-holes and much of the standing water was so deep that it frequently splashed over the bonnet and onto the windscreen as we drove through it. As the sun reluctantly rose it soon became apparent that all the surrounding unpaved ground had been transformed into a large muddy mess. Recollections of World War One in history lessons at school and Paschendale sprung to mind.

Once arrived at work I sat at my desk in the cold, quiet office and completed my morning’s tasks to the accompaniment of rain beating loudly on the roof. By lunch-time all had changed though: the rain was long gone and sunshine and gale-force wind had taken its place. The blow-dry effect of the wind was remarkable – when I left to go home at two o’clock the roads and car parks of the Terminal were dry apart from remnants of one or two of the larger puddles. There was a cold bite in that wind mind… We drove out to the highway and the dry theme continued until we reached city limits, at which point the sun and wind were joined a return of the rain and we spent the rest of the trip driving towards but never under a beautiful rainbow. Hamid the driver and I were bemused by the extremes and variety of it all.

Hamid warrants further mention as he and I have been getting on very well. He usually drives one of the Shah Deniz managers but as he’s out of country for a couple of weeks Hamid has been asked to join the car pool for that time and I am most fortunate to be the only passenger in his car at the moment. While Hamid is a text-book BP driver when it comes to car control (he even uses the indicators when driving round hairpin bends for goodness’ sake!) he has proven to be far more flexible on the musical side of things. He had what sounded like a Best of Enigma CD playing when he first collected me last Monday morning so I naturally asked if I could bring a few CD’s of my own – thankfully he said yes! As Hamid has expressed a liking for electronic music, so far we have listened to albums by Goldfrapp, Jakatta, Air and Royksopp and he’s enjoyed them all – not bad going for a man who professes to be fifty years old and was probably raised listening to some very different music indeed. It looks like we have an other week together so I’ll see if I can push the tempo up a bit and get us onto some banging trance before we part.

Being an Englishman abroad I am of course obliged to pass comment on the England versus South Africa rugby match that was played at Twickenham yesterday. First things first, what was all that blue sky and sunshine over London about? Expats is these latitudes are supposed to be able to turn round at any given time and say with certainty that the weather where they are is undeniably better than it is back home. That clearly wasn’t the case last night though – I was sitting there with the chaps and the sight of such clearly superior weather at home had us quite put out for a good five seconds or so. I’ll be drafting my letter to The Times shortly… Joking aside, it was an entertaining game and I’m glad England stopped trying to lose long enough to allow themselves to win instead. I also feel a bit sorry for the Springboks though. We were watching on a South African satellite channel and the studio pundits made it very clear that a recent dip in the team’s performance was largely being blamed on the coach and the captain very loudly. Last night’s play was good but after the result I expect those two men are in for further criticism on an ever-growing scale. In the meantime I’m off to watch Ireland versus Australia tonight: should be a good one.


Time to get a move on

Baku, Sunday 12th November 2006

My first week back in Baku has been quite a balanced and, dare I say it, enjoyable time. Work is starting to take shape, the weather has been occasionally blustery but otherwise clement and my free time has been neatly divided between time out socialising and time in reading a good book.

First ‘time out’ of the week was a long overdue dinner with Annalie, partly to say thanks once more helping me out the week before and partly just to catch up with her as we hadn’t had the chance for quite a while. On Monday night we dined contentedly at Scalini while chatting about this and that and sipping an agreeable Rosso di Montalcino. During our meal the manageress presented us both with invitations to the restaurant’s eighth anniversary celebrations, to take place the following Saturday. As Annalie was leaving the country for a week the following morning she generously gave her invitation to me. As Annalie was leaving the country for a week the following morning we also got to talking about how Pat (the Shah Deniz Offshore Project Director) often looks to her as a dining companion and might feel a bereft in her absence. Naturally I offered to invite him out to dinner…

Dinner with Pat has rarely been a dull affair in my experience. While he is known and often feared as a tough and uncompromising man in the office he can actually prove to be a thoroughly pleasant fellow when he takes a moment to relax. One of the first times I dined with him was during a visit to Baku last year. There was a group of us round the table including Clive – a totally over-worked and totally decent bloke working in the Cost department. He mentioned in passing that his thirtieth wedding anniversary and a family birthday were coming up over the weekend and Pat immediately ordered me to book return flights to England plus connections (I was the project travel booker at the time) and make sure that Clive got back to his family for those occasions; all charged to the project of course.

At the other end of the scale, my first dinner with Pat in Paris was minor a nightmare. Visiting the Paris office (headquarters of one the project’s less popular sub-contract companies) always seemed to put Pat in a stern frame of mind and this visit was no exception. As his hotel was near my apartment we shared a taxi to the restaurant. I tried making a bit of light small-talk during the journey but was lucky if I got further than a second utterance on every subject I tried. It didn’t help that the driver; being a typical Parisian cabbie; did not actually understand where we wanted to get to or how best to navigate the one way streets to get there (and I’ve been far more grateful for “The Knowledge” of London’s black cabs ever since). Suffice to say that by the time we reached the restaurant I was fresh out of conversation. One of our dining companions was late which deepened Pat’s dark mood and once we were all met we spent the evening sitting around the table in near-silence with Pat asking questions about work in a manner not unlike that I’d imagine a Spanish Inquisitor to use. It was when he turned to one of my colleagues and asked “So, what’s Alastair like then, is he doing any good?” that the evening was sealed. Irony of ironies: the office motor-mouth was sitting there in total silence; I had expected him to lift the evening with a bit of light-hearted chatter and he barely said a word all night!

Thankfully a lot of water has passed under the bridge since that little debacle and having not seen much of Pat since my move to the Terminal I was genuinely keen to meet him and have a chat. It was to be our first one-to-one dinner though, a thought that generated mild apprehension. As it transpired the evening went well and we shared a good dinner (same place, same wine, different dishes) albeit a brisk one: we shook hands in greeting at seven thirty and shook hands farewell at nine.

Having largely relied upon familiar company during the week (I confess I skipped the eighth anniversary party last night as no friend was available to join me and I didn’t wish to risk running into you-know-who without some moral support nearby) I decided to put a small solo step forward today. The British Embassy sent a round-robin e-mail a couple of weeks ago giving notice of a Remembrance Day service to be held today followed by a small reception and a wreath-laying at the Commonwealth War Memorial. Bearing in mind the members of my near family who served in World War Two – some now dead, some still living – and the current state of world affairs I thought this an event I should definitely attend.

While we were assembling for the service at the Keppelhaus (a hall next to the city’s Lutheran Church) I was struck by the international mixture of the crowd. I would estimate we numbered around fifty souls and amongst the British majority I clearly identified German, American, Russian and Indian people and I am sure there were other nationalities represented. The service was a brief but moving affair including a two-minute silence bracketed by a Scots piper, the sound of whom raised goose-bumps on my spine. The reception was hosted by the Consul at his nearby apartment where he provided wine, soft drinks and canapés that we all gratefully consumed under the watchful eye of his rather bemused-looking cat. The apartment had a terrace and while I was talking to a new acquaintance, Jim, we both looked out to see the British Embassy’s Defence Attaché standing there in full dress uniform puffing contentedly on a pipe: a very English moment that we both enjoyed observing.

Apparently the service has been an annual event for quite some time now. I was asked if I might attend next year and I said that if I was in Baku at the time I would.


Gain and loss

Baku, Sunday 5th November 2006

What a difference a day makes, as the song goes. Friday 27th October turned out to be such a day for me in no uncertain terms. The intervening days between then and now have not been short of event either, hence the missed page in my writings. Please forgive the omission.

Regular readers of this page will recognise the names Annalie and Ayla. Annalie is the person who originally hired me for this job back in May 2004 and has since become a good friend and “surrogate mother” – now officially defined within the family. Ayla is a woman I met and befriended here last February and who since late June has been my girlfriend. Such details have not been described so clearly here up until now but I’m sure many readers are familiar with the area between the lines.

On initial acquaintance Ayla is a marvellous woman: intelligent, educated, conversational and good-humoured. I don’t think anybody I’ve introduced her to has had a bad word to say about her and having known her as such myself for five months after our introduction, the occasion of our later becoming a couple was a pleasant one. Getting to know each other better continued our enjoyment initially but alas, how soon and how sharp a turn can be. This is not the place for dwelling upon the details, suffice to say that one out-of-the-blue quarrel in Summer developed into recurring problem by Autumn which struck very deep and had a solution that seemed anything but clear. I found the challenge absorbing to the point of detriment.

Much of my Friday 27th October was spent on the ‘phone to Ayla trying unsuccessfully to improve matters after a disagreement the night before. Annalie walked into the office that afternoon during one of the ‘phone calls, took one look at my face and guessed who I was speaking to. I hadn’t realised it would be so obvious. Once the call was concluded Annalie took me straight down to the Britannia for a gin and tonic and a chat. An hour later I had a flight back to London booked for the following morning and I was on the ‘phone to Ayla to break up with her. As she was only minutes away at the time we met outside the office and the planned short, simple parting took a couple of hours instead but part we eventually did and I joined Annalie and an other friend for the remains of dinner a single man.

The weight that had been lifted from my shoulders was a great one and I managed to rise at four the next morning far more easily without its burden than I might have done otherwise. Once order and reason had been restored on Friday evening I realised that the timing of events coincided fortuitously with my brother’s thirtieth birthday celebrations and that gave an extra lift to my flying to England. Neil in turn was very happy to see me and we had a great time.

It being an unofficial and unexpected week in England I had not made any plans before arriving and my attempts to catch up with friends and family turned into a bit of a disorganised rush. There only being the six days to play with it was a slightly disappointing rush in terms of the number of people I was able to see. It would take a far longer time away from work to truly satisfy me in that regard though. As it was I greatly enjoyed being back at home and catching up with the people I did meet and the trip certainly did what it was supposed to do in terms of helping me get over the break-up in Baku.

Several conversations during the week have given me food for thought in terms of how I might best move forward from here, both socially and work-wise. Living and working abroad is proving to be a curious process with its fare share of ups and downs. I visited the office briefly this afternoon to check e-mail and met one colleague there (Clive – lovely bloke). Aside from him I’ve spoken to nobody today apart from the woman at the check-out in the local supermarket and a couple of people in the lobbies here and at the office. It feels odd. After spending so much time constantly thinking about and planning around someone else it is obviously going to take a moment or two to get used to my own company again. All will be well though; of that I am sure.