Building up?

Baku, Sunday 26th February 2006

It’s half past eleven on a Sunday night and as I sit down to write I can still faintly discern the groan of the cement mixer motor fifteen floors below.  There’s a plot of land on the corner of my street that is being transformed from urban wasteland to new building at a frankly alarming rate; or so far any way.  Building sites are definitely the ‘must have’ accessory for any Baku businessman these days but the need to actually complete the building process appears to be debatable: colleagues are often pointing out part-finished tower blocks to me and commenting on how they seem to have languished untouched for months or even years.  Perhaps the plethora of incomplete towers is testament to some grand tax fiddle and we expats just aren’t fully in on the joke.  It wouldn’t be without precedent: there has for example been a variation going on in Cyprus for years.  All the modern concrete buildings there have flat ‘roofs’ and concrete reinforcement rods sticking out of the top of them like rusty tufts of hair.  The reason for this unsightly stubble?  The owners of the buildings can claim that the buildings are unfinished and have a floor to be added before the roof finally gets constructed.  Until construction has been thus ‘completed’ the government can not charge the usual taxes on the building.  Jolly good wheeze eh?  Reminds me of the old window tax in England.

If tax avoidance really is the name of the game then I would conjecture that the tax point in Baku is on cosmetic rendering rather than on roofs or windows.  Many of the buildings I see here have a full roof on them and frequently have double-glazed windows fitted, often with the maker’s plastic film still stuck on the frames.  The sight is made incongruous however by the fact that these windows are surrounded by bare concrete and brick work which is barely finished, often full of holes and in obvious need of some finishing layers of concrete and plaster to seal it.  Double points go to the buildings where electricity has obviously been connected and you can see lights on through the windows (and the holes) at night.  Surely the rooms can’t be sold or rented for use so soon…?  One of Baku’s many little mysteries…

At this stage in the proceedings it is too early to tell what the nascent building on my corner is intended to become but if its growth continues with the current rapidity we should all find out pretty soon.  It’s development is comparable to that of a child in that it has appeared very rapidly (after an apparently brief period of labour) and it requires regular nourishment at all hours of the day and night.

Three weeks ago there was nothing.  Two weeks ago there was a hole about twenty metres deep with perfectly square, flattened sides and floor and a roller and a bulldozer seemingly abandoned at the bottom of it.  Looking down as I walked past that night I was forced to conclude that the only way those machines could be recovered was by crane.  Two nights later at about midnight the crane was there along with a low-loader and the roller was already out.  How did the workmen who had used it make their escape I wonder…

Once the pristine hole had been emptied the real action started and last weekend came several tonnes of rough timber and concrete reinforcement rods, again in the middle of the night.  Somehow the workmen have spent the last few days laying down a framework with the rods and creating an irrigation system with the timber – either they have invisible ladders or they are capable of levitation.  Their moment of triumph was last night when I came home from town at four a.m. to find not just one but three concrete trucks formed up on the street pumping a huge tonnage of ready-mix into the timber channels.  Thankfully I was too tired not to sleep, otherwise the sound of three mixer motors and three truck engines combined might have proven rather challenging.  Goodness only knows what my neighbours nearer the ground floor made of it all.

Not being and architect or an engineer I’m unable to comment upon the merits and demerits of the construction process I am witnessing: it could be a superb piece of work or it could be a collapsing embarrassment waiting to happen.  Regardless, it’s mildly fascinating to watch the birth of a new building literally from the ground up and see it all happening so fast.  Builders in London would be shocked at the progress; in fact didn’t I read a headline a couple of days ago saying that the new Wembley stadium is behind schedule and won’t be ready in time for the FA Cup final?

A little over an hour has passed and the sound of the mixer motor downstairs is starting to resemble whale song: definitely time for bed I think!


Brief breath

How’s things?  It’s still definitely Winter here but most days while still cold are now dry and sunny rather than wet and grey so spirits are definitely lifting.  The lengthening days now mean I leave for work after dawn rather than before which also helps.

It’s a crisp, bright morning outside with barely a breath of wind and the Caspian is as calm as a mill pond – a rare occurence.  The timing is fortuitous as we’re planning to lift one of the ‘spud cans’ into the water today: a 1500 tonne pastry cutter the size of a country house which the rig will wear like a shoe to gain secure purchase on the seabed.  The operation is delicate to say the least and I’d imagine our project weather forecasters are praying for the wind to stay away.

In other news: there’s a wedding fast approaching in Indiana, a baby overdue in London and not a lot happening in UAE if the local newspapers are anything to go by.  What’s happening where you are?  Keep the updates coming – they are always much appreciated.

The Job

Baku, Sunday 19th February 2006

“Giselle” has just provided a most welcome moment of levity at the end of a largely heavy week.  Down at the yard people are starting to brandish deadlines with serious intent and the already presto pace is about to hit prestissimo.  With this thought in mind, now seems as good a time as any to offer a bit of an explanation about what I’m actually doing here.

I can’t quote the exact figures (and I doubt anyone can) but it has been estimated that there is enough oil and gas under the Caspian Sea to make this region a serious global competitor in the energy producing game.  If Azerbaijan’s situation is typical then I’ll believe it: this country has been almost literally bursting at the seams with oil.  It seeps out of the ground, it seeps into the sea; this was one of the first oil-producing nations on earth.  The term ‘oil well’ was created here because when people first started using the stuff all they had to do to collect it was dig a hole in the ground and scoop it up with buckets.

During the time of the USSR the onshore oil was extracted in huge quantities and with scant regard for environmental or health concerns.  The legacy of the period will live forever in the thousands of old ‘nodding donkey’ pumps and rusted drilling derricks that litter the country, often standing next to open pools of crude oil and filthy ‘produced water’ that has been pumped up with it.  James Bond fans who come here all recognise the location used to film an intro sequence to one of Brosnan’s episodes (it might be “Goldeneye” but as I haven’t seen the films I don’t know precisely): it’s a stark, naked, scarred piece of land the size of a small town, all of it an oil field.  I’ve attached a couple of photographs to give an impression of the place but they don’t do it justice.

Nowadays Azerbaijan is independent, the international oil giants have moved in and BP is one of the biggest players in town.  BP is the operating party in a partnership of six companies funding the Shah Deniz project: a project to design, construct and install an offshore production platform plus onshore terminal plus pipeline between them to extract gas and condensate from an extremely large reservoir discovered approximately 20 miles of the coast.  The project received the green light in February 2002 and I’ve been working on it since May 2004 (which is not bad for a six week temping assignment).

Having been a “Technical Administrator” in Sutton for six months and Paris for a year, I now find myself dubbed “IM Data Coordinator” in Baku for an alleged six months: a new role that takes me away from admin and places me in the midst of the engineering team.  This is a significant step up in the grand scheme of things as I no longer have to worry about photocopying or monitoring the coffee supply.  It’s also a mighty great challenge seeing as I know diddly squat about engineering and I’m now one-to-one with some of the best engineers in the business, all of whom work within a framework of processes and lingo that I am rushing to comprehend.  Superficially my job has nothing to do with engineering (I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise!) but as part of my remit is to persuade these engineers to do a lot of work they don’t want to do I need to be able to walk the walk the talk the talk, or at least fake it very convincingly.

As IM Data Coordinator I am custodian of a large database – the IM standing for Information Management in this particular case.  The database needs to be filled with all the engineering data relating to the offshore platform before the engineering team hand over to the operations team and the platform sets off on its twenty-ish mile voyage to the gas reservoir.  This may sound like a relatively simple and mundane undertaking but when the deadlines are tight and the amount of data you need to collect is vast, things start to get interesting:

A couple of hundred metres away from my desk is a TPG500 jack-up production rig standing on its three legs by the quayside.  It’s not one of the biggest of its ilk but it still looks roughly the size of a smaller inner London council estate and about as pretty (readers in Paris: imagine the Pompidou Centre on stilts).  It’s got all the bells and whistles on it: drilling equipment set (DES), gas processing plant and living quarters for the crew who will run and maintain it.  There’s an awful lot of component parts: pipes, instruments, generators, cabling, you name it.  Many of those parts will need regular inspection and maintenance and they have each been given unique identity tags to make this possible.  This is where the database comes in.

We’ve got around fifty thousand tags recorded on the rig, identifying everything from the vent tower which is one hundred metres tall to the smallest sensors and switches in the electrical circuits.  Each of these tags carries attributes such as make, model, serial number, location and so on.  The exact number of attributes required varies depending on what type of equipment the tag is attached to: instruments for example carry a load of them because there are various settings and calibrations to record.  On average there will be about thirty attributes per tag.  Multiply that by the number of tags and our database has approximately one and a half million fields of data that require filling.

The plan way back whenever was that engineers would top up the database at the same time as they continued the main design and construction work.  This might have worked if someone had enforced the plan rigorously from day one but they didn’t and nature being what it is, most engineers found that getting on with the next bit of engineering was far more important than stopping to fill in spreadsheets or whatever.  Net result: we have a rig that’s nearly ready to sail and a database that needs some holes filling; trouble being that the rig is not allowed to sail until the database contains sufficient data.  Alarm bells finally started ringing just before last Christmas.

I am part of a rapidly drawn-up plan to get this database filled fast as there will be hell to pay if any sort of delay is caused by its incompleteness.  In addition to my deep water immersion in engineering life I am crash-coursing in eWarehouse (the database software), Business Objects (the software we’re using to report on the status of the database) and a proprietary piece of software called DQF which we use to upload data into the database from either Excel spreadsheets or Access tables.  That’s the easy stuff.  Finding the missing data, getting engineers to help find it and to enter it into spreadsheets for uploading are some of the greater challenges of the working day.  The situation for the engineers has changed little and many still have a dozen other urgent things to do before they’ll consider setting aside time to hunt down schematics or record some calibrations.  Lots to do.

It’s not all doom and gloom though: we are making progress and I can say that my efforts are having a positive effect.  The engineers are a decent bunch of people who have so far shown me a great deal of patience and goodwill and if I can translate that goodwill into hard graft for the IM cause over the coming weeks there’s hope yet.  Don’t expect me to radiate Bob the Builder levels of confidence but can we fix it?  We’re going to give it a jolly good try!


Somebody out there is…

Life in these parts must be starting to get internationally interesting as I’ve just received an e-mail from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office concerning avian ‘flu, a couple of recent muggings of expats in the town and the situation regarding protests against the cartoons depicting The Prophet.  Cheerfully, the FCO are making no claims to be able to save me if I contract a nasty dose avian ‘flu:  it’s just as well I don’t live or work near any poultry so shouldn’t have to trouble them.

Song and Dance

Baku, Sunday 12th February 2006

There can’t be many people in this town who can say they’ve been driven home in the Norwegian ambassador’s car (not that I expect it to be an aspiration at the top of everyone’s wish list) but I now count amongst those few.  Naturally there’s a caveat as this is Baku.  I haven’t suddenly fallen in with diplomatic set and spent an evening enjoying a Ferrero Rocher moment at the Norwegian embassy, I’ve simply cadged a lift home from the city’s Concert Hall courtesy of a chap called Joe.

Joe tells me that he and the ambassador have been good friends for quite a while so when the car went on the market Joe was happy to buy it knowing it had been well maintained (unlike the majority of vehicles here).  Unfortunately the ambassador and the Azeri government are not such good friends and the tensions have made themselves felt in this transaction.

After buying the car Joe did what you or I would do and applied to change the vehicle’s registration details into his name.  A straightforward operation?  Usually yes but not on this occasion.  The transfer has been blocked by someone in the government simply because they know it was the Norwegian ambassador’s car.  Joe has thus far been unable to do anything about it having bought the car two years ago.  He had it locked in a garage for a year and a half but eventually started driving it this winter.  I don’t blame him: it’s a four wheel drive Volvo 850 and as such is one of the few cars here that could cope with the recent snow.  Only trouble is, the car is still carrying the distinctive bright red plates that diplomatic vehicles have to carry here.

It was a suitably amusing conclusion to what has been quite an entertaining weekend.  In a break from the usual office routine of expat bar Saturday night followed by recovery all day Sunday, I have seen two shows and experienced the delights of Russian karaoke this weekend.

The catalyst for change was provided by two sisters who have befriended me: Emiliya and Ella.  We met at an apartment party a couple of weeks ago and I soon found out that Emiliya dances with the Baku ballet company, as did Ella until she retired last year.  Invitations to attend ballet performances followed rapidly so last Saturday night started for me at the opera house with a performance of “Love and Death” – a recent national piece.

Going to the ballet in Baku seems to be more about social preening than appreciating the performance.  This may be the situation the world over but as I haven’t been to many ballets I can’t comment.  Either way, it’s pretty obvious here.  I stood outside the opera house for 10 minutes waiting for Ella and watched a growing number of lavishly dressed locals arrive and position themselves at suitable points under the large portico so that they could see and be seen at best advantage.  The displays and the gossiping continue through the mandatory cloakroom (a large security man sent me back to use it when I attempted to walk into the foyer with my coat) and into the auditorium.  If only they would stop there but they don’t and my enjoyment of the performance was somewhat marred by several loud conversations going on around me and even the occasional ringing of mobile ‘phones.  I’m told that this is the norm and it’s a shame because the dancers are good, there’s a decent-sized orchestra of genuine live musicians in the pit (a sadly dwindling sight back home) and an auditorium with good space and acoustics in which to enjoy it all.  Undeterred, I am planning to go back for “Giselle” next week and “Swan Lake” in March: ballet is an art I’ve been meaning to see more of since researching it at college and now seems like as good a time as any to do so.

After the show and a coffee with Emiliya and Ella I bid them farewell and headed to a rendezvous with colleagues at Finnegan’s: an Irish-themed bar if you haven’t already guessed and one that is much favoured by expats.  They have a live band there on a Saturday night who play commendable covers of various ‘western’ favourites.  Their version of ‘Delilah’ is particularly amusing as the young man who sings it sounds nothing like Tom Jones but does sound similar to the Leningrad Cowboys: a Finnish band who have covered the same song with the whole Red Army Ensemble on stage behind them joining in with the choruses.

The stage is open to those who can make a half-decent job of playing or singing and I must confess to having caterwauled through a couple of songs myself in the past.  Much as the thought must make you cringe it seems that not only my colleagues but one of the band’s singers has been quite impressed.  She beckoned me up on to the stage and when I declined we got chatting instead.  She introduced herself as Olga and suggested that we went to a karaoke bar.  Always game to try anything once, I agreed.

The first thing that struck me was the darkness: the brightest sources of light in the place were the half-dozen or so high-mounted televisions that carried the words to the songs and the utterly naff video sequences that accompanied them.  Perhaps it’s a privacy/modesty thing as there wasn’t a stage or a spotlight.  Instead people were sat on low sofas and chairs with views of the televisions and the bar staff were passing radio mics from singer to singer as each turn came round.

The quality of the singing wasn’t all that bad compared to the few times I’ve witnessed karaoke in England; there were one or two fog horns in the house but most people were holding a tune well enough.  The majority of the performers were men mumbling in baritone and perhaps it was this that gave me the impression after a while that all the songs sounded the same.  On this evidence recent Russian music does not strike me as being the best canon from which to draw karaoke material.

Luckily there were several pages of English language songs in the book as well and amongst the old Sinatra staples and modern pop must-haves like Britney’s ‘Toxic’ were some very strange additions and omissions.  I never realised for instance that Samantha Fox had released so many songs or could be so popular as to have nearly and album’s worth of tracks listed in the book.  At the other end of the scale I can only assume that the B-52s never made it big in Russia as their ‘Loveshack’ was noticeable by its absence.

Olga introduced me to a couple of friends of hers, one of whom was a chap who’d lived in London for a while.  He had a grasp of English slang and a deadpan, Russian-accented delivery that amused me no end.  I guess we only stayed for an hour or so (the old ‘time through a lens’ trick again) before we all departed for our respective homes.  They’re a group of people I’d like to meet again but given the choice I’d make the next venue somewhere other than a karaoke bar.

After a lazy lie-in I had the Turkish ballet to look forward to this evening.  A show called “Shaman” (accent on the second syllable) was playing at the city Concert Hall (a place not unlike the Royal Festival Hall in London) and the sisters were getting a group together to go see it.  After Azeri ballet and Russian karaoke I felt a bit of Turkish ballet would complete the hat-trick nicely so off I went.  It transpired that the show was not ballet at all but more a Turkish equivalent of “Riverdance” with lots of national and folk dances and a cast of  twenty-odd doing various set-pieces across the vast stage.  As at the opera house, the audience was dressed to the nines and there to talk more than watch but the music was recorded rather than live this time and the PA system was loud enough to drown out most of the chatter.  The show itself was a little uneven and short on polish in my opinion (not good when the tickets cost over twice as much as the night before) but there were some good moments and as an educational experience it was certainly worthwhile.

With the Concert Hall being many times larger than the opera house there was utter chaos in the mandatory cloakroom once the performance had ended.  Luckily they keep the nearest bar open after the show so one can sit down with tea and cake and wait for the crowd to dissipate before stepping up to the counter – something I’ll have to remember for next time.

Coat and scarf reclaimed it was back out in the cold and after the fun I’ve had with taxis recently (did I find the only one-eyed, non-English-speaking driver in Baku who didn’t know the way to the opera house yesterday?) I was more than happy to accept the offer of a lift home; even when the car turned out to have red plates.


Time and Motion

Baku, Monday 6th February 2006

Come the dawn I’ll have been here a month already.  How on earth did that happen?  I’ve only just arrived!  As beauty be in the eye of the beholder, so truly time must quantify within just as wide a range of measures.  Should I yearn for the days when a six-week Summer holiday from school seemed to last an eternity or when four weeks in South Africa seemed like a lifetime in an other world?  Of course not.  I think I’m starting to understand why Oil of Olay sells so well though.

The situation here is not helped by a mild sense of claustrophobia.  An endless succession of dark exteriors and artificially lit interiors combined with the incestuous structure of expat life makes each day blur into the other far too easily.  From apartment to car to office to bar with familiar faces at every turn and very little time in which to truly get away from ‘the job’ – it can feel like life and time are both being gently warped by a slightly imperfect lens.  This is to be expected though and I knew what I was signing up for when I took the posting.  No need to get agitated about it; rather I think of it as a facet of what I’ve been referring to as ‘life in the expat bubble.’

Compared to working at some of oil exploration’s more remote and/or inhospitable locations (I hear Nigeria is worth avoiding for example) a posting to Azerbaijan is a pretty soft deal.  Baku has all the quantity and variety of shops, businesses, traffic and people you might need to persuade you that you’re living in a city not too far different from one nearer home.  Rather like the Britannia Pub’s “chicken provensal” however, the resemblance is mostly superficial.  The shops on the sea-front Boulevard selling Patek Philippe, Chopard and Mont Blanc may all look very Riviera in their nineteenth century Italian-designed architecture but one is constantly reminded that ninety-nine percent of the people passing the windows do not have the money to buy any of the wares on display.

Those shops are not aimed exclusively at expats.  The growing number of locally registered new Mercedes and BMWs terrorising the city streets is one of the more obvious signs that oil wealth is definitely getting spent somewhere in Azerbaijan.  Look at what they’re driving through though: roads like farm tracks, endless blocks of Soviet-era buildings on the verge of collapse and countless people standing on kerbsides waiting for a seat in one of the rickety old death-traps that constitute Baku’s apparently unofficial and unregulated bus service.

The average working wage here is reported to be well under one hundred US dollars a month but notable exception is the city police.  Corruption, as you may have gathered, is a way of life for many here and unfortunately the police have a record for being particularly susceptible.  Many is the story I have heard from locals and expats alike telling of how a driver has been pulled over for some spurious reason (or sometimes none at all) only to be sent on his way once more after a suitable amount of money has been handed over.  The government’s solution to this problem: last year a fleet of brand new VW Passats and BMW 5-series replaced the old police cars and police wages went up from one hundred to six hundred US dollars per month overnight.  These drastic changes were cited as the removal of all causes for corruption in the force.  In the long run you might see it being a success if you’re an avid optimist; in the meantime a leopard can’t change its spots:

The vast majority of taxis in Baku are Ladas, Volgas (the other Russian staple) or bright yellow Tofas’ (Turkish cars based on seventies Renaults and eighties Fiats).  There’s the odd late-model Mercedes cab out there too and when my colleague Dave and I spotted one while looking for a ride homewards on Sunday evening we took it.  The journey is a short, simple one and our driver was being perfectly sane and sensible at the wheel so I was quite surprised when he decided to pull in on a slip road off a roundabout for no apparent reason.  He got out and walked to the back of the car, at which point I looked through the rear window and saw the police Passat parked right behind us.  Dave and I stayed put.  A minute or so later our driver got back in the car and we finished our journey (all 30 seconds of it by that stage).  Our driver muttered “just money” in disgruntled tones as we pulled back into the traffic.

Dave and I couldn’t come up with an obvious explanation for the episode.  The best guess is that the policemen took one look and decided that a cabbie who had enough money to run a Mercedes would probably have enough money to bung them a couple of bucks to keep business going that day.  Suffice to say I’m sticking with the Ladas for future journeys.

As has been the case in so many places and times before it would appear that wealth is in the hands of particularly small minority.  As an expat – particularly an oil company expat – one is incontrovertibly part of that group on paper and it’s not something that sits particularly comfortably with me.  I try to maintain a down-to-earth approach in life but there are no doors in the expat bubble, one can only remain within it or burst it.  As the latter would be a somewhat foolhardy action for a greenhorn such as me I decided before I came here that I’d stick with the bubble and just deal with the nagging feels of hypocrisy that come with it.

Thankfully the bubble is at street level rather than perched at the top of an ivory tower and I’ve met some great people here with whom I’ve had some great conversations.  The man at the corner shop speaks no English and I speak no Russian or Azeri yet we still managed a perfectly meaningful exchange of the subject of choosing butter a few hours ago.  I have been pausing while writing this to conduct a text message conversation with a local twenty-one-year-old and as a result I find I now know a little bit about post-war German literature (addressing one of the many huge gaps in my literary knowledge).

I’m managing to do one of the things I came here to do, namely to learn something about a part of the world I know very little about and do so first hand.  This is a land full of history, culture and diversity populated by intelligent, educated and hospitable people.  While the means that have brought me and are sustaining me may be questionable, I nevertheless feel very fortunate to be here.  When my time is done and I say my farewells I hope to leave having gained a lot of good knowledge and perhaps a few friends if I’m lucky.  Only time will tell.


Music and Meteorology

Baku, Sunday 29th January 2006

I miss my music.  A couple of weeks ago I wrote that the only thing I forgot to pack was my currency; that was not strictly true.  Like a proper idiot I did such a good job of hurriedly putting much of my music equipment and discs into storage before leaving England that I stored my travelling CD wallet as well.  The result is that I’m sitting in the middle of Baku with no music of my own save for the two CD’s that I received for Christmas.  Most of you will know me well enough to appreciate that while this situation is not quite as dire as that of the fish out of water, it is probably comparable to that of the poor whale that swam up the river Thames last week.  What was he thinking?  Thankfully unlike the hapless whale I am neither at death’s door nor surrounded by anxious would-be saviours trying to rescue me (though Ayaz the driver did force “Chris Rea’s Greatest Hits” upon me a couple of nights ago: ‘On The Beach’ is aging surprisingly well…).  Instead Deep Dish’s “George Is On” and “Diary of a digital soundboy” by Shy FX and T Power are doing sterling tag team shift-work on my eardrums; Kris, Rich, Monica: thank you again!

The situation is further aided by the rather swish home cinema sound system that at time of writing is putting some healthy amounts of sub-bass into one of T Power’s squelchier d&b tunes.  Yes, I have finally moved into the apartment.  No more for me the running skirmishes with hotel housekeeping on a Sunday as I try to relax while they try to kick me out and give the room a thorough seeing-to.  This space is my space and my oh my isn’t there a lot of it.  Just the combined floor space of the living room and the hallway of this place is probably bigger than that of the whole flat I was living in three years ago in Brighton Road, Surbiton.  Add two decent-sized bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms and a very generous kitchen and you will understand how I sometimes feel like a marble rattling around in a tin dustbin.  It doesn’t help that all the floors are wood laminate and the place is virtually empty so my footsteps really echo.  My employment contract offers to freight “500 volumetric kilograms” (offers as to the definition of a “volumetric kilogram” gratefully received) to my doorstep so I am seriously considering getting my bass, my DJ rig and as many boxes of records as possible shipped out here pronto.  Should make for a memorable house-warming party if nothing else…

Of course size isn’t everything (allegedly) and there’s more to this apartment than its dimensions alone.  The décor for example is the most balanced of the ten offerings I saw in the process of seeking lodgings yet nonetheless gives the impression that the designer fantasised about an explosion in an ice-cream factory during its creation.  The wood floor is a warm toffee tone, the walls are half vanilla, half caramel, the doors are chocolate and the three piece suite is part hazelnut crunch, part strawberry.  That may sound like a hideous combination and I agree that even Willy Wonka might think twice before specifying such a scheme on paper but as you’ll see in the attached photo, in this space it actually works quite well.  It is augmented by what I can only assume must be a very carefully selected range of ornaments in that there are very few of them.  What I haven’t worked out yet is what complex criteria of taste and insight were applied when choosing said ornaments as they barely relate to each other let alone the apartment.  They’re so awful they’re great.  I don’t yet know which is my favourite; maybe the guinea-pig-sized velour lion with the fake fur mane and the bright red tongue; perhaps the similar size faux-bronze elephant balancing the clock on his back (with cheapo battery-powered movement therein of course).

Paintwork, soft furnishings and ornaments aside it is quite obvious that pride of place in this apartment goes to the television, as indeed it did in all the others.  Obviously the consensus amongst the landlords of Baku is that expats watch lots of television and don’t do much else.  I didn’t see a single decent stereo system on display in any of the places I visited but each of them exhibited a television the size of a shed door, a DVD player and usually a multi-speaker cinema sound package as well.  I’ve got the full monty here as I mentioned earlier but I don’t watch a lot of television and buying a DVD is one of life’s little pleasures I have yet to experience.  Should the mood ever take me I could pop downtown and pick up a copy of any of the latest films for a couple of quid but the fact that many of them are literally camcorder-in-cinema recordings is just one of the reasons I didn’t feel tempted to buy “King Kong” today.

No sir, for those occasions where I feel the urge to vegetate in front of the screen there is more than enough amusement to be had flicking between the thirty or so television channels that come as standard here thank you.  Baku may somehow fail to register on both of the Euronews weather maps (that’s European AND World) but I seem to be sitting under an international television hub.  While the only English-speaking channel appears to be BBC Prime (shame) I’ve discovered music channels in Azeri, Turkish, Russian and even Polish – none of which is MTV I might add – and they’re all great fun.  Alongside some popular favourites from the ‘Western’ world (although I really think the Americans should have kept The Pussycat Dolls to themselves) there’s a healthy dose of local content to enjoy, especially from Turkey.

It would appear that traditional styles remain very strong in Turkish pop.  I particularly remember a chart video featuring a striking female singer backed by fifteen to twenty musicians playing mostly traditional instruments, all dressed in evening wear.  If you watched with the sound off you could imagine it was an opera recital but listening to the song it had a definite modern sound to the production.  Unfortunately Turkish rock bands seem to have got it the other way around.  The ones I’ve seen so far look like they know what they’re doing but play simply awful music that sounds like it’s been lifted from a cheap rock compilation album that was originally released circa 1982.  Where did it all go wrong?

While the combination of musical old and new may be producing mixed results in Turkey it’s being taken in totally new directions here on the streets of Baku.  I strolled to the end of my street to find a taxi last night and agreed the journey with a young man on the corner.  His car turned out to be an older example of the ubiquitous Lada and it sounded suitably tired as he cranked the engine a couple of times to get it started.  I was expecting the usual racing start into the traffic as soon as the engine fired but this was not just any old taxi.  Before pulling away my driver took a moment to fire up an LCD video screen he’d fixed to the middle of the dashboard and start his compilation DVD of current American pop videos.  My jalopy ride downtown was accompanied by the latest from the likes of Ludacris, Eminem and Britney Spears in full digital sound and vision.  Once we’d reached journey’s end my driver offered me his card and invited me to call any time: I appear to have this MTV wagon at my disposal.  Just imagine, I could spend all my spare time and even all my travelling time watching music videos – my cup overfloweth.  It’s not me though.  Small doses here and there are entertaining but each time it’s some-one else who’s calling the tune.  I still miss my music.


Baku – Brightening

Baku, Sunday 22nd January 2006

It’s approaching eight in the evening in The Britannia Pub, Gabrielle has just handed over to Queen on the stereo system and the large television in the corner is showing a satellite sports channel.  For all intents and purposes I am sitting in a typical old-style English pub that just happens to be a bit far from home.  Except I’m not.

One of things you soon learn about Baku is that anything you recognise here as ‘something from home’ will not be so familiar on closer inspection.  There is a process of local reinterpretation at work which combines knowledge, guesswork and flair in varying ratios and can produce some amusing results.  At the simple end of the spectrum you have examples like the ‘chicken provensal’ (sic) that I ate here a few nights ago.  It contained chicken and a healthy dose of tomato but there the resemblance ended as it looked and tasted quite different from Provencal dishes as served in France or indeed England.  Still a perfectly enjoyable meal mind.

At the more intriguing end of things you have places like this Britannia Pub.  As it’s a Hyatt hotel bar rather than independent premises it was probably destined to suffer a mild dose of schizophrenia regardless of how the décor was executed.  That doesn’t excuse a tartan carpet in strident red and green with an orange trace though.  I don’t recall green Venetian blinds being too common in English pubs either.  At least the choice of ornaments while being equally naff is a bit more endearing.  The two painted tailor’s dummies (one for “golfing costumes” and one for “boating costumes”), the two foot long nineteenth century warship and the ornate wooden championship board from the All-England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (“Presented by His Grace the Eighth Duke of Beaufort on 12th June 1880” don’t you know?) are so OTT they’re inspired.  My favourites however have to be the two commemorative rowing blades hanging from the ceiling; if only because one of them purports to have been won by Kingston Rowing Club at the Thames Regatta of 1872.  Small world isn’t it?

The plan was to write this in my newly acquired apartment and tell you all about my new lodgings but things are taking a little longer than planned (the landlord has had to return some damaged-on-delivery furniture) and I should be receiving the keys tomorrow evening.  From what I remember of the place – which isn’t much having seen it briefly as one in a series of stops during a magical mystery tour of town one night a week and a half ago – it should make for interesting accommodation over the coming months.  More news next week I hope.

In the meantime, other highlights of the week.  The delightful doctor who conducted my medical in such amusing fashion seems to be becoming a recurrent theme.  When I went back to the clinic to collect the certificate I was expecting to dash in, pick up the paperwork and dash out again but no, it was not to be.  The wrong certificate had been issued (an Offshore rather than and Onshore certificate) so the receptionist had to produce a new one and get it signed; enter stage right our delightful doctor.  She sat me down in the consulting room, talked me through all the test results and eventually autographed the certificate.  I observed in passing that I was surprised to see the blood test showing me as type O positive as I had always believed myself to be A positive.  Doctor was very surprised to find that I’d never had a type test done before but otherwise left it at that.

Five minutes later I’m in the car heading for the office and my ‘phone rings.  It’s the doctor.  Apparently there are two systems used to express blood type: a letter system and a number system and I’m not O but zero which equates with A.  Thank you doctor, have a good day.  Two minutes later the ‘phone rings again.  Actually, you can’t be zero because it doesn’t run zero, one, two, three but rather one, two, three, four and you are type O.  Thank you doctor, have a good day.  Two minutes later: sorry, no you’re type three on the number system which means…  Right now I am completely baffled by the thought of what’s going round my cardiovascular system.  As luck would have it (good or bad, you choose) I am returning to the clinic next month for the second shot in the hepatitis series and Doc has said she’ll sit me down with the two different blood type tables and explain what’s going on.  Anybody want to offer odds on how long that will take?

On a more sombre note, Friday was the annual day off (I was corrected when referring to it as a national holiday) to observe the national day of mourning for Bloody Monday, also known as Martyrs’ Day.  I was here at the same time last year and remember it well.  Bloody Monday was 20th January 1990, the day when Russia ordered tanks into the streets of Baku (Azerbaijan was still part of the USSR at the time) to quell alleged violent protests.  The action is widely perceived to have been an over-strong reaction by the Kremlin to a perceived rise in the desire for independence among states in this area.  There is no excuse for the deaths of several hundred innocent civilians, mostly run over by tanks or shot, many of whom were women and children.

The date is seen as key to the identity of Azerbaijan.  All flags are flown at half mast, shops and restaurants are closed and no music is played in public places.  There is a cemetery on a hillside near the centre of Baku where the victims of Bloody Monday have been interred.  According to a newspaper report I read, this cemetery is visited by a constant stream of people all day and when all national television stations go off-air for the day except for two, at least one of them runs live feed from the cemetery for the entire day.

Russia’s action arguably had the reverse effect: Azerbaijan gained independence the following year and it has been said that the pace of change was accelerated in the wake of Bloody Monday.

At the yard we observed a minute’s silence at noon in recognition of the day.  The fire alarms were sounded at twelve and we all filed out into the cold to congregate for the minute.  It was the most un-silent minute’s silence I’ve yet witnessed and strangely enough it seemed to be the Azeris who were the most chatty.  Once we’d got back inside I asked a colleague about it.  She replied that many younger people simply aren’t too fussed about remembering.  Coming from England where we still observe a stricter silence for the two World Wars I found it surprising that people should apparently care little for an event that took place right on their doorstep far more recently.  Perhaps it can be read as a sign of the younger generation’s disillusionment with the current government but that is purely conjecture on my part.  It doesn’t sit easily with my memories of last year when I went to an art gallery full of paintings by school children expressing their thoughts on the event, many of which were very emotive.  I ain’t no political commentator.  If you’d like to know a little more about the event it’s worth having a look at for some video clips, news cuttings and opinion.

Well, it’s coming up bedtime and the battery in this laptop has just about had it; time to go.  In the course of this last hour or so I have observed that Paris St. Germain have beaten Troyes in the French League One today so I expect there will be jubilation in the Reidor household (Sabrina’s dad is a PSG supporter).  It also looks like Maria Sharapova has won her fourth round match in Melbourne and Liverpool have just lost 1-0 to Man U in the English Premiership.  There’s been a darts match going on behind me for about twenty minutes but I haven’t got a clue what the score is.  It’s been a bit like a typical evening in an old-style English pub really…


First news from Baku

Hello all

A belated Happy New Year to those of you I haven’t seen for a while and my apologies to those of you I haven’t seen for so long that you’re wondering what this “Baku” thing is about in the first place.

The story so far: I’ve arrived for a six-month assignment, my first week has flown by and yet somehow it already feels like I’ve been here for ages.  It’s probably the waking up in the dark and leaving the office in the dark that does it.  That and being thrown in at the very very deep end job-wise but that’s an other story.

As time to type e-mails is scarce round here, I scrawled a few thoughts on the attached Word document during Sunday afternoon.  Hopefully you will be able to open it and read it but if not let me know and I will send it in an alternative format.  Praise, comments and criticisms of the writing will all be gratefully received as I’m planning to send a similar chunk of news every week or so.  Let me know how keen or otherwise you are on that idea and I can stop sending the stuff or continue according to your preference.

Keep well.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Baku, Sunday 15th January 2006

Late afternoon, grey light under grey skies outside the window.  The first snow of the year has been falling for an hour or so and the road outside is a muddy waterway.  It’s only during the infrequent rain or snowfall that you realise how much dirt there is around here: Baku is a sprawling city in the middle of a semi-arid desert region which is regularly swept by winds – a vast dust trap.  Add to that the muck being dug up in the hundreds of building sites that the new oil money has spawned and you have a city that is mired in mud.  It’s a shame because the labour-intensive litter removal policy and the apparent absence of pet dogs make the streets of Baku a relatively clean place to be on a dry day.  As it is, it’s rained every day since I got here…

In some ways my first week has been much like my previous visits: same hotel with mostly the same staff, same erratic sleep patterns and same psychotic traffic where four cars out of five are Ladas and every single driver thinks he’s Valentino Rossi on a qualifying lap.  Almost hard to believe it’s been a year since I first came here.  It’s not been a dull week though.  After a painless journey on Saturday (aside from leaving my currency in London like a fool) and quiet, acclimatising Sunday it was heads down and at it on Monday morning.

We have two main sites on this job: the Hyatt office (right next to the hotel, usefully) and the Zykh yard – about 5 miles away – where the main offices are located and the actual platform is being built.  I’m based at Zykh but as my agency had booked me in for a medical examination at 11:00 on Monday – expected duration: one hour – I started the day at Hyatt and planned to be at Zykh by early afternoon.  What a silly idea that was.

The driver delivered me to the door of the medical centre at 11:00 precisely; a fine effort given the weight of traffic; just a shame it was the wrong door.  A bemused nurse escorted me round the block to the correct door and introduced me to the receptionist there who promptly handed me a form to fill in.  After 10 minutes I’d written down all the details that I thought any doctor would ever want to know about me prior to an examination, at which point the receptionist looked at an answer I’d supplied to one of the questions and handed me an other form to fill in.  I should point out that both forms appeared to duplicate the questions asked in the detailed company form that I had brought with me.  Still, once I’d eventually ticked this, written that and scribbled my signature in all sorts of places I was eventually told I could take a seat.  It was 11:20.

Stage One was a physical examination – the usual height, weight, blood pressure etc. – conducted by a female doctor who seemed more keen on discussing the finer points of the English language than getting the examination completed and who took a very maternal interest in my wellbeing.  Once we’d converted metric to imperial a few times, sorted out a few irregular verbs and agreed to waive the prostate test she concluded the examination by advising me in very earnest tones that if I want to find a girlfriend in Baku I should avoid all girls in bars as they all have diseases.  Not the sort of thing one expects to hear from a woman one has only just met.  It was now around 12:00.

After an other pause in the waiting area I was collected by a nurse for Stage Two: a sight test, a blood test, some booster shots for my vaccinations and a drugs test by urinalysis.  My eyes were at there usual level of mild impairment, the blood extraction hurt as always and the booster injections seemed pretty tame coming straight after it.  Not having done a drugs test before, I wasn’t expecting it to be on the spot (the blood was going to take a few days after all) but it was.  The nurse produced a multi-tipped litmus paper device that tested for so many narcotics I couldn’t even recognise half of them.  Tension mounted as elements of the test device failed to register a reading.  A second nurse was hailed and after a rapid exchange in Azeri/Russian a second test device was produced.  Just as well I’d provided a pretty full cup…  Luckily all the elements of the second test worked well and we all left happy.  It was about 13:00.

Stage Three was a chest X-ray.  Why a thirty year-old desk jockey needs a chest X-ray I don’t know but I wasn’t in a position to argue.  I was collected from the waiting area by the nurse who’d brought me round the block from the wrong door; perhaps she was the only one permitted to step outside…?  We got into a freezing cold ambulance and drove to the city hospital – a glum and cheerless place that made Kingston Hospital look like a holiday camp.  After sitting in a narrow corridor for a while amidst a selection of morose-looking individuals (and that was just the staff) my nurse ushered me into the X-ray room.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that my nurse was tiny young woman with a pleasant voice and a warm smile.  It took me a while to realise that the loud, deep voice-of-doom addressing me through a loud PA system from a radiation-proof bunker adjacent to the X-ray room actually was her voice.  No other English speakers in the area though apart from me so it must have been her.  Standing alone in a cold marble cell, accompanied by nothing but a radioactive device of uncertain age and maintenance history, can have interesting effects on one’s senses.

Shirt off, zap, shirt on, out.  All done in about two minutes and then back to the corridor of pleasures for a bit more waiting.  Someone eventually appeared from a side door and gave an enigmatic nod to my nurse (“he’ll live” or something similar) after which we were back into the ambulance and back to the clinic.  I can’t help thinking we must have been doing some serious queue-jumping there; one of those uncomfortable episodes where you simultaneously appreciate and despise the privileged position of being an oil company expat in a country where money talks.

Back at the clinic I was finally told I was free to go.  It was 14:30.

Getting to Zykh for the afternoon was obviously not going to happen so I called, explained and re-arranged.  Not a problem.

Next stop was my agency’s office but the rest of the day and indeed the week can wait for an other occasion.