Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Traveller

People often get the wrong impression about my job and especially the amount of travelling that comes with it.

I remember having a conversation with my ex-brother-in-law some years ago.  I was working in Zurich at the time, which meant a very easy commute.....basically an hour and half's flight on a Monday morning, return on Friday evening, 15 minute cab ride between home and the airport each way, and maybe an hours' waiting time (in a comfortable Business Lounge) at both airports.  My hotel was 10 minutes' walk from the client, and the airport itself is only a 10 minute train ride from the Hauptbahnhof, with about 5 trains an hour.  My total travel time for the whole week was probably no more than seven hours.  Compare and contrast that with Mark's commute.  At that time he was living in Kent, and working in Docklands, East London, and because of the hours he was at that time working it meant he had to drive to and from the office.  Country lanes, M25, A2, then the roads around Blackwall Tunnel....I've done it myself many times, in a former life, and you can reckon on at least 3 hours a day in total, most days nearer 4.  So effectively, he was much worse off than me, even though my "commute" involved taxis, trains and international flights.  He was surprised at that.  OK, it was an work journeys are rarely that straightforward, although I alway ensure my hotel is located (as far as is possible anyway) within walking distance of the client site.  If I take away the flying part (and all that goes with waiting for flights, potential delays and so on), it's very rare that I spend more than a couple hours a week walking to and from work.  Quite literally, it's a walk in the park.

I'm based in the Central European region in our company's hierarchy, which means that the majority of trips take place within a couple of hours' flying time of Warsaw.   There is the occasional longer trip - my farthest east is Almaty, west Mexico City, north Stockholm and south Nairobi Kenya, with a couple in the middle east (Saudi and Abu Dhabi) - but they are very much the exception.

So all in all the travel is not all that difficult to cope with.

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The other misconception is that my job is somehow glamourous, on the basis that if I'm going to all these places, making all these flights and staying in all these hotels, it must be....Q.E.D.  Let me tell you now, it isn't.  In 11 years I've seen only two celebrities, both in airport lounges.  About 8 years ago I spotted F1 legend David Coulthard in the BA Lounge in Heathrow, on his way to Barcelona for some pre-season testing.  Then a couple of years ago I saw CNN's excellent Richard Quest in Warsaw (he was actually on the same flight as me to Frankfurt).  I also once shared a Warsaw - Heathrow flight with Labour's then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook (this was a few months after 9/11 changed everything).  His aide wanted me to change seats with him so that he and Cook could work but I refused so Cook slept the whole way (the miserable bugger never thanked me either!).  But I don't class him as a celebrity.

The type of hotel I stay in probably goes a long way towards explaining this (and of course the company's Economy fare only, no Business Class rule).  I very rarely get to stay in anything above 3 stars - so average accomodation.  No glamour there, I can I assure you!

Sometimes I get lucky though.  I had a good week in New York at the Hyatt Grand Central, located in the Trump Tower, Midtown Manhattan.  My room was on the 73rd floor (or something equally ridiculous) and boasted fabulous views downtown to the old WTC.  But I didn't really appreciate it....I only really slept there.  By day I commuted out to New Jersey to work and in the evening my colleague and I spent our time in various local bars with his best mate from school who had an apartment on nearby 7th Avenue.  I got an almighty bollocking when I got back to the office the following week because of the expense (my excuse was I had been instructed to make the same booking as my more senior colleague....I got away with it).  Another time, a client in Abu Dhabi booked and paid for a fabulous hotel where I was placed in a little cottage with its own private beach access.  They soon saw the error of their ways though, and moved me after only one night into a city centre hotel 10 minutes walk from their office and right next door to a mosque (to my ears the muezzin's call to prayer is a discordant row at the best of times; at 5 in the morning  right outside my window it's absolute hell).

Usually, though, my hotels are functional rather than exceptional.  Double bed (although I've had two singles before), a colour tv of varying quality, an internet connection that is sometimes payable (but claimable on expenses) and a ridiculously expensive mini-bar.  Sometimes I get lucky and have coffee-making equipment in my room.....and even porn on the movie channel (again prohibitively expensive.....and not claimable on exepnses).  The bars are usually ok, the restaurants again of variable quality.  Breakfast usually inclusive, often good but sometimes absolute crap.  Again, not too much in the way of glamour there!

I've also had the odd entertaining hotel with wildlife in it.  In Bucharest I found a large cockroach (thankfully deceased) on the bathroom floor one morning.  I left it for the cleaners to dispose of, but it was still there when I checked out three days' later.  In the same hotel, a couple of weeks later, my first nights' sleep was disturbed by mysterious scratching sounds from the drawer of my bedside cabinet.  I think it was mice, but frankly I didn't open the drawer to check.  As it was my last week there I just left it and put up with it (sometimes I'm just too nice and English to complain!).  That hotel wasn't actually too bad.....there was an excellent pizza restaurant next door and around the corner an even better Irish bar...I spent many happy hot August evenings sitting outside with cold beers watching the world (and many beautiful scantily dressed Romanian girls) go by.

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In my first year with the company, I attended a Consultancy Skills training course, along with a dozen of my co-workers.  It was excellent, loads of role playing, and video-ing stuff, and taking the piss out of each others' efforts, and some terrific discussions.  But the thing I remember best was when we were asked by the course director (external to the company, a professional and brilliant trainer) to say what we liked best and worst about the job.  We all agreed the travel was great, experiencing new cultures, working as part of a team in a different country, perhaps learning bits of a new language, definitely learning more business stuff....  Then an Irish guy, an old hand who had been with the company for a few years, spoke up.

"I agree with all that," he said.  "But it can be so fuckin' lonely and unhealthy...."

It pulled us up short.  We were all relative newcomers (apart from the Irish guy we were all in our first year), had been on few projects and all part of teams on the sites we were working.  The idea of going solo hadn't really occurred to us.  He explained more.....

"Sometimes you're on your own," he said. "You're hundreds miles from home and know no-one apart from whoever you've been working with today.  You probably can't speak the lingo so you can't go anywhere much and can't understand a word of what's on the telly.  So what do you do?  You sit in the bar and drink too much, and eat more than you should, and smoke too many duty free fags.  It's awful....I hate those times."

Well.  You could have heard a pin drop.  The trainer nodded his agreement (he too had been around the block a few times).  We newbies sat there, lost for words, deep in thought.  The trainer closed the session and told us to go home and think about it.

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With the benefit of another ten years or so on the road, I can see exactly where Brian was coming from.

I've made many solo trips now...perhaps even more than team stuff...and experienced exactly the sort of things he described (except for the duty free fags, as I gave up smoking years ago).  I've come to the conclusion you have to have a certain mentality, a flexibility, to survive long in this consultancy game.  I've lost count of the number of hours I've spent on my own in a strange airport somewhere, waiting for flights delayed or on time (even cancelled).  Mostly I've been comfortable in a Business Lounge somewhere (one of the real perks of the job) but even that is not a comfort guarantee. 

For instance, a couple of years ago I went to Serbia for a week.  It was ok, but I had a long wait at Belgrade airport on my way home.  The building there isn't much more than a collection of interconnected nissen huts, and the airport still bears the scars of war (as does the city) back in the 90s.  There was a Business Lounge, but it was a room about 20 feet square, with a dozen uncomfortable chairs, a table with coffee cups and a kettle (help yourself to a brew) and a pay-bar.  I didn't bother: the bar in the main concourse area, such as it was, offered a better choice of food and drink.

At least there was a Lounge......last year I travelled from Beirut to Warsaw via Istanbul, and had about a 12 hour wait for my connecting flight.  The terminal building, as you would expect, is huge, modern and with a massive range of amenities (including a mosque), and what looked to be a very big and comfortable Business Lounge.  The problem was it was exclusively for Turkish Airlines Business and First Class passengers.   Even though the airline is a full Star Alliance member (of which I hold the Frequent Traveller silver card, usually a passport to any Star Alliance Lounge) there is apparently no reciprocal arrangement and I was refused admittance.  Given the amount of time I had to wait, I was not impressed.  But I had a walletful of US dollars (it's the standard currency in the Lebanon, with a fixed exchange rate of a buck equals 1500 Lebanese pounds), there was a Starbuck's next to the lounge entrance, so breakfast was not a problem, and there was a good selection of bars and restaurants throughout the terminal, so I didn't go hungry or thirsty.  I just spent more money than I had expected to.

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Over the years, I've got into sort of a routine, to amuse myself and keep myself happy during these solitary hours, wherever I might be spending them, so that I don't find them any kind of a hardship.  I always make sure I have plenty of reading material.  A good book is an absolute must (my 12 hours in Istanbul were devoted entirely to an umpteenth reading of The Lord of the Rings), and I always stock up on magazines.  I'm not bothered about newpapers, I tend to get my news fix......I'm not a News Junkie, but not far short....from CNN and/or BBC World News, channels that are freely available anywhere, whether at the airport or the hotel.  Armed thus, I can settle down either in a comfortable armchair in the Lounge or a less comfortable seat in a quiet corner of the Departure Hall and immerse myself in other worlds for as long as it takes.

Then I have my music.  My wife bought me an iPhone a couple of Christmases ago, and although I rarely use it as a phone (it was bought in Warsaw and only works on my Polish, non-roaming SIM) the iPod function gets absolutely hammered.  I've built up a library of 148 albums, mostly copied from my CD collection at home.  It equates to nearly a weeks' worth of non-stop music, more than enough to keep me going as long as the battery lasts (and it has a really long life).  There's everything in the library.....classics (some Beethoven, some Bernstein, Sorcerer's Apprentice, Wagner, Mahler.....), loads of rock (Clapton a big favourite, Springsteen, the Stones), progressive stuff (Supertramp, Led Zepp, Genesis, Ten Years After) and everything in between and around and about.  Plenty of Greatest Hits compilations too.  So as I settle down with my book I can plug my ears, switch on a Rod Stewart playlist, or a U2 compilation or something, and I'm gone......the airport disappears and I'm away. 

And I can do that equally well in a restuarant in downtown Beirut, or a crappy hotel room in Sofia just as easily.  All the crap that goes with the job, all the separation from my family, all the solitude just melts away and is forgotten (well, almost....).

Lonely?  Absolutely.  But bearably so.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Go East, Old Man

I remember well the day I found out my then girlfriend was expecting our son.  It was her birthday, and was also the day my decree nisi from my first marriage became effective.  There was no real celebration, for either piece of news, as I was not at home.  I was, of course, travelling.....this time in London, one of my increasingly rare excursions to the UK for work purposes.  She called me around half nine in the morning, and gave me the news.....we were both shocked but overjoyed.  We hadn't really been trying to start a family (but equally hadn't been trying too hard to prevent it happening) but after several months were rapidly coming to the conclusion it wasn't going to happen.  I didn't do too much work that wet February day five years ago, except walk around the client's office with a dumb grin on my face.....I was 52 after all, with three adult sons, and did not expect to hold a baby again until one of them presented me with a grandchild (to this day unlikely).

Anyway, as soon as the doctors back in Warsaw had confirmed the pregnancy, I notified my company of the impending birth (due that October) and requested that afterwards they assign me to relatively close client sites to minimize my time away from home.  They congratulated me and promised me there was plenty of European work coming up, including a pending project in Poland, so there should be no problems.

In October, my son Kuba was born.  He was a bouncing 5 kilos, over 11 lbs, and had a sixth finger on each hand.  Each one was complete, with knuckles and nails, but not skeletally attached to the hands, merely dangling useless by a flap of skin.  They were removed after a couple of days, leaving little stumps that were finally shaved off completely a couple of years later, before he started school.  Today there is no visible scar.  Apart from that, Kuba is the most wonderful, vibrant and handsome little boy....blond haired, blue eyed, a smile that lights up a room, full of mischief and energy, intelligent and increasingly fluent in both English and Polish.

I had a month's paternity leave (2 weeks allowance under EU regulations and a further 2 weeks saved vacation), then spent another couple of weeks on the bench (company slang for being at home without a project).  Then I had to go to Riga in Latvia for a week, to do a little workshop.  That was cool: flying time just over an hour, so I was able to fly up early on the Monday morning and back early on Friday afternoon (the one flight a day each way scheduled kindly) so I was not away too long.  Just what I wanted.

Then I had a call from my boss, advising me of my next scheduled project.  Potentially a year.  Full build.  In Almaty.


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I had to dig out the atlas and consult Wiki for that one.

All I knew about Kazakhstan was that it was part of the old Soviet Union, and that the Baikonur Cosmodrome was there.  Oh, and apparently when Yuri Gagarin landed somewhere in the Kazakh steppes after his space flight the first people to happen upon the capsule, with Yuri sitting cheerfully on top of it, were a group of local Kazakh peasants, who were terrified as they thought he was a visitor from Outer Space (which in a sense he was).  That last factoid could of course be apocryphal, disseminated by the Russian politburo at the time to make Yuri seem even more amazing than he actually was, but it's a nice story anyway.

Wiki was more forthcoming.  I learned that Kazakhstan is the largest of the ex-Soviet republics.  In size (square miles) it is roughly the equivalent to the whole of Western Europe (so France, Germany, the Low Countries, the entire UK, the Iberian Peninsula and Italy).....bloody big.  It's total population, by contrast, roughly matches that of the bloody empty.   It has vast wealth from oil, natural gas and minerals, and the government is busy spending it building huge modern cities that nobody lives in, while the bulk of the population remains crushingly poor.  Where is all that money going to?  As the Americans say, go figure.....

Yep, corruption is endemic, from the President down.  Nursultan Nazhabayev is an exceedingly powerful and wealthy man, and completely unopposed as President.  He calls himself the Father of Kazakhstan, the Great Ruler (remind you of anyone....perhaps a Georgian calling himself Joe Stalin?) and is in I think his fourth or fifth term of office.  Every few years there is a completely democratic election where some poor sod is put up against him, but trails home in second place whilst the Great Ruler picks up 98% or so of the popular vote.  Massive portraits of him smile benevolently down on you as you walk through Independence Square in Almaty (as I saw for myself later), with his arms around the shoulders of beaming boys and girls.....  In fact the bloke is actually very popular.....I never met anybody with a bad word to say about him (although that might have something to do with the fact that criticizing him verbally or otherwise is punishable by five years in the slammer).

His family, meanwhile, hold positions of power within the country's infrastructure, without actually being in government.....a daughter, as I recall, runs the country's main television station, whilst a sibling runs its biggest selling mass circulation newspaper; another was a senior figure in the oil industry.  Below the First Family there is layer upon layer of officialdom, all with their hands out for reward in making business easier to pursue there, both in and out of government.  Graft, in that sense rather than the more normal definition of hard work, is a way of life (unless of course you're part of the masses).  OK, it was nearly five years ago, and things may have changed since then (frankly since I left I haven't bothered to keep up to date with Kazakh current affairs) but somehow I doubt that.  Someone I know has been working there for some months now - he has his own import/export concern - and despite having good contacts "at the highest level", as he put it to me, and spending months in meeting after meeting, discussion after discussion, I don't think he's any nearer to closing the deal than he was when he first went through Kazakh border controls.  I hope I'm wrong....  Perhaps he hasn't greased enough palms yet.

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So anyway, my wonderful employer, ever mindful of my wish to work close to home for a while, after my new parenthood, insisted I had to go to Almaty (roughly 100 miles or so from the Chinese border) for an unspecified period of time.  From past experience, I had a feeling it would run to months, even years.  I was not impressed.

We discussed it.  I tried to get a time limit imposed, pointing out that I didn't speak Russian or Kazakh (the place has its own language, not dissimilar to Russian, even down to the use of Cyriilic might as well be Martian to me).....they pointed out I didn't speak German or French either but had been quite happy to work in Zurich and Geneva.  I pointed out that I was employed by the company's Central European region and wherever Kazakhstan actually was it was most certainly not in Central Europe.  They pointed  out I had also accepted assignments in Mexico, the US, Kenya and Saudi Arabia in the recent past, and none of them were in Central Europe either.

In the end, they appealed to my're the best person for the job, no-one else has your breadth of experience, blah blah blah.  It works every time, doesn't it?  We agreed I would go there in January, spend two weeks on-site and one week off, until such time as they were able to find a local resource to take over, not later than March.  Maybe three trips then.  OK, I'll do it.

I should really have known better after nearly 7 years with the company.

                                                               *          *          *

It took about a month to get prepared, mainly because of visa issues.  As a UK citizen living in Poland it can sometimes get a bit complicated explaining why I choose to live in Warsaw rather than say Wigan.....I guess it's some kind of bizarre Cold War hang up....and Kazakhstan has a small presence in Warsaw.  Its Embassy is in a little villa in the expensive Wilanow district, within walking distance of the old Royal palace and its beautiful gardens, and is only open to visitors three days a week.  Then once the formalities are completed and fees paid (cash only, no credit cards) the whole package including your passport is sent to Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan) for processing.  I wasn't very happy about having to give up my passport but had no choice in the matter.  It meant at least that I would not be able to leave Poland, meaning my company couldn't send me somewhere else at short notice (as they have a habit of doing).  In the event it took a little longer than expected, due to the Christmas holidays delaying the post, already slow in Poland at the best of times, but my application was granted and my passport safely returned carrying a very colourful full page visa of the Republic of Kazakhstan, in both the local language and English.  It ran for three months and was multi-entry, so that I could return home during the period of its validity as often as I wanted.

So off I went.  There are, of course, no direct flights between Poland and Kazakhstan, so I had to route via Frankfurt.  It's not my favourite airport - it's huge, badly signed, in a constant state of upgrade and has more security checkpoints than any other airport in the world....more in fact than some countries.  Getting around is a nightmare, and involves huge amounts of time queueing to be searched and your bags x-rayed,, and if you're leaving the EU on your connecting flight a terminal change as well.  Since the majority of passengers are indeed leaving the EU, the airport being one of the biggest transit hubs in the world, there are always thousands of people jostling to go through the handful of checkpoints that are open at any given point.  Can anybody tell me why there are always more checkpoints closed than open, even on the busiest days?  I have no idea......but it seems to be the norm, and is incredibly frustrating.  I've missed flights as a result.  There are also insufficient gates, meaning that half the time your flight arrives and parks out on the apron somewhere, and you have further delays while you're bussed into the Terminal.

Bob's Law (that's mine) states that the shorter my connection time at Frankfurt Airport the farther away from the Terminal I will arrive.  On my first trip to Almaty this was indeed the case.  We parked somewhere half-way between Frankfurt and Mainz, had a 10 minute wait for the bus (I assume the driver got lost in the January blizzard), and a 15 minute drive back to the Terminal.  By the time I hit my first security checkpoint 35 of my available 65 minutes to departure time had already been used up.  Passport control....big queue.  Rush through.  Down a flight of check point.  Bigger queue.  Force my way through that.  Another flight of steps, and hit a quarter mile tunnel between terminals.....and the moving walkways are busted.  I gallop through and arrive out of breath, lugging my laptop and sweating profusely.  Big queue at the lifts, so I take the stairs.....up four floors.  Arrive at the top, into the Departure hall and check my's at the far end of the Terminal, another quarter of a mile away, and my flight is showing Last Call.   I gallop off through the crowds, and half way checkpoint.  More x-rays (my fourth so far, 2 in Warsaw and 2 here).  I get through, and charge off down the rest of the hall.  I arrive at my Gate....two ground-staff just beginning their closing procedures.  They rush me through (the last passenger), through the doors, down a flight of stairs and onto....another bus..  Three other people looking equally pissed off and breathless.  We drive off into the snow, and 15 minutes later pull up at the plane for Almaty......parked next door (say 20 yards) from the LOT plane I arrived on an hour earlier.

Germanic organization, eh?  Legendary.......

The flight was a night one, 6 1/2 hours, and there is a 5 hour time difference from CET.  So my arrival in Almaty was in the early hours of a very cold morning.  It was comfortable enough, the food was ok, the in-flight entertainment pretty good.  I tried to sleep but as usual failed....I can never sleep on planes for some reason.  Coming back from Mexico once BA gave me an upgrade to Business Class, complete with flat bed and screen to seal myself off from the outside world, and I couldn't sleep there either.  It's a real pain.  Anyway, I spent the entire flight contemplating not the project, not my family but what a total farce travelling through Frankfurt can be, and dreading having to put up with a scramble like that every couple of weeks.  And wondering if my baggage had made the flight - I wasn't too hopeful.  In the event it did make it, but the next two trips I made resulted in missing bags, and since the flight isn't daily I was without fresh clothes until the Wednesday each time.  I bought new stuff from a local supermarket, shirt, tie, underwear, socks, and it was servicable enough.  I claimed the cost back on of my 80 claims.

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My first couple of weeks there were quite busy.  The bank were pleased to see me, and presented me with a very attractive lady as interpreter.  Like most Kazakhs, she was Asiatic (could easily be mistaken for Chinese in fact), about 25 I guess, fresh out of university.  She knew very little about banking and next to nothing about the securities business, but spoke fluent English with a lisping American accent and was a quick learner.  I worked with her closely the whole time I was there and know absolutely nothing about her except that she didn't come from Almaty but a small town with an unpronounceable name somewhere miles away.   I can't even remember her name.  But she was very efficient, and a huge help organizing my meetings (many of those) and making sure I understood what the client was asking and they understood what I was saying.

I was placed in an apartment about 15 minutes trudge through half a metre of snow in -15C temperatures from the office.  Its proximity was about the only thing to recommend was truly awful, the worst I've ever had.  It was in a typically crumbling and smelly Soviet era apartment block, on the ground floor, and comprised a single room.  The kitchen area (sink, 2 ring gas stove, a couple of cupboards and a microwave) was opposite the front door, which had a double security lock for some unknown reason....there was nothing worth stealing.  In the opposite corner was a bathroom of sorts - basically a shower stall, sink and toilet - separated from the rest of the room by a raggedy curtain.  The rest of the room represented the lounge/bedroom, sparsely furnished with a small formica topped table and chair, a sofa bed, and on a shelf a small tv.  There was also a rickety cupboard for my clothes.  The two windows, barred outside, were covered by ratty brown curtains that did little to dispel the light from the street lights that stood immediately outside both sides of the block.....darkness was not an issue.  There were no English language tv stations.

I stuck it for a week, mainly because I didn't want to rock the boat on my first trip.  By that time, I was cold and miserable (the heating system in the place was another Stalinist relic) and had had enough.  Then I caved in.  On the second Monday I asked my project manager to find me a new place or find someone else to do the job.  He clearly hadn't seen the place before I arrived and was absolutely appalled, and profusely apologetic.  We spent the rest of the day being driven around to find somewhere else.  I finally settled on a two bedroomed apartment in a block about a mile away, opposite the huge mausoleum of the Presidential Palace, and with truly spectacular views over the mountains just outside town.  The block itself was pretty shitty, the stair-wells stunk of piss and the lifts only worked sporadically (I was on the 14th floor) but the apartment itself had been re-furbished to a surprisingly high quality - most of the furniture was Ikea - and it had cable tv.  Still not a lot of English language (I found a local news station that broadcast what amounted to government propoganda in English 24 hours a day, and a German cable news channel that every two hours had a 30 minute news show and 30 minute documentary strand in English) but at least I had MTV and Eurosport.....and thanked God for the Australian Open tennis championships and in football the African Cup of Nations, both of which were extensively shown.  Between them, they kept my sanity!

The block was surrounded by other, smaller blocks, separated by well tended and manicured gardens, and where the estate road met the main road into Almaty (about 100 yards away) stood the local equivalent of a Tesco superstore, so I was pretty comfortable.  Prices were very low and there was a lot of produce I brands like Heinz Beans, Dolmio pasta sauces, Kellogs Cornflakes, various Birds Eye frozen stuff, Nescafe coffee.  The bread was a bit doughy but edible, the fruit and veg fresh and surprisingly tasty considering the time of year and the fact that it was all imported.  Fresh meat was more of a lottery....chicken and turkey, even pork, was recognizable, but the darker meats more of a risk, if you will.  The Kazakhs eat a lot of horse meat, and uncooked (or even cooked for that matter) it was difficult to tell it apart from beef, especially if it was minced.  All the packaging was of course in Cyrillic script so for me it was really a case of taking pot luck.....buying it and hoping for the best.  I'm sure over the time I was there I inadvertantly ate a lot of minced horse....but when properly cooked and flavoured in a curry, or bolognese, or home made cottage pie with baked beans, I couldn't tell the difference.  So all in all I ate very well.

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The weeks passed.  I went home, spent time with Ania and Kuba, visiting family and friends and relaxing, then returned to Almaty.  Then again.  And again.  And, dammit again.  March came and went with no sign of a replacement.  I was asked to extend until the end of May, and assured offers had been made to potential replacements with answers eagerly awaited.  Reluctantly I agreed.  Softening the blow somewhat was the arrival in Almaty of some guys I knew well from the London office in April, some to join my project, others to start a new one at the central bank.  I was then assigned to that project too....and alarm bells rang.  My deadline was May remember......I didn't want to get too involved in a second project for only a few weeks.  I was told not to worry, your replacement when he comes on board will take over both, you're just minding the shop in the meantime.  Again I had little option but to stay there. 

May came and the snows went.  That was extraordinary.....I went home for my week off on the Friday night, leaving still well over a foot of snow and a temperature hovering around zero.  When I returned the following weekend, it had all vanished completely, the trees and flowers in the parks were coming into blossom, and the temperature was a balmy 23 or 24C.  Of course, my wardrobe was still largely for winter, so I sweltered uncomfortably through that fortnight.

And still my replacement failed to materialise.  May went and in came June, with the 2006 World Cup in Germany to look forward to.  By this time we had identified the best bars to watch sports, as expats do the world over, so despite the time difference meaning we'd be watching some matches until the early hours of the morning we were looking forward to that.  Then July.....scorchingly hot, temperatures over 30C.  Still no sign of a replacement....and I had a row with my line manager back in Greece who told me I had to stay there as long as I could, replacement or not, because there was no work for me in Europe so she would have to "release you soon....".  Point taken.  I stayed, but sent a mail to HR complaining bitterly about the way I had been lied to and strung along for six months, my personal wishes completely ignored.

Then, early in August, I walked into the office and was introduced to a lady, Tatiana, who was my replacement.  Finally!  I was so happy I kissed her......much to the amusement of everyone in the office and her embarrassment.  We spent the rest of the week going over everything on both projects, I sent my line manager a mail and told her I had been replaced so was coming home and she'd better start looking for a new gig.  Then I packed my bags, got totally pissed. and flew home.  Frankfurt Airport has never looked so good....I even got an upgrade to Business Class for some reason (they did it on the half-empty plane, and I still have no idea why).

My six weeks in Kazakhstan had stretched to just over 8 months.

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Despite all the crap that went on, and with the benefit of hindsight, I thoroughly enjoyed it and I'm glad I went there.  Part of it of course was the company I had for most of the's one of the best parts of my job.  Frequently you run into people you've worked with previously and perhaps haven't seen for several years, so of course there's a lot of catching up to do.  So you sit in a bar somewhere, drink the local beer, and eat well, and swap war stories.  There is much laughter, much piss taking, and much exchanging of advice and rumour (both good and bad in each case).  You help each other with specific problems and questions relating to your respective projects, you complain about the client (who may always be right but is usually wrong and  invariably a pain in the arse) and you bitch about the company and its internal God, how you bitch!!!!  You put the world to rights, argue sport and religion and politics, debate books and music and movies, complain about local tv (always crap).  You go sightseeing on the weekend, which always involves trying out new bars, and may even involve using local transport (which can be challenging).  Then at the end of it all, you head off to the airport and go your separate ways....with the parting shot of "Great to see you, mate, take care and see you in a bar somewhere".

It's great.  Best job I've EVER had....

It's also sort of a tradition that the first person on site does all the prospecting for nightlife (for which read any bars with big tv's showing Sky Sports) and decent clubs and restaurants, and then introduces everyone else to them in due course.  It often works that you get an e-mail from someone announcing he's on his way in a week or two, heard you're there, got any info?  Sometimes they just turn up unexpectedly, which is what happened with my mates here.  As it was still absolute brass monkey weather I hadn't done a lot of exploring, apart from a trawl through the various internet Almaty tourist sites (hundreds of them) and made a few notes.  I hadn't even explored the town.....I must have been a huge disappointment to the boys.

When the weather moderated, in late April, a couple of us spent a weekend exploring, wrapped up in our thermals and overcoats (living in Poland I was probably better off in this area).  Almaty is laid out in blocks, a bit like New York and other cities in the US.  There didn't appear to be separate business and shopping districts, rather everything was lumped together centrally, including the better hotels, restaurants and nightclubs.  To the south, the land slopes up to a splendid range of mountains, an offshoot of the Himalayas, that separates Kazakhstan from its neighbouring ex-Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.  They are high enough to be snowbound all year round at their highest levels, and summer sunrises and sunsets particluarly were spectacular as the snowy peaks turned golden and orange and red by turns.  To the north, the city ran out of steam somewhere around the airport, and roads and railtracks then led off into hunderds of miles of featureless and largely uninhabited steppe.  About 40 miles east, towards China, was a massive lake that in summer became the nearest thing Kazakhstan has to a tourist resort.  At the time there was much public debate about a proposed casino development there: its supporters said it would be hugely popular, a Central Asian Vegas that would bring in billions of dollars of tourist money.  Its opponents said it would be horrible, a Central Asian Vegas bringing in billions of dollars of tourist money, as well assorted low-life gangsters, prostitutes and various sexually transmitted diseases that didn't sit well in a predominantly Muslim society.  I have no idea who won the argument or whether the development went ahead, but it was an interesting discussion all the same.  Beyond that, and slightly north, was another area that had been used for 50 years by the Soviet government to test it nuclear weapons and dump all its toxic waste.  I'm told the place is of course uninhabited and so polluted it glows in the dark....I was told it was the most polluted place on earth.  Whether true or not, it's an ecological disaster to match or exceed the more famous destruction of the Aral Sea on the country's western border.

Over the months we were there we only once left the city.  Travelling anywhere by public transport was very difficult as there wasn't a lot of public transport to travel on.  There was a fleet of minibuses that cruised around, all of which looked as though they were about to break down.  The destination boards were of course in Cyrillic and as none of us spoke Russian or could read it we had not the faintest idea where they went.  The same applied to the bigger long-distance coaches and the trains.  Distance was also a big issue.  Almaty, in the bottom right hand corner of Kazakhstan, is literally hundreds of miles from anywhere.  Astana, the capital, is a day's trainride away to the north-east, Moscow four days.  I did think about making a trip to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, now parts of it at least are open to the public, but I found out you needed to apply for a permit, wait a month for it to be given, and then spend a day each way on a train to get there and back, so I didn't bother.  So unless you can persuade a work colleague to give you some time away from his family to ferry you around you're really stuck in town.

But we did manage one trip, in March, when there was still a lot of snow around.  A couple of bank people offered to take my mate and I sight-seeing one Sunday.  We of course agreed, so at 11:30 that Sunday, they picked us up in a very battered but servicable Toyota mini-bus.  We headed out of town, south into the mountains.  We drove for maybe an hour, climbing all the time on a winding but well maintained road through woodland, smothered in a blanket of fresh snow (and it was still coming down as we drove).   Eventually we came to what looked like a football stadium complete with floodlights, but passed it without stopping.  We continued for another 10 minutes or so, then pulled over into a lookout place.  Well below us we could see the stadium, and saw that it was after all not a football ground but instead a huge (and at that time crowded) ice rink.  Beyond it, across the tree tops, we could see the city spread out, and in the distance just make out the airport buildings, floodlit on the northern extremity.  The atmosphere was hazy due to the continuing snow, although towards Almaty the clouds were breaking up and blue sky increasing.  But the mountains above us were still shrouded in cloud and the snow continued to fall.  We shot off some pictures, got back into the van, and pressed on.  A couple  of miles further on, we reached the base station of a chair lift that continued up the slopes,  and it was busy.  This was Tchimbulek, the local ski resort.  Later that year, an application was made to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, but Almaty was beaten and the games awarded to another Russian applicant, Sochi.

We went for a ride up the ski lift, to the top station.  It was way above the tree line, surrounded by bare rocky slopes, the peaks themselves lost in the now close clouds.  Spectacular, but bitterly cold.  Our Russian colleagues asked if we would like to sled down....with some hesitation we agreed.  We sat on what was not much more than a plywood door with rope hamdles looped here and there to hold onto for safety.  There was a guy roped to the front, on skis, and another behind.....and off we went.  The guy in front started us moving downslope, then spent the whole ride sideways, like the guy behind, acting as a very rudimentary set of brakes.  The ride took maybe five minutes, it was terrifying but exhilerating, and we reached the bottom safely, looking like 2 snowmen.  Great fun.  Our colleagues took the lift, so we had to wait a quarter of an hour for them.

Back into the van, and we headed back to Almaty.  Just beyond the ice rink we stopped and picked up some more bank people, including my interpreter, who had been hiking through the forest (a popular passtime in any season).  When we reached Almaty, we turned down a side street quite close to my apartment block, and after a few minutes pulled up outside a very shabby-looking bungalow with a corrugated iron roof.  I assumed we were visiting someone's home but no: it turned out to be a local restaurant.  We were given a back room that had a single massive round table to seat 15, laden with food.  There were salads, fresh rolls, loaves of fresh bread hot and steaming from the oven, slabs of butter and cheeses, pots of jam and honey, and fruit.  Waitresses busied themselves bringing in plates of pizza, massive (and very tasty) pies that looked like cornish pasties but filled with (I think) minced horsemeat and spicy vegetables, potatoes and beans, all hot and freshly microwaving in this place!  For drink, we had a choice of juices (apple or orange), coca cola or vodka.......and between us we got through a good dozen bottles of the stuff.  The Kazakhs drank it like water, and it seemed to have about as much effect.  My mate and I ate like kings and left there pissed, and our local friends were still sober.  They drove us back to our apartments to end a fantastic day.

And thoughout the entire day, our host had never switched off the engine of the van - it had been running all day, even when locked and parked at Tchimbulek and the restaurant.  It was the only way to keep the heater running and prevent the thing from turning into a block of ice.

                                                            *          *          *

The rest of the time we stayed in town. 

There is a lot to see.  There are several nice parks, all immaculately maintained, that are very nice to relax in during the hot summer months.....plenty of benches under shady trees, fountains, nice flower displays.  I announced one time I was intending to get my shorts on and shirt off in one close to my apartment one hot summer weekend, get the suntan started, and my interpreter was horrified....she said I could be arrested for "offending the public decency".  I did it anyway, got a few dirty looks from the older locals (although no-one under about 30 seemed to take any notice) but wasn't arrested. 

There are museums, art galleries, concert halls, mosques (the majority of the country being Muslim) the biggest of which stands right next door to the Orthodox Cathedral, both close to the train and bus station.  There is a huge Presidential Palace, parts of which were open to the public when Yer Man wasn't in town.  Crossing the roads, especially around Independence Square (where stands the Palace) can be dangerous as the majority of drivers seem to go on amber without waiting for green.  There is one road entering the square that is four lanes each way and with the central reserve maybe 100 yards across.  It's impossible to cross it within the light phase, and you always end up running the last 10 yards or so, with impatient Kazakh light jumpers blasting their horns at you impatiently.  Great stuff.

There are bars and restuarants of every nationality.  One, close to the Palace again, specialized in Belgian beer and housed a casino couldn't miss it, because outside the door stood a 30 foot scale model, brilliantly lit up at night, of the Eifel Tower.  Ridiculous but a good landmark, and the beer was good.  Close to the office was a favourite hang-out, the San Siro sports bar.  It was divided up into themed areas devoted to a top football corner was Manchester United, another Real Madrid, another AC get the picture.  Each area was decorated with signed memorabilia.....shirts, photos, programs and so on...from that club, and there were several big screen tv's that were tuned to a Dubai based sports channel (a clone of Sky Sports) that broadcast wall to wall sport.....Premier League football, La Liga, F1 racing, test cricket and so on.....all with English commentary and studio presenters.  During the World Cup it was open until the middle of the night, broadcasting the games, and was always packed with ex-pats.  The food and drink was very good and reasonably priced.  I had one altercation when I wanted to put a bill on my credit card and instead of bringing the machine to our table the guy took my card out the back to the kitchen area.  I had read that card fraud was common across all ex-Soviet republics (and elsewhere of course), and I was damned if I'd stand back and let them clone my card, so I followed the guy......there was much screaming and shouting, a bit of pushing and shoving, but he backed down and let me in, where I could make sure nothing untoward happened.  I paid the bill, we left, and for safety's sake I never went back.

Most of the time we used one or other of the three Irish Bars in town.  The biggest and most publicised was the Guinness Pub, in a cellar next to the Hotel Kazakhstan.  It was ok, the food and beer acceptable, there was live music and sport tv, but it was pricy and somehow lacking in atmosphere.  We only went there once.  Not far away, tucked in a little side street behind the Presidential Palace, was the Dublin.  This was probably our favourite, as much as anything because of its location; we all lived in apartments scattered around town and the Dublin was kind of in the middle of them all.  It had a much better atmosphere, was smaller and snugger, more Irish-feeling, and the food was very good indeed.  It also had a good range of beers both local and imported (as well as Guinness there was Kilkenny and Murphy's from Ireland and John Smith's Yorkshire bitter) at sensible prices.  And of course the same sports tv.  And an outside terrace that was nice in the summer.  We got to know the owner, a Russian guy called Ivan (if I remember correctly) who had left Moscow for Almaty to seek his fortune.  He seemed to be doing ok.  Finally there was a place called Mad Murphy's.  This was in a residential street off the city centre, and had a good garden with tables and umbrellas and a play area for kids.....again, really nice in summer.  Good selection of drinks and a fine menu (their cottage pie was really tasty).  I spent many happy hours there through July weekends, with a good book, relaxing through the weekend, enjoying the beer and food.

                                                               *          *          *

So that was Kazakhstan.

Initially I hadn't really wanted to go there, and for the first weeks at least didn't really think too much of it.  But as I settled in (as often happens) and started to get my bearings, I grew to quite like Almaty.  It's an interesting place and I know I only scratched the surface of what is there (both in the town and the country as a whole).  It's becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination, and offers trekking in the steppes and mountains, rafting trips on the rivers, and much more besides nowadays.  It may even have its own Las Vegas now.....

I'm glad I went there.

But I'm not sure I'd want to return.

Sunday, 12 September 2010


I saw an interesting item on the BBC World News the other day.

At the end of the last Israeli-Lebanese war, a year or so ago, part of the peace settlement involved the establishment of a UN monitored "Blue Zone" between the two countries. Essentially, it involves the erection a fence along the border, each post topped by a big blue pot with UN painted on it.  All well and good. 

Except that along most of the area where the fence is to be erected, there are thousands of anti-personnel mines.  They weren't placed there by Hizbollah militia or any other paramilitary group.  They were laid, very carefully, by the Israeli army. 

Nothing unusual about that......the mines are being cleared, to make the border area safer, and make it easier (and safer) for the UN troops to complete erecting the Blue Zone barrier.  But the interesting thing was that the work of clearing the mines was left to the UN troops.  On their hands and knees, with little garden trowels and anti-blast armour.  Not an Israeli soldier in sight.

And I thought why the hell are the Israeli military not helping?  One assumes they have maps or something, showing where they planted the damned things.  And in that case, surely they must have some responsilbility for this?

But no, this is Israel, of course.  How silly of me to expect them to care about anyone or anything except themselves.

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The state of Israel was founded after the Second War, as a homeland for survivors of the Holocaust (both Hitler's and the one Stalin quietly carried out in the's never had the publicity of the other one but was just as brutal and efficient).  The land now known as Israel was then part of British administered Palestine.  We actively helped deport thousands of Palestinian Arabs to the little strip of coastal land now called the Gaza Strip, and to the West Bank in Jerusalem, then buggered off and left the Israelis and the Palestinians to sort out their own political accomodation.

It was not our most successful or clever piece of diplomacy.

The result has been over 50 years of conflict.  The Palestinians were a bit pissed off about being evicted from lands they had lived in and farmed for hundreds of years, especially as the compensation paid wasn't exactly generous.  More like non-existant, in fact.  They demanded their lands back, but the UN, as so often since then, ignored their complaints.  They understandably turned their attentions against their successors, the Israelis.

Not a good idea.  Fresh from being nearly exterminated as a people, the Jewish settlers now battling to build their nation state (with of course significant support from the victorious Allies, in particular the US, with its large, affluent and expanding Jewish power base) basically told them, politely, to bugger off......this is our land, you hook nosed schmucks.  Or words to that effect, I suppose, more diplomatic.

And so eventually we got the founding of Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), basically a terrorist paramilitary organization funded by other sympathetic Arab states, and a whole slew of similar, but less organised, groups.   The Israelis, with their superior American backed armed forces, were quite happy to take them on.

And so it goes to this day.  Tit for tat killings as Palestinians and Israelis both refuse to accept the right to esistance of the other. 

                                                               *          *          *

But the Israelis really do take things to extremes. 

They are quite happy to send a death squad to a neutral country, travelling on stolen identities and forged UK, Irish and EU passports, to assassinate a Palestinian politician in his hotel room..... he was a terrorist of course, according the Israeli Government.  No proof of that, say the Palestinians, the Dubai police and pretty much everyone else.

They are absolutely overjoyed to be able to enforce a blockade by building a 20 foot wall around the entire Gaza area, with limited access guarded by heavily armed regular troops from the IDF.   The fact that the UN has passed multiple resolutions pointing out the illegality of this and demanding it should be pulled down immediately makes no difference: the Resolutions are simply ignored by successive Israeli Governments.

They continue to build settlements, new towns, on land on the West Bank around Jerusalem that was given as part of various peace settlements to the Palestinians.  To do so hundreds more Palestinians are forcibly evicted without compensation and become refugees.  The UN says this too is liiegal, but again, the Israeli Governments ignore the outcry with mealy-mouthed excuses along the lines of we need more houses because our population is growing.  Their lug-eared, Antipodean arsewipe of an apologist Mark Regev is particularly skilled (and sickening) at explaining away this kind of State sponsored brutaility.

They happily enforce a naval blockade of Gaza from the Mediteranean to ensure that the only goods entering the beleaguered city-state (such as it is) is approved by them, licenced by them....  This has led to massive food shortages, fuel shortages, lack of building materials so that the areas of Gaza flattened by continuing Israeli airstrikes cannot easily be repaired.  Even hospitals are denied assistance.  And their response to UN complaints that they are operating illgally?  Why, of course.....they ignore them.  And Regev smiles indulgently....our people have the right to live in safety, and not be scared of weapons built by the terrorists out  And Marmite.  Oh, and aspirin.

Finally, they happily commit an act of piracy under recognized international maritime law by storming by armed force a convoy of ships attempting to breach the blockade and deliver vital aid, sponsored by Turkish aid groups with the tacit support of the Turkish Government.  The result?  9 aid activists dead, several injured, the ships captured and stores confiscated by the Israeli Government.  Oh, and international condemnation....but we've been there before.  And Regev?  Our brave troops were attacked by terrorists armed with iron bars and of course we opened fire with our assualt rifles.  We have the right to defend ourselves from this type of aggression....blah blah blah....

                                                             *          *          *

I've never been to Israel.  I have absolutely no wish to do so.  I may well be doing a complete disservice to millions of very pleasant, friendly and generous people.  The few Israelis I have met in my life all worked in a bank in Zurich, a branch of one of Israel's leading banks.  To a man, they were arrogant, rude, aggressive to the point of viciousness, verbally abusive and unhelpful in the extreme.  They were always right, never made mistakes, and were completely unwilling to even contemplate way or the highway taken to extremes.  A bit like their Government, in fact.  I worked there for about a month, and it was probably the most unpleasant four weeks' work I've ever had to do.

I find it extraordinary, and tragic, and in all honesty quite sickening, that a nation born out of the appalling events of the Holocaust is now clearly intent on committing a Genocide of its own against the Palestinians.  And the UN seems unable (or unwilling) to do anything about it.......  Of course, they can't without the support of the EU and the US, both of whom, particularly the US, have huge and powerful Jewish lobbies tying their hands.  It seems that successive generations of US and EU politicians lack the courage to stand up for what is right in humanitarian terms and stop Israel behaving in this way.  The fact that Israel has nuclear weapons may have something to with that, I suppose, but still......The West eventually stood up to a nuclear Soviet bloc.

It seems to me that George W. Bush was wrong when he branded Iran a "rogue state"  There is indeed a rogue state in the Middle East, but it's not Iran, for all the rhetoric coming from Ahmedinajad and the mullahs.

Its name is Israel.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Civil Servants, eh?

Mark Twain was a cracking writer and a very clever and funny guy.  Among other very wise statements attributed to him is "There are only two certainties in life - Death and Taxes."

Were he alive today he could add a third:  "Civil Servants the world over are numpties."

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Example:  When I made my first trip abroad (ignoring the day trips to Calais; we didn't need passports for them, group passes were issued to the school that covered us all), I needed a passport.  I went to my local Post Office, filled in a form, passed it across the counter with a fiver and a couple of photos from the local Photo-Me booth from Platform 2 Cannon Street, and 10 minutes later was handed a 1 year passport.  Valid anywhere (except probably Russia and any other Communist states).  Certainly it was good for all of Europe and the British in those days a good bit of the world at large.  Five quid!!!! 

Fast forward 30 odd years.  I've just renewed my 10 year one (it was nearly full).  Living in Warsaw I went to the local British Embassy - this was in May - to do the job.  It seems that from February this year, "in order to save costs" I'm told, all UK passports issued to British citizens living in Europe (but outside the UK itself) are issued by a centralized department located in Dusseldorf.  I had to fill in additional forms, and pre-pay the DHL costs for both sending the documents to Germany and returning the new passport to me in Warsaw, in an envelope I also had to buy.  My total outlay: one hundred and fifty quid, give or take.  Oh, and it took just over a week to get the new one (it arrived the day before I was due to travel).  I had to perform a similar thing to get UK passports for my Polish born kids, who are entitled to dual citizenship.

Why does this make Civil Servants numpties?  Well, for a start I couldn't find anything on the Foreign Office website (maintained by Civil Servants employed at the FO) advising of this change in procedure.....and I checked both the London one and the local one.  And I assume that the idea for this cost saving exercise came from a Civil Servant somewhere.  And if real cost savings were looked for I would have thought creating a nice new centralized Europe-wide beaurocracy (I can NEVER spell that bloody word!!!!) in an expensive country like Germany (even if in a relatively cheap offence meant to Dusseldorf, but I would guess prices are lower there than say Frankfurt or Berlin....) was not the best idea.  What about Bratislava?  Lublin? Alicante?  There must be many places across Europe that would provide a cheaper alternative than Germany!

                                                              *          *          *
Another example.  When you arrive at JFK Terminal 4, you get off the plane and walk into this massive Arrivals Hall (not much different to Arrivals Halls anywhere else of course) and join the line that says "Visitors".   This line is invariably three times the length of that for US it needs to be, since Yanks never leave home unless they're in the Armed Forces going to change a regime somewhere, or wealthy investment bankers going to change a regime somewhere.....  Anyway, you join the line - make sure you visit the Restroom first (WHY do they call it the Restroom?  It's a bog!) because you could be in the queue for an hour or more - and every so often shuffle forward a few paces.  Eventually you get to the front of the line where a very nice man from Homeland Security tells you to join the line at Desk Number 34 (or whatever).  You join the line.  Eventually, you get to the front, step briskly up to the counter......and the Civil Servant from Homeland Security says, loud enough for the whole room to hear, "Step back SIR, I never called you forward."  And fixes you with this fish eyed just know she's got an itchy trigger finger and probably PMT.  So you step back in line, muttering under your breath and trying not to look shifty in case you're mistaken for an Islamic fundamentalist in disguise and shot.  Then our welcoming Homeland Security lady wanders the Restroom.  Eventually, she comes back, settles in her seat, sticks in fresh gum, and peremptorily waves you forward.  You give her the forms and your passport.  She thumbs through the passport.  "Where is your visa SIR?"   You smile.  "I'm travelling under the ESTA visa waiver program."  She glares at you, sighs, shakes her head, and throws the forms and passport back at you.  "This is the wrong form SIR.  You need the green one".  "They gave me this one on the plane."  "Not my problem, SIR.  Go get a green one".  You sigh.  "Where from?"  "The entrance.  Move along SIR, you're holding up the line...."

I kid you not......I've been through JFK twice this year, same thing happened both times.

Again, why does this make Civil Servants numpties?  First, the attitude of the harridan at Desk 34 (or whatever)...she may be employed by Homeland Security, wear a smart uniform and tote a gun on her expansive hip, but she's still a bloody Civil Servant!  Second, why the hell do you need different colour forms?  The questions on both were the same......why not use a standard form and make question 1 "ESTA Visa Yes or No?"  Because some idiot Civil Servant thought it would be a cool idea to use two forms, probably to give his wife's sister's husband Julio from Puerto Rico a bigger order at the printers.

                                                               *          *          *

Final example.  I get my work permit approved and issued by the local Ministry of Labour.  So I go to the local Immigration Office, take a ticket (number 84 today) and sit down.  After half an hour (pretty quick really), I'm called to the front desk.  I explain I want a visa extension as I've now got my work permit.  The girl gives me a form, I fill it in, she looks at it, stamps it then on the back writes "Appointment xxxxxx at 7:00"  Two weeks ahead.  By then my visitors visa will have expired and technically I'll be in the country illegally, but's the way it works.  On the appointed day, I get up at the crack of dawn (almost literally - days keep funny hours in the Tropics) and get a cab to Immigration.  I arrive at 7:05.  The room is full.  My number is 73.  I sit down and read my book.   An hour later my name is called.  I go with the girl to the interview room.  I give her my appointment card, my work permit, and all our passports (since my wife and kids' visas need extending to match mine).  She looks through it all.  "Do you have your photocopies?" I frown.  "Excuse me?"  She smiles sweetly.  "I'll write you list."  I need 4 copies of my work permit, three copies of our return airline tickets, copies of the photo pages of each passport, plus the pages with the local entry stamps.  And eight hundred bucks in fees.  "Does your son have a student permit?"  I frown again.  "He's four years old, going to kindergarten from tomorrow.  He's not really a student."  Again the sweet smile.  "He still needs a permit."   It took me all morning to gather the required documents and cash, but eventually the same girl processed it all and we're now legally on the island.
And the link to numptyism?  First, website maintenance.  I've double-checked it and nowhere on either the FO website or the local govenment Immigration site can I find any list of required documents, photo copies or otherwise (in fact the local site doesn't contain much information at all apart from the address and phone number of the offices).  Civil servants are responsible for the design and upkeep of their information sources, aren't they?  Unless it's outsourced....but then again a civil servant somewhere must have sign off for what's deployed.

                                                          *          *          *

OK, maybe I'm being a little harsh and picking extreme examples.  But check out any newspaper, local or national, and you will regularly find similar stories.   In the UK, DHSS or JobCentres (or whatever they call them nowadays) are everywhere.  I and millions of others have waited in line for hours to get our UB40s signed so that we can get the next bit of government hand out....but I've never met anyone, anywhere, anytime, who has actually got a job through one of these places.....whatever government press releases written by (yep....) Civil Servants might say, they are NOT JobCentres.   Friends of mine tell similar tales from the US equivalent.  In any country across Europe, whenever there is anger and agitation against whichever government happens to be in power - think Greece and France right now, with their badly needed austerity measures, or historically the British Winter of Discontent that brought down Jim Callaghan's Labour government and ushered in Thatcherism  - the protest leaders were and are the Civil Service unions in their various guises.

And yet, in my youth, getting in the Civil Service was seen as a career to be proud of.  Job for life.  Serving your country (usually without being shot at, unless you were with the foreign office and manning an Embassy in some hot-spot or other).  Decent money.  More holidays.  Work not too demanding.  Hardly any overtime.  And if you stuck at it for more than 20 years an OBE....maybe even a knighthood.  Happy days.

So where did it all go wrong?

I'm buggered if I know.

Monday, 6 September 2010

In the Beginning....

Nope, not in the biblical sense.  Nor a reference to the Manics.

Just a bit of history.  How I started This Travellin Life.

I started late, really.  When I was a kid, my family were relatively poor.  Not breadline or anything like that, but there wasn't too much spare cash around.  My dad, after the war, had a succession of manual jobs.....he was a stoker at the Gas-works in the town where I grew up, a coalman, a removal man, a couple of factory jobs....ending up as a mill operator in a plastics factory in a nearby town.  My mum also worked, as an office cleaner and in shops, but by today's standards they were not paid a huge amount.  We ate well, never wanted for anything at Christmas or birthdays, had good (rarely second hand) clothes, mum and dad both smoked and enjoyed a night at the local pub.....all very normal for small town England in the 50s and 60s.  We were happy, and there was always laughter in our house.

But there wasn't much to spare for holidays.  We didn't have a car (to this day I don't know whether dad could drive, but I know mum couldn't), although dad had a motor bike, so trips anywhere were a bit difficult.  There were more trains and buses then, but living a good 50 miles from the nearest coast made trips An Adventure, even....not to be taken lightly.  Holidays, when we had them (not every year) were invariably in a caravan at Pevensey Bay.  They were always good, I remember, the sun shining, the sea cold.....  But we never went "abroad".  Too expensive, I'm sure (this was before package holidays to the Continent were invented), and probably not something dad was too keen on, given that his last trip overseas landed him in the Burmese jungle for three years fighting for his life against the Japanese.

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So I never left England until I was I think 14.  A school trip, for one day, to Calais.  Channel crossing in a bitterly cold April, I remember, on a rough sea that had most of us puking over the side, or in the waste bins....some of us even managed to get to the bogs (not me....I managed to chunder over the side, facing the wrong way, and had the lot blown back all over me).  And that was on the way out: after a very dull day traipsing round a very cold, windy and unpleasant French sea-port and a visit to a pretty unimpressive museum, we had to endure the return journey.  Luckily, the weather and sea had moderated, and fortified by No6 Tipped and lemonade we got through the crossing without further mishap.  My mum was not best pleased by the state of my school blazer when I got home though......

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I didn't leave England for another 5 years after that.  Then in 1972 my dad died, of cancer, at the relatively young age of 56.  It took me years to mourn him properly; I was at first too busy helping mum and my sisters get through it, and then drunk for several years, then married with my own family and career to think about.  It took the death of my mum more than 20 years later before I found the time, and then I mourned them both.....and still do.

Anyway, a few months after dad died, my uncle (mum's brother) in Canada suggested we visited him.  We were not at all sure about that, to be honest - none of my family had flown before, it was expensive, and Canada is a hell of a long way......  But Uncle Tom overruled us, insisted we went, bought the tickets, and in September 1973 off we went - me, mum and my sister. 

We were terrified.  We flew in a British Caledonian Airlines Boeing 707 from Gatwick to Toronto, sitting up the back of the cabin because my sister had read in Woman's Own that if you did that you were more likely to survive a crash.  It was cramped (although state of the art, by today's standards comfort was minimal really), with no in-flight entertainment and very average food.  But drinks were free, and we could smoke ourselves silly (yep, in those days smoking was allowed in the rear of the plane....another good reason to sit there).  But it was a L-O-N-G flight.........

The trip was great.  We stayed three weeks, into October, and the weather was superb, hot and sunny for the most part.  Canada in the fall is beautiful - in all my travels since then, I can't remember any colours as stunning and vivid as those yellows and reds and golds on the maples in Gatineau Park....indeed, everywhere we went in Ottawa, Toronto, Niagara.....  Absolutely glorious.  We travelled down to Niagara Falls, and got soaked walking the tunnel complex behind the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, but no-one wanted to come with me on the Maid of the Mist, the pleasure boat that goes through the turbulance to within feet of the base of both American and Canadian falls, so (to my lasting regret) I gave it a miss.  We ate like royalty.....I put on nearly a stone in weight over the three weeks, and I've been trying (unsuccessfully) to shake it off ever since.....and it was wonderful to spend time with family I hardly knew and hadn't seen for years. 

The return flight was better.  The British Caledonian flight we were booked on was half empty, so they cancelled it and transferred us all onto a half empty Wardair Canada flight......on a 747.  Mum and my sister, predictably, were even more terrified than they had been on the way over.  In fact my sister has never overcome her fear of flying, and now rarely leaves the UK.  A couple of trips to Canada, one to Australia (to visit more relations), and two short trips to Warsaw to visit me is I think the full extent of her flying since then.  Mum grew to, if not love it, at least to enjoy flying, and went back to Canada every other year until she died.....she was planning another trip to Ottawa when her cancer was discovered and died three months later, still insisting she was going to spend her 80th birthday with her brother.

But the 747 was cool.  There was room to move around, in-flight movies, bigger and more comfortable seats.  The top deck was even laid out as a bar, complete with little round cocktail tables, bar-stools and a row of optics.  And this was not a flag carrying national airline but a charter company......  Flying was a pleasure then.

I went back a couple of years later, with a mate of mine, but it wasn't the same somehow. I haven't been back since. My auntie and uncle are both dead and I've lost touch with my cousins.....I hope they're well. They may not realise just how much they helped me and my sister, and especially mum, through that awful time of loss.

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There followed more years at home, in sunny England.  I didn't drive then, so apart from catching the bus to work and being ferried around by my mates to football (or cricket) matches, and from pub to club and back again, via some really cool discos (this was in the 70s remember, they were all the rage - but I was no John Travolta) that was it the travel stakes. 

Then a mate of mine came into the pub one evening and announced he'd been to Thomas Cooks at lunchtime and found a really good value holiday - 10 days in Majorca - did anyone fancy going with him?  I was half pissed already (this was after dad died, and I was still in my drunk phase) so I said sure, why not.  A couple of others in the gang were up for it too, so we early package holiday (but that will be the subject for another day).

Then nothing more until my first marriage and honeymoon in Jersey.  We flew Dan Air London, another now defunct airline, both trips in old Hawker Siddeley turboprop planes.  Outbound was uneventful, but the return a nightmare.  We took off in a thunderstorm, and it was terrifying - I've never been so scared in my life!  We lifted off, not enough speed, dropped, bounced and staggered into the air again, barely clearing the boundary fence.  The airport there is close to the cliff edge, and we were still very low and wobbling badly as we cleared the edge and luched out over the Channel.  After that it got better, although there was turbulance the whole way, until we reached Gatwick.  It was pissing with rain there, too, and as we landed the plane skidded and went a good 30 yards down the runway almost sideways before the pilot regained control and aqauplaned the rest of the way in.  Without a doubt my worst travel experience.

A month later, the very plane we flew back in was taking off from an airport in the Shetlands, again in filthy weather, and again from an airstrip that ended at a cliff edge......and this time it didn't manage to lift.  It crashed into the sea.  50 killed.

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The following year we went to Majorca again, with my ex-sister-in-law and her boyfriend.  It was a nice enough  holiday, memorable only for my learning to swim at last.  I had nearly drowned three times when I was a kid, and it left me with a lifelong fear of deep water.  To this day, I'm not too happy in deep water and panic if I get out of my depth.  But on this trip, the sea was warm and shallow, and we spent a lot of time messing around with a frisbee just in the sea.  The others continually threw it just beyond my reach, into deeper water where I would be forced to flounder after it to retrieve it before it washed away.  After a couple of days of this I could swim, after a fashion......but it's taken me over 30 years to gain any real confidence in the water.  Swimming daily in the pool here in Trinidad has done wonders for my confidence.  I'll never be a Mark Spitz, but at least I can enjoy myself now, with my kids, without hitting the panic button when my feet can't touch bottom.

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Money got tight after that.  With kids and not the best paid job in the world, travel became the 7:30 from High Brooms to Cannon Street and the 6:05 home in the evening.   Plus train rides to visit family at weekends (I was still not driving).  Overseas trips were non existant.  I had one business trip to Luxembourg and Brussels that was quite enjoyable - it featured a first class train journey from Luxembourg to Brussels as there were no flights - but apart from that, no, I was strictly stay at home.

Eventually I managed to pass my test, and that opened doors.  We had annual holidays in Cornwall that were always a joy.  One year we went to Wales for a change.  But it was still small fry, really.  I changed jobs, and stated working for a German bank, and had regular visits to Frankfurt.  This is when my Travelling Life really kicked off - I got used to airports, hotel rooms, finding good places to eat on my own.  I began to realise that there were places and people beyond the English Channel that were worth visiting and appreciating, different cultures.....

Another job change, and I found myself on the road even more.  My company, a small start-up venture that ultimately failed, entered into partnership with an oufit in Paris so I had regular trips on Eurostar there and back.  I also had to do some additional journeys marketing the scheme we were developing, so the business capitals came onto my agenda - Madrid, Vienna, Zurich, Amsterdam, back to Frankfurt, Luxembourg and Brussels.  It was a great job, but only lasted about 18 months before the company failed.  But it gave me two things.

First was the realisation that I really did want to travel, as much as possible.  And if I could find a job that let me do that AND picked up the bills that would be cool.

Second was the confidence to stand up in front of groups of people and do a good, effective presentation.  I found I enjoyed it, especially the sometimes lively Q&A sessions that followed.

I started scouring the job market.  After a few months (this was just before the Millenium) I landed a job with a banking software company I had never heard of before.  The job sounded ideal - I would travel, I would be able to the presntation stuff (so that was two boxes ticked and was building on the skills I had picked up in the previous job).  And it would put to use everything I had learned in the previous 30 years in banking.

We haggled.  I asked for what I felt was a decent wedge (the same as my start up mob had paid me).  They offered me considerably less.  I turned them down.  My then wife went berserk.  They came back to me with an improved offer - still not what I'd asked before, but I did my sums and it was acceptable. 

11 years later, I'm still there. 

Still travelling.

Travellin Bob.

Friday, 3 September 2010

What's it all about, Alfie?

Well, well.  This is something different for me. 

Been writing since I was a kid, for fun, mostly, but never taken it seriously.  I wrote loads of poetry at school (lost it all somewhere, sometime), loads of short stories in my late teens/early 20s (all science fiction, some were pretty good), also lost somewhere, sometime.  I wrote a novel once. about sex and booze and football, that a few friends read and were very enthusiastic about but again, I never got around to publishing it.  I still have it, so maybe I'll serialise it on this blog over the coming weeks and months, as I still have a handwritten MS in a couple of exercise books back home......  Plus one other short, a sort of erotic ghost story that may also appear here one day.

And diaries.  Played around with them too, on and off.  The last time was a momentous year, first marriage broke up, I left the UK more or less for good, 9/11 happened, and I met and fell in love with someone else - all of which changed my life completely (and for the better, too, thank God).

And then, pretty recently, I discovered the joys of The Blog.  There are millions out there (of course you know that), and I follow a few (mainly sport related) and read others as and when they catch my attention.  So yesterday I realised it would be as good a way as any of committing all my witterings to paper (sort of), get some pleasure of my own from the act of writing, and who knows, bring some entertainment and pleasure to the world at large.

Just for fun.  For the hell of it.  And for something to do when I'm stuck in a hotel room hundreds of miles away from my home and family.......

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So what can you expect from this?

To be honest I have no idea.  There will be travel reports (I get around a lot because of my work)....not professional ones for sure but I hope they will entertain and give people some idea of what the place (wherever it may be) is REALLY like, away from the guide books.  My personal view, of course.  Kind of an on-going, ramlbing, close-to-real-time autobiography.

There will be stuff, work stuff.  There will be comment about what's going on in the world.  Complaints and praise in unequal measure, I should think.  And whatever else I feel like posting.

It won't be daily thing, but the idea is to be regular,,,,at least one post a week, more if I have the time. 

So, to get started, here is some stuff about Facebook friends might recognise it as it's a copy from my 25 Things... posts, edited and updated  (yes, I know there are 50 things....I did two posts)

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1. I'm 57 now, but I don't feel it.

2. I share a birthday with Elton John.

3. My dad was a gardener at Chiddingstone Castle before WW2 and planted a load of water lilies in the lake that are still there to this day. They are HUGE now.

4. He met my mum when she was "in service" there. They got married and he promptly went off to fight the war in North Africa and Burma for 5 years. He must have had two leaves because I've got two sisters.

5. I was a late arrival: she was 38 and he 37. My sisters were both teenagers. My mum was not impressed when she found out she was expecting me, and threatened some pretty drastic DIY surgery. My mum and dad were great.

6. When I was 16 I cut off 3 fingertips in a 5 ton power press in a factory (summer holiday job). They sowed them back on again in an early attempt at microsurgery and I was back playing in goal for my school team in 12 weeks.

7. I was christened C. of E., spent my teens considering joining the Baptists but ended up spending all my married life (both times) married to lovely Catholic ladies. My kids are all R.C. and my three eldest sons were all altar boys.....and bloody good ones, too.

8. I wrote a book once. Semi-autobiographical, about sex and booze and football. It's a cracking read but I never got it if anyone out there is in, or knows somebody in, the publishing biz and fancies a punt let me know!

9. I supported Palace when I was a kid and still follow their results closely. Also Gillingham and of course England. But mainly I support Ebbsfleet Utd (Blue Square South this year….got relegated in May after 3 years of mismanagement by me and my fellow MyFootballClub “owners”. A sorry tale indeed…..). I’ve now left MyFC and will continue to support and help the Fleet in other ways, as and when I can.

10. I used to be a quite tasty ‘keeper when I was younger but never took it seriously.

11. I used to play cricket too.

12. For the last 11 years I've been working for a computer systems company and have travelled the world. It's the best job I've ever had.

13. In that time I've averaged 3 flights a week and have racked up over half a million miles flying time. I shudder to think what my carbon signature is like...... One day I really must get the diaries out and figure out the exact mileage.

14. Best place visited: I love Amsterdam. And Barcelona was nice. And the Big Apple.

15. Worst? Almaty in Kazakhastan was a dangerous shithole. Not too impressed by Mexico City either.

16. The 2 best inventions ever are the condom and the iPod.

17. I’ve been living in Warsaw (Poland) since 2000. Went there to do a two week job and been there ever since. Really should learn the language one day....

18. Poland's a great place, not at all how people imagine it to be. And it has changed tremendously in the years I've been there....for the better.

19. I love music. Got an iPhone for Christmas a couple of years ago and use it mostly as an iPod (my Polish SIM doesn't have roaming). I have a library of nearly 100 albums (over 1000 tracks) so far......everything from Beethoven to Bruce Springsteen via The Doors, Van Morrison, Frank Sinatra and Leonard Bernstein. It's cool and keeps me going on flights with no entertainment system.

20. Give me a good book and my music and I’m happy, wherever I’m going, no matter what the delay.

21. The only thing I miss about England (apart from my family) is Match of the Day on a Saturday evening and Question Time.

22. The best car I've driven was a 1989 Mazda RX-7 sports car. Looked the bollocks and went like the clappers. I also had a corporate entertainment day driving at Silverstone once, in a variety of race cool.

23. My worst car was probably an old Peugeot 107 I bought for a hundred quid and drove into the ground.....absolute French crap.

24. Billy Connolly is possibly the funniest man on earth but not as good as he used to be. Bloody good actor as well.

25. Favourite book - Lord of the Rings. Favourite film - can't make my mind up between Star Wars (the first one), True Grit, Back to the Future (again the first one) or Top Gun. So it's probably Dumbo.

26. I nearly drowned 3 times when I was a kid. When I was about 2 (I fell in a water tank on my dad's allotment), about 6 (my sister's boyfriend decided to teach me to swim at Pevensey Bay by taking me out of my depth in the freezing cold sea and leaving me there) and at 10 (in my school's swimming pool).

27. This left me with a lifelong fear of getting out of my depth. I only learned to swim at 25, in the Med at Palma Nova, Majorca. I'm still a weak swimmer now and the fear is still there.

28. In Malta about 6 years ago I tried scuba diving. But I couldn't hack it.....that depth thing again. Ania got her PADI licence though. I just watched.

29. But I love the sea......

30. Favourite holiday destination: probably Crete. We went there a few years ago and it was lovely. Elafonissi is probably the best beach I've ever been too. And the sea was warm and shallow.

31. Every city in the world has an Irish pub. Whenever I go somewhere new with work I look for the Irish pub, that way I'm guaranteed decent food and beer all week and almost certainly English football on the telly. Even Almaty had 3....they kept me sane during nearly 8 difficult months. A free travellers tip for you.....

32. Global warming is a reality. My first winter in Warsaw we had a metre or so of snow from the end of October through to the end of March and temperatures often hit -20C (with a windchill on top of that). The last 5 years we haven't even had a white Christmas. Al Gore is right.

33. I have three grown up sons in England. I'm really proud of them.

34. In Poland I have a 5 year old son who is just gorgeous and keeps me young. My English sons were kind of surprised when Ania and I had him. I was 52 at the time.

35. Two years ago we had another baby.....and my first daughter, my little Princess Ally. She is the most beautiful little angel in the world. My kids were even more surprised. So was I......a daughter after 4 sons. Magnificent.

36. Kuba, my five year old, speaks better Polish than me. He and Ally will be fully bi-lingual.....a huge advantage in the 21st Century. They'll probably also learn French or German or something too, at school.

37. When it comes to languages, the English are lazy bastards......we never bother to learn another language properly because the rest of the world (particularly the business world) speaks English. Neo colonialist arrogance.

38. The first time I read Lord of the Rings (my favourite book) was in the back of a Ford station wagon on a drive from Ottawa to Niagara Falls and back when I was 19. I didn't finish it, but it changed my life. Two years later I bought it in Ottawa and I've now read it 9 times. Sam Gamgee rocks.

39. Thomas the Tank Engine is pretty cool too. My boy John was a huge fan when he was a kid and Kuba is too. He has a huge battery powered Thomas train set that is great....he loves it. Plus about 5 dvd's and a dozen books. I have to read them all the time to him.

40. The first girl's toy I ever bought was a little rag doll in Athens airport in 2008, a week after we found out Ania was expecting a girl. Better get used to it, because I'll have to buy loads more......

41. The worst traffic I have ever experienced is in Beirut. There is no public transport to speak of so everyone drives....badly. There are few white lines, the traffic lights only show flashing amber (even though there are green and red lamps, they don't work) and apparently no rules. It is total madness.

42. In Egypt a few years ago we went in taxis that drove at high speed in pitch darkness without lights....the drivers safe in the belief that Allah would not let them come to harm. Fuckin idiots.

43. One day I will go to Australia. I want to see Ayers Rock at sunset and a test match at the MCG. There are more animals and insects that can kill you in Australia than anywhere else in the world (according to Bill Bryson in his excellent travel book “Down Under”, anyway).

44. I once spent 2 months working in the Vatican. The project room was right next door to the Pope's offices but I never saw John Paul biggest regret. He was a wonderful man.

45. Our desks were 18th century antiques, there were masterpieces hanging on the walls and the domed ceiling was decorated by Michaelangelo.......the most extraordinary office I've ever worked in.

46. I'm not sure whether I want to be buried or cremated....probably cremated and my ashes scattered somewhere nice. But I don't want anyone spending a fortune on it....just an old wooden box will do (it's only going to be burned after all). And just wrap me in a sheet or something.....why bother with the best suit or whatever? And I'm really really sorry if this comment upsets or offends anyone.....

47. Best concert I ever went to: could be Springsteen at Earls Court, Billy Joel at Wembley Arena, Eric Clapton on the beach in Gdynia (2008), or the Who at Charlton Athletic. Mind you the Beach Boys/Eagles/Elton John at the old Wembley stadium was great too. And U2 in Chorzow (2009) on The Edge’s birthday…….50,000 Poles singing Happy Birthday and Sto Lat was extraordinary.

48. Worst was Barclay James Harvest somewhere in London......we had front row seats (all very civilized) and I fell asleep.

49. Woody Allen once said "Life's a bitch and then you die." Very wise man, Woody Allen. But overrated.

50. All in all, despite its ups and downs, I've had a good life so far. And it's still good and getting better. Happy days.

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So there you go.  Post Number One.  I hope you enjoyed it, but if you didn't.....well, that's fine.  I'll try again another day.

Until then, take care and stay happy.