1st April 2011
It’s a long way to Johannesburg. I was last there in late November 2009 to water the seeds of a project which I first planted in April 2008. Those seeds have grown; my colleagues are now sitting in a beautiful new modern office and for me this trip was all about my emotional “closure”.
Late on Saturday afternoon I dropped Mother off at her home en route to Birmingham airport to catch a connecting flight to Frankfurt. As always, I had booked a “Muslim meal” on board. This turned out to be a chickpea curry with some fresh fruit. Quite pleasant, but not particularly imaginative and remarkably similar to other meals that Lufthansa have served me with the label “Muslim meal”. For some reason Lufthansa seem to think that Muslims only eat curry and fruit.
I’m very familiar with Frankfurt airport – it’s both a destination for me and a frequent connection point. This time, however, I found myself in an unfamiliar part of the airport – Terminal C! Ooooo-OOOOO-ooooo!! I made my way to the gate for the flight to Joburg and discovered that the Business Class lounge was attached to the gate. I should point out that most of the time when I fly it is with the rabble in the back of the plane. Only on long-haul flights does the company allow me the joy of sitting at the front. This time the joy was double. I was taking my first flight on an Airbus A380.
It's a monster!
It is HUGE! Please indulge me while I become a bit geeky here… I’ve always thought the Airbus A340 was a big plane, but although the A380 is 2 metres shorter that the A340-600 it has a much bigger wingspan, is wider, taller, and is truly a double-decker plane (unlike Boeing’s 747 which looks like it was modelled on Quasimodo). Lufthansa have chosen to put their First and Business class passengers on the upper deck and you do get a feeling of being high off the ground before you’ve even taken off.
I settled down in my seat and after about half an hour the monster lurched and rattled and bounced its way down the runway. Then we were airborne. It is surprisingly quiet inside.
By now it was 11pm and dinner arrived. For starters got that feeling of déjà vu when I was served a chickpea curry with fruit. I ate it anyway. For main course there was… wait for it… lamb curry and rice. Sigh.
For me, flying Business class is not about the status; it’s not about the food; it’s not even about the better range of in-flight entertainment. No. It’s all about the SEAT. I am lucky enough to be one of those people who can sleep on planes, and I pushed the button to transform my seat into an almost flat bed. I lay down, covered myself with the blanket, and slept for around 6 hours.
We touched down in Joburg at around 10:30 am local time. Irene (who works for me) and her family were there to meet me. At Irene’s insistence I was to stay at their home for the next 3 nights.
After dropping my bags off at her home Irene had the brainwave to go and see some crocodiles and lions. At “Crocworld” I got to wrestle a baby crocodile, while at “Lion World” I demonstrated my skills as a fearless lion-tamer. In truth, the lion cubs were far more interested in cuddling up next to one another and going to sleep. After a drive around a number of large enclosures containing assorted lions, cheetahs and hyenas we headed home. The long flight and the animal adventures had left me feeling drained so I lay on the bed and slept for another hour.
It's a Monster!
It's a Monster!
Irene's Famous Fish Biryani
Irene and her husband Danny are both of Indian heritage and they know how to rustle up a tasty curry. I was suffering from a particularly nasty cold so Irene added extra chillis into her Famous Fish Biryani to try and blast my sinuses into submission. Danny cooked some prawns in a simple marinade and we scoffed them with their son Keegan for appetisers.
The food was delicious. Irene had used Yellowfin Tuna and plenty of spices. It didn’t get rid of my cold, but it sure cleared my head for a few hours! I also discovered that fried fish-head seems to be a delicacy in this household. I watched on as the family argues over how many fish heads there were and who had eaten them.
On Monday I finally got to see what many people in the company were talking about – the new office. I had assembled the project team, helped find the new location and reviewed the design. I had seen photos of the final product and heard the comments from the people who had visited there. Now, after almost 3 years from when I promised my colleagues in Johannesburg that I would get them a new office, I was standing in it. My colleagues love it. And so do I. Job done.
In the evening I took my team of ladies out for dinner. We went to a halal African restaurant called Moyo’s in Melrose Arch, just around the corner from the office. I noticed springbok on the menu and decided to give it a try. Libuseng, a pretty young lady from Lesotho, pulled a face at my selection. “That’s lion-food,” she declared. I justified my choice by the fact that my star-sign is Leo the Lion and I was born in the Chinese year of the Tiger.
It was braised in a delicious gravy and came with pap and a chilli-tomato dip. I informed Libuseng that I understood why lions would chase and eat springbok and offered her a morsel. She tentatively took it and popped it in her mouth… “Mmmmmmm! That’s really nice and tender!” I suspect it may not be the last time she eats “lion-food”.
It's a Monster!
Moyo’s is actually a chain of restaurants and I do enjoy the whole experience. The food on the menu is drawn from all over Africa. There are musicians wandering around playing African rhythms and punctuating them with the occasional vocal break-down. I can never resist the face-painter in these places and we all four of us ended up with white dots in pretty designs on our cheeks or, in my case, on my forehead.
Whenever I’m out with my colleagues in South Africa I can’t help but feel how unusual it must look. I don’t feel at all self-conscious but I can’t help but notice that the people eating are mostly white, and the people serving are mostly black. White people eat with white people, and the very few black people that are eating are sitting with black people. One lily-white lady eating with three black colleagues must be an uncommon site. I wonder if this is peculiar to Joburg, or whether it is the norm in other cities like Durban or Capetown. God willing, one day I may find out. Apartheid may be long-gone in the legal system, but the social divide still exists.
We are family...
Tuesday evening I had dinner with Tim. We went to a fish restaurant and ate… well, fish. I met Tim on my first ever trip to Joburg and he helped us find the right location for the office. This was my chance to say “thank you” to him and for the first time in the many times we have had dinner together he let me pay. Tim is a dish. Late fifties (I’m guessing), divorced, own business, knows how to fly a plane, enjoys the outdoor life, a great conversationalist, knowledgeable on many subjects, a perfect gentleman. So why is he still single????
My bus home
On Wednesday Irene took me shopping. I hadn’t expressed any great desire to go shopping, but Irene announced that I “needed to go shopping for stuff”. Note the use of the word “need” and the non-descript word “stuff”. We drove to a suburb called Lenasia which is primarily full of Asian shops. I didn’t see any stuff that I needed, but Danny picked up some spices. The most striking part of this trip was the huge numbers of people gathered around TV sets in the street watching India play Pakistan in the cricket World Cup. I could imagine this scene repeated all over the world as the two great rivals went head-to-head on the cricket field. Sport can bring people together. Unfortunately it can also divide people as evidenced by scenes outside football grounds right across England and Scotland every weekend.
After a lamb curry lunch at Irene’s we headed for the airport. We said our goodbyes and I made my way through security and immigration. I had some time to kill and wandered around the shops, but I still didn’t see any stuff that I needed. By the time I got on the behemoth to fly home I was exhausted. Once the plane was airborne and the seatbelt sign had been turned off I settled down to sleep. I wonder what Muslim delight Lufthansa had prepared for me? I guess I’ll never know.
8 hours later I woke up just in time for breakfast – croissant, juice and coffee. The plane touched down exactly on schedule at 5:30 in the morning giving me almost 3 hours to sit around in the Business Lounge before catching my flight back to Birmingham. Time for more coffee and juice! I don’t function well in a morning without caffeine.
This weekend I’ll spend some time trying to get rid of the last remnants of my cold. Next week… Istanbul!
I said I’d give some feedback on the “Curry night” at a local restaurant last Friday. I guess if you don’t eat Asian food very often you might have been quite impressed…
10th April 2011
Everyone should try and visit Istanbul once in their life if they can. It is city which is progressive yet traditional, modern yet ancient, and is so rich with architectural beauty and history that your brain will hurt. I am blessed that I have been to Istanbul many times in the last ten years, but this was my first visit for almost two years.
I stayed overnight with Mother on Monday night to catch the early flight from Birmingham to Zürich, then on to Istanbul. Why is it than whenever I have a short time between connecting flights that 90% of the time I end up with a seat at the BACK of the plane? I want to be near the front so that I’m not hurrying to the next flight! This time I was sitting at the back of a Fokker 100 airplane, right next to the engine. I always carry a pair of earplugs with me for just such an occasion…
Swiss Airlines are very smart about the meals that they provide on their flights to Turkey – the only option is veggie! I was handed my small package to discover a small piece of carrot cake and a foil-covered tub containing something labelled as “Pea Risotto”. What can I say? It was green and tasted of peas.
When I arrived at Ataturk airport my colleague Samah from Cairo was already waiting. We found our designated taxi driver and headed into the infamous Istanbul traffic at the peak of the evening rush hour. An hour later we checked in at the Dedeman Hotel in the Esentepe district.
Another colleague from Istanbul, Ümit, had arranged to take us out to dinner. Samah was craving nargile so we ended up at a place called Ali Baba Nargile not too far from the hotel. We sat down at a table covered in about 10 bowls filled with different types of nuts and fruits. The food menu was rather limited but contained an assortment of kebabs. I went for the “assortment of kebabs” which turned out to be a plate filled with nuggets of chicken, lamb and minced lamb kebabs. I have to confess that the Turks certainly know how to make a good kebab.
The following morning we met again at the hotel lobby together with another colleague, Karl, who had flown in late evening from Frankfurt. Rather then pay 18 Euros each for breakfast at the hotel, we decided it would be better if we went out for a slap-up breakfast and only paid 10-12 Euros each. There is a of maxim with large hotels which says that if they offer you a fantastic rate for the room, they will get their money back by charging you an outrageous amount for the breakfast. I find that hotel breakfasts are often very poor and not at all value for money. I prefer to go out to a local café whenever possible – the food is usually more authentic and a lot cheaper.
We allowed Ümit to order for us and he went into full meze mode. Plate after plate of cheeses, eggs, borek, bread, yoghurts, olives, honey and jams were skilfully arranged on the table like a jigsaw puzzle. And it was delicious. I particularly liked the meat-filled borek (a kind of pastry) and I’m keen to try and make this at home. We didn’t manage to finish all the food and took a bag full of leftovers with us for lunch.
The main event of the working day was a meeting with the local management team. We have been trying to launch a project to refurbish their office for some time. A few weeks ago the managers had a presentation from one of the companies who were tendering for the work. I was told that it was a “lively meeting”, by which I think they meant there was a lot of shouting and animated discussions. I was there to try and rescue the situation and throw myself into the Lion’s Den of angry Turks.
Fifteen pairs of expectant eyes focussed on me as I stood up to address the gathering. In these situations I always try an ice-breaker to lighten the mood and help them know that I’m not here for confrontation, My oft-used opening gambit involves telling people that I have been working for this company for almost 22 years. I pause and look around the room and say, “Aha! I can see some of you trying to work out how old I am, but you will be wrong. The fact is that I joined this company when I was just five years old.”
The meeting went extremely well. No shouting, no animated people, no fighting… Just attentive listening and some good questions which I tried to answer. The Angry Young Turks seemed to be Reasonably-Happy Young Turks by the time the meeting closed.
For the evening we went back to Ali Baba Nargile for more kebab and a light smoke. There was a local football match showing on a big-screen TV. Samah is not a football fan and we started to discuss the finer points of football. Or not; the conversation turned silly…
“That man in goal spends most of his time doing nothing. Why don’t they give him a sofa to make him comfortable? And a Playstation to stop him from getting bored?”
“Those men seem to spend all their time trying to get the ball off each other. Are balls in short supply? Why don’t they just give everyone a ball?”
“That man who runs around blowing a whistle… if he is going to try and entertain the others why don’t they give him a proper instrument to play on? Like a guitar, or something?”
Float, float on...
We went out for breakfast again on Thursday morning, this time in the Ortoköy district. This is an old district on the Bosphorus and just under the main bridge. Another good-value meze breakfast was washed down with Nescafe (I’m not a fan of Turkish coffee or chai). Before embarking on the day’s meetings we took a little time to take in the air by the sea. The morning was slightly chilly but sunny and we watched the ships go by for a while. Jellyfish floated by near to the shore. It’s a great way to start a day.
For the evening meal we went back to Ortoköy again to one of the many café-bars in the area. We sat near the open entrance and Samah and I were given blankets to keep us warm (the men would just have to freeze). I had a simple chicken shish with salad and joined my colleagues with a light lemon and mint shisha. Ümit and Samah left early to allow Samah to get to the airport to catch a late flight to Cairo. Karl and I stayed behind to talk a bit about work, and a lot about life and things spiritual.
We were relaxing, enjoying the atmosphere and each other’s company when suddenly a cat jumped on my lap! After a minute or two of “pummelling” me in the way that cats do, he settled himself down to a serious session of purring. So there I am, sitting wrapped in a blanket with a cup of apple chai in front of me and a cat on my lap. I’ve never felt more like a granny in my life. All I needed were my slippers!
Charlie (for that was his name) was a quite reluctant to let me get up when it was time to leave. I put my blankets in a pile for him and tipped him onto them while quickly getting up. He sniffed the blankets and settled down again.
I returned home on Friday retracing my route via Zürich. This time Swiss had prepared a Tomato Risotto for everyone. It looked remarkably like the Pea Risotto from a few days earlier, only it was red. Or if you are colourblind, I guess it looked EXACTLY like the Pea Risotto from a few days earlier (Man is colourblind – this is how I know about such things). Thankfully it didn’t taste of peas.
Istanbul is a great place to visit. God willing I’ll be back there later this year to help keep the project moving. Now I have to unpack my suitcase, do my laundry, and repack. Next week – Moscow!
April 16th 2011
Tuesday afternoon. Lufthansa flight 1448 from Frankfurt landed at Moscow Domodedovo airport. It was grey and snowing lightly. Only a few days before I had been enjoying beautiful sunshine and warm temperatures at home. I always check the weather forecast for wherever I am going to, and I was glad that I was wearing my big winter coat.
The immigration formalities have changed very slightly since I was last in Russia almost 3 years ago. Back then you filled in an immigration form on the aircraft, then a customs form when you landed. Now, they give you the customs form on the plane and the immigration form is filled in automatically for you when you pass through passport control. The whole experience of getting to Russia, staying in Russia, and leaving Russia is of bureaucratic proportions which surpass even the French. Everything has to be stamped and kept with your passport, including the registration document that the hotel has to prepare after check-in. Not so much “Big Brother is watching you”, more “Big Brother has shares in a paper-mill”.
I met my driver after making my way through dozens of men all desperate for me to get in THEIR taxi (for which they would undoubtedly charge me an exorbitant fee. Unwitting foreigner = Cha-Ching!). Mikhail is a friendly, smiley soul but sadly he speaks English as well as I speak Russian. We had the radio on during the journey to break the silence
I arrived in Moscow on the same day as the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin being blasted into space. I had expected to find some kind of recognition of this momentous event in the streets of Moscow. But there was nothing. Instead, all I experienced was the usual Moscow traffic during the hour and a half it took to get to the hotel.
The Marriot Grand Hotel is as its name suggests. Like almost all hotels in Moscow it is big, luxurious and expensive (even after our corporate discount). I feel uneasy about the cost of staying in such hotels, but I understand that I don’t have a lot of choice. It was around 10 pm local time when I got to my room, so I ordered room service… Fish & Chips!
Breakfast was included in my room rate so the next morning I helped myself to fruit, almond croissant and scrambled egg on toast. Mikhail picked me up at around 07:20 – very early for my body given that it was 3 hours further east than normal – and we headed for the office.
The main purpose of my visit was to meet my newest team member, Natalia. I had spoken to Natalia over the phone a couple of times during her recruitment, but this would be our first meeting.
I spent much of the next two days making new acquaintances and renewing old ones. There were big hugs all round for my team there, especially Marina, Nastia and another Natalia who had flown in from St Petersburg to join us and meet her new boss too. I also met up with Anton (see blog 27th August 2010) and Vladimir, who left my team for another position in the company.
On Wednesday night Natalia and I went out for dinner to a fish restaurant called Filimonova & Yankel near the hotel. After staring at the huge crabs in the fishtank at the entrance we were shown to our table and began chatting about our lives, families, etc while enjoying the delicious fish. Natalia had an enormous chunk of Norwegian salmon, while I showed my respect for Natalia’s Armenian heritage by taking the grilled Armenian trout. Together with grilled asparagus it was utterly delicious. The cavity of the fish had been filled with sprigs of fresh thyme and a couple of cloves of garlic. We left a few hours later and Natalia jumped into a taxi to head home.
Thursday night was “Team Dinner” night. This was my opportunity to say thanks to my team for the work they do by treating them to dinner. Marina had decided that we should all go to El Gaucho, an Argentinean restaurant also near the Marriot. The building was constructed during the early Soviet era and was extremely grand. Vast, high ceilings, giant pillars covered with cowhide, a huge fireplace in which you could probably fit an entire tree-trunk, and gargantuan light fittings hanging from the ceiling. Impressive but, as one of the Nastia’s pointed out, not particularly cosy.
I love occasions such as this. If done properly they can really build team spirit. We work together and we talk together, so why not eat together and laugh together! Vladimir cheekily suggested that I should order Shchi Boyarskii (a kind of cabbage soup). The rest of the team know about my double life and found this highly amusing – they have all read the F5 article. Instead I had grilled aubergine with a tomato salsa, followed by grilled prawns with garlic. Almost everyone else had a chunk of steak in some form or other, but all were served on a charcoal-powered heater to keep the meat warm.
At the end of the evening I said my goodbyes to those I would not see the next day. The biggest hug came from Marina – I thought she was going to squeeze the breath from my lungs! The hardest part about travelling for me is saying goodbye. People always ask when I will be visiting them again, and most of the time the only answer that I have is that I don’t know. That’s always difficult.
On Friday morning I met with Natalia and Vladimir for breakfast at the hotel. We talked mostly business, but both of them had gifts for me. I get embarrassed when this happens. One of the relatively unknown delights of Russia is the chocolate. It really is good stuff and Vladimir never lets me go home without a couple of packets of assorted brown morsels of heaven! Natalia gave me a beautiful scarf from the Kremlin museum and I promised her I would wear it on an upcoming video. Keep watching!
Natalia and I said our goodbyes. God willing I’ll be meeting up with Natalia again soon, probably in Geneva to help her make some important contacts. Vladimir drove me to the airport – he really is a sweet guy and always looks after me when we are together. I’ll miss not having him in my team.
Hey! Guess what! I had a Muslim Meal on Lufthansa which wasn’t curry and didn’t have any fruit! On the flight back from Moscow to Munich I was treated to a feta salad and some baked chicken with carrots and mashed potatoes. Maybe someone in Lufthansa read my blog!
I’ll be staying home for a few weeks now. These last 3 weeks I‘ve spent 13 nights away from home, travelled 19,000 miles (30,000 km), and spent 42 hours sitting on airplanes. I’m sure it all sounds very glamorous, but trust me when I tell you it is physically and emotionally punishing. I need a bit of a rest!
25th April 2011
Where did the last week go? I’ve not been travelling at all, but I’ve been so busy at home I can’t even remember what I did last weekend! I suppose I can sum it up by saying… warm weather, gardening, baking.
We are enjoying an unseasonably warm spell in the UK. The skies have been blue and the temperatures are more reminiscent of a day in July. On a few days the sky has turned black in the late afternoon and we have been treated to a short, heavy rain shower accompanied by thunder and lightning. Man and I went for a drive out into the countryside the other day and it was hard to believe that we were not back in France. Even the steering wheel was on the right side of the car (actually the left) even if the car was on the wrong side (actually the left) of the road.
All this sunshine and showers has done wonders for the garden. The apple trees are in blossom, the irises are just opening up, and fruit is starting to form on the blackcurrant and gooseberry bushes. The rhubarb has gone crazy and I harvested a total of 6 kilos. It’s now sitting in 1 kilo portions in the freezer ready for pies, crumbles, etc. Talking of crumble, a lady called Lorraine Bowen passed by my crumble recipes a few weeks ago and left me a link to her “crumble song” on YouTube. Curse you woman! I just cannot get the song out of my head! “Everybody’s good at cooking something, and I’m good at cooking crumble…”
I get a lot of requests to show how to cook things. At the moment I have a day-job so my time is limited, but I always add the good suggestions to a list on my whiteboard. A few don’t make it, like the clown who asked me if I could show how to make jello from cheese. But occasionally, just occasionally, a suggestion really inspires me and I have to rush into the kitchen to make it. And so it was with the Rainbow Cake.
Truth told, I’d never heard of a rainbow cake but a bit of Googling told me the most common version was a sponge cake with food colouring adding. I had lots of food colourings in the cupboard which I’d bought for decorating the Gingerbread Homeys, and the rest of the ingredients were lying around the kitchen. So I began making the cake…
Attempt 1. Disaster. The cake didn’t rise at all and I was left with two flat, multicoloured biscuits. Did I not beat the mixture properly? It seemed fluffy enough. Was there a problem with the butter? I’ll change to margarine and beat for longer.
Attempt 2. Disaster. Two more flat, multicoloured biscuits. What is going on here? The eggs are fresh, the margarine claims it’s good for baking, the sugar is very fine, the flour is… the flour is plain flour. Bah! A quick trip to the local early-till-late store to buy some self-raising flour!
Attempt 3. Success! Light and fluffy multicoloured sponges. I felt such a divot, but the birds were happy.
As a keen observer of World Affairs I cannot help but notice that the world is in turmoil these days. The situation in Libya is appalling; the situation in Syria is degenerating rapidly; things are not well in Yemen or Bahrain; troops are firing at one another across the Thailand-Cambodia border; around 1,000 people have been killed and a further 100,000 displaced in internal fighting in south Sudan, and that is since the referendum vote; Israel, Palestine, Northern Ireland, Ivory Coast, Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, the list just goes on and on.
What is it about mankind that there is an inherent belief that violence is the answer to the problem? Do we not have brains? Did God not give us intelligence and rational thought? Have we not learned from generation after generation of conflict involving more and more efficient killing machines that, ultimately, no-one really wins.
I do wonder how these current conflicts will end. My personal belief is that the NATO involvement in Libya was poorly thought out. It focussed more on some short-term butt-kicking and didn’t seem to worry too much about how this would play out, or what the endgame could possibly be. I said this to Man on the day the French warplanes started flying over Libya and my view hasn’t changed. The stalemate goes on, and I become anxious about the fate of my friend and his family in Tripoli. Allah hafiz.
I’m on a week’s vacation this week. I’ve just completed what I hope is my last ever French tax return and I’m taking time out to work on a few projects, do a bit of gardening, and spend some quality time with Man. I might even get a few videos made while I’m at it!