Discuss longhaul
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Travel is the most private of pleasures. There is no greater bore than the travel bore. We do not in the least want to hear what he has seen... (Vita Sackville West).

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Strange meeting
Just back from four trips across the Atlantic in six days, taking in the Autumnal delights of Baltimore and Detroit en-route. An extremely odd thing happened on the way to Detroit which you will have to concentrate on if you are to understand it. The background is this:

A couple of years ago, Arrie (Jeroen's Dad) bought me a book called Stories I Stole which he had read a review of in a Dutch magazine and thought I'd enjoy. It was by a young woman, Wendell Steavenson, a journalist and writer who went to live in Tbilisi, Georgia and wrote about her life, travels, loves and adventures there, as well as giving am overview of the turbulent political situation in the region of the Caucasus as a whole. It was a great book - one to make you laugh and cry and wish that you had done what the authour had done and could write like she does.

One chapter in the book is concerned with another book - called Ali and Nino by Kurban Said - a rather mysterious book as the authorship is somewhat disputed and the presumed authour's biograpihical details remain patchy and somewhat fabulous. However, it is the Romeo and Juliet of Azerbaijani literature. Set in Baku it is the tale of love between an Asian (Azeri) boy and European (Georgian) girl and it is swashbuckling, humourous, sad and very relevant to our times still even though it was written in the twenties.

Anyway, not many people have read either of these books - they are pretty obscure. In fact the only other people I know who have ever heard of them are those whom I have inflicted copies of both upon out of wild enthusiasm for their merits. As far as I knew, Wendell Steavenson was currently in Tehran writing about Iran/Iraq and Kurban Said had never written anything else.

So, if you've followed all that, you might understand why, aboard BA203 to Detroit on Thursday night, I came to a grinding halt in the middle of my bar round when I espied a book I knew nothing of but clearly visible as being by Kurban Said, resting on one of the passenger's tables. The conversation went like this.

(Me) "What can I get you to drink from the b-.......... Hang on! Where did you get that book from? Kurban Said! Have you read Ali and Nino?"

(The man)"Ali and Nino is one of my favourite books."

"Mine too! Definitely in the top ten!"

(Mutual incredulity for a few seconds).

(The man) "How did you come to read it then?"

(Me) "Now, hang on a minute. Let's think. Oh! It was because I read a book by Wendell Steavenson called Stories I Stole."

(The man) "But Wendy is my friend! I'm actually in Stories I Stole!"

(Me) "That's incredible! Who are you then? You're not THE BOYFRIEND are you?"

(The man) "No. I'm Tom. There is a chapter in the book where Wendell, another chap and I all go off together travelling for a while."

(Me) "Well, that's amazing. Really, you can't imagine how odd this feels. That never happens that a character from a book suddenly walks off the page into real life. How odd! Well, I am very pleased to meet you!"

We shake hands and continue to stare at each other and exclaim on the incredible coincidence for some time before I rememember where I am and what it is I am supposed to be doing, which when I do is embarrassing as now all the passengers for about the next five rows are having a jolly good stare and wondering if they are ever going to get their gin and tonics and my colleague Fiona is giving me nugde-nudge-wink-wink-looks as if I am trying to pick up this handsome creature and she can see what my game is all right.

So, I promise to return and talk to Tom later on in the flight which I do and he turns out be terribly literary and super-intelligent. He has written an article about Ali and Nino for The London Review of Books and I also spot another tome half concealed inside his briefcase of which he is the author. In another bizarre twist, I remember that Wendell Steavenson was staying in the same hotel in Northern Iraq as Stu was when he stepped on the landlmine and that prior to his accident I kept badgering him to go and seek out this interesting woman at the hotel bar and report back to me on what she was really like. (Stu completely ignored these naggings, much to his loss I'm sure but you can verify the truth of this by reading the early instalments of his blog).

Anyway, the presence of Tom (Thomas de Waal to give him his full name) just about made my flight and I even summoned up the courage in the end to own up to the existence of my humble blog and to ask if he'd mind me taking a picture of him to include upon it. This cost me some pride as you can imagine when you consider this man is a writer and journalist, is published by New York University Press, has graduated from Oxford and quite possibly regards blogs as the lowest possible form of literary endeavor (which they probably are). However, with affable charm, he obliged and so I am able to introduce my first ever guest star to the blog. Ironic that of all the famous people I have met from pop stars to politicians, the only one I am ever motivated to photograph is someone like this. It probably all sounds like a fuss about nothing to all of you who have never read the two books in question. To which I say "Read them and then you will understand my excitement!"

Charming Tom went on to produce his business card, promised to tell Wendell Steavenson how much of an impact her book had had on me, made me promise to email him and then said he will send me the article he wrote about Ali and Nino. What a guy! It was all very strange but an excellent happenstance. My dear colleagues all scouted around poking their noses in and informed me Tom was wearing a wedding ring - much to their chagrin as they were practically planning my wedding down in the rear galley. That's cabin crew for you I'm afraid. (Actually no. That's just women for you).

Anyway, all these marvels were dashed on my return to England this morning. I landed at 6.30 am, drove straight down to Somerset feeling like death warmed up and craving a bath and sleep, only to find my boiler broken down on arrival at 15 Tappers Lane and consequently no hot water or heating. The next few hours were fraught - trying to find a plumber on a Saturday when you have had no sleep for 24 hours and are cold and smelly is not fun. Eventually a local hero called Shane arrived who I have promised to marry and after two hours of labour the heating part of things is now resolved. Hot water is still iffy though. All a bit of a nightmare and all only sufficing to add to my generalised dislike of gas central heating and gas boilers in particular. Still, Shane, what a man and he only charged me £25. Hurrah for Somerset I say.

Postscript: The novel I saw Tom reading which I had never heard of is called The Girl from the Golden Horn. I don't think it is published in Britain but you can get it through Amazon.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Beautiful Bee1
Beautiful Bee2
Entire family slaving away
Front door shaving
The transformation complete
The undead
Two legless things
A glorious six days off from jetting around the planet thank God, so tales from Somerset now. I have had requests for new pictures of the sitting room and the advent of the only person ever to complain about not making it onto the blog after a social occasion a couple of weeks back. Most people now get very resigned whenever the camera comes out - they know only too well what it means. I have had to explain that not every single event in my life makes it to the blog - if I had time to write the whole thing up then I'd have no time left for a life. I suppose if I made it all up it might be more interesting anyway but whatever, the person can now consider themselves well and truly blogged.

It has been an action-packed week involving the processing of eight official workmen through my sitting room for carpet/sofa and gas meter installation/removal respectively. My dear neighbours have kept me occupied more or less every evening. Then over the weekend the family army descended to attend to the finer details. The photos will bear witness to this.

I am pleased to say that at least one room in the house is now pretty civilised. Who needs a bed or a washing machine anyway? The sofa arrived, fitted through the door and has been sat upon by all and sundry. And by the way, the photo of it with the appellation of two legless things refers to it and the man sitting on it (not me) - who was a bit. Henceforth he shall be referred to on the blog as Phil-next-door-but-one, not as RAF-type-man which caused some objections. (I don't know, you make it to the blog you have to accept whatever ready monikers come flowing along ffor the sake of virtual fame you know).

A brief respite from slavery in Somerset was had up in Bristol on the good ship Bee. A couple of snazzy pics of her too for your perusal. Now off to America for six days for a rest basically. Happy Birthday to Jo on the 20th!!!

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Most of the past weekend I spent holed up in a hotel in Kuwait - sadly missing Jenny and Bob's party in Cardiff (see bobertblog.blospot.com). I am casting around for a bright side to this but there isn't one. I feel lucky to have the job I do but it is annoying when it means I have to miss important occasions. (Christmas and New Year may be the next the next casualites worse luck).

To get to Kuwait we flew over Iraq - something I was surprised we were allowed to do. But certainly there came a point when Baghdad was right below us and curious about this fact I phoned our pilots to ask them what the rules are about flying over a war zone. Unfortunatley they turned out to be a taciturn and hostile pair not prepared to chat so I never got a satisfactory reply.

On arrival in Kuwait it was all sandy and hot with the gulf shimmering in the distance and much ugliness in the form of towering architectural eyesores along the shore. A skyline reminiscent of Dubai's but on a smaller scale. On enquiry I discoverd that Iraq was a mere hour and twenty minutes away by road and the proximity of daily death and destruction was further brought home to me once we arrived at our hotel as it was packed to bursting with American military personnel in their desert-coloured T-shirts and combat trousers. No-one had warned me about this and although they were all exceeding polite, restrained and dignified, it was disconcerting wondering what they had already witnessed across the border and pondering what might be in store for them once they went back.

Had it not been a dry country I think I would have propped up the bar that night and attempted to get some conversation out of a few of them. How much I would have gleaned I don't know as they must have all been higher ranks and were probably well-briefed about not letting anything controversial slip to complete nobodies like myself. Faced with a wide range of healthy but not-tongue-loosening beverages, I didn't even try.

However, as we congregated in reception before our departure on Sunday morning I did stop to ask a group of three soldiers who were also obviously making tracks whether they were back off to Iraq. On this occasion they were not but one of them very seriously met my eyes and said in a low drawl "It's time we got outta that place. We've been there too long now". I got the impression this was both a personal and a political statement and I was quite surprised at his frankness. Very aware that these men, if unlucky, might never see their home turf again, all I did was equally seriously wish them good luck. It felt like a major cop-out flying back to the UK, safety, privilege and the trivia of a normal day leaving this part of the world far enough away again so that it becomes little more than a play on the box sometimes. In Kuwait Iraq felt close. It brought it home to me (not for the first time) that being a soldier is a tough option.

Race relations came up again on board the plane. Kuwait being one of the routes where we have international cabin crew to oil the works between Arab passengers European crew, we had two Bahraini nationals on board to give us valuable support with language and cultural needs. Late into the night Jalal, a handsome and seemingly confident thirty-two year old confessed to me that he had been scared to come to work that morning as he had on many occasions since September 11th.

It transpired that he has suffered a lot of bullying and hostility, some of it incredibly overt and all of it small-minded and racist from London-based cabin crew since the fateful date. People have apparently made it plain that he and "People like you" are no longer a welcome addition to the team and that his presence is tolerated (just) but resented. The night before we left Jalal had literally been praying that the Iraqi hostage-takers would not muder Ken Bigley as something like that could have severe consequences for him at work with a crew inclined to prejudical views. When it transpired the prayers had been in vain it took real courage to drag himself to the pre-flight briefing and face whatever music there might be. Thankfully he was lucky with the selection of crew he got that day and no snide remarks or accusations came his way. But I was shocked that things have got so bad that my colleagues are treating their fellow crew members like this.I have never kidded myself that cabin crew are amongst the most liberal people in Britain, but I would have thought that at the very least they would have had the respect to keep their unedifying views under wraps out of professionalism if nothing else. It is people like they who must have voted for UKIP or worse the BNP. On Jalal's behalf I could cheerfully have treated them to a few naked nights in Abu Ghraib Prison. It is disgusting that with all the privileges we have travelling round the world and encountering different cultures, people can still cling to their racist paranoid views branding the entire Arab race terrorists and bitching about Muslims. These colleagues of mine don't deserve their jobs and Jalal was worth fifty of them.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Below are a few pictures from the latest trip to San Francisco. This was my second visit and although I was a bit underawed with the place the first time, I realise that this was probably due to too much hype beforehand. Perhaps the secret of San Francisco lies in using its location to indulge in the many outdoor activities on offer around about it. Our Captain initiated a bike ride which I and two other crew joined in with, hiring bikes and cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge to the northern shore on SF Bay for a spot of refreshment. It was a great day for a bike ride, cold and misty at first but then beaming hot sunshine by the time we sat down and ate a slap up meal near Sausalito - an upmarket shoreside townlet. My companions were quite interesting - the Captain being an ex-RAF pilot and terribly charming and posh, the senior crew person had been married to Bobbie Moore the footballer who died of cancer (she now raises thousands of punds a year for charity) and the purser who brought us all down to earth again with wisecracks and good naturedness. Lunch flew past in a haze of red wine and heat and we all bowed out of the ride home, cheating by gaining passage on the ferry. A very pleasant excursion with good company. I'll give SF another chance.
Bike ride 1
Bike ride 2
Bike ride 4
Bikeride 5

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Sanyu Babies Home
Orphanage building
Waiting to be fed
Unloading the milk powder
Thumb sucker

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