Being back

Sunday, June 18, 2017

I'm back in London, back on the boat, back home. It's great.

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I spent a few days just settling in. My flight arrived in London late-ish at night, which made it tricky getting back onto the boat. While #boatlife is largely pleasant and normal, coming back after a long time away is not as simple as arriving back at a terrestrial home. I can't just switch on the light, toss my keys on the table and settle in. For one thing, getting two large suitcases and a heavy carry-on down the long metre-wide gangway that leads to my boat is not something you necessarily want to attempt in the dark after a long international flight. Also, I left the water tank empty in January (to lessen the chances of green stuff growing in it while I as away) and filling the water tank takes about two hours at this mooring. And I'd left the batteries disconnected as well (which I forgot about, and which would have meant a LOT of consternation, since the lights are all powered by the batteries). Knowing all this I decided to book a cheap B&B nearby, which made the landing a bit softer and meant I started the next day like this:

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Bacon! Sausage! Beans!

I got a taxi back to the marina after breakfast and spent the day happily unpacking and clearing out the cobwebs. (Literally. I don't know why it is, but spiders and boats go together.) It was really really good. There was nothing on the agenda other than just being home. I found a proper place for (almost) everything I brought back, and I went through the cupboards and evicted anything that had been hanging around too long in damp conditions, and I stocked the fridge. Then I went for a run on the towpath. It was great.

The boat seems to be basically fine. I had a bunch of mechanical work done on it while I was away, performed by the long-suffering Kevin. Every once in a while when I was up to my elbows in 700 hexagons or trying to figure out how to repair a giant broken pinwheel in Baku, I'd get an email from Kevin saying something like, "I've realigned the grappler flanges and reset your torque modulator, but then I found a leak in the starboard dash-pan. Shall I fix that?" And I'd write back and say, "Yes, please." And then some time later there would be another email from Kevin saying, "I've fixed the leak but in doing so discovered that the cover for the forward Frinkle-lever is cracked, shall I fix that?" And I'll write back and say, "Yes, please." And on it went for months. I guess this is the way it goes with these old diesel engines. I've more or less accepted that I will be replacing this engine one part at a time for as long as I own the boat, but at least I'm starting back from a better place than I was in.

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And while I was away I picked up this stowaway - a small tree that took root in one of my fenders... Impressive rate of growth!

I left the boat at a pleasant if far-flung marina near Heathrow, which is great for getting home from the airport, but absolutely rubbish for getting in to central London. The other day the trip to Brixton took almost two hours. So while the marina itself is nice, and allows me to plug into mains power and refill the water tank as often as I want, it's just not sustainable long-term. Maybe I'm being snobbish, but how do people manage when the commute is that long? One of my fellow boaters, Bob, commutes and hour and a half each way every day, all the way the Southwark. I'm not even working and I can't hack it.

On the other hand, being in a marina means you can get to know your neighbours a lot better, as evidenced by Bob's invitation to a BBQ on the weekend when I got back.

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It was great to meet a few other people on this pontoon

My plan is to cruise slowly back towards central London, hitting all my favourite mooring spots along the way. Summer is a great time to be on the boat, and I'm especially looking forward to having Karen here for a nice long visit in the coming weeks. We've got a lot of highly blog-worthy stuff planned, so standby for that. In the mean time my main activity is reminding myself that the nagging feeling that I should be doing something is one that must be resisted.

Saturday I went into central London. I had a bunch of life admin stuff to do which involved starting at Tottenham Court Road, walking through Soho to Oxford Circus, and then going from there down Regent Street to Covent Garden. It was about as central as central London gets, on a Saturday afternoon. Tourist hotspot. Zillions of people. Normally I'd think nothing of that. Now, coming back to London after two different terrorist incidents, it was all a bit different. You can't help but think about it. There are noticeablely more police on the streets now - especially in busy areas like Covent Garden. And they're not your regular bobby-on-the-beat either. These ones have big automatic weapons prominently displayed. It's jarring, but also reassuring. (Thank you Sadiq Khan, screw you Trump)

On Monday I found myself on the south side of the Thames at Westminster, needing to get to the north side, across Westminster Bridge. It's a bit different now. Before I left town nothing separated the wide pedestrian walkways from the traffic. Now it's like this:

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Welcome home.

You can't argue with this kind of thing. Even in a world without whacko nut jobs I suppose it kind of makes sense for there to be a nice heavy chunk of steel or concrete between people and vehicle traffic. And I can't deny I felt more comfortable walking across the bridge because those barriers are there. On the one hand it was reassuring. On the other it was sad. (And also makes life tricker for London's already beleaguered cyclists, because it reduces the width of the bike lane.)

I kept walking, and was immediately cheered by the sound of bagpipes. There's ALWAYS a bagpiper on Westminster Bridge. And there he was. Score one for Normal London. Also reassuring was the fact that there were tourists everywhere, taking pictures of Big Ben. Another point for Normal London. But the tourists were also taking picture of the dried brown flowers and little tributes dotted along the bridge. Hmmm...

Lacking anything else to do I kept walking, past Westminster Abbey and through St. James' Park and past Horse Guards Parade, until came across this at Admiralty Arch at Trafalgar Square.

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I'm pretty sure those barriers weren't there the least time I looked.

However, balancing that are the LGBT traffic signals at Trafalgar Square installed last summer ahead of Pride Week. They were only supposed to be there for the festival, but a year later they're still installed, with no plans to remove them.

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If you look closely you can see two of the seven different designs of traffic lights

Sort of unbelievably, I'm coming up to my seven year anniversary in London. I arrived in August of 2010. That seems utterly bizarre. It's true that I've also spent close to three years away from London on international jobs, but that's still a significant amount of time. Enough that I think I can somewhat credibly call myself a Londoner. Enough to know that I'll never really know the city. And enough to know that probably no one ever does. But it's also enough time to know that London is not defined by barriers on bridges or policemen with machine guns. London is about the bagpiper at Westminster, and the tourists at Big Ben. But it's also me straining my ear on the tube to eavesdrop on a conversation in Russian a few seats away to see if I can pick up any meaning, and it's a BBQ on a narrowboat dock with a few English people and a lovely couple from Holland, and one rogue Canadian. And it's those crossing signals at Trafalgar Square.

I struggled a lot with how to close off this blog, because it's hard to avoid clich├ęs. ("If I don't stop for a Shake Shack Sticky Toffee Flavoured Concrete at Covent Garden then the terrorists will have won!") So I guess I'll just keep on doing what I'm doing. Living in London, loving London, and appreciating that I can continue to do both those things. And also definitely trying one of those Shake Shacks things because dammit people, I'm only human!

Tourist Stuff: Mud Volcanoes!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

I survived! Opening Ceremony on May 12 (link here) and the Closing Ceremony on May 22 (link here). Both went reasonably smoothly, though Closing in particular was somewhat miraculous given that they were still building the stage on the afternoon of the ceremony, when we started rehearsing. Though I hasten to add that this is no reflection on my colleagues who were in charge of the staging. Mostly it’s just that these sort of events invariably have a tedious period of sport that happens between the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, which means you have set up the Closing Ceremony in about 36 hours. So the fact that we had a stage at all is amazing. If you do click through on those links I think you’ll find that these were two quite prop-heavy ceremonies, so I’m greatly relieved that we actually pulled it off.

Now we’re even finished the packing up and moving out of the Props Tent, leaving a week or so of sorting out files and reconciling budgets and going in late and going home early. And the weather is sunny and warm now so I suspect there may also be a measure of sitting on terraces with a cold beer. In other words, a bit of hard-earned down-time.

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Last day at the stadium. And not a minute too soon.

However, with the clock running on my time in Baku, I still had a few things to tick off the list. So in preparation for my first two-day weekend in months I decided to enlist the help of the Intrepid Raul for another wacky adventure, this time to see the famous mud volcanoes near Gobustan, about an hour’s drive out of Baku.

I say world famous though really, who outside of Azerbaijan even knows what a mud volcano is? This is probably partly because about half of the world’s thousand-ish mud volcanoes are in Azerbaijan. Mostly they’re quite small and relatively docile protrusions caused by more of Azerbaijan’s famous stores of underground petrochemicals bubbling up to the surface. Astute GSWPL Readers will recall another instance of leaky flammables near Baku, though that one was a bit more dramatic. Unfortunately, mud volcanoes are decidedly petite and mostly don’t erupt dramatically or spew giant globs of earth miles into the air or disrupt the flight path of incoming aircraft (errr.. except sometimes… see below). 

Tourists usually combine a trip to the mud volcanoes with a viewing of the much more famous petroglyphs at Gobustan, which I visited on my first sojourn in Baku. On that trip there wasn’t the time to tack on the Mud Volcanoes, and it felt like something that really needed to be seen. So trusting to Raul’s extensive experience of the local Baku buses, we set off on a sunny Saturday.

Despite Raul's encyclopaedic knowledge of Azerbaijan public transit, we were stymied partway there and had to resort to a taxi. This was, for me, a happy occurrence, because the last few months have been long and hard and I’m now generally inclined to grant myself whatever little indulgence comes along. So while I’m sure the hour on the local mashrutka would have been a culturally much more authentic, I was secretly quite happy to fork over the cash and be conveyed in relative luxury right to the target destination.

And how was the destination? It was kind of... other-wordly. 

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It really is an odd landscape. Apparently NASA scientists have concluded that Mars is a lot like this, geologically speaking. But with fewer Ladas parked nearby.

The mud volcanoes ranged size from really tiny - a few inches across - to about 15’ high. Not huge at all. And some are more active than others. Generally though, they look exactly like the picture that appears in your head when you hear the phrase “mud volcano”.

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See? It’s got the bubbly bit in the middle, and the slow flow of stuff on the outside, and the characteristic slope-sided shape of something that’s been building up for ages. 

The only thing that was lacking is the explosive eruption part though even that’s not strictly true. Azerbaijan's mud volcanoes appear small from the surface, but they sit on large reserves of gas and (according to Wikipedia):
"About 200 eruptions have occurred in 50 volcanoes in the territory of Azerbaijani Republic since 1810. Eruption of mud volcanoes is accompanied by strong explosions and underground rumbling. Gasses come out from the deepest layers of the earth and immediately ignite. A height of a flame over volcano reaches 1000 meters (Garasu volcano). Toragay volcano erupted 6 times from 1841 to 1950."
Apparently a huge eruption occurred in 2001, spewing mud and flaming gas into the air in an explosion that could be seen from 15 kilometres away. The fire was still burning three days later. And whole new islands have been formed in the Caspian when undersea mud volcanoes have erupted. Luckily, nothing quite that exciting happened when Raul and I visited. Though I did get a sort of fuzzy slo-mo video which, despite the lack of focus, is slightly mesmerising.



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And I took atmosphere shots of the cracked earth

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And our cab driver took a shot of me and Raul on top of the biggest of the not-very-big mud volcanoes

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And then of course we had to take a selfie of me and Raul and the cab driver, whose name was Elvin. Or possibly Elman. But definitely not Elvis, despite the sunglasses.

And then there was not much left to do but get back in the cab and drive back to Baku. Because as interesting as the mud volcanoes were, there's only so much time you can spend staring at mud. Plus it was windy, and I was a bit tired. It always takes a while to get over the "what-the-hell-just-happened-why-doesn't-my-brain-work-anymore" feeling that comes from completing a big job, so I'm just taking it easy and counting down the days until I get home.

Soon.  So soon!