GRUB!: Azeri Style - The Pomegranate Edition

Sunday, November 27, 2016

After the previous week’s damp and misty outing, one might think I’d shy away from excursions for a bit. Dry out. Put my feet up. Enjoy a quiet Saturday. Then again, one might not know that the week after I visited Chirag Gala was the week of the annual pomegranate festival, and Sabina and Bag Baku were offering a day trip including transport, breakfast and, one had to assume, a lot of pomegranates. Pomegranates are, of course, one of the most traditional foods of Azerbaijan and are grown in many areas. One of those is Goychay, home of the Pomegranate Festival, and our goal for the day’s trip.

Goychay is quite a ways from Baku - the trip there was about 3 hours long, and started very early. This was fine on the way there, when the sun was shining and there was scenery to look at. I found the landscape weirdly familiar, as would anyone who’s driven across the prairies.

Long straight road, railroad running alongside, generally flat land, and some hills off in the distance. What’s missing is fields of waving wheat and grain elevators, but all in all it was sort of homey.

The Bag Baku group this time was surprisingly diverse; I think this is the first time I’ve been the only native English-speaker in a tour group. We had people from Azerbaijan, Poland, Egypt, Germany, Switzerland, Singapore and Iran. Like I said, diverse. After arriving we all sat down to a traditional Azeri breakfast at a local restaurant, out in the late fall sunshine at one big table. The menu was pretty standard: sliced tomato and cucumber to start, along with some salty local cheese and lots and lots of bread, served with butter and honey. This was followed by hard boiled eggs in the shell and some alarming looking pink wieners boiled in their plastic wrappers. And of course lots and lots of tea. There was, however, one stand-out offering that I was delighted to discover: qaymaq! Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will immediately notice the linguistic similarity with Serbian kajmak, and it turns out both are pronounced the same way and are a dairy-based sort of spread. However, while I thought that Serbian kajmak was more towards the butter end of the spectrum, Azeri qaymaq is certainly more like cream. Thick, unsweetened and maybe just a touch sour. Azeri creme fraiche perhaps? Whatever the case, it was delicious on bread with a drizzle of honey. And I’ve now noticed it on the supermarket shelves as well, hiding in plain sight all this time! It’s on my list to try again, though I hesitate to make it a regular part of my diet if only because it is really just very very thick cream and I have a limited number of pairs of jeans and I am already finding one pair a tad on the uncomfortably snug side.

But back to the pomegranates. After we were fortified with bread and qaymaq, Sabina let us loose at the festival site and we agreed to meet up again four hours later. Even at the time I suspected that four hours was an ambitious amount of time to spend at a small local festival, but off I went. The site was the local outdoor stadium, and when we arrived at about noon the place was already bustling. Around the outside of the running track there were dozens of folding tables set up with people crowded around so I pushed in to see what the fuss was about.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from the Pomegranate Festival, but it was not mosaic maps of Azerbaijan, rendered in different coloured shades of pomegranate seeds.

Nor, indeed, three-dimensional pomegranate peacocks. Or dolls. Or, in fact, pomegranates, made from pomegranate seeds (or perhaps just really really carefully peeled?) Though I suppose this is not miles away from the carved vegetable competition at the good old Lambeth Country Fair, so who am I to judge?)

It was an odd yet heartwarming display. Table after table of local people who’d taken the bountiful pomegranate harvest and tarted it up in odd and unexpected ways. There were also lots of plain pomegranates on display, and dishes of Nar Sherab, a sort of savoury pomegranate sauce that’s served with fish or grilled meat. (“Nar” is the Azerbaijani word for pomegranate. Short and to the point, which, given the popularity and ubiquity of the fruit here, is handy).

It took about half an hour to make a circuit of the track, and that included stopping the buy a small keychain souvenir half way around. (A hand carved wooden Maiden Tower, 4 AZN.) I also stopped at a stall to pick up some shower gel and hand soap made by a company that does really nice pomegranate bath products and was having a big big sale. Still, even after lingering at the pomegranate wine stall (No samples! Damn!) and doubling back to pick up Sabina and ask her a bunch of questions, there was still a LOT of time to kill, leaving me plenty of time to wander through another area full of food stalls, and, of course, people selling pomegranates.

But here’s the thing that really struck me about the pomegranate festival. It was very… homogenous. In a place with such a remarkable bounty/glut of pomegranates, I’d expected to see people doing all kinds of wonderful and interesting things with them. Pomegranate cakes and cookies. Pomegranate molasses and jam. Pomegranate t-shirts. Pomegranate hats. Pomegranate lip gloss. All the kinds of things you’d expect from a 21st century harvest festival in the western world. Instead, it felt like everyone was doing the same thing. You could buy pomegranates in many different varieties, or pomegranate juice, or nar sherab. With very few exceptions, that was it. The same was true with the food stalls. I'm used to seeing everything from cupcakes to jerk chicken at a festival site. Here, you could get kebabs. Or kebabs. Or, for a change, you could have a kebab. True, they were doing both the minced meat lule kebab and the chunks-of-meat on a skewer kind as well. And there were a couple of different meats available. Also, very popular among the kids was an offering of a large plain bun split open and filled with a cold wiener sliced long ways into quarters, with some kind of red sauce added (I’m guessing nar sherab, perhaps?). It reminded me of that popular kid’s treat - cold uncooked wiener. And there were sweets, all pre-packaged. And tea. Very little diversity of any kind.

Then again, that’s kind of emblematic of Azerbaijan in a way. It’s a very homogenous society. Have a look at this picture.  See anyone tall and blonde? Probably not. Or if you do, I guarantee you it’s a foreigner.

Our time at the pomegranate festival eventually ran out, about 3 hours after one might have wished, but not before I bought a few pomegranates. These included some less common pale yellow varieties, including one very large one that I paid an extortionate 4 manat for. A lot of money in that neck of the woods, but I did not begrudge it. And finally we gathered again for a quick, late lunch and found our way back to the bus for the trip home. Which was an interminable, dark and dull drive and that’s as much as I’ll say about it.

The haul of pomegranates

What I will do, though, is pass on my now-standard method of tackling the somewhat tricky pomegranate in the kitchen. Real pomegranate neophytes may not know that it’s only the seeds inside the fruit that are edible - the outside peel and the inside membrane are bitter and unpleasant. The seeds - called arils - consist of a seed kernel nestled inside a tart and juicy outer layer where all the flavour is. Sadly, pomegranates are a bit like beets in that tackling them unwarily can stain your fingers, hands, clothing, kitchen, wallpaper, and anyone passing nearby, including housemates, children, pets. Worse still, pomegranates seeds that get ruptured have a habit of spraying their juice in a way that reminds one uncomfortably of a scene from “Dexter”.

Here’s the trick:

1. Place a large mixing bowl in the sink and fill with water.
2. Using the tip of a sharp paring knife, score through the outside skin of the pomegranate along its “ribs”. These can be a bit tricky to identity, but usually you can see from the top that the fruit is not actually spherical but very slightly faceted. Score on the edges of the facets.

It’s not absolutely critical to get these cuts perfectly placed, but it does help keep things tidy. It also helps to cut the crown out of the top of the fruit.

3. Hold the pomegranate under the water in the bowl and use your thumbs to open it up into chunks, a bit like separating a peeled orange. You should end up with 5-6 sections with most of the seeds exposed. The water will stop any spray, thus protecting your wallpaper.
4.  Keeping each sections under water, work the seeds loose from the pith and let them sink to the bottom of the bowl.

In process

5. Discard the big sections of peel and let the small bits float to the top. Skim them off and discard them.
6. Once you’ve got all the seeds out, there will still be some seeds with bits of pith on them. I find if you rub the collection of seeds between your hands most of that comes loose and floats to the top.
7. Drain the water off, along with all the floating bits of pith, leaving a bowl full of tidy seeds, ready to eat. I store them in a tupperware container in the fridge and they stay fine for days.
8. Send a donation to Go Stay Work Play Live for making your life better. (This step is optional but encouraged for maximum karmic benefit.)

And here’s a look at the difference between the seeds from regular red poms and the less common yellow ones. And yes, they do taste different. The pale ones are much sweeter and lack the puckering acidity of normal red seeds. (Side note - it’s totally fine to eat the hard kernel inside too - that’s where most of the fibre is. And indeed it is mostly impossible to each the outside juicy bit and discard the kernel.)

These days I mostly just sprinkle the seeds in my morning bowl of fruit and oats, but they’re also really nice in salads. And they’re often added to pumpkin flavoured qutab too, which is lovely. Or you can sprinkle them over cooked meats. And supermarkets often have fresh juice stands sitting right in the produce section where a young guy will chop open a pomegranate and stick in a squisher device that looks a bit like a medieval torture instrument and extract you a plastic cup of fresh juice.

And that is truly as much as I can say about pomegranates.

A Day Out: Castle on a cloud

Sunday, November 13, 2016

I’m lucky to have the Baku Hash House Harriers to hang out with while I’m here. As an ex-pat working in the same office and living in the same hotel as a bunch of other ex-pats, there’s a real danger of ending up spending all your time working and socialising with the same people. (Or of not socialising at all.) Given the pressure-cooker that ceremonies work can become, I try to make sure I get to the weekly hash runs on Sundays and to the casual Thursday night runs as well. Having hashers to hang out with means that sometimes activities come up that don’t involve running too, which can often be a Good Thing.

One of the local Baku hashers I met last time is the lovely Raul, a UK-based professional living in Baku and working on something to do with the government. Or possibly agriculture or er, economics. Or maybe all three. As you can tell, I’m totally plugged in to the details of Raul’s professional life. Whatever his job is, Raul is a bright and unflinchingly cheery soul and is utterly intrepid about getting to know the city and the country as a whole. He’s been here for a couple years now, and seems to have filled every spare moment with trips and tours and solo adventures on local buses to distant landmarks. As such, he frequently suggests activities to shake out the cobwebs and escape Baku, including this week’s topic, a day trip to the beginning of the Caucasus Mountains near the tiny village of Galaati. This one was organised by an outfit currently called Bag Baku.

I never managed to see much outside Baku on my first stint and Raul promised that the weather forecast was good, so despite the fact that I didn’t bring the right footwear or jacket for autumn trekking, I fetched up at the meeting point on Saturday morning with a positive attitude, a packed lunch, and a pair of dry socks (just in case). After a surprisingly short wait, we set off in a minivan full of other expats only a few minutes past 8:00am, which is frankly astonishing for Azerbaijan. Raul is fond of reminding me that in his experience, the Azeri language does not have a way of expressing the concept of something starting exactly at a specific time. “FROM, not AT” is his frequent refrain, meaning that when you say “Be at work AT 9:00am”, in Azeri that translates to “Be at work starting from 9:00am” which I’m sure you can see is a very different concept. I’m skeptical about whether this is strictly accurate, linguistically speaking, but if it is it would explain a lot.

Our goal for the day was to visit a ruined castle on top of a mountain. Normally at this point I’d link you to a Wikipedia page, but the entry for this particular site is so ridiculously short I’m just going to pop it in here, in its entirety:
"Chirag Gala (which means Lamp (or Light) Castle in Azerbaijani) is a ruined ancient fortress overlooking the Caspian coastal plains north of Baku in Azerbaijan. It is located on the top of a mountain, in the Guba Forest. It was constructed by the Sassanid Persians in the 5th century and was used as a defense for the khanate of Quba in the 18th century. Today the Chirag Gala is a historic site and is frequently visited by tourists. Because of the large rocks and rough road the Chirag Gala is almost impossible to reach with any vehicle. Most tourists and people travel by foot to the top of the mountain."
It seemed like a good goal, though the closer we got the the village that would be our starting point, the worse the weather got. When we left Baku it had merely been overcast, but by the time we reached Galaati there was a light misty rain, so we donned rain gear and I resigned myself to the idea that my feet were going to be wet for most of the day and that my running shoes - the closest thing I have to appropriate footwear - would probably never be the same.

Here are Sabina from Bag Baku and Raul at the start of the trek, as we’re passing through the village. This was one of the better roads.

Sabina was our guide for the day, though “guide” turned out to be a strong word. Having been on many guided tours on several continents, I was expecting the usual running commentary as we ascended - historical context, local flavour - that kind of thing. Instead, it was mostly a companionably quiet trek in the rain. If asked, Sabina would venture an opinion but she was not a tour guide as we know it. This, coupled with the increasingly wet and muddy state of my feet, left me wondering if I’d made the right choice about how to spend my Saturday.

I trudged along with Raul and Sabina and the rest of the group strung out a long way behind us. They were made up mostly of two different categories of people - Turkish Language Students, and Locals With Even More Inappropriate Footwear Than Me. The Turkish language gang are around because their program had been diverted to Azerbaijan after the coup in Turkey. (The Azeri language is very similar to Turkish, and Baku was deemed a much safer location.) And the locals… who knows? I only know that one of them made it half way up the mountain in high wedge-heeled shoes before digging a pair of runners out of her bag (thus ensuring she ruined both pairs). And another woman made it all the way to the top and back carrying a large black leather purse and a separate tote bag. I think it’s safe to say we were a mixed bunch.

The road continued to get steeper and muddier, and the higher we got the more mist closed in. Often it was better to walk along the grassy verge.

It was a winding four kilometre walk from the village to the start of the Chirag Gala Path - the point where the vehicle road ends and it’s only accessible on foot. Though I would not want to drive a vehicle on much of that vehicle road. Raul, in his capacity as Guy Who Knows Way More About Azerbaijan Than Me reports that the government allocates just 3 manat (about £1.50) per person per month for services in the regions of the country outside the main cities. That’s for all government services - education, health care, postal services, water supply, infrastructure, dog-catching, patriotic red, blue and green bunting… the lot. So I guess it’s no surprise that the roads around Galaati are not exactly Autobahn quality. In any case, we eventually made it to the top of the road and paused there before heading on the final leg of the upward climb. We paused because there was a small tea house that would later be serving us hot tea, and it had a bathroom. It also had two lovely friendly dogs, a flock of geese and two turkeys. Naturally.

Teahouse in the mist.

The last bit of the path was certainly the most challenging, not least because the weather continued to worsen the higher we got. Or perhaps it was simply that we were climbing higher into the clouds. Either way, the path was narrow and wet and slippery and the going was slow, though the two dogs seemed to have no trouble at all and accompanied us all the way up. Finally, the castle emerged from the mist.

This is as much as it emerged. Truly, I am not kidding when I say it was misty.

I’m also not kidding when I say it’s a ruin. There’s not much left of the castle, and it’s hard to get a sense of the shape it once might have taken. Still, it did feel like an achievement to get there and despite the fact that it was cold and wet, the mood of the group lifted as we clambered around on the slippery rocks exploring. It was the kind of thing that would give a UK-based Health and Safety Consultant apoplexy. Steep climbs, wet surfaces, and not a guard rail in sight. It might be a good thing that the mist was so dense, so we couldn’t see how high up we were.

The view from the top. As you can see, I was not exaggerating about the low visibility.

The main tower. Another scrap of info I found online claims that the tower "was built over a seam of oil and gas which allowed for lighting up signal fires visible to the distance of several dozens of kilometers”.

Me at the base of the castle

Eventually we all got tired of standing in the mist with wet feet. (Or maybe that was just me.) In any case, we picked our way back down the mountain, with appropriately comedic moments of slipping and falling in the mud, which happened at regular intervals to about half of us. When we finally made it back to the tea house we were directed out behind the main house to a sort of rustic outbuilding that did not look quite as cozy as one might like after hiking up and down a mountain in the rain. Luckily, it turned out the place had a nice little wood stove that warmed it up very well, and the table was set for tea in the traditional Azrbaijani style.

Tea in the outbuilding. It is not exactly Fortnum and Mason, but it could not have been more welcome. (Note: I got this photo is from the Bag Baku Facebook page. Because it was more interesting than my photo of the empty room.)

As we warmed up and draped wet clothing near the fire, one of our hosts brought out the samovar, which was set on the stove. The samovar holds water heated in the outside jacket by a tiny fire in the inside chamber, while the tea pot holds very strong black tea and sits on top of the samovar. When all was ready he filled each glass halfway up with strong tea and then topped up with hot water.

Often it’s traditional to serve this sort of tea with jam. Not with jam in the tea, though. The jam is simply eaten with a spoon. A bit tooth-achingly sweet, but this is a truly sugar-loving nation. The candy section in my local grocery store is larger than the produce section. And Gerald reported seeing an Azeri coworker put eleven cubes of sugar in his coffee last week.

We sat around thawing and drying and chatting and eating our packed lunches. And I took advantage of having a few Russian-speaking locals around to brush up my language skills a bit, settling one and for all the distinction between ходить and приходить (Not). Once we’d thawed out and eaten and drunk our fill of tiny glasses of tea, we slowly moved out for the long walk back to the van. Happily, as is usually the case, the way back seemed shorter than the way out, and the weather improved as we went. And just as we reached the outskirts of the village, the clouds parted and we saw patches of green countryside and blue sky. And, of course, we saw our castle.

How lovely would it have been to have been at the top when the mist cleared? Not so lovely to want to climb back up. At least not that day.

Rounding the final corner with beautiful countryside spread out in the distance.

I got to put on my dry socks, but kicked myself for not packing dry shoes as well. Rookie mistake. And the trip back to Baku was surprisingly quick and quiet, with quite a lot of napping by quite a few people. Despite the fact that I was a muddy mess, I stopped in at a smart new qutab shop near the hotel where I warmed up and dried out a bit more. This shop is a definite keeper. They had three Azeri women making the qutab on the spot - rolling out the stretchy dough with skinny taped rolling pins, filling them to order, and then slapping them on the traditional convex shaped gas fired grill, which looks a bit like an upside-down wok. The qutab shop staff seemed to find me fascinating, asking about why I was so muddy, and bringing me a damp cloth to wipe the dirty spots off my day pack. I managed to sort of explain what I’d been up to with broken Russian and photos and hand gestures, and ended up having a perfectly lovely time waiting for my takeaway order.  And when I finally got home and put my feet up with my fresh qutab and a glass of wine I was suffused with the satisfaction that comes from sitting comfortably after a day of chilly physical effort and minor discomfort.

And of course the next day was the most perfect, bright, warm, sunny fall day you could imagine. Then again, my running shoes dried out fine so, you know, it's all swings and roundabouts.

Tourist Stuff: The Carpet Museum

Sunday, October 30, 2016

In Azerbaijan, carpets are what is technically known as "A Big Deal". Classed by UNESCO as "Intangible Cultural Heritage" carpets have been woven here for centuries. Therefore it's no surprise that there's a dedicated carpet museum in a prominent spot on Baku's Caspian seaside walkway. I didn't make it to the carpet museum during my first tenure in Baku, so lacking any more compelling blog topic to beguile you with I took some time on a quiet Sunday to visit the museum and report back.

The Azerbaijan Carpet Museum started life in 1967 and was first housed in a former mosque in the Old City. It then moved to a downtown building in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Interestingly, that building was originally the site of the Lenin Museum, which makes me kind of proud of the Azeris for booting him out and re-asserting their own cultural heritage. Now, though, the museum is finally in a purpose-designed building that is particularly fun because it looks like a carpet!

Carpet museum
This is a very new building - opened in 2014, and designed by Austrian Architect Franz Janz.

It's a thoroughly modern museum, complete with 10 AZN admission price, though that included the audio guide. Sadly, the translation and narration of the guide was decidedly mediocre. For the most part it was so garbled and heavily accented that the effort of interpreting the audioguide was far greater than the resulting payback in interesting bloggable facts, so I mostly abandoned it and simply read the posted information accompanying the exhibits, which is all presented in both Azeri and English.

However, one quote from the audioguide had a certain poetry to it, and sums up the importance of carpets to Azeri culture and life:
"Where is my carpet, there is my home."
Carpet museum
Predicatbly, there are a lot of carpets in the carpet museum. They're mostly displayed on the inside of the curved walls that make up the building's skin.

It was interesting to read the small displays about the process of weaving the carpets, though since weaving is a kind of universal human skill, it was all pretty familiar. Sheep are sheared. The resulting wool is carded and then spun into yarn. The yarn is dyed. And then it's all strung up on a loom. It seems to be mostly the same everywhere, though I did like the story about how, before shearing the sheep, they'd drive the flock back and forth across a river to clean them. Sheep Laundromat!

Carpet Museum
There are still carpet weaving workshops in Baku that spin and dye wool, seen here drying in the sun in the back streets of Baku's fast-disappearing Sovietsky district.

(It was actually a sheep-ish kind of weekend overall. Back in September during Eid al-Adha I was given a gift of some sacrifical meat. Of course. I mean, who among us hasn't been given two kilos of random cuts of ritually slaughtered sheep by a work colleague? If I had a nickel for every time... Not being overly well-equipped with mutton recipes, I stuffed it in the freezer until the weather turned cool. On the Saturday of Sheep Week I finally thawed it out and spent a lot of time trimming the two kilos into 750 grams of meat and 1250 grams of bones and stuff. The meat turned into a very tasty stew and the trimmings made a small amount of surprisingly rich stock. Check me out - making stock from scratch!

Carpet museum
The stew on the back burner and the stock on the front. That stock ended up as about half a cup once it was strained and reduced. But what a half-cup it is! It's now in the freezer awaiting a suitable moment to shine.

But back to the Carpet Museum. Naturally, there are about eleven zillion carpets displayed, along with other woven household items like bags and curtains and horse blankets and such. It all had a tendency to be a bit same-y, especially the second floor, which was devoted to the imperceptible regional variations in design and production in the different carpet producing areas of Azerbaijan. I say "imperceptible" but of course they were only imperceptible to the untrained eye. I'm sure the preponderance of the buta figure in one areas vs. the use of rhombuses is another is blindingly obvious to some. I am not among them.

Much more compelling was the fact that dotted around the three floors of the museum were five or six working looms with women sitting at each, weaving carpets on the spot. This was absolutely excellent.

Carpet museum
This woman was working at a hugely impressive pace.

Unlike the carpets I saw woven in India where each thread is simply looped through the warp yarns and could actually be pulled out even after the carpet was finished, in Azerbaijan the threads are actually knotted in place. (Which really makes much more sense.) They use a tool that looks like a combination between a crochet hook and a straight razor. A long piece of the right colour of yarn is knotted around the warp thread in the right place with the hooked end of the tool and then trimmed with the razor bit. This all happens at an astonishing pace. Then, every few rows, the woman would stop and trim the knotted yarns so the finished carpet emerged. Again, this is different than in India, where the carpets are trimmed all at once after they're woven by people with very long scissors.

Also along the way, the weavers in the museum used a sort of toothed basher tool to push the knotted threads down into the already woven bits to keep the pile of the carpet dense and even. This quick thump-thump-thump noise of them whacking at the knotted yarn echoed around the otherwise funereally quiet museum in a very pleasing way that brought a bit of life to the place. And while the women that weekend were all making pile carpets on their looms, there were a lot of flat-woven kilim style carpets on display as well. (And in what felt like an oddly coincidental twist, there was a display of kilim from Serbia being shown in a ground floor exhibition space. Sadly, they did not also have an accompanying buffet table groaning with meat and kajmak, which was disorienting and made me wonder if those carpet were REALLY from Serbia at all.)

The top floor of the museum ends with the story of modern carpet making in Azerbaijan. In the 20th century there was a movement to codify a lot of the traditional designs by transferring them to graph paper so they could be recreated accurately in large modern workshops. My notes from the museum say they also established a school of excellence but extensive googling has not revealed any further details. In any case, the upper floor did devote a lot of space to the most famous carpet weaver and designer of that period Letif Karimov, after whom the museum is named.

Carpet museum
I liked a lot of the more modern designs, including this one by a guy whose name I did not record. Sorry, modern carpet guy.

Notably and disappointingly absent from the museum is any mention of Faig Ahmed, who must surely be the most exciting and modern carpet designer working in Azerbaijan today. It’s tragic and inexplicable that his work is not displayed at the museum because it is totally, mind-bendingly awesome. Here are a few pictures to illustrate, and bear in mind these are NOT photoshopped images. These are photos of actual, physical woven carpets.

So, so, so cool.

Are you kidding me?

Like I said - awesome. Check out the whole catalogue on his website. And then write a letter to the Azerbaijan Carpet Museum and tell them to smarten up and buy a few original Faig Ahmeds because it's just criminal that he's not represented.

Of course there's a small gift shop in the museum, but I didn't pay much attention there because I've already got a couple very tiny carpets from my last trip. Plus it turns out that boat life and handmade carpets don't really go together so well because those little carpets turned a sad shade of grey dishearteningly quickly when subjected to the normal wear and tear of foot traffic on the boat. Too bad there was no display in the museum on how to clean towpath mud out of your carpet.

And finally, I was pleased to see that the gift shop was also celebrating Sheep Week with a little display that showed that even though they're not hip enough to have any melting Faig Ahmed carpets, they do still have a bit of a sense of humour.

Carpet museum

GRUB!: Serbian Style (Subtitle: Death by Food)

Sunday, October 16, 2016

As I mentioned last time, I recently took a few days off for a quick trip to Belgrade (in Serbia, of course). It’s perhaps not the first place you’d think to go from Baku, not least because it’s more than 3,000km away. The flight was about 10 hours long and involved an annoying amount to travel in the wrong direction - to Qatar - before I changed planes and made it to Nikola Tesla Airport. On the plus side Qatar Air gets two thumbs up for serving me a hot breakfast on two consecutive flights and having a lot of cheesey superhero movies on tap. Belgrade, though, was merely the setting, not the purpose of this trip. The real reason for the trip was to meet up with some old friends who were in the middle of a longer trip that involved a four day stop in Belgrade.

Here’s a look at part of Belgrade's Kalemegdan Fortress, which is set in a large, green park in the centre of town at the confluence of the Slava and Danube rivers.

Rob and Wes have been vacationing together for years, so I was honoured to be asked to join them. Though in a way this was simply the extension of the Dinnerus Maximus tradition that started in London in 2011 and was always intended to involve the possibility of more exotic locations. Certainly the agenda for Belgrade was highly food-centric, since Wes had already researched and booked a private food tour that promised to be six hours long. As it turns out, any previous dinners together could be viewed merely as training for the non-stop food fest that was to be Belgrade.

Wes and Rob, at the start of the food tour, still blissfully hungry and unaware of the scale of the event to come

First, though, a bit about Belgrade itself. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised on all fronts. I arrived a few hours before the guys, so I wandered a bit in the central part of town which is pleasingly pedestrian friendly, and got a local SIM card for my phone, and had a really lovely lunch at a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant, and marvelled at the favourable exchange rate with the Serbian Dinar, and sat on a series of benches in the park surrounding Belgrade Fortress, all while trying to stay awake after my overnight flight. And I geeked out a bit about the Serbian language, which means you have to sit through that before I tell you about the food.

Serbian is a distinct language in itself, but part of the Slavic family (Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, etc.) and uses it’s own version of Cyrillic which has a few different characters than Russian Cyrillic. I found it very familiar and was only slightly less comfy with it than with Russian, which is to say in Serbian I’m an utter moron whereas in Russian I’m merely an idiot. The really fun thing about Serbian, though, is that is it basically the only European language that displays synchronic digraphia! (Stay with me here because this is actually cool. No really.) Digraphia means that two different alphabets are used by the language. Most often this means that one alphabet was used historically, then replaced with another ("sequential digraphia"). In Serbia though, they use two different alphabets at the same time! There’s the Cyrillic one I mentioned, and a modified Roman one too. You see signs in one, or the other, or both, and the population read and write both interchangeably. Synchronic digraphia! The Go Stay Work Play Live Phrase of the Month.

I was so taken with this concept, which I discovered while noodling around at lunch on that first afternoon, that I bought this little fridge magnet.

And here’s a street sign showing both scripts

But back to the food, er, I mean the city. Wes’s food tour was brought to us by Taste Serbia, who you should all book with right now because they were GREAT. It’s a small operation, but their website is really nice, because the two guys who run it - Djordje (pronounced “George") and Goran - are IT professionals by day (Djordje for a local ice cream company, which will become important later). In their off-hours though, both are dedicated foodies. Djordje and his wife Maia were our guides for the day. They picked us up at our apartment at 1pm and the three of us squeezed into the back seat of Maia’s car for our first stop, a tiny neighbourhood pastry shop selling traditional rolled burek pastries in a variety of flavours. Burek are a favourite breakfast food and especially popular after a night out. The place we went to is open 24 hours a day, and is apparently busiest in the hours after the bars close. Djordje ordered a small mountain of them for each of us, which was our first clue that Djordje’s notion of portion control was going to be a major challenge as the day wore on. The burek were served with mugs thick plain yogurt to drink, which is the usual accompaniment.

Filled with cheese or meat or mushrooms or greens or onion & garlic 
or cabbage or sour cherry or...

Djordje gently suggested that we not eat all of what was presented, and arranged to get the leftovers packed up for us to take away before we hit the next stop on the tour, a traditional kafana. Kafanas exist in most former Yugoslav states, though they take different forms in each. In some countries they’re strictly for coffee and alcohol but in Serbia, happily, they are all about the food. A Serbian kafana is a sort of bistro / pub / family restaurant and usually includes live performances of traditional music along with the food. Sunday lunch at a kafana is a favourite Serbian family activity and the food at our kafana was not in short supply. Witness the buffet table. There's an equal number of dishes on the far end, masked by the enormous bowl of fruit.

Here’s Djordje at the buffet, loading up a sample plate for me, and instructing Rob and Wes to copy his choices. We went at it slowly - visiting the buffet for about five different courses. Or was it seven? It was still early and yet it was already starting to become a calorie-soaked blur.

If I start getting into a blow-by-blow of all the different things we ate I’ll have to consider renaming the blog Go Eat Eat Eat Eat. Instead I'm going to concentrate on a few key Serbian treats that kept coming up again and again, the first of which is kajmak (pronounced KI-mak, to rhyme with highjack). Kajmak is a sort of butter/cream product that was described to us as “layered milk fat”. It’s used as a condiment or topping for breads but also on top of grilled meat, which Serbia has a lot of. It’s sometimes described as being similar to creme fraiche or clotted cream, but none of the kajmak I ate reminded me of that. I found it much more like a tangy whipped butter. At first I wasn’t sold, despite Djodje’s frequent imprecations of “More kajmak!”. However, by the next day’s lunch we were found ordering extra bread and kajmak so I can begin to understand the fervent Serbian devotion to it.

Here’s our first plate of food at the kafana - mostly cured meats, including some very nice dry local salami and lovely sort of ham like proscuitto. That white ball on the right that looks like a tiny scoop of ice cream is kajmak. And the tobbacco-like stuff at about 7 o'clock was a sort of dry shredded pork fat kind of thing. Oddly tasty. We called it "pork floss". Surely there's a marketing idea in there...

The other ubiquitous Serbian delicacy we kept running into was ajvar (pronouced EYE-var. To rhyme with, er…orange.) Ajvar is savoury sort relish / spread made of roasted sweet red peppers. It’s even more more-ish than kajmak, and a staple on any Serbian table. Traditionally a winter food, homemade ajvar is prepared by families in large batches in the fall and preserved in jars. It’s very labour intensive, what with all that roasting and pepper-peeling, but it's also available commercially, even in Azerbaijan, where I can get it in sweet or hot varieties at my local grocery shop. I’ve been spreading it on all kinds of things, kind of like Serbian salsa. It’s got a distinctive bright orange colour and silky texture and is sometimes even referred to as vegetarian caviar. (Even though it is clearly nothing like caviar expect in that it is a spreadable foodstuff.)

Wes and me at the “more kajmak” lunch. And almost-empty bowl of ajvar can be seen in the bottom right.

So the kafana was our introduction to a lot of traditional Serbian foods - the preserved meats, kajmak, ajvar, and a lot I didn’t mention specifically. We also had chicken soup, lamb soup, many different salads, goulash, potatoes, a few different ground grilled meats, and a nice smattering of desserts. Frankly, we were all well on our way to groaning insensibility by the time we left the kafana and headed to the next stop, where we concentrated on my favourite course: dessert!

Ambar restaurant is on a newly redeveloped strip of former industrial land along the shore of the Slava river.

Ambar has an extensive menu, but we were there to try a medley of favourite Serbian desserts. These included a Serbian version of Floating Island - a cloud of meringue set in a dish of custard, which I’ve seen on Masterchef but never tried. (Verdict: Nice, but unlikely to win out over anything with pastry or chocolate or caramel in it). We also has a very nice sort of mille feuille of sliced peach and creme patissiere and a sour cherry pie, sour cherry being a popular flavour in Serbia.

These were both very very good. Not pictured was a dish of Kokh (pronounced with that throat-clearing sound at the end). It was a piece of plain sponge cake soaked in cold milk and served sitting in a puddle of cold milk. It was not a hit. Because… ewww. Why? Why would you do that to cake? What did that cake ever do to you, Serbia??

By this point, since we were having dessert, I sensed that the end of the tour must be drawing to a close - a seriously rookie mistake. In my defense, my brain was probably not working properly due to extreme ajvar overload (Ajvarloading, perhaps? Ha!) (Ok, I'm sorry about that. Sometimes I can't help myself. It's genetic.) In any case, I was mildly alarmed when I found out we had TWO more stops to hit, including another kafana. Luckily, on the way to the next spot Djordje produced a jar of his grandfather’s homemade rakija, the traditional fruit brandy of Serbia usually made from plums, which loosened the mood somewhat.

Here’s Rob and Wes in the back seat, Rob having just sampled the rakija

The specialty of our second kafana was Serbian sač, (pronounced “saatch”) which I though I’d know all about since saj is a big deal here in Azerbaijan (I have to blog about Azerbaijani saj some time…). Serbian sač is both the physical cooking vessel and the foodstuff it produces. The sač is a large round metal dish that gets stuffed with meat and potatoes and left to roast slowly over coals for a very long time. Serbians don’t use a lot of spices in their cooking (basically it’s salt, black pepper and red pepper). However, despite (or maybe because of) this minimalist approach, the meat that comes out of a sač is beyond succulent.

This is the sač we were served - a large piece of pork that was simply sublime. It was almost sweet, and a bit sticky, having roasted for hours in it’s own piggy goodness. (You may have detected by now that Serbia is not a vegetarian wonderland.) Also, ironically, the kafana where we had this piggy goodness was housed in a former synagogue.

Luckily we were allowed to take a doggy bag of the leftover pork which was very nice for breakfast the next day. And miraculously we were still able to squeeze into the back seat of Maia’s car for the trip to our last stop - more dessert! On the way Djordje produced another round of homemade rakija, this time his uncle’s variety made from quince and after a few sips of that we found our way to a beautiful sort of taverna that jutted out into the Slava river, away from the centre of town. It was a lovely and quiet and Djordje managed to restrain himself and only ordered one type of dessert, a cooked apple served with lashings of whipped cream, along with a cup of very strong coffee served in the Greek / Turkish style with lots of gritty stuff at the bottom.

Wes and Rob waiting for more dessert.

By the time we finished up we were almost in a paralytic food coma, and it was dark, and Djordje and Maia were not just guides but friends. We drove through the darkened city in Maia’s car, laughing and talking, and marvelling at the amount and quality of food we’d enjoyed and listening to Djordje and Maia tell us not just about food but about Belgrade and Serbia and their lives and whatever happened to come up. Then the car was pulled over at a corner shop and Djordje hopped out and returned to deliver the coup-de-grace - ice cream bars. They were the ones he made in his day job at the ice cream company, the Serbian analogue to a Magnum bar. And like the trained eating machines we had become, we ate.

The whole food tour was fantastic, and turned out to be just the beginning of three days of fun and food in Belgrade. The following night we returned to Ambar restaurant (home of the sour cherry pie and the weird milk cake) and had their unlimited Ambar Special - an unending succession of small plates that once again has us on our knees after fourteen individual courses. At one point the waiter came over and asked “Shall we continue?”. When we said yes and managed two or three more courses he eventually conceded, “You are Canadian, but you eat like Serbians!”. High praise indeed. Other things happened in Belgrade too. We walked around, and did a tour of the fortress and went to the Nikola Tesla Museum and the Automobile Museum and had some local craft beer and went into a nice Orthodox Church.

But mostly we ate and talked got caught up with each other, which was really the point all along.

Red Light, Green Light

Sunday, October 2, 2016

I’ve been back in Baku for about a month now and settling in reasonably well. The new hotel room isn’t as cozy as my old apartment, but now that I’ve moved around the furniture and stuck things on the walls and bought a few plants, it’s feeling more like home. And it’s got a basic kitchen with a two-burner hob, which means I can cook for myself. I suspect some sort of toaster oven thing will be necessary when the cold weather hits, so one could possibly roast a chicken or sweet potato (if one could find a sweet potato) but more importantly, I’ve figured out how to get The Great British Bake Off, so it’s all good.

Here's the entrance and kitchen area. Not bad!

And here's the living room. The bed is separated from the lounge area, which helps the whole "not-a-hotel-room" vibe.

This hotel is in a different neighbourhood to the old apartment, which Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will recall was near the old city. Now I’m further east next to the main metro station and near a big modern mall. It takes 15 minutes to walk to the office in the morning (mostly pleasant) but this means I’ve got no regular crosswording time (kind of disappointing). It’s also a much busier area, with quite a different vibe. The walk to and from work is, as I’ve said, pleasant, but it does involve crossing some busy streets, which can be disconcerting. You always need to be on your toes as a pedestrian in Baku, but this time around it feels like pedestrian v. car is a central fact of life.

Some things have improved in the year I’ve been away. For instance, a lot of the street lights now have countdown timers that show how long before a red light will turn green, and then count down again to when the green light will turn red. This is highly useful for pedestrians attempting to cross four lanes of Bakuvian traffic. And they’ve also painted zebra crossings (crosswalks) at a lot of places too. Even more surprisingly, cars will generally stop when you venture out into a zebra crossing. True, there is still a gut-churning moment when you need to poke yourself far enough out into the street that it becomes clear to oncoming traffic that you intend to cross. And then you have to wait for each lane to stop, which happens in a sort of wave ahead of you. Helpfully, cars will often turn on their hazard lights (4-way flashers) to let you know they’re going to stop. (Presumably because slowing down gradually and thus telegraphing your intentions to the waiting pedestrian is, er, not A Thing here.)

So that’s all good, right? Well, not entirely. Yes, there are zebra crossing that mostly work when they exist in isolation. Where the system falls down is when a zebra crossing appears along with traffice lights - in a controlled intersection. It feels like the Bakuvian pedestrian is slightly confused on the topic of zebra crossings. True, when there are no traffic lights governing the junction, a zebra crossing is a great way to get people safely across the road. However, there seems to be a general feeling that a zebra crossing trumps all other forms of traffic control, including red lights. This means that you sometimes see pedestrians blithely diving out into oncoming traffic against a red light, forcing traffic to stop for them. Sometime this includes mothers pushing children in strollers (push-chairs). It’s terrifying. Honestly Baku, where are you going that it’s so important you need to get there 37 seconds sooner? You don't appear to be bleeding or in labour, so what's the rush? In fact, further observations reveals that zebra crossing or not, Baku pedestrians are quite used to fending for themselves and simply cross whenever and wherever they want.

But let’s not assume cars are innocent in this equation either. Yes, they mostly obey the red and green lights, but Bakuvian traffic control has not achieved the dizzying heights of the Left Turn Arrow yet so as a pedestrian, even if you’re crossing with the light, you still have to dodge cars that are turning across your path. They will generally stop but it’s clearly done begrudgingly, and always at the last moment. There have been a few times when I’ve involuntarily produced alarmed noises and gestures at a driver who’s stopped about 8 inches from my path while trying to turn through a pack of crossing pedestrians.

A view from the ninth floor of the hotel. This is a “controlled” intersection. I don’t even know what to say about this.

But topping all this is another bit of traffic mayhem on the way to the office. I like to call it The Triangle of Doom, for reasons that I hope will become clear. (And apologies in advance because this is a bit hard to explain without charts and maps and a laser pointer.) It's all about the intersection of Uzeyir Hajibeyov* Street and Azadliq** Prospect… yikes. Uzeyir Hajibeyov is six lanes of fast-moving west-bound traffic. Azadliq is three lanes, one way, moving south. Most of the traffic on the big westbound street wants to continue moving west but needs to jog a bit south on Azadliq before it goes west again one block later. This means that most of the cars in those six lanes of fast moving traffic have to squeeze into the three left-hand lanes that turn onto Azadliq. Naturally, this squeeze happens at the last minute, which means there’s quite a lot of high-speed lane-changing and cutting in that happens right at the intersection. An accident waiting to happen.

This is bad enough, but add pedestrians into the mix and it becomes gut-churning. If you’re a pedestrian trying to cross through this intersection, you might think you were in luck because there are zebra crossings and countdown timers in both directions. Sort of. There is a normal zebra crossing on the north side across Azadliq, but there is no zebra crossing on the west side across Uzeyir Hajibeyov. To get across the larger street you have to negotiate a two-stage right-angled zebra crossing. Rather than spanning the entire width of the road, the crossing includes an intermediate island in the middle of the intersection. And when I say “island” what I mean is “triangle painted on the road”. We're not talking about a raised concrete area with, say, big cement bollards or iron fences between pedestrians and the oncoming traffic. It’s just a spot in the middle of the road where you wait while six lanes of crazed traffic whiz past and squeeze together while aiming directly at you. It’s The Triangle of Doom.

Triangle of Doom
A low angle picture of the intersection, with helpful annotations

I can’t tell you how awful this is. I did it a few times but it was so terrifying that I have instituted a personal policy of never ever ever waiting in the Triangle of Doom. This means that I cross Azadliq on the normal zebra crossing. Then you’d think it would be a simple matter of crossing Uzeyir Hajibeyov from north to south on another zebra crossing. Ha! Of course there IS NO zebra crossing marked there! Don’t ask me why. Perhaps the Venerable Brotherhood Of Bakuvian Funeral Directors lobbied hard during the planning stages. Instead I cross where there should be a zebra crossing when the oncoming mayhem of the westbound traffic is stopped for the red light. Unfortunately this means that technically, I’m jaywalking. Also unfortunately, there are often police stationed at this intersection in the morning who issue tickets to pedestrians, which I suppose is a good thing and should be encouraged. However, what would be an EVEN BETTER thing would be if they didn’t require pedestrians to risk their lives in order to NOT incur a 20 manat fine. On days when the police are hanging about, I walk further down the block and cross. And if I have to, I’ll walk around the whole damned block. Because the Triangle of Doom is (bad language warning) FUCKING INSANE.

Having said that, I do actually go through the ToD on my morning run, but that’s when my path (north east corner to south east corner) means the lights allow me to cross completely without having to wait in the ToD, so that’s an entirely different thing. And on the way home in the evening it's possible to time things just right that you arrive in the Triangle of Doom just as the oncoming traffic stops for the red light, eliminating the wait. But honestly, the fact that I have to devote this much time and energy to negotiating a single intersection safely is indicative of the fact that on many levels, Azerbainjan just isn't quite there yet.

Ranting aside, it is encouraging to see these improvements in Baku traffic management. The countdown timers and the zebra crossing are genuinely better than what was here before (which was nothing). Last week I actually saw police pulling over a car that had run a red light! And while I might complain, issuing tickets to pedestrians as well as drivers should eventually teach people not to plunge into oncoming traffic. I do find it frustrating though, because a solution for the bigger, more dangerous intersections is so blindingly obvious. Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will probably already have realised that without any added infrastructure costs, they could simply re-sequence the traffic lights to allow a pedestrians-only phase. As follows:
  1. Cars going one way. 
  2. Cars going the other way. 
  3. People only, going every way. 
  4. Repeat. 
This would solve the problem and completely eliminate the deadly wait in the Triangle of Doom and also let all those left-turning people at other intersections proceed without pesky pedestrians getting in the way. However, I suspect Bakuvian drivers would find it hard to cede those precious seconds of spittle-flecked, lead-footed forward motion. For now, I’ll continue to allow and extra five minutes for my morning commute to the office.

And in other news, by the time this post is published I'll be in Serbia! I'm taking a few days of holiday time to meet up with friends from home Rob and Wes, who are on a longer trip that includes a four day stay in Belgrade. They'd already booked an Airbnb that sleeps seven, so they figured they could probably squeeze me in, especially since I'm vaguely in the area these days. AGSWPLRs will recall Rob and Wes from a particularly memorable dinner in London. This time around Wes has booked a 6 hour private food tour of the city, whose guide has instructed us to arrive hungry, which is very promising. And there's the Nikola Tesla Museum and a tour of underground Cold War bunkers and, most importantly, a few days of really good company and catching up that are long overdue. Who knows, maybe there will even be a Belgrade blog...

(*Uzeyir Hajibeyov, after whom the street is named, is one of Azerbaijan's most famous composers. He wrote the national anthem, is seen as the father of classical music in Azerbaijan and was the first composer of an opera in the Islamic world. He’s also the inspiration for the Uzeyir Hajibeyov Annual Music Festival. I went to a concert that was part of the festival a while back, and it was great. A visiting orchestra from Germany performed Beethoven in Baku’s Philharmonic Hall, which is a tiny but amazingly lovely venue near the old city.)

Here's the outside of the hall. Very picturesque.

And here’s the orchestra rehearsing in the space.

(** And Azadliq is the name of a major newspaper in Baku. I have no idea why they named a street after it. Or perhaps the newspaper is named after the street?)


Sunday, September 18, 2016

By the time I left for Baku I'd been living full time on the boat for close to nine months, and I'm pleased to report that I'm finding it a much more pleasant, normal, comfortable existence than I expected.  Yes, there are some compromises, but they seem almost invisible to me now. Human beings are remarkably adaptable, though, so recently I've begun to wonder whether my boat life really is as normal as I think it is, or whether a hundred small compromises have blended together into what now seems normal but is objectively actually kinda weird. And being aware that there seems to be a certain appetite for blog posts about the boat (Steve G, I'm looking at you... Are you still out there?) I thought I'd examine this theory in more detail, using a couple of specific examples.

I often say that boat life makes you very aware of everything you consume. This is because every resource on the boat is finite, including some intangible ones. For instance: As soon as you moor in a new place the clock is ticking - you can only stay for a maximum of two weeks. Mooring time is finite. So is the amount of water in the water tank, the amount of diesel to run the engine, the amount of electricity in the batteries, the amount of coal and kindling for heating, the amount of propane for cooking and hot water, the amount of empty space in the toilet tank, and the amount of Internet data each month. Everything you do is a small trade off and those trade offs, while mostly invisible or untroubling, are a constant part of boat life. The happiest of boat days is when I've successfully moved to a nice new mooring with no engine-related mishaps along the way, having filled the water tank, emptied the toilets tank, disposed of all garbage and recycling, and landed somewhere with a strong mobile phone signal. Bliss.

One of my favourite moorings, near Westbourne Park.  It's central, close to transport and groceries and cafés with free wifi, but still leafy and pleasant.

On the less weird end of the spectrum, I am always very conscious of the battery level on the boat. Like, VERY conscious. I even bought a fancy digital battery meter that tells me to within 0.1% the battery charge level. And it tells me exactly how much current is flowing in or out. And the wattage, and the number of amp-hours left at the current consumption rate. Love that meter. Things that consume a lot of power include the water heater, water pump and shower drain pump (but they all run very intermittently, so they're no biggie). The inverter that turns my 12 volt battery power into 240 volt mains power is a bigger hog, especially when I charge my computer, and of course the big culprit is the hair dryer. So I outsource stuff when I can. For instance, the computer and iPad often get charged in cafes or other mains-powered places when possible. Or when that's not possible they get charged when the sun is shining or the engine is running. Hair drying is not outsource-able. Damn. When I dry my hair I tend to stand right next to the battery meter and do it in stages. Dry a bit. Let the battery recover a bit. Dry a bit. And so on. And I simply don't have some things that are big power hogs. I have a hand-cranked coffee grinder instead of electric. And I don't have a microwave (though that's more about not having the space). I do miss having a toaster, though. And there are times when a little electric heater would be really nice.

My super-smart battery meter

Internet access can also be a concern. I have one of those wireless thingies that spits out wifi, but it's limited to 20GB each month. If I run out, an extra 5GB is £15. None if this is the end of the world, but it does mean that I don't do any big downloading or streaming on board. For instance, if I'm posting photos to Flickr for the blog, I'll do it at a cafe or other public wifi spot. But what about Netlfix? How do I watch "Stranger Things" Not having that ability would be the kind of thing that made boat life feel like a real compromise and not a proper normal 21st century existence. Here's where it gets more clever. My phone plan includes unlimited data (for £20/month! Eat your hearts out Canadian readers!) This means that, with the help of an exorbitantly priced and annoyingly fragile Apple video adapter, I can plug my phone into the TV and watch on the big screen. Usually this works just fine, though if the mobile signal where I'm moored is a bit weak it can be frustrating. That's when I turn to stuff previously downloaded onto another device. All in all, it works just fine. And when it doesn't work, I can always read a book, right?

Boat life weirdness gets a bit more pronounced when considering water use. One of the things I was concerned about when I moved on board full time was the size of the water tank. That tank supplies all fresh water on the boat for cooking, washing up, laundry and showers and holds about 200 litres. (I use two litre bottles of water for drinking, which, happily, also double as ballast in the boat. Multi-tasking is an important concept on the boat. Also, occasionally a slug gets into the water tank, so you don't want to be drinking that stuff.) Two hundred litres is not a lot of water. And running out of water is a show-stopping event. Even if I was happily ensconced in the best mooring spot in London, if I ran out of water I'd have to decamp to fill the tank, hence probably losing the mooring.

Go Stay Work Play Live's crack fact-checking team (AKA "Google") have conducted extensive research and determined that the average one-person household in the UK uses, on the low end of the scale, about 45 cubic metres of water annually. That's 123 litres DAILY. Now that I live with a keen appreciation for water conservation, I find that figure staggering. If I used that much water every day I'd have to fill up every 38 hours. Obviously that's ridiculous, but equally obviously, I was right to be concerned.  However, fret not, dear readers. I'm not sure how those figures are calculated (maybe they slipped a decimal point?) because I'm happy to report that I have found it's not difficult to make 200 litres of water last two weeks.  And yes, I am showering.

How do I do it? Well, one of the biggest water hogs is eliminated right away - I've got a chemical toilet so there's no fresh water being flushed down the loo. (Eventually I hope to have a composting toilet, but for now the chemical is more than adequate.) Beyond that, the big water consumers are showering and laundry. When I can, I do laundry at laundrettes, because that means I don't have to festoon the boat with drying laundry for a day. Even so, in a normal two-week cycle, doing one load of laundry is fine. Where the laundry system falls down is with items that need ironing. Even with my mostly-not-working casual boat lifestyle, there are still some things that just need it. Luckily, I've realised that local dry cleaners will wash and iron shirts for a few quid each, and that's been working well. Yes, there's a small cost, but that's #boatlife.

Picturesque backlit tea towels. Note the ingenious bungee cord clothesline system. No clothespins required!

As for showering, if I don't run or get horribly sweaty during the day, I don't bother. This means I probably shower about five times a week as opposed to every day. (London-based friends can, I hope, report that I have not become notably dishevelled or smelly since moving onto the boat.) And when I do shower, I do the "navy shower" thing.  Turn on the water long enough to get wet and lather up. Turn it off. Wash. Turn on the water to rinse. A boat shower uses about 12 litres of water. (Yes, I have measured. I actually have a gauge to measure the water level. Some people might call it "A Stick With Lines On It" but I call it a gauge.)

Here's the water tank, which sits under the bow deck. That's the deck hatch/lid leaning against the boat. And the lid of the tank itself is slid open a tiny bit to insert the gauge, which is clearly reading 100 litres.

As for washing up (that's dish washing for Astute North American Go Stay Work Play Readers), I have a few strategies there as well. For instance, I never fill the sink full of hot soapy water. Usually I only have a few dishes to do, so I'll heat a bit of water in the kettle and fill a small container in the sink - something like a plastic tupperware tub or a small saucepan. Soap goes in there, and I dunk a washing sponge in, wash each dish, and set it aside in the sink. Then I turn the tap on at a low volume and rinse and stack the dishes in the rack.  Easy peasy.

Note that I said I heat water in the kettle. (Which is heated on the stove of course - certainly not electric!) This is because firing up the water heater comes with that long period of time where you run water through the system while it heats up. No way! It's a more efficient use of water (and possibly gas as well) to simply warm up the kettle a bit. It doesn't even have to be boiling. On the more extreme/weird end, I often boil an egg in the shell for breakfast, meaning I end up with a small saucepan of boiling water after the egg is removed. On those mornings the lid goes back on that pot to conserve the heat and when breakfast is done that water gets a squirt of soap and does double-duty for washing up.  This is one of those things that makes me wonder if I've tipped over the edge from clever to weird. Is this simply smart use of resources? Or has boat life blinded me to the fact that I've become a water-hoarding freak? Comments welcome below.

Here's the washing up system. Including saucepan in the sink with soapy egg water.

And let's expand on that shower thing a bit. (Setting aside the not-showering-daily thing, which I know some people might struggle with, but is not really overly odd.) I recently realised that the showering experience on the boat which now seems perfectly normal to me, is, in fact, somewhat complex. Here's how I'd explain things to you if you wanted to have a shower on the boat;
"A shower? Yeah no problem at all. Just a couple things... I have to turn on the inverter, so the water heater has power. That just takes about thirty seconds to kick in. Fine. It's fine now. Now you want to turn on the hot water full blast. Just the hot. Full blast. Because the hot water heater requires a high volume of water to turn on. You'll hear it kick in. It makes a faint "fwoomp" noise. There! Did you hear that? No? Well it was there. See? It's warming up. But if it doesn't kick in you can turn on the hot tap on the bathroom sink as well, which increases the water flow and then when it fwoomps you just turn the sink off and it'll all go to the shower. And then it will get really really hot, so you can add cold water, but not too much because then the flow to the water heater will go down too much and it'll stop and you'll have to fwoomp it again. Ok? Good. Also just make sure the circuit for the shower drain pump is on before starting. So anyway, I normally soap up and then turn the water off to scrub. Then while it's off you can turn on the drain pump. Just feel outside the shower on the wall there's this little switch. Turn that on. You'll hear the pump working. Then when the sound changes from a sort of pumping noise to a sort of sucking noise you can turn it off. You'll be able to tell. No really, it's totally obvious. Then you can turn the water on again and fwoomp it and rinse off. But keep it quick, OK? And then when you're drying off run the pump again. And that's it. Oh, except remember to turn the inverter off when you're done. Unless you want to dry your hair. Which is no problem at all. Just a couple things about drying your hair..."
Ok is that weird?

I've realised that there's actually a lot more I can say about life on the boat, so I'll continue to parcel it out as and when the mood strikes. In the meantime I'm back in Baku which is weird, but also weirdly normal. For instance, the power in the wall never stops. And the water flows out of the taps forever. Again, weird but also weirdly normal. But not long after I arrived and got into my hotel room, I realised that even though it's bigger and more comfortable and someone comes and brings me clean towels when I want... I still miss my little boat.