Kerch Strait Bridge

Well there I was assuming that there was a bridge between Russia and the Crimea all this time, when I discover that there is nothing of the sort!  Although one has been planned for some time, apparently a slow ferry is all that connects Crimea to the country that just annexed it.  Some thoughts:

1) How the hell did Ukraine manage to let Russia put troops into Crimea when there is no bridge?  Such piss-poor defending makes them almost deserve to lose a province or two.

2) If for whatever reason there is no free-flow of people and goods between Ukraine and Russian-controlled Crimea, how pissed off is the population going to be relying on crappy old ferries to get off their peninsular peninsula?

3) How long do you think we’ll be waiting for the bridge to be built?  Yes, I know Putin promised he would accelerate its construction the day the Crimean accession was signed, but in Russia large state projects have a habit of being delivered late, poorly, and way over budget.

Once the dust has settled it’ll be interesting to see what life is like for those Russians stranded in Crimea.  I wonder if Putin would recognise any future referendum to see them leave?

Posted in Russia, Ukraine | 17 Comments

France: different from Germany

One of the things which is most infuriating about living in France, and dealing with the French, is the propensity for things which you thought were agreed – either implicitly or formally – to be changed on a whim.  During my cultural training, a very useful 2-day session intended to give us an awareness of what to expect during an expatriation in France, this particular aspect of French culture was acknowledged.

For example, if you go onto the website of the French consulate in St. Petersburg, you’ll find a list of documents you need to submit to obtain a visa – in my case, the Spouse of an EU Citizen visa for my wife.  So you diligently collect all the documents, only to be informed when you come to submit them that half of them aren’t necessary and there is at least one – always – that is missing.  If you point out that this missing document was not on the list provided by their own website, the response you get is a bewildered stare as the fonctionnaire you are dealing with fails to understand what the hell that has to do with anything.  It’s as if you are complaining to them that their neighbour’s garden is messy, for all the responsibility they will feel.  The best course of action is simply to collect the documents you think you need, and then go away and get those that you weren’t told about once you’ve been told what they are.  Fortunately, this process normally only needs one iteration, unlike in Russia where forty-three iterations are needed (with an applicable fee each time).  The French administrators are not corrupt, they’re just a pain in the arse and completely aloof.

Now you can imagine what would happen in Germany or Switzerland should a list of required documents differ from what is published on a website.  The website would be changed by lunchtime to ensure it doesn’t happen again. But the problem in France is that if the culture and practices allow individuals to deviate from what has been published, then there is little point in spending any effort to ensure the information supplied is accurate.  Why bother, when the situation vrai is maleable and can be changed at random by seemingly anybody involved in the process (consistency is not a strong point in any French organisation: you’ll find a process differs depending on which person you’re dealing with).

I’d not go as far as saying the French callously don’t bother to inform people properly, because that wouldn’t be true.  They try, but unfortunately nobody bothers updating the information if something changes or checking it is correct in the first place.  People are just expected to find out for themselves, somehow.  I stumbled across a good example of this today when I was looking for the date of the Paris marathon (no, I don’t want to participate or even watch it, but it is this weekend and I want to know what the road restrictions are).  This is what it says in the FAQ section of the official Paris marathon website:

Capture

Which is great, only April 5th 2014 is a Saturday, not Sunday.  April 6th is the Sunday.  So which day is the marathon run on?  I have no idea, but the French administrators would expect you to see whether 50,000 people are running around the city or not and draw your own conclusions accordingly.  But whatever you do, don’t go complaining to them about some insignificant error like this, or they’ll assume you’re stupid.

It’s an approach, and all French are keenly aware of it (being subject to the whims of fonctionnaires as much as us foreigners).  But you’d not see this in Germany.

Posted in France, General Observations | 8 Comments

On Russia’s Annexation of Crimea

Russia’s annexation of the Crimea – which is exactly what it is – has taken everybody by surprise, even those who took note of Russia’s actions against Georgia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008.  Russia has always coveted the return of the Crimea, and with good reason consider Khrushchev’s gift of the region to the Ukraine in the 1950s to be somewhat of a historical injustice, but few expected Russia to move so boldly and so swiftly.

Of course, in hindsight, it’s easy to see how this happened.  With Russia’s economy failing to deliver the promised increase in living standards for ordinary Russians (the standards are improving, but too slowly, and vital reforms remain as distant as ever) and the population becoming increasingly weary with the seemingly indefinite presence of Putin and his gang of bent oligarchs, this was too good an opportunity to pass up: nothing rallies the Russian population in support of their government more than an overt display of military might, with the possible exception of sticking two fingers up to the United States over any issue you can imagine.  Also, I think Putin does genuinely believe that Crimea should belong to Russia and that the interests of Russia are best served by this annexation.  Even if he wasn’t in need of shoring up his own popularity ratings, I think he would have taken this opportunity.

When you couple this with the fact that the Americans have a complete pansy in the White House, interested in himself, his image, and nothing else; plus a Europe led (and I use that term loosely) by a divided and war-weary Britain, a Germany whose commercial ties to Russia have already seen a former Chancellor go to work for the Russian government the morning after his resignation, and a France who has as much interest in Russia as they do cricket; and the fact that Putin has seen how ineffectual all parties were in dealing with the mess in Syria, and it’s easy to see why Putin took his chance.

His actions do have some precedent.  The excuse of intervening to “protect its citizens” is one that has been tried and tested, and I’m sure Putin cited this knowing full well that the Americans wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.  But rather than stop there, Putin announced that the “secession” of the Crimea is similar the secession of Kosovo from Serbia, in that the west set a precedent whereby the secession of a region did not need the approval from a country’s central authority.  Now he might have a point, but he’s relying on the fact that nobody will notice the difference between the US (and others) supporting the secession of Kosovo such that it becomes an independent state, and Russia supporting the secession of the Crimea such that it becomes part of Russia.  Putin would have been better off not making this comparison, but ever since the day he saw his paratroopers make fools of themselves by landing in Pristina airport in a futile gesture (and subsequently having to scrounge food from NATO soldiers on the other side of the fence), this has been an itch he has been desperately wanting to scratch.  A shrewd statesman would not let emotions guide his conduct, but Putin has always been a long way from the shrewd statesman he so desperately wants to be.

Regardless of the historical context of the Crimea, Putin’s decision to annex part of a neighbouring country is somewhat at odds with his earlier insistence that the Russian Federation must remain whole to the point that Grozny must be flattened and the Chechen population beaten into submission in order to drive the point home.  Would Putin uphold the principle he has applied to the Crimea if the population of Karelia held a referendum to return to Finland, or the Kuril Islands to Japan?  No, he wouldn’t, but Putin has been emboldened of late.

His greatest victory of recent times was the thwarting of western attempts to end the Syrian civil war.  Having run rings around the hapless John Kerry and Barack Obama – which is hardly difficult (for all his faults, ask yourself if this Crimean situation would have arisen with Dubya in the White House) – Russia felt it had got one over on the US and the west.  Which it had, I suppose.  But to what end?  Regardless as to whether western intervention would have been a good thing, the Syrian civil war still rages with horrific civilian casualties and will continue to do so indefinitely, and Russian interests have been advanced…well, how?  I suppose they still have their ally Bashar al-Assad in some sort of presidential role, albeit in a country that is tearing itself to pieces.  Great, that’ll pay dividends, I’m sure.  But thwarting the perceived ambitions of the west is the goal for Putin and an awful lot of Russians: as has been pointed out by dozens of commentators they play a zero-sum game whereby what is bad for the west must be good for Russia.

And thus emboldened, Putin moved to annex the Crimea.  Good for him, but now what?  On the plus side Russia has now gained a peninsula with a very picturesque southern coast which is great to visit in summer (as far as Ukraine should be mourning a loss, that’s about as far as it goes).  And they’ve gained a region filled with about two-thirds die-hard Russian loyalists and the rest who can’t stand them.  Yes, all that Russia needs now is the addition of another region divided politically and ethnically which is going to be utterly dependent on Moscow for economic support.  The Crimea is a popular tourist spot, and visitor numbers swelled following the Eurovision Song Contest in 2005 when the government lifted the visa requirements for EU visitors and removed them permanently shortly thereafter (one visitor who took advantage of this was me).  Whether obtaining a Russian visa will be necessary to take a holiday in the Crimea from now on remains to be seen, but I suspect it is likely.  Border controls between Ukraine and the now-Russian Crimea will further serve to limit tourist numbers, as will the slightest sign of civil unrest or security apparatus on the streets.

Given the importance of tourism to Crimea’s economy it will be interesting to see how the place fares this summer.  Crimea’s other industry is agriculture, and given its location I would guess that the primary market for the products is the population centres of Ukraine rather than Russia.  Slapping import restrictions on agricultural products from the Crimea is something the new government in Ukraine could do quite easily, and combined with the inevitable effect on tourism these latest developments will have, there could be tough times ahead for the Crimean population.  This will lead to Russians asking (not for the first time) what the hell they’ve gone and done, and unrest amongst the local Ukrainians and Tatars which the Russians will no doubt deal with in a heavy-handed manner, making the situation even worse.  As I said, incorporating another divided, restless, border region into the Russian Federation probably isn’t what it needs right now.

So having masterfully exploited a weakness in the Ukraine and the west for a short term gain, Russia might well now be asking what they’ve actually achieved once those waving the flags feel their arms getting tired and go home.   The status of Russia’s Black Sea fleet is now assured, but given that it never came up for discussion in over two decades of post-Soviet independence, it is hard to see this as much of a positive.  Nor is it hard to see that even with a fleet on the Black Sea, the Russian navy is still nicely locked in: with a NATO member controlling the Bosphorus, the base at Sevastopol isn’t the strategic location its made out to be.

Russia’s main problem is that they are less likely to see a Russia-friendly government in Ukraine again.  The situation before saw Ukraine with a 17.3% Russian population; using numbers from Wikipedia, I have calculated the new Ukraine (i.e. minus Crimea) to be 15.3% ethnically Russian, with a major pro-Russian region now out of the picture.  I don’t know if the remaining Russians have enough numbers or influence to ensure they are properly represented in Kiev, but its likely that things will get a lot harder for them, especially for those unfortunate enough to live in pro-western districts (they can look to the fate of Estonia’s Russians to see what awaits them).  Whatever happens, I think it is likely that the Ukraine will take a much more pro-western and anti-Russian stance for the foreseeable future, the costs of which might outweigh any benefits Russia has gained from the annexation of the Crimea.  I think it unlikely that Ukraine will be able to sort itself out and become a functioning country any time soon, but with potential EU membership there might come a time when the Russians in Crimea look somewhat enviously over the border at their Ukrainian neighbours.  I haven’t actually met any to ask, but I wonder how many Russians living in the enclave of Kaliningrad Oblast would like the freedoms of work and travel that Lithuanians enjoy?  Their economy seems to do pretty well due to its special ties with the EU, they might be asking what the benefits of remaining part of Russia are.

Another problem Putin now faces is that the US is already starting to put the squeeze on certain individuals to whom he is connected, and as the Streetwise Professor points out, things have the potential to get uncomfortable depending on how much the US and others are willing to push.  The west appears to have finally figured out that the way to exert pressure on Russia is to start meddling in the financial affairs of prominent Russians, and the companies they control, overseas.  These individuals are those on whom Putin is reliant for support, and hence cannot afford for them to be feeling too much pain as a result of his belligerence in international and regional affairs.  Such targeted sanctions are clever in that they will barely affect ordinary Russians, who will not give two hoots that certain oligarchs are having their overseas loot frozen.

That said, I don’t expect the sanctions to be applied too strongly.  For all Merkel’s tough talks, the Germans have conceded time and again to Russia on matters of principle with the aim of protecting their commercial ties, and I wouldn’t rely on Obama doing anything other than giving speeches off a teleprompter.  So in the short term it looks as though the Crimea will become Russian, the Ukraine will become less so, and the Baltic States pray that little bit harder for a Republican president to win the next US elections.  But in the medium term and longer terms, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this.

Posted in Politics, Russia, Ukraine | 14 Comments

Greenpeace Sues Russia

This might be a bit optimistic:

Greenpeace is taking Russia to court over the arrest of 30 activists in the Arctic and is demanding compensation for their trouble, reports said.

Amsterdam-based Greenpeace said on Monday it filed a lawsuit with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, to seek compensation and confirmation that the arrest was illegal.

“We think the Arctic 30 were apprehended and detained in flagrant violation of applicable international and Russian laws, and that’s why we have submitted a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights,”lawyer Sergey Golubok, who is acting on behalf of the Arctic 30, said.

Erm, fellas.  The Russians have just annexed a portion of Ukraine.  They probably aren’t going to be taking much notice of the complaints of a few hippies who they roughed up a bit last year.

Posted in Russia | 4 Comments

More on the Missing Plane

This whole situation still continues to fascinate me, and by a process of elimination I reckon I’ve figured out what has happened.

I think it is safe to assume the plane was hijacked, or deliberately flown off course by one or both of the pilots.  It does not seem credible to me that the plane suffered a malfunction or some sort and the pilots were unable to get a message out of some sort, if indeed they kept flying for several hours after radar contact was lost.

I think it is reasonably safe to assume the plane did not crash in the Gulf of Thailand, Malacca Straits, or the Andaman Sea.  These areas are chock-full of shipping, fishermen, and other craft and debris would have been spotted by now, and somebody would have seen or heard something.

I think it is also fairly safe to assume that nobody pinches a plane full of passengers for the purposes of disappearing quietly.  Precedent suggests that plane hijackings are quickly followed by political demands or spectacular collisions with iconic buildings.  The lack of either occurrence suggests the first part of the plan was carried out, but not the second.  I don’t buy the argument that the plane was hijacked in order to be used later: there are several ways to obtain a 777 without raising an international plane-hunt involving 239 missing people; if you want a flying bomb, a cargo plane would do just as well.

Therefore I think the most likely scenario is one whereby a pilot, or both pilots, carried out instructions to divert from their normal course before losing their nerve; or being overpowered by the other pilot, in the event only one was in on it.  Or somebody else –  either passengers, stowaways, or a combination of both – took over the plane and either lost their nerve or were overpowered.  If the people in control of the plane were overpowered after a struggle, then the plane would have come down wherever it happened to be at the time.  But if somebody lost their nerve, or found the second part of the mission could not be completed for whatever reason, I can envisage a scenario whereby those in control fly the plane as far out into the deep ocean as they can before the fuel runs out, thus minimising the likelihood of wreckage and the black boxes being found.  This course of action would serve two purposes: it would save the faces of those who have lost their nerve (I can’t imagine al-Qa’eda gives second chances to operatives who have bottled out); and also destroy as much evidence as possible thus helping to protect the rest of the network back in Malaysia and elsewhere who organised it.  The US might have congressional debates on whether water-boarding constitutes torture and a media which frets over the mishandling of a Koran, but I expect anyone who fell into the hands of the Chinese investigating team would be singing like a canary in pretty short order.

I therefore expect that the plane has come down miles into the Indian ocean somewhere, well out of sight of land or shipping, and at some point in the future bits and pieces will wash ashore or come up in a fishing net, which will lead to the black boxes being eventually found.  The only thing I cannot for the life of me work out is what cause is advanced by somebody hijacking a Malaysian plane filled mostly with Chinese citizens.  It’s that question which has me stumped over and above any other.

Posted in General Observations | 33 Comments

Pollution in Paris and the French Working Hours

Apparently there have been record levels of pollution in Paris over the past three days, something I completely failed to notice.  The government has responded by issuing a ban on Monday for any vehicle with an even-numbered license plate, in the hope it will reduce traffic.  On Tuesday those with odd-numbered plates will get to leave their cars at home whilst the evens drive to work.

This is monumentally stupid for two reasons. Firstly, you don’t announce on a Friday that half the city’s cars will be banned on the following Monday.  People do need time to make alternative arrangements, even in France.  Secondly, as the comments below the linked article point out, this has been tried before in various cities, with the effect that people buy a second, beat-up old car to drive on the alternate days.  If these restrictions stay in place it will merely add to overall numbers of cars in the city, where finding a unicorn is easier than a parking spot.

Pollution in Paris has been a problem for years, which is why this latest move smacks of a desperate gesture in the run-up to mayoral elections.  The public transport system is very good (yes, people complain about the RER and Metro systems, and they are dirty, and there are strikes, but their design is first-rate and although they are uncomfortable, they do the job), but overloaded twice a day.  There is also no congestion charge in Paris, for reasons I don’t know (there are speed cameras though, one of them got me yesterday in what was my first proper drive since I got here).

One of the problems is that flexi-time seems to be an alien concept in Paris.  Even back in 2000 in my first job in the UK I was told that I needed to do 8 hours per day, starting and finishing when I liked, but I had to be present for “core hours” between 10am and 4pm.  God knows when lunchtime was.  All essential business was conducted in this 6-hour time slot.  But this was highlighted as one of the major differences between Anglo-Saxon and French working cultures in my cultural awareness training session.  In theory, you can start and finish when you want in France, but in practice everyone arrives at about 9am-9:30am (some at 8:30am, but very few before that) and stays until at least 6pm with many sticking around until 7:30pm and beyond.  The overall working day gets stretched by everyone having a leisurely lunch lasting an hour or more, firstly because this is just the French way of doing things, and secondly because there is a law in France that every company over a certain size must provide either a subsidised canteen or luncheon vouchers (our canteen is spectacular, as one would expect: you choose the steak, a chef takes it out of the fridge and cooks it in front of you).  By contrast, Brits generally prefer to ram a stale sandwich down their faces whilst checking the football news online between noon and five past, before getting back to work with the aim of leaving the office as soon as possible and getting themselves down the pub.  If you try to do this in a French office you’ll find some joker has organised a meeting for 6pm, sometimes on a Friday afternoon (yes, really).  Yet if you tried to organise one for 8:30am or 1pm you’d be sitting there on your own.  This does annoy me a bit.  When I was in Nigeria somebody once told me I had to make a presentation to a load of managers at 7:30pm or something, and I refused on the grounds that if they cannot conduct their business affairs in office hours then they are not fit to be managers.  I didn’t put it quite like that, but I didn’t sugar-coat it either.  Small wonder I’m not missed there, but I digress.

Anyway, I have no idea if more flexible working hours would ease the burden on the public transport systems in Paris and encourage more people to use them.  And I don’t really have a dog in this fight, as I quite deliberately chose to live close to the office so I wouldn’t get tangled up in this sort of thing.  But it served as a handy excuse to write about the French office hours.

Posted in France | 20 Comments

Wrong Approach

From Upstream Online:

The European Union has drawn up a list of between 120 and 130 Russians who could be hit with travel bans and asset freezes under potential sanctions over Moscow’s actions in the Ukraine crisis, reports have said.

Germany’s Bild newspaper said that Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller and Rosneft president Igor Sechin were on the list along with several of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s cabinet ministers, security officials and Kremlin aides.

Described by Reuters as a five-page list drawn up by EU officials with experience in Russia, the draft list is to be dicussed and whittled down ahead of a foreign ministers’ meeting on Monday.

The EU is going about this in the entirely wrong way.  Rather than announce publicly and in advance that certain people from Russia are not welcome in the EU, they should just do what the Russians do and demand ridiculous piles of obscure documents, translated, notarised, apostled, and attested in original plus three certified copies to be submitted along with a visa application and a hefty fee before dismissing half of it as unnecessary, demanding a whole pile more, and then refusing the visa without explanation and directing all inquiries to a visa processing centre with an automated telephone system.

Not only would this be infinitely more frustrating for the people concerned (who would never be sure if they were on the blacklist or just being subjected to the normal process), but the EU would not have to go to any additional expense or effort to implement such a system: they could just hand it all over to the French, who are masters at this sort of thing, and tell them to carry on as normal.

Posted in France, Politics, Russia | 3 Comments

This Missing Plane

Has it occurred to anyone else, or is it just me, that the system of tracking aircraft seems to be somewhat archaic?  I remember when the Air France plane came down between Rio de Janeiro and Paris they first knew something was up when, having been last seen by a Brazilian radar station, it failed to show up a few hours later on a radar situated somewhere on the African coast.

And now with this Malaysian plane not only don’t they know where it came down, but they aren’t even sure off which coast of the peninsular to carry out their search.  Apparently they have a theory that the plane could have turned around and crashed somewhere in the Andaman Sea, in the entirely opposite direction to the way it was supposed to be heading.

I find this astonishing: in the age of GPS tracking and technology which can locate your iPhone anywhere in the world from your pocket, there is no system in place to monitor aircraft in real time?  And they’re relying on various radars, controlled by different authorities, picking up the aircraft when they come into range with seemingly huge gaps in between, unable even to tell if a plane has turned around and flown the wrong way for an hour or two?

Like I say, I’m astonished.

UPDATE

There is an article here from the BBC explaining how aircraft are tracked, and yes, it appears to be somewhat outdated.  I’m sure this incident will open up a debate over whether aircraft should have real-time tracking.

Posted in General Observations | 19 Comments

Women in the Oil and Gas Industry

There’s an article over in Upstream Online which I feel misses the point, that point being the one which Tim Worstall bangs on about with regularity: gender inequality in the workplace is actually a motherhood issue.

A new survey claims the majority of women feel welcome in the oil and gas industry but nearly half believe the do not get the same recognition as their male counterparts.

The survey by NES Global Talent examined the gender talent gap in the oil and gas industry and ways of attracting and retaining women in the industry.

The survey claimed that 75% of women who participated felt welcome in the industry and 89% would encourage other females to join, however 45% said they believed men get more recognition in the industry.

While the survey found that some respondents found oil and gas a welcoming industry with equal opportunity policies in place, others said women were restricted to supporting roles and did not enjoy the same salaries and career opportunities as men.

From what I’ve seen, there are several women with high-flying careers who occupy senior and (presumably) well-paid roles in the oil business.  But in most cases they are childless, and often unmarried.  The problem is that to grow in the international oil business you have to have expatriate experience, and for a fast-tracked career you need to have done your expatriations in a hardship location.  For single women this isn’t much of a problem, but for those with young children it is extremely difficult to dovetail the requirement to live in a hardship location with the responsibilities a woman has towards her family.  This is pretty much admitted:

The percentage of women in the market has increased. Unfortunately, the number of women in technical roles and field positions are still scarce. The general mentality that this is not a female oriented environment still exists.

And the answer is right there: the reason there are few women in field positions is because field positions are the absolute worst positions for anyone to also manage a family life.  Unless a woman is childless or has a stay-at-home husband, it is going to be exceptionally difficult to hold down a field position, especially as more and more facilities are to be found in hardship locations or the deep offshore.

When asked how their company could be more welcoming and encouraging to female employees, respondents gave a variety of answers including  providing equal opportunities, female role models, flexible working hours and more support to women with children.

Which is great, but how can somebody in a field position be offered flexible working hours?  Most people are offshore on a 28/28 rotation or in the middle of nowhere on an 8/2 or 6/3.

A majority of respondents said they planned to remain in the industry for the next two-to-five years, but 18% said they intended to leave the industry.

When questioned for the reasoning behind their decision a range of answers were given, with family commitments, a better work / life balance and a lack of equality being among the main reasons.

Well, yes.  My advice to anyone who wants to put family before work and have a good work/life balance is to give the oil industry a wide berth.  I’ve quite deliberately remained childless partly for this reason, and I’ve not seen my wife since 2nd December and not lived with her since August 2009.  Such is the price you pay when you want to command a decent salary in an industry which unfortunately has most of its opportunities in places nobody wants to live.

What women are up against is people like me, who have forgone the family life in order to get the better positions.  The industry is full of men like me, and full of others who do the same but fail to keep the marriage or family together.  If women want to compete with this, they need to make much the same sacrifices, and the successful women you see in the industry have done this, at least for a period.

It is my firm belief that women are offered exactly the same opportunities as the men, but are also expected to make the same sacrifices with regards their family and personal life.  Unfortunately, in general, this hits women much harder than it does men.  I think oil companies have done a great deal to make it easier for women to occupy senior positions whilst minimizing the impact on their family life, but it’s hard to see what else they can do.

One thing I’ve noticed is that there is no shortage of female engineers in the oil industry, but they do tend to cluster around certain disciplines.  Far more women do chemical engineering at university than the other disciplines, which means that a lot of process engineers in the oil industry are female (and damned good, most of them).  The trouble is the natural career path for a process engineer is into operations, which means at some point you need to spend time on site.  To reach the upper echelons of management you will have to become an Offshore Installation Manager (OIM), which will be offered to you when you have about 15-20 years of experience (i.e. aged between 35 and 40).  Most women of this age will have kids and a husband who cannot manage if the mother just disappears for 28 days at a time, which is what an OIM’s job entails.  I have seen women offered this role but have turned it down for precisely these reasons.  The women who take these roles generally don’t have kids.  It’s really hard to know what to do about this.

One thing I am glad about was that the survey said most women felt welcome in the oil industry.  I have felt, in the oil companies at least, that woman enjoy far more equality and acceptance than they would perhaps find in other industries (law, for example).  I have yet to think of a time when my thoughts or attitude have changed in the slightest on discovering a particular engineer is a woman, and nor have I heard even the slightest suggestion from anyone – in over 12 years – that a woman doing a certain job is for whatever reason a bad thing.  The current head of my department is a woman, and I discovered this when I interviewed for the position: it didn’t make a blind bit of difference to me, never even occurred to me that it should.  The department itself is full of female engineers, most of them married with kids, and I probably interface more with women than men: again, it makes no difference to me.  At the risk of making a crude stereotype, I actually find female engineers to be pretty good as they pay considerable attention to detail.  And one of the most impressive engineers I have encountered in the industry, and by far and away the best risk and safety engineer I ever met, was an Australian girl.

I have seen the huge efforts oil companies have gone to in trying to accommodate more women in their career programmes, and the complete ease with which female engineers are accepted into what was once a male-dominated environment.  But for the reasons I have outlined I don’t think things are going to improve much from here, at least for those women who want a family life and a career in the oil industry.

Posted in Oil & Gas | 12 Comments

Two Months in France

I have now been living in France for 2 months, and things have started to settle down.

Most importantly I’ve gotten out of the crappy “apart-hotel” which they stuck me in for the first 6 weeks or so.  I suppose it served its purpose, but it was basically a low-grade hotel room with a fridge and a sink in the corner, and a hole in the carpet.  Two days before I checked out I noticed a large wet patch in the carpet near the door, which the next tenant would no doubt squelch his way through.  The place was jammed packed with Arabic-speaking folk, who appeared to be living 10 to a room, wandered between floors in pajamas and slippers, all seemed to know each other, and clogged the lifts with shopping trolleys full of all manner of strange produce.  I don’t know what on earth they were all doing living in a hotel, but they didn’t look wealthy (these weren’t millionaire Gulf Arabs).  The hotel was served by two lifts, one of which broke down for a week of my stay leaving us with only one, and that was also used by the cleaning staff.  Even though it was a convenient 5 minute walk from the office, and infinitely better than the appalling Eko Hotel which I stayed in for 3 months in Nigeria, the initial period of staying in an apartment hotel when mobilising is something you are always glad to get over with.

We are given a budget within which to find an apartment, with the option of topping it up with your own cash if you want.  Up until the beginning of 2014 the budget for a single person or a couple was woefully inadequate, probably due to the people who select and administer the budgets not themselves being users of the expatriate housing system (and you can extrapolate that particular problem across any number of dysfunctional departments in a major oil company, and beyond).  But somebody saw sense and I was lucky enough to get a slightly higher budget than my colleagues who’d arrived earlier, and it was easily adequate.  You have a choice when you arrive in Paris, either to live in a tiny, older flat towards the centre of town near the nice cafes, bars, etc. which make Paris life so enjoyable; or you can live further out with the advantages of a larger, more modern place closer to work but in an area which lacks the vibe and liveliness of the arrondissements.  I chose the latter, wanting to avoid a commute to work (and the inevitable public transport strikes which are a French national pastime) and wanting a spare bedroom for visitors and enough space to store the junk I have accumulated over years of expat life.  Also, the budget doesn’t really allow you to live in places like St. Germain, you have to compromise and live in Neuilly which is very nice but neither in the middle of Paris nor far enough out to be cheap.

As such, I chose a very nice apartment in the suburb of Puteaux, which technically isn’t really Paris as it lies just over the Seine from Neuilly, but is a commune in the western suburbs situated 5 miles or so from the city centre.  The main attraction of living in Puteaux is that it is a 10 minute walk from my office in La Défense, the huge purpose-built business district which lies partly in Puteaux (it is the taxes from La Défense which makes Puteaux one of the richest communes in France).  From what I’ve seen so far, it is smart, well-maintained, and has a handful of bars, restaurants, and shops but obviously lacks the atmosphere of downtown Paris.  However, with the metro station only a 5 minute walk from my apartment and the RER 10 minutes away, getting to the city centre is pretty easy (although getting home after 1am might prove to be a challenge).  Another great feature of the apartment is the underground car park (finding a parking space in Paris is like finding a faithful male politician in the same city), and a cellar which consist of a large cupboard about the size of a passenger lift in which to store things like empty suitcases, skis, boxes, etc. which frees up a lot of space in the apartment itself.  It’s a great idea, one that is common in France but unheard of in the UK for reasons I cannot fathom.

I’m not so sure how much I’ll be visiting Paris city centre, as I am no stranger to Paris having been here numerous times both for work and on holiday, and I’ve done most of the major attractions.  I am far more interested in visiting the many, many places 1-2 hour’s drive from Paris and for this purpose I bought myself a German car of the type which immediately identifies the driver as the most obnoxious asshole on the road.  One of the things I missed when living in Dubai, Sakhalin, Thailand, and Nigeria is being able to take weekends away in other places and my wife and I had a wonderful time in Germany in 2012 just driving from one town to the next.  There is a lifetime of things to do and see in France, most of it within reach of a long weekend either by train or by car, and I see us doing this more than nights out in Paris (although I’m sure there’ll be a few of them as well).  We have gathered all the paperwork for my wife’s visa, and hopefully she’ll apply late this week and be here the weekend after next.  As the wife of an EU citizen she is entitled to residency here on the same basis as me, which is a clear advantage to me personally of Britain being in the EU.  That said, Norwegians enjoy the same advantages, as do the Swiss.

Of course, such excursions around France are weather dependent, and we were lucky enough to get a burst of warm, springtime weather this past weekend which was a welcome break from the miserable, pissing rain that’s been a constant since I arrived.  As such, I was able to throw open the windows to the street and the gardens behind in a very Parisian manner.

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As commentator John B pointed out, the French don’t do as much cooking as we think they do (preferring to buy ready-made stuff from traiteurs and pâtisseries, or eat out).  This is the case particularly in Paris and one of the main complaints from the expats who come here is that the kitchens in the apartments are generally crap, and a lot of the time there is no proper oven.  Good quality ovens just don’t seem to be a feature in Parisian kitchens, and although I was fortunate enough to get a reasonable one installed in my place, some of my colleagues have nothing more substantial than an electric grill/microwave combined.  And if Parisians don’t cook there is no need to provide much space for storing things like pots and pans, and so I had to go to Ikea and buy a narrow table with drawers and shelves underneath for 155 Euros before I got the kitchen how I wanted it, i.e. functional.

Ikea in France is like Ikea everywhere: a version of hell.  In kitting out my place I had to endure two visits, one on a Saturday when half of France was there with their kids.  The queues at the checkouts were a disorganised shambles, which I’ve found is often the case in Paris.  I’ve been into a few supermarkets, DIY stores, and homeware places like Ikea and each time found the checkouts to be understaffed or poorly laid out or both.  The supermarkets here fall some way short of their British counterparts, for whatever reason.  The levels of cleanliness leave a lot to be desired (but then again, what is clean in Paris?) and the supermarkets inexplicably close on a Sunday afternoon, even the enormous ones in the shopping centres.  That leaves you having to find the smaller, independent ones which appear to be operated by north African or Lebanese families whose elder sons do everything from stack the shelves to man the tills dressed as if they’ve just been to a football match.  I was in one of these yesterday, and found myself in a queue with a French chap at the head who was complaining that some sausages he’d bought were (probably) 2 cents more expensive than they were advertised in the local paper.  The only two members of staff on duty spent five minutes reading the paper, going back to the shelf where he’d found the item, then discussing stuff amongst the three of them before any progress was made.  In the meantime a queue the size of a Nigerian airport line had formed, with nobody seeming to care.  Admittedly this was in one of the independent shops, but it’s hard to imagine this level of ineptitude happening in the UK, and even the bigger supermarkets don’t manage their logistics as well as the likes of Tesco or Sainsbury’s.

The French adopt a peculiar habit when grocery shopping.  Carrier bags are either free and useless, or useful and 5 cents a go, and so the French have taken to bringing shopping bags with them or using the personal shopping trolleys that my grandma used to use in the UK and have long since disappeared over there.  What’s more, the supermarkets don’t seem to mind their customers merrily filling up their own bags with stuff, emptying it at the checkout counter, and then packing it all away again.  In the UK stuffing items into your own bags in a shop is generally known as “shoplifting”, but there is enough trust and honesty in France that it appears to work.  I’d not recommend exporting this practice to Manchester or Lagos, though.

The other thing I’ve noticed is how much processed and frozen food the French eat compared to what the British are led to believe they do.  We are constantly told that the French diet is much healthier thanks to the widespread availability of fresh meat and produce at the local farmers’ markets which the French use instead of the ghastly supermarkets favoured by us Brits.  Except it’s bollocks.  Yes, there are farmer’s markets in every town and district, but supermarkets are also everywhere and they are chock-a-block with French.  And yes, the supermarkets also sell the meat, fruit, and vegetables that can be found in the local markets (I’ve not compared the prices yet) so there is obviously a demand.  The supermarkets feature row upon row of food in jars, packets, tins, and plastic exactly the same as you see in the UK (only with less choice).  Just around the corner from my apartment is a shop which sells only frozen foods, and in there you can find all the stuff you’d find in a British supermarket – pizzas, burgers, vegetables, chips, etc.

So it’s clearly not the case that the French shun supermarkets in favour of farmers’ markets, but that they simply use them both.  And the reason for this is probably less a matter of difference in shopping tastes between British and French than an approach by the local municipalities towards fucking over the population in the interests of boosting revenues.  I noticed when I was in Germany that the small towns had thriving high streets but – crucially – free or very cheap parking.  Try finding that in the UK.  I’d also be prepared to bet that the venue for the local French markets are owned by the municipality and made available either for free or at very cheap rates to the merchants, and free or cheap parking can be found fairly easily nearby.  Having nosed around one or two of these markets I’d also be prepared to bet that the regulations they have to abide by are somewhat lighter, or at least less enthusiastically enforced, in France than in the UK.

I’m not saying that either system is better, but I’ve always thought the argument that supermarkets kill British high streets to be weak: they were shite even in the days before supermarkets arrived, and the local businesses failed to adapt and the inept local councils failed to appreciate that fleecing drivers with parking charges would drive customers away from the town centres.  So it appears that the difference between the French and British systems of grocery retailing aren’t as different as the right-on lefties of Islington would have you believe: the British have world-class supermarkets in fierce competition but not much else, whilst the French have decent local markets and supermarkets which are merely adequate.  I’ve yet to decide where I’ll do most of my shopping, but I expect it’ll be a mixture of both as the French do.

One of the things which I am looking forward to doing in France is seeing how much of the vaunted French culture as imagined by Guardian readers is actually true.  I’ve already discovered that a downside to having the government doing everything for you is a population who doesn’t see the need to pick up their own dog shit.

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