William Handyside – From Edinburgh to St Petersburg

As regular readers of these ramblings will be aware, Duck Holiday periodically takes a look at Scots who have made their name in Eastern Europe. We continue that occasional theme with another Scottish engineer who is better known in Russia than in the land of his birth.

William Handyside was born in Edinburgh in 1793. He was the nephew of another engineer, Charles Baird, who worked extensively in Russia, notably in St Petersburg. On a visit to Scotland in 1810, he invited his nephew, who was then training to be an architect, to join him in Russia.

Handyside quickly realised that engineering rather than architecture, was his true vocation. Within five years, he assisted in the building of the first steam vessel to navigate the Neva River and by 1824, had completed four suspension bridges. In a city of waterways, bridge building must have been a decidedly useful skill.

Despite the rivalry between Britain and Russia in the early decades of the nineteenth century, there was a good deal of co-operation between the two nations and a number of British engineers went to work on projects in Russia. This was a theme touched on by Charles Dickens in Little Dorrit, in which the talented and good-natured engineer Daniel Doyce departs for Russia, apparently with considerable success.

Handyside’s most notable project was St Isaac’s Cathedral. Working with the French Neoclassical architect Auguste de Montferrand, he undertook the construction of much of the stone and metal work of the cathedral. This was no small project; the colonnade alone was composed of no less than forty-eight granite pillars, each fifty-six feet long and eight feet in diameter. Another thirty-six pillars, only slightly smaller, were fitted around the base of the dome. He was also commissioned by the architect to build the huge cast and wrought-iron dome.

St Isaac’s Cathedral

After the completion of the cathedral, Handyside collaborated with de Montferrand once more, this time in the building of what was then the largest granite column in the world, dedicated to the recently-deceased emperor Alexander I. In 1832, the column was elevated in an astonishing twenty-five minutes, in front of the current emperor Nicholas and a vast crowd of military and civilian onlookers. The monument stands in the centre of Palace Square, in front of the Winter Palace.

Alexander Column

Sadly, the exertions of his many building projects took its tool on Handyside’s health and he returned to Scotland in the hope of recuperation and recovery. He never recovered his health and died in his native city of Edinburgh in 1850 at the age of fifty-seven.

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Go West

These notes have, for the most part, covered an Eastern European theme. It is likely, certainly for those of us of a certain age, that we still tend to think in terms of east and west more in a political sense than a geographical one.

It would be fair to describe several of the places featured in these pages as being centrally located in Europe. For example, Prague, Bratislava, Vienna, and Berlin cannot really be described as being in the east of the continent, though clearly the first two would have been thought of in that way during days of Cold War. Of course, part of Berlin was unequivocally in the east in those times. Being a Berliner during the years of the wall must have been a strange experience, possibly even more so for those in the enclave of West Berlin.

If one considers Ljubljana, this lovely city cannot be termed eastern geographically, but because it resided in the former Yugoslavia, it is easier to place it on the eastern side of an imaginary line, albeit a rather wobbly line.

Enough of this rambling, because there is more interesting rambling to be done. Indeed, Duck Holiday has rambled quite extensively and in the coming weeks, intends to diversify a little by looking at some other spots around Europe. Readers are cordially invited to follow us around, wherever we may roam.

Katarina Ivanović

A visit to the National Museum of Serbia in Belgrade turned out to be something of a disappointment, as there were extensive renovation works taking place at the time and much of the museum was closed to the public. There was, however, some compensation to be found as one of the few parts of the museum that remained open was dedicated to an exhibition of work by Katarina Ivanović.

Ivanović was born in 1811 in Veszprém, now in Hungary but then part of the Austrian Empire. Her family were ethnic Serbs and she grew up in the city of Székesfehérvár. A talented artist from her youth, she studied in Budapest, but – remarkably for a woman of that era – also studied at the famous Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. She was fortunate enough to find a wealthy patron, one Baroness Czacki, who funded her move to Vienna in 1835.

800px-Katarina_Ivanovic,_Autoportret_v

Katarina Ivanović – self portrait

In 1840, Ivanović left Vienna to study at the Munich Academy, possibly funded by her patron. It was here that she read about Serbian history and was inspired to paint The Conquest of Belgrade, an oil painting depicting the city’s capture by Serbian revolutionaries in 1806. While she travelled extensively and in fact spent little time in Serbia, she worked in Belgrade for two years during the 1840s and it was here that she painted the work.

The Conquest of Belgrade

The Conquest of Belgrade

She was, though, best known as a portrait painter and her best-known work, a self portrait, resides permanently at the National Museum of Serbia along with The Conquest of Belgrade. She painted a number of portraits of notable Serbian characters including the Princess Consort Persida Nenadović and Simeon “Sima” Milutinović (aka Sarajlija, “The Sarajevan”), a Serb poet, historian, diplomat and adventurer.

Sima Milutinovic

Sima Milutinovic

Persida Nenadović

Persida Nenadović

By the 1870s, she was producing few works and although there are suggestions that she was a largely forgotten figure by this time, she must have retained some influential admirers as she was elected an honorary member of the Serbian Learned Society, later to become the Serbian Royal Academy and ultimately the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

Katarina Ivanović returned to Székesfehérvár in later life and died in that city in 1882. Her remains were moved to Belgrade in 1967.

A Novel Experience

This is somewhat off-topic and it’s fair to say that travel in Eastern Europe isn’t involved (though it does get a little mention here and there). I have had my first novel published this year and while I have no intention of parking every single one of the 57 chapters on these pages, there’s no harm in providing a little sampler. Here, then, is chapter one.

 

It was just after three o’clock when Vince Kingmyle arrived back at his office. It had, he reflected, been a worthwhile lunch break at the golf club. He’d had a pleasant lunch; he’d booked the course for the party of tourists that were due in a couple of weeks; he’d also spent a worthwhile hour talking to that new member, Mike.

Mike seemed like a good fellow, thought Vince. The young man had certainly seemed impressed by the brief biography Vince had given him and had appeared eager to hear the story of Vince’s promising football career, so cruelly terminated by injury, and the subsequent success that had followed during his time in the Civil Service and now as a respected local businessman. He also had the impression that Mike would be keen to hear more about the many golf course Vince had played.

Vince frowned for a moment as he thought of George McDougall. He’d been in the middle of describing the majestic round he’d played at the Celtic Manor course when that old duffer had butted in.

“You’re sure one remarkable man, Vince,” George had said.

“What do you mean?” Vince had replied, somewhat tetchily.

“Well, golfer, time traveller,” George went on, a little self-satisfied smirk on his lips.

Vince had glared at the old fool as he waddled back to his seat with his glass of malt. He found George irritating, but had regained his composure and continued his story.

“Jealous as hell,” Vince thought, as he paused at the front door of the office. He took out his handkerchief and gave the sign a little polish. It read ‘Golf King’, the letters of the two words intersected by a large ‘V’. Satisfied with its appearance, he went in.

“Good lunch?” asked Krystyna Czerniatynska as he strode to his desk.

Vince, wholly oblivious to the sarcasm in Krystyna’s question, said, “Excellent, thank you. I’ve booked the course for the party from Yorkshire, so put that on the spreadsheet if you don’t mind.”

Krystyna said, “There are also two other bookings. One group from London and one from Northern Ireland. I have emailed the details to you.”

“Tremendous,” said Vince, rubbing his hands together. “We’re cooking the gas.”

Krystyna frowned quizzically, but merely pointed across the room. “And those as well,” she said.

Vince looked over at three cardboard boxes. “And they are?” he asked.

“The polo shirts,” Krystyna told him. “The ‘King of Swing’ shirts you wanted.”

“Fantastic,” Vince said, jumping from his leather swivel chair and pouncing on the boxes in the manner of an overweight cat attempting to catch a woodpigeon. “Yes, yes, yes.”

He tore open a box and dug around until he found a large size. “Style with a capital S,” he said. He walked across to the door and said “I will be the model. Excuse me, ladies.”

Krystyna glanced at her colleague, Anne, and shook her head. Moments later, Vince was back, wearing the shirt. He walked in front of the two women, performing a small pirouette as he did so. “Stylish, no?” he asked.

“Yeah, it’s okay,” Anne mumbled. Vince gave her a sharp look.

“Yes, good, very smart,” Krystyna said, hurriedly.

“We are literally on fire,” Vince said loudly.

Krystyna winced. It was a mental image that was disturbing.

“Perfect,” said Vince. “Everyone who books onto a Golf King tour gets one of these to keep. Is that not such a good promotion? It’s so brilliant, I don’t know why I never thought of it before. It’s advertising as well, you see? People will wear these when they get home, they’ll wear them at their golf clubs and people will see the ‘V’ logo and…” He tailed off. Krystyna was staring at him.

“What’s wrong?” asked Vince.

Krystyna scampered from behind her desk and grabbed a handful of shirts from the open box as Vince gawped at her in amazement. “Oh, my God,” she said.

“What?” Vince demanded.

Krystyna pointed to the lettering that crossed the distinctive ‘V’ on the shirt’s badge. The logo read ‘KING OF SWINE’.

Vince’s mouth opened, but nothing, other than one or two flecks of spittle, came out. He gaped like a stranded fish for several seconds before diving back into the box and pulling out more shirts. He pulled off the shirt he was wearing and surveyed the lettering. Anne let out a snigger at the sight of her boss’s less than athletic torso, but fortunately for her, Vince was too preoccupied to hear it.

Naked to the waist, he stormed across the room, flinging the shirt towards the window, where it caught on a plant and remained dangling. “Who,” he demanded, is responsible for this? Who put the order in?”

Anne and Krystyna exchanged glances and Vince, hands on hips and resembling a badly designed teapot, waited for an answer. Krystyna took the plunge. “You did,” she said.

Vince, giving a good impression of a man about to be struck down by apoplexy, glared at her and shouted “Me? Oh, I see. It’s my fault. I can’t spell the word ‘swing’, is that what you’re telling me?”

“No, I did not say that,” said Krystyna in measured tones. “The manufacturers, they must have got it wrong.” Vince continued to stare at her before realising his somewhat undignified state of undress and snatching his own shirt from his desk and putting it back on.

Anne, meanwhile, had put her jacket on and Vince looked at her. “Where are you going?” he asked.

“Home. I always go at half three.”

“Fine, good, go then.”

“Okay, see you tomorrow.”

Vince continued to stare at her as she left the office, before turning back to Krystyna. “Are you sure,” he asked in a calmer voice, “that it wasn’t her? Sometimes I think she’s not quite all there.”

Krystyna said, “No, sorry, it was definitely you. I remember it, you said that you would take care of it. But the manufacturers must be wrong. They must have made a mistake.”

Vince sat down and muttered, “Clowns. That’s what you get. Clowns, imbeciles. Can’t do anything right unless you do it yourself. When did we order them? I must have the email.”

“Four weeks, I think,” Krystyna told him.

Vince spun his chair around and unlocked a cupboard. He took out a red folder, which was full of email correspondence. Vince, to Krystyna’s secret fury, printed out every email that he received. He then placed the print into a clear plastic pocket and put them in a folder. The cupboard was packed with such folders.

He thumbed through the pages and suddenly exclaimed “Ah, got it. Right here. Here we are, email order to Inventive Designs Ltd.” He read down the page and suddenly snapped the folder shut before Krystyna, who had appeared beside him, could see the document.

“You found it…so it was the manufacturer?” she asked.

Vince, who had hurriedly rammed the folder back into the cupboard, said, “Yes, yes, of course, idiots, morons.” He slammed the cupboard shut and locked it again.

“Should I phone them?” Krystyna asked, tentatively.

“No, no, er, no, it’s best if I do it,” Vince said. “Why don’t you get going? It’s been a busy day and I’m not staying late tonight.”

“But I should work until five,” Krystyna replied.

Vince sat back and gave a grandiose sweep of an arm. “No, you get along. I’m going to ring these cretins and give them a piece of my mind. Anyway, you don’t want to hear me when I’m angry.”

“Fine,” Krystyna said. “I’ll go then. See you in the morning.”

“Tomorrow,” Vince said, “I’ll show you that new spreadsheet that I’ve designed.”

Krystyna gave him a slightly sickly smile and walked slowly to the front door. She closed it quietly behind her and leant back against the wall for a second. Then she started to giggle. She found that she couldn’t stop giggling and had to grasp hold of a drainpipe to support herself. Her eyes had become moist and she felt tears beginning to trickle over her cheeks. She wiped her eyes, took a deep breath of air and walked towards her bus stop.

King

Charles Cameron – Scottish Classicist

In our occasional series about Scottish influence in Eastern Europe, it would be highly irregular to overlook the contribution of Charles Cameron, who was offered the position of court architect to Catherine II (‘Catherine the Great’) and whose designs provide a Classicist look in contrast to the prevailing Baroque style of the period.

Cameron was, in fact, born in London in 1745, to Walter and Hannah Cameron. Walter was a Scottish builder and carpenter who had established himself in the English capital. The young Charles – possibly named in honour of the Jacobite prince – was apprenticed to his father and soon began to display considerable talent for design.

In the 1760s, Charles Cameron travelled to Rome and undertook a detailed study of Roman baths. On his return to London, he published the snappily-titled The Baths of the Romans explained and illustrated, with the Restorations of Palladio corrected and improved.

Despite its unwieldy title and somewhat esoteric nature, it seems likely that the book was instrumental in Cameron’s appointment to the Russian court. Certainly, his name was known around Europe and Catherine, eager to present Russia as a modern European country, scoured the continent for architects and designers to provide the expertise she desired.

Cameron’s most notable works were the gallery that bears his name at the Catherine Palace and the Pavlovsk Palace, built for the son of Catherine the Great. The Catherine Palace, incidentally, was built for the empress Catherine I, wife of Peter the Great.

Catherine the Great preferred the Classical style to the Baroque and Cameron was the man to deliver. He redecorated the interior of the Rococo Catherine Palace before setting to work on the new gallery and its attendant park. The gallery, with its myriad statues of poets and philosophers, became the favourite promenade of Catherine.

Cameron Gallery from above

Cameron Gallery from above

Cameron also designed the nearby Sophia Ascension Cathedral. Catherine was eager to build a church that resembled the vast Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. The architect was not familiar with the great Byzantine church and the result was more in his usual Classical style.

Cameron Gallery facade

Cameron Gallery facade

Ironically, it was the Pavlovsk Palace, perhaps Cameron’s most famous work, that led to his fall from favour. Cameron built the original palace but fell out with the emperor (Paul) and empress (Maria) over costs. Cameron was dismissed by the emperor in 1796.

Pavlovsk courtyard

Pavlovsk courtyard

Pavlovsk Palace

Pavlovsk Palace

Paul’s successor, Alexander, was more well-disposed towards Cameron and the architect was reappointed as chief architect of the Russian Admiralty in 1801. He also designed the Naval Hospital at Oranienbaum before retiring in 1805.

Pavlovsk (is this Classical enough?)

Pavlovsk (is this Classical enough?)

Despite speaking no Russian and apparently having no Russian friends, he continued to live in Russia and died there in 1812, just before the invasion of Russia by Napoleon.

Nice one, Cyril

In the summer of 864, two scholarly monks named Cyril and Methodius left Constantinople for Moravia, where they remained for the next three years. During that time, they invented a new alphabet with which to transcribes the as then unwritten Slavonic speech. They also translated the Bible and parts of the liturgy.

Cyril, the leading protagonist, came from Thessalonica and his baptismal name was, like that of many emperors, Constantine. In fact, he only adopted the Slavonic name Cyril on his deathbed many years later, but history will forever know him as Cyril and his alphabet as Cyrillic.

Curiously, he chose Macedonian Slavonic as his language for the project, though this may have been the language most familiar to the polyglot monk. It would not have been familiar to the Moravians, whose native dialect was Slovakian. Another good reason for using this language was that the Byzantines were in near constant conflict with the Bulgars, to whom the language would have been much more understandable. What better way than to spread Christianity to the troublesome Bulgars than to spread the word in their own language?

National Library in Sofia: Cyril and Methodius statue

National Library in Sofia with a statue of Cyril and Methodius

Thus was Cyrillic born. While the alphabet has undergone many changes over the years, the basis was laid by Cyril and Methodius. In fact, it would be more accurate to use the plural ‘alphabets’ as each country that uses Cyrillic has developed its own adaptations.

With its origins firmly in the Orthodox Church, it is hardly surprising that those countries that use Cyrillic are ones in which that church is predominant. The following countries use Cyrillic script:

Belarus
Bosnia/Herzegovina
Bulgaria
Kazakhstan
Kyrgyzstan
Macedonia
Mongolia
Montenegro
Russia
Serbia
Tajikistan
Ukraine

Romania is a rare exception of a largely Orthodox country using Latin scripts. The earliest texts in the Romanian language date as recently as the sixteenth century and are in Cyrillic. That script continued into the middle of the nineteenth century, since when Latin has been used.

In neighbouring Moldova, a special version of the Cyrillic alphabet derived from the Russian version was used until 1989, when the Romanian language spoken there officially returned to the Romanian Latin alphabet, although in the breakaway region of Transnistria the Cyrillic alphabet is still used.

There are numerous websites that list all of the alphabets, so we will restrict this article to the Russian alphabet, which contains 33 letters.

А а as in ‘bar’

Б б also as in ‘bar’

В в as in ‘very’

Г г as in ‘gallery’

Д д as in ‘delta’

Е е as in ‘yes’

Ё ё as in ‘yolk’

Ж ж as in ‘treasure’

З з as in ‘zing’

И и as in ‘thee

Й й as in ‘boy

К к as in ‘king’

Л л as in ‘leg’

М м as in ‘man’

Н н as in ‘no’

О о as in ‘more’

П п as in ‘pink’

Р р as in ‘rough’ (though rolled r)

С с as in ‘set’

Т т as in ‘toy’

У у as in ‘loot’

Ф ф as in ‘felt’

Х х as in ‘help’

Ц ц as in ‘lots

Ч ч as in ‘chin’

Ш ш as in ‘ship’

Щ щ as in ‘schtik’ (soft C sound)

Ъ ъ silent hard sign (preventing palatisation of preceding consonant)

Ы ы as in ‘hit’

Ь ь silent soft sign (for palatisation of preceding consonant)

Э э as in ‘bet’

Ю ю as in ‘use’

Я я as in ‘Katya

To western eyes, Cyrillic can appear bewildering at first glance. However, for those of us with English as a first language, there is a logicality to the letters. The important thing is that they tell you how to pronounce a word. In English, we have dilemmas. Should we use a hard or soft C, for example. There are no such mysteries in Cyrillic.

In fact, it’s all relatively simple. A number of letters perform the same, or at least a very similar, function to those in the Latin alphabet. A, E, K, C, O, M, T and even B are much the same in both sets. Once you have fathomed that Cyrillic P, H and X are really R, N and H, you’re a third of the way there already.

Other letters are readily decipherable; the Cyrillic D looks very much like a Greek delta, the G almost identical to gamma and the F (or ph-) like the -th of the Greek theta. The Z is easy enough, too, as many people even in the west write a squiggly Z rather than a sharp-edged one.

As for the Russian alphabet’s best letter, the ‘backward R’, one way to memorise its use is to remember that whenever you see the name ‘Russia’ in Cyrillic, this is the letter you’ll see at the end of the name rather than the beginning.

Barclay de Tolly – Russia’s Scottish-German General

Those who have read Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace will be familiar with Mikhail Kutuzov, the general widely acknowledged to have been responsible for repelling Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Indeed, Kutuzov is treated with great respect in the novel, portrayed as a man of considerable wisdom and foresight. If Kutuzov is seen as a little overly sentimental at times, this trait is represented as a positive attribute.

Mikhail Barclay de Tolly does not fare so well in Tolstoy’s work, being seen as indecisive and dithering. Barclay fell from favour during the campaign, being superseded as Commander-in-Chief by Kutuzov and resigning from the army soon afterwards. After Napoleon’s defeat, Barclay’s popularity grew and he was restored to the military, taking over from Kutuzov following the latter’s death in 1813.

The two great leaders of the Napoleonic campaign, so often at odds with each other, now stand side by side outside the massive Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg, on the city’s most famous street, Nevsky Prospekt.

Statue at Kazan Cathedral (St Petersburg)

Statue at Kazan Cathedral (St Petersburg)

As regular readers of these notes will know, Duck Holiday is based in Scotland and is ever keen to investigate Scotland’s links with Eastern Europe. To claim that Mikhail Barclay de Tolly was a Scotsman would be stretching the truth more than a little. He was, however, a member of the noble Barclay clan from Aberdeenshire. There is some debate about his birthplace, but it is likely that he was born in what is now Lithuania and was raised in Livonia, which was then part of the Russian Empire and whose territory now straddles Latvia and Estonia.

Barclay was a German-speaking descendant of a Scottish family that had settled in Livonia in the 17th century. His grandfather was a mayor of Riga and his father was admitted into the ranks of the Russian nobility. The young Barclay joined the Imperial Russian army and saw his first action in the 1787-1791 Russo-Turkish war and the concurrent war against Sweden.

Portrait by George Dawe (Military Gallery of the Winter Palace)

Portrait by George Dawe (Military Gallery of the Winter Palace)

After distinguishing himself in the Polish campaign of 1794, Barclay rose through the ranks rapidly and became a major-general in 1799. During another Russo-Swedish war during 1808-1809, he distinguished himself by crossing the frozen Gulf of Bothnia near Kvarken, which allowed him to surprise the enemy and seize the town of Umeå in Sweden. In April 1809, he was made full General and commander-in-chief of Russian forces in Finland. A year later, he became Minister of War, launching an important series of military reforms while planning for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

After his reinstatement of 1814, Barclay commanded the taking of Paris and was made a Prince of the Russian Empire during the following year.

He died in Insterburg in Prussia in May 1818. His body – and later that of his wife – was buried in the Jõgeveste Manor Cemetery in Estonia.

Barclay de Tolly Mausoleum in Estonia

Barclay de Tolly Mausoleum in Estonia

Welcome to Atlantis

The Duck Holiday team are temporarily off the air. Some imbecile decided to turn on a tap (or taps) and leave it (or them) running for hours. Result: predictable. Duck flooded out; you wouldn’t read about it, except you just did.

 

Duck Holiday is now a refugee, but hopes to be back in action soon. The Duckhouse is under repair and the duck squad are bound for Copenhagen next month to seek solace in expensive beer. While we acknowledge that Copenhagen is not Eastern Europe, neither is the Duckhouse habitable, so certain sacrifices have to be made.

 

We will not quack under the stress and we will attempt to overcome this fowl deed by means of this web feat.

 

Welcome to Hell

This is a little off the theme of Eastern European travel, but a touch of diversification never hurt anyone, unless of course they diversified in front of a bus. The following is a taster – indeed, the opening chapter – of Life in the Sauna, recently published by New Generation Publishing. This chapter, not altogether surprisingly, charts the initial experiences of the intrepid VSO volunteer on first setting foot in the Eritrean town of Assab.

LITS

It came to be known as ‘oven door syndrome.’ It’s that moment when you’ve been baking a potato and you absent-mindedly open the door of the oven while standing right in front of it. The heat wave knocks you backwards and you wonder why on Earth you did that.

That was how it felt when the plane door opened. You could see that it was hot out there as the plane skirted the Red Sea coast, but it was only when that door opened that you realised just how hot. This was heat like you’d never felt before (apart from that brief moment with the oven, of course). This was heat that was, literally and metaphorically, in your face. It was beyond stifling, a non-stop blast wave that threatened to choke the life out of you.

When you open the oven door, you simply curse your stupidity and step to one side. Here, in the Eritrean port of Assab, there was no escape. You laugh at the absurdity of the heat and humidity, but your brain is screaming other messages, most of which seem to be asking the question ‘What are you doing here?’

It’s a disturbing feeling. You have pledged two years of your life to VSO and within two minutes, you’re thinking ‘Get me out of this.’ You had been through all the concerns about the culture, the language, the food and all sorts of things and you’d come to the conclusion that you could cope with all sorts of stuff. Not only that, you would, by and large, positively enjoy the different experiences. Yes, you knew it would be hot as well, but this was little short of an inferno. How was it possible to live here?

Being overloaded with hand luggage well beyond the allowance didn’t help. On top of this, VSO have provided a ton of equipment, ranging from the useful (a water filter) to the palpably absurd (blankets). They have given you two heavy blankets. What, you want to shout at nobody in particular, am I supposed to do with blankets? The temperature is in the forties and you’re carrying blankets across a dusty and barren East African airfield.

Assab airport was essentially a landing strip with a small concrete terminal building. It appeared to be in the middle of a desert, punctuated by a few scruffy acacia bushes. Not that it was easy to see very much, being laden with a large holdall and having your vision blocked by water filters and those blankets. The searingly hot wind blowing dust and sand into your eyes wasn’t a great deal of help, either. Nor does this even begin to take into account the flies and mosquitoes, who will feature regularly throughout this journal.

I certainly didn’t see it and if anybody else did, they didn’t tell me. The hole was probably little more than a metre deep, but it came as a shock. One minute, you’re walking along a concrete surface, then in the next moment, you appear to have descended into the very pit of Hell that you suspected the heat was coming from.

Some kindly people helped me out of the hole I’d landed in. Quite why there was a big hole there wasn’t a question I was contemplating at that moment. The physical hole, while slightly alarming, wasn’t such a problem. It was the metaphorical hole that was the chief worry as I stumbled and sweated towards the relative cool of the terminal building.

Thankfully, the bulk of the administrative procedures had happened in the capital, Asmara, thus removing the immediate need for Eritrea to demonstrate its love for excessive bureaucracy. Another relief was the sight of a vehicle belonging to Assab Petroleum Refinery, my new employers. Not that I would have been too difficult to pick out, a hot and exhausted white, or probably bright and fluorescent pink by now, man floundering under an excess of baggage, not to mention those damnable blankets.

We drove the 20 or so kilometres into town, which did little to allay the impression that I had signed up to live in the middle of a desert. There was a lot of dust, a lot of sand and more acacia bushes. I scanned the sky and the immediate horizons, but failed to spot a single bird. Slowly, though, buildings began to appear, culminating in the area where the refinery workers lived. The houses looked small, but pleasant enough. I wondered where mine was.

“Your house is not ready yet,” one of my new colleagues told me. I’d have to go to the ‘guest house.’ I was poured, with my luggage overload, into a substantial dwelling that had a living room, kitchen, toilet and three bedrooms. This, I suspected, was considerably more lavish than what I’d be getting, but no matter. I needed anything that resembled a luxury at that moment. There was a long and comfortable sofa and, much more importantly, air conditioning. I put the air-con at full bore and promptly fell asleep.

After sleeping for about 90 minutes, I felt a great deal better, though dehydrated. Fortunately, I’d had the insight not only to hold onto a bottle of water, but also to put it next to the air conditioner. I took a swig and felt thoroughly refreshed. By now, it was just after four o’clock in the afternoon. Surely, it must be a bit cooler outside by now? I cautiously opened the front door, let out a small groan and shut it again. Alarmingly, in a reverse of that classic British situation where you enter a warm pub on a cold winter’s day, even a nervous peek outside had caused my glasses to steam up.

The refinery men had told me my house would be ready ‘soon’. As I quickly discovered, many African people don’t tend to work on the basis of specific time. ‘Soon’ can mean anything from a couple of minutes to a few days. In this case, though, it meant only a few hours and I was taken to what was to be my house for the next two years.

As I suspected, the house in which I was going to live was considerably smaller than the one in which I’d just been sweltering. The group of houses I was taken to were all for refinery workers and took the form of bungalows. There were three rooms, consisting of a living room that doubled as a bedroom, a toilet with a shower and a small kitchen. It wasn’t fancy, being in effect a studio flat, but at least it meant I didn’t have to hunt around for somewhere to live, which many volunteers did.

At first, I didn’t see it. When I did, a huge sense of relief swept over me. There was an air-conditioning unit wedged into the wall of the main room, just below the solitary window. For reasons I can’t possibly imagine, I didn’t switch it on. There was a ceiling fan and I turned that on instead. Perhaps I was subconsciously thinking that I shouldn’t use the air conditioning until it was really hot. After all, this was late September and the ‘hot’ season runs from June to August. This, presumably, was the ‘Are you seriously telling me this isn’t hot?’ season.

The bed was wooden and had a thin mattress. In fact, it wasn’t so much thin as positively emaciated. I tried lying down on the bed and immediately felt the hardness of the wooden slats beneath the mattress. After a couple of minutes, I had a brainwave. Now I knew what to do with those blankets.

I laid the blankets on the slats and put the mattress back. It didn’t make the thing a great deal more comfortable, but it was a marginal improvement and at least I had a storage place for two blankets it was utterly inconceivable that I would need for any other purpose.

Lying on the bed and staring at the hypnotic whirl of the fan, I wondered what I had got myself into. A month ago, I’d been a computer programmer for the NHS in Scotland. Now, my job hadn’t changed much, but everything else had. True, it had been a fine summer back home, but Scotland does not get temperatures in the high thirties. Neither does Scotland get humidity in the nineties. There might be a few cultural differences to consider as well.

That Friday, a month back, was my final day in my Edinburgh office. I’d given myself a few weeks to get everything ready and say goodbye to people. I’d been to The Oval to watch an England v West Indies Test match. I’d been to plenty of pubs (it’s always easier to meet people in a pub) and enjoyed lots of different cask beers. On more than one occasion, the pub visit had led to an Indian restaurant. All of these things were now on a shelf, not to be used for two years. Well, there’d probably be a pub or two, but cask beer would be pushing things a bit.

The inevitable last pint was at a bar at Heathrow airport. Then it was onto a plane to Asmara, with two cases in the hold and a holdall well beyond the limit for hand luggage. I was far from the only culprit. It was remarkable that the plane actually managed to make it to thirty-five thousand feet with the tonnage it must have been lugging.

That packed plane contained 28 VSO volunteers, 27 of whom were schoolteachers. Not for the first time in my life, I was the exception to a rule. Everyone else was going to be based at a school, college or other training establishment. I had the glamour of a petroleum refinery.

We spent two weeks in the Eritrean capital, Asmara. Those two weeks provide time for some readjustment and acclimatisation, though the climate in Asmara, which is more than seven thousand feet above sea level, is very different to that on the Red Sea coast. Because of its altitude, Asmara does not get especially hot during the day. It can also get cold at night, a phrase that could never be applied to Assab or the other major Red Sea port, Massawa.

The two weeks were spent at the Teachers Training Institute (TTI) in the northern part of Asmara. The TTI is a large camp that contains a lot of long wooden huts and if it looks somewhat like a prisoner of war camp, that’s because it was. During the long conflict with Ethiopia, prisoners were housed here.

We spent part of the time learning something of the country’s history, as well as being given lessons in the Tigrigna language and a certain amount, from first hand practical experience, about the sheer amount of bureaucracy and paperwork that exists in Eritrea. There were a few points of culture and etiquette to learn, for example remembering to shake hands with people on greeting them, even if you’d already met them earlier that day. We were reminded that if eating with our hands, a common occurrence in East Africa, then the right hand was to be used (the left traditionally being reserved for toilet duties). This was something that I, being left-handed, needed to keep in mind. On a further practical note, the volunteers received some money to get us through to our first pay day, as well as allowing us to buy those items we would need in our accommodation.

Despite the rather basic facilities at TTI, those two weeks were quite a leisurely introduction, something of a beginner’s guide to Eritrea. There was plenty of time for having a stroll around town, sitting around having a chat, catching a game of football at the nearby National Stadium and having a beer or two in the local bars. There were quite a few games of Scrabble, very much a volunteer staple. For those of us hoping to see some exotic birdlife, there was a lake close to the camp that harboured a fine array of species. Having packed a substantial guide to the birds of East Africa into my heaving luggage, I was, at least, prepared for something. We also took the opportunity to try out our newly-found language skills on unsuspecting and slightly bemused locals.

Tigrigna is the main language spoken in Eritrean and it’s also spoken in the northern part of Ethiopia. Like Hebrew and Arabic, it is a Semitic language and uses a script called Ge’ez, which is also used for the primary Ethiopian language, Amharic. Thankfully, our tutor instructed us purely on a phonetic basis. Learning a completely new alphabet would be a touch ambitious.

One thing that you quickly realise, even after only a couple of days in Asmara, is that there is a strong residual Italian influence in Eritrea. The Italians’ colonial ambitions in East Africa had mixed results, but Eritrea was ruled by the then Kingdom of Italy between 1882 and 1941. A stroll around the centre of Asmara gives more than a few clues to this relationship and many of the buildings in the centre of the city were erected by the colonial regime. The imposing St Joseph’s Cathedral is decidedly Italianate and little groups of nuns are often spied wandering around the town. There are several pizza restaurants and an abundance of shoes shops, all of which seem to sell very high-quality shoes at remarkably low prices, at least to Western European eyes. Some older people are able to speak Italian.

An unexpected by product of spending more than a few days in Eritrea is that you will almost certainly pick up a bit of Italian that could come in useful during some future holiday. Even a few fairly rudimentary lessons in the Tigrigna language confirm the Italian link, particularly when it comes to food. Mushrooms are funghi, aubergines melanzane, courgettes zucchini, biscuits biscotti, beer birra and so on. This is comforting – you may expire from heat exhaustion, but at least you know that you are not going to starve.

There wasn’t much danger of heat exhaustion in Asmara, particularly in the early morning. Indeed, there was more danger of hypothermia from taking a cold shower (there was no option here, unless you chose not to wash) in temperatures only a little above freezing. The temperatures rose quite swiftly during the course of the morning, but it was very chilly before and just after sunrise. Those VSO blankets would certainly have been welcome for the volunteers based in the capital and other highland areas in the central northern part of the country.

Another shock to the pampered westerner was the lack of seating arrangements when it came to using the toilet. The lavatories were of the ‘hole in the ground’ type and thus required strong leg muscles and steady balance. This type of toilet is not recommended for those who have had quite a lot to drink. Nor are many of them necessarily recommended for anyone with a sense of smell.

A few of the new volunteers suffered from stomach problems, probably due to the sudden change of diet, water and all of the other associated factors that come with such an upheaval of location and lifestyle. The sudden change to living at altitude probably had an effect, as well. I was lucky enough to avoid any of these discomforts in Asmara. My turn would come, though, I was sure of that. You’re only ever a dodgy lettuce leaf away from that 24-hour bout of gastric mayhem.

Although I hadn’t experienced any problems yet, I was a bit concerned about diet. Food at the training institute had been decidedly on the meaty side, not ideal for a vegetarian like me. In the two weeks thus far, I’d survived on a regime of spicy potatoes, pasta, bananas and the odd pizza. This didn’t look like the healthiest mix.

Then there is injera. It is not possible to visit Eritrea or Ethiopia without coming across injera. It is a rather moist and spongy flat bread that is made from tef, a type of wheat grown in the highlands of the two nations. It is used as a base on which to pile food that is traditionally shared and eaten with the fingers. Injera has the appearance of carpet underfelt and quite often, the taste and texture as well. At best, and when fresh, it can be pleasant enough. At worst, it is sour, vinegary and leaves a nasty aftertaste.

I was, though, reasonably optimistic that I could manage to get through without biting into flesh. From now on, I’d be having most of my meals in my house, once I’d sorted out something by way of cooking facilities. Assab, being a relatively large town, would have plenty of shops and while its remoteness would mean that there wouldn’t be the same broad range of produce as in Asmara, there should be enough to provide a bit of variety. Besides, it would be a good test of my resourcefulness, not to mention cookery skills. There would be plenty of challenges, but the cookery side should prove an interesting one.

Soon, I would have the chance to have my first meal in Assab. My fellow volunteers – three of them – lived together in a nearby house and I was due to meet them at half past seven so that we could go for a meal. Two of them had arrived at the same time as me and the other had, incredibly to my mind, already been in Assab for two years. She had now signed up for another year.

Ursula, the old stager, had been among the party to meet us at the airport. She was an English teacher at the local school and even after a few minutes in the place, I was impressed with her stamina and willpower. I was glad that there was an existing volunteer, though. After two years in Assab, she would know pretty much everything that was worth knowing (and probably a fair bit that wasn’t).

The other newcomers were also going to be working at the school. Steve, a tall and thin Englishman, was a maths teacher who seemed to be possessed of that endearing lack of common sense that you sometimes see in mathematics buffs. Perhaps it’s because they operate on a different mental plane to the rest of us and consequently fail to grasp the more mundane and everyday things of life. He was, though, a thoroughly affable fellow with a ready smile. Heather, a Canadian, was a science teacher. She was less outgoing than Steve, but was perfectly amiable, albeit in a quiet sort of way.

The other three were of a similar age, all around the mid-twenties. That meant that, at 36, I was the old fogey in the Assab party. I wasn’t bothered by this in the least. VSO has rigorous assessment and selection procedures, so it wasn’t as if I was going to be surrounded by people who’d be treating the thing as if they were teenagers about to go on a first drunken weekend in Ibiza.

By the time I left my house, the burning heat of the sun had disappeared, but even though it was dark, it was still intensely hot and humid and I was sweating by the time I reached the teachers’ house five minutes later. The building wasn’t entirely a crumbling ruin, but had clearly lost something over the years, including quite a lot of brickwork and part of the roof. The house had air conditioning after a fashion, but only in the sense of missing windows and having holes in the walls. At least everybody had a reasonably large room to themselves and there was a pleasingly big kitchen to use as a dining room and communal area.

We walked to the restaurant. This provided a first look at the centre of the town and a glimpse of one or two of the more important places. We passed the post office, where there was a PO box for the VSO volunteers. We passed the entrance to the port complex, where there was always intense activity, no matter what time of day it was. Although situated in Eritrea, Assab was a very important port for Ethiopia. Part of the post-war treaty was the allowance of free access for Ethiopia. Indeed, most of the goods coming into and going out of the port were being imported or exported by the Ethiopians. This was, in effect, Ethiopia’s last remaining link to the Red Sea after Eritrea gained independence.

On the way, Ursula would stop and greet people that she knew, chatting away in Tigrigna at some speed. Admittedly, she’d been here for two years, but this still looked pretty impressive. After a few weeks, though, it had become clear that she wasn’t quite the fluent speaker I’d initially thought she was. Her conversations, roughly speaking, amounted to “Good evening, hello, how are you? – I’m fine, thank you – good night”, possibly repeated two or three times for good measure and not very much else. Even so, it does no harm at all to use a bit of the language of whatever country you happen to be in at any given time. It is usually appreciated, even if people might laugh at your inept pronunciation from time to time.

The restaurant, predictably, was strong on meat and light on vegetables. It’s a fairly safe assumption, though, that pasta will be on the menu of any non-specialist restaurant in Eritrea. All you have to do is make sure that you specify “without meat”. Pasta with tomato sauce may be a touch on the bland side, but it does the job. In fact, “without” is a handy word to learn at an early stage. Tea and coffee will come loaded with sugar unless you stipulate otherwise. Tea is served in small glasses similar to whisky tumblers and served without milk, but with a slice of lemon and a vast pile of sugar. In fact, it’s more a case of “how much tea would you like with your cup of sugar?” If you forget to mention the sugar, the sweetness can be partially ameliorated by squeezing the lemon as vigorously as possible into the drink, leaving you with something that vaguely resembles a cup of Lemsip and at least takes the edge off the overpowering sweetness.

Coffee is generally of the strong, espresso variety, though there is a version of macchiato that is a good deal milkier than what one might find in Italy, for example. This is also to assume that there will be any milk available. If there is, it will usually be in powdered form. Once again, though, expect a shovelful of sugar in whatever form of coffee you may be given.

As with people in many tropical climates, Eritreans like their food and drink spicy at one extreme and sweet at the other. Hot chilli pervades virtually any prepared food and sugar seems to find its way into most drinks. You’ll often see people with a small stick in their mouths, sucking on sugar cane. Eritrean dentists need never be short of potential customers.

Fortified by pasta and a few bottles of beer from the Melotti Brewery (even the solitary Eritrean brewery was an Italian creation), the journey back seemed a bit easier than the journey out. Alcohol, of course, is not the ideal antidote to dehydration, but I was prepared to convince myself that because beer is made up largely of water, then it could not be the worst thing to drink.

I stopped off at the teachers’ house on the way. Ursula had a spare kerosene stove and kettle that I could borrow until I had acquired some stuff of my own. My little kitchen didn’t have anything resembling an oven. A fridge was purely the stuff of dreams. I did, though, have a small collection of teabags and I decided to treat myself to a mug of tea. The stove belched out some evil black fumes that I suspected weren’t terribly healthy. No matter, a cup of tea would be a civilised way to end the evening.

While the kettle was rattling about on the stove, I made an attempt to take a shower. It got no further than an attempt. The shower head sputtered out a few drops of water, but refused to cooperate after that. Swearing at it produced no further reaction. Now, I’d filled the kettle successfully from the tap in the kitchen, so I knew there was a supply of running water. Not, however, from the shower.

I managed to have a wash by filling the wash basin and splashing around a bit. All of the flooring in the house was of tiling, so spilling water all over it wasn’t going to do any harm. One thing was very noticeable – the water coming from the taps was not cold. Given the intensity of the heat and humidity, this hardly came as a surprise, but it was difficult not to think wistfully of the cold showers in Asmara. They’d been unwelcome there, but I could have done with it now.

At the restaurant, I’d asked Ursula if it ever rained in Assab. She said, “Well, it has rained” and the emphasis on the ‘has’ was something of a giveaway. She estimated that she’d seen rained perhaps five or six times in two years. “It doesn’t help at all,” she added with an apologetic grin. “It just makes the humidity go up a bit.”

The temperate climate and lovely, vertical, stair-rod tropical rain we’d seen in Asmara seemed an awfully long way off. “The worst is summer,” Ursula said, “but the schools are on holiday then, so you won’t need to be here.” I looked at her and she suddenly realised what she’d said. “Oh God, sorry,” she said, “but you’ll be able to take leave, so you won’t have to be here all the time.” She did give me a very good tip, though. “Make sure you book your leave and a flight well in advance,” she said, “because everybody wants to get out of here in the summer months”.

My wash hadn’t exactly cooled me down a great deal and I was still feeling baked. Despite this, I continued with the incomprehensible use of the fan. I lay back on the bed and reached for my shortwave radio, when I saw a rapid movement out of the corner of my eye. The culprit wasn’t immediately obvious and I hoped I wasn’t about to encounter something vicious.

Suddenly, it emerged, from just above the strip light high on the wall. To a small insect, it probably was a vicious monster of prehistoric appearance, but it wasn’t going to threaten my wellbeing. It was a gecko, attracted by the glow or heat of the light, or possibly both. He or she was quite welcome, as far as I was concerned. Anything that devoured insects was to be regarded as an ally and I left the lizard to bask on the wall.

VSO had given me a mosquito net, but there didn’t seem to be much point in trying to set it up. My house, unlike that of the teachers, was solid on all sides. I wasn’t about to open the window, however hot it was. In fact, I thought that the lizard was probably being a bit optimistic hanging around in terms of finding a snack, but it was a nice safe place for it to spend the night.

I had similar feelings, though the gecko almost certainly appreciated the heat a great deal more than I did. I remembered to take one of the two types of anti-malarial tablet that I would need to have every day. I had two large cartons of the drugs and I tried not to think about the potential side effects (working for the NHS has its advantages and disadvantages). I felt a bit envious of the volunteers in places like Asmara, which are too far above sea level for malarial mosquitoes. I drank my tea, listened to BBC World Service for a while and attempted to get some sleep. Somewhat ambitiously, I had pulled a sheet over myself, but I rapidly discarded this. Even a thin, cotton sheet was superfluous, so the blankets had absolutely no chance.

I put the light back on and considered moving the bed (several hundred miles north was an appealing idea right at that moment). In fact, moving it several inches wasn’t plausible, as it was attached to a small table/shelf on either side. I tried lying with my head at the foot of the bed. This didn’t achieve a great deal, other than to make me sweat slightly with the exertion of moving around. I tried reading for a while, as this is generally a good way to induce sleep, but I couldn’t really concentrate. The fan continued to churn increasingly warm air around the room.

How long it took me to get to sleep, I have no idea. I did manage it, though, probably though sheer exhaustion in the end. That was my very first day in Assab. I would have another 718 to go (not that I was ticking them off, prisoner style). I had absolutely no idea what those days were going to be like or, indeed, if I would complete them. One thing of which I was certain was that I was going to give it a go. It had taken almost two years from my initial VSO application to arriving in Eritrea. ‘Technical’ placements are a lot harder to fill than teaching ones, with more criteria to be fulfilled by both employer and employee. I wasn’t about to be put off just because it was a bit hot. Well, more than a bit, but I felt that I had a substantial well of resolve. There would be times when I would need to go deep into it.

© Tom Locke 2015

Life in the Sauna is available at all good booksellers. It is also available at Amazon.