Sunday, December 23, 2007

Compliments of the Season

Eid Mubarak, Crăciun fericit, and Boldog Új Évet. I'm off line for the next two weeks, enjoying the festive fun and frolics with various families in Marosvasarhely, Cambridge, and elsewhere. Normal infrequent blogging will resume in 2008. Cheers to all, and have a good holiday

Thursday, December 20, 2007


I had been meaning to re-read Dracula for ages. It was probably 20 years ago when I first read it, and ever since I moved to Transylvania I thought I should probably re-read it since it is basically the only reason that anyone from outside of Hungary and Romania has even heard of Transylvania.

So anyway I read it again last week, and it's bloody brilliant. I remember enjoying it and thinking it was a cracking read when I read it before, and I'm not usually a fan of literature from before 1900 (though to be fair Dracula was written in 1897 so it's not that far off).

Anyway, on to my first major surprise of the book - that is when we first meet Count Dracula in his castle on the Borgo pass between Bistrita and Bukovina. Jonathan Harker (our hero) journeys from Budapest to Cluj and on to Bistrita before heading into the pass, passing as he does various ethnic groups on the way - Saxons, Szekelys, Magyars, and "Wallachs" in the main, but he also mentions "Slovaks" who actually sound very much like the Gabor clan of Rroma from his description, and Szgany (obviously a corruption of Cigany/Tigani) . Anyway, we meet Count Dracula, who is in fact a Szekely! This is not something I had remembered (to be honest when I read the book before, I'd never heard of the Szekely and it would have flown right over my head). He launches into this big speech about the heroism and bravery of the Szekely. He comes up with some curious historical explanation of the Szekely as being some kind of cross between the Vikings and the Huns, and then launches into a list of the invaders and foes they had beaten back - Magyars, Turks, Bulgars, Lombards, Wallachs, and Avars (whoever they are).

"Ah, young sir, the Szekelys - and the Dracula as their heart's blood, their brains and their swords - can boast a record that mushroom growths like the Hapsburgs and the Romanoffs can never reach"
Just in case there are Szekelys reading this (and I know there are) who are now getting a tad upset that this infamous anti-hero is a Szekely, I should point out that he it was because he was such a great leader, and a strong and intelligent warrior when he was alive that he is so powerful and successful a vampire once he became un-dead. At least that's what it says in the book.

So anyway, I'm not going to retell the book, but I thought I'd do a little bit of digging into how Stoker came to write this novel and set it where he did, with the characters that he did. Firstly it's not thought that he ever visited Transylvania, he just spent a lot of time in the library doing research. He apparently first thought about setting the novel in Austria, but was told that it might be too close to another vampire novel called "Carmilla" set in France, so he decided to relocate it to Transylvania. (Though in fact very little happens in Transylvania in the book - just the opening and closing. The rest is in Whitby and (mostly) London).

The character of Dracula himself is often thought to be have been based on Vlad Tepes ("the Impaler") who was also known as Vlad Dracula (son of Dracul). It is now thought that the only thing the character owes to Vlad is the name, and that probably Stoker knew nothing about Vlad Tepes. Another historical character who may or may not have provided some inspiration is a Hungarian countess named Elizabeth Bathory. "The most infamous serial killer in Hungarian and Slovak history".

The tourist industry of Romania seems to rely very greatly on this one story, which is quite impressive in a way, though extreme lengths are gone to - Bran Castle, which I read somewhere is Romania's most visited tourist attraction, markets itself as "Dracula's Castle", based on the disputed possibility that Vlad Tepes may once have spent the night there. Don't get me wrong, Bran Castle is a nice place, but it has about as much connection to Dracula as the Sydney Opera House does. Sighisoara, which is Vlad Dracula's birthplace, is littered with Dracula Internet Cafes and Vampire Coffee Shops. There was even going to be a Dracula themepark outside Sighisoara, which thankfully got nixed. Apparently someone has even built a castle cum hotel on the Borgo pass where they think the castle might have been in the book.

I reckon the Szekelys need to grab a slice of this lucrative pie and set up some "Real Dracula" attractions. There's money in this myth.

Friday, December 14, 2007

In a round about way

When I arrived in Romania, which is not that long ago let’s face it, there was, to my knowledge, not a single roundabout in the country. At least I never encountered one. However, in some kind of apparent desperate EU inspired anglophilia, they have been appearing everywhere. I can only imagine that all of Romania’s mayors were taken to England on some kind of junket, and introduced to the smooth and sensible traffic flow of the humble roundabout. And maybe offered EU funds to install roundabouts wherever they could. Now, in Csíkszereda alone there are 5 of them, and I’m guessing more will come. There are even roundabouts where none seem necessary – indeed a couple I’ve seen (in Sinaia and Cluj) seem designed to merely slow the traffic down, like a particularly elaborate and expensive sleeping policeman.

There is still some way to go before the cult of the roundabout reaches English proportions (anyone doubting their ubiquity in the UK ought to drive the ten miles from Luton Airport to Hitchin, whence one spends more time circling a central island than one does actually driving in a straight line).

Maybe this is something to do with me. My last residence, Brattleboro, Vermont, USA installed one while I was there too, much to everyone’s confusion. Am I the vector carrying these roundabouts, like some kind of virus? Where else have I infected?

I have to say though, that the locals here have adapted much faster to these alien traffic moderators that Vermonters did, where for months and years afterwards, the benefits of the roundabout as a traffic flow system were outweighed by the utter chaos that accompanied its existence. Indicating seems to present a particular challenge to the unwary driver – especially the need to indicate left when one’s first turn is to the right.

Still, it’s a rum do. I’d love to know what was the spur for this mushrooming of the roundabout.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Uninteresting miscellany

Just discovered through a friend that the Romanian Orthodox Church in London (which actually exists inside another church called St Dunstans) is led by the marvellously named Father Pufulete. A pufulete is a kind of repulsive puffed corn snack that dissolves into dust in your mouth. They are very popular in Romania for some unknown reason (though it is quite amusing to put a couple in your mouth and then say "pufulete" since it occasions hilarious amounts of corn and additive dust exploding into the air around your mouth).

Just in case you don't believe me: Romanian Orthodox Church in London (scroll down about 1/3rd of the way on the left hand side under contact details). Pufuleti (that's more than one pufulete) as reported upon by Sean Romerican, sadly no longer with us (he's not dead, just living in Texas, which to an non-Texan sounds almost worse).

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Reforming Paula

I'm quite sure there's some pithy quote that is used to make it clear that children are destined to repeat their parents' lives, or mistakes, or something. Anyway, assuming there is, it would be very apposite here, if only I knew what it was.

When I was very young, and I mean very young, way too young for me to have any memory of it, I was christened in the Church of England. (Christened is the CofE word for "baptised" - I've no idea why they use a different word). Anyway this christening came about despite my parents being avid non-church goers, because my (also non-church going) grandmother kind of pressured them into doing it, since it was traditional and the thing you did and anyway what would the neighbours say? So I was carted along, had my head washed a bit, and was granted some kind of curious non-blood relationship with some of my parents' friends. Having come out of the church, they (my parents that is) turned to each other and vowed never to do that again with any future children as they didn't believe a word of what had passed for the ceremony. Hence neither of my brothers were christened (much to my grandmother's disgust and trauma and fear that whole country were talking about us).

When Paula was born, Erika and I briefly pondered getting her baptised, but since neither of us ever go to church or have a religion to call our own, this seemed a little bit silly. Plus we live in the 21st century and not the 15th, and so were not living in fear that Paula's soul would somehow be forever in limbo unless some bloke in funny clothes put some water on her. But, increasingly we too became aware of grandparently pressure which was gradually being ratcheted up. This despite the grandparent in question (my mother in law) also, like my grandmother before her, not having set in foot in a church for as long as anyone could remember. Last weekend, with my mother in law fairly unwell, we decided to go ahead and perform this meaningless act, as a kind of get-well soon present.

So we fixed up with the priest (when I say we, I mean of course Erika, who takes care of most things that involve language beyond basic shopping vocabulary) to have the ceremony. We went for the Hungarian Reformed Church (since the other two options available in Csikszereda are Roman Catholic - and they are way too serious and would probably need some kind of conversion from me to agree to it - or Romanian Orthodox - which is kind of out of the question for many reasons). I'm not entirely sure what the Hungarian Reformed church is, dogmatically speaking. I don't really understand all the various gradations of protestantism, but I think the Hungarian Reformed Church is Calvinist (though since I have no idea what "Calvinist" means, that's not much use).

The Hungarian Reformed Church, as I discovered when we entered, is very Hungarian. By which I mean it has all the Hungarian paraphernalia on the walls, the red white and green banners and so on, and the priest was the most Hungarian looking man I've ever seen - the big moustache, the works. He should really have entered the church on a horse wearing a wide brimmed hat for the full effect.

Paula, of course, was restless and bored. We quickly discovered why people tend to baptise their kids when they are very young - they may cry, but they don't try running all over the church. As the aforementioned moustachioed priest stepped up the pulpit, she looked up from whatever piece of dirt/hymn book/protruding nail she was focussing on and shouted out "Bácsi! Mit Csinálsz?" (roughly - at least as far as Paula is concerned - "What are you doing, old man?"). The service was, fortunately, mercifully short (another reason to favour the HRC over the Catholic and the Orthodox), and before long we were up the front going through the ritual motions. I have no idea what exactly I agreed to, but since I don't believe in any of it, that doesn't seem terribly relevant. An oral agreement is not worth the paper it's written on. Paula took the opportunity of a break in proceedings while the priest told us our sacred duties or read out his shopping list or just talked about the weather for all I know, to scarper up the stairs to the pulpit itself, so I had to go and rescue/capture her. She was a bit stunned when he actually blessed her, which seemed to take the form of him spreading his arms wide, looming over her, and letting out an odd kind of barking sound in the manner of someone attempting to scare away a mountain lion, but she got over that quickly.

After the service, and after I had handed over a small envelope containing our donation (most transactions in Romania seem to end in this way - even going to the doctor) we repaired to our flat for a traditional slap up feast and traditional slap up palinka with the various new godparents, and other assorted hangers on.

The only negative side to the whole thing (as with more or less anything that involves organised religion) is that because there's all this dogma and tradition involved, there are myriad opportunities to offend. Which we inevitably have unwittingly done and have pissed off about three separate groups of friends who felt that they should have been godparents. So what started out as a nice gesture to cheer up an ailing grandmother, has turned into some kind of icy friendship wasteland (a friendship tundra?). Obviously this is not the fault of religion or the church per se, but it does seem to match up with most of the problems that the church does create. Rigid adherence to arcane rules and bizarre practices, causing conflict and tension.

Anyway, just as Tőkés László is always referred to as a reformed bishop, Paula can now be referred to as a reformed toddler. Mind you, I have to say that she never stuck lego up her nose before she was baptised. There's got to be some kind of message in that.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Sodden Road to Samarkand

We had one day off in Uzbekistan, so my colleague George and I decided to go to Samarkand. It is obviously one of the things that nearly everyone who goes to Uzbekistan as a tourist goes to see, and I’d heard enough about it to really want to go (though when you get to Uzbekistan, everyone tells you that Khiva and Bukhara are even more beautiful – but we didn’t have the time to get to either of those).

We took the early morning train from Tashkent, which in itself was an experience. In our first class compartment (which only had us in it) was a tea set all laid out. We had a kind of train-stewardess who came round from time to time to check that we were OK but as we didn’t have any common language it was difficult to have any meaningful conversation and it wasn’t really possible to actually make use of her services (and to be honest we didn’t really work out until the end of the return journey that what she was asking us were questions about our well-being and needs). She did come by and turn the TVs on in the carriage though so we could be assailed by pop music and subsequently the execrable post-Bean “Johnny English” film badly dubbed into Russian. After we’d booked the train, one or two people had told us that we should have gone by taxi since the road went through the mountains and was beautiful whereas the railway line didn’t and wasn’t. We still thought it would be a fascinating landscape, since it would be our first glimpse of Uzbekistan beyond Tashkent. We were wrong and they were right. Flat featureless and scrubby would be the best way of describing it. Someone in Tashkent had struggled to come up with an adjective and had settled on “grey”. It was apt.

Sadly, this one day off happened to be the only one during our stay which featured bad weather, and as we got closer to Samarkand, the already grotty conditions deteriorated, until it was just grey, pouring with rain, and utterly miserable. And bitterly cold, as we found out when we stepped out of the warm train onto the platform. We were met by Dilya, our guide, a very nice Tatar woman, who proceeded to take us round the sites. Unfortunately while she was all wrapped up warm and had an umbrella we (and in particular I) were ill prepared for this English weather, and were not really enthused about standing around in the cold and wet, while we learned about the history of Samarkand. I had to keep asking her if we could go and stand out of the rain as she told us about the mausoleum of Tamurlane or the Registan. It’s difficult to fully enjoy and appreciate the majesty of some of these buildings, when you’re freezing your arse off and getting soaked. At one point George, who is diabetic, needed to urgently raise his blood sugar level, so we asked Dilya if there was a café nearby. There was in one of the madrassahs of the Registan, and this small cozy warm place was possibly my best memory of what is probably, seen in better conditions, one of the wonders of the world. While the Registan is possibly the most famous place in Samarkand, my favourite place (and not just because the rain had eased off by this time) was the Shah-i-Zinda cemetery. A stunningly beautiful place.

We had been disappointed originally that we would only get to spend the day in Samarkand and not be able to see it at more leisure, but in the end, we were quite glad to get back to the station at the end of the day, and reboard the same train that had brought us there – with the same staff. This time though, we had company in the compartment. Three women (and subsequently one bloke who we think was probably drafted in to act as so kind of impromptu chaperone for the women). The young one, Nargiza, spoke fairly good English and we learned that she was travelling to Tashkent with her mother-in-law and aunt (the other two) to visit her husband. It was quite a weird conversation as she was obviously friendly and eager to practice her English, but was (despite her marital status) extremely young (at least to old men like us), and the conversation had to bear up under the strain of two strong cultural differences – the first, the Uzbek/British one, being actually interesting and worth investigating, and the second, the teenage girl/middle-aged men one, being somewhat more insurmountable. Her mother-in-law seemed like a right battleaxe, and re-reading “Murder in Samarkand” I was reminded of these two when Murray describes the life of virtual slavery that young girls enter into for their in-laws when they marry in Uzbekistan. Many young married women in Samarkand attempt suicide every year, by the method of dousing themselves in flaming cooking oil. It is an intensely sobering thought.

This time round we were served a diet of Uzbek movies on the TV, all of which seemed to have the theme of puppy love and people pining for the traditional life of the countryside. The love stories also were all based around the city boy/country girl (or vice versa) intrigue. They weren’t exactly too difficult to follow despite the language issue.

When we arrived, Nargiza and family invited us to her husband’s house to have a tea, in typically hospitable Uzbekistan style, but we declined citing another appointment. It was very nice to be invited, but we felt we had gone about as far as the conversation could possibly have gone in the 4 hour train journey, and extending it didn’t seem like something that would be greatly enjoyable for either party, really.

Here are some pics of Samarkand, in the grey and wet weather.

Your correspondent, looking bedraggled and freezing in the RegistanOne of the Madrassahs in the Registan. For an idea of scale look at the two women huddled under an umbrella in the foreground. (For more info about the Registan, check out the wiki page)

Madrassah detail, with autumn tree for photographic effect

Yet more Registan pictures. I had by now managed to find a place sheltered from the rain to take these shots. Note all the tile work on the big building ahead and the pillar in the foreground. Much of this is not original, sadly, but reconstructed during Soviet times after a big earthquake in 1966. However the reconstruction was, as far as I can tell, extremely faithful to the original, and they did a fantastic job of it. It must have cost a fortune.

Inside one of the madrassahs (behind one of those massive facades that face on to the square. The doorway on the lower right led to the wonderful cozy cafe that nourished my need for temporary warmth and dryness.

The ceiling inside one of the buildings of the Registan. It's not really a full on dome, they just decorated it to make it look that way. There were something like 15 kgs of gold used in the reconstruction work. Apologies for slight fuzziness, I needed to turn off the flash to get a good shot

Detail of the wall inside the mausoleum of Tamurlane / Timur (this bloke)

More from the same mausoleum (wiki page)
The Bibi Khanym mosque (wiki page)

Samarkand bazaar. Dried fruits and nuts are the big thing in Uzbekistan. You might almost say they are Uzbekistan's raisin d'etre. (Sorry. Couldn't help myself)

Girl and bread. This round bread is very typical of Uzbekistan. The ritual around breaking it is quite formalised.
What the fashionable man about Samarkand is wearing this season.

The Shah-i-Zinda necropolis. This street wends its way between amazing mausoleum after amazing mausoleum. It's an amazing place. (Wiki page)

Friday, December 07, 2007

A Sense of Humor

A few weeks ago during my lengthy blogless phase, Erika and I went to a meeting in Iasi (in Moldavia in the east of Romania). I’d been to Iasi a few times before, and I like the place – it has a very interesting history, and seems to be in many ways the traditional centre of Romanian literature and “high culture” (along with another city the name of which escapes me which is actually now in Ukraine). On this trip, though, while we did get to sample the delicious Sapte Coline, we managed to get out of the city and take a trip to visit a couple of the famous painted monasteries of Bucovina.

On the way from Iasi you actually get a further sense of how Romania plays host to many different ethnic groups - we drove through one town that has a significant Lipovan community (Russians who I’d thought only really live in the Danube Delta), another that contained more of the amazing houses that wealthy Rroma build, and a third which actually is a Polish town (dating back from when a group of them came to that town to mine salt some centuries back).

Eventually we reached Bucovina, which is an area very reminiscent of Maramures, very beautiful houses, traditional lifestyle, gentle rolling hills etc. We headed for Gara Humorului, and thence to the village of Voroneţ , which is the location of one of the most beautiful of these monasteries.

Voroneţ is an amazing place. I’d seen pictures, but seeing it in the flesh (as it were) is pretty extraordinary. This is a monastery which was painted on the outside 400 years ago (so that the congregation who couldn’t fit in the church would get a kind of picture of what was going on inside. A kind of 17th century close circuit TV.) Nothing so amazing about that, perhaps, except that all these years later through 400 years of weather, the paintings are still there.

Latterly, after a huge and amazing Moldovan lunch, we also visited a similar monastery at Humor (hence the post title – I presume you didn’t really think I’d forgotten to put the “u” in did you?). That one was less impressive, but still fascinating.

Not much I can add, really, so I’ll do so through pictures:

Voroneţ monastery in all its finery. It wasn't very sunny, I'm afraid, otherwise you might get a better impression of the vibrant colours

Plato and Aristotle, not characters often featured in biblical texts, but important because they were seen as vital pieces of the European (and hence Christian) tradition

One whole wall of the church is given over to this epic mural showing this kind of red chasm running between the people who've made it into heaven on the left and those who haven't on the right. Here we see Moses attempting to persuade the Jews ands the Turks over that line. Not very PC I'm afraid

Not quite sure exactly what is going on here, but I think that little white bloke emerging from the child's mouth (you may need to click on the picture to be able to see him) is supposed to be his soul

Here we see the signs of the zodiac. Apparently these monks/priests/whoever were not averse to throwing in any other superstition that came to mind. Or perhaps it was just a ruse to keep the punters coming. Yes, yes yes, we'll save your souls and tell you your horoscope. Two for the price of one.

A more modern hand painted mural in the village of Voroneţ. Wonder if this one will last quite as long?

Train travel in Romania

You may be wondering why, after a short silence, I posted two things yesterday within about ten minutes of each other. This is because I was stuck on the train journey from hell, and had lots of time to write blog posts. Bucharest to Miercurea Ciuc is approximately 250kms. Yesterday by train it took me 12 hours from getting on a train in Bucharest's Gara de Nord to stepping off the train in Csikszereda station. That's not terribly fast. I am a pretty even tempered person, but towards the end of this marathon I felt like I was about to explode (not helped by the fact that the train I was on was like an oven, and nobody would let me open a window since the biggest fear of any Romanian is that of drafts. If a future president wants to whip up support for an invasion of Moldova or somewhere, he or she would only need to imply that the government of that country were planning on exposing Romanians to cold drafts of air, perhaps by installing fans on the border. Forget WMDs.

Anyway some tips about travelling on trains in Romania

Different train types: There are a number of different types of trains in Romania. The lowest level is the "P" which stands (amusingly) for "personal" These trains are old, rickety, and stop everywhere - even in the middle of fields in the middle of nowhere. Above this are the trains marked "A" on the timetable - Accelerat. Slightly faster than Personals (they only stop at every second hut), they actually appear to be dying out to be replaced by ever increasing number of "R" trains - Rapid. These trains are often actually very new and modern stock. Clean, fast-ish, and with fully functional heating/air conditioning, many people will rave about the "blue arrow" for example, as being the evidence that Romania (and the CFR) has entered the 21st century. You should be careful though - these modern trains have absolutely no leg room and have obviously been designed for amputees or 4-year old children. Anyone taller than 5 foot/1.5 metres will find their journey to be painfully uncomfortable. On arrival you will need at lest 20 minutes of exercises in order to be able to fully uncurl your body. The Personal trains, despite other drawbacks are much more comfortable. Finally there is the Intercity "IC" trains, which combine the best bits of the rapids (fast, clean, functioning systems) with the advantages of the personals (legroom and comfortable seats). Sadly there are very few such trains, and there is a corresponding price hike for such things.

Heating on trains: You will quickly become aware that in winter the trains are seriously overheated (and in summer they're just hot anyway). The heating is cranked up to the max (actually that implies that there are settings beyond "on" and "off" which I suspect there aren't), and you will sweat buckets. You will of course want to open a window. This will either prove impossible (since most of them apparently don't open) or will create huge problems (as everyone will complain). Romanians hate cold air, or drafts of any kind. Take a look at old people in the winter and you will often note that they have cotton wool in their ears as a further barrier to the evils of drafts (or of hearing anything). Opening a train window is like standing up in the carriage and saying that you a paedophile. Erika tells me that this is because people were cold and shivering for so many years under Ceausescu that they cannot forget and would rather swelter in stinking trains than be reminded of that time by feeling a breath of air. Which actually seems quite logical, although even young people who cannot possibly remember that time do it too.

(By the way, on our summer holidays I worked out what the British equivalent to the fear of cold is - it's the fear of too much sun. While I was panicking around Paula, making she had sunscreen on and trying to keep her in the shade for a while so she didn't get sunstroke, everybody else was relaxing without a care. If I dared to take her out without a hat in a temperature of 15 degrees though, I'd be lynched on the street by concerned mothers. I can safely say though that the British fear of sun is not brought about by too much of it)

Getting up when it is your stop: You will notice that people stand up and put their coats on and take their luggage to the door of the train about 10 or 15 minutes prior to the arrival of the train in their station. I have no idea why, but rest assured you do not need to do the same. If people want to stand by the door, with their coats on (in the sauna like conditions) that's their business.

Platform/Train incompatibility: You will often notice that the vertical distance between the train and the platform (if there is a platform at all) is quite large, and will necessitate some climbing skills to get in, and an abseiling rope to get out. On Wednesday when I arrived in Bucharest this was reversed and we had to climb up out of the train. Here you can endear yourself to people by offering assistance. The elderly in particular will need to have some aid in getting up and down.

Tickets: I've noticed recently that people seem more and more to be buying tickets and not "discreetly" slipping the ticket inspector a small bribe instead. I don't know whether there's been some kind of crackdown. For Rapid and Intercity trains you will need to have a seat reservation.

Dangers: I'm told that theft is quite common on trains, and you have to be alert. I have to say I've never actually experienced this, but I'm told it's true, so take this with whatever pinch of salt you need. Sitting near the door of the train, with your bags on the luggage rack is reckoned to be the biggest danger - the thieves get on, grab your bag and jump off just as the train sets off.

Other annoyances: Trains stop for no apparent reason in the middle of nowhere for ages, and you never get any info. This is often because much of the network is single track only, and there are certain places where trains pass each other. If you are on time and the train coming the other way is late, you have to wait until it comes. Thus creating a knock on effect around the system. In this way, trains are very often late. Personal trains are particularly susceptible to this since the thinking appears to be that if you are happy to take a personal you are happy to sit around for ever in a field somewhere.

Remember, despite how I felt last night at about 10pm when I had been travelling for 11 hours, CFR does not actually stand for Complete Fucking Rubbish.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Airports of Europe

Over the course of the last couple of years I have been “fortunate” enough to experience some of Europe’s major airports and thought I should probably compare and contrast them. If you ever have to change planes somewhere in Europe and have any choice about where to do so, this could come in handy. Also if you are involved in any way in airport design or improvement, you could do worse than visiting the first couple of places on this list. The list below is in rough ranking order.

Munich – clean, organised, efficient, well laid out, easy to find your way around, generally a very good airport, with every major facility you could wish for (bar one – there’s no free wi-fi access, which is a feature of a couple of other airports – if they added that it would be a clear winner) 9 out of 10

Vienna – excellent in nearly all regards. And, unlike Munich it has free wi-fi access all over the airport, which is a brilliant idea (see also Istanbul). It has only one major failing – when you enter the departure area you don’t go through any security check, just passport control. This obviously makes your passage into that area much easier, but obviously you still have to go through security somewhere. So at every gate they have a single security machine and set of guards. Of course nobody actually goes to the gate until the flight is called, so when that happens, the entire plane load of people are forced to get into one massive queue to go through security at the same time. It’s a ridiculous system. I have no idea whose brilliant idea it was, but they need to be made to fly in and out of the airport every day until the realise how bloody stupid it is. 8.5 out of 10

Istanbul – free wi-fi, fairly good selection of things to do. But some rubbish features too – the same gate-based security checks, which for whatever reason also involve you switching on your laptop when you pass through – this is the only airport other than those wankers at Tel Aviv that asks you to do this. It’s a pain in the arse. The business lounge is a bit rubbish too, though they’ve recently done it up a bit, so it’s slightly better. 7 out of 10

Prague – some good shops, fairly easy to find your way around. Inoffensive. 6 out of 10

Charles de Gaulle – Bit of a mess really, but a nice building, with very good use of natural light. Not brilliant by any stretch. 4.5 out of 10

Bucharest (Otopeni) – On the plus side, the business lounge is very good. On the minus side, the rest of the airport is pretty bare and functional. Nothing to do to while away the time, and the most overpriced snack bar of any airport in Europe (not in European terms, but in Romanian – charging 10 RON for a cup of coffee is disgusting, frankly, and is the kind of captive-market rip-off that most other airports have thankfully now abandoned). One day, hopefully Henri Coanda will too, but they’ll probably wait for prices in the country as a whole to reach airport levels, rather than daring to reduce theirs. 3.5 out of 10

Barcelona El Prat – great name, rubbish airport. Basically a huge shopping centre, that has planes leaving from it. Nowhere to sit, unfriendly staff, overpriced food/drink. 3 out of 10

Heathrow – Terminals 1-2-3 are horrible. Lots of shops (obviously, this being shopping leisure paradise England™), but always being renovated, uncomfortable, confusing and unhelpful. Terminal 4, to be fair is much better and would probably get a 6 out of 10. The lower the number of terminal the worse the experience. They also have this ridiculous system of calling the gate for the flight only half an hour before it is due to leave, so that the passengers have to then walk for 10 minutes plus to their gate, and thus obviously ensuring that no plane ever leaves on time. 3 out of 10

Amsterdam – I seem to remember a time when Schiphol was viewed as an ultra modern, very good airport. I don’t know when that was, but I’ve always hated it. Uncomfortable, nothing to do, very inhospitable. 2.5 out of 10

Frankfurt – Not just because of my wine theft experience, but because it’s awful – badly designed, ill-signposted, chaotic, dark, dingy and depressing. Everything that Munich is, Frankfurt isn’t. 2 out of 10

Milan Malpensa – God, where to begin. Just an utter utter mess. I can’t think of a single positive thing to say about it. You can see mountains from it. That’s the best I can do. Oh, and it’s better than Moscow. 1 out of 10

Moscow – miserable horrible dark and dank. These are just some of the words I associate with the place. Add to the general ambience the legendary surliness of Russian service staff, magnified to the nth degree by the grimy and inhospitable surroundings. Urrgghh. 0 out of 10

(Outside Europe bonus airport – Dubai. Like Amsterdam there was a time that Dubai airport was seen as the future of airports. Like Amsterdam, if it had better days, they are long gone. Utterly chaotic and overcrowded. 3 out of 10)

Murder in Samarkand

Some months ago, I read “Murder in Samarkand” which is former British Ambassador Craig Murray’s account of his time in Uzbekistan, his fights against the appalling human rights of the country, and as the book progresses of his fights with the British government who were desperate to get rid of him as he was upsetting Washington’s cozy relationship with the Uzbek regime. I was gripped by the first half (or two thirds ) of the book which melds travelogue, expose of the appalling Karimov regime, and insights into the internal workings of the foreign and commonwealth office, but found myself less enthused by the last third which was mostly about the efforts to get him fired by the Blair government, and was not so much my cup of tea (not that I disbelieved it, obviously Blair and Straw et al are as corrupt and useless as any government Britain has ever had). But on my return from Tashkent, I’ve re-read it with the benefit of a deal more context (I actually wanted to take it with me and read it there, but I feared it would be found at customs and cause difficulties), and now find the whole book riveting (though not what one would call enjoyable, as the content is so distressing).

I think the reason for my initial reaction was that I felt the Karimov regime with its torture, murder, rape and general brutality was much more deserving of attention than what amounted to internal FCO machinations to sack someone they didn’t like. But now, I feel both stories are worth telling and I’m glad he does. Murray is pretty blunt and honest about his own failings as well as everything else, and while at times he doesn’t come across as an especially likeable bloke, he doesn’t try to hide any of that and his book is much more powerful as a result. The weight of the evidence presented in the book and on his website, certainly makes it clear that the UK government acted appallingly and pathetically, while the documentation of some of the hideous crimes of the Uzbekistan government is really important. Anyway, I recommend anyone read it who wants to get a sense of what Uzbekistan is all about, what kind of system it labours under, and what the wider geopolitical implications of the “war on terror” are.

Apparently, the relationship between Karimov and the US has cooled somewhat since the book, mostly it seems because the US dared to make vague criticisms of the government after they massacred hundreds of people during a protest in Andijan. These days, outside interests seem to be mainly Turkish and Russian, though I was supposed to be going there in April and my visa was denied – clearance “coincidentally” only coming through in a week when the EU (at the instigation of Germany, who seem to love Karimov) had relaxed some of its post Andijan sanctions.

Anyway, buy the book. If for no other reason than Murray deserves some form of income after the way he has been fucked over by his employer, the British government.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Blame Denmark

Toys and games tend to have these labels on them saying things like "Not suitable for children under 3", and the like. Until yesterday, I assumed that the main reason for this advice/warning was to do with small pieces that could easily be swallowed. Paula, though, grew out of the sticking everything in her mouth phase some months ago, so I imagined that that, at least, probably wouldn't be much of a problem, as long as we kept an eye on her. Sharp things we obviously keep out of the way, but she likes playing with some of Bogi's toys, which, of course, are not technically for the under threes.

One of her favourite things to play with is Lego. Yesterday afternoon, for example, while she was with me, she expressed a desire to play Lego. "Andy," she said (like Bart calls Homer Homer, Paula calls me Andy most of the time), "Andy, Legozunk" (There is no noun that cannot be verbised in Hungarian. Hence 'Legozunk' which means, roughly, "Let's Lego"). Anyway, I got the Lego down, and we sat down together to legozni. This isn't Duplo or one of those other pre-lego lego things, but real normal lego. While she started to busy herself sticking blocks together, I was making a small plane for her.

Suddenly, in the middle of my deep concentration at the effort of putting together some small plastic blocks, she piped up, "Andy. Lego!" and pointed to her nose. As I know her nose is not made of lego, and knowing also that she is fully aware of that fact, I panicked thinking perhaps she'd stuck some lego up her nose. I put her head back and looked, but couldn't see anything. But something was obviously bothering her. I had her blow her nose, in the hope that if there was something up there, she'd easily get it out. Nothing. But she kept telling me that it tickled. So off we went to the nose hospital. They do cater for more than just noses, dealing with ears and throats too, but it was the nose bit that was of interest to us. We met Erika and Bogi outside the front entrance, and went inside.

I'll gloss over the next bit, but at the end of a session of screaming and crying, the nurse had removed not one, not two, but three small bits of lego. So that's why they say some toys are not suitable for children under three. Who knew that they'd want to experiment with pushing small objects right up inside their nose? Well, when I say "who" knew, obviously many people knew. In fact I suspect I was the only one who didn't. I've already heard from numerous people since this incident "Oh, yes, when I was young I stuck a bean up there"; "My brother got a tic-tac up his nose"; "...peanut..."; "...beads..."; "...pumpkin seed..."; "...copy of 'War and Peace'..."; "...The Hanging Gardens of Babylon..."; etc. etc.

Anyway the lego has now been put out of sight in a box on the highest shelf in the house. It may return to the regular shelves in about two years.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


...with a slightly-lingual-in-two-languages toddler(is there a word for that?)

Paula (at shelves, arms stretching up to show need for something out of reach): Apuka! [Dad] Puzzle!
Me: You want me to get you a puzzle?
Paula (nodding furiously): Igen! [Yes]
Me: Would you like the big puzzle or the small puzzle?
Paula: Igen!
Me (patiently): The big one or the small one?
Paula (still nodding furiously): Igen! Igen!
Me: Would you like the b-i-g puzzle or the s-m-a-l-l puzzle?
Paula: Igen!
(pause, light of understanding begins to dawn in her eyes, looks at me, and says very slowly and deliberately, as if to an idiot) Yes.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Election news

Excellent news in Sunday's European parliament elections, with both Vadim Tudor's bunch of far right extremists and Gigi Becali's even nuttier bunch failing to get enough votes to get into Strasbourg. Turnout was pretty low, except amongst Hungarians it seems, who turned out in enough numbers to support both the UDMR list and "reformed bishop" Tőkés László (standing as an indepedent) in enough numbers to get them both representation. In Csikszereda, the figures showed that Tőkés actually did slightly better than the UDMR in the towns, but was outvoted in the outlying villages, which might have some significance (Tőkés tends to be somewhat more nationalist in his rhetoric than the UDMR).

Anyway, it was a good result all round really. Vadim Tudor has even quit the leadership of the PRM, but he has done before, so I suspect his slimy loathesome presence has not entirely vanished from the Romanian political scene.

Monday, November 26, 2007


(The reason my promised comeback got put on hold for a few more days...)

I’ve just got back from Uzbekistan*, which is not a sentence I expect to be able to type very often. I spent most of my time there inside a large Turkish owned hotel, in which I lived, worked, and ate, which means that I can’t really make that many observations about the country, though I did manage to get out to Samarkand for a day at the end of the trip.

(*When I say "back", I'm currently writing this in Vienna airport between legs of a gruelling Tashkent-Moscow-Vienna-Bucharest flight plan.)

Uzbekistan, as you may be aware, is run by a particularly brutal dictator, noted, among other things, for his penchant for boiling people alive. I’m not sure he actually personally does that, or whether he delegates it, but it certainly seems to be a feature of the regime. It’s difficult being in such a place, because I always want to ask people how they feel about the government but realise that it’s perfectly possible that someone will be listening in somehow, and obviously I don’t want to put anyone in an awkward position. The few conversations along those lines I did have made it pretty clear that the upcoming presidential elections, which Karimov (the dictator) will win by a landslide, will not be in the least bit reflective of public opinion.

The BBC website is strangely inaccessible from Uzbekistan, but most others are available, including the Guardian, and, really bizarrely, - though maybe that’s still online there because it recently had to change its host server thanks to threats of legal actions from Alisher Usmanov, an Uzbek oligarch who has, shall we say, a murky past, and is now a major shareholder in Arsenal football club. If you haven’t followed the whole blogosphere vs Usmanov case, you can get an overview here, and a much more detailed account here.

The Uzbek Som (the currency) isn’t worth a great deal – coming in at 1300 to the US dollar (and bear in mind that the US dollar these days isn’t really worth the paper it’s printed on). That wouldn’t be much of an issue, but the problem lies in the fact hat the largest banknote is 1000 Som. So if you change, say, $50, you get this massive brick of cash wrapped in an elastic band. I’m told that until a couple of years ago the biggest bill was a 200 Som. A fellow consultant told me that two years ago she’d come to Tashkent for the first time and she and a mid-sized group of people (10-12) had been taken to a restaurant by their host, who had brought with him a box of photocopy paper, and surprisingly didn’t leave it in the car but brought it into the restaurant. It turned out, of course, that it didn’t contain photocopy paper at all, but was instead full of cash so that he could pay the bill.

Other observations in brief:

Uzbek is the only language in “the Stans” which is written in Roman script. They made the decision to switch from Cyrillic in the mid-nineties. Still, most things are written in both Uzbek and Russian anyway, so you can still get your fill of the enjoyable game of code-breaking Cyrillic script. It is a Turkic language, and sounds really really similar to Turkish.

I’m told that many of the men are working abroad (in Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey) most of the time, so when you go to a restaurant for lunch, for example, it’s notable how nearly all the customers are women.

They’re a very friendly and hospitable people, who would do anything to make you feel welcome. It’s also a really traditional society in many ways (though not really related to its nominal Islamic nature – the vast majority identify as Muslim, but do not practice the religion). People get married young and the family is still very strong.

It has a fair degree of ethnic mix – there are not only Uzbeks and inevitably Russians, but Tajiks, Turkmens, Kyrgyz, Tatars, Koreans, and I think in the south some Afghans. The Ferghana valley I the east of the country is shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and the border is quite possibly the most ridiculous one you’ll ever see, with enclaves all over the place. A legacy of the Soviets attempting to make sure of whatever it was they needed to make sure of. It was here, in the town of Andijan, where there was an uprising a few years ago that was brutally suppressed, Tiananmem style.

The hotel I was staying in was mostly populated with Koreans on business. One evening we were sitting in the lobby having a drink with some of our participants, some of whom had led pretty sheltered lives, when in walked...well lets call it a delegation of young female professionals. There were two youngish Korean guys there who were obviously the fixers, and after a large amount of to-ing and fro-ing, the young ladies disappeared into the lifts. A few minutes later, in walked another group, and the same procedure was followed. It was all very interesting from a kind of voyeuristic/journalistic standpoint. Shortly afterwards when I went up to my room, there was one woman still out there in the corridor, knocking at a door, presumably hoping to wake her assignment up. One of the things they had to hand over was a copy of their passport to the hotel - which presumably means this whole palaver is not only sanctioned by the hotel, but also by the state (since that is no doubt why the hotel makes this stipulation).

The contrast between arrival and departure at Tashkent international airport couldn't be greater. On arrival, the bus picked us up from the plane and drove us to the terminal at which point some passengers sprinted to the passport control. I soon realised why this was - because the "queue" to go through there was a massive melee of hellish proportions. Getting there first was definitely the way to go. For me, it made no difference as I needed to get my visa before I could even think about joining the passport scrum. So I, and 4 Qatari blokes had to hang around for over half an hour before some bloke actually bothered to come along and open up the visa desk. While I waited I chatted to my visa companions who turned out to be the FIFA appointed officials for the upcoming Uzbekistan v South Korea Olympic qualification football match. Eventually we got our visas, and joined the tail end of the passport queue . Once through there (which was a mere 20 or so minutes because most of our plane had already made it), we picked up our bags and joined the next set of elbows for the customs. My Qatari companions showed admirable restraint in not telling people who they were, in the hope that this would get them through faster - in their shoes I'd definitely have attempted to get some VIP treatment. The whole process eventually took two hours - and apparently this was a good day.

Departing from Tashkent (at least on business class) is another matter entirely. There is actually a separate part of the airport for business class passengers, so you do your paperwork with no queue, pass your bags through the machines with nobody else present and eventually end up in a special departure lounge. When the flight is called, you actually get on a separate bus from the economy plebs and are taken to the front steps of the plane, while the others have to go up the back. It's very odd. Mind you, I'm told to get out in the economy section you have to arrive 4 hours before your plane leaves. In short, the advice has to be - if you're flying out of Tashkent upgrade your ticket.

God, I've gone on a long time, and haven't even talked about Samarqand. That one will have to wait.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


(Winner of this year’s “Obscure-to-incomprehensible blog post title” award)

Malta is (to me) the most obscure country in Europe. Even places like Andorra or Belarus, Liechtenstein or Iceland, seem somewhat higher up in my consciousness than Malta. I didn’t even really know where it was (and I pride myself on my atlassic knowledge – if one can have atlassic knowledge, and not just encyclopaedic knowledge of atlases). I knew it was in the Mediterranean, that it was an island, and that it had some long standing links with Britain. Beyond that there really wasn’t much.

But it’s a pretty interesting place, with a very odd history. A country which for much of its existence was run by knights, which is a bit quixotic, I suppose. At one point in Malta’s history, Napoleon stopped off, ostensibly en route to somewhere else, and said he really needed a glass of water. The chivalrous knights, of course, invited him in, and he proceeded to annex them. Which, I have to say, is not the way I was brought up. Someone offers you their hospitality, and you don’t just take over their house and tell them to get lost.

Valletta, the capital, is an old city, which is a UNESCO thingamajig. It has an odd motto/branding slogan which is “A city built by gentlemen for gentlemen”. In the old days the word “gentlemen” meant “posh blokes” but these days it seems that it means “blokes who go to strip clubs”. I presume the gentlemen bit in the slogan refers to the knights rather than sex tourists. There is an even older capital than Valletta, though, which we visited on our brief tour – that is M’dina (which was pretty funky, though not particularly cold).

It is a small island, and it appears to be almost entirely built up. Certainly in the eastern end of the island in which we spent most of our time, it is basically impossible to ascertain where one “town” ends and another begins. It’s sort of an ancient European Singapore or Hong Kong, though the crumbling nature of some of the buildings and the ancient buses actually put one in mind of Havana at times. The national food appears to be rabbit, which is understandable since there is no real room to breed anything larger.

The language is fascinating – it’s like Arabic with the occasional Italian word (and English and French) thrown in. A typical sentence runs something like "Wahad ithnein allahu akhbar bonsoir habibi al quds grazie" (y'know, it sounds something like that anyway). The only Semitic language to be written in Roman script, I’m told. On the minus side, though, the island appears to be infested with right wing English pensioners, who apparently spend the whole winter there as it is cheaper to stay in a hotel with full board in Malta than to stay in the UK and heat your house. The other bonus, as far as they are concerned, is that Malta doesn’t have many immigrants in it (and I’m basing this on three separate overheard conversations, which is not exactly a huge sample size, but still pretty repugnant). The newspaper kiosks are filled with copies of the Mail and Express, which gives you an idea of the target market.

I’d do my usual “name 5 famous” routine, but I have to admit I’m struggling myself. There’s Michael Mifsud who plays up front for Coventry, and Tony Drago the mid-ranked snooker player, and after that, I can’t really think of any. Edward de Bono, apparently is one. That’s about it (as far as I know).

So there we are then, Malta in a nutshell. Or perhaps in a crispy chocolate coating. I had a good time, though my time was very limited and most of it was filled with the light honeycomb centre of work and stuff.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Buy this book

The one you can see here

Some of the early reviews (none of which are made up in any way):

"This is quite definitely the only and most exciting book I have ever read on the subject of Educational Management."

"I imagine Hollywood executives are, as we speak, fighting tooth and nail over the filming rights"

"I couldn't put it down. Though that may have something to do with this damned straightjacket"

"When the author asks, on page 101, "If the number of students per class is set at a maximum of 12, tuition is fixed at 75 per student, and all other variables remain the same, what number of students per class is needed to reach breakeven?" the reader is transported by the power of the words, the imagery conjured up, almost into the spreadsheet itself. I loved it."

(PS. Sorry I'm still not blogging that regularly. I'll do better in future. Promise)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Another oenophile terrorist thwarted

Something odd happened to me yesterday. Well, I say odd, but I am using the word highly euphemistically for "really really fucking annoying".

I was flying home from Malta (of which brief impressions will follow), and having not had a moment to do any shopping while there, I bought a couple of gifts at the airport (which also had the added benefit of using up my remaining Maltese coinage). A couple of books for Paula, a toy for Bogi, and a nice bottle of Maltese wine for me and Erika to enjoy. I then boarded my plane to Frankfurt (yes, the route from Malta to Bucharest was via Frankfurt, which is a bit off course to be honest, but since I once flew from Bucharest to Kiev via Amsterdam, it didn't feel that excessive).

In Frankfurt, I had a couple of hours to kill, and so wandered round the bit of the terminal that I was confined to for a while before sitting down to enjoy a delicious weissbier. I thought about seeing if I could find something more to do in an area of the airport outside Terminal 1B, but realised that I wouldn't be able to come back through the security line with a bottle of wine in my bag, given the current War on Liquids (TM). So, having consumed my tasty cloudy beverage I headed down to the gate for Bucharest. This is where things started to go wrong. Although I was in the same bit of the airport in which I had arrived (what I took to be the internal EU terminal) there, just for gate 56, was a security check. I knew there would be trouble. Each person I spoke too looked sadly at me as I explained that I had bought the wine in Malta airport and hadn't been anywhere outside any security zone since, but it was clear I was fighting a losing battle. I was eventually bumped up to the head honcho on duty who patiently explained again that I couldn't keep the wine. I, in turn, patiently explained for the 5th time that I had bought the wine in the airport and that I was (after all) travelling within the EU, but he wouldn't be budged. Even when I managed to locate the receipt which stated clearly the time, date, and location where the wine had been bought it was still not possible. I asked him why it was that there was a security check at this particular gate, and how one could possibly buy wine in the aiprort and not have it brutally stolen from one by officious jobsworth anti-terrorism consultants. He was unable to answer either question. In the end, resigned to losing my wine, I told him to please take it home and drink it since somebody at least would get the benefit from it. He told me that too was against the rules, and it would have to be thrown away. What a ridiculous mad fucking waste. It wasn't especially expensive, but it's just the principle of the thing. The really upsetting thing was that I had even considered this anti-liquidist policy when I purchased it but reasoned that it couldn't possibly be a problem.

Anyway, I am left with two questions:

1. Why, in the EU bit of Frankfurt airport, is the only gate which has a security gate that which is being used for a flight to Bucharest? Romania is, after all, just as much an EU country as Germany, and ought not to be discriminated against. It is clear that they always put the Bucharest flight through this system, since my gate had been told to me when I'd checked in - in Malta about 7 hours before the Frankfurt - Bucharest flight took off - and nothing had been changed. I am, to say the least, suspicious of the reasons.
2. Why, despite all the evidence that seems to be out there suggesting that constructing a bomb on a plane using liquids mixed together in the bogs is utterly impossible, is there still this stupid War on Liquids? Is it (a) because the powers that be want to make sure we go through life living in fear, looking nervously over our shoulders at people swigging from a bottle of water or carrying some shower gel?; or (b) because the people who own the retail outlets in airport terminals who are raking in the cash from the sales of overpriced water and other beverages are onto a nice little earner and have successfully lobbied for this rule not to be rescinded? I can see no other possibility bar these two.

"Odd" indeed.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


I have let this blog lie fallow for long enough now. I feel the ground has been replenished, and the nutrients returned to this previously barren land. Or alternatively, sitting in Munich airport as I am at the moment, I have a bit of spare time on my hands, and thought I could productively fill it by typing in some rubbish on here.

So, let’s wrap up this interminable holiday ramble which I began months ago, and which is news that is so old that it should be called olds. (Ha! I bet no-one’s made that gag before. It’s kind of Rodney Dangerfield/Jimmy Tarbuck level. Maybe I could sell it to one of them, if they weren’t dead. Is Tarby dead yet? No? Pity.)

We eventually made it to Slovenia, or Slovenija as seems to be the more right on spelling, after much much travelling (see previous post). We had rented a cottage in a small village called Bodonci, which is not far from the town of Murska Sobota in the far north east corner of the country (my father in law informed me that it, too, like Csíkszereda, was part of old Hungary – or “Big Hungary” if you prefer the slightly more nationalistic version. Murska Sobota is Mura Szombat in Hungarian, which means that it is – just like Csíkszereda – named after a day of the week. The parallels were pretty damned spooky already. However, if I’ve now whetted your appetite for me, you’re about to be pretty disappointed as I don’t think there are any).

The cottage was very excellent, having been set up specifically for families with children to visit by a Brit couple who moved over there and set up a business doing well, just what I’ve described really. You can, if you so wish, find their website here.

My mum and dad came over to complete the picture, with me driving up to Graz to pick them up (and at the end of the week dropping them off at Maribor airport). Inter-parental-generation communication was limited language wise, but everybody seemed to get on very well.

Bodonci is in a national park which uniquely (the literature implied) spans the borders of three countries – Slovenia, Austria and Hungary. I can’t tell you what it was called for I have forgotten, and I am not 100% sure if you can describe a national park that is simultaneously in three countries actually as a national park, but there you go. A tri-national park? A Euro-park? Parc-a-Trois? I dunno. Anyway, it’s very nice indeed, with lots of rolling hills and attractive if not spectacular scenery. The house was stocked with a selection of bikes and this seems to be the most popular leisure pursuit in the area. Not too far away is the very nice town of Ptuj, which despite apparently being named after the noise made by someone spitting (yes, it is pronounced how it looks like it should be), is extremely attractive.

Anyway, we had a very good time – a completely different kind of holiday to the first week in Croatia, but equally enjoyable. I’d tell you more, but I’m struggling to recall the details having actually experienced it so long ago.

Finally, we drove up to Budapest via the north shore of Lake Balaton and spent a couple of nights there, before making the long trek home. While in Pest (for we were there, on the less fashionable side of the river) we visited a “Vegetarian festival” which initially I was pleasantly surprised actually existed, and then when we got there I remembered what vegetarianism typically is in continental Europe – kind of a crackpot cult, which means that vegetarians (it is assumed) are also likely to be interested in buying mood altering crystals or having their auras read. Still, I guess it’s a start.

Finally: Tips for driving in Hungary

  1. There are good road signs but they are written in an appallingly difficult to read font.
  2. Most radio stations are named after famous Hungarians – the classical station is “Bartok”, there is one called “Kossuth” and another called “Petofi”. I was hoping there’d be a sports station called Puskas, but no. There is also one called Slager, which isn’t the name of a famous Hungarian, but is seemingly a German word meaning “Rubbish music from the 80s”
  3. Whereas in most countries the capital city features on a disproportionate number of road signs, in Hungary, apparently, all roads lead to Miskolc. I’ve no idea where Miskolc is (though it seems to be almost omnipresent) or what it is famous for, but every road sign seems to direct you there.

Now I have to fly to Malta, so I will return anon, but hopefully significantly sooner than I have left this place of late.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Viva Zapada

It is snowing. It has been snowing since before we woke up. So far today (October 21st, let us not forget) we've had more snow in Csikszereda than we did in the entirety of last winter. I'm never really keen on heavy snowfall before the leaves have all fallen off the trees.

I have the strong sense that this winter is going to be a brutal one. If El Nino meant an easy, mild, and snow free winter, I suspect his sister will herald a hard, cold, and precipitous one. Balls.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007


I have been busy which is the reason why this blog has seen nothing but lots of tumbleweed spinning across it for an extended period. Since I'm freelance, this is a good thing, but I do miss the actual writing every now and then (I still compose blog posts in my head while I do other things, but they're now all stacked up and mixed together).

However, I do have the time to mention this shop which has opened up round the back of our flat. It advertises "English clothes" with the names of various English clothes shops on the outside (Next, Marks and Spencers, etc etc), and the note "second hand clothes from England". What's particularly interesting about this shop (since nothing I've told you so far is), is the business model it uses. You see they get a load of these second hand clothes in over the weekend, stick them all in bins all round the shop and then sell them for 11Lei per kilo. On Monday. Then on Tuesday the price drops to 9 Lei/kg. On Wednesday it's 7, Thursday is 5 and Friday it's 3. So if you want the pick of the stuff you have to go on Monday and pay more, and if you just don't care you can pay next to nothing on a Friday. No idea what happens on Saturday when the shop is closed. I hope they give what's left to charity, but I fear that they just send it on to another shop somewhere else in Romania to go through the system again (I'm fairly sure that this shop is not unique to Csikszereda).

We went in once (on a Monday), just to have a look, and it was mayhem, but the clothes were pretty pants. And I don't mean that literally. They also hadn't seemingly been washed at all, which meant rooting through the bins was even less appealing than it might normally have been. What really intrigues me is where they get the clothes from in the UK. Are they just stuff that has been left over after jumble sales, or stuff that has been given to charity, or do Oxfam shops clear out their shelves after a while and sell truckloads of clothes to this company for them to drive across Europe and flog to the Romanian public? I'd love to know. I really hope that there isn't someone making a tidy profit on what people have given away for charity, but some part of me fears this is the case.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A long day's journey into night

Leaving Brela was not quite the smooth easy drive that getting there had been (despite the end-of-trip diversion). The second week of our holiday was to be in a small village in N-E Slovenia, which on the map seemed like a not unreasonable drive, sort of 6 hours up the motorway, by the look of it. We started out just before 7am, and headed back on to the motorway (easily this time) and started going up the coast. The first hour or so was plain driving until we got diverted off the motorway before the first big tunnel as they had opened it up in both directions for traffic going in the opposite direction (this could have been our first clue that things were not going to be as easy as we would have liked). It didn't seem like a big imposition though as we had intended to exit a couple of exits further on to visit Plitvicke Lakes national park. This just meant a slightly longer way around to them.

So we rolled on up to the national park, and found somewhere to stop in the vast and rambling car park that seemed to go on for miles, and to already (it was about 11) be packed full of vehicles. An extended hike from there to the front entrance ensued, with maps and signs informing us that there were various option to see the park - involving a kind of bus-cum-train, walking and boats. The shortest of these was advertised as taking 2-3 hours which seemed to fit our schedule fairly well, so we took it. The amount of info was fairly limited though, and after we'd bought our tickets, we got on a brain (or trus, take your pick of portmanteau words) and headed up into the lake area. We weren't really sure what to do, but got off with everyone else at what appeared to be the end of the line. From there the signs indicated that the next stage was a walk. So off we set, walking among the beautiful green lakes and waterfalls of the national park. And we walked and we walked and we walked. Some pictures what I took:

So, anyway, the problem here was not the lakes, which as you can see were well worth seeing, but the fact that we had to walk so far, taking hours over often uneven and rocky paths to get to the end of the section. Not a problem for most people, in truth, but (a) we were pushing Paula in a pushchair, which didn't quite suit the terrain, and (b) my father-in-law fell out of a walnut tree a few months ago and is still not exactly as mobile as he once was. The lack of warning and information in advance was, then, a bit of a pain. Still, a nice place for able bodied visitors who don't need to push anything.

Eventually then we set back off on our way, a little later than expected, but expecting to get to the house in Slovenia by sunset-ish. Hah. Little had we figured with the vagaries of the Croatian highway authorities. First we hit a ridiculously slow traffic jam on the motorway to Zagreb, which turned out to be just so that everyone could pay the toll. I still don't really understand this one as there were something upward of 10 toll-booths for three lanes of traffic, which you'd expect to work relatively efficiently. No such luck. 1 hour to go ten kilometres. In some countries you need to pay a kind of "motorway tax" when you arrive if you want to use the motorways - Hungary is one such place - whereby you pay the tax for X days, stick a sticker in your window and off you go. It's a little bit irritating (I always thought) but it certainly avoids this kind of chaos.

So, we eventually got round Zagreb and set off on the motorway towards Maribor. Smooth driving for the first 50km or so, and then we get directed off the motorway (at the humorously named Krapina) and onto what in the UK would be called, oddly, a trunk road. A few kilometres later and we were directed off the trunk road and onto this back country lane. Things weren't looking up. We joined a queue of traffic (which to be honest was not so much a queue as a long parking lot)

[An aside: One of my favourite US/British misunderstandings story was of an American friend of a friend who was driving round England in a rented car and stopped to ask someone where he could park. The conversation went like this - American:Is there a lot around here? Bemused local: A lot of what?]

I tuned into the radio (one of the Croatian radio stations does hourly traffic bulletins in English and German), and discovered that as much as I could ascertain (the idea is a good one, the translation a bit lacking) the Croatian police/customs/border guards had decided that the border post we were headed for was too busy, so with impressive logic, they had closed it. So every vehicle headed towards Maribor (which also included cars going towards Austria, Germany and beyond) was now parked on this back road inching towards an unknown border post in some tiny village in the middle of nowhere. I'd characterise it as less than fun. We took 3 hours to crawl three kilometres to the village of Lupinjak (Look it up on a map, you won't find it. That's how small and inconsequential it is). Still, there are not that many people who can say they've seen Lupinjak (aside from anyone traveling north on Saturday August 18th 2007), but I and my family, have. It's a shame really, as we'd had a great time in Croatia, but the authorities seemed to want us to have misery and annoyance as our lasting memory of the country. The Israelis do the same thing, subjecting you to the 4 hour plus exit policy specifically designed to ensure that you never darken their doorstep again.

Once through the border, we then of course had to find our way back towards the direction we were supposed to be going. This involved some little Slovenian back road over a mountain which was kind of daunting by that time (at some point on this leg of the journey my right eye started to behave oddly, seemingly unable to focus on anything but the road ahead - if I looked at the radio or something it went haywire. And my neck was killing me). We got stopped once by the police, but perhaps interpreting my twitching eye as an unlikely come on he let us off whatever it was he'd stopped us for (driving a Romanian car in a built up area, I think).

We finally made it to our destination - a cottage in the village of Bodonci in the far north east corner of Slovenia - at about 1.30. Over 18 hours after we had set off the previous morning. Luckily the key was under the mat and we could let ourselves in and crash (though I did find the time and energy to sink a deliciously cold beer which I had been promising myself since about 5pm).

Slovenia and the second week of our holiday to follow.