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.