Wednesday, September 27, 2006

All over Germany

Was in Germany for a few days, for a family party and to meet the Girlfriend (went well). The birthday queen was 90 and full of life and fun. In her speech she talked all the time about the fun she had had in all her life, even though she also faced some difficult periods. About 30 /40 guests, ranging from 30 to more than 90. Long evening in a restaurant, including speeches, a magician, fireworks and a sketch based on "dinner for one" with the birthday queen and her nearest people being very well represented by two of her relatives. "Dinner for one" is a German TV programme which runs at Christmas every year. It is about an old lady and her butler celebrating Christmas; all her relatives have died and the butler has to represent them all - giving and drinking a toast for each of them in each course of the 5 course meal. Inevitably, he gets very drunk.....It is supposed to be set in the UK, but is a totally German programme. Very funny.

The night before going to Germany was at home briefly and found an invitation for the premiere of the British film 'Elizabeth'; an event run by the Lithuanian Euro MP Margarita STARKEVIČIŪTĖ to celebrate the cultural cooperation between the UK and Lithuania. I thought this was the film about the current Queen and her annus horribilis, but in fact it was the film made in Lithuania in June 2005 about the first Elizabeth. Confusingly in both films both Elizabeths are played by Helen Mirren. Reception went well; it seems our MEP is an academic who has done research into differences in cultural funding between UK (and other European countries) and Lithuania. It needs to be mentioned, though, that with governments like we have had in the UK for the last almost 30 years there have been few politicians with any interest in matters cultural.

Anyway, the film was.... very very long; in total it lasts 3.5 hours. We left after the first half (seeing I had to get up at 4.30 am the following morning) which seemed to have told all that there needs to be told. The queen was portrayed as a very spirited lady, though also with a sense of what one should and should not do as a queen which sometimes exceeded her political considerations. Patrick Malahide was in the film; I did not recognise him (probably because I thought the name belonged to another actor's face). There were quite a few funny moments, but by the time we had been through the Queen's lovelife (chapter 1), her relationship with Queen Mary of Scots, and the Armada this seemed to cover all necessary facts. It was a bit odd knowing that the film had been entirely made in Lithuania, so one tended to look out for bits of Lithuania. Apparently 13500 square (metres/feet?) of set had been built in Lithuania, and knowing this, the sets did not entirely properly represent the UK buildings that they were meant to be. Sometimes the sets meant to be in the far distance were smaller than other things in the foreground, eg where people were rowing about in a lake and the boats were well out of proportion with the buildings behind. However, not everyone might notice this, and for a costume drama it was a pleasant enough film. Good for a history lesson or three.

On the Sunday in Iserlohn went to the final concert of the 'Herbsttage fuer Musik' in the local theatre. The Hagen Symphony Orchestra played, first the Magic Flute Overture and the Brahms 2nd symphony; later after the rehearsal the music school orchestra played, very carefully, Saint Saenss' 'Carnival of the Animals' with the soloists Antony and Joseph Paratore from the US. Joseph has an amazing resemblance to Harpo Marx. They were rather hampered by the caution of the orchestra, but came fully into their own when performing with the Hagen Orchestra Poulenc's Concerto for two pianos (d-minor); the impression was that it was 'their' piece. Finally they performed a piece of Jazz music, by special request apparently - did not go as jazzy as it might have been, perhaps also because they played from sheet music.

In the evening to Dortmund to hear Mihaela Ursuleasa (a website still under construction) play the piano in the Konzerthaus. This was part of a series of concerts in honour of Shostakovich's 100th birthday. She played stunningly. She has a particularly calm way of playing, very far from histrionics. Started Beeethoven's variations on the Eroica Symphony awesomely quietly and calmly; she made the Steinway sound almost like a hammerklavier. (Not sure the Steinway was in the best of health). This was followed by 14 of the 24 Shostakovich 24 preludes. I think these are based on the same principle that Bach also wrote 24 preludes, ie going through each major and minor key. It was interesting to hear how much more different types of music were available to Shostakovich than to Bach, eg waltzes and other dances (but perhaps Bach's were also based on dances, of his period). A very enjoyable work. Finally she played Mussorgsky's 'Pictures of an Exhibition'. To reply to the standing ovation she picked up a theme from the Shostakovich Viola Sonata (thank you, Mihaela) which briefly quotes a Beethoven piano sonata (and other Beethoven pieces) and she played this piece in an extremely calm and controlled manner; very beautifully.

Other participants in this mini-festival included Julian Rachlin and Itamar Golan (both born in Vilnius and emigrated as babies), and Julian's partner from the NL, Janine Jansen, but we did not hear them. Outside met an acquaintance who on being asked how he was told us all about his cancer, and that he did not expect to live till Christmas. The treatments seem to be giving him hell and so he is not sure whether he really wants to 'fight'. Is on some sort of experimental treatment; presumably the others are not considered to be effective for him.

On Monday to Berlin Friedrichshain which is continuing to come up; went again to the beautiful restaurant 'Schneeweiss', and were able to eat outside. The place was quite busy for a Monday night. On the Tuesday we went to an Italian restaurant in Kopernikusstr in Friedrichshain (or it might have been at the beginning of Wuehlischstr, on the side nearer the river). A very tiny restaurant, slightly pricy for the neighbourhood and Italian food, but very exquisite, too. The menu was very short, but had something for everyone. It was entirely in Italian, so the padrone explained it to us. The three of us first shared an assortment of starters (for two people, meaning that of some items there were only two); then individual main courses, and then an assortment of sweets, two of which contained coconut (not my favourite). We had a wine called primitivo something which was very nice, and served in rather a special way, whereby the first tasting shot was swilled through all three glasses, a bit like preheating a teapot.

After Tuesday being a bit of a shopping day, Wednesday was spent getting food for dinner that evening, and a trip to the Martin Gropius Bau to see an exhibition of contemporary French painting since 1972. Very interesting it was, too. Mostly very huge paintings, often borrowed from official French government buildings, and both figurative and abstract paintings. I preferred the calm abstract ones, such as Genevieve Asse's Atlantique (half light blue, half darker blue, not like the one in the link). Also Sylvie Fachon's blue painting with a series of connected red do-nuts in the bottom half (looked a bit like a map of the roundabouts going round East Kilbride). There was Gottfried Honegger's painting consisting of a series of brown stripes (he makes very beautiful sculptures, too!); someone else had done a series of 66 black squares arranged round a room in three rows (have lost my notes of the exhibition), another person had made some picture frames which could then be painted in the colour of the walls of the room which they hung on. Incidentally I was very surprised by the ornateness of the Gropius Bau, which I had expected to be rather Bauhaus. However it seems that Martin Gropius is an older Gropius, having died in 1880. Walter Gropius of Bauhaus fame was born in 1883.

Then on to the Neue Nationalgalerie to see an exhibition of Berlin and Tokyo and the artistic links between the two cities. Very interesting, particularly the contemporary part. The exhibition looked back to about 1900 - it is clear that there were links between the cities; when in Berlin it was the Dada movement, in Tokyo it was the Mavo movement, both countries had happenings during the happening period and so on. Rather interesting upstairs was the exhibition architecture, where they had built with wood something like a Japanese garden with small hillocks. One of the most interesting displays was like a little house made of sheets on which was printed the story of pet architecture. This is the kind of architecture where people squeeze into the tiniest and awkwardest of spaces a building; for example an estate agent who had a space 1 metre wide; a build supplier who had his business on a place where a road forked into two (perfect for storing long building supplies objects) or small shacks for the homeless (made by themselves) which represented in miniature all that not homeless people aspire to. Very interesting.

Dinner with friends in the evening, and home this morning.


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Wednesday already?

Wow, what happened? a couple of minutes ago it was Saturday....

So, Sunday, and the Kiev Hash. Due to start at 2, and I thought I would be back in time for the opera, but....People only started drifting in at 2 pm... took till about 2.45 to get going; then a long way with the underground, started running about 3.30 - 3 people ran, including myself, the other about 27 walked, very slowly....

Then there was a shashlik, way out in the woods. Of course shashliks take forever to get going, too - first you need to burn the wood down to cinders. The down-down also took ages... at 5.30 the beer had run out, so I took a lift to the nearest village to get some beer. Thought I would get a taxi from there, but no taxis to be had. Back into the forest for plan B, to call a taxi to pick me up from someone's granny's house. Plan B failed - no taxis on that side of the river. Sooooo, another foreigner and I got fed up and walked with a young Ukrainian couple to the street, to hitch back....luckily we found a marshrutka which took as along a long, bumpy road (after all that beer) to the metro station, from there home on the metro, belted out from the metro to the flat, changed clothes and rushed to the opera - and caught the second and third act. Manon Lescaut. I am not the greatest Puccini fan, but there we are. My friend with the opera glasses told me that Manon was sung by a well middle-aged lady. The performance was very traditional. There were lots of people in the audience, all wearing some orange - a political fundraiser? No, it was a crowd of friends from the US whose dress code it was for the evening. Whatever turns people on.

Interesting the lady selling the drinks in the interval. Both intervals we were ripped off, either by being short-changed or by being overcharged. 'Tis the lady on the ground floor on the left side of the auditorium. Obviously foreigners have a purpose in life, for her.

Next few days at work. Tuesday night a concert in the Filharmonija with the Lisenko string quartet (the state string quartet) and a Japanese pianist, Daisuke Tori, playing Mozart string quartets, piano quartet and a piano concerto. It was 'all right' - nothing to set the heather alight. Elderly quartet, no fire, and not much inspiration either. Felt a bit sorry for the pianist. Might have left after the first half, if I had not had friends with me.

In the meantime Hungary is rioting, exactly 50 years after the Hungarian revolution, such as it was. Due to a rather dim prime minister. Will he go? Thailand seems to have had a bloodless coup while the prime minister was out of the country. Will corrupt potentates of small states ever learn that they cannot afford to leave the country if they want to stay in power? Pope seems to now also have insulted the Jews.


Saturday, September 16, 2006

shlepping round Kyiv

Another Saturday in Kiev. Finished off some work in the morning and felt great when it was done. Then went off for a walk, to the supermarket in Podil to pick up the a few things for the last few days in Kiev. Took a stroll along Sahaidachnogo street in Podil, which is lined with cafes and restaurants and even has a Laura Ashley shop. Very nice street; then in the opposite direction along the river to the supermarket, got milk, juice, water etc - not that much, but since I usually use the backpack for such purchases, and this time only had the supermarket plastic bag, it was a bit heavy. Became much heavier because I had the idea that I might pick up a sushi for dinner, and maybe even pop into the Repriza cafe on the way home. Did not have a map with me but could roughly work out which way to go to get to the Yakitoria....

And very roughly it was, too - a long way out of the way at the river level, then up a very steep hill, and finally back towards the restaurant - a very very long slog. At the start of the walk I had thought that having a sushi and a cake would be a bit indulgent, but by the end indulgence was seriously required. Finally got to the restaurant, picked up a mega sushi to take home, then a lovely plum cheese cake in the Repriza and then home to put those very very weary feet up. Total hike of about 8 km, 5 or 6 of which with heavy shopping bag. Forgot to get another opera ticket for one of Helene's friends. Not sure that I really need to go to my hash tomorrow. Then again, it was lucky I was not wearing my new shoes - but I would never have got very far.

Glad to see on TV that the Oktoberfest is opened; watched the magic moment when the Munich Oberbuergermeister had to open a barrel of beer. Mr Stoiber was also there with his wife - no Bavarian politician could afford to miss this. The pope has sort of apologized to the muslims for using a 14th century quote. At least one senior Muslim cleric has said that it would be more useful for them to react rationally rather than emotionally. Let's hope someone listens to this.

After all that effort time for a total flake out at home. Watched 'La Gloire de mon pere' on DVD - what a wonderful film it is. What is it with these French films that they are so enjoyable? Is it the relaxed atmosphere, the beautiful environments and people, the relaxed meals?


Friday, September 15, 2006

Expensive Concert in Kiev

Tonight the next concert in the Virtuoso Planet series, in Kiev's stunning opera house. Tickets extremely expensive, 250 UAH, about 40 Euros - probably a third of the monthly minimum wage. Before the first half the hall looked quite bare, especially in the expensive front row. So slipped from the side of the second row to the centre of the front row. Found the same orchestra before me, the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine. First soloist was Clement Saunier of France playing the Hummel concerto. Orchestra was rather large for this, but they coped. Saunier could have been a bit smoother; he's not a Nagariakov, but he played competently enough - got the impression he was a bit bored with the piece. He was followed by Marie-Elisabeth Hecker of Germany, aged 18 or 19, playing the Shostakovich cello concerto. She has a passing resemblance to Ms Du Pre, and gave it all she had. The second movement was quite haunting; the first could have been played a tiny, tiny bit dirtier but really, it was a very very good performance. There was a bit of a strange audience; applause in the wrong place (only businessmen can afford the ticket prices), and in particular some guy high up in the gods applauding long after everyone had finished, and shouting 'bravo' into the silence. The conductor gave him several of his glares, but it took some time for the guy to stop...

In the second half the hall had suddenly filled up; not sure if they had come from upstairs, or from outside. The front row was suddenly filled by a bunch of very smart young men one of whom was carrying a bible. Hmm. I sat down on one of only two free seats (after the row had been empty for the whole first half of the concert) - the back of the seat was taken by the jacket of the guy behind me. He asked if I could move; I suggested he move his jacket, which he did. A young American conductor called Solshenitsyn conducted Shostakovich's 10 symphony. Very good, with lots of energy, and driving his way through the piece. This time the audience had mysteriously got it about not applauding between movements. Very strange.

Just now in the flat, watching on Arte (French) a film about the Kenneth Noye road rage incident. Must be 15 years ago, and was the first major road rage incident. Came into the film late, but it only took about 4 minutes to work out what it was about; something about the policeman in the British uniform, the range rover and an old guy attacking a young guy immediately brought that story to mind. I expect the incidence of road rage murders is much higher in Eastern Europe, what with life seeming to be cheaper, more drink, more drugs....


Thursday, September 14, 2006

Another night, another concert...

First night of the 'Virtuosi Planet' concert series in Kiev. Sponsored by no less than UNESCO, and the world music festival association, together with JVC. The series is part of a deal giving young prizewinners opportunities to give concerts. Old people don't play virtuoso concertos, mostly....

So it was a long evening, Paganini violin No1, Beethoven piano 4, Mozart Clarinet concerto and Tchaikovsky violin concerto (which I missed). Yukie Manuela Janke, described as Japan, but I think she and her violinist brother are German, gave a very powerful performance of the Paganini; every note in the right place. The middle movement could have been a bit more 'schmaltzy'. Paganini really is not good at writing music for orchestras, is he? A bit like Bashmet, except Bashmet gets other people to write music for him, and as for his virtuosic abilities.... He does play Paganini, but only a very slow and careful piece. Not sure that he would cope with the sonata for the gran viola.

After that a Chinese pianist Rachel Choun Vay Chin (transliterated from Chinese into Ukrainian and into English), looked 12, was in fact only 15 and played the Beethoven fourth very nicely; again, there could have been more softness, more lyricism than there was.

Finally for me Olivier Pater, France, with a seemingly very long clarinet (or am I usually not as close as that to the stage); a beautiful rendition of the Mozart clarinet concerto. Occasionally the sound was a little rough (instrument trouble) and it felt as if the orchestra was not giving its best. The cellos in particular seemed to be struggling with sound quality, as did the violins with togetherness. But Mozart is always hard. I tried to identify the place where, whilst playing the first violin part in a concert, I enjoyed the clarinettist's playing so much that I forgot to continue playing the orchestra part.


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

race you to the end!

First concert of the autumn today - wow, I have missed them. It was the Kiev Chamber orchestra in the Kiev Filharmonia. This has just received fine new carpets which are very soft to walk on. In addition the staff have new uniforms, maybe the first ever uniforms, and very fine they are too - the ladies have navy blue capes with a little gold coat of arms, and the men have rather smart black chinese collared jackets. Both are good for having extra layers of clothes underneath in the winter. Geez, it's something when you recognise the changes in concert halls not in your home city.

So anyway, the concert was sponsored by the Italian Cultural Institute in Kiev, headed up by a Professor ...Balloni (? - these Italians, are they all professors?); a very fine-looking gentleman not seeming old enough to be a professor. Music was Italian, of course. Started with Paganini's variations on a theme by Rossini adapted for strings and soloist. The soloist, Valentin Zhuk, not a minute below sixty, did amazingly well in this piece played only on the g-string! My wrist hurt just looking at him! Then 'Chrysantheme' by Puccini, a song (poem) with string orchestra by Respighi, and finally the four seasons by Vivaldi, with the same soloist. He played very calmly, gentlemanly, though there were moments when he was a bit hasty. The slow movements were a wee bitty on the fast side; in the fast moments he and the orchestra were racing each other. The continuo cellist was nice, but not as nice as Dainius of the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra. But a real tour de force, and an astonishing effort.

Unfortunately I knew no-one there, so no opportunity to gatecrash any parties. Chatted to a couple of Ukrainian ladies, who asked if I worked there and whether I would step up and sing there. Me???

Weather still beautiful and should be better. Productivity a bit doubtful at the moment; had a meeting today from which I expected a great deal more. Was not really in my control, though.


Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Another project success!

Now working on my other project today we had the proud moment of handing over 400,000 Euros worth of equipment to the social services departments of one region of Ukraine, including also the overall ministry. This included cars, minivans, computers, furniture etc.

Busy press conference - the Governor of Kiev Oblast was there, as was a senior representative of the Ministry. Some searching questions like 'why, if you have all this money, do you give equipment to the officials. isn't it easier just to give the money to the children?' One social worker stood up and said that now that they had the car, it was much easier for them to visit people's homes across her raion - a distance of up to 42 km. So these cars improve efficiency, and also could help prevent the admission of children into expensive institutions, if intervention and help is provided early enough. Plus small goods can be distributed with the cars etc. Anyway, a nice success for the EU and our Kiev Oblast partners. It is not easy getting it right when distributing EU funding; there are endless hoops to be gone through in terms of paperwork, and some projects fail in using all the EU funding available.
Tony Blair got a 23 second polite handclap today at the TUC conference, and some people walked out on him. Good for them.


Saturday, September 09, 2006

a normal Saturday in Kyiv

A beautiful day. Dry and relatively sunny. Almost a total day of leisure, apart from finishing a report. Should have done a bit more on another report, but that'll keep till tomorrow.

In the morning hiked to another supermarket, www.furshet.ua. Same chain as the very posh one I used earlier this week, but this is for more normal people and not so much for foreigners. Seems to work on the principle - cram as many goods as you can together, as closely together, make it unpleasant for the customers, supervise the customers, and get them out of the door. Very tight aisles; goods stacked to the ceiling (about 5 m high), fairly grubby. Has a huge range of goods, however, decent-looking meat, fairly good vegetables (though it's more fun to buy them in the market), and now I have almost everything I need for the duration. Even had some Walker's shortbread! Back home on the metro; not too busy thankfully - had some concerns about being robbed, but in my carriage there was no such danger.

Popped out of the metro at the wrong end of the Maidan, Europa Square, and found myself close to an anti-gay demonstration. Very poor attendance, thankfully - maybe it was too early in the day, and not many people were around anyway. A bit further on were some soldiers practicing their goose-stepping, but I am not sure what for.

A further stroll out later in the day, to buy concert and opera tickets, found myself in B. Khmelnitskovo street looking at a bookshop which seems to serve as a cafe and foreign book exchange. Highly rated in Kiev in your pocket; maybe the food is good, but the books were the kind you'd leave behind when you move to another posting. In the same street, almost exactly opposite the German embassy, spotted another branch of the cafe 'Repriza' with the scrumptious cakes - I see they know a good marketing opportunity when they see one.

Strolled along Khreshchatik, on the way to the Filharmonija and popped into Tsum, the central universal store, of which there is one in each of the former Soviet capitals. The one in Moscow is so posh that normal people cannot afford it, and even most foreigners cannot afford it. Hugely tarted up all gleaming chrome, uniformed doormen, etc. The one in Vilnius is fairly ordinary; not the highest class of shopping centre, though renovated beyond recognition a few years ago. The one in Kiev does not seem to have been touched, bar a lick of paint, since independence, though at least the shelves are full. Contains lots of little businesses, including some stuck in unexpected little places. One of these was a cosmetics stall in the stair, which also seemed to sell wigs. The wig, on second sight, turned out to be the immobile head of the stallholder just above her counter; she herself was deeply immersed in a book she was reading.

The Pope is in Germany; all German TV is full of it. Apparently he is going to be there all week, and will visit all the places where he lived and worked (all are in Bavaria). That's something to look forward to, then.


Friday, September 08, 2006

Fished out!

So far, in Kiev/Kyiv, I have been here since Monday and had sushi 6 times this week. Going out for dinner tonight - hmmm, let's see what's available. I wonder, though, if all that soy sauce is good for you?

Discovered some gorgeous prepared tomato sauces made by an Italian firm called 'Barillo'. Comes in a jar, seems to contain no artificial preservatives, flavourings etc - the variety with basil went extremely well with some dinky little chicken livers I came across in the Bessarabsky market. So I have bought some more jars - between pasta with tomato sauce etc, and sushi I should have a fairly well-balanced diet while I am here. In Bessarabsky market also discovered some stalls which made some very delicate stuffed auberine rolls (possibly stuffed with nuts). When I heard the price, 15 hrivna - about 2.5 Euros - I turned my nose up and stalked off, but perhaps one can have these one day for a treat.

Also today discovered a fantastic cafe, Repriza on Artema street, which certainly had a 'Shvarzvald' cake to die for; the others looked fantastic, too. I see the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has an interest in it http://www.ebrd.com/new/stories/2006/060120.htm. Glad they are spending their money on the important things in life. Also it seems that the chief pastry cook has learnt her trade in Bulgaria; sounds like Bulgaria is definitely worth a trip. The cafe is on the way home from my office, except that from next week my office will be in another location; far from Repriza and far from the Yakitoria. I know where the Yakitorias are; wonder whether there is another Repriza near the centre.

Letter in the Times today http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,59-2347795,00.html (will I ever learn how to do those direct hyperlinks?) signed by very senior musicians, outlining the dangers of the current airline carry-on policies to musical life in London. Since many musicians cannot carry on their valuable instruments, especially string instruments, as hand luggage, many soloists especially find life quite hard. Orchestras have huge boxes for their instruments, soloists have the chance to fly into London since other countries are not as paranoid about hand luggage (what is the point, after all, of all that checking at airports), but it's probably better to leave via the chunnel and fly from Paris or Brussels. This will add to travelling time and of course costs. So people like Sir Colin Davis have written a letter to the times to point this out. I hope someone will listen; but our government is not so good at that...

Music will start in Kyiv next week. Had I looked at the opera programme a bit earlier, I could have gone to see a ballet based on Mozart's Figaro last night; seems that it will not be on again during my current stay. There are also some interesting concerts; no startling new repertoire, but at least there are concerts. Next week there is a very brief festival of international virtuosos (the acrobats of the music world).

Weather today is warmer. Should rain tomorrow but after that it should be a nice week. Hope so.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

In Kyiv (Kiev, Ukrainian spelling) for a couple of weeks. Have a nice flat this time (most times really), very near the town centre. Nearish the supermarket (about 1 km) and yet far enough to get exercise going there and back, especially when weighed down with heavy shopping. The Bessarabian market (old style) is next to it, and very nice, too. Beautiful displays of fruit and vegetables, lots of caviar for the foreigners and so on. Today prices seemed to be reasonably normal, given also the quality of the food. Maybe marginally higher than in Vilnius, but I have seen the quality of tomatoes in Vilnius recently.

In the flat the TV has the same programmes as in Lithuania - maybe a few fewer, but seeing I am going to Rwanda next month, it won't do me any harm to watch arte (www.arte-tv.de) in French instead of in German.

Met my friend Helene yesterday which was nice; earlier in the year we bumped into each other in the concert hall here (we know each other from Lithuania). All good fun. Helene is working on energy, I am on social stuff.

News today is that in the UK 7 junior ministers have resigned after signing a letter asking Blair to resign. He is not, so far, and spluttering about this letter saying that it is disloyal and discourteous. Mr Blair, you always talk about listening - we have always known that you don't listen (see Iraq), and it seems you will never learn to listen either. (Wasting my breath here).

This week my office is very close to the Yakitoria in Kiev (www.yakitoria.com.ua). It's a chain of Japanese restaurants which exists both in Moscow and in Kiev. The Yakitoria introduced me to sushi and I have never looked back. I nearly always eat the same meals, a mixture of different types of sushi and nigri and all those things. So far in 3 days I have had four portions of sushi, including one humungous one on my first day. I introduced my co-worker to the yakitoria, and she loves it, too. One of the soups there has a total of 11 calories. Unfortunately next week I have to work in another location, but I'll probably live. There is another type of sushi restaurant not far from my flat; two different ones in fact. Once I tried sushi from the supermarket in Vilnius, and it was fairly disgusting. I don't like to make it with raw fish at home, but smoked fish is fine, as well as shrimps and all that sort of thing.

Yesterday I tried to email a posting to the blog, but it does not seem to have arrived. Since I have also been experimenting with email programmes on my scandisk cruzer (a memory stick with 2 GB of memory, and an ability to run its own programmes) and failed on that one, it's lost. The world will probably continue to turn.


Sunday, September 03, 2006

I should really expand on the comment about 'perfectly ordinary dysfunctional families' that I used yesterday. That may sound a bit shocking to some, but when you have worked in the social sector as I have you see such families every day. It's the same reaction I have to Vikram Seth's book 'Two lives' about his Indian uncle and the uncle's Jewish German wife. Seth, having grown up in Germany and not having been steeped in the catastrophic history of the holocaust is very shocked by it, as probably he should be. For those of us who have grown up with that history, or been affected by it, unfortunately it holds no more appalling surprises.

This book by Seth has been criticized quite a bit as a story about a one-armed dentist. To some degree Seth seems to have been scratching round a bit for information, because there are large gaps in the sequence of events (and in any case, the lives of this couple may have continued in a rather unremarkable way, once they got married). Seth also spends much time doing deep thinking about German and European history - this pads the book, but many Europeans have already done their deep thinking about this (I hope). Interesting that Heine is his favourite German poet (though after finding out about the holocaust, Seth is revulsed by anything German for a while. I can understand that). Having said that, Heine is in effect two poets - one who wrote beautiful romantic poetry (Lorelei), and another who wrote quite biting satire (is that the right word?) about Germany. 'Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht, so bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht'. Indeed. Or 'Ich hatte einst/ ein schoenes Vaterland' (implying that he has no longer).

Anyway, Seth's book does have some of his little funny bits, like some of his novels, but generally it is a much straighter line of narrative. The places where he contemplates European history seem to be used to add complexity where none is really needed. It's a very readable book, though. Not sure that the aunt's letters needed to be quoted at quite such length.


Saturday, September 02, 2006

As a regular reader of two particular blogs, www.jessicamusic.blogspot.com, and also vilniushhh.blogspot.com I find it very odd that when I access my own blog, there are no new messages - and I have to put them in myself!

So, I have just finished reading in German A.L. Kennedy's 'So am I glad'. I am sure the title is a quotation of something...biblical? religious hymnal (she would not dare to do that in Scotland, surely)? musical? It's a book about a young woman in Glasgow meeting up, and falling in love with, with a reincarnation of a rather high profile French person who lived a few hundred years ago. Can't say more than that without giving the story away. An interesting book, mixing past and present, though I also wonder whether it was not a rather nice opportunity to do lots of research in sunny France. The narrator describes her childhood as having been rather odd, and I wonder how Kennedy's parents felt about it all. It's very readable, and has lots of little funny moments, in a quite Scottish way. Previously I had come across only very brief bits of her writing and felt that she let her skill with words get in the way of what she was trying to say. But here the story chunters on and it is fairly unputdownable. Knowing the Glasgow scene and the little details of Scottish life, even though these are a bit backgroundish, helps a lot, I think. When I think of Jessica Duchen's 'Rite of Spring' set in Jewish families in middle-class London the difference is really, really striking. I am not sure if Kennedy's book could be an Aga saga (is there an urban equivalent of an Aga? - if they drive four-wheel cars all over London, maybe they have Agas too in urban London homes) in the same way that Jessica's book is. Jessica's book is much more accessible/identifiable in that it describes some perfectly ordinary dysfunctional families, and it is a light(ish) read, though compulsively unputdownable. Kennedy's main character is much less identifiable with but the book also describes a chunk of real Scottish life.
This is beginning to turn into a 'compare and contrast'..... The other nice bit about Jessica's book is that, what with Jessica Duchen being a very highclass music journo who has also studied music, is that the story line develops along the lines of the 'Rite of Spring' (the piece by Igor Stravinsky, Russian composer etc) and the action drives relentlessly forward to its conclusion, much like the music. Kennedy's book is paced very much more gently and the there are more options for the end until quite close before it.

Whenever I read a book in translation, particularly from English, I often try to work out how a particular sentence or expression would have sounded in English. Some translators are brilliant (but it's too late to go and look up books I read recently); this book is a bit so-so. It would have been interesting to know whether the Scottish dialogues were written in Scots or in English. Translated, the speakers all sound quite well spoken. Possibly not the most inspired translation I have read.

Now, the ultimate putdownable books that I have read recently, and many continue being put down, are the books by Orhan Pamuk; peace prize winner or not, they are extremely hard work. Due to luggage going missing on a recent trip I found myself on the way to Tajikistan without any reading materials, and found Orhan Pamuk as one of the few books available to me at Istanbul airport. I really did not need to buy that one, too.


Friday, September 01, 2006

1 September in Vilnius, and all throughout the former Soviet Union children are returning to school. Here it is a glorious sunny day. The town centre is full of very smart children (at least if they are younger), an increasing number of them in school uniform (see photo). Makes one feel quite nostalgic, especially the uniform that looks like an Edinburgh Academy uniform, with a reddish tartan tunic and navy blue jacket complete with coat of arms. I wonder how long into the school year the wearing of school uniforms will last? The older children are as everywhere good at subverting their uniforms, especially the girls and the shortnesses of their skirts. Note the total absence of school bags; today is not a working day, obviously. One teacher was already spotted weighed down with a huge bundle of flowers.

Blair today says that he wants to intervene in potentially difficult families' lives even before the births of the children, citing in particular teenage single mothers. How many of these are there, actually? While he may have a point, in that early intervention is not a bad thing, this does not do anything for civil liberties. Not all single parents are bad parents. The UK media are spluttering, not surprisingly. Total observation society. Orwell was right. People already refer to this as 'fasbos' - 'antisocial behaviour orders on foetuses'. Note the tea mug he is holding during his interview has his name on and states
'Anthony: Your refined inner voice drives your thoughts and deeds.
You're a man who's in charge, others follow your lead. You possess a
great depth and have a passionate mind. Others think you're
influential, ethical and kind'
Not entirely sure about influential these days and ethical. Kind? Who knows. Obviously someone in No 10 made a mistake in not censoring the mugs. Blair likes to present himself as the bloke next door who'll have a cup of tea with anyone.