Monday, October 30, 2006

Big Ben - Big Profits!

The Big Ben supermarket in Tbilisi - you know who you are - is a supermarket for ex-pats; Georgians can hardly afford to shop there and while the quality of many goods is very high, such are the prices. Oddly, many products are from Germany, such as the finest sugar - but who would want to be 2.50 Euros for a kilo of (ok, caster) sugar, when nextdoor you can get it for 80 Eurocents. I was appalled after I did my first bit of shopping and found a bill of about 75 Euros! However, it does have some useful things such as environmentally friendly cleaning liquids etc.

If the prices are not high enough, there are other creepy ways of making a wee profit. In Tbilisi it is common that on the one hand there is a system of stock checking tills (where the operator enters a code and it shows the goods with their price), but the final till receipt comes from a separate machine into which the operator types the amount. Apart from the fact that the operator seems to type in the codes for the goods from memory (and the text is in Georgian, so only they know), today I found that for my bill of 15.35 I suddenly paid 17.35, as it said on the till receipt. The hoodlums!

The Big Ben had been at the bottom of my list of shopping venues already, once I had clocked their price differentials, but now.....nice one! Sans moi!


on on upwards and onwards!

The lady on the left (0 out of 10 for picture composition) gave me a bit of a supercilious look yesterday as I trotted (ok walked) past her. I did not care for that. Maybe she had seen it all before - indeed she had since I was the last of the running hashers.

Geeez, what a hash in Tbilisi! I have now hashed in four countries (unlike that Irish guy in Kiev who said he had hashed in 107 countries - show-off!), but this hash was seriously challenging.

Dushanbe - flat; Kiev - flat; Vilnius - a wee bitty of hill here and there (and the walkers are already whinging), but Tbilisi - we are talking vertical. The hash was advertised as being 'all downhill' (though, strictly speaking, how could it be seeing we returned to the same spot). As I might have mentioned before, Tbilisi is seriously hilly. For this hash we went by car half way up a hill, or so it seemed. Then we, the runners, climbed 3 km almost vertically (not many people really ran uphill) before corkscrewing back down for another 5 km. The walkers had another route, and got themselves lost. The views on top were stunning, overlooking it seems the whole of Tbilisi. On the top of the ridge we also saw some villages which really looked very alpine. The alpine touch was added to by the sound of cow bells (apart from the belle in this picture who did not have one) Note that I also had a 3km walk in each direction to and from the meeting point. So much exercise was taken.

Not only exercise, alas. The Tbilisi hash has a serious drink problem, in that almost the only drink there is beer, and very little alternative provision. Given that the down downs go on for ever, this is quite serious. The beer comes from the Kazbegi breweri and has a rather wheaten flavour. Why is it called 'wall beer'? Apparently the brewery has a place on one of its walls where beer is delivered by the petrol pump and you fill up your own containers (but apparently it also goes off quickly). This makes it very cheap - apart from the environmental impact of going there with your car etc.... Anyway, much beer was taken, and the walk home was more of a stagger; the night was a bit restless....lesson learnt, here!

And yes, I might have been the last of the hashers passing the coo on top of the hill, but I was not the last one to get back home - on a downhill stretch streaming nicely past a few others who had given up altogether!



One of my regular readers noted that it is difficult to print off this blog (this blog? It's more like verbal diarrhoea - but you will notice shorter paragraphs already) on account that the background colour was blue and her black and white printer printed everything black (there are printer settings that can be changed).

However, as ever responsive to my customers (one needs to practice what one teaches) I have now changed backgrounds etc, and I hope it is more readable. I must admit that I always prefer things with a lot of red in anyway, as those who know me can confirm.

Another reader had difficulties with adding comments; I tested this and found that you need to click right on the word 'comment', not on the little envelope to the right of it - that just allows you to forward my stories to other people.


Testing for a gas leak - the Georgian way

Today in the office there was a distinct whiff of gas from the gas heater beside my desk, especially with the windows closed. So the lads decided to investigate. Out came the matches... which were then run along the gas pipe to identify exactly the source of the leak. Nothing found (thankfully!). There was another gas pipe along the ceiling but the guys were to short to reach it with a match; so they lit an A4 sized piece of paper and ran it along the pipe. As one does.


Saturday, October 28, 2006

Housing in Georgia

....and my little friend, the dog with no name, who lives in my house and who is beginning not to go crazy every time I go out....


In the pink

Passing Freedom Square, a huge erection in pink reared up before my eyes! Closer inspection showed that it was the new statue of St George, actually covered in gold. At the moment it is sitting at the side of the square, but it will soon be put on top of the statue that has been erected in thd square. Mr President has done much to improve the visual environment in Tbilisi and to make life easier; hence the easy arrival at the airport, and statues and fountains all over Tbilisi. Nevertheless, a little remains to be done. He has also introduced a benefit for poor families which they did not have before, so he has done a lot of good.


Mr President, Sir!

Coming out of a supermarket I noticed that the street was fairly quiet, and there were lots of policemen about, all shouting rather excitedly. This looked interesting, and I lingered. Suddenly out of a side street came flying a cavalcade of about 9 cars; at the front and rear a police car, then at either end a four wheel drive with four guys carrying machine guns, then another car, then the president, and one or two other cars with heavy guys in them (they might just have been advisers). So much for approachability then and being a man of the people.

My Dutch friend Hans always tells me to give his regards to Sandra. Sandra is Mrs President and Dutch. Funnily enough, last week Mr President was in the Netherlands (visiting the inlaws?), and Hans' niece served him wine (Georgian wine?).



The mallets? The masseuse's hard fingertips on my body all over (snare drum); her fists hammering me all over (kettle drum), her flat hands slapping me hard all over (bongo) and her bony knuckles running up and down my ribs (xylophone). For a rubenesque lady this masseuse (different from last week) had surprisingly bony hands, and boy, did she use them. The condition 'glue ear' which young children used to be operated on (when the middle ear is filled with gunge) has found a new meaning - it's when you are lying face down on a stony bench, with one ear pressed against the tiles, someone presses hard on your back and a vacuum appears between your ear and the bench. At the end of all this she discharged me with a hearty slap on my rear! Thank goodness I am not totally thin yet.

Interestingly I tried another set of baths nextdoor first, but I fled when I heard the price of 35 lari (about 16 Euros) for an hour plus 10 for a massage. Maybe I misunderstood something and they wanted to put me in a private cabin, but what for. The one I will go to regularly is 13 lari for everything in a communal shower room - and we are all equally attractive....


Friday, October 27, 2006

Bread - or how to keep warm of an evening

'of an evening' is kind of a bookish phrase. The only living person I have heard it use is my friend Pat; otherwise it is in books which have been written a few years (a good few years) ago. I love this phrase - it has such an air of relaxation about it; 'perambulating of an evening', 'partaking of a wee tincture of an evening'.

Anyway, I digress. 'Tis Friday and apparently all the foreigners (hardly 'all') congregate at a hotel at the end of my road. I went past it on the way home tonight, and the place was full of four-wheel drive cars - did not really fancy it. Will meet many of them at the hash on Sunday anyway. Also had a 'deid lump of meat' (as Mrs Rab C Nesbitt said memorably about her husband's genitals) in the fridge, which needed to be dealt with.

So the first way of keeping warm of an evening is to cook a slow stew on the gas cooker. All the chopping and slicing works up a steam, and cooking it for an hour or more also helps. Must say though, that beef, pumpkin and aubergine does not make for an entirely happy combination. There is enough left of it now that it'll last for another 3 days.

The second way of keeping warm is to go to the baker's down the hill and returning. Bakers here seem to have a bit of a pole position in society. For a few days in the afternoon I had noticed people looking through a window at groundlevel watching people at work, and I wondered what it was all about. Today I discovered that it was the baker's shop. But not the one nearest me - though I had spotted an entrance in a house near my flat that had a painting of one of the interesting Georgian breads on it (like a frying pan with two handles). So while the stew was stewing I wandered off through the pitch black lanes towards this place. Across the entrance was a table; the shelves were bare, but in the shop two men were hard at work.

Georgian bread is not backed on shelves in ovens, but in something called a 'tone' (although that might also be the word for 'baker'), which is a bit like a tandoor - a large clay oven which sticks out of the floor and is quite wide. The dough is rolled out into an oval and stuck over a shape like a cushion; with that the baker throws himself into the oven, legs flying in the air, and sticks it to the oven wall. Obviously he would not wish to linger in that position. But they still seemed to have their eyebrows. A short while later the bread is done.

Since the oven is always open, the heat coming out of the baker's shop is quite considerable, and at this time of year it must be nice to live above such a baker. So when you get there, you get the bread straight out of the oven - and a piece of paper from an official document to stop you burning your fingers while you carry it. The taste is out of this world! Like French bread used to be. The baking and pastries here are generally very good, and usually hot. In some shops you get cut, wrapped bread but that is nothing like this stuff. The only problem is that it is so large (in Georgia one person families are not common).

Going home through the little alleys near my house, in the dark, is interesting. It is very quiet, very dark. There are hardly any cars in the street which is very roughly cobbled, and lots of little shops, about one every 5 houses. The houses are small, old, and have extensions stuck on everywhere, with external stairs all over the place. Much like the film 'Mon Oncle' where you would see M Hulot leaving his top floor flat via a variety of stairways and balconies. Must take photos.

Last night, at the Opera house, there was a premiere of two ballets, one called 'Conservatory' by the Dutch composer H S Paulli, and then one called 'Two Pigeons' which turned out to be choreographed by Frederick Ashton, and miles, miles better. But before there was a bit of a kerfuffle over the seats since I found other people sitting in my seat who would not move. Turned out in the end that there are two blocks of seats in the stalls, and my third row was in the rear block - albeit with the better view. It was a sell-out.

The stage settings were sumptious, very lovely painted 19th century rooms. The 'Conservatory' was very traditional - it was based on 1849 choreography; rather oddly it was paired with a couple of other pieces of dancing, a kind of horsey dance and a pas de deux. This gave the first half an odd shape - starting with a crowd scene and ending with that horsey dance and the pas de deux. When the crowd came back on the stage we expected them to dance, but in fact they were there to take their bows. It's rare that a ballet ends on a pas de deux - were they trying to pad that part of the programme out a little? The trouble with strictly classical ballet is, as the Lithuanian ballet could have told them, that it needs to be really precise and together. In this case there was a fair bit of wobbling in the back rows - and when the 'children' did their little bit in front of the ballerinas, the boys of the second row had a distinct five o'clock shadow. Maybe it is difficult here, too, to get boys to dance.

The piece by Ashton (which I did not know at the time) was vastly better; a story about a painter and the girl he is due to portray, and love falling apart and back together again. Very pleasant, and very funny. The quality of the dancing was much better here, as well as the choreography.

The audience was fairly noisy throughout. The orchestra was a bit thin sounding; instrument quality? The US ambassador was there, too; Johnny Tefft. He had been in Vilnius a few years ago. Also there was a group of German tourists of the Saga++ generation; some of them may have celebrated the jubilees of getting their first pension payment. I thought they were very enterprising - Tbilisi in the dark has many treacherous places to trip over.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

almost sorted

Now in my flat for almost three days, and things are falling into place. A few bits and pieces needed to be bought, but now I have a bedside light (important when an apartment is chilly and one does not want to climb out of bed to switch off the main light, and trail back in the dark!). Kitchen is also sorted, and I am sure the heating will go on soon. In Tbilisi 'central heating' seems to mean individual central heating rather than in the Russian and Lithuanian sense, where the municipality provides the heating. Alas, it is not individual enough for me to control it - the owner of the house controls it, I think. The apartment is north-facing (like mine in Vilnius) and with a big roof over the balcony does not get much sunshine. But I am sure in the spring and summer it will be just grand.

Internet now works in the apartment, too; TV selection is pretty poor, though I get TV5 Europe (a French channel) and the Russian channel 'Kultura' which is pretty good. Both should improve the relevant languages. In distant Tajikistan I get all the German channels...

Work is going very swimmingly, though today I got the first inkling of a wee bit of disagreement between different bodies about a certain aspect of the job. Thank goodness for that, otherwise there would be nothing left for us to do. Everyone is very nice and enthusiastic, and they are very cooperative which is great.

The Georgian language is difficult, though I am getting the hang of quite a bit of the alphabet now. The word for 'no' is 'ara', or for 'no no' it's 'arara', but when they say it the intonation does not sound like 'no!'. It's very weird. The word for 'yes' seems to be 'cho' ('ch' as in 'loch') or 'chay' ('ch' as in 'Charlie'; which, with a slight twist of pronounciation is Armenian for 'no'). 'Thank you', since you were asking, is 'gmadlobt'. Learning the alphabet is not hard when it comes to familiar words, like 'oktomberi' for 'october' but when it comes to words like 'gmadlobt' it's a totally different question.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

new flat!

Now in my new apartment. A huge flat of about 120 square metres, in a house between the French and Italian ambassador's residences. Their houses, sitting in the highest road of Tbilisi, are sticking up a few floors above the level of the road; my house, as it should be, is about 50 steep steps below the road. I have the whole top floor flat of the house, with a huge balcony overlooking Tbilisi - and in particular the newly built, huge Cathedral (Georgian orthodox religion) which is lit up like a birthday cake and dominates the whole skyline.

The flat is fully furnished, very fully furnished, and has all new kitchen equipment; though last night, celebrating my move in, a crucial piece of equipment was missing - a bottle opener! On the rear of the flat the mountain rises up, so there is not that much light. Nor is there on the front, due to the balcony roof, and the heavy curtains, but I hope I will be spending much time on the balcony next year. Maybe in the summer I will be grateful for it. At least the lighting in the flat is ok.

Went shopping last night for fruit and veg; my landlord guided me down the other exit from the property which goes immediately into a neighbourhood of very old and very poor housing, though bits of the road have been newly asphalted - in strips; I wonder who paid for that. I will definitely need a torch - I already have a key ring with a minimal torch, but a slightly more powerful piece of kit is needed.

After dinner I sat out on the balcony and read my book, eating some of the grapes hanging off the balcony roof. Very pleasant! This morning Tbilisi is wrapped in fog – so much for the view...


Sunday, October 22, 2006

Styx differently

A quiet day, spent the morning walking over to Vake and slowly back via my new flat. The flat is really in a wonderful location, though immediately below and to the right there is a right mogre of tumbling down houses. Would not like to go along there at night and need to work out the best way to get to and from the concert halls, where there is light on the roads. At least my entrance is watched by the guard of the French or Italian ambassador's house.

The number of wee shops in Tbilisi is amazing; in the street I am staying in at the moment there must be 10 shops, including three cornershops on one crossroads, all selling much the same thing. Somewhere else I walked past there was a basement baker's shop which was a great source of interest to some Tbilisi folk who had their noses pressed against the large picture window.

Tonight I went along to the theatre to see the 'play' 'Styx' by Gia Kancheli; generally it is about the river Styx and people on either side of it, dying in a myriad of ways. Actually it is a piece of music .... Kancheli's beautiful music (viola, choir, orchestra) was used in a recorded form, mostly, and now and again, in between other sound effects. The set was bare, containing 16 chairs, a fridge from which spilled sand, a gas cooker, 16 men, 7 women, all dressed in neutral colours. The 'play' began by the sixteen chairs being dragged across the stage, one at a time. There was much slow motion, in fact, a very great deal of slow motion. At one stage an omelette (two eggs) was cooked on the stage, and then the gas oven was used for the inevitable, in the context of 'Styx'. At another moment Charlie Chaplins 'Smile', in the Michael Jackson recording, was inserted which worked surprisingly well. It was a bit of a walking ballet, or a ballet without dancing.

Very interesting; there one thinks of Georgians of all fire and flame, and you get this quiet little performance (though the music was played at a level that was anything but quiet). It would be interesting to hear the real music performed by real Georgians (I am not sure whose recording was used). Apparently Kancheli lives in Antwerp now; the piece is actually a requiem for his parents and friends, and I wonder what he would have thought when the audience mostly left the theatre laughing, those who had not walked out earlier.


Saturday, October 21, 2006

decisions decisions

So this morning I went out to look at more flats. The first was right on top of the hill (trafficwise, the top of the hill is much much higher up). A flat in a building between the Italian and French ambassador's houses, below both of them, with a fantastic view over the whole of Tbilisi. The flat itself is large, the furniture is fairly ugly and there is too much of it, but there is a piano also and cable TV, not satellite...ah well, we survived that before. Nice people, a vine all over the balcony with grapes...

The next two flats were extremely dark. The first of these was almost nextdoor to the flat I had just seen, very cramped, inhabited by the people who were hoping to rent it out, lots of nooks and crannies, and not right for me. Then another flat near the sulphur baths - I was told the child was asleep upstairs, so looked round the downstairs first. Again very dark, very cluttered, with a balcony, though. After a while I went upstairs, the rooms were dark, with signs of water spillage in the ceiling, darkened wallpaper - how does anyone hope to rent this out to foreigners for good money? Turned out that 'the child' was the son of the lady who looked a good 30 years old.

The last flat turned out to be the flat I had seen the day before, which I had quite liked. In a moment of enthusiasm, and thinking that seeing the same flat two days running is an omen, I said that I wanted to rent it. After that I had a look round the neighbourhood which is quite old. This flat's view, while wonderful in the distance, in the closer distance focuses rather on rusty tin roofs ..... It does have a lot going for it. In the neighbourhood are lots of little shops selling a limited range of food, fruit and veg, and a street with rather nice and expensive looking restaurants....

Anyway, then went for a walk all around the old town, and across the river to Old Metekhi church which was built in the 1270s. I assume it is of the Georgian faith, although just in that corner of Tbilisi, albeit on the other side of the river, there are in close neighbourhood of each Georgian churches, an Armenian church, a Synagogue, a Mosque and a Zoroastrian temple. It was obviously very old, and quite neglected, though the inside had been painted up to a level that can be reached by a man on a ladder. The visit needed a head scarf, and I had something suitable with me.

After wandering about a bit on the left bank, and almost drifting into a funeral by accident, and passing a young policeman with a very old looking machine gun (generally the police seem to be not too menacing here), I went back on the right bank and towards the folklore festival, which took place roughly on top of the sulphur baths. Tbilisi is a place with sulphur springs and a number of baths use these springs; the baths are generally underground, and little cupolas pop up all over the place. Anyway, I wandered along and looked at a rather nice tiled bathhouse, when I spotted some Europeans confused at the entrance. I listened to their conversation with the lady taking the entrance and decided to join them, in a remote sort of way. It soon became clear that they were going to go for private treatment, in a cabin (and there were none available). Then I found out that there was a place for everyone (the women; common changing room) and I went to that instead. So the procedure seemed to be that everyone went for a shower and serious, and endless, soaping down (I had not brought anything, so I pretended to soap myself down) - when trying to turn on my shower I accidentally turned the tap out of its socket, but managed to jam it back in again before anyone noticed.... Then I tried some doors until finally finding the sauna room which contained two women already. It was a dry room rather than a wet steamy sauna. To my surprise one of the ladies there asked if I wanted a massage (which I had paid for in advance). I was surprised because her work uniform was the same as my sauna uniform, ie nothing!

So off we went back into the shower room where I had to sit on a tiled shelf. I first got the peeling - with a rough glove and occasional buckets of warm water chucked over me, and then came the massage. In terms of massages, going on a line from a gentle stroking (0) to very painful (10) it was at about an 8. When the lady pressed down hard on my spine, at roughly breast level, I remembered that I had read about masseurs walking on the 'victim's' backs, and I started to worry. This did not happen, thankfully (it would have been really dangerous in terms of health and safety). But I never knew I had so many painful places on my legs!

After that I went back to the sauna for a bit before finally struggling out. My back has almost recovered now - but this might become a nice routine for future weekends.

When I got home I was thinking more and more about the flat I had chosen, and especially about the flat which I had not chosen. I did an option appraisal on both (one of those fancy management tools) and found that there was very little difference between both (if I was a government the one I had chosen would have been the better option, but I had always had the vision, when thinking about Georgia, of sitting on a balcony with vines of an evening). The fact that this flat also has a piano offers possibilities for evening activities, especially if the TV is only a cable TV. ....So I phoned the estate agent and told them I had changed my mind. I feel bad about this morning's lady, but it is better to change my mind now.... hope I won't regret it.


Singing and Dancing

Last night in the Marjanishvili Theatre for a performance of Brecht's 'Threepenny Opera'. A beautiful art deco building, it seems to have been renovated very recently. Like all Russian/Soviet era theatres it is easy to find your way around - the toilets and wardrobes are always in the basement. The theatre is quite small; it has about 300 seats in the stalls and maybe another 100 or 150 in the balcony.

Audience behaviour, at least in terms of arrival, seems different in Georgia compared to Armenia (based on the experience of one show). Whereas in Armenia 15 minutes after starting time people might begin to think of sitting down, in this theatre last night half the large doors into the auditorium were closed at 7 minutes before the show was due to start; two minutes later the main doors were closed, and people could only come in through the side doors... as they did, for some considerable period of time. The chatting, entering and leaving during the performance and the use of mobile phones, alas, are no different from Armenia.

So anyway; it was the play by Brecht, and while they did not use the music of Kurt Weill, they used the tunes happily and generously. It was a very zany production, much like a musical, and amongst other interesting artefacts included a camel that was lit up internally and whose eyes rolled in its head every time it was moved or touched. There was a great amount of singing and dancing throughout the show, and it was very funny. The costumes were great, too. (reading the summary just now on the net it is clear that indeed it is a very complicated piece of theatre, with many characters). Quite a few of the actors also played instruments quite well. The singing was a bit variable and I wondered if some of the actors used playback - the singing and the speaking voices did not always match. The performance lasted 3 hours and was definitely not boring, even though I had not a word of Georgian. At the end of the performance the two small children who had been noisy in the back stalls the whole evening were brought to the stage and joined their mother (a minor role) in the bows - this did rather detract the attention from the actors who had worked hard all evening; I wonder what they felt about this.

Spent some time yesterday looking for flats; saw quite a small one (strictly speaking, it has enough space) with a stunning view overlooking the fort and a large valley. It has interesting colouring, too - just feels a little cramped (though allegedly it has a larger square metrage than my smaller flat in Vilnius, which is quite adequate). Has gas, electric heating and a fireplace, so in some way or another one should be warm in winter, even if services are cut off. The other flat was larger, and will also be nice, but it has no view - though it is located more centrally. (I am told the first flat is in the French quarter, in old Tbilisi, and there are lots of cafes and things. Will explore later today, after I have looked at other flats....

The photo is of a street scene near my work in Vake, Tbilisi - a story of everyday working folk...


Thursday, October 19, 2006

sleepy in Tbilisi

Fourth day in Tbilisi. Rain stopped after two days; now it is sunny.

Hotel (Beaumonde) continues to be very nice; nice meals in the evening, same breakfast every morning. Since I am still slimming I am only nibbling at the food and I hope it will show some time!

Did some running yesterday morning; since I am staying on a steep slope I walked up and ran down and sideways. This morning walked to work; took a slightly scenic route and it took 50 minutes; could have done it in 10 minutes less. Also went 'over the top' with a very steep climb up and then walking down, rather further than necessary.

Yesterday tried to go to the theatre to an English play; passed one theatre which will have the Threepenny Opera on tomorrow (only the play); then took a wrong turn and missed the other theatre. Since the play is not well known and it started at 21.00 hrs anyway, it was no great loss - and a good little walk in the evening, followed by this mornings long walk. No wonder I am tired!

Work is continuing to be good. Weird working hours - from 10 am to 6 pm, though usually we finish at 7 pm. Now looking for a flat to rent for the next year to enable me to stay more cheaply and in my own space. Even if I am not here for some time it might be cheaper than a hotel stay.

Tbilisi looks lovely from above, though in the city it has a fairly neglected air, much like Yerevan. It is not as destroyed as Yerevan in terms of old buildings pulled down and new ones erected, though in other parts of the town there is plenty of new building. Electricity has failed twice this week already in our office; we have a generator on the balcony so it is not a great problem.

On the weekend we are absolutely not allowed to work according to EU rules so I will take time to walk/run around and have a good look at things and places. Unless I am moving house, of course. Also need to get ballet tickets for the ballet that is on next week; and might pick up a Georgia today newspaper to see what is happening.

Today the president of the state social insurance fund was arrested, together with some of his sidekicks. Apparently there was one employer who took on lots of pregnant women, took the state maternity benefit and forgot to pass it on to the ladies concerned. He was arrested a week ago, and now the head of the social insurance fund has fallen, too. When we went to a related organisation, security at the entrance was very tight indeed, though the media were let in quite easily.


Monday, October 16, 2006

Tbilisi in the dark

No, it's not a power cut, although that apparently is not unusual here.

Arrived last night, after a pleasant journey with Austrian Airlines via Vienna. Although I had been fasting most of last week, and was really trying to eat very little (having lost 3.3 kg in 6 days) I had to continue my Cafe Landtmann routine in Vienna. My heart nearly stopped when I saw the entrance boarded up, looking like a building site. Before I turned away disappointedly, though, I spotted a sign leading to the entrance round the corner - phew. Wuerstl were had and peppermint tea, in the interests of clean living.

Then off to the Musikverein for a concert with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the Concentus Musikus Vienna, and about 6 soloists. The concert was of secular Bach music, including two funny cantatas. Of course I could only stay for the first half...the plane did not wait. It had been difficult to book a ticket on the Musikverein website; although it offers the opportunity to buy your dream ticket, the system then breaks down, so I took pot luck and got an orchestra seat ticket which I thought would be good, only to find myself in the sixth row (with a few rows at the same level in front of me - sightline = 0). I saw some people stood up at the far back, and stepped out of my seat to join them, thinking I could hide a bit behind a statue. However, we were told to sit down - there happened to be an empty seat near me which, through a gap between heads, gave me a good opportunity to observe Mr Harnoncourt in action. His conducting style in this setting, tiny orchestra, small choir, was very sparse and he generally left his soloists to get on with it. The 'production' was very funny - I wondered though whether in some places the tempi could have been taking a little more quickly. The first cantata was one about Pan and someone else, BWV 211; very funny. Harnoncourt spent 20 minutes introducing the rather lengthy cantata, so by 20.30 I began to sweat and wonder whether I would have to rush off the stage in the Musikverein in order to catch the plane. Luckily this was not the case and I made it well.

Tbilisi airport is very easy to travel through; after Lithuania the easiest in the former Soviet Union. No forms to complete, luggage comes through quickly and so I got out very quickly; met by the driver David who had excellent English.

Off into the hotel which is on a little road right up from the Opera House (in which will be a ballet performance later this month). It is a private house with a large central well, off which rooms go in all directions. My room consists of a sitting room, a bedroom part, bathroom and access to a balcony. It is a bit think on the windows department; one set of windows goes out onto the central well, the other onto a rear courtyard. My bedroom has a wee strip of a window high under the ceiling - I suspect another building is built against the side of it. Breakfast and dinner is included and both seem to be very nice, very Georgian - but of course I am still dieting severely. At dinner there was a coffee pot full of wine on the table!

Work is ok; office is freezing - it is rainy and foggy outside and the heating is not yet on (I am not very optimistic on that anyway), so tomorrow it will be the warm winter clothes to wear which thankfully I brought along. Otherwise there will be plenty of work to do.

Impresion of Tbilisi - so far I have only seen it in the dark; got home at 7 pm in time for dinner...looks like there are some quite elegant places, and some posh shops and hotels. Need to investigate further. The Philharmonic orchestra building looks fairly deserted which is a shame. One theatre has a show of the Three penny opera (the play) on. Must find a way to get tickets.


Saturday, October 14, 2006


It seems that my flat is not the only one being rained into; also at least the flats on either side of me, so there is a serious push on to Do Something About The Roof. Two of us have plans for the roof space, but it depends on affordability....'nuff said.

Last night at the Kongresu Rumu for a concert of Hungarian music with the state symphony orchestra, the Hungarian conductor Tamas Gal, the Lithuanian pianist Gabrielius Alekna. Started with the Egmont Overture, played better than I had ever heard the Lithuanians play Beethoven - total togetherness, tension held throughout the piece - amazing stuff. Alekna then played the Bartok 2nd piano concerto in a rather introverted way, and his encore of one of Bartok's Romanian dances was pure Chopin. The piano concerto however was almost a concerto for piano and timpani, which in that orchestra is always nice - watching our Pavelas Giunteris. Here's a moment to discuss male concert appearance, having given the girls a hard time last week. Alekna is very tall, and extremely skinny, it seems - so skinny that you cannot see his eyes. His haircut and his very long grey jacket made him look like a youthful Oscar Wilde. Physically he does not seem to be made for the piano, but what can one do - basket ball?

The second half of the concert were Liszt's 'Mazeppa' and his 'Preludes', the latter one I had played - but they sounded quite different from a seat in the audience. I had the feeling our wind soloists in Hungary were better, but that could not have been said about the strings! Neither piece sounded particularly Hungarian from a music writing point of view. The orchestra played well, though perhaps relatively carefully. The conductor had fun, though!

The reason why it was a concert of Hungarian music (very rarely heard in Lithuania) was that it was the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising. We were rather startled to see the stage graced by a Hungarian flag with a hole in the middle - apparently this was to symbolize the first action by the Hungarians at the start of the uprising, when they cut the soviet symbol out of their then flag. Quite impressive, really, to have this on the stage.


Friday, October 13, 2006


A friend told me that the British Council Library had lots of interesting books on CD which might be loaded on an ipod and listened to. So I hared round to the BC offices, paid my annual subscription, about 13 Euros, and looked at the selection. Well, first of all much of the audio-stuff is in tape (I don't have a player) and the selection was, in terms of literary quality, slim. But nostalgia ruled the roost and I got a book by Alan Bennett (read by him, always a delight), a book by PG Wodehouse and Rumpole of the Bailey - about 10 CDs in total, so it should keep me entertained where it is too dark to read (but if Russia cuts of the electricity to Georgia, then I cannot charge up the ipod either...)

Heard this morning that we now have sufficient signatures to get the new windows in the stairs. Wow, a cleaning lady and new windows. We are coming up in the world! The guy who organised it works in the estate agents...


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Mozart at the Academy

Monday first went round to the seniunija to see about the leak in the roof. They said someone would come round, they would make a list of the work/costs involved and all residents would pay. Two hours later a ring at the door, a guy came in to look at the leak. Looking out from the balcony I spotted a huge truck with a crane (to reach the roof six floors above the street). As it happens, they did not need to use it. Two guys, one with a pot of putty-like material, went up into the loft and spent some time there. They said we would see next time it rains. Great.

In the evening a concert in the music academy of Mozart Sonatas, Quartets and other stuff. It was ok... a couple of professional played the sonatas, one of which was a bit scaredy-caty. The prof responsible for chamber music then did a nice rendition of a Mozart piece arranged for quartet and himself. Last time I had heard him play his nerves had taken off, but this time he was much better and he looked really happy whilst playing.

This morning a notice appeared in the stair about getting new windows put into the stairs. And about time too. Everyone needs to pay their share according to their apartment's square metreage. At least 51 percent of owners need to sign the form of agreement, that's 13 out of 24 owners. Will we get it?

Tuesday evening sorted the last bit of the other flat for the new tenants who really seem to like it and treat it as their home. They have been able to clean places that I thought were uncleanable. On my return home a guy in my stair was fixing his own cable TV. Hmmm...

..and right; on Wednesday morning my phone was off and the internet. Phoned Lietuvos Telecom who said someone would definitely come round and fix it today. By 15.30 no-one had come round; I phoned again. Apparently a member of my family had told them that it was fixed. Wrong! An hour later I phoned again and got slightly evasive answers, though also lots of apologies. The girls at the call centre clearly read from a script because they always finish by saying 'Aciu kad naudojates Lietuvos Telekomo paslaugas' (thank you that you are using our services). Anyway, I was going out for my run at 18.50 when I met an engineer in the stairs coming up to my flat. Right enough - the fault was where the neighbour had fixed their cable TV. Thankfully I don't have to pay for that.

Today, Thursday, 10 signatures for our windows in the morning. In the evening the very energetic neighbour who has taken charge of this is going round to the neighbours who have not yet signed. It's clear that it is mainly the neighbours in the top who would like the new windows. Some are also probably unable to pay their contribution, although they can pay over six months - but this is coming in together with the heating season; not the best of timing.

This evening in the opera house to see the Flying Dutchman; about the fourth time I have seen this wonderful production with lots of energy, though the Dutchman, whoever he was, was a bit flabby and lacking in said energy - it's the acrobats who have the energy (which acrobats? - ah, you need to see the performance!). I sat in my favourite seat, front row, seat 18, right behind the conductor's right shoulder; whenever an unknown character came on the stage I felt like tapping him on the shoulder and asking him 'who's that then'? No-one I knew was in the opera house, but lots of enthusiastic young people - though it was not sold out by far. I did notice, though, that the opera 'Pelene', a right Lithuanian story, was sold out for the Sunday performance which is mainly aimed at children. Great stuff!


Sunday, October 08, 2006

Style in London - final roundup

Now back from London. Flat in Vilnius is quite cold now (heating season not yet started); also the rain has come through into the bedroom (roof is not great). Had phoned the local authority people a week ago, but not sure if the roof was repaired after the rain or not. Need to go and see them tomorrow.

London was brilliant. One evening we walked from Piccadilly through some park, coming out between the Foreign Office and the Treasury; it was such a beautiful area. The total sense of history makes one really quite proud that one is part of this, regardless of what the government does. Also the look on the tourist's faces when they pop out of Westminster Underground station and find themselves right in front of Big Ben!

On the Thursday afternoon went to the Tate Modern; passing an office of the London Development Agency with a rather psychedelic entrance (except, if it had been really psychedelic, the colours might have been more aggressive - but one does not want to frighten off one's investors, does one).

Tate Modern was great, as always. This day, a Thursday, it was full of young people from different schools, and of different ages. They generally wandered around freely (unlike the Lithuanian museum experience where they have to stand still and listen endlessly to boring guides), and what with modern art being what it is always found interesting and surprising installations. Quite a number sat in places and drew their own copies or interpretations of the artworks on the walls or floors (maybe Arts A-level students). It was great seeing all this interest in the arts world.

The Tate Modern has a permanent exhibit by Rothko, my favourite artist, which involves 9 huge panels in mainly dark red and black hung in a slightly darkened room (according to his instructions). Not the most cheery selection of his work. It was interesting to notice that he was born (in 'Russia') only two years after Jascha Heifetz, and both emigrated to the US in their teens. That's about all they have in common. If Rothko had painted like Heifetz played, there would be endless flamboyant detail, lots of detailed ornamentation in gold and other bright colours, and direct painting for the market (was there, in his day, a great market for his squares?). If Heifetz had played like Rothko painted, he would have strictly stuck to the text on the page. But Rothko battled with depression, and maybe that influenced his paintings....

There were a number of interesting exhibitions, quite a number of works belonging to UBS, the Swiss Bank. New exhibitions were being put up, and generally, the place was very much alive.

In the evening to a concert in the Wigmore Hall, but only after a small snack costing 20 quid at Carluccio's in Oxford Street. Carluccio is the guru for Italian food for England (in Scotland we have Valvona and Crolla, a much longer established firm). The restaurant had a long table where various people could eat, and a number of small tables for those preferring intimacy. Beside me were two Italian ladies, one of whom particularly kept bursting into 'Mamma mia!' (not the song). The food was very good (though the caprese need not have come straight from the fridge); nice bread and nice pasta. The bread at Da Antonio in Vilnius is better! There was also a shop, but only a very pale reflection of an Italian food shop, if you compare it to Valvona and Crolla which has food stacked floor to the very high ceiling, and not just olive oil from one part of Italy but lots of different oils, balsamicos and so on.

The concert at the Wigmore involved the graduates of the IMS course in Prussia Cove, a chamber music course of extremely high reputation. The concert included Imogen Holsts's String Quintet, Mendelssohn's piano trio, and Chausson's 'Poeme' for violin, string quartet and piano. The performers were Chloe Hanslip, violin, Christoph Richter, cello, Ian Brown, piano, Sacconi String Quartet - this was the last in a series of daily concerts in Cornwall and later London. The string quartet with the additional cellist played the Holst quintet very nicely (although the second violinist emoted for England), but the game was really lifted once Chloe Hanslip came on stage to play with Richter and Brown the Mendelssohn trio; they did amazing chamber music playing - real togetherness, almost to the degree of 'too much', but this particular group does not often play together, maybe. Later the Chausson was stunning. Chloe is really amazing - almost three years ago, when she was sixteen, she came to Vilnius to play the Philip Glass concerto. As soon as she starts playing she changes personality completely and is totally masterful and, as someone said recently, totally mature - and it was the same then, when she was a mere 16. (She has also just had a wonderful review for her new CD of various less well known [except the piece from the 'Red Violin'] violin concerto pieces in The Strad).

The only thing that has changed, and it's a shame, is that Chloe is already developing middle-age spread. Being of rather small stature it probably does not take much for her to gain weight, but it's a pity when a young woman of 19 already looks like Queen Victoria, particularly considering all that hard manual work she does with her arms. She badly needs some good style advice (including personal fitness advice?). It does not do to wear dresses where the excess weight can spill out of, or in concert a hairstyle which clearly shows the split ends (there is also the question of the very heavy make-up). But Chloe is by far not the only one having style problems (remembering quite a number of people who struggled with similar issues at the Montreal International Viola Congress). One of the most stylish musicians, apart from Anne Sophie Mutter, is probably Misha Maisky with his (I have now discovered) Issey Miyake pleated fabrics, which not only look stunning but I bet are exceptionally comfortable while performing.

Friday was all work, and in the evening we went for a celebratory dinner to the Japanese Restaurant Benihana in Savill Street near Picadilly circus. It's not cheap...it has an entertainment angle in that each table has a chef who cooks the main courses in front of you, and depending on audience reaction, 'arses' around more or less. My friend John managed to catch with his mouth the piece of steak that the chef sent flying through the air. I had the vegetarian option (steamed vegetables) which was nice, and some sushis as a starter which were to die for - the best sushi I have ever had! Heavy smell of fried food throughout the restaurant, though.

On the Saturday morning, before the departure, went and sat in some park very close to Downing Street. It was sunny, various people were about including individuals and groups. Also very lively wildlife, with lots of types of geese and ducks. Whilst I was reading my paper, a squirrel (grey with a brown back) was running about on the other side of the fence with a walnut (?) in its mouth, and then squirred it away in the undergrowth right in front of me. Unfortunately I did not have my camera handy at that moment. When I left, the squirrel was running about again - it ran up to the fence beside me, hung itself on the top of the rail, showed her entire tummy to me (yes, she was a mummy squirrel) and looked me in the eye for a good wee while. Gee, in London there are two-legged and four-legged beggars!

Went to Gatwick airport very early because I had heard horror stories about the length of the queues there. Nowadays thankfully Lithuanian passengers no longer need to queue with British Airways passengers; there is a separate checkin which had no queue.
Security took only 10 minutes (other people reported 1.5 hours), so I had plenty of time to wander about, and have a sushi lunch at Yo!Sushi. They also offered carry-outs in theory which would have been wonderful for dinner in the plane, but apparently currently they are banned by the British Airports Authority (blowing a plane up with sushi? or maybe it's those chopsticks?).


Friday, October 06, 2006

falling stockings - wet visitors

I felt for the poor young woman hurtling rapidly through Waterloo Station the other day. She was wearing those kinds of stockings which are supposed to hold themselves up; except one did not, and the top was dangling around her knee. Lesson to be learnt, here.

Yesterday, near the Queen Elizabeth Hall, a number of interesting installations. One of these is a fountain consisting of a square, which in turn has four internal squares. The sides of the squares are metal strips out of which shoot, up to 2 m high, bursts of water, so that effectively the squares are a group of rooms. Sometimes a side of fountains switches on, and then off, so you could wander into a 'room' and then find yourself trapped for a while if the water comes on again. Very funny - but the funniest bit was when a sudden gust of wind made the water go more sideways rather than vertical, and completely drenched the guy inside the 'room' at the moment - and he could not get out. (In fact, the sideways leaning of the water was so parallel that I wonder whether that was not part of the design, too.)


Thursday, October 05, 2006

All Shostakovich

So last night to the Albert Hall for a dose of Shostakovich under the heading of Cinemaphonia. Fist arrived half an hour early, since I had mistaken the start time. Joined a queue, and found it to be one for people who got free tickets. Hmmm - poor attendance? Then got my own ticket from another desk; asked the lady what was the issue with the free tickets - she did not know. I love well informed customer service operatives (operators?).

Wandered into the hall, and had not realised how red it was - everything from the chairs, the decoration, the lights on those mushrooms in the ceiling.. My other impression was how drab it was; not redecorated for decades, I think. The lighting was gloomy in a bordello sort of way. The arena, which is also often used for boxing matches etc, was particularly depressing; simple chairs placed there with metal bars in the back to hold them in straight rows. The chair legs contained the grime of the last 50 years. The orchestra had similar chairs - a number of them were adjusted with special cushions which the cellists and others had brought to save their backs. Really, these days there are plenty of adjustable chairs for musicians, and a rich country like the UK should afford them. Maybe I am spoilt, because concert halls in the relatively prosperous parts of Eastern Europe are generally recently refurbished.

Indeed, the hall was only 40% filled.

Anyway, the concert contained Shostakovich's 8th string quartet transcribed for string orchestra, and his 15th symphony. These were accompanied a) by film clips from Shostakovich's life, and b) by film clips of general soviet life in the war and the 10 years after the war (was the symphony written as early as that?); mostly of large groups of people doing gymnastics and such like. It was a shame, because the film and the music did not fit well together - might have been better to show the real films that he wrote the music for, with the accompanying music. Son Maxim Shostakovich is not a conductor who sets the heather alight; more a care and maintenance kind of conductor. The string quartet piece came together in the end, apart from a rather ropy solo line by the front desk of the second fiddles. The symphony was very transparent, not at all like the normal 'blast your ears' type of Shostakovich sound that one is used to in Eastern Europe. But maybe the son is more authentic than other conductors? It was not a great concert, and the conductor only really came to life when he called up the individual orchestra members to take their bows.

Afterwards in the hotel (that's why I love UK TV) I came across a Channel 4 production called 'Ballet saved me', or Ballet changed my life. It's part of a series about an 18 month course for 200 'disadvantaged' youngsters who will eventually perform Romeo and Juliet (great for crowd scenes etc). These people have generally not danced before. In addition they also get counselling from a charity called 'Youth at Risk'. This programme was the penultimate of the series, so shortly before the performance in Birmingham (with the Birmingham Royal Ballet). The very main parts are danced by professionals, but most others by the youngsters. Originally each other part was prepared for two or more people at the time, and the better one would get the part (it was not clear what happened to the other ones). However, these youngsters being who they are, had difficulties in turning up on time, or at all; but this was also part of the treatment programme. Using 'tough love' they were warned that if they did not turn up regularly, they would be in trouble/thrown out etc. So one day a list was read out of all those who had been late or absent three times or more - unfortunately this included most of the people picked for major parts. They then had the right of appeal, and all of them won their appeal (what's the point, you might well ask). In the case of 'Juliet's mother', both she and the choreographer were in such floods of tears that they had to abandon the appeals process altogether.

Another guy had to carry out real sword fights as part of his role. Originally his part was to be doubled with a professional doing some of the fights, but the young guy did so well, that he was trained for more and more fights. By the end of the programme, though, the choreographer was still in two minds about using him for all fights in the pressure of the performance, just in case he accidentally injured his opponent.

A fantastic concept and I wish I could see the final of the programme. Maybe it too will come out as a DVD, like 'Rhythm Is It'.


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Vilnius and London

Monday evening, and a book launch of a book by the writer Arvydas Juozapaitis. No, my Lithuanian has not suddenly improved vastly; my friend Arunas Statkus promised to give a rendition of a Hindemith Sonata as part of the launch.

My first visit to the writer's club in Vilnius; a friend had been in the evenings to the bar part of it and found that much drink was being taken - which my friend quite liked (He's Irish). The launch was in (one of) the meeting rooms downstairs. I arrived late, and found my friend Laima there already. The room was packed.

This was the first time I was in with a literary crowd, as opposed to the concert crowd, and the difference was quite remarkable. Because of the subject matter, not many foreigners attended (I was the only one, apart from some expat Lithuanians). The audience was generally elderly, and did not exude an atmosphere of great wealth. Writing must be poorly paid in Lithuania, as anywhere else. The room itself was seriously ugly; a golden painted ceiling with kind of soviet, very heavy-handed, stucco - no subtleties about it whatsoever.

More and more people kept pouring into the room, and the room became seriously crowded. Old ladies defended empty seats to the death. Old ladies in Lithuania, like the ones in Russia, are to be feared, it seems.

When the author and his entourage came into the room, I realised that I knew the guy - we had once shared a stage together during a conference on social matters. At the time he was described as the 'president's philosopher'; now he is the consul general of Lithuania in Kaliningrad. His other claim to fame is that in his past he has won some medals in the Olympics for swimming (maybe 1972 or 76? He was born in 1956). Nice looking guy, too.

Anyway, Arunas played very nicely, and then someone else started a long and apparently amusing speech - this kind of vocabulary is entirely beyond me, and it was a bit embarassing. As it happens I really had another appointment elsewhere, but I left rather earlier than I needed to. This was tricky, because although I was going out, other people were pouring in; I had to negotiate an old lady's huge shopping bag; I found two chairs being put directly in my way as I was trying to leave, and other people just walked across me. If I had fallen on the floor, I would have been trampled to death by pensioners!

Yesterday off to London, to do some work on Friday. Flight was ok; a young couple beside me - suddenly I was given a pastry made by the young lady's mother, and I asked her 'Is your mother Armenian?' - and indeed she was. Can be diagnosed from the pastries.... She is an interpreter for Russian/English and Italian/English; he is a musician playing the 'birbyne' (spelling?).

In the evening to the French Institute for the film 'Fallen' set in Latvia, by a German producer (Keleman). First the underground did not run well due to signal failure in South Ken where the film was, so at Victoria I got onto a bus. It's really a pain travelling in London during the rush hour, and I don't know how people stand that - no choice, I expect.

The film...well...did it need to be made? It was about a man who had heard a young woman fall/jump off a bridge, walked back to the place, heard a shout of help and called the police, who found nothing. Disturbed by guilt he investigates all relating to the young woman. The young man in the film had two speeds 'slow' and 'stop'. He walked every where very slowly, and he did a great deal of walking. When you saw him at the end of the street walking towards the camera, your heart sank because he would take so long to get there. I had asked about the translation, in case it was into French, but it was into English all right (from Latvian and Russian, an interesting commentary on the social situation in Latvia). In any case, it did not matter too much since the dialogues were no more than 15 minutes out of the whole film. The film was shot in black and white and shot in the most depressing locations in Latvia... happy days.

Now, Wednesday morning and shopping day in London. My hotel is in the County Hall and I use the Westminster underground station. I must say that walking across Westminster Bridge in the morning is quite an awesome feeling - the skyline in London is really impressive. It is also really nice to walk around and see familiar shops, read familiar newspapers, find familiar products. And also seeing so many places that one reads about and hears about. London is really not bad (if you are a tourist).


Sunday, October 01, 2006

Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk

Friday night, in the Kongresu Rumai in Vilnius, a concert performance of this opera by Shostakovich. The orchestra was the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra under its chief conductor, (now Professor) Gintaras Rinkevicius, and eight singers from Latvia (6) and Russia (2) - why not Lithuania? I cannot remember hearing the conductor being described as professor before, and I wonder if a vacancy has arisen - in which case, who left the conducting faculty at the music academy?

It would have helped if I had gone after reading the story of the opera. Basicly, like the other Lady Macbeth, she causes murder and mayhem all around her. This is an early work of the Composer, premiered in 1934. Very popular it was at the time (the music is really quite Soviet), until Stalin went to see it, and left before the end (as did I, since it is a long, very noisy opera - and everyone ends up dead). After that, it was curtains for this opera until much later. The opera was criticized in 'Pravda' for being for bourgeois people, 'bourgeois' being a really really bad insult at the time.

The Vilnius performance included not only the orchestra, but also a brass band spread throughout the orchestra, the Kaunas State Choir and the aforementioned soloists. Needs to be said that the conductor loves big music, and often puts on operas even though he has a symphony orchestra. Very good singers, all of them. I felt a bit sorry for a couple of singers who had very minor roles, and sometimes sang phrases like 'Shto?' (what?) and that almost was the extent of their roles. Must have practiced for hours on that!

Tenant has moved out of the flat. I see that putting a tea light directly on the furniture can cause some damage....