Thursday, November 30, 2006

Foreign Office competence....

This describes the view of people 'rescued' by the Foreign Office from the Tsunami almost two years ago. It's not the best feedback Her Majesty's Man Abroad has had. On the other hand, unfortunately it does not surprise me. It is slightly worrying if like my colleagues and I you are abroad a lot and may, at some stage, need a knight in a white charger to rescue you.



I have finally found a way of getting comments to show up on the main page - it really makes things more interesting. The way, described on this site is not entirely easy, and requires a very cool, calm approach. It's worth saving your template after every change (to see if you put in the information correctly).

My comments are 'peek a boo', and now if you click on 'comments' where there are some they appear below the post. Below that is another line for clicking on if you wish to post the comment (and I will change the colour of that line just shortly).


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Getting home

Return journey from Dushanbe via Moscow. Left the house in Dushanbe at 1 am, got to the airport, and went through the usual nightmares and traumas. It's interesting to see what they do. In Dushanbe you fill in a customs declaration on the way out, and if you are a Tajik, particularly a young male, you get searched very carefully. I saw one guy being clutched by the goolies very hard and for a longer time than necessary. As a foreigner, and a woman this time I was lucky, and they did not even go through my bag, as they do at other times.

Managed to get out without having to bribe someone; a Swiss guy whose registration in Dushanbe was not in order also managed to talk his way out of it without payment. Arrival in Moscow at 4.30 am. Some Russian army folks took the privilege of overlooking the queues waiting for the passport control; some civilian Russians wanted to join them, but the Swiss guy and I shouted at them and they went to the end of the queue (and probably skeddadled round another corner). They were not having any of it; one held up his Russian passport and said 'it's my country'.

70 minutes after arrival we already had our luggage; then I waited until 7 to get the train into town, abandoned my luggage at Belorusskaya railway station and wandered around Moscow and Ikea. Lots of public transport trips. The 'free bus' to Ikea is one you pay almost with your life, what with having to use very pointy elbows to get on - a fight for life and death, and one that the many pensioners amongst the passengers have fought all their lives, probably.

Eventually then to the other airport for my 9.30 pm flight home. Met a diplomat I know who had been for a half-day training course in Moscow (his country's taxpayers must be pleased to send people to one of the most expensive cities in the world). It was his first trip, and he hated it (understandably - the traffic, the mud everywhere, the over-expensive shops). There's one who won't be applying for a posting there.

Another friend had talked earlier about heating in public buildings; a relative had been in a hospital and caught flu because the hospital was so cold. Eh? Hospitals are the responsibility of the state in Russia; people often pay for health care either in bribes or in other charges (or both), but even if they did not, one would have thought that one of the oil-richest countries in the world could afford to heat its public buildings, even in that climate.

The poorest of the poor are still paid next to nothing in state benefits, maybe around 150 roubles a month (about 5 Euros per person). This country has all that oil wealth, the oligarchs, if they are not poisoned by Polonium, put in prisons etc, but the state still treats its population (at all levels) like dirt. No wonder the Russian revolution happened. But now the students, unlike then, are all too busy studying so they get well-paid jobs - will those with lower qualifications ever be able to join the wealthier society?



Tonight, back in Vilnius, a concert of the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, the conductor Robertas Servenikas, and the Russian pianist Aleksey Volodin. Mozart's piano concerto No 25 and two pieces by the US composer William Bolcom.

Volodin had apparently played in Vilnius before (maybe standing in at short notice for Denis Matsuev?), possibly one of the usual piano warhorses. Even then there were some issues. However, with the Mozart today there were big issues. It seemed the music had no forte or piano (except right at the beginning of the second movement). Everything else was played at a mezzo forte, and it seemed as if all the movements had a big 'cantabile' written over them. The last movement was incredibly slow and REALLY SAFE. The conductor kept giving the soloist very precise entries. A totally spineless performance. There was some oddness (intentional??) in some of the cadenzas, and some more oddities in the second movement which had ornaments in places where they should not have been.

The Bolcom pieces were interesting; both involved an orchestra with a piano as an orchestral instrument. The first, 'Almost', a 'comedy' for 18th century orchestra consisted of tunes/harmonies straight from the 18th century mixed with shrill modern music (though perhaps not as shrill as Schnittke. Probably Bolcom has not suffered as much pain in his life as Schnittke). The symphony, apparently of 4 movements but I could only distinguish 3 movements, was quite interesting. It started and closed with white noise from the violins with different bits of tune, squeaks and tootles from the winds and the piano/celesta/keyboard (the pianist Sergey Okrushko was spinning like a top). The second movement was very American, with a beautiful country and western waltz just for the violas, followed by some yee-haw kind of stuff. The orchestra enjoyed this, as did the audience. It was quite fun music, and the orchestra managed to hang on in there thanks to the very clear conducting. Was not as good as the concert 11 days ago, though.


'We don't want the English situation'

...was a headline in today's Westfaelische Rundschau about the new surveillance cameras installed in the city centre of Iserlohn in Germany. The cameras in question are intended to protect the old Town Hall from vandalism, but also point away from the building. It is clear from the article, that surveillance of the population is against the law. Only the chief police officer has the right to decide where to place such cameras., and people wandering about the town freely must not, by law, be subject to surveillance.

Since in the UK, where the population is the most observed population in the world, people's consent to such surveillance has not been taken, this approach could be very interesting. In terms of data protection legislation, there are two ways of getting out of this one - a) the population voted for the governments who put this in, and b) the surveillance is supposed to be used to prevent crime - a get-out clause in the legislation. But is it only used for that?


Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Squid and the Whale

Amongst the DVD's I picked up yesterday I found this rather interesting American film. If an American film has the F-word within the first three minutes, it is already different....

It's about the breakup of a highly intellectual family ('does your teacher know that both your parents have PhDs in literature?') dominated by a father who used to be a successful writer but now his wife has eclipsed him. He of course has the typical 1980s look of an academic, flowing shoulderlength hair and a beard. When the father moves out, the custody arrangements for the children are Monday, Tuesday and Saturday with him, and every second Thursday, and the rest of the time with mum (to make sure the split is even). The older of the two boys adores his father and totally swallows his opinions, whereas the younger one wants to stay with mum all the time, takes to drink and behaves rather badly at school. Everything is intellectualised ('that really hurts my feelings'), ('Frank, you'll get your amphibians' - 'Dad, turtles are reptiles'), all arguments are so appallingly reasonable; anger is only expressed during tennis games.

While it describes fairly tragic events with a fairly predictable end, the film is also very funny what with Dad's total certainty that his intellect will overcome every challenge, emotional or otherwise. It's worth checking out - but very strange that it got to Tajikistan..

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Tales of Tigers, Tides and Tantrums

Amitav Ghosh, an Indian writer now living in Brooklyn, has set this story in the tide country near the border of Bangladesh. The tide country is the area of India/Bangladesh that floods regularly and takes the strain of the floods from other parts of India. Originally not many people lived there, for very good reasons. But, it seems the British decided to build a town there anyway, which after 15 years was devastatingly flooded, and some other settlements also exist. Much like the 'Halligen' in the German north sea, which have quite a bit of land, but the people live in houses on top of the hillocks since the farming land is regularly flooded in the winter.

The book, set in current life, begins with three strands of stories which eventually intermingle. They involve an interpreter, and Indian American dolphin scientist, and an older man who was a bit of a left radical, plus numerous love interests, bits of corruption, bad government policies, folk tales and lots of nature and weather. This, particularly at the beginning, gives the author excessive opportunity to build in cliff-hangers - 'suddenly she was falling and the muddy brown water rushed up to her face' - which are then followed by a chapter about one of the other characters. A bit wooden, this, but it becomes less necessary and obvious as the book goes on. The book builds up nicely to its climax which we see coming a mile off, since all the dangers of the tide country are on everyone's lips.

It's a good and thrilling read, and in an author's note at the end he states that some of the historical events described in the book really did happen. While not the heaviest of literature I like books like this which describes the small aspects of other cultures in passing, like what people wear, what and how they eat and live, modes of transport, their daily routines and so on.

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Whither Tajikistan?

This was written on Sunday but I thought it better not to post it till I had left the country.

Yesterday visited a home for children with disabilities. This is a new institution replacing the one which burnt down at the beginning of the year, killing 13 children. This caused an outcry not least because the fire brigade took an hour to arrive at a location in the centre of the capital. But then, it was a very fine and expensive location, next to the World Bank and Unicef (with all their guards), and rumours existed about the value of the land as a building site.

The new home, on the site of a home that existed many years ago, was put together in next to no time, and in September the children moved in. The place certainly looks very nice and the children have some more space. I know that the regime has improved in that the children now have some teachers and materials for arts and so on, but some things are still questionable - do the most seriously disabled children really have to have their 'potties' in their play room when the toilet is next door? (Also the potties are made for very small bottoms). There is a serious lack of staff, partly also because this new centre is out of town, up a hill. But training is going on through UNICEF, the Turks are funding a sports and treatment centre so it is hoped that things will continually improve.

Wandering through the town in the afternoon I spotted some changes:

  • there are many new fanciful street lights (in a country where there is an electricity shortage);

  • in one street all the general shops have become computer shops;

  • my favourite DVD shop, which was suddenly closed by the authorities in May is now open bigger and better (and with very nice and helpful staff);
  • the most dreadful Chinese restaurant near the opera, a right soviet restaurant palace, has finally closed and I hope someone else is taking it over;

  • there is a lovely supermarket near the opera with better products that the President's daughter's supermarket nearby.... at a price...
  • there are now five or six mobile phone networks as opposed to the two that existed two years ago
  • the cars are becoming more European rather than Russian

All this of course is typical ex-pat stuff. I have not been around the markets to have a look at goods and prices there. Of course people are begging in the streets (though less visibly than in Georgia - but maybe here there are fewer rich people to beg from).

What has not changed?

  • bribery and corruption. On the way from the airport, about 5 miles, we were stopped twice by the police. Here no driver crosses a red traffic light because immediately behind it there will be a policeman with his hand open. (and in Georgia they do because the better-paid, and less prone to bribes, policemen are fewer in number... weird or what?). I have heard other stories of bribery and corruption that make your hair stand on end. This is also the only country where I have had to pay bribes - vastly against my principles, but when a bribe is needed to allow me to go home (because the visas were not correct) I also have no compunction.
  • people complain about living conditions, but still the president was re-elected; partly because the memory of the civil war and the fear of another one remains in people's minds.
What does the future hold? In a country where a million men work in Russia, in terrible conditions and jobs, having had to bribe their way to get air tickets, living illegally, often falling victim to mysterious fires and other accidents; where the birth rate is the highest in the former Soviet Union, where there is almost no social protection (hence the birth rate). I don't know.

The country has considerable charm in terms of landscape, mountaineering (provided the KGB does not follow you, as it did one walking group in May), people are very hospitable but it has very little tourist infrastructure - if you are prepared to rough it, you will be fine. Just don't drink the municipal water!

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Computer issues

Having had some troubles with Internet Explorer 7, I have now changed my laptop browser to Firefox, just my other computer. Firefox has done for a long time what Microsoft with its IE 7 has only just introduced. Then I spotted a little add-on called 'performancing' which gives you an instant blog editor and you don't need to laboriously log into the blog before you start writing. Great for those moments of sitting in flats with dial-up connections! Now if it only included the labels, and offered an opportunity to write several posts and post them altogether... (on the other hand, it gives you the little self-advertisement...)

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

Scenes from Tajikistan

My lovely lagman. You cannot see the thick homemade noodles underneath all the herbs, meat and potatoes.

The ceiling of the teahouse 'Rohat' in Dushanbe. It is open to all weathers (not much rain) summer and winter, though there are some indoor rooms, too. Some hardy souls, including myself, eat outdoors at any time of year.

The housing for the average urban Tajik household. Usually fairly decrepit and greatly in need of repair. In the villages families live in large compounds surrounded by a high wall.


Friday, November 24, 2006

We are in the Guardian

I was rather surprised when I got a comment from Granny P . Granny P writes a lovely and very funny blog about her life and that of her own Mr Rochester in retirement (early, surely?) in the Canary Islands, doing a bit of self-sufficiency, involving a great amount of running after excitable hens. Like me, she is a Radio 3 fan and listens to it online in the Canaries. Sounds absolutely blissful - listening to Radio 3, running after the chickens and a nice Spanish red wine of an evening!

I had found out about her and her blog on the Guardian Abroad website which is an intelligent version of similar pages in the Daily Telegraph. If she had found me, that made me think...and right enough, here I am in the Guardian, and here you can review my blog and give it stars out of 5.

Not only that, but today I held in my hand my latest publication, the 'Strategy to Introduce a Modern Social Services System in Tajikistan' which apparently includes all my bits of writing on the project that is just finishing. As all my books it is published in Russian.... the others have such riveting titles as 'The One Stop Implementation Handbook', the 'Rolling Out the One Stop Shop', or the 'Performance Management Manual' (all published in Russia). They make great bedtime reading. I wonder how many of my devoted readers can say they had a book published in Tajikistan?


National shortage of Lagman (or going back to the Middle Ages)

It is freezing (literally) in Dushanbe at night, though during the day, due to the glorious sunshine, the temperature rises to about 10 degrees. The flat is particularly cold - there is one electric heater which is not bad; need to bring it closer to me, and at night I need to trundle it into the bedroom. As for the (internal) bathroom and toilet - pure brass-monkey stuff. I was contemplating asking for another heater for the rest of the flat, but when the electricity failed while I boiled a kettle and heated, I decided not to bother.
The kitchen has a joint gas/electric cooker the use of which will become clearer shortly. Only one sort of a pot...and tonight I found the knives; I thought I only had spoons to eat with.
At lunchtime I fancied some lagman - a very filling soup of noodles, beef and some vegetables, definitely with a Chinese influence. The first restaurant I went to did not have any; the canteen I usually go to was closed/bricked up - the former finance ministry building now seems to belong to a private company - and the other two did not have any either. So I had a greasy, albeit tasty, bun sold outside a shop.
However, my little complaint fades into insignificance when you consider that currently in Tajikistan, outside Dushanbe, electricity exists for only 8 hours a day. Our project driver has electricity for two hours a day, as do the outlying districts of Dushanbe. That would be bad enough, but also there has been no gas since, roughly, the presidential election (he was reelected for 7 years). Next week the electricity in Dushanbe will be turned off for two days because some reservoir is full and needs to be drained. The people living in apartments fare worst in this because they have no other way of cooking or heating. As someone said - this is like going back to the middle ages. A foreigner had been heard to comment about the number of good cars on the roads - at the same time. Compared to this, Georgia is doing well.

These wee photies are of some schoolkids in Dushanbe (will try to upload them on a dial-up connection). I had spotted the girls playing 'twist'; that game we used to play at school, involving some elastic stretched out between two people and a person in the middle having to do a complicated routing without stepping on the elastic. When I approached the girls they immediately went into a pose. The boys wanted in on the act, and I had to do them separately - as soon as I had the camera up to my eye a sea of hands shot up, blocking out their faces....And one wee boy, just when I had got the girls to start their game again, ran right into the picture. Men, eh? Note the natty suits worn by some of the boys; this is quite common here (though these children attend a private school).

Of course, in the UK I would be arrested immediately for taking pictures of children in a school playground.


The Dushanbe welcome

Getting to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, is always a bit of a pain. First there is the flight from Moscow, a pure cattle truck affair on ageing Tupolevs 154 (they do feel very stable, it should be said, but they do not look so great - though yesterday's one had been painted and had the seats recovered). People, mainly men working in Russia, cram in with huge handluggage and it is all a bit crowded. Food is good, though, in a homely sort of way.
The passport control used to be fairly easy when everything was done manually. Now things have to be typed into computers, and the officials find that very hard (though they got better in the last 6 months). When they have to type in every scrap of info from your visa, it can be painful to watch.
And then there is the wait for the luggage. In a chilly hall one waits and waits and waits, for the truck to come from the plane. People tend to bring back Expensive Stuff like TVs, computer monitors, DVD players and all these things should be handled carefully - though it does not sound like it as they are dropped on the conveyor belt. I wonder if yesterday there was only one man on duty, loading the truck, driving it to the baggage area, unloading it, and then going back for the rest of the baggage. It took forever.
Finally into 'my' flat at 2.30 am.


Shlepping round Moscow

(Moscow underground stations)
After my daring escape from the hotel yesterday I spent most of the day wandering round Moscow. I don't much like the place, a brutal capital of a brutal country. The traffic roars through Moscow and God help the poor pedestrial who might dare to put a toe onto the street. Zebra crossings? Ha! - they are nice patterns in the street, aren't they. Don't depend on them for your life!

So, anyway, had some breakfast in the quite nice Coffeemania, a Russian (?) kind of Starbucks chain with a branch right beside the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire. Noticed that the Paganini violin competition is on just now (finale next week) as is the Bashmet viola competition (though I also got my dates scrambled in my head and thought it was 28th of November instead of 23rd - so I might have been able to get in out of the cold and sit and listen to some nice playing. Bashmet seems to have concerts there all over the place, but it's probably to do with the viola competition - he seems to have arranged a multi-viola concert on the day before the final. In the viola list some harsh words were said about that competition and the composition of the jury especially - not all jury members are viola players, or indeed even practising or performing musicians. It'll be interesting to see who wins.

On I shlepped around...the reason why I walking so much, apart from needing exercise, was that I was going to have a meeting some time that day, and did not know when. But at the same time I was gasping for my sushi-fix, and was trying hard to get that in before the meeting at the other end of town. I know that the yakitoria now has branches all over Moscow, but just not near the place where I had to go. What's worse was that one of the locations has disappeared (been pulled down) so I had to find another one. Which I did and it was great, though, on account of the slimming, I did not have my usual megaportion. But it hit the spot.

Then back across town, to the meeting near the Sportivna metro station, and then to the airport. Leaving at 15.30 for an 18.30 flight, I got first stuck in traffic, then the airport train was slower than normal, so that by the time I got to the airport I did not stop walking until I was in my seat on the plane. Phew!

Did I mention that the temperature was around 3 degrees centigrade (probably quite warm for the time of year in Moscow) but my skin was suffering seriously after walking for 2-3 hours. Need to get the thermals out - in the meantime hand cream is a great healer ....for the knees.


Music news

Hot from reading two issues of 'The Strad' on the plane (left one copy behind, annoying that), I can tell the breathlessly waiting world the following news:

1. Anne Sophie Mutter has announced, shortly after her divorce from A Previn, her retirement from performing when she is 45. Her agents will be frantically examining contracts and checking bookings that may already have been made for beyond that period. She's only 43.5 just now - I thought she was nearer my age (have not seen 43.5 for a while). I suppose she has been working at the fiddle since the age of about 5 or so, so that would be a 40 year working life - well going for anyone. And maybe she does not know anything else? I wonder what she will do?

2. Daniel Hope's Bach CD is reviewed rather negatively by Tully Potter, as in ' I don't think Bach would have recognised his music had he heard it being hustled along'. I did think at the time that the historically informed brigade (or as someone once called them 'the Dutch baroque dweebs in sandals') might not entirely approve of this recording. Interestingly the same reviewer is much more positive (in the lost December issue) about a recording by Monica Huggett of almost the same concertos, who, as it happens, generally uses the historically informed approach, gut strings, bow held half-way up the stick and so on. We know which side the reviewer dresses on then, don't we.

3. Jessica Duchen was lucky enough to interview the Fine Arts Quartet at the end of their two-month Europe tour which had started in Vilnius in June this year. It was their second visit to Vilnius, the first one having been a bit of a disaster Not Of Their Making due to lack of advertising, but this one, within the context of the Vilnius Festival, was much more successful and almost sold out. Not that I can remember what they played - oh yes, I do, some piano quintet with a very young Lithuanian pianist (notes are at home). The guys are really nice, and very well travelled (all but one emanating from Eastern Europe, though, Jessica, Bocio is Ukrainian methinks, not Russian).

4. Carlos Maria Solare, a permanent attender at international viola congresses, with fluent German and very fluent English (his turn of phrase is very impressive), very positively reviewed Tatjana Masurenko's recording of British viola concertos (Beamish, a new version of the Walton and the Britten Lachrymae). The Lachrymae is a reverse theme and variations, with the theme, a very sweet Dowland song, resolving only at the end the tension created earlier in the piece. It's strange because usually you listen for hints of the theme when you listen to variations, but here you cannot do it. Tatjana Masurenko organised a very nice German viola day in Leipzig a couple of years ago, and it was a great opportunity to visit Bach's city (beautiful place!) and even the Thomaskirche. She also gave a performance of a Bach cello suite, to mutterings from the Historically Informed Brigade 'no-one plays Bach like that any more'...


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

100 Euros - for this?

Today on the way to Dushanbe. This always requires a stop-over somewhere. The preferred option is Istanbul, but Tajik airlines is really bad with announcing their schedules in advance; it seemed the weekly flight via Dushanbe next Tuesday was not going to happen, so I would have had to spend about 8 days there. So I chose to fly via Moscow (the least preferred option), which means three days travelling time for two days work. Wunderbar.
In addition the usual hotel the company uses, the Budapesht, was busy - and looking at hotel prices, something seems to be on in Moscow causing lots of hotels to be busy. The first hotel they offered me exceeded my allowance by 160%, and so I discovered yesterday that they had booked me into the Hotel 'Arena'.
I was appalled when I read the write-up on the internet. ... And indeed, the hotel is in the middle of nowhere, far from the centre (except by Metro). As another guy said when he came in - 'this is supposed to be the centre of Moscow? Berlin is closer to the centre than this!'. Probably it is not that far, but arriving in the dark, it is in a grim and dismal area.
The entrance must be about the worst aspect of the hotel; it may not have been renovated since the hotel was built. The one receptionist sits in a dark glass cage, and on the way to the lifts a number of ladies hover wearing grubby cleaners' uniforms. The receptionist's English was about as good as my Russian, although she did smile and try to be helpful. Turned out that the ladies in the grubby uniforms are responsible for their floors, so you get a card for the general floor, the lady takes you up, checks her book and allocates a room.
To be fair now, the rooms have been renovated recently; there are sprinkler systems, it looks like the electricity was rewired, and the bathrooms have also been done recently - though the shower tray, about 40 cms above floor level, can probably not be described as wheelchair-friendly, unless you want to tip a person out of the wheelchair into the shower - at least they would not fall that far...
There are two single beds, made in a sort of way, if you consider that the sheet under the single blanket is folded in half...at least with two beds another blanket can be procured for little me. Seeing the window was open when I arrived, and the gaps between the windows and the frames are sealed with tape, the room was none too cosy on arrival. Breakfast is from 9 - 10; I think I will give that a miss and go into town to the nice cafe next to the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire to have a civilised breakfast.
The next question is - where is my ticket to Dushanbe? I expected it to be here, and I don't know when I will be picked up to go to Domodedovo airport for my evening flight. Nor do I have the phone number of the office organising my trip!
But hey, things are looking up! The wireless internet has just connected! (If you wait long enough, you don't need to rewire your hotel any more...)

Postcript: In the morning, having enjoyed a fresh breeze across my face throughout the night, thanks to the quality window fittings, I tried to leave the hotel early only to find that the 'Administrator' does not work until 8 am - and there was a queue of about 10 people waiting to check out. I asked another lady in English where to leave my luggage (with a slightly heavy heart) - 'shto' was the reply (what?). I said it in Russian, she replied 'Administrator'. Having waited for about 10 minutes for the Administrator to turn up (well late for work) finally my nice floor lady, Lena, sorted it out for me - the chap looking after the luggage had been right behind the grumpy one all the time. But apart from that grumpy lady, everyone else was very nice, to be fair. In the afternoon I checked about my payment, and the girl rushed off to get an 'interpreter' - whose English was struggling (and failing) to get out. Definitely not a hotel for the inexperienced foreigner.


We got a mention!


This looks like a nice international site.



To the left you see the former Vilnius Municipality building on its way to becoming a shopping centre. I was a bit surprised to see it like this, and three things in particular surprised me:
1) before the roof was tiled rather than this cheap and nasty tin roof,
2) I am sure the roof shape did not have the kink in it, quite apart from the teddy-bear's ears
3) I am sure there is more 'stuff' (stucco, ornamentation) above the windows than there was before (unless it had fallen off in Soviet times).
The big shop windows at ground floor level are excusable, I suppose.

However, I ask myself what are the rules for building preservation? I am not sure how old the building was in the first place, but all that frilly stuff above the windows gives it a history which it may not in fact have. (But I suppose the Victorians in the UK also used this approach.) I would have expected it to be a listed building, to be renovated with some sympathy.

The building belongs to an Irish consortium, and amongst others Marks and Spencers will move into it. I wonder who the designing architect is. Modern Lithuanian architects are pretty good (though there are also some excrescences following the request of owners lacking in taste). British architects can be very good, but I suppose not everyone is a Norman Foster. This looks more like vernacular architecture according to the Queen's oldest son.


More on Reich

This explains why at least one of the musicians in the Reich roadshow was looking a bit frail on Monday. The other good thing is that now I have seen and heard the music, I know whether to buy a ticket for another such concert or not.

And finally, whilst I was initially sitting in the stairs, a friend passed me asking jokingly if I was a student. This then reminded me that next year I will be a student again, which of course comes with a student ID and discounts on concert tickets! Since it will be a music course maybe an even bigger discount???? I need to organise all that.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Oh the Beeb!

One of the joys of being at home is having an internet connection which allows me to listen to the BBC - Radio 3. A minute ago they played 'Sound the trumpet' which my son sang with his school mate(s) at prep school - quite a long time ago, but hearing it always brings back those moments of having driven to the North of Scotland, clambering into the chilly gym with lots of other warmly wrapped parents, seeing our boys and girls in front of us in their navy blue cord shorts and thick wolly sweaters (what we parents paid for the uniform must have offset some of the heating costs of that school), and then bursting into song. He has not sung a note since he left that school!

'Sound the trumpet' was followed immediately afterwards by a pastiche of a Mozart horn concerto where someone was singing about his horn, including the cadenza (might it have been Flanders of Flanders and Swann? - very funny!). Now it is followed by a French song by Michel Legrand, and there was something by Johnny Dankworth ...not the kind of mix one is used to from the Beeb, but it's interesting.


Steve Reich in Vilnius!

I couldn't believe it when I found out on Sunday that Steve Reich and friends were giving a concert in Vilnius! This is the beauty of Vilnius - every now and again you get real legends in the concert halls. Steve Reich is seen as one of the main minimalist composers. Minimalist music essentially involves repeating the same pattern over and over again, with subtle movements as it goes along. As someone once said 'it's like driving round and round the block, but honking your horn at a different place each time'. It is extremely hard on the musicians who keep repeating the same movements for a long time - there have been stories of repetitive strain injuries due to this music. One of the other exponents is Philipp Glass who has written a very nice violin concerto.

The concert hall was as packed as I had never seen it before, mostly with young people (Reich recently celebrated his 70th birthday). I just managed to get a seat despite having only a standing room ticket (must try that more often!). The evening started with a piece for 4 people playing 4 bongo drums and taking turns in playing (those players, bar one, were much the same age as Reich, and had to sit down in between). At some stage the piece sounded like a room full of looms - and I did notice one player at least wearing ear protection. This was followed by a piece for multiple marimbas, vibraphone, piano, and some singers. Finally there was a piece for 18 musicians, including also a violin, cello, clarinet and bass clarinet. I am sorry to say that the music went on, and on, and on, and on. The violinist and cellist were the only ones who had a bit of life in them, and gave it laldy where they could (as the Scottish media once said about Princess Anne, when before the start of a rugby match she lustily sang 'Flower of Scotland' - the Scottish 'national anthem' - not quite the thing to do for a child of the reigning UK monarch). There were parts which seemed to consist of playing the same notes for the whole about 45 minutes that the last piece lasted. Otherwise it seemed to be a very presbyterian approach to music - 'for God's sake, let's not show any emotion'. The music was simply not going anywhere. If I had not agreed to meet a friend afterwards, I would have walked out during the last piece - one or two other people did. I also began to wonder how the people playing the music felt about it, considering that they had gone through years of education...to play the same notes non-stop? I hoped they had other jobs.

Philipp Glass's violin concerto is much more fun, and our own Mindaugas Urbaitis also writes minimalist music, but with a strong, driving pulse, as for example in his ballet 'Acid City'. That music brings something - Reich's music, based on yesterday's performance, is just there. What's the point? That music does not need to have a point? I think it does (need to have a point).


Monday, November 20, 2006


Just finished reading Ismail Kadare's 'Broken April'. Kadare was the first winner of the Man Booker International Prize, for books translated into English. Kadare is Albanian, but left the country for France in 1990.

The book is set sometime around the turn of the 19th/20th century in mountainous Albania, where a customary law called the 'Kanun' reigns. The Kanun regulates relations between families...generally by killing someone. These blood feuds start if one family kills the member of another family, usually men. Then the victim's family has the right, after a certain period, to kill a man from the killer's family, who then becomes the victim, and so on and so on. Families can lose all their adult males that way, and this can go on so long that people cannot remember the original cause of the feud. Men who want to survive either flee into a tower almost without windows (which can house hundreds of people), or stay at home, never leaving the house. The rules about how to kill a person in this are also very specific, whereby the person must be killed with a shot in the head, laid down in a particular way. The victim's shirt is hung up in his own family's home, unwashed, and when the blood turns yellow (as it does) this is the sign that the victim wants vengeance to be extracted. Guests are kings, and protected, so if someone kills your guest on your property, you will then be killed because you failed to protect the guest. There is also a feudal blood tax collector whereby every killer has to pay this tax - and the book contains a memorable section where the tax collector laments the reduction in murders. Another small facet of the Kanun requires that bridegrooms are given a bullet by their future in-laws to use on the wife in case she is unfaithful.

Thank goodness this is only a piece of fiction, and it all happened a long time ago! Well, no. This and this suggests that the Kanun is in fact a piece of Albanian reality, and it seems, still alive and well in some parts of the country (which also shows that fiction can serve as historical documents). In this case the book describes the period from when a young man called Gjorg fulfils his family's requirement to kill a guy, until the month of reprieve ends and he will no longer be able to move about freely for fear of being killed. This grim reading, describing in great detail the intricacies of the Kanun, is broken up slightly by another party in the book, a couple from Tirana who choose to spend their honeymoon studying the Kanun (more the husband's idea, it seems) - and even during the period the book was set in, these people's urban friends find the world of the mountains quite extraordinary. Needless to say, this trip does not make for a happy honeymoon.

The book is written in very simple language, like that presumably used by people in the Albanian mountains where reading and writing (at the time) was not a common skill. It is a fascinating read, but also thoroughly depressing - the kind of book you'd read only if there is no alternative. It might be good, though, to follow this up by a book about modern, urban Albanian society.


Sunday, November 19, 2006

arts journal

The arts journal is a wonderful publication, putting together articles about the arts throughout the world (see links on the right). Clicking today on 'come on, smell the noise' I come across an article about the use of puppets in opera, not least the ones used by Anthony Minghella in his production of 'Madame Butterfly', as seen in Vilnius in March - and later, LATER, at the New York Met. He used a puppet for the child seeing it was difficult to get young children to act 'naturally'. Indeed, the Japanese puppetry technique he used, where about 6 people in black manipulated the puppet, was awesome. The bad news, Mr Minghella, is that this is as distracting as the presence of a small child on the stage - I had seen a concert performance of the opera in Yerevan with a gorgeous little Armenian boy taking that role. While generally he was quiet (and possibly really fell asleep at one stage), by the time he had called 'Mama' across the stage to his 'mum' there was not a dry eye in the house. Don't ask me how the singing was after that.


Saturday, November 18, 2006

Wowed in Vilnius

Four hours after touching down in Vilnius, I was in my usual seat in the Filharmonija, ready for a concert of the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra. It was a blast!

The orchestra has had its ups and downs in recent years, but today it was on an up close to stratospheric! All due to the great white hope of Lithuanian conducting, Robertas Servenikas, who has a magic touch with all Lithuanian orchestras. Already in Mozart's 2nd symphony there was a sparkle in the orchestra that is not always there. In the second half they launched into Rossini's sonata No 6, 'La Tempesta' (the tempest? or the tempestuous one?) and boy, it was tempestuous. The violas took off like a steam train, and had a wonderful solo in the second movement. The final movement was totally amazing, from a slow start reaching a blistering pace, with dynamics like I have rarely heard them from this orchestra, and, it seemed, having enormous fun with it.

But the star of the evening was the very young British clarinet virtuoso Julian Bliss, who at a mere 17 is already performing with many of the major orchestras in the UK and the wider world. He studies with Sabine Meyer in Germany which itself is a sign of very high quality indeed. He plays a very expensive-looking clarinet with golden keys (which, to my ears, has a bit of a strident edge). He totally wowed the audience with expertly bubbling his way through Weber's clarinet quintet arranged for string orchestra and clarinet, having some delightful dialogues with the orchestra, and later with the very popular Introduction, Theme and Variations for clarinet and orchestra by Rossini, loved, it seemed, by my young seat neighbours who might have been clarinet students. At this stage he still seems a tiny bit restrained in his interaction with the audience (when playing essentially fun pieces) but that may still develop (nearer the end of the concert he relaxed into it). I remember the young Emma Johnson, about 20 years ago, winning the Young Musician of the Year with a similar rendition of the Krussel (?) concerto.

This was really a brilliant concert to be welcomed home by!



Wow, the difference a fast computer and a good internet connection makes - takes years off your life!

Today passing through Vienna airport there was a crowd of the Vienna Boy's Choir, at least one of whom will never sing soprano or alto again.....They still have the little sailor-type uniforms, in a landlocked country.

Great news for the Vienna Vilnius flight - 'free' catering has been introduced; maybe the Board Bistro was not a success. And a very delicious mini salad it was with two little mozarello balls on a stick, a couple of slices of prosciutto type ham, and a sort of basil sauce; accompanied by a kind of cheesecake (a bit dry) and drinks. Thanks, Austrian Airlines!


Friday, November 17, 2006

Balanchine in Tbilisi

A general hubbub of conversation, mobile phones flashing in the dark - a normal performance in the Tbilisi Opera House. And that's just the audience!

Tonight's offering - three choreographies of George Balanchine, the Russian-American choreographer who founded the New York City Ballet. And very fine choreographies they were, too. But even the curtain, featuring a stage height photograph of Balanchine as a choreographer, impressed deeply!

The first ballet, 'Serenade' (1934 choreography) was pure Swan Lake. Based on a serenade for strings (Tchaikovsky?), played very accurately by the opera orchestra (not every opera orchestra would play that so correctly - do you hear that, Mr Kevisas of Vilnius?) - though it could have done with a bit more feeeeeeling - the stage was full of swans, in very tasteful pale blue, long tutus in front of a pale blue backdrop. Basically it was like Swan Lake without the endless pas de deux. Very pretty indeed, the four little swans became five swans, exquisitely delicate choreography, nice music (even that horrid viola solo went well), lots of lovely crowd scenes which went really quite well. I never knew the serenade had quite so many movements. Although this ballet was developed well into the era of 'modern ballet' (which started in the 1920s) there was only a mere whiff of modern balletic movements, otherwise it was very strictly classical.

This was followed by Appolon Musagete (1928 choreography, when B was just 24) was a story of Apollo and the three muses Literature, Music and Theatre. It was kind of a pas de quatre; quite slow and very lyrical, on an almost bare stage. Apparently the music was by Stravinsky, but it was a bit of a throwback to earlier days - very pleasant, not exactly the Rite of Spring (but since this ballet was first performed in Paris, where the Rite of Spring had caused a riot 15 years earlier, Balanchine can be forgiven). It's worth watching for the final picture alone. This also went very well.

Then, a complete change of flavour - 'Western Symphony' (1954 choreography). The music was a medley of American tunes orchestrated by one Hershy Kay. Sounds like just the kind of guy who would write music like that. The Tbilisi opera orchestra bravely hung in there, and again played almost every note - a bit - a lot - more oomph would have been nice, but this is not their normal type of playing. The stage had changed into a western village with 'Ma's Lunches' and 'ice beer' and other such delicacies advertised. (What on earth is ice beer?). The dancing was pure country and western dancing meets Offenbach's 'La Vie Parisienne'. There were some good moments in the dancing although the synchronicity suffered a bit. The costumes were stunning, especially again in the final picture. Balanchine obviously had a knack for choreographing his audience out of their seats into a standing ovation.

In the Western Symphony the tune 'Good night ladies' suddenly appeared - leading me to a flashback of the same tune in Britten's Opera 'Peter Grimes' where, at the end of a long and difficult day, the village parson sings the same tune to a couple of local ladies (actually, there might have been a bit of a party at the pub just before that scene, but I cannot remember if the party was interrupted by a storm, or the arrival of yet worse news). This opera was of course performed in Iserlohn, Germany, by the then Royal Manchester College of Music in April 1971, when I were but a lass. Memories, eh?


Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Ossetias

A question popped up about South Ossetia which on Sunday had its referendum on independence from Georgia. The question was 'I thought South Ossetia is in Russia'.

Well, no. There is North Ossetia and South Ossetia. North O is indeed in Russia (and the site of the Beslan tragedy), but South O is in Georgia, though it seems, a bit unwillingly. It is not recognised as anything like a state by anyone, and some say the referendum (which went for idependence) was fixed - not unheard of in this part of the world. It has certainly become another issue during the current Russian/Georgian 'situation', whereby the Russians are putting in a new oil or gas pipeline to South Ossetia, and recently sent a 20 m USD trainload of humanitarian aid to that region. Their own population could also do with some of that humanitarian aid...

The most famous Ossetian (north or south, I don't know) is Valery Gergiev, the conductor who is loved or loathed. Many adore him, even those sitting within flying range of his perspiration, on other occasions one reads, for example, that he is running the Mariinsky Ballet (formerly the Kirov) into the ground by not giving them enough rehearsal time. (The story was that a tour of the UK had been planned, but then Gergiev suddenly decided to perform more Shostakovich, which somehow interfered with the ballet's rehearsals, so their performances were very poor).

I see that Tajikistan has re-elected its president, without so much as a whisper of complaint. One of the key opposition candidates died in the summer, of natural causes it seems, and there was a dearth of other candidates. After the civil war 10 years ago the Tajiks are not keen to repeat such an experience.


Untorn tickets

Another British Council offering, this book was written by Paul Burke. It's about the lives of two lads in 1978/79, both from severely Catholic backgrounds in London (one Polish, one Irish) and the period in their lives between O-levels and A-levels, when they both get jobs in the local cinema. One goes off to become a film-buff and a mod, the other falls in love. They also find ways of enriching themselves and develop a fairly comfortable lifestyle for lads so young. At the same time, the very strict Catholic boys' grammar school they both attend loses its sixth form and they suddenly have to attend a sixth form college where life is anything but strict.

The book is quite funny and describes very well the agonies young men go through in relation to girls, their family traditions and religion, the seemingly total lack of conscience about their enrichment activities (what do I know about the agonies of young men?). A number of other interesting characters pop up such as the cinema manager, the boys' idiosyncratic families, the Jewish girlfriend, and here and there the story takes some very unexpected turns. In some ways the story jumps along like a car driven by a learner driver; en passant it includes a blistering critique of the comprehensive education system (it was written in 2002 well after many grammar schools were abolished), comments on the Rachman housing scandals and other events of the time. Another light read, and again not a Duracell book.

How do I know it was set in 1978? That spring I spent a month pruning the Queen's roses in Windsor (so they would be flowering the day she went to Ascot) together with a girl from Singapore who always listened to Radio 1 - it was in the days before walkmen and MP3 players. It was the season of Kate Bush's 'Wuthering Heights' (ye gads) and Paul McCartney's 'Mull of Kintyre' - both of which were played endlessly. Come to think of it, Kate Bush's song may not have been so bad; it was certainly different - but that awful squeaky voice! Worse than a vile-din! These events get a mention in the book....


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The sex life of my aunt!

My mother will be looking around her feverishly - who is she writing about now?

The British Council here is really very thin on readable books that I have not read before. Luckily I have plans for my spare time next year so I won't have finished the BC books by March.

The book of the above title is written by someone called Mavis Cheek. Do you believe that that is a real name? I don't think so either. The author in her picture looks too young to be a Mavis, in any case - I don't think there are many Mavis' under the age of 60?

So the book is about a lady who, after a very poor and miserable childhood, marries a City lawyer and moves smartly up in the world. Small reality check here - how many down trodden working class girls these days are knowledgeably selling art in art galleries in London by the time they are 19? As our heroine points out, this was in the 1960s, the only period in Britain when social mobility existed (as she says). She ends up with a very happy marriage, a fabulous house, two wonderful boys, a husband who gets a conscience and goes from city law to criminal law...and then of course she falls for someone else (who strangely not only knows her husband, but would probably also get on very well with him)...

The book describes her agonising over decision-making, her observing herself on what she is doing to her husband - but it is also very funny, and down-to-earth. Sometimes she looks back at her childhood in horror, at other times she reverts to the childhood personality - particularly in relation to her older sister. It is a light read, with occasional moments of political discussion, particularly about Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair, and has a short excursion into art history (since our ex-downtrodden working class girl after her marriage goes in for writing art reviews, organising exhibitions etc - all apparently without any training).

I would not go and spend money on the book, and I would not quite say that the author can be compared to Mary Wesley as someone has suggested (Wesley has a slightly more biting humour), but for times of weakness (sick in (a hospital) bed) it or other books by the author might be quite pleasant. It is a very quick read, though; you don't get that many hours of reading out of it (not a Duracell book).



The trouble with not having a church hall for practicing our singing is that the singing club met at the opposite end of town; which is fine for folks with cars. I found the street on the map and decided to take the metro to near the person's home.

The metro in Tbilisi is like the metro in Kiev, Moscow and Armenia. Possibly the metro in Kiev has more modern cars. These cars, like the cars in Armenia, are old Moscow metro cars. If they were western I would say they are from the 1920s, but since they are Russian I expect they are from the 1950s. With a hint of art deco, and while they are old, they are in good nick - with gorgeous rows of wonderful lights under the ceiling. Unlike the Armenian metro. Also the stations are being renovated (unlike in Moscow - where they are probably protected, and Kiev and Armenia). Like in all three other metro systems, the stations are spotless, and at the bottom of each escalator a lady sits in a little glass hut, supervising all the passengers. In my arrival station the lady smiled and said good bye to every passenger. (I have noticed that in Georgia customer service assistants anywhere are much friendlier and much more smiley than in most post-Soviet countries).

On the way back from the singing someone told me horror stories about people being mugged and robbed and all that sort of thing, and not to use the metro - but you hear that about metros anywhere - Prague's system is quite notorious; I have had my own do on the tram in Warsaw, and I don't suppose the London Underground in the crush hour is much better.

Oh yes, and I had to ask only 6 people for the street of the 'singing' house; in the process I crossed the very street 4 times and walked up and down it about 5 times - but I found it in the end! Even better, I discovered that the No 4 marshrutka (minibus) which passes my house, has one of its termini in the same neighbourhood. Unfortunately, the Armenian family whose house we were invading are moving to the US shortly, so no more return trips there.


Internet Explorer v 7

This morning my computer ground down to almost a halt when Internet Explorer v 7 decided to instal itself. It looks very nice - but it's completely newly organised - it took some time to find the 'favourites'; it has new blockers including a 'phishing blocker'. It needs to be said, though, that many of the new features are already part of Mozilla's Firefox which I use on my domestic computer at home. Even the design has some things in common with the Linux designs. Mozilla Firefox, like Thunderbird (the associated email programme) are free to download and work well on both Windows and Linux operating systems. The only problem with Thunderbird, that I have been unable to solve so far, is that it is difficult to transfer emails from one Thunderbird set-up to another (I have three, on two computers - don't ask!).

On a wider front, I like Linux and the principle of free distribution (wouldn't any Scot?), but it is not as user-friendly as Windows. In particular installing new hardware, and indeed software, can be a very painful process.


Monday, November 13, 2006

bovna ara bovna

Last night Hamlet in the theatre, produced by Robert Sturua. Another zany, funky performance!

The set was very plain - a bare stage, with a wall consisting of room-height coloured plastic panels at the back. This caused a severe draft from the stage. The characters wore generally normal clothes, eg trench coats etc, but with colourful patchwork edges, and other such little details. It was a bit confusing that Hamlet's mother (dressed as a 1920s flapper) and King Claudius were younger than Hamlet himself....

Sturua seems to go in for a lot of song and dance; even in Hamlet, though less of the song. Some of the music (Kancheli's music) was from his piece 'Styx' which Sturua has set another play to. It was a very closely choreographed performance - very funny and very colourful. A character moving like a person with cerebral palsy represented the ghost. Hamlet kept changing costumes, seemingly like someone with multiple personality disorder. The deaths were never quite final. The plot was a bit difficult to follow (not having read it in advance....) but the speech 'To be or not to be' was very clear...Hamlet came to the front of the stage, wondering what to do, behind him were a crowd of people whispering 'bovna ara bovna', suddenly Hamlet burst into finest Queen's English 'to be or not to be'.... and that was the end of the speech. Which makes me think that liberties were taken with the text....

It's definitely one to see again (even though it is long), next time with more preparation. Someone said that they had heard that the Georgians are the best interpreters of Shakespeare apart from the English. There certainly is a lot of Shakespeare going on - I could have seen the Midsummer Night's Dream a couple of nights before.


The Lost Trousers

Hash yesterday. At the meeting point I heard that it was going to be well out of town, in Mtskheta. My heart sank because it was 2 pm and I had the theatre at 7. But, I was assured, we would be back in plenty of time.

Right..so off we went; I joined a group of two others and we were a bit surprised to be squeezing into the back of a Lada. I had some things like my mobile phone in the side pockets of my trousers, which must have been hard for my fellow passengers....Anyway, we belted along the motorway at the end of a convoy lead by some four-wheel drive cars, and then turned into a tiny road which corkscrewed up and up and up the hill. It was cobbled, which would have been fine except the cobbles had slipped in some places and there were deep holes. Still fine for the 4-wheel cars. Less fine for the VW Jetta in front of us, which suddenly started spurting oil. (The Lada was ok, of course). So we stopped, phoned the insurance company, got the advance parties to come down again and collect us, and finally arrived at the starting point at 3.30 pm. As runners, another guy and I took off most of our clothes bar Tshirts and shorts, and off we went. Uphill up a very steep incline, very scratchy with lots of low growing brushwood ...great on the bare legs! Then running downhill again ... a very long way round. We runners got there first - but where was the wee red Lada with our clothes? Nowhere to be seen! So we waited for the walkers, and then for the final little rituals which take forever in Tbilisi...getting chillier and chillier.... it were freeeeeeezing! The guy and I were both very visibly shivering and shaking.
Finally we jumped back into the cars (other cars) and went back to Tbilisi, and there, outside the bar, was the wee red Lada, with all our clothes. (The driver had helped the girl with the broken down car). Thankfully someone gave me a lift home - or I would never had made the theatre. I did not get warm again all evening.


Saturday, November 11, 2006

Where to keep your fiddle?

The viola list has been in slight uproar recently when a younger member asked if it was a bad thing to do to keep the viola out on a stand all of the time, so she could practice it at odd times. While it seems that there are People Who Do This Sort Of Thing, collectively we jumped in and said ' how can you do this?', 'how darn hard is it to put it in a case', and listing the types of accidents that might befall the instrument. The discussion then veered towards those people who leave their instrument on the chair during orchestral rehearsal breaks.

One list member today recounted the experience of the ' Louisville Orchestra. I'll never forget, even when a tornado was coming through, and the musicians were evacuated to the basement of the building, many chose to leave their instruments on their seats, as they were accustomed to doing during break. Until that point, I hadn't seen it outside of highschool either, and I'm happy to say I haven't seen it since then (at least with violins and violas.) There are many veeeeery good reasons not leave your instrument on your chair during break.'


Mystery solved!

This article explains what happened to my little Borjomi kiosk. Apparently the police requested Coca Cola to close them down on traffic safety grounds. I can't myself see what effect such a kiosk would have. How can the presence of the kiosk on the pavements cause car accidents? Surely drivers who need emergency cigarettes, would not screech to a halt beside a kiosk if there is another one another 50 metres on. Actually, in Georgia, they might!

It's a shame for the people who depend on these kiosks for their living, and a wee bit of shelter from the wind or the sun. If Tbilisi wants to be 'European' there are plenty of other ways to start, such as repairing the roads, pavements, houses, getting constant electricity. Here just the little guys get it.

And while I am also not in favour of Coca Cola, not the healthiest of drinks, being advertised everywhere, guys, just remember which country is looking after you at the moment. Don't bite the hand that feeds you!


Counting readers...

I now have two ways of counting readers, and they both count quite differently. The feedburner with a depressing number of 2 seems to count the people that somehow come through the feedburner...the other counter, the little map at the bottom of the sidebar, shows 53 readers in two days, when I click on it, including someone in Japan, someone in Brazil, a few in the US....It probably also counts every time I look at it (after every entry); hence there is a large blob on Georgia at the moment. I might change these things a bit more....



To the left is today's lunch, showing....a Georgian bread (the thing looking like a flattened dead duck), a selection of salads, grapes (bought), and a closed bottle of wine (something had to add height to the composition!).

This is the bread that I had written about some time ago, which is cooked in that round oven halfway underground, which the baker dives into and slaps the dough on the wall. All Georgians love it though they say it makes you very fat - because it is so nice. Mine usually lasts a few days and then I wrap the rest nicely and place it on a rubbish bin, where a hungry person might find it and devour it. The other day I did not find a bin on the way to the posh Marriott Hotel (for our project launch with the First Lady) so I had to give it to a lady begging in the street. Luckily she took it.

To the left is a ready made salad mix I bought, consisting of typically Georgian salads...it consists of a beetroot salad, possibly with nuts and prunes, a spinach salad possibly also with nuts and something white and crunchy, and grilled aubergines and peppers stuffed with ground walnut. Half of this is quite enough for lunch, especially with a hunk of bread.

For tonight there will be Jerusalem artichoke soup - I was totally surprised to find these in a little greengrocer's the other day. My Georgian colleague did not know them either. I have not eaten them since I lived in Scotland and grew them in my garden. They are always a pain to peel, but the taste is wonderful - the aftereffects are something else...I cannot remember where I got to know them - at Finlaystone? Once you have them in your garden it is hard to get rid of them.

Khachapuris, the bread mentioned below, come in different flavours from gruesome to absolutely delicious, depending on how they are made. Basically it is a dough (either yeast or flaky pastry) filled with cheese and sometimes egg, too. If you go down this page you will see a particularly challenging one. It is always served hot. Georgian khachapuris are better than Armenian ones, and the Georgians are surprised that you can get them in Armenia, too. And that's quite enough that I have spelt out that word!

Final comment on food - on my meanderings on the way back from the baths I had spotted a very German health food shop, containing everything from organic spices to organic baby clothes, plus some souvenir fabrics and things - and 'Lebkuchengewuerz', a spice for German Christmas baking which you can almost not get outside Germany. So of course I had to pop in and get some for my Christmas Stollen which I will need to bake as soon as I get home. That might be the first time it is baked with the right spices....


Friday, November 10, 2006


Yesterday at lunchtime I went to a little shop to buy a Khachapuri. A beggar nearby accosted me and asked me to buy him a meat roll. I said something like 'over my dead body' but since I would not be able to finish my whole Khachapuri, I offered him the half I had not bitten into. He refused!

Tbilisi has the most beggars of all the post-Soviet countries I have worked in. Even in the much poorer Tajikistan there seem to be fewer beggars - most of whom are of school age there. Here it is mainly older people who sit by the side of the road or go up to cars stuck in traffic jams. There are also some street kids, but not that many of them. One of these caught me last Saturday, but I did not give him anything also on account of an older lady (not begging) who kept shaking her head. There are facilities for street children in Tbilisi.


Regular Supplies

Life is a bit unpredictable in Georgia. Electricity often fails though usually for brief periods. At work every day I like to drink a litre of Borjomi, the local sparkling spring water with that little hint of salt - the blurb says it's rich in natural mineral salts - I'd say! It must also be great during those little moments of intestinal catastrophe, none of which has happened to me here so far, in five weeks. Pretty impressive!

Anyway....so every morning I try to pick up a bottle of the stuff on the way to work. There are lots of shops on the way, and it should be easy, no? One morning I discovered a wee stall, under a red canopy, huddled at the side of the road. Two women were sat behind a row of newspapers and I clocked a few bottles of Borjomi beside this. When I asked for this, an ancient grubby fridge was opened and the Borjomi appeared (it's in a sealed bottle). This went well for another couple of days and I thought I was establishing a relationship here. Last Monday only one of the ladies was there, the fridge was away as was the Borjomi. Strangely, the same morning all subsequent stalls, the little market and even the wee corner shop were all a bit in a state of disarray. For some reason shops here are always very short on change, so although the cornershop had the stuff, it did not have the 70 tetri to give me in change.

As the week wore on the little stall became smaller and smaller; yesterday I spotted the remaining lady, without her canopy, talking to a resident in the flat above, whose gas heater outlet was just above the saleslady's head. Great for the health. Today the lady was there with her papers, no canopy, and I noticed the socket for the fridge which had been screwed on the outside of the house (I was not always convinced that the fridge was actually connected). So, what is going on - is it simply that it is getting too cold to sit outside? Have they been 'cleaned up' by some kind of police? The corner shop is still not fully sorted; there are empty shelves, lots of ladies on camping chairs sitting in the shop. It's all very strange.

Tonight went for a meal to the Zandukeli restaurant, which had been mentioned laudibly on the Goethe Institute website. Not having paid much attention to the house number when reading the website, I wandered up and down the street outside the Goethe Institute about 6 times before I finally found it at a distant corner. It is owned by a German, together with a number of other locations, and the food is very Germanic; sauerkraut, knoedel, that sort of thing - I went for the Italian stuff and got some huge portions, most of which I left. The waiter speaks, it seems, fluent German, although he looks Georgian. Only I and a couple of men were there; one of them possibly Austrian. It seems in Austria they say 'der Scheiss' (rhymes with 'chase'). The wine seemed a little thin and acid.

I had contemplated going to see the Midsummer Night's Dream in the theatre, but I would have been too late, once I had eaten. I see there is another interesting play - one based on the Beslan catastrophe (not that far from here), and played by children of the same age group. It must be unbearable. In any case, I won't have time - that evening the opera house is putting on an evening of Balanchine ballets.


Environment? Are we Northern Europeans not very clean?

In Tbilisi I am waging a never-ending war against plastic bags. Everything, bar the bread, is wrapped in plastic bags. You go into a shop, pick up a tiny tray of salad, and it is put into a shop-sized plastic bag. The stalls at the streetside wrap everything in plastic bags. One time I bought a carton of juice in a shop with the intention of popping it into my backpack, and it was a hard struggle dissuading the shop owner from wrapping it into plastic. She said 'Kultura!' Obviously it is a cultural thing to wrap everything. People are always surprised when I refuse the plastic bag.
Another thing is the hygiene. As a northern European I often get unpleasant foodborne infections when working and living in warmer countries further south. But watching people here I wonder if we Northerners are just pigs? In Muslim countries all restaurants have handwashing facilities before people go in, and those Muslims who visited Lithuania always insisted on washing their hands before eating. People wash all fruit very thoroughly; yesterday someone was washing the oranges before peeling them. In Istanbul airport the toilets are exemplary, fully equipped with bidet functions as well. Where it is possible, people in the South are a great deal more hygiene conscious than in the North. That might be another reason why we Northerners get infections more often than those living in the South (apart from being used to local germs).

This is also confirmed in the baths, where people stand under a thin dribble (though thicker than in my domestic shower) and soap themselves, then peel themselves, then soap themselves again. It can take a good hour, but particularly in the winter it may be the only time where women have space and time to themselves without a large family hammering on the bathroom door.


Thursday, November 09, 2006

Bach and Black Dogs

Today Daniel Hope's (for copyright reasons I changed a rather nice picture of him with Sting to this little one from his own website. It shows him listening to this CD - note what it does to his hair.) CD of Bach violin concertos appeared here in Tbilisi. Via amazon and DHL, of course - miracles don't yet happen. It contains the two solo violin concertos, the double violin concerto and the Brandenburg Concerto No 5, the one with the endless harpsichord solo. As my school teacher told us, it was the first concerto in which the harpsichord had a solo part, rather than scratching around in the background, or accompanying recitativos with POM pom. Do I like harpsichords? Do I like the sound of a bunch of keys being being dropped on the floor repeatedly? Next question.

This recording has been highly praised, and it is quite breathtaking. Bach is being taken at extremis here - the fast movements are belting along, the slow movements are taken very leisurely; some have quite a wistful quality. His approach to the rigid Bach rhythms (as the historically informed school might see it) is a bit idiosyncratic particularly in the slow movements, and actually quite romantic. The first movement of the E major concerto sounds like a bunny hopping out of its den (? what does a bunny live in?), hop - hop - hop, and then skedaddling along, sometimes with its friends, sometimes alone, sometimes jumping about on top of a hillock, sometimes joining its little friends gambolling along - but it is definitely leading them astray; oh my god, there it nearly died - but it was just teasing, and is off again with its friends - and that's all in the first movement. Overall his performance could be described as 'funky' and certainly as 'imaginative', and since the orchestra is the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, modern instruments are used. It is certainly a most interesting disk with lots of little surprises.

On the books front I finished Ian McEwan's book 'Black Dogs' very quickly; it is very readable. It describes an author's attempt to write his mother-in-law's biography. Not many men might wish to write their mother-in-law's biography, but in this case there are extenuating circumstances. In effect the story jumps about in different periods but does progress throughout the book, attaching itself to a number of historical events. Like McEwan's other book 'Saturday' which I read some time ago, the narrator is given to ruminating a lot, working out what other people might be doing, and why, and what they might be thinking. Fairly unputdownable because the story of the 'black dogs' is only revealed at the end.

Now, Amis' 'Time's Arrow' is still being read, it is very put-downable, but in the absence of TV one has to look at something else than a computer screen of an evening. One can get used to it, and then again a sequence appears totally back to front, but I don't think I'll be able to finish it before I need to return it to the British Council. Not a catastrophe!


We are famous!!

Passing through Jessica's blog I see a reference to an article by Norman Lebrecht on classical music blogs. Lebrecht, it should be added, has a tendency to controversy, often criticising the music business (cannot remember whether he finds it too elitist, or he considers it to be dumbing down). Anyway, he describes Jessica's blog, including husband and her cat Solti, and refers to one of her regular correspondents a viola player in Vilnius. Who is? Of course?....

Obviously he did not come across this blog, but just wait....


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Language - it's a scream!

I was asked earlier today to help a friend of a friend of a friend to help with a translation into English of a German website for migrants, amongst others including social services terminology.

It was very interesting, and very hard - there are ideas that foreigners just cannot conceptualise! Like 'Baby Klappe' - which is a box at the side of a maternity hospital where mothers wishing to abandon their new-borns can pop the baby, secure in the knowledge that the box will be checked every 15 minutes or so. Much demand for this then, is there? Though it's an easy solution to an awful problem. 'Familienkasse' is not a 'family cash box', but a kind of insurance which pays child benefit. 'Jugendweihe' - only in the former DDR is a kind of secular confirmation event for young people; I wonder what people will make of the 'initiation to adulthood' translation - it should not involve physical pain.

However, for a total scream you should click on my new buttons, if they exist in your own language, and read the translation by Google. You'll not recover for a long time!


Almost, Hans, almost!

Yesterday was the launch of our project in Georgia. The great and good were there, apart from our minister who was busy doing other things. The First Lady herself came, Sandra Roelofs, (second from the right on the rather dark picture). The launch was a success; we got our points across, other people got their points across...

Hans, I was almost at the First Lady's elbow, when I realised that I did not know how to address her! 'Mrs President' or 'Sandra' - I am told she is very informal! I later heard that she had asked who represented the Dutch company (me!) but was not told that until after all had gone home. Things need to be put into place for this. Apparently she is very interested in our project and all that we do, so there will be other opportunities to pass on your regards!


Monday, November 06, 2006

More admin

I have been frustrated with the narrow strip of text that appeared down the middle of my screen, and so I have managed to widen my blog to fill more of the screen - and save people scrolling down. I would be happy to have feedback if people have trouble reading it from side to side (it might be too wide for some computer setups?).

I am still working out how to get the comments to appear on the same page (once they are accepted), rather than having people click on them, and I would like the red strip of the side bar to be longer - does that mean I have to fill it with reams of text?

Doing things to the blog seems rather technical, much like the Linux system - it almost requires a bit of programming knowledge....


Sunday, November 05, 2006

One of the benefits of being in the hash is that other weekend activities also take place. It now seems that every second Sunday there is a hash, and on the Sundays in between there is a walk. I got the email from the hash team 'meet at Freedom Square in front of the Municipality building at 11:00 am for a relaxed pace walk in the environs of Tbilisi'. So I thought it would be a bit of a stroll round different corners of Tbilisi. I was a bit surprised that other people were wearing serious hiking boots. Since there had been a misunderstanding about the starting time - in fact it was at 12 - those of us who had turned up went for a coffee, during which I learned about the cultural facilities of the Goethe Institute (which also has a cafe) and the Centre Cultural Francais Alexandre Dumas which has 13,000 books (about 11,000 more than the British Council). I should find something to read there ...and I have now signed up to the Goethe Institute newsletter. There is going to be an interesting concert on November 14th with a German a capella group.

Anyway, at 12 the others appeared, all with big boots, and one guy with walking sticks (from Muenster, Germany), and off we went in taxis into the countryside. One of the persons in big boots said that the last walk she had done in trainers and ended up with bleeding toes. Up and up and corksrewing and corkscrewing we went for about half an hour. Then we were almost on top of the mountain, 800 m above Tbilisi and all we needed to do was to walk back down again.

This we did, on a long walk through the forest. We met a car rally but they did not go too fast uphill. Also saw some sheep, and rather interestingly found ourselves above the level of the top of the TV tower. Also saw some sheep, and some of the cutest puppies - but we did not need any dogs! Bolle, the labrador/Staffie cross was with us again, really on best behaviour even near the cows.

After walking downhill for miles and miles suddenly we hit flat ground, and could really feel our muscles! We thought we had done 15 km; a guy with a Global Positioning System said we had done 11 km, but we are almost certain that he had taken some shortcuts.

During the walk talked to some other lovely and interesting people, and I may have fixed myself up with a piano teacher (but she does not know that yet). A lot of French people were on the walk (about 3) and that was very nice.

The photo shows Tbilisi from above, in a haze of ... pollution? My own flat is too high above that to be much affected, and there are those vine leaves that filter everything.


Hotel Rwanda

Last night I watched the film 'Hotel Rwanda'. The film is set in the 10 weeks of madness in Rwanda when the Hutus tried to kill the Tutsi population, and left between half a million and a million dead. It ended when the Tutsi resistance got itself together and drove out the Hutus (that might be a story that still needs to be told). The Hutus then fled into Congo and a number claimed political asylum elsewhere. The butchery was very barbaric, as also described in the book 'A Sunday afternoon by the poolside in Kigali' - the two documents triangulate quite well. The second one is a thinly disguised piece of fiction, the first is a dramatised version of real events.

The local manager of the Milles Collines Hotel, owned by the now defunct Belgian airline Sabena, is a Hutu married to a Tutsi. First he brings his family and neighbours into the hotel, then other people begin to hear about it and in total he shelters and feeds over 1200 people in a hotel built for 100. He constantly has to make deals with the local military, police etc to keep them off his back, and has to pay black market prices for food. When the water is turned off, they have to use the swimming pool water for drinking water. The UN is powerless, and although some European soldiers come in briefly, they are all evacuated. So the hotel owner is on his own, not helped by one of his staff who betrays secret plans that are made....

It is a harrowing film, even though it does not show the full gruesomeness of the events as they occurred there. It clearly shows the total impotence of the UN and other international organisations in the face of this level of barbarity and genocide. The situation in Darfur is probably not all that different - just the genocide is slower - and we have been watching for over two years.


Saturday, November 04, 2006

books etc

After my crazy dash into the BC library and having made the receptionist sign me up for it, I had little time to look for books - but at first sight found the fiction shelves rather disappointing. I picked up two books and need to have more time to inspect the shelves - when?; maybe they have a half decent audio libary. The books were well thumbed (if there are not so many), and the choice is much much smaller than in Vilnius (where BC benefits from a better layout). But Tbilisi is twice as large as Vilnius....

Picked up a book by Martin Amis, just to read one of his books, since He Is Famous (Son of Kingsley Amis who wrote very wickedly amusing books and highly praised for his own books). I have looked at 'Time's Arrow' and it is dreadful. It seems to be about a guy who lives backwards; for example when he eats a meal he starts with the clean dishes in the dishwasher, which then get dirty, then the food comes out of his mouth, is arranged nicely on the plate and so on. Thankfully he only starts this description with the dishwasher - it could be worse. No doubt it is an interesting intellectual exercise to write a book backwards, much like writing a book in verse or something. Apparently Auschwitz comes into it. Hmm. Might have another look if I get Desperate.

Otherwise picked up Ian McEwan's 'Black Dogs'. Will report later.

Just now am finishing reading Alice Munro's 'The love of a good woman'. My mother had given it to me since she did not find it interesting. It looked ok at a first glance, but in general...it is a series of quite long short stories, some are connected, some not, all without a beginning and an end. Many are set in rural Canada (America?) and are written in a simple country folk style. They are probably easy to read for non-native speakers, too, but leave the reader often suspended in mid-air.

Today I found a video-shop that sells some English language DVDs, and those of a reasonable quality. Earlier it was very easy to get DVDs and videos in English, but now they are all dubbed so fast in Russian that it has become very difficult. Got three - I did not know one of them, and it turns out to be, according to the internet, a 'heartwarming story of a boy seeking God'. Might have a high puke rating....

Must go and watch one of these. Last night I watch a rather bad Korean copy of the 'Calendar Girls' about those WRI ladies who did the nude calendar to raise money for a cancer unit somewhere in Yorkshire. I now know the reference on my friend Ann's T-shirt where it says 'Don't touch the buns!'. A great English film, with all the female mainstays of English acting. Helen Mirren, who has played Queen Elizabeth I and II, is one of the main characters, and the one with The Big Idea. But where was Judy Dench? Maybe she was too posh?


Happy Birthday, Mr Adamkus

Yesterday was Mr Adamkus', President of Lithuania's, 80th birthday. The 'Economist' in the spring described him as 'doddery'. I don't think he is quite that, and he lives very healthily as we are told twice a year when he goes for his checkup. But the guy deserves a break. Question is - who else is there in Lithuania? We are now having a new generation of politicians, maybe less with a Soviet influence, and we need to bring up some strong, decent and honest personalities.

I remember Mr Adamkus 75th birthday. It was on the day of a concert with Rostropovich, which Mr President attended (having, I think, given Mr Rostropovich the Lithuanian citizenship under presidential privilege). Mr Rostropovich is about 4 or 5 years younger. At the end of the concert, he jumped off the stage (about 90 cm high), ran round to the President, and planted two or three great big wet smackers on his face. Mr President, being of a more American persuasion, was rather startled!


settling in

I'm still doing that! When I moved in I clocked the enamel pots and bad memories appeared of burnt food (most recently in a flat in Kiev, oops!). So far so lucky, though today I managed to boil the kettle dry (kettle without a whistle on a gas cooker...). Luckily I noticed it just as I was leaving the house for 4 hours....

So, having already bought a wee stainless steel pot for the morning porridge (in an initially cool flat this was necessary, and boy that pot is worth its weight in gold) I had to splash out on an electric kettle today. So far it has not brought down the electricity.

But I must also get some candles; the electricity still fails quite regularly. Nowadays it is better than it used to be, but many homes and offices have generators for these moments. I regularly pass a hairdresser's which has two of these sitting in the window - for sale?


I know I am slimming...

but I am sure I cannot have lost 3 kg (half a stone) in weight in a week! Not having scales at home I depend on people in the street who sit there with their little scales and charge 20 tetri (1/5 of a lari) for the privilege - so twice I have used the same guy near the baths to try and aim for consistency; same time of day, same clothes, everything, he has a heavy medical set of scales, and 3 kg down..... Probably the scales were sitting on a stone or something. Pavements don't do 'even' here. Next time I'll need to use the scales in the baths - they are less likely to be shifted around every day.

Mind you, I walk a lot in Tbilisi. People who tell you that Tbilisi is a small town are people who sit in cars. Now I walk to work every morning, about 3 km downhill, and of course last weekend there was the hash with the 14 km round trip including walking to the meeting point. Saturdays I wander all over the place - and I must discover more 'places' - still a bit thin on restaurant knowledge - so I reckon in the last week I must have covered 30 km. How will I keep this up in other locations?


The British Disease?

Having been here for longer than expected, I am a bit thin on reading matter. Unfortunately the British Council is only open during working hours, and on Saturdays from 12 till 17. So, after my baths trip today (today's 'peeling' really did take a piece of skin off my elbow), I ambled along the main roads, dropping in here to get some videos, there to get some theatre/opera tickets, and finally arrived at the BC, in the Rustaveli Avenue.

I was astounded to see at the library entrance a sign saying it is open from 12 - 14hrs. It was 14.00 hrs and there were still people in the BC. I'm afraid I gatecrashed, and the very nice girl accepted my registration and everything. Apparently the library closes every Saturday at 14.00, and indeed the sign had been manufactured; it was not just a word processed document. So like the embassy (see entry of 31 October or thereabouts) they say one thing on the website and the reality is quite different.

I wonder what kind of example BC, and the embassy, set to our Georgian hosts? If we had had that sort of customer services in the late lamented Benefits Agency, the customers would have climbed in through the windows, sued us for untold harm to their personal lives and so on. Do these organisations think that the 'locals' (ie 'natives') should be so grateful for their presence that they will put up with anything in order to breathe the air of British?

Incidentally, I discovered that BC is registered in the UK as a charity. No doubt that was part of the 'reducing the civil service' strategy of the late 80s under Mrs Thatcher. I am trying to work out how an organisation with a monopoly of representing the UK government (and often providing the cultural attache in the host country) can be a charity, with all the tax benefits this entails. Hardly an independent charity. I am sure it is still well subsidised by the UK taxpayer, and not just through the tax benefits.