Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Rushing to Rwanda - Vaccilating round Vienna

My little piece of work in Rwanda is finally coming off in mid February - it was supposed to have happened in October last year. Then I would just have flown from Vilnius - now I have to travel from Tbilisi....it'll be a long, long journey, 27 hours there (four flights) and 38 hours back (five flights). Kind of far away, this Africa! I am sure as the crow flies I could have got there more easily, but not according to the time tables. So I am hiking there via Vienna, Amsterdam, and Nairobi (there was another option of taking a route via Brussels, but a half-hour turn-around in Vienna does not sound good for peace of mind or luggage).

However, always one with an eye on an opportunity I will now have an 11 hour stop over in Vienna on the way, and about 13 hours there on the way back (and 6 hours in Nairobi and and and). This means that my anticipated 'returning home from Georgia treat' planned for later this year can already be rehearsed on the way to Rwanda. Very pleasant, really. It means even more that I can stock up on books, and maybe also send one or two of my course assignments by snailmail from Vienna rather than by DHL from Tbilisi. But the best thing will be that on the way back I will be able to go to the Volksoper to see Boris Eifman's version of 'Anna Karenina' - at least half of it. It's a relatively new production, and ticket prices at the Volksoper seem to be half those of the Staatsoper.

Boris Eifman has done lots of wonderful choreographies, mostly in St Petersburg, where he hails from, also some in Vilnius ('Russian Hamlet' - about Tchaikovsky, 'Red Giselle' - about a Russian prima ballerina who during the revolution is unable to keep up with new styles of dancing, flees to Paris, everywhere falling unhappily in love with her ballet teachers or partners and finally going mad; both absolutely stunning, and another one where he quoted from a 1930's ballet 'The Green Table' by Kurt Jooss, a bit of an icon of its time). In Vienna he is probably best known to TV viewers for his choreography of the New Year's Concert (which he might consider trivia?). He often uses taped music which is a bit of a shame when, as in Vilnius, you have an orchestra to be employed, but the music he chooses is quite heavy, symphonies and so on, and often crosscutting between pieces. Not sure that the Vilnius opera orchestra is quite up to slipping from Mahler to Mozart via Schnittke.

So there are things to look forward to in all this, and of course the work. Let's hope we stick to the Rwandan state language of English, rather than the Rwandan state language of French.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Loss after loss

Kiran Desai's 'The Inheritance of Loss' , bought in Berlin in the Buch Box, is a totally different kettle of fish compared to Alentejo Blue, reviewed below. As a Man Booker Prize winner it will have been reviewed 1000 times already....

It's brilliant! Set in India in the late 1980s, it focuses on an elderly judge, his granddaughter, his cook and the cook's son in America, and a series of other characters, most of whom are elderly Indians who try to maintain the 'British way of life' against overwhelming odds. All have lost something, or are about to lose something - the granddaughter lost her parents in a car crash in Moscow, the judge loses his dog, a couple of elderly sisters lose their lifestyle, a Brit living in the area loses his residence permit, the whole area loses its peace in a sudden rebellion by Nepalis, the granddaughter loses her boyfriend, the cook's son loses his dream of making it big in America....

Although the book describes many tragic events, it is also really funny in an Indian sort of way. I am not sure how to describe what I think is Indian humour, but you find it, too, in Vikram Seth's 'A suitable boy', in some of Rohinton Mistry's books ('a Fine Balance') - it's always a bit surreal, and often juxtaposing very funny moments with quite appalling horrors. For example, the parents who are killed in a car crash were in Moscow because the father was hoping to be India's first astronaut: 'Just as Mr Mistry [no relation] was confessing to his wife his certainty that he would be chosen over his colleagues to become the very first Indian beyond the control of gravity, the fates decided otherwise, and instead of blasting through the stratosphere, in this life, in this skin, to see the world as the gods might, he was delivered to another vision of the beyond when he and his wife were crushed by local bus wheels, weighted by thirty indomitable ladies from the provinces who had speeded two days to barter and sell their wares in the market.'

I love reading books by Indian writers (though they also come and go a bit - you cannot generalise)! My only quibble with my paperback edition was the appalling small size of the print - but it did make the book more portable.


Book blues

Picked up Monica Ali's 'Alentejo Blue' in Istanbul, having loved her 'Brick Lane'. 'Brick Lane', set in London, was funny, exciting, one did not know what was happening and full of little details (she says, writing from memory and not having said book to hand). 'Brick Lane' is all that 'Alentejo Blue' is not.

Maybe it's the difference of being set in vibrant London, compared to life in a little village somewhere in Portugal. This book is a series of descriptions in rather dull days of different people, locals, expats, tourists, written from each other's perspectives in life going on in this village. There is a loose kind of time sequence but when one person speaks one only occasionally picks up hints about other people who one has passed by in earlier chapters. The only tension is created by the blurb on the back of the book 'the homecoming is a subject of continuing speculation, and when Marco Alfonso Rodriguez finally does appear, villagers, tourists and expatriates are brought together and their jealousies, passions and disappointments must inevitably collide...'. Don't hold your breath. This is about the most exciting sentence in the book. The characters are mostly dull people, all feeling downtrodden, and that they could do more with their lives (and indeed they could); nothing very much happens, apart from a teenage pregnancy and this homecoming.

A reviewer in amazon writes: 'Every page glitters with stunning prose'. Eh? What's stunning about 'Field upon field upon field, wheat and grass and fallow, on and on and on, and in this flat composition there was a depth, both sadness and tremulous joy'. 'Flat composition' seems like the operative word here.

I hope Ms Ali will return to the form of 'Brick Lane', and soon.


Monday, January 29, 2007

Slack Alice....

...or East German pianos by the name of Alexander Herrmann. Turns out that the piano I am using is unusual in more than one way - apart from the keyboard sloping away from me, the way it is strung is also different - the tuner muttered something about an 'experimental design'..... The only way of fixing the keyboard issue is by tilting the piano towards me - would I want that? No - and anyway, probably the music would fall off the thing. Also, it seemed to be a particularly relaxed piano, or rather a piano with especially relaxed strings - was it 20 years old or had it not been tuned for 20 years? I did not understand, but he did not seem too impressed even though it looks a nice piano. Inner life issues - I guess. If it were a fiddle it would need retuning again soon - but then for the moment I am not playing it like I would my fiddle. We'll see.

I see that the 'Queen' has been nominated for lots of Oscars, as has 'Little Miss Sunshine' (for rather fewer). Interesting.


Saturday, January 27, 2007

Military Hardware, Deadly Potions....

...it must be Romeo and Juliet at the Opera and Ballet Theatre! Prokofiev's version, that is. Choreographer Michael Lavrovsky, it seems, had his 65th birthday last year, as All Russian News stated:

to One of the most well-known Russian dancers, the national actor of the USSR Michael Lavrovskomu 65 years are executed.
It danced the main parties to " Don Kikhote ", " Swan lake ", "Nutcracker", " the Sleeping beauty ", "ZHizeli", "Spartake".'

Hope you get the drift. I am not sure what the 'double' is about the anniversary, and I also wonder about the size of the All Russian News translation budget.

Anyway. The orchestral start was so bad, so rough, so missing the first violins that I thought of going there and then. Unison in the winds? What's that? During the first interval I heard the front desk of the celli practice a slide, and the players landed on different places every time. Also noted that the orchestra has a fine set of brand new looking double basses, and that there were 4 violas to 6 celli. Unusual.

Once the dancing started, I was riveted. A wonderful production, funny, lots of energy, lots of crowd dancing, stunning costumes, Juliet was sublime! And as for the sword fights - masses of swords all over the place, their clashing almost drowning out the orchestra! It was mostly classical ballet, in a very traditional setting with lots of major scene changes (nothing symbolical or minimalist here) but with a few, very few, touches of modern ballet. Given that the choreographer is a mere slip of a guy at 65, and modern ballet, as we know, has been around since the 1920s, that's the very least he should have done.

The guy who danced Mercutio was dead good looking (and later just dead). He swaggered around, an arrogant and funny b....., taking the mick out of everyone else, and especially his opponents. It was a bit unfortunate that Mercutio looked very like Romeo's arch enemy (Tybalt?), and what with costume changes one could get confused.

It did not seem entirely right that the priest gave Juliet the poison that would kill her; what kind of priestly behaviour is that in dealing with a lovesick 13-year-old? Would not pass modern social work practice.


Still Life with Chicken

Tried out the central market today, a busy, bustling market for all kinds of foodstuffs near the Tbilisi railway station (first time I had penetrated that far into that side of Tbilisi).

Like in all markets in all former Soviet countries, especially at the hotter end, it does not do to inspect the state of the floor too closely. Also like everywhere, however, the food is displayed at its best with piles and piles of fruits, vegetables, chickens (dead), meat, cheeses, probably honey somewhere.... The choice of vegetables is the biggest I have seen in Tbilisi - before I could never find fresh spinach, even though there is a Georgian salad involving nuts and spinach, but here it is (though I still have about 2 kg in the freezer).

Living alone, the problem is buying small quantities. Here I bought the smallest quantities I could....as seen in the photo. This all needs to be processed - the food is so ready to eat that it does not keep long. No trip to the market, or indeed the supermarket next weekend, I guess.

Points of particular interest - the round bread at the back, which someone tells me is called 'lavash' like the very thin Armenian bread (don't entirely believe this story). The pot of matsoni, Georgian yoghurt at the front - wonderful stuff. A bit of a little round white cheese, slightly salty. A bag full of mushrooms...and of course a chicken, complete with head and feet (very clean, and nearer an 'A' size than a DD size like British chickens). Of course when it is weighed you also pay for the head and the feet....

Even though the prices were not marked, I did not think I was being ripped off particularly, as I might be in some other countries - the prices seemed fairly normal compared to those I have seen written down in other shops. The lady with the cheese was appalled - she told me it cost 6 laris, I gave her six laris, but actually the price was per kilo and she only wanted two. Another lady taught me to say 'a kilo' and 'half a kilo' in Georgian. 'Erti kilo' and... the other one is complicated!

Talking of food, the Guardian led its readers to a lovely blog for quick Indian cooking which looks very interesting. Must look for something to do with all those aubergines - but I could also look at www.aubergine.org!

A couple of days ago I discovered a wonderful Turkish restaurant, the Ankara in the area quite close to the Turkish Airlines Office (around +- No 130 Agmashenebeli Avenue). It's a lokantasi where the food is on display, you pick it, a waitress loads it together with a huge basket of bread and a glass of water on a tray and follows you to a seat at a table. Great for lunch - and it's cheap, too. They have the rice pudding!!!! But with it being Georgia, nothing goes without nuts, so a teaspoonful of grated nuts is sprinkled on top of it.


Friday, January 26, 2007

The Piano Tuner

A book with a title after my own heart by Pascal Mercier, and not just because it's three days before my own piano tuner cometh. Actually it's only in German - 'Der Klavierstimmer' - does not seem to have been translated into English, nor do any of his other books, or amazon would sell them.

It's quite a fat paperback, with quite a lot of bang for the buck (high word count). Starts very slowly - if I had not been trapped somewhere without anything else to read, I might have put it down again after the first 20 or 30 pages. As I went on, it became less and less putdownable.

Pascal Mercier is a Swiss (and a swish) professor of philosophy living in Berlin, who writes books, not too many of them, in his spare time. Unlike that other heavyweight professor, Alexander McCall Smith who does quite easy reading with a sprinkling of philosophy, Mercier's books are quite heavy (without any obvious philosophy references) - though slightly easier than those by Orhan Pamuk (or is it just because this book is set in a society more familiar to me?).

The book is about a Swiss piano tuner, living in Berlin (no! really?), who works for Steinway (odd bit of product placement here, no?) and who is accused of shooting dead an opera singer in mid-performance. His twin adult children, Patrice and Patricia, who had run away from home after a brief incestuous moment, try to reconstruct what lead to the crime. Each fills a series of exercise books of their thoughts and recollections of their own lives and their parents lives, and these are alternated in the book, so that one constantly sees the same situation from two different understandings. Thankfully, though, the exercise books join up the story line very well.

The beginning is heavy-going, but the reader really does get drawn in, often guessing in advance of what might have happened, and reading on in an appalled and fascinated way to see when Patrice or Patricia will work it out, too. Some events are hinted at, described from a child's understanding, which is then reviewed later.

For me there is an interesting link - the twin's grandmother was a ballerina of Georgian extraction, who researched the history of ballet, also coming across the story of Filippo and Marie Taglioni, a choreographer and his ballerina daughter. Filippo choreographed 'La Sylphide' which I saw in Kiev only a month or so ago, in the same choreography.

Very recommendable for those who like a rather (much) more demanding, much subtler, almost 'detective novel' - and who can read German.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Sounds of Silence

My neighbours might not agree! The blog may have been silent for a couple of days, but my house has not....

On Tuesday I had my first ever piano lesson with a local teacher. In anticipation of the lessons I had bought 'Die Russische Klavierschule' (the Russian piano school), published by Sikorski who did very well for themselves out of the fall of the Soviet Union, when they bought up copyrights to large amounts of former Soviet composers - and they are still chasing some composers - I know! This piano school is however adapted for the German market, and contains quite a lot of German children's songs, too - that's how instrument schools go. I had peered at it before I started and thought that it looked like quite a relaxed approach; first one hand, then the other (to start with in treble clef....).

By the end of the lesson I was 'playing' item 112 of the book, firing on both hands, and if the piano had not yet to be tuned, would have been firing on both feet as well. Geeeez. Sink or swim, I think. At two lessons a week life is going to get pressuresome. The teacher is going to bring some book of 'easy pieces' for tomorrow's lesson. How long before Elise comes knocking at the door?

Quite apart from that, also started on my music course. At the moment it seems fairly straightforward (after decades of music playing), but no doubt one day it will turn around and bite me. It starts right at the beginning, and I mean totally at the beginning, about at 'what is a note'. But I wonder if a) anyone who has never learnt music would ever embark on this course, and b) if they do, how would they cope. The course introduction states that this subject is usually taught on a one-to-one basis (I feel I am getting some of this in my piano lessons), and there is even some attempt at piano teaching by video (I am about 5 seconds ahead on that!). Like all OU courses the videos/DVDs are ancient, and our presenters look like typical OU lecturers of the 70s, fair isle sweaters and all. But it's quite different from other OU courses in that you have to constantly listen to sound samples. So when I thought I'd do a course to stop me from sitting in front of the computer, internetting all the time, now I am sitting in front of the computer, slotting in and out CDs and DVDs all the time.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

My top 5 of Turkish food

1. Rice pudding - comes cold, with more corn starch than rice, but oh, the taste
2. anything with aubergines
3. hot chocolate - just right (though a hat of stiff whipped cream would make it just perfect)
4. Cacik (or Tsatsiki in Greek)
5. Eating in a Lokantasi

Here endeth the Turkish Adventure.


Shopping in Istanbul

Not that I did that much of it...no carpets....

Interestinly a contact suggested that you can buy a carpet there and get the shop to ship it home for you (after you have taken a photo of the shop, the salesman and the carpet); other sources suggest that you might not unwrap the same carpet at home... much like suppliers to EU projects when heavy-duty lino is ordered for a project office floor, and you end up with paper-thin stuff....

In Istanbul there are whole streets specialising in certain types of goods, eg gold, silver, clothes, lights, musical instruments, electric cabling, and so on and so on. Many of the goods are sold in wholesale quantities, even in the town centre - eg a bag of 100 silver bracelets, or, at the side of the road, waist high bags all containing the same wolly hats. There are also many informal little street stalls - I even spotted a microscopic stall selling 'Viagra' and 'Cialis' - no doubt the size of the stall was in inverse relationship with the hoped-for effect of the drugs concerned.

I saw some strange contraptions whose use I could not work out, until I spotted them on the backs of men bent down under loads bigger than themselves. These contraptions kind of extend the back so that the guy can carry a really gynormous load - saves using donkeys and getting in trouble with soft-hearted tourists complaining about animal welfare.

Picked up some spices, some Turkish Delights, lots of dried figs (had a bad do with dried figs as a child, when, in order to keep me regular, I had to eat soaked dried figs for breakfast every morning - yuk!, but unsoaked they are nice), some prezzies but no carpets, harem outfits or fezes!




Sunday in Istanbul, and another wonderfully sunny day. A culture day (many shops are shut!). Off to the Hagia Sofia (or Agya Sofya) which was made a museum by Ataturk in 1935, probably a good move at the time (at the same time Stalin was blowing up Christian cathedrals in Moscow). The Hagia Sofia, as we will all remember from our school days, is one of the oldest churches in the world, particularly noteworthy for its original architecture (it promptly burned down). The current version, which has been standing for a good 10 or 15 centuries, has had both Christian and Muslim tenants, and you find a mosaic of the Mother of God next to a Muslim shield. The mosaics, consisting of thousands of stones, have been plastered over and opened up on a regular basis in the last 100 or 200 years. (Pure coincidence that on the photo the Mother of God is floating on a sunbeam!). A very impressive building indeed.

After that off to the Topkapi which I mostly know thanks to that film with David Niven, the only sleek cat in Turkey in his black poloneck playing a cat burglar. When I went into the treasury all I could think of was, where is the diamond, and which window did he climb in through. Funny how the big big diamonds, of some 80+ carats, looked so much plainer than the million-faceted reflection of the geegaws, gadgets, bowls, vessels, caskets, sword handles, medals, studded with little precious stones. Interesting also the tulip symbols on many of the gowns. Tulips come from Turkey (and associated countries) of course, not from Amsterdam, despite what the song says.

Had a look round the harem - it was only accessible via guided tour, where the young tourleader giggled a lot and lost herself in a confusion of translation. Apparently this is the place which Mozart's 'Seraglio' is based on (how did he know?). It was very stony, virtually no soft furnishings, some open fires in some rooms, no access to a blade of grass, the concubines were kept separate from the wives, for good reasons no doubt. It seemed that the Sultan slept on a platform bed (or was that another translation issue?). In front of his bedroom were a couple of rooms with padded benches and I wondered if at night all his wives/concubines would assemble there and he would say...'hmmm, it's you tonight'.
Tried to get some of the Seraglio tunes into my head, but succeeded only with the Magic Flute.

In the afternoon wandered down to the ferry port to have one of the legendary fish sandwiches (quite good) and then popped onto a ferry to a place called Kadikoy (there should be an umlaut 'o'). Sunk deeply into my book and got of at Kadikoy - another very busy place. Found a lovely cafe above a bookshop just by the harbour. A building that looked like a former market hall seemed to be part of the Istanbul Conservatoire of Music. Very small, I thought. As I was leaving the place on the return ferry I suddenly thought - this looks like the Asian shore (I was convinced I had just popped round the corner at Beyoglu), and some hasty rifling through my guide book confirmed that I had been in Asian Istanbul, complete with the railway station donated to Istanbul by Kaiser Bill. If only I had realised sooner!


Monday, January 22, 2007

Some more sunset photos



On the weekend my readership exceeded 1000 for the first time (in total, since records began on about 9 November, as they say about the weather). Some people have more readers, but me, I'm happy!

Also today the parcel for my OU music course arrived, all 3.5 kilos of it! About 24 CDs, a DVD and lots of text books - all looking quite technical - I think I'll get to know my intervals and chords and whatnot by the time I finished with this. So the blogging might get a bit less generous for a while! My poor friend Grazina had to get the mail notification from my flat, run to the post office about 2 km away, then pick up the parcel and shlep it to the DHL office - quite close to my flat....She has done wonders!


Turkish politics

Got back to the hotel from dinner on the Friday night, switched on the telly and found a CNN report of the murder of Hrant Dink, the Armenian-Turkish journalist, in Istanbul. Eh? Not so I had noticed. CNN showed a huge demonstration involving, it seemed, thousands, in protest of his murder (which surprised me a little bit). Apparently he was killed by some stupid boy aged 17 or so. Boys should really be locked away between the ages of 14 and 20! Someone had probably wound him up. It must be really hard to govern a country like Turkey which has such huge differences in outlook between different parts of the country.

I had heard nothing at my end of the town. Where was all this happening? So I changed my plans for Saturday and went over to Beyoglu - the big Ataturk cultural centre is there, and I thought that's where the demos might have been, too. My Lonely Planet guide had a walking tour for that neighbourhood, and maybe I could do it in reverse, arriving at Taksim, the nerve centre of that side of Istanbul.

This line of people (read men!), on Galata Bridge, was busy fishing for tiddlers - the tiniest fish, no longer than an index finder, and half the width. There were hundreds of them. Not sure of the point of it all.

Well, I did not even find the starting point (or the end point). Partly this was because in Istanbul roadsigns are a little scarce; also I did not have quite the right understanding of the scale of the map. So what was supposed to be a day-long enterprise had me standing, after quite a lengthy detour (I worked out afterwards), on Taksim Square by 10 am...and for the rest of the day?

Luckily creeping up the very steep hills I had clocked a poster for a concert, by the Istanbul Devlet Senfoni Orkestrasi (Devlet might be a word for a type of institution, like 'municipal' or 'national'). And it was to be at 11 am, in the Atatuerk cultural centre. Perfect, or what?

That gave me just enough time to dip into the lovely cafe nextdoor and partake of not one, but two dainty custard/fruit tarts (see picture - they are on a saucer!) - they were so small that even a dieter could try out both tastes.

The Atatuerk cultural centre is, to be frank, a monstrosity. Built probably in the late 60s or 70s, it is a smoked glass cube, with lots of lights hanging down, darkly teak pannelled walls, red chairs, lights in the ceiling of which random ones work, and a shell for the orchestra. The hall is used both for orchestras and concerts, but the shell suggests that the acoustics for orchestras is not so great.

Anyway - the hall was full mostly of older folk, though also a school class or two. The programme was Rodrigo's 'Concerto Madrigal' for two guitars and orchestra, and Mendelssohn's 3rd symphony. I'm not a great guitar friend, but ah well. The problem with them, apart from the plink plonk, is that they always need to be amplified when playing with an orchestra. Here we had the two guitarists Liat Cohen and Ricardo Moyano. Liat, female, was very much the dominant partner in this. She got all the good tunes...the way they were sitting, her hair hung down so that she could not see her partner (but in some ensembles that does not matter). She also moved her microphone with the result that she sounded as if she was sitting beside you, and he - well, we could see him play. The orchestra seemed to have been told that they had to play quietly for the guitars, and this they followed to the letter, to the point of inaudibility at times. At other times, in any case, the orchestration did not seem that great, and much hanging about took place on stage. I feel no need to hear this piece again in a hurry. For their encore, the two guitarists dropped their music stands and their hair and suddenly came to live with some typically guitarish kind of piece.

The Mendelssohn was nice enough, though I do wonder why it was called the 'Scottish' symphony. Did he write it when he was there, bobbing about in the sea outside 'Fingal's Cave'? Anyway, a perfectly pleasant morning in Istanbul. Interestingly, the orchestra had 28 women out of a total of 67 players - the highest participation of women I have seen anywhere in Istanbul!

Then I wandered back across the square to start the walking tour the right way round... except I could not be bothered to bob up here and duck down there, to peek around a corner or slip down a lane.... The main street, the Istiklal Caddesi, was heaving with people streaming up and down in both directions. The busloads of riot police were loitering at the top of the street, going shopping for their lunches, chatting to their friends, all very relaxed. This seems to be the main shopping street, with many brand name shops, but also many bookshops, quite a lot of whom have English books....

And then there were lots of cafes, self-service restaurants, posher restaurants - a street full of bookshops and restaurants cannot be bad, no? Had a gorgeous lunch in the lokantasi 'Aga', full of slightly ageing men (in the side street by the mosque Agua Camii) - this is a restaurant where you look and point at the food, and it is brought to you at the table (about 5 seconds later). I am not sure that you get alcohol in some of this locantas. Picked something covered in strips of aubergine which turned out to have the tenderest, pinkest meat under it I could imagine? Rabbit? Once I got to the bone I realised it would have been a wer-rabbit. No idea what kind of meat it was. But soo goood!

(In the evening I ate in another locantasi, almost next door, the Haci Abdullah, with a melt in the mouth chicken on a puree of aubergines, a kind of slippery, shiny puree perhaps also with potatoes, but what a taste!! Total bliss - and much cheaper than some other restaurants I had been to).

Tootled on down the street; found a tiny demo about Hrant Dink taking place (about 40 people), with some riot police chatting quietly nearby. The Turkish Daily News said that yesterday's demo had contained 60 people, and yet CNN had shown thousands all facing the same way (unlike a shopping crowd where they go in both directions). Strange - whose news were right?

Crossing the bridge again to Sultanahmet I passed the ferry terminal, and wasn't there a wee boat just ready to leave for a round trip? It was to last 1 hour 15 minutes, or maybe 1 hour 50? Popped up on deck, where, on a January afternoon, it was none too hot....

We sailed over back to the Beyoglu side, then pottered along the coast under the large Bridge joining the Asian and the European side - it took so long that I began to worry whether I had got on a ferry and might have to find my own way back, but as darkness sank, eventually the boat went over to the Asian shore, and returned to the harbour with a very few and rather frozen set of deck passengers. Brrr. - And then the hotel had no water, so no chance to warm up!


A Plump Purr of Pussies

Cats with old men,

cats with young kittens,

cats on rooftops and

cats climbing mesh fencing,

cats sitting serenely

and watching the world.

Cats sleek and chubby,

cats rough ...and tubby,

cats at the butcher's and

cats in the fish shop,

cats taking their share

without fear or alert.

Cats posing for tourists (I swear it miaowed 'where you from?')

cats strolling through parks,

cats sleeping in bookshops and

cats munching from pink dishes

...in the street - that's Istanbul!

powered by performancing firefox



I love Istanbul airport - it's where I have done some of my best writing in one or more 6-hour waits between planes from Tajikistan and planes to Vilnius. Getting in there this morning, when it was empty, shooting through the visa and passport queues (what queues?), getting my Turkish Liras from an ATM and being picked up was a matter of minutes.

I love Istanbul. Got to my hotel, the Sari Konak, at about 7 am (room booked from today, normal check-in time 14.00) I had my room available immediately and breakfast thrown in. Wasn' that nice of them? It would probably have been more difficult during a more touristy time of the year. And it's a lovely hotel, recently done up, nice clean bright rooms, everything working in the bathroom (not everyone may appreciate that this is a bonus!) and just very relaxing. The walls seem to be a little thin, but most people are out most of the time.

It is situated in between the Blue Mosque and the Bosporus, which (old town?) though this and all the hotels around it look relatively newly built. Many of the other hotels are wooden buildings - one hopes the fire regulations are strictly enforced! Got in just before sunrise, with a pink sky to the East, and the ships on the Bosporus silently sailing by, all lit up. Very romantic!

Off I went this morning, swithering whether I should do Culture or Shopping. Persuaded myself to do shopping, on account that it is Friday and Mosque Day, but then noticed people (tourists) coming out of the Blue Mosque, so I went and had a look anyway. A very stunnning building, with a huge floorspace covered in a carpet (which did not seem to have joins...that would have been some size of loom!). Despite the carpet I could feel the cold creeping into my stockinged feet. The lighting of the Mosque was hanging very low - a basket ball player might have had trouble with it - I wondered if it was meant to add heat as well?

As I exited, the guard was in some hysterics - some Central Asian looking ladies (black leather jacket, headscarf tied in a Central Asian way) were just slipping back into their high boots on the spot where it was written in English not to put your shoes on. Ah well.

Later in the day the Friday prayers took place, and the pavements outside every Mosque were covered a prostration of men. Quite a number of businesses were shut as well for the duration of the prayers. I't strange that the bazaars are closed on a Sunday and not a Friday.

With some Istanbul men it would not hurt if they spent more time in prostration. I learnt after the first day to keep my eyes firmly on the ground and avoid eye contact if I did not want to be hassled by less desirable types, especially those, who were not attached to a shop. One guy took it really quite badly when I said I did not really want to speak to him - he became very offensive. (So much for the simple 'anti-rape' rule of 'just say no'. Research has shown that this is very difficult to do because we have been taught not to offend people, and 'just saying no' can do just that. So that is not really the answer).

In the morning I wandered round the Grand Bazaar for a while. It's rather embarassing when there are not so many other visitors, and all those salesMEN can focus on you. Did not find anything that I desperately needed, neither belly-dancing outfits, carpets, leather jackets, pottery (quite nice), cymbals, scarves (everyone around me has hundreds of scarves), lamps, jewelry etc. There was a pale beige carpet runner I quite fancied - until I remembered that the only place suitable for it is the place where I park my bike! That made life quite easy....

...but later on in the spice bazaar I literally 'paid' for it. This is a much smaller bazaar which sells spices, but also a limited range of goods similar to the Grand Bazaar, bar carpets and leather clothes. Many of the goods here are labelled with the price, which takes a lot of pressure off. You also then notice that the stalls immediately surrounding this bazaar sell some of the goods at half-price! Picked up some stuff there, including presents for people. Not sure how much they will be appreciated...bought a lot of Turkish Delights which the young guy chucked into a number of boxes, I expected him then to arrange them neatly - but his rather severe-looking mate just closed the boxes and then vacuumsealed them. So how squashed the contents are, goodness knows. I had also looked for the same olive oil soap that I had bought at the airport last time I was here...here I got it loose. He gave me the 'best-looking pieces' (which look as if they have been in a flood)...can I really give them to people? As for spices, I am now sorted for cooking in Georgia until the end of the year!

powered by performancing firefox


'She got a Golden Globe for....

'acting a stiff Queen?....' (or two), was the response of one of my loyal and devoted readers from a republic, hearing about Helen Mirren's success at the Golden Globe awards. The implication being 'where's the acting in that?'.

I suspect that these awards, like the Oscars, are given as much for subject matter as for the acting, lighting or whatever - that was one of the comments when 'Schindler's List' got so many Oscars. The Americans, who I believe give out the Golden Globe, are quite fascinated by our Royal family, and the tragedy of Princess Di. Apart from the fact that Dame Helen Mirren is a fabulous actress anyway (who, according to my commentator, just had an easy time of it in this film), this fascination may also have contributed to the prize. Had she acted Mrs Idi Amin, or Mrs Saddam Hussein, the acting might have been a great deal more difficult, and would the film have been so highly rated?

powered by performancing firefox


A red mullet is a chubby wee thing

...when it's still in the sea, or at the fishmonger's. When it is fried, however, it takes on the semblance of a skinny sardine. So it was quite necessary that I had 7 on my plate this lunchtime - each of which yielded about 2 teaspoons full of meat. And a potato, a slice of onion and a thin slice of radish. Not much danger for my diet there, and all the more opportunity to fill up tonight.

I had come across the fishmarket by accident, having taken quite the wrong turning to go to the spice market (on the opposite side of this land spur). The fishmarket brought back memories of Pieroni's in Ayr, possibly the best fish shop in the West of Scotland and within walking distance of my then work. Their fish was to die for - as was the fish in the Istanbul fishmarket, all beautifully displayed, clearly showing the very fresh pink gills. With the mullets there was not really opportunity to get the flavour, between the friend skin and the thimble full of meat. Might not go for them again....

powered by performancing firefox


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Gourmets, Giggles and Golden Globes

Lotus reads has a wonderful review of Madhur Jaffrey's memoir 'Climbing the Mango Trees'; now on my building-up amazon list. En passant I notice Ms Jaffrey has brought out many more cookery books. Must stop reading Lotus read's blog!

The funniest blog entry I have read for a long while is Grannyp's fight with her wetsuit - maybe it was not a good idea? (Grannyp retired to the Canaries, or thereabouts, but seems to be dipping a lot back to the UK or other parts of Europe).

I see that Dame Helen Mirren has won a Golden Globe for her Queens, both QEI and QEII. QEI was filmed in Lithuania! (It was shown in Vilnius in September last year - I found it too long, but it turns out to have been a mini-series).


Heart attack on a plate

For the last few days I had noticed the restaurant near work (just up the road from the Marjanishvili Theatre) with large pictures of the Adjaran khachapuri on its window. It always looked busy, too!

Yesterday some friends went there for lunch and raved about it, so today I took my turn. The only foreigner in the restaurant I effectively blocked a table for four - no-one wants to sit beside a foreigner...A rather dopy local couple was hovering when I sat down - I don't know if I had taken 'their table'. I know they were dopy because 10 minutes later some other people entered the restaurant and took the next empty table, and the couple again stood behind them and let it be taken from them. If I were you, girl, I would not marry him.

I ordered the khachapuri in the picture (courtesy of Wikipedia) - it seems that it is not fast food - but it's fresh food! Half an hour later it appeared on the table.... shaped like Napoleon's hat, filled not only with the raw egg which you then scramble inside the hot bread (my friend had lightly described it as 'scrambled egg on toast') but also with dollops of salty Georgian cheese, and with a great lump of butter on top. That was soon removed, but still - it was extremely filling. This kind of khachapuri has to be made freshly for everyone otherwise the thing with the egg won't work. I don't think I will have it every day....



Listening to Nigel Slater's 'Toast' whilst cooking (reheating) dinner. His delivery is somewhat flat and northern (like a diluted Alan Bennett) but the meals he mentions bring back memories....

Although I did not spend my childhood in the UK, I recognize many of the meals - Spaghetti Bolognese, with the spaghetti boiled for 20 minutes; Sherry Trifle with a thick layer of jelly (didn't Birds of Birds' Custard fame make a trifle pack that you just put together?), flapjacks (never cared for those a great deal), jam tarts (never made them but saw them in shops), Victoria sponges, his mother always burning the toast - no doubt he'll come on to macaroni cheese in a little while....This brings back a lot of memories! Although I spent my British formative years at Finlaystone, where not a tinned or frozen product would darken the door, I had my fair bit of exposure to the plastic food of the 70s, with the cooked breakfast at my agricultural college every morning, and two more heavy cooked meals for the starving farmer's boys; the salads which were naked except for salad cream (a lettuce leaf, a tomato, some cucumber, a boiled egg, and a stick of celery), later the digestive biscuits and the milk whilst pregnant, olive oil only bought in small bottles at the chemist's and to be applied to the skin, externally.

At Finlaystone most of the food was home produced; all vegetables bar potatoes were homegrown, in the winter the meat was often the result of going shooting; other meat was grown on the home farm and often home butchered (legal in those days). The Finlaystone breakfasts were out of this world, especially on chilly winter mornings, in a 'Big Hoose' with at the time rather limited heating; the grapefruit juice followed by hot and cold milk (cornflakes with hot milk and sugar are a particular delight), the fried or scrambled eggs on a small slice of fried bread with a slither of crisply done bacon, followed by toasted homebaked wholemeal bread, always a little on the dark side, with home-made Norfolk marmalade, made from Seville oranges, and in the winter with crystallised sugar. That really laid a sound basis for a morning working in a frost-ridden garden.

And for an extra dose of nostalgia I am listening now to the original Decca recording of 'Peter Grimes' which has just been reissued and which I picked up in Vienna. The recording was conducted by the composer, Benjamin Britten, with Peter Pears as 'Peter Grimes'. It's a tragic, tragic story of a fisherman who has problems with his young apprentices (keeps losing them overboard) and as a result is ostracised by his community. Based on the poem 'The Borough' by George Crabbe, and set in East Anglia, where Britten spent most of his life. It's probably the most successful opera by Britten, but he's written some other nice stuff as well, not least his 'Lachrymae' for viola with that sublime and extremely moving ending of the Dowland song.

I bought the LP version of this 'album' in Bournemouth in April 1971 when I was on my first English language course. It cost 14 pounds at the time (nothing much has changed then, last week I bought it for 22 Euros). Immediately prior to this course the then Royal Manchester College of Music had visited the town I grew up in, for a fortnight of rehearsing and producing this opera with multitudinous students - huge crowd scenes.... Unfortunately I cannot remember the names of any of the singers, at least one of which (the 'Peter Grimes' character) got an immediate engagement at a German opera house. It was an amazing fortnight, and I hung out at the theatre all the time - that's when my English language skills turned around....


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Terminal Bewilderment

As soon as I got to work I realised I had forgotten to take my concert ticket. This meant having to run up the hill, past the concert hall, grabbing the ticket, and a very quick bite to eat, and rushing downhill again (for another climb up after the concert). Not happy!

At 6 pm I burst out of the office and shot home, belting past an elderly couple on the final approach - where the husband was gently swaying in the breeze/due to wine/due to exertion, and the wife gave a startled squeak as I rushed past, taking two steps at a time. Picked up the top ticket from my pile of tickets (which are always in date order, aren't they???) and found that the concert had started at 6 pm. Aaarggh. Couldn't be bothered to run down again, so settled down to reheat my stew (third out of 4 or 5 sessions....), and then went and plugged in my computer....passing my pile of concert tickets, with one for today right on top now ... I had moved what I thought was today's ticket into the 'concerts I (almost) attended' pile (in fact that was a ticket for 30 or 31 January). And guess what? The concert was due to start at 7 pm. It was 7.20 pm.

Out I burst of the house, down I hurtled the steep slope to the concert hall, over I tumbled and skint my knee, up I picked myself and into the concert hall/opera house I shot. I had had no idea what the programme might be, though from the numbers on the poster I suspected it might be classical or baroque ('No 29' for example). And I was right - it was an evening of Mozart music. I got into the building at the start of symphony No 29, and after the interval we had a very early symphony (No 10?? 3 movements) and a piano concerto (No 17). It was the Opera and Ballet Theatre Chamber Orchestra (with the only bassist a female!), under George Babuadze, and pianist Valerian Shiukashvili, a dapper young man with a Chopin hairstyle.

The conductor was very active and managed to get some very nice expression out of the orchestra, doing particularly well on the dynamics. Naturally one cannot expect period instruments here, but his interpretation was pretty middle of the road, not lush (or even slushy) as you might get from some Eastern European Chamber Orchestras, not Harnoncourt either, but quite pleasant. His winds rather let him down, creating a bit of a sound soup - maybe like a spinach soup where the spinach has not been washed properly. The lead violist seemed to be enjoying himself. The pianist's and the orchestra's interpretations did not always quite match, and the pianist did not seem quite as at ease with the music as one might have hoped. The piano part had rather interesting cadenzas, three of them (which is a bit unusual, no? one for each movement). The first movement's cadenza quoted the opening bars of 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik' nicely set against the movement's themes; the second movement's cadenza quoted that Figaro aria 'Se vuol ballare, Signor Contino'- this was rather neat. I don't know if these are well-known cadenzas for that piano concerto, but they made it a bit different and interesting, and the orchestra loved them.


Monday, January 15, 2007

Long weekend coming up....

.....I heard today. Friday is a public holiday in Georgia, 'Epiphany' (twelfth night??). What to do? 3 days in Tbilisi, in my slightly fresh flat, in front of the computer, is a bit much - no studying yet to do; trips to the countryside have not yet been organised by the travel agencies (except for skiing - so what is there? Where can I go? Going back to Vienna is a bit much, after the bruising my credit card got less than a week ago....it would be better to earn the money quicker than I spend it....what flights are there from Tbilisi airport?

Ooooh, Istanbul! And daily flights as well - what's more, what with the timing of the flights I can get three very long days in for the price of two hotel nights - I'll be knackered! So off it is to Istanbul on Friday morning. ....sadly, there seem to be no interesting concerts or opera/ballet performances apart from Otello, and one does not need to do that to oneself. But this can still be checked out. There should be no need to shop, what with not needing a carpet.... (famous last words?) Shame, now, really that I did not buy that Orhan Pamuk book on Istanbul; then again, it would take all weekend to read, and the reviews by the amazon readers do not fully persuade me to rush out to buy it, especially having struggled with some of his other books....


Sunday, January 14, 2007

14 January in Tbilisi

Hash Sunday and another gloriously sunny day! ... with a temperature of around 5 degrees C... The turnout was somewhat small - only the hardy people turned up - many are still returning from their holidays. One had been to Kenya and returned brown as a berry, another had been to Paris, Ghana and South Africa, yet someone else had been to Israel. Expatriate life, eh? Also today was Georgian New Year (as I heard around midnight, when a zillion fireworks went off) and so the Georgian contingent was limited.

These pictures were taken about 20 minutes from the centre of Tbilisi - some of our hash members live within walking distance of this totally deserted upland area. We know it is totally deserted because there is no rubbish lying about.

The hash was not always as flat as this....shortly afterwards we hit a series of hills - not always running!

The 8 km of ...running....almost without incident, apart from the moment when we rounded a corner and nearly headed down a ravine, and a short while later had to cross the same ravine on a shiny round gas pipe (only kidding, I found a way of getting around it a bit further up) ...

On the third picture, in the distance on the right, you can just make out the TV tower which is almost immediately above my house.


Paradise Island

....or is it? Yasar Kemal's book 'Die Ameiseninsel' (not yet translated into English; the Turkish title translates as 'Look, the Firat River is flowing with blood') is set on an island off the Turkish coast which was inhabited by Greeks. As part of a Greek/Turkish exchange some time after the first World War, the Greeks who lived there for 3000 years are evicted from their island, to be returned to Greece, with similarly Turks being evicted from Greece to Turkey. While the island is empty, a mysterious stranger calling himself Musa the North Wind obtains the title deeds to one of the properties there and settles on the island. He does not know that one of the Greeks, Vasili, hid when they were transported away, and is still living on the island, with a vow to kill the first person who comes to the island... Not only that, but Vasili participated in the Battle of Gallipoli (on whose side?) and thinks he recognizes in Musa an army colonel who committed terrible atrocities.

Yasar Kemal (born in 1922) is one of the most well-known Turkish authors. He grew up in Van (formerly in Armenia) and some of his books are set in that remote part of Eastern Turkey. I have read a few of his books, and remember particularly one about 'Mehmet the Hawk' (one of his classics), and 'The Wind from the Plain'. (I also read 'Salman the Solitary' but can remember nothing about it....and am not at home to check it.) Kemal is a committed socialist. The books that I have read are generally set among the downtrodden of his society, always in rural society where the next meal is not guaranteed, and it seems mostly in the earlier part of the 20th century. The Intelligentsia definitely does not get a look-in.

This book seems a little different from the rather grim books set in the far east of Turkey; is it because it is set on a rather lush island in the Mediterranean (I think it's in the Med..., references to actual places are thin). The other two books gave an impression of dust, sand and starvation; this island, whose landscape is described at great length and in stunning detail, seems to have everything that a person could desire - and even the sea surrounding it is heaving with fish (wait till the common fisheries policy gets there!). His loving description of the very slow growth and development of olive trees gives them a soul which causes them to tremble with joy when they see a person approaching. Joy, as well as anger, features prominently in this book - 'Did they, in their whole lives, ever stroke a blue flower growing in a corner with their glances, because they dared not touch it, and then they would tremble with joy' (Much trembling with joy going on in this book, and indeed much simple joy).

Since Vasili suffers from flashbacks of the wars he was in, there are also many very vivid descriptions of the awfulness of the battle of Gallipoli where thousands of soldiers died appalling deaths in the snow and mud. All characters in this book were involved in the war and other atrocities, and some behaved really quite appallingly, whereas others suffered grievous losses. Musa, apart from being a war participant, then with some other renegade soldiers pillaged, looted and murdered many of the Yezedi population in (vaguely) the Iraq area, wherever they could be found, and then the Bedouins.... This is interesting, because some Yezedis now live in Armenia (as do some Kurds). They are rumoured to worship the Devil (this may be a misunderstanding since their word for the highest angel sounds like the Qu'ran's word for 'Satan'), and have been persecuted for centuries.

I was rather surprised that almost at the start of the book a Georgian name appeared. But much reference is also made to Chechen 'Khans' - the Chechens are described as the 'eagles of the Caucasus' - , Cherkassyans and other groups from countries from which the Turks were driven by the Czars. Obviously the Turkish empire extended very far and wide - as seen by the Turkic languages of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. One of the characters in the book is called AbdΓΌlvahap - not unlike my Kyrgyz colleague Abduvap...

Also at the beginning of the book the word 'Serail' (Seraglio) pops up a lot, where a land registration official in the nearby town is found to be someone who also comes from the Caucasus region, where he owned many seraglios. Interestingly (again!) a seraglio is what we understand as 'harem', a place for wives and concubines - and of course we have our musical link with that Mozart opera. These seraglios were staffed, according to Wikipedia, by eunuchs who were either captured in war (eg Christian Europeans), or recruited from the Turkish empire, particularly from Georgia and Armenia. Is this part of the world closely interlinked or what?

The book is extremely readable; it has plenty of drama, tension and excitement, and at the same time has these wonderfully indulgent descriptions of the luxuriant nature of this island. Kemal is extremely effective in using extremes of contrast between the peaceful, lush, beautiful island and the blood, mud and snow of the war scenes. While written in 1998, and set in perhaps the 1920s, it aptly describes the contradictions of life in that part of the world, and the turbulent and very troubled history affecting all its peoples. Interestingly, both Orhan Pamuk's and Kemal's books are very big on descriptions, but Kemal's writing is much less convoluted, and the story line goes somewhere.

And this was the final book of the 5 books to be read before the end of January - I am very glad I picked it up.


Saturday, January 13, 2007

Settling in (again!)

In for a longer spell this time, I thought I'd check out that shop 'Goodwill' that has been praised by Georgians and internationals alike. It describes itself as a hypermarket, and has a very flashy website. I had looked at my city map, but could not find it on it.

No wonder! I had called a taxi, and found the shop to be about 10 km from my flat, very much on the edge of town. It's a bit of a small hypermarket, probably no bigger than my local Maxima in Vilnius - and it's like a big barn. As my international blogging colleague says, it's like shopping in Berlin - nearly all the goods are German, and mostly well-known brands, too. It even has a whole shelf of all those German hypochondriac teas, for this, that and the other medical conditions. Only in Germany they try to cure diseases with ....tea (or rather, disgustingly flavoured infusions). It was a bit surprising then, to find one bit of a shelf labelled 'German' ....Some of the goods, especially the frozen vegetables, come in catering size packs - my 2.5 kgs of frozen spinach will last for a long time. So now I am sorted on basics for at least a month, saving me a lot of shlepping. I did also buy Georgian goods, like lots of wine, milk, water. But then still I needed to go to the wee wumman in the cornershop to get fresh stuff, and that's quite a nice thing to do.

Later, I toddled around to the sulfur baths for a wash and a massage, passing the Parliament with its Santas on the way. It would appear that there were 4 Santas originally, but the air seems to have gone out of two of them - could that be said about a lot of things?

The baths were packed today, with a heaving mass of flesh consisting of rather rubenesque naked ladies of all ages queuing for the shower stalls. I had forgotten to take my glasses off, so I could see Georgian womanhood in all its glory. It is not so easy to elbow your way in when you and everyone else are all soapy and slippery, but people were very lovely and helpful and ushered me in the right direction to get my turn at the dribble of sulfuric walter (it's a better dribble than I have at home.)

It must be a winter thing to do, and given the temperature in my bathroom it is not surprising that people like to go somewhere where they might feel warmer, and have a good soap down. I felt rather dirty because my showergel does not create as much foam as theirs - and it looked as if I might not be washing properly.

The noise level was amazing; even in the queue in the waiting room conversations bounced round the whole room. A lovely old lady with about 4 teeth, sitting beside me, kept telling me jokes in Georgian and giggling madly. In the baths themselves everyone was chatting to everyone else - what with the tiled walls the sound was meeting itself in the middle. Seeing all those women crowding round the shower stalls reminded me of a concentration camp scene in Rabinovici's book where the naked women are herded into a shower room and they don't know what will come out of the faucets.

After that went round looking for birthday cards (not sure they were 'birthday' cards, and I had hoped to find some originally arty ones) and got some concert, opera and theatre tickets. Thank goodness I can read some Georgian letters - otherwise I might have missed a chamber orchestra concert next week (could not be bothered to decipher the programme, but we'll soon find out). Unfortunately, having bought ballet tickets, I then discovered that at the same time 'Twelfth Night' will be on in the theatre, which I would fully expect to be a riot. With any luck it will be repeated another time. I am looking forward, though, to seeing Hamlet again next weekend, and maybe this time I can work out how to get the British Council funded simultaneous translation. I see it is possible to download the script from here.


...now wash your hands!

...tells us the Scottish Health Minister, Andy Kerr (who in a previous life was responsible for the bins in Glasgow, so he would know).

The Scottish Executive is going to spend 2.5 million pounds on talking posters, telling folks using public toilets to take care of their personal hygiene. 'Tis all in favour of reducing hospital-borne infections. It would help if hospital workers started by doing this.... but governments north and south of the border (oh, I forgot, we don't have a 'government' north of the border) have in the past discussed getting visitors to wear face-masks, banning visiting altogether....moving the blame nicely beyond the health service. Now, when we had matrons like Hatty Jacques that would never have happened - mind you, in her days and her regime the nurses did the cleaning, and the visiting hours were very strictly limited.

Other pieces in the news concern the Rwandan Olympic football team, beginning to train for the 2008 Olympics. Apart from starting without a coach, news media report that 'the turn up was encouraging', and they go on to list the players who 'turned up'. That sounds like real commitment and aching to go, no?

powered by performancing firefox


Friday, January 12, 2007

Welcome to Tbilisi

It would appear that the costs for excess baggage have increased considerably in the 10 years since I last took lots of stuff out to foreign postings.....For my longer stay in Georgia I had blithely packed a second case with lots of books, study materials, comfort foods, small but effective spices, music listening equipment, that headtorch for those power cut moments ... only to be faced at Vienna airport by a very large bill for excess baggage (about 25 Euros a kilo). (The nice folks in Vilnius had just let it go, but the overnighter in Vienna meant a second check-in; aaarggghh). The stuff will have to comfort me well, then.

Georgia, of course, is under boycott from Russia, and last month was under threat of having its gas turned off - this was averted at the last minute. Its tangerine merchants are, as we speak, trying to break the blockade to Russia (how?). Coming in from the airport, you would not notice such oppression!

The entire road from the airport into the town was garlanded with chains of multicoloured lights; in the town lightning displays had ringing bells and holly leaves from every lamp post, but the best are the two gynormous (inflatable?) Santas, about 5 m high, standing and sitting right in front of the Parliament. Like a Christmas tree, or a hundred Christmas trees lit up - global warming? I wonder if Santa Claus is part of the Orthodox faith? What signal is this supposed to give, apart from a laugh to the population? Why outside the Parliament and not on Freedom Square? What gifts are the Santas supposed to bring to Parliament? Questions should be asked.

And why are they still here? The Orthodox New Year will only be on Sunday, 14 January...if there is an Orthodox Twelfth Night, it will be almost a week later, so it might be a while before the whole spook disappears....


Vienna Vignettes

'Tis was a beautiful balmy morning in Vienna on Tuesday; the sun was shining, it was pleasant to read the paper on one of the many seats all over the centre of town (on 10 January when it should have been freezing), the municipal gardners were going about their business, weeding the trees in the plant troughs.....

...when round the corner came a baying sound, of people upset about something. Wandering along to investigate I found myself facing two bored policemen minding a scruff of rather underdressed youngsters covered in red paint, and shouting away, demonstrating against the fur trade outside the Burberry's shop. It would seem that Burberry's use fur in their designs - have you ever seen a Burberry fur coat? Nor have I - no animals grow the Burberry check on their backs. The double irony of demonstrating against fur coats in a spring-like temperature (when no-one in their right mind would wear a fur coat anyway), and about 50 metres down the road from a real furrier's escaped them completely. Was it a demo against the fur trade or against globalization?

Of course spent much more money than necessary in Vienna (there goes a New Year's resolution...) in the EMI shop in Kaernterstrasse, the music shop Doblinger's in Dorotheengasse and Jem Mode in Himmelpfortgasse, a shop selling the most wonderful silk outfits. Just what I need in Georgia....

Also popped into the Mozarthaus (Domgasse 5), for the sake doing at least something cultural in Vienna (9 Euros). It is a three story building, laid out in the modern sparse manner that other musician's flats Vienna are also displayed, eg Schubert's and Beethoven's flats. Mozart's flat in the first floor (until 1787 - the poshest one he had all his life) essentially went round the stairwell from the front to the back of the building, around the side .... and all rooms joined onto each other, like pearls in a necklace. No space was wasted on a corridor, so Mr and Mrs Mozart, their children and various servants all lived on top of each other. Sanitation? Who knows. The display in the house was mainly of portraits of other people living during Mozart's time, a job application with many crossings out, and many bits of manuscript (or facsimile's). I did not learn much new, but it was interesting looking at the place, and observing the view along the very narrow street facing the flat, lined by tall houses. There are many such streets in Vienna town centre. When do they get the sun?

Popped into a cafe where at the same time Anna Netrebko was partaking of Kaffee und Kuchen (so I was informed, not having seen her in the flesh before, and not being keen to stare).


Figaro in Vienna

The 232nd performance of Mozart's 'Marriage of Figaro' was sold out, bar a few tickets for 157 Euros - and those had sold, too, by the time the show started. Unbelievable prices - it would mean that the performance should be about ten times as good as those in Vilnius.....

It was rather startling to be faced, on entering the auditorium, with the large multicoloured iron curtain displaying the worlds 'Angst essen Seele auf' ('Fear eat soul' [sic]). This is the title of a 1980's film by Hans Werner Fassbinder about the relationship between an (illegal?) immigrant from Africa and an older German woman - what would the situationa be now? Anyway, what is it doing in the Staatsoper? Though as a statement it is certainly profound and most performing musicians can relate to it.

The conductor, Philippe Jordan, rather belted through the overture leaving the audience's ears pinned back. Then the curtain opened onto a very traditional setting, with the singers in traditional costumes. Quite often I found it difficult to hear the singers over the orchestra, and even that sounded a bit dull - as if muffled, but that might have been due to my distance from the stage.

The performance was, frankly, a little boring. Maybe because it was the 232nd performance of this production. I have a CD of the opera by the same producer, Jean Pierre Ponelle, who has done some sublime productions - his version of 'La Cenerentola' stands out, but this staging was rather mainstream. Occasionally a few witty Ponelle bits appeared, like at the end of the second act, when Basilio, Marcellina and Antonio did a funny little dance quite reminiscent of a sextet in 'La Cenerentola' - but these were very few and extremely far between. The singers, of course, sang very nicely, particularly Krassimira Stoyanova (who from the distance looked rather older than her part of Countess Almaviva deserved) in her dejected third act aria. But you would expect a brilliant, sparkling performance from the Staatsoper in Vienna, wouldn't you?

This one seemed rather routine, and it made me wonder who the Staatsoper is there for? Certainly it is there to give work to the singers and musicians. Those who perform at the Staatsoper are near the peak of their, and anyone's, career. It is a beautiful representational building in the centre of Vienna. Many tourists flock to the building - I wonder how many Viennese visit it regularly, at those ticket prices (13th row cost 127 Euros). Do the tourists get value for money (do tourists ever get value for money??)? Tuesday night's performance suggests that it might be better to go for the Staatsoper experience rather than the music. Yes, it was a trip of a lifetime for me, and I now know that I don't need to go again, unless it is a premiere. Funnily enough, the audience, even native Austrians, were as drab as the acting on stage - that's not normal in Vienna.

The other question that popped into my mind was about the future of opera. Here I was in an expensive seat in the 13th row, far enough from the stage to miss all facial expressions, with the orchestra packed into the pit and sounding like an old recording, and I was thinking of Ponelle's film of the same opera which was so much more exciting. In a film the camera can go all around an actor/singer, and the sound is recorded such that it will come across better than at the back of the audience in an opera house. Staging an opera is incredibly expensive. Of course attending a performance near the protagonists (eg the front row) is wonderful and a wholly different experience, but it is only ever a minority of the public who can achieve that.

Apart from the social aspect of attending opera, like many sponsors appreciate well, there is the feeling of being together in something - but I wonder if that feeling and the emotions could not be stronger in a football match?

powered by performancing firefox


Wednesday, January 10, 2007


It all began one sunny June evening, when Ann Roggen and I met up in New York over a spot of Greek dinner. And lovely it was, too - quite near the Lincoln Center, where Ann was due to play later that evening in an American Ballet Theater production (note the US spelling - it's quite hard to do!). At that time we chatted about possibilities of Ann coming to Vilnius, as you do, and as I have often done with other people in other parts of the world (including a megalomaniac idea of running an International Viola Congress in Vilnius).

Moving on, a couple of months later I heard that Ann was going to spend Christmas in Vienna, around a series of concerts with the violinist Diane Pascal ....and we wondered if she could come to Vilnius? A quick approach to the American Center soon sorted out the financial details, and a multitude of negotiations later we had everything else fixed up.

So last night the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre found itself hosting a celebration of the violin and viola, with a concert of violin and viola duets. Now, this is specialist music, and it is not surprising that the audience was a little sparse (also because it was exam time and the students did not understand that a break from incessant practice is A Good Thing). The ladies are in good company - the first time the Fine Arts Quartet played in Vilnius they found themselves at the end of a music marathon, which had quite tired out the audience. Then they played a full evening's concert and hardly anyone was left in the hall by the end. The string quartet's second concert in Vilnius was much more successful.

The two ladies played very nicely indeed; composers in the audience complemented them on their ensemble playing and their togetherness, their perfect intonation and their wonderful tone, especially considering that the violin sounded quite like a viola - apart from the e-string. I wondered though if at times there might have been a greater variety of dynamics, and perhaps a bit more risk-taking here and there (eg in the last movement of the Mozart).

The programme was very extensive; including duets by Villa Lobos, Schikele, Mozart, Martinu, Quincy Porter, and 2 out of four little pieces for violin by John Harbison written for his wife; and two pieces for viola by Alan Hovhanness, an American-Armenian composer.

The Villa Lobos was supposed to contain folk music (not sure it did) and birdsong and sounds of the night (which it did). The second movement had a wonderful viola solo. The Hovhaness was wonderful; very Armenian (though someone else thought it was very Jewish - I am not sure that there is a great deal of difference between Armenian and Jewish harmonies and rhythms).

The concert was very long indeed; plenty of value for money or 'bang for their buck' for the American Center, and plenty of exposure to new repertoire for the students and teachers attending the concert. Those of the audience who lasted till the end were highly appreciative, and a good time was had after the concert!!

powered by performancing firefox


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Helene Holzman

Helene Holzman was a German lady married to a Jewish guy in Kaunas, Lithuania, before the second World War. When the Germans took over Lithuania the inevitable happened - her husband, a bookshop owner, was arrested, as was their oldest daughter, and they were never heard of again. Mrs Holzman and her younger daughter survived the war, first by living quite legally in Kaunas by trying to maintain good contacts with the occupying army (at the same time she managed to help out Jewish people trapped in the ghetto - often slipping them food when she met them on the way to their Arbeitsdienst [work service]). Later they had to hide out staying with friends and sympathetic Lithuanians.

All this is described in a book based on her diary of the events by Helene Holzman ('Dies Kind soll leben') which was published in 2000 - it's a fascinating read. She also describes in some detail the life of the German-Jewish composer Edwin Geist, who was married to a Lithuanian, and had fled from Berlin to Kaunas once the racial terror began in Germany. He suffered badly during the Nazi occupation, first being interned in the ghetto, then released from the ghetto, but his wife remaining in it. He then tries to get her out of the ghetto, and finally succeeds, but only on condition of a divorce and sterilisation. Eventually, however, he is returned to the ghetto and dies there. His archive is now kept by the Lithuanian conductor Juozas Domarkas.

Last night I was at a small do after a concert, and chatting to my viola teacher and another music professor. We were talking about languages - one of them is learning English for the first time, at the age of 60+ and loving it - and they started talking about their German teacher at school, one 'Frau Holzman' who was a brilliant teacher. It turns out that this was the very Helene Holzman of the book. Apparently she had been teaching at Kaunas University, but in Soviet times refused to sign a document approving of the Soviet occupation, so she was demoted to teaching at a music school - where she met two eager lads playing the violin (at the time). She left Lithuania in the early 1960s as part of a wave of repatriation to Germany.

Is it a small world?


Friday, January 05, 2007

A swirl of pastels

...greeted the packed audience in tonight's performance of Tchaikovsky's ballet 'Sleeping Beauty' at the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre in Vilnius - the premiere had taken place on New Year's Eve. This was totally a fairytale world in a strictly traditional production - a very rare event indeed these days.

Everything was perfect - the old-style stage sets of a fairy tale castle and a scary forest (a Russian designed this - it figures), the costumes - a fluff of white and pastel-coloured tutus, all ages dancing from the ballet school pupils to rather more advanced ages (the King and Queen - not dancing), the music swirling and rushing us along..... Not a step was younger than 117 years (Petipa's choreography).

It was surprising how pleasant it was to sit back and let yourself be taken back into a long-ago world when theatre and ballet just entertained and did not challenge. I bet the tourists will really love it! The audience certainly did.

The dancing went pretty well; there was much floating and drifting across the stage in pale green or white clouds; there were some Swan Lake quotes (the four little swans became 4 groups of 8 dancers), and the soloists did mostly very well, too. I will not comment on the weight of some of the dancers. The Lithuanian dancers generally are not the most athletic, partly because some of them are so tall, so it would be quite rare to get those flying pictures that one sees in the media (but I wonder how these are taken). Earth seems to have a greater attraction to Lithuanian dancers than, say, those in Moscow or Kiev. And synchronicity is a always a little problem - if the dancers were an orchestra, every simultaneous entry would be a hailshower. However, this would only be noticeable to the very critical eye, and the average balletgoer, especially those who do not go often in their home countries, would be delighted with the performance.

The main stars - Jerijus Juska as the prince, Miki Hamanaka as the princess and Egle Spokaite as the good fairy danced beautifully, as always. I get the impression that Ms Spokaite's star is beginning to fade a little (maybe down to 99%...) - she has for a long time been the Prima Ballerina of the Lithuanian Ballet Theatre, and performed exquisitely in all productions she was in. But today I thought I detected a little stiffness, and some of her movements were not quite as fluid as they might once have been. This was particularly noticeable when she and Ms Hamanaka danced the same movements and the shorter Ms Hamanaka got her leg up higher than tall Ms Spokaite (you did ask!). And of course in the past Ms Spokaite would have had the main part. But that's ballet dancer's life, I suppose. Miki Hamanaka, a Japanese dancer married to a Lithuanian (dancer?) danced wonderfully. She is an elegant, and very athletic dancer and had some delicious pas de deux with the delightful Nerijus Juska - who very pointedly insisted on marrying his princess seeing he had kissed her back to life. They, and Ms Spokaite, are well loved by the Lithuanian audience.

Aaah, yes, and then there was a lovely moment with the children where they danced together in a village fair kind of scene, and it all worked very nicely. Those children have considerable stage experience - I remember seeing some of them in Don Giovanni (Should children be in Don Giovanni? You might well ask - but they were. I wonder how their parents explained the plot to them). The boys, all 7 of them, also did very well with their seven dwarves roles.

In terms of the plot I thought that there was rather a lot of padding, giving lots of little dances to groups, individuals and so on. Once the princess was awake again, the ballet could have stopped - but then all those quotes from different Grimm's fairytales appeared.

It was a great evening out, though - totally relaxing and enjoyable, and probably as good as we can get it here. Very recommendable to anyone coming to Vilnius.

powered by performancing firefox


Vilnius Vignettes

About to depart for a longer spell I am trying to sort out/fix up many things. So I may have been one of the first to put in my tax return for last year (oh, Miss Goody Two-shoes!) despite finding myself in a queue almost out to the street in the tax office. At the same time I am still debating the taxes of 2005 with my tax inspector - just had to get all my contracts translated for her into Lithuanian, at a not in-considerable cost, but what can you do. I need to say, though, that the lady I deal with is one of the most charming public sector employees I have ever met, on either side of the former Iron Curtain. It is a pleasure dealing with her - she is helpful, apologizes profusely if the phone rings while you are talking to her, and she is very patient even when dealing across a language barrier. She could be a great example for many of her colleagues. I wonder if she enjoys her job. (Though some sadistic public sector employees probably also enjoy their jobs).

Another nice thing about the new tax offices are the glass walls that the offices have on the corridor side. This literally adds transparency, and it would make it very difficult to try to bribe anyone. On the other hand, the employees cannot pick their noses in privacy either.

Coming back across the river I spotted the advertising hoarding high above the opera house. It's like a giant TV screen and advertises a range of goods and services, including opera performances, cars, and sometimes it gives the weather forecast. One can imagine it being linked to someone's computer screen. Today it is advertising Smecta, an anti-diarrhoeal medication. Wonderful.


Thursday, January 04, 2007

Verbose Meanderings

Some months ago, a friend asked me if I had read Colin Thubron's 'Shadow of the Silk Road'. I replied that yes, sure, that had been written ages ago, hadn't it?

It seems that it was not written that many ages ago - the book I was thinking of was his 'The Lost Heart of Asia' which I really had read ages ago, when I was working in Kyrgyzstan - as you all now know...

This book describes Thubron's journey along the silk road from China to the Mediterranean. I have a feeling that the silk road is a bit in the eye of the beholder, and that there are many different routes. For this 'trip' Thubron went through China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Southern Turkey, sometime in 2003 to 2004 (he gets caught up in the panic around the SARS epidemic in China). At that time he was 64/65 years old - though his picture at the back of the book shows a very spry looking gentleman with a glamorous mane of thick white or blond(?) hair.

Thubron does not do comfortable travel. We consultants working in these parts sometimes feel a little sorry for ourselves for not always being very comfortable, but he really, really roughs it. Using all sorts of means of transport, hardly any of which might ever dream of attaining European standards of safety, sleeping in godforsaken places, hanging about in strange places while waiting for borders to open and quarantines to finish, undergoing tortuous emergency dental treatment in an obscure corner of Iran, getting done over by police in Kyrgyzstan, and spending days and days and days going to look at ancient monuments or relics of glorious pasts, only to find that most of them have vanished from the face of the earth, been demolished, disappeared under sand dunes ertc. While in China in some cases he can get by using Mandarin (though in the far north west the dialects become impenetrable), and in Kyrgzystan and Uzbekistan he can use his Russian, in Afghanistan and Iran he does not have a common language and gets by with arms and feet, and locals who practice their English on him, all the while pouring out their hearts and at times extolling their own strange philosophies. It's definitely a very hands-on journey, and when he arrives he cannot quite believe that he is in a hotel where water comes out when you turn the tap and the lights work. He must have a constitution like a horse not to have got seriously sick in that journey (other than that troublesome tooth).

It is a fairly intense book, mixing history with events that happened to him on the way. The history is a bit thin on data, such as dates of years - it seems like it was written from memory, possibly the deep knowledge that Thubron has of that area, rather than recent research. (We all do it when we know something but cannot find a reference).

As a writer he is amazing. His descriptions are awesome and the way he combines words, while sometimes a bit florid, really describes what he saw or felt: 'the spaces between them [church worshippers] ache with those who have gone', 'a glow of feasting', 'a rain of bullet holes', 'a defile of dust' - maybe he invented 'a pride of lions'? It makes you wonder if he writes like the German music critic Joachim Kaiser, who, as Thomas Quasthoff describes, writes thus: 'he padded through his office, forgetfully chewing his glasses. First three steps to the right, then four steps to the left, then back again and so on. Whenever he turned right, each time he stopped at a well-placed mirror, peered into it extensively checking his characterful profile, only to continue, visibly strengthened, picking up his train of thought. After a further five kilometres Mr Kaiser really gave birth, even though with much muttering and grumbling, to an adjective.' This might explain why the book was only published in 2006, even though the journey may have finished late in 2003/early in 2004. I am sure Mr Thubron is a perfectionist.

Some of the knowledge that he describes as having existed way back when makes you wonder why it was forgotten. For example the Romans used asbestos for tableclothes which they cleaned in fire. And yes, they knew that slaves who worked with it a lot got sick.

He describes the Uighur people, a Muslim group in north western China many of whom are also fairhaired and blue or green-eyed. It would seem that the Romans got as far as that part of the world at one stage; in any case, population and trade movements took place along that route from East to West and West to East all the time, and there would have been a bit of mingling of blood groups. When I travelled through the rural parts of Kyrgyzstan I also noticed many people who might have had mongolian shapes to their eyes and that kind of hair texture, but whose hair and eyes were light brown.

I found the section on Kyrgyzstan particularly easy to relate to, partly because I knew some of the places, and had seen buildings and yurts similar to those he describes. His experiences also include some hair-raising events involving drink, with one situation where he comes very close to death due to drunk driving. This is the country where we as a project team also developed, all by ourselves, with guidance by the Kyrgyz, many drink related stories... but we were all young and naive then - I have never experienced quite as many undiluted drinking events in other post-Soviet societies.

He also describes how the 'nations' of the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks (and for that matter the Tajiks) were thrown together by the Soviets who drew borders around the states, and lobbed in an ancient hero who helped forge the local identity (Manas in the case of Kyrgyzstan; Tamerlane, a cruel and brutal guy, in the case of Uzbekistan - not much change there then). Quite clever really, these Soviets. Will it blow up in Russia's faces like Iraq? Perhaps not. It is interesting that at one stage he describes someone as having a Tajik face - Tajikistan is one of the countries where I found the population least homogeneous to look at, ranging from Chinese-looking people to Uzbeks, Russians, delicate Persians and so on.

Oh yes, and I learnt that 'the moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on' does not come from Agatha Christie, but from one Edward Fitzgerald in a fairly poetic translation of the Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam. One lives and learns.

The names of the people he describes can be a bit bewildering, though in different parts of his journey the same people pop up, and the reader begins to learn them. It's alright for Thubron - he spent weeks or months in the same part of the world, with nothing much else to occupy him apart from survival and person x, y, or z. For the reader, reading the book at some pace, it can be a bit harder to follow.

It's a very interesting book - but I wonder how people who have never been in that part of the world would relate to it. It might have been good to have a few photos in the book, just for illustration.