Sunday, September 30, 2007

Plummed out!

I can't believe I've processed over 20 kgs of plums this week! I like them a lot, and they are so easy to process....I feel sorry for my friend Pat in Scotland who can only buy them in packs of 6 (and even though I think they should be larger than the ones here [which I suspect are damsons] that's still a ridiculous little amount at no doubt a vast price). Then again, here I spend about 30 p on a kilo of plums, but nearer 4 quid on a 500 g packet of cornflakes. You do begin to appreciate why people in the UK, where the costs are no doubt inverted, are the shape they are.

So now I've got two kinds of plum jam; one made from a German recipe involving lots of balsamic vinegar (I'm not totally convinced), one British kind with lots of sugar; 21 jars of bottled plums, 5 bits of baked plums in the freezer, two cakes (tomorrow evening's singing is in a very special place and we always bring supplies, though I am not totally convinced of the cakes either...). I noticed the price had gone up this weekend, but I'm not sure if that's due to my neighbourhood which has more foreigners, or whether it's coming to the end of the season.

Apart from that I did two hour-long runs, wrote three mini-essays, went to the theatre and ate out, did a bit of revision, and for that harmonised the Georgian alternative national anthem 'Suliko' (in 3 parts) into something that was intended to be a Bach chorale (in four parts), but does not sound that much like it (especially since I've now also messed around with accidentals). Meant to do it a la Mozart, too but began to wonder if it is not a little bit modal? I can't do modal harmony, I don't think. For a Georgian tune, having looked closely at harmonic patterns, it is certainly much more western than many other Georgian songs (phrase length, cadences etc). Now I know why some people find it a bit cheesy, but if you get a group of Georgians together abroad sooner or later they will burst into it.

Talking of food, I see the Observer has 'a second helping' of Nigel Slater's new book 'Eating for England' (note, only England). Having listened to his book 'Toast' this offering seems to offer nothing new, according to today's excerpt. He is still nostalgically looking back at the glory days of his childhood (which weren't actually all that wonderful, our Nige, were it?) and the food he enjoyed/experienced then, like marmite, custard, coleman's mustard, dairylea cheesespread and so on. Much as the chapters in 'Toast'. Or is he picking up here what he left out? It's nice to look back at food people ate then (when some had more physical jobs, children could play outside etc), but some of that food was pretty ghastly, too. Take Marmite, dairylea, salad cream (someone somewhere recently had salad cream, thinking it was mayonnaise, and got an interesting surprise).


Saturday, September 29, 2007

Little (very very little) and Large

Did not mean to go to the final concert of the Tbilisi Autumn concert series. A recorder soloist - I mean, give me a break, that'll be boring, no? So I had bought a ticket for the theatre instead (Twelfth Night, already reviewed here). It was great! The only problem was that when I arrived at the Rustaveli theatre for 7 pm I found the doors firmly locked, as did some other people. What had happened? The shows now start at 8 pm - which makes it quite late in the case of Shakespeare.

What to do? Nipped along the road to the opera house and got a ticket for the concert. In the queue was the lovely Giorgi Kharadze, last night's soloist, who told me he now lives in Germany, where he is studying in Cologne with Frans Helmerson, one of the leading cello teachers. He spoke fluent English, and French (as a French national presumably), Georgian of course, and I assume also German. Any young musician who speaks no language but their birth language strangles his or her international career at birth!

So found a seat at the end of a row, to be able to escape quickly to the theatre. Found myself beside the basses, and had a wonderful opportunity during the initial Mozart symphony to revise classical harmony and confirm that in Mozart's day the basses play the same as the cellos, only an octave lower. I've also revised my opinion of the orchestra's ability to play Mozart; they are really quite good when a section of 6 basses and 10 cellos can play really delicately and quietly. Also had a better view of the orchestra leader and confirmed my view that he is really very good indeed - a great leader!

Then on came the soloist. Most of us who had attended the concert series regularly recognised him as the very tall German guy, Justus Wilberg, who also had come to every concert. But where was his instrument? He put his hand in his jacket and pulled out .... a sopranino recorder. That's the recorder equivalent of a piccolo flute; a tiny thing. The player was well over 2m tall; with hands like shovels, and here he was playing this titch of a thing in Vivaldi's concerto for it. In Eastern Europe recorders are rarely taken seriously as concerto instruments.... He laughed, the audience laughed, and after his first musical entry (and exit) a slight hum broke out in the audience, which continued to smile. After that they were totally spellbound, partly also because he did not seem to breathe. Ok, so he's a guy with big lungs and a tiny instrument, and I think I saw him doing circular breathing, but it was pretty, er, breathtaking. The orchestra had reduced its forces for this, and accompanied him very delicately indeed. It worked very well.

I see that I left before a concerto by Telemann for recorder and ....VIOLA! Glad I did not know about that...


Georgian and Armenian life

Yesterday's demo seems to have gone off fairly peacefully. US media report a crowd of 1500, Russian media tell us that 10,000 demonstrated against Sakaashvili. I was there - the US media are nearer the mark. By the time the concert started the road had re-opened and it was business as usual. I heard another theory about Okruashvili's outburst against the President; this suggests that he knew that he was going to be arrested for corruption etc, so he said this stuff to make his arrest look political. Machiavellian, no? In this case I take back any words involving 'banana' and 'republic'.

Today Armenia Now reports that the Georgian government is planning to demolish the Armenian district, Havlabar, around the new Cathedral in Tbilisi (photo courtesy of Ham) and to construct an 'elite district'. Opinions vary, from yes, it's time they pulled down the old houses (an Armenian living there) since they lack all amenities, and people are supposed to be compensated or get accommodation in the new district. Other's say it's anti-Armenian, as proved by the fact that a seminary attached to the cathedral is being built on an old Armenian graveyards, and bones have been littered everywhere. (A story the Jews of Vilnius can tell, too, so the Jewish diaspora outside Lithuania says). Someone says that the President suggested the Armenian diaspora is paying for this little exercise.

So of course I had to go for a run and take a look. It needs to be said that the area behind the cathedral is like a village, with mud roads and I dread to think what the domestic facilities are. There are all individual houses, but quite closely together, not surrounded by high walls and strong gates like in richer neighbourhoods; nor are any large farm animals visible. It's a very poor but also very interesting little neighbourhood.

If I were them, I would not look forward to any significant compensation, though, particularly if the Armenian diaspora is involved. There were horror stories when a similar large scale deconstruction/reconstruction took place in the centre of Yerevan, where on occasion laws were changed so people's property could be taken from them with little or no compensation. And even in Vilnius there are shady goings-on in the district of Snipiskes where wooden houses, in a perfect little rural location (though with a slightly shady reputation here and there) very close to the city centre, have a habit of going up in smoke. Insurance cover is often lacking...and even if an arsonist is identified, the compensation is minimal.

The land here in Tbilisi is worth a fortune - as I discovered when I turned a corner and found myself behind the new presidential palace/offices currently being constructed. Suddenly everything became clear! Clearly it would be an ideal location for lobbyists and all the usual presidential hangers-on to have nice offices, somewhere to have a civilised lunch and it's not far from the Tbilisi sea, so a good place to live? Maybe if the existing residents really get a place in the new developments, they might enjoy them (running water, electricity etc), and who is to say if they would lose more than they will gain. It's just that the phrase 'we've been robbed' does not get out of my mind...


A concert to die for!

I'd been telling everyone about Giorgi Kharadze, the extremely talented young Tbilisi-born but French-raised cellist, who last night performed Haydn's first cello concerto. I'd been telling them about what a talent he was and what prizes he had won, though I had never heard him play. So I was a little worried in case I had over-sold him.

I did not need to worry! It was a wonderful, wonderful performance. It is not often that I am moved to tears by music, but here I was. Kharadze, a tall and very skinny young man with fingers that the witch from Hansel and Gretel would want to spend much time fattening up, is an extremely impressive communicator. When he plays, totally flawlessly, he looks around the audience and the orchestra (not sure how much he takes in but it's nice for the audience) and it gives just that air of total communication and total togetherness. He was completely and utterly in command of this concerto and there were moments of almost orgasmic beauty. Kharadze has been very involved with the Kronberg Academy in Germany which is a kind of elite training centre for cellists. If he performs anywhere near you, go and see him. If you are in the business of organising concerts, go and engage him!

I need to add that the orchestra did very well playing with him - the final movement was a teeny bit on the fast side, but the orchestra hung in there. (Not every orchestra does that...). The leader of the first fiddles is very impressive and he's got his crew well trained. It's a shame that the conductor seems to think he needs to participate in every encore (so it's usually the final movement again); it gives the impression that the soloist cannot play anything else, but this cannot be so in the cases of the two soloists I heard this week (Natia Buniatishvili has attended Lockenhaus, the Gidon Kremer summer retreat - he only invites the most talented people).

The Haydn was surrounded by two Mozart symphonies, Nos 23 and 36, and Mozart's 'Serenada Notturna' for four orchestras. I've heard this now, and I don't need to hear it again. Like ever. Jeeez, what a boring piece of work. The impression one gets is that it was written for a school with beginners and better players. Orchestras 1 and 2 play fairly elaborate stuff (the same stuff but 2 plays after 1) ; orchestra 3 plays bits of that, and orchestra 4 plays a few chords. The music goes round from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4; always in the same sequence, always with each orchestra playing at its own level. Safe, and dull, dull, dull, dull. One fairly quickly gets the idea, but it goes on and on and on. No thanks!


Friday, September 28, 2007

Hot Politics

The political temperature is rising in Tbilisi. A couple of days after the former defence minister Okruashvili accused the (absent) President Sakaashvili of involvement in murder, the former finds himself in prison on corruption charges. This leads to two possible conclusions:

  • if he was really corrupt then it is breathtaking political naivety to arrest him just as he attacks the President. But then again, breathtaking naivety is not uncommon here. I think I heard that Sakaashvili, who is at the UN in New York, has not been entirely happy with the UN's work in relation to the break-away region of Abkhazia - and he's not afraid to say anything to anyone. Fair enough, I suppose, the UN is fairly toothless anyway, compared to, say, Russia.
  • if Okruashvili was arrested because of what he said, then the words 'banana' and 'republic' are not that far apart. That sort of thing would really bring down the standing of Georgia in the west. Then again, India survived a similar style of Government in about 1976.....
So today there's a huge demonstration in front of the Parliament building (see photo - I've taken better ones, but it's good to stay away from truncheons). It seems fairly civilised, and I hope not no-one will lose their hot heads. Someone had their very small boy in traditional Georgian costume on the street......At the one end of the road (maybe at both ends, and certainly even more up the side streets) there are 12 buses containing 600 soldiers in riot gear. If there are more soldiers in other places, there could be a thousand easily....

In between is the opera house at which tonight one of the best young cellists in the world, Giorgi Kharadze, will be playing Haydn. This is what the access to the opera house has been looking like for the last few weeks. It's beginning to improve .....Luckily, she can't fail to notice, the slabs that they are putting down are too unwieldy to chuck, should the demonstration turn nasty.


Thursday, September 27, 2007

My Ipod's not well!

Yesterday I used the Ipod for work for the first time; there's a programme called Mojopac which allows you to use your Ipod much like your computer (though someone pointed out that Ipod hard disks are not as long lasting as computer hard disks), and you can even have your own desktop anywhere you work, though you need to instal your own programmes on the Ipod (unless you use it just as a storage device, which is also an option). But with your own desktop and stuff you feel quite at home, which is nice.

So, installed Firefox on it, and downloaded open office to instal on it. Went home, tried to install and it froze up. Went to a concert, and tried again to install the stuff, when the Ipod got a very sad face and refused to do anything. Aaaargggh.

The internet tells me it may be a hardware fault, which would mean sending it in. At least I suppose I know that some bits in it are working.....but what to do? Much advice on the internet relates to older Ipod models, though by now mine is not the latest one either.

Apart from pushing buttons here or there, the advice has included:

  • opening it up and disconnecting the battery briefly, or hitting the tiny reset button on the hard drive (invalidates the warranty, and with my talent I will break it completely)
  • dropping it from between 4 inches and waist high onto a hard surface; it seems to have worked wonders for many people. I've tried the waist high onto a carpet, but it did not work, nor has the shaking or one 4 inch drop onto my desk. Made plenty of noise though - but you know what happens when you shake a baby...
  • plugging it into a mac computer (as opposed to my PC)....hmm, I wonder if a Linux computer might help shock it back into life?
  • Now I am trying to use up the battery - and maybe then it will unfreeze itself. Trouble is that usually it only runs (and beeps??) for a few seconds - but I found by setting it to diagnostic mode it keeps the screen lit up (and presumably using the battery).
It's not only the 4-month-old Ipod that has a sad face......


Michelin girl and other news

The MoscowTimes (photo courtesy of Reuters) reports the birth of a 7.75kg (16 pounds?) baby girl to a proud mother in Siberia. She's her twelfth child; apparently all her children were 5 kgs or more. It looks like wee Nadya has a bit of a mouth about her already - you can just see her in 40 year's time not taking any bullshit from anyone. The little child next to her looks, which has ribs, totally stunned!
(for my more sensitive readers - yes, the thoughts of freakshow and invasion of privacy did cross my mind, very briefly).

That blue stuff on her belly button (do they cut them off short in Russia, or what?) is some sort of disinfectant; even in Vilnius you sometimes see children who've had chickenpox and have little blue spots all over their pale little faces.

I was raiding the paper of news about the Lithuanian (...Russian...) politician (semi-ex) Uspazkich who had stormed into parliament a few years ago, but then got into deep trouble corruption-wise, to the degree that he fled to Russia where presumably he has a right to stay, having been of that citizenship. It seems he has returned to Vilnius and been arrested on arrival. Glad I was not on that flight. There is a rumour that his return might have something to do with a by-election in some corner of Lithuania, but surely to God, he wouldn't have the nerve? He probably would....

In the UK politicians tend to get accused of bedroom pecadillos and high-level corruption [in the interests of the nation....], in Lithuania it's personal corruption, bedroom stuff or KGB membership, but in Georgia it's murder and mayhem. A disgusted former defence minister (who was demoted), Okruashvili, has accused the president, Sakaashvili of ordering him to kill the richest man in Georgia, to attack an MP, Valery Gelashvili who spends much of his time in Lithuania (and how can he be an MP in Georgia?), and to have had involvement in the death of Zhvania, the former prime minister, who died mysteriously of gas poisoning one cold spring a year or two ago. All this on the website www.civil.ge - not very civil, no?

In Vilnius Gelashvili has an extremely posh hotel on Pilies Street, the main tourist thoroughfare. This article which says 'he maintains some business interests in Vilnius' is slightly understating that fact....


Jarring moments

I know I am paid enough money to buy any food I like, at any time that I like it, but there is still that Scottish streak in me. The one about preparing for the future because you don't know what's round the corner.

So in the autumn, particularly in Eastern Europe, where people are preparing for a hard winter ahead, I start to feel the need to do the same. Even though years of experience have told me that I never get round to eating all the food I have frozen or preserved. Be honest - what's the bottom of your freezer like? But you never know....

Add to that the fact that I like anything with plums, though like with all fruit I'm not a great fan of the raw stuff - you never know whether they are under-ripe or over-ripe, or whether they contain a wee beastie or two. (Remind me of the wee beastie story later!).

Stewed plums I love, plum cake I brought into work the other day, baked plums - they are so juicy and oozing that you hardly need any sugar. Another bonus, together with that of the plums being not far from prunes....

Last weekend I bought five kilos of plums, in the expectation that I would be able to buy some jars to put them into. Jars? How to describe them at the market? No jars to be seen, only lids which looked like they needed an implement to attach them to jars, rather than being screw-top. And presumably they would be destroyed in the opening process. All not very convenient. But still no jars to put under the lid.

Then I asked a friend to go somewhere to buy some. He said that he'd have a look at home to see if he had any. That was Monday. Yesterday asked again, he'd forgotten, others had forgotten, I had retrieved two coffee jars from work...and baked and frozen lots of plums. Not sure if you can bottle baked plums - but they would be so much better than cooked plums....

Thinking creatively I decided to buy food that comes in jars. But how much can I eat quickly? And usually I don't buy that kind of stuff! I spotted the ideal jars in the corner shop - they were full of plums imported from Germany! So I bought some sausages and some peas. At that moment my Scottish streak must have deserted me because I realised afterwards that I had paid 7 Euros for 10 little Viennese sausages, which are not that exciting to eat. I mean, come on!

Today I asked another friend; he said - I know exactly where to go. We went and got 15 beautiful jars with screw top lids. And I now know where that place is and can get more. Now, what else can I bottle/preserve? I've found a very nice recipe for a special kind of plum jam...


Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The lily, the pomegranate, the grapes, the banana leaf and the feather

Another evening at the Opera House, another concert (great when you can call that 'revision'). Had not intended to go to the first half of Chopin's piano concerto No 2, but this piano pupil felt a bit guilty about that.

I'd always thought that any piano concertos after Beethoven would be loud and virtuosic, and lifting the piano into the air - but not in this case! This is a very delicate piece where the pianist dances along the fingerboard, up and down and twirls around a little. I suspect the piano in question could not have taken much more... I'm showing the publicity still of the lovely soloist, Khatia Buniatishvili, because she actually now has very short hair indeed. She played beautifully, very controlled, like a grasshopper skipping across the keys and enjoying herself greatly when they played the last movement again as an encore. The title of this post? That was a floral arrangement she received from an admirer - the feather stuck out of the pomegranate. It must be the time for them!

The second half ...well, it was a bit of an odd concert. At the beginning we waited for 20 minutes after the official starting time (5 minutes after the audience had settled down) for anyone to appear on the stage. Even sporadic outbursts of applause brought nothing.

Then the orchestra must have made up for lost time - and after the interval it appeared when far less than half the audience had returned. Shortly afterwards, when three quarters of the audience had ambled in, the conductor appeared, to hardly any applause. He stepped on the rostrum ready to conduct - and people kept shambling in. He turned round, and back to face the orchestra, and the general hum and chitchat carried on. After a good long while he left the state, no doubt in a mega-huff. And quite right, too - I gave a few claps of applause! Someone came along and shunted the rostrum closer to the orchestra. Eventually he reappeared again, I lead off the applause (applause in Georgia seems to run under those activities on which energy is being saved), he cut the applause very short indeed and launched into Beethoven's 8th. If I had been in his mood (or the mood I assume he was in), I would have given it a blistering blast of music! The orchestra isn't quite up to that (or maybe the acoustics); they did play very very fast indeed (the cellos have a horrific running bass in the trio of the third movement), but again the sound volume was not there. The symphony has some sweet places, which could have been sweeter, but not under the circumstances, perhaps.

This conductor is very sensitive to audience noise, much more so than anyone I have seen perform in Georgia - a child cried roughly at the back of the basses; he gave him A Look, and shortly afterwards the child was gone. Ditto the person with the mobile phone ringing in the quietest part of the concerto benefited from an Imperious Glance....


Not running

On Saturday I went for a long run, after a break of just over a fortnight (though plenty of long walks had been had). It went great! Brilliant, I thought, I can get away with weekend running only.

Ha! On Sunday I went for another run and found myself creaking everywhere; managed about 35 minutes which ain't much.

The problem had been that to go running during the week I used to get up half an hour earlier; and as it is beginning to be a little dark around that time, that had become really hard.

The solution has now come to me .... unfortunately....I get up early at 6.30 every morning (with a 10 am start to work...). Went for another run this morning and still found my legs quite reluctant. I'll have to keep running and running and running....


Monday, September 24, 2007

Singers and teeth

I am not talking about Giorgio Pressburger's weird and funny book 'Teeth and Spies' ('Denti e Spie') which is set in Hungary of the last 50 years or so, and involves a great deal of dentistry (you may not wish to read it while undergoing such treatment), but I'm talking about singers.

Tonight's opening night concert of the 'Autumn Tbilisi' Festival featured a choir where no teeth were visible, with the ladies in particular going to all sorts of contortions with their upper lips to cover their teeth. (A singer in Vilnius also covered his teeth, though fairly naturally, to such a degree that we wondered if he had any teeth at all. He later became the culture minister, then left under at least one very dark cloud involving personal use of public funds - I'm not talking of his salary). Now, you can understand this in a country where you have to pay for every bit of your dental treatment (though in an OU TV programme recently a very fine-sounding singer was also, alas, a fine symbol of NHS dental treatment), but an American girl in my Monday singing group, who naturally has very nice teeth, also does this. It looks so uncomfortable and so unnatural. Are singers not supposed to show their teeth? Is it a hangover of the bad old days?

Anyway, tonight's concert, conducted by Vaktang Kakhidze, started with Haydn's London Symphony - something of a tired rendering, and ended with Cherubini's Requiem - a good subject for the opening of a festival, no? It was the Cherubini's premiere in Georgia. You may be surprised - be not! I was at the Armenian premiere of the Dvorak violin concerto in about 2003; it was not one of their finer efforts, and I am not sure you can call it a premiere, given that they only played two of the three movements - and did the Austrian soloist, who had just presented the orchestra with an orchestra-wide set of Thomastik strings, not run out of memory as well?

Vakhtang Kakhidze is the son of another conductor and trained by his father. Now I am not sure if I saw his father in Vilnius five or six years ago. That conductor had some strange movements, as does this conductor, who at one stage looked as if he was in front of 'double double, toil and trouble', trying to see through the fug what was in the pot. But Georgians move differently where music is concerned - just look at the dancing!

He did nicely on the pianissimos, particularly in the Cherubini, but oy veh, great music this requiem is not. There are no soloists, and the violins don't play for quite a while. The orchestra rushes into the Agnus Dei when all you want is for the little lamb to be at peace, what with it shlepping the sins of the world anyway. It was a lovely touch, though, to dim the lights at the end of the requiem - the fact that this came with a rather audible crack was neither here nor there.

The violins, considering there were 26 of them, did nicely on the pianissimos because it seemed they could not play really really loud; maybe I was sitting in the wrong place, but the choir, way at the back of the stage, drowned out the violins. Do they have strings issues? When I saw the size of the band I was worried about the Haydn - his music isn't usually played by such a huge group nowadays, but the lack of sound compensated.

I was not that inspired to use up my other tickets (except that for Giorgio Kharadze which I still have to get), but I see tomorrow it's Beethoven's eighth symphony, and on Wednesday it's Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, which I'm studying - I could bring the score along!

(Today only the young women beside me were checking the pictures in their camera, and a baby cried - which even caused the conductor to turn around. Otherwise it was really quite quiet).


A successful project!

Last week I was in Kiev, Ukraine, participating in the final conference of the EU Project 'Development of Integrated Social Services for Exposed Families and Children', on which I had been the public finance consultant. The project was all about getting children out of institutional care (until recently the first point of referral if a family is in crisis) and helping the family to sort itself out before the crisis becomes a catastrophe.

It's been a great project - it has helped to set up lots of preventative social services in Kiev Oblast, the largest region of the country, and the number of children admitted to institutions has dropped by 50% in that area. A lot of children can now remain with their families, and even if these families are poor, chances are that conditions in institutions are even poorer.

The fact that this project has been so successful is down largely to the excellent team on the project, and especially the highly professional organisation and management of Everychild, a UK-based international children's charity. It really has been a pleasure working in this project! Here are some project publications, including (so far) one of mine, though another one is supposed to go on the website soon. (Not sure if I can count that as a 'publication' for the CV).

You may think - yeah, right - she's looking for more work. Actually I have finished a few projects, working for different companies, since I started the blog, but with some of the others it would not be good for my bloodpressure to write about them.....


European of the Year!

The Lithuanian President, Valdas Adamkus, is one of the 4 nominations for European Statesman of the Year, together with the Estonian President, Mrs Merkel and Sarkozy (though he might not be on her favourite list, what with having invaded her personal space by shmoozing her excessively).

Welldone, Mr Adamkus! It's for helping to avoid isolating Poland over the new EU treaty, even though, under the current Polish regime, this might have been very tempting. But it's one of Mr Adamkus' strengths, sorting out messes. He and the then more sensible Polish president and others helped to sort out Ukraine at the time of the orange revolution, and I'm sure he has had his hands full in Lithuania as well. So even though the Economist described him as 'doddery' a little while ago he's not doing too badly for a guy of almost 81. But now he's due to finish his term in office, and I have no idea who or what will follow him.
Publish Post


Sunday, September 23, 2007


The (British) Observer has an interesting article on urban soundscapes. It's based on the premise that we have to live with noise, so we might as well try to organise noise so that it's pleasant to us.

Research has shown that people quite like the sounds of:

  • car tyres on wet roads
  • the roar of a distant flyover
  • the rumble of an overground train
  • the sound of an orchestra tuning up (not usually in the street...)
  • the thud of heavy bass heard on the street outside a nightclub
As a classical music lover, I'm not totally convinced of the last one....But having lived in a city, near traffic lights, for most of the last 7 years or so, I don't find heavy traffic very worrying (though I tend to live high up). What did bug me for a while was when blind-friendly beepers were installed at the traffic lights outside my house - but I did not notice them this summer, so maybe they have gone.

The point of all this activity is to design cities and open spaces so the sound environment pleases us; sometimes this coincides with the environment in other ways like when you plant trees and they muffle and absorb the sound. Seems like a good thing to do. AS LONG AS NO-ONE DECIDES TO PLANT A NIGHTCLUB OUTSIDE MY HOUSE.

Sounds I like:
  • that orchestra tuning up
  • someone practicing an acoustic musical instrument
  • a distant train (or even a near train, it's kind of romantic)
  • children playing
  • people chatting amicably and laughing
I had the pleasure of hearing the last two the night I slept outside on the balcony. Did not get many winks but it was lovely listening to the sound pattern changing as the children were playing, then went inside, the neighbours going inside and watching TV, the TV going off and another group chatting, then at 6 am the following morning another neighbour starting to clean his yard...

Should mention also that since I don't often speak the language well of the country I live in (Georgia is the worst) all I get is sound patterns most of the time.....


Saturday, September 22, 2007

The unknown hand stole a tune!

'La fille mal gardee' is a Frederick Ashton original (here in Tbilisi they like Fred Ashton and Balanchine, what with the latter being one of their own). The music is 'by an unknown hand, as it says on this site, a very serious ballet site, it would seem. The Tbilisi opera house site says the score is by someone called Herold.

That would not be an entirely unknown hand in any case, because Rossini's thunder scene from 'La Cenerentola' has found its way into the piece, with one or two notes missing. In another place the music was unexpectedly good, though generally it was really quite rough in terms of musical quality. Ok, I could not have written it, but someone with just a little more musical education could have. It was quite nice on unexpected sounds, like the cockerels, or a person snoring.

LFMG is an odd ballet - generally it is quite a classical ballet, but at least four of the characters don't do 'beautiful dancing'. Does this make those 'character roles'? That would equate 'having character' with 'not being beautiful'. Moving swiftly on....

It's very funny, and thus suitable for children. As was evidenced in the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet Theatre where at least 50 of the audience were under 5; one of the nappy wearers sat right beside me - and he was much quieter than the group of12-year-old lads behind me. The wee lad could not take his big black eyes, with the beautiful eyelashes, off the stage, even in the romantic aka boring bits.

It's boy meets girl, but girl's (widowed?) mum has other ideas concerning a rich but eccentric lad. Eventually it all turns out right, when someone persuades mum of the right course of action. All this is surrounded by a set that could have been part of a 50's picture book, much bucolic countryside dancing, including of course that famous clog dance scene (which we used to see on British TV every year around Christmas). I suspect that in Tbilisi they do not teach tap dancing - this was about the worst effort in the show.

The delightful David Khozashvili, he with the legs like scissors, danced the romantic lead, flying though the air, spinning like a top... I don't know who did the little rich guy, but he was good - extremely precise and totally spot on for his role. The female lead was not bad, but rather angular, with little smoothness. She did all the right steps at the right time, but just lacked the certain je ne sais quoi which might have exuded some personality, in a way that the Lithuanian Ambassador, who was in the audience, might have remembered our own Egle Spokaite to have had.

Some of the Corpse de Ballet, as described on the website, might have taken this description to literally, or maybe there were one or two new people in it - synchronicity did not always exist. But it was a nice evening out and totally relaxing now that I had actually made it to the performance.


Alexander Paley

I've been feeling terrible about not remembering here the name of the lovely American pianist who had played the Choral Fantasy so beautifully in Vilnius a few years ago. Does not help when I typed 'American pianist vilnius' I almost only found my own writings. What I did however also find was my culture corner writings in the British Chamber of Commerce newspaper here. Since I'm no longer a member of that organisation (I'm away too often) it's nice to get to see what I wrote. I'm always surprised that they print everything I write because sometimes I go a bit close to the bone on some people....

Anyway, I then took a look at my own archive of cultural articles and found him. 'Tis Alexander Paley. He apparently is from Moldova, but I know that he studied in Moscow - a flautist I know studied there at the same time as Paley.

Paley plays the piano for fun, I think. One time I heard him and his flautist friend (and her violist husband[?]) in Druskininkai, a tiny but up and coming spa town in the south of Lithuania (see my photos). Faced by a rather elderly piano, he had to give up all ideas of Liszt's Hungarian Fantasy. Big shame! Afterwards he chatted with the many Russian-Jewish guests who had been taking the waters of Druskininkai. Though they criticised that the concert announcements were not in Russian, only in Lithuanian.

His Choral Fantasy that time in 2006 was absolutely brilliant. It was as if he was jamming with the orchestra! Beethoven has chucked in a lot of balls to be played backwards and forwards with the orchestra, and he just lightly kicked them back into touch, with a big smile on his face. Whereas Krainev was glued to his music, delegating his emoting to his page turner, Paley hung in his chair totally relaxed, every now and again reaching over to the piano and putting in his two pennies' worth. The Lithuanian audience loves him, and quite justifiably! I hope I will see and hear him again soon!


Friday, September 21, 2007

Going to Cultural Events - or Keeping Fit the Georgian Way

Since I lost all that weight, people have been asking me how I did it. Apart from eating less, it has of course been the exercise regime. While at home I walked from my bedroom to my study, at first in Georgia I had a 3-4 km hike to work. Even now, in a different location, it's 20 - 25 minutes, well half of it almost vertically uphill on the way home (and going down takes much concentration not to slip on the very shiny cobbles or step into potholes. You can't just stride out!).

But that's nothing compared to a simple trip to the theatre or the opera. Today at lunchtime, on my fourth attempt, I was finally able to get tickets for next week's Autumn Tbilisi festival, having walked over from work and back (a good km in each direction, plus being thrown out of the Radisson building site when I strayed into it, trying to find a shortcut back to work).

So what is she whinging about, you may think?

It would have been nice to get tickets for all the concerts at one go - but today the ticket office (on the other side of the opera house box office, and with no connection to it) did not have any tickets for the last two concerts. It does not have these newfangled computers, but tears the tickets out of a book.

She said to come back on the 26th, when I have another concert anyway.

Oh, but it's better to come earlier in the day since in the evening before the concert she will be so busy.

Tonight I shot home from work, ate some goulash left-over from last weekend which I had forgotten to freeze, and shot back down the hill to see 'La fille mal gardee'. Funny, I thought, where is the audience? Usually they all mill outside the opera house, but for the last two weeks people have been working there redoing the pavement, and maybe they find it too noisy? (I did not think either that redoing a relatively small pavement would take two weeks..)

Oh, the show is cancelled? A young man speaking German said that I could come back for tomorrow's performance with the same ticket. Apparently a dancer was sick or injured but she would be fine tomorrow. (Hmmm)

To the same [wonderful] seat, I asked?

No. I'd have to return my ticket, get the money back, and buy another ticket. He helped me with that, which is just as well, since you needed ID to get back your money (with a signed statement). Of course I don't carry formal ID, and my student ID was insufficient. [I feel a management recommendation coming on].

And no, I could not buy a ticket for tomorrow. Need to come back tomorrow for that. Of course it's better to come early so I can get a good seat again. I suppose I can attach that little trip to my morning run. Maybe by that time they'll know if the show actually goes ahead. But it means running along the busiest street in Tbilisi in my shorts. Not a happy idea....


Thursday, September 20, 2007

Airline X

Tootled off from Georgia to Ukraine on Monday, with some colleagues, for a conference in Kiev at which I was going to do a song and dance act. When I booked the ticket I was not entirely sure which airline I was flying with. Having arrived in Ukraine, I'm still not sure. Might be Georgian National though Mr Sakaashvili should not be pleased about their use of ancient Russian planes.

Colleagues had taken the same flight on other occasions, and somehow I had got the impression the flights had always been late - very late in one case. Imagine - so was our flight! Three hours after the proposed take-off we were taken by bus to the plane...once the bus found the plane, but luckily Tbilisi airport is not all that big or busy. We tootled all over the airport, past every plane, past every dog sleeping on the parking area (not the runway, thankfully!), and finally we found the little plane - a Tupolev 134a with no clear identity markings other than a Ukrainian flag. Well, it happens - I remember Lithuanian renting Maersk planes; and at the moment maybe SAS are renting some other planes while their own Canadian Bombadier jets are grounded.

I should add here that that day there was a howling gale round the airport, so the little plane rocked even while sitting on the ground. When we got in...it was as if the Soviet Union had never closed down. The plane did not appear to have been cleaned since it was made; it was minging; the seats were the collapsible kind that you see in obscure planes in obscure places; the seat alphabet was the Cyrillic variety. Ah well, I thought.

Some of my colleagues did not think 'Ah well'. They refused to fly on this plane, muttering things about 'serious breach', 'thirty-year-old', and so on. So they got off the plane.

I never quite understand why then all other passengers also had to pile off the plane while our colleagues' luggage was unloaded. The remaining passengers were not happy. Very far from happy. But it did not come to fisticuffs.

Eventually we got back on board, and the flight was absolutely fine. I had worried about the take-off in the strong gales, but nothing rocked the plane - steady as a stately galleon we flew into Kiev. The catering, in true early post-Soviet style was in thin plastic cups, some cold potatos and sort of chicken sticks, and tea served in plastic cups which already contained the sugar.

About 20 minutes into the 2.5 hour flight the first guys piled into the toilet for a smoke. Not sure why they did that seeing there was no no-smoking sign in the plane anywhere. Did not make much difference to the ambiance of the little plane either.

This is dinner - much the same colour as the plane. The little brown things in the right hand corner are dried meat; the chicken cutlet (I assume) was of course provided without a knife to deal with it. Note that at least the cheese is right for this passenger!

Oh yes, and all the other early post-Soviet games came into play - no safety announcements at any stage during the flight; everything in Russian or Ukrainian, no seatbelt checks or seatbelts done up during landing, and folks out of their seats as soon as the plane touched the ground. Makes you feel quite nostalgic!

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Hotel Rus

Hotel Rus in Kiev is a huge Soviet concrete structure. Sitting almost on top of a hill, with its more than 17 floors it dominates the skyline of this side of Kiev.

In good old Soviet style it has a few big burly beefy
security guards in combat uniforms sprawling around at the entrance, and at the restaurant entrance
one floor up; all with batons ready for charging. It's funny how different cultures interpret security. In the UK you'd rarely have security guards at the entrance of hotels, and if so, they would probably be standing up, wearing very smart uniforms (and often they'd be rather elderly, too).

There do not
seem to be the Babushkas on every floor,though I did notice a
housekeeper's room on my floor which might have the same function (more comfort for the babushka).....Sometimes some
countries/organisations take a long time to drag themselves out of the
old rot!

The hotel does a lot of group trade; on two out of my three mornings I hit the dining room at the same time as a huge group of twittering American pensioners - the first group was on a cruise down the Dnjepr. It was hard finding a seat for myself.... but then again, on another evening our conference completely took over the dining room, leaving no tables for anyone else.

The amount of group trade means that the hotel is very efficient at processing large numbers of diners very quickly (unlike the Hotel Neringa in Vilnius, which also does the group trade, but is absolutely hopeless at getting them through). On my first evening at 10.30 pm I went for some dinner, at the same time as a group of French people arrived for theirs. They had salad, chicken Kiev and chips, and icecream - the latter arrived while the first were about to start their chicken Kiev. Meantime my potato pancakes and sausage took ages to arrive, and I swear the potato pancakes had been cooked a good long while before (days?). I find Chicken Kiev vastly over-rated - not sure what the original chicken Kiev was, but this combination of processed chicken, plastic breadcrumb coating and greasy filling is close to the bottom of my list of desirable food. In fact that night I had gone, with a song in my heart, to the sushi bar on the ground floor, only to find that it was out of rice. Happens all the time that one is out of rice, doesn't it, especially if one is a sushi bar. I think it's still out of rice three days on....

The lifts in the hotel are a serious challenge - there ain't enough for all the people who want to travel, and they are cramped - so you get to know people more intimately than you'd normally choose. Also the stairs seem to lead to no-where - once I tried to run down the stairs from my 7th floor room; only got to the third floor where they stopped, and then had to climb back up since the electronic door card did not open the door to that floor. I wonder what their fire procedures are like?

So it's not badly located, but about the peak of impersonal, anonymous hotel. The rooms are quite small (in true Soviet style with a large empty fridge), and the heating does not seem to go above 20. But it was only three days.

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The expressive page turner

Had of course checked out the concerts at the Filarmonia before I ever left Tbilisi for Kiev. And brilliant the programming was, too. Last night was the opening concert of the season, in a mini-festival called 'Volodymyr Krainev and Friends' (or something like that).

Krainev is a highly respected piano professor who teaches at Hanover in Germany. If you want to be a high class pianist, that is where you should study - he's not the only highly respected professor teaching there. He also sits on lots of piano competition juries, and his pupils tend to do well in competitions. Not that there will be a connection, of course. At the last competition I saw him, a few years ago in Armenia, with huge prize money, it was the pupil of the jury chair (not Krainev) who won....

It was an all Beethoven evening; starting with the violin concerto, then piano concerto No 4, and finally the Choral Fantasy. Oh wow! As we were waiting for the concert to start I was chatting to my companion about the Schnittke cadenza for the concerto, and while I had heard of it, I had never heard it (Gidon Kremer has recorded it). Was I gobsmacked when Oleg Krysa, the violin soloist, stepped on the stage and started explaining about the Schnittke cadenza and how it picks up themes and motifs not only from Beethoven (not only this concerto), but also Brahms and Shostakovich. Wow!

It was great! While in the rest of the Beethoven there was the odd little rough intonation, and the sound of the violin was sometimes a little thin, these cadenzas, one for each movement, were amazing. Quite Bachian in their own little way, reminding me of a slow movement in one of the sonatas or partitas where you have a melody playing at the same time as a rhythmic beat on another string. This beat could come from bowing, plucking, or in the case of the cadenzas, from the timps - Schnittke did not mind including other instruments. The themes were beautifully picked out, and the five-beat opening motif of the timps appeared in both the first and last-movement cadenzas. In the last movement cadenzas the first violins joined in to give a background sound of roaring bees. It's really extremely skilful what Schnittke did in his post-baroque polistylistic approach. I need to track down that recording!

This was followed by Hisako Kawamura of Japan playing Beethoven's 4th piano concerto - beautifully. She seems to be quite a personality, coming on the stage with a very confident and cheeky grin - and then starting the concerto with the lightest touch. She played it beautifully and expressively, emoting (but not excessively) from the top of her hair to her tiny little toe. The collaboration between her and the very elegantly conducting Volodymir Syrenko was a joy to behold. Her way of carrying a little hanky on the stage, and confident use of the word 'spaceba' (thank you) makes me think she studied in Russia at one stage.

Finally, at last, it was time for the Choral Fantasy. A piece I love, though someone in the Vilnius Filharmonija turn up his nose suggesting it's just a baby version of the 9th. No matter; a few years ago I heard it in Vilnius played by a wonderful Russian/American pianist whose name will soon return to me, I am sure.

Here it was Mr Krainev himself who was playing, and Hisako Kawamura was turning his pages. This was when I began to realise that this concerto series might have been arranged to give his pupils concert exposure (though those who study with him will have played many concerts already). Mr Krainev is a little round kind of guy, but that does not stop him making contact with the piano. I thought that the chap in Vilnius had put more joy into his, as if he was making it up as he went along, having a good old 'craic' with the orchestra and huge amounts of fun...This was more sticking to the letter of the notes, though he did not look at them that much. While Mr Krainev had a slight civil servant approach, Ms Kawamura did the emoting for him from behind, occasionally finding it hard to keep her hands still. The choir soloists were a little too heavy on the vibrato (especially the women) but overall it was a great performance and they got a well-deserved standing ovation.

It was really a great way to end my last working day in Kiev on this child welfare project which is about to end. The 'Ode to Joy', given the project success, would have been even more suitable, though!

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Autumn in Tbilisi

It certainly is autumn in Tbilisi; where two weeks ago we were still sweltering and lashing out in perspiration every time we hiked home, today I have closed, for the first time, the little windows that were open all summer. Breakfast on the balcony won't happen much longer; Dinner has not happened for some time what with it being dark. There's a howling gale - great when I'm about to fly off to Kiev on some abstruse airline.

'Autumn in Tbilisi' is also the title of the little festival at the opera house, which I had mentioned before. Starting next Monday, 11 days before the start I tried to get tickets. Box office knew nothing about it. I emailed the opera house but must have got someone who speaks no English - no response. We phoned the opera house last week to ask when the tickets would be on the market; today (Monday) they said. Great.

This morning I hurtled down the hill to pick some up for a friend and I; the lady at the box office knew nothing about it (7 days to go). Phoned the opera house and in my best Russian asked about the tickets; was told they might be for sale in a day, or two, or three.... tried to reserve the tickets what with my impending absence. Can't be done - though the website quite clearly explains how to reserve tickets (but perhaps someone else runs this festival and provides the tickets?).

I suppose, it's Georgia.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

How to dress as an airline passenger...

My male colleagues from Northern Ireland told me that it was always better to wear shirt and tie whilst travelling home; anyone remotely casual would be severely queried as to why they would be flying to that (then) troubled province.

If you are dark-skinned with dark hair it's probably not a good idea these days to fly wearing Arab or Muslim dress (I saw some very nice, comfortable Arab outfits at Dubai airport when I travelled through recently....).

Although I wear skirts much more than I used to (due to having thinner legs), and most of the skirts are quite short (what's the point of having thinner legs if you can't show them off), I tend to fly wearing trousers - I am sure crossing your legs tightly during a long flight is not good for your health. Never mind that of the chap beside you. In some ways I like those light travelling trousers with all their pockets etc - but if they have a below-knee zip to remove part of the leg those are uncomfortable like hell if you still cross your legs. Also it's a major pain when you go through security and have to empty all your pockets (though on my recent flight from Plymouth airport in the UK, where I had to check in my handbag, they were very useful indeed for keeping all my belongings). Given the amount and weight of my luggage, generally it is better to check in the light trousers and wear the heavy ones.

What brought all this on? Carpetblogger had lead me to this really funny article about a young woman who was nearly thrown off a plane in the US because her attire did not match the high standards expected by South Western Airline. (Something tells me that my anti-Bush T-shirt with him saying 'Stop me before I kill again!' is one I need not take to the US next year, or even worse, wear on the flight....).

As Carpetblogger correctly points out, a rule like this would mean that most Ukrainian women (and Russian and some Lithuanians) would never be able to fly; Carpetblogger comments that she can find the Ukrainian airlines' desks in Istanbul, where she now lives, just by looking at the hair colour and the footwear of the check-in staff. Add to that the length of the skirts - there must still be fabric shortages in Russia and Ukraine, and the governments/airlines won't spend any more than absolutely necessary on uniforms.

Apparently what happened was that shortly before take-off the young lady was pulled out of her seat by someone called Keith and told to change. Presumably all Americans have a change of clothes in their hand luggage? This American did not, since she was only going to Tucson, Arizona, for a doctor's appointment (the gynaecologist??). Eventually they relented, but gave her a blanket to cover her legs....

The things you have to worry about these days:

  • ticket
  • passport
  • no liquids or sharp items in your hand luggage
  • electronics switched off
  • clothes demure enough
Also, what's this thing about a man telling her what to wear? Surely that, like searching a person, would be the job for a person of the same gender. I'd have slapped him!
(Picture from SignonSandiego.com)


Saturday, September 15, 2007

It was like being at home!

'Crow Road' by Iain Banks is actually quite an old book, published in 1993. At Gatwick airport the shop had offers of 3 books for the price of two, and I needed a third book. Have a vague memory that this was made into a film or TV programme.

Of course it's not about the Crow Road in Glasgow which I used to drive along from time to time. It's set somewhere on the West Coast between Glasgow and Oban, and is about three families who are friends through having grown up together, though one is working class, one is posh and one is in between. The son of the in-between , Prentice, is the main narrator. The book covers the period from the childhood of Prentice's father, who dies near the end of the book. There is a dark secret....but it does not much read like a detective story - this only develops nearer the end.

What I liked about it? It was so evocative of Scotland and the period it covered (including the first Gulf War), with many references to real events, and the very sympathetic family's attitude to many of them. It beautifully describes moments on the west coast of Scotland, which you can only have there; the weather (hmm, yes), the food, the language. Oh, the language - here Prentice tries to imagine how the local polis would react if he came to them with his theory about the dark secret: 'Right, sonny, so you think this wee story that ye've read means yer uncle wiz kilt....Ah see. Would you mind just putting on this nice white jaikit? Aye, the sleeves are a wee bitty on the long side, but you won't be needing your hands much in this braw wee room we've got for you with the very soft wallpaper'.

Isn't that just wonderful? Obviously the polis was fae Glasgow. (Those non-Scots who think I cannot spell 'police', trust me. I'm Scottish. So are they!) I read this book before the Gavalda book (below), and while Gavalda might be minus 1 out of 10 for literary merit, this is about 8 or 9 out of 10. It's brilliantly written, brilliantly put together, so evocative also of the languages used in the different periods and by the different people. The sense of humour is so Scottish, so dry - just pure dead brilliant! But you may need to have been there to appreciate that (though I appreciate books set in England even though I haven't lived there that much....)


Hospital book

Think I'll start classifying the books I am reading into hospital books (takes your mind off things, and there's a bowl to throw up into), flying books (gripping read, not to heavy in weight) and so on. Much like I've classified Verdi's operas as 'ice cream music'. I have another one for music, thought of it recently, but have forgotten it already.

Anna Gavalda is a French author, about one of whose other books someone says in Amazon: 'The book is the literary equivalent of a fireplace or an evening with candlelight, soft and embracing warmth. It is very hard to create such stories or characters without overdoing it. The author was able to do so, and the only actual problem is that the book has an end.'

As I said, bring the puke bowl.

'Hunting and Gathering' which is the book that someone leant me, in German, is about a young anorexic woman in Paris, her aristocratic neighbour and flat-mate (owner), a mixed-up chef also living in the flat and his granny who's had one fall too many. They move together somewhat reluctantly and as time goes on they get on better, and so on....Cheesy isn't the word - it's a Brie running off the table! Cliche overload. But if you were in hospital feeling like death, having had your literary judgement removed, it might be ok. If I offered it to my extremely fussy mother, and she enjoyed it, I would begin to seriously worry.

Apart from the cheesy story, it's the style of writing that gets me. The blurb on the back describes it as 'burschikos' (boyish). Obviously I can't tell whether it's the translator's version of the book, but there is a conflict between what is a bit of a woman's story, and the language which is really rather bloke-ish. Especially since the main narrating character speaks like a man, but is the rather skinny and very artistic slip of a girl. I suppose it happens.

But there are gaps of credibility, too - this girl who is a cleaning lady working nights has no hesitation to go and buy a HiFi, a washing machine or take other people out to dinner, even though they know that she cannot earn much (much later we get an explanation, but it's a bit far fetched as well).

I hate to say this, but it seems the book has been made into a film. The French title is 'Ensemble, C'est Tout', with that girl Tatou who was in that famous film, was it Amelie's World? Take plenty of hankies when you go to see it.



Claudio Abbado, the wonderful, inspirational conductor, is sick again; he's had to cancel a tour to the US. Let's pray and hope his cancer has not come back again, and that he just needs to take a rest.


Tbilisi conservatoire - 90

The Tbilisi conservatoire is coming up to it's 90th birthday, having been founded in 1917 - bit of an auspicious year in the former Soviet Union, no? The conservatoire is totally spick and span, having been renovated with the help of donors so that it has the best concert hall in Tbilisi. It's in much better nick than the Lithuanian music academy building which has access to EU structural funds; but instead it looks quite dilapidated.

So it's having a concert series from 30 September to 8 October, with concerts virtually every day. Don't ask me what they are because the posters are in Georgian, and once I have spelled out the letters for 'fortepiano' I need to go and rest in a darkened room. Prominent graduates will participate in the concerts, as well as rectors of the leading conservatoires of the world (maybe the one from Moscow who plays piano; hopefully not the one from Vilnius who plays the accordeon).

Tickets are for sale from today, I am told. Went along just before twelve and joined the queue, left at 12.05 when nothing happened; went along again at around 4 pm and saw a different queue, but the door was still closed. Caused a slight scandal by climbing on a small chair outside to peer into the building, but it looked deserted. Did people just queue for nothing?

What gets me most of all is that I am told the tickets are 50 or 40 laris each (23 or 18 Euros), or you can get a season ticket for all the concerts for 200 laris. There are no student discounts, not even for the students of the conservatoire, I am told. Not much, the average Westerner might think. Well, consider that the average theatre ticket is around 10 laris, the average MONTHLY income per person is 89 laris, the average salary in Tbilisi is 411 laris. Consider further that anyone who was seriously talented during the Soviet period which is only 16 years ago, would have gone to study in Moscow and never touched this conservatoire. Those vastly talented since would probably go either to Moscow or to the West to study, like Lisa Batiashvili, or Giorgio Kharadze, the latter of whom grew up in France. So then you see why I get apoplexy at prices like this. What exactly are people going to be paying this huge amount of money for?

Georgia's Gini Coefficient, on a scale of 0 - 1, was 0.439 in 2006, having reduced from almost .5 a few years ago. The Gini Coefficient measures the distribution of wealth in a country; the higher the figure, the greater the gap between rich and poor. For comparison, in Germany in 2004 it was .283, in the US it was 0.408, in the UK 0.36, and in Finland (and Hungary, funnily, and their languages are connected, too!) it was 0.269. Brazil with .57 was one of the most unequal countries, though Namibia with 0.74 leaves everyone else behind. Bangladesh with 0.33 is really quite equal - everyone is poor together.

If it wasn't alreay clear that there are vast gaps between rich and poor in Georgia (you just need to look around), the ticket prices certainly illustrate these huge differences.


It's not what you do... but who you know?

As mentioned earlier and see also here, Tbilisi municipality (or the Government??) is cracking down hard on traders, and almost everywhere you get the dinky little receipts now, unless you buy off the granny sitting on the roadside in front of her buckets of apples or cheese. These are the most mobile businesses - the next ones up are the ones with the rickety little stalls; then you rent a space in a larger establishment (eg the former central supermarket - a dreadfully ugly, run down sort of place where you could get quite a lot of useful, if not necessarily beautiful stuff. It's now sold for 22 million USD, to be replaced by a shopping mall selling Dolce and Gabbano and such like. Another contribution to the eradication of poverty. I probably won't be able to get my washing powder there in the future. In good Georgian style the traders had until 5 August to clear their stuff out, but the police prevented them from entering on 31 July. Why have human rights? Why have any rights? This place is now owned by a British company owned by a chap living in Israel. Oh the shame!).

The highest class establishments then are the shops which have premises all to themselves. They also have the wee receipt machines, which tell you nothing, only the total you spent. How does the sum get in? The shop assistant scans your goods and they go into a computer which shows up the goods and adds the bill together. Then the shop assistant takes this amount and types it into the totally unconnected little machine. So today a friend thought he had already paid for my chewing gum, I was not sure, and the cashier showed him the little slip, with no info other than his total spend. D'oh!

So you'd think a shop in King Erekle Street, the most touristy place in Tbilisi, selling hand-made enamel jewelry, would be really well organised, wouldn't you, seeing as they are selling the goods of many different craftspeople who all have to be paid? Think again. Sad tale coming up.

Ham had bought a beautiful little cross for his girlfriend, and two hours, a large beer and a bottle of Saperavi later we had lost it. Last seen in the restaurant of the Kopala hotel, we did not have it when he got home. Huge bummer. Even more so seeing that he bought some wine at Tbilisi airport, which was then promptly taken off him under the 'no liquids rule' whilst changing planes in Riga.

Went off to the shop today, since at the time they had had three other similar crosses in the display, and found that they had none left. There was one vaguely similar, but not quite as nice, and the others were interesting, but not the right style. Quite apart from the ubiquitous St George slaying the dragon - not good for an almost-vegetarian....

I spotted the saleslady who had helped us last time, but she could not remember what we bought. So I asked if they did not have the records of what they sold last Sunday? Seems not unreasonable - if the makers want to be paid you'd think someone keeps a very good register of what is sold and when? You'd think in a computer system they would enter the item, the cost, the date of sale, and the original maker... seeing all the computers sitting around in the place, with people using MS Messenger.... You'd think further that such information could then be easily retrieved....

But it seems they do not keep such records, or it would be very difficult to find. As my friend Hans always says: 'let's put the word 'lazy' on the table'. If they really do not keep their records up to date, I would not want to be in their shoes.....

Was there a receipt? Like heck there was!


Friday, September 14, 2007

As rare as hens' teeth

I'm putting together a little collection of viola CDs to give to the new Georgian classical music radio station, Radio Muza. It's just been started - it was an idea of Mrs President who missed listening to classical music radio (she's Dutch). So she rounded up a lot of sponsors and got people trained by Dutch producers and now it's off. Having no real radio myself here I listen to it via my mobile phone (a Nokia N80) which is really coming into its own now!

Anyway, when one puts together a collection of CDs, of course one seeks advice (and gets it, from the ever wonderful viola list). In addition I have quite a big collection of my own, but of course like to keep that, in case Ipods melt down etc.

So I looked round amazon.de for some of those CDs, and geez, what a surprise! The Tabea Zimmermann Bartok/Schwanendreher recording costs 150 Euros; the Masurenko CD of British viola works which I bought some time last year, is no longer available; Kancheli's 'Styx' with Bashmet is still available new, but already 69 Euros from other dealers. I'm glad I usually buy the CDs when I see them reviewed. This collection of mine may be worth something in time....

I did find some lovely new CDs though, including the lovely Antoine Tamestit's recording of Bachs second violin partita (or sonata? - the one with the Ciaconna), which also included a piece by Ligeti I don't know. Tamestit takes risks and does 'funky' - he's a wonderful player and a lovely person, too. The gorgeous Lars Anders Tomter has recorded both Shostakovich's viola sonata and his cello sonata transcribed for viola; first time I heard him was in Edinburgh with the world premiere of the Halgrimsson viola concerto; he's another fairly regular attender of viola congresses. It's fun doing this, and getting them some less well-known pieces.

My impression had been that was a bit of a conservative station until, when I listened the other evening, I heard a version Bach's 4th cello suite with cello, bandoneon and percussion - still trying to work out who recorded this - it really was fun! Took me a while to identify the piece which I knew oh so well (there was so much percussion and other extraneous stuff, but I know a bandoneon when I hear one) - but luckily I had my sheet music with me. (Announcements in Georgian aren't much good to me - my numbers only go up to 3 - erti, ori, sami - and I think even 'Bach' might become 'Bachi'.)


Thursday, September 13, 2007

In the news today....

  • another foot and mouth outbreak in Surrey, England. The first one, in August, was in Normandy, where I got my gorgeous first dog, Arran, from. This one is in Egham, very close to which I lived whilst gardening for the Queen. There's some concern for the Queen's deer (didn't know there was any space in that area for something as free as deer), and Windsor Great Park has been closed. No doubt leading to a loss of revenue, and of a handy shortcut from Englefield Green (where I lived) to Windsor.
  • in Vilnius a little plane belonging to SAS crashlanded, following the failure of half its landing gear. Another plane of the same model belonging to the same airline had crashlanded for the same reason a couple of days earlier (in Denmark). Gives you confidence in SAS, no? Now they have grounded all the planes of the same make, cancelling 112 flights. During the first incident the propeller, on hitting the ground, broke off and sliced into the fuselage, and a passenger, though he was not badly hurt. So this time, apparently, the crew knew what to do and got all the passengers onto the non-affected side of the plane prior to landing. I'm trying to visualise that given that worry always over being attached to your seatbelt. These Canadian-made planes are not big - so did people have to sit on other people's laps? Or were they standing up and hanging on to other seats in a plane anticipating a very rough landing? Not a single person was hurt, apparently, which is great news. How long did it take to unfankle the luggage?
  • Dresdner Bank has admitted unfairly dismissing an Australian manager. The story is that he was 'not German enough', and he is complaining that he was excluded from major conversations when the German managers went off and talked .... German. Though another native English-speaker who spoke German did not have that problem. Is there a message in this, I wonder. Now that the bank has admitted this, he'll get oodles and oodles of money no doubt, though perhaps not the 10 million GBP he is hoping for. I don't suppose he feels any inclination to spend the money on language training - especially not German...


Sometimes I hate piano lessons!

First lesson today after about 7 weeks. Had not practiced that much during the summer, what with music summer schools, visits here and there and so on, but enough to do my Bach invention, a Mozart sonatina which went quite nicely, I thought.

Until the lesson. To be fair, I play the music but don't always follow the finger instructions, so my teacher reminds me of them, which results in fingers all over the place and knotted, and I totally lose the plot! Not enough that some new pieces of music appeared; we ended up digging out another study by a guy called Burgmueller which I hate and had hoped we'd lost it.....So now lots of practicing again.

In addition to:

  • revising for my music exam on 16 October. The marks of my assignments started off at 99/100% and are now down to 67% for the latest one. Though it's probably my own fault - in the middle of revising now I've found that there is much useful stuff that I had forgotten, and which would have been useful in the most recent harmonisations. There's still tons of stuff to do.
  • the concert series 'Autumn in Tbilisi' in the Opera House, consisting of 5 concerts from 24 - 29 September with some stunning soloists, including Giorgio Kharadze, a very very high profile cellist who grew up and trained in France. Tickets are not on sale yet, 11 days before the start. The programming is fairly conservative, but we don't often get soloists of this calibre.
  • a concert series celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Tbilisi conservatoire with its very nice modernised facilities; starting on 30 Sept or so, with 7 or 8 concerts in a week. I'm told the tickets are 200 laris for a season ticket, or 40 or 50 laris for each concert (18 - 23 Euros or so). Shocking prices! Need to find out about a student discount....but really, do I have time? Apart from the fact that the content of the concerts is still unknown, to me, in any case...
There were supposed to be choir trips here and there as well - but really, time is running away fast!



This is the building that held the market I would sometimes go to. To be fair, it did not look that much better when it was operating...

It was a huge market with folk from all around Tbilisi bringing in their wares, be it vegetables, suckling pigs arranged on the tables just so with their little legs in the air, cheese, dried fruit, honey, tskhemali sauces. Everything was always beautifully displayed - but you wouldn't want to inspect the floor too closely, and we suggested to our colleague with the 3-year-old daughter that she might not want to bring the child to the market.

Anyway, now the market is closed. It's a great shame because it was quite central, and lots of people could access it easily. At the same time also other little markets have been closed or bulldozed, like this is going to be by the looks of it. The reasons?

There was a story that the traders were supposed to get a little machine that prints out receipts and presumably keeps track of transactions; the cost allegedly was over 200 dollars. Not really affordable by the wee market traders, and I'm not convinced, having seen some of these machines in other shops, that they are this expensive. And it only tracks those transactions that are entered into it, much like when you get on a minibus in Vilnius and pay, but don't get a ticket....

Of course the official reason will be that all income must be taxed, bla, bla. And looking at the speed at which the market building comes down, one of the reaons for this might be that otherwise people would just have moved back into the market. On the other hand it is a prime site, and very central in Tbilisi - wouldn't surprise me at all if some developer had greased some palms. Not that we have corruption any more in Georgia, you understand... Or it could be yet another attempt at cleaning up the city - which has already cost so many people their livelihoods.

Looks like now I will have to hop on the metro to get a big vegetable shop (for one...).


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A chill is in the air...

...autumn is coming. Did not notice it yesterday morning at 2 when I took Ham to the airport, but sure noticed it a few hours later when I got up, and last night and this morning. It's quite nice, after a fairly stifling summer.

My colleagues tell me that autumn lasts about a week and next week it'll be winter. Wow!


Who'd want to have to make these decisions?

Folk in the UK will have had to follow the Madeleine McCann case with appalled interest - it's hardly ever been out of the news since 3-year-old Madeleine disappeared from the hotel bedroom in Portugal four months ago, while the parents were eating dinner at the restaurant 100 m away. The parents, with support in the highest places (Gordon Brown was involved at some stage) have mounted a huge publicity campaign and posters of the child were all over UK airports during the summer. The Portuguese police has constantly been criticised, partly also because foreign media do not really understand police processes in different countries.

Now, it seems, British investigators have found DNA evidence which links Madeleine to a car that her parents hired 25 days after she disappeared. The suggestion is that Mrs McCann accidentally killed the daughter and somehow they disposed of the body together. Both parents are now officially suspects. The family who had vowed not to leave Portugal without Madeleine, departed, with the permission of the police, a day or two after they were officially made suspects.

Now, as if this is not enough, given that the family are now suspects in this case, this means that the social services are beginning to take an interest in the other two children in the family, and their safety. Should they be removed?

Imagine being the McCanns, and imagine if this accusation is erroneous - not only have they lost their daughter, but they may lose their other children, too. Of course, if the accusation is not erroneous...

Imagine also being the police officers if they have drawn the wrong conclusions and being responsible for potentially depriving the other two children of their parents.

Imagine being the two-year-old twins whose world has also been turned upside down enough already, with distraught parents around them, and now potentially being removed without understanding anything.

I'd hate to have to deal with this!



What with Ham here, we took a trip up to Kazbegi, in the far north of Georgia, close to the border of Russia (North Ossetia which contains Beslan). Kazbegi is almost the last town in Georgia, with the district having a population of under 8000, though you would not think it, looking at Kazbegi itself, which looks and feels like a very small village.

This was a 'live life like the Georgians' trip, so we took the marshrutka fromDidube station in Tbilisi (8 laris, about 5 USD) for the 3-hour trip up and over the mountains, with the highest pass at 2300 m above sea level. As we approached Kazbegi the marshrutka filled up with people from the surrounding villages wishing to go to the district capital, either buying or selling stuff. Interesting moment on the trip - at one moment the driver drew up outside a little shack, a woman popped out of the house next door and dragged out 2 huge cans of petrol from the shack - it was the local petrol station!

On arrival in Kazbegi two women crowded the bus, looking for people to stay in their homes. (Apparently someone has been told never to go with the women who try to pick you up off the bus, but we did not know that!). This seemed like a good idea, so off we went with the more organised-looking one along the road, up another road, round a corner, passing the pigs, up another road to find her house.

Homestays in Georgia are not like your English bed and breakfast; here a number of narrow beds are crammed into rooms and you share or don't share with strangers. The condition of the houses, certainly in Kazbegi, probably would not meet your English bed and breakfast standard either, what with cracked and plastered walls etc - and that's just the decor. One of the two homestays we used on the trip only had water at certain times; the early morning it was not, so I showered and washed my hair with one litre of water the following morning....But it's ok; people in Kazbegi live like that all the time, so a couple of night's won't hurt us. Cost was 15 laris for the bed plus food.

Oh yes, food. We went to lunch at a small cafe (the only operating cafe) next to the Stepantsminda hotel (which did not do food) and if we'd been really hungry, we would still be chewing their shashlik. Apparently it's notorious for being tough. Doing it in a frying pan probably does not help either.... The food in the homestays was so so; the first one was overpriced for a dinner of sausages and scrambled eggs, and in the second one we would have had more choice, had we chosen our food in the morning before going out, rather than in the evening. (In a place with frequent powercuts it's not really ideal to have a freezer, so people buy food as they need it.) Other homestays are reported to do very good food.

Kazbegi is in the shadow of Mount Kazbek, at 5033 (or 5047) m the highest mountain in Georgia, and definitely not one for climbing by amateurs. It's rare that you can see all of it; often it blushingly hides its little face with a cloud. You can, however, approach a good bit of it, and we hiked up to the glacier which is at the side of the mountain. I'd never seen a glacier up close! It was amazing how much water was pouring out of it, at the height of summer.

The path to our viewing point was quite manageable, though there was a chilly wind. At one stage we nearly gave up, at the risk of being blown off, but shortly after that it recovered and
became much more manageable again.

We found loads of gentians (two different kinds), a dog who followed us faithfully (apparently he follows everyone), and masses of scrumptious blueberries. And about 7 hours later we were back in the village, where, in the absence of planning, our dinner consisted of a pie filled with potato and some cheese (plus bread and the usual salad).

There was no problem getting a marshrutka back to Tbilisi the following morning, even though many internet correspondents talked about the need to get a taxi back to town.

We found a couple of young ladies from Estonia and Latvia in Kazbegi who are doing a survey of tourist impressions and expectations; I felt a bit sorry for them - they really are at the back of beyond, and even in the food stakes the range is quite limited. But it's only for three months, and probably a good experience for them.

Recommended homestays:
Stepan's next to the Lomi hotel; has permanent running water, indoor toilet and electricity; pre-ordered food good, nice people
Other people recommended Bella's (in Gergeti, just across the river), toilet through the chicken shed, but with lots of good food, and Nati's, also possibly in Gergeti. There's also one called 'Vano's' which everyone talks about on the internet. There's also a nice looking guest house, in Stalin Street 5 (though actually it's in the street parallel to it, up the mountain, opposite the little mountain museum. Belongs to Iago Kazalikashvili - looks good, but when we went we found a little old lady at the door who did not seem to feel empowered to give us a room. Might be a higher class of accommodation than the homestays. And then there is the Stepantsminda Hotel, which is new and modern.

(Fotos by Ham)


Thursday, September 06, 2007

Jewish identities

Read two books about Jewish identity, one after the other. The first was Philip Roth's 'Operation Shylock - a Confession' (1994) and the other was by Eva Menasse in German 'Vienna' (2005, her debut novel). I see this has been translated into English; same title - I wonder how the Austrian expressions translated?

Roth's book is fairly bizarre; it's about a famous Jewish novelist called Philip Roth who discovers a doppelganger who impersonates Philip Roth, the author, and on his behalf meets politicians all over the world and calls for 'Diasporism', suggesting that the question of Israel can only be solved if the Jews return to the countries they came from in Central and Eastern Europe. Apart from having started an 'Anti-Semites Anonymous' organisation. Both Philip Roths end up in Israel at the time of the John Demjanjuk trial (he was an alleged camp guard somewhere in Ukraine). A bizarre sequence of events follow involving them impersonating each other, meeting and abusing each other, Philip Roth the author meeting a Palestinian friend from his student days and attending a court case in Ramallah, being apparently kidnapped, an involvement with perhaps Mossad. In the middle of this there are many debates about Judaism, its role vis a vis the Palestinians, the effect of the Holocaust on the first post-Holocaust generation, the thinking that goes through recovering anti-semites heads...

It's very weird, especially given the crossing over into real life with Demjanjuk - it makes the book appear like a normal autobiographical description, but Roth denies all links to real life. The writing is of course brilliant - and it's also very funny, though quite scary at times.

Eva Menasse is a journalist, and 'Vienna' is her first book. Like Roth's book, hers is written as if she is telling the story of her family. Strangely, none in the family has names - they are all described in their relationship to the narrator. The book covers the time from her father's birth to the current time, after his death, but it does not proceed in a linear fashion - dashing backwards and forwards. In some ways it's a series of family anecdotes, where for example an uncle is famous for his spoonerisms, the uncle's wife is famous for her meanness and so on. Oh yes, and it's sort of a Jewish family, except that the grandfather and his brother both married gentiles. Which strictly speaking does not make the subsequent generations Jewish, but the author's father's birth is certainly registered in the Jewish community, and he is sent to the UK in the Kindertransport of about 1938, or maybe slightly earlier. Later the narrator's brother, a bit of a rebel, questions the Jewishness of the family, but by then things have become even more complicated with at least one of that generation having married an Israeli woman.

It's a bit strange that the whole family survive the war, and there is no talk of any more remote members losing their lives. The families living in Vienna continue to do so during the war, on account of the gentile wives protecting the lives of their Jewish husbands. I'm not totally convinced about that.

It's a very amusing book and also very Austrian, with folk speaking in quite an Austrian accent. In some ways it's just a family saga, with the Jewishness adding extra interest. Apparently it is not all that loosely based on the author's own family (and remember, no-one has a name in the book....). It will never reach the level of Philip Roth who has a much higher level of intellectuality and wit. The reviews of this book have been very varied, ranging from scathing to good. I found it fairly unputdownable (whereas I finished Roth's book with it's much more complex language and endless contemplations only on the second attempt).


Monday, September 03, 2007

Austrian papers

Unfortunately it's impossible to translate the sound of the Austrian writing into English...

1. A psychologist being interviewed about the effect of retirement on people suggests that people who are on their own should, for the sake of their social lives, connect with a social care institution sooner rather than later. She hastens to add that she does not mean they should go into a home, but that they should connect with some day centre for the sake of day time activity and occupation. Right.  Does not occur to her that older people might still like to connect to younger people in their social lives? Though of course in Austria most younger people are working.

2. On Friday, 31 August, a story about a drunk 'automobilist' (original Austrian) who finds a tunnel entry in Paris too narrow and crashes into a wall.  'Bad  it looked for him then', the story goes on. I'd say - they are talking about Princess Di's driver.

3. A policewoman in Vienna is found asleep in her car, the engine running. Her helpful colleagues find that she is completely drunk, and try to help her out of the car. She resists violently. At one stage sheapparently tells her dog 'Go for them'. Luckily for all, the dog does not obey.  In the court case the judge says 'Good dog'. The witness replies 'yes and no'.

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