Wednesday, May 30, 2007

May in Georgia

Spring has well and truly sprung in Georgia, and you can see that we do alpine meadows. They are beautiful!! And sometimes they are transversed by snakes or by turtles...

And if anyone can give me a clue as to the nature of this leguminous tree that would be great!


Rivers vs Pods

(Put an 'i' in front of it....). Last weekend, on a short dash to Vilnius, my 3-year-old Iriver seized up. It contained about 3300 music tracks (including half a dozen operas), and it was the moment I had feared - well, half anyway. The other half of me had waited for a long time to get rid of the clunky, bulky iriver IHP140 which took up a lot of space either in my bag, or on my side whilst travelling. The main reason why I bought the Iriver rather than an Ipod three years ago was that it also had radio reception (so I could have had a change from my CDs - all of which I have bought!). But I never used the radio. So on the way through Munich airport I picked up an ipod, the big one. The others are wonderful and dinky, but 4 or 8 Gb are no good to me.

Like all Ipods, this is wonderfully designed - totally smooth and streamlined, and with a lovely steel back. I have heard that the front scratches easily, though. It only comes with a USB cable, linking it to the computer, including for charging - which is no good if you dare travel without your laptop! So another 30 Euros for a charging cable is a bit steep. Also, unlike the Iriver, it comes without a case - though, with this being a bit of cult item, and thousands of cases around, people may wish to choose their own. Much like Madame Thatcher's social protection model - 'we won't tax you and you can choose to arrange your own pension'. Could not find a case at the airport, though, that was neither naff nor likely to break apart with a bit of heavy use.

The Iriver is easier to load, I think, or maybe I am used to it more. Its folders look just like any other folder on the computer; but if you try to find folders on the Ipod pages you have real trouble identifying continuous pieces of music. In the Iriver I could have deleted music, like a whole opera - in the ipod they are scattergunned all over the place. And I could sort my music into different types, without the system telling me that Mozarts piano concertos are dance music. I had labelled, very labouriously, the Iriver folders where the older CDs did not have the capacity to pull their name, address and soloist details from the internet. These are now on the Ipod as disks 1 to 89 or whatever, and at some stage I will have to sort them out, individually, to re-indentify them. My main worry, that all tracks 1 would be together, luckily has not come true, though I haven't been able to check whether quite all tracks have transferred safely - I now have only 2700 instead of 3300, but I may not have transferred all tracks, she says, stating the obvious....

Not sure I like Itunes all that much, apart from connecting the word 'tunes' to 'music'. Using two different computers, I could easily be in danger of accidentally erasing all the music that I laboriously loaded onto the thing last weekend. Another thing to check out and learn, I suppose.

Once I sussed out how to start and stop the thing, and turn the volume up and down, I was away. It has a very intuitive way of responding to instructions. Bit annoying though that it stops playing at the end of each 'album', so you have to dig it out again and actively look for another album. Or you set it to shuffle and get a bit of Cuban between an opera and an ink-still-wet piece of viola music, followed by Alan Bennett or a chapter of PG Wodehouse. I'm sure there's much more to sus out. Also it does not have a little clip-on remote like the Iriver did, which meant that you did not have to go digging in your pockets every time a CD ran out (which it would not have done anyway, in the Iriver - it just goes on and on).

Oh yes, it takes videos as well - though if they are not bought from the apple store, you have to go through a complicated process of ripping them - but would I really want to watch videos on a very dinky screen?

It is beautiful, though, to look at, and the sound quality is good (especially if you remember to have as high as possible the sampling rate). And of course it holds twice the amount of music as my Iriver - which is a serious factor to consider. Now, if it was even smaller.....


Monday, May 28, 2007

Nigerian twins

Even I know that in traditional Nigerian culture giving birth to twins is not a good thing; they are supposed to have some bad magic around them, and often they were left to die.

In the case of the twins in Helon Habila's book 'Measuring Time' perhaps the worst that happened to them was the death of their mother, whilst giving birth to them. They are then brought up in the village by their aunt and their philandering father, who is more absent than present. The book is told mainly from the viewpoint of one of the twins, Mamo, who has sickle cell disease, with frequent feverish and painful crises, and as a result is unable to participate in life as much as his healthy brother (hence they are not identical twins). They both have great ambitions to become famous, and finally decided to run away to join the army, at the age of 15. Unfortunately Mamo gets too sick to even leave the village, but his brother manages to get away and becomes a mercenary in a number of military organisations, with involvement in various West African conflicts, including Liberia and Sierra Leone. Mamo attends university for a while, and then becomes a teacher; later he becomes famous all right.

The book thus covers the lives of the twins for about 30 years or so. It's written in four parts, covering childhood to early adulthood, the moment when Mamo becomes famous, his life after that (and while his father tries to become a politician), and finally a small revolution. Naturally a number of other characters also develop in the course of the book, including one of the twin's cousins who also tries to meddle in politics, but as a drunk is not much good at it, and life becomes very tragic for him.

The book is not particularly funny, but very readable. It's a bit odd that it just stops; did the writer run out of ideas? One would have expected it to go on until Mamo dies, or until he had reached a certain life event, but it just stops. The interesting thing is that Mamo already at this stage lives much longer than other people with sickle cell disease, most of whom, in rural Nigeria at the time, were not expected to reach their twenties.

The book does not just cover the lives of the twins, but also, since Mamo becomes a bit of a historian, much of local and national history of Keti (the village) and Nigeria. Mamo in his researches uses an oral history type of approach, speaking to all sorts of people and building up their biographies (in addition to using newspaper cuttings and other documentary evidence - thus the book becomes a bit of a history of the people rather than the Kings and Queens type of history). This makes it very interesting, though personally I might have preferred to hear more about Mamo and his continuing life. The book is very well written in a clean living, African sort of way (they are always very polite), by the author, who is a professor of creative writing in Fairfax, Virginia, artly funded by a grant from the Arts Council (England) to allow him to take time out to complete the book.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

Equal rights?

According to European legislation, all people have equal rights before the law, and are entitled to respect and all that. And the EU does its best to ensure that people enjoy equal rights; nowadays with the right of freedom of movement European Union citizens can freely move around most of Europe (not everywhere, so here we have another set of exceptions).

Are you sitting comfortably? Then let me talk about the rights of gays. Of course, legally, they have the same right as everyone else, including the right to marriage in most EU member states. In other countries, however, particularly out East (Poland) their rights might be observed in the violation. But that's nothing to the stroke pulled by Lithuania in the last few weeks.

The EU has sponsored a campaign on tolerance (only 'tolerance', not necessarily 'acceptance' or 'respect', as Daniel Barenboim once discussed with the members of the East West Divan Orchestra). In Lithuania the aim was to place advertisements on two buses, and there is a huge EU truck, with built-in stage and everything, which is currently touring 19 EU member states (out of 27). The bus drivers refused to drive buses with this advertisement, so of course the bus company decided not to have the adverts placed. Then the new mayor of Vilnius, Juozas Imbrazas aged 72, who I am told had been a nobody until he became Mayor this year (rumoured to be Paksas', the disgraced ex-president's, front man - Paksas is now in the city parliament), decided in his wisdom not to allow the truck into Vilnius. I suppose they could have gone to Kaunas instead, but that city is even less known for tolerance.

The ensuing correspondence on website has shown a horrifying degree of ignorance about the whole topic, but even educated people talk about 'people deciding to be gay'; others talk about it as an illness. We sure have a long way to go. Of course Poland is another country where the truck won't be visiting, as is Romania. It just shows the huge cultural gap that exists between the old and new member states. Or are the Lithuanians just more honest about their prejudices?

In passing I notice that the municipality website is really bad these days, with no sign of the webcam from the mayor's meeting room that his inspired and visionary, but alas also mildly dodgy predecessor had installed.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Enno Poppe

Who, or what? You might ask if you are not from Germany, or even if you are....

Enno Poppe (a very interesting choice of first name, given the surname) is quite a
famous young German composer. As it happens I know a great deal more
about young Lithuanian composers than about young German composers, but
this one I know because his dad was our music teacher at school, and
young Enno was born while we were his pupils, quite a while after his
older sisters.

Dad Rudolf is an inspired music and maths teacher (retired), and did
his best to run the school choir and orchestra (never together). The
latter was a sad affair, very sad indeed. It included my friend Ulla
and her older twin brothers Christian and Tillmann (all on violin), my
friend Renate on cello and me on violin. Sometimes a bunch of recorder
players would join us - would we fiddlers look down on them? You have
no idea! We were all terrible; I mean, really bad - nothing like the
British school orchestras that I remember. At the time there was little
instrumental instruction in our part of Germany, and certainly not in
mainstream schools. I can't remember who taught Ulla and her brothers
the fiddle. But despite all that, Renate and Ulla studied music, and
I'm studying it now. Rudolf Poppe was big into contemporary music
which we hated, and perhaps for the sake of intonation and togetherness
a more traditional programming would have done. Every now and again we
were wheeled out to play at events. Not quite sure what exactly brought
the tears to the audience's eyes....

Young Enno has won several major prizes, and he now teaches at the
Hanns Eisler Hochschule in Berlin (former DDR Hochschule, and very very
highly regarded; David Geringas and Tabea Zimmermann teach there,
amongst others).

The CD I'm listening to is Interzone, a piece of based on a text by
Marcel Beyer. 'Interzone' relates to William Burrough's book of the
same name about Tanger, the Moroccan city, which has been overwhelmed,
raped and pillaged by a number of invaders; for a while the town was
regarded as an International Zone. 'Interzone' can also be seen as the
spaces between things, eg words, buildings, events.....

Here we have a text, which reminds a bit of Walton's Facade, though
it's not as droll, linked by different pieces of music. You wouldn't go
away whistling a tune; it's more atmospheric. The text is written in
English, with odd (very odd) German words thrown into it
('Herrenunterwaesche', 'Bienenlehre', 'Redekrankheit') - they sound
funny spoken by a Brit, especially as they are those piggingly long
German words ('Stoffwechselfragen'). The piece starts with so much
talking that you think you are listening to a radio play. Naturally
the music is very complex and requires all the skills (and then some!)
of the Neue Vokalsolisten and the ensemble Mosaik, consisting of
woodwinds, accordeon, percussion and piano (though I dare say they can
regroup themselves as they wish and take other folk on board). The
music potters on in a a fairly sober, slightly clinical, German kind of
way, whereas the English text is spoken very dramatically. The singing
skills are awesome!

In a concert hall you would probably be at the edge of your seat,
wondering where the piece is going to take you, and especially
considering that there can be a huge video display as well, showing the
speaker in close-up. Must be a bit disconcerting for the speaker...

It's an amazing piece of music - I would love to see it performed somewhere sometime, and some of his other pieces.

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Murder in Cambridge

After reading Kate Atkinson's 'A good turn - a jolly murder mystery' I got to like her writing. Years ago I had read 'Behind the scenes at the British Museum' and not cared for it that much, so I had viewed anything else written by her with a degree of suspicion. But the 'good turn' had been great, and not just because it was set in Edinburgh.

So I picked up her other detective novel 'Case Histories'. It's set in Cambridge and introduces us for the first time to Jackson Brodie, a private detective (and ex-policeman, naturally). The book starts with three very different stories of someone's sudden demise or disappearance, and it seems that the stories are totally unconnected. And perhaps to some degree they are, with Brodie being the connecting agent - but yet, here and there, cross - connections begin to form, too. Strangely, for a detective story, one or two loose ends are left at the end - the reader knows what they are, but the detective does not realise what has happened (he does not even meet some of the people involved).

Atkinson is wonderful at writing from each character's point of view, and while most of the characters are relatively middle-class, making this job a bit easier, it's great how she gets into their minds and considers all that is happening from the different standpoints, sometimes repeating the same event through different pairs of eyes. Of course, and this goes without saying, none of the characters are one-dimensional; they all have very complicated inner lives and live their own interpretations of what has happened, in most cases many years ago.

Setting it in Cambridge is very nice, too, especially if you have been there, though inevitably it leads to comparisons with Morse. And like Morse, Brodie has a complicated love life, though at least he has once been married once and produced a child. Unlike Morse, he is not into classical music.

It's a great read; and quite a fast read - not quite as complex or long as the Edinburgh story, but very pleasant nevertheless. Highly recommendable!


A Soviet Parade

Here we have Georgia, looking west in such a way that anything Russian is rejected (and the feeling is mutual, at the moment). The young ones learn English instead of Russian, the politics is not far from Reaganism, and EU flags are outside every government building. So what do they do on the national day (tomorrow)?

They will have A Big Parade of Soldiers, Tanks, Lorries, Jeeps, down the main street, with tribunes outside the Parliament on both sides of the road for the VIPs to stand or sit and watch. How do I know this? The tribunes were going up yesterday, and this morning the whole main street was blocked, and full of soldiers, tanks, jeeps etc rehearsing for the parade. The roads of the rest of Tbilisi were in chaos! Now, which country, and which period of history do big military parades remind you of??? Quite.

Sometimes it is hard to understand countries, but perhaps you need to consider that the big nasty bear to the north has lots of potential for mischief (though he sure ain't got the kind of hardware that the Georgians have, provided by the generous US of A). So no doubt one feels the need to arm oneself to the teeth. And folk in the Caucasus, having been through fairly harrowing periods in the very recent past, still have a more war-like mentality:

  • at a concert in a children's home in Armenia a friend was started to hear the young residents sing a song which began with 'we love our director' and, three verses later, ended with 'we are happy to die for our country'.
  • an Armenian deputy minister said proudly, on passing the nuclear power station in Armenia (built on an earthquake fault line) - we can build a nuclear bomb, no problem.
  • The same guy commented, on hearing of the Georgian orange revolution 'we can invade Georgia in an hour'. Thankfully he was not a minister for defence....
  • Georgian songs can be extremely war like, as in Lashkrad Ts'asvla: 'Happy is he who goes to war with a good horse. And happy is he who comes home to a good wife. The patron of a beautiful wife should have a careful dog to guard her. Either a careful dog, or her mother-in-law.' or 'Tushi guys sent the warning message to Leki guys demanding 'Hurry up or we are tired of waiting for battle. ... You have to know that we, Tushian guys, have swords and won't fire guns. We aren't afraid of enemies and shall fight till death.'
  • Currently there are bits of fighting around South Ossetia which both Russia and Georgia claim, villages are cut off by one set of supporters etc....
But it's better than in the 5 or 10 years ago when people were being kidnapped right, left and centre....


Thursday, May 24, 2007

Oh, those immigrants!

You are British and you don't like being flooded with all those Eastern European immigrants? Your council curses because they no speaka da lingo and the council needs to employ interpreters? And, oh no, Mrs Hodge, an immigrant herself and 'Industry' minister of the UK, says that it's outrageous that immigrants get council houses over people who are born in the UK?

Why don't you all just go and read Marina Lewycka's book 'Two Caravans'? You may remember Lewycka as the author of 'A short history of tractors in Ukrainian' about an old Ukrainian living in the UK, then in his widowerhood importing a young Ukrainian woman to become his wife - but all is not what it seems...

The cover of her latest book is designed in a similar style as that of her first novel, suggesting a slightly wonky potato print on very grainy paper, like presumably people imagine books to look like in Ukraine. Not having bought any there (don't understand them) I wouldn't know; though certainly the pokes for selling sunflower seeds will be made from the pages of grainy books.

Like her first book, 'Two Caravans' is also set in the Ukrainian community. This time it's the community of young migrant workers, who, being Ukrainian, are generally there illegally. Other migrants drift through as well. The two main protagonists first meet up in a strawberry farm in Kent, where the men and women live in separate, and tiny caravans. This might look romantic, but I've seen similar caravans, inhabited by the long-term poor, in Scotland (Dalrymple caravan park, which is now an estate of decent-sized houses) - and they ain't pretty. Especially if they are overpopulated. The female, who picked up in Dover and taken there by a guy in a black car, only just escapes his advances - clearly he has ambitions for her which she does not share. But does she escape his advances?

Things go wrong in the strawberry field and they try to leave the country, but cannot change their tickets. To live, they get involved in all sorts of other activities, for which they are ripped off, mostly. Lewycka has clearly researched her book well, and describes how illegal workers are ripped off right, left and centre - where they have to pay fees for their grotty accommodation, and rubbish food that is provided, and where they can get into all sorts of other troubles. One of the party of workers later finds himself in a chicken farm - the description of how the chickens (and indeed the workers) live (and die, or not, as the case may be) is horrifying.

Despite this extremely informative account of the life of these workers, who do jobs which most other people would not like to do, the book is also very funny. It's written as if told by a Ukrainian with almost perfect English, writing in very short, careful sentences. One of the other characters, an African brought up in what sounds like a bible colony, uses the most wonderful biblical language in his letters to his sister, and misinterprets everything he sees. Some of the incidents are totally bizarre, as for example (animal lovers, close your eyes now) when in the chicken farm the stun gun fails, and the chickens go alive into the boiling water which removes their feathers, only to emerge alive, naked and squawking at the other end and running all over the factory.

I thought that the plot line was a little bit predictable, having some knowledge of immigrant life in the UK thanks to the Guardian and other papers, and of course Eastern European knowledge. But for those who know nothing about Eastern Europe and the lives of its workers 'in the west' it's a fantastic read. You read for entertainment and you gain information thrown in for free. Can't be bad.

Interestingly a character much like the main character in the tractors book also makes a brief appearance in this book, living in a nursing home this time. Even more interestingly, looking up the author in amazon, it turns out that she has written many 'Carer's Handbooks'. I don't suppose these are funny, too. Bit of an autobiographical input then, at least into her first novel, and it probably was not hard for her to find folks to talk to for her second novel....

Highly recommendable - unputdownable, and a too quick read.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Foodie memories

Not quite sure about the 'foodie' bit. ...Was discussing Katharine Whitehorn with my friend Pat, and we discovered that we had both written to her in response to an article in the Observer about supercilious social security officers (which we both were at the time), explaining to her the realities of the job - such as working late to stop someone's electricity getting cut off....

My first 'meeting' with Whitehorn was in late 1977 when I moved into a bedsit (a dreadful place in Englefield Green; a house formerly belonging to Sir Donald Tovey - it had a stave with a note as a weather vane, but had since been bought over by an avaricious landlord who like to pack them in tight. The rent was £12 per week for a room with shared bathroom; quite a bit out of my £30 a week net pay). I needed to cook, and not having learnt to cook in my childhood, other than opening packets of this and that, I bought her book 'Cooking in a bedsitter'. It was great! I wish I could remember recipes from it...It was particularly good at 'everything in one saucepan' type of recipes which were nutricious and of course cheap. Students only ever had one ring for cooking. For me this went on for a long time, and for part of his early life my son thrived on food cooked on a £5 Baby Belling (two rings worked at any one time) which I had picked up at an auction and restored for another £2. I see amazon sell this book used for £3.98. Not sure about the hygiene aspects of buying a used cookery book...

This article mentions a number of student cookbooks. I also had Jocasta Innes' 'Pauper's Cookbook' because I sure was a pauper for a long time. Delia's 'Frugal Food' also rings a bell, though I do not remember finding it particularly useful. And there were a whole range of other cheap and healthy cookbook, including an American one, which of course used 'cups' as measuring units - but it had recipes for the most delicious biscuits involving oats and raisins (surely not nuts, too - I could not have afforded them) - when I still made biscuits.

These were great cookery books, with lots of tricks for stretching food - like adding oats or beans to mince; bean or lentil anything was recommended as very nourishing (though not in a bedsit, they stink out the place). Unfortunately I lost that collection when I moved house and left them behind by accident - by the time I noticed it, the next tenant had thrown them out. The fact that the cat had had an accident over some of them at some stage probably did not help either. Now, who was talking about the hygiene aspects of used cookery books?


5 top restaurants

Wu Wei has allowed people to tag themselves to describe their 5 top restaurants. Not sure that I can manage 5, and they certainly won't be the highest-falutin' cuisine ....

My currently favourite restaurant, for heart attack on a plate, is the little khatchapuri restaurant just up from the Marjanishvili theatre in Tbilisi. It's near my work, and it does the best Adjaran khachapuri I have tasted so far. This khachapuri consists of crispy bread dough shaped into a boat, into which is poured a mixture of egg, salty cheese, topped with a raw egg yolk and a generous lump of butter. You mix it all up, and then dip bits of the bread crust in the mixture. It's out of this world! This restaurant has the right kind of oven to make a success of this khachapuri - I've had insipid, soggy versions in other restaurants which might have done other food well, but for this it needs a stone oven. My favourite lunchtime mix is this khachapuri and a Borjomi water for about 4 Euros.

The next favourite is the yakitoria, in Moscow and Kiev. It's a chain of Japanese restaurants, working on a franchise basis, I think, and you get the same food everywhere. The one opposite the Novotel in Moscow, near the Mendelevskaya metro station, is the best one. There's nearly always a queue, so the food is really freshly made. In others sometimes the rice and also the fish can be a little dry. It was great comfort food at challenging moments in projects! Cost for a decent sized sushi and a beer or two is about 20 Euros or so.

Cafe Landtmann in Vienna is the greatest for an early breakfast on the way back from far flung parts. Their breakfast is magnificent, though the rolls could be made with more characterful flour. Costs a fortune (12.70 Euros for their 'great breakfast' plus money for having your coat taken care of and for going to the toilet; as opposed to the 2.90 Euros for a similar breakfast I noticed in an East Berlin cafe recently) but it's well worth it. In the evening the cooking is very traditional Vienna; probably not outstanding but it's the atmosphere you pay for and watching Vienna at play. In the mornings you sometimes see people returning from balls. The cakes are scrumptious, too and you could pretend to be a Viennese pensioner sipping your melange....

Henderson's in Edinburgh's Hanover Street is a well-established vegetarian cafe/restaurant with self-service. It may be vegetarian, but the calorie count can be high. They always have a selection of main courses, salads and deserts, and the helpings are serious. Their trifle is to die for - lashings and lashings of cream and custard, and is it a chocolate sponge underneath? At festival time there is always a queue, but it moves quickly, and you always find a seat, often beside middle-aged ladies reading the Scotsman. Just up the road round the corner it has a bistro with table service, and there is also a shop where you can buy healthy food. Very reasonably priced for the UK.

in Berlin serves Alpine cuisine (the name does not mean 'Snow-White' of the 7 dwarves, but simply 'snowy white'). It's not poached edelweiss, or gentian soup, but interesting food nicely served, in big helpings. Everything about it (apart from the food) is white, and that includes the website. It's usually full of twenty/thirty something people having a good time, in a restrained German sort of a way, not in a gassed, puking up everywhere sort of British way (other young Germans take care of that). Prices are similar to those at Henderson's, but with nice service and beautifully presented food.


Titivating Tbilisi

After this morning's experience in the taxi I have to be very careful with the spelling of the first word in the title!

Mr Sakaashvili, our president (in Georgia, by the black sea) is big on presentation. It reminds me of a certain prime minister who will soon cease his activities. Unlike the latter, however, Sakaashvili is into leaving a visible trace - perhaps a bit like Mitterand of France. Fountains are shooting up everywhere, a golden St George has risen into the sky in Freedom (Tavisupleba) Square, in the countryside whole villages share the same colour of metal garden gates - different colours for different villages, theatres in Tbilisi have been renovated, railway stations have been painted, ditto blocks of flats near main roads.....in the last week or so the bridge across the Mtkvari river was getting much attention, with concrete lumps appearing and then being covered in some nicer stone... then yesterday 4 huge bronze lions appeared, two at either end of the bridge, baring their teeth at the approaching traffic. Rrrrooooaaaarrr!

Meanwhile people say that little has changed in the hospitals, though these are being privatised in a PFI sort of arrangement. Not entirely convinced about that, and also what I hear about the contracts seems a bid dodgy (7 year contracts only?). Already the changes in the health service mean that doctors concentrate on 'sexy' treatments, leaving behind the Alzheimers and other uninteresting conditions. Electricity prices are going up, gas has gone up by 50%, interesting taxes are being introduced here, there and everywhere. It's a bit panem et circenses, but not a lot of panem. Will he win the next election, in 2008? He needs to make the population feel better - not sure that that is the case at the moment.

Oh yes, and on Sunday evening, about a mile from my house, and at the busiest time of the evening, an opposition politician was assassinated in the main street. Tbilisi municipality has its own little ways of suddenly removing property from people because it says they bought it illegally - thus a whole row of restaurants on the left bank was suddenly pulled down; the Green party lost its offices because allegedly the municipal department which rented them their property had also done so illegally. Would you invest in this country? I'm not sure yet....



A comment along these lines found itself below my post about Balanchine; I realised that I could click on it which lead me here (where you can add your vote!). This website, calling itself 'a fist ful of euros' has me down for the annual Satin Pyjama award, in the category of 'Most under-appreciated weblog'. Thanks, David, for pointing it out to me.

Wow! Not sure how to take it? Does it mean that my blog is wonderful but not enough people read it? Or does it have one of the smallest continuing readership?

And who nominated me? Thanks, whoever it was!


Balanchine was a Georgian

No wonder they put on so many Balanchine shows in Tbilisi - Giorgi Balachivadze was a Georgian, at least by descent. His father was one of the founders of the Tbilisi opera house, and his brother a well-known composer, but it seems from this entry in wikipedia, that Balanchine may have spent little time in Georgia. He was born and brought up in St Petersburg where he received his ballet training, and was a member of the Imperial Ballet until the Revolution got in the way. In 1933 or so he relocated permanently to the US (after a spell in France with the Ballet Russe). (It makes me wonder whether Eifman's 'Red Giselle' is about another member of the Ballet Russe, since the main protagonist of that ballet is a ballerina who also gets caught up in the Revolution, does not cope with the new style of dancing and eventually travels to France, where finally she goes mad.)

I digress. On offer last night was Mozartiana (with a tape), Lea, and Don Quichote. Apart from the first one I don't know which went with which music; Minkus has written Don Quichote, but it's a long evening's performance, and this was just a half hour. There was a dance to Gluck and a dance to romantic ballet music. Hmmm.

The Mozartiana had the potential to be beautiful; some scenes reminded of a kaleidoscope, even though the dancers were dressed in black - it was their mirror image actions on both sides of the stage. Another dancer had a solo with potential to be rather funky, but his leaps, when he did them, were rather half-hearted. Definitely Not a Nijinksi. The other dancers also danced with little enthusiasm or tension, and seemed rather tired. The poor sound transmission also did not help, but this kind of music is a bit of a challenge for an opera house orchestra. As was confirmed later.

The next piece, to the live romantic music, was very pretty. Again the dancing was a bit tired, and lacked inspiration - it could have been so much better. The costumes were beautiful - could not understand though why one of the women wore a tutu that appeared to be made from cabbage leaves, but there we are.

Finally there was a set piece to music by Gluck, perhaps ballets from his operas? It started with the dance of the blessed spirits (which nailed the Gluck), and tootled along from there. Here we got out the good dancers, including that gorgeous guy with the long legs we had seen a few days earlier. It seems all the audience loves him. The dance of the blessed spirits was blissful; the pas de deux and the solos were stunning! (I'm not sure that you would expect major leaps with such very classical and controlled music, but it worked well). The orchestra, on the other hand, made soup of the music - but thankfully the stage action distracted from that.

And of course there was the audience ballet, where half the audience had not arrived by the time the show started, but made sure they got their seats during the first piece.....


The Blind W.....

This is a family site, so I cannot spell out certain words. The above title happens to be the hash name of one of my fellow runners (about whom this note is not!!); our other colleague who works for the World Bank is naturally called the World .anker.

I was thinking about that this morning when at 3 am we had a wee taxi crisis. The taxi booked to take us to the airport failed to appear; after a few minutes we hurtled along the road to Betsy's Hotel where all the expats stay, and they could order us a taxi - the phone number I had did not work. Except at Betsy's they did not even open the gate to let us in, or switch on the lights inside. I expect the nightporter has a very soft bed.

Further on we hurtled down into town, and found a taxi with a friendly old driver outside Macdonalds. Relieved we took him to the airport (or rather he took us). I thought then that his body language suggested bad eyesight. On the way back he became very friendly, and showed great care for my bare legs - were they too cold? - would I like music? A very friendly introduction and slightly creepy handshake followed from Giorgi. His speed was slow and he had trouble overtaking - maybe he could not see the huge gap between the car in front and the centre of the road? Obviously when he asked about my husband I had to describe him as big and jealous!

I wonder what he does in his spare time? And what exactly caused his bad eyesight?

The booked taxi finally appeared at 7!


Thursday, May 17, 2007

Shattering Dreams

My mother is in Tbilisi at the moment, so, whilst looking for evening entertainment, we noticed a poster advertising an event in the Opera and Ballet Theatre, but of course I could not read it - even those letters I know were not much help. On enquiry I was told something about 'choreography'. No matter, the tickets were cheap and we knew we could leave early if we did not like it.

Burst into the theatre just as the lights went down and had to use the light of a cameraman to help us read our tickets - just made it into our seats when the curtains opened - and we found ourselves in the annual performance of the local professional ballet school. It was great!! The theatre was full of mums and dads, aunts and uncles, grannies and granddad, all appreciating loudly and happily the considerable efforts their young ones went to.

As all ballet school shows it started with the youngest ones, doing their exercises with the older ones behind, working the barres. The three boys amongst the little ones were well hidden at the back (for synchronicity I suppose if one is at the back, all have to be at the back). The first 'in school' sets of dancing were followed by a crowd of girls led in by a tiny tot doing some folk dances. But that was the end of concessions to Georgian culture for the evening. The second part was taken over by the older dancers doing more solo or small group work. Particularly noticeable was a very tall young man (who I have seen in professional productions before) who had legs up to the sky, and a waist a wasp would have envious of, who could do the most astonishing leaps and bounds - he'll go far! Though I wondered if he would be suited, eg to modern or contemporary dance - those dancers seem to be built more like footballers. I also wondered about those girls who dream of dancing all their lives, and spend their childhood at the barre, only to be thwarted by nature. Nowadays height does not seem to matter quite so much (but perhaps I'm used to tall Lithuanian dancers) - but I did wonder about the girl who seemed to be a D-cup; that's really distracting when the dancer flies through the air, and parts of the anatomy fly in another direction. What to do then? Similarly, with all those dancers being produced by ballet schools - if they cannot make a solo part in an end of year show of the school, what are their employment prospects like? The same goes for musicians, I suppose.

But it was a brilliant evening, full of fun, relaxation, you did not need to worry about interpreting or trying to understand anything, the audience burst into applause almost as soon as anyone lifted a foot in the air - but there was also serious athleticism, and probably at least one injury which the brave young dancer continued to dance through.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007


This is an amazing book by Lynsey Hanley - it's a history of social or 'council' housing in the UK since the beginning of the last century. You'll say - how can a book about such a boring subject be amazing? Isn't it terribly dry, and do we really need to know about council housing?

I would suggest that everyone involved in local or national government should read this book, since it is not only a dry history with dates, people and places, but also a very personal book. Hanley, who's only just in her 30s, grew up on a council estate in Birmingham - not one of the worst, it seems, or at least her family did not live in the worst part of it.

She brilliantly describes the sheer isolation of living in a council estate, where most people around you are poor or very close to poor, since those with some ambition do their best to leave the area. Often council estates are cut off from the main life of towns, being tucked in over the back of a hill or behind railway lines. She describes this as the 'wall in your head' (a phrase from Berlin). In schools mainly populated by council estate children, who practically never leave the estate and never mix with children from other backgrounds, neither teachers, parents nor children have high expectations of what could be achieved, and therefore few achieve anything. In fact Hanley is offered a scholarship to a grammar school at age 11, but turns it down because she thinks she is better off staying where she has been all the time. She describes a classmate who at 15 is discussing having a baby with her boyfriend - the girl's mum says it's alright if she thinks she can look after it; 10 years later the same girl dies in a car crash, leaving 5 children motherless. When Hanley is 17 she sees a broadsheet paper (the Guardian) for the first time and thinks it's a rare publication for professors.

Hanley goes back through the history of social housing, to the interwar period, where houses fit for heroes were to be built; she describes some of the disasters of that period, but also the Tudor Walters standards which set high space standards for workers' housing and which mean that social housing built during that period is often of at least as high a quality as owner-occupied housing. After WW2 Bevan also took some care in ensuring that council estates provided quality accommodation, but this was lost when Macmillan started a 'pile them high' policy of housebuilding trying to get slums cleared and people housed as quickly as possible. This coincided with the new technology of pre-cast concrete houses where panels were poured in factories and put together on building sites, forming streets in the sky - quickly turning to slums in the sky, at least partly because the skilled labour required for putting together these homes had by this time moved into factory work, and the houses were just somehow cobbled together. Remember Ronan Point? That collapse happened partly because not all braces of all panels were connected properly when the building went up. (In passing, it's a little-known fact that most British housing is designed for a lifespan of 60 years; some of the buildings of the 60s were lucky if they lasted 10 years, the post war prefabs - designed for 10 years - still exist in some places, but generally 'building to last' is not part of the building repertoire in the UK).

A lot of estates became ghettos of awfulness, where, the more awful it became, the more awful families the council placed there. Quite a number of estates have been pulled down, demolished, redesigned, and often not rebuilt fast enough. Ironically Hanley herself again lives on a council estate in London where she has bought property, since she cannot afford to live anywhere else in London. Her estate is currently intending to be rebuilt in a more people-friendly fashion.

Hanley is a journalist, rather than an academic, and thankfully, this makes her book immensely readable, and in fact unputdownable. Her pithy sense of sarcasm punctures the pomposity of government officials and architects, but also expresses her very deeply felt anger at what governments, both local and national, are doing to poor people. She quotes Warburton, the biographer of the architect Ernest Goldfinger, who describes some of Goldfinger's towerblocks as making 'no concessions to an architecture of domesticity', and goes on to comment 'After all, domesticity is the last thing you want when you have a family to raise.'

It might be worth Mr Sarkozy over in France picking up this book, when wondering what to do with his banlieues.....but he probably has all the answers already. Social inclusion? We have a very long way to go!


Not a Pavarotti

Tonight the EU celebrated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, a momentous piece of international legislation that laid the foundation for what is now the European Union.

In Tbilisi the EU celebrated it with a gala concert in the Opera House - for which I had managed to wrangle myself an invitation, though apparently I could also have bought a ticket on the free market. But then I would have missed the reception....

The concert was one of popular operatic arias, preceded by the EU anthem (a bit of Beethoven's 9th) and the Georgian anthem. Unfortunately, these were not mentioned in the programme, but I'd seen it somewhere else. So I knew to stand up, and to remain standing for the second piece - most people did not, and there was a moment of Mexican wave between the two anthems, as people were bobbing up and down.

Then the singing started, entirely popular arias and choruses from operas, all of which were 19th century. Some were better than others - a duet from Don Pasquale by Donizetti, sung by Gocha Datasuni-Jighauri and Zaal Khelaia was brilliant, really funny and also very difficult (a touch of the Rossini - a zillion syllables to the second). Others suffered, in particular an extremely stiff Carmen (perhaps because her dress was breathtakingly tight), and a similarly stiff aria from La Traviata by a man who shall also remain nameless - but it sounded like he sang it for the first time, trying to get the notes right. The singer who did 'Nessun Dorma' got more applause and requests for an encore for this than I thought he deserved, but to be fair, his performance had improved considerably as the evening wore on.

This was followed by a reception where the plates and glasses ran out very quickly - but also where a bunch of the singers got themselves together and sang Georgian songs. The at least 6 members of our singing group at the reception pricked up their ears and listened attentively!


Sunday, May 13, 2007

UK House Prices

A horrifying story in today's Observer about houseprice inflation in the UK. It focuses on a particular road, Albion Drive in Hackney, which has a reputation as being one of the poorest boroughs in Greater London. In fact many of those who own property there are at least half-millionaires. Their children, on the other hand, cannot afford to buy property since property in central London now costs an average of £2300 per square foot. That's about £23,000 per square metre. I have some friends in Vilnius who used to live in a flat of 22 square metres; it was tiny, but perfectly formed. That would cost half a million pounds in central London.

There are two further aspects in this - people earn more money sitting in their house than going out to work (though of course that would do them no good since they still need a roof over their heads) - the story is that T Blair has earned more money by leaving his new Connaught Square house empty than he has done as a prime minister. Interestingly, on the other hand, rental costs have not increased at the same level, so there is not actually an actual shortage of housing, just a shortage of housing to buy. In other words, lots of people are buying to let, and own more than one house.

This can only be due to the low level of pensions provision in the UK, both in terms of the state pension, and in relation to private pensions (especially those mis-sold pensions of 10 or 15 years ago). And then there has been the stock market performance which in the last 10 or so years has not matched the expectations people had placed on their endowment policies which they expected to repay their mortgages (another mis-sale). In other words, people have no confidence in the stock market, or indeed in the government to provide for their future. The banks pay really poor interest rates (though these should increase), so the only investment with a half-decent return is in bricks and mortar.

The author portrays it as a scandalous state of affairs that young people cannot afford to even start building their nest egg. And indeed it is the case that young people of today face many more hurdles than my generation or that even 10 or 20 years older dealt with, and for many it is impossible to start to buy property, and thus accumulate wealth.

But of course the only reason for this is the investment angle - if there were other at least secure, if not similarly performing, investments for a guaranteed old age and other social risks, then it would not be necessary for everyone to rush into buying bricks and mortar. Which would keep prices lower and free property for young people to buy, if they must. Interestingly those European countries which have home ownership rates as high or higher than the UK (almost 70%) (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Austria and Greece) almost all also have relatively weak welfare states, apart from Austria, and relatively agricultural economies (agricultural workers tend to have low pensions).

But is it necessary at all for people to buy houses? Those European countries who pay high pensions (Finland, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland) have significantly lower rates of home ownership; half the UK rate in the case of Switzerland. Some of these countries have poor economic performance and others perform much more highly, with also much lower poverty rates than in the UK.

It would be nice if a culture of renting decent property could start in the UK, where people have some limited freedom to do to their flats what they like. But people would only feel free to do so, and comfortable with this approach if they could be sure of a decent income later in life. Will the government support that? Let's see, Mr Brown.

Coincidentally I'm reading the book 'Estates, an intimate history' by Lynsey Hanley. A fascinating book about the history of council estates, written by someone who is still angry about the way people are dealt with both by officialdom and by other people, if they are in need of council accommodation. Review will follow - but here's an interesting quote from Mrs Thatcher (1986) 'A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.' In other words, don't use anything public, whether it's transport, housing or pensions - you are on your own!


The Autobiography of Tastebuds

Lotusreads, an Indian now living in Canada, had highly recommended 'Climbing the Mango Trees', the autobiography by Madhur Jaffrey, covering roughly the first twenty years of her life, from the early 1930s to the early 1950s, in India.

Madhur Jaffrey is of course the well-known actress ('Shakespeare Wallah', and some Merchant Ivory films) and much loved cookery writer, who incidentally is also married to a violinist of the New York Philharmonic. Now I would have liked to hear more about this, but the book does not cover that part of her life.

Jaffrey grew up in what seems like a very privileged family, mostly in Delhi, with many servants. The family was dominated by her grandfather who organised everyone. The various wings of the family, totalling around 30 people, lived all in the same street, though in different houses, but for all main meals, ie three times a day they would troup into the grandfather's house. The family managed to escape only once from the grandfather's control, when her father got a job in Kanpur, where the family could, for the first and perhaps only time, do what they pleased, but they returned to Delhi on the outbreak of WWII. It's difficult for Western European from small families to perceive of the size of Indian families of that period, but it's graphically illustrated by scenes where in the heat of summer 20 bodies sleep on the veranda or in the garden, under individual mosquito nets. All family events, such as decamping into the cooler mountains in the summer, picnics, or festivities, require a large scale galvanising of efforts; rushing all over town to get specific ingredients for the meals, buying materials for clothes and getting the tailor to visit, and packing up almost train loads of stuff for the travels.

Jaffrey seems to have linked her childhood memories entirely to food, and the book is full of mouthwatering descriptions of this meal or that, and what they can eat in the street here and the neighbourhood over there (although her parents were extremely careful about where their children ate from and didn't really approve of street food). Those of us who read a book in terms of 'what happens next' perhaps don't do the book justice, since it can be difficult to linger over these descriptions and imagine the flavours and textures, given that they involve very complex mixtures of spices and other ingredients. In this book Jaffrey also lives through the upheavals of the partition and independence, leading to large scale population shifts - which eventually is also reflected in Indian cuisine. For example, tandoors only arrived in Delhi, according to her, when the Punjabi Indian population fled to the capital with their cooking pots and started to open restaurants. Similarly the population at her school changes, and with it the lunchboxes all the girls explore in great detail and share amongst each other.

The book is not much about about what her childhood felt like (apart from an uncle who seems to have been a bit of a difficult character, and odd moments of frustration in her teenage years); it's more about what they ate, who was there and what they did (in that order). Amazing really, that all the photos show her as a skinny kid! Special events are rarely described; it's more about what would typically happen on particular occasions - and it's a bit thin on anecdotes.

But generally, it's very interesting, giving an insight into a life that most Western Europeans are not familiar with (though is the average today's Indian familiar with it?); the food sounds impressive. And there is a bonus - Ms Jaffrey has included 32 family recipes in the book. Now where can I get those spices in Georgia??


Saturday, May 12, 2007

Thumped a guy today

I should know better - experience in the theatre, opera house, at seminars tells us that Georgians talk all the time or answer their phones - sometimes I wonder whether they hear or learn anything ever...

So in tonight's concert at the conservatoire I found myself next to a bunch of students, friends of the performers. Well, the guy next to me never stopped talking, fidgeting big style, checking his phone - the first time I asked him to shut up, the second time I just thumped him. Did not make any difference whatsoever!

It was a long concert, almost two hours without a break, of flute students, and my piano teacher accompanying, beautifully, of course, including pointing students in the right direction when they got lost, and also taking their interests to heart while they were tuning their flutes.

I've now learnt that as the evening wears on, the students get better, and this was the case tonight.

The flutists here move much more than the pianists (there's a theory that the piano students might model themselves on a very patrician pianist); the last two students were great with the performance of one of them only marred by his very noisy breathing. Some of the repertoire was unfamiliar to me, and where interpretation might also have been slightly inadequate the pieces did not really make sense. But it was nice to see two students also attempt some very modern pieces!


Friday, May 11, 2007

Fairly terrible (French) Swiss Georgian Co-production

Oy veh! 'Traveling round the world is just a waste of time if you return the same person as you left' by Jamel Mahmoud. Hmmmm, dangerous to have 'waste of time' in the title of this event.....

It was a coproduction funded by the Swiss Embassy. Not sure that anyone Swiss was there, though there was an artistic looking young woman with Swiss-looking shoes. It took place in the Atoneli theatre, a tiny theatre in the backyard of some buildings down the road from the Marriott Hotel; I might have walked past it, had I not clocked a woman carrying a sprig of lilac, and followed her (one knows the symptoms of theatre goers!).

The theatre itself has some 88 seats, in rows of benches rising up rapidly. Can be a problem if you have bare knees and the person in front of you has a ponytail that tickles past your legs constantly.

The play was a continuation of last year's film 'One Soldier's Story'. Those of us with a musical bent know of course Stravinsky's 'Soldier's Tale', and since a violin and piano were also advertised I had some tiny hopes. And right enough, the summary of the film they showed broadly appeared to reflect the Stravinsky story line. Except that it had a happy end, with the soldier rescuing his sweetheart from her deathbed. The word 'amateur' comes to mind, especially when you see village residents acting, but glancing towards the camera at the end of every scene, or when you have a scene in a house and through the windows you see cars passing by, while otherwise it seems that the story is set a very long time ago.

The story then went on live, on the stage, for about 5 minutes, as 'what happens next' continuing from the film, before drifting off into another film that, frankly, my dog could have shot. Looked like a bunch of amateurs running about in Vake park in Tbilisi, sweeping stairs, going for a meal; my lack of Georgian did not matter, since there was no dialogue anyway....Did I mention that the live acting was in a mixture of Georgian and French? I left after half an hour, and was the 7th person, out of a total audience of about 45, to leave.

I think the Swiss can do better than this. What irritates me most is that the ticket price was not much less than in the very high class, highly professional Rustaveli theatre. Value for money, eh?


Inside a wedding cake

You want to know what it feels like to walk around inside a multi-tiered wedding cake? Claustrophobic! I know because last night I went to a concert in the grand hall of the Tbilisi conservatoire, and getting from the front door to the hall is just like ....

You climb some stairs from the street, and then walk deeply into the building to climb some more, only to find yourself going round a doughnut shaped gallery with a low ceiling from which you look to the floor below. At this level you practically retrace your steps to the spot above the entrance door, climb some more stairs, turn around again, climb some more stairs and then take a long hike, past the doughnut, to finally find yourself at the entrance of the hall. Don't leave it too late!

The hall is stunning - like everything about the conservatoire it's freshly refurbished, with seats that are the most comfortable concert hall seats I have ever sat in - only problem is that they have crammed them in so close to the pillars holding up the gallery above that one needs to be a bit agile to climb around them. The stage is also freshly renovated and has large side panels that can be turned to slow either a solid wooden wall, or act as flies for a show; at the back of the stage there is a huge modern organ. Apparently this is now the main concert hall in Tbilisi; not surprised, really....

The concert was of the students of one of the professors at the music academy; of varying quality, it must be said. The programme was far too long - and should one of the students really be allowed to hog the limelight with 6 Rakhmaninov studies/preludes, when her colleague had already played 3 before here? Far too much of a good thing. In Tbilisi you get an announcement before each piece about what is being played - one poor student rushed out before the announcement, before stopping and being pulled back. Not good for performance nerves.

The students don't seem to be allowed to move here at all; they all sit as if they had swallowed a cane, until they get to the closing chord. It does not make for lively performances. Though I always remember the piano teacher doing the accompaniments at my childhood music school; she moved for Germany and put in all the emotions that the young soloists usually did not.

The other little ritual that they have is the cleaning of the piano with a hanky; I've only ever seen that done in Eastern Europe. It makes perfect sense especially when other sweaty fingers have already played the piano, but it also seems to be a bit of a comfort ritual. Some cleaned the piano very thoroughly. Others spent forever adjusting their chairs....

As the evening wore on, the performances got better, but when after all the students had finished, they launched into videos of an elderly Georgian pianist playing several pieces, I fled.

It has confirmed my view that piano recitals, unless they are by brilliant players, can actually be rather boring! It's such an introverted instrument - the player cannot look at the audience, is stuck there in front of a box that cannot move.....


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Pudina Masala - or Fabindia

After my son's return from India a small orange tub appeared containing 'pudina masala'. Interesting. The reports I received on it were not that great.... but I took it with me to Georgia anyway to try it out.

It's wonderful!!!! Pudina masala is a spice mix consisting of Pudina (a kind of mint), Pipal, Cumin (which gives it that slight sweaty feet flavour), cloves, lemon extract, peppermint and three different kinds of salt. This particular tub is full of the organic stuff, of course; If you sprinkle it on a salad, and then add balsamic vinegar and olive oil, it's sublime! Wonder if it's possible to get it in Europe anywhere?

The company that makes it, fabindia, exports now to 33 countries, amongst whom find themselves Scotland and Wales, as well as England and Northern Ireland. That should gladden Alex Salmond's heart! Unfortunately they only export things like clothes.... but maybe, one day....

Fits in very well with Madhur Jaffrey's 'Climbing the Mango trees' which I'm reading just now. More anon.

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Argument to Beethoven's 5th


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Jewish Lesbians

...as I put down Naomi Alderman's book 'Disobedience' for the last time I picked up the Guardian's interview with Charlotte Mendelson who it seems writes about much the same topic. What a coincidence, as the father in Muriel's Wedding used to say every time he bumped into his lover. Couldn't remember where I had picked up Alderman's book, since I had not been to an English-speaking country for a while, and then it came to me - it was in one of the British bookshops in Vienna (Mariahilfer Str).

'Disobedience', Alderman's first book, is about a young woman from not just any Jewish Orthodox household in Hendon, North London, but one where the father was the 'Rav' which appears to be a particularly high class, visionary, leading kind of rabbi. Much like the girl in Abraham's 'The Romance Reader' reviewed here. And perhaps the pressures on children are the same in the very strict Christian/Muslim/other households where the head of the household is a community leader in that particular faith.

The young women in both stories rebel against the very tightly controlled lives they are supposed to lead, starting with strict rules about clothing and ending in very tight expectations on what kinds of life they should leave. Alderman's main protagonist Ronit, whose mother died when she was very small, leaves the family home as a young adult and makes a new home and successful life for herself in New York (though she does attend a therapist - or does that mean she is particularly successful that she can afford one). When her father dies, in London, she returns home and then all sorts of old wounds burst open again, relationships are re-inflamed, some more positively than others, and she reviews her position in relation to her religion.

The book has a very interesting structure; each chapter is preceded by a quote from a Jewish prayer, which is then followed by what seems like a brief rabbinical discussion of the meaning of various aspects of life, such as 'marriage' or 'secrets'. After this events in the lives, current or past, of the two other main characters take place, told in the third person singular, followed by Ronit's description of what happened to her and what she was thinking, written in the first person singular, and printed in a different font. This must have given the writer a very nice little discipline, and for those of us who know little about judaism, it's very interesting. In passing also rituals, such as those around burials, and those of the Sabbath, are described in great detail (there appears to be a dish called 'potato kugel' - I wonder if that is the same as the Lithuanian 'kugelis', a rather heavy kind of potato cake, baked in the oven).

The book could perhaps have been a little more complex - it seems to travel along a rather straight line, and there are not that many surprises when you turn a corner; but after all, it's a First Book. It's quite funny, especially when Ronit talks, who on the one hand looks rather wryly at the life she has left behind, and on the other hand is still very familiar with it. Her description of one of the character's headaches (which the author suffers herself) is stunning - much like the headaches, I suspect.

This edition concludes with a rather unnecessary interview with the author ('what did you find most difficult about writing 'Disobedience'?'), followed by recipes for the sabbath from Claudia Roden's 'Book of Jewish Food'. One of these is a chicken soup recipe - I'm a great believer in Jewish chicken soup for moments of stress, weakness, and especially post travel sickness. The book offers a variety of additions to the chicken soup. I like to boil a thick slice of lemon in it, together with some minced chili from a jar; that really spices it up and gives it a far eastern flavour - as a Korean violinist confirmed who I had to feed the soup when she was suffering from the flu during the Heifetz competition. (Perhaps not ideal for dodgy stomachs, though).


Monday, May 07, 2007

Of turtles, snakes and a goat kid

Running in the town of Tbilisi has its challenges, not least the stares by people - but I am getting used to those, since going to work in a short skirt with bare legs also causes much interest. I'm waiting for the day I cause an accident because someone did not pay attention to the road! I hope it's just because it's only May, and people think that it is not warm and one should not have bare legs, when in fact at night I am sweltered in my bed because the landlord still has the heating on. I wish it had been like that in the winter!

Anyway, so on Saturday I went for a run, and decided to head up into the hills above my house. Landed amongst others in someone's garden, and later found myself defeated by dense jasmine and lilac thickets. That's quite apart from the thorn bushes you really don't want to grab hold of as you drag yourself up the almost vertical side of the mountain. So then the population had to contend with a foreign woman wearing shorts and covered in blood running round their city - amazing how much blood tiny scratches can produce!

Yesterday then joined the hash on an outing to Rustavi, formerly the second largest and very industrial city of Georgia. It's quite run down, now, with people living in masses of Soviet concrete blocks, but there is not much work there now - though it isn't the poorest city in Georgia by far!

Our running spot was in the mountains above Rustavi; a beautiful landscape, a bit like Scotland, what with them having not a single tree, or indeed thornbush. Extremely green just now. The only other inhabitants of those mountains were some shepherds with herds of cows and flocks of sheep; the bunch of noisy foreigners running about their pastures rather startled them, but not the animals. Here we met the turtle, strolling, rather faster than the average domestic turtle, around between the rocks and small bushes. The snake slithered away too fast for me to see, and the little goat kid popped out from under a bush, not a mum or other goat in sight. I wonder what had caused it to be there on its own? Eventually we united it with a shepherd (of cows)....


Friday, May 04, 2007

Scotland's election

We had of course big hopes of the 'perrish cooncil' as T Blair (?) once described the Scottish parliament. But after the wonderful team that originally lead the parliament (Dewar and Galbraith, though Dewar was, shortly before his death described as 'Donald Dither', but a few months later found himself sanctified - having had to die for the privilege), it has been very much the B-team, with anyone who wants any real power going down to the London parly. The level of debate in Holyrood has often given a very poor reflection of the Scottish education system, and there was that education minister who famously stated that she wanted to have nothing to do with schools, and the culture minister whose most common saying was 'where's the fitba' in that'? (You know who you are and at least one of you has just been re-elected).

But all that pales into insignifance when you consider the total balls-up of the most current Scottish election. To be fair, not all was the government's fault (I'm sorry, the Executive's, we are not allowed to call it 'the government'; Mr Blair said so), but really:

  • the boat carrying the voting urns back from the Isle of Arran broke down and the urns had to be rescued
  • the helicopters due to pick up the urns from the Outer Hebrides were grounded at Inverness airport due to fog
  • a man went into a polling station in Edinburgh (sedate Embra!), and proceeded to smash voting urns with a golf club, and tear up completed ballot papers. Whereupon red-eyed polling officials were spotted trying to rejoin bits of paper, trying to match the handwriting on the different parts. The HAND WRITING on ballot papers?
  • because two elections with different voting systems took place on the same day, people got confused and mixed up their ticks, oh no, their crosses, and their numbers (or however the other voting system works - I did not get my ballot papers this year) - there are rumours of 100,000 spoiled papers (total population, including non-voters, 5.1 million)
  • a new electronic system was used to count the votes, where the voting papers were fed through some machine. It had great difficulties in dealing with ticks where there should have been crosses. Thus it was that the results for many Edinburgh constituencies, which did not have to get their ballot papers to cross water, were not ready until late today.
Wunderbar, as my boss, Mrs MrCreadie, used to say. Total Quality Management.

As for the result? The SNP has a seat more than the Labour Party, but both need a coalition partner to get the majority, for which they need 65 seats. Neither SNP or Labour would want to work with the Conservatives in Scotland (sometimes one feels sorry for them!). Neither have enough even with the Liberal Party, and I assume a tripartite coalition with the Liberals and the Conservatives will not go. So they need to work closely with the 2 Greens and Margo MacDonald, an ex SNP member (was she kicked out or did she resign from the party?) - gee, the power these three will have! Ms MacDonald is not known for being a follower...

I see the Scottish Socialist Party seems to be out of the parliament altogether; maybe they were unable to deliver on their promises, and perhaps also a bit colourful for their possibly very conservative (small c) followers. George Foulkes, the longtime Westminster MP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, has got in on the Lothians list, having retired from Westminster at the last election. I wonder if he still lives in Ayr? He was of course one of the directors of Hearts Football Club in Edinburgh, until he resigned in protest against the management practice of its 'Lithuanian' owner, Mr Romanov (he may have a Lithuanian passport, but is an ethnic Russian and may have Russian ways of doing business - it often causes problems, in Lithuania, too).


Would you turn that ****ing phone off?

Georgia Today made a total hash of its weekly cultural calendar today, getting its days, dates, months and accompanying pictures all mixed up, with the result that I rushed to buy a ticket for 'Twelfth Night' and found myself in '12 Angry Men'. No, I was not angry!

Luckily I had decided to pay for the translation - just as well in a play so based on words. It was originally the 1957 film of that title (though wikipedia says it's a play adapted to a film), about 12 white men in a court house having to decide whether a young man has murdered his father. One is convinced that he is innocent, or at least that the case against him is weak, and that leads to a very long debate of the criminal case. It says in the blurb that the play examines the 'twelve men’s deep-seated personal prejudices, perceptual biases, weaknesses, ignorance and fears that threaten to taint their decision-making abilities, and cause them to ignore the real issues in the case, and potentially lead them to a miscarriage of justice'. I'm not sure about the deepseated prejudices (against, in the film, a Puerto Rican teenager); I did not really feel that they came out, though prejudices against people 'in the gutter' were heard. It's possible, of course, that the play was suitably adapted. Particularly in the case of Georgians who are the subject of fairly fierce racism themselves in places like Russia.

It's an amazing play - well-written and extremely well-paced. It did not hang once, and it was fascinating to watch how the group interactions developed. Of course, Sturua's direction helped to move it along extremely snazzily. I don't know how the jury act in the 1957 film - the only still I can find shows them sitting round a table - in this production there is not much sitting still! Inevitably there are the song and dance scenes, the coordinated stepping out, the young crazy guy (do all his plays deal with psychiatric illness?), people rushing all over the stage, the story of the train noise supported by most actors becoming a train... Even though it deals with the potential for someone's death, it still came out as quite a funny play as well (which perhaps is not the case in the original version?). I wonder if Sturua can produce anything unfunny?

It was a great evening out and I would go to see it again, though again with a translation....

Oh yes, the headline? That's what I said to the person behind me when she answered her phone for the third time during the play. It did not ring after that. The play had ended....


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A blast from the very recent past

Arrived at my desk in Tbilisi yesterday morning to find a message from a friend about a concert organised by the Lithuanian embassy of Judita Leitaite, mezzo soprano and Andrius Vasiliauskas at the piano. Wow!

The last time I saw Ms Leitaite live in a concert was roughly on 23 November 2001 or 2002, when she sang French love songs, together with the Lithuanian chamber orchestra, to an audience which for some reason comprised mainly of shaven headed young soldiers - not a happy combination, though the young men did well. I think I may have left at the interval, so I don't know if the young men stayed.

Ms Leitaite does not do opera singing, as far as I know (and in any case, the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre is full of well-established singers); she's more into recitals and concert halls, though I also cannot remember seeing her participate in oratorios or other large scale pieces. She does, however, do much work with contemporary music, and is the main female singer in Senderovas' soundtrack to the Film 'Ghetto' (which I am listening to at the moment) - this is outstanding, though I am told by the composer that things ended up getting changed for the film. I further have to admit to not having seen Mr Vasiliauskas, the accompanist, in concert in Vilnius, but there I don't go much to singer recitals.

This concert was arranged in celebration of Lithuania's 3-year membership in the EU (welldone!). The programme consisted of Lithuanian songs adapted for recitals, some songs by Grieg sung in their original languages, and some popular songs, in addition to some piano pieces by Ciurlionis and Grieg. The main theme of the evening was 'love'. It would have been nice to have some of the Jewish music (either from 'Ghetto' or other music) in the programme, also for the sake of Lithuania's reputation, but essentially it was a very light programme, and maybe that might not have fitted so well. It's also possible that people don't know of Ms Leitaite's skills in this area.

The concert went well - it was the right length for this kind of event, and the mix of singing and pianoplaying was good. Ms Leitaite is a great singer and actress, and effortlessly filled the (admittedly small) hall. It took some time for the audience to warm up (and did it really need 'La Paloma' to break the ice, and was it sung in Lithuanian?) - and then things really got going! At least one person in the audience was having a wonderful time, and he would probably have danced if there had been the slightest possibility. Ms Leitaite then milked the audience for all they had got.

Mrs President (Sandra, sorry Hans, I did not pass on your regards!) appeared just before the concert got going, with a whole entourage. This lead to a fierce little debate about the person's identity between my friend and me, since my friend had only seen her the day before - but she'd had a different hair colour...At this moment Ms Leitaite just about melted - she knew fine who she was singing to; but I am sure she has sung lots of times to the Lithuanian President!

It was a nice little touch that both Ms Leitaite and the Ambassador did not speak in Russian, only English and Lithuanian - though Ms Leitaite later burst into Russian for ease of communication.


Picture the scene

when I got back to Tbilisi at 4 am yesterday morning and found that a bottle of body lotion had leaked in my luggage. Luckily it seems that body lotion does less damage to books or clothes than, say, water, marmalade or red wine. But anyway, being Scottish, of course, I hate waste - so I have to scrape the body lotion off my books and suitcase, and apply it to me. Which is great for the body.

Only problem is that this is the kind of lotion that gives you a gentle tan, very useful with a pasty colour like mine. When you apply a lot of it (and it's amazing how much there was spilt) 'gentle' might not be the operative word. Having taken off most clothes to spread the spillage across an acreage as large as possible, I realised, perhaps a little too late, that I should take off my socks, too. A pair of orange legs stalked off to work yesterday!


Viennese foibles

Vienna, on a sunny spring day, was packed with mostly Italian tourists, but also Viennese. Vienna is a much more cosy place than Berlin, where it's all happening. In Vienna, one relaxes, and sits down here and has a chat there. The Museumsquartier is a brilliant little neighbourhood with a large arrangement of fibreglass sitting/lying/dozing areas, all of which were taken on this sunny April Monday with people alone, in groups, with grandchildren, reading, listening, or chatting to their friends.

But see the Viennese and their ice creams? They eat the biggest cones I've ever seen. All are Italian icecream, of course, and no-one has fewer than 3 flavours - which in Lithuania would almost break the bank!

And then there are the Viennese and their dogs, ranging from extremely large to extremely tiny. Think the good soldier Schwejk and his dog poaching story, and you have the Viennese and their dogs - and they seem to be welcome everywhere. Not, maybe in the Musikverein, but certainly in shops and museums. You see intense conversations going on between dog owners and their charges, and those of their friends. Must be a great life, being a dog in Vienna!