Thursday, June 28, 2007

My lips are burning!

So, on to Adelaide, with Virgin Blue airlines, who seem to have cornered a large chunk of the Oz airline market. They charge for the food, as well as for the in-flight entertainment - you can swipe your credit card for that. No thanks, Mr Branson!

The cheap end of the viola congress accommodation is in the former Nurses Home of the Royal Adelaide Hospital. At 17.50 AUD (half that in pounds) need I say that it is basic? But the bedding is clean, the towels are nice, and the rooms are warm. Not sure where to get breakfast on site, other than checking yourself in as a patient, but there are plenty of cafes around. We share our 11th floor with a bunch of boys here for a rugby tournament, who shower heavily in the afternoons and leave the floor awash. Oh yes, and the bathrooms and toilets are shared for all - it's great when you are sitting on the loo whilst a guy is shaving at the nearby washhandbasin. Kind of puts you (me) off a bit!

Adelaide seems quite small, though it has plenty of suburbs. It's very low rise, and the main part of the city consists of two squares, with gridlike streets, set in a green belt - beyond it the 'burbs. It has several theatres, though, a concert hall, a university and so on what with being the capital of South Australia, population 2 million. Does not take very long to walk across the town centre, or even both bits of it, certainly not the three hours for the walking tour described in a brochure.

Running in the Botanic gardens (there are lots of them in Oz, no?) is a slightly eery experience when you find a bunch of green, red and blue parrots flying alongs side you! I run in shorts and t-shirts, and the people I meet are dressed in winter jackets, hats, and scarves. Do they think that because it's winter they have to dress warm?

Food is interesting; there are lots of lovely breakfast cafes all of whom offer huge portions, so if you want more than one type of thing you end up paying a lot and leaving half. Not ideal, but the stuff is delicious! Though porridge with honey and poached pears is not quite the Scottish way. During the day it's been mainly Asian food, vietnamese. japanese, thai - no wonder my lips are burning!

Went to the beach this morning at Glenelg - don't ask me what ocean I dipped my feet into! I was the only one, though, by very far - everyone else was very well wrapped up, and in no danger of going anywhere near the water! If I had had my cozzy with me, I would have gone in, just for the experience!

Yesterday failed to overcome my resistance to enter bookshops (trying to keep this for my last day in Sydney) and took a closer look - only to find mainly British, American and international books. I asked about Aussie authors - she found five that might have fitted my interests (based on the other books I had in my hand). Hmmm, they must do better than that? One of the two Aussie books I bought is set in the US....

Had planned for some culture tonight, with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra's Sibelius concert, when I spotted, on this morning's local paper, the face of Dame Edna Everage, opening in Adelaide tonight! There's no contest! Tomorrow the congress will start....


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

In the news

A paper I read on the planes, can't remember which one, but it was in English, provided an assessment by the Austrian chancellor of T Blair's time in office (I wonder if he's awake now - 04 am - on his departure day) stating that he thought that Blair had 'moved Britain to the left'. Right....

What's in the papers in Oz? The property pages have an advertisement for a house for sale for 2.5 million Aussie dollars (1.25 million GBP). Here they also sometimes show the price when the house was last traded - 5,250 AUD in 1952 - advertised as 'for decades in the same family' - that's a lot of time in Australia. May not always be a recommendation, though, especially when it goes on to say that it has 'good bones' - structurally sound, but not much else?

The Jocks and Canucks are coming. This is about TV channels (or programming) which are being taken over by Scottish and Canadian media. Imagine if the British papers said 'the Pakis and Chinkies are coming'.... more 0n racism below...

Morris Iemma, apparently the new premier of the state of New South Wales, has been in office for 100 days. What were his achievements, he was asked? The media were told that he had made 160 decisions, some of major importance. Including providing stab-proof vests for police dogs'.

But the main story, which I had also spotted in the Guardian at the end of last week, is the response of the Aussie premier Howard to a report on child sex abuse in the aboriginal communities. The report was provided a year ago. Aparently child sex abuse is rampant in these communities. There was a story of a young man, a rapist, who at the age of six had witnessed his father shooting his mother, and being told to clean her brains off the floor....as someone said - do we have the experts to prevent someone like that from raping?

So now Howard, a year before his re-election, is sending in the troops to deal with this, describing it as 'our Katrina' [a catastrophe on the same level as the American hurricane]. People whose children are at risk will have their state benefits cut so they don't spend money on drink and other inessentials, some people (or settlements?) may be banned from buying alcohol for 6 months, all aborigine children will undergo compulsory medical examinations, and the federal police will take over what is a duty delegated to the state [who should be providing their own police]. The troops have to come in because there are not enough doctors to examine the children, so they use army doctors as well. Like they know how to deal with child sexual abuse. A lot of people are very upset about it, and the aboriginal communities, naturally, are up in arms about it. A doctor argued that these examinations are in themselves a form of abuse.

Putting this in perspective, it's worth noting that the aborigines have only been allowed to buy alcohol since 1964, and to vote since 1967. Do these Aussies think Aborigines are human? You hardly ever see any at all - I have seen three people who might be of Aborigine origin; one was a hotel receptionist, another begging in the street, and the third one was a very fine-looking tall school boy in a very smart uniform. But generally they are totally invisible - and of course the hospital I am staying in has separate accommodation for aborigines.

So comments about 'Canucks' and 'Jocks' are quite mild, really....Australia has a loooong journey to travel!



Had a couple of days in Sydney to start with. It really looks pretty modern, but then the oldest house in town is from the early 19th century. It's also well spread out; there is a high rise business centre, but beyond that you'd be hard pressed to find buildings higher than 3 or 4 floor. Most residential areas near the city centre have two story terraced houses (with large balconies, unlike the British ones); I suppose those 'Neighbours' - style bungalows are further out of town (I saw them in Adelaide). Around the harbour, where in the past were warehouses, I suppose, much new building has taken place with new flats, and new terraced houses improving on the older theme - modern Aussie mass building seems to be more advanced than British mass building - but perhaps I saw a particularly good variety?

The opera house is of course stunning; much more like upturned boats than the Scottish Parliament, which is also supposed to have them. The famous Harbour bridge is actually quite small, with only one arch, as opposed to some of those we have seen in Vietnam - but then it does not need to span much.

The place names in Oz are interesting; Nithsdale street, Glenelg, Hyde Park, Pyrmont (with, inevitably, a baths), Macquarie street (a Macquarie was one of the first governors of Sydney, who brought some order into this convict place). Sometimes the Aussie versions of British words economise a little on letters, using only one where two should have been.

Had a wonderful crab at the Golden Century restaurant in Sussex street on the first evening, on the recommendation of my friend Leila, a violist from Sydney, who studied in Adelaide and is now in Canada. It's a highly popular restaurant in Chinatown, with queues at the entrance. I was introduced to the crab face to face before he or she met their end....and then I realised that I had never eaten crab before, so I needed some help and instructions. This crab was with shallots and ginger. There was none of that delicate grated ginger about it - a ginger root had been chopped in pieces and cooked. Quite chewy!

The second day I walked a total of 21 kms, all over Sydney, from the fish market to way out Paddington on the other side (and that's only the central districts)... ending up with dinner in Zaafran's at Harbourside, a highly recommended, and recommendable Indian restaurant. The owner also works in Singapore. Had some interesting concoction of deepfriend spinach leaves with potatos and chickpeas smothered in three kinds of sauces to start with, and then some kind of aubergine tartlets - and yes, I should have written the names down before they took the menu away....

The following morning it was chucking it down! I had meant to go for a run, but could not quite get out of bed and then the deluge was a further sign! The good news about it is that the drought in Oz may be coming to an end - much more rain is forecast. The drought has been quite severe over several years, and Sydney is planning to build a desalination plant, whose output will cover 15% of the town's water consumption. There is a fair amount of public uproar about it, most of it from the people in whose neighbourhood the thing will be planted, but also on the grounds of environmental issues, since it will use much energy, and also because it may run even when there is enough water in the reservoirs. At the moment the Sydney reservoirs are 50% full, in Darwin they are 90% full, but in Brisbane only 18%. Of course, there isn't a national grid for water....


Going to Oz

Can't believe that I spent 2 1/2 nights in a plane seat on the way to Oz. Only with a 10 hour stop over in Frankfurt (with far too much time for shopping...), and other stops in Dubai and Bangkok. About a 48 hour journey, although I'm not sure how much of that time was spent in the air.

Some UK air force people were on the flight from Tbilisi to Frankfurt. One of them had great difficulty opening the toilet door. Makes you feel all warm inside, to be protected by people with such technical know how!

The Dubai airport duty-free is awesome - I had heard about it before, and everything they say about it is true. It was packed with people, most shopping as if it was going out of fashion. Did not really have much time to go around for a good look, but would not have wanted to buy what they have anyway.

In Bangkok we had 20 minutes to get out of the plane with all our belongings, belt around the airport, including going through security, and then return to the same plane and the same seat (for cleaning, I assume). It probably did us good, before the next leg of the flight (8 hours 21 minutes, they told us). The poor folks who were going on to Auckland had to do the same thing again in Sydney!

On the flight to Dubai found myself sitting next to a Rwandan lady who now lives in Canada. One does not ask about personal effects of the genocide. I think she was doing some sort of business in Kenya and Rwanda, but she was also involved in some fund that supports something or other in Rwanda.

Then on the flight to Sydney I was next to a lady from Jordan who now lives in Australia. Except she is of Armenian extraction; her grandparents had fled to Jordan, and when she grew up she had 5 languages including Turkish, spoken by her grandmother. She is thinking of getting her Armenian citizenship though she has not been there - but this is possible under Armenian law. She had also spent some time in Edinburgh, where her husband had been a student.

Interesting neighbours, no?


Thursday, June 21, 2007

and I'm off again....

after 6 days in Tbilisi; this time to Australiaaaaa! To the International Viola Congress in Adelaide!!!!! Unbelievable, where this viola takes me - only since I started going to viola congresses have I been to America, Canada and now Oz.

It'll be great, seeing everyone again (it's always the same folk who go, mostly, with hopefully a few locals as well), and there'll be Ju from Singapore, who is also a frequent correspondent on the viola list. Having said that, the Americans don't seem to like to go, not even across their own border to Montreal, Canada. Ah well, their loss.

It also means probably a short interval in the blogging - unless it really gets very cold and rainy in Oz; in Sydney it's supposed to be 16-18 with a fair amount of rain, and slightly colder in Adelaide. The opportunity to buy that new rain jacket, then.... Funnily enough, my Georgia project has a study tour to the UK, including Scotland, and it will be much the same weather there. Except that it's summer there.



'Oo's biting me this time?

My body and stinging insects are not a happy combination. This runs in the family. Quite often when someone stings me the afflicted part swells up quite alarmingly. There's middle level alarm when other people who see it are very alarmed, but to me it's not so bad, and then there is big alarm, when I find it a bit over the top as well. Mozzies are quite bad - there was a bad do in France one summer, 19 years ago (19 years ago??? wow), and in Lithuania about 5 years ago when I shared a hotel room with a mozzie, who bit me, and made rather a lot of noise, so eventually I squashed him (or her) against the wall. Not a good idea on that white textured wallpaper!

In Rwanda, where the mozzies are supposed to have huge teeth and severely dangerous malaria, I had no problem at all, even though I had not dosed myself with those very severe anti-mozzie materials that I had bought in advance, and despite eating all meals outdoors.

But now, here in Georgia, someone is biting me; one of my elbows has a very interesting lump, and there are some other unusually large parts to my body. In addition, there's a strange disease about in Georgia, Leishmaniasis, which you notice only months after the bite by the nasty little sandfly. That figures because so far this year there have been 90 cases of it in Tbilisi, and the little critters have only been around for the last week or two. Perhaps I should not keep all of my windows open all of the time, or at least gauze them over.....


Wednesday, June 20, 2007


My friend Helene had pointed out the benefits of RSS feeds a while ago, and I reacted in some ways as 'yeah, yeah'. It seemed a hassle, and you'd get lots of stuff in your inbox when you should be working, and it would all be very distracting....

But actually, it's great. I have linked Helene's and other blogs on my google desktop, which contains lots of other little gems, and now I can see at a glance who is very busy blogging (Operachic) and who is less - because every new entry is listed. (If Operachic, as described in the Wiener Zeitung today, really has only been in Milan for 7 months, it's simply amazing how much information she has on the operatic shenanigans there and everywhere else, it seems.)

The only problem now is that my desktop is too small to show everything at one glance - there is a way of having several tabs in my google, but I have not yet worked out how to drag things from the top tab to the others...


thin is...

  • when you can wrap your sarong round your middle twice and still tie a knot (and have the security of knowing it won't unravel). Though I noticed on this windy summer's morning that sarongs are very ... fly-away?
  • when delicate places don't chafe any more. You wonder why larger women tend to wear trousers? Here's your answer. Apart from large skirts looking like tents, and large legs not being that wonderful either!
  • when therefore you suddenly have access to a whole different range of clothes, and on looking through the fashions in a shop you think - jeez, these clothes are all so large!
  • when (not entirely sadly) you have to replace all your clothes because there is only so much that can be taken in (having had some clothes taken in two or three times, not terribly successfully). Is this another reason why poor people find it so hard to lose weight?
  • when you look at food automatically in terms of fattening potential, and mentally review your day's intake so far ....and you have fewer courses in restaurants.....


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

My little imaginary friend

Do you remember that either you, or some of your little friends around the age of 5 or 6, had an imaginary friend who used to go with you everywhere, and for whom sometimes there was even a seat at the dining table?

That's what I thought when in this week's OU music course's work the topic of 'minuet' appears, and we find ourselves watching a video on which the minuet dance is presented. By one dancer! She is supposed to be a specialist in the field, so does she not have a friend who she can dance with? There's plenty of nodding, bowing and scraping to that imaginary partner....Or did the OU not have enough money to pay for two? It all seems a bit cheap. I can hardly complain about the ancient videos - a long-standing joke about the OU, but at my present level of music studying nothing much changes, even in 30 years (hairlines come and go, fair-isle sweaters ditto...), though even 30 years ago Berlioz' Harold in Italy was not the greatest viola concerto ever, as they teach the unwary in the course ...You wonder how many of the people on the videos are still working....

I still find the minuet one of the most boring dances, so formal, so gentle, totally unpassionate - a bit like the Royal Scottish Country Dancing Society who does the dances ever so nicely, ever so gracefully - and 'raucous' would never enter their vocabulary (me, I'm going to learn the Salsa in the summer school in England!), or Mary and her little lamb. Ah well, must rush off and write a minuet.....


Monday, June 18, 2007

Don't panic - it's Turkish Airlines

Keeping an eye over the weekend on my missing luggage, courtesy of the Turkish airlines website, I did become a little worried when it kept saying 'Pending - please check again later'. The fact that one of their Istanbul employees yesterday morning said the same did not add to my confidence. Apart from the fact that they recently lost a colleague's travel cot, her husband's luggage, and another colleague's husbands luggage arrived in pieces.

But then again, I have lost luggage loads of times, all over the place, and it has always turned up, though often with the little lock missing....I used my usual trick of notifying my insurance company, since every time the luggage appears shortly afterwards - obviously a causal relationship. And indeed, when I phoned the airport I found that it had arrived - and should have already been there when I talked to the nice Turkish official. I guess over the weekend they had not got around to updating their website. It was complete, unopened - so no need to kit myself out again with clothes, ask the OU for those units that were in the luggage, hasten around Frankfurt on Friday to stock up on everything....

Thank you, Turkish airlines!


Saturday, June 16, 2007

Ukrainian Presidents

If you are into things Ukrainian go and buy Andrey Kurkov's 'The President's last love'. It's brilliant! (Though I also found Safran Foers' 'Everything is illuminated' screamingly funny, and not all my readers did....incidentally, the son's partner's brother-in-law organised Safran Foers' reading in Berlin so he must have liked it, too).

Kurkov has written quite a lot of books about the Ukraine and its political shenanigans, even though some of the books appear at first sight to be about penguins. But then, life in Ukraine does give him plenty of material all the time.

This book is in 3 parts; the president's life as a young man in the late 1980s/early 90s, then between 2003 and 2005 when he is a deputy minister, amongst other occupations, and then in 2015/2016 when he is the president of his country. But the book is not written consecutively - the chapters start with 2015, then 1988, then 2003 and again and again and again through the same scheme. The book very clearly shows his path to greatness - after a bit of university education he gets in with the Komsomol members who even after the fall of the Soviet Union are close to those in power, and pick up the concepts of capitalism extremely quickly, including the buying of politicians. In the middle period his main preoccupation seems to be with his domestic life, though politics keeps rearing its head, as do brown envelopes which he tries to ignore. In 2015 the book starts with him having had a heart transplant, though all is not as it seems, and life becomes very complicated. The heart comes with two complications, one of which is the widow of the former owner who apparently cannot bear to be parted from his heart and therefore lives in a little flat of the presidents building - this was one of the conditions of the transplant. This 2015 period also describes very clearly how much the president is at the mercy of his men who feed him the information he needs, but are not above organising their own little bits of shenanigans. Like Marat, the president likes to relax in a bath, but a bath filled with iced water, perhaps on account of once nearly having drowned in an ice hole in the river. Add to all that the schizophrenic brother, the president's bad sperm, the canonisation of Lenin, and complicated housing arrangements of the early 90s and you have a cocktail of bizarre events, many of which, alas, are probably only too true in the Ukraine of today.

Apparently Kurkov writes in Russian - which does not go down well with the Ukrainian literary folk. (That could be an interesting way of improving one's Russian....). Photo from Wikipedia, someone called Kubik.


In the News...

The Turkish Daily News reports on reforms to the Turkish health system where it appears that people insured by social insurance can also use the private sector and the state pays, the way I understand it. Maybe the state system has insufficient capacity - I suspect also that the coverage of social insurance is not universal.

Amongst other provisions the new law will bring:

  • treatment requiring an overnight stay will be covered, as will ambulances, even between cities.
  • the disabled will be able to apply to all health institutions for dental treatment.
  • those using medicine for a long time will be able to buy (buy!) medicine for up to 2 years without a prescription.
  • Circumcision charges will be paid by the state.
  • 'Under the necessary situations' the appointment process will not exceed 10 days (could we have that in the UK, please?)
  • At least one full-time medical expert under the age of 65 will be available.
It makes you wonder how Turkish hospitals are staffed, and why do they seem to lack young doctors? For Turks it's not so easy to go to the UK as for EU member state citizens.

Also in Marmaris (Turkey) Europe's largest (and Turkey's first) hotel for the disabled has opened, catering for the blind, the disabled and the autistic and their families. There are three of these in Europe, the whole of Europe. The question should of course be asked whether persons with disabilities should be 'ghetto-ised' in specific places - and indeed they should not. But one should also bear in mind situations that have arisen where groups of disabled where put out of hotels because the other guests complained, and the fact that at least here one knows that access problems should be resolved. If you are disabled it's bad enough entering a pool with a hoist thingy, but if there is no hoist-thingy, and you need to be manhandled into the pool that's rather degrading.  Not sure what's the answer to this, but I suppose it offers people a choice.

I'm not convinced also about the combination of blind, disabled (wheelchairs, presumably) and autistic. The article goes on to explain that for the 'mentally distorted the hotel has a stimulation room'.  That sound's a bit like Edna Everage's late husband Norm's condition of 'terminal bewilderment'. Not sure that if I were mentally distorted, I would want to have stimulation on top of that.....Even a perfectly English-speaking paper like the Turkish Daily News gets its language in a knot sometimes.

The International Herald Tribune is a paper I usually avoid, but having finished my book, no opportunity to buy a paper one has to make do with what one's got. Actually it's more European than I thought - it's the international edition - and it's not too bad, really. One lives and learns.

It reports on the fact that Americans are now, on average, shorter than Europeans, even when comparing white American with Europeans (not sure whether with white Europeans or all Europeans), taking out the hispanic factor. Until the mid 20th century Americans were generally taller; but now they are shorter, and, er, wider (though perhaps not for long, at least in the case of the UK).  It's blamed on bad childhood conditions - in the recent Unicef study of 21 developed countries, America came second last in quality of childhood, with the last being the UK (beaten amongst others by Poland, Hungary and Portugal. Poland - I ask you!, they don't even have the benefit of a mild climate ike Hungary and Portugal).  The article also mentions the astonishing class differences in height in the UK, where it states that 15 year old Sandhurst students are on average 9 inches taller than children of the same age of another school nearby. (Leaving aside the fact that I did not think Sandhurst took in 15-year-olds).  I remember those differences well from my home visiting days for the social security where poor people, and especially those from generations of benefits recipients, were very often significantly short. My British-born son, just a smidgeon under 6 ft, a very reasonable height, reported finding himself amongst the smaller people when he studied in Germany for a year.

I see that the US is planning to require travellers to lodge their travel itinerary across the US 48 hours before departure. Just like the former Soviet Union where you had to state clearly which towns you were going to visit (and you got permission only to visit those). Only recently they were discussing asking British people of Pakistani origin for visas.  Glad to see we are making social progress.

The planes of the future will be made from plastic; this will amongst other things save on fuel since the planes will be lighter. I suppose when one falls out of the sky it does not make much difference whether it's a metal tube or a plastic tube - but it does have a ring of the Reliant Robin about it.

Talking of airline security - managed to break probably 25 rules on this today when I arrived at Istanbul airport with half an hour before my next plane. Needless to say there was some anxiety about missing the plane. Suddenly I spotted, from the bus taking us into the terminal, the bus for the Tbilisi flight sitting a mere 10 metres from where we were getting off. So I just stepped gently aside and wandered into the Tbilisi exit door from the wrong side. The staff bore it with stoicism. No baggage search of course, nor any detailed question of where I had just wandered in from!  But is my luggage on the plane, too? Time will tell.

PS - it wasn't.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Lutowslawski, Szymanowski, Vaughan Williams, Burlea

A normal evening in the Moldova new music festival. I had warned my colleagues that it would be all 20th century- not quite a Mozart evening, but I'm not sure I would like this orchestra to do Mozart.

It was the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Moldova (I think) playing in the Filharmonica. The Filharmonica has seats from the same job lot as the Tbilisi opera, though they seem to be less well padded. We could see the seats well because most of them were empty - maybe the hall was 30 -40% full.

The concert was sponsored by the Polish embassy, hence the Lutoslawski (Symmphony 4) and the Szymanowski (Symphony 2). There was also Vaughan Williams' tuba concerto which I had last heard at the Young Musician of the Year competition in Glasgow in about 1994 (when Freddy Kempf won the competition), and Burlea's string piece in 5 parts (Burlea is Moldovan). Whenever do you get programming like that?

The Lutoslawski was kind of noise, background noise, though in clear sections; near the end I thought the cat was trying to get in to get a drop of milk. I thought the orchestra did well, under the circumstances, but it was a bit difficult to tell.

The Vaughan Williams was great; fairly British, with bits of sea shanties. The middle movement was probably closest to the danger of cow pat music, but otherwise the music was very pleasant, and it worked well for the tuba. So did the Tubist - name not known. The orchestra was having fun, too, and the cellos were grinning for quite a bit of the piece - a tuba, playing a concerto? It would make a cat laugh! Still the orchestra was doing well.

After the interval the weaknesses in the orchestra started to appear. Burlea's 5 movements were brief and to the point; the violas had wonderful solos but screamed 'fear'! The first fiddle had nice folklorish solos. It lacked oomph, and could have been played with much more intensity.

In the Szymanowski 3-movement symphony a great deal more notes were played than were written, with plenty of dissonances when the different groups had solos (glad they did not attempt Mozart). This symphony did not seem to be going anywhere, although that may have been the problem of the interpretation. It was written on a fairly grand scale, and reminded slightly of Mahler - though the announcer at the beginning of the concert had also spoken about Bartok. Again there were moments of folksy tunes...

The brass and wind in general did better than some other winds I could mention, but the strings were thin and out of tune. You could not really recommend the orchestra for a foreign tour.



Can't wait to get back to Georgia tomorrow, to get some real, fresh, crusty, tasty bread I can sink my teeth into! (And then presumably, a week later, in Australia, too). Will stop and pick some up on the way home from the airport!

The bread in Moldova is factory-made and cling-film wrapped. There are different kinds of bread from white to brown, to filled with sweet things like dates, but it's seriously bland. Have not seen a baker anywhere - there was one shop which sells 'piine calda' but that might just have been hot pies, and it was no longer functioning anyway.

Having said that, in Vilnius there are also few fresh-bread bakeries, though you can get fresh bread in most supermarkets - even the mini supermarkets; the large supermarkets usually have an instore bakery.

Restaurants in Moldova have their little quirks, too. Went to Dacu La Varta, a tiny restaurant in Vasile Alecsandri street, and ordered a shashlik. Leaving aside the fact that the meat came with nothing apart from a lettuce leaf, not an onion, a tomato, a little coleslaw from a bucket, nor a piece of bread (which I had to ask for as a paid extra), the price was also, suddenly, double the price it said on the menu. Why? The price on the menu was per 100 grams, and my portion had been 200, they told me (the fact that I had only eaten about 130 grams was probably not a good negotiating point). The price did have a little star beside it pointing to a footnote stating that the portions could have different sizes. Last week's 300 grams of goulash lasted me for four meals...
I thought it was a foreigner rip-off but people in the office said that this could be the case. Be careful out there!

Dinner last night at the Leogrand hotel; very nice, but don't be in a hurry! That applies even to ordering - no-one rushes to your table, on a sticky summer's night, offering you cool drinks - or any drinks....It only lasted 3.5 hours for the six of us.... If you have a life, there are lots of advantages to staying in a flat - where you can do other things while your dinner is cooking! But it was nice to go out for a change.

Here's a recipe for a filo-wrapped mars bar. It's a few millimetres away from a deep-fried one, but only very few millimetres.....

Noticed a few older men with faces that would have graced the back of a bus, accompanied by young women whose mothers had clearly run out of fabric while making their daughter's dresses.


Thursday, June 14, 2007

and proud to be Scottish?

The SNP government has so far:

  • kept a couple of accident and emergency units open which had already been agreed to be closed. Hope they have enough specialists to staff them all
  • announced that they will cancel all graduate debts (which in Scotland were small anyway, compared to those in England and Wales)
  • announced that they will scrap prescription charges for chronic illnesses - now they just need to define these. Probably won't cost them all that much since many people with chronic illnesses got free prescriptions anyway on age or income grounds, and anyone else could buy a 110 quid prepayment certificate which meant that they had to pay nothing for the rest of the year
  • is considering cancelling the Edinburgh tram and instead upgrading the A9 road through their heartland. It's good to know where your voters live.
It'll be interesting to see what will happen in a year or two, when the cash impact of some of these decisions will hit home....


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Proud to be British

The scandal around the 1 billion pounds paid by BAE to the Saudis to help the former sell planes to the latter is spreading and spreading. It would seem that the UK Ministry of Defence actually countersigned the bribe payments.

Call me simple, but what has a government to do with a commercial, and as far as I can remember, a private company and its business? And under what power did the MoD countersign these payments? And exactly out of whose coffers therefore did they come? The Government's or BAE's? Does the Government have the right to countersign the cheques of BAE? Whose else's cheques can it countersign?

Apparently Blair has said he'll take the blame for it. That's all right then. He's going in a fortnight anyway, so he is now free to take the blame on anything - what does it matter to him? Is he likely to land in prison?

For some reason the US Department of Justice is thinking of opening an investigation - it's amazing how far US legal powers stretch. But of course the British legal powers were kyboshed by the Attorney General in the interests of national security. There goes someone else who has covered himself in glory. Will all those people who did these things, and who have a knighthood or whatever, be forced to give them back, like the late Anthony Blunt?

I remember that Labour first got in because people were sick and tired of the sleaze associated with the previous Tory government (in 1997). Nothing has changed, has it - though I wonder if I would not have trusted John Major a smidgeon more than Blair who I have always found totally insincere and untrustworthy, and even more so after working in his government for a while. What can we Brits do with our government?


Monday, June 11, 2007

Dark clothes and hot climates

I'd used the opportunity of the weightloss to change the colouring of my clothes to dark, mostly black but also some navy blue. I had discovered that it suits me - particularly black poloneck sweaters (ignoring the fact that any constriction around my neck can make me feel quite squeamish under the wrong conditions....).

And it looks great. Generally; it gives you (me) a certain mystique, and goes well in Georgia, where many women wear dark clothes.

Except that the hot climate (even in Moldova) has its consequences. You go for a walk at lunchtime, at 30 degrees in the shade, and you get quite sweaty. But it'll dry, won't it, and you did use the deodorant in the morning?

It does, and the salt washed out from your body leaves very dainty white lines everywhere where sweat and dry t-shirt came together. Particularly fetching when you've been wearing your handbag across your chest....

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Intensive weekend

...and a very intensive weekend it was, too. On my first weekend in Chisinau perhaps I should have gone to see the sights, but between going for runs, studying, practicing the piano, doing some paid work, sleeping and THE BOOK I was really grounded at home.

What book? Actually two books, one of them, Murakami's 'Norwegian Wood' I had read before, in English. This was a German translation (and since the 'translated from' was in Japanese I had been unable to identify it as previously read in the bookshop in Vienna). It was a great read - I got into it on Friday night, while listening to Daniel Hope's recording of the Shostakovich violin concertos. (Do my ears deceive me or can Shosty be a bit thin on themes? There seem to be bits of 'D Eflat C B' popping up all over the place, and I could have sworn I heard a bit of his cello concerto as well.) A slightly mysterious book, though not as bizarre as Murakami's 'Wind-up bird chronicle' - this one was more real. I love the descriptions of Japanese life, such as the rituals in the halls of residence, what visitors do in hospital, going out for meals ....The book runs along very (reasonably) happily and it's hard to put it down until you work out whether he's going to achieve what he wants to achieve, or not. Murakami has written lots of books; in terms of believability I prefer this book, but the 'Wind-up Bird' was more surreal which also had a lot of charm. There's usually plenty of sex, but little violence....

But this was nothing, NOTHING, compared to the tour de force of Pascal Mercier's book 'Perlmanns Schweigen'. I don't know why this book has not been translated into English! It was published in 1997 so there would have been plenty of time. Is it the length of the book (over 600 pages with quite fine print)? Is it the fact that the author was a translator, then a linguistics lecturer and now a prof of philosophy, and no-one dares touch his book? My mother could not put it down whilst reading it in Tbilisi, and now I've been the same. I had read his 'Klavierstimmer' before, but this exceeds everything!

Perlmann is a professor of linguistics (imagine...) who has been asked by the company Olivetti to run a 5 week get-together of international linguists in a seaside resort in Italy. There each of five or 6 linguists will produce a paper which will then be intensely discussed. A very prestigious task. Unfortunately Perlmann feels well below par; his wife has died less than 10 months before, and he feels that he is no longer capable to doing his job. It's the fear of being found out as a fraud that drives him almost insane. He manages to organise his presentation to the end of the period, and procrastinates like crazy, in the meantime translating a text from Russian, a language he does not speak (but he's a linguist, and it's amazing what they can do with a dictionary in their hand). Time moves on, anxiety grows and grows, and finally he finds a solution - but suddenly that solution is in danger of causing him catastrophic consequences.

The book is written entirely from Perlmann's viewpoint, based on what he thinks the others are thinking and doing, and how can he get out of this situation. This is masked by physical weakness, not helped by his use of strong sleeping tablets. He gets himself into a total fankle, ending up his conference covered in blood. And the book goes on - as if the end of the meeting is not enough, it goes on and on - because the situation is still not entirely resolved.

The degree of understanding of this guy's mind is amazing - probably most people who work and are treated as 'experts' sometimes have the fear of 'being found out', even if they know all that there is to be known about the topic. In Perlmann's case, this fear becomes almost clinical, and you can feel his racing heart and sweating brow as you move through the book.

In passing the book inevitably touches on aspects of linguistics, as in 'the past is a construct' (people construct their own view of the past, and if they tell it long enough, they believe it themselves), or nuances of the English and Russian languages. That adds considerable interest, though you keep reading to see what is going to happen to Perlmann.

It's a fantastic read - but you'd need to speak good German to understand it and to work your way through all those pages. I see he has written two more books that I have not read....

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

An urban village

Quiet weekend in Chisinau - could have been livelier if I had discovered the Friday night concert at the National Philharmonic in time - looks like there is a concert every Friday, and with interesting programming, too. Next Friday we will have Szymanowski and Vaughan Williams' Tuba Concerto....

Instead went off to the market for my food. At the beginning of the week I had mentioned the difficulties of buying small quantities of food, especially meat, for my tiny household. 'Nooo', said my colleagues, 'there won't be any difficulties at all!' They should have seen the face of the shop assistant in the supermarket when I asked for 300 g of goulash. 'What? You want less? And even less than this?' it seemed to say. Unbelievable! This was the same shop which displayed 500g packs of dried rosemary - it would last me for a lifetime of roast lamb. So while I bought several kilos of tomatoes, I also bought 3 garlic bulbs, which looked like the minimum. One whole bulb promptly went into the goulash, together with plenty of tomatoes, onions and a very good lashing of Moldovan Cabernet, of which I bought a carton of 3 litres (for about 8 nights....). There may need to be red wine soup with something else....I've gone off buying wine in fancy bottles....

Out for a run on Saturday (and Sunday). Found, quite near my flat, a park with three lakes, heavily in use even at 9.30 in the morning with people getting ready for their picnics, taking walks, the odd runner etc. Moldovans, like Russians and probably Ukrainians, don't seem to like to travel heavy on their trips to the lakeside, so their bikinis and swimming trunks are nearly always tiny. Unlike the bodies they often have to stretch over.

Another walk round the town confirmed my earlier impression - while there are plenty of Soviet apartment blocks, there are also very many little houses with nice sized gardens, chickens and all, right in the middle of the town, no more than 5 minutes from the main thoroughfares. The town centre is arranged in a grid, with only a small corner or two of irregular little streets. But these are just like village streets, with houses that don't look particularly old; unlike Vilnius' old town, or the old town of Tbilisi which have been 'town' for a long time. I thought, therefore, that Chisinau is like Dushanbe, which was a village until about 1919 when the Soviets took over.

In fact, no. This wikipedia article suggests that Chisinau has been around since the 15th century, and already in the mid-19th century had a population of 92,000. Following pogroms elsewhere, many Jews fled to Chisinau in the late 19th century, ending with a 43% share of the population by 1900. Alas, that was almost the end of that, and in 1903 and 1905 two major pogroms took place. I wonder how many of the Chisinau Jews participated in the beginnings of the state of Israel. Then in the second world war Chisinau was rolled over three times, with the Soviets taking it from Romania in 1940, by the Germans going east in 1941 and making it part of Romania again, and the Soviets going west in 1944, with the Germans addressing the Jewish population in between.

But where's the history? It seems that not only was the country rolled over all those times, but shortly after the first invasion by the Red Army it suffered a devastating earthquake (Richter Scale 7.3) and between this and the multiple invasions the town was almost completely destroyed. The wikipedia talks about Stalinist architecture but of this so far I have seen only very little. It is true, though, that Chisinau is one of the greenest cities of Europe. Wherever you look you see trees, forests, little parks....

Stalin may not have done much good, but his town planning people were quite talented - always allowing for much open space, wide roads, and underpasses to cross those roads safely. In the former Soviet Union people were quite happy to move into flats because they had (at least the pretense of) modern conveniences, such as running water and indoor toilets. Unlike in the UK where everyone needs to have their own house.

Talking of running water reminds me - during the trips to the countryside I noticed lots of modern, purposebuilt wells with buckets thoughtfully provided everywhere. On enquiry I was told (code for 'I don't believe') that these were built because often the water supply fails and this way families can get water. Well, of course. But why then are these fancy wells a good mile or two outside the village, often near busy road junctions? Is it for watering the animals that are tied up everywhere, or for the many horses and carts?

The other noticeable thing about Moldovan roads is the amount of roadkill that you see. A reasonable amount of dead animals, but in particular the high number of crosses remembering people that have died in accidents. Be careful when you drive here! What are the drink driving laws here?

And finally I was told (see above) that much of the population is of the orthodox persuasion, either Romanian or Russian. How come then that many of the crosses are of the normal catholic variety, and that at many roadsides (not accident spots) there are little shrines with crucifixes, as you would find in Austria? But maybe Romanian orthodoxy is different.

Wikipedia also tells me that Chisinau has 36 universities - wow! I wonder if that is the highest rate in the world, for the population of about 650,000?


Saturday, June 09, 2007

Social Sector Experts

I am what they call a 'social sector expert'. I have a masters in social policy, and over 20 years experience working in the social sector, of which 15 years were 'hands-on' work with low income families or individuals, and older citizens. Plus a few years of doing voluntary work in hospitals. Having also have a few moments of financial struggles myself I have a good idea what it is to be poor (though I have always had the hope to be able to get over it). I understand that very poor people, and especially those who are long-term poor, perhaps even coming from generations of poverty, have quite a different outlook on life compared to the average middle-class person, and even the ex-poor MP or government official. The latter have been able to escape from their situation by one way or another; the long-term poor are so used to struggling that they can be extremely risk-averse, and prefer to continue in their situation, on low state benefits, rather than take a job (in which they fear they may not succeed because society has been telling them they are no good, and if they are fired the benefits system will make them worse off), or even, gasp, start a small business. Just read Lynn Hanley's book 'Estates'. I would not start a small business either - my attempts at this have always been unsuccessful. Some people have got it and others haven't. So, governments saying that small businesses are the best way out of poverty (for the nation) may not be the best advice to the very poor, who, in the case of business failure, then find themselves with huge debts. And of course they retreat back onto their benefits. In passing, an article I recently read about young people in Berlin stated that some young people won't take jobs because it would offend their unemployed families. That's the kind of thing we have to battle against when trying to address poverty! Poverty is not just absence of money, it's in the mind.

So I am increasingly surprised when I come across people describing themselves as 'social sector experts', and I find they are economists. Often they come from nice middle class homes (do children from poor families become economists? that would be an interesting topic to a study...), and have never done a 'decent day's work' since leaving university (apart from reading or writing studies based on other studies), as Sam Galbraith recently memorably said about Charles Kennedy. And they have had little contact with poor people. A great basis for dealing with the poor!

Of course there is no doubt that social sector expenditure needs to be paid for, and it needs to be sustainable, but they should also take into account that social sector expenditure (for health, education and social protection) is a direct economic contributor (There's an EU document that states this, COM (2000) 379, but many people of course think the EU is a bit namby-pamby. Those people usually come from a very developed country with a really high poverty rate). A country with a poorly educated workforce will not be able to attract industry. A country with a poor health service, or one where people have to pay directly for treatments, has people not receiving treatments, becoming unable to work, unable to earn money and spend it, leading to poverty not only of themselves, but of those around them. A country with a poor social protection system, such as the UK, ends up in a situation where everyone is putting their money into property out of fear for the future, constantly driving up the price of property, and pricing young people out of buying their own place. One of the richest countries in the world, Switzerland, has one of the lowest rates of property ownership - because people can rely on their pensions in their old age. In passing it's worth mentioning Esping-Andersson's work (a Swedish expert whose classification of welfare state models is a classic) where he states that poverty is directly linked to poor performance at school, thus blighting the life chances of children before you even start.

Economists look at social protection in a different way. Yes, they want to alleviate poverty, but preferably at minimal cost to the state or to employers. You hear comments like 'goodness, the state spends x per cent on the social sector', or, in a country where employers spend 5% on social insurance contributions, 'we cannot possibly increase those contributions'. Well, folks, it needs to be done. In most advanced welfare states (and it's worth mentioning that Finland, one of the most highly advanced welfare state, is also one of the world's most efficient economies), the state and employers invest heavily in social welfare, to enable people to work on the one hand, but also to protect them against adversity.

A 'social sector expert' (an economist) tells me that the greatest challenge is to identify those who may be entitled to services, eg with the help of biometrics, like in the health system. Well, actually, no. That's only the greatest challenge in countries that do not have universal health coverage; in other countries that does not really matter because you are either universally insured or able to use the health services as a resident (though usually you have to play by the rules of the country and sort out your paperwork). So what would be the point of identity fraud? How often can you get an operation for appendicitis? In the social (cash) benefits sector actually the greatest challenge is, particularly in economies with large informal sectors or high poverty levels where people have more than one job, trying to establish the actual income/wealth of individuals or families, in order to pay the correct amount of benefit. You don't want to pay more because you don't want the benefits system to cost more than it has to, and you don't want people to stay on benefits for long and become dependent.

Of course it was the economists of the world bank that influenced the countries out east to introduced the short, sharp shock of closing inefficient industries and laying off thousands and thousands and thousands of people. I wonder what is the total sum of people laid off in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the early 90s as a result of their advice? No doubt the industries needed to be renovated/updated etc, but there was no investment, there were just closures. And a few people got very very, obscenely, rich, whereas many others continue to exist on below subsistence levels.

Economists? Keep them away from me!


Thursday, June 07, 2007

The President of Moldova...

... or making friends and influencing people...

My friend Helene had sent me this link about the president of this country talking happily to Russia, about this and that, and maybe Transnistria, too, without the permission of the EU. Imagine that.

I mean, a sovereign country talking directly to Russia. Whatever next? Admittedly a tiny, and extremely poor sovereign country, slightly on the wrong side of the Ukraine to think about linking bits of it with Russia, but really...Admittedly also the EU and other donors are pouring money into the country (with what motivation, you might well ask) but they do that in many countries in the world.

Apparently the EU is spitting blood over this. I don't know. The President is from Transnistria, so perhaps this is understandable from his point of view. And well, the population elected him, didn't they. Or was there funny business during the election?

I would say it's up to the Moldovan's to deal with this; they have plenty of models for revolutions if something comes to pass that people are deeply unhappy with.....

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Are those my strings on that fiddle?

My musical friends will remember my friend Eleanor's campaign to collect used strings for the Moldavian Chamber Orchestra. Well, here I am in Chisinau, Moldova (in case you had not guessed before!) and there is a concert by the National Chamber Orchestra of Moldova. Is it the same orchestra, I ask myself? (Moldova, Moldavia, Moldau [the river Vltava in its German incarnation...]). In Vilnius (country same size, but richer) we have two chamber orchestras, and two symphony orchestras with very similar name ('National' and 'State'....).

'Tis a concert with a flautist, Anastasia Gusarova, whose doctoral exam it might be - though on the other hand her teacher appears to have died this year. The programming is fairly conventional at the beginning, though we don't often hear of the composer Josef Myslivecek (1737 - 1781). His was a fairly bog standard classical flute concerto, very pleasant and all that. I was worried about the soloist here; she played all the right notes at the right time, but her articulation was not good - there was a wash of notes, all merging into each other. No crispness here. Nor in the orchestra, who could have played this music a lot tighter - though at least the horns only fluffed once, which is better than in other chamber orchestras I could mention.

This was followed by Mozart's Andante which everyone knows, and Michael Haydn's flute concerto, which not so many people know. It's a bit of a trivial little piece. I wonder if this composer's surname had been 'Schmidt'- would he have become so relatively well known? Nothing in this set the heather alight (although her articulation had improved by then), and the fact that Ms Gusarova went on the stage with rather a grim little face did not help; Nor did it help, it must be said, the fact that the audience of 150 in a hall of 540 seats seemed to be rationing its applause - if it had not been for us two foreigners hardly anyone would have been applauded onto the stage.

All this classical stuff was followed by a 'Polca de bravura' (Romanian spelling, before someone starts chucking saucepans) by one Wilhelm Albrecht Otto Popp. Not Poppe, as my teacher's composer son Enno, just plain Popp, almost as in 'pop off'. Late 19th century, he lived till only age 34. This was one of those virtuosic pieces , like so many in the violin/viola world - starts slowly, and then explodes. Here Ms Gusarova suddenly came to life, and gave it all she'd got. Typical Eastern European - they are always good on the fireworks! (though did I notice the conductor turning more than one page at one time? Surely not!).

You thought the concert would be over, no? It wasn't - right at the end the band played two pieces by Vladimir Rotaru, Gusarova's late teacher, who was also a composer, as well as a flautist. They played the first movement of his sinfonietta; a piece in the style of Adagio for strings, or some of those Britten works - nothing outrageous for the strings to do. If he had finished it it might have been quite pleasant, though perhaps not of the current time.

Rotaru's piece 'tablouri rustice' for flute and orchestra ended the concert. This was an interesting little virtuosic piece, mixing slow and fast music, quite in the style of 'gypsy' music (the theme sounded a little familiar - I've been watching 'Black Cat, White Cat' too much). At times the orchestra drowned out the flute, though, but it was a lovely little Eastern European fantasy.

The conductor, Mihail Secichin, did well at holding the orchestra together; they could all have been crisper in the classical pieces, but neither was the flautist.

So, were those my strings? I had been given a name of someone who was the orchestra's chairperson, but it seemed he is now in the opera orchestra. And how can you ask, in very fractured Russian, not even knowing the word for 'string' where they got the strings from? And what could they say to that? Getting gratitude was not exactly what I would have wanted...But it would still have been nice to know the strings were being used....

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Tornadoes and other countries

Off to Soroca in the north of Moldova today. Leaving Chisinau on the very nice road to Soroca, I am startled to see a road sign to Odessa showing a distance of only 175 km. Moldova is really quite far south, isn't it? My suggestion to go to Odessa instead is not taken up. I wonder if there is a train to Odessa? Those steps? Potemkin, or is that the villages?

It's a city of formerly 40,000 inhabitants, but now only has 29,000, it is estimated, what with having no work. Interestingly, the richest people in the city are the Roma residents, whose richly ornamented houses overlook all other houses in the city. I am told that in Moldova the Roma are mostly settled (but so they are, actually, in most other countries?? - but usually their settlements are dumps) and that they are amongst the richer part of the population. Good for them!

After work we climbed, no actually, we drove to a monument at the edge of town, it's a tower in the form of a giant candle, supposed to be a national symbol, put up by the communist government. No-one seems to know what it is a symbol of....

From it, you have a stunning view over the ???? river, and across the river lies Ukraine. Wow! The village we saw in Ukraine looked very organised, with neat gardens, good houses, but pretty much at the end of the place. Talking of very organised - I was amazed by the huge fields I saw in Moldova. The explanation I got for this was rather muddled and I'm not convinced. Basically the land was privatised afte de-communisation - and then? This happened everywhere; in Poland the strips of land are the size of Germans' beach towels, and even in Lithuania they are quite small, though not as intensively farmed as in Poland. When the Scandinavians came to Lithuania after independence, talking about farmers' cooperatives, the Lithuanian farmers threw up their hands in horror - 'we are not having that again!'. So how have the Moldovan farmers managed to organise these huge fields? In one case I even saw a huge modern combine harvester, though there were also plenty of horses and carts on the roads.

On the way back, idly glancing across some fields, I suddenly spotted a little tornado whistling along quietly. It was too little to pick us up - we met it on the road - but it was interesting to watch it picking up little bits and pieces and swirling them through the air.

At home, in the evening, the piano tuner appeared - it was the fastest tune I've ever seen (not that I have seen any, but I thought it would take a few hours). Fairly painful to listen to, but now the notes are in tune. Not all of them work well...but for me it's enough. And the landlord even paid for it - wasn't that nice?

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Woke up yesterday morning...

... feeling like sh*t. Heid was louping all day, as we say in Scotland, but blamed that on dehydration. Recently I have run more, and it's been hot, and often I got a stoater of a headache a few hours afterwards, probably because I had not drunk enough. Anyway, drank lots (difficult in a flat where the biggest container is a small tea cup), took the paracetamol, in the evening it occurred to me to take my temperature... which was nicely up. No idea why!

Tried to do a bit of studying, concentrating on Bach's 4-3 suspension - total soup in my head (I only grew up with it, and had in fact used bits of it in harmonisations months ago, without realising)! But a good night's rest - bounced out of bed at 5.30 (the new mattress is so hard that you can't do anything but bounce!), did my suspensions test, the piano practice, and off to work. The piano in the flat is seriously, seriously out of tune - you get two notes for the price of one in some places...

In Moldova everything has to be bilingual, in Romanian and Russian. Romanian is much more pleasant on the eye and ear - you can read it, and work much of it out. 'Intenzione' - you know what I mean? Bizarre moment then in the cafe where I was ordering lunch, and found the waitress talking in Russian and pointing at the Russian text in the menu.

The Ministry, like all social ministries everywhere, is probably not the poshest in the city; a variety of small businesses have established themselves in the ground floor. There is a sort of security at the entrance, but it's not taken terribly seriously. (In Georgia it's extremely serious - you need your ID, in Tajikistan people just wander in and out....) Renovation appears to be happening at the moment, but it'll take a while. The department for human trafficking has a very fine new front door, though - USAID paid for that. This kind of business is big here

My apartment block's lift is out of order today - I stay on the 9th floor. Quite a good reason to stay in, really!


In defence of Georgian wine

This article has Georgia as one of the top 10 unusual wine destinations (in the world). It mentions that Georgia was the first place in the world to make wine. The country does have a very ancient recorded history; it's where Jason and the Argonauts travelled to, and where Medea hung out. The daughter of one of my colleagues is called Medea....

It also mentions that the wine in some places is still kept in amphoras, in the ground (we saw them for sale, in a pottery market; not exactly handy souvenirs though they would make wonderful plant pots - they are so deep! But I have to disagree where it says that much of the wine is disgusting! Yes, I did once come across some really really rough wine, but generally, if you buy dry wine you get dry wine, red or white. The wine I buy in five-litre plastic containers is usually fine - though when you pour it straight from that container it's hard to just pour out a little! My friends and I all have wine at home in the weirdest screwtop bottles - it saves you having to look for a cork screw!


Accommodation for Aboriginals?

Off to Australia later this month for the INTERNATIONAL VIOLA CONGRESS (Yeah!!!). Being a cheapie, I will be staying at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. I have some little doubts about that because in Scotland, if you combine 'royal' and 'hospital' a lot of the time you get a psychiatric institution (though there might be a Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley which definitely is not).

Having fankled up my booking for the accommodation and the flights, I thought I'd try and change the booking, and found the hospital accommodation website. Apparently it has many accommodation options for patients (who don't need to stay in an expensive bed) and relatives, the former nurses home being one of them. That'll be like the cheap hotel I stayed in just before the Minneapolis viola congress a few years ago, where you'd see people shuffling along in bandages...For 17 Oz dollars, what can you expect.

But anyway, so there are lots of accommodation options - and at the bottom there is a list of accommodation options for Aboriginals.

Excuse me?

Aboriginals have separate accommodation? These places all seem to be hostels (though I suppose my 17 Oz dollar bed won't be much better either). But why is there separate accommodation? One hears that Australia does not have a wonderful history in dealing with its native population, but I just hope there is a good logical explanation for such apartheid.


Sunday, June 03, 2007


Was reading a 'novel' (a very factual one) this morning about the history of (piano) music in the 20th century; a mixture of theory and anecdotes. The author wrote about Schoenberg and his ilk, and the additional dissonances they and other people introduced - which people had not been used to until then. There were regular riots in concert halls, with people clambering over rows to hit other people, different parts of the concert halls shouting at each other - how did anyone hear the music? There's a lovely quote about a concert where Mahler is in the audience, and the audience is once again erupting. So Mahler draws himself up to his full height in front of a guy and says to him 'You are not to hiss'. The guy, who is stated to be frightened of his own concierge, here feels proud in front of the kings of music and hisses back 'I also hiss to your music'.

Dissonances are interesting; they are coming up in my course just now - my main problem though is that I hardly hear anything as a dissonance, apart from a screaming minor second and a seventh. I'm so used to all kinds of music that I find nothing wrong with most intervals - that does not make the studying any easier....



Chisinau is pronounced 'Kishinau', and is the capital of Moldova, that tiny country between Ukraine and Romania, and other places. There's a region of Moldova, Transdniestr, which would love to be in Russia, but might have to leap across Ukraine for that. My Moldovan project does not work in Transdniestr, nor does my Georgian project work in the disputed region of Abkhazia....it wasn't just the Brits who got their map drawing wrong!

Anyway, flitted over today from Tbilisi, for the next little while. For some reason I travelled business class, which is most unusual in my line of business - the EU does not tolerate its consultants travelling in comfort, but the Moldovan project is funded by the generous British tax payer.

Until I hit Tbilisi airport I had not appreciated that I was not flying Austrian to Vienna, though perhaps I should have known, what with the later starting time....Georgian is one I've tried to avoid ever since they had an emergency landing somewhere in Georgia late last year. Then again, Austrian planted a plane in a field near Munich a few years ago.

The Georgian catering included wine (at 7 am!), and a rather interesting sweet rice dish, where the rice was cooked with raisins, but in water, not milk. Very nice, even though it looked a bit like the pavement outside a curry house early on a Saturday morning!

Had the usual Cafe Landtmann breakfast in Vienna; first time for me that it was on a Sunday, when the cafe was fairly full with well-to-do Vienna families and their bright and shiny offspring. I see the cafe, which is virtually only staffed by male waiters (much like the Vienna Phil is staffed by men), has a new apprentice. His status is very clear, because he wears a white jacket as opposed to the black jackets of the other waiters, is about 20 years younger than all the others, and also much shorter - I hope he will grow. I wondered what a young guy has to do to join such a fuddy-duddy establishment, and what kind of an outlook he would have.  He could have done with a haircut, but so could some of the other waiters, those who had hair.

They must have read my comments about their bread rolls, because today they had much more character...

In Chisinau I have a nice little flat - the company had booked a fine hotel, but I did not fancy it. Particularly because on Friday morning I had a really good piano lesson, and it seemed a shame to abandon all the progress again for a fortnight. Luckily I happened to find this travel company on the internet who had a selection of flats, and two with a joanna! I discovered this at 4 pm yesterday, and frantic negotiations took place over the next 12 hours, until my departure. The flat is in one of those soviet blocs ('Plattenbau' in German). As always it looks as if it's falling down on the outside, but here even the stair is acceptable, and the flat is nice - only the piano needs tuning. Boy, does it need tuning!

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Saturday, June 02, 2007

The history of the peoples of the Soviet Union (part 1)

Part 2 to follow at random. Went to the hairdresser's today, in Tbilisi, where a young man called Telman did my hair very nicely. 'Telman' of course comes from Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the German communist party from 1925 until about 1933. He later died in a concentration camp. (This picture, from wikipedia, is of a statue in the park named after him in Berlin, not far from where my son is going to live. Need I mention that it is former East Berlin?). The sins of the fathers and all that.... what are Telman's chances of getting a visa to the US?

Anyway, it was a long session and I was chatting to Telman and his colleague who acted as interpreter. Turns out that the salon, in Tbilisi, Georgia, seems to be owned and staffed much by Armenians, of which there are quite a lot in Georgia. I'm not sure that either of my two interlocutors were born in Armenia, though. One grew up in Kaliningrad, the other in a Black Sea port in Russia. I did not ask how their ancestors came to be in Russia; sometimes that can be a painful subject. 5 years ago the parents of each of them decided to relocate to Tbilisi. 5 years ago, why? And why Tbilisi, and not Armenia? They did not seem to know. (They probably made the right decision.) Both of them now have Georgian passports, which may be marginally, very marginally, more useful than Russian passports. Given that we Europeans can travel freely into Georgia, one would think that there might be a tit-for-tat arrangement - but dream on! Since then one set of parents has relocated to Milan, Italy. Their offspring has no chance of getting a visa to even go and visit them, what with not being married in Georgia and not having any family there to draw them back. And now even going back to Russia is difficult for them.

Making a living is not easy in this part of the world!


Friday, June 01, 2007

A flutter of programs, a shmooze of babies....

... another concert night in Tbilisi. 'Tis hot now, if not to say steamy, and it was that which my piano teacher blamed for the 9 pm start of tonight's concert in the opera house. The concert was organised by Paata Burchuladze, who is quite a famous Georgian opera singer, and who has sung in many of the top opera houses in the World, such as La Scala, and the Met, singing major roles, such as Boris Godunov, not the third wise man, or whatever tiny roles there might be in opera.

Mr Burchuladze has a fund for orphans and children deprived of parental care, which does all the right things, including trying to return children to the biological family where possible. Well done, Mr Burchuladze! Though if you had heard the story I heard this week, in a different context, about children and families, and read the articles in 'Die Zeit' about child abuse, you sometimes wonder why people bother with families. Did you know that the first child abuse prosecution in the world, in New York in 1874, was instigated by the head of the American Society for the protection of animals, because there was no-one else to do it? Take the other example of the 7-year-old who starved to death in Germany and weighed 9.5 kgs at her death - my colleague's 12-month-old weighs 11 kgs. Families, eh?

But I digress...This concert was of the opera house orchestra and Alexandre (or Alexander) Korsantia, piano. Mr Korsantia is of Georgian birth, but has lived in the US since 1992, and teaches at the New England Conservatory, a very fine school indeed. Doesn't 'our' Kim Kashkashian teach there, too? Although she also has Caucasus roots, I think hers are longer ago than Korsantia.

Korsantia is a fine pianist, and he did well against the vagaries of the evening, of which there were a few. He is very relaxed, lovely with the people around him, and this evening found himself dealing with:

  • coming on stage too early, while the announcer was still in mid-announce
  • a broken string in the piano (I did not think either that they could break, but obviously so)
  • at least one completely absent entry from the woodwind, leading to a resounding silence between piano solos
  • myriad babies and children on the stage.
He took it all in his stride. There were some beautiful moments in his playing (of Beethoven's 5th and Brahms's second piano concertos), particularly in the quieter parts where he just exuded peace and calm. Some of the faster parts had the odd fluff here and there. He did not take any risks - a little variety, extemporising, improvisation in the Beethoven cadenza might have been nice.

The orchestra, on the other hand - oh dear, oh dear. In the Brahms it was really thin - partly due to lack of numbers, and perhaps too large a stage to scatter themselves around on. The first fiddles had a solo which screamed 'fear'. The young lead cellist, the only male in his group, played a very fine solo, though - and some other lead cellists I know could take that as an example. In the Beethoven, the orchestra sounded much stronger, though it was rather galumphing through its parts - apart from that missing solo.

And then, at the end of each part of the concert, on account that this was a charity concert, out came the sponsors and out came the children and babies from the orphanages or children's homes, who found themselves kissed and cuddled on the stage by famous and wealthy people. Aw, yuck! My friend described it as exploitative. Cultural differences? Would we do it differently in 'the west'? The fact remains that the charity does good work.