Off to Kiev

I’m off to Kiev for the weekend: I miss the cold, snowy environments where people speak Russian.

Many thanks to those who left comments under my post on editors, I’ll reply when I’m back.

Photos from Alsace

I’ve not gone anywhere new for a while and I’ve done enough photography around Paris for the time being, so my camera has been quiet of late.  So instead I’ll post some photos I took when I went to Alsace last May, taking in the towns of Colmar, Eguisheim, and Kaysersberg.

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The full collection can be seen here.

Ten Days in New York

I’m back from New York, having had a fantastic time wandering around, drinking, and hanging out with friends.  What follows are my general observations and thoughts, in no particular order of importance.

New York is massive, I mean seriously big.  I first got an inkling of this when I found the time it took to get from Harlem to 42nd Street on the subway was longer than I thought, and I’d only covered about half of Manhattan.  Later in the week I tried to walk from lower Manhattan to midtown, but gave up as I realised no matter how many blocks I covered I still wasn’t getting much closer.  Later still I stood on the Brooklyn Bridge and looked towards midtown, and realised it was an awfully long way off.  And when I crossed the Robert F. Kennedy bridge into Astoria and looked westwards at Manhattan, it seemed to stretch southwards forever.  Even disregarding Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island, Manhattan itself is enormous, on a different scale to anywhere else I’ve lived (Lagos, despite having a population of about 18 million people, isn’t that big geographically).  I quickly realised that simply walking everywhere isn’t really an option in New York.

It took me a while to get used to the subway.  About two days in I figured out that different trains run on the same lines but stop at different stations, and that some trains were “local” – stopping at every station – and some “express” and only stopping at major stations.  And whether a train was local or an express changed with the time of day and the day of the week.  This was all a bit complicated for a farm boy from Wales, but at least it explained why New York subway stations are designed with a third track in the middle: it allows trains to pass through without stopping.

The metro itself worked well enough, and was mercifully air conditioned.  But the stations themselves weren’t, and it was stiflingly hot down there.  The locals seemed to cope with this a lot better than I did, as I was sweating buckets.  I can’t say I liked the subway carriages themselves, the stainless steel design making them look more industrial than perhaps they need to, but they were clean enough.  The same can’t be said for the stations, which were in desperate need of a pressure wash, and the whole system kept reminding me of violent scenes in films from the 1980s.  At least they don’t have Guardian Angels patrolling it any more.  I will say this, though: the people seem a lot friendlier on the New York subway than they are on the London underground or Paris metro.  One chap offered to help me figure out the myriad combinations of stops and express trains – something you’d never see a Parisian doing – and I noticed people spoke and interacted with each other more than anywhere else I’ve seen.  Aside from one bellend who came in dressed like a gangster, shirtless with his pants hanging down his arse and tattoos all over him carrying a ghetto blaster playing music that only reinforced my theory that the louder music is played the worse it is, everyone was awfully polite.

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New York

I’m currently in New York where I’ve come on holiday for 10 days or so, staying in a rather nice apartment in Harlem.  That’s a description you’d not have seen written anywhere 20 or 30 years ago, but this part of New York has gentrified considerably since New Jack City was made.  It’s no Kensington, and you still see a lot of people who look like extras from The Wire hanging about outside laundromats and dodgy-looking discount stores, but there’s not much evidence of serious crime.

I haven’t been to New York since summer 2000, when I came here at the start of my 5-week road trip around the USA.  A few things have changed since then, and not just the lower Manhattan skyline.  For a start, people using the visa waiver scheme now need to pay $14 online for an ESTA – Electronic System for Travel Authorization – which is something the department of Homeland Security uses to see if you’re a terrorist or not.  I knew nothing about this until the airline (fortunately) informed me a few days before I flew.  JFK airport doesn’t look quite so impressive now I’ve travelled around a bit, but despite a long line at immigration I cleared through it quickly enough and was pleased to find Uber works for airport collections too.

One of the first things I noticed, sitting in the traffic on what I think was the Long Island Expressway, was how much the cars had changed since I was here 16 years ago.  Back then they were mostly American – either Ford or GM marques- and much bigger than those you see in Europe, totally different models.  Now you see Toyotas and Nissans everywhere of the same or similar models to those on sale in Europe.

The other thing is that the place doesn’t feel as exotic as it did when I first came here.  Last time I had barely travelled anywhere before coming to the USA, but now I’ve clocked up around 40 countries since it’s just like visiting yet another foreign place.  Only as I found with Australia, it seems a bit weird to be in a place which is obviously foreign and everyone speaks English (of a sort, anyway).

I also used the New York metro yesterday, and made a bit of a hash of it.  I got one one train, thought it was going in the wrong direction, got off it, realized I should have stayed on it, then got back on the next one.  And bloody hell, New York is big.  I only went from 135th to 42nd street, and it felt like we’d covered miles, and I was only halfway down Manhattan island.  And despite my being thoroughly familiar with London, New York is another step up in terms of people running around in a mad rush.

My plan here is to take lots of photos, do some shopping, go on the piss, and take a half-day trip out to an area of Brooklyn for some research for a story I’m working on.  And I’m supposed to be going to the US Open tennis on Monday with the chap I’m staying with, who is taking a client there and for some unfathomable reason has decided to being me along.  Incidentally, my host is an American who I met in South Carolina during my 2000 road trip, in a Wal-Mart car park of all places.  Funny how things can turn out.

Visiting Russia just got Harder

I missed this, but late last year Russia introduced compulsory fingerprinting for all foreign visitors:

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has ordered fingerprinting of foreigners as part of the processing of visas to enter the country.

The decree, signed by Putin, explained that the move hopes to help the application of law enforcement, tackle illegal immigration and prevent terror attacks.

Decree…hopes…terror attacks.  Hmmm.  How many terror attacks within Russia have been carried out by foreigners?  And when I hear the word “decree”, why is it that I immediately think of this store?

“It is expected that biometric data will be collected mainly at the visa centers, which would make it possible to avoid long queues at the Russian diplomatic missions where, as you know, people come not only to get a visa but to resolve many other issues as well,” Yevgeny Ivanov, head of the consular department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, said.

Introducing new bureaucratic hoops will make it possible to avoid long queues?   More on that later.

The move comes after the Foreign Ministry proposed to introduce biometric data for foreigners entering Russia, in response to the EU’s proposed plan to take fingerprints of all Russians wishing to enter the Schengen area in Europe from 2015.

This is half the problem with Russian immigration laws: most of them are retaliatory.  Now I’m the last person to defend western immigration requirements, and the UK’s are as dumbassed as anywhere’s, but deciding to introduce additional hurdles for visitors to Russia in response to EU proposals is simply stupid.  Putin may not have noticed but his currency collapsed recently and the Russian economy – so dependent on imports – is in the shit.  One of the best ways to bring in hard currency is to get tourists to come and swap their Euros, Dollars, and Pounds for Rubles, and this will be much easier to do with a weak domestic currency.  Erecting barriers to make the entry of those tourists harder makes no sense whatsoever, but then Russians appear content with being poorer and less well-fed in return for being able to engage in ineffectual political posturing.

I heard about this new requirement because a British friend of mine is currently going through the visa application process, and had to go to the Russian embassy in person to get fingerprinted.  The agent advised that delays of up to an hour could be expected (so much for avoiding long queues), only when he got near the front of the queue the whole system packed up and he was told “to come back tomorrow”.  So far, so Russian.  Fortunately he lives in London and so this was easy enough, but anyone coming from say Manchester and visiting one of the two centres – located in Edinburgh and London – would have had to buy another train ticket or book a hotel, and take another day off work.

And this is where Russia is going badly wrong.  There are a handful of people who want to visit Russia, and they will go through this pantomime one way or the other.  But Russia loses out on the speculative tourists who plan to go “somewhere” and then look at their options.  A few years back another friend thought about going to St. Petersburg for a weekend and asked me what was involved.  By the time I had gotten halfway through the letter of invitation, the agent, the $100-$200 fee, the form-filling, the requirement to have a hotel booking, the registration on arrival, and the rest of it, he’d already said “Nah, forget it, I’ll go somewhere else” (and the fee has gone up since the fingerprint requirement came in).  So much of European travel is people looking for quick, easy breaks.  When people have a choice of Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Prague, Bratislava, Budapest, Krakow and a dozens of smaller cities in Eastern Europe that they can visit without a visa, why would anyone who wasn’t specifically interested in Russia go there?  The Ukrainians figured this out back in 2005, and allowed EU citizens to enter the country visa free, thus adding Kiev to the list of cities above.  Perhaps more importantly, it meant Europeans could visit Ukraine’s prime holiday area in Crimea much more easily, and that played a large part in my decision to go there in the summer of that year.  Only now Europeans wishing to visit Crimea need a Russian visa, which can’t have done much for the visitor numbers.

So of all those people considering a trip to Russia, how many will decide it’s simply not worth the bother, especially if the price ends up including a return train fare, a hotel in London, and two days off work?  My guess is a lot.  Putin’s decree has made it as costly and as much effort just to obtain a Russian visa as it is to take an actual holiday to a neighbouring country which offers better service at cheaper rates to begin with.

Somebody, somewhere, obviously thinks this is smart.

Ah, so it was all bullshit?

This is long overdue:

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) says electronic devices such as mobile phones can be left switched on during flights.

EASA says that electronic devices do not pose a safety risk.

The restriction on using mobile phones was almost as stupid as the requirement to turn off “electronic devices” during taxi, take-off, and landing.  If any aircraft, ever, had displayed the slightest sign of inteference from a mobile phone or other device, the whole fleet would have been grounded immediately.  The “because it may interfere with the aircraft’s navigation system” was a lie, pure and simple.

It came about, in my opinion, due to a confluence of several things which can be observed separately elsewhere.  The first is the phenomenon whereby people feel empowered by a uniform and delight in telling other people what to do, even if this means causing them unnecessary inconvenience.  Pilots have always overestimated their own speciality: modern aircraft are not like those of two or three generations ago, and pilots are simply too numerous for the job to be that difficult.  They do an important job, and you’d want a good one to be at the yoke if something went wrong, but the manner in which they like to portray themselves belongs to an era which has long since passed.  And nothing reinforces their sense of authority more than ordering passengers around in the name of “safety”, not even the tedious reminders that “this is a non-smoking flight” (the last of which took place around 16 years ago, at least in the US) and pointless information regarding the aircraft’s speed and altitude.

Then you have the trolley-dollies who, having to put up with shit from passengers for most of the flight, enjoy nothing more than to harangue them during the fleeting moments they have some authority.  I’ve noticed they’ve even taken to ordering passengers to remove headphones during take-off and landing, no doubt citing the importance of passengers being able to hear announcements in the event of an incident.  Although any passenger who is unaware of an announced incident during take-off or landing is almost certainly unconcious or dead, and not merely listening to music.

Coupled with this is the dumbfuck, luddite mentality amongst most people who lack the basic scientific knowledge to laugh in the face of anyone who says an iPod will interfere with the correct functioning of an aircraft.  Aircraft are constantly bombarded by all sorts of electromagnetic waves, particularly during taxi, take-off, and landing when they are near the airport and other aircraft, who are all communicating with one another.  To the degree that any component of the aircraft could be unduly influenced by electromagnetic radiation – and this is doubtful – the device and its cables would be shielded.  An iPod would produce some electromagnetic radiation, but this would be almost undetectable without specialist equipment set up right next to it.  It is simply impossible for an iPod to interfere with a plane’s equipment.  But most people lack any kind of technical knowledge and, in the fashion of Pavlov’s dogs, simply nod dumbly when somebody in a uniform tells them to do something vaguely to do with technology – even if the person in the uniform is employed primarily on looks.  I particularly hate the request to switch off “all electronic devices” because its ludicrously broad criteria makes it impossible to comply with.  My watch is electronic.  How do I turn it off?

It’s bullshit masquerading as safety compliance, and I hear enough of this in my own industry.  Mobile phones are banned on all operational sites where hydrocarbons may be present, yet there is not a single example, anywhere, of a mobile phone causing a spark.  Mythbusters tested this to death and couldn’t get a solitary spark out of a mobile phone; they also couldn’t get aircraft instruments to react to a mobile phone, either.  Of course, most people will say “well, if it makes us safer, even by a little bit, then it is not too much to ask”, and indeed they do say this.  And they know nothing about risk, and even less about people’s actual preferences: if it wasn’t too much to ask, the stewardesses wouldn’t need to check, would they?

I can see why they banned mobile phones: airlines simply didn’t want the hassle and complaints associated with people taking on phones on an aircraft, so they came up with some safety bullshit as a way to enforce compliance.  But now technology has advanced to the point that money can be made from people making calls on flights, the regulations prohibiting phone use have magically disappeared.

This is welcome, but it’s a shame they had to bullshit us for two decades in the first place.

A Trip to Adelaide

Given I shall soon be leaving Australia and unlikely to return for some time, I decided to do a bit of local tourism, with my first destination being Adelaide.  Other than it being the scene of an unimaginable slaughter a few weeks back, I didn’t know much about it and half the people I spoke to said it was lovely and the other half said it was full of inbreds.

I flew down on Virgin Australia, a flight of an hour or so, and as I found when I went to Sydney the domestic airports at each end were models of efficiency and organisation.  I have to hand it to the Australians, when it comes to making domestic air travel as painless as possible they have it nailed down, at least insofar as the airports are concerned.  With an absolute minimum of fuss I was checked in and at the departure gate within minutes.

I caught a taxi to my hotel which was situated bang in the middle of town on Hindley Street.  For the price it wasn’t bad (a fraction of the cost in Melbourne), but it was a bit dated and I didn’t bother eating there: hotel breakfasts in Australia, like everywhere, are a bit of a fleecing and so I made use of the McDonald’s over the road more times than was probably good for me.  I had arrived on the last Friday before Christmas Day, and there was much revelry in the air of the office Christmas party kind.  The bars in Leigh Street near my hotel were mobbed, music was pumping out of one of them, and so after a quick kip I went out to join the fun.  But first I needed some food, and I went up and down Hindley Street at least twice looking for somewhere to eat.  In doing so, I discovered that Adelaide’s busiest street (aside from Rundle Mall) consists almost entirely of:

  1. Strip clubs
  2. Asian massage parlours
  3. Adult video stores
  4. Hookah cafes
  5. Dodgy bars and clubs
  6. Dodgy takeaways

I couldn’t find anywhere that looked suitable to eat, so I went into one of the bars and ate a hotdog.  Coming out, I wandered about some more.  The streets were beginning to fill up with Adelaide’s youngsters, the girls of which were often slim and pretty (they wouldn’t stay that way long) and wearing next to nothing (like they do in Liverpool) and speaking in godawful accents (like they do in Liverpool).  At least half of them had tattoos.

The main attraction in several of the bars, according to the signage, seemed to be 24-hour poker machines (or pokies, as they are called in the excruciating local vernacular).  Clearly the gambling addiction in Australia isn’t confined to Melbourne.  For sure, you’ll find fruit machines in most English pubs, but they’re not advertised on enormous banners outside to the exclusion of anything else.  Half of these places were less bars than gambling dens which served alcohol.  I also saw Aborigines for the first time in Australia, and they didn’t appear to be doing too well.  They were a couple of old men and an old woman, all barefoot, and seemingly drunk in the middle of the street (more so than the rest of the locals).  One of the men had a bandage on his bleeding head.  The woman was dancing drunkenly in front of an elderly busker who was playing an electric guitar which had been smashed up.  It wasn’t a pretty sight.

I went into a packed bar on Leigh Street where I sat at the counter drinking something or other, before going to the next street where there was a Russian-themed bar.  I walked in and discovered the barman was from Nigeria, Port Harcourt to be precise.  The Russian theme didn’t amount to much, and so I talked to the barman about Lagos instead.  Shortly afterwards two young fellows came in and sat nearby and we got talking.  Turned out they were natives of Adelaide and once the inevitable ribbing about the cricket had finished, we got stuck into a fair bit of alcohol.  At some point some Nigerian mates of the barman came in and we had a jolly good laugh about Lagos (I forget what they were doing in Adelaide, but I think one of them might have been running a backpacker hostel, or something).  As the night moved on, an Australian girl joined the two lads and in with the general festivities.  After an hour or so, one of the lads and the girl went home and the other lad, Adam, and I went a-bar hunting.  We wandered into three or four packed bars, drinking and bullshitting in each one, and then at some point after midnight went into the Adelaide casino to prop up the bars there.  Whereas the Crown casino in Melbourne is impressive in size and probably style also, the same can’t be said for Adelaide’s.  It looked like a pretty seedy joint, half full of middle aged married or divorced men coming from the office parties and drunkenly trying it on with their middle aged married female colleagues.  It was painful to watch, but by this time I was getting pretty drunk and really wasn’t so bothered by my surroundings.

It got to a point, sometime around 2 or 3am, and the streets were an utter carnage of drunken revellers, when we decided to go to a bar I’d passed several times on Hinkley Street called the Woolshed.  We went in and I found myself in the biggest shithole since my days of drinking in Manchester.  The first thing that hit me was the smell.  Since the smoking ban, bars have gone from smelling of smoke to smelling of BO, stale beer, farts, and backed-up toilets.  It was honking.  The carpet was sticky, which is a sure sign of a certain type of establishment, and the music absolutely bloody awful.  There was a mechanical rodeo bull set up in one corner with drunk girls dressed in tiny dresses trying to ride it without any success, but attracting a sizeable audience nonetheless.  I poked my head in the toilet and found a proper, British club style arrangement: cubicle doors hanging off, graffiti everywhere, the seat ripped off, the porcelain cracked, both toilets blocked with bog roll, a pint glass in the urinal, and the whole floor covered in piss.  The whole place sent a wave of nostalgia over me for the many dives I have patronised, and I loved it!  I felt right at home.

And so Adam and I were off, drinking ourselves into oblivion, watching plastered, sweating halfwits trying it on with anything vaguely female, and who they outnumbered by eight to one.  Somehow I got talking briefly with some girl who looked about 20 who had two strange words tattooed on her inner wrists, which turned out to be the names of her daughters.  The music got worse, but the dancing – if you could possibly call it that – had no greater depths to which it could sink.  I stayed on the edges, guzzling bourbon by the tumbler, watching Adam try his luck with anything which passed his threshold of interest.  He was one hell of a drinking buddy, and I was mighty grateful for his company.  We went to the first floor level, up a ludicrously steep flight of stairs given the state of the customers at that point, which was packed full of people of all ages, shapes, and sizes.  One thing I like about these shithole clubs is they are egalitarian places with no pretentiousness.  I detest pretentious bars and clubs – Melbourne has them by the dozen – pretending to be as hip and trendy as Manhattan’s newest gay bar, when in fact they’re just your standard, boring dump with a lick of paint applied.  The Woolshed by contrast didn’t pretend to be anything other than an absolute, end-of-the-night dive and as a result everyone was there only to get hammered and, for a lot of them, to pick something up. Everyone was clearly enjoying themselves at any rate, and I didn’t see a sniff of trouble.

I saw lots of things which I really wanted to remember so I could blog about them, but alas my memory failed me in most instances.  I blundered into one group who had a teenage French girl with them, who had been sent from Paris to stay with her cousin and learn English.  Quite what sort of English her parents thought she’d learn in Adelaide, and quite what words and phrases she’d learn in the Woolshed at 4am is anyone’s guess, but I was able to speak French with her for a while.  My French language abilities are rudimentary in the extreme, but compared to everyone else in the joint I might easily have passed for Gerard Depardieu.  Eventually she cleared off to smoke outside with her friends, and it was pushing towards about 5am when I realised that the place was now half empty and I’d lost Adam.  At this point, or somewhere around it, I stumbled the short distance back to my hotel and went to bed.

The next day I thought I’d better do something productive to justify my coming to Adelaide, but unfortunately I looked around and realised it was already mid-afternoon.  That’s the problem with going out until dawn and getting up after lunch.  So I took a stroll up to Rundle Mall, the main shopping precinct, in spitting rain which was not what I’d expected: Adelaide had experienced one of its hottest days on record two days previously.  There wasn’t much to see, although I did stop to watch this guy play his guitar in the street, which was very impressive and his method was something I’d never seen before.  Australian shopping areas aren’t much to visit, and I was feeling pretty rough, so I decided to spend what was left of the afternoon in the cinema, watching American Hustle which, after a slow start, I quite enjoyed.  I went out that evening to get something to eat, again struggling to find a proper restaurant just by wandering about and looking, settling for a burrito at a Mexican-themed takeaway joint.  I tried to go back to the Russian-themed bar for a quick drink but found it closed for the staff Christmas party, and I really couldn’t be bothered to look anywhere else and so went back to the hotel and watched test match cricket between South Africa and India.

I got up a lot earlier the next day and looked at the range of brochures on display in the hotel advertising things to do in Adelaide.  The problem was, none of them advertised things to do in Adelaide: everything involved travelling outside for anywhere between 20 and 100km.  The things people recommended I do – mainly winery tours – were outside the city, and when I looked at the things for which you can book a day trip I wasn’t overly excited.  Most of them seemed to involve travelling an hour or so to a place where there really wasn’t very much, and none of them interested me.  Even the winery tours didn’t appeal for two reasons.  Firstly, wine in wineries is no cheaper in Australia than it is in a supermarket, which defeats the primary purpose of going on a winery tour: to get pissed cheaply on good wine.  And secondly, I’m moving to Paris in a few weeks where I will be drinking good wine until it comes out of my ears at a fraction of Australian prices, and likely doing plenty of winery tours over the course of the next couple of years where the wine is practically free.  So it wasn’t something I felt a real urge to undertake when in Adelaide.

Just to ensure that my trip didn’t just consist of me getting totally pissed and going to the cinema, I took a stroll down to the river, opposite the Adelaide oval which is undergoing renovations.  I was tempted to hire a pedal boat in the absence of anything else to do, but they were sorry looking things and customers were not allowed to take them out of sight of the hire point.  Then I looked at doing what was advertised as a river cruise, but when I enquired what there was to look at the best I could hope for was “grassy banks”.  Not even a kangaroo or a bunch of convicts.  The park area along the river was quite nice though, and I took a few photos mainly to justify having lugged the camera with me from Melbourne.

IMG_2621IMG_2626IMG_2627IMG_2628 I suppose it was a Sunday afternoon, but there really didn’t seem to be much going on.  My walk back to the city centre took me through the university campus where there were flyers advertising some Marxist snoozefest of the type which has been a stock feature of university campuses across the western world for about 5 generations now.  IMG_2629A Marxism conference promising “ideas to challenge the system”.  Really?  New ideas these, are they?  You’ve got to hand it to these lefties, they don’t give up.  A resilient bunch, and each generation seems to put forward enough numbers to pick up where the last lot left off.

I briefly went into the Museum of South Australia which, from what I could tell, was a museum of whale bones and Pacific Island cultures, before giving up on finding anything else of interest and going home.  Aside from a passable Indian curry that evening and the flight back to Melbourne, that was pretty much Adelaide for me.  Not really worth the trip on the face of it, but I did need to get out of Melbourne and get my mind off some serious work issues, and the night on the piss with my new friend in the Woolshed adequately served that purpose.  So I’m glad I went.

Last Month in Australia

At some point in January I will be leaving Melbourne and moving to a new assignment in Paris, where I expect to be for the next 2-3 years.  It was always expected that my assignment to Melbourne would be short-term, with the work here due to finish in early 2014, although I would have liked to have stayed another 6 months or so to enjoy the warm weather (which has finally arrived) and a bit more sailing.  Apparently you can sail on the Seine, but you need to tack an awful lot.

With the exception of the sailing, which has been brilliant, I’ll not be too sorry to leave Melbourne.  I suspect my view of the place was tainted with difficulties I had at work, to put it mildly, and this is quite often the case: my view of somewhere largely depends on how happy I am in general, and on international work assignments this is inseparable from the situation at work.  For this reason, and for the fact that I arrived in winter when it was cold and wet, I am probably judging Melbourne a little harshly and I advise readers not to listen to my views on the city too closely, but I generally found it overrated, ridiculously expensive, geographically isolated, and quite dull.  I’ve previously gone into detail about what I liked and didn’t like about Melbourne and I’ll not bother to repeat it here, but it’s not a city I’d make any effort to come back to – even if it wasn’t 22 hours from Europe.  I’m not even sure I’d come back to Australia, to be honest.  If I was based in Thailand or Singapore then there’s a good chance I’d fly down for a week or two to see some people or maybe dive the Great Barrier Reef, but I’d not be flying long-haul for a holiday here, and I’ve got no interest in looking for work in Perth, Brisbane, or any of the other oil and gas centres.  Australia, despite the insistence of practically everyone I’ve ever met that things would be to the contrary, just didn’t really do it for me.

However, I enjoyed my visit to Sydney and I have decided to make the most of what time I have left here to do weekend trips to Adelaide and Hobart.  The latter I will be visiting between 27th and 31st December, the flights for which I booked completely forgetting that Hobart is the (fairly obvious) finishing point of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, which takes place between Boxing Day and about 28th-29th December.  For a member of the Royal Melbourne Yacht Squadron to forget this is pretty damned slack, and I was punished accordingly when I found a solitary hotel room left available in Hobart for the period of my stay, which is going to cost me just shy of $1,500 for 4 nights.  The good news is I ought to be able to access the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania thanks to the reciprocal rights I enjoy through my own club, so expect to see me propping up the bar listening to stories of the race from salty old sea dogs.  Then it’ll be back to Melbourne for New Year’s Eve.

A Decade in Exile

On June 12th 2003 I was sent on my first overseas business trip to Oman, via the United Arab Emirates, and never really came back.  I consider myself to have emigrated on this date, even if the practical arrangements were sorted out back in the UK over 2 weeks in the following August.

Since then I have:

  • Visited 35 countries, 19 of them at somebody else’s expense.
  • Made 192 international border crossings.
  • Worked for 5 companies, been fired from 1.
  • Held a work permit in 4 countries, lived in 5.
  • Learned 2 languages (one to a basic level, the other to intermediate).
  • Got platinum membership with both a major airline and a major hotel chain.
  • Made some cash.

Sometimes it has been brilliant, sometimes it has been utter shite.  One must take the rough with the smooth.

Baltic Trip Part 5 – Vilnius

To travel from Riga to Vilnius I once again booked a seat on the Lux Express bus, costing me 23 Euros and taking four and a half hours.  The bus was identical to the one which carried me from Tallinn to Riga, and once again the atmosphere, for the first hour or two, was not tranquil.  Some utter penis was on the bus in the form of a middle-aged man who looked every inch the stereotypical Jewish guy who still lives with his mum.  He was bald, had milk-bottle glasses, and was wearing Ugg boots with his jeans tucked into them.  If he wasn’t still a virgin then I’m the Queen of Sheba.  Anyway, no sooner had we set off when he made a series of long phone calls, some personal and some work related, during which he bellowed in Russian at the top of his voice.  You couldn’t hear yourself think, and I was unfortunate enough to be sat opposite him.  This went on for well over an hour, him treating the bus like his office and yelling down the phone without an iota of consideration for anyone else.  The only other passenger at the rear half of the bus (in the first class section) was a Swedish lady who didn’t seem bothered, or was too polite to show it.  I put up with it for about forty five minutes before I gathered my stuff and stomped off to the back of the bus and as far away as I could get in lieu of punching him in the side of his fucking head.  Once I couldn’t hear him so much, I calmed down and enjoyed the rest of the journey.

As with the last bus ride there wasn’t much to see, and again the most interesting thing was whizzing past the old border control buildings and checkpoints as we crossed into Lithuania.  It was dark by the time we reached the outskirts of Vilnius, and we passed one or two giant shopping centres before the coach pulled up in a sizeable bus station and we all got out.  It took a few minutes to find a cash machine (Lithuania has its own currency as well, Litas, which are about 3.45 to the Euro) and then another few to find the nearby taxi stand, during which time I was joined by the Swedish lady from the bus who was as unfamiliar with the place as I was.  I jumped in a taxi, and asked what language the driver spoke.  It turned out he preferred Russian, which apparently is pretty common for taxi drivers in Vilnius, with a lot of them coming from Belarus.  So off we went to the Novotel situated just on the edge of the old town, but on the other side from the bus station.  it was about 5pm, and for the first time since I’d left St. Petersburg I saw traffic, and we were stuck in it.  Fortunately, my driver must have learned his trade in 1990s Russia because he mounted pavements, jumped lights, and went the wrong way down streets, huffing and puffing and swearing in Russian.  It was all very nostalgic.  Even with the traffic (which, to be honest, wasn’t a patch on traffic you’d find anywhere else) we got there in about 30 minutes, and I went to check in.  Thanks to several lengthy business trips and the Accor hotel group, by virtue of their being French, being the preferred hotel chain of my employer I hold Platinum membership at the Novotel which means I am likely to get an upgraded room if I ask for one.  So I did and I got it, and damned nice it was too!

My room overlooked a large square boxed in by official-looking buildings, and beyond to a reasonably sized city which had several modern office towers and other modern buildings, with a row of small hills in the background.

Vilnius 01Looking out of the window and driving from the bus station, I got the impression that Vilnius was much larger and more modern than Riga, although it turns out that Riga has the larger population.  Nevertheless, Vilnius looks and feels more like a medium sized metropolis of the sort you can find anywhere in Europe.  Indeed, it didn’t feel uniquely Baltic in the way Tallinn or Riga did, and seemed more mainstream European.  All the usual retail outlets were there, including a Marks & Spencer, and it looked as though investment was not as limited to Scandinavians and Finns.  Whereas Tallinn was a small medieval city, and Riga was an industrial city with a strong bar, club, and backpacker scene, it was harder to pin any particular label on Vilnius.  As I say, it was more like a mainstream European town, and you’d have to look pretty hard to find any evidence the Soviets were ever there.  Admittedly I didn’t explore much outside the old town and the area immediately north of it where my hotel was located, so maybe I missed something.  But what it did have in common with the other Baltic States was that it was clean, organised, cheap, and safe and a very pleasant place to spend a few days.  It was also bloody freezing.

It had occured to me that I hadn’t really gone out and enjoyed myself (meaning, get blind drunk) since I left St. Petersburg, tending to hang around quiet-ish bars and strike up conversations.  So when I saw Vilnius had a hustle and bustle about it which I hadn’t seen in Tallinn or Riga, I decided it was high time I checked out a club or two.  Sitting in my hotel room and skimming the internet, I discovered a club called Tamsta on the other side of the old town which is a dedicated live music venue and came well recommended.  There are usually established bands playing at the weekends, but Wednesdays was apparently an open mic night, so I thought I’d go down and check out the local amateur musicians.  As you may have gathered from my last night in Tallinn, I like this kind of thing.  To get there I had to walk about 25 minutes through the old town, keeping an eye on the GPS to navigate the narrow streets.

The old town of Vilnius is nice, lots of narrow streets giving onto squares with churches, an old university, or the town hall.

Vilnius 02It was not as quaint as the old towns of Tallinn and Riga, and modern buildings had crept in to a much greater extent, although in a tasteful manner (with some exceptions).  There was plenty of snow lying around, and often I had to walk in the road as the pavements were either too narrow or blocked altogether.  By the time I went out, the traffic had mostly died down, but there were still noticeably more cars than I’d seen in the other cities.  I was feeling hungry, and so when I happened to pass by a restaurant called Meat Lovers, I decided to give it a try.  It turns out this place is fairly well known, and it was pretty good.  It was almost full, but I persuaded the waitress to allow me to take one of the reserved tables on the condition I was out within an hour.  The menu was on a chalk board on one of the walls and judging by its contents, the place was well named.  I ordered a huge burger of some sort and a large local beer.  The other patrons were, in general, young, attractive, and having fun.

Once fed, I walked across the town hall square and along a very narrow street until, after a bit of looking around, I found the place I was after.  I went inside and paid a tough looking Russian the equivalent of 5 Euros to go inside, and put my coat into the cloakroom.  Finally, I had found a venue with a cloakroom (of sorts).  This was one of only two I saw on my whole trip, both of them in Vilnius.  I continued up some stairs and entered into a purpose-built venue with a stage at one end, a bar running down one wall, lots of chairs and tables in the middle, and a veranda running around two sides.  I headed for the bar.  I asked the barman, in English, to pick a language in which I’d address him from thereon.  He laughed, and said “English, of course.”  Like Latvia, it appears the only people who speak Russian in Lithuania are old or have a Russian parent.  I found that even my attempting to speak it didn’t go down too well on occasion.  So I parked myself at the bar with a drink and waited for the performance.  It was obvious from early on that this wouldn’t be an open mic night as there was a full set of equipment on stage and the place was filling up rapidly.

On the hour, whichever one it was, the curtain was whipped back and a band consisting of middle-aged men launched into some serious rock music to huge cheers from the crowd.  I joined in just for the hell of it.  They belted out a decent rock song, sung in Lithuanian, and went straight into the next one without pausing for breath.  When they stopped to let their front man address the crowd, he did so in Lithuanian, and as such I had not the faintest idea what was being said.  But the music was good, the sort of 80s rock you’d hear the Russian bands such as Mashina Vremeni or DDT play in their early days (although probably not as good).  I noticed the crowd was either folk in their 50s or people in their 20s, with a generation in the middle missed out.  I spent the first set trying to work out if this band was playing its own stuff, because everyone seemed to know the lyrics and was singing along enthusiastically, yet the crowd and venue seemed too small for a famous band.

The answer was supplied between the sets by a chap who I’d heard speaking English at the bar earlier, and so to whom I put the question.  It turned out the band was Poliarizuoti Stiklai (tr. Polarised Glasses) who made it pretty big in Lithuania in the 1980s before tailing off thereafter, but apparently still draw a reasonable following from people who were (presumably) young, drinking, and getting laid during their heyday.  That certainly explained the age of the crowd (the younger lot were probably those who had grown up listening to their dad’s records).  One of their biggest hits, which they played twice for us that night, is in the clip below.

The chap at the bar was an American working for the US embassy in Vilnius and turned out to be a top bloke who invited me to join his table, made up of other embassy staffers.  He told me Vilnius was a pretty good place to be sent with the US diplomatic service because it was quiet, safe, the Lithuanians are generally pro-American, and Vilnius is a fun place to live.  A lot better than Lagos or Islamabad, I’m sure.  Ironically, the lead guitarist of the band was working in the American embassy: when the band declined in the early 90s he figured he needed a more reliable source of income so took a job with the Americans, but still playing with the band once or twice a week.  Because of this connection, one of the Americans from the embassy managed to get himself on stage and sing two songs – Whiskey in the Jar and Everything About You, the only non-Lithuanian songs sung all night – and did an exceptionally good job of it.  It was quite obvious he’d been in a band before, and when I asked him he confirmed as much.  When the second set ended, a good number of the crowd rushed towards the stage to get autographs and photos with the band, so although I suspect their fanbase is small, they still have a passionate following.  For my part, they were well worth the 5 Euro entrance fee.  If I’m ever in Vilnius during one of the summer music festivals, I’ll see them again for sure.

The band wrapped up and everyone started to leave at about midnight.  I left with the Americans, walking with them as far as the town hall square before they left for home (unlike me, they had to work the next day).  However, they did point me in the direction of  a nearby club which was, they said, my best bet for a decent night out.  I was in no mood to go home.  I followed their directions and as I stood outside where I supposed the place to be, a young chap dressed up against the cold gave me a big grin and asked if I wanted to go into the strip club in the same building.  I didn’t, but decided to stop and talk to him anyway.  He was a friendly chap, and did his level best to get me inside before admitting, having been prompted by me, that the place was empty, the drinks extortionate, and the girls very, very ordinary.  He was one of the few people I met in Vilnius who spoke Russian, and we chatted for a while.  He said the club I was heading to was good but empty, and I’d be better off coming back in an hour or so.  He pointed to a bar across the square and recommended it as a good enough spot to wait, and suggested he might be in the club once his pimping duties wound up and we could get a drink.  Which sounded fine by me.

The bar was located only 100m or so away, and it turned out to be full of Russians.  I sat down at one of the only free tables, right in the middle of the room, and took in various couples or small groups of youngish people enjoying what looked to be the last of several drinks (most of them had got up and left within 30 minutes of my arrival, I hope not on my account).  They all looked a bit rough, as in not too polished, an image not helped when a group of two Russian couples came in with one of the girls wearing what looked like a set of pink pyjamas.  At best it was a fluffly aerobics tracksuit, although God knows why she was wearing it to a bar.  Still, it wasn’t a bad place to swallow vodka and coke for an hour while I was waiting for the club to fill up.

I eventually wandered over at some hour which might have been 1am.  You tend to lose track of the hours when it gets dark at 4pm.  Salento, as the club was called, was much like any mainstream club you’d find in Russia or elsewhere in continental Europe, with the same music you can hear anywhere.  It wasn’t busy, maybe 40 people in a club which could take four or five times that number, and most of them were young girls in their 20s, dancing badly in groups.  For my part, I headed straight to the bar and started drinking vodka and coke.  I think it was quite cheap, but by the time I figured out what this Lithuanian money was worth I was back in Nigeria and by then I didn’t care.  I know I went out with a fistful of notes, anyway.  I’d not been at the bar long, not long enough to finish my first drink anyway, when I started talking to a girl stood nearby and who, she told me later, thought I was a local.  I blame the haircut and underfed look.

Sadly I wasn’t a local and instead she found herself talking to a Brit who lives in Nigeria.  She had dropped into the club out of boredom, I think, after having been out buying groceries, including a jar of olives which she still had with her.  She was intent on dancing to every other tune, during which I remained rooted to my place at the bar and drank.  But she was matching me drink for drink.  More people arrived, but people were leaving at the same rate, meaning there was a steady turnover of people and the place never filled up.  There were still quite a few young women, and several men in their 30s, including an Italian who was absolutely enormous and looked as though he’d take ages to beat up.  Fortunately that wasn’t necessary (never mind doable) as his brief conversation with me was friendly enough.  I didn’t budge for hours, never stepping onto the dance floor save for once brief and misguided instant, and just ordered drink after drink and Rasa, my friend with the jar of olives, kept pace with me right up to me leaving sometime around 4 or 5am.  At some point I ran out of money, but Vilnius being civilised and not full of thieving bastards, I was able to pay by credit card.  Only in order to avoid the transaction fee, I decided it was better to buy four drinks at once.  I vaguely remember the walk back to the hotel through streets narrow, twisting, and frozen, although how I navigated them is anyone’s guess.  The streets were utterly deserted, quite unsurprisingly, so I couldn’t have asked for directions.  At any rate, I had fulfilled my mission to find a club and get hammered.  And I never did see the pimp again.

By this time, I had had enough of doing touristy stuff, such as wandering around old towns taking photos (which is why I have so few of Vilnius).  So I decided to relax and, also because my head was pounding from the night before and it was afternoon anyway, I decided I’d spend what was left of the day in bed.  Only there was some bloke in the square outside busking with a concertina, and the noise of those things could penetrate lead.  On and on he droned and had I a rifle I would have shot him from my window, which would have been a shame because he was very good and he knew a lot of songs.  Only these things aren’t appreciated when they are outside your window and you have a hangover.

When I woke up I found a text message from Rasa asking if I wanted to go to a traditional Lithuanian restaurant that evening.  I did.  So later on I found myself being led sheep-like into a restaurant situated in the basement of what must have been a very old building.  From a small entrance lobby you had to go down a very steep, twisted flight of stairs, ducking under a very low beam, which brought you into a low-ceilinged corridor with several rooms branching off in which the tables and chairs were located.  After a bit of wandering around poking our heads into various rooms (the place was a rabbit warren) we settled on one location where we found a free table and waited a while for the waiter to turn up.  It was all done up in an olden style, but the details escape me.  But it was very nice, only there was no obvious way out if the place decided to suddenly catch fire.  Thinking it unlikely, I didn’t worry about it.

The menu came around and all of it looked good.  It was quite exotic, with most dishes claiming to be the product of a hunter’s encounter with something that moves fast through a forest.  I settled for a soup made from beer followed by wild boar goulash.  I felt like Obelix.  The soup arrived and it was superb, but it was pretty filling (as soups in these sort of countries tend to be), which meant that when the wild boar goulash came around I couldn’t eat much of it.  I was terribly disappointed because it was really, really nice.  I don’t think I’ve ever been more upset about not being able to eat something before.  The whole lot was washed down with a fine Lithuanian beer which, according to the menu, comes from a brewery in Klaipėda which was set up in the late 19th century by a chap called Reinecke, which went a long way to explain its quality.  It was an excellent choice of restaurant.

Afterwards we went to a street full of bars, where Vilnius’ 25-40 crowd was out in force.  There was no shortage of bars, most of them ranging from very busy to packed to the rafters.  We went into one which slotted nicely into the latter category, where I managed to find 2 square feet in which to stand wedged in the corner while Rasa got some drinks in.  Of course, for a bar made for 60 people 3 small coat pegs had been attached to the wall so unless you could find space to add yours to the enormous leather, fur, and nylon tumour that was protruding from the far wall then you had to stand about in your jacket, allowing you to experience how the Michelin Man feels when he takes the London Underground at rush hour.  I stashed mine beside some hippies who were sitting on the windowsill, and eventually stopped complaining.  The crowd was mixed, but one chap I remember, because you see him in every bar in the western world which caters to the thirty-something crowd: thick glasses, a beard, wearing a funky t-shirt, and without a shadow of a doubt in his fourth of fifth “final year” of a music or modern politics degree.  At one point he set off on a quest to find a pen and paper with such determination that I was curious enough to peer over his shoulder to see what he was going to do with them once said objects had been obtained.  He drew a Chad.  We proceeded through another one or two bars of similar nature, and everyone seemed to be having a good time.  Certainly the atmosphere was good, and everywhere was packed.  I went home with the impression that the nightlife in Vilnius is pretty much what you’d find in any decent European city, and there was plenty going on.

In Lithuania I did detect a certain attitude towards Russia (or at least the language and its connotations), but I’d stop short of describing it as hostility.  I was more like “Russia was then, and it was shit, and now we have moved on, and it is better, so why would we be interested in anything Russian?”  And as I neared the end of my trip through the Baltics, I began to think that they might have a point.  I remember years ago talking to an Uzbek girl in a dodgy club in Dubai who complained that the Russians had come to “their country” and taken all the resources, money, etc.  This is hardly a novel complaint, I hear people whining about it all the time (ironically Russians too, in the context of the international oil projects on their territory).  But if you were to take an objective look at what the Soviet Union did for the regions which became the independent Central Asian states, you’d be hard pushed to deny that they didn’t bring with them a lot of development and improvements.  When the Tsarist Russians first moved into what is now Uzbekistan, the place was unbelievably backward.  Petty tyrants ruled small pockets of territory in the manner of medieval lords, often unaware of the regions beyond their borders, until deep into the 19th century.  Literacy, numeracy, and all the other indicators of human development were practically non-existent outside a very select elite.  By the time the Soviets left a hundred and something years later, your average Uzbek, Tadjik, and Kyrgyz was literate, numerate, more often than not well educated, and could expect to live as long as his comrades from the west of the empire.  Secondary industries had been introduced, cities built (and in the case of Tashkent, rebuilt following the earthquake of 1966) which were not exactly modern by western standards but were as good as the Russians enjoyed in Europe, cities equipped with schools, hospitals, universities, and other marks of development and civilisation, from which the population would without question benefit greatly.  Not that I am endorsing the Soviet regime and its policies in Central Asia (many of which brought about abject misery); but that the Russians brought certain, major benefits which the regions would otherwise never have had is to me pretty incontestable.  When you look at their neighbours – particularly Afghanistan – it is hard to imagine that a Central Asia without Russian involvement would have resulted in anything which could be regarded as an improvement on their status in 1990.

But when you look at the Baltics, it is extremely hard to make the same argument.  Had the Soviets not imposed themselves for half a century and more, would independent Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have nonetheless enjoyed the rewards of modern cities, industry, electricity, health, education, and transport systems?  Well, yes they would.  Unlike say Tadjikistan, the development of Lithuania was not dependent on being ruled by a government in Moscow.  Debates may be held over whether the independent Baltic states would have prospered more or less than as part of the USSR, but an independent people free of idiotic communism would unlikely have done much worse.  In my opinion, the Baltic states would have done just fine on their own, even better if they’d formed a loose federation among themselves, and joined Nato and the other European institutions.  I’m sure many Russians, if they were to read this, would point to the Baltics’ lack of resources – meaning oil, gas, and timber – as a reason why they could never have prospered, but that can easily be dismissed by pointing to the fact that Finland had vastly fewer resources than the USSR yet enjoyed a much higher standard of living.  Plus, as a cursory look at Nigeria will tell you, having oil, gas, and other primary resources is not in itself a guarantee of prosperity.  I don’t see any reason why the independent Baltic states could not have developed and prospered along the lines of Denmark, Finland, or Norway following WWII.  And from what I can see, the Baltic people do have a useful resource: themselves.  Small, well-educated populations tend to enjoy high standards of living, as Scandinavia and Finland demonstrate.  And, again from what I can see, the Baltic people tend to have more in common with their western neighbours than Russians in that they don’t seem to fuck each other over at the first opportunity.  When money arrives in a government account in Tallinn, Riga, or Vilnius to fix roads, the roads get fixed (even if perhaps some gets skimmed off).  When money arrives in a government account in Russia to fix roads, the money turns into a fancy dacha for the mayor built in full view of everyone and the roads stay broken.  I’m being a bit simplistic here I know, but I have written at length about the importance of trust in making a country rich, and I don’t believe that the Baltic states are cursed with the same degree of corruption, bureaucracy and greed which has perpetually condemned Russia to fall way short of its potential.  Interestingly, I reckon that the Russian populations of the Baltics would realise this very quickly were they to ever be transplanted to Russia, and would likely find they have more in common with the non-Russians they left behind than their new Russian neighbours.  I know this was the case for one Russian woman pushed out of Lithuania following independence, and found her new neighbours in Sakahlin to be a pretty hopeless bunch.

In short, the educated child of a Kyrgyz engineer who had been through the Bishkek Academy of Sciences would be hard pushed to claim that he doesn’t, in some small part, owe his status to the Soviet Union.  But it would be very hard to make the claim that the educated child of a Lithuanian engineer would, were it not for the Soviet Union, be eking out a living in the forest and unable to read.  And that, I think, explains the attitude which I felt in Latvia and Lithuania towards Russia and the aspects of Russian culture imported during the Soviet era; it’s not hostility, it is one of utter indifference or, when faced with it, slightly irritated contempt.  The Soviet Russians were never needed or wanted, nothing is owed, they just want to be left alone.  There were no chips on shoulders that I could see.

Estonia is probably the exception because the politics there has made the problem of cultures and identity more acute, but I didn’t see much nationalistic fervour in Latvia or Lithuania.  Certainly they’re a proud enough bunch, but they don’t seem to have adopted the overly patriotic stance of the younger generation of Kazakhs, for example, which seems artificial and ever so slightly forced, as if they are trying too hard.  Quietly confident, they define themselves as who they are rather than who they are not, which was good to see.

Being small countries, the future economic development of the Baltic states will depend on the fortunes of the rest of the world, especially Europe.  But I don’t see any reason why their futures should not be bright, with the only dark spot being the identity politics being practiced in Estonia which is driving a wedge between people who, if just left alone, would probably work things out for themselves.

As for Vilnius, it is a city in which Europeans would perhaps find it easier to live than Riga or Tallinn, it being (seemingly) larger and more cosmopolitan than the others.  I’m sure I’ll go back to Lithuania as I would like to go to the Curonian Spit, for no other reason than it looks interesting, a bit like the Outer Banks of North Carolina or the lagoons at the north end of Sakhalin Island.  And I’d like to go to Klaipėda, probably at the same time, for the single reason that a terrible battle was fought there in the closing months of WWII, when the town was called Memel, and is described in harrowing detail in The Forgotten Soldier which I read in my teens and never forgot.

But – and I think you’ve all got the message by now – I’ll make sure I go in summer.