Csíkszereda Musings

My life in and around Csíkszereda, also known as Miercurea Ciuc.

Archive for December, 2007

Compliments of the Season

Posted by Andy Hockley on 23 December, 2007

Eid Mubarak, Crăciun fericit, and Boldog Új Évet. I’m off line for the next two weeks, enjoying the festive fun and frolics with various families in Marosvasarhely, Cambridge, and elsewhere. Normal infrequent blogging will resume in 2008. Cheers to all, and have a good holiday

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Dracula

Posted by Andy Hockley on 20 December, 2007

I had been meaning to re-read Dracula for ages. It was probably 20 years ago when I first read it, and ever since I moved to Transylvania I thought I should probably re-read it since it is basically the only reason that anyone from outside of Hungary and Romania has even heard of Transylvania.

So anyway I read it again last week, and it’s bloody brilliant. I remember enjoying it and thinking it was a cracking read when I read it before, and I’m not usually a fan of literature from before 1900 (though to be fair Dracula was written in 1897 so it’s not that far off).

Anyway, on to my first major surprise of the book – that is when we first meet Count Dracula in his castle on the Borgo pass between Bistrita and Bukovina. Jonathan Harker (our hero) journeys from Budapest to Cluj and on to Bistrita before heading into the pass, passing as he does various ethnic groups on the way – Saxons, Szekelys, Magyars, and “Wallachs” in the main, but he also mentions “Slovaks” who actually sound very much like the Gabor clan of Rroma from his description, and Szgany (obviously a corruption of Cigany/Tigani) . Anyway, we meet Count Dracula, who is in fact a Szekely! This is not something I had remembered (to be honest when I read the book before, I’d never heard of the Szekely and it would have flown right over my head). He launches into this big speech about the heroism and bravery of the Szekely. He comes up with some curious historical explanation of the Szekely as being some kind of cross between the Vikings and the Huns, and then launches into a list of the invaders and foes they had beaten back – Magyars, Turks, Bulgars, Lombards, Wallachs, and Avars (whoever they are).

“Ah, young sir, the Szekelys – and the Dracula as their heart’s blood, their brains and their swords – can boast a record that mushroom growths like the Hapsburgs and the Romanoffs can never reach”

Just in case there are Szekelys reading this (and I know there are) who are now getting a tad upset that this infamous anti-hero is a Szekely, I should point out that he it was because he was such a great leader, and a strong and intelligent warrior when he was alive that he is so powerful and successful a vampire once he became un-dead. At least that’s what it says in the book.

So anyway, I’m not going to retell the book, but I thought I’d do a little bit of digging into how Stoker came to write this novel and set it where he did, with the characters that he did. Firstly it’s not thought that he ever visited Transylvania, he just spent a lot of time in the library doing research. He apparently first thought about setting the novel in Austria, but was told that it might be too close to another vampire novel called “Carmilla” set in France, so he decided to relocate it to Transylvania. (Though in fact very little happens in Transylvania in the book – just the opening and closing. The rest is in Whitby and (mostly) London).

The character of Dracula himself is often thought to be have been based on Vlad Tepes (“the Impaler”) who was also known as Vlad Dracula (son of Dracul). It is now thought that the only thing the character owes to Vlad is the name, and that probably Stoker knew nothing about Vlad Tepes. Another historical character who may or may not have provided some inspiration is a Hungarian countess named Elizabeth Bathory. “The most infamous serial killer in Hungarian and Slovak history”.

The tourist industry of Romania seems to rely very greatly on this one story, which is quite impressive in a way, though extreme lengths are gone to – Bran Castle, which I read somewhere is Romania’s most visited tourist attraction, markets itself as “Dracula’s Castle”, based on the disputed possibility that Vlad Tepes may once have spent the night there. Don’t get me wrong, Bran Castle is a nice place, but it has about as much connection to Dracula as the Sydney Opera House does. Sighisoara, which is Vlad Dracula’s birthplace, is littered with Dracula Internet Cafes and Vampire Coffee Shops. There was even going to be a Dracula themepark outside Sighisoara, which thankfully got nixed. Apparently someone has even built a castle cum hotel on the Borgo pass where they think the castle might have been in the book.

I reckon the Szekelys need to grab a slice of this lucrative pie and set up some “Real Dracula” attractions. There’s money in this myth.

Posted in books, transylvania | 2 Comments »

In a round about way

Posted by Andy Hockley on 14 December, 2007

When I arrived in Romania, which is not that long ago let’s face it, there was, to my knowledge, not a single roundabout in the country. At least I never encountered one. However, in some kind of apparent desperate EU inspired anglophilia, they have been appearing everywhere. I can only imagine that all of Romania’s mayors were taken to England on some kind of junket, and introduced to the smooth and sensible traffic flow of the humble roundabout. And maybe offered EU funds to install roundabouts wherever they could. Now, in Csíkszereda alone there are 5 of them, and I’m guessing more will come. There are even roundabouts where none seem necessary – indeed a couple I’ve seen (in Sinaia and Cluj) seem designed to merely slow the traffic down, like a particularly elaborate and expensive sleeping policeman.

There is still some way to go before the cult of the roundabout reaches English proportions (anyone doubting their ubiquity in the UK ought to drive the ten miles from Luton Airport to Hitchin, whence one spends more time circling a central island than one does actually driving in a straight line).

Maybe this is something to do with me. My last residence, Brattleboro, Vermont, USA installed one while I was there too, much to everyone’s confusion. Am I the vector carrying these roundabouts, like some kind of virus? Where else have I infected?

I have to say though, that the locals here have adapted much faster to these alien traffic moderators that Vermonters did, where for months and years afterwards, the benefits of the roundabout as a traffic flow system were outweighed by the utter chaos that accompanied its existence. Indicating seems to present a particular challenge to the unwary driver – especially the need to indicate left when one’s first turn is to the right.

Still, it’s a rum do. I’d love to know what was the spur for this mushrooming of the roundabout.

Posted in csikszereda | 1 Comment »

Uninteresting miscellany

Posted by Andy Hockley on 13 December, 2007

Just discovered through a friend that the Romanian Orthodox Church in London (which actually exists inside another church called St Dunstans) is led by the marvellously named Father Pufulete. A pufulete is a kind of repulsive puffed corn snack that dissolves into dust in your mouth. They are very popular in Romania for some unknown reason (though it is quite amusing to put a couple in your mouth and then say “pufulete” since it occasions hilarious amounts of corn and additive dust exploding into the air around your mouth).

Just in case you don’t believe me: Romanian Orthodox Church in London (scroll down about 1/3rd of the way on the left hand side under contact details). Pufuleti (that’s more than one pufulete) as reported upon by Sean Romerican, sadly no longer with us (he’s not dead, just living in Texas, which to an non-Texan sounds almost worse).

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Reforming Paula

Posted by Andy Hockley on 11 December, 2007

I’m quite sure there’s some pithy quote that is used to make it clear that children are destined to repeat their parents’ lives, or mistakes, or something. Anyway, assuming there is, it would be very apposite here, if only I knew what it was.

When I was very young, and I mean very young, way too young for me to have any memory of it, I was christened in the Church of England. (Christened is the CofE word for “baptised” – I’ve no idea why they use a different word). Anyway this christening came about despite my parents being avid non-church goers, because my (also non-church going) grandmother kind of pressured them into doing it, since it was traditional and the thing you did and anyway what would the neighbours say? So I was carted along, had my head washed a bit, and was granted some kind of curious non-blood relationship with some of my parents’ friends. Having come out of the church, they (my parents that is) turned to each other and vowed never to do that again with any future children as they didn’t believe a word of what had passed for the ceremony. Hence neither of my brothers were christened (much to my grandmother’s disgust and trauma and fear that whole country were talking about us).

When Paula was born, Erika and I briefly pondered getting her baptised, but since neither of us ever go to church or have a religion to call our own, this seemed a little bit silly. Plus we live in the 21st century and not the 15th, and so were not living in fear that Paula’s soul would somehow be forever in limbo unless some bloke in funny clothes put some water on her. But, increasingly we too became aware of grandparently pressure which was gradually being ratcheted up. This despite the grandparent in question (my mother in law) also, like my grandmother before her, not having set in foot in a church for as long as anyone could remember. Last weekend, with my mother in law fairly unwell, we decided to go ahead and perform this meaningless act, as a kind of get-well soon present.

So we fixed up with the priest (when I say we, I mean of course Erika, who takes care of most things that involve language beyond basic shopping vocabulary) to have the ceremony. We went for the Hungarian Reformed Church (since the other two options available in Csikszereda are Roman Catholic – and they are way too serious and would probably need some kind of conversion from me to agree to it – or Romanian Orthodox – which is kind of out of the question for many reasons). I’m not entirely sure what the Hungarian Reformed church is, dogmatically speaking. I don’t really understand all the various gradations of protestantism, but I think the Hungarian Reformed Church is Calvinist (though since I have no idea what “Calvinist” means, that’s not much use).

The Hungarian Reformed Church, as I discovered when we entered, is very Hungarian. By which I mean it has all the Hungarian paraphernalia on the walls, the red white and green banners and so on, and the priest was the most Hungarian looking man I’ve ever seen – the big moustache, the works. He should really have entered the church on a horse wearing a wide brimmed hat for the full effect.

Paula, of course, was restless and bored. We quickly discovered why people tend to baptise their kids when they are very young – they may cry, but they don’t try running all over the church. As the aforementioned moustachioed priest stepped up the pulpit, she looked up from whatever piece of dirt/hymn book/protruding nail she was focussing on and shouted out “Bácsi! Mit Csinálsz?” (roughly – at least as far as Paula is concerned – “What are you doing, old man?”). The service was, fortunately, mercifully short (another reason to favour the HRC over the Catholic and the Orthodox), and before long we were up the front going through the ritual motions. I have no idea what exactly I agreed to, but since I don’t believe in any of it, that doesn’t seem terribly relevant. An oral agreement is not worth the paper it’s written on. Paula took the opportunity of a break in proceedings while the priest told us our sacred duties or read out his shopping list or just talked about the weather for all I know, to scarper up the stairs to the pulpit itself, so I had to go and rescue/capture her. She was a bit stunned when he actually blessed her, which seemed to take the form of him spreading his arms wide, looming over her, and letting out an odd kind of barking sound in the manner of someone attempting to scare away a mountain lion, but she got over that quickly.

After the service, and after I had handed over a small envelope containing our donation (most transactions in Romania seem to end in this way – even going to the doctor) we repaired to our flat for a traditional slap up feast and traditional slap up palinka with the various new godparents, and other assorted hangers on.

The only negative side to the whole thing (as with more or less anything that involves organised religion) is that because there’s all this dogma and tradition involved, there are myriad opportunities to offend. Which we inevitably have unwittingly done and have pissed off about three separate groups of friends who felt that they should have been godparents. So what started out as a nice gesture to cheer up an ailing grandmother, has turned into some kind of icy friendship wasteland (a friendship tundra?). Obviously this is not the fault of religion or the church per se, but it does seem to match up with most of the problems that the church does create. Rigid adherence to arcane rules and bizarre practices, causing conflict and tension.

Anyway, just as Tőkés László is always referred to as a reformed bishop, Paula can now be referred to as a reformed toddler. Mind you, I have to say that she never stuck lego up her nose before she was baptised. There’s got to be some kind of message in that.

Posted in paula | 7 Comments »

The Sodden Road to Samarkand

Posted by Andy Hockley on 10 December, 2007

We had one day off in Uzbekistan, so my colleague George and I decided to go to Samarkand. It is obviously one of the things that nearly everyone who goes to Uzbekistan as a tourist goes to see, and I’d heard enough about it to really want to go (though when you get to Uzbekistan, everyone tells you that Khiva and Bukhara are even more beautiful – but we didn’t have the time to get to either of those).

We took the early morning train from Tashkent, which in itself was an experience. In our first class compartment (which only had us in it) was a tea set all laid out. We had a kind of train-stewardess who came round from time to time to check that we were OK but as we didn’t have any common language it was difficult to have any meaningful conversation and it wasn’t really possible to actually make use of her services (and to be honest we didn’t really work out until the end of the return journey that what she was asking us were questions about our well-being and needs). She did come by and turn the TVs on in the carriage though so we could be assailed by pop music and subsequently the execrable post-Bean “Johnny English” film badly dubbed into Russian. After we’d booked the train, one or two people had told us that we should have gone by taxi since the road went through the mountains and was beautiful whereas the railway line didn’t and wasn’t. We still thought it would be a fascinating landscape, since it would be our first glimpse of Uzbekistan beyond Tashkent. We were wrong and they were right. Flat featureless and scrubby would be the best way of describing it. Someone in Tashkent had struggled to come up with an adjective and had settled on “grey”. It was apt.

Sadly, this one day off happened to be the only one during our stay which featured bad weather, and as we got closer to Samarkand, the already grotty conditions deteriorated, until it was just grey, pouring with rain, and utterly miserable. And bitterly cold, as we found out when we stepped out of the warm train onto the platform. We were met by Dilya, our guide, a very nice Tatar woman, who proceeded to take us round the sites. Unfortunately while she was all wrapped up warm and had an umbrella we (and in particular I) were ill prepared for this English weather, and were not really enthused about standing around in the cold and wet, while we learned about the history of Samarkand. I had to keep asking her if we could go and stand out of the rain as she told us about the mausoleum of Tamurlane or the Registan. It’s difficult to fully enjoy and appreciate the majesty of some of these buildings, when you’re freezing your arse off and getting soaked. At one point George, who is diabetic, needed to urgently raise his blood sugar level, so we asked Dilya if there was a café nearby. There was in one of the madrassahs of the Registan, and this small cozy warm place was possibly my best memory of what is probably, seen in better conditions, one of the wonders of the world. While the Registan is possibly the most famous place in Samarkand, my favourite place (and not just because the rain had eased off by this time) was the Shah-i-Zinda cemetery. A stunningly beautiful place.

We had been disappointed originally that we would only get to spend the day in Samarkand and not be able to see it at more leisure, but in the end, we were quite glad to get back to the station at the end of the day, and reboard the same train that had brought us there – with the same staff. This time though, we had company in the compartment. Three women (and subsequently one bloke who we think was probably drafted in to act as so kind of impromptu chaperone for the women). The young one, Nargiza, spoke fairly good English and we learned that she was travelling to Tashkent with her mother-in-law and aunt (the other two) to visit her husband. It was quite a weird conversation as she was obviously friendly and eager to practice her English, but was (despite her marital status) extremely young (at least to old men like us), and the conversation had to bear up under the strain of two strong cultural differences – the first, the Uzbek/British one, being actually interesting and worth investigating, and the second, the teenage girl/middle-aged men one, being somewhat more insurmountable. Her mother-in-law seemed like a right battleaxe, and re-reading “Murder in Samarkand” I was reminded of these two when Murray describes the life of virtual slavery that young girls enter into for their in-laws when they marry in Uzbekistan. Many young married women in Samarkand attempt suicide every year, by the method of dousing themselves in flaming cooking oil. It is an intensely sobering thought.

This time round we were served a diet of Uzbek movies on the TV, all of which seemed to have the theme of puppy love and people pining for the traditional life of the countryside. The love stories also were all based around the city boy/country girl (or vice versa) intrigue. They weren’t exactly too difficult to follow despite the language issue.

When we arrived, Nargiza and family invited us to her husband’s house to have a tea, in typically hospitable Uzbekistan style, but we declined citing another appointment. It was very nice to be invited, but we felt we had gone about as far as the conversation could possibly have gone in the 4 hour train journey, and extending it didn’t seem like something that would be greatly enjoyable for either party, really.

Here are some pics of Samarkand, in the grey and wet weather.

Your correspondent, looking bedraggled and freezing in the RegistanOne of the Madrassahs in the Registan. For an idea of scale look at the two women huddled under an umbrella in the foreground. (For more info about the Registan, check out the wiki page)

Madrassah detail, with autumn tree for photographic effect

Yet more Registan pictures. I had by now managed to find a place sheltered from the rain to take these shots. Note all the tile work on the big building ahead and the pillar in the foreground. Much of this is not original, sadly, but reconstructed during Soviet times after a big earthquake in 1966. However the reconstruction was, as far as I can tell, extremely faithful to the original, and they did a fantastic job of it. It must have cost a fortune.

Inside one of the madrassahs (behind one of those massive facades that face on to the square. The doorway on the lower right led to the wonderful cozy cafe that nourished my need for temporary warmth and dryness.

The ceiling inside one of the buildings of the Registan. It’s not really a full on dome, they just decorated it to make it look that way. There were something like 15 kgs of gold used in the reconstruction work. Apologies for slight fuzziness, I needed to turn off the flash to get a good shot

Detail of the wall inside the mausoleum of Tamurlane / Timur (this bloke)

More from the same mausoleum (wiki page)
The Bibi Khanym mosque (wiki page)

Samarkand bazaar. Dried fruits and nuts are the big thing in Uzbekistan. You might almost say they are Uzbekistan’s raisin d’etre. (Sorry. Couldn’t help myself)

Girl and bread. This round bread is very typical of Uzbekistan. The ritual around breaking it is quite formalised.
What the fashionable man about Samarkand is wearing this season.

The Shah-i-Zinda necropolis. This street wends its way between amazing mausoleum after amazing mausoleum. It’s an amazing place. (Wiki page)

Posted in travel | 2 Comments »

A Sense of Humor

Posted by Andy Hockley on 7 December, 2007

A few weeks ago during my lengthy blogless phase, Erika and I went to a meeting in Iasi (in Moldavia in the east of Romania). I’d been to Iasi a few times before, and I like the place – it has a very interesting history, and seems to be in many ways the traditional centre of Romanian literature and “high culture” (along with another city the name of which escapes me which is actually now in Ukraine). On this trip, though, while we did get to sample the delicious Sapte Coline, we managed to get out of the city and take a trip to visit a couple of the famous painted monasteries of Bucovina.

On the way from Iasi you actually get a further sense of how Romania plays host to many different ethnic groups – we drove through one town that has a significant Lipovan community (Russians who I’d thought only really live in the Danube Delta), another that contained more of the amazing houses that wealthy Rroma build, and a third which actually is a Polish town (dating back from when a group of them came to that town to mine salt some centuries back).

Eventually we reached Bucovina, which is an area very reminiscent of Maramures, very beautiful houses, traditional lifestyle, gentle rolling hills etc. We headed for Gara Humorului, and thence to the village of Voroneţ , which is the location of one of the most beautiful of these monasteries.

Voroneţ is an amazing place. I’d seen pictures, but seeing it in the flesh (as it were) is pretty extraordinary. This is a monastery which was painted on the outside 400 years ago (so that the congregation who couldn’t fit in the church would get a kind of picture of what was going on inside. A kind of 17th century close circuit TV.) Nothing so amazing about that, perhaps, except that all these years later through 400 years of weather, the paintings are still there.

Latterly, after a huge and amazing Moldovan lunch, we also visited a similar monastery at Humor (hence the post title – I presume you didn’t really think I’d forgotten to put the “u” in did you?). That one was less impressive, but still fascinating.

Not much I can add, really, so I’ll do so through pictures:

Voroneţ monastery in all its finery. It wasn’t very sunny, I’m afraid, otherwise you might get a better impression of the vibrant colours

Plato and Aristotle, not characters often featured in biblical texts, but important because they were seen as vital pieces of the European (and hence Christian) tradition

One whole wall of the church is given over to this epic mural showing this kind of red chasm running between the people who’ve made it into heaven on the left and those who haven’t on the right. Here we see Moses attempting to persuade the Jews ands the Turks over that line. Not very PC I’m afraid

Not quite sure exactly what is going on here, but I think that little white bloke emerging from the child’s mouth (you may need to click on the picture to be able to see him) is supposed to be his soul

Here we see the signs of the zodiac. Apparently these monks/priests/whoever were not averse to throwing in any other superstition that came to mind. Or perhaps it was just a ruse to keep the punters coming. Yes, yes yes, we’ll save your souls and tell you your horoscope. Two for the price of one.

A more modern hand painted mural in the village of Voroneţ. Wonder if this one will last quite as long?

Posted in romania, travel | 2 Comments »

Train travel in Romania

Posted by Andy Hockley on 7 December, 2007

You may be wondering why, after a short silence, I posted two things yesterday within about ten minutes of each other. This is because I was stuck on the train journey from hell, and had lots of time to write blog posts. Bucharest to Miercurea Ciuc is approximately 250kms. Yesterday by train it took me 12 hours from getting on a train in Bucharest’s Gara de Nord to stepping off the train in Csikszereda station. That’s not terribly fast. I am a pretty even tempered person, but towards the end of this marathon I felt like I was about to explode (not helped by the fact that the train I was on was like an oven, and nobody would let me open a window since the biggest fear of any Romanian is that of drafts. If a future president wants to whip up support for an invasion of Moldova or somewhere, he or she would only need to imply that the government of that country were planning on exposing Romanians to cold drafts of air, perhaps by installing fans on the border. Forget WMDs.

Anyway some tips about travelling on trains in Romania

Different train types: There are a number of different types of trains in Romania. The lowest level is the “P” which stands (amusingly) for “personal” These trains are old, rickety, and stop everywhere – even in the middle of fields in the middle of nowhere. Above this are the trains marked “A” on the timetable – Accelerat. Slightly faster than Personals (they only stop at every second hut), they actually appear to be dying out to be replaced by ever increasing number of “R” trains – Rapid. These trains are often actually very new and modern stock. Clean, fast-ish, and with fully functional heating/air conditioning, many people will rave about the “blue arrow” for example, as being the evidence that Romania (and the CFR) has entered the 21st century. You should be careful though – these modern trains have absolutely no leg room and have obviously been designed for amputees or 4-year old children. Anyone taller than 5 foot/1.5 metres will find their journey to be painfully uncomfortable. On arrival you will need at lest 20 minutes of exercises in order to be able to fully uncurl your body. The Personal trains, despite other drawbacks are much more comfortable. Finally there is the Intercity “IC” trains, which combine the best bits of the rapids (fast, clean, functioning systems) with the advantages of the personals (legroom and comfortable seats). Sadly there are very few such trains, and there is a corresponding price hike for such things.

Heating on trains: You will quickly become aware that in winter the trains are seriously overheated (and in summer they’re just hot anyway). The heating is cranked up to the max (actually that implies that there are settings beyond “on” and “off” which I suspect there aren’t), and you will sweat buckets. You will of course want to open a window. This will either prove impossible (since most of them apparently don’t open) or will create huge problems (as everyone will complain). Romanians hate cold air, or drafts of any kind. Take a look at old people in the winter and you will often note that they have cotton wool in their ears as a further barrier to the evils of drafts (or of hearing anything). Opening a train window is like standing up in the carriage and saying that you a paedophile. Erika tells me that this is because people were cold and shivering for so many years under Ceausescu that they cannot forget and would rather swelter in stinking trains than be reminded of that time by feeling a breath of air. Which actually seems quite logical, although even young people who cannot possibly remember that time do it too.

(By the way, on our summer holidays I worked out what the British equivalent to the fear of cold is – it’s the fear of too much sun. While I was panicking around Paula, making she had sunscreen on and trying to keep her in the shade for a while so she didn’t get sunstroke, everybody else was relaxing without a care. If I dared to take her out without a hat in a temperature of 15 degrees though, I’d be lynched on the street by concerned mothers. I can safely say though that the British fear of sun is not brought about by too much of it)

Getting up when it is your stop: You will notice that people stand up and put their coats on and take their luggage to the door of the train about 10 or 15 minutes prior to the arrival of the train in their station. I have no idea why, but rest assured you do not need to do the same. If people want to stand by the door, with their coats on (in the sauna like conditions) that’s their business.

Platform/Train incompatibility: You will often notice that the vertical distance between the train and the platform (if there is a platform at all) is quite large, and will necessitate some climbing skills to get in, and an abseiling rope to get out. On Wednesday when I arrived in Bucharest this was reversed and we had to climb up out of the train. Here you can endear yourself to people by offering assistance. The elderly in particular will need to have some aid in getting up and down.

Tickets: I’ve noticed recently that people seem more and more to be buying tickets and not “discreetly” slipping the ticket inspector a small bribe instead. I don’t know whether there’s been some kind of crackdown. For Rapid and Intercity trains you will need to have a seat reservation.

Dangers: I’m told that theft is quite common on trains, and you have to be alert. I have to say I’ve never actually experienced this, but I’m told it’s true, so take this with whatever pinch of salt you need. Sitting near the door of the train, with your bags on the luggage rack is reckoned to be the biggest danger – the thieves get on, grab your bag and jump off just as the train sets off.

Other annoyances: Trains stop for no apparent reason in the middle of nowhere for ages, and you never get any info. This is often because much of the network is single track only, and there are certain places where trains pass each other. If you are on time and the train coming the other way is late, you have to wait until it comes. Thus creating a knock on effect around the system. In this way, trains are very often late. Personal trains are particularly susceptible to this since the thinking appears to be that if you are happy to take a personal you are happy to sit around for ever in a field somewhere.

Remember, despite how I felt last night at about 10pm when I had been travelling for 11 hours, CFR does not actually stand for Complete Fucking Rubbish.

Posted in romania, travel | 9 Comments »

Airports of Europe

Posted by Andy Hockley on 6 December, 2007

Over the course of the last couple of years I have been “fortunate” enough to experience some of Europe’s major airports and thought I should probably compare and contrast them. If you ever have to change planes somewhere in Europe and have any choice about where to do so, this could come in handy. Also if you are involved in any way in airport design or improvement, you could do worse than visiting the first couple of places on this list. The list below is in rough ranking order.

Munich – clean, organised, efficient, well laid out, easy to find your way around, generally a very good airport, with every major facility you could wish for (bar one – there’s no free wi-fi access, which is a feature of a couple of other airports – if they added that it would be a clear winner) 9 out of 10

Vienna – excellent in nearly all regards. And, unlike Munich it has free wi-fi access all over the airport, which is a brilliant idea (see also Istanbul). It has only one major failing – when you enter the departure area you don’t go through any security check, just passport control. This obviously makes your passage into that area much easier, but obviously you still have to go through security somewhere. So at every gate they have a single security machine and set of guards. Of course nobody actually goes to the gate until the flight is called, so when that happens, the entire plane load of people are forced to get into one massive queue to go through security at the same time. It’s a ridiculous system. I have no idea whose brilliant idea it was, but they need to be made to fly in and out of the airport every day until the realise how bloody stupid it is. 8.5 out of 10

Istanbul – free wi-fi, fairly good selection of things to do. But some rubbish features too – the same gate-based security checks, which for whatever reason also involve you switching on your laptop when you pass through – this is the only airport other than those wankers at Tel Aviv that asks you to do this. It’s a pain in the arse. The business lounge is a bit rubbish too, though they’ve recently done it up a bit, so it’s slightly better. 7 out of 10

Prague – some good shops, fairly easy to find your way around. Inoffensive. 6 out of 10

Charles de Gaulle – Bit of a mess really, but a nice building, with very good use of natural light. Not brilliant by any stretch. 4.5 out of 10

Bucharest (Otopeni) – On the plus side, the business lounge is very good. On the minus side, the rest of the airport is pretty bare and functional. Nothing to do to while away the time, and the most overpriced snack bar of any airport in Europe (not in European terms, but in Romanian – charging 10 RON for a cup of coffee is disgusting, frankly, and is the kind of captive-market rip-off that most other airports have thankfully now abandoned). One day, hopefully Henri Coanda will too, but they’ll probably wait for prices in the country as a whole to reach airport levels, rather than daring to reduce theirs. 3.5 out of 10

Barcelona El Prat – great name, rubbish airport. Basically a huge shopping centre, that has planes leaving from it. Nowhere to sit, unfriendly staff, overpriced food/drink. 3 out of 10

Heathrow – Terminals 1-2-3 are horrible. Lots of shops (obviously, this being shopping leisure paradise England™), but always being renovated, uncomfortable, confusing and unhelpful. Terminal 4, to be fair is much better and would probably get a 6 out of 10. The lower the number of terminal the worse the experience. They also have this ridiculous system of calling the gate for the flight only half an hour before it is due to leave, so that the passengers have to then walk for 10 minutes plus to their gate, and thus obviously ensuring that no plane ever leaves on time. 3 out of 10

Amsterdam – I seem to remember a time when Schiphol was viewed as an ultra modern, very good airport. I don’t know when that was, but I’ve always hated it. Uncomfortable, nothing to do, very inhospitable. 2.5 out of 10

Frankfurt – Not just because of my wine theft experience, but because it’s awful – badly designed, ill-signposted, chaotic, dark, dingy and depressing. Everything that Munich is, Frankfurt isn’t. 2 out of 10

Milan Malpensa – God, where to begin. Just an utter utter mess. I can’t think of a single positive thing to say about it. You can see mountains from it. That’s the best I can do. Oh, and it’s better than Moscow. 1 out of 10

Moscow – miserable horrible dark and dank. These are just some of the words I associate with the place. Add to the general ambience the legendary surliness of Russian service staff, magnified to the nth degree by the grimy and inhospitable surroundings. Urrgghh. 0 out of 10

(Outside Europe bonus airport – Dubai. Like Amsterdam there was a time that Dubai airport was seen as the future of airports. Like Amsterdam, if it had better days, they are long gone. Utterly chaotic and overcrowded. 3 out of 10)

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Murder in Samarkand

Posted by Andy Hockley on 6 December, 2007

Some months ago, I read “Murder in Samarkand” which is former British Ambassador Craig Murray’s account of his time in Uzbekistan, his fights against the appalling human rights of the country, and as the book progresses of his fights with the British government who were desperate to get rid of him as he was upsetting Washington’s cozy relationship with the Uzbek regime. I was gripped by the first half (or two thirds ) of the book which melds travelogue, expose of the appalling Karimov regime, and insights into the internal workings of the foreign and commonwealth office, but found myself less enthused by the last third which was mostly about the efforts to get him fired by the Blair government, and was not so much my cup of tea (not that I disbelieved it, obviously Blair and Straw et al are as corrupt and useless as any government Britain has ever had). But on my return from Tashkent, I’ve re-read it with the benefit of a deal more context (I actually wanted to take it with me and read it there, but I feared it would be found at customs and cause difficulties), and now find the whole book riveting (though not what one would call enjoyable, as the content is so distressing).

I think the reason for my initial reaction was that I felt the Karimov regime with its torture, murder, rape and general brutality was much more deserving of attention than what amounted to internal FCO machinations to sack someone they didn’t like. But now, I feel both stories are worth telling and I’m glad he does. Murray is pretty blunt and honest about his own failings as well as everything else, and while at times he doesn’t come across as an especially likeable bloke, he doesn’t try to hide any of that and his book is much more powerful as a result. The weight of the evidence presented in the book and on his website, certainly makes it clear that the UK government acted appallingly and pathetically, while the documentation of some of the hideous crimes of the Uzbekistan government is really important. Anyway, I recommend anyone read it who wants to get a sense of what Uzbekistan is all about, what kind of system it labours under, and what the wider geopolitical implications of the “war on terror” are.

Apparently, the relationship between Karimov and the US has cooled somewhat since the book, mostly it seems because the US dared to make vague criticisms of the government after they massacred hundreds of people during a protest in Andijan. These days, outside interests seem to be mainly Turkish and Russian, though I was supposed to be going there in April and my visa was denied – clearance “coincidentally” only coming through in a week when the EU (at the instigation of Germany, who seem to love Karimov) had relaxed some of its post Andijan sanctions.

Anyway, buy the book. If for no other reason than Murray deserves some form of income after the way he has been fucked over by his employer, the British government.

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