the 21st country i visited in 2011 was Turkey.
after all the other places the year has taken me, it stood out like an amazing blast of slightly smug sunlight.....it is actually on the way up! whilst much of this year has been spent going to places like Portugal, Greece, Spain, Italy, France and Ireland with their financial woes and endless apocalyptic predictions. Istanbul was a surprisingly pleasant change from all that. the turkish economy is seemingly booming. Istanbul is covered with construction cranes as new flats and shopping malls are being built across the city. even the people seem optimistic, and perhaps a bit smug- after all the fuss Western countries, and leaders like Sarkozy, made a few years ago about merely contemplating allowing Turkey to join the EU, it is now Turkey that might be having second thoughts. Some of my friends have started murmuring that they dont need the EU, nor do they need to be subsidising countries like.....Greece. i sat and smiled inwardly at some of these comments, but i cant help but be happy for my friends, all of whom seem to be doing well and succeeding. it is nice to know that some where people are seeing their living standards rising, removed from the chaos we seem to have here in Western Europe.


ok ok mea culpa

everyone is on my case for not having written anything in ages....nearly 2 months in fact, which is probably a record.
my excuse is that i have been busy. i started a new job (in the same company) on the 1st of November and i have been rather caught up in things. i have joined my companies consulting team, at the traditionally busy time of the year and projects on a variety of odd subjects have been flowing my way.
so that is my excuse, i realise it might be a bit lame, but all i can say is that i will endeavour to do better in the future.


Tense in Tunisia

I frequently get mistaken for a journalist. I like to ask random questions, especially of strangers. People you know, or who think they know you, sometimes feel the need to say certain things, or cover their answers with messages they think you want to hear. Strangers don’t tend to do this as much. plus, a lot of my job involves talking to strangers and trying to learn as much about their concerns and challenges in a short space of time, so I suppose at this stage it is ingrained in my subconscious to interrogate people. Random Tunisians are happy to talk. They are generally a chatty bunch it seems, but the current situation must be adding to their willingness to give a stranger their views.

Tunis is a bit tense at the moment. The country will have its first post-revolutionary elections on the 23rd, which combined with the situation in neighbouring Libya has created a rather conspiratorial atmosphere. My hotel is filled with wealthy Libyans who have decamped from their country to Tunis to sit out the crisis. The hotel lobby has been turned into a designer refugee camp, as everyone sits around in Chanel and Dolce and Gabbana, drinking tea and watching little children (also in designer clothing) running around.

Everyone has a view on the situation, and it seems cab drivers have especially strong views. Over the past few days I gathered that:

1. Everyone likes Libyans (“our cousins”) and thinks Gaddafi was sick, but no one agrees where he is. Several said Venezuela, others Niger, others said he will never leave and will need to be dragged out, Saddam Hussein style.

2. There is not much love for Algerians and Moroccans are naïve/ stupid/ fundamentalists (who would have thought?)

3. Ben Ali was a good leader, the problem was his wife and her family, they were robbing the country

4. It will take 10 years for real change to be felt in Tunisia. Up till now, the changes in daily life have been almost non existent- with the exception of the freeing of the media.

5. some assured me the votes are rigged (by the americans, or by Sarkozy) to get a result 40% for Ben Ali's old party, 20% for the main islamic parties and so on. other assured me the results are totally up in the air.

As one of the guards escorting me about said at one moment "i have a hard job now. i dont know what is happening or what will happen, and i just want to sleeping peacefully at night." he didnt look angry, or even upset, he just looked fatigued.


oh well whatever, nevermind

Over the past few weeks, I have been getting messages on facebook and email reminding me that it was exactly 20 years ago that Nirvana released their album Nevermind.

It is bizarre how one album defined my entire generation. I can remember sneaking off with my friend C to go buy the album (we had pretended we were spending the afternoon in the library, but ran off to the local music shop as soon as we could). I had only recently started to pay attention to music, and this sounded totally different than everything else out there, so I remember being a bit scared to admit I liked it. millions of other kids must have been thinking the same thing. But what was it about Nevermind that made it so defining? Was it because it was the first of the Seattle scene to make it big? Or because its grittiness represented the total rejection of 1980s excess we were all so sick of? Was it because Kurt Cobain killed himself? Because his life from Nevermind to death pretty much put a timeframe on the movement? By the time he died, his fame was global. I remember walking up and down stari arbat in Moscow and seeing his name and image graffitied everywhere, right next to Viktor Tsoi. 20 years later I bet most people my age could still come up with the lyrics of Smells Like Teen Spirit, if no other song from that period…who would have guessed it in 1991?

And i forget just why i taste

oh, yeah, i guess it makes me smile

i found it hard, it's hard to find

oh well, whatever, nevermind


snapshot of the US

i dont understand why the food in the US has got to be so bad. i went into several supermarkets, and they all featured decent looking fruit and vegetables at highly reasonable prices. maybe the vegetables dont taste as good as they look, but still, with such a selection it should be possible to eat at least healthily. Alas, i didnt have a single decent meal in the country. the restaurants were appalling. the stories are well know, so i guess i am only confirming them, having seen them with my own eyes: every thing is over sized, two of us shared a main in every restaurant, and we sometimes couldnt even finish that. the muffins are bigger than my fist and come in odd flavours with neon toppings. the dish pictured here was listed on the menu as "grilled shrimp" you can actually see the prawns in there if you look carefully, they are in the top corner of the plate, behind the chips.....and they were fried, not grilled. the restaurants were particularly shocking as they seem to be improving all the time in both Europe and Asia. Cities like Moscow and London have improved the quality of their foodservice considerably over the past 20 years, expanding in both choice and levels of quality. so it is surprising to see a country that actually seems to be in decline. places that i remember being decent 10 years ago now seem greasy and grim. i find myself at a hideous Italian restaurant that i had once enjoyed with a couple i have know for decades. they live half the year in DC, half in Paris. they say it is not that the quality is declining due to a lack of standards, but rather it is adjusting to peoples tastes. as they point out, the restaurant is packed.... scary thought..


On US infrastructure

I fly into Dulles International airport. I have been here many times before, but this is the first time in just over a decade.
In the summer, planes always hit turbulence in the last 30 minutes before landing at Dulles. I have been told it I because of the heat and humidity encountered as the plane descends, but I have always been a bit dubious, because it doesn’t happen with such regularity in other hot and humid airports. But the last minute bumps are the least of Dulles’s, or DC’s issues.
Dulles is the main international airport for the capital of the United States. It is one of the countries busiest, and it reflects much of what is wrong with American infrastructure- or the lack thereof. The airport was built in the Kennedy era, and has failed to evolve adequately over time. The facilities are truly pathetic, the duty free’s selection is worse than a 7 Eleven, and the “restaurants” are basically all hideous fast food chains. When you land, the passport control, as in increasingly all US airports, a disaster. The passport booths are understaffed and those who turned up for work are grumpy. After waiting in the passport queue for over an hour, I get hauled over by customs and quizzed about my bag, which they suspect is too small. I point out that I will be there less than a week, and they are still suspicious. I add that 1) I am a small person (unlike everyone else about- but I don’t say that) 2) it is 40 degrees outside and therefore multiple layers are not going to be needed 3) it is not a work trip so I don’t need much anyway. They persist in their integration until I finally open my bag and demonstrate that I actually do have one pair of clean pants and one clean T shirt for every day I will be on US soil, as well as folding travel toothbrushes and hairbrushes and regulation sized travel cosmetics. Finally at that point they give up and let me go, but by this stage I feel about as grumpy as they do, but at least I didn’t have to wait for my luggage, since I travelled with carry on only.
But it doesn’t get easier. Dulles has no public transport running to central DC 40 kilometres east, and no cab will take me to the Virginian city I need to go to (120 kilometres south). I had anticipated this, and therefore took a cab to the centre. Arriving at 8pm, I had missed the last train of the night (!!) to where I was going, and had to spend the night in a hotel near Dupont Circle. The trains might have finished for the evening, but life in Dupont Circle hadn’t. I checked in to the (unimpressive) hotel on Embassy Row and went for a stroll. The place was packed with young people, all of whom seemed noticeably more fit, smily, and well-dressed than the US standard. The packs of 20 somethings crammed into the outdoor cafes and bars had me slightly puzzled, until I remembered it was indeed the dreaded Summer Intern Season. Every year, DC fills with overly earnest people hoping to be the next generation of congressmen. I sat down on the terrace of a café and the conversations around confirmed it was indeed Intern time again as the guy next to my moaned "dude, its like just so hard to break into politics, you know what i mean?" others around him seemed to be frequently quoting either their fathers, or the congressman they were interning for. i wanted to ask a few of them if they would promise me to do something about the airport if they actually got elected. A train connecting it to Union station, efficient immigration procedures, orderly check in and some duty free shops would be nice. alas, however, i was too tired from jet lag to bother.



I am not a fan of the North.

Actually, excluding Oxford, Cambridge and maybe Brighton, I find most of England outside London quite scary. So I wasn’t thrilled to be informed that my company was sending me up to York for work. My last company had sent me to some northern towns (Manchester, Leeds) and they had certainly left me underwhelmed.

York, however, proved to be somewhat different. I actually enjoyed my trip up there. I was lucky with the weather, it was warm and sunny most of the day, with the rain starting only as I was already heading back to the train station for my return, and I had time to walk around and explore in the sun. The city centre is quite small and quaint. I was surprised that there were actually a fair number of tourists about, a surprisingly large number of whom were German. Before my trip, my mother had reminded me that my favourite museum when I was a child had been the Jorvik Centre, which I clearly remember adoring when I was about 10 or so (the last time I was in York). Curious to see if it would hold up to my childhood memories, I went to have a look. The museum is dedicated to the period in the late 9th century and first half of the 10th century when York was the centre of Viking operations in Britain. It attempts to recreate parts of the city as they would have looked under the Norse Kings, based on excavations done in the area. Clearly, it is a museum aimed at children. You go downstairs and hop into a little pod that looks like something from a ride in a theme park, which is used to transport you around the recreated city. Seeing it as an adult, it struck me a bit kitsch, but still interesting. The museum is well put together and it certainly examines a fascinating period. it also gave me a better appreciation of the streets above ground and structure of the city as it is today, so when i resumed my above-ground wanderings, everything seemed better put into context.