Monday, 12 May 2014

Eurovision 2014: Rise like Conchita

Ladies and gentlemen, it is finally the time of year we have all been waiting for. Yet another of those semi-amateur European singing talent shows has swooshed past like a phoenix. This year saw the 59th Eurovision Song Contest take place in Copenhagen, Denmark, following the country's 2013's victory with the Shakira resembling Emmelie de Forest's Only Teardrops.

Priding itself on Scandinavian organisation and quality, Denmark certainly did not disappoint as a host nation. Perhaps the night's only downer was that, for the first time in the Eurovision history, the show was led by as many as three presenters, two men and a woman. Some had hoped that Sweden's 2013 introduction of a single presenter would become norm to counterweigh the usual mixed gender duo set-up. I did not find three presenters remotely necessary on the night; less relevantly, I also found the two males' facial hair rather, erm, in your face (if ever so ubiquitous in Denmark) – but, as we will see further below, facial hair seemed to be the main theme of this year’s contest.

The outcome of the contest was clear to many before the show had even started. Conchita Wurst, famously a man-turned-lady representing Austria, flew home triumphant. Her James Bond-esque Rise Like a Phoenix impressed many and won Austria its second ever Eurovision victory; the country had last won the contest in 1966. And the powerful ballad was decidedly outshone by its performer: Conchita, also known as Tom Neuwirth, sported a long golden gown, gorgeous dark locks, a tiny waist, metre-long eyelashes and, well, a beard. But she took Europe by storm, collecting a total of 290 points, which included 13 “douze-points” awards. The runner-up, the Netherlands' Calm After the Storm by The Common Linnets, fell short by a few dozen points and finished with 238 while Sweden's Sanna Nielsen with Undo came third with 218.

Unsurprisingly, this year's contest did not pass without controversy. Final national points are determined by a combination of local jury and public votes which sometimes differ dramatically. This year’s main victim of the jury vote was Poland. Widely favoured by the public, it left many juries across Europe unmoved (or too embarrassed to admit they actually were) and finished 14th – solely counting the public vote, however, it would have easily made the Top 5.


Same old, same old

The 2014 contest sadly saw continued absences by a number of formerly active Eurovision countries. Turkey re-iterated its dissatisfaction with the incorporation of a jury into each country's national vote and went missing for the second consecutive year. More noticeably, three Balkan nations – Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia – all cited financial difficulties and either withdrew at the last minute or failed to register at all. I suspect however that the real reason for their absence was not being able to divide up Zeljko Joksimovic, the local Eurovision guru. Overall, 37 countries took part in the contest, the lowest number in the last decade.

The contest brought us some familiar faces on the stage with, most famously, Valentina Monetta yet again representing San Marino. The established singer thus became the fourth ever Eurovision artist to contest the title for the same country in three consecutive years (the last time this happened was back in the swinging 1960s). In one of Eurovision's most emotional moments this year, Valentina Monetta tearfully celebrated qualifying for the finals, the first ever such achievement for the micro state. Another returning act were Paula Seling and Ovi, who last represented Romania in 2010; their energetic Miracle danced its way elegantly into the finals.

Je ne comprends pas

Abandoning 2013's momentary preference for national languages (in which over a half of all songs were performed last year), this year's contest regrettably saw only five non-anglophone participants singing in local languages while a further five mixed theirs with English. By the night of the grand final, the number of songs sung entirely in local languages had dropped to three.

One certainly cannot blame the United Kingdom or Ireland for performing in English (being able to sing is a bonus enough there), but even the usually ardent local language proponents like Macedonia and Moldova opted for more widely understood lyrics this year. And, utterly unsurprisingly, three usual suspects among the Big Five automatic qualifiers – France, Italy and Spain – remained firmly pro-local in their language choices (Ruth Lorenzo of Spain alternated English and Spanish verses), though I suspect France's chief reason for this was to keep the rest of Europe using French when announcing their results.

So political, are we

After last year's notable absence of the former Yugoslavia in the finals, this year we were blessed (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) with two, Montenegro's Sergej Cetkovic and Slovenia's Tinkara Kovac. Montenegro’s first ever success to qualify for the finals was somewhat dampened by the lack of support from beyond its immediate neighbours: it finished 19th, with Slovenia infamously coming second last.

Political considerations could not have been more obvious than in the case of Russia. Its identical twin act Tolmachevy Sisters came 7th but faced widespread booing whenever the 17-year-olds came on stage or received points. Recently split with Europe on the question of the Crimean peninsula, Russia also saw notably fewer votes than in 2013: only 14 countries voted for Russia this year, dropped by nearly a half since last year. Also, none of the larger EU countries gave it any points.

With fewer participating countries against a backdrop of a complicated political environment, the Eurovision saw only one mutual award of the coveted "douze-points": by Russia and Belarus, whose love for each other seems to have remained strong despite the surrounding difficulties. I was also touched to see Georgia bestow Armenia with a 12, while Moldova lavished Romania with points, Macedonia bowed to Montenegro and Denmark remained loyal to Sweden. To everybody's relief, Eurovision continues to value good neighbour relations as much as – or perhaps even higher than – the music.

…and some nominations

Continuing the tradition of applauding Eurovision artists on criteria of varying relevance to music, I will give my best outfit award to – you have guessed it – Poland. The country's female representative Cleo stirred up a storm with her low-cut version of an ethnic embroidered dress and provocative dancing. Surrounded by similarly clad Polish ladies suggestively performing mundane country chores like washing clothes and churning butter – lip biting included – Cleo paraded her ethnic background with the aptly named We Are Slavic. Never more proud of my Slavic blood, I may soon be asking Cleo where she got her wonderful dress from.

With so many songs badly translated into English from their local originals, the performance featured heart-warmingly many awful lyrics. I had a hard time deciding, but my worst lyric award goes to the painful rhymes from Ukraine. Seriously, "Tick-tock, can you hear me go tick-tock / My heart is like a clock, I'm steady like a rock" are not the lines you want to have stuck in your head for ages. Unless you are actually trying to go tick-tock, of course.

The best lyric was even harder to decide. Among dozens of well-deserving gems, I was close to splitting the award between Belarus' Teo and France's TWIN TWIN. I am sure Teo touched many a heart with a no-nonsense confession of "I am no Patrick Swayze" in his phlegmatic Cheesecake. However it is TWIN TWIN of France that finally had the scales tip in their favour with the single English line from their otherwise francophone entry, Moustache. "I want to have a moustache" by three shaven men is indeed tear-provoking given that their fellow performer on the stage – a drag queen – had visibly managed to grow a full beard without singing much about it.

Moving on to the award for the best country postcard, I cannot help praising Georgia. In short clips between songs, each participating country was tasked to present its flag in a creative way. While the Albanian singer painfully pretended to have a black eagle tattooed on her back, Georgia won me over by building St. George's cross from glasses filled with red wine. I am only sorry I wasn't there to help with drinking them up afterwards.

The best national results' presenter is unquestionably awarded to Austria whose Kati Bellowitsch, in wonderful solidarity with Austria's entry, sported a beard to complement her lovely long locks. Beards apparently became a bit of a fetish at the 2014 Eurovision, with many in the audience donning knitted, woven and folded beards in preparation for the big night. There is talk of Conchita hosting the event in Austria next year – whether true or not, one thing is clear: whoever presents that show will have a beard.

Finally, many acts surprisingly featured solo supporting performers to complement the lead singer. Ukraine presented a man in a hamster wheel (poor chap must have been exhausted at the end of the song), Montenegro gave us a ballerina swirling away on the stage and Azerbaijan – a trapeze artist. All three qualified to the finals, but my award for the worst solo supporting act goes to the song that did not make it past the semis. Enter Belgium's Alex Hirsoux – while some viewers cheekily suggested that the somewhat large singer join the Ukrainian man in the hamster wheel, I was too mesmerised looking at the distressed woman grimacing behind the Belgian act and clearly impersonating his Mother. My sincere hope is that she wasn't.

A few last words

Other moments included Armenia's Aram MP3 whose much trumpeted Not Alone forgot to consciously uncouple from its Coldplay-esque sound; Iceland's Pollapönk whose colourful outfits made the quartet look like the punked-up Wiggles; Greece's Freaky Fortune for being the country's most forgettable Eurovision act in decades and Finland's Softengine for being in most touch with local tradition by allegedly writing their Something Better in a sauna. I wonder if it was the reason the song had such a refreshing sound to it, too.

And what about the United Kingdom? After Engelbert Humperdinck and Bonnie Tyler in the last two years, I was relieved to see the country finally reduce its minimum participant age. Molly, from Leicester, may have put her soul into the inspiring Children of the Universe but Europe was not impressed, ranking the UK 17th. Many blamed the UK's last performing slot on the night, but I'd stop looking for excuses – the Netherlands' third last slot nearly scored them victory – and focus on the music instead.

And don’t forget to wear your beards in Vienna next year, folks.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Easter update, or 2014 so far

It has been weeks since I last touched this blog.

It is fair to say that I have developed a certain liking for a more private existence on social media. A confession long overdue is that I used to enjoy confusing the world with frequent, controversial updates and watching mixed reactions flow in in places like Facebook and Twitter. Not anymore – like never before, I have started savouring every private thought that passes through this little head, sharing in person with but a few. I have possibly made some progress as far as growing up as well, to enter the world where confidence only loosely correlates with the number of “likes” one receives on social media. Facebook somehow makes even the wisest of thoughts look theatrical: verbal protests look like lazy “armchair” attempts to seem involved, and re-posting of news – merely a way of showing how well-rounded and up to date one is.

I am convinced that even the much re-posted “Expert” video was largely shared by folk to show they were above the problem of idiots pestering many a business meeting rather than for fun – whereas I think many of us actually have idiotic tendencies at meetings, though perhaps in ways more subtle than the extremities presented in that video. Whether it matters or not, the video has been directed by a Latvian chap who studied at my business school in Riga just a year below myself. I am finally feeling patriotic about a country where I was actually born. But I digress.

Last night I went as far as updating my Facebook status – something of a rarity these days. It was a jokey comment about British Airways reminding me I was due to depart to Buenos Aires within a week, amusingly unnecessary as I'd never forget anything remotely related to my holiday plans. Writing that status down on the internet left me feeling rather awkward. It was then that I realised I did not really enjoy discussing personal travel plans in front of an audience theoretically as large as 915 people, as much as I sincerely hoped that most of them had better ways of spending two seconds of their lives than reading into my Facebook statuses.

And while my Facebook page is no longer an approximation of my (or anybody's, for that matter) life and my Twitter account has been idle for months, I still have some trust in this blog – if nothing else, it is a record of things to aid my memory later in life. For anyone who cares, below goes a small update on the happenings in the life of anjči in the few weeks past.

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In case one or two people in the world care, I have short hair now

TRAVEL

Starting with the most important, over the last weeks I have inflicted on myself a major task of planning and booking all my getaways for the year. With an Excel file to hand, I think I might have just filled in every 2014 weekend possible – and, in case I had left some out, it was purely intentional. I could continue that I have even sketched rough plans for 2015 and 2016 (I repeat, rough), but then I wouldn't want to alienate anyone. Let's just say that, in addition to the plans I made at the onset of 2014, I will also be visiting Bucharest and Brasov in Romania, the Orkney Islands off the shores of Scotland and Spain's lovely Santiago de Compostela this year. Inshallah.

I have also had to amend my initial plans for the year end to postpone Chile and the Falkland Islands till 2015. I have been dreaming of Chile for years and this was not an easy decision – but an old friend of mine unexpectedly got engaged et voila – the wedding takes place in Sri Lanka at the end of the year, which certainly meant I could not really be hanging around the remote Falkland Islands instead. After my friend Nandini's wedding in Bangalore last year, I very much look forward to another South Asian wedding. I hope I can be excused for donning a festive saree on every occasion permissible.

And, to add to the fun of a few days in Sri Lanka, I have planned a couple of weeks in Burma (please don't ask me to refer to it by any other name). Yes, my winter break this year will be a whopping three weeks long – the longest holiday from work I will ever have taken. To be fair, at least one day in those three weeks will be dedicated to transferring between Burma and Sri Lanka. Needless to say there aren't any direct flights – and, given how relatively near each other the countries are, transferring between them is a surprisingly laborious task. Thank goodness for Malaysia Airlines – yes, whatever misfortune they have been sadly exposed to, I still believe they are a wonderful airline as much as Malaysia is a wonderful country. Flying Yangon to Colombo with them will also give me an added benefit of re-visiting Kuala Lumpur, even if rushed to make my connecting flight. And well, if you don't hear from me, just check further down the Indian Ocean.

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One of my recent independent visits was lovely Gdansk, Poland

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I also visited Tarragona in Spain's Catalonia region

SPORTS

I had initially planned to include sports under the more general "ACTIVITIES", only to realise that they deserved a heading of their own. Let me put it this way: the last three months or so have seen me getting curiously obsessed with exercise. My habit of a 2 km swim every morning has well been known to most for the last 14 years. For a couple of years, I combined swimming with a Zumba class once a week and declared myself fit enough to do any more.

Enter a new anjči. I first got into Anti-gravity yoga – the one where we spend long minutes hanging upside down in a hammock, stretching and taking deep breaths. I then discovered Body Combat, a class where we basically fiercely punch and kick air. My final discovery to date is Body Pump where we creak our bones as we lift and push weights. Sports have taken over my life noticeably. I wonder where all these classes had been all my life. Zumba now seems like a feel-good warm-up for Chinese grannies, the combination of easy dancing steps we see them do in parks in China on early mornings. No offence, but it feels great to have graduated from that level.

So I now begin my day with a plunge in the swimming pool and cross a City square to get into work – only to get back again for a more energetic work-out at lunchtime. The social time with my colleagues certainly suffers, but then again, I cannot be spending all my office time with them. And yes, I know I am spoilt – I doubt many people from the surrounding banks are able to sneak away at lunch so easily. In case any seniors are reading: I love my job.

ACTIVITIES

Where do I even start? Possibly with my driving lessons. After losing (or shall I say estranging) two driving instructors before the beginning of the year, I was finally blessed with a truly compatible soul, Leon. At our first lesson, he asked if the previous two instructors "treated me badly" (I bit my tongue not to slip it was probably the reverse) and reassured me that he was “very patient” as he had previously spent years working in a kindergarten with toddlers. Now, it is clear that such experience is perfect for dealing with myself as, two-and-a-bit months on, Leon and I are still a team. Unlike the previous instructors, he even lets me tell random stories while performing a reverse-around-the-corner manoeuvre. I am confident that I will pass my practical test in a matter of weeks; a major learning effort, my theory test, has already been safely made without a single mistake in the multiple choice part. My parents are very proud.

My other titanic undertaking this spring is the UK citizenship application. It is only lucky that Latvia has just loosened its rules on double citizenship. I am down to one last document before my application is complete – the document confirming that my degree studies were in English and corresponded to the B.Sc. level. If, for some reason, it turns out they didn't then I will need to take an English language assessment test. This in itself is rather funny as I have effectively used English as my main language of communication since 2004 – but, as our much esteemed immigration minister once said, "British citizenship is a privilege, not a right".

Part of my application consists of listing and summing up my absences from the UK in the last five years. Now, only those of you who have followed this blog for any prolonged time would understand the grand scale of this exercise. After analysing my travel booking emails (all thankfully still sitting in my inbox), I have eventually recapped over 130 such absences. Surprisingly even to myself, I was way below the permitted maximum number of days of absence. I think what saved me was travelling rather infrequently in 2009 and 2010 – nothing of the “and where am I going this weekend then” mania of today. Phew.

My favourite part of the citizenship application though was the so-called "Life in the UK" test which, rather literally, tests one's knowledge of life, history and culture in the UK. I let my (English) boyfriend page through a book containing mock tests, only to admit that he would probably fail it. Nevertheless, after some rigorous cramming of the various kings, battles, dates and requirements to "introduce yourself to your new neighbours" – everything a good citizen would apparently know – I passed. The only question I truly stumbled on was who Sir Roger Bannister was, but even that I guessed correctly. I obviously have great potential to become a good citizen.

I should mention languages here, too. I started the year by giving Arabic another chance for a term, and really enjoyed it. Our teacher, a shy little man from South Kurdistan, learned Arabic as a child in Iraq and seemed immensely embarrassed of not being a native speaker. The sarcastic side of me prevailed as I incessantly teased the poor chap about the fact. I think at the end of the term he was almost scared of me – in which case he will be pleased I will be taking a break from Arabic yet again. I have simply planned too many holidays clashing into the next term to justify the hefty course fee. Greek is a lot cheaper to learn though (doh) so with that I shall persevere. I am also hoping to teach myself some Hindi in the next few months, time permitting – Bollywood films remain my favourite evening pasttime and reading into the subtitles is just a little distracting at times.

WORK

Work, too, has been good. I am now working on unsigned projects in Georgia, Turkey, Albania and Hungary – not mentioning Egypt here as that signed a couple of weeks ago. The beauty of our industry though is that the real work on a project occurs after, not before, it is signed, so there is plenty of fun to look forward to. I have also inherited older Mongolian projects from a departing colleague so am now in full middle-level control of the team's projects in my favourite two countries of our operations: Georgia and Mongolia. Here is hoping that I will inherit those for my full control when I become a senior. Give it a decade or so.

The best news at work is that I have finally been given my own project to lead. I won't say more in case it suddenly dies (it happens all too often here), but the thought itself is comforting. Who knows, maybe my next promotion isn't as far away as I had thought.

On business trips, I have only been on one so far this year, to Istanbul. As excited as I used to get about these before, I try to avoid them like plague now. Why? Well, you can't exercise as much on a business trip for a start. And you have to eat all your three meals a day with your colleagues (I swear I love them all, just in moderation). And you have far too many helpings of a drink in the business lounge. And you get stuck in the office past midnight, effectively doubling your working hours at base. The list goes on – I have now officially stopped chasing business travel. Let Georgia be my only ever exception to this rule.

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A view from the meeting room in Istanbul: at least there was one

LOVE MATTERS

It does. Seven months on, my lovely Englishman is still working in Germany. We have maintained our once-fortnightly weekend meetings very well so far, and I love the arrangement. Call me selfish, but, with so much cramming of traffic regulations and UK history lately, I really did well to have no-one but myself around. I could not dream of doing so much morning exercise (I’m a freak, I told you) with a man in the house, either. And I can safely say that, as much as I enjoy having my darling around in London, these briefer encounters do well in balancing the relationship. The long distance arrangement is probably not forever, but I know I will miss some aspects of it when the time comes to spend most of our nights under one roof again.

Meanwhile the man of my heart has been busy spoiling yours truly rotten. I still barely believe my luck as, bar one chap, most of my past boyfriends could not boast any women-handling skills. We have recently visited Paris, Dijon, Pau and Luxembourg together, as well as the in-laws (my shorter word for “his parents” – no inferences, please) in a small town north of Peterborough. We were particularly lucky in Pau, as a stranger who approached us in a small cafe to shake our hands turned out to be the city's newly elected major, M. François Bayrou. We even have photo material to prove it.

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In Pau: with apologies, but we mostly look pathetically cheesy these days

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Dijon's central square looked rather abandoned on a Sunday

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Luxembourg was surprisingly fun for its size

Our next meet-up will be in Brasov in Romania, though, sadly, not until early May… because, as British Airways kindly reminded me yesterday, my flight to Argentina departs in less than a week! I look forward to pacing the silent trails of Patagonia, doing tango in the streets of Buenos Aires, feeling the fresh spray of the Iguazu Falls on the palms of my hands and sipping ruby-coloured wine in a small colonial eatery in Salta. I look forward to some peace. I look forward to a holiday.

Stay tuned for a possible Argentina update. And have a VERY good Easter!

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

How to turn off your driving instructor


I am writing this from the height of experience. Last night, I met a man who became my third driving instructor in only two months and eight driving lessons. My second one ditched me last week, motivating his choice with a laconic “I think I am not the right person to teach you”. Which, arguably, was an improvement over my first driving instructor who ended up throwing me out of the car after only three lessons. Thank goodness it was only a 30 minutes’ walk back home.

Everybody else your age drives though

Some of you are no doubt surprised that a traveller like yours truly is still in no possession of a driving license. I blame London: driving is anything but vital to my comfortable living here. In fact, driving would as much as jeopardise my comfortable living here. My faithful bicycle takes me to most places I need to go, with buses and the Tube filling in the gap. Train coverage to the rest of the UK is brilliant and dense. I have quite simply not once felt the need to drive a car in London.

And, when it comes to travelling abroad, two reasons impede my road mobility. First, I still prefer to travel alone some 95 percent of the time, which makes car rental uneconomical and unsafe should I choose to head to really isolated locations alone. Renting a whole car to visit places less than really isolated also makes little sense, bringing me to the second reason: public transport. I enjoy taking public transport abroad – not only can it be a great way to experience travel “local-style”, it also leaves my hands free to snap photos while somebody else is doing the driving. Some of the most remote places in the world I have visited – Svalbard, smaller Greek islands, non-touristy parts of Uzbekistan and the Lofoten archipelago – all provided some sort of public transport. Where scheduled services were not in place, local population always found ways to organise ad-hoc departures pretty much everywhere I have been. That failing, there is always the hitch-hiking option. I have struck so many great conversations catching shared taxis in Cuba, hitching free motorcycle rides in Greece, hopping on slow Indian trains – the list goes on indefinitely – that, once again, I have not once felt the need to drive myself.

So why am I suddenly learning now? I occasionally pretend to have high ambitions in mind – renting cars on holidays or driving future offspring to school are mere examples – but the main reason is, sadly, my mother, who has been nagging me to get a license for as many years as it was legal to do so. The funny part is that she has her own but has not driven a car other than her practise vehicle back in the 1990s. It goes without saying that my family has never even owned a car.

Meet your worst pupil ever

With all of the above in mind, I hope to be forgiven for starting driving lessons two months ago with not exactly a great deal of enthusiasm. Having already forced out two driving instructors, I believe to have established several proven ways of ridding oneself of an undesired driving instructor – as goes in detail below.

1. Improvise. Every driving instructor likes his instructions to be followed to a tiny detail. Blindly obeying orders is for sissies though: instead I recommend pushing every border on your way by introducing a personal touch into every aspect of the instruction. That includes narrowly missing that perfect wheel turning point, bothering to cancel light indicators instead of focusing on selecting the correct gear and checking rear view mirrors in a random order other than left to right.

2. Motivate disobedience. Everything you do is right and there is an explanation for it. You gave way to a car coming out of a side street because you were “being nice”. You waited for 10 minutes to orchestrate a turn into another road because you were summoning “inspiration”. You did not switch the gear because you thought your worthy instructor was about to command you to stop – the road being a busy London thoroughfare not remotely clashing with your story. Everything you do is a personal choice. For the only exception to this rule, see point 3.

3. Choose one mistake and stick to it. Nothing frustrates a driving instructor more than a really stupid mistake repeated several times, at every lesson. My preferred one was driving off with a handbrake still on – I still hear the “You’ll damage the car!” ringing in my ears.

4. Talk disapprovingly of other instructors. Driving instructors are evil creatures sent to this earth to prevent any sort of fun from happening. Your first one yelled at you for the tiniest mistake, accused you of trying to run over the entire population of London and eventually ditched you as a “hopeless nutcase”. Your friend’s instructor made sexual advances. Your paternal aunt’s instructor showed up to a lesson drunk. All driving instructors are chronic hypocrites who spend their free time stalling cars and bumping into curbs. It is unbelievable that they demand such unmatched perfection from others. After one such tirade, my rather chatty second instructor went silent for the whole of 10 minutes before finally having to speak up – I was about to drive off with a handbrake still on, again.

5. Ignore ice-breaking questions. It is likely that your driving instructor will wish to “break the ice” by asking personal questions. Your personal life is certainly not your driving instructor’s business though, so ignore any such attempt. When ignoring is no longer possible, provide concise, unsatisfying answers. My personal example was a response to a polite “Where did you go on holiday”. I smiled and said “Abroad. What are we covering today?”. Useless chatting goes against the driving lessons’ pricing model, which brings me swiftly to the next point.

6. Complain how “expensive” the lessons are. A one-hour driving lesson in the UK costs a whopping 20+ pounds, and it is customary to bulk them in at least twos for better learning. It is your driving instructor’s duty to know that the same lesson in your home country would cost a quarter of that price. Do not forget to remind him that the quality of the teaching is just as far apart. Which is why less time should be spent smiling as we discuss our holiday plans and more – driving energetically.

7. Downgrade the importance of passing. When your driving instructor takes out his phone and starts paging through happy pictures of his pupils who have passed their driving tests, shrug indifferently and say that you do not really care to see pictures of smiling strangers. Every instructor has a so-called pass rate they are keen to push up – unhealthy competition is detrimental to the society though, so make it perfectly clear that passing is of little importance to you. Moreover, make sure that your instructor knows of your plans to, invariably, ditch him in the very near future. Motivate it with feeling the need to “try out” lots of different teaching styles.

8. Comment on random road details. Red traffic lights sometimes fade next to an elaborately decorated balcony in the run-up to Christmas. Stare at it longingly and interrupt your instructor’s long and boring speech to comment how “absolutely beautiful” it is. When urged to route your attention back to the road, agree that, indeed, discussing other things is silly when you are forking up a fortune for the lessons already. Repeat point 6.

Bid your driving instructor farewell

I am writing this from the height of experience: sticking to the points above is a guaranteed way of being appointed a new driving instructor without breaking the law. There is a small chance of being somewhat damaged in the process should the named instructor become emotional. The worst thing that has happened to me personally though is, as said, being thrown out of the car – the best aspect of that being that it was the end of the lesson anyway, so I did not lose any of my hard-earned money.

Because we all know how expensive those lessons really are.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

2014: Travel plan

Looking at my sketch itinerary for 2014, I cannot help feeling that this year will be a lot less mad, travel-wise, than any of its recent predecessors. My life does not belong solely to myself now and jetting off abroad every single weekend is certainly less of an option – the fact which, on the whole, isn't such a bad thing.

If 2012 and 2013 could be called the "Year of India" and the "Year of Asia" in the life of anjči, respectively, then 2014 is so far coming to resemble a "Year of Southern Hemisphere". See for yourselves why – my travel plan for 2014 is laid out chronologically below. These are only the highlights, remember!


(1) Weekend in Gdansk, Poland (March). Some of you will remember my short trip to Auschwitz and Krakow in Poland last year. While the former was educational as much as the latter was pretty, I froze to near death traipsing around in the snow and temperatures far too much below zero for my liking for hours at length – but my interest in Poland was decidedly rekindled.

With that in mind, it escapes me why my visit to Poland's principal seaport – Gdansk – has, too, been booked in the midst of winter. Perhaps my famous female logic was the culprit? All I know is that I will have two entire days to explore the city I have long since first wanted to visit. Expect a lot of heavily photoshopped images of twilight setting in on the Gdansk Bay, frozen locals and the inside of Gdansk's many churches. Where I will have stopped to pray, of course – NOT to get warm.

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(2) Easter break in Argentina (April). My first stop in the southern hemisphere in 2014 will be Argentina where I plan to spend 10 days carrying around a big poster with "Falklands are ours" written across. Just kidding – my visit will be anything but political. I have only been to Rio de Janeiro on the entire South American continent to date (and even that was a long weekend), so there is a lot of catching up to do with the rest.

Five domestic flights and one double border crossing with Brazil await me in Argentina – after some quick tango and steak action in Buenos Aires, I plan to fly south to enjoy the solemn calmness of Patagonia before transferring to the colonial gem of Salta and the stunning Iguacu Falls in the north. The time will be tight but skipping sleep might help to stretch it.

And everybody knows that the Falklands are ours, anyway.

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(3) Cape Town to Windhoek overland (May-June). I will have barely spent a month in Europe when the southern hemisphere will start calling again. It is for a very long time that I have wanted to set my foot in Namibia. One of Africa's youngest sovereign nations and, with its 2 million people, second only to Mongolia in the world's lowest population density, Namibia is not even in the Top 10 of the most visited African countries, receiving an average of 1 million visitors a year – despite its breath-taking landscapes and wildlife.

I will begin with a few days in the picturesque Cape Town in South Africa before embarking on an overland journey covering the highlights of Namibia: Fish River Canyon (the world's second largest), Walvis Bay with its stunning sand dunes, Spitzkoppe mountains with their rugged granite peaks, fabulous Etosha National Park famous for game viewing, Namibia's many tribal villages – and much more. Let's just hope I learn to pitch a tent quickly enough and do not poison any fellow travellers with my amateur cooking.

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(4) Summer break in Karpathos, Greece (June-July). I continue my yearly pilgrimages to the country I once called home, the unforgettable Greece. This year's summer destination was decidedly the most difficult ever to select – each Greek island to me is unique and there are still many to choose from. On one hand, I had a wonderful time in the Cycladic archipelago last year and would not mind sticking to one of its islands. On the other hand, it can be fun getting off the beaten track towards the more remote Dodecanese.

I have looked far and wide before settling on Karpathos. Second largest Dodecanese island, Karpathos does not feature in your usual "Greek islands to visit before you die" bucket lists. Indeed Karpathos' most typical summer visitor is sooner a descendant of its original islanders than a clueless package-minded holiday maker from the continent. After some research, I finally managed to locate Karpathos in somebody's "Unnoticed Greek islands" list, bulked with the likes of Nisyros and Kastelorizo. I salute you who have heard of those.

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(5) Besseggen ridge hike, Norway (August). Norwegian friends will have noticed that my travel activity to their country has subsided. At its peak, I used to travel to Norway as often as 5-6 times a year: while I will likely never beat this personal record, there are still many corners of Norway I plan to discover.

One of them is the mountainous Jotunheimen National Park with over 250 peaks rising above the height of 6,000 feet, including Norway's two highest, Galdhøpiggen and Glittertind. No, I do not plan to climb either – what I'd like instead is to get a good view towards them from a third spot. I have chosen Besseggen, one of Norway’s most popular mountain hikes allegedly attempted by 30,000 people every year. The hike reaches the highest point of 1,743m above sea level and offers, at its highlight, a breath-taking view over Gjende and Bessvatnet lakes – in emerald green and dark blue colours, respectively. Let's just hope the ground to stand on is firm enough there.

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(6) Weekend in Lyon, France (October). Did I not promise to dedicate more travel time to France? Last year brought three trips to France, the trend I am eager to continue. So far I have only planned one though; nowhere else than the country's beautiful second largest city of Lyon.

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Lyon apparently also boasts the title of France's gastronomic capital. While the most remote village in France would likely seem a gastronomic capital to anyone living in England (like myself), I am curious to see what the hype is all about. Lyon's world class Renaissance architecture aside, I fear that this visit may turn out to be anything but cultural – unless one ranks food part of culture, too. I better start brushing up my table manners right now.

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(7) Hong Kong to Okinawa to Taiwan (November). My 2013 may have featured seven Asian countries – but, come November, I predict in all likelihood that I will be missing Asia again. My previous plans to visit Hong Kong were put to a brutal stop by a certain Icelandic volcano; here is hoping that the skies will be ash-free for my companion and I to embark on what I like to call a peripheral Asian escapade.

After a few days of shopping action in Hong Kong (I like to buy silk for cheongsam dresses – I am primitive like that), we will set off for the secluded Japanese island of Okinawa, continuing swiftly to Taiwan before returning to Hong Kong. The trip was actually my boyfriend's idea: only those of you who know me well will understand the importance of being able to offer an itinerary yours truly will remotely like. He might just be the right guy.

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(8) Exploring Chile and the Falkland Islands (December). 2014 must be the first year I enter having already made up my mind about the winter break. No, it isn't going to be New Zealand – while I certainly hope to jet half-way round the world to see the kiwi-land later, this year it is the turn of Chile. On my third visit to the southern hemisphere in 2014, I will travel from the capital city of Santiago to the eerily beautiful town of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile's Lake District around Puerto Montt, Torres del Paine National Park with its stunning glaciers, the remote Punta Arenas and, possibly, get a small glimpse of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago.

My biggest reason for visiting Punta Arenas though is its air link to the place I have dreamed about for years – the unassuming, unknown and ignored Falkland Islands. I have no good excuse to go there except for the eeriness of visiting a British territory so far overseas. There are only about 3,000 people on the Falklands (of which half are British military), greatly outnumbered by their half a million sheep. That makes about 170 sheep per permanent resident; New Zealand with its miniscule seven can go rest.
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And what next, you ask me? I would be happy if 2015 brought visits to more of my dream destinations. The immediate ones on my mind are Iran, the Andaman Islands, Bhutan and New Zealand. Let us just wait and see.

Happy New Year again, and safe travels to all.

Monday, 16 December 2013

2013 Newsletter


All good things must end. 2013 will, too, soon be taking its leave. Within a matter of days, I will be boarding a flight to Southeast Asia to welcome the arrival of 2014 in an exotic time zone far away from home. Before I depart, I would like to share with you the happenings of the year past – given how bad my memory is becoming with one million things to remember at any given time (I blame the age, too), these newsletters have grown to be really useful as personal reminders.

After a relative lull of its predecessor, 2013 saw me pull back to my usual travel tempo. I spent 126 days outside the UK in 2013: three weeks above the level of 2012 and a couple of days fewer than in 2011. Given my plans to seek UK citizenship next year, such regular absence could have been a problem had the authorities not been only counting the nights abroad. Just for the authorities' sake, I am pleased to confirm that the number of such nights is much under 126.

Between 1 January 2013 and the close of "business" on the last day of 2013, I will have visited 24 countries. Among them, six will have been first-timers: Japan, Egypt, China, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), Cambodia and Laos. Add my two visits to India in 2013 and the plan to celebrate the New Year in Thailand in just a fortnight, and it is only appropriate that the departing year in the life of anjči be marked as the year of Asia. Indeed I have not visited more Asian countries in any other year to date.

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Personal travel record: seven Asian countries in 2013, including India

I will also remember 2013 as the year of France as I took three trips there in the last 365 days: about three more than in my average year. It is certainly a welcome development as I had persistently treated France as a "no-brainer" destination in the UK's backyard rather than a fascinating country in its own right. The 80 million tourists that visit France every year cannot be wrong though: there is a plethora of things (I won't even mention wine varieties) to explore there and I certainly plan to be back soon.

Personally, 2013 was possibly my busiest year so far. After a slow start to the year, the pace of work quickly picked up and rarely subsided since. I continued taking Arabic and Greek language classes, additionally joining an Indian dancing class, beginning driving lessons and doing my best impersonation of that lucid image of a Decent Girlfriend. Albeit frequent and time-consuming, my travel photography remains at a rather amateur level, which I plan to rectify through a photography course in 2014. My greatest time investment is still personal travel planning: last week alone I booked hotels for my Easter trip to Argentina, selected an overland tour itinerary for a trip in Namibia a month later and settled on a Greek island for my annual summer escape next year. Thankfully, the time that this research inevitably takes is usually worth it.

Without further ado, let us embark on the recap of this year's events in order.

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I frequented France in 2013: pictured here is the spectacular Nice beach

2013 IN REVIEW: WINTER

Like the year before, I welcomed the New Year in India. This time I found myself in a very different part of the country some 1,600 km south of my preceding New Year destination – in Kochi, state of Kerala. I had not planned anything for that important midnight moment; thankfully, the locals had planned it for me instead. In a mix of horror and amazement I watched a massive effigy of Santa Claus (erected on the Kochi beach on the day) explode in dozens of fireworks before burning down to its metallic frame – all accompanied by the enthusiastic cheering of the locals. I can only wonder about the origin of that "custom".

With Santa's ashes safely left behind, my journey in Kerala continued to the tea plantations of Munnar, the Periyar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary (where I had a chance to spot two elephants roaming in the wild), the serene backwaters of Alleppey, the busy state capital of Thiruvananthapuram and its popular adjacent Kovalam beach. I finally flew to Mumbai to mark the end of my holiday with a serious shopping spree. India continues to hold the title of the only country where I enjoy to (and do) go shopping.

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Tea plantations of Munnar provided a much welcome break from the humidity in the rest of Kerala

Backwaters are the main attraction of Kerala

The rest of the winter saw a couple more short-haul weekend trips: to Norway and the Netherlands. My day trip to Amsterdam brought the heaviest snowfall I saw during the entire 2013 winter season. I had actually booked the weekend in the Netherlands (my first in eight years) specifically to visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, but the queues were prohibitively long; I will have to work on Plan B very soon.

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Amsterdam gave me the most intense snowfall of 2013

2013 IN REVIEW: SPRING

Following on the tradition of the previous few years, I welcomed the first weekend of spring in Spain. The Las Fallas festival was on in Valencia and the roaring explosions of the Mascletà daytime fireworks (don't ask) had me believe a war had suddenly broken out. My next stop was Tarragona where Sveta and her two munchkins took me on a short trip to Castell Monestir d'Escornalbou. March in Spain always makes a nice break from the still wintery feel of the UK. I can already confirm though that my first spring weekend next year will be spent in Gdansk, Poland – albeit breaking an old tradition, I will try to visit Spain on another occasion in 2014.

Mid-March brought a surprise weekend in Paris where my companion and I alternated between curling up indoors and braving the steps of Arc de Triomphe for a spectacular view of the French capital. I then flew to the Polish city of Krakow with a sole mission of visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, a former Nazi concentration camp. I was endlessly touched by the somber reality of the relatively recent historical events and wholeheartedly recommend a visit to everyone – if only for educational purposes. Needless to say there are plenty of happier things to see in and around Krakow, too.

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The top of Arc de Triomphe in Paris offered a splendid view onto the city

In 2013, I finally reached the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum in Poland

My most significant springtime trip came next as I spent 17 days around Easter in the exotic world of Japan. The journey started in the quirky capital, Tokyo, and continued to the mountainous Takayama, the blossoming Kanazawa, the tranquil Miyajima, the solemn Hiroshima, the wonderfully picturesque Nagasaki, the unassuming Kagoshima, the touristy Kyoto, the holy Mount Koya, the picture-perfect Hakone and the heritage-rich Kamakura. Such was the pace of my trip that I was decidedly glad to return to London and park my backpack for a while afterwards; running somewhat ahead though, I hope to revisit Japan – its Okinawa island, namely – already in 2014.

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The cherry blossom season in Japan is widely celebrated by locals and visitors alike

My early morning walk in Kyoto brought an encounter with a geisha

The other half of spring involved four smaller trips. First, I embarked on a short self-guided tour of Nice, Cannes and Monte Carlo, where, as my mother puts it, "Novak Djokovic was lucky enough" to bump into me. I think I certainly looked more excited than Novak though. I then flew to the Portuguese island of Madeira for three days in May – having imagined a paradise of tranquillity, I was instead rather taken aback by a very developed piece of land so far away from the continent. I did find a few quiet corners on Madeira but would now like to hope that the Portuguese Azores islands – still on my travel wish list – are somewhat more secluded.

Another surprise weekend awaited me shortly after as the same old companion and I were back on the Eurostar, this time headed for the Belgian cities of Gent and Oostende. Unfailingly though, the second half of May in the life of anjči tends to be more about Eurovision than anything else. Denmark won this year while the rest of the contest featured enough eccentric moments to keep the Eurovision freak in me entertained.

2013 IN REVIEW: SUMMER

I jumpstarted the summer with my first business trip in over a year (these just forget to happen sometimes): to Cairo, Egypt. In-between lumbering through the city's notorious traffic from one client's office to another, I had the utmost pleasure of a guided tour around night Cairo by Ahmed, an old friend. A repeat revolution was already in the air as images of the Egyptian army officials were handed out in the streets; I doubt I would be trotting around the Khan el-Khalili market quite as nonchalantly any time soon.

Cairo was still fresh in my mind when I set off on my annual pilgrimage to the world's greatest summer destination – Greece, of course – where I spent nine days exploring the islands of Milos and Kimolos. Milos' port of Adamas, sunsets of Plaka, Kleftiko cliffs, Sarakiniko beach with its lunar landscapes, stunning beaches of Tsigrado, Fyriplaka and Provatas all spoke for themselves. Truly there is not a Greek island I would praise more highly than Milos.

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This row of fishermen's houses on Milos is called "σύρμα", Greek for "wire"

Sarakiniko beach is among the Cyclades' most photographed sights

Another visit to a sunny destination – much shorter, admittedly – was to Malta where my (by this time fully official) boyfriend was born years ago. We had come prepared enough to locate the former British Navy Royal Hospital where this important historical event had been recorded; the building itself is now used by a local school.

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Marsaxlokk village in Malta features many such traditional fishing boats

Possibly the most memorable event of the summer (and indeed the whole year) was the wedding of my Indian friend Nandini, which took place in Bangalore in mid-July. I had dreamed of attending an Indian wedding for years – my last chance had been carefully prevented by my former job in investment banking – and finally caught my lucky star. The wedding was truly spectacular: I got to show off my silk blue saree purchased in Kerala just months before and, most importantly, dance myself silly at the sangeet function. Apparently it had all been captured on video which Nandini periodically threatens to unearth, but not before I am famous enough to regret it. The good news is that it may never happen.

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Attending Nandini and Sid's wedding in Bangalore: likely my top 2013 event

I visited Riga a whole of three times in the summer, on one of which occasions I managed to turn 30. Somehow I had used up all my imagination for the 29th birthday though, so the day was decidedly low-key – may my investment banking friends forgive me. Another personal milestone of the summer was clocking the seventh anniversary of my one-way flight from Riga to London in 2006. Life has certainly changed a lot as a result!

Less importantly but very notably, the past summer saw several excursions around what has become my home and base, the good old Albion. All of the four places I visited lie on the coast: Dover impressed with its White Cliffs, Bognor Regis equally amazed with a sheer number of Eastern European food stores, Scarborough looked surprisingly liveable while quiet Cornwall provided a great refuge from the bustling London.

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I explored more of the UK than usual in 2013: pictured here is Penzance, Cornwall's main town

2013 IN REVIEW: AUTUMN

I fast forwarded six time zones to catch the first glimpse of autumn nowhere else than in Beijing, China. Having expected to see an uninteresting gateway to my actual destination – the DPRK – I instead fell in love with Beijing almost instantly. Was it for the beautiful Jingshan Park, the historic Tiananmen Square, the busy Nanluoguxiang hutong, the pretty Summer Palace or the easily accessible Great Wall of China? All I know is it certainly wasn't for Beijing's notorious smog.

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It took me 2-3 hours to reach the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu from Beijing

Not long after, I found myself on a flight to Pyongyang in the DPRK (better known as North Korea) where I spent one week zooming around the country. Those of you who have read my blog series on North Korea probably couldn't hear any more of the DPRK highlights; for those who have not, I best remember the grandiose Arirang Mass Games, the military parade on the National Day and the demilitarised zone marking the North and South stand-off for decades. Even your everyday seemingly mundane things had an entirely different twist in North Korea; it was undoubtedly my most mind-bending trip ever.

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The DPRK troups paraded on 9 September, the country's national day

Local women laid flowers at the feet of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il statues

Seeing young pioneers was a flashback of my childhood in the USSR

Freshly back in London, I was off again – this time on a business trip to the faraway Georgia in the Caucasus. The work part involved seeing three construction sites (arguably an acquired taste), while the leisure part had me explore Georgia's capital city of Tbilisi, mountainous Kazbegi region and wine country of Kakheti. It was like being sent on a mission to paradise: the food, the wine and the people of Georgia remain my favourite in the whole world.

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Apparently it is incredible luck to see the Kazbergi peak due to weather conditions

Tbilisi is one of my favourite cities in the world

The rest of the autumn brought two more work visits – to Budapest and Ljubljana – as well as two personal trips to Guernsey and Bordeaux. Both of the latter were fascinating: Guernsey for its WWII legacy and Bordeaux for its strangely British feel. By this time though, I had been completely travelled out and longed for nothing more than some quiet time at home, only interrupted by language learning, dancing and driving, as well as my boyfriend's fortnightly visits. Yes, one of the less exciting happenings of the autumn was his transfer to Germany with work. Which is arguably still better than unemployment.

Also in the autumn, I was incredibly pleased to win the first prize in the staff photo competition held by my employer. My shot of the Vukovar water tower from 2010 somehow won in the "25 Years of Change" category. Every year has me wonder why one or another undeserving photo ends up winning; this year the "undeserving photo" was my own, so I did not mind.

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Guernsey was a hidden gem: watch out for more Channel Islands in 2014

SO LONG, 2013

On this positive note we find ourselves in December, at the close of another wonderful year! The year which I will always remember for Nandini's wedding in Bangalore, my 30th birthday and that "once-in-a-lifetime" visit to North Korea. It was also the year when I travelled to as many as five places in somebody's company and survived to tell the story. I still prefer to travel solo (especially long-haul), but am seeing it as a huge breakthrough that travelling with a boyfriend can, too, be a tolerable experience.

As we approach 2014, I want to wish you all a wonderful Christmas and New Year. I profusely thank everyone who found the time to see me, host me and entertain me in those numerous countries visited in 2013. Thank you for your continued friendship and presence in the life of anjči. Here is to a great 2014! I hope that we can keep in touch and see each other very soon.

(View my Flickr photo albums and my 2013: Year in Pictures photographic recap of the year)

Happy New Year! Happy New Year! Happy New Year!