Sunday, 15 May 2016

Eurovision 2016: Controversial victory for Ukraine

"Judges voted for Australia. People voted for Russia. And Ukraine won."

This statement best reflected the mixed media and public reactions to the result of the Grand Final of the Eurovision Song Contest 2016. Hotly tipped for victory, Russia's Sergey Lazarev came first in the public televote, but only managed enough jury votes to come third overall. Australia's Dami Im, on the other hand, was a clear juries' favourite but scored modestly among Europe's voting public, finishing second. This is where Ukraine's Jamala came in: ranking as the second choice of both the juries and the public, she overcame the rest of the participants to be crowned as the winner of Europe's most popular (and most kitsch) music show ever.

This year marked a major change in the voting system of the contest. Previously, each country would award a combined set of its top 10 points, based 50/50 on the public televote and the opinion of a jury composed of several individuals believed to be music industry professionals. There were some special cases, too: for example, San Marino, a micro state that relies on the Italian telephone system and has no capacity to isolate votes to its own borders; the country has therefore always relied on jury voting.

However, 2016 saw a shift towards a mandatory separation of each country's national jury votes and the public televote. Under this system, every country awarded two sets of top 10 points, with the intention of spreading votes across a broader number of participating countries. Each country's jury, made up of five anonymous individuals, ranked the participants to come up with the overall jury vote. Unlike in the previous years, when each participating country would announce its three top scorers - the process taking a substantial amount of time that was nevertheless seen as traditional to Eurovision - this year the national presenters only announced their jury's top choice. The televote was in the meantime calculated. The Eurovision hosts then announced each participant's total televote score from all voting countries, starting from the bottom, which was added to the juries' scores, producing an overall final result.

While differing little from its predecessor, the new system vividly highlighted the differences between the juries' and the public's opinions and instantly earned criticism. Besides the obvious lack of jury sympathy towards the public's top pick - Russia - several other performers saw their results differ widely across the two scoring groups. Poland received close to no jury points at all, but came a whopping third in the televote - overall finishing eighth. In reverse, Israel and Belgium were both favoured widely by juries but scored disproportionately less with the public. Add to this the controversial lack of transparency over which five "national experts" exactly took into their hands the deciding of half of their countries' votes, and one can understand the generally sour public sentiment towards the announcement of the scores this year.


Sweden: perfect host

This year's contest was the sixth ever to be hosted in Sweden in Eurovision's 61-year history, following Måns Zelmerlöw's last year's Eurovision victory in Vienna with "Heroes". Sweden has always been highly successful in Eurovision and is generally viewed as the most triumphant performing country of the 21st century, having produced nine top 5 results and two victories. Sweden only lacks one victory to match the all-time record of Eurovision's current top winner, Ireland.

Unlike with the new voting system, the popular opinion was far less divided over the quality of this year's show. Masterfully presented by Måns Zelmerlöw and Petra Mede, Sweden's other spectacularly popular TV persona, Eurovision reached a new standard of hosting which any of the successor countries will find hard to match. Just one highlight included Måns and Petra performing a musical-style duet in the second semi-final, where the hosts explained, in a few cheerful lyrics, the very concept of Eurovision. That itself deserved the famous "douze-pointe" even more than some of the participants.

The 2016 contest was also the first one to be broadcasted live in the United States, perhaps answering the prayers of my several good US friends who are major fans of Eurovision. Justin Timberlake performed two guest tracks in the contest's interval and became the first non-competing artist ever to grace Eurovision with his presence. Besides Europe and the US, the contest was also shown live in China (whoever there was awake), Kazakhstan, Australia and New Zealand, thus truly gaining international scale.

Some highlights

Besides the obvious political overload, this year's contest certainly did not disappoint. If there is such thing as quality in Eurovision, then we were on to much higher quality in Stockholm compared to previous years. There were several serious candidates for the top votes, and a number of countries threw their maximum resources to make their performances memorable.

In line with the tradition, I would like to make several awards to songs in random categories. My worst on-stage costume award goes to Germany, whose 18-year-old Jamie-Lee impersonated a Japanese doll in the best traditions of decora-kei style. Unbelievably, her performance of "Ghost" made Bjork look like a perfectly normal person. Sadly, Eurovision is a singing, not a dressing up, contest.

My worst language choice award goes to Austria, who somehow chose to sing in… French. Now, it is not the first time for a participating country to choose a seemingly unrelated language to perform in: we all remember Iceland partially singing in French in 2010 and Latvia shockingly performing entirely in Italian in 2007. Frankly, multiple countries choosing to perform in rather primitive English over their national languages this year could have challenged Austria to this title. 21 of 26 songs in the Grand Final were performed entirely in English, while four more mixed English with another language. Austria could easily have won accolades for being the only country in the final to stick to one non-English language (even if singing for the wrong country), but no such luck: its "Loin d'Ici" was simply too annoyingly repetitive.

The night's worst on-stage dance award goes to Lithuania, whose Donatas Montvydas (aka Donny Montell) made Mick Jagger look beautifully coordinated in his performance of "I've Been Waiting for This Night". The singer last represented Lithuania in the 2012 Eurovision, and has visibly grown up since: his introduction video featured him posing in front of the Trakai Castle with a woman and a child, who, the presenters insisted, were his actual wife and daughter, not actors.

This year's best excuse for absence is shared by Romania and Turkey. The former was famously disqualified by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) 17 days before the contest due to non-payment by Romania of almost EUR 14 million of debts dating back to 2007. It is not clear when the country will be able to participate again. Turkey, on the other hand, has been on and off about Eurovision since its last participation in 2012, citing dissatisfaction with the rules, among other reasons, to justify its refusal to return to the contest. However, Turkey "sort of" participated this year, when its veteran star Serhat competed on behalf of San Marino, sadly failing to make it past the semi-finals and possibly producing the contest's most uncomfortably bad performance.

Onto more cheerful things, my best outfit award certainly goes to Poland's Michal Szpak. The singer only seemed to miss a parrot on his shoulder as he impersonated Captain Morgan in his long red uniform coat emblazoned with fully blown epaulettes. Some viewers have drawn parallels between the singer and a famous American parodist, Weird Al Jankovic - and I can certainly see where they are coming from.

The night's best lyric is awarded to Bulgaria's Poli Genova who proclaimed that "if love was a crime, then we would be criminals", leaving it to the audience to make the inevitable conclusions by themselves. Given the singer's preference for kitsch reflective clothing strips, it is only lucky that fashion was not a crime. Bulgaria scored its best ever Eurovision result in 2016, ranking fourth and receiving broadly similar acclaim from the public and the jury. I am also forced to award Bulgaria with the best on-stage dance move this year - look out for those catchy knee moves in Varna this summer.

Other notable moments of the night included the fifth ever Eurovision singer to perform pregnant: Ira Losco of Malta, who was also among the bookies' favourites to win. Having previously scored second for Malta in Eurovision 2002 in Tallinn, she ended up ranking 12th in 2016 with her very topically titled "Walk on Water". We know we were all wishing for her not to have to walk on water before her actual due date.

The controversy

Many of this year's Eurovision entries featured dreamy titles and lyrics. From Azerbaijan's "Miracle" to Greece's "Utopian Land", from Moldova's "Falling Stars" to Albania's "Fairytale", from Israel's "Made of Stars" to Georgia's "Midnight Glow", we were bracing ourselves for the classic happy-clappy, fetch-my-unicorn show that is the Eurovision. On that backdrop, Ukraine's victory with a dark, self-reflecting "1944" came not only as a surprise but also visibly outside the usual Eurovision format.

Several people have asked me how Ukraine's obviously politically inspired entry was allowed to participate in a contest that does not tire of emphasising its detachment from politics: indeed, in the past, other performers have been disqualified for attempting to introduce current politics into their lyrics. The answer here lies in the recency of the events in question. Jamala's "1944" was, according to the singer, covering the historical events of post-war Europe in the 1940s when thousands of Crimean Tatars were sent into exile by the then Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. Historical political events like that are allowed in Eurovision; never mind that, after a good night's sleep following her victory, Jamala woke up to realise that the song represented much more recent events in Crimea, too.

I myself woke up to widespread disappointment felt by Eurovision viewers across the world at this year's result. The majority have blamed the newly introduced voting system which, albeit different only in the presentation from the previous format, has failed to win hearts. Many of us hope it is not here to stay. Whoever remembers the ephemeral 2010 format change when the viewers were allowed to vote during the entire duration of Eurovision instead of the 15-minute time frame? It proved unpopular and was scrapped shortly after.

In any event, we are now left to look forward to next year's Eurovision Song Contest in Ukraine - and who knows which new participants we will have there following both China's and Kazakhstan's recent interest in joining the EBU. With Australia now an active member, very little can surprise an old Eurovision fan. It is clear though that the contest is growing to be a true international event. Stay tuned to find out!

Friday, 29 April 2016

Wedding destination: Falkland Islands

I cannot recall the first time I had the idea to get married in the Falkland Islands, but it seems like, in some form, I have always wanted to visit this remote archipelago. Conveniently, I also always wanted to travel to Chile, the country that happens to be one of the very few existing gateways to the Falklands.

After I met Alan – the man who very recently became my husband – I soon found out that he, too, dreamed of visiting the Falklands one day. Back then, I thought nothing more of it than a lucky coincidence for a joint holiday at some point in our lives.

Many associate the Falklands with penguins

I like to plan holidays literally years in advance and invested considerable time in devising a trip to Chile and the Falklands. Last spring, the plans had finally crystallised: the adventure would consist of two meticulously planned out weeks in Chile and one in the Falklands, and would likely happen around Easter 2016. Don't ask – travel planning really is one of my all-time favourite pastimes.

Then Alan and I got engaged in March 2015, and the looming trip gained an extra dimension. I do not like the concept of a "honeymoon"; bluntly, I find it somewhat outdated and redundant in modern times. However, we welcomed any excuse for a prolonged holiday, and decided to go with it – albeit still refusing to call it a "honeymoon" proper and using a "wedding trip" instead.

And what about the wedding?

Important things sorted, the next question was how and where to get married. A self-confessed introvert, I always dreaded even a small wedding (a big one would probably have me flee in minutes) and cared very little for any sort of party. Our first plan was therefore to sign a few papers in London some Saturday afternoon and be done with the whole marriage thing with minimal pain.

We generally like it peace and quiet

At the same time, it was tempting to do something a little more special and hopefully involving an adventure of some sort. It did not take long for us to decide to get married abroad (essentially elope), but where? Despite hailing from Latvia and having my parents there, I have lost most of my connections to the place. The wedding business in countries like Thailand and the Philippines is definitely on the rise, but we were not keen on following trends or spending our special day in obvious tourist locations. Moreover, we wanted to avoid dealing with translations or complications in the future should we pick an unusual jurisdiction.

The answer was nearer than we thought (though perhaps not immediately obvious to most readers): of course, the Falkland Islands! It is a UK Overseas Territory and, since we were already planning to go there, adding a wedding to the agenda seemed like a perfect solution. It would also pacify family and friends: we could excuse ourselves from inviting any guests as few people can reasonably be expected to fly half-way around the world for merely a wedding – especially to a destination they likely have little interest in.

Welcoming sign in Stanley harbour

Falklands where?

Most people have heard of the Falklands and have a rough idea where to find them on the world map. Just in case: the Falklands are an archipelago of about 800 islands in the South Atlantic Ocean, some 500km east of South American coast. The Falklands formally belong to the UK. Unfortunately, the archipelago shot up to front page headlines back in 1982 when it was briefly invaded by Argentina. UK came out victorious in the conflict, but Argentina continues to claim the Falklands to this day. Without taking any sides (difficult enough being British), I need to mention that the Falklands are known as "Islas Malvinas" in Argentina and generally the Spanish-speaking world.

Argentine plane debri on Pebble Island

Reaching the Falklands from the UK (and pretty much anywhere else) is not exactly easy. The most reliable way is by the sole existing commercial air link – operated by LAN, Chile's flag carrier – which runs once a week on Saturdays. This flight consists of 2-3 legs: from Santiago to Punta Arenas, then a short hop to Rio Gallegos in Argentina once a month, and finally on to Mount Pleasant, the principal airport of the Falklands. The door-to-door journey takes 7-8 hours – and remember you need to get to Chile first!

Believe it or not, there is also a semi-direct air link between the UK and the Falklands, namely the twice-weekly non-commercial flight operated by the UK Ministry of Defence from Brize Norton, Oxfordshire. A one-way journey takes around 20 hours, including a short refuelling stop on Ascension Island en route. The planes obviously aren't fighter jets, but rather civilian aircraft adapted for military use. Most passengers on this route are UK military personnel but some seats are sold to the general public. The primary reason to operate this air bridge is military, and civilians can easily be bumped off their flights to accommodate a sudden military need.

I digress however: it suffices to say that Alan and I could not risk missing our own wedding and opted for the LAN option. Conveniently, it was also significantly less expensive than the RAF's.

Flags in Christ Church Cathedral in Stanley; RAF flag is second right

Admin over romance

Understandably, we could not just show up at Stanley Town Hall demanding to get hitched. Since neither of us is a permanent resident of the Falklands, in order for us to get married there we had to apply for a special licence from the Falkland Islands' Governor. This consisted of a notarised written declaration from each of us about our intention to marry, proofs of address, notarised copies of our passports and a fee – nothing unusual compared to the rest of the UK.

The application took two weeks to reach the Falklands from London – by DHL! We received the Governor's licence another couple of weeks later, agreed the date and time with the Registrar in Stanley and were nearly set to get married.

Finally, internet search helped me to find a Stanley-based photographer, with whom I arranged to take a few shots of our special day – as well as double as our witness. Strangely enough, despite having acquaintances all over the world between us, neither Alan nor I knew anyone in the Falklands. The assistant registrar was going to be our second witness, and the matter was closed.

Our marriage certificate, the perfect Falklands souvenir

I do, I do, I do

Long story short, time flew by in a flash and our departure day came. Having a long trip through Chile in front of me – including a 5-day hike through autumnal Patagonia – I could not afford to pack anything non-essential, including such luxuries as a wedding dress. Thankfully, I didn't really need one for a simple civil ceremony.

For a laugh, I was going to get married in my full windproof / waterproof gear (Falklands can get chilly in April), but Alan (the wiser one) convinced me to bring one non-crease dress along. It was perfect – the dress being well worn, I did not have to worry about ruining it in transit. As for Alan, he donned black jeans and a white shirt – one of many identical ones he wears to work on a daily basis. We then chose the wedding date we could easily remember, namely 12 April 2016 (12 + 4 = 16). As you can see, we did not preoccupy ourselves too much with trivialities.

Already married and posing away

We showed up at Stanley Town Hall at the agreed time and found it surreal to be greeted by the people we had spent months communicating with but never before met in person. Having been somewhat overwhelmed by the importance of the occasion since morning, I found myself at ease at exactly the right time. Seeing how stressed I was, we once again knew we had made the right choice opting for a mini-wedding far away from the madding crowds. Anything more would have been torture, especially the mandatory wedding programmes so religiously followed in the UK.

The ceremony lasted for about 10 minutes, after which we had a good laugh being photographed pretending to sign the marriage certificate in the backdrop of the Falklands' flag – it is apparently illegal to have one's photo taken actually signing an original legal document under English law. Our photographer then drove us around to pose by the nearby landmarks including Christ Cathedral, Whale Bone Arch and Lady Elizabeth ship wreck. All of those are instantly recognisable sights of Stanley – though, understandably, only by a selected group of people!

Happy newlyweds in front of Lady Elizabeth ship wreck

And then? Then, to the pouring words of congratulations on Facebook, we grabbed a pint of the Peat Cutter – wonderful local stout – and disappeared inside Stanley's fascinating Historic Dockyard Museum. Because, frankly, nobody was expecting us to do that first dance.

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View my photos of the Falkland Islands here and my photos of Chile here

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Monday, 8 February 2016

Marriage myths

As most of you already know, 2015 was a landmark year for Alan and I. Just over 10 months ago, we got engaged and have been looking forward to sharing our lives with each other as a married couple ever since.

And, as a natural consequence to any marriage, we cannot wait to embark on a magnificent honeymoon, buy a house and never again travel separately.

Except we won’t. Ever since our engagement became public, we have been exposed to an endless list of the usual marriage stereotypes that friends feel they must project onto one, for reason no other than because everyone else they know does things in a certain way. I am not sure if these odd presumptions apply to the United Kingdom alone or the first world in general: the truth is that Alan and I have spent the past 10 months answering the very same questions about our future plans.

To avoid any further confusion on the subject, I am taking the liberty to go through the list of my self-defined “marriage myths”: the socially acceptable patterns of newlyweds’ behaviour we are shamelessly planning to breach. Not on purpose or anything, but simply because we never realised, until recently, how little room for manoeuvre newlyweds actually had. Had I known, I would have rejected that proposal altogether! But I digress.

Here goes a short list of false assumptions which our friends, acquaintances and strangers have made about our future together, since last March to date.


Myth # 1: We are planning a honeymoon

Because of course everyone is planning a honeymoon: the only people not planning one these days are, surely, limited to two groups: one, people who cannot afford it and, two, people who marry so late into their cohabiting relationship that a honeymoon no longer seems like an exciting idea.

I disagree: I have disliked the idea of a honeymoon from the start. I mean, what is the origin of a honeymoon? Ignoring some rumours that it originated as a deadline to impregnate a stolen bride to prevent the parents from trying to retrieve her, a honeymoon in my mind is a chance for a chaste couple to experience certain physical pleasures together for the first time. It is also a time to get away for a couple who is otherwise returning to live with their parents and therefore needs every bit of privacy it can get.

A honeymoon in a modern Western society? Sorry, to me it is nothing more than a social convention, albeit a nice one. Alan and I have travelled as a couple before, and we plan to continue travelling as a married couple. But necessarily embarking on a journey right after getting married and calling it a certain name? That is probably not going to happen.

So the plan, for now, is that I head out to Chile alone at the end of March, meet Alan in Punta Arenas a bit later to catch the flight to the Falklands together and stay there for a week. Among a variety of other activities like visiting the Pebble Island and driving around East Falkland, we plan to tie the knot quietly in the local registry office in Stanley. Call it honeymoon or whatever – may penguins and sheep be our witnesses.

Myth # 2. We are buying a house

Every newly married couple I know in the UK started nesting even before the ringing of the formal wedding bells. It seems to be an accepted practice in this country to start your happy life together by taking on an enormous amount of debt to buy what usually is property of questionable quality (years spent in the Nordics have ruined me for life) located even further away from where you work than before. As a result, you join the vast crowds of commuters bussed and trained into London (or any other big city) on a daily basis. Often, the property is not up to your liking straight away, requiring even more investment in the time to follow, thus reducing savings and increasing debt.

We possibly have a cultural clash here. Coming from Latvia, where the percentage of renters vs. home owners is greater than in the UK (please don’t ask me to find the numbers), I am not that obsessed with the idea of owning a home, especially for the price of a little fortune. An avid traveller, I also fret at the idea of reducing my travel budget for the sole reason of moving into a poorly constructed, claustrophobic terrace house somewhere in Peckham or Dulwich – the places which seem to be “happening” for young working couples these days. I am also lucky to have a very appreciative landlady who has hardly raised my rent for years.

What about pension, you say? Some of you may remember that Alan and I became proud owners of a beautiful flat in a newbuild structure in Riga last year. In a way, this is our pension home, hopefully answering everybody’s question: no, we are not buying a(nother) home after getting married.

Myth # 3. I will never travel alone again

I recently met two old friends – a married couple – whose first question was how many countries I still wanted to visit before the wedding. Excuse me: had I realised there was a cut-off date, I would have never agreed to the deal in the first place.

I guess the thinking here was twofold: first, that it would be unfair for one party of the marriage to spend time separately from the other, and, second, that no party in the marriage would want to spend time away from the other, anyway. To tackle these in order: first, Alan is very supportive of me continuing to travel, especially given that I have about four times more holiday than his self-employed self. He works a great deal out of Germany, and I try to travel when he is actually abroad too. And, second, I have managed, in my 32 years as an unmarried person, to accumulate habits and hobbies – such as travelling solo for pleasure – which could not possibly change overnight.

There could be another aspect here, having to do with jealousy: that dark time of my life when I was dating a manically controlling person, I was indeed forbidden to travel on my own. I can only feel sorry for anyone in such an unhealthy relationship.

So my response is no: I am planning solo trips even after marriage. I will be visiting Bolivia and taking a handful of weekend trips entirely alone this year – only with a new ring on my finger.

Myth # 4. I am moving to Germany

There seems to be a widespread belief that a new wife has to follow her husband everywhere. It is a well-known fact that Alan works in London on some days only because I am here, and would otherwise be based in Dusseldorf full-time. As a good wife, I should perhaps give up my London job and look for opportunities in the glorious state of North Rhine Westphalia.

Or not necessarily. I am amazed by how many couples maintain a certain lifestyle choice for ages while dating and then shift their ways dramatically as a result of a simple change in the marital status. Dating is supposed to be training ground for marriage, and changes after the nuptials should be minimal. Somehow though it is women in particular that are expected to comply with some societal norms as soon as the marriage certificate is duly issued by the relevant authority. If anything, why couldn’t Alan rather move to London than the other way around?

The silent relocation rule is slowly giving way to reality: a rising number of new couples base themselves across borders and even continents. I personally know a married couple where he lives in Istanbul and she in New York, have done so for years and are having a second child together. Another couple spreads itself between Birmingham and Brussels. Yet another is based in both Latvia and India at alternate times, thanks to jobs that allow them plenty of working from home – but not being together all the time. There certainly are disadvantages to such arrangements, but the major plus is being able to pursue each other’s dream jobs in the optimal locations. And, despite being somewhat disenchanted with my job at the moment, I still prefer this suboptimal status quo to a blind leap into unemployment in a new country.

Myth # 5. I am changing my name

I am not sure why I am even discussing it. Some women take their husband’s last name after marriage to “be more like a family”, some women find that doing so in their home country is illegal, and some women curse the moment they orchestrated the change and reclaim their maiden names shortly after a divorce. I have heard stories from friends about certain pressure from husbands for the name change, but the choice is (mostly) up to the women.

There is one local aspect about Latvian grammar, however, that has sealed my decision regarding any name change forever. In Latvian language, foreign names are changed to fit a stiff grammatical framework. Every noun has to have one of six permitted endings: -s, -is, -us (masculine) and –a, -e, -s (feminine). Foreign names failing that (i.e., most of them) get the appropriate ending ruthlessly added.

Moreover, Latvian language is nearly entirely phonetic and cannot accept many languages’ creativity with pronunciation. To put it into perspective, a man called Jones would be “Dzounss” in Latvian, and a lady called Clinton – “Klintone”. I will not spell out my fiance’s last name, but I assure you it would start with a different letter in my Latvian passport and look nothing like his altogether.

To state the obvious, I have no plans to change my name.

Myth # 6. We are immediately having children

I notice with many newly married couples that the first offspring pops out bang 9 months after that magical first dance. And that is frankly wonderful: I imagine a formal marriage is for many a signal that the relationship truly is serious enough to start bringing little people into the world.

On that myth, I have no answer. Many of you have heard about my dichotomous attitude to children. On the one hand, I enjoyed my stint as a babysitter of infants years ago; on the other, I have sort of lost interest in children now that most people my age that I know have them. All are fairly normal little creatures that tend to look cute on photos but are apparently far less cute in the everyday life.

I have also been slightly put off by how inaccessible friends typically become once a new family member arrives. Alan and I recently attended a housewarming party for some friends: we arrived duly armed with a bottle of wine and flowers, only to see a carefully arranged pile of colourful presents in the garden: the “housewarming” was really a birthday party for our friends’ toddler. Soon other parents with young children arrived and, for the rest of the event, Alan and I kept each other company while failing, miserably, to get past apologetic smiles with people who all knew each other and each other’s children and did not seem to be the least bit interested in the odd childless couple that happened to be present. We ran away eventually, vowing to each other never to lose friends to our little monsters – if we ever decide to have any.

Notwithstanding the above, I did however comply with one marriage myth that I myself used to swear I would never fall for: the wedding dress. I used to insist it was a waste of money, but Alan himself went online, chose the wedding dress he wanted me to try on – and convinced me to buy it. I will certainly not be able to wear it in the Falklands (it is too cold there), but for our photo shoot in Greece in June? Certainly yes. Stay tuned!


Saturday, 9 January 2016

2016 Travel plan: Scaling down

I have just returned from a 2-week marathon through Colombia. There will hopefully be a separate post on that trip, but my spoiler alert is that the country lived up to my expectations beautifully. While I cannot say I preferred Colombia to my usual winter visits to Asia, being on the other side of the meridian had its charms, too.

2016 is already pushing forward, and so are my travel plans. The end of last year was so mad at work that I did not have the energy or desire, even in my spare time, to sit down and plan our my year’s worth of travels properly for 2016. Corporate pressure is still ripe, but I am finally getting around to deciding where 2016 takes me.

I have to make a confession here: I may have overdone it a bit with travel in 2015, when several long-haul holidays and weekend breaks made planning for and recovering from travel almost another full-time job in addition to my existing one. While I usually plan trips months in advance to minimise costs, I was also amazed to discover that spontaneous trips – like my buzz-off to FYR Macedonia last August – were sometimes even more fun that those meticulously contemplated a year early.

Given that I expect 2016 to be crazier than ever before at work, I plan to scale down my travel a little. Faraway trips in exotic places are difficult to give up, but I will try and avoid booking too many weekends away, especially consecutive ones. I am at the stage of my life (and age) when interchanging a demanding job with treks to London airports and abroad destinations endlessly is less fun than before. Being tired somewhere – even places as exciting as Sicily or Wroclaw – has too often resulted in almost forcing myself to get out and take photos without appreciating the experience as much as I should have. Sometimes I would rather just chill in London or travel in a more paced manner, and I plan to do more of it in 2016.

I am not stopping travelling altogether though! 2016 is promising to be exciting and different, with visits to five continents and at least three new countries. Below you will find the list of my planned destinations for this year:
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1. Bari, Italy (February): I have never been a big enthusiast for Italy. Fellow philhellenes will understand me here: my total adoration of all things Greece is well known, so why overfocus on a country that looks and behaves roughly like Greece in places, but isn’t one? The language freak in me also prefers to visit countries whose languages I speak at least to some degree, so I will always choose Spain (my Spanish is broken but lives on), the Slavic Balkans (my Serbian is surprisingly resilient despite the lack of practice) and, naturally, Greece (in whose language I consider myself fluent) over less understandable Mediterranean destinations.

And yet! While recently scouring the internet for decently priced European weekend destinations in the off-season, I came across a very competitive fare to Bari from Stansted. A quick image search confirmed that the place was acceptably pretty and by the seaside – and what else would a girl with a camera want? I can even live with being a dumb Anglophone tourist for a couple of days.

This is marina in Palermo, Sicily. Could easily be Greece, right?
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2. Chile (March / April): Chile is quite possibly my single most coveted destination of the past few years. I have already visited Argentina, and was left absolutely speechless about Patagonia’s majestic beauty. I very much seek to rekindle this feeling in Chile, which, like Argentina, hosts plenty of Patagonia’s natural wonders.

Chile is by far the most painstakingly planned out trip in my calendar at the moment. It took me many evenings of concentration, but here goes: in 2.5 weeks, I will explore the capital city of Santiago and the remote Easter Island before taking a long transfer to the Torres del Paine National Park where I will spend five days hiking the so-called “W Circuit” of the park from Refugio Torres to Glaciar Grey. I will then backtrack to Punta Arenas in the country’s extreme south and fly a tiny plane to Puerto Williams, a remote settlement on the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. Alan will be waiting for me in Punta Arenas when I return a couple of days later.

The Argentine Patagonia is probably the most strikingly beautiful place I have ever visited
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3. Falkland Islands (April): Another advantage of Chile is that it provides one of only two existing air links to the Falkland Islands (please do not use the “M-word” here), which both Alan and I have wanted to visit for a significant amount of time. We will finally be able to realise this dream in April by visiting the remote archipelago briefly from Chile. Scheduled commercial flights to the Falklands from Chile only run once weekly – on Saturdays, from Punta Arenas – so we will be confined to the Falklands for an entire seven days. Oh joy!

Most tourists visit the islands as part of the (expensive) cruise from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the Antarctic territories. Thankfully, the tourist flow will have subsided by April, and it will be a great privilege to spend an entire week on the Falklands rather than a few days included in your typical cruise. We plan to base ourselves in the main town of Stanley, as well as rent a car to explore the East Falkland island and fly a small government plane to Pebble Island for a couple of days of even more solitude than in the sparsely populated Stanley.

Most importantly, Alan and I plan to get married in the Falklands. We have always wanted to elope, so why not do so to some place eerily isolated yet sharing English legislation? I was never one to dream of a big wedding – a sole idea of even a small wedding sends shivers of horror down my spine – and tying the knot in the Falklands would ensure that nobody would ever want to invite themselves! May our friends and family please forgive us.

Fix your economy, Argentina, and leave our islands alone

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4. Serifos / Paros / Antiparos, Greece (June): I make my pilgrimages to the Greek shores yearly; thankfully, Alan appears to be coming out equally a fan. In June, I will first visit the Cycladic island of Serifos alone before meeting Alan on Paros and jointly visiting the latter’s smaller satellite, Antiparos. Besides enjoying the obvious magnets of Greece like the sparkling Aegean and fresh seafood, Alan and I plan to engage a professional photographer to take our wedding photos on Paros. The professional in question is from South Africa but permanently based on Paros, takes amazing pictures and has won awards – needless to say I am glad we booked him early.

So will we be getting married again on Paros, I hear you ask? No – we will in fact shamelessly cheat as we pose in our wedding attire in the backdrop of the stunning Greek blue and white, so alone and unburdened by the dark aspects of your typical English wedding.

Windmill in Parikia, Paros - the instantly recognisable sight of the Cyclades
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5. Bolivia (August / September): As you can see, my 2016 is shaping up to be heavily tilted towards South America! I have long planned to visit Bolivia, and have chosen the local winter time to do so. British Airways are starting to serve Peru’s capital Lima soon, and, as a loyal BA fan, I plan to take that flight to catch a connection to La Paz in Bolivia. I will then take things easy as I acclimatise, spending some quiet time in La Paz and on the magnificent Lake Titicaca before visiting the colonial gems of Sucre and Potosi and descending to what possibly is the world’s most famous salt flat, Salar de Uyuni. I will spend 2-3 days freezing to my bones there and then cross the border into Chile.

Yes, with Chile being a stretched out country that it is, I stand absolutely no chance of visiting its northern part on my earlier 2016 trip. Thankfully, the beauties of Chile’s Atacama desert are within easy reach from Uyuni. I plan to explore the area in detail before flying out to Santiago and onwards to London.

Salta in Argentina is also within easy reach of Uyuni
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6. Ishigaki, Japan (October): I had originally planned to visit Turkmenistan for a week in October, but changed my mind after realising, in Bhutan, how difficult it was for me to follow an organised tour (there is no way to visit Turkmenistan independently). I put forward a number of alternative destinations to Alan, who chose Japan – naturally, as he is a big fan. I have already been to Japan twice: first on a 2.5 week zoom around the “mainland” in 2013 and second on a 2-day stopover in Okinawa with Alan in 2014. My fiancé got so enamoured with Japan he has been talking about revisiting ever since – and of course I love Japan too!

It is a lesser known fact that Japan owns several tropical islands, located nearer Taiwan than Japan proper. Given time constraints, Alan and I will focus on Ishigaki, the second largest island of the Yaeyama archipelago. We also plan to take day-trips to Taketomi and Iriomote islands in the vicinity. Okinawa was the place with the best food on my travel memory, and I very much hope that Ishigaki will live up to the  same high standard.

Zamami-jima island does not look typically Japanese
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7. New Zealand (December): I know – I have been “planning” to visit New Zealand for about four Christmases now, but always changed my mind at the last minute. This time it is hopefully all set: I will fly to New Zealand at the end of the year to be among the first citizens on earth to clock in 2017. I am not fully clear on the itinerary yet, but I have a feeling I will need to stick to either North or South Island and leave the other for another visit. Since I am keen on warmth during the European winter, I may choose the tropical North Island. On the other hand, I imagine the South Island as superior in natural beauty and striking vistas. As said, I am undecided – any advice on this is welcome.
~~~~~

So that’s the plan! There will of course be other trips: I will probably slot in places like Spain and Romania in the mix at some point. I have also had the Channel Islands grow on me recently, and will try to visit a new island in the archipelago in 2016. And there will most certainly be at least one trip each to my old haunts of Helsinki and Athens, as well as multiple visits to Riga.

So please stay tuned and I hope I will be seeing many of you this year. Have a good one!

Sunday, 20 December 2015

2015 Newsletter

Another year is knocking on the door. I am writing this last post of 2015 in Colombia where I arrived in the wee hours this very morning to spend what’s left of 2015 in relative peace.

I suspect that I will not be looking forward to leaving Colombia and returning to the stress that life and work in London have become. In several ways, 2015 was a challenging year. Work at my supposedly calm development institution of an employer has been overflowing, with ever piling demands and enormous pressure. From various factors (on which I will not elaborate here), I have started fearing I was not a particularly good employee – arguably a hard realisation to live with for a perfectionist like me. But I may of course be overreacting.

Work aside – and I mean it when I say work has been difficult to put aside in the past year – my 2015 has looked unquestionably spectacular. First, I have passed a Greek language attainment exam and achieved “Excellent” in the B2 (vantage) level, reliving that long-forgotten ecstatic feeling when, years ago, I was a diligent university student.

In an even more joyous moment, by March I had finally become a British citizen and got engaged to the man of my dreams, my best friend and ultimate source of support, my Alan. And, later in the year, our flat in Riga had finally been completed. Given neither of us is based permanently in Riga, furnishing the flat has so far been slow, but we are getting there.

Perhaps at the expense of stellar work performance, I continued to fight the corporate manacles to travel the world as much as I could. I will have set foot in 18 countries by year-end, four of which will be first-timers. A modest achievement in light of several preceding years, I think this is nevertheless impressive given the unending demands, from a number of sources, on my free time – the demands I see as unlikely to ease any time soon.

One of my most cherished memories of 2015, Himalayan range from a Bhutan-bound plane

2015 IN REVIEW: WINTER

But let us begin! The departing year started in the most exciting way possible – on top of a high-rise hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Alan and I dancing away to the sound of the 1980s under the popping fireworks. Alan even clumsily tried to propose at some point, which the alcohol in my system laughed off, forcing the poor fellow to wait for the next suitable moment. We later travelled to Kandy, an important Buddhist site in Sri Lanka and the country’s former capital, and Negombo – a beach town not far from the international airport. Sri Lanka was a little more touristy than I had expected, and far less relaxing than Burma where I stayed for two weeks before Sri Lanka – so, if I ever come back, it will most certainly be off-season.

Panoramic view of Kandy

Young Buddhist monks in Kandy

Negombo beach

Following our return to London, we settled into a quiet routine for a couple of months. Alan was still working solely out of Germany, visiting London on alternate weekends, and I took a break from travel for a while – until, at the end of February, I briefly visited the city of Wroclaw in Poland. Unexpectedly, it swiftly became my favourite Polish city for its beautifully restored centre and plenty of interesting sites. I also travelled to a small spa town of Kudowa-Zdrój on the Czech border to visit the most charming retired couple I know, Pierre-Yves and Urszula – who gave me a fantastic tour of their modest surroundings, including a 5-minute walk across the Czech border and back.

Central square in Wroclaw

Pierre-Yves and Urszula, Kudowa-Zdrój

At the end of February, I attended a Project Finance International award ceremony for one of the projects I worked on in Turkey. The event was presented by Jimmy Carr in very person, and I even had a group photo taken with the man. I cannot say I enjoyed Carr’s rather specific humour, which was even more sexist than usual thanks to the heavily dominant presence of macho banker men. At least they looked suitably entertained!

With that offensive character

As the winter was coming to an end, two important events happened – one good and one not so. On the good side, Alan finally managed to gather up the courage to try and propose without me laughing it off in the end. And on the bad side, just a day after our engagement I had my worst bicycle crash ever. I fell yet another victim to London cabbies’ terrible habit of opening doors into the traffic: the door slammed open suddenly, hitting me between the middle and ring fingers of the left hand and forcing me to fly over the door and crash on the ground with my right set of ribs. It took me a few seconds to regain the ability to breathe as I squirmed in pain. Overcome by shock, I somehow let the cabby convince me I was fine and drive off – it was only after he left, unscathed, that I regained my senses and headed to an A&E unit. Miraculously, nothing was broken, but the ribs took months to stop hurting – and the hand was swollen for similarly long.

On the bright side, I was not wearing my engagement ring during the crash – judging by the state of my ring finger, it would have certainly been destroyed by the power of the collision. I have been wearing the ring on my right hand ever since; in a lucky coincidence, that also turned out to be the Russian Orthodox way.

2015 IN REVIEW: SPRING

The memories of the bike crash still fresh in my head, the beginning of spring welcomed me with some much-needed good news. On 3 March, my long-term dream of becoming a British citizen finally came true. I attended a British citizenship ceremony, swearing allegiance to the Queen and singing along to the national anthem for the first time in my new capacity. I was very fortunate to have Alan share this memorable day with me, and we used the chance to announce our engagement to the world – many of you had commented how clever it was of Alan to time his proposal with my citizenship ceremony, and I am terribly sorry to disappoint!

Getting photobombed by Her Majesty, again

To my great regret, I could not apply for the British passport straight away – doing so required me to part with my Latvian passport for some time, which I could not do having gone into a full-on travel mode. First, in early March I travelled to Cairo and Damanhour in Egypt for work. Egypt is not the country I particularly enjoy visiting – reasons include wild traffic, persistent stares, the necessity to wear my least favourite item of clothing (trousers) and the clients’ propensity to smoke during meetings. Given I work in development however, I should not complain.

I then sandwiched in a quick weekend in Slovakia – Bratislava and Trenčín – before heading straight to another business trip, this time to Egypt’s complete opposite, Georgia. It was an exciting third visit to the country: after enjoying Tbilisi for a couple of days, my colleagues and I drove to the seaside jewel of Batumi to attend a financial close event for one of our projects. I got to listen to live speeches by some high-profile guests, including Georgia’s Prime Minister and Minister of Energy, the latter famously known as the former international footballer, Kakha Kaladze.

Central Tbilisi seen from Narikala Castle

Batumi skyline by night

Done with business trips for a while, I embarked on my first long getaway of the year, to Iran. I had meticulously planned this visit for months, overcoming obstacles like (i) the earlier closure of the Iranian Embassy in London, meaning that the Iranian visa cost me around £300; (ii) the need to pack a stack of dollars and plan my budget religiously as western credit cards absolutely do not work in Iran; and (iii) limited choice of attire to avoid my much hated western trousers – a staple for Iranian ladies. I was grateful for the multiple salwar khameez combinations I had earlier bought in India. Fully compliant with the strict Iranian dress code, salwar khameez had one major disadvantage: no-one else was wearing it so I was attracting attention at all times – as well as asked which “part of Pakistan” I was from.

My many outfits in Iran

Obstacles aside, Iran absolutely blew my mind. I flew into the north-western city of Tabriz near Azerbaijan, admiring the UNESCO heritage site of the Old Bazaar and the stunning Kandovan village nearby. I then travelled to Tehran, which turned out to be a surprisingly modern and beautiful city with a fabulous gold bazaar. I was breath-taken by the quiet Kashan where I got to explore amazing old merchant houses and, courtesy of a kind local, run atop the endless roof of the local covered bazaar. Past the stunning red village of Abyaneh, I arrived in timeless Esfahan which amazed me with its vast squares, bridges and elaborate mosques. In Yazd, I got to explore the ancient city and party hard with a local family who met me by chance and “adopted” me for the night. I found the city of Kerman less interesting than expected, but the nearby Kaluts desert and sand formations – absolutely superb. Finally, on my last stop in the famous city of Shiraz, I had a whale of a time meeting locals and tasting some home-made wine – which almost made me miss my morning flight out of the country, but that is a different story altogether.

Kandovan village near Tabriz

Local lady in Yazd

Masjed-e Sheikh Lotfollah, Esfahan

Immediately after returning, I was off to Slovenia for work, and then back in the holiday mode as Alan and I flew to India for a week. We had both been to India separately before, but never together, so it was natural that we wanted to visit places previously unseen to both of us. From Chennai, we travelled to the archipelago of the Andaman Islands, which belong to India for historic reasons but lie much nearer Indochina. We spent a few blissful days on the island of Havelock, enjoying excellent seafood for our every meal and taking countless photos on the beach. Back on the mainland, we made a day-trip to Puducherry, which was so sweltering hot in May that we had to seek refuge in the nearest air-conditioned hotel over some 1.5 litres of (tax-free) chilled beer. It was a wonderful trip to celebrate our engagement.

Gandhi statue in Chennai

Sunset on Radhanagar beach, Havelock island

Paradise beach in the east, Havelock island

Finally, we closed off the spring with a 3-day visit to Greece. It was Alan’s first visit to the country – I stopped counting mine a long time ago – and he absolutely loved it. We hopped over from Athens to the small island of Angistri in the Saronic Gulf, made friends with our hotel owner and circled the island several times in her car. We also watched Eurovision broadcast live in a seaside café, by far the most scenic Eurovision-accompanying venue I have ever experienced. Alan was so impressed with Greece he cannot stop talking about buying property there. Let’s hope it happens!

Sunset over Mesochori harbour, Angistri

Church of Agioi Argyroi in Skala, Angistri

2015 IN REVIEW: SUMMER

My travel extravaganza finally came under control in June, and I could finally apply for my British passport. I collected it on 11 June and christened it on another business trip to Georgia at the end of the month. I visited the country’s second largest city of Kutaisi and three future hydroelectric sites in the remote regions of Racha and Svaneti. It is amazing to think that, despite having visited so many parts of Georgia, I still have a lifetime worth of exploration to do.

My favourite view of Tbilisi Old Town

Kutaisi from Bagrati Cathedral

Lukhuni river, Racha region

Earlier in June, I had the pleasure of introducing Alan to my nearest family: several aunties and cousins in Ventspils, Latvia. Alan held out like a hero to his traditional welcome of vodka and spanking in the Russian sauna accompanied by live schlager music – I certainly made the right choice of a life partner there. We also got a photographer to take a few professional photos of us in Riga.

That tough induction for an Englishman

Alan and I all posy in Riga

July brought two quick trips to the island of Jersey in the Channel Islands and Stavanger in Norway. In Jersey, having initially wondered why accommodation was so hard to come by that weekend, Alan and I realised we had inadvertently timed our visit with the Island Games 2015: the sporting event for residents of various islands (yes, really). This made the atmosphere in the main town of St. Helier quite joyous; as a bonus, we got to see the most unusual combinations of sports jerseys in the streets: Falklands met Åland, Faroes placated the Isle of Man and Shetland celebrated loudly with Saaremaa.

Corbiere point and lighthouse in south-western Jersey

On my second visit to Stavanger, I did the famous Kjerag hike and admired the sight of the subtly glowing Lysefjord, my favourite fjord in Norway. I summoned all my courage to step onto the notorious Kjeragbolten boulder wedged in the rock at the end of the hike – but I lasted nowhere near long enough to have my photo taken there, let alone strike a smiley pose. Other tourists did not really seem to mind the sheer drop of about 1 km down to Lysefjord beneath their feet though: hat off to them.

Steep drop towards Lysefjord from Kjerag

Come August, I used up a bonus day off to travel to the cheapest destination I could find at short notice: Skopje, FYR Macedonia. Skopje decidedly entertained me with grotesque recent additions to its cityscape as part of the “Skopje 2014” revamp. I was soon on my way to a much prettier part of the country, the Mavrovo National Park. The place is best known for its ski resorts and fills up in the skiing season; at the height of the summer though, it was fabulously calm. I was amazed by Mavrovo’s outstanding hiking opportunities: on my 20 km hike from Mavrovo to Galicnik, the only creatures I met were shepherds accompanied by sheep (obviously) and angry shepherd dogs. Not a single fellow hiker in the region known for outstanding natural beauty: I like to call it paradise.

Remodelled Macedonia Square and "War on a Horse", Skopje

New Church of St. Nicholas' and Mavrovo Lake, Mavrovo

Alan and I also visited two destinations together in August: Helsinki and Mumbai. In Helsinki, the city I call home having studied there years ago, I saw many friends including a very special guest to the city, my Romanian “sis” Denisa. Mumbai was a spontaneous weekend trip which, no matter how short, we did not regret. Our Indian visas were still valid from the Andamans visit, and we spent two wonderful days catching up with old friends, Avi and Shruti, crashing another friend’s birthday party, shopping for beautiful embroidered fabrics – and, naturally, swimming in the outdoor pool at the Taj Hotel. It is only with Alan that I finally discovered how relaxing India can be behind high walls of a 5-star hotel.

Man relaxing on Oval Maidan, Mumbai

The highlight of August was the 80th birthday celebration of Chris, Alan’s father and my future father-in-law. The man is among the kindest and funniest (old) chaps I know, and I really enjoyed the small family gathering in Spalding, Lincolnshire to mark the occasion.

All smiles in Spalding

2015 IN REVIEW: AUTUMN

The autumn season opened with much awaited news of our Riga flat – our first baby together – being completed and ready for take-over. We signed all the papers and became co-landlords on 11 September. The interior of the flat is edging ahead slowly, but there is already a bed, a wardrobe, a sofa, an armchair, a bookcase and a washing machine – though no kitchen yet. I even took a day-trip to Helsinki in October to load up on my much adored Marimekko textiles for the flat. Another welcoming piece of news was Alan’s work schedule: he started working one week in three out of London, meaning our encounters became more frequent.

Alan and I raising wine glasses (with champagne) on the balcony of our new flat

At the end of September, I was desperate for a longer holiday and travelled to Greece for a week of (so I thought) enjoying cloudless skies. Little did I know that I was going to experience a full-on Aegean storm lasting 24 hours and spitting out lightning and thunder every few minutes! I still greatly enjoyed the four new islands I visited in just over a week: (i) Kos, a victim of its own popularity, which I only lingered on for a few hours; (ii) Nisyros famous for its amazing volcano caldera; (iii) Tilos where I was stunned by the eerie abandoned village of Mikro Chorio and followed amazing mountain paths; and (iv) Kalymnos from which I expected nothing and which amazed me most – I have not seen friendlier locals on any other island in Greece. And I can be trusted, for I have visited 38!

Agios Theologos Church in Nikia, Nisyros

Mikro Chorio village, Tilos

Boat sailing into the sunset off Myrties, Kalymnos

Unable to wait till next year, I paid a weekend visit to the Greek island of Kerkyra (Corfu) in early October, only to repack within an hour of my return to London and head back to Gatwick airport to fly to Dubrovnik, Croatia. This time it was a work affair: my colleagues and I spent two days in Dubrovnik and two nearby islands, Šipan and Lopud, on a so-called team retreat. Many of you have pointed out how lucky I was to visit Croatia on leisurely work (or “working leisure”?), but trust me, few things are less fun than being surrounded by all your seniors – including the lady boss – all clad in trunks and bikinis.

Main village beach of Lopud island near Dubrovnik

Things desperately speeding up at work for the year-end, I managed to escape on a much awaited 10-day holiday in Bhutan. It was decidedly the most expensive trip I have ever undertaken and, in retrospect, I would possibly have chosen to go elsewhere. That said, Bhutan was superb in its unique culture and traditions. I took a rather classic round trip from Paro to the capital of Thimphu, the Punakha valley, the Phobjikha valley and the cultural heartland of Bumthang. Bhutan amazed me with its unspoilt nature – 70 percent of its territory is covered with forests and many a mountain peak embrace its borders – and spoilt me with its unusual cuisine, so unlike in the neighbouring India and Nepal but, reportedly, close to the traditional Tibetan fare. I was also breath-taken by the tsechu (Buddhist festival featuring masked dancers in bright costumes) at Jakar Dzong (fortress) in Bumthang. In short, I highly recommend Bhutan to all those with deep pockets!

Taktshang Goemba (Tiger's Nest Monastery)

Bhutanese girl watching the tsechu at Jakar Dzong, Bumthang

View from Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten complex near Punakha

It was head-first into work on my return, but I managed a couple more weekends away before calling it a year: to Edinburgh and Sicily. In Edinburgh, Alan and I met some of my friends from the days when I used to spend all my free time in Scotland and sported a Scottish accent, as well as took shelter from the endless rain in the city’s cosy pubs. It was also in Edinburgh that we enjoyed what was quite possibly my favourite meal of the year, at the Skerries restaurant near Murrayfield.

Incredibly rainy Edinburgh from Calton Hill

I had unforgivably little time to explore Sicily, but was able to visit two cities, Palermo and Cefalù. They could not have been more different: the former was large, dirty and chaotic while popular Cefalù – pleasantly calm and tourist-free at the end of November.

Cefalù town beach

View from La Rocca towards Cefalù

BRING ON 2016

As we bid farewell to 2015, I want to wish you and your families a wonderful festive season and a New Year of your dreams! May 2016 bring with it all the good things that 2015 perhaps lacked. Here goes also to many exciting adventures and discoveries of shores unknown!

~~~View my Flickr photo albums and my 2015: Year in Pictures photo highlights of 2015~~~

~~~Follow me on Instagram @ anutele~~

Happy New Year!