Monday, 20 October 2014

Blind date: The danger of high expectations

Three years ago I got set up on my first blind date – the only one I have had to, well, date. The uniqueness of the experience is possibly the reason my memories from the night are still vividly clear: to the point that I finally feel ready to lay them out in this blog.

I will begin by setting the concept of a “blind date” apart from a date arranged through an online dating site. Blind dates proper involve an intermediary – usually a mutual friend of the two – who facilitates the introduction and communicates bilateral interest in meeting. Having someone you know “vet” the date in this way serves as a form of a safeguard here (unless you suspect any of your friends could knowingly set you up with a serial killer, of course). On the contrary, online dates are arranged without any assistance besides the internet.

Before the age of social networking sites and smartphones, it was almost guaranteed that one would have no idea of their blind date’s appearance and personal information prior to the physical meeting. The mutual friend chiefly responsible for the introduction could sometimes produce a photo or two ahead of the date, but, even as recently as a few years ago, such photos were unlikely to be particularly representative.

Things have changed dramatically with the arrival of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and little devices that help us to post instantaneously to such sites. Running a virtual background check on someone you are being set up with is all too easy now: knowing as little as their name enables you to locate them swiftly and even to become “connected” on social networking sites before meeting in person. The sudden overload of personal information can then fuel the fantasy on both sides, building up great suspense and a whole string of expectations.

“Single and ready to mingle”

Three years ago, I was what I described as “happily single”: not particularly interested in dating for the sake of it but willing to consider an odd worthy candidate. After reading one of the more popular relationship rants this blog was once well known for, an acquaintance of mine (let’s call her Chardonnay) suggested I met one of her good mates. According to her, he was “single and ready to mingle” and we would most certainly “hit it off”, if for reason no other than the gentleman in question being Norwegian.

I will pause for a while to remind the readers that, at the time, I was publicly suffering from a severe obsession with Norway. I had already travelled to Norway on six different occasions that year alone, altogether spending a full month in Norway out of barely 10. To make the matters worse, my obsession had taken an even graver form as I was attending Norwegian lessons and making attempts to speak the language to living witnesses.

To have a native Norwegian speaker in my life was therefore rather tempting. If nothing else, we could join forces in conquering the fjords and red-eyeing it through those long Midsummer nights. Or we could watch the Northern Lights together in the winters. Or listen to Edvard Grieg’s immortal classics for hours on repeat. Call my view of Norwegian men somewhat romanticised but it worked – and, after some mandatory (but feeble) resistance, I eventually agreed to a blind date.

Meanwhile Chardonnay was not wasting any time and wrote to the Viking in question (let’s call him Sverre) about me. Heaven only knows what this introduction looked like but, within a weekend, Sverre sent me a Facebook friend request with a short note that we should “get to know each other better”. I thought his wording was sweet and accepted.


Love is in the air

I spent the next few days exchanging multiple emails with Sverre and studying, in detail, his Facebook page. My overall impression was very positive. He had typical Scandinavian looks which, at the time, I quite liked: eyes the colour of a cloudless sky, spikey blond hair and a broad smile. Pictured either with happy-looking friends in London or in the backdrop of Norway’s stunning nature, Sverre genuinely looked like a nice personality.

Our emails only confirmed the visual impression. He was as fascinated with the Latino culture as I was with Norway and we always seemed to have something to discuss. I tried my amateur Norwegian on him, and he happily played along, even volunteering to point out an odd mistake. Our communication was adorably sweet and interspersed with a generous number of smiley faces. Being a woman of rich imagination, I was already marrying myself off to Sverre in the backdrop of the fjords to the sound of Grieg’s tear-inducing “Morgenstemning”. I had even started toying with the idea of adopting his last name, despite always having been passionately attached to keeping my own.

It was then that one of us suggested meeting. Knowing my general impatience and lack of tolerance towards beating around a bush, I strongly suspect it was me. I have never really had the need to initiate dates but Sverre already felt like an old mate rather than a stranger. As much as I enjoyed the sweet chats and the idyllic thoughts, I felt the budding online relationship could run out of steam quickly if not fuelled by real-life reference. Besides, I had several trips planned imminently, including a 5-day escapade to Oman, and was used to men disliking my desire to leave the country at every opportunity. Part of me just wanted to meet Sverre before he realised what he’d got himself into.

One more dawn, one more day

The night before the blind date was restless and the day – awash with excitement. I sat through the office hours forcing my thoughts to stay grounded and listening to energetic music as nothing else around kept up with my level of excitement.

Time did not seem to move but, after an excruciatingly long day at work (despite it actually being 9 to 5), I finally cycled to my Norwegian class in Central London. For the next two hours my brain may have been declining verbs and doing role play, but my mind was a few hundred yards down the road – in a small Moroccan restaurant where Sverre and I had agreed to meet after my lesson.

At last I waved my teacher goodbye, stopped in the ladies’ bathroom to redo my fading make-up and mounted my bicycle to make the short trip down to the restaurant. My heart was pounding so loud I could barely hear the busy traffic around. Needless to say I failed to follow the directions properly and initially took a wrong turn, but eventually found the tiny Moroccan place in the corner of a square.

There was no sight of Sverre around. Still nearly deaf with my overpowering heartbeat, I clumsily parked the bicycle by the racks next to the outdoor dining tables. I was taking out my phone to check the time – I could have wasted plenty of it with my wrong turn – when a human silhouette suddenly rose in front of me, as if by magic.

A male voice followed. “Anna?” my muffled ears heard through what felt like a thick layer of cotton wool as I blinked perplexedly. “Nice to meet you. I am Sverre.”

It was Sverre indeed.

Hey little sister, who's your superman

There he was in front of me, his cheeks flushed with the chill of the imminent winter, his spikey blond hair gleaming under the light droplets of rain and his smile as broad as in the many photos I have seen. He looked like Sverre but my mind was refusing to recognise him.

Suddenly my heart tumbled down painfully; I felt it hitting all of my internal organs on the way, each responding with agonising pain. Blood abandoned my face, rushing back almost instantly; the noise in my ears became unbearable. I felt dizzy and nauseous. The rosy picture I had painted – the tent by the fjords, the wedding bells and the new surname – had been ruthlessly scraped off the wall and thrown into fire, leaving nothing but zipping emptiness behind. My dream was over with one look. Sverre was not going to be the love of my life.

For starters, he was an inch shorter than me. His voice echoed unpleasantly in my ears: it did not agree with me at all. He was much skinnier than I thought, making me look like an athletic superhero in comparison. And, if that wasn’t enough, he looked visibly embarrassed, making it obvious that he had expected something else, too.

Mentally flogging myself into normality, I introduced myself as cheerfully as I could and we sat down to dinner. To defuse the situation a little, I suggested we spoke some Norwegian, “for a laugh”. Unfortunately, this, too, led to a disappointment. Norway has literally thousands of local dialects, some of them barely intelligible even to native speakers. The diversity of dialects in Norway is something I am endlessly fascinated about. However, Sverre’s dialect of the Østfold region had elements of Swedish in it and was therefore perfectly understandable, or equivalent to boring, to the dozing linguist inside me.

Black holes and revelations

The dinner went on. Our initial awkwardness soon dissipated and we could joke almost like a pair of old friends catching up over a meal. Being in each other's company was not exactly unpleasant and Sverre and I must have spent a good couple of hours at the restaurant. Finally he walked me to the nearest bridge over the Thames, from where on we went our respective ways.

As my feet pushed the pedals, my brain went into a tired lull. The emotions of the long day were taking their toll. I knew I was definitely not seeing Sverre for a date again. He was a nice guy and certainly “single and ready to mingle” but he was too far a cry from what I had expected. He wasn’t right for me.

But perhaps our meeting could have turned out differently had I not been exposed to an overwhelming amount of information about Sverre before meeting him in person. His short height would not have been a problem had I not already been expecting a tall Viking. His voice and dialect would have been of little relevance had I not already fast-forwarded us to a happily married couple, expecting everything else to fall into place. The blind date could have gone much more positively had I kept my imagination at bay and my expectations low.

Waking up the next morning without my Norwegian dream felt strange. I looked at my phone. “How was it? What did you think?” – the loyal friend I had told about the date was dying to find out. After a moment’s hesitation, I slowly typed: “I was only joking. There was never a Norwegian guy”.

And added, with a little sigh: “It was a product of my wild imagination”.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Where am I going in 2016 again?


The first thing visitors to my office notice is my scratch map. Had it not been given to me as a present from an intern I supervised a year ago, I would have never bought it. And I would certainly not have hung it up in a public place – especially had I predicted the sheer number of people popping into my office to discuss it.

A popular present these days, a scratch map is an actual map of the world or a single country with land bits covered in scratchable foil. The task is easy: you scratch the foil off the countries or areas you have visited and proudly manifest to the world how well-travelled you are. The intern in question chose her gift after we had shared enough conversations for her to decide I was an incorrigible globetrotter and therefore had plenty of scratching work to do.

And right she was! After spending hours scratching at least a kilo of foil off Russia, China and Canada (I decided I would clear entire countries even if I hadn’t visited all their regions), and even more time carefully isolating the tiny Kosovo in the part of Europe I had otherwise travelled at length, I glued the map to a wall in my office.


Scratch map: my wrist still reacts painfully to mentions of Russia

Where are you off to next then?

My work life has become much more social since. Several senior colleagues regularly stop by to check my “scratch progress” and passers-by whose names I do not even know occasionally throw in comments, too. Some linger for a while, study the map closely, ask me questions and then break into their own travel stories. The scratch map has proven a great conversation starter, albeit a major distraction from work.

By far the most common question I receive is what my next travel destination is. Thankfully, I am very much able to answer that – as, believe it or not, I have already made tentative travel plans for the next 2-3 years. Certainly anything can happen in life, but, as a content City worker with a permanent job and stable performance, I hope to complete my travel plan before the next major financial crisis strikes.

Why plan so early? Well, at 31 and counting, a certain biological clock continues to tick and some scheduling is inevitable. I figure I have a good 2-3 child-free years ahead which I would like to spend in the best way possible – doing plenty of sports, mastering the languages I already speak and learning new ones, enjoying quality time with my much adored boyfriend and (of course) travelling the world. Courtesy of my wonderful employer, I have a generous holiday allowance, the entire of which I am welcome to take. Knowing the number of free days I have per year makes travel-dreaming easy: a week here, a couple of weeks there and three weeks for the price of one around Christmas. It is not the "dream life" led by full-time travel bloggers who have dropped their 9-to-5 in the name of freedom, but a combination of a settled working life with frequent getaways suits me just fine.

Saudi Arabia? No, thanks

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I am not as well-travelled as most people think. Indeed I have never taken a gap year (my extended escapade to Greece doesn't count) and only ever used my holidays to travel. In addition to being quite attached to the idea of home, I have not chosen the life of travel for another reason: I am simply not interested in seeing every single country of the world. It escapes me why anyone would want to see places like Saudi Arabia, Nauru or Central African Republic as a tourist – those that do must have truly compelling reasons.

The list of countries I wouldn’t mind seeing is, however, not insignificant. Right now I have narrowed this list down to about a dozen. Two to three years should be ample time to cover these:

Burma (2014): A friend of mine is getting married in Sri Lanka this winter. Since I have only limited interest in Sri Lanka itself, I will use most of my holiday on Burma. The plan is to explore Yangon on its famous circular train route, hop on a day train to Mandalay, take a boat to the historic Bagan, fly to Heho to hike around the rustic Inle Lake, then spend a few days on the beach in Ngapali and backtrack to Yangon. With Burma only recently having opened up and getting mercilessly popular with tourists, I hope to catch the place still relatively untouched.

Iran (2015): The descendant of the ancient Persian kingdom has long been on my list. No wonder I have already booked the flights! In April 2015, inshallah, Turkish Airlines will take me to Iran’s city of Tabriz and out of Shiraz a couple of weeks later. I am still working on what happens inbetween, but the plan is to make my way down Iran in two and a half weeks using solely the ground transport. I plan to be seen haggling for 24-karat gold in the bustling capital of Tehran, stroking woven carpets in Kashan, walking around with my mouth wide open at Isfahan’s gorgeous Muslim architecture and stopping over in Na’in, Yazd and Kerman before reaching Shiraz. I already have all my Muslim-friendly loose clothing from the past trips to India; the only thing missing are the pennies for that 24-karat gold.

Andaman Islands (2015): Formally part of India, the Andaman Islands actually lie far closer to Burma between the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Having visited several parts of the diverse melting pot that is India, I am keen to see another Indian territory so far afield. For now I am imagining a mix of turquoise blue Thai seas and Indian spice scents, all that to the honks of the Subcontinent’s ubiquitous auto-rickshaws. There is no definite itinerary for the Andamans yet except a return ticket to Chennai, but I am pretty sure I will not be venturing to meet the indigenous Andaman tribes and instead take it easy on the larger islands for a week.

How I remember India: wondering how similar (or not) the Andamans are

Bhutan (2015): I have wanted to visit Bhutan ever since I’d heard it wasn’t straightforward to do so. Most foreign visitors need mandatory escort of a local guide and can only travel on a pre-booked tour with a state-approved local agency. While some travellers have complained of the service mismatched with the substantial daily rate of $250 (supposed to include everything), I am willing to give the small Buddhist country in the Himalayas the benefit of the doubt – along with my cash. My ideal trip would involve Thimphu, Paro valley, the Valley of Punakha-Wangdue and anything else a week’s visit can fit.

New Zealand (2015): Having considered New Zealand several times before, I am finally hoping to visit at the end of next year. While my optimal way of visiting a country like New Zealand would be aboard a self-driven camper van with my other half, I will have to make do with one of those hop-on, hop-off buses for North Island and change to some sort of a driven vehicle once the boyfriend joins me on South Island later. I hope to fly into Auckland, travel down to Wellington via Rotorua and a few other sights, take the ferry across to South Island, embark on a TranzAlpine rail journey from Christchurch to Greymouth and continue to Franz Josef Glacier and the Fiordland National Park. Some people have told me New Zealand is the closest I will find to resemble my beloved Norway – here is hoping it is true.

Chile (2016): I was passionate about Chile even before visiting Argentina last April. After seeing the spectacular beauty of Patagonia, I have thought of little else than hopping on a plane to Chile in the hope of seeing something equally breath-taking. I will make sure to come in the Chilean autumn to avoid the crowds and the heat, flying into Santiago and visiting Easter Island and Puerto Varas – the country’s so-called Lake District – before transferring to the stern and windy Punta Arenas. From there, I will allocate at least five days to hike in Chile’s famous Torres del Paine National Park where I expect the scenery to be very similar to what I saw in Argentina. After a quick visit to Tierra del Fuego, I plan to fly to the UK’s Falkland Islands for a week. I think I have already mentioned that visiting the Falklands is the ultimate goal and dream of the traveller inside me.

Patagonia still captivates my heart

Bolivia (2016): This small country has hopelessly enchanted me through reflections, blogs and photos of other travellers. Somehow Bolivia embodies everything I have ever imagined about South America as a whole: tall mountain peaks, alpine lakes, indigenous population of Indian descent and old colonial towns full of colourful Catholic churches. It has an added advantage of being a good destination in July, which I always considered to be a dead month for travel. I plan to do the usual "gringo" route from Santa Cruz to the colonial wonders of Sucre and Potosí before exploring the glistening miracle of Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. I then hope to travel north to La Paz to visit the nearby Lake Titicaca and possibly descend into the jungle. There is simply an unbelievable amount of sightseeing to be done in Bolivia.

South Korea (2016): My trip to North Korea last year was widely covered in this blog. However, few people know that I am equally fascinated by North Korea’s sister nation in the south. The reasons for this are multifold, ranging from my adoration of Korean cinema to absolute obsession with Korean food. The history of the Korean peninsula is by far the best covered subject on my book shelf and the Korean language fascinates me endlessly. Korea is probably the only country where I am not remotely fussed about any itinerary; so far the idea is to land in Seoul and eat my way down the peninsula all the way to Busan. The exact route is, well, of less importance.

My only visit to South Korea was a 4-hour stopover in Seoul in early 2014

Colombia (2016): I burst into improvised song and dance so often that my boyfriend often says he would love to accompany me to Colombia – just to see me "fit well in there". Intrigued as I am, this is not the only reason I want to see the country. I would love to witness the bustle of Bogota before exploring quieter settlements in the area. I am dying to explore the colonial Cartagena which, I fantasise, should be my closest reminder of Cuba. I would love to take it easy for a few days chilling on the Caribbean coasts of Santa Marta and Isla de Providencia. And, if I end up bursting into song and dance at every step, that would only be a bonus.

And the scratching begins

I have tried to imagine what my scatch map would look like with the above seven countries duly scratched off (South Korea already is as I briefly visited Seoul last January). Unfortunately, I would still be a long way off from calling myself well-travelled. One solution I have in mind, should I ever succeed in becoming a mother, is taking a round-the-world trip on my maternity leave; after all, if I am bound to be bleary eyed and sleep deprived for months, I might as well be doing that in Dubai, Sydney and San Francisco? Not having to show up in the office for months seems too tempting a time to be stuck in the Big Smoke.

That is a topic of a completely different blog post though. As for now, I will continue – quite literally – scratching the surface.

Monday, 29 September 2014

A Latvian with a Scottish accent

Last Sunday I did something unbelievable: I went to church. It was quite an achievement for someone so rarely seen near places of worship these days – and a radical transformation for someone who used to be a church regular only a decade ago.

Despite my lack of habit, last Sunday’s church visit was surprisingly enjoyable. I had mainly gone to see a friend but ended up meeting several other interesting people. Many of them, including my friend, were Scottish – not at all a surprise given it was a Free Church of Scotland congregation. Which brings me to my second, unofficial, reason for coming to church. The Scottish independence referendum had taken place just days before. It would be an understatement to say I was worried to tears about the outcome. In some ways, I saw my visit to church as a way to see Scots – Scots in the flesh – and, oddly, reconfirm to myself that the United Kingdom was still a union.

I had even entertained thoughts of giving those Scots gentle nips for an enhanced certainty that they were real and that we were all a going concern. And, although I held off obtaining that particular evidence in the end, it is true that many a time in the past few weeks it seemed like the disintegration of the United Kingdom was imminent.

Edinburgh: Scotland's capital

Where in Scotland am I from?

Lunch followed the church service. As I sat there chatting away, I was asked, several times, which part of Scotland I was from. I only laughed; those who knew me about 10 years ago may remember the unmistakeably Scottish accent I was sporting at the time. My own boyfriend – an Englishman to the core – asked me the same question when we first met in Riga in 2002. Indeed he needed some persuading when I insisted I was not Scottish, so “perfect” (as he put it) my “Edinburgh meets lowlands" accent was.

The accent hadn’t come out of nowhere. My first introduction to Scotland was in 2000 when, a 16-year-old, I attended one of Free Church of Scotland camps. I made very good friends and vouched to return. 2001 saw me save up pocket money by the trickle, eventually to embark on a long bus journey across Europe, under the Channel, up Great Britain – all to end up in Scotland for the second time, 55 hours after leaving my starting point. And the year after in 2002, I was back yet again, for my longest stay yet – a couple of months, during which I helped out with administrative tasks at the Free Church of Scotland offices in Edinburgh. I took my time to explore several of Scotland's other cities and even climbed Ben Nevis then.

As my love for Scotland grew stronger, so did my accent. When the Scottish football team played Latvia in Riga in 2000, I naturally went to the game – and was assumed by the kilted supporters to be one of their own instantly. “Where in Scotland are you from?” they kept asking, and, turning to my older friend – a true Scot from Inverness – continued “And where are you from?”. Needless to say my friend wasn’t very pleased.

#indyref

The times have changed since. Moving to London in 2006 obviously had an impact on my speech. I no longer sound particularly Scottish (though my boyfriend insists I do) but, when speaking to other Scots, I feel the good auld Scots lingo floating up. It feels so perfectly natural to roll my “r”s and turn my “first”s into “fasht”s, I begin to think maybe I was really meant to live in Scotland. But then again, London is full of Scots, too.

With all my past ties with Scotland and present ones with the rest of the UK, it goes without saying that the Scottish independence referendum worried me. I have several good Scottish friends, and it was painful to see them suddenly split into two opposing camps. Desperate to help the union – all parts of which I loved equally – I often didn't find myself comfortable to ask my own friends about their choice of a vote. When I did, I tried to turn it into a joke. But a joke it wasn’t.

What troubled me most was the apparent absence of any solid prospectus from the independence team. I do not intend to resurrect any debate on the pros and cons of independence, but the lack of clarity from the great warriors for freedom was, at times, shocking. Worst of all, the evil London banker in me could not accept a country that didn’t take the question of its future currency seriously enough to give a straight answer on the matter. There simply wasn’t an independence case.

And then Latvia was independent

During the campaign, many proponents of independence considered it a winning argument to remind me of my country of birth, Latvia. Withholding independence from Scotland was, in their eyes, the same as not allowing it to Latvia – and surely that would be a bad thing?

I still cringe thinking back on the comparison. Latvia did not have fancy independence campaigns with glossy leaflets. Neither did it have a referendum. When the Soviet Union broke up in the early 1990s, after years of underground freedom fighting, Latvia suddenly found itself… free. There was no need to make a stance over the national debt as Russia took on all of it. There was no need to renegotiate memberships in the key international organisations as independent Latvia had existed before and was simply readmitted on the old terms. It knew it had to establish all the governmental and regulatory institutions from scratch. It knew it needed a new currency. It knew new passports would need to be issued and borders would need to be guarded. And the Latvians mainly knew there were not in for a smooth ride but for a few years of struggle, armed with nothing but high hopes for a brighter future. The independence of Scotland would have been quite different to the Latvian one, had the former materialised – for the amount of false expectation Scotland had been fed alone.

Was independence in itself a bad thing for Latvia? Personally, it wasn’t for two things: first, the freedom of movement (Soviet citizens could not travel in and out of the country at ease) and, second, the EU membership, which took this freedom of movement to the next level – Latvian citizens could now freely work in several EU countries, among them the UK. I had counted down the days till that coveted EU membership, for I knew I would be out of Latvia with the first flight. Since that trumpeted day, Latvia had lost over 10% of its population and even its capital – let alone the smaller regional hubs – stand notably quieter, so many of us have left. Indeed who’d want to stay in a small nation in the outskirts of Europe, best known for its wiped out industrial might of the Soviet era and corrupt politicians? My sole consolation is that Latvia doesn’t have any clout to attack other countries for lame excuses. And it is a wonderful place for a holiday. But to live there? I see why many choose not to.

In contrast to Latvia, Scotland did not need to fight for the freedom of movement. Neither did it need to dream of the EU as the UK was already a member. If anything, Scotland would need to detach itself from the EU for a few years while its application for membership would be processed. Automatic EU membership was part of another piece of farce created during the independence campaign. And I am sorry, as much as the Latvian in me agreed that independence was not in itself a bad thing for Scotland, I completely failed to align with the "Yes" team on the implementation.

Cheeky Faroese

But support for Scottish independence came from many corners of the world. Not mentioning other famously separatist regions – Catalonia and Quebec spring to mind – I was entertained by the significant pro-Scottish independence sentiment among my Faroese friends. An autonomous region of Denmark, the Faroe Islands with their distinct culture, language and national psyche have never given up hopes for independence. They have drilled for oil all around the islands, seeing the “black gold” as a trampoline into financial, and eventually full, independence. So far they have found none and continue relying on a yearly stipend from Denmark – but Scotland already has oil so, in the minds of the Faroese, it can and must be independent. If only oil determined everything in life.

I went to church last Sunday. There I was, a Latvian with a Scottish accent, professing strong support for the United Kingdom. I am more of an agnostic sympathiser these days than a Christian believer – but, as I sat in church, I closed my eyes and thanked God I had so many Scottish friends and that we no longer needed to disagree. I thanked God that London was still a wonderfully mixed city full of Scots everywhere from the Parliament to small Presbyterian communities in East London. I thanked God for being able to say, with confidence, the phrase “my Faroese friends”. A small nation that they are, I bet not many people are able to say that!

Above all, I thanked God for keeping this country together. May it prosper always.

~~~~
Note from author: I am fully aware that this blog is anything but regularly updated. I have a substantial number of topics breezing through this head at every point in time though – and there are certainly plenty of happenings in the life of anjči itself. Here comes an(other) attempt to make the posts in this blog appear more or less regularly. I will try to focus on one topic a week, covering anything from my limited understanding of politics to the old favourite on this site, relationships. Let’s say this will happen weekly for now, but please do not hold me up to it!

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!