Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Dear Oona - RIP

Dear Oona - RIP Oona, my sister's dog died today when runing over a cliff in Cornwall when the family were on a short half-term break. She will be very dearly missed, not the least by my sister... and my condolences to you, Fiona (and Thomas).

The Balkans...

Working under the big boss..., originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

It is midweek already and past that in work terms, as I take the train back from the office to Amsterdam. It is stinking hot and it is not even the end of May, seems like June has arrived early with its wet winds and humid weather, only the winds are not so wet and the soil at the allotment gets ever harder. Our biggest hope for today was that there would be a big thunderstorm but now we have to hope that the BBC are right in their forecast of heavy rain for tomorrow. I just need the soil to become a little bit manageable so we can get all the beds prepared for the seeds which need to be planted before long.

On Monday, after a smallish amount of rain I managed to sow some beans, radishes and spinach, along with Wallfowers, Sweet Williams, Strawflowers and Goldflowers, to add a bit of colour to the late summer garden. And on Sunday, I planted out maize.

It is a few days since the wonderful Eurovision Song Contest and I managed to congratulate my Norwegian colleague on the excellent performance of their representative. There has been a massive amount of discussion underneath one of my photos on flickr, mostly from myself regarding the Eurovision, some of which I might copy here, (or maybe not….). Anyway, it turned out that nine of my ten favourite songs on the night ended up in the final top 10. ( A bit like the Grand National where we had three of the first four home). I included Albania in mine, when it was Armenia which made it to the top ten, helped largely by an active Armenian diaspora in France and Holland in particular, making sure that Armenia gets more votes than Turkey… the wars of the Ottoman Empire being fought on the stage of Eurovision. I liked the song, just thought the (pretty) lady just shouted her words instead of singing.

So, just like last year when I was so happy that Serbia won the Contest, I find myself completely at odds with all the moaning minnies on the BBC messageboard who want the UK to pull out because of unfair voting. Although I have my doubts a bit this year – I do think that so much of the friendly voting cancels itself out and that the best or most popular songs end up at or near the top. Admittedly a few countries with a wide diaspora such as Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and Greece and others, to varying extent will always do better than otherwise, it is a fact that each of the last seven winning countries have been first-time winners and that no one country is dominating – yet… Maybe it will be Armenia’s ‘turn’ next because of all the ‘favoured’ countries this is the one without a winner so far…

Mainly on the basis of it being Russia’s turn to win and also because the song and performance were both very good, I decided to have a saver bet on Russia this year and so came out break even. I would have piled onto Russia had it not been for the doubts sown in my mind by the internet forum participants who kept going on about how bad Russia was, the song, the singer and the performance…. They had it in for him. However, when I saw the performance for myself last Tuesday I thought they were wrong and so put my money on… not much but enough….

So, inspired by Eurovision, we are thinking of taking a Balkan holiday this summer. Not the beaches and crowds of Croatia but the hills and valleys and orthodox churches and mosques of Kosova, Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro, this is the plan. I found a cheapish flight with the Albanian low-cost carrier Belle Air, which can fly us from Luik in northern Belgium to Pristina in Kosova for less than € 300 return in mid-July and we can stay for two or two-and-a-half weeks,. And whilst there we can travel around by bus, like we do in Turkey. Should be interesting, just hopefully a bit cooler than two summers ago…

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

On the way back from Atlanta

On the plane again, now on the way back to Amsterdam, leaving a rainy, grey and humid Atlanta for the bright blue skies of Amsterdam (he says hopefully….). Actually we had two days of fine sunny weather, but it clouded over last night and became all humid… just in time for their Memorial Day Bank Holiday. It has been a very quick visit and I regret not coming over a day early to spend more time with my colleagues in the International Finance department here in Atlanta. We had a very busy time these past two days and did not have time for anything else. Maybe I should have gone to the office on Wednesday when I arrived instead of hanging around the bar watching the Champions League final. To be honest, I said I was for Manchester United when the receptionist asked me with interest, however, I found myself secretly wanting Chelsea to win, as it would have evened up the spoils between the two clubs and would have wiped the smile off Alex Ferguson’s face. As it was John Terry missed his penalty and gifted victory to The Reds. At least we can be happy that the team playing the more attractive form of football won, rather than defensive Chelsea.

It has been a day since the Eurovision semi-final and so far, through comments made by friends of mine on flickr, that my favourite song from Macedonia did not make it through (losing me the 770-1 bets), but that Iceland, Denmark AND Sweden all made it through, making it 5 out of 5 for the Nordic countries – not exactly my favourite… at least they will have to split up their ‘neighbourly’ votes, them being consistently worse for a longer period of time than what has been claimed to be ex-Yugoslavian favouritism. I’ll be rooting for Serbia and Israel in the final, although wins by Russia or Azerbaijan will both win me money, the latter more than the former, given the 120-1 odds for Azerbaijan against the 7/2 on Russia.

The plane is due to land in Amsterdam just after 7 tomorrow morning, meaning I can be at home by 8 or 8.30, in time for a short snooze before watching the video that Fred has made of yesterday’s semi-final. Time then to go to the garden and the garden centre and do this weekend’s spot of gardening. I plan to sow sweet corn, sunflowers, peas, runner beans and other climbing beans (to stop them being eaten by pests). I think the beetroot was already planted last weekend. Maybe time for some more lettuces and some spinach and more carrots.

We went out for dinner twice in Atlanta and, unlike last week for Fred’s birthday, there were only large portions and large portions of largely non-tasting food. Crabs legs almost a foot long, filled with white meat, but no taste. The only taste was from the accompanying sauces, in which you could have dipped pieces of bread and it would have been tastier. Tomatoes and mozzarella. Tomato slices almost the size of a side plate with a thick round of hard white-ish cheese, which I assumed must have been mozzarella, unlike anything one had seen or tasted before. And for breakfast it was slices of massive watery and flavourless melons with strawberries almost have the size of a normal cantaloupe… Oh dear oh dear. Even the wine didn’t taste too nice – or maybe it was just me being tired… and of course it is always nice to feel European and slightly superior…

Thursday, May 22, 2008

In Atlanta

Atlanta Gay Pride - eleven, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

In Atlanta now, a day of meetings planned and I have to make a presentation in the afternoon.

I am not feeling too well, with a bit of a temperature, combined with jet-lag. I woke up every hour from 9 pm to 6 am last night. This is not really the best of trips... But I CAN get onto my blog and I can access the betting site, just not allowed to place any bets...

Back in Atlanta

Druze man of Suweida, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

There are better times to travel to Atlanta than at the middle-end of May, when the sun is shining, the leaves on the trees are a bright green and the red roses next door are in full bloom, not to mention the fact that it is the Champions League final today and the second semi-final of Eurovision tomorrow.

Fortunately, I have been called over for just a two day meeting and can return on Friday night on the direct KLM flight back to Amsterdam, which gives me all of Saturday at home, before settling in to the Eurovision Song Contest final at 9 in the evening. So nothing to complain about really.

There is even a chance that I can watch a bit of the semi-final on internet tomorrow as I think they are broadcasting it on the site. Well, my favourite Macedonian song is up for a place in the top 10, in a tough semi where it is pitched against Ukraine, Bulgaria, Portugal, Sweden, Iceland and a number of others.

I have developed a strong liking for Israel and managed to get a bit of money on them to finish in the Top 4 in the final. A bit of a stretch, but the price was good and they managed to come through last night. My Montenegro song missed out, which wasn’t really a surprise, despite that youthful smile he had when he was being molested by the troupe of blond, but considerably older backing singers. The Dutch song failed as well, which was a bit strange because it was really a lot better than the Armenian song which did go through. Well, at least the singing was much better. The Armenian singer was almost shouting her words and sang out of key a few times, destroying what I thought was a good song, but it seems like she is being given another chance. But the main story would be Russia, with their very strange stage act, including an ice-rink on which an Olympic gold medal skater skated around, dressed like a waiter in his white shirt and black trousers. It was a total distraction from the quite powerful song and the singer. Given that it is also Russia’s ‘turn’ to win as well, I was impressed enough to go and put some money on at 7/2 to win, thinking that this is probably a very safe bet.

I have not bet on Serbia this year because I am afraid of Russia and do not think they will be allowed to win two years in a row, despite the fact that I think it is the most beautiful song of the competition. Maybe it suffers a bit by being too much like some other songs which they have sent in. They are 6-1, which hardly makes it worth an each way bet in the hope that they get a top 4 placing. My song, from Macedonia is in fact the biggest outsider at 750-1, which means you don’t have to put a lot of money on to stand winning thousands of Euro’s if they do win. But they won’t win and that is the problem… hmmm… well, maybe they might win.

And, yes, I am going to Atlanta, which is in the State of Georgia and betting is forbidden. I don’t suppose I will even be allowed on the betting sites even to see the odds in the next couple of days…

… and had they not blocked access to my blog last time? I remember getting quite upset about that…

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

From Puppet on a string...

From Puppet on a string..., originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

It started with Sandie Shaw a 'Puppet on a string' in 1967 and has continued to this day, with a dip in the 1980's when it wasn't trendy and the songs were rubbish and Oirland kept winning... the Eurovision Song Contest.

This year there are 43 countries participating, with two semi-finals tonight and Thursday, with the big final on Saturday.

My points this year (based only on videos I have seen on internet) are awarded as follows:

12 Macedonia
10 Serbia
8 Montenegro
7 Israel
6 France
5 Bulgaria
4 Germany
3 Azerbaijan
2 Ukraine
1 Albania

Ones I particularly do not like are Estonia, Moldova, Croatia and Belgium (these are really terrible).

Russia is the favourite but I think his song is not as good as the one which did well a few years ago.. but it does seem to be Russia's turn... so who knows?

Roman mosaic

Roman mosaic, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Ma'arat an-Nu'aman Museum, near Hama, Syria

This museum is based in an old khan of Murad Pasha in the town of Ma'arat an-Nu-aman.

It includes a great collection of mosaics found in the nearby Roman/Byzantine cities, now known as the Dead Cities. There are men who work there who follow you around to stop you from taking photos of the mosaics and his eyes were particularly trained on me.

Many of the mosaics have representations of animals, including one magnificent and large mosaic of a lioness killing a deer...

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Cheers! Happy Birthday, Fred!

Yes, it is birthday time again and it is Fred's turn.

A beautiful warm sunny day, the last of the current spell, apparently, Fred went to work and came back to enjoy some Prosecco on our new balcony before going out to dinner at KleinJansen across the road. As we pretty well much thought, we were a bit disappointed with the food, reckoning that we could have made tastier food ourselves and for a fraction of the price and enjoyed eating it outside on the balcony facing the trees and listening to the blackbirds singing. Anyway, we both had a very nice evening and it was nice that Henk came along at he end and had a beer with us.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Who wants peace?

Donkey and dogs, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Its a week ago since our last day in Syria, little did we thin that we would be bringing the weather back with us to Amsterdam, where it has been warm and sunny all the time... and getting warmer...

We are getting quite used to living on the balcony at the back of the house, surrounded by the green trees and our herbs in terracotta pots. This is not suburbia and there are no lawns so there are no lawnmowers but it is amazing how much mechanical sound there is. On almost every day one can hear people with an electric sanding machine, rubbing against the wood being sanded and now there is someone cutting wood, or so it seems.Plus someone seems to have have bought a piano and taken to playing it with the windows open.

But back to Syria, which still seems to ahve a bad name in the world, mainly thanks to US propaganda and its so-called war on terror and the axis of evil. The strange thing is that it seems that Israel and Syria are quite keen to find peace with each other, with Israel preapred to give Syria back the Golan Heights which it took in the 1973 war. Syria will be allowed to 'look after' Lebanon, which means keeping Hizbollah quiet, apparently. (And it seems that Hizbollah ahve been stirred into action the past few days in Beirut, possibly being encouraged to by the Western-backed government, seeking to create some instability.

Because... it seems that the US does not want its client-state Israel to make peace with Syria as it is looking for a way into Iran. An Israel surrounded by peaceful countries including Syria is not what the Americans want, apparently, this because it is less easy to justify strikes on Iran, which seems to be what the oil-hungry regime in Washington wants.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Syria, three years on

Rose petals, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

How has Syria changed in the three years since we went away?

Well, not so much, really, although we do have the feeling that as a holiday experience, in the manner that we take our holidays can only get worse rather than better. Worse, because the country will modernise and will, no doubt, soon enough, embrace American-style way of life, with Starbucks and McDonalds. Now it is only Coca-Cola and Pepsi and then in competition with other local made colas as well as local drinks such a tea and fresh fruit juices.

Some improvements will be the addition of boutique-type hotels and restaurant in restored old houses, with beautiful courtyards with a fountain in the middle, a bit like the riads of Morocco. They are now not too pricey, by Western standards, but will no doubt become more expensive.

In fact, although Syria is still very cheap it IS more expensive than three years ago and not just for tourists. There is worldwide pressure on petrol prices and food prices and it seems that the Syrian government is trying to protect the well-being of its people by subsidising the price of bread and diesel, amongst other things. Also, the Syrian Pound has risen by almost 20% against the US Dollar, so kept its value against the Euro. Still, we only managed to spend about 30 euros a day each, albeit staying in the cheaper types of hotel, but going out to better restaurants in the evenings, as well as drinking a few glasses of beer (at about one euro fifty for a half litre of Heineken or Almaza, slightly less for locally brewed beer). We did not taste any wine this trip.

Otherwise, every thing is very easy for travellers in Syria, a good system of public transport, with very cheap buses, our four hour trip down from Aleppo to Damascus cost less than two euro's each, in a comfortable clean bus with plenty of legroom and reclinable seats. Of course, it becomes more difficult when on reaching the out-of-town bus station to find transport into the right place in town without being ripped off by a taxi driver. And, even without using public transport, a day out with an English speaking driver will only cost about 50 euro's a day... and that for a long day out, where quite a few sights can be visited without wasting time or getting lost.

Further, one rarely has the idea that one is being ripped off or taken advantage of as a tourist, unlike many other places, Amsterdam included. It is a very safe country. No sign of aggression. Maybe Mohammed/God had the right idea when proscribing alcohol. No drunken idiots on the streets and no aggression. Quite the opposite, friendliness and courteousness everywhere, always being greeted by 'Welcome", even if that is the only English they know.

Still to much rubbish everywhere. Syrians don't so much throw litter away on the streets and in the countryside as let it fall from their hands. No idea that they might take the paper or plastic bag and put it in a rubbish bin. A pity as quite a few beauty spots are ruined by the presence of cans and plastic bags.

Still the authorities restrict one to 15 days tourist visas, which are quite difficult and expensive to get hold of, although we understand that it is relatively easy to obtain extensions. Getting through Syria in two weeks makes for a bit of a rushed visit, three weeks is better and would allow people to spend more money in the country.

I would say that street food was more exciting and delicious than restaurant food, as well as being a darn sight cheaper. The problem is that you cannot really get a cold beer on a street corner, in the way you can in a restaurant, once you ahve found one which does serve beer. As a compensation for Fred allowing me to stop all day long to take photos, I would allow him to drag us right across town (in Damascus and Hama) to eat at a place which does serve beer. One unfortunate experience we had in Aleppo, the one time we did not do this, was that they served us what was quite acceptable alcohol-free beer in a ' Mexican-style'. Well, I seem to have some aversion to ' Mexican' and so it proved again, as what they did was to pour some fresh lemon juice into the glass and put salt around the top of the glass, making it taste doubly disgusting...

Anyway, despite all that, it is not really the quality of the meals or the hardness of the bed or the rubbish one sees around the place, which ticks in your mind at the end of the day, but the wonderful hospitality shown by the people one comes across. In this respect nothing has changed in the last three years and I can't see it changing too quickly either, even if the country does start to embrace western values of consumerism and individualism in the years to come. A peep across the border shows that in Turkey, 'modernisation' does not necessarily mean that traditional values are that easily forgotten. Let's hope not.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Birds without Wings

Birds without wings, originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

After a long day, getting up at 4 in the morning, we finally arrived home at about 7.30 in the evening, having spent the whole of an afternoon getting frustrated at Heathrow, having flown first from Damascus to a grey and wet Ankara and then onto a sunny and warm London. Our fellow traveller in the seat next to me was an old crone, dressed in widow's rags, short and plump, with her eyes almost closed. She never said a word and seemed to understand little of what was going on around her, refusing to eat any of the food or drink any of the drinks. She was on her way to San Francisco, amazingly enough.

Between sleeping and changing flights, we ahd a good opportunity to relax and read and I am now reading Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres, an excellent book set in south-western Anatolia around the time of the birth of the Turkish Republic. Fred is reading 2 1/2 Pillars of Wisdom by Alexander McCall.

Fortunately, the planes did have wings and we were able to fly back to a warm and very green Amsterdam, all the leaves on the trees seemingly having come out in the ten days we have been away. Fred found some food in the fridge and we ate out on the balcony. Let's hope this sets us up for a lovely summer. At last we can look back on a really excellent week in Syria, a country we'd love to return to sooner rather than later, inshallah.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Moustafa with his grape leaves... three years later...

Here is Moustafa, the man with the grape leaves, three years after we took a photo of him in his shop with the grape leaves. We brought that photo with us, so he was quite happy and surprised to receive it, although he was very busy selling the day's first grape leaves when we first arrived. We later were invited in for lunch, with tea.

We are now back in Damascus, after taking a bus back in the morning. Walked around town and the markets this afternoon. We have to be uyp at 4.00 tomorrow, for a very long journey back home. At least we hear that the weather will be a lot better tomorrow and is set to stay fair, meaning we did choose the right week to go away...

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