Monday, 29 April 2013

A little inspiration

It's a Monday, and we can all use a little inspiration, right? Check out this awesome YouTube video to get you energised ... I don't know about you, but I think I'm going to go climb a wall or something.

PS: Don't be too put off by the thumbnail ... that's not what it's about ;)

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Eye candy

I've commented before on this blog that Johannesburg has a way of distorting your perceptions of reality, because there appears to be so many people living ridiculously prosperous lives. Every second car on the road is a BMW or Mercedes-Benz. Every third car is an SUV. You actually see Ferraris and Lamborghinis on the road.

In my line of work as an automotive journalist, we get a steady stream of new cars in to test-drive for a week at a time. Admittedly they're across the spectrum from ultra-budget to ultra-expensive, but you do get a fair amount of really impressive heavy metal here. This example - the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 Alpine Edition - just arrived in today.

It costs ZAR 860 000 (around RON 313 355). It's pretty obscene given South Africa's poverty levels, but that's Johannesburg for you: a glittery city where the majority of people are chasing an impossible dream, and a minority are proving that it can be done. Something that blew my mind is a study of the richest South Africans, which showed that the wealthiest 10% of households earned a combined ZAR 500 000 (RON 182 183) PER MONTH ... that's right. Not per year, but Every. Single. Month. *gob smacked* 

And no, I'm not one of them, unfortunately. If I was, I'd be at my nearest Jeep dealership signing some papers now. As it is, I'm blogging about this instead ... so enjoy!

Sunday, 21 April 2013

English? Yes, I very good speak it.

Something I've already commented on is that I'm getting pretty tired of reading Romania's boring English news or struggling to find non-existent or cliched travel guides. So tonight I thought let's skip ahead to actually living in Romania as an English-speaking immigrant: which bank account would I use?

A quick Google turned up Romania's biggest banks, and the biggest - BCR - just happens to have an English-language version of its website. Honestly, I'm not sure whether I wouldn't have been better off using Google Translate to convert the original Romanian site.

If you can spot the errors here, you clearly do actually speak English:
- "Current Account Pachages" (in a headline on the homepage no less!)
- "Save every month and win a good sum!"
- "Your personnel account"/"Your personnal service"  (ironically on the same page)
- "Keeping Values in Boxes" (This is my favourite - they were looking for 'safety-deposit boxes')
"We know that yourtime is very precious" (on the Private Banking page, for richer but less demanding people)
- "Don’t leave the performance of your portofolio to chance!" (side-note: are exclamation marks really that popular in Romania?)

Now don't get me wrong, I understand that English is a second-language in Romania. I've read all the tourist advisories that while most young people can speak it, you're better off with a phrasebook in the rural areas. However, am I wrong to expect that Romania's BIGGEST bank would at the very least ensure that their English homepage (at the very least the headlines) is error free and grammatically correct?

I'll be the first to admit that if I tried to write anything in my fledgling Romanian, my spelling and grammar would be far worse. However, the difference is this: I'm not trying to write Romanian homepages for major banks. 

English is the global business language, and banks are in the business of business. This is also the 21st Century, and I assume that English immigrants looking for banking details are not a new phenomenon.

The reason this frustrates me beyond belief is not because I urgently want to open a bank account in Romania, or because I'm the ultimate perfectionist (although a bit of accuracy from the people who'd deal with my money is desirable). No, the reason is this: I keep on hearing that English-language jobs for immigrants in Romania are A: not hugely common, and B: easily filled by English-speaking Romanians.

Yes, that latter point shows, it really does. If you're in Romania and considering hiring somebody for an English-speaking role, please hire a native English-speaking immigrant. Not only will I, as an immigrant, learn more about your beautiful country from the outside, but I may actually find a demand in Romania's job market for my unique skill-set and be able to move there before my 100th birthday.

PS: Just so that BCR doesn't feel unduly targeted, can you spot the difference between these two pages from the Romanian Cultural Institute's (ICR) website: original Romanian and English version. Or how about that a page like this one exists? Maybe it's just me, but I find it strange from an organisation that is "tasked with raising the profile of Romanian culture around the world." Yes, people from around the world will (try to) read your website.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Confessions of a reformed journalist

Unique Selling Point ... everything you spend your time on should have one. What sets this blog apart from countless others is that I'm not just trying to tell the world what music I'm listening to now, not trying to condense my thoughts into 140 characters, and not just explaining what I feel but rather why. In other words, not all posts will be about Romania, mkay? This one isn't. This one's about me.

My grandfather once told me that whatever I decide to become, I shouldn't become a journalist. Which was ironic, considering he was a newspaper editor at the time he told me that. I'd always enjoyed writing, been fairly successful at it, and a few threads conspired to land me studying towards a Bachelor of Journalism degree. 

In the five years I've been working as a journalist since graduating, I've progressed from newspapers (random fact: I started my career at the newspaper my grandfather founded) to magazines, and am now a magazine editor myself. My whole career I've known that my grandfather was right: being a journalist is a hard and often thankless career (financially anyway), and if you're not careful you'll be sidelined into being exactly the sort of journalist everybody hates. 

Luckily I'm made of stronger stuff than the average newshound, so I soon decided that I'd better escape the hard news world before I was burned out. The big question which has plagued me, however, is just exactly why is being a journalist so difficult at a structural level? There are a couple of answers to that: two are obvious, and one just struck me today.

The one obvious answer is that in the average publication, you have journalists, designers, a sub-editor or two, and THE editor. In other words, your career path is pretty stilted anywhere: if you work for a publishing house which has multiple titles, you may be lucky enough to be able to 'grow' from smaller publications to bigger ones. However, once you hit the ceiling - and you will - your only option will be to transfer to a bigger publishing house, and then a bigger one after that, right up until you have three kids, a bad back, a jaundiced view of life and an office chair which perfectly matches your butt.

The second answer is that you're a creative maverick, and that means that whatever you do somebody will have an opinion over how it could have been done better. How many times have I longed for a simple accounting job, where if I get the balance sheet to balance I've done my job well, and nobody could have done it any better? Or a job screwing the caps onto toothpaste tubes. Nope, in journalism you will always have a senior editor pointing out what you could or should have done, or a reader who doesn't like a specific phrase. The art gets drained out of the profession.

The third answer, however, which struck me this afternoon is altogether more depressing: words have no intrinsic value. If you build a chair, it has a value. If you iron a shirt, that service has a value. If you write a story, that story has no value whatsoever until somebody agrees to pay you for it ... or you find somebody to read what you've written and somebody acts upon your words.

My core 'craft', if you will, is about transmitting ideas, and my skill is in transmitting those ideas in a manner which is informative, clear and engaging. If you're still reading this blog post it means I've managed to keep at least a semblance of a flow going, or you're very persistent, but I'll make myself feel better by opting for the former.

That's what journalists are paid to do by most publications: interview subjects, transmit information, and just maybe add a little informed comment - cleverly disguised of course -  for context. In other words, we're all selling ourselves short.

I feel so angry with myself as I recognise this. I work in an industry which doesn't encourage journalists to come up with big ideas. We're encouraged to 'report', not create. That's where journalism really falls short: your mind is constantly engaged in repackaging other people's ideas into neat stories which readers can benefit from. Sure, journalists are sometimes called in to give their 'expert' opinion on some topical issue, but they're always second-rate citizens compared to the real experts who conduct primary research.

Don't believe me? Which person has more impact: the engineer who guides the construction of a bridge, or the journalist who photographs the finished bridge and asks the engineer about the challenges involved?

This is where the distinction between journalist and writer needs to come in. I'm a writer by trade, and I just so happen to be able to sell my writing skills as a journalist. You get so wrapped up in journalism, however, you forget that. And when you do remember, and decide to write something completely for yourself, you've depressingly got nothing to say.

Several times I've determinedly sat down in front of a blank document on my laptop and decided to start writing a book. The majority of the times I haven't even gotten past the first sentence, and it's all because journalism makes you dependent on speaking to sources, gathering facts, and then presenting them. Take away the primary guidance, and you're kicking off air. 

Clearly I'm not the only person in the world to suffer writer's block. There's a whole website with random generators for story ideas. What I'm describing though is something which goes beyond that: it's about the need to create something of value with no context, no frame of reference, and no physical elements to work with. 

It's like trying to invent without having any problem to solve, and no box of ingredients to puzzle over, wondering how to put them together to form a solution. I'm pretty sure that when the lightbulb was invented, somebody was thinking that darkness was a problem. When the telephone was invented, somebody else was puzzling over a pile of physical bits and thinking about pre-defined challenges.

If the challenge of being a journalist is to keep your employer happy, the challenge of being a writer is to define a problem statement for yourself to solve, and to generate an original idea which requires only words for its expression and transmission.

That's why writing this blog is so easy for me. My 'problem statement' is not so much that I want to share my experiences but rather that I want to start discussions, get input from international readers and gather enough readers for world domination. I mean ... bring about some real-world change. Will there one-day be a call to action on this blog? You betcha. Will it be to form a flash mob? Not a chance.

This blog is therefore unique, because it's taking me on a journey while I take you on a journey. I don't know where it's going to go, or have a set list of topics to write about. Today it's a bit of introspection, tomorrow maybe a political rant, and next week a link to another Harlem Shake video.

However, this blog isn't my life. What is really getting to me is that I want to find the ultimate problem statement, and come up with the ultimate arrangement of words which results in something amazing. I don't know what that is yet, but I know I want to find out. I know I don't want to die a journalist. We all die as humans, as creators ... and I want something to create which is 100% mine.

Newsflash: I'm looking for job satisfaction. Aren't we all?

Friday, 12 April 2013

Heartstrings: tugged

Whoever said that Bucharest is drab and lacks colour never saw this photo:

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Short post Wednesday

It's mid-week. It's the end of the work day (in South Africa and Romania anyway). You can do with some cheering up, and I've already posted the Harlem Shake meme (check it out if you haven't already - that's an order!). What to do? Why, share this fantastic and disturbing story with you:

Read it if you like this sentence: "It is Genghis Khan bathed in sherbet ice cream. The mantis shrimp is the harbinger of blood-soaked rainbows."

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Who is responsible for rape?

Let's take a hard-news shift in focus, straight to South Africa. I'll be very interested to know what my international readers (which is most of you - judging by my blog stats) think of this story.

It's a pretty tragic story about a Norwegian exchange student who was raped by thugs who accosted her and her boyfriend while they sat in their car on Signal Hill in Cape Town at 01:00 in the morning.

The comments below the story are pretty much the usual blame-game South Africans like to play with the ANC, seeing this case as another huge blow to South Africa's reputation internationally and the direct fault of the Government. As I think I've mentioned before on this blog, it's the sort of knee-jerk reaction which I so dislike about South Africans, which is why I'm really looking forward to joining Romania's fresh shores.

As a few commentators have pointed out, however, this girl should not have been out at 01:00 in the morning parked alone on a mountain. I don't know what crime is like in Norway, but surely even there girls are taught to avoid dark places in the wee hours of the morning?

The bigger issue is South Africans love of blaming the Government for everything. Crime happens globally, and in South Africa there are numerous social reasons why rape is a particularly prevalent crime (poverty, drugs and a culture which objectifies women is only part of it) ... it's not, however, at the point where while walking down the road you see gangs of men chasing random women down the street.

For foreign readers, however, the real context to this story is that in South Africa Cape Town is seen as this little ideal gem of a coastal city, and no crime can ever happen there ... although unfortunately it does. That this happened on one of Cape Town's landmarks (Signal Hill) and to a foreign student makes matters even worse.

What do you think? If you read about this story in the news, would you think worse of South Africa for it? Do you also blame the Government for not preventing the rape from taking place, or do you think that social crimes cannot be laid at the Government's doorstep? This doesn't necessarily only apply to South Africa either: women and men get raped across world, so this is a global problem. I just think some countries are better at sweeping it under the carpet than others. 

South Africa has a great love for trumpeting the worst news from the towers, which is what ironically does the real damage to the country's reputation. Of course, it's a chicken and egg scenario: without the crime in the first place, the newspapers would have nothing to report. Literally. Unless you count charitable handovers and bake-sales as front page news!

Friday, 5 April 2013

Better late to the party...

Harlem Shake meme videos ... apparently all the rage back in February. So who cares? Nobody told me back then, and I've never laughed as hard as I did in the office this morning watching this while warming up to work:

Oh man, and just when you thought I was some level-headed rational sort of guy. There goes the neighbourhood, huh? If you totally don't get the humour, then this video might be more to your liking:

I may never get that beat out of my head.