Wednesday, 22 January 2014

I Hate Blogging

Oh please, share a link for me. I mean ... woof?
I realise that writing a blog post about hating blogging is ... deliciously ironic ... mwhahahaha ... but it's true. It's the same reason I hate being a journalist ... and yes, I'm a journalist as well. Guessed it yet?

It's because there's NO FEEDBACK (Caps, Bold, Underline, Italics, Red, Yellow Highlight ... booyah!). In this day and age we've all become media consumers, with very few media producers (one of the reasons I still have a job) - no Jimmy, that photo of your lunch you posted on Facebook is not 'media'.

Thanks to the joys of the modern internuts, Google gives me these little hints about who is reading this blog. No no, don't close your browser and wash your modem, I'm not about to read your e-mails ... it's not like that! Which countries they're from. Which sites they clicked a link on to get here. Even - with some bizarre results - what search term they used on Google that directed them here.

It's that middle option that finally gives me some real (albeit indirect) feedback, especially when it's another blog referencing me. Whether you're in Russia or England doesn't help so much, but if you happened to share a link to this blog for whatever reason from your blog, then at least I get a small glimpse into who YOU are and what made you love or hate the blog post enough to share a link with the rest of the world.

*shrugs* I guess that will have to be enough for now, and (because I'm not Justin Bieber) even that sadly doesn't happen nearly enough times to fully convince me that real living intelligent people are reading this blog and not only people hoping to sell viagra pills or mistakenly directed here because of my 'Houston, We Have Lift Off' blog post title (totally not about astronauts, sorry about that).

I'm looking to change all of that soon. I'm looking to bring Romania something new and different and potentially very very exciting. Or maybe it will just be a toy for me to play with some more, to interact with some of you guys. Who knows? 

Stay tuned to find out... 

... and feel free to comment ...

... or share a link ...

... a puppy somewhere will thank you, I promise.

Friday, 17 January 2014

The Most Beautiful Thing You Will See Today...

Photo by Elena Shumilova
Have I ever said how I specialised in photojournalism at University? I loved photography, kind of burned myself out and just ... stopped. Sure I still take photos for those random memory-snaps we all have, but not really for art anymore.

Today, I think that will all change. Today I stumbled across the most beautiful collection of photos I have ever seen in a single place. I'm talking about Elena Shumilova's photos.

To think that Elena only got her first camera in 2012, it blows my mind. There's clearly some very sophisticated image editing going on here as well, but there is also raw talent by the ... err ... planet load? Judge for yourself, srsly: this is one you don't want to miss.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Best New Year EVER

Now's probably a good time to share my Big News with you: I've got the best possible start to a new year in ... err ... ever!

If you've been following this blog, you'll have read about my discovery of Romania over December. Now normally that'd be enough adventure for at least a few months, but I've got some more change up my sleeve: I'm moving to Cape Town in February, and I've got a new job as a Communications Manager (that's a whole new career for me too because I'm currently a magazine editor).

If you're South African, I won't have to explain why this is a good move. Cape Town is regarded by many as the most beautiful city in South Africa - for some very good reasons as you see above.

My wife also fell in love with Cape Town on a holiday there a few years back, and best of all it looks as if she's managed to get a great job to start simultaneously with me (all thanks to the joys of Skype for both of us!).

So yeah, you could say my 2014 is starting off just about perfectly. Now, where did I put that lottery ticket?

Friday, 3 January 2014

Two Things For You To Do

Today I watched possibly one of my favourite movies of all time, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. If you can get to a nearby cinema to watch this, do. It's beautiful to watch, has a side to Ben Stiller you've never seen before, and if it doesn't leave you feeling inspired about your own life then ... well, I suggest electro-shock therapy.

To make it even better, I happened to find a link to this fascinating article on Twitter and read the story just before the movie started. It's all about how it's better to concentrate on doing your best rather than obtaining fixed goals and placing unnecessary pressure ... something I think we can all relate to, especially at the start of a new year.

There you go, that's short-post Friday for you!

Thursday, 2 January 2014

100th Post: Back in South Africa

It's official, friends: I'm back in Johannesburg, with my month-long holiday in Romania done. It's a surreal feeling ... yesterday at 14:00 I was in Bucharest, and today at 12:00 I was in Johannesburg. It's a five hour flight from Bucharest to Dubai with FlyDubai, then we had an eight-hour layover in Dubai (just wandering through the incredible mall-like Duty Free), and a eight-hour flight to Johannesburg with Emirates. Bushed? Already slept this afternoon, lol.

It's been an amazingly emotional journey for my wife and I ... for her, reconnecting to Romania after a ten year's absence; and for me, accompanying her and supporting her through that experience. I won't lie that it's a relief to be back in South Africa, but that's only because I feel like I'm in control of my life again and not just a victim of circumstance: here I understand the language on the TV news, I had my car I could jump into, and when I wanted to reconnect my television I knew the number I had to phone (living in a country is a million of small experiences).

When we left Bucharest it was another overcast winter morning, around 1 degree Celsius again, and even though we were anticipating the heat (30 degrees Celsius and car air-conditioner on maximum), we were really caught out by the bright golden sunshine and vibrant colours of summer. You really do end up squinting like a mole, as your brain tries to re-orientate itself to 'back-home'.

Five things I liked about Romania:
1: Cheap things: personal taxi rides costing 6 lei (R18) for short-distance hops to 25 lei (R75) for an airport transfer; a cross-country parcel couriered from Cluj-Napoca (in the north) to Bucharest (in the south) for only 25 lei (R75); a heavy-duty winter jacket imported from China for 80 lei (R240)
2: An efficient public transport system: I've previously used an Oyster Card to navigate London's public transport, but it was still fantastic to have access to the same thing in the form of a pre-paid RATB card in Bucharest to swipe for trains, trams and buses. Trips cost less than 2 lei (R6), and long-distance over-land trips by train are also affordable: we paid 19 lei (R57) for a three-hour trip on a regional train between Bucharest and Sinaia, and 100 lei (R300) for an express ten-hour trip between Bucharest and Cluj-Napoca.
3: The simple things in life: Being able to buy a pie for 3 lei (R9) was good. Walking out of the cold in Romania into buildings that are so warm thanks to omnipresent hot-water-powered radiators on the walls that you immediately strip off your jacket was great. Having access to a 20 MB/s unlimited internet connection and 50+ cable TV channels which is so cheap was brilliant.
4: Beautiful public parks: In Johannesburg you're lucky if you get a small patch of grass with two trees and one bench to sit on as a 'public space'. In Bucharest you have numerous MASSIVE parks with walk-ways lined with benches, complete with lakes (ducks pre-installed) and free exercise equipment.
5: Friendly people: this is going to seem completely in contradiction to point 2 below, but I had numerous amazing experiences with friendly people who my wife and I really got on with, and who treated us like family.

Five things I didn't like about Romania (more applicable in Bucharest than elsewhere):
1: Rude salespeople and customer service people: Yes, there were exceptions to this, but there were so many cases of people who are meant to serve customers being arrogant or dismissive that it was crazy.
2: Unhappy people with somewhere to get to in a hurry: Bucharest was very different primarily because in Johannesburg we live more isolated lifestyles. Everybody is in their cars, so it's rare that you're ever stuck in a moving stream of walking people (apart from heading towards a concert). I'm not saying that all South African people are cheerful all the time, but the number of silent and clearly depressed people cutting you off all the time while walking in the Bucharest Metro stations was truly overwhelming.
3: The cost of 'familiar' things to me: Whether we're talking about McDonalds medium meals costing 30 lei (R90!) or laptops for 2 000 lei (R6 000) without Windows pre-installed, there were plenty of times you'd get caught out as a visitor. Airports are always more expensive for food, but it amazes me that a 3 lei bottle of Nestea you could buy in the Metro vending machines cost 9 lei (R27) in the airport vending machines.
4: Being treated like a potential criminal everywhere: something you quickly get used to in Bucharest is constant surveillance. People will follow you in stores and even museums (!) to keep an eye on you. There will be more people at the check-out area scrutinising that you haven't hidden anything under your jacket in your trolley. I guess this is an indicator of high levels of petty theft, but understanding it doesn't make it fun.
5: Just how little English you find in Romania. It's like if you're a foreign tourist and want to find out about Dracula, you're covered in Romania. Nobody, however, has really contemplated that there might possibly be English-speakers in Romania needing to read warning signs ('Iesire' means 'Exit' didn't you know), magazines (even popular global brands are in Romanian), instructions (even on public transport - all tourists use taxis, not), labels, or understand even a single local TV news channel (they're all in Romanian).

More than all of the above, the desperate state of buildings really worries me (even Government buildings like railway stations). Yes, in Bucharest some apartment blocks are being re-painted, but for every one of those you can spot buildings which haven't been touched since the 1970s. It's not just one or two buildings ... it's so many that I think that Romania has already lost the battle. The required investment now is just too huge. What's it all going to look like in another 20 years? I've already remarked that people have clearly given up trying to paint over the graffiti on the buildings' exteriors, but it goes so much further than that and it's so damn sad because you can see the greatness lying underneath.

There's amazing natural beauty in Romania. There's a great infrastructure for keeping the average person fed, warm and at work on-time. There's also a huge amount of economic pressure and everybody has a tale about unscrupulous employers willing to fire you at the drop of a hat ... I realise that given the low average salaries many of the things I found affordable were actually relatively average, and the things which were expensive really are exorbitant.

So would I go back to Romania again? Without a doubt: I've got new friends there, and a vast country to still explore. Would I ever pretend that it's a tourist's dream? Not yet, not by a long way - at the very least, not unless you as a foreigner first put in a significant amount of work to learn Romanian (not the formal kind you get out of books, but the informal rapid-fire spoken form with all of its contractions).

Thank you Romania for memories of a lifetime (e.g. skiing down Azuga's bumpy and icy 'snow' out-of-control to wrap myself around the only signboard pole on the slope). Here's to next time.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Happy New Year: Bucharest Style

Part of the problem of being an outsider in Romania, as I've noted here, is that the local news channels are all in Romanian. For that reason I cannot say whether or not this was a deliberate play on words or an unfortunate typo on TV this afternoon, but let's be generous and opt for the former:

For the actual experience, of course, it's just amazing ... the buzz starts in the evening on the buses taking people to party places around the city, and with another bunch of traditional News Years Eve dishes served at home (fyi you eat fish now because fish swim ahead into the New Year).

Turn on the TV and the various concerts in and around Bucharest are covered on at least six TV stations, so even if you decide to not join the thousands of revellers packing all the venues you can at least join them in spirit. This is something I've never seen in South Africa before (where you're lucky if you find a single channel doing a formal count-down), so top marks Romania.

As 00:00 January 1, 2014, approached, of course, there was very little need to watch the count-down - a crescendo of fireworks built up steadily right across Bucharest's skyline. It really is a site to behold: you end up watching about ten firework shows at once, if you get a high vantage point like I was lucky to have (just from the tenth floor of an apartment block).

I didn't have my tripod with me, so of course my first photographs ended up looking like this...

... but then I got lucky, and somebody at a house right in front of our apartment block started lighting up some really amazing fireworks directly from their backyard (you know who you are - house off Bulevardul Basarabia, Sector 2).

Here's a selection: (NB: Click to view larger)

I also tried my hand - pun intended  - at photographing these flying candles which suddenly started floating into the night sky all over, with expected (but attractive) results:

Finally, walking back inside the apartment, it was good to see that we'd come full circle, and the same news channel from before was displaying something appropriate in Romanian (no typo here - lending credence to the theory that the last one was intended):

With that, Happy New Year Romania, and you, wherever you are. It's been a blast, literally.