Monday, April 28, 2008

Noroc and Salaam Alekum

I've spent two out of the last three weeks out of the country. Fortunately, I get occasional bursts of travel as part of my work so three weeks ago I had 5 days in Romania and I spent last week in Egypt.

Romania, or more specifically in my case, Bucharest, is a great place to visit. My colleagues in the Bucharest office are without doubt the most hospitable and fun people in the whole organisation. There were also four colleagues visiting from the Paris office. They are also exceptional fun so we had a great week. I counted the stamps in my passport and this was my seventh trip to Bucharest and I hope there are lots more.

Whenever you mention you have visited Romania you get one of two reactions. People start (trying to) make clumsy jokes about Dracula or they mention gipsys. I've even seen colleagues on their first visit there try these sorts of comments as some sort of icebreaker with the Romanians. They are usually answered politely with a courteous smile or occasionally a suggestion that perhaps these are not the sole characteristics that define their country and its people. I love going there and would recommend it to anyone. Can't wait to go again. Fantastic climate, fantastic people.

Egypt is a tougher nut to crack. Egyptians seem rather more cautious on first meeting and one gets the impression they expect a Western visitor has arrived with a lot of preconceptions about them, mostly negative for some reason. In my experience, after three visits, that's not the case. I encourage colleagues to go there because Cairo is so different to any city we're normally accustomed to. It's a frantic, sprawling and often bewildering place but utterly safe, certainly no more dangerous than some parts of London at the wrong time of day or night. Revisit cars you only dimly recall from your childhood by hopping into a local taxi - agree the price first though, none have a working meter. In the tourist spots you will be hassled to buy stuff, especially in areas like Khan El Khallili (the massive market) or around the Pyramids, but respond in a friendly manner and you soon realise they have a fantastic sense of humour. Yes, they want you to buy something but they're smart enough to realise they are probably the fiftieth person in the last hour that's asked you the same question and they have to survive on their wit and charm to keep your interest. The people in the office open up pretty quickly as well and any suggestion of initial mutual distrust is soon gone. Try to speak a few words of Arabic - it's a real icebreaker as you try to pronounce a simple phrase which to a Westerner simply sounds like you're trying to cough up your breakfast.

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