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.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Final Kitchen Blogpost

OK, it's finally over. Electrician #3 returned today to fix the light he broke on the last visit. He'd drilled through a cable that wasn't supposed to be there. This has left me with two rather ugly holes in the living room ceiling and a hole gouged in the wall which is tactically obscured by a Mark Rothko print - No. 10, 1950 - if you're interested.

I've managed to play with all my new appliances. The AEG washing machine appears to wash clothes quietly and efficiently. The mini Bosch dishwasher is a hoot. The Neff oven, hob and grill all appear to work exactly to requirements - but getting used to
those will take a little time.

My concerns over choice of tiles (I have no design or colour co-ordination skills) have been vindicated by various compliments from the neighbours and the granite still looks utterly, utterly beautiful.

So below are a few before, during, and after pictures.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


Within the last few hours I've heard my next door neighbour has died and a very good friend for the last 25 years has had a heart attack.

Phillip, my neighbour, was a compact jolly man. He was getting old but I regularly saw him on the stairs as he jogged up and down the three flights to take the rubbish out. I always joked he could get up the stairs faster than me. He always wore immaculate white trainers and had a witty comment about something in the news or some recent local event. His health started to deteriorate very quickly a few years ago and one night I had a knock on the door from his distraught wife as Phillip had fallen and couldn't get up. I went in to their flat and manhandled him, as only an amateur can, back up onto the bed. A few days later he went into long term care and that was the last I saw of him although I often asked his wife Betty how he was as she went every day to visit him and spend the day with him. He died earlier this week and was buried on Thursday.

I've known my friend Colin, for over 25 years. We were flatmates in a terrible houseshare in Forest Hill. Everyone in the house got on fine, comrades in adversity really, as the landlord was a tedious little prat. The kind that leaves notes about the place while you're out.
We've all been friends ever since. He was running for a train on Thursday evening and suddenly collapsed. Next he knew he was in St. Thomas' Hospital being told he'd just had a heart attack. He called me from there a few hours ago. The prognosis sounds good. He had two blocked arteries which have been probed and have been deemed repairable without any invasive surgery needed. He has to take it easy for a while. We celebrated his 50th birthday only a few weeks ago. He's always been active, is definitely not overweight and is only a moderate drinker and never a smoker.

It's only times like this you start to think about how many people you know have actually died and the numbers get pretty frightening. My mum is one of three sisters. They all married. Of those three couples, one sister and all the husbands have died. Of the four who died, my father was the only one who got past 60.

My mother fortunately is still in robust health and shows no sign of fading at 70. That's probably got a lot to do with her lifestyle. Once she got rid of me and my brother she decided to keep horses instead of kids and has had, at any one time, between two and five horses on the go, so to speak. She's always done all the mucking out, grooming and all that stuff herself, as well as towing them around in horse boxes to go eventing. She can still chuck a 25kg sack of pony nuts further than I would care to try or bundle half a ton of recalcitrant horse flesh through the stables and out into the field for the day. Perhaps I should find myself a hobby like that or take up munro bagging or something as apart form the gym a couple of times a week my lifestyle is pretty sedentary.