Sunday, March 27, 2016

What we got up to in 2015

The first action of note in 2015 was the purchase of our launch. Lady Ethel is a carvel built kauri planked vessel launched, according to the plate in the saloon, in December 1962. She is a very roomy vessel and comfortable to live aboard. If you are interested, she is featured on a classic boats web site here. Or Google “Lady Ethel Motueka”.

Like every boat owner we know, we don't seem to spend enough time afloat, but we have managed a few short cruises. Because of the very shallow marina and equally shallow channel to reach the sea we have about a 4-hour 'window' each tide in which we can leave or return to the marina. The practical effect of this is that it is virtually compulsory to be out overnight. Since there are some wonderful anchorages in the Abel Tasman National Park just 2 hours motoring away, this is not a disaster. However, there have been some visitors who have had to make do with a clamber over her in the marina because there was insufficient time to go to sea.

Bill's granddaughter Laurel steering Lady Ethel.  Tansy is helping.
We have also been unlucky with things going wrong. The freezer went on strike just before we took possession. The toilet was refusing to empty and after a long delay was replaced. This was first noticed at sea, when Bill's daughter Elizabeth and her husband, Tim, were with us, making that voyage memorable for a wrong reason.

January brings many visitors to the region, and 2015 included Eve's daughter Amy and her three younger children, Mana, Will and Nevaeh. They are amongst those whose visit did not coincide with favourable tides for boating, but we spent a delightful day at Kaiteriteri Beach playing in the water.

In February Angela and Gordon Mizner were here. Angela is Bill's second (or so) cousin on the Roblou side. They live in England. Their visit coincided with a water-borne trip round the Abel Tasman NP that had been booked before we had even thought about buying our own boat. Angela and Gordon decided that it would be a good idea to join us and we had a marvellous excursion. We were shown some lovely little inlets that Lady Ethel will not dare to navigate. We didn't know there were colonies of spotted shags in the park, but there certainly are. The commentary was just right, the lunch was tasty and the weather was perfect. A great day. We can heartily recommend Abel Tasman Golden Future Conservation Tours.

After the tour returned us to Marahau we went to have a cup of tea with Rae and Aaron, who live nearby. Rae is Eve's niece. They had generously looked after our growing pup for the day. They have a dog of their own, a spaniel called Toby. He is smaller than Flossie but much older and spent a lot of time reinforcing his dominance, when Flossie just wanted to play. After tea the dogs had a fight. We think Toby got fed up with Flossie's youthful playfulness and bit her. She returned the compliment with interest and definitely won the fight. Fortunately no blood was spilled.

Having lavished many dollars on a boat, we followed up by the further extravagance of having a deck built on the Western side of the house. This had always been planned and the house is now complete. A key feature of the design is the two clear toughened glass panels which allow small visitors, such as our youngest granddaughters, to see the view without needing to see over the balustrade or risking falling off the edge. It also keeps an exuberant dog outside where she cannot terrorise said small visitors.

For many years we had known what outdoor furniture we wanted for the deck. We first saw Mark “Peg Leg” Perry's output at a fair in 2009. He takes huge flitches of macrocarpa, sprinkles pieces of paua shell in the irregularities and then fills them with clear acrylic. So on most days we can enjoy lunch and afternoon tea on the deck. We anticipated regular dinners there as well, but as the sun gets lower it can be a pain to those sitting with their backs to the house. Maybe we need some kind of sunshade. And for much of the year it can be too cold after the sun has gone down behind the hills.

Bill had a business trip to Northland in April. Eve decided to come along, too. The client very generously invited Eve to use the firm's car so she did some sightseeing while Bill earned the money. While dodging showers at Ocean Beach Eve met a lady who was touring NZ as a member of the Affordable Travel Club. The deal is that all members can act as hosts or visitors. The host provides bed and breakfast; the guest pays a $20 “gratuity”. Part of the fun, of course, is meeting new people. It is based in North America and there is no annual fee for members outside the USA and Canada. So far we've had three enquiries but have been unable to host any of them because we already had a full house on those dates.

Every year Nelson has a book fair. A very large room is full of trestle tables on which are thousands of books at very low prices. Nearly all of them are second hand, but in perfectly good condition. As books are sold the tables are replenished. The fair lasts a week, and there is a special price for a week-long pass, so some people must check the offerings repeatedly. Our bookshelves are full and there are more volumes in storage so we don't desperately need more books. You will not be surprised to learn that we needed a banana box to carry away all our finds. And wonderful reading they are, too.

Bill has been presenting seminars for years on esoteric matters of no interest to non-accountants. Seminars have reached the cyber-age now and largely been replaced with “webinars”. In June he presented his first webinars; a series of two sessions a week apart. They were organised by the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants and delivered from their office in Wellington. Bill decided not to rely on the early morning flight from Nelson, but to stay with Elizabeth and Tim in the capital city. The first session was extremely memorable for a very wrong reason – Bill was late.

Like so many accidents, it was a combination of factors. First, he didn't get to sleep quickly, and after hours of tossing and turning fell into a deep sleep. He had set his phone as an alarm clock, but the battery ran down overnight and it didn't go off. Tim got up for work but knew he was earlier than Bill needed to be so he thoughtfully didn't disturb his father-in-law. Elizabeth was working from home that day, rose late and assumed that her Dad had already left. By the time he did wake up and plug in his 'phone there were already messages from the Institute asking where he was. An urgent taxi-ride and no breakfast later he got to the Institute 10 minutes after the session was due to start. A half-hour briefing on how to use the software was compressed into 5 minutes and he was on air.

The actual presentation went off far better than it had any right to. The second one, which started on time and without any rush, was even finer. The feedback was extremely positive. A webinar is nowhere near as effective or enjoyable as being in the same room as the attendees, because feedback has to be via typed comments and folk cannot see each other. In a classroom a question can be put up on the screen and the audience invited to discuss it between themselves. The webinar is what radio must be like – the presenter must not stop talking and leave silences. However, Bill feels he can adapt and there will be more webinars in 2016.

Lots of Heritages headed North in 2015. Bill's son, Richard with Tansy (wife) and Laurel (daughter) were the first to go to the UK. This prompted Grampa Bill to arrange a little present for Laurel, who was then 18 months old. He bought her two bibs proclaiming her support for York City. Since Laurel's Dad and Great Uncle Nigel are both rabid Arsenal supporters this did risk igniting a feud.

We were close behind them. Our 5-week tour started in England and went on to Germany and all sorts of places, ending up in Istanbul. These travels have been described elsewhere in this blog, artificially dated at the time we were there. See July and August 2015. N.B. At the time of writing this it is not quite complete. Istanbul is missing. It was a fascinating city, and we hope we can manage a return visit.

An important piece of travel technology was a Samsung tablet computer with the Ulmon CityMaps2Go app. Read the Berlin post (the earliest in August) for a full description.

We were able to leave our animals (1 dog and about 10 chickens) because Eve's son, Matthew, came to live on the property. He needed somewhere new and we needed a dog sitter. So he took up residence in the sleep-out. To Flossie's delight, he takes her with him to work (farm contracting) so she gets rides in the car, than which there is no greater treat, and lots of space to run around or just blob in the shade under the vehicle.

There have been some important anniversaries in 2015. These kicked off in Christchurch with Eve's brother, Russell and his wife, Ivy, celebrating their golden wedding anniversary. Their four daughters organised a great party with a live band. Eve, who is one of the few people who have known them for all 50 of those years and the only one of Russell's siblings to be able to attend, delivered a very good speech.

In October Matthew reached 40. How can we possibly have children that old? This was celebrated with a brunch at Jester House, one of NZ's very best cafés. It was one of the very rare occasions when Matthew's controlling ex-partner permitted us to meet their daughter (and thus Eve's granddaughter), Leila.

Matthew (40) and Leila (2)
Only about a month later we were off to another party in Christchurch. Alison Newbegin is a long-standing friend of Eve's. She had reached 70.

At Alison's birthday bash.  The birthday girl is behind Bill's shoulder.
The most remarkable anniversary was in England, so we were unable to attend in the flesh. But we were very much there in spirit when Bill's Uncle Norman and Auntie Chick celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary. Chick had been ill through much of the year, but she was out of hospital and in the thick of the celebration lunch. Bill's brother, Nigel, who lives not too far from them, was there and reported to us:

It was held at a pub on the edge of the New Forest outside Ringwood called the Alice Lisle. Everything was beautifully laid out; Julia's daughter Kia who works in event management had found gigantic 70 shaped balloons and the table was liberally - very liberally - sprinkled with sparkly things including little number 70s. Nearly everyone managed to find one of these sprinkley sparkly things in their food at some point.

The story of the day was about Chick's engagement ring which she had lost at some point during her illness and being in Bournemouth and Southampton hospitals. Norman had bought her a replacement which he was going to present to her during the meal. And then on Saturday morning whilst getting ready, Chick found her ring! Norman gave Chick his present anyway, which was lovely, so she now has 2! There was a photo of them on their wedding day, aged 20 and 19. And here they still were, and so happy.

Sadly, Chick was soon unwell again and died in January, aged 89.

In the spring we added to the livestock that once upon a time we resolved not to have. We were given four geese. Strictly, they are one goose and three ganders. We were told that the goose was a young bird and she clearly needed guidance on how to be a mother goose. She laid her first egg out in the open and left it, so we had scrambled goose egg. After that she made a proper nest and laid three eggs in it. Only one of them hatched, and the gosling died two days later.

Eve has kept a goat before and we know a couple down the valley who have surplus kids. That's young goats, not children! Two of them are promised to us when they are old enough to leave their mothers in the New Year, so our menagerie will get even bigger.

Part of our life now is wwoofers (willing workers on organic farms). They are mostly young folk travelling round New Zealand and want to exchange half a day's work for board and lodging. Most enquiries come in the summer, but they may turn up at any time of year. In 2015 we had delightful people from Germany, Denmark, Uruguay, USA and NZ. Diego and Valentina are from Colonia del Sacramento, which is one of the two Uruguayan towns Bill visited in 2007. Raja (pronounced rye-er) from Germany liked us so much she came back for a second visit. And if we do not look up Wylder when we are in North Carolina there could be an international incident! Thanks to all of them for their labours and their great company.

Valentina and Flossie

Minako and Naoto from Japan.  They wwoofed for us in 2014 and came to see us before they left NZ.

Bill, Eve, Matthew, Raja and Christin.


At some time during the latter part of the year Bill's son Richard introduced a game called Ingress, which Bill is now also enthusiastically playing. It was designed to get computer nerds out in the fresh air and requires actual travel to play it. The object of the game is very simple. Around the world there are lots of “portals”. Strictly these are GPS co-ordinates, but they have a name and a picture attached so it is easier to think of them as the pictured object. They have to be in public places so that players can approach them legally and safely. When you download the software to your smartphone or tablet you have to choose which of the two teams you wish to join. You then try to “capture” portals, defend them and link them, all of which has to be done within about 40 metres of the portal. If you link three in a triangle you create a field, which is worth a lot of points. The other faction is, of course, trying to capture your portals, and so on.

If you want to try this for yourself, Bill and Richard ask that you join the green team, the Enlightened.

Late in November Bill received the unwelcome news that his largest client, BDO New Zealand, had decided to make other arrangements. It was not dissatisfaction with Bill's work, but they wanted to find a role for an individual who was too experienced to be a manager, but for whom no member firm had an immediate opening as a partner. Bill certainly has other clients, but this will make a big dent in our income in 2016.

We cannot leave an account of 2015 without some mention of being proud grandparents.

Grandma Eve with Bill's granddaughter Laurel

Grampa Bill reading a story to Eve's granddaughter Ellyssa

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Telemarketers

There was an item on the radio today about an idea for frustrating telemarketers. An American, Roger Anderson, has devised a system that automatically responds with voice recordings that waste cold callers' time by engaging with them, and then stringing them along. The details are on a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/jollyrogertelephone/.

Annoying telemarketers is hopefully but one step in ridding the world of this modern-day scourge. I have been giving some thought to other strategies we could employ.

Simply banning cold calling is not likely to work. The telemarketers, who have no ethical standards at all, will simply go overseas. They may have done that already. Who knows where they are calling from? However, that doesn't mean to say that we should tolerate this shameless behaviour being conducted openly in New Zealand. How about declaring the NZ Marketing Association as a terrorist organisation? That would automatically drive it underground and significantly restrict its funding.

But the real effort has to be made against the amoral businesses that employ telemarketers. This should be made a crime. Why have successive NZ governments done NOTHING to restrain this intrusive practice? Suitable punishments, for all individuals involved in recruiting and contracting with telemarketers and all directors of the company could include:
  • Hefty fines. I have in mind $10,000 for every annoyed householder;
  • Computer-generated telephone calls to their home, office and mobile telephones at random times, 24-hours per day, inviting them to buy things they don't want;
  • Publishing their home telephone numbers so that any member of the public who has received an unwanted call can ring up the people who caused it to happen and see how they like it;
  • Requiring them to wear a large sign, front and back, with the message “I HAVE ALL THE MORAL SCRUPLES OF A SOW ON HEAT”. (If we ever catch an actual telemarketer this message should be tattooed on each cheek – all four of them); and
  • Compulsory training in ethics, a subject of which they are apparently completely ignorant.
Sharia law may have some interesting punishments to add to this list.


And if all of us, just once per day, telephone the Marketing Association on 09 361 7760 and ask politely for them to cease all direct marketing in New Zealand, they might eventually get the message that the practice is unacceptable.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Copper Crested Heritage


The attached image is real.  It has not been Photoshopped or edited in any way.  You had better be sitting down when you look at it.

Now that I have your attention, perhaps I had better explain.

I had had the same hairstyle for 63 years; since the day I was born.  My mother told me that I was born with so much hair that the nurse combed it with a parting on Day 1.  So I thought I would try something different.

I recalled that a friend had an afro for quite a while, but that didn't appeal to me.  It would probably have required months or years to grow my hair long enough anyway.  A crew cut (the hairdresser called it a "flat top") interested me.  Eve was OK with the idea so we discussed it with Pauline, our hairdresser.  A flat top was out.  Apparently you need hair that is naturally something like clothes brush bristles to stand up that way.  My hair is very straight and fine.  In the end it was cut short and, with the assistance of special goo, persuaded to stand up in a spiky way.

That was enough.  It was sufficiently different from the old look that it satisfied my desire for something new, and people who knew me noticed it.  During a Skype call to cousins in Ottawa their daughter said it made me look 10 years younger.  What a perceptive and intelligent young woman she is.

I was working in Auckland with a normally sensible, intelligent man who, probably out of sheer horror, suggested I get it dyed ginger.  I relayed this suggestion to Eve and in the subsequent exchange of text messages she DARED ME (in capitals) to do it.  So straight away I made an appointment with Pauline.  It turns out that Eve was joking, but once again we talked to Pauline about the idea and she suggested 'highlights'.  We perused the colour charts, made a choice, and deferred the actual opertion until the New Year.  The result is pictured.

My children will probably disinherit me.

I can console them with the observation that it will grow out in a few weeks and I don't plan to maintain it.  Putting the colour in involved wearing a tight rubber 'helmet' for quite a long time.  By the end it was very uncomfortable.  Also, getting hair coloured costs money.

In the meantime, my charges for terrifying small children are very reasonable.  ;-)


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

I dreamed of the Orient Express ... and I woke up in Plovdiv

Have you ever read Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, or seen the film?  There are linen tablecloths in the restaurant car and uniformed waiters.  The sleeper berths are the last word in luxury.  While we did not expect to meet Hercule Poirot on our journey from Sofia to Istanbul we were rather looking forward to a little old-world extravagance.

The reality in 2015 is a far cry from that romantic picture.

We could not make reservations over the Internet, so we presented ourselves at Sofia station, where a pleasant woman speaking good English explained that the choice of sleeping accommodation was simple.  There were no berths of any class.  We would have to sit up all night.  Well, we'd managed that from Budapest to Sigisoara and it hadn't killed us.  We could cope.  "And" she added, "there is no restaurant car.  You will have to take your own food."  Blast!

"The train goes as far as the Turkish border, arriving at about 2am.  You will go by bus from there."  This last factoid wasn't a surprise because earlier Internet researches had revealed that the Turks have been doing major work on the tracks and we knew that the final part of the journey would probably be by road.

There was a tram from outside our hotel directly to the station so that part of the journey was simple enough.  We surveyed our takeaway food options.  Sofia had not been a gourmet experience until then and the station offered nothing to change our opinion.  The least worst option seemed to be large slices of pizza and a giant bottle of beer.  To kill time we opted for a coffee from the tobacco-and-spirits shop that boasted a few tables and chairs.  Not only was it the cheapest coffee in Europe at about 60 cents for the cup, it was the best coffee we'd encountered since leaving Germany.

The effect of this cheering jolt of caffeine was to make me study the shelves of spirits.  None of the labels was familiar, and, since we were in Bulgaria, they were mostly in cyrillic script.  I selected a green bottle with a friendly-looking label.  "Schnapps", explained the tobacconist-cum-barrista lady.  The 200ml bottle set us back $3.50.

The electronic departure board signalled that we would be departing from platform 12Ѝ.  Now Sofia station boasts the worst signage in Europe.  We found platform 12 without difficulty, but there were two trains sitting there.  Which portion was platform 12Ѝ?  There was no hint.  So I walked along the nearer train looking for a coach with the right number on it (we had reserved seats, remember).  The first several were unlabelled.  Then a conductor appeared on the platform.  "Istanbul?" I asked in my best Bulgarian.  She pointed to the coach immediately behind the locomotive.  "This coach.  Only one through coach."  So the famous Orient Express is reduced to a single, ageing 2nd class coach behind a workaday electric loco.

At least we departed on time.  And then stopped at every village along the line.  The first call was still within Sofia, where a band of young men, apparently going home from work, boarded.  There was plenty of room in the coach as we trundled through the Bulgarian countryside.  The young men chattered and we ate our pizza.  The cardboard and paper wrapping was a surprisingly efficient insulator so it wasn't completely cold, nor was the beer completely warmed.  We sipped at our ridiculously cheap schnapps.  It was OK.


Dusk turned to night.  A conductor walked down the coach.  "In 45 minutes, off train onto autobus.  In Plovdiv."  His English wasn't up to explaining why we were being transferred to a bus, but the message was clear enough.  Plovdiv is Bulgaria's 2nd largest city and, Wikipedia tells us, is an important economic, transport, cultural, and educational centre.  We saw nothing of importance as we carried our luggage across the tracks and waited at the kerbside.  Our Orient Express experience was over.


The bus quickly left the city and settled onto a motorway.  This, I thought, may save us some time.  It is actually quicker (and cheaper) to travel from Sofia to Istanbul by bus, but they don't have on-board toilets, which is an important consideration for the mature traveller.  More fool me.  It seemed hardly any time before the bus had to turn off the motorway to call at the next train station.  And on we went through the night.  I got the strongest impression that we called at one station twice.  Maybe the driver missed one and had to double back.  And towards 2am, as promised, we arrived at the border with Turkey.


If I'd thought much about it I would have guessed that the border would be a single, half-asleep customs officer stamping passports like an automaton.  In fact there were thousands of people lining up to enter Turkey.  Trucks have their own lane.  I swear they were backed up for two kilometres.  Buses and cars at least got within sight of the border control buildings before they had to queue.


Leaving a country is normally the briefest of formalities, but the Bulgarians took aside one lady.  She was part of what we took for a family group.  The husband was, I think, Canadian.  The wife was notable for wearing a formal evening gown for an overnight journey on public transport.  What was the matter?  Why should she not be allowed to leave Bulgaria?  Whatever the problem was, it got sorted out and the whole party re-boarded the bus to advance to the Turkish side.


Nearly everyone needs a visa for Turkey.  It's a nice little money-spinner for the government, with a computer somewhere in Ankara collecting fees and despatching e-visas in pdf format while the traveller enters all the information.  New Zealanders are among the chosen few who need no visa, but Eve was travelling on a UK passport.  It had taken ages, using a tablet computer, to enter the information, correct the spelling errors introduced by predictive text and double-check that everything was perfect.  In the morning I had opened the e-visa so it would be ready to show at the border and found Eve's name was misspelled, despite all our care.  I thought it likely that money would change hands at the border to remedy the defect, but I confess that I did worry a little about what would happen if we were refused entry.  My disquiet was unnecessary. We were simply handed back our passports with new stamps in them.  The problems were for the five travellers with no visa at all.  This must be a common problem, because the bus driver collected the visa-less five and confidently marched them off to where visas are dispensed.


All this took time and it was well after 3am when the bus moved on with its cargo of sleep-deprived travellers.  In Turkey the first thing it did was to force a way through the line of cars headed in the opposite direction into the grounds of a hotel.  Then we threaded our way through lanes of parked trucks, whose drivers were presumably asleep in their cabs.  Beyond this was - a railway station!  And parked beside it was a Turkish bus.  So once again we hauled our bags into a new vehicle.


Eve and I both thought that we would get no proper sleep that night, but the Turkish bus must have been more comfortable because we both managed a couple of hours or so.  As far as we know, this bus did not leave the main road. Certainly it made good time into Istanbul.  We were deposited at the terminus at about 6:45am.


I wonder if anyone has ever surveyed the accessibility of taxis by time and place.  If they have, I should imagine that going on 7am outside a boarded up, defunct railway station would rank pretty low down the list.  But Istanbul is awash with taxis and there were actually two of them sitting on the rank waiting.  We showed one of them the printed name and address of our hotel and off we went.


There was a slight glitch with the GPS navigation system in the cab (I later found the same imaginary street on our electronic map), but we were delivered to Mint Residence at about 7:15.  This has to be one of the nicest hotels on the planet.  The porter hurried out to claim our bags, confirmed our booking, gave us the WiFi password and made us a cup of coffee, all the while apologising for his poor English.  When the receptionist came on duty he checked us in and, since the room was vacant, invited us to occupy it straight away, making this the earliest of early check-ins.  We asked if we could buy a breakfast and were told to help ourselves from the buffet.  The offer of payment was refused.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Sofia

If you look at a map of Europe and plot a course from Bucharest to Istanbul you have to cross Bulgaria, but you would hardly expect to take in Sofia along the way. However, extensive interrogation of the Eurail timetables could not find a more direct route.

We left Bucharest in bright sunshine, sharing a compartment with a party of what appeared to be unsupervised schoolgirls. All but one of them wore glasses. They all spent most of the journey reading or writing. How terribly well behaved! With the addition of a young man, who turned out to be another New Zealander, the compartment was chocka. The seats were OK, but the luggage rack was perilously overloaded. Late in the journey I wandered along the carriage. None of the other compartments had more than 3 people in them. What a strange way to allocate the seats.

The train paused for a while at a major river. It was probably the Dunărea, i.e. the Danube, and the border with Bulgaria. It then proceeded terribly slowly over a very high bridge; a most uncomfortable sensation for an acrophobe like me.

When passports were demanded for inspection the girls produced credit-card-sized pieces of plastic, which were acceptable travel documents. Google has since confided that some national identity cards are valid for travel within Europe, but it was a surprise to us at the time.

The New Zealander had worked out a complicated cross-country itinerary and left the train at one of several stops in depressed looking Bulgarian towns. We and the girls stayed on the train all the way to Sofia, which was reached about 10:30pm. By following the youngsters (the station had NO signs for 'exit', 'taxi', etc. In fact, it had no signs!) we arrived at the metro. But we wanted a taxi. The lady in the ticket office couldn't, or wouldn't, direct us to a taxi rank so we wandered around in the dark until we found another human, who pointed up a flight of stairs.

There were several taxis waiting in the dark. We had thoughtfully prepared a card with the hotel's address in both Latin and Cyrillic characters. A driver looked at it thoughtfully.

“You have Bulgarian money?”.
“Yes.”
“OK.”

By following the journey on our 'magic map' we confirmed that the driver went by a direct route, but the hotel had no illuminated sign and he went past it. However, with the aid of our electronic map he soon deposited us on the pavement and claimed what was probably an exorbitant fee, but what were our options at 11pm in Bulgaria?

The hotel advertised 24-hour reception, which turned out to be in an all-night eatery 2 doors along. The room was small and the ensuite bathroom poky. But the bed was comfortable and we slept well.

By a happy chance the hotel was within walking distance of a tourist information office, which in turn was within walking distance of the main sight of Sofia, the Aleksander Nevski Cathedral. There were other sights in the vicinity, too, but Malaysian Airlines had cancelled our flight out of Istanbul, and the least worst alternative flight cut our holiday short by one day – and Sofia was the unlucky city that was deprived of our company 24 hours early.


The cathedral is indeed an impressive building built, according to the information board, “by the whole Bulgarian people in memory of the thousands of Russian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Moldavian, Finnish and Romanian soldiers who, from 1877 to 1878, laid their lives for the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire.” Finnish soldiers? Yes, Wikipedia confirms this.

Of particular interest is the collection of icons displayed in the crypt.


A 17th century work from Rila Monastery

This depicts “St. John the Forerunner.” Neither of us had ever heard of him, but dear Mr. Google led us to an article that explains this is another name for John the Baptist.  Either the artist's brush slipped, or St. John was a particularly grumpy individual.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Bucharest

If the carriages of the train from Sighişoara were numbered we couldn't find the numbers, so it took a while to find our seats. The compartment was already occupied by a lady of our generation and a dog. It wasn't her seat, but the dog was not friendly and keeping it in the compartment would keep it out of other passengers' way. Amazingly, the woman and her husband spoke English. They lived part of the year in the USA and part in their native Romania. She knew we were foreigners because we worried about finding the right seats. “Romanians just sit anywhere.” The long-haired dachshund was indeed over-protective of his owners, but spent most of the journey grumbling to himself under the husband's seat. He barked at the ticket inspector, but did not attempt to bite anyone.

We arrived in Bucharest well after the scheduled time, but our Airbnb host, Cristian, was at the station to meet us. It seemed that nothing was too much trouble for Cristian and Irina. After depositing our luggage in their flat, which was just across the road from the station, Cristian accompanied us to a local takeaway, explained the menu (traditional stews, which appealed much more than burgers) and made sure the transaction went smoothly. He then took us past one supermarket to one with a better range of wines to choose from.

Between our guide book and our hosts' recommendations we had a long list of things we wanted to do. First, we went to the National Village Museum, more because I was intrigued by an open-air museum of buildings than out of passionate interest in homesteads, churches and mills. In the event, we became so engrossed that we spent more than half the day there.
One of the tidier village houses.

"Mill with bosom" according to the information board.  Some of the translations were a little suspect.  Originally located at Orichioi, Lake Razelm, it was used to grind maize and wheat.
Relocated from the Danube delta
A 'half-buried' house originally from Castranova.  Half-buried houses were not homes for poor people, according to the information board, because their construction required almost double the amount of timber compared to a conventional house.  The design was a response to a climate of strong winds and major fluctuations in temperature.

It was only after about 3 hours that I realised that no exhibit boasted inside sanitation.  Romanian villagers are not softies!

We had intended to visit the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, but we'd used up so much time at the Village Museum that we went straight to the starting point for a guided walking tour. The metro allows easy access from one carriage to another.  In fact you are barely aware of the join.


Despite the comfort of the metro, by the time we'd got to the walking tour assembly point we had spent so much time on our feet that we decided to go and find a beer instead.


On our 2nd morning we headed for the Palace of Parliament, the world's second largest building and originally built in 1984 by Nicolae Ceauşescu. It is seriously huge – like Ceauşescu's ego. We elected not to go on the tour of the interior, and instead guided ourselves around the city centre until it was time to return to the station and move on.

Ceauşescu's 3.3 billion euro folly.

Across the road from the giant palace was a park with a pretty big children's playground.
The Dâmboviţa River.  Several fishermen were trying their luck from the bridge and catching tiddlers.

Cristian explained that the Romanian language is a Romance language and thus related to French.  It must be a very distant relationship.  We did see the odd word on a sign that looked familiar, but it didn't sound anything like French.  For example, the Romanian for "Thank you" is "Mulţumesc", which Lonely Planet spells phonetically as mool-tsoo-mesk.  Cristian told us to say "merci".  "It will be understood everywhere."

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Sighişoara

Mike Theilmann recommended this little town in Romania as "worth a day". Lonely Planet describes it as "so beautiful it should be arrested". We thought we'd better check it out.

We arrived on an overnight train from Budapest. Having sat up all night and consequently got very little sleep, we discovered that couchettes were available as far as Vintu de Jos and we could have transferred in the morning to a regular carriage.  Why didn't the booking clerk in Budapest know this?

Romanian trains do not display quite the same punctuality as those in Germany and Austria, so we were deposited at Sighisoara station about an hour late. Before long a tiny, ancient taxi arrived and the driver looked doubtfully at our luggage. He opened the boot and quickly decided that our bags could not fit, so he stowed them on the back seat. Eve squeezed in beside them and I nursed the small backpack on my knees in the front.

I showed the driver the address, printed clearly for just such an occasion. He looked at it doubtfully, but we set off. Within 50 metres he was on his cellphone, apparently talking to his dispatcher, and steering erratically with one hand. A couple of near misses did not disturb him. The taxi company apparently has only the drivers' cellphones for contact. I swear his phone rang 4 times before he started ignoring it - in a journey of just over 1km.

At the gate to the old town a policeman tried to turn us back. Our driver argued our case magnificently and we were allowed to continue. Barriers and tapes across the streets suggested either a bomb scare or a pop concert.

Luckily our street was one of the first in the old town, so all we had to do was drive to no. 24. The driver didn't know where it was. Neither did the two policemen at the barrier. Or any of the pedestrians who were asked. Eventually we drove the entire length of the cobbled street twice before locating it - on the corner we arrived at!

The meter had not been running. It seemed to be one of several inessential devices in the taxi that did not work. The driver asked for only 8 leu. Even with a handsome tip that was less than $4.

It turned out that the security was all part of a 4-day festival of folk music. So after taking about 1,000 photos of picturesque buildings we spent the afternoon listening to different kinds of Romanian folk music and watching the dancing. I may have taken a few pictures of pretty maids in traditional costume as well.

The canvas roofs in the distance are by the folk festival stage in the town square.

One of the towers in the defensive walls.  Each tower was maintained by a different guild.

The clock tower.  It's only a little clock on a big tower.

A street just outside the walls.  Still picturesque, though.

Another cobbled street.

Away from the centre, but still within the walls.  Just out of the picture to the right is a cafe that apologised, "Sorry, we don't offer free WiFi.  Talk to each other."

We saw many houses in Romania with similar dormer windows that reminded me of heavily lidded eyes.
This girl had a great voice.  She should be singing jazz!

Enough bling for you?

The guys were pretty colourful as well.

The school was at the top of the hill.  The steps were covered so that the pupils could get to school in all weathers.
The old schoolhouse was open to the public.  This bust was not labelled.  The first headmaster, maybe?
We had booked a tiny apartment through Airbnb. It was in a genuinely old building inside the mediaeval walled town. Gorgeous.

Strada Tâmplarilor no.24.  Our flat was upstairs.

Modern plumbing doesn't always fit mediaeval rooms.  The shower got us clean, but it spread a lot of water over the floor.

Part of the bed-sitting room.  It doesn't really show just how spacious it was.
Since the journey back to the station was downhill I reckoned we could walk it. Eve may one day forgive me. Google maps estimated 1.3km, which is less than a mile. Eve's suitcase has good wheels so it would have been OK if Sighişoara had wide, even pavements. But it doesn't. The walk did allow us close up views of the horse-drawn carts that are still in daily use in Transylvania. Based on observations from the trains they are roughly 50% of the rural traffic.


We arrived at the station in good time. Romanian trains maintained their punctuality record by running 90 minutes late. We were kept alert while we waited by the actions of what we suspected was a Roma family. The two smaller children went up and down the platform begging. The girl had a bandage on her arm, but no visible signs of injury or ill-health. She was not favouring the arm at all. The young men sauntered around in a small group, but we saw no signs of aggression or pillaging.