Monthly Archives: January 2013

Amsterdam 2005

I found this half-finished blog while clearing out stuff and tidied it up. It’s almost 6 years old and is about the journey to, rather than events of the EM411 meetup that took place at New Year 2005 in Amsterdam. Well you know what they say, better late than never…

I’m standing in a cold dark rain soaked street in Glasgow waiting for the night bus to London. It’s 11 pm and I’ve been standing here for almost 45 minutes; all that time getting progressively wetter. There is a bus shelter but it’s fully occupied so I’ve had to put up with the rain. I look around at the others waiting and it is quite a diverse crowd…there are Australians and I believe New Zealanders as well, the couple in front are Spanish and off to the right, I suspect Turkish. A group of Indians further along, and I heard eastern European voices as well. I’m on my own and I’m casually drifting in and out of other people’s conversations, but I can’t understand a word.

The bus eventually turns up 30 minutes late. The crowd piles toward the bus door, passengers from Aberdeen and Dundee who were already on the bus get off and force their way past, luggage is put into the hold but just when it seems we’re about to leave the driver spots a lonely item of luggage lying on the pavement. The driver asks three times ‘who owns the bag?’ but no one wants to admit responsibility…eventually there’s arguing at the front of the bus…and someone finally does something about the bag and the bus pulls away.

I can’t hear any Scottish voices nor any English being spoken. I can hear Spanish…I tune in and hear ‘Ferrari’ repeated, then it becomes clear, ‘Italian’. Behind me I can hear Polish or another Eastern European tongue. And what’s that? ‘Danke?’ someone definitely said ‘Danke’. Who invited the Germans? Did they sneak on when I wasn’t looking? Maybe they were already on-board, as the bus arrived fully laden with passengers from north-east Scotland. The journey for me will take around 8 hours, for those from Aberdeen around 12 hours! Ouch.

The Italian couple opposite me are kissing…constantly. Every few minutes I hear the smack of lips. I swear they do it on purpose…deliberately picking the most sexually frustrated person on the bus to sit opposite. I look around and there doesn’t appear to be anyone else kissing…in the corner of my eye I can see them, but he has friends in the row behind and he’ll turn and talk to them and then suddenly he’ll place a kiss on his girlfriend’s cheek and then he’s straight back into the conversation as if the kiss was an integral part of the conversation. Perhaps it is, I’ve no idea what they’re talking about, and all I can make out is yet more references to ‘Ferrari’. Maybe he’s comparing his girlfriend to a fast Italian car…or a prancing horse.

I’ve started reading, but the book isn’t holding my attention. I have 3 books with me, 2 are packed in the luggage compartment so I’m stuck with what I’ve got…I’m bored, so I’ve started counting the kissy noises…41…42…the man sitting in front looks like David Coulthard…perhaps they’re joking about David Coulthard in a Ferrari, mind you if Eddie Irvine can do it…Kiss.

The roof is leaking. drip, drip, kiss. The driver takes the main lights off so I stick on my overhead light to attempt reading again while the rest of the bus is in darkness and everyone is trying to sleep. Even the kissing has stopped! Wind and rain batters the bus. The leaking gets worse. This is going to be a long night. I have a small bottle of Jaggermeister which I take out and start drinking in the hope it will knock me to sleep as I really don’t want to be awake for the next 7 hours…¾ way through the bottle and I need to pee but the toilet on board is out-of-order. I’ll compose myself until we stop…10 minutes pass…20 minutes becomes 30, this can’t be good for my bladder, I ask the driver if he’ll stop…he says we’ll be stopping ‘soon’.

Another 20 minutes later we stop. We switch drivers; the new driver announces that he is “Magic Danny”. No one is allowed off to pee instead a man comes on to look at the toilet but says there is nothing wrong with it. So I’m first in. A fat woman tries to push her way in while I’m peeing. I flush and she goes in once I’ve finished and then as I’m back in my seat she walks past me to the driver, apparently the toilet is broken…don’t look at me! I didn’t do anything! We make a proper toilet stop this time at the next motorway service station, which adds more time to the journey…

I fall asleep listening to a Yann Tiersen CD…but I’m awoken by the sound of my CD player crashing against the floor and smashing apart. It must have been loud; people are looking at me as I pick up my broken CD player…either that or I was talking, or worse singing in my sleep.

The Jaggermeister is down to the last 1/3 but I’ve only slept for about an hour and am wide-awake as we come into London. The bus stops and “Magic Danny” announces that we’ve arrived on time thanks to his “superb” driving skills! Pfft, that was nothing; bring on the 9-hour journey back home!

At Victoria railway station I meet up with Chris (Zanf) and we go back to his flat. In the evening we meet up with Eric (Lowlifi), his girlfriend Rebecca and her friend Daniella in Chandos pub near Trafalgar square. Later that evening we go to Tower Hill and are introduced to Daniella’s extended family who are all American but are staying in Cambridge and together we go for an Indian meal in Brick lane.

In the morning one of Chris’ flatmates drives us to Stansted airport, we check in and go for coffee and a bite to eat. I’m looking forward to the flight. This will be the first time I’ve been anywhere other than Glasgow for New Year. I’ve been listening out for flight announcements but there’s been none. The flight leaves at 1:15 and we realise that time has crept up fast and it is now 1:00. The screens say the flight is now boarding and we realise that we’re miles from the gate. I’ve never flown from Stansted before and wasn’t aware that a train was required to get to the gates. We hop on the next train, run up the escalator and along the corridor and arrive bang on 1:15 but the gate has already closed and they refuse to let us board even though we can see the plane on the ground from the window.

We are told to wait and someone will speak to us about putting us on another flight. No one comes, we ask again; we’re told someone will be with us soon. Time passes 1 hour and 15 minutes later someone meets us and takes us back to the check-in. There are no more flights to Amsterdam from Stansted, but there is one from Luton, but it leaves in just over an hour. We’ll never make it…I’ve we’d been told that immediately instead of wasting 75 minutes we could’ve made it. No matter, we book on flights for the following day and Rebecca has a plan.

After trying various credit cards, coins and numerous numbers Rebecca finally gets through to Daniella and it’s decided that we’re going to Cambridge for the night, and to spend New Year there.

We get on the next bus to Cambridge and take a taxi to the address Daniella has given us…but then we realise that she neglected to give us a street number! Luckily Chris spots Daniella’s uncle in one of the windows. Rebecca chaps the window and then we wait for someone to appear at the door…nobody comes, then we realise that the entrance to the flat is actually round the corner and we’ve been chapping someone else’s door. It transpires that some of Daniella’s family have already left so there’s a room with 5 beds which is free for us to use, complete with fridge full of food, which would only have been thrown out anyway!

I email the hostel telling them we’ll be a day late…I’ve already amended the original booking as Martin/Filarion pulled out (so asked for only 4 beds instead of 5) but then Pietro/Pierlu and his friend were going to come (so I asked for 6 beds) but they couldn’t make it either but Rebecca thought she could persuade Daniella to come so I asked for 5 beds again…

We make some dinner from the mountain of food left in the fridge and head out to see what exciting nightlife Cambridge has to offer. In the process we even manage to witness drunken a fight between toffs. After a few pubs we eventually end up in a club called the Fez. It was shit. It was just like New Year in Glasgow.

The following day we awake early. There’s a number for a taxi company pinned to the wall but it ain’t working, we’re running late (again) so we run through town and only just catch the bus. Today’s departure time is the same as yesterday’s and we find ourselves in the queue at the gate at the exact same time as when we arrived the previous day only this time we are standing waiting and the queue for check-in is not moving far. Sod’s law. While we’re waiting an announcement is made asking the stragglers to board…where was the announcement yesterday?!

A mere 30 minutes later and we’ve touched down in Amsterdam Schipol. We buy 2nd class train tickets and board one of double-decker trains to central station and arrive at our hostel in the red light district located next door to sex show and on the same street as the cock fountain where I say to the man at reception “Hi, I booked a room, we were supposed to arrive yesterday but…”

“Ah, Mark Murphy!” the man laughs. I explain how we booked a room for 5 people but now we only need a room for 4 and if we can pay for a 4-bed room instead. He says he’ll have to speak to his boss. He phones his boss, he talks away in Dutch…”Mark Murphy” he says while looking over at us “yes, MARK MURPHY!” he emphasizes. We get a 4-bed room and he knocks some money off the original 5-bed room price.

Over the next few days we did the usual tourist things, like visit Anne Frank’s House (moving but I can see where Ricky Gervais is coming from regarding his bad taste ‘nazis were rubbish’ joke!), the Van Gogh Museum (very busy), the Rijksmuseum (also very busy) and we went on a canal boat trip, although there are different companies running them and I think we picked the worst one, highlights included “on your right is the Mayor of Amsterdam’s house…from 1984 to 87” We also paid a visit to the indie film theatre and asked the woman on the desk if there were any films in English or with English subtitles. She said there was only 1, a movie called “The eye of the day”, in Dutch but with English subtitles, so we agreed to come back when it was showing…but when the time came once again we were running late so we caught a taxi but the driver didn’t know where the movie theatre was so he dropped us off at the wrong end of Vondelpark, we then ran through the park but by the time we got there we’d missed the first 15 minutes of the film, no big deal we thought but then it quickly dawned on us that the film was actually in Indonesian with *Dutch* subtitles. I could only pick out a few discernable words like “Fuck you.” But other than that I’ve no idea what was going on. As soon as the film finished all the subtitles were in English, perhaps the woman on the desk only caught the end credits before.

As if we hadn’t already tortured ourselves enough we went back to the hostel and watched “The Gathering” starring Christian Ricci, the film was dubbed into German so once again we had no idea what was going on. Regardless we all concluded that it was crap.

Anyway, onto the EM-meet itself!

We met in the Abraxas Coffee Shop, where I was ID’d by the same bouncer at the door pretty much every time I went in and out. Myself, Zanf, Lowlifi (and Rebecca), KidQuaalude (and Jenny), Akida (and girlfriend), Cbit (and Esme) and Raapie who even brought along a guitar were there and the mysterious Jajah appeared briefly and Zanf brought a few mates along who also happened to be in Amsterdam. Most of us had a stint at laptop DJing but I thought that being a coffee shop they would have wanted…well, something laid back, maybe a bit trippy…stoner music if you will, I intended to play a lot of DJ krush, but we got a few complaints from the manager that the music wasn’t fast enough…’as it helps the staff work’…I think they wanted trance like the majority of Amsterdam bars. Why anyone who is getting stoned out their face would want to listen to trance is beyond me, but well, there ya go…so I made a fair amount of mistakes and thought I was a pretty poor DJ but the doorman who ID’d me gave me the thumbs up and one of the girl’s who worked there asked me if I fancied DJing at a bar she worked at in a few days time, I would’ve loved to but had to decline as I had a flight in 2 days time to catch…

A photo from the meet-up:

PS Despite staying in the ‘red light district’ we could see a place with a blue light from our hostel window. Cbit explained to us what this was, basically if you see one, don’t go in  it means the “girl” inside is a transexual!
Unfortunately I left my camera in London so no photos from me…

Originally posted October 22 2010  on em411.com – but written in 2005

Romania 2008

Originally posted February 11 2009 on em411.com

In May and April 2008 I took the unlikely decision to spend 2 and ½ weeks in Romania, not only that but I decided to spend my 28th birthday there and the look on people’s faces when I told them was one of madness.

“Romania!? But that’s in Eastern Europe!”
“Romania!? But what about the orphanages!”
“Romania!? But what about Ceauşescu!”

A lot of people seem to forget that Prague is in eastern Europe, that Rio de Janeiro has a problem with street orphans and that Franco ruled Spain not so long ago…
Anyway…

O-zone’s hit “Dragostea Din Tei” AKA “Miyahee Miyahoo Miyahahaha” AKA “the Numa numa song,” surely the only internationally known song in the Romanian* tongue, was playing as we came through airport security. A sign surely!?!

*They’re actually Moldovan, but the Moldovan national language is Romanian, as it was once part of Romania.

We touched down in Bucharest….

The Romanian language is not a Slavonic language like you might expect. It is not in the Cyrillic alphabet. It is Latin based, a Romance language and quite similar to Italian. Bucharest’s main airport is called “Otopeni.” Anyone familiar with Italian might know that “Otto” means Eight and “Peni” means “Penises” Somebody somewhere is having a laugh!

The main road from the airport to the city is busy. Too busy. It was upgraded not so long ago yet seems to have achieved little. One day the metro will stretch here, but for now visitors must be content with an overlong bus or taxi journey.

Typical Bucharest dwellings

The city itself is…well…a bit skanky. It has that unloved look but also that aged but beguiling look that many old Southern Mediterranean cities have. Sure, there is wealth, like any major city but it seems to be confined to small areas, while the majority of city dwellings take the form of 11, 12 or 14 storey apartments, that look as though they are in urgent need of repair work.

Typical Bucharest dwellings

Casa Popularii from the front

Ceausescu’s folly – “Casa Popularii,” AKA The house of the people (cue laughter) sits out like a sore thumb. One fifth of Bucharest was demolished to make way for this monstrosity. Considered the second largest building in the world after the Pentagon, it seemingly led to the stray dog problem that Bucharest now has to live with. Those made homeless by the demolitions left their pet dogs behind, who then bred and have lived on the streets ever since. Responsible for a few deaths each year, we were warned not to approach them. As a result dog-related graffiti can be found all across the city…

I fucked lassie

Wooden Scaffolding, and lots of it!

The shopping centres feel about 10 years behind Western Europe, but there’s a lot of building (mostly with wooden scaffolding!) going on and obvious signs of western investment – here, have a few flashy neon signs and adverts…there we go, EU membership assured.

Piaţa Unirii at night

Most people we encountered spoke English and the metro seemed efficient but is limited to 4 short lines. The currency is the Lei, which means Lion. 1 Lei is made up of 100 Bani. When I was there you got 5 Lei for every £1 and an omnipresent Ursus (Bear) beer was 4 Lei (about 80p or $1.20).

My first pint of Ursus (Romania's most common beer)

A couple of years ago the notes were of a higher denomination and then they chopped off 4 zeros. Everyone was a millionaire but overnight a million LEI became 100 LEI. The smallest coin now in operation is 10 Bani, which makes things interesting, sometimes your shopping will come to say 11.91, you give them 12.00 and they just smile back. Sometimes they’ll give you sweets in change, sometimes they’ll even take less than the cost of the shopping because the required pennies simply don’t exist.

Where goths and emos shop...

The supermarket near us was called “Angst.” Someone else is having a laugh. The staff however looked as though they could do with a laugh. Cue stupid foreign tourists pointing at things behind the meat and cheese counter. “That one there, no that one there…I don’t understand a word you’re saying…”

Round the corner were rows of “kiosks.” With a single person huddled into each cupboard selling cigarettes, alcohol and snacks. All in a row. All selling the same stuff. All competing. Day & night. They all looked as though they hadn’t laughed in years either.

We visited Romania in April & May when it’s warm but not too hot. In winter it can drop well below freezing and in summer it can go over 100 Fahrenheit. On the 27th April this year they celebrated Easter, Romanian Orthodox style. It’s a far bigger festival than back home, on a par with Christmas and is the high point of the orthodox calendar. We foolishly decided that would be a good day to go to the cemetery where former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu is buried and seek out his grave (as you do…) but were surprised to find a large number of police/military/body guards and begging Roma loitering on the grounds whilst families drank booze and had barbecues on their relative’s graves! It is one of the strangest, more bizarre experiences I’ve ever witnessed, best described as a fun-filled party atmosphere (complete with balloons and music) but with an under-current of sinister. Men with guns patrolled the aisles whilst Dragan and his family boogied to Wallachian folk anthems and glugged down bottle after bottle of tuica (plum liquor). It looked as though it could turn bloody at any moment, and perhaps it did! I did have my camera on me, but due to the intimidating atmosphere and the beggars, I kept my camera firmly inside my bag. We decided to abandon all plans for finding Ceauşescu’s grave. If a gun battle was to happen, it would happen there.

On the way back I made my way into a garage for juice and snacks. The guy behind the till didn’t speak English but wrote the price down. It was way overpriced. I made that stupid “I don’t understand – me dumb foreigner” face and gestured. He then re-wrote the price on a separate sheet of paper but moved the decimal point/comma. He had tried to charge me almost £40 for some snacks and juice. I had heard that corruption was rife in Romania…

Later on that night we ended up drinking at the “English Bar” inside Bucharest’s Hilton hotel, made famous in “The Balkan Trilogy” and full of bullet holes as a result of the 1989 “revolution” (the person who won the “election” after Ceauşescu’s execution was one of his former right-hand men). While sitting with my ursus someone’s arse edged perilously close to my ear and we soon discovered that the ass belonged to none other than Woody Harrelson! A quick visit to imdb confirmed that he was there filming Bunraku with Demi Moore, and we heard that she had been in the previous week.

After the excitement of mingling with the stars in Bucharest we headed to the main train station – Transylvania bound. Sadly being used to how things operate in the West we weren’t prepared for the experience. There were no ticket machines and out of a dozen ticket desks only 4 were open and each had a long queue, and they weren’t moving. Men and women in front quarreled, almost as if you had to argue to get your ticket and I was in no mood to argue in pseudo-Romanian and hand gestures. Time ticked away – if someone were to drug me and leave me here my first thoughts upon wakening might be that this was the meal queue in a Siberian gulag, not post-communist Romania – the opposite queue was moving faster. I switched queues, my queue stopped. A number of people joined my old queue. People jostled, an old man and a woman pushed in front of me, what they said I’ll never know. I gave up. We missed our intended train and the next one wasn’t due for another 6 hours. When we returned to the station 5 hours later there was no queue and so we had to while away our “free” time in a station where facilities were severely lacking. The public toilet was an experience, you give the little old lady 1 LEI on the way in and she hands you a few sheets of toilet paper as there is none to be found in the cubicles. We discovered this was the norm across Romania’s railway stations, but what do you do if you are a few sheets short? My advice – come prepared!

There are 4 types of train in Romania: Personal, Accelerat, Rapid and InterCity.
Personal and Accelerat are the slowest and stop at almost every stop (most are halts) and Rapid and InterCity are the fastest, reaching an exhilarating…35 mph!!!

It took us almost 6 hours to reach the town of Sibiu, joint European city of culture (along with Luxembourg city) in 2007, yet no one in Britain seems to have head of it. Let me tell you this though, because you should have heard of it because it is a very nice tourist friendly city, full of photo opportunities and with plenty of bars and restaurants.

Str. Nicolae Balcescu

It’s rather Germanic, and reminded me of being back in Weimar, it’s also full of German tourists (and German speakers and menus in the bars and restaurants) due to it being a former Saxon town. Transylvania is actually known as Siebenbürgen in German in reference to the 7 main Saxon fortified towns, of which Sibiu is the largest. We went 2007 on to visit a further 4 of the 7.

We stayed for 2 nights at the 3 star Casa Luxembourg, which was built to be the Luxembourg consulate in Sibiu, but ended up becoming a hotel and gift shop! We paid around £100 for B&B for 2 people and were awarded with a spacious, clean 3 bed en-suite room that looked onto a courtyard and the old church. Very nice!

Evangelical Cathedral

After Sibiu we hopped on a “Personal” train to Medias, which is another of the Saxon fortified towns. The train was indeed “personal.” We huddled up next to 2 old bearded women who seemed tickled that a couple of westerners would be mingling with the old dears on a rickety old carriage that stopped literally in the middle of nowhere, where pensioners would clamber up and down the steps (none of the train stations had raised platforms) and walk to the nearest village.
There’s also an on board smoking ban, which surprisingly seems to be enforced, so to get your fix you need to make your way to the door…and open it. Even at an a mere 35mph I’d think this would put the notion of quitting in my head, so I’d be interested to see the statistics for the number of deaths each year!
We had to change trains a few times, but it’s a bit daunting when you get to a “main” station, climb down onto the non-existent platform and there’s no information as to where you are, or when the next train is due, and when you do find out that you should be on “Platfom” 4 instead you realise that the only way there is to walk across a stretch of track with a train coming down it. Your alternative is the exit, which is across another stretch of track in the opposite direction. Health and Safety is clearly a new concept!

From the window seats you got to appreciate the poverty and stark contrast to Western Europe. Subsistence farming, horses and carts, towns with dirt track roads. It was a time warp to a time I’ve never known myself. The train journey also took us through Copsa Mica, officially the most polluted town in Romania. As we entered I thought this isn’t so bad, but then we were seated on the right hand of the train, as we looked out the opposite side of the train all we saw was old industry…and lots of it, lying derelict, and then more of it, and more, all of it seemingly abandoned.

I have never been to Mexico but wandering the streets of Medias made me feel like I was in Mexico. The buildings are that yellowy-orange colour that you see in Mexican movies, the streets were dusty, the sun was hot and people were cowering in shaded areas between buildings and makeshift garage-cum-bars drinking beer – none of the bars looked the least bit tempting and so we got our sightseeing done and jumped on the next train to Sighisoara, birthplace of Vlad Dracul AKA Vlad the impaler, and inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The clock tower from the stairs

Again most people will probably have never heard of this place but let me tell you, it is also very nice! The clock tower is the touristic highlight – places of interest like this in Romania are charged thusly: 5 LEI to enter and then a further 10 LEI to take any photographs, my ticket for the clock tower permitting me to use my camera was a whopping 30 LEI but the ticket actually said 10 but had been scored out and replaced with a hand-drawn 30. That’s capitalism for you; this wouldn’t have happened in Ceausescu’s day! It was also very busy, so it must be a nice little earner for someone.

The Church on the Hill

Also of interest is the aptly named 14th century “Church on the hill.” You need to climb 172 steps to get there, it only costs a few Lei to enter although there isn’t much to see, we cautiously entered the unlit crypt expecting something exciting, alas all we got was darkness and then we were trapped there while a rambunctious tour guide blocked the exit talking at length in Romanian – the international sign for “get out of the way, you are blocking the only way in or out!” does not seem to translate into Romanian.

Teo's homemade booze

Teo’s, which is just off the road leading to the steps, is worth visiting, he sells various wines and liquors and will let you try before you buy, we opted for the “fruits of the forest” liquor, which at roughly £4 a bottle is good value for its 25% potency. He also offers accommodation if you feel like downing a bottle in 1 go.

May day celebrations with maypole

Whilst in Sighisoara we caught the May day celebrations, a grassed area beneath the citadel was set aside and populated with stalls utilising “England” gazebos. Presumably after a few disappointing world cup campaigns they were going cheap on ebay.

Engerland in Romania

A beer was only 2 Lei (40p!) and Mici (sausage-like spicy meatballs) were being sold. At one of the stalls I tried a Hungarian sweet pastry and bought a few bottles of local wine.

May day celebrations

And then 2 horse-drawn carts loaded with chanting old women pulled into the festival area, followed by children in national dress who sang and danced on stage, next the old women were on stage singing, the music went on through the night, well into darkness.

May day celebrations with children

That night I ventured out to take some night shots…there’s something odd about wandering the deserted streets of a dimly-lit medieval town at night, one you’ve never been to before, where you don’t know your way around and you can’t speak the language and all the while you are aware that it was the birthplace of one of the most bloodthirsty tyrants the world has ever known, and there you are with your camera and tripod taking photos but feeling slightly scared that no one is around, perhaps because the locals know something you don’t…a vampire could drop from the sky and plunge it’s fangs into your neck at any moment and you have no garlic, no crucifix, no wooden stake, all this was going through my head while the muffled sound of a David Hasslehoff cover version reverberated from somewhere down below. My spine tingled, the reason for the deserted streets was scarily obvious.

Casa Dracul

We stayed right in the heart of the old town at Legenda House, which was under £50 for 2 people over 2 nights and they gave us half price vouchers for Casa Dracul (Home of Dracula). His house is now a restaurant and when we tried to gain entrance with “A table for 2 please” the man at the door replied “not tonight, we have a problem with…er…gas” Presumably he meant a problem cooking with gas and not a problem resulting from the head chef’s beer and cabbage binge during the May Day celebrations. As we were on our way out a Romanian couple walked past and asked for a table for 2 in Romanian and were waved straight through. That’s Romania for you!

A warning about Romanian restaurants, some are great, many are awful. The pasta place on the corner, next to the pizza place as you turn and come up the hill towards the clock tower was excellent and good value for money. The pizza place next door was ok too but ALL the pizzas seem to include peas and ham, apart from the vegetarian pizza, which was missing the peas but looked suspiciously as though it still contained ham! (In Bucharest I thoroughly recommend the garlic chicken from Varta in and if you order the soup from Caru du Bere be prepared for a full loaf accompanying it!).

(food so bad it nearly broke the camera lens)

Casa Wagner, however, will be forever etched into my memory as it was the worst meal I have ever paid for in my life. A group of Germans came in sat down and waited and waited and waited and then left after it seems the waitress forgot about them. Another table were complaining about the wine. Our food took forever to arrive and when it arrived looked like it had been purchased in Farmfoods and microwaved hastily. It looked awful. It tasted worse. We asked for still water and got carbonated.

Casa cu Cerb (The Stag House)

We also had soup at Casu Cu Cerb (House of the Stag) one of Prince Charle’s haunts (He owns some land nearby and it turns out that he was in Romania at the same time as us), we ordered two different “sour” soups, one of which was twice the price of the other but we had a hard time telling them apart. They were both watery and lukewarm. We again asked for “still” water and surprise surprise got fizzy water. Note: “mineral” water in Romania actually means carbonated, while “Plata” is the old-fashioned kind. Even explaining that you want water “without gas” may still result in carbonated water arriving on your table. Perhaps this is the gas problem that afflicts Casa Dracul, and evidently all the other restaurants in town.

Service in Romania can be bizarre, when you walk into restaurants you can often see the look on the waiter or waitresses face’s “Oh FFS! Not another bloody customer…” Capitalism is still a relatively new concept here I feel. Often you will order a starter and main course and both will arrive simultaneously. Expect to be there for a long time – it’s accepted that it is sometimes best to ask for the bill before ordering your food! All waiters will insist that they will pour you a beer but none will do it properly. Also be on the look out for “substitutions”. You might pick something from the menu that says “chicken wrapped in bacon with peas and potatoes” but don’t be surprised if “turkey and ham with beans and chips” arrives instead. In Sibiu we had to make do with a club sandwich whose main constituents were ham and pineapple. We also tried “sheep’s brain”– it wasn’t unpleasant but it was tasteless and uninspiring.

A tin of Crap!

Humourously, the fish “Carp” is known as “Crap” in Romanian. And “cu” means “and” while “unt” means “butter.” Bizarrely there is a margarine spread made with buttermilk known as “Cu Unt” You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Taste Delma's CuUnt!

Before leaving Sighisoara I got a phone call from Bella Muzica, the hotel I’d booked in Brasov, the next town we’d be visiting. They were annoyed with me for not turning up and were going to cancel my “second” room because I hadn’t turned up on the first occasion that I’d booked. Eh?! A frantic visit to an internet café confirmed what had happened. I had enquired about staying on a particular day when they had no rooms; I then enquired about a different date and received no response. But they had booked me in without confirming, and then when I enquired about a different date to fit in with the other hotels I’d booked they sent me a confirmation email for 1 night only. Usually when this happens you expect to stay for 1 night and 1 night only, not in this case, they seemed to think I was staying for 2 nights, disappearing for 2 and then re-appearing for a further night. The situation was unresolved as we left Sighisoara…so we travelled to Brasov, where it rained and rained and rained. The train provided some “amusement” as we couldn’t get a seat and ended up standing next to the toilet from hell for most of the journey (yes, the toilet seat is caked in excrement!).
EDIT: I love how someone on Flickr commented to say that the toilet isn’t that bad and that I need to get out more as if seeking out shit-smeared toilets is something to aspire to.

The most vile, filthy, disgusting toilet I have ever seen in my life!

While on the train I received a call from the hotel saying my booking would be ok. We checked in and I enquired about booking a table for dinner. Once again there was a problem with “gas,” well, actually they didn’t say that, they just said there were no tables free, and so we ventured to the only “Scottish” pub in Romania, which apparently sold “Scottish cuisine” Obviously being a ginger bearded kilt-wearing caber tosser I was quietly looking forward to a bowl of salty porridge followed by a sac of sheep’s blood. But sadly their menu was lacking anything bloodied and bagged and instead consisted of madras curry, caesar salad, pizza…and no, not even deep-fried haggis pizza!!!

Auld Scot's pub

Our hotel room at Bella Muzica

Dejected, and with the rain still dripping we went back to our posh but ultimately tiny hotel room where I hurt my knee on the side of the bed, tripped on the raised threshold going into the bathroom and then hit my head off shelving in the bathroom. If I didn’t know better I’d say they gave us this room on purpose. After that we settled down to watch TV and discovered that Price Charles was on our footsteps and that there was currently a medieval festival on in sunny Sibiu.

Romanian MTV - folk stylee

If only we had stayed in Brasov first after all…after that we probably tuned into one of the ethno music channels, of which there are 3, one Romania and two others which are probably Bulgarian. There’s not much to distinguish them, as all 3 play videos of near identical folk songs that usually contain a chorus similar to “Na na na na na na na, na na na na na na na…” My favourite though, is this one, watch out for the dueling bagpipes at 1:27! We also caught some Romanian pop music, much of which is actually sung in English, though how much the average Romanian listener understands is questionable, take the “New York based” Anda Adam and her hit “Punani” with the lyrics “move you punani, go make yourself some money, move your punani, go make yourself some money girl”

After Brasov we headed back to Bucharest, the plan was also to spend a day in Sinaia, a mountain resort, where Romania’s most impressive palace can be found but the rain put an end to those plans.

We walked out the train station and a number of people came towards us asking if we required a taxi, we waved them away. We had heard the warnings about the taxis – only use licensed drivers yet somehow we got roped in by some “friendly” guy. As soon as we saw his unmarked car we said “No way” and started walking away when another guy stepped in, “I am licensed taxi driver” and pointed to his “taxi.” Sure enough it looked the real deal but I noticed that something was missing and enquired how much it was per kilometer (it is a legal requirement for all taxi companies to display this info on the side of their car). He said “I am licensed taxi driver”, but “How much per kilometer?” I asked. “I am licensed taxi driver!” he repeated. We got in the car and straight away 9 LEI was put on the meter. It cost us 5 LEI for the previous taxi ride to the station. We didn’t even have far to go from the station and I was aware that the meter was clocking up fairly quickly. When it came to crossroads where we should have turned off and ended our journey he kept on driving to another set of lights, and then another before coming down a different street parallel to the one we’d just come down. My blood was boiling, when we got out it has cost us 35 LEI. 7 times more than what a legal cab would have charged.

View from hill

2 days later we flew to Cluj-Napoca, the unofficial capital of Translyvania, and birthplace of everyone’s favourite bum touchers: The cheeky girls.

I’ve used over 30 airports in my life and Bucharest’s smaller but more central airport; Băneasa is the worst I have used in my life. Try imagining a merry-go-round sized room – ok, now imagine that most of the space is taken up by the “café” in the centre, which is surrounded by stools, pull back and you have check in desks, attach 2 “sheds” onto the sides and make these more check in desks, the arrivals hall, departure gate and security condensed into a space about twice the size of an average hotel room.

Luckily the flight only cost £5 each. Cluj airport is pretty small too but thankfully not as cramped as Băneasa. Warning – if you do ever visit Cluj and are getting the bus back to the airport bear in mind that it does not enter the airport itself, you instead have to cross a dual carriageway and there are no traffic lights, no bridges, no tunnels. Just pick up your luggage and run!

Ursus Brewery

Cluj is pretty nice too. It is home to the Ursus beer brewery (now owned by Miller), which you see all over Romania. They even have a restaurant in town, which we planned to visit. Once we saw it though, it looked a bit of a let down so we went elsewhere and had another unique dining experience.

Ursus Restaurant

When we saw “fajitas” on the menu at the “Crying monkey” we thought at last, spicy non-Romanian food! Of course our joy was short-lived, the fajitas arrived minus the fajitas…the “Mexican vegetables” consisted of frozen peas and sweetcorn with a few slices of red pepper – not even chillies! While the “Mexican potatoes” were, well, you can guess…

The Crying Monkey's odd meal

We shared the hotel with seemingly only one other couple. The guy wore an Ebay t-shirt on the first day at breakfast. Who on earth would wear a plain white t-shirt with the Ebay logo? Then we heard him speak, who else but an American of course! It was his complaint about the buffet breakfast that gave him away; evidently it was lacking waffles and “real” coffee. On day 2 he wore a t-shirt that exclaimed “I survived the Conch Ranch!” Good for you mate.

After 2 nights we headed back to Bucharest but the flight was delayed. The information provided by the airport was minimal. The board didn’t seem to work – Why are we delayed? When is the plane due? No one knew. Our yankee pal was on the same flight as us and was pissed off! He had that “why don’t these morons speak English?” look than many Americans take on holiday with them. This wouldn’t have happened in the land of the free I’m sure.

A few hours later than planned we arrived back in Bucharest and attempted another bus. None of the buses seemed to go to the city centre apart from one. Or at least that’s the message that was conveyed to us. So when it arrived it was busy (One day the metro will stretch to this airport too).

Red phone box spotted in Bucharest!

On our last full day in the capital it rained and we didn’t achieve much, the highlight of the day was finding an old British phone box in someone’s garden.

When we returned from Romania I had food poisoning and diarrhea for 4 days. This year instead, I have plans to visit the Ukraine and experience a microwaved Chicken Kiev from inside Chernobyl’s Reactor 4. Wish me luck.

In the meantime, if any of you do ever find yourself in Romania, please entertain yourself with “Romanian Bingo”
First person to spot all 27 wins:
Horse and cart
Romanian flag
Old woman in sports socks
OAP farming
Badly poured beer
“Attentie! garaj” sign
Woman wearing awful patterned tights
Woman wearing high heels on cobbled street
Cock crowing in city garden
Wooden scaffolding
Roma child begging
Smetana
Bashed pipes
Ham on menu
Burning pile of rubbish
People in traditional costume
Person with gold teeth
Train station with no signs to tell you what station you are at, what platform the train is due on or what way the exit is etc
Water “with gas”
Sour soup
Stray dogs
Dacia car with cracked windscreen or mirror
Crap (in English, the fish “carp”)
Cu Unt buttermilk spread
Starter and main course arriving at the same time
Old woman struggling on or off train
Smoker sticking head out of moving train doors for cigarette

Originally posted February 11 2009 on em411.com

Hamburg 2006

Originally posted Jan 28 2006 on em411.com

Last weekend i flew to Hamburg, Germany’s 2nd largest city, which has 2,300 bridges and more millionaires than any other city in Europe!
I went over to visit one of my friends from university who now lives there.
I hadn’t seen him for over 2 years so thought it was about time to visit and when you can get flights that cost less than the train journey to go see my brother who lives in the north of England then why not eh?

When we landed at Lubeck airport it was freezing and snow covered. The snow melted by the time we left, but it certainly didn’t feel any warmer! It was freezing the whole weekend, so it was good to get back to a “warm” Glasgow afterwards

While i was there I bought lots of cheap beer in a beer celler. 8 500ml and 2 330ml bottles of good quality German beer came to less than 9 euros! That’s about £6! Plus you get refunds on the bottles! To buy the same or similar bottles here would cost £15 or more!

While there i visted the Reeperbahn, which is a street filled with sex shops, peep shows and brothels…oh and mc donalds, pizza hut, subway, burger king etc…(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reeperbahn)
I also heard a few scottish voices on the Reeperbahn, including one guy who kept exclaiming “I’m a Dundee man! I’m a Dundee man!”
Here’s a few photos i took on the Reeperbahn:
link The ambiente Hotel
link Cocktube Warning NSFW!
link The fitting combo of fashion and Tools

I also visited the Golden Pudel club, as recommended by both yghartsyrt and filarion. Unfortumately the taxi driver didn’t know where it was. Even though we gave him the correct address he still dropped us off at the wrong place, we found it eventually and it was really small and crammed full of people.
While i was in the toilets i took a photo of graffiti on the walls and some guy walked in and said something, i had no idea what he said. He then pointed at me and said “Window Licker” I thought he was insulting me so i promptly left, it was only once outside that i looked down and realised that i was wearing my Aphex Twin T-shirt!
This guy was also in the club (if you can make him out) link
He was an old guy with a hat, beard and staff. We summised that the more his staff waggled the more he approved of the music. I tried to take a few snaps of him but he kept ducking out of the way! He looked pretty cool and not the sort of person you expect to be in that sort of club at 4am in the morning!

The one thing i wasn’t expecting about Hamburg was that i was thought most people would speak English as i’ve had relatively few language problems everywhere else i’ve been in Europe, heck, even in Estonia most people i met spoke English so i was surprised when i picked up 2 chocolate bars in a garage and went to pay for them. 1 wasn’t scanning so the guy in the garage asked me a question, i did think he was asking if i’d swap it for another but as i don’t speak German i wanted Clarification so asked him if he spoke English.
He just said “ah English…” went a bit red in the face, ducked his head and carried on scanning…
the guy behind me in the queue introvened and the chocolate was swapped but it still wouldn’t scan…

Then there was the woman at the information office in Ohlsdorf who couldn’t speak English, there was another visitor, (i assume) a German tourist in the office at the same time who helped us but even then his English wasn’t the best.
I don’t mean to be rude and sound like a total pig headed idiot tourist but shouldn’t people employed at places where tourists visit know at least a little English?

And then when i asked the guy in the shop at Ohlsdorf Station if he could speak English he just shrugged his shoulders. Not even a “Nein”
Is my pronounciation of “Sprechen Sie Englisch” really that bad?

When i got home i vowed to put the effort in and try my hardest to actually learn German since i’ll be back there in May for STFU Weimar, so i’m on day 3 of learning and i think i’m making decent progress already.
I also found out that i had also broken the law while i was over there. I threw some used batteries into a waste bin on the street, which apparently isn’t allowed. So for all i know i’m a wanted man.

I noticed that in certain parts of the city they had colour coded bins on the street for recycling plastic and glass. We don’t get that here. I had a discussion with some Europeans about recyling, seems the UK is way behind but then i just watched the Penn & Teller Bullshit episode about arguments in favour of recycling being mainly Bullshit so i don’t know what to believe now…

Anyway,
Here’s the link to my photos:
link

photo highlights include:
link Batman Restaurant. Alas Batman wasn’t around when i took the photo
link The xmas tree on the crane. I actually witnessed the tree falling. I should’ve taken an “after” shot
link My favourite snap of the Tv tower!
link The son of God is alive and well and selling jewellery in Hamburg!
link Ohlsdorf cemetery, which is so big it has bus stops throughout it!
link The elbtunnel, this takes you under the river Elbe. Be warned if you need the toilet at the other end as the only toilet is disgusting chemical toilet
link The majestic Town Hall
link Mahnmal St. Nikolai (images 52-56 are taken from the top of the tower)
link Really bad translation from an Italian candle
link “spunk” salty licquorice sweets!

unfortunately i forgot to take a photo of the “Harley Davidson Drugstore” and i meant to take a photo at Schlump underground station as you can actually see the platfom of the next station if you look down the tunnel, and i don’t mean it’s a dim light at the end of the tunnel, no, i mean if someone stood at the end of the platform and waved you’d see them quite clearly!