Saturday, 8 May 2010

You are so German ...

Well, I have to admit that I cannot hide it. I think I have all the features you'd expect from us Germans plus some more. Most obviously probably is that I, just as every other German abroad, complain passionately about the quality of bread. Somehow surprisingly, Aldi and Lidl are no good sources for "proper" bread, but then again they aren't in Germany, either. Recommendations gathered so far are: the Sainsbury's bakery has more or less acceptable bread, for really good bread you should try Babacan in Chorlton.

Less obvious, at least it was to me, is the choice of what to bring for a hiking lunch. You can spot the Germans, from either who pulls a face and complains the loudest about sandwich bread - or you look for the people with the boiled eggs. At one occasion, four out of four Germans had independently brought eggs and each of us had thought about how to bring the salt. A satisfactory solution I learned there was one of these small jars analogue films came in, but thanks to my mother I am more professional than that and now proudly own a tiny hiking-compatible salt shaker.

The most recent episode happened in my favourite Turkish supermarket around the corner. When I put down my basket at the checkout, before having said anything, I was greeted with a "Guten Tag". I don't know if the guy had been watching me before or if it was the order I took out the things from my basket and put them on the belt gave it away. Having grown up in Germany, he said that it was quite easy to notice that I am different from the usual customers.

How do I feel about it? I certainly don't mind and maybe even take some pride in being well organised and making efforts to seek for good bread and ways to salt a boiled egg sitting high on a hill.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Feeling Elite

Elite is more a feeling than anything else, but I can say I felt the 158 ranks of difference (thats's what the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2009 say) between my previous wannabe-Elite university and my current wannabe-Elite university.

Judging by the invitation it seemed to be a pretty posh event: printed in colour on glossy A5 paper, looking like some award ready to be framed and put on the wall. A lecture by a Nobel laureate, so high hopes on looting free food. The latter was a bit disappointing: there was only free wine, before the talk and nothing after. Although with the usually "excellent" British food, this was maybe even a plus - better no food at all than the usual grub.

The talk itself was good, although not very controversial to me: patents are bad, private funding channels research to be profitable and the rush for publication lists and absurd measures of research quality should be slowed down. Funnily in a stark contrast to the introduction by the vice chancellor who proudly read out Manchester's recent ranking positions and bragged with more figures about size and excellence.

Enjoyable nevertheless, although I have to admit that the food is much better a bit further down the ranking. At least at those times when they were still a university and not the embarrassing KIT.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Oops, I did it again ...

Somehow I am a bad omen for airlines. This year so far, I managed to get two out of four bankrupt in the week of my return flight. In January, flyLAL, the Lithuanian state airline, ceased operations on Friday after I took their flight on Monday, yesterday SkyEurope filed for creditor protection. They managed to get me home with a two hour delay, first due to "late arrival of the aircraft" and then "technical problems". I suspect that they had to paint over and remove all the logos on the plane, because I had never seen such a pristine white and unbranded but apparently not really new plane before.

Anyways, Ryanair and Flybe survived their 50% chance of succeeding after my custom, let's see how my record will look at the end of this year. If you think that I am the one to blame for the current economical crisis, I can assure you that my bank still works, I don't own a car and all my usual retailers are also still in business. Seems like I only affect the travel sector, so tell me if I should notify you which airline I will use next.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Берлин-Минск-Вильнюс-Лондон: Travelling

Some of you might be interested in stories about travelling to, inside and out of Belarus. The route taken was Berlin-Minsk on the night train, Minsk-Vilnius with a train in the morning, Vilnius-London by plane and London-Manchester by trains again. Sounds cumbersome, but was by far the cheapest and, yes, you can do Minsk-Manchester in one day in some 17 hours. The only exciting thing about the flight was that the company went bust five days later, thus I had the great honour to be on one of their last flights.

My first contact with Belarusian rail was in Berlin even before boarding it, and it was an olfactory one: the coach to Minsk exhibited a slight but noticeable smell of oil. However, inside the coach it was quite cosy and comfortable. Curtains at each window, carpet with an old-fashioned pattern in the corridor and in the compartment. The bed/seat covered in red velvet and even a small table cloth on the table.

However, and this be a big warning to anybody attempting to do this this trip, the main drawback was the missing restaurant coach on this 18 hour trip (for us, others stayed on the train for much longer, like Kiev). The conductress of our coach only had hot water and could sell us some ramen noodles. I know, had they had internet on that trip, the prototypical Computer Science PhD student would not have left the train: the outside world is passing by without interaction, a long night and ramen noodles all the time   a perfect habitat. If you wonder, Rollton (Роллтон) is the essential piece of vocabulary here. I, for my part, stuck to the mixture of healthy (apples, mandarins) and unhealthy food (chocolate) that I had obtained in the last minutes before departure, probably following some kind of instinct.

The only two exciting events happened in the middle of the night: entering Belarus which meant being woken up by several sternly looking people in differently coloured uniforms wearing differently shaped hats that examined our passports and asked if we were bringing alcohol, cigarettes or household appliances. We did not, at least not according to Belarusian custom rules: everything that has less than 7% of alcohol is not considered an alcoholic beverage.

The other event is exciting for rail enthusiasts and a slight annoyance to other passengers. As in all parts of the former Soviet Union, the rails have a broader gauge than in the western part of Europe. The solution to that challenge is to lift each coach, to exchange the wheels underneath and to put the coach down on the rails again. This is less exciting than it sounds, even considering that you stay in the coach. The train enters some kind of garage, the coaches are uncoupled, moved to some kind of hoisting platform, slowly lifted and put down again. Had it not been for some banging and clanging noises and for the shunting movements, this process would have almost been unnoticeable.

In general, travelling by train in Belarus is only slightly different from how I knew it. Each coach has its own conductress whose job it is to guard a pot of boiling water that is available for making tea   or ramen noodles if you prefer. She also checks the tickets when boarding the train, collects the tickets in the train, keeps them and hands you yours back only before you leave the train.

The layout of a long-distance train coach is different, too. They don't have comfortable reclineable seats, but instead two benches facing each other with space for three persons each. However, above each bench there is a bed that can be folded down so that four people can sleep in that open compartment. Across the aisle, there are two seats on a table, facing each other and with some intricate mechanism one can turn this into two bunk beds.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

счёт пожалуйста: Minsk money-wise

Something you immediately notice is the strange money they have. They have their own currency, called roubles as in Russia, but it is worth less than the Italian Lira in its latest days.

Therefore, the first time I was shocked, when I had to pay like a hundred thousand for a less than average supermarket shopping. Otherwise, however, I had that great feeling of almost being a millionaire already in my wallet. Fascinatingly, the clerks at the supermarket checkouts all can count money as admirably fast as everywhere else only bankers can do it. Astonished, I took my groceries I just paid what would be a fortune in other currencies for and got change in form of a huge bunch of notes with big numbers and strolled through the sliding doors feeling like a small tycoon.

Obviously, having to fit so many noughts on a coin is a bit inconvenient, therefore as an easy solution, there are plainly no coins. The big advantages in that approach, the light weight of your wallet and the absence of metal in it, are however, outweighed by the inconvenience of having to pick the note with the right denomination in a fist full of them. The colours, or my poor memory of associating the right number of noughts to a colour, make it a bit difficult to be fast and as an additional challenge, the number is always on the last spot you gaze at and instead your eye always catches a long string of Cyrillic letters that are basically useless as a clue to foreigners.

The absence of coins, makes it quite difficult for the rouble to roll in and therefore, the economical situation in Belarus is not very positive &ndsh; despite president Lukashenko's denial of a financial crisis in his New Year's address. A short word on prices, some of my dear readers might be interested in: groceries are about at the Western European level as are prices in restaurants and going out in general. Transport on the other hand is cheap and a train ticket for the four hours to Vilnus was only – gasp – 19 000 roubles, a mere £4.77 and a single metro ticket in Minsk is priced at 600 roubles, which are 15p.

Due to the financial crisis – ah, sorry, the free will of the government of Belarus, only ever doing good to its people – the rouble was devaluated by a fifth right at the beginning of the New Year and it is these instable rates that make currency exchange offices boom all throughout the city as even the locals like to keep their savings in more solid currencies as US dollar or Euro. You can even find ATMs handing out roubles and Euros or Dollars quite frequently although only roubles are allowed for payments.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Мінск: горад-герой - Minsk: Hero City

So, how does Minsk look like? It has all the features you would expect from a city that was built under a Socialist regime after we Germans had basically completely destroyed it in WWII. That's what it got the title Hero City for from the Soviets. However, I will stick to today and leave telling about the interesting history to people more knowledgable than me.

First thing you notice is the "anachronistic architecture" with high rising concrete block buildings and wide prospects in between. That sounds slightly appalling at first, but it actually takes only a short time to get used to it and to like it. Newer houses do depart quite nicely from the central theme of a grey cube and have colour, some different shape and fancy embellishments. However, noticeably the big advantage of building high is that you have a lot of space left in between (which was covered in snow by the time I was there). So you can have a lot of open space for lawns and trees and use parts of it for things like an eight-lane street. This has the additional advantage that traffic becomes a much lesser problem.

Speaking for the centre, the houses are not run-down as bad rumours try to make you believe. They are well-kept, nicely painted and illuminated at night and most of them are not simply brightly lit, but the light changes colours which makes for a nice effect. Together with the abundant Christmas illuminations (flashing and in all sorts of colours) reflecting on the snow-covered ground, it is quite beautiful in its own way at night. The city does, however, not have a skyline or a distinctive crammed centre, but is draped along various prospects with a river mingled in between which provides space for parks. The prospects are reasonably straight as a prospect should be, but they are not orthogonal to each other, so it is not a boring look at all and still challenges your sense of orientation.

The most interesting building is at the edge of the city centre on one of those prospects and it is the National Library of Belarus. Depending on your associations, it looks like a diamond, the death star or a giant role playing dice – in any way, it is quite remarkable. What makes it even more geeky is that the whole facade is covered with coloured lightbulbs which basically makes it the weirdest screen I've ever seen. Of course, they use this screen constantly and display anything from scrolling text (some welcome message, I suppose for lack of knowing better), the animated national flag or just a screen saver, i.e. some purple arcs flying all over the cube's surface.

Of course, is has an inside, but if you are not there on the day of the guided tour (which is in Russian), you have to become a member to enter – so I did. I am now proudly in possession of a library card complete with my photo and my name in Cyrillic letters. They scanned my passport for the picture which makes for some nice background and lacks my smile, because of the biometric picture. The library is as one would expect with art, reading rooms and books. They said they do have books in other languages although I did not check.

Another very nice the thing about Minsk and Belarus in general is its spotless cleanliness. There is not a leaf or a paper on the ground, neither on the street nor in the metro stations. There were ten to 20 centimetres (four to eight inches for the non-metric people) of snow and there was frequent snowfall, but they managed to keep each street clean to the kerb. No heaps of snow at the sides, no sleet on the street or on the pavements, which I find really amazing – considering how other countries that think they were better developed cope with much less snow. Maybe it is again due to the contrast with scruffy Manchester where you constantly walk through dirt, litter and liquids on the pavement, but I am still totally enthusiastic about how clean you can keep a city of an 1.8 million population.

Traffic in Minsk looks and feels a bit chaotic when you are in a car, but it works well. People on foot stop at red lights – which is quite sensible if you want to survive crossing eight lanes – and in the city centre they have nice pedestrian lights with a countdown in seconds until the green lights which then show a nice animated man walking and another countdown until the red light. The metro consisting of two lines works very well – did I mention that you could almost eat from the floor, even when people constantly walk in with dirty shoes from the snow?

You might well be aware of the political situation in Belarus and maybe what I am so enthusiastic about are just features of a police state. Admittedly, there is noticeable police presence on the streets and you are well advised not to argue with them about politics, but they are moderately helpful and not less unfriendly than ordinary people. I was prepared for the situation of being asked for passport, visa, registration and whatever else with a picture of me on it they might want to see, but a bit disappointingly, this never happened.

Another thing making it a bit adventurous to be there is the language and scripture barrier. You cannot expect ordinary people to speak more than Russian and Belarusian and you need a photographic memory to read or recognise signs if you are not familiar with Cyrillic writing, because there is nothing except for some lonely bilingual English-Russian signposts at each ends of one park.

Having said that, it is a very enjoyable city when you are with locals that speak your language and this is what I will write more about in further postings, so stay tuned again.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Notes from the Far East

Welcome back after another two month's silence that has become too usual and shows you that I did not have any New Year's resolutions. Anyways, to make up for that I have something special for my dearest readers this time.

I have something interesting to report, namely a trip to Minsk over New Year's Eve and the week after. This is the captial a Belarus, a state that has been a part of Soviet Union and is said to be the place where these times are still somehow alive by people taking a more nostalgic view and considered to be the last dictatorship in Europe by people thinking more politically. This just as an update to everybody who might be too ashamed to admit this is new information to them. I know that the vast majority of my readers is informed much beyond that.

Quite an exotic and exciting destination - although in the Daily Mail's Top Ten list of travel destinations of 2009 - and therefore, I have a lot to tell. To not be liable to procrastinating my dear readers too much, my stories will come in several episodes over the following days. So check back, there is a lot to tell from a very enjoyable trip with many new insights and anecdotes.

For today, I'll only dump the pictures and tell you to stay tuned when the first storytelling episode drops in, say, three days.