Saturday, November 21, 2015

Overnight trains; Lisbon to Madrid on "The Lusitania"

It would help to be very small, which I most certainly am not, but I still like travelling overnight by train. 

Sleeping compartments are a little like dolls’ houses for grown-ups; they store a remarkable amount of stuff in a terribly compact space. They offer secret compartments, hidden staircases, cunningly designed bunks and an atmosphere of intrigue; although that might be a little too much Agatha Christie.  

They also offer insufficient pillows, no room to turn around; a night spent wondering which direction you are travelling in and a cacophony of rattles and squeals as the train hurtles towards its destination.

The compartment before I filled it up.

It is a toss-up. One that, I will admit, I usually come down on the side of travelling by train, but as my eyes shake about in their sockets at three o’clock in the morning, I wonder. Principally what on earth I am doing here when there are perfectly good aeroplanes that will cover this distance in an hour or so. And then, of course, I remember the hassles of getting to the airport, the loss of a reservation code and the concomitant shrug from an airline employee; I recall the joys of security as they ponderously determine if my shoe-horn violates some unspecified regulation, the delays of the flight, the endless elbow-jousting until we land. Then, of course, the joys of describing your suitcase to a luggage agent who promises that it will be returned soon ….. ah, the joys of flying.

I travelled last night from Lisbon to Madrid on the RENFE Trenhotel; for reference, a one way single-cabin in Gran Class costs €177, a double €240 and a simple reclining seat €35).

The RENFE TrenHotel

I should, of course, have taken the hint. When the conductor asked if I wanted the top or bottom bunk made up into my bed, I chose the top, a choice that seemed to fleetingly surprise him. It was, of course, as it always is, a flash back to boyhood, excitement and derring do. It was also a mistake; the sort of error that parents always allow their boys to make because as everyone who thinks knows, the top bunk will sway around far more. It is marginally better insulated from the shattering noise as the train careers through a set of points, but this is only marginally comforting as one hangs on for dear life as we take corners at suspiciously large speeds. Suspicious only because it is a Spanish train, and I have a good memory.

The Dining Car
“Never mind”, I tell myself, “This is a great way to travel”. I wonder again which way I am going, but can’t quite figure it out without reference to the window (actually, to add to my confusion, when I awoke, we were travelling in the opposite direction to the one that we were engaged in when I fell asleep).

I must have slept, thought, because before I knew it the conductor was banging on the door and advising that Madrid was only thirty minutes into our future; time to figure out the shower.

I was travelling is a very nice cabin - the top of RENFE’s line; it had seen better days, but then again, so has quite a bit of Spain, so I won’t be churlish. I will say, however, that a good scrubbing would do a power of good, as would new seat covers; or even, in this age of austerity, the application of a darning mushroom.

The shower, took some figuring out, and only by a process of elimination of what knobs and other protuberances could (or even might) do what, I found out the secret of the water supply.

And so, refreshed, still a little confused, I tumbled onto the platform at Madrid’s Charmatin station at 8.30 on a Saturday morning, never a time to visit a normally busy fifteen-platform station, wondering where on earth I might find my car. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Bucharest, Romania - Another post-Soviet destination!

Cable cars still in use: Chiatura, Georgia
I am not quite sure why I find the post-Soviet countries so fascinating, but I do. Over the past ten years, I have visited all of those in Europe, except Montenegro, and it is quite remarkable how each has evolved since the end of the Soviet era.

Of particular interest to me have been the nastiest. Four weeks ago I visited Albania, and today, I am in Romania. So, accompanied by the interesting and knowledgeable Cristina Iosif of Unknown Bucharest, I set off for a primer on the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, the dictator here from 1965 until the revolution of 1989.

 Soviet Street Artt from  Tirasapol,Trans Dneistra and Minsk, Belarus

I had read fairly widely about the country, although it must be said that there is less available in English than one might want, and I was aware of Romania’s reputation for utter brutality, and its decades-long attempt to deceive the west into believing somehow that Romania was a “reasonable” country. And whatever else Romania might have been, reasonable it was not.

A notice indicating that the building is
likely to collapse at any time! 
Memories of the period were obviously painful for Cristina, and more than once, her eyes shone red as she talked about one aspect of life or another; yet she, herself, led a “normal” life during Those Years. A serious chess player of international standard, the daughter of two working parents and self-described as “just an ordinary person”, Cristina’s insight was fascinating; not only in the detail, but more in the relaying and exposure of how people thought and survived under the megalomaniacal regime, and the reflections of ordinary life.

Surprising, in a way, but instantly understandable is that people simply lived their lives. To most, the working of their government was as distant as it is elsewhere, and because they knew no other way, their lives were normal. They went to school, played games, fell in love, built a life and went to work. That this was all some terrible fa├žade was simply not thought about, and as such, life was tolerable.

There are actually remarkably few relics of the era, unless one includes the monstrous "Peoples' Palace" and some of the other grandiose developments that saw the city of Bucharest lose its soul and heritage to provide space for these hideous, but fascinating buildings.

The Parliamentary Palace in Bucharest
When asked about the lasting legacies, Cristine described the effect of the philosophy so intrinsic in the communist system of “Creating a New Man”, a phrase heard with minor variations throughout the socialist countries. In Romania, however, she explained how the legacy of this thinking was the creation of a society that is malleable and easily led to this day. As she described the transition of power 1989, it seemed more like an explanation of a coup, and the emerging leadership coming directly from the entrenched security services still retain power today; it was difficult not to feel a chill. 

Malta, Latvia - not much hard currency here.
A simple look at the city as one drives in from the airport or around the town shares a characteristic with so many developing countries, and belies any attempt to accurately seek statistical answers to economic questions. And it is simply this; for economic purposes the population is divided into two separate and parallel sets: those with access to hard currencies and those without. It is almost as simple as that. As goods flood into the now open markets from The West, they need to be purchased with hard currencies, or at least their nominal equivalent. Those fortunate enough, for example those in the tourist industry or involved with exports have Euros and Dollars and can play the global game. Those who don’t have access cannot do so.

Minsk - a local market
So superficially, the capitals look like thriving cities, but dig only a little deeper, travel only a little way from the hub of government and a completely different picture will emerge. It is one of poverty and pain, and it will take generations to erase.

It is quite fascinating to see the legacies of the soviet era; the construction, the utilitarian nature of life, the public art  (a disclaimer here; I am fascinated by Soviet bus-stops, and am planning a photo safari to capture some of the best in thie region at some point!) and the general ambience are so different from those of the west. Distinguished by the vast economic and social difference between the nomenclature, intellectuals and high government and the rest of the population, it is a sobering perspective of how imbalanced communities can become if the unequal access to resources and incomes is allowed to grown unchecked.

An old public phone
Romania is a captivating place, and a country that deserves extensive exploration. It is a country more than many that despite outward appearances is still locked in the past, and is finding it harder to shake off the discipline of the past than one might imagine, but as only a casual visitor I was fascinated and look forward to returning and exploring in depth. Explroing the deep countryside as well as the cities would make a most interesting expedition.

The extreme of thought-control: Pyonyang