Sunday, July 25, 2010

Istanbul - July 2010 (Part I)

During preparations for the trip to Romania, I had this sudden yearning to visit Istanbul; a curiosity – if you will – to witness and understand first-hand some of the historical and social drivers that have affected (to some extent) and influenced the development of our culture, our people [by ‘our’ meaning Romanian, of course] and our lifestyle. This wasn’t going to be a mere tourist escape in an exciting new city; it was going to be a search for answers, meaning and culture in the historical background of a city that was shaped by Greek, Roman and Ottoman conquests throughout history.

Established initially by Greeks (6th century BC), Byzantium later fell into the hands of the Romans (was even called New Rome for a while) and became Constantinople (4th century AD) in honor of Constantine the Great – first Roman emperor to switch to Christianity. It was not until the 10’th century that Istanbul was used in reference to the city name, but the current name became official in the early 19th century. Regardless of the name, Istanbul was one of [if not] the largest and wealthiest city in Europe during the Middle Ages. Not too shabby today either, with a population of just under $13 million (5th largest in the world)
Throughout history, the city was the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Empires. In 2010 it was chosen as the European Capital of Culture…

But enough with the historical background; If you’re so inclined, Wikipedia has tons more detail on this (and if you’re interested, I’ll put a couple of links at the bottom of this article). The intent of this blog is to highlight our experience during a short 3 day [4 nights] visit and share some thoughts, anecdotes and pictures. So, here we go:

Early Friday morning everyone was up early and excited to embark on the +600 km drive to Istanbul. Other (and more preferred) ‘transportation’ options – overnight boat trip from Constanta, or local air charter from Kogalniceanu – did not materialize unfortunately. Ten rainy hours later, after a challenging drive through the Bulgarian coastline and adjoining mountains, a grueling [I should just say inefficient, but that’s less dramatic] one-hour border crossing experience, we were on the shores of the Marmara inching our way into ‘Stanbul [on ‘normal’ roads, this trip should take 5, 6 hours at most].

Shorty after, we were dining on kebabs and Iskender, sipping Efes on a rooftop restaurant, under the ‘shadow’ of the imposing Blue Mosque, taking in the city lights and the Bosphorus below. Instant enamouration!

The next 3 days [we drove back Tue morning] were filled with ooo’s and aaa’s, lots and lots of walking, extraordinary sightseeing on water and land, a historical world-cup final, and waaaaaaaay to much eating [seems like every other hour we were munching on something]. I think I added a few good pounds to my otherwise impressive girlish figure…5 or 6 at least…

I’ll expand on our experience in subsequent series of this blog, but for now, here’s a few pictures where we tried to capture the color and the spirit of the city. Enjoy!

Gates into the old city

Street life

Boats waiting for tourists
Bosphorus view from the Pierre Loti cafe:
Street vendors selling his fares (fresh lollipops... yummmm). There were others, with corn on a cob, watermelons, roasted chestnuts, baked goods, even fresh mussels! Couldn't go hungry even if you wanted to...

The fish market
The center of the empire (or Point Zero) four centuries before Christ:
The Railway Station, once Point Terminus for the famous Orient Express
A 'suspended' cemetery on the Bosphorus; real estate is scarce even in the afterlife...
Yummy goods in the storefronts; baklava, lokum (turkish delight), kadauif, halva (one can get a sugar rush just by walking through)

Galata Bridge (with the tower in the background) and the many seafood restaurants under it:
Snapshots from a Bosphorus cruise:
The bridge connecting Europe and Asia
The Sultans' summer castle (on the Asian side)
The Dolmabahce Palace and new city (Taksim Square) in the background
Quickly off the boat to set foot on Asia (didn't feel any different :-)

More about the trip in Part II of this blog (will take me a week or two...)

PS – if this peaked your interest, know that a visa (has to be obtained in advance at a cost of $60) is required to enter Turkey with a US passport. I was a little pissed at first [seemed kinda’ steep, especially since EU citizens are only charged $10 for a stamp at the border] but when you put things in perspective, it’s justified: Romanians are charged $130 by the US Embassy just for the “opportunity” to apply for a visa, regardless of whether it’s approved or not. Yeah… I know… L

World Cup 2010 - Post Mortem

It’s been only two weeks since Casillas lifted the World Cup trophy, but already seems like so long ago… We’re taken again with the daily grind and I have personally forgot already how much fun I had watching the games (especially “la curte” in Romania). One experience that will last a lifetime though, is La Furia Roja winning it all while I was enjoying every minute of the final drinking Efes on a café-hookah bar-and-restaurant-lined cobblestone street in old Istanbul, not far from Hagia Sophia, where earlier I prayed for Spain to win! I wish I was a good enough writer to be able to really convey that feeling…

So now that it’s all history, and the statisticians [those dear friends with a real fetish for playing with numbers] have had their fill, it’s time for a little synopsis of how well (and in certain cases how poor) the teams [and some of the players] have performed. I also want to revisit my initial appraisals and see how far off I was. Or was I? I can only tell you this much: I “saw” a Brazil – Spain final [would have probably been more attractive] and I was not too far on that, had the Cariocas not performed hara-kiri in the quarterfinals…

After all the surprises – good and bad – the drama and excitement, here’s how it all summed up (again, by geography):

Europe – UEFA

After a slower start (and in some cases no “start” at all) three of the four semifinalists were European, almost ensuring that the trophy will stay on the old continent for the next four years. Germany and Holland offered a nice surprise, while some of the ‘old guard’ (including last editions’ finalists) have really disappointed. But you all saw the games, know what happened, here’s just a quick re-visit of my pre-tournament assessment…

Denmark was one of those who get a check mark under the “disappointing” column. They only recorded one victory [against a Cameroon side that ended up next to the very bottom of all teams] and were duly outclassed by both Holland and [especially] Japan.

If Denmark gets one check mark, England gets two under the same category. Predictable, pedestrian, slow, tired, uninterested, are some of the adjectives that characterized their performance. They barely managed to progress from an easy group but were immediately taken to the cleaners by a very impressive German team. Yeah, you could argue that Lampard’s unallowed goal could have changed the game, but we’ve been over that… Other would say that Capello should go, but I maintain that they just don’t have the players… Excuses are futile. I knew they would not get too far, just didn’t think they’d stop so short…

France is the “winner” when it comes to the aforementioned check marks; they get three! On and off the field they were disastrous. Last in another easy group, les Bleus never lived down their defeat against China in the warm-ups before the World Cup. In a headline today, new coach Laurent Blanc dropped all 23 players for their friendly against Norway next month! That would teach them!! Let’s hope all this hullabaloo makes it easier for Romania to qualify for Euro 2012 [they share a group with Bosnia, Belarus, Albania and Luxemburg]. But there [Romania] we have another sad state of affairs…

Germany. Well, well, well… My prediction was they would lose to Argentina in the quarterfinals… But as much as I wanted Spain to win, I think Germany was the best team in the tournament. Yes, they were outclassed by Spain, but with a bit more courage, the young German team could have made it all the way. Low has put together a very exciting team and [sorry to say it] they were much more Brazilian then… ehm, Brazil! I still don’t see how FIFA left Mueller out of the ‘team of the tournament’…he did, after all, win the golden boot and young player of the tournament award. Look for him, Ozil, Podolski and Co. to show up big in the next couple of tournaments. A true pleasure to watch [I don’t think I ever said that about a German team] they truly deserved the 3rd place finish (after another come-from-behind thriller against Uruguay).

Greece. Rehhagel’s over-defensive tactics are out; so is he. Didn’t make it out of the group stages, as predicted, and only got 3 points because of the Nigerians’ ineptitude and lack of discipline. Should have stayed home to begin with; I’m sure Ukraine would have fared better.

Italy. “The Azzurri do not look good on paper, and I doubt they’ll look good on the field either” was my initial overall assessment. They lacked… well… everything. They didn’t even play like a team. Hard work ahead for Prandelli, and although a good tactician, he’s a club coach. I doubt he’ll have much success with the national team (especially since he has to rebuild… or start from scratch, rather). But 4 years is a looooong time in football… You never know…

Holland were outstanding again, and with a bit more composure from Robben could have been the ones dancing in Johannesburg in the end. They are dynamic, well coordinated, but once they lose control of the midfield, then it’s “game over”. Undefeated in the qualifiers and the group stage, they came from behind (with lots of grit and composure) to teach Brazil a valuable lesson. They were my second-favorite team in the tournament… so I’m happy for them (and even happier they did not beat Spain).

Portugal, with an easy group (and the score of the tournament against N. Korea) fell at the first hurdle against their Iberian neighbors. No surprise there, especially since Ronaldo never really “showed up” and they were really outclassed by the mastery of Xavi and Co. I was right on the money with my prediction (out against Spain in the round of 16).

Serbia. I really thought they would do better, but their performance highlighted one more time how much worse Romania is, as both Serbia and France (who qualified out of that group 7) were just pathetic. The Serbs’ only plus was that fluke win against Germany… But when you lose to Australia, there’s no excuse… (sorry if that offends any of my Aussie friends).

Slovakia. For some, they were “excellent”. For me, Italy were just waaay too bad. That allowed them to get out of the group, but the Dutch proved to be too much for them. I liked Vladimir Weiss [coach’s son] but “one swallow does not make a spring” [Aristotle].

Slovenia. Not better than Slovakia, but had a slightly more difficult group. Didn’t like them one bit. Would have liked to see Russia in their place, in which case England would have probably left on the same plane with Italy and France.

Spain. What can I tell you… they were not as “pretty” as we’ve been used to, but pretty football does not always win tournaments. They clearly realized that after the Swiss cold shower. Yes, they have only scored 8 goals to win it all, but they have DOMINATED all games. There’s no better midfield in the world today, and no players of the caliber of Xavi, Iniesta and Villa. Clearly deserved to win and although I’ve only mentioned the 3 above, there were many others that “showed up” when it mattered. Case in point: they “hid” the ball from the high-flying Germans in one of the most entertaining 1-0 games of the tournament. Some say that Germany did not play well; I say they were not allowed to. Spain was too strong; stronger than the scoreline showed. Gracias muchachos!

Switzerland. All they had to do was beat Honduras in the last group game. But if one can’t accomplish that menial task, one should not ask for more. Their consolation is winning against the eventual world champs… Yet again, repeating myself over and over, still not sure how that happened. The Swiss were even more defensive than the Greeks (if that’s even possible)

Africa – CAF

Ghana once again saved face for the continent. All others (with the exception of Ivory Coast) took last place in their respective groups. All the media hype could not hide the fact that African teams were quite inferior and despite the ‘mercenaries’ brought on to manage the teams, they lack the main ingredient needed in a long tournament: discipline.

Algeria did better than expected and could have done even better with a bit more discipline. However, the 0-0 tie with [a very uninspired] England is all they have to show for it.

Cameroon were a mess. The only other team in the tournament with 0 points was N. Korea… that should tell you everything. Eto’o was essentially non-existent and none of the young guns were able to impress…

Ghana, as mentioned were again (just as 4 years ago) the only African team to progress out of the group stages. Not only that, but they should have been in the semifinal, unfortunately, nerves got the better of young Gyan and he put that last-minute extra-time penalty on the crossbar. So in their case was inexperience, rather than lack of discipline that did not carry them further. Look for them to have a better showing in Brazil [2014] as all these young players get more experience, and others from the under-20 world champions team from last year [they beat Brazil in the final, remember?] will make it in the senior squad.

Ivory Coast. Overdependence on Drogba (and his injury) cost them dearly. In any other group they would have fared better, but against Brazil and Portugal… tough…

Nigeria have only themselves to blame for not progressing. Vincent Enyeama (one of the best keepers in the tournament) worked wonders between the posts to keep the defeat to Argentina at only one goal. But then came the Greece game where – discipline again – they blew the lead and gifted the Greeks an unexpected victory. And when you can’t score from 5 yards against an open goal [remember Obasi?] then you really should not pretend you deserve more…

South Africa. For the first time in history, the hosts did not make it out of the group stage. Yes, they beat France (!) but they really didn’t show much. Mexico (with a bit more decisiveness) should have beaten them in the first game and they showed nothing in the 3-0 rout from Uruguay.

Asia – AFC

Australia. They went from a 4-0 beating from Germany to a ‘surprise’ win over Serbia and they were edged by Ghana only on goal difference. They would have done better had they not lost Cahill and Kewell to suspension in the first two games. I loved their fighting spirit after the Germany trashing.

Japan. Tenacious in open play and deadly from set pieces. In the end, it was lack of experience and concentration that allowed Paraguay to edge them on penalty kicks…

Korea Republic progressed easily (despite the 4-1 loss to Argentina) from a group where Greece and Nigeria didn’t show much. Some would argue (and statistics show it) that they were better than Uruguay in the round of 16, but in the end, both co-host from 2002 showed that they did not get far on home soil simply because they were hosts. Nice football from both of them.

Korea DPR came dead-bottom with 12 goals against and 1 for [against Brazil, of all teams]. Kim Jong-il is likely to punish all the players to a lifetime of labor in the coal mines for bringing such shame to his beloved communist contry…

North, Central America and Caribbean – CONCACAF

Honduras played spoilers to the Swiss to send Chile through. That’s what we’ll remember them for in this tournament.

Mexico looked good at times, but also lost concentration too easily. In the end, they could not avoid a 2nd place finish in the group and the unfortunate “date” with Argentina. Yes, they were robbed by an offside goal, but that’s no excuse. They do, however, have a few promising young players that will mature more in 4 years’ time…

United States. Should have done better once out of the group. They definitely had the easier passage (that’s how Uruguay made it to the semis) but did not take advantage of the opportunity. They did well last year in a second-rate tournament (lost the final to Brazil in the Confederations Cup) but in ‘serious’ tournaments they still have work to do.

Oceania – OFC

New Zealand were the only team who went home without losing a game in the tournament. With a little luck they would have gone past the group stage, but they left with their heads held high and the satisfaction of a 1-1 draw against the World Champions [Italy]. Not bad for a bunch of amateurs!

South America – CONMEBOL

After the group stage, the South Americans were flying high, with all the represented teams making it to the round of 16 and the quarterfinals (minus Chile, who lost to Brazil). Then the wheels came off and Uruguay (with a little help from Ghana) was the only one to make it into the semis.

Argentina came out of the gates running at full speed. They easily topped the group and played attractive football in the process. Ditto for the round of 16 against Mexico (alas, with some controversy). But their gaps in midfield and defense were duly exposed by a pragmatic German team who took them to the cleaners in the quarterfinal. Maradona threw in the [managerial] towel shortly after that. For all their attacking prowess [with Messi well under par] they were showed that attacking alone does not win tournaments.

Brazil found themselves in the same boat and although they excelled at times, they fell asleep at the helm in more than one occasion. Dunga also stepped down after the defeat to Holland, a game where they had the lead, but imploded in the second half. Once again, consistency is the name of the game in big tournaments and playing with two defensive midfielders was the most un-Brazilian thing I’ve ever seen; it’s back to the drawing board for the 2014 hosts now…

Chile was on par with my initial prediction. They squeezed through group F due to the Swiss’ incapacity to win against Honduras, but they really did not have much to show beyond that. Brazil emphatically put them away [3-0] in the round of 16.

Paraguay. Once Italy imploded, they found themselves [easily] atop group F. But since they could not defeat New Zealand [0-0] everyone thought they’d lose to an up-and-coming Japan. But they were more focused during the penalties and secured a spot in the quarterfinals [where they eventually lost to Spain]

Uruguay. Last, but not least, La Celeste were the big surprise of the tournament. After scraping through during the qualifiers [playoff against Costa Rica] they played some good football, spearheaded by the mercurial Forlan [player of the tournament] and goal-poacher Luis Suarez. Yes, they had a little luck against Ghana, but in the end, they deserved their place in the last 4.

* * * * *

That wraps it up for this edition of the World Cup. It will be remembered as a tournament with LOTS of surprises, LOTS of “firsts” and should give FIFA plenty of things to tinker with before the 2014 edition in Brazil. One thing is for sure; ‘name’ alone does no longer mean anything at this stage. Italy, France, England, even Brazil and Argentina can attest to that. Was it spectacular? I’ve seen better. The less ‘tactical’ games were a pleasure to watch… but there were also plenty of dragged-out ‘snoozers’. This was the lowest scoring tournament since FIFA switched to the 64 game format [2.26 average], ‘helped’ in great measure by the likes of Germany and Argentina. This explains why Spain won after scoring 8 goals in 7 matches!

Yet, it was great fun for us football addicts, and for me in particular (since Spain were crowned champions) nothing else mattered!!!

¡Viva España!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Romania - Vacation - 2010

Well, well, well… What better way of catching up on updating my blog with the European vacation experience then being delayed in Schiphol (AMS) airport for 5(!) Hours…

Hectic yet fun-filled, the trip to Romania (and Turkey) had a lot of points worth putting down on paper (or screen, rather). The general impression, as sad as it may sound, is that Romania took a few serious steps backwards since last time I went back [4 years ago]. People seemed more hopeless, frustrated and fed up with how the affairs of the state are being (mis)managed by the inept powers that be. The global economic crisis has undoubtedly something to do with that; however, it’s a general feeling of panic and despair that casts a negative shadow over the social, politic and economic “feel” in the country.

The first glimpse of it came before I even stepped out of the plane. As we taxied to the gate, there was a plane on the tarmac without any commercial signage. It simply said ‘Republica Italiana’. As the ‘passengers’ were stepping off the plane, they were being loaded into a couple of Police vans. Yes, I was witnessing a sample of the select few that tarnish the Romanian name everywhere they go [obviously engaged in illegal activities in Italy they were being deported and handed over to the local authorities]. I’ve talked to several friends who openly admit that they prefer not to associate themselves with Romania once they go abroad. Can’t say that I blame them!

The first few days of vacation were great. Catching up with relatives and old friends, watching the World Cup with 10-15 people on the TV outside while washing down ‘mici’, ‘fleica’, ‘babic’ and ‘ceafa’ with every imaginable kind of cold beer was truly relaxing. And fun! [football and a sizzling grill has a way of making people forget about their troubles].

World Cup "la curte":

But among all that, the ‘social’ scene was marred by controversy surrounding the baccalaureate exams. There were plenty of schools where the passing percentage was in the single digits. There were more cases than I thought imaginable where students were caught cheating, professors allowed the cheating to happen, and even took bribes in order to arrange passing grades. A sad state of affairs for a school system that less than a couple of decades ago took pride in being one of the best in Europe. Everyone agrees that there’s nothing “serious” done in schools any longer. Not even in the flagship high schools that used to springboard winners of math and science “Olympics”.

The inner courtyard of my (and my mom's!) elementary school [back then, a serious thing]:

The end of the ‘bacal’ exams marked the unofficial opening of the beach season. A holiday season that seems to shrink (in duration and magnitude) from year to year. And every year, the Romanian tourism industry seems to lose more and more ground to our neighbors to the South (Bulgaria especially, but not only). As I drove from Constanta to Turkey (through the Bulgarian coastline) I was able to understand why: they have [much] nicer (and newer) resorts, impressive hotels (several with “all-inclusive” options) and prices [from what I heard] that are significantly less than what the ‘innkeepers’ in Mamaia charge. The service is much better also. So in that case, why would anyone want to spend their hard-earned money on the Romanian Black Sea coast? To quote the overly-frugal Clark Howard, they’re “talking with their feet”. Pretty soon, there will be no one spending their vacations on the Romanian beaches.

Mid-July, yet the beaches in Mamaia are empty:

The hotels, for the most part, got only a superficial paint job and new hotels are small and scarce. ‘Landscaping’ – the way we understand it – is non-existent. Nothing compared to the mega-resorts in Bulgaria. Even Rex was undergoing major construction (see below) in the middle of the season. Didn’t they have the whole winter/spring for that? Now, don’t get me wrong, outside of the nice resorts, Bulgaria is no different than Romania. A couple of the pictures below show a stark contrast between the nice resorts (German built and run for the most part) and the favela-like neighborhoods in the Varna suburbs. But at least they [the Bulgarians] grabbed the tourism market-share while back ‘home’ the idea seems to be “let’s rip off the tourists”.

Resorts in Bulgaria...

... and 'favelas' in Varna:

Part of me wants to understand the Romanians’ approach: the season is shorter, the rent for a patch of the beach horrendous, so they try to get an obvious return on investment given the limited time. But in the process, the customer is the one who suffers (and gets fed up to the point where they prefer to go spend the same money [or less] somewhere else). Case in point: a set of lounge chairs and umbrella is 40 RON [$12] per day if reserved first thing in the morning [significantly more in the weekends] but the price ‘stands’ if one goes to the beach at 4PM (for only an hour or two). Pleas for reasoning with them fall on deaf, indifferent ears. After all, they’re not in the business of providing a service; just making money regardless of the circumstances. And did I mention the chairs and umbrellas are EVERYWHERE?

... a 'happy' note in an attempt to attract people to the beach:

More on this topic: wave-runners. Omnipresent as well, and VERY expensive. Depending on the model, 30 minutes of fun on the water can set you back 200-250 RON [$60-75]. And for that, they are idle 95% of the time. Simple business logic tells me that if the price was lower, the usage would be higher and implicitly utilization and the profits bigger. But that’s not how these “entrepreneurs” think. Good common [business] sense does not exist on the Romanian Black Sea coast.

So under these dire circumstances, the “holiday season” is limited to long weekend stints when “the provincials” head down the “Highway of the Sun” [still unfinished, 20 years later] for a quick dip in the sea and “feasting” in overpriced and overrated restaurants. Then Monday comes and it all turns back into a ghost town [resort] until the following weekend. You see, Romanian people with money [and taste / or the misconception of ‘taste’] spend their holidays in the Greek Islands [one week all inclusive WITH air and lodging in Rhodes is as little as 450 EURO], Bulgaria, Turkey [everyone is raving about Antalya] or even more ‘exotic’ places, like Albania, Croatia, or Dubai! It makes no sense to them to spend the same amount of money [or more] and get ripped off, or have a disappointing vacation. Yes, sadly, the ‘well-to-do’ people pump money into these other countries’ economies, and the ones that don’t have the money, or got affected by the recent economic downturn, simply ‘skip’ vacations these days. A vicious circle that plunges the country further into misery…

And with all this, you would imagine that the service industry would bend head-over-hills to accommodate the fewer and fewer customers. Yet, quality of service (and products) is definitely not a concern of the Romanian business owner. I’m wondering what business school teaches that… They don’t seem to have any concern for repeat business or word-of-mouth reputational ‘advertising’. I’m generalizing, of course, there are exceptions, but taken as a whole, this is one of the categories where the aforementioned ‘steps backwards’ have occurred. The ‘healthy competition’ concept just does not exist yet.

Traffic is crazy. And the main rule is that people driving nice big expensive cars do not obey any of the traffic rules. The ‘less fortunate’ who don’t drive a Q7 or something in that realm are flashed at, honked at and more or less pushed off the road. Did I mention that I saw more expensive cars and SUVs in my two weeks there than I would have in Atlanta? They definitely fall in the category of ‘social status’, not transportation. And if you saw the quality of the roads, you would just have to wonder: WHY??? Personally, I drove a rented Ford Fiesta and it was more than enough for putzing around the city.

A city that lost the charm it once had. A dirty city, by comparison to other Romanian cities I’ve seen in pictures and home-made movies (Brasov and Sibiu for example). A city which – allegedly – Mr. Mayor [Mazare] and his cohorts have been ‘milking’ for years now.

I went down to the promenade, with its once outstanding Casino that used to be the shining jewel of the old city. The drive down (passing by Ovidiu’s statue) is depressing, with run-down and crumbled buildings and weeds up the wazoo. The Casino itself, an architecturally imposing feat, has not seen any fresh paint (or tenants for that matter) in a long time. Word on the street is that they [Mazare’s cohorts, aka ‘business associates’] want it (and other significant landmarks) to go into despair, so they can grab them at fire-sale prices. Italian mafia has nothing on these guys (or other similar figures in the Romanian power echelon).

And although the city is dirty, cars are parked willy-nilly ALL OVER the place, and small shops, ‘beauty parlors’ and dental cabinets are present on the first floor of every apartment building, Constanta now has another brand new “mall” (with another one being erected as we speak) where most of the shopping being done is the ‘window’ kind. Not surprising, since the prices are no different (if not higher) that what similar stores charge in Paris, London or Milan. But here again, another Romanian “sin” is that putting food on the table is not a necessity, as long as one’s wardrobe bears a brand name and the cell phone bill gets paid first.

I’m still to get to the bottom of some of the paradoxes I encountered during my stay: no one works [generalizing of course] but they complain there’s no money; stealing is more prevalent than in communist times (at least back then there was the fear of repercussions) and that’s how the ‘big money’ is made. The ‘leadership’ [in quotes for obvious reasons] is incapable and unwilling (or both) to handle the big issues (partly because they’re a significant beneficiary in this whole boondoggle). It’s all a classic case of “the dogs are barking yet the bear keeps walking” [old Romanian proverb very appropriate in this context]

But enough with the cruel and clearly negative reality; I could go on forever. We did stumble across a nice restaurant on the ONE occasion we decided to go out. ‘Marco Polo’ was a nice change of pace from the patched-up eye-sores that call themselves restaurants. The food, ambiance and service made me forget for a couple of hours that I was in Romania. Now why can’t others follow that example? [I understand there are plenty of these in Bucharest – it’s only natural – but this blog is limited in scope to my beloved Constanta]

Bureaucracy has improved a bit, although paying bills and running simple errands (that most of us do with a click of a mouse or a quick phone call) still require a physical trip to the respective offices, but more streamlining and centralization is needed. Another “shark” species has surfaced in the process: they call themselves Notary Public and charge the exorbitant sum of 60 RON [$18] for simply putting their stamp and signature on something as trivial as a Power of Attorney document (yet nothing concerning legal matters can be accomplished without them). To get a feel for what that means, (and put the prices I mentioned earlier in perspective) the average monthly salary in Romania these days is about $650. Did I utter the word ‘paradox’ earlier? I think I did!

Enough for now. Getting a bit tired and I hear another beer calling my name. I’m just upset that I had to cut my quick escape to Amsterdam (and the Heineken Experience museum visit) short earlier today. Had I known the flight was going to be delayed so much, I would have enjoyed the Venice of the North at a more leisurely pace…

PS – on another note about the effects of the global economic downturn: the famous Red Light District windows were overwhelmingly empty… Granted, some of the “talent” is now lining up the roads in Romania and Bulgaria selling their services to pathetic excuses for human beings.

On that sour note, more trip impressions to follow, including an unexpectedly nice side trip to Istanbul… Stay tuned!

PPS – the delay I mentioned earlier turned into a cancellation. KLM paid for hotel and dinner, but did not let us get the luggage. Wearing the same clothes tomorrow should be loads of fun!

Oh, the unforseen perils of travel…

Monday, July 12, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Finals

Well after midnight in Istanbul and you can still hear a lonely vuvuzela here and there among the Es-pa-na! Es-pa-na! chants! Spanish support from the locals as well as the tourists was formidable. Yes, there were Dutch fans too, but seriously outnumbered...

Seems like everyone loves Spain for the way the play the game: more artistic than the Brazilians and now more efficient than the Germans! Critics would say that 8 goals in 7 games is not 'enough' to win the World Cup, but there is no doubt that Spain was the best team in the tournament [and over the last couple of years as well]. And for the first time in history, the team that lost the first game [to this day, still don't know how that happened] were crowned champions in the end!

It wasn't easy - of course - but at this level "easy" is not expected. 13 yellows and 1 red were dished out by Howard Webb [the Dutch were a little rougher than usual, but how else could you stop "La Furia Roja"?] and the team that played more football prevailed in the end. When Casillas stopped Robben one-on-one, I knew that the footballing Gods were on Spain's side. Somehow I also "knew" that the Dutch will end up with 10 men and Spain would score in extra time. Boy, but even though "I knew", it was still an exciting duel to watch!

It's not just a victory for Spain, but overall a victory for the beautiful game... as all the teams in the final 8 (and especially the final 4) played fluent, open, exciting football. I'll come back to this in a few days [with a short analysis of the teams] but it was great to watch these teams [last 4 especially, again] perform. Even Germany has adopted a 'less-German-more-Latin' approach.

And since I brought up Germany, a few words about the "consolation" final:

When there's not as much at stake, teams really open up and provide a great spectacle. That's exactly what happened between Germany and Uruguay. It could have gone either way, but in the end, the better team throughout the tournament took third place. Accolades for Mueller [who won both the Golden Boot and the Best Young Player awards]. Not bad for a player who's not 21 yet. I'm sure we'll see more from him in the future. Same kudos go to Forlan, who single-handedly [almost] carried Uruguay all the way to the 4th place. Oh, yes... he scored some amazing goals in the process [and what if the free kick in the last minute of the Germany game was a couple inches lower...]

While we're talking awards, Iker got the Golden Glove and Spain the Team Fair Play Award. Well deserved, again, on both counts!

Congrats again to Spain, TRUE World Champs!

More on the tournament later, as promised, but now off to more sight-seeing in Istanbul (yes, there will be a blog on this trip as well, eventually...)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

World Cup 2010 - Semifinals

Hung over or not, a semifinal update was due. Not a great game last night, but when the drinks are flowing and you're enjoying the game outdoors with family and friends, all that matters is that Spain won! And the goalscorer was 'Captain Fantastic' [Puyol]. Did you see him "stripping" for queen Sofia?:

Spain was definitely better and deserved to win. No doubt about it. Too bad Villa did not get another one! But on the plus side, I'm glad Del Bosque finally realized that Torres is not 'on his game' and left him on the bench. Not that Pedro fared much better [and was overly-individualistic, in my opinion] but he did better than Fernando in previous games. all watched the game, I'm sure...Germany was nowhere near the 'form' they showed against Argentina and England...truth is, Spain were that much better! It's really had to play when you don't get the ball!

The Dutch duly disposed of Uruguay in the other semifinal. Great goal from Van Bronckhorst, maybe best of the tournament! Noting much to be said there... Second goal could have been an offside, but did not see enough replays... Still, Holland were better and Uruguay should be happy with the chance to go for third place (although I'm pretty sure that's already reserved for Germany).

I wish I can spend more time on this, but have to get ready for a short trip to Turkey. Going to Istanbul in the morning. That means I'll be watching this World Cup in 3 different countries!

Spain and Holland should be a great final. Unique, too. But I'm sure everyone agrees that the best teams in the tournament are fighting for the ultimate prize. The Dutch are unbeaten in something like 25 games, but I [impartially ;-)] think Spain is the stronger team. May the best one win and hope to see a great game in some pub down in Sultanhamet!

¡Visca España!