Gary Denness



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I'd never expected to be a multi-millionaire. Yet here I am, rolling in filthy lucre. I didn't need to work my fingers to the bone, invent the latest big thing nor did I rely on six lucky numbers coming up in a lottery draw. I simply strolled into my local Eurochange, handed over my debit card, and walked out with nearly thirty million Vietnamese Dong. Fifteen million for me, fifteen million for Mrs P. Fifteen million is the maximum that one is allowed to take into Vietnam.  Silly though it is, don't we all get a little kick out receiving wads of foreign notes, even though they look like they've just come out of a Monopoly set? But this post isn't really about any expectations I might have of turning my rags into riches. And anyway, I long ago settled for simply being financially solvent.

You may have guessed that Mrs P and I will shortly be off to Vietnam. Where else would we spend the Dong?  We will spend two weeks there, travelling from Saigon in the tropical south to the more temperate Hanoi in the north, via Hoi An and Ha Long Bay. Like most people, we will jet off with the standard holiday expectations.  The stuff that travel brochures have so desperately tried to sell since the dawn of time. Hot and sunny weather, blue skies, friendly locals, delicious food, white sand beaches, palm trees gently swaying in a refreshing sea breeze, a vibrant nightlife,  beautiful temples, grand palaces and...have I missed anything?

Whether reality will meet ones expectations is rather dependent on a range of factors. Will Mother Nature co-operate? Did that delicious steak go woof just before it met its maker? Did the hotel somehow forget to mention that the place is only half built, with works ongoing twenty four hours a day? The sensible, seasoned traveller will understand that one should board the flight out with an optimistic sense of hope, and a degree of flexibility,  rather than any fixed expectations. I am a great believer in moving on from any disappointments as quickly as is feasible rather than engage in a fruitless fight to rectify shortcomings that should have been addressed before arrival.

But I do have one very specific expectation of Vietnam. Only time will tell if my expectation will collide with reality, or if my experience there goes off in a totally different direction. My expectation is simply: this is the time to visit Vietnam. Right now. This is the sweet spot, where the significant private and public investment in tourism infrastructure makes travelling about the country easy and comfortable, but international uptake of what the country has to offer is still low enough to keep prices competitive and the sightseeing free from the hordes that 'plague' better known destinations. As Budapest is to Prague*, I expect Vietnam to be to Thailand. Rougher around the edges, possibly. But ultimately more rewarding.

I have no desire to be a travelling pioneer, if that is even possible these days. But neither have I any wish to jump on a bandwagon that is already full and standing. I want to be an early adopter, if you will. Mrs P and I will shortly find out just how well my great expectations of Vietnam stack up against reality.

*Perhaps this comparison worked better a few years ago. Alas, I think the hordes have now discovered Budapest, and the plague is in full swing.






In an ideal world, Mrs P and I would live with just two neighbours. On one side, we would neighbour a large forest. And on the other side, we'd neighbour a large lake. In this ideal world, I live as a ridiculously wealthy semi-recluse, venturing only occasionally beyond the boundaries of my estate to embard on luxurious travel to exotic lands. Alas, I must continue to live in the real world. And like most urban residents these days, Mrs P and I live in a flat. Or apartment, if you prefer. We must share our lives with others, to a certain degree, whether we like it or not.

In Mexico City, we occupied a ground floor flat in a block shared with six other families. Next door to us was Crazy Old Lady, almost certainly old enough to recall the revolution and possibly only a generation or two departed from passengers on the Ark. Sometimes she'd knock on our door in the evening because she was hungry and Mrs P would give her something to eat. One day she went to live in a nursing home of some sort. We heard a year or two after that  she'd passed away. Above us and to the left lived Traditional Mexican family who'd been there as long as Mrs P had. One of the girls was the same age as Mrs P - they were best friends as children. Directly above us was another young family. Mum, dad and a young boy, henceforth referred to as the Happy Family. They always smiled, said hello and sometimes stopped to chat. I forget the boys name, but he was fascinated by our turtles. He'd often stare at them out of the window that overlooked  our patio with a big smile on his face. When we went on short breaks we would give them a tub of turtle food for him to throw into their pool. Now and again, we'd all come home at the same time and he'd rush through our open door and sit next to the pool to stare at the turtles close up.

Late one evening, an hour or two before midnight, the mother of all rows broke out in the Happy Family's apartment. The sort of row that you'd associate with the apocalypse. Full volume hysterical screaming. Then the smashing of things that make smashing sounds. Followed by the crashing of furniture being overturned. And it went on for hours. Like I said, the mother of all rows. We can only guess what had caused such a ferocious fracas. The rage came entirely from mum. Dad was very clearly on the receiving end. Whatever contribution he was making to the lively debate wasn't making things any better. Any guess as to what the row was about would be idle speculation. But you have the word 'infidelity' in mind, don't you? 

Throughout the mother of all rows, the young boy's pleading cries for them to stop was ignored. He was clearly terrified. Mrs P suggested that we do something. I agreed. So I went out into the patio, scooped our turtles out of their pool, into a bucket and brought them indoors for safekeeping before a wardrobe came flying out of an upstairs window, causing a reptilian massacre. It transpired that this was not what Mrs P meant by 'doing something'. Eventually, in the early hours of the morning, the row came to an end, but the Happily Family are henceforth referred to as the Unhappy Family . There were no more cheery hellos. The little boy would sometimes look out of the window at our turtles. But he didn't smile. Dad moved out shortly after. And not long after that, so did we.

Our first flat in Bournemouth had the perfect sort of immediate neighbours. None. We had a corner flat up on the third floor at the end of a long corridor with a little used staircase between us and the next flat. Tranquility reigned. Then we moved a hundred metres down the road. We no longer wanted to be renters, but home owners. Our new flat has one direct neighbour on the ground floor, rented by Mr Pothead, a chap we rarely see and who, due to his illicit habit, never disturbs us. Above us is a lovely young lady who owns her flat but is never there.

To the left, but slightly offset is another flat which is rented out by an absent landlord. When we arrived in 2016, it was occupied by a young couple. He Portuguese, she Polish. After a year they were joined by a little baby boy. A little Portuguese, Polish, British baby boy. We can call them the Multicultural Family.We used to have them over for dinner sometimes, and on a couple of occasions went on train trips with them. They never fought. Sometimes, she would tell him off, but he was a decent chap who remained calm, quiet and knew his place. They left in October, to make new lives in Porto. They heard the British electorate loud and clear. We were very disappointed. It's important to have good neighbours. It's a bonus when they are friends.

Their flat wasn't empty for long, and a new couple moved in, not quite so young as the last. He English, she eastern European. They are friendly. They didn't make any noise. But I won't give this family a name, because the name would likely be unkind and there is already too much unkindness in the world. They smoke like proverbial chimneys, but unlike Mr Pothead, their cigarettes are of the legal variety. The hallway stinks of stale cigarettes. Several times when they've opened their front door, sufficient smoke has billowed out that the communal fire alarms have gone off. But still. They are friendly and they don't make any noise.

Until they did make a noise. It's happened three times so far. Or at least on three occasions when we've been present to hear it. Fighting. Verbal, and by the sounds of it, physical too. Unlike the Mexican fracas, the male appears to be the aggressor this time. Do we have a wife beater next door? Maybe. If so, he leaves no visible marks on her face. And maybe not - let's not be too presumptious. Mrs P says that we should do something. But we no longer have turtles in a patio to protect. So I do nothing. And that still isn't what she means anyway.

When, exactly, is the right moment to 'do something' when you suspect an ongoing case of domestic violence is occurring next door? I imagine you should be aware of a continuing pattern. You should be able to see physical evidence such as bruising. You should have a documented history of events. And, once you have reported what you know to the authorities, you should be willing to find yourself living next door to the Less-Than-Friendly Family.

But still. As things stand, they are friendly - to us anyway. And they don't make noise. Most of the time. They say you can choose your friends but not your family. Neighbours are somewhere in between. The couple with no name are renters, so like most renters they will probably leave. Eventually. We hope that their departure does not involve bodybags and handcuffs. We hope that their replacements are an upgrade. Or better still, we hope our lucky numbers come in and we can upgrade. I'd like to neighbour a forest on one side, and a lake on the other. Ideally.






It's unseasonably warm. The sun can be felt on the skin. The sky is blue. Birdsong has returned. And some fools had the grand idea that a bit of surfing would be a good idea. But we are still in February, I am still de-icing my windscreen in the morning and the water is still bitterly cold. But the really remarkable object in this photo of Bournemouth's beach and pier is less obvious. The oil rig, four miles out, exploring Poole Bay for black gold. It's an unpopular sight. If they are successful, we are told that rigs will not dominate the horizon of one of the UK's most popular seaside towns. Extraction will take place from land based operations.


Every year since 2006, I have ponied up about £25 and bought my annual Flickr Pro membership. This year, under SmugMug ownership, the fee has doubled to nearly £50. That might be reasonable value for the product they offer, although I might suggest that Flickr should have rolled out the promised improvements before increasing the price - not after. Doubling the cost has cost them at least one customer. It's the wrong year to hit me with an increase. I'm consolidating my online presence and reducing my costs.

My iCloud plan with Apple Photos has become my preferred photo storage system. So I have cancelled my Flickr auto-renewal. And have been waiting for the fateful date in mid March, when Flickr will delete 16,484 of my photos, leaving just my most recent 1,000 uploads. Hundreds of my images embedded from Flickr into my own blog and other websites will all suddenly break. Which is a shame.

 

Yesterday I came across a blog post from SmugMug/Flickr which provided good news. I think. It's been decided that all photos that were uploaded to Flickr on a Creative Commons license before November last year will not be deleted. I have always applied a liberal CC license to all my photos, allowing anyone to use my images for any non-commercial purpose, free of charge. Sharing is caring. And my goodwill and generosity has been rewarded. 

I will not be able to upload any further photos from mid March. But my archive remains in place, with perhaps the definitive photographic catalogue of Mexico City in the 2000s. The option also remains for me to upgrade to Flickr Pro again some time in the future, if I'm impressed by any new offering. I'm calling that a win-win all round.





Travel is about exploration, discovery and the occasional surprise, is it not? Some places I research more thoroughly than others. What did I know of Romania before I left? It's full of gypsies, the people are piss poor, Dracula lives there, more gypsies, and tons of commie buildings. Those, of course, are the common stereotypes of Romania. But Romania isn't a country that I was hugely familiar with, and so that's pretty much all I had to work with. I expected to find some evidence of each one of those stereotypes. Equally, I expected to find that the bigger picture would reveal that there's an awful lot more to the country than a few lazy slurs.



Language

I really hadn't given the language or Romania much thought. My assumption was that it'd be of slavic origin. It turned out that this is not so. It's one of the Romance languages. Or Romanic languages as they are sometimes called. And this instantly makes sense. Romanic. Romania. Just a letter apart. It belongs on a separate branch of Vulgar Latin to Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese. I'm told that it's most closely related to Italian, although I certainly noticed plenty of words quite similar to Spanish. 



Gypsies

I have three comments to make regards Romania's gypsy population. Firstly: I didn't knowingly come across any real gypsies. I suspect they are not yet required to wear identifying symbols on their clothing to alert non-gypsies (aka the civilised population) of their presence. Secondly: we got the distinct impression that gypsies aren't thought of fondly by the population at large. Actually, I'd already come across this attitude from having read a few Romanian based blogs. We got chatting to an Uber driver, who confessed that his nickname was 'Gypsy' because of his skin colour and features. 

He assured us that he wasn't a gypsy, and that we should be careful should we meet any, because they're all thieving bastards. Thirdly: the only homeless people with carts that we came across on our journeys were Brits. On our way to, and back from, Bournemouth airport, we saw more than a dozen of them. Some had carts, procured from Tescos or Asda. Some had simply built semi-permanent camps in the doorways of closed-down stores. Brits are quick to look down on our European cousins, but perhaps not so quick to wonder how we might look to them. Go figure.



Castles

If Bucharest can be gritty, grimy and grey, things change very quickly once one has boarded the train and headed into rural Romania, which is glorious, glorious, glorious. With each turn of your head you are presented with another picture postcard scene. Sinaia railway station is quite possibly the most perfect station on the planet. If you're leaving Bucharest by train, you'll almost certainly go through Sinaia, because you're almost certainly heading for Bran Castle, the picturesque mountain top abode that was allegedly inhabited by Dracula. Or so the marketing team there would like you to believe. 

Do not simply go through Sinaia. Get off, wander around the station and go visit Peles Castle. It is within walking distance, but it's quite a walk. I suggest taking a taxi there where the going is all uphill. Walk back, with the benefit of gravitational assistance. Then head on to Brasov, your overnight base for visiting Bran. Although perhaps you'll end up doing what we ended up doing. We liked Brasov so much that, given our time limitations, we skipped Bran altogether. 



Food and Drink

We found eating out in Romania to be a mixed bag. The cuisine was tasty, but we were repeatedly served plates of luke warm food. It wasn't particularly cheap either. The best we had was at the uber famous Caru' Cu Bere in the centre of Bucharest and at a very upmarket place near Ceaucesu's mansion called Osho. Every guide book will recommend the former, and it shouldn't be missed - the interior decor alone is a feast for the eyes. The latter? I had a salad here and it was wonderful. And I am typically the sort of person who would describe the very best sort of salad as something served to someone else. So regard my compliment as high praise indeed. 



Ceausescu

Two figures - ones who actually existed - are associated with Romania more than any others. Vlad the Impaler, from the 15th century. And Nicolae Ceausescu, who borrowed much of his thinking from the 15th century. You can tour two properties associated with Ceausescu - his mansion and the Palace of Parliament. If you took a stroll through the former without knowing who had owned it, you might well assume that this is what happens if you take an uneducated peasant, give him all the money he needs and tell him to just go wild with the decor. And you'd pretty much nail it. Gold plated bathrooms? Sure, why not.



If you then strolled through the Palace of the Parliament, you'd assume that the gargantuan marble construction must have been the lavish brainchild of one of Europe's great emperor's from hundreds of years ago, who needed a pet project to spend his ill-gotten wealth, gained from overseas colonies. And you'd be completely wrong. Construction started in the 1980s, finished - sort of - in the 1990s, and is the second largest building in the world. Its scale was, and remains, entirely unnecessary, proven by the fact it is still 70% vacant. But it makes for quite a morning for a tourist, out seeing the sights. 



Our visit to Romania confounded the British based stereotypes, as I expected. It's a worthy destination for someone looking to take a short European city break, with perhaps a couple of days in a nearby rural location. Three days is plenty for Bucharest. I rather wish we'd had a week to explore further afield. There is always next time...




There are more than two dozen cities around the world which proclaim themselves to be the 'Paris of the East'. Some of those claims, like Budapest or St Petersburg, are entirely understandable. Some, such as Hanoi, are imperially logical. Others, such as Jaipur, are of dubious nature. Bucharest once held itself up for Parisien comparison, until a couple of decades of rule by Nicolae Ceausescu rather took the shine off Romania's capital city. Today it is famed more for its ugliness. Travel guides warn visitors of the impending visual carbuncle that is about to befall them. What is the opposite of 'Paris of the East'? We need a label for those cities that fall a certain degree short of the beauty of Paris. Might I suggest 'Delhi of the West'. India's capital city is thus far the most ghastly, catastrophic example of human urbanisation that I have encountered.


But to refer to Bucharest as the Delhi of the West would be grossly unfair. It is true that you will most certainly encounter vast swathes of brutalist concrete blocks. But Ceausescu's dream of creating a pure, communist utopia failed. There's still plenty of pre-war glory to be found in Bucharest. Enough to fill several days worth of sight-seeing. There is character to be found on the streets. Sometimes gritty, other times wonderfully preserved. There is decay, but on a bright sunny day, set against blue skies, even this has charm. And there is an energy, a revitalisation, a sense of rebirth that you feel as you explore. Romania has a brightening future, and there is as much beauty in that as there is at the end of a French stonemason's chisel.


For the record, I personally think at least a half dozen 'Paris of the East' candidates are selling themselves short. The French capital is delightful, but - in my opinion at least - is not the pinnacle of architectural endeavor. But beauty is, has always been and will forever remain in the eye of the beholder. My search for the real Delhi of the West continues.
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