In the beautiful city of Istanbul…

View from the front garden of the university

In 2008, I was invited to attend the Guadec conference at the Bahçeşehir University, Istanbul. Of course I arranged for a cheap flight and cheap hotel as per usual. I soon learnt that EasyJet lands in the Asian side of Istanbul – Sabiha Gökçen International Airport which is rather a long way to central Istanbul. Somehow I got there with the help of many minibus drivers. Got to my hotel. The reception area was very Middle Eastern with lots of colourful cushions, low lights  and lots of little vases, candle sticks etc. Then I was taken to my room. At the first glance it was OK, the bed looked clean… I should have checked the bathroom.

After dropping my luggage I decided to walk around the area – I found out that I was staying only a few meters away from the Blue Mosque, and Hija Sofia etc. Wonderful! So I walked around trying not to get lost. I had diner and promised myself to go back before I leave the country. So back to the hotel I went. Got to my room and inspected the bathroom. Toilet looked a little funny with a jet in the middle of the back – that I found out later did not work – an experience I will no have on this occasion. Had a shower, that was OK but then I looked at the electrical wiring of the bathroom. DANGER! Do not switch on the light. The hairdryer wires were nude and hooked onto the wires of the light switch – too many nude wires for me in a wet area. I don’t think it would have passed the UK health and safety standards! Never mind, I was staying near the Blue Mosque! Next day I took a taxi to the university. The university looks great, The front garden goes down to the Bosphorus, seats and tables everywhere for the students to enjoy the magnificent view and the sunshine. I do not believe that it is a cheap university!

Next problem… no books.

As 99% of my dealings are with EU countries, I had forgotten that I must pay an import tax to get the books out of customs. After talks with the Librarian and the Head of Computing, we agreed that I would pay them with books. By lunchtime I was set. The table looked perfect and I was ready to sell lots of books which I did.

View from the boat

No conference dinner was arranged but instead we got a fantastic cruise on the sea. Wonderful evening with great sites. On leaving the boat, I looked for a taxi which I found very easily. I gave the driver the card of my hotel and off we went. As far as I could see we were driving  towards the city centre but unfortunately I could not recognise anything as it was in the middle of the night. After driving for what seemed like hours, I somehow managed to make the driver understand that I wanted to stop in front of a big hotel. I got out of the taxi followed by the driver. With the help of the porter  who spoke English, we managed to convince the driver to go away. Then another taxi was booked which took me to my hotel within minutes. What a night! The next day when I reported the incident to the conference organizers they told me that I should be aware that not all taxi drivers can read.

Inside Hagia Sofia

The Spice Market

The Blue Mosque

 

Did I enjoy my short stay. Yes, wonderful, I would go back anytime.

 

A little bit for you, a little bit for me

In 2008 I was invited to a Unix conference in Athens. From the airport I took a taxi to my hotel at a cost of 30 euros (this will be important later!). After checking in at the hotel I decided to take a taxi to the university. I arrived at my destination without a problem, but I still can’t understand why the taxi stopped and picked up a woman, then deposited her a few miles away before continuing the route to the university – no explanation was offered. Talking to my friends, I was told that I was charged the right amount for the trip. Very strange – I’ve spent many a sleepless night pondering that mysterious journey!

The conference was great, the audience very friendly. I was able to visit some of the old sites, as you can see from the pictures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But all good things come to an end, and it was time to leave for Bucharest for the eLiberatica conference. I had to be at the airport at 6 am so I asked the hotel reception to book a taxi for pick up at 5 am. The longer my taxi took to arrive, the more stressed I felt. At long last it came. The driver was a middle-aged man with no striking features and his English was pretty good. He first told me not to worry – we would get to the airport on time. We may have made it on time but without a worry was another matter. As soon as the car started he lit a cigarette and had a swig of coffee, driving with one hand on a very busy road. Then his mobile rang! Still driving like a lunatic, he answered the phone then dialled a number and talked for a few minutes. During the journey he made at least 3 phone calls, drank coffee and water, and smoked three or four cigarettes. At long, long, LONG last we made it to the airport, the driver perfectly content and me rather green – I was shocked that we made it to the airport in one piece and grumpy. But it wasn’t over yet…

I retrieved my suitcase, ready to pay. “How much do I owe you?” “60 euros,” I was told. Since I’d only paid 30 euros on the way in, I couldn’t understand the 100% increase. I offered 30. He then asked if my company was paying. I said, “Yes, of course,” which was followed by the best response I could have imagined! With a big smile he just said, “60 euros – a little for you, a little for me”. In a bad temper, still nauseous and imagining my plane leaving without me – in short, in no mood to argue – I threw 30 euros at him and rushed inside the building. Nobody was going to spoil my visit to Romania.

Scare in Sofia

As discussed previously, I was now in Sofia. After the traumatic tooth experience, I was finally ready to meet the organizer of the WebTech Conference. Once technical details had been discussed – had my books arrived, when could I set up the display table, etc., Bogomil Shopov took me to the centre of Sofia for sightseeing before saying, “We’ll meet here around 4 pm, then we can walk to the venue to set up for tomorrow” – then departed. So I was left alone in this new city. I was excited and ready to take millions of pictures (please note – I did not say I was good at photography). For example:

 

St Alexander Newski Cathedral: This newish cathedral is in the Neo-Byzantine style. It was created to honour the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 1878, as a result of which Bulgaria was liberated from Ottoman rule. I discovered later that the basement was a museum for the oldest and most beautiful icons – not the cheap stuff you find on street corners.

 

 

 

 

 

The Russian Church (Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker):  again, a newish church that was built next door to the Russian Embassy and the then Russian Community – a very beautiful church with its golden onions and elegant architecture. But SHOCK! The interior is black! I am told that the continuous use of many candles blackened the walls and ceiling. All the churches I visited in Bulgaria are very dark.

 

 

 

The Church of St George, an early Christian red brick rotunda with enormous walls of 1.4 metre thick. Considered the oldest building in Sofia, it is situated among the remains of the ancient town of Serdica. Originally a Roman bath or serving a Roman religious ceremonial function, the rotunda kept changing its role – Christian temple, mosque and now a tourist site with some Christian links.

 

Sofia is not just about churches (which, by the way, did not manage to make me religious), there are also some other interesting sights such as:

 

The Communist Party House: I think most USSR countries had such a building. In Sofia, it was used until August 1990 as the seat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. It was set on fire during the Summer of 1990 by crowds protesting against the Soviet rule. On the outside only one thing is missing… the red star! It was removed after the collapse of the communist party and the newly acquired freedom of the people of Bulgaria. It is now home to the Museum of Socialist Art.

 

 

 

 

The Statue of Sveta Sofia (Saint Sophia): Erected in 2000 and standing in the plot once occupied by Lenin’s statue, Sophia stands on a 48 feet high pedestal. The 24 feet high statue is adorned with the symbols of power, fame and wisdom – the crown, the wreath and the owl. Allegedly Sophia was considered too erotic and pagan to be referred to as a saint. I wish I knew more about this fascinating lady.

 

 

 

As you can see from this very short post, Sofia is a very interesting city to visit with lots of history and culture. There is a lot more to see but for the rest you will have to go and see for yourselves. Personally I have been going almost every year and every time I discover something new and enriching.

Going back to my story – I had to go back to meet with Bogomil. That’s when I realised that the street signs were written in Cyrillic and my map was showing Latin script. Ouch! Panic! How do I get back? Fortunately, I had a pocket book showing the Cyrillic alphabet vs. Latin and somehow, translating letter by letter, I managed to get back to the meeting place. Since then both writings appear on the street corner so I suppose I was not the only foreigner that got caught.

 

 

 

 

 

From Vilanova to Sofia

At the end of my last post, I was about to fly to Sofia for my first conference in Bulgaria, WebTech 2006. The flight was perfect – as we landed, the passengers applauded the pilot. Nice! I have seen this gratitude only once before on a flight to New York on an Air India flight. I loved the old airport with its 2 luggage belts. It was so different from all the places I have been. Unfortunately this airport is now only used for domestic flights and I never had the occasion to use it again. You may remember me mentioning that I had previously broken a tooth just before flying out. Once I got to the hotel, I realised that I had to have that tooth repaired before the conference as it was cutting the inside of my cheek and talking became painful (peace at last for the techies!). There was no way I could attend the conference without a visit to the dentist. So I asked the receptionist if she could help me out. Very kindly she told me that she would try to arrange an appointment for the morning.

Morning arrived: I spoke to the receptionist and was told that she and the hotel driver would take me to the dentist. I was rather surprised as I never thought I would need an escort. So, in the car we went. I realised what a privileged area the hotel was in, as we were now driving on streets with lots of potholes and weeds growing everywhere. We passed big, ugly concrete blocks of flats and I seriously started to wonder what was going to happen to my mouth. The car stopped in front of the most rundown block. Great. By then I was a little edgy but never mind – repairs had to be done. We entered a very dark hall with a light that did not work (or was it a naked bulb? I cannot remember). I went into the dentist’s office which was very bright, the equipment reminded me of my first visit to the dentist when I was a child (yes, I know, a long time ago): the equipment was very clean-looking but very old. I began to take very deep breaths. What was going to happen to me? Would I be able to talk at the conference? Would I even be able to talk ever again?!

… when the young, friendly dentist began speaking English to me, I was almost disappointed. All that stress for nothing! He did a fantastic job, and eleven years later, the tooth is still there as good as new. I still do not know why I was escorted by two people but I can only be thankful to them. I could go to the conference and be my normal(?) self.

 

This photo could have been taken from the car on my way to the dentist. Thankfully these communist-era blocks are being modernised or replaced entirely. One should not forget that Bulgaria was part of the USSR until December 1989 when everything was ruled by Moscow, and most of the country was depleted of its riches. Bulgaria has done extremely well since its independence. Every time I go there I am surprised by the new look, the better way of life the people have achieved.

To be continued

GNOME Conference, Vilanova i la Geltrú 2006

At the end of June 2006 I was very excited about my upcoming trip: my first trip to Spain (and my first swim in the Mediterranean). I was going to the Guadec Conference in Vilanova i la Geltrú! I thought I would be able to speak a little with the local people as I had recently started some Spanish evening classes.

The conference was well-attended and well-organised, and of course there were a few long nights dedicated to networking (which is really a synonym for “enjoying the speciality of the area with friends” or, should I say, “boozing on the local beer”).

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The traditional conference dinner/evening was organised as a BBQ and disco on the beach – great idea! I then realised how much I’d missed hot days and nights.

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On the last day I had time to eat my last Spanish sandwich while sitting on a bench on one of the nice, busy streets of Vilanova  before I took the train to the airport. The sandwich was not particularly hard but I still managed to break a tooth (more on this on my next post).

vilanova-6Then an old man came and sat next to me. Great! At long last I would be able to try my Spanish. Until now English was de rigueur. He started to talk but I could not understand a word – so much for those Spanish lessons, I thought.  It took me a while to remember that Vilanova is in Catalonia. They speak in Catalan, which is rather different from Spanish. After a few verbal attempts we started communicating with gestures. I tried to tell him that I was flying out to Sofia, pretending to be a flying plane like kids do. I will never know if he understood me or if he still thinks of the time he met a completely mad woman. For me it was a charming encounter that made me believe that people can understand each other without words, without fear – something that we should all believe in given the tense atmosphere of 2016.