Tuesday, 19 May 2009

This is not here

Life's confusing enough, so I've decided to move all my bloggery to one place. And, sorry Mr Google, but this is not it.

Henceforth, I'm to be read over at Solipsism and Me

Until I change my mind again, of course.

Monday, 1 September 2008

The Kazan Coda

This Saturday is a big public holiday in Kazan. The city is packed and the streets are heaving, even though it's also raining. Groups of police in natty uniforms and peaked caps are also much in evidence. After an hour or so of prevarication discussing technical encoding matters, aka waiting for the rain to stop, Tania and Sasha and I head outside on the tourist trail. I show off my detailed geographic knowledge of the vicinity by guiding the party first to a decent coffee and then to the Kremlin: A UNESCO World Heritage site, and the real tourist heart of Kazan. Outside it there is a splendid monument to assorted heroes -of- the- revolution. But inside, there is a splendid Mosque, surrounded with little boutiques, and a whole shed-load of ancient palaces and churches and museums.
Each of the boutiques, stashed away under a brick archway in the fortifications, has a subtly different mixture of silly hats, jewelry, embroidery, scarves for belly dancing, plaques enscribed with moral exhortations in arabic or tatar, pink plastic clocks in the shape of a mosque, Muslim sacred literature in Russian translation, etc. All very culturally confusing. I buy a silly hat for me and a rather nice embroidered purse for Lilette and we join the queue inside the mosque for blue plastic bags to put on our feet and brave the zig-zag marble staircase up to the so-called tourist gallery,from which there is a nice view of the carpet of the mosque itself, and of the tourist gallery opposite, packed with other tourists. Down the stairs again there is a museum presenting the history and wisdom of Islam in a dozen or so ornamental glass cases, which is instructive, though Russian.

Back outside, we admire the ancient and iconic Suumbike Tower, an edifice speculatively dated between the 16th and 18th centuries, and its attendant sight-seers and monuments. We also briefly consider the Soviet Museum of the Second World War, but retreat hastily from it when the lady on the door says I have to pay foreigner entrance ticket price.

Instead we stagger down the hill to the circus ground in search of lunch. Guarded by numerous police, there is an international music festival going on – Ukrainian turbo-pop, Western-stylee folk rock, Macedonian throat music – you name it, and all at a volume capable of inflicting physical pain at close quarters. We lunch at a relatively safe distance, on barbecued pork chops, raw onions, and lashings of spicy tomato ketchup.

Walking on through the crowd, we gradually discover that we are at one (noisy) end of an immense fairground stretching all the way along the river into the centre of the city. Most of the sideshows are selling beer, barbecued meat, candyfloss, pies, or other tempting things to eat and drink, but there are also some where you can practice your shooting, have your photo taken in a humorous frame, or buy patriotic flags and souvenirs of the usual kind. There are people leading ponies carrying children on the backs threading through the crowd; there is even, trust me, a camel. And balloons everywhere, in fantastical shapes and colours. And the sun comes out spreading a general sense of bonhomie. At each of the bridges over the river, we encounter a different musical performance of some sort, ranging from jitterbugging to expressionist ballet and ethnic folk song. Frankly, I gawp.

Back at the hotel, the remains of the conference is saying goodbyes again, exchanging business cards, and looking forward to meeting soon, whether in Perm or Novosibirsk. Bauman Street, the pedestrian precinct where the hotel is located, is now really saturated not just with Tatarian folk on holiday but also with a dreadful radio station pumping out of the public speakers at a maximum volume. So Tania and I decide to escape to the suburbs by metro.

According to Wikipedia, the Kazan metro is one of the finest to be seen outside Moscow, even though it has only five stations. At the end of Bauman is the entrance to the second of these, so we take a train from there out to the fifth which is in a suburb called Gorki. If you've ever visited any part of the former Soviet empire, you'd recognize Gorki. Huge tower blocks, are scattered haphazardly across the landscape, decayed concrete paths leading between them and into woodland parks; there are garages, little shuttered shops, and on the other side of a massive highway, a massive supermarket, currently shut. A man selling piles of watermelons knows of no restaurant in the vicinity. Neither does the lady in the chemists shop. But when we do manage to cross the highway, there it is: an enormous and very posh restaurant (with its own miniature replica of the eiffel tower) sitting there like an intrusion from some other planet. Uncharacteristically obsequious waitrons serve us grilled lamb and salad, and a glass or two of drinkable wine, while the traffic trundles by and the concrete continues to decay. Then we get the train back into town, arriving just in time to see the fireworks display and the illuminated fountains, hoorah.

For my last day in Tatarstan, we are going on a river jaunt. This involves getting up infeasibly early to get the bus to the harbour, but it's worth it. Even at 9 am on Sunday after the night before, there are plenty of people queuing up to get on the boat, which turns out actually to be a Meteor class hydrofoil, capable of zooming down the Volga at 60 km/h. The cabins are sealed behind plexiglas windows, which is a good thing since there is almost as much spray as if we were crossing the North Sea, instead of zooming down the Volga. Though it should also be noted that several parts of the Volga are as wide as the North Sea.

South from Kazan, the river banks are mostly forested, occasionally cliffs of sandstone, with rocks that have fallen to form a kind of beach, but all the way South to Bulgari I saw only one shoreside village or town, though the boat does stop to pick up passengers twice, and we do see some small fishing boats. For most of the three hour journey, the river is a windswept lake in the middle of nowhere populated mostly by occasional oil tankers.

Our destination is the settlement of Bolghar: an archaeological site of immense importance to Bulgarians if no-one else, since it contains the remains of a fortified settlement destroyed by the Tatars in the 10th century, thus putting an end to umpteen centuries of domination of the region by a people known (honest) as the Volga Bulgars. Or something like that.

The landing stage is at the foot of a steep flight of wooden stairs, at the top of which there are people selling smoked fish and fresh fruit, but no lunch. Almost all of our fellow passengers are now queueing up to pay their entrance fees to inspect said archaeological site; we however set off along a windswept road into the village proper in search of lunch.

According to two small boys, our choices are a hotel about 3 km away, or the factory canteen just over there, outside the factory. No contest I would say, but the canteen has a dispirited air since the factory is closed today, and Tania thinks it might be perilous to one's health to trust the soup and sausages which the large lady inside says is all she has to offer. Surprisingly, she (the lady) even recommends we try the other canteen, down there in the centre of the village, rather than her own sausages. Off we trot, some of us more rapidly than others. The other canteen turns out to be shut, but there is a cafe right there in the centre of the village, which is open, and offers a choice of chicken or cutlets, served in the large room still decked out with plastic flowers for someone's wedding celenbrations last month. There is something indefinably Malawian about this village in the middle of Tatarstan, but maybe its just something indefinably villagelike.

Anyway, we walk back along a much more direct route, between rows of small farm houses, most of them made of timber and following the same rather nice traditional style, with ornamented window frames and boxed-in logs at the corners. Goats, geese, and chickens scatter around us, but we see few people, and fewer children. Tania says that her grandfather's generation had a better life working on the collective farms than the current privatised farmers do.

Back at the archaelogical site, there is a minaret the ascent of which I decline, two domed mausoleums which I dutifully peek inside (lots of broken stones covered in arabic script), and a nice 19th c. Church, turned into a museum containing maps showing the extent of the original Old Bulgarian empire, loads of old iron and broken pottery to demonstrate its culture, and some rather fanciful pictures of encounters between Peter the Great and Genghis Khan. Or someone of that ilk – the Golden Horde passed this way in the 13th century, I learned, and gave the local Tatars quite a pasting.

There is just time for a cup of tea at the landing station before we get back on the boat, where we all fall asleep, even though it is just as bumpy and noisy as before. And back in Kazan, we dine at the Uzbek restaurant where I first eat lunch, and then it's time to kickstart the long journey home, by getting my bag packed in time to get to bed in time to get up early enough to get to the airport in time for the only plane out of there... Back in the routine with which I began this set of blog entries in fact, but played in reverse. Artistic or what?

Friday, 29 August 2008

Spasibo i do svidanya ...

Surprisingly quickly, the last day of the workshop dawns, and with it an insight into what our Serbian colleague is really doing: he is replicating on computer what a medieval scribe would want to have, in order to go on scrivening. Which is an admirable goal, and an artistic triumph when achieved, but seems to sadly miss the point of using a digital medium. Anyway, up the hill, puff pant, do the idiots' guide to XML technologies, and then the show-and-tell of TEI applications, and the coffee break is upon us before you can say “see TEI is way cool”. Then I make my farewell speech and hand over to Tania for the final practical exercise. This goes, so far as I can tell, very well. A hard core of a round dozen have survived thus far; Tania splits them into three groups, makes them do a quick document analysis on the Mayakovsky text, and then elicits from them all the elements they will need. Within ten minutes, they have all got a suitable schema out of Roma and are happily tagging the plain text of “Ya Sam” prepared for them earlier. Stronery, really, and they really deserve certificates, which we completely failed to prepare for them, shame.

At lunchtime, Viktor comes in to officially close us down, though the questions are still coming, and whisks the three of us away into a cupboard, where the University director presses quantities of Russian currency into our eager little hands. Unfortunately, we don't have time to spend it on much, since the conference is still going on; I leave Tanya and Alexei to it, and wander off in search of a Lufthansa office in the hope that they might know whether or not my errant phone has turned up yet (nope). But it was an interesting expedition, marred only by my feet, which are, frankly, rubbish when it comes to coping with more than 50 metres stroll, never mind one that includes some hills, and quite a bit of under-maintained concrete. I saw a nice park, and learned that you really can't get into any office building without showing your passport, just like it says in the guidebooks.
The view from the conference hall
Since it's now definitely raining outside, I sneak back into the conference hall and sit quietly in a corner typing; they're debating whether or not to set a pan-russian society of people interested in digital editing, or just keep tootling along (according to Kevin). A typical end-of-successful-conference debate, of course, but good to see they're having it, especially if they invite me back.

And eventually after many farewells, there was a very protracted and noisy dinner in the Tatar restaurant, which struggled to cope with 15 people ordering different things... that came in dribs and drabs interspersed with much beer. Ah well. I kissed everybody (3 times in Russia) and made appropriate farewells (I think). Tomorrow will be devoted to tourism

Thursday, 28 August 2008

That ole TEI Workshop Magic

Day two dawns, somewhat the worse for vodka. Somehow I got up the hill to the computer lab in time for the “TEI basic” session, in which we introduce the niceties of actually marking up an issue of Punch in TEI. Amazingly, quite a few of the jokes survived translation, and all the students worked through the practical exercise with very little need for supervision. Let me record here how wonderful it is to have a properly prepared and tested exercise, translated properly into the local lingo. All praise to Alexei and Tanya! We went for a well earned lunch in a canteen resplendent with plastic flowers, where I turned down the bread soup, but enjoyed plof (rice and meat) and salad, and lemon tea. I retired to my hotel room and slept for most of the afternoon, partly because it was raining, mostly because the jet lag had caught up with me. Or maybe the vodka. In the evening, we went out for dinner in a fake German beer hall, where the beer was Czech and good, and the food took forever to come. I eat fish, and so did Tania,but was too tired to appreciate it fully.

Day three of the course, and we are still on a roll. Manuscripts! Names and Places! I'm impressed by the way everyone is still paying attention, and even asking good questions. The practical session has been postponed to day four, so that we could all enjoy a Cultural Visit to the University Library, where we dutifully gawped at various memorabilia of the long distinguished history of Kazan University, founded in the 18th century and the first University in Russia to do .. oh all sorts of things. Lobachevsky studied here, as did Lenin (but they threw him out for being too revolutionary) and Tolstoi (ditto, tho for reasons not explained). We also had a visit to the rare books room of the library, where we were given tantalising glimpses of some ancient manuscripts and assorted incunabula. No photos, no touchy-touchy.

After another canteen lunch, I went for a walk, which degenerated into a crawl, up to the Kremlin. Friday means weddings in Russia, so this was full of wedding parties as well as tourists
... it is all very scenic: and contains the biggest mosque in Russia, and also a fairly large and typically over decorated orthodox cathedral.
I prayed for better weather in both, and was duly rewarded by the sun coming out as I staggered back to the conference in time for a heated panel discussion on the inadequacies of Unicode as a means of representing Old Church Slavonic, featuring a rather provocative Serbian called Zoran Kostic from the Foundation of the Holy Monastery Hilandar. The Muscovites were having none of it, but his font (which he demonstrated to me over dinner) really is very beautiful. He's a real typographer and has no time for XML nonsense (his words, not mine). Dinner was in the Turkish restaurant down the road, and featured exotic dancing as well as a lot of chitchat with the students. Nadezhda Gorbachova from Perm graciously agreed to be my facebook friend, and Heinz Miklas from Austria danced impressively with one of the local exotic dancers.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

The thing of this gig is

Setting up a workshop is much the same wherever you go. You just need to find the right person to plead with, or be exceptionally polite to, in order to get access to the right set of computers. Then you need to check that they have actually installed the software you asked them to install when planning the workshop (which, if you asked the wrong person, they won't have); then check that the software can actually be installed and does behave as expected on the machines you're going to use (which in my case it didn't). Then there are minor things like getting handouts printed and duplicated, and meeting up with your fellow presenters when their mobile is switched off, and yours is lost somewhere in Frankfurt. So I missed the opening session of the conference but made friends with the lady who runs the Tsentra Informatsionii Tekhnologii instead. An hour or so later, I had seen Oxygen installed on a room full of computers, detected and removed a rogue byte-order-mark from one my Pushkin demo file, printed out and sent for copying two sets of handouts, and located Tanya waiting patiently for me at the back of the conference hall.

Over coffee, Tanya showed me a bunch of typos and other corrections that she'd found in the Russian version of the handouts, and I persuaded her that we didn't have time to correct them before starting the now urgent business of copying stuff onto the participants' gift usb keys (kindly provided by INTUTE UK to whom be praise). We sat there in the student canteen copying sticks for the next 30 minutes; students in implausibly short skirts wandered distractingly by. Then we lunched far too briefly at an interesting Uzbek restaurant further down the hill, and made it back in good time to Do The Gig – two lectures, each in English and Russian, followed by a Kofye Braik
(lemon tea in a plastic cup), and a 90 minute practical, at the end of which all two dozen students had successfully produced a well formed XML document. Phew. (did I say how hot it is in Kazan?)

Later that evening, I am invited to traditional Russian dinner upstairs in a Tatar restaurant: plates of salad, cold meat, etc. With copious amounts of wine, orange juice, and vodka. During this first course, people stood up one by one to make a polite self-introduction, usually followed by a formal toast and a bit of badinage, as far as I can judge (my neighbour was too busy enjoying to do more than give me brief explanations “he is from Perm” “they suggest we take conference to Lake Baikal” etc.) Enthused by vodka, I duly did my best, explaining that I came from a small University town west of the Urals and suffered from a distressing lack of geographical knowledge which I was excessively grateful for this opportunity to rectify. (Which is true: I have now met several people from places I never knew existed.) Everyone trouped out of the restaurant for a cigarette break between courses, even those who were not smoking, which gave me the chance to have my photo taken with people from Perm, and to chat with people from the Russian National Corpus in Moscow. I drank far too much vodka too.

Monday, 25 August 2008


I spent most of my first day in Tatarstan learning (again) how it feels to be a foreign eejut. It's not so bad. Viktor met me at the airport this morning, and drove me to the splendid Hotel Shaliapin Palace, where I promptly went to bed for a few hours. Then, about midday local time, I got up and explored a bit. Turning right out of the hotel, I set myself the goals (all eventually accomplished) of getting some rubles, a hairbrush, some razor blades, an alarum clock, and a new mobile. I managed to take in quite a bit of sight seeing, notably down in the enormous marketplace which stretches for miles down from the posh bit of town, getting increasingly exotic as it approaches the Volga.

Tatarstan is only 40% russian, and the rest is Tatars. I bought my alarm clock from a tatar lady in the Market,
and many others were selling strange herbs and spices and dried fruit. Why are only men allowed to sell dried fruit?
Why are there so many cheap shoes now that I don't need any? It was too hot to resolve these questions, so I staggered back to the posh bit of town, and worked out how to get a new phone for under 1000 rubles.

Better get back into work mode soon...

On the road again

I remembered to mow the lawn, and water the plants, and stop the milk, and empty the recycle bin into the compost maker, and put on the dishwasher, and take in the washing, and leave a note for the decorators. I set off up the road, and then remembered to go back and collect the charger for my mobile phone, oh irony. I caught the 1040 bus from Gloucester Green to Heathrow, and checked myself and my bag all the way to Kazan in good time. And although my flight was about half an hour late, I was not bothered, until I sat down in the nice restaurant at Frankfurt airport where I had promised myself a delicious Frankfurt dinner, and realiswed I had left my mobile on the plane. That's right, my mobile, the one with all the contact details for my colleagues in Kazan on it, along with all my other secret numbers. Bugger.

Back to the gate I just arrived at, off for a long trek across the airport to the official lost property reporting place. Of course, Lufthansa will deliver my handy as soon as they find it, wherever I am, aye even unto Kazan. But it may take a few hours for them to realise they have found it. Back across the airport and back in the restaurant, my waiter is consolatory as is the dinner I ordered, when it finally materalizes. And so is the half litre of Italian white wine I wash the spaetsle down with. Hey, I wasnt going to use the damn phone in Kazan anyway: too damn expensive.