One of the highlights of being a journalist is that sometimes I get sent off to pastures new in order to cover a business conference. These tend to be very mixed blessings at times – on the one hand I love travelling but on the other I hate leaving Kathleen behind.
This is a shame, because in recent years I’ve been to some very interesting places indeed. So – here’s part one of a quick guide to the odder places I’ve been.
I flew into Bucharest 3 days before the start of the conference, as there was at that time only one British Airways flight a week into the country.
Bucharest has to be the saddest city I’ve ever seen. Once upon a time it was a gem, the Paris of the Balkans, stuffed full of French architecture, interesting churches and fascinating nooks and crannies.
Then it got bombed by the Nazis and then taken over by the Communists. It was the latter, under a lunatic called Ceausescu, who did the bulk of the damage to the city as he demolished large chunks of it and replaced it with hideous concrete apartment blocks with all the aesthetic value of a rusty cement mixer. I was told that the mysterious concrete huts on top of each one was for anti-aircraft guns. Go figure.
People who were forcibly moved from their old houses could not take their pets with them, so there was a serious feral dog problem in the city – until the government employed squads of people with rifles, making everyday life sound as if there was a coup going on in the background.
The conference itself was in Sinaia, not a million miles from Transylvania. My hotel wasn’t bad, but the food was… um… imagine very bad school dinners and then add gristle, reduce the temperature of everything down to lukewarm and put a dirty thumbprint on each plate.
Bless them the people were lovely, and there was a very polite man I used to pass every morning as he walked his cow next to the shattered electricity sub-station that had been built right besides the river that passed down the valley.
The hospitality was excellent and I’ll always remember three nights. The first one was the official reception, when we were assembled for the “surprise” part of the evening, which was for a female synchronized swimming team to swim into the indoor part of the pool and then display their skills. I’m not sure how cold it was in the outside part (it was April and there had been a dusting of snow on top of the hills nearby the previous night) but let’s just say that a lot of people had nipples on the brain for a while.
The second night was the official Romanian dinner experience (the best food in the entire trip by a long way), when we were all given a bottle of Romanian plum brandy. It had a picture of Vlad Dracul on the label and it had roughly the same properties as rocket fuel. I saw an idiot English broker throw half a tumbler of the stuff down his throat and about 30 minutes later two waiters had to find his false teeth and then carry him back to his hotel room. My bottle sits, untouched, under the stairs, just in case I need a guaranteed Molotov Cocktail. That or the sideboard needs its varnish stripped off.
On the last night the English “pub” under the hotel (which called The Old Nick, although I don’t think that they realised that this was a nickname for Satan) was the location for the post-conference party. They made the mistake of getting some real Guinness, which vanished in I think about half an hour, with one Irish broker being reduced to tears at getting a taste of home.
It was at that point that the organizers, for reasons that still escape me, gave us all a carved wooden spoon and a used horseshoe that gave me some very odd looks from the customs officers at the airport the next day.
Oh and I forgot the money. At the time Romania had a slight inflation problem so I had 100,000s of Romanian Lei in my wallet. They were very proud of the fact that it was washable, which I suppose give a new meaning to the phrase “laundered money”.
Next – Monte Carlo or Dubai? Any thoughts?