Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Roma certainly was not built in one day

And they are absolutely right.

Roma has more tourist than Napoli, that’s for sure. They are everywhere on the streets of the Roma. You would think that if you have seen one old building you have seen them all. Are they just here to soak up the scorching sun? Are they really history buffs absorbing 2000 years of ancient history as the tourist guides with their state-of-the-art broadcasting technology rattles off facts and fiction with such conviction and dedication? I see many travellers with thick travel guides but I am content just reading the signboards on site. I have learnt from experience that I don’t have the capacity to process the deluge of information – I don’t bother to remember anything except one or two key points.
Yes, I am impressed with Roma, especially its rich history, after visiting the Colloseo (the rest of the World refers to it as the Coliseum) and the San Pietro (where the tombs of the Popes are located) and the Fontana di Trevi. I decided on the hop-on-hop-off bus (cost 16 euro) as I was burnt out from all the walking in Napoli. It got me around but I was right, the service is overrated. If I had the energy I would have preferred the local public transport.

Can you believe I had halal roast chicken for brunch on my first day in Roma? There seems to be a big demand for halal food here where I am staying right next to the Roma Termini (Rome Train and Bus Terminal). I found this place through the Internet. Very cheap, 41 euro per night but they give a discount of 5 euro if you pay in cash. I looked at the receipt but it does not state the dates when I am staying. I asked politely to have it written but even after trying to oblige me, I still didn’t get what I want. I am leaving only tomorrow morning but I had to pay the lady before she leaves her station at 9 pm. Weird. Yesterday, I asked for the remote for the air-con and was told that the air-con is central. I told her it was not on in my room but she looked at her monitor and said it is on. So, I opened the window to let the cool breeze in. Today, the aircon decided to come alive. On the website, the hotel claims to provide Internet service but when I asked, I was told that because of new regulations by the government on controlling access to the Internet (after the terrorist attack), the hotel could not afford to provide the service. But hey, no loss, there many Internet Points (shops) all around (some better than others). So, don’t believe everything you read on the web. Having said that, I think what they are doing to these old solid buildings is wonderful. In this building alone there are 4 or 5 small hotels, each taking certain floors on certains wings (30 or 40 rooms each hotel). The rooms are tiny but clean and newly renovated. The staff? Some are both friendly and distance. They are weird. They say thank you but don’t go out of their way to be friendly. Who cares? I am out of here tomorrow.

Finally, food. I have been having pasta, pasta and pasta for one week. So, last night I gave in to my urge to have Chinese food. I had Beef Noodle Soup, Roast Duck and Jasmine Tea. That cost me 19.50 euro. But I love the noodles so I went back again for dinner tonight. The people are very friendly and attentive and since I speak a sprinkling of Mandarin, that seemed to get some attention. If you are ever at the Roma Termini and crave for Chinese food, the restaurant is just directly opposite the terminal on Gioberti.

Goodbye Roma. Goodbye Italy. I promised to bring my wife one day for a 2nd or 3rd honeymoon. Ciao.

Roma, 16th July 2007

Monday, 16 July 2007

Goodbye Napoli

This is my last night in Napoli. Its been 7 days.

My first impressions of Napoli when I got to my hotel last Sunday was one of shock. I have walked for hours and hours and hours and I must count my lucky stars. My guardian angel has been watching over me. This morning at our GPEAN meeting, we observed that three of the participants were robbed in broad daylight. We recalled that a huge guy from Canada was robbed in the subway in Mexico City last year during the World Planning Schools Congress. One of the GPEAN members made an interesting observation that “everyone in Naples knows that you should go out with only enough money” to last the day. Keep your cash, passports and credit cards in the hotel. This, he said, is the “cultural ethos”. When “in Rome, do what the Romans do”.

Napoli traces its history back to the Greeks from the 7th Century so that’s a long history of some 2,000 years. 4 million people. I have seen the “good” side and the “no so good” side of the city but what I like most about the city is that it is lively and vibrant. People, young and old, live in the city in rehabilitated (and rundown) old buildings. Traffic during peak hour is crazy and it is amazing how they can maneuvre their tiny cars in and out of tight parking spaces. Most cars have scars from these delicate operations.

The public transport is extensive with buses, trains, trams and ferries. For 3 euro you can travel the whole day anywhere in the city. Learning how to use the system is not so difficult but getting the elusive maps showing the routes is. In the 6 days I have been here, I have not seen a single tourist booth. Ask for directions and you get a torrent of Italian. People are generally helpful but language is a problem. Waiters say arigato to me when I give tip. I tell them I am from Malaysia, they give me a blank look.

I love the spaghetti with clams – I think I had it 3 or 4 times. Cost between 8 and 10 euro a plate. Food at the hotel during the conference was also excellent. Tried the kebab, didn’t like it. Saw a Chinese Restaurant but decided not to waste my money. And of course, the cafes are great. Cappucino is 1.20 euro, expresso 0.70 and a doughnut 0.70. I have not seen a single Starbucks, Coffeebean, Pizza Hut or Dominos and we are cheering. One presentor from Istanbul was lamenting that these icons of the West are destroying the traditional cafes in Turkey. I wish those modern Kopitiams sprouting out in Malaysia could bring back some of the old world charm to Penang and KL but I think they lack character.

SALDI, SALDI, SALDI. Stupid me. I was wondering how come all the shops are called “Saldi”? I thought it was a brand! I finally figured out (after 7 days) that “saldi” meets “sale”. Yes, every shop is on sale. If shopping is what you want, you can find cheap, or cheaper, as well as extensive brands. Yesterday, because I had an all-day pass, I took the train, then the furnicular train and ended up in nice neighbourhood with a shopping area pedestrianised and full of people enjoying the outdoors. Accidental discoveries are my forte. Normally, I buy one item each for the 3 children and couple for my wife and maybe one or two for myself. That’s about all I can manage.
It’s been fun. Goodbye Napoli. Hello Roma.

10.23 pm, 14th July 2007, Napoli.

AESOP Congress, Napoli 2007

The Association of European Schools of Planning is holding its 21st Congress here. That’s 21 times in 21 years and one lady professor was awarded a certificate for attending everyone of them at their General Assembly the other day. More than 600 participants, more than 400 papers to be presented, and more than 40 countries represented at this congress. Quite remarkable. What are they doing right to draw the crowd? What can we learn for USM and APSA to attract such a huge and international audience to our own conferences? Of course academics come because they have to present papers but personally, if you come just to present a paper than I think you are just wasting a lot of time and money. Its about the bigger conversations and the networking. The big majority of presentors don’t get full funding from their universities. Even the National University of Singapore gives its professors only half funding. That goes for universities in USA and elsewhere. In fact, I have met quite a few who make it a commitment to attend these conferences even if they have to dig into their own pockets. Academics need to stay connected with their peers. USM should reveal its policy on sending academics for international conferences. Those with less than 7 years service are fully funded once every 2 years while the others are left on their own to figure out where to get money and those without research grants usually have a problem getting into the global networks. As I have said elsewhere in this blog, academics attend conferences for the conversations, in the parallel sessions, during coffee breaks, lunch, standinga around waiting for the next session, in the meetings and everywhere they bump into each other. So, all conferences are the same right? Well, on the first night of the conference I attended AESOP’s General Assembly and it was quite fun – relaxed and engaging. And it was a celebration of many things and people. There were awards and prizes for the Best Journal Paper, Best Paper in the European Journal, Best Congress Paper, Best Teaching Award and recognition for last service to the association. All except one did not have any prize money. Interestingly, the professor who won the Best Journal Paper related that his paper was originally rejected by a well-known journal in the USA. And it also happened to the year earlier. So, the question is, how do these peer reviewers do their work? AESOP has 108 Full Member Schools so it has huge numbers to support its activities. They also join forces with ACSP (Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning) of the United States every few years to hold joint conferences and the next one will be in Chicago (July 2008) where GPEAN will meet again. ACSP also commands a huge audience with paper presentations exceeding 800 each year. Many young academics use the conferences as sounding pads to present their research findings in preparation for publication in journals. AESOP also hows a series of very successful Ph.D. workshops to help aspiring young scholars to complete their thesis.

One of the things we all notice is that towards the end of the conference the crowd thins out as most have presented their papers and have headed for some R&R. Everyone takes their presentation serious, trying to keep to the 15 minutes allocated leading to many non-English speaking presentors opting to just read their prepared text. While this can be quite tedious for the audience, it is amazing how much the listeners try to relate to the speakers. In many of the parallel sessions, it was standing room only with the younger ones graciously giving up their seats for the veterans.

14th July 2007, Napoli

Friday, 13 July 2007


Capri – the most famous Island in the World.

That’s what they claim. And I don’t doubt that. What’s it famous for? Fantastic scenery, beautiful blue sky, crystal clear waters, charming narrow alleys and lanes winding and hugging the hillside, lots of green yet intensely built-up, shopping, cafes - favoured by kings and celebrities … get the picture?

So, what does Nichalas Cage and Lee Lik Meng have in common in Capri? We both visited this tiny café called Scialapopolo! Had a piece of lovely home-made meat pie and a shot of expresso.

So, what do you do in Capri. Lots of people enjoying food and coffee and beer and ice cream and worshipping the sun. My casual observation is that the shops selling clothes and other expensive wear don’t seem to have much business … they looked too expensive for me so I stayed away. Lots of others stay in hotels on the Island. Hmmm, maybe I will come back for my 2nd Honeymoon. If you intend to go there on a day trip, try to get there earlier so that you can really explore the area. I didn’t even get to the garden because I was concerned I would be stuck at the furnicular station because of the huge crowd. Yeah, the cable-car looks something like the Penang Hil cable car (probably made by the same Swiss company). Be warned though, the sea can be very choppy and even the big boats bobs up and down a lot. The crew actually went around asking everyone if they are alright. Quite a few looked like they were going to throw up.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007


Global Networking

We were emailed an address and a map. I studied the map, consulted the hotel frontdesk, thought I knew where I was going and headed out 2 hours earlier than the scheduled meeting time. The bad thing was, it took me one and half hours to get to the venue (apparently I was not the only one having difficulty with the instructions). The good news was that I discovered another side of Napoli – Via Toledo (“via” is “street” or “road”). So guys, this is the place to go. Very close to the seaside, lots of shopping and people watching and food of course. And yes, I went back to do some more shopping. Now I have to figure out what to get for my son. Another T-shirt?

After I found the venue (the room for the GPEAN meeting to be precise), I doubled back to one of the cafes along the street, stood at the bar and had my first taste of authentic Italian pizza with a tiny cup of expresso. Yes, the pizza was excellent and coffee has got the kick (or “kau” as we say in Malaysia) and it cost only 2.70 Euro.So, the meeting? We are bunch of professors from all the Continents (I think) connected through our respective regional associations for planning educators. The network was created at the 1st World Planning Schools Congress in Shanghai in 2001 and since then we have held another World Congress in Mexico City in 2006. The next one will be in 2011 or 2012, venue yet to be decided through a bidding process.The bylaw of GPEAN says that we have to meet face-to-face, once in a while which is about once a year but mostly we communicate by email. Our local host are usually gracious by providing the meeting rooms and complimentary registration for the regional congress. This time it’s the AESOP Congress. So, that’s quite a bit of savings for the individuals of the GPEAN Coordinating and Steering Committees.

As a very young organisation we are still struggling to stand on our feet, financially. So I have tough job ahead of me ‘cause I have just been elected Treasurer for a 4-year term. On the positive side, doubling the kitty will be an easy task!! Got some money to spare?

On the issue of finance, I must thank my bosses in my university for being very supportive in my work to connect globally with other planning educators.

My next meeting is only at 5 pm today, so, Capri Island here I come.7.11 am, while waiting for breakfast and the Internet Point to open. Gotta go book my hotel room for Roma too.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007


Been in Napoli (otherwise known to the outside world as Naples, Italy) since Sunday noon. Why, you ask? Conversations, of course. This time it’s the Coordinating Committee meetings of the Global Planning Education Associations Network (GPEAN) held in conjunction with the AESOP Congress and Conference.
Am typing this on the tiny balcony of my heritage hotel room right in the historic city centre. Bummer, no Internet connection in the room but I will run over to Internet Café (which they advertise as “Internet Point”) right across the street later to upload to by Blog. First impressions of Napoli. The taxi driver fleeced me, I am quite sure of that. He asked for 25 Euro which I protested was too expensive so he gave a mouthful about Sunday being a holiday so he has to charge 20 – 30% more. The trip is actually very short to the hotel but it was one helluva a right. He went fast and furious on those trademark bumpy roads (which we are copying in Penang).

On reaching the hotel, I got another shock. Everyone seems to be out drink, not just coffee, but people on sidewalk cafes as well as people on the sidewalks enjoying huge mugs of beer or wine. Some young people were actually walking around with big open bottles of beer in their hands. As I look down on the street at 8.50 am on a Tuesday morning, I don’t see them around. The third shock. Rubbish everywhere. Aw, man, this is like a third world country, but worst. Okay, so I am being judgmental but first impressions, that’s what I am telling you. And as I walked the streets later, I sawed hawkers everywhere on the streets. Hey, isn’t the informal sector the main stay of the third world economy? Not anymore. And who are the hawkers. Lots of Caucasians but I see Chinese, Indians (many) and blacks from Africa. So, the first day was not impressive. Yes, lots of very old buildings which have been renovated very nicely and lots of people staying in the city in these refurbished buildings, even young couples and families with small children. So, that’s good but … I want to be impressed.

The next day, Monday, I decided to get out of the city. The tours are too expensive (about 60 -100 Euros for a day trip). The guy at the frontdesk told me I could do it by train. So, I took the train to Pompei (cost 2.30 Euro; about 35 minutes ride). The train has perfect scheduling and is clean and efficient but covered with “official” graffiti on the sides. The highlight of the ride was a group of 5 American ladies who sat down around me on the train. One of them was a 86 year old granny from Nebraska. The others were 2 daughters and 2 daughters-in-law on a trip through Italy (I forget where else). Unfortunately, Granny can’t walk a lot so she has to sit out while the others zipped through the Pompei Ruins.
Hey, Pompei restored my faith in Italy. As a town planner, the ruins was really inspiring. We are talking about a city which was covered by ashes when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD, about 2,000 years ago. But I do have a beef with the management. You know, typically, when you buy a ticket they give you a map and brochure to explain things? Well they didn’t give that to us when we bought the tickets (11 Euro). When I exited, I happened to walk by the little office next to the toilet and saw them handling out maps and little booklets. Hhmmm, I wonder if it is just a scam to make people pay 19 Euro for the Audiophones. But all said, the walk through the ruins was good though I think I only covered a small part. One interesting note from a planners perspective. As I walked along I noticed a centre wide passage paved with undereven big stores and every now and then there are these huge boulders across. I first thought they must be some form of traffic barriers, you know to prevent horse carriages from passing through. I also noticed that people were all walking on the sidewalks, about one foot higher than the “main road”. Hey, this is pretty advance transport system, I thought. Later I noticed these water fountains situated at the side of the “main roads” and intersections of the “roads”. And then I saw water flowing from one of the fountains down the “main street”. Then it hit me. These are not roads but an ancient sewer system. And those huge boulders across the “roads” are really bridges for people to cross the sewers. Ah, the exhilaration of accidental discoveries (and being penny-wise).

Left Pompei at about noon and headed for Sorrento, planning to take the boat to Capri Island. Same train, the ride cost 1.80 Euro. So, really very cheap compared to the tours. As I exited the Sorrento train station, I debated whether to take the ho-on-hop-off bus but based on past experiences, I decided to follow the crowd instead. Oh, was I charmed by Sorrento. Completely different from Napoli. Clean and very welcoming. And I love the alleyways which have been rehabilitated into a shoppers paradise (ooh, I bought my daughter’s 15th Birthday present here). I was so captivated I spent 3 to 4 hours just walking and absorbing sights and smells (lots of cafes everywhere). I finally settled down for a drink (actually 2 drinks) and a snack and a fantastic view of Mt Vesuvius … cost me 15 Euro. That’s about 70 Ringgit. But as they say, when in Sorrento, do as the Sorrentos do.

Capri Island? Another day.

Afternoon is when I justify my trip – first meeting in a series of 3 or 4.
9.16 am, Tuesday, July 10, 2007, Hotel Prati, Naples.