As well as being a hapless cartoon cat, and a Hi-NRG disco star, Sylvester is also the Hungarian festival of New Year. I think, though am not entirely certain, that it is because December 31st is also St Sylvester's day. This was a stroke of luck for Sylvester as it means that he is remembered - at least in the Hungarian speaking world - unlike, say, St Phoebe or St Colin. I don't know what Sylvester did that was especially St-worthy, but it was probably something mystical and unlikely. Or he could be one of those boring saints that get canonised for tending to his flock for a very long time.
Anyway, we had intended to get out of town and spend Szilveszter with some friends at their mountain cabin a while north of here, sipping mulled wine among the snowy peaks and ushering in 2005 before getting up the next day and skiing and sledding to our hearts' content. However, a postponement of winter this year (there's no snow, much to the consternation of the masses), meant that we decided against it, and ended up making plans to do the business in their apartment in downtown Csikszereda instead.
I asked my students (I am teaching one class here in some kind of back-to-my-roots old-school festival of fun) what they were doing for the evening and they all sneered in that high school way and said they were all going away somewhere because there really isn't anything worse than celebrating in the Csikszereda Piata Libertatii. That's for hicks and children they seemed to say. So I wasn't really expecting much of the town's celebration.
When I got back from a short Christmas visit to England on December 28th, I did notice that there was a certain amount of firework action that previously didn't exist. On a fairly regular basis bangers were thrown in the street and there was a constant feeling of living in some slightly dodgy neighbourhood where guns were let off every half hour or so. As the big day approached though, these became more and more frequent, and at times louder and louder until, by the 31st itself, the noise level had risen to almost comically violent levels. At around 6pm that day, after we had cooked all the food for the party, we tried to grab a short sleep in order to be refreshed for the evening ahead. We might as well have been trying to have a nap in Fallujah, such was the ongoing rumble of explosions and gunshots. I nipped out to the shops to get a few last minute items and discovered that many of these explosions were caused by lone teenage boys, wandering around, wrapped up against the cold, and just randomly chucking fireworks as they roamed. It seemed a curiously unsociable thing to do (as well as being fairly anti-social) - I had assumed that they were being let off as a kind of fun thing to do with your mates, rather than a solitary rebel-without-a-cause type thing.
So, we got to our friends' place at around 8pm and proceeded to stuff ourselves with food. Their place overlooks the Piata (the vast windswept one mentioned in an earlier post), so whatever was to come there we would have a good view of. They told us how when Ceausescu had paid his last visit to Csikszereda the Securitate had come round and told them to sign some piece of paper assuring that they wouldn't let any strange snipers pop by for a couple of days. The story then continued that when Ceausescu had continued on to the nearby village of Csikszentmartin, a sudden storm had blown up, sending all of the happy crowds home. Since these people were not exactly out on the streets cheering on old Nic out of choice, it proved very difficult to coax them back out to do their patriotic duty and get pissed on for their beloved leader. By the time he arrived then, his advisers were desperate not to make it look like the entire town were snubbing him, but luckily they found the one place in town where there was a crowd gathered. 40 people in a bread line who weren't about to lose their place in the line to just a violent squall. So the Securitate equipped them with flags and ordered them to wave and cheer as the motorcade drove past. I have a feeling that this story is just a little to perfect to be true and in fact it may be the kind of Romanian urban myth told about many towns lucky enough to be visited by the great man. But it is still a good story.
Anyway, the evening progressed and occasionally I would glance out of the window at the square below to see it empty and silent. Every now and again a group of stragglers would wander across it, or one of the solitary firework tossers would zig zag across from bin to bin his face briefly lighting up as he lit the fuse of yet another banger and chucked it into the receptacle, moving on without even bothering to survey the results of his handiwork. I asked Erika if there was going to be some kind of firework display there and she laughed and said, well, not an organised one, if that's what you mean. If pretty much was what I meant, so I was intrigued as to what was going to happen.
At about 11.30, the previously civil war levels of noise began to rise noticeably and we headed to the balcony to see what was going on. It seemed at first as if the banger boys were beginning to converge. From all corners of the city they came - drawn by the promise of competing in noisiness or something. But then cars started to show up too, filled with families and groups of friends. As the square began to fill with groups of people ready for the new year, the amount and quality of the fireworks being discharged increased rapidly. The noise now was constant, explosions reverberating around the concrete sides of the plaza, and the rockets and colourful fireworks began to show up. The whistling, screaming, wheedling ones meshed with the booming, banging, rumbling ones.
By 11.45 the once quiet square was beginning to fill up with the residents of the town and the fireworks were everywhere. Every single rule of the firework code or whatever it is that we English are asked to follow on November 5th was being broken. Indeed, rules that the writers of the firework code had not even thought of were being broken. I saw one dad walking down the street holding his three year old daughter's hand and shooting off a rocket from his other hand. Bangers and fireworks were being thrown around with no apparent regard for anyone's safety. Or even that anyone in this crowd was actually familiar with the concept of safety.
But in its own way it was spectacular. No coordinated choreographed show to dazzle the crowd here. Here the crowd themselves were the show. They were the ones providing the action, they were the ones making the performance what it was. A very democratic and interactive event in all senses of the (buzz)words. It lasted (at least the principle action) for an hour. A whole hour of manic and crazy anarchy. I loved it. It was like the difference between watching the world Cup Final on TV and playing a match with your mates. The two experiences are based on the same activity (be it football or fireworks), but the actual experience is completely and totally different.
I didn’t see a single ambulance turn up either, though this may have been as a result of the ambulance drivers all being out chucking roman candles at each other, rather than because there was no actual need for medical services. Apparently in the years of communist deprivation, when fireworks, like bread and stuff, were unavailable, everybody used to go out with sparklers and using makeshift catapults launch them (lit) into the night sky. Even that sounds kind of cool and culturally intriguing to me.
When we left the party at about 2am, the whole square was like a war zone. Like the scenes of Hebron after a murderous Israeli incursion, with spent bullets and shells lying all over the place. The smoke still hung in the cool night air and the plaza was carpeted with burned out bits of cardboard.
On a completely unrelated note, has anyone seen that militaristic Pepsi Father Christmas commercials. This invading army of blue clad tooled-up santas come down to the festive town and blow away the traditional red ones. It’s (frankly) fucking disgusting. Whichever shitbag came up with this obnoxious ad should be forced to drown in a vat of sickly sweet soft drink. What next oh Pepsi fascists? The tooth fairy torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib? Mickey Mouse bulldozing houses and killing their occupants in Rafah? Wankers.
And so, on that note, I would like to wish all my readers boldog új évet and la mulţi ani. Have a good one. I’m off to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for the next month, so may not be blogging much for a while, but when I can check in I will.