Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Vasarhely Vasarnap (and Szombat)

We had a good time in Vasarhely (as we locals refer to it). It’s a nice city that I like more and more each time I visit. There’s more going on than Csikszereda (not especially difficult, it must be said), it’s more active, and just generally a nice place. I also like the fact that it’s basically 50/50 Romanian/Hungarian population wise, which adds a certain soupçon of intercultural spice to proceedings. (Can you have a soupçon of spice? Or am I attempting to mix my culinary metaphors with an egg brush?) It’s significantly bigger than Csikszereda – somewhere around about 170,000 I think compared to 40,000 – and it has suburbs and neighbourhoods and public transport and all those things you get in real cities. The public transport is these minibuses that are known as maxi-taxis that ply routes just like regular buses and fill quickly (they’re a bit like Turkish dolmuses and Kenyan matatus and no doubt thousands of other similar systems round the world). Erika thinks they are pretty much unique to Targu Mures in Romania, but someone will no doubt write and tell me how they’re to be found everywhere. Apparently the public transport was rubbish (unreliable, crowded, uncomfortable, and infrequent) and these minibuses just appeared and started taking away the business (since they were all the things that the buses weren’t). Eventually the council gave up fighting them and actually bought into the system so now they’re run by some private company/local government consortium.

Erika’s dad Laci (short for Laszlo and pronounced, not Lacey as you may be wondering, but Lotzi) has just bought a piece of land on a hillside near their apartment that he can garden and turn into a little space of his own. He in fact already has such a space, which has been in the family for 50 or so years, but which is not actually owned by anyone (it’s a long involved story involving hospital employees in the post war years, communism, post communism and intractable bureaucracy which I could tell if you were interested, but I probably won’t bother). One day, the assumption is, they’ll lose the garden and that day had been weighing heavily. Now, though, he officially owns a garden and he is very happy and excited about it. It was just great to see his joy as he took us to see it and proudly show it off. It’s in a great spot, and once it’s cleaned up it’ll be fantastic. I was extremely happy for him. He said it has been his life’s dream to own some land, officially, and that can’t be taken away. He works with a bunch of Lipovans (ethnic Russians from the Danube Delta region) who he employs on just such occasions. They will no doubt descend one weekend and clean the place up ready for use. Right now, however, it’s got more mosquitoes than a pool of stagnant water in Mombasa at dusk. I got bitten to shit. Laci still persists in talking to me in German, despite my utter lack of knowledge of that language.

Other things that are good about Vasarhely: There is this large open air public water park called “The Weekend” (in English). A section of the Mures River has been diverted to build the place, and on a summer day it’s just like being by the sea – pools, paddling areas, showers, beach bars, concerts, the works. It’s dead good. The Kulturpalota in the middle of town is a beautiful building with a colourfully tiled roof. It has an airport from which, according to the local paper, you can now get relatively cheap flights to Germany and Italy via Timisoara on something called CarpatAir. (That’s Carpat, not Carpet, just in case you were wondering). It also, we discovered to our cost, has more than one cinema.

We had been downtown on Saturday and had seen the poster outside the cinema for Hotel Rwanda, a film I was pretty interested in seeing despite knowing very little about it. So, having checked and re-checked the dates and times (Maius 27 – Junius 2, at 15, 17 and 19.30) we made up our minds to come down that evening and watch it. Bogi’s grandparents could watch her and we could have a night out together. It was a great plan. We showed up, bought our tickets and sat down in the seats we had chosen. Slowly the cinema began to fill up and Erika expressed surprise and happiness that maybe the cinema going culture was coming back to Romania (in Csikszereda the one time I’ve been there were 6 people in the theatre – and three of those were us). Even though it was the main showing on a Saturday night it was still only Hotel Rwanda - a film that seemed unlikely to grip the action-blockbuster-centric public. But this place was actually close to capacity. While we waited, Erika regaled me with tales of coming during communist times and watching the pre-film Ceausescu shorts and it being packed owing to it being the only thing you were allowed to do. Finally the trailers were over and the movie began…and it started with those familiar scene-setting yellow words sliding up the screen toward a distant vanishing point in the star-filled background. Somehow, terribly, we had been tricked into coming to the new Star Wars film. Having paid good money (70,000 Lei each! A whole €2!) to be there, we weren’t about to leave, but it was disturbing, to say the least. At the end of the film, we went back to the front entrance to see where we had gone wrong…the poster for Hotel Rwanda had some small print telling careful readers that it was actually being screened in the other cinema. Still it’s nice that they were using it as a ruse to get people to see Star Wars and not the other way around.

[Brief film review: Spectacular special effects, half-arsed plot and rubbish acting. Haydn Christensen (Anakin/Darth) has three expressions – normal (bland facial expression, head untilted), troubled (head tilted back slightly, pupils rolled back) and evil (head tilted back, pupils down). George Lucas also makes his point about the Bush empire (“You are either with me or my enemy” “Only a Sith deals in absolutes”) as the Sith take power through persuading the democratic structures to hand it over in the name of war. At the end the republic becomes the empire. It’s not, as you can probably tell, subtle. Still, if it gets a few of the imbeciles who voted for Bush to realise what’s going on then it’s worth doing. But it’s not Chomsky. Look! Sith is an anagram of Shit! That’s cutting satire of the highest order. I think to ram the point home he should really have made one of the baddies Darth Cheney]

The only bad thing about Targu Mures is the presence of a McDonalds. Luckily in Csikszereda we don’t have one of these things, but whenever we go up there Bogi absolutely has to go. She doesn’t actually eat the food (aside from a few “chips”) but she wants to get a Happy Meal, so she can have the gift. I mean we could buy her a piece of cheap plastic tat and not contribute to destroying the rain forests of Central America or the nutritional Armageddon caused by their food. I don’t know why they are allowed to get away with promoting themselves to children to be honest. No-one would put up with Philip Morris including a toy in every packet of Marlboros or advertising their brand with a large clown, so why do we let McDonalds do it? Their product is incredibly unhealthy and their environmental and worker’s rights records are terrible too. So why have we fallen victim to this repulsive corporation? Children, that’s why. We can’t ban McDonalds because our kids will be upset. Frankly I think we should just bite the bullet and put up with a wave of temper tantrums as our offspring are forced to go cold turkey from their regular fix of fat and sugar and crap-in-a-bun.

Mind you, we were forced to do something for her as she excitingly lost her first tooth on Saturday morning. In the absence of a Romanian equivalent of the tooth fairy, we instead bowed to pressure and took her to McD’s. Ironic really that she gets to eat their food and drink their drinks as a prize for losing a tooth when it will probably end up being the place that causes her to lose her real teeth when they come along.

Other news from Romania this week: Bucharest staged its first ever Gay Pride parade on Saturday. I saw pictures on the news, which all seemed to be of transvestites. Either this was representative of the paraders or the news felt it uninteresting to show pictures of gay men in suits or in traditional regional costume. There were, it said 500 marchers and an unspecified number of protesters most of whom seemed to be Orthodox priests. One of them was quoted as saying “Homosexuality has been scientifically and theologically proven to be wrong”. I presume the scientific bit is that it doesn’t actually lead to the propagation of the species (but then neither do jogging, watching films, or reading a book, and they don’t get the same bad rap). “Theologically proven” on the other hand wins this year’s award for biggest oxymoron.

There was also another tornado this weekend, which flattened an entire village somewhere in Moldavia. Erika’s mum says she never remembers hearing of one tornado in Romania before, let alone two. We’re all doomed I tell you.

Road Rage

I got road rage on Friday. I’m not typically one to be bothered by other road users, but on Friday I lost it. The previous weekend returning from Iasi when I had got stuck behind the Tour of Moldavia cycle race, was, looking back, the initial cause of Friday’s outburst. On that occasion we had been a long snaking line of traffic behind the peloton, with no opportunity of getting past the race itself since overtaking the cyclists was forbidden. Even I, about 30 cars behind the bikes, could see that. But, this didn’t stop cars jockeying for position, passing the queue and then getting stuck nearer the front. I was semi-amused and semi-bothered by this ridiculously macho behaviour. Getting further up the queue was obviously something that made these particular drivers feel better about their small penises, and so I (being comfortable with mine) felt able to merely ridicule these losers. But, then, on Friday, I had the same experience, and this time I couldn’t be so sanguine about it. The road between Sighisoara and Târgu Mures snakes up and over a number of hills, creating short switchback sections of climbs and descents. Obviously getting behind a lorry or two on these sections (particularly the uphill bits) can be a frustrating experience, and so it was. There were a number of slow moving vehicles all in a line, a couple of petrol tankers and another two trucks. It was obvious that the line of cars behind would all have to wait until they got to the front of the queue before making their dash past the bottleneck. It didn’t take genius to work it out, and the switchback actually made it possible to see what the situation was hundreds of metres ahead. But of course a number of drivers couldn’t possibly wait their turn and so started streaking up the outside of the car queue, beeping their horns to get back in when confronted with an oncoming car. It took all one’s effort to actually let them back in and not let them die in a ball of flame (but then the people coming the other way had done nothing wrong, so it seemed a little bit unfair on them – even if they would be giving up their lives in a noble cause). Then on one hairpin curve, climbing upwards at a crawl, while I watched vigilantly for some nutter to attempt to pass me in the other lane, someone did so on the inside. I couldn’t believe it. It was one of those cars with a “baby on board” sticker too, which always seems to be an excuse to behave doubly scummily (like wearing body armour). I beeped, shouted, swore, gave him both the universal sign of the wanker and the middle finger salute. In short, my normally relatively relaxed façade slipped away and showed me in my true colours. I hope Erika and Boglarka can put it out of their minds and think of me the way I like to think of myself. We’ll see. Oh, and guess where the car that did this was registered? And in fact all the cars driving like shitbags? Re-read this one, and now guess again. Yep, you’re quite right. I’m off there for a couple of days on Thursday, fortunately not by car, but I will certainly be very watchful while crossing roads.

Monday, May 30, 2005


No, not a two-for-one offer or anything like that. Just my happiness at Sheffield Wednesday having won promotion to the English second division following an heroic 4-2 win yesterday. I have things to write about the weekend, but for now, this is all that matters (to me at least, if not to the vast majority of you). Woohoo!

A picture I nicked from the 'net, possibly illegally.

And another

Friday, May 27, 2005

In praise of karalabe

Karalábe (I could have misspelt that) is the Hungarian word for kohlrabi (I've given up trying to crowbar in a joke involving the former German chancellor and a Jewish religious leader). I don't remember ever seeing it in such quantities anywhere in the world, and even then I haven't ever seen it in its young green form before. (Although having just done a google image search for it, that seems to be its common form, so maybe I'm just misremembering). I don't know what the Romanian word for it is exactly, but it sounds something like Julie. It's ace. Tasty, full-textured and with a little zing on the tongue. Last night Erika made them stuffed with a kind of mushroom risotto. Nagyon, nagyon finom. (very, very delicious)

We'll be away in Targu Mures/Marosvasarhely this weekend, visiting the in-common-laws. All the while my insides will be churning with nerves as Sheffield Wednesday take on Hartlepool United on Sunday afternoon for the right to be promoted to the second division in England. Nojer, occasional commenter to this blog, will (I hope) be keeping me updated via the miracle of SMS as he will be at the game. I wish it was on Saturday so it would be over with quicker.


Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Journalists - captive, free, and those who work for Sky.

Big news weekend for Romania. Most importantly the three journalists being held hostage in Iraq were freed on Sunday. Basescu has assured the world that Romania didn’t pay any ransom and nor will it make any foreign policy changes. So, we are being asked to believe that the people who kidnapped them decided out of the goodness of their hearts to just let them go. Right. I’m glad they’re free, and I frankly don’t care if Romania did pay for it, but this myth that they were just let go is a tad far fetched.

The other big news for Romania this weekend was the film “The Death of Mr Lazarescu” winning the “Un Certain Regard” prize at Cannes. I can’t tell you much more about that except what I already have, but I’d like to see it. The clip I saw on Euronews looked pretty interesting.

On the subject of Euronews, some time ago early on in the life of this blog, I gave it a serious panning. Having spent the night in a hotel in Iasi on Friday in which the only English language news channel was Sky, I’d like to retract that panning. It’s not that Euronews has got better. It hasn’t (though I have to confess I have become slightly more fond of it). But, god, Sky. Why, oh why is it shown outside Britain? It’s the most parochial one-eyed bollocks ever committed to “journalism”. You’d think nothing goes on outside the UK, and even what goes on inside my homeland is defined as things that happen to C-list celebrities. “Last year’s Big Brother runner-up breaks nail” wasn’t a story on it on Friday, but that’s the kind of level we’re talking about. With CNN International turning into a mouthpiece for the Bush Administration (how did that happen? CNN in the US has always been a bunch of right wing propaganda, but CNNI used to be good. Did some right wing fundamentalist whackjob actually travel somewhere and see it, and then go back home and whip up some kind of lobbying campaign against “liberal bias”?), and Sky News being “Things that happened today in London of no great importance”, Euronews is most definitely in second place in the “commonly available English language news channels in Europe” category, and with the Beeb slowly going Blairish since the Hutton Report, it still has the chance to go top. Not a comment that ought to fill anyone with pride, even those at Euronews.

Crossing the Carpathians

Driving home from Iasi on Saturday, I got every piece of bad luck going. Every level crossing was down (and in Romania level crossings go down 15 minutes before the train arrives), herds of cows and flocks of sheep wandered across my path seemingly every time I passed a field, trucks, bad roads, everything. But worst of all was getting caught behind “Turul Moldovei”, the “Tour of Moldavia” cycle race. I’m very impressed by how fast cyclists can race, but when you’re in a car behind them travelling at 30 km/h most of the time, it can be a little frustrating. Especially when it goes on for mile after mile (about an hour, for me). Thankfully they took another route when we got to Piatra Neamt, and I didn’t have to follow them up the hill to Bicaz which was my route.

I had chosen this slow route (as opposed to my “normal” route down the Csango Valley) because I wanted again to see the Bicaz Gorge road. This is one of the most dramatic roads I have ever seen. It runs through the upper stretch of the Bicaz river valley - the river cuts through huge rocks and the road follows along the path it has carved. It’s well over 1000m up and it really has to be seen to be believed. Amazingly it may not even be the most dramatic road in Romania. I have never travelled on it but it seems to be commonly accepted that the Trans-Fagaras Highway is even more stunning. The Trans-Fagaras runs from near Sibiu to Arges across the highest part of the Carpathians. I think it was one of those monuments to power beloved of dictators [Old Nic: I want you to build a road here (draws line on map with finger). Engineer: But that’s a ridiculous place to build a road, it’s the highest mountain range in Romania. Old Nic: And how are your children doing at school these days?]

Once you make it through the gorge the road continues to climb, although now, as you have entered Hargita County (ie the county in which I live) the road surface is absolutely shocking. This time around I knew I was fully settled in here as my reaction on driving along this pockmarked disaster was no longer one of amusement or annoyance but of embarrassment at my own home county. The gorge had been full of tourists and I imagined them continuing on over into Transylvania and wondering what the hell they had let themselves in for. The road finally peaks at 1256m, which is, I believe higher than any mountain in the UK [Edit: I've just looked it up and it's not, coming in at 87m lower than Ben Nevis]. For those nostalgia buffs still living in the British empire, that’s approximately 4120 feet. (The Trans-Fagaras peaks at 2034m. Two thousand and bastard thirty four! 6,673 feet!).

Finally, after a few more livestock delays I made it home. 6 hours on the road when it had taken me less than 4½ to go the other way the day before. I was knackered. But still, I made it back in time to see the FA Cup final for the first time since 1996. I don’t think I’ve missed much in those years. God it was rubbish. I could have been drumming my fingers behind the wheel while all the farm animals in Romania crossed in front of me and it would have been more interesting.

[More on the Trans-Fagaras: An article from the Guardian, and a blog post from Halfway Down The Danube.]

Bicaz gorge pics

stalls selling cheap tat

note car and children specifically placed here for scale

view from the top down into Transylvania

Monday, May 16, 2005

Our pilgrimage

It’s really weird when the small town you live in suddenly becomes the venue for a huge event. I should have known when I was told there would be 400,000 here. I’ve been to football games with crowds of 100,000 ish. I once lived in a country which had 100,000 total population. In 1987 I was in Coventry town centre for the parading of the FA Cup which attracted 250,000. They were all big crowds. This, the numerically gifted will have already noted, was bigger. It is, I have to admit, a lot of people. A lot of Catholics to be more specific. What is the collective noun for Catholics? A Communion? A Confession? A Host, I suppose. So anyway, there was a whole host of Catholics at this thing. Mostly Szekelys and Csangos, but also people from all over Transylvania and Hungary.

We, too, made the long and arduous pilgrimage the three or so kilometres from our house. I trust Our Lady of Csiksomlyo appreciated it. We flowed along, with a river of people, through the village of Somlyo, along the main street with its embankments of stalls selling wooden handicrafts from Transylvania and plastic handicrafts from China. We stopped occasionally to greet people we knew and eventually, it being a hot sunny spring day (finally), we sat down to have a well deserved beer. Or at least I did, my female companions were all after turd-like barbecued things and soft drinks. But this was where I had my first shock. No beer. Now, let’s recap: This is a warm (by English terms, positively hot) day. It’s about 2pm, and there are huge crowds of people, all of whom are out in the same warm weather. A nice refreshing glass of Csiki Sör is quite obviously the order of the day. But no. This apparently is a dry (in the alcohol-free sense) festival. This is not, as you may now be suspecting, the Hajj. It is not a pilgrimage by some other well known teetotal religion, the 7th Day Adventists, or the Southern Baptists or someone (are the Southern Baptists teetotal? And where do they pilgrim to? The White House?). This is a Catholic pilgrimage. Y’know, the Roman Catholics. The religion that is so sozzled in booze that they even incorporate wine in their holiest ritual. Not this lot. We’d obviously happened upon the Islamic wing of the Catholic Church. I was shocked (and not a little parched). I bet others had come prepared. Nuns with bottles concealed under their capacious habits, monks with tequila in their cassocks, and all those large crucifixes have room, hollowed out, for a few decilitres of palinka I’ll bet. There must have been ways around it.

So, we went without. After the turds had been consumed, we carried on our way, and realised now that we were swimming against the current. Somehow during our stop the river had changed direction. It seemed that the mass, which was the high point of the day, was over, and now, heading up the hill towards the open air valley in which the religious part of the day took place, was the wrong way to be going. But struggle on we did, and fortunately (I was later to realise) we did so against the earlier leavers. The people who leave five minutes before the final whistle/hymn so as to avoid the traffic. They didn’t avoid it, because they were among 50,000 or so who had had the same thought, but they tried.

It was when we got half way or so up the hill that I started to appreciate this event. I mean the place was packed (have I mentioned how many people there were at this thing?). The mass had taken place on a saddle (I think that’s the word, kind of a valleyette between two hills), and as we got half way up the smaller of the two hills, the sheer scale of the event became apparent. There were bloody millions of them. Well, now, perhaps, I’m exaggerating, but y’know, lots. Many of the people were in traditional costume (in Romania it seems to me that many people wear their traditional costume to church on Sundays rather than merely for tourist videos). Groups of them were carrying large banners and flags. As we stopped at a conveniently shady vantage point on the walk down the hill to take photos, we got to see many of them as they walked past. They did so for the most part in village groups, each village carrying a banner announcing their origin. Most were in costume, and many were singing. Not for the first time I got it. What it is that people get out of religion. It’s this sense of community, this sense of togetherness. Now, frankly I have no wish to be part of a community whose leaders are a bunch of misanthropic homophobes who think it’s better that people die of AIDS than use condoms, but I do get why people want and need to be a part of something. And I was moved by it all. Yes, even cynical old me. A little while later as we slowly walked across the hilltop on a different route home we saw in the far distance one of these village groups walking still in formation along a road back home. It was difficult not to get a shiver of humanity from it all.

While we sat and watched the crowds descend from their annual mind-melding with the Madonna (or whatever it is that the true believer gets from the whole shebang aside from the togetherness bit), an older man next to me asked me in English where I was from. As we talked I found out that he was a Hungarian from Budapest who had fled the Soviet tanks in 1956 and spent 48 years living in Los Angeles. He had returned to Budapest last year, and when I asked him about how that was he looked a little pained and eventually said “mixed feelings”. He went on to say how he felt people (in Budapest) were too aggressive and impolite and insincere and unfriendly. It occurred to me as it had never occurred to me before how difficult and painful this transition must be. To flee your home as a refugee as a young person and spend so long away, dreaming of when your people will be free, when your homeland will be open, when you will be able to return to your old haunts and the place you remember so vividly. To spend years reminiscing of your home, slowly but surely building it into an impossible utopia is one thing. But then to go back, late in life to rediscover that dream, and find that it doesn’t (indeed can’t) live up to that fantasy. It must be crushing. I really didn’t know what to say to him, and could only be glad that he was clearly enjoying this day and this feeling of community he was getting on this hillside.

So, all in all, a good experience. It had an unfortunate whiff of nationalism about it – I’ve never seen that many Hungarian flags, and they were doing a roaring trade selling t-shirts with the word IGEN (yes) written in huge letters, a reference to the failed referendum in Hungary last December (see here). which smacked not so much of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted but in doing so after it was made into glue months previously – but I guess that’s understandable, since it must be the biggest annual gathering of Transylvanian Hungarians. (Although I have to say that the linking of religion and nationalism is one of those things that most bother me about most religions and their hierarchy.) And the nationalism of the minority is a nationalism that I can to some degree understand, at least, if not condone. But aside from that and the plastic tat and yu-gi-oh cards on sale in the main street leading up to it, I thought the whole thing was great. And of course, as I was aware all day long, I had beer in the fridge for when I got home

The mass from a distance

These are the people who aren't even at the mass

Some of the massers coming down

More post-massing

someone leaving in style

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Peregri Nation

Csikszereda is slowly filling up. I just popped over the road to by some lunch and there are tons of people out there. There's music playing in the square behind me too. It's all very festive and uncsikszereda-like. What, you may be wondering, is going on?

Every year at a time decreed in the Roman Catholic calendar as Pentecost (what does that mean? five fruits and veg?) or possibly Whitsun (and that?), which may or may not be exactly the same thing, I couldn't possibly tell you, Catholics from all over Romania and Hungary converge on Csiksomlyo (the next-door village, effectively a suburb of Csikszereda) for an annual pilgrimage. This weekend is that weekend, and so here they are. Apparently there are normally between 3 and 4 hundred thousand of them for this event, which for a town of 40,000 seriously stretches the resources. I have, in my role as cultural consultant to everyone who bothers to read this, been doing a little research as to why they all come.

Apparently, there is a statue of the virgin Mary in the church at Csiksomlyo (I wish I could tell what the town's name is in Romanian, but I have no idea), which has resisted a lot of stuff. When the Tartars (the blokes who invented that sauce you have with fish) sacked Szekelyland a long time ago, people prayed to this statue, which despite the carnage was left unharmed (this doesn't sound particularly admirable I have to say - a statue with supposedly mythical powers elects to save itself rather than the people who prayed to it). Then after all the battle was over it was seen to cry. They always cry don't they, these religious icons? If they're so bloody amazing why don't they do something useful like fill everybody's heart with love and pacifism or something. I mean, really, what use is crying? Bloody typical.

Still, despite the weak-arsed response to their pleas, people from all over have come to visit and kiss and lay their troubles at it's feet for centuries (no doubt hoping that if it hears of enough suffering it might deign to shed yet another miraculous tear).

In case you really want to read something less sneering here are a couple of articles: I was dead excited about this whole deal until very recently, when I discovered that the festival, far from being a celebration of life with hordes of revellers taking over the town for a weekend and partying all night, actually involves people praying non-stop from Friday to Sunday. And that's it. A festival of 400,000 people who just spend the weekend being very Christian. Sounds miserable.

And that music I can hear? It's not even part of the pilgrimage. It's the last day of the Harghita County "Days", which celebrates, errrm, Harghita County I guess. We went to a concert the other day which was part of it, and at which I encountered the other Brit in Csikszereda(TM), who seems nice enough despite attempting to take over my patch.

Word from the "MidEast"

Some of you may know Lasse. Others may know him as Susie’s boyfriend. Others still haven’t a clue about who I’m on about, but that’s OK, the following is still interesting (or upsetting, to be more specific) even to those not party to my small coterie of acquaintances.

A couple of weeks ago, Lasse (and Susie) were attending an anti-wall demo in Ramallah. A non-violent, peaceful demo protesting against the construction if Israel’s wall which is designed primarily to steal yet more Palestinian land in the guise of “security” (nearly everything Israel does to the Palestinians is done in the name of “security”, from shooting children in their classrooms to closing universities to bulldozing marketplaces). Anyway, this demo against a part of the wall currently being constructed (a part of the wall that is 4 km inside what everybody, aside from a few nutjob fundamentalist settlers, recognises as Palestine, 4 kms from Israel) was attended by Palestinians, Israelis and a few foreign nationals. Everything was going fine until, of course, the IDF showed up.

To quote Susie:
I was standing right next to about 10 to 15 soldiers. We were inside a small village, standing on the road. The front garden of the home where we were standing had an olive tree in it and some blooming azaleas in pots on the front porch. I could hear cartoons on the television. I was telling the soldiers that they were scaring the children inside, that they didn't need to be here. I could hear Lasse asking them why they were in this village, 4 kilometers away from the green line (Israel).

The soldiers were ignoring me, ignoring Lasse, they were focused on the children throwing stones about 60 feet ahead. I saw three soldiers run into the front yard with the azaleas. I saw three run into the olive orchard across her house. I saw them bend down, bring their guns up to their faces, aim at the children, and fire. I begged them to stop, I heard Lasse do the same. 10 seconds later, Lasse was under arrest

Fortunately, after 32 hours in jail, a judge freed Lasse. The evidence was so overwhelmingly in his favour (in the form of numerous eyewitness accounts, video tape, and clearly trumped up charges) that the lawyer representing the prosecution actually invited Lasse and Susie to have Passover dinner with him at his house out of embarrassment at the case he was supposed to argue. Both say that everyone was extremely nice to them – police, jailers, lawyers, and of course the Israeli human rights community who supported them throughout the ordeal. Only the military were at fault. It was the soldiers who arrested him for no reason, it was the soldiers who opened fire on children, it was the soldiers who will seemingly do anything to stop foreigners watch their actions.

To close, a section of an email, sent by Lasse after he had been released:
"Dear Friends,

It is now more than a week ago that I was arrested during a demonstration against the wall and spent 32 hours in an Israeli jail. While it all happened I was calm and peaceful - even in court, when the police prosecutor opened the hearing by saying that he wanted us kept locked up for an additional five days while they worked out our deportation. All the way through the actual events I felt certain that nothing really bad would happen to me. I didn't believe they would harm me and I didn’t believe they would deport me.

It is nine days ago that I was released late Saturday night in Jerusalem. The first thing I did was to embrace Susie. The second was to call my mom in Denmark. The third was to go to a bar and buy a round of drinks for all the wonderful people that had helped and supported me: Susie, the lawyer, my Swedish cellmate, the ISM activists that showed up for the court hearing and the Israeli activist that vouched for me and risked 2,500 US$ to get me out. Does anyone remember "the five" young Israelis who went to court trying to fight for their right to be conscientious objectors from serving in the Israeli army? They didn’t succeed and served 21 months in prison. One of them was there at the hearing to translate for me (the court provides no translator) and afterwards he signed the paper vouching for me.

I have been wanting to tell you about Amar from Hebron ever since my release. He is 22 years old and was 'residing' in the cell just across the hallway from mine. We could communicate through the hole in the cell door that the guards handed us food through. Amar had been in the cell for one month. His parents visit him for one hour twice a week, but besides that he is completely alone in there – and he is never allowed to leave the cell. He has no books, no newspapers, no pen and paper to draw or write, not even the Quran. My Swedish cellmate had managed to smuggle in a pen and we handed it to Amar along with the receipt from when I handed in my money, my shoelace and my belt. We wanted him to give us his phone number. After ten minutes the paper came back with the phone numbers but many other things as well. He had done drawings of birds being shot by soldiers and a bleeding heart and lots of Arabic writing (for example; "no peace with the wall'). In the bottom of the paper was written in big letters: "Ammar I love Palestin” in red. Above it was written with the black pen: "its my blod". Just to make sure we got it straight he whispered: "it is my blood" when he handed us the paper through the hole in the door.

Amar told us that he is in so called administrative detention, which means that he is detained for up to six months at a time without right to see or talk to a lawyer or a judge. All it takes is that one Israeli military officer signs a form saying that you are a security threat to the state of Israel. Amar has been told that he would be held for six months, but the truth is that he never knows for sure. Like the hundreds of other detainees, Amar’s detention order can be prolonged with six more months if any officer in the Israeli army officer wants it. Sometimes the detainee gets released just to be detained once again one of the following days. Still without having the right to lawyer or judge.

Amar’s crime was living in Hebron and working in Jerusalem. Palestinians need a special permit from the Israeli authorities to enter Jerusalem legally and like most Amar couldn't get one. So every day he would go to Jerusalem illegally to work, but of course one day a month ago he was caught.

At one point when he had been quiet for more than an hour, I asked him what he was doing. "Thinking of my family," he said. He is the oldest of seven - four brothers and three sisters – and he misses his siblings. Later I heard him sing to himself in the cell.

For me the last five days has been somewhat of a downer. We still don't know if I'll be deported or not. My lawyer says it won't happen now that we haven't heard from them in nine days, and it would be silly, as they would have to fly me back into the country within the next three weeks to testify in the investigation of the shooting of Brian Avery. But uncertainty is very hard. Last Wednesday Susie started packing our stuff just in case I would be forced to leave. But we never finished it because of lack of energy.

I feel my rights have been violated, which upsets me daily when I think of it. Being upset all the time is draining too. I am so tired these days. Just getting out of bed in the morning is a challenge. And having to deal with lawyers, arranging for having my visa prolonged, thinking of whether to file an official complaint or not, trying to get money from the security in Ben Gurion airport from when they destroyed my laptop four months ago ... and then having to teach and do the last bit of work on my Capstone paper as well.

My compassion for people who are in conflict with authorities grows for every day. It is not just the one day or the one month or the one year that is hard. It's what comes after as well. It is the struggle for justice. It is the psychological reaction that comes along. It is the uncertainty of life.

Today one of my good friends at the university told me about a nightmare he had last night. He dreamt that he was at home, when the Israeli border police came and knocked on the door. His father opened it and my friend was arrested and taken to the jeep. In there he saw a little baby. Its face was burned, but the baby was still alive. He woke up wet of sweat and couldn’t fall back to sleep. It made me think that it is no wonder that many people give up resisting and fighting for justice. It takes so much energy and the results are so little – here and now. It takes so much effort and so much patience and being in the middle of it I understand why people think “Why? What’s it for? They always win anyway!”

Monday, May 09, 2005

Malaria and Tornadoes

Are not two things often thought of as being an issue for Europeans, but in Romania this weekend there were tornadoes, and the nationwide flooding has raised fears of a malaria outbreak (along with such minor problems as cholera and hepatitis)

It's pretty terrifying. Here's a link to the story, but I have a suspicion that it won't remain at this URL for long, so when it moves I'll try and relocate it and link to the more permanent version.

Edited a couple of days later: Yes, as I suspected, that article has now vanished and been replaced with a fascinating story about Prince Charles being here on holiday. I won't bore you with the details but it seems that Prince Charles is here on holiday. The archives are only updated for a week ago, so the article about the floods, tornadoes, malaria, hepatitis, etc is in some kind of limbo betweenb being not new news and not old enough news yet.

Part of the Union

Romania is scheduled to join the EU on January 1st, 2007, along with Bulgaria. Basescu even signed the accession treaty a couple of weeks ago. It’s pretty much done and dusted, unless there are some serious breaches between now and then. I have no idea how this will play out, but I suspect it will be a very difficult transition, on both sides.

Romania will be the poorest country yet to join the EU by some way. Per capita GDP is approximately $8000. Comparable to Turkey, about whose entry so much fuss has been made. It is fairly corrupt, though I’m not sure if it’s vastly more corrupt than anywhere else, or than Italy was 20 years ago, for example. The infrastructure is in a mess. There are industrial towns still (mostly in Walachia) but here in Transylvania, for example, it is extremely rural and broadly speaking an agriculturally based economy. Some of these factors are actually good reasons for this marriage to take place. Presumably, EU membership can help to lower corruption, improve infrastructure and raise living standards. But it will, I believe, be a very difficult few years ahead.

In Transylvania at least it seems to be largely a self-sufficient kind of place. All the food needed to feed Transylvanians (and probably Romania) is produced here (though of course we still import exotic things like chocolate, coffee, and rice). The extremely high levels of poverty, therefore, are somewhat shaded from the full glare of the market economy because everybody has to survive in this kind self-contained way. Those who have nothing can eat because they are part of the same community with the producers of the food. The food production goes largely unregulated, because it’s a traditional agricultural economy and because to impose some standards would render the whole process more expensive, and therefore force farmers to demand a higher price for their food to recoup their extra costs, putting their produce out of reach of the 50% of Romanians living below the poverty line. The EU, of course, will impose regulations and insist that these standards are met. There will be subsidies which will ease the transition period, but in Hungary at least (of the new members) these have been slow in coming and farmers are going to the wall. So, I suspect there will end up some kind of two tier economy – farmers who have a little put aside and can afford to take a short term hit to take advantage of EU subsidies and update their farming practices will do so, and be able to export to the rest of the Union. Farmers who cannot afford to do this will remain in some kind of unregulated limbo, dealing directly with their (local) customers, while unable to officially sell their produce in the shops. The urban poor, on the other hand will be cut off from their supply of affordable food, and, … well, I don’t know. I assume that some people have foreseen all this and have made contingency plans for dealing with the transition phase. It seems like something that will obviously happen, even to the non-trained eye (like mine), so one would certainly hope so.

It’s going to take a lot of EU money to “rescue” Romania, and one wonders what’s in it for them. Is the EU about dragging poor countries to a higher more equitable level with their neighbours? It would be nice to think so, but given the number of conditions they impose on various aspiring countries, I suspect not. Is the EU about strategic control of the European continent? Bringing in Romania and Bulgaria gives the union access to the Black Sea, so maybe. Is it merely about giving Greece (a geographically isolated member for donkey’s years) a land bridge to the rest of the continent? Is it about “rewarding” reform in some kind of elaborate carrot and stick game? (If so, it’s an expensive game) The last does seem to be the outward reason that is being given now Croatia has been put on hold until they cough up their (alleged) war criminals. Rumour abound that Ukraine is about to start the long road toward accession, having been so good as to throw out their crypto-communist government and moved towards having Western style corruption instead. The suspicion grows in me that the EU is some kind of covert CIA weapon of assimilation. That’s not to say that it’s a bad thing that Eastern European governments are becoming more accountable and the systems more democratic, and I’d much rather the west use this method of making people good capitalists than the, ahem, somewhat flawed Iraq “method”.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Post election and other random ramblings

So, Labour won. No surprise there, and with the choices on offer it seems that the result was probably about the best it could be (not the best possible result, but the best possible result in the system we have). I didn’t vote. This is because being abroad means that I need to organise myself well in advance to ensure my participation, and this year I wasn’t especially enthused by any of the parties (or at least any of the parties who had a cat in hell’s chance), and therefore didn’t bother to get organised. It’s also because I feel a tad fraudulent (and always have) voting in an election which, aside from foreign policy, and arguably the government’s attitude to Europe, I am not really affected by. I don’t pay tax in the UK, I don’t use the education system, I don’t use the NHS, etc etc. This means that I effectively disenfranchise myself, because no other country has ever awarded me the vote either, even though I have paid taxes in (more or less) every country in which I have lived.

This time round the principle choice was either war criminals or racists. It wasn’t especially inspiring to be honest. I’m glad Labour’s majority was slashed, and I’m glad that the racistscumbagtories didn’t get in. I’m also glad that Respect got a seat (even that it was George Galloway). I’m sad that the Lib Dems didn’t get more seats (and even seemed to lose a number of seats to the racistscumbagtories) and that the Greens didn’t do better. Still, it could have been so much worse, and maybe, just maybe, the Labour party will do the decent thing and dump that antidemocratic, lying, right wing tosspot Blair for someone vaguely principled. I am not holding my breath, but I have a soupçon of hope.

Yu-Gi-Oh news

Bogi has now acquired a set of Yu-Gi-Oh cards. You may remember my fear of Yu-gi-oh in a recent post, well, now that fear has become reality. Yu-gi-oh cards come in a pack of around 40. There are no rules included, merely a set of 40 peculiar playing cards. Each card has information on it, as well as a picture of the creature or magic it represents. That is as coherent as it gets I’m afraid. The “benefits” of each card are described in what can only be termed Japanese English. What each one means would I suspect, be impenetrable were it written by a BBC journalist. But translated directly from the Japanese it is baffling in the extreme. It makes Labour party policy statements – “Britain forward not back”, “Tough on verbs, tough on the causes of verbs” – seem like clear and succinct English. I’d like to give you a couple of examples (and please remember as you read these, that there are no instructions or rules as to how to play this game):
  • On a card entitled “Headon Attack Preparation” it says (and I quote in full) “Change the warriors or a monster of reining monster into reverse card and in defensive condition”
  • On a card entitled “Final Assault Order” it says (again verbatim) “When the card is in field, the obverse monster cards will be changed into attack status and it can’t be rechanged.”
  • On a card entitled “Porter Gaisuto” it says “Force one opponent’s Trap-Magic card in field return to the pack. The effect is disappeared simultaneity.”

I want to stress here that these are not three badly written cards I selected for comic effect. I drew them out randomly. They are all like this. And the worst thing is, Bogi loves this game and wants to “play” it all the time. Since the game, such as it is, appears unutterably boring (and incomprehensible) to me, I am not as enthused by this as by doing a jigsaw puzzle (“puzzlezunk”) or by wrestling (“Birkozunk”) or anything she normally wants to play with me. So, in order to get the ordeal over with as quickly as possible I tend to admit defeat very quickly, my monster cards spiralling away into the pack under extreme attack from Bogi’s Headon Attack Preparation and the like. This has proven somewhat counterproductive as I normally play unpatronisingly and piss her off by beating her from time to time*, whereas she has quickly learned that she we will win Yu-gi-oh-zunk with few problems, and hence wants to play it all the time.

(* Except for in “memoryzunk” -which you may know as pelmanism- at which she is unbeatably amazing without cheating)

Saxon Violence

Sibiu looks like it is a beautiful city. The pictures in guide books and the photos you can buy tell you that it is. If you can look at the streets with your eyes held faintly upward so you cannot see the floor but can see most of the buildings it still is a beautiful city. In German it is Hermannstadt the capital of Saxon Transylvania. Everything is German sounding. The art gallery and museum is the Bruckenthaler, the streets have German names, the architecture is Saxon. In 2007 Sibiu will be European Capital of Culture, confirming Romania’s arrival in the EU and bringing tourists flooding to Transylvania. For now, though, there is a problem. The title 2007 Capital of Culture has meant that Sibiu is the 2005 European Capital of Digging. The main square (Piaţa Mare) looks basically like a bomb site. The smaller Piaţa Mica is little better. Walking around the city involves long sections on planks laid across the mud, like paths across swamp lands in national parks. Getting from A to B involves a trek via Q. Even the museum is being done up and is ¾ closed. It’s pretty disappointing all told. It’ll look great in 2007, I’m sure, but right now it looks like a city that will look great in 2007. Apparently, with traditional Romanian efficiency, the work has been going on for 5 years now, though I can only hope that what we saw was the peak (or trough) of the work.

The Best Vegetarian Restaurant in Romania

Is at the kitschily named “Hanul Dracula” just outside Sighisoara. (Sighisoara was where Vlad Ţepeş was born and hence everything in the vicinity that is even vaguely directed touristwards is named after him in some way. Like Whitby only without the Captain Cook dilution). I’m not 100% certain that it is actually the best vegetarian restaurant in Romania, but it’s definitely the best one I’ve been to. Not that it is a vegetarian restaurant of course, merely a restaurant with vegetarian options. But what options. Normally if restaurants here have a section entitled “vegetarian” it contains one entry – Cascaval Pane. Cascaval Pane is cheese, battered and fried. Honestly. The Hanul Dracula has a number of delicious creative variations on traditional Romanian cuisine. A white bean pate. A mushroom pancake. I was in heaven. The only drawback with the place (it’s a hotel too) is that it’s 4 km off the main road down a dirt track. A very rugged dirt track. The kind of road that you rarely get out of first gear on, and certainly never get above second. So it’s a bit of a trek, but worth it.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Comb Over Over

It's a big news week in Romania. Half of the Western part of the country apears to be underwater in the worst floods in 50 years. Three Romanian journalists remain hostages in Iraq, and the chances of them living seem to erode minute by minute. Last week, Romania finally signed the treaty that will see they and Bulgaria admitted to the EU on January 1st, 2007 (barring major problems). What, then, was the first item on the news last night? The fact that President Traian Basescu has cut off his ridiculous combover. Now, don't get me wrong, this is a good step to have taken - last week for example he met with the president of Ukraine in a photo-opportunity of quite staggering hideousness. Except that in Yushenko's case he has an excuse, having been poisoned with Agent Orange by his political opponents. Basescu had no such excuse for his ridiculous "hairstyle". I'm just not entirely sure that it's necessarily deserving of being the lead item on the news.

I suspect it might be a mistake, politically, in some ways though. Now people will stop focussing on how crap he looks and start worrying about how good he is as president. And so far, he's, frankly, looked out of his depth. And there's a lot of stuff he really, really needs to deal with quite pressingly

Monday, May 02, 2005

Life in the blogosphere

There is such a thing as the “blogosphere”. I’m not entirely certain what it is, exactly, but it is referred to, so it must exist. As a blogger (which I am), I am part of this blogosphere. I’m not an important or famous member of this world, something like a New Caledonia or a São Tome & Principe.

I don’t really know how it works, but it seems that bloggers link together and read each other’s work. Frankly, I have no idea, but I do know that of late bloggers have started to contact me, and even, on occasion, link to this page. Recently, for example, a bloke called Deek Deekster (possibly not his real name) linked to my diatribe about the Tory party’s racist electioneering, on his UK election blog. I don’t know if there’s some kind of reciprocity arrangement, but in order not to be rude, here’s a link to him. I have no idea how he came across it, unless there’s some kind of advanced blogosphere search tool of which I am unaware. I have also been contacted by a woman in South Africa who writes a blog entitled “My Life as a Carrot”. She was nice enough to tell me that she likes my writing style, and that is good enough for me to recommend her in return. I think of these as the blogosphere’s equivalent to bilateral agreements. I‘m not really in favour of bilateral agreements in the real world as they tend to be used to avoid signing on to genuine international agreements (yes, USA, I’m looking at you), but for a small and insignificant player such as myself they make a certain kind of sense. If I were someone with an ounce of gumption I’d probably attempt to form a non-aligned movement for the blogosphere, but who really has the time?

I think to be a serious player in the blogosphere, to have a permanent seat on the Security Council if you will, you have to have an angle. Like you have to devote your blog to exposing the Bush administration’s vile activities, or to delving into the world of grime music (for those not in the know, grime music is very much a genre de nos jours and is taking music critics and the world -or London at least- by storm. I don’t know what it is either, but from the descriptions it sounds like people making recordings of their digital alarm clocks and mixing them with a rhythm tapped out on a stylophone . Here, in case I have piqued your interest, is the grime blog of a friend). Since mine is just a load of ego-driven ramblings on any subject which takes my fancy, it’s too “eclectic” (in the sense of random and directionless) to really build a following. Still, I’m not desperately bothered by that, as I’m not sure what I’d do if I suddenly found I had followers. Possibly explode in a cloud of self-regard.

Well, just to cement my place on the far fringe of the blogosphere, here are a couple of other ones that I have been alerted to:

Baghdad Blog - a bloke who had a Blog in Baghdad all through the invasion and subsequent occupation
Iraq Dispatches: Another (brilliant) Iraq one
I fucked Ann Coulter in the Ass, Hard. – Hilarious, but you possibly have to know who Ann Coulter is (an extreme right wing US media whore)

And some people who I vaguely know who also have Blogs:
A Sassenach Soliloquy
The Scope

So, you see, if you too have a blog, and wish to enter into some kind of mutual admiration agreement, you too can be linked to on "Csikszereda Musings" the most visited English language site originating in Csikszereda. Don't miss out.

Easter redux

Today, (Sunday May 1st, when I’m actually typing this, though I daresay it won’t actually see the virtual light of day until tomorrow at the earliest), is Orthodox Easter Sunday. It’s also of course May Day, and the international day of labour and the proletariat. I wonder if Easter Sunday ever fell on the first of May during the Communist period in Romania, and if so, what they did about it. As communists they didn’t really recognise religion as such, but since religion was a useful tool of ethnic and nationalist identity (as it so often is), it wasn’t actually suppressed in quite the same way as it was elsewhere in the Eastern bloc. So, how was the conjunction of labour and god dealt with? It’s the kind of question which will interest me for about 20 minutes and then vanish into some short-term-memory black hole which I seem to have (I wonder what could have caused it?) and vanish for ever.

Still, it has reminded me of something which I wanted to inform the world (or at least both of my regular readers) about when it was “Catholic Easter” a month ago, but didn’t because, well I just didn’t, OK?

This is the Easter Monday tradition of sprinkling. I’m not sure exactly who it is a tradition for, but the majority opinion appears to be that it is a Transylvanian thing – not practiced in the rest of Romania or in Hungary or anywhere else, but if anyone reading this wishes to disabuse me of this understanding, please feel free. Hungarian Transylvanians do it on “Catholic” Easter Monday and Romanian Transylvanians do it on Orthodox Easter Monday (i.e. tomorrow). “But what it is it?” I hear you grudgingly mumble in mock interest. Well, I’ll tell you. On Easter Monday, men (and boys), go round to the houses of all the women (and girls) that they know (or at least are friends with) and sprinkle their head with water or perfume and recite a short poem which makes some reference to watering beautiful flowers in spring to make them grow and bloom. Then the woman serves them with a drink and some cake or something and they sit down together and talk for a while, before the man leaves to sprinkle the next woman on his list.

It’s dead cool. I really like it. It seems so social and so genuine. The best thing (we were in Marosvasarhely, Erika’s home town) was seeing men in suits taking their sons and/or grandsons, similarly groomed, around the town with them on this obligation. I’m definitely doing it next year. I think in villages it is a really strong tradition, but even in towns and cities it is well-observed. Obviously it has its flaws – women basically have to stay home throughout the day, for example, and the perfume thing is a recent adaptation, which not a single woman I talked to was happy about, since it leaves them at the end of the day smelling, frankly, rank covered in a potent cocktail of cheap cologne, like survivors of an explosion in a downmarket department store (and even though we were away from home, the four or five men who sprinkled Erika did leave her hair smelling so sweet (in the not-good sense) that it was actually quite difficult to occupy the same bed as her – you know, in that claustrophobic way you get when unable to breathe. Likewise, the not-so-sensible men will get well and truly hammered, as in most cases the drink that they offered is palinka or beer or some such. On the drive home from Marosvasarhely, driving through villages was even more risky than it usually is as the proportion of staggering-on-the-verge-of-falling blokes was even higher than normal (and normally it’s pretty high, frankly).

Easter Sunday, by contrast, was a family occasion of excessive food and (yet more) drink. My acceptance by the Kocsis extended family was confirmed by the little flags that had been stuck into every dish naming it in both Hungarian and English, and the appearance in the fulcrum of the meal of a special (and delicious) vegetarian stuffed cabbage alongside the more normal meat-filled version. I feel quite sorry for the Orthodoxers, as today, being much later in the year, was a beautiful warm spring day and it must have been a pain stuck up in the house pigging out. Still, it meant the roads weren’t too busy for the rest of us as we went about our Sundays in the sun. In case you’re interested, we headed for Lacul Sfantu Ana (Saint Anne’s Lake) which is the only lake formed in the crater of an extinct volcano in Europe, and happens to be about 50kms from our house. It was glorious. It’s a beautiful spot. You should come and visit, and we can show you.