Thursday, June 30, 2005

New Lei

Tomorrow, July 1st, ushers in a new era for Romania. The Leu (which apparently is the singular name of the currency here, not a word I normally have occasion to use as there are roughly 35,000 of them to one Euro. The much more commonly needed word -the plural- is Lei) is being thrown out in favour of a brave new currency - New Lei. These will be the same as old Lei but divided by 10,000. So, while a beer now costs something like 30,000 Lei in the future (tomorrow) it will cost 3.

It's probably a good idea, but I can't help feeling they chose the date poorly. On paper "July 1st" has a nice ring to it, it's exactly half way through the year, it sounds like a good day to change currency. But it's a Friday, and there are many things to be done in the introduction of this new money, and thus everything is shut. The banks have been closed since yesterday. The post office is closed (irritatingly as I apparently have a package to collect). If they had changed over on the 3rd (Sunday) one wonders if it may have been a little less disruptive.

[A bit later: The shops are closed too. I've just been out to buy myself a snack. Not today. Bloody new lei. I already hate it]

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A large pumpkin sized piece of news

So, I have an announcement to make of earth shattering proportions. Not to any of you I'll concede, but to me at least. Erika is pregnant. So, our little family of 3 will shortly become 4.

The working title of this little ball of genetic legacy is (at present) Pityoka. Pityoka is the Transylvanian Hungarian word for potato (not quite as comical as krumpli, I'll concede). Pityuka (a word which is to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from pityoka to my anglo-saxon ears) is one of the diminutive forms of Istvan (Steven), so it is actually a name of sorts. Anyway, we don't know yet what sex pityoka is, but we won't be calling him spud whatever he/she comes out as. I'm buggered if I'm going to refer to him/her as 'it' over the next few months and I can't be bothered to go through the whole him/her (s)he palaver, so I'm going to toss a coin right now to decide what pronoun to use when referring to the little nipper in this blog. If it's heads (specifically, it says here, Constantin Brancoveanu's head) it's - at least for literary purposes- he; If it's tails (or in this case the side that says 1000 Lei) it's she. Oooh, how exciting.

Tails. She.

So, little pityoka is growing rapidly. I know this because I have looked at various websites which tell me so. In fact all of them, without exception, compare the size of one's growing offspring to foodstuffs. So in the very early days she was a grain of rice (basmati? arborio?) and then soon after a lentil (puy? red? - as you can see there's a certain amount of accuracy which is lost though this method). Later she grew to be the size of a raspberry, a cherry tomato and a fig. I think if I remember correctly she's now about the size of a lime. I wonder if they keep this going after she's born 2 years old: Your baby is now the size of a large roast suckling pig. It's just another example of the assumption that all people looking at these websites are not people who would feel more informed by comparisons like "your baby is the size of a ball bearing" and "this week the baby is the size of the knob on top of your gear stick". Still, works for me. Mind you it's easy at this early small stage. What's going to happen between weeks 35 and 39? are we going to go through the entirety of the melon family? Cantaloupe. Now there's a good name.

Obviously I'll keep you all informed about the week's foodstuffs and other fascinating pieces of information about young Pityoka. Erika is feeling like crap most of the time, sadly. (We are told that this may be a sign that Pityoka, contrary to my little coin toss stunt above, is a boy).

If you, the readers, wish to suggest names, donate money towards us buying a larger flat, or knit some socks, please feel free to do so.

[I wrote this post more than two weeks ago, but have held onto it for a while as we have been experiencing some difficulties, which the cream of the Csikszereda gynecological community have been having trouble diagnosing. Or at least have been inexpertly deflecting our concerns. "There's nothing apparently wrong, but you might be having a miscarriage". Hmmm, thanks for the help. I cannot contain this news any longer in my puffed-up paternal chest, however, so since all seems to be stable for now, here it is. Probably Pityoka is the size of a small new pityoka by now. Which is appropriate.]

Thursday, June 23, 2005


I have had the concern for a while that Romania's imminent accession to the EU will be the ruin of its traditional rural lifestyle, and that the overall effect will be for big corporate agri-business to move in. This article about Smithfield Pork seems to confirm that fear. Just to ram the point home here - these huge meat production companies are the biggest scumbags in a world not exactly lacking in scumbag corporations. These "people" who run these disgusting companies treat animals as products merely to be used as outputs and pumped full of hormones, protein and other shit so that they fatten up as quickly as possible. They disgust me. The average age - average - at which girls get their first period in Arkansas which is full of these pig factories is 9. Nine. The water supply, the earth, everything is polluted with these bastards' hormones. Sorry, if you came here today looking for some interesting news about Romania, but I can't sit silently as Romania is turned into another animal production line for factory farms.

Monday, June 20, 2005


We made jam today. Well, Erika made jam and I looked on in amazement and did the heavy lifting when necessary. Is there anything easier than jam? I had no idea it was so simple. 5 kilos of strawberries, cleaned and put in a large pot with lashings of sugar. Left overnight to release vast amounts of juice (and they did release an amazing amount of juice. Juice which when I illegally tasted it was the most delicious heavenly nectar on god’s green earth, or something. Why does no-one package this stuff in tetra bricks and flog it?). Then this morning, we removed the strawberries from their own juice and slowly simmered it until reduced to half its original volume. Chuck the strawberries back in, cook for an hour-ish and then transfer to jars. Close tightly and store on the floor of the living room near my feet in some kind of blanket arrangement so that they cool as slowly as possible (which apparently makes the jam set free of any setting agent). No idea if it will work, but frankly who cares, whether it sets or not it’s bloody gorgeous. We are still eating the jam Erika made last year at this time, and it’s quite possibly the best jam I’ve ever tasted. Only rivalled by my mother’s bramble jelly.

In other news, despite my bitterness at the Orthodox nun who we saw fare-dodging a few weeks ago, I sincerely hope this article is not about her. I think "I don't understand why journalists are making such a fuss about this" would have to go down as quite possibly the most macabre and sick quote I've ever heard. Good to know that such enlightened practices are still going on in my home country. I'm close to speechlessness.

A completely gratuitious picture of Erika and Bogi from just over a week ago. Posted by Hello


There are three things that Csikszereda is known for by the rest of Romania. However, it is not known as Csikszereda by most of the rest of Romania, and I’d wager that most Romanians would look blankly at you if you asked them about Csikszereda. (On the other hand, if you asked about Kolozsvar they probably would recognise that as the Hungarian name for Cluj even though the population of that city is mostly Romanian.) So, I’ll begin again…

There are three things that Miercurea Ciuc is known for by the rest of Romania. One is the fact that it is more or less the coldest place in the country. Regularly temperatures here are lower than everywhere else during winter. The second thing is this bloke Csibi who was arrested a few months ago. He was the local mafia boss and his arrest made national news in Romania for days. I didn’t realise that it was still part of the popular image of the rest of the country a couple of weeks ago, when someone told me “Yes, I know Miercurea Ciuc, it’s where that bloke Csibi was from”. Even the first time I came here, a year before his arrest, his mansion on the edge of town was pointed out to me “That’s the mafia boss’s house”, so it wasn’t much of a secret. I think when he was finally nicked, the majority of the local police force were implicated as well, which may explain why he was able to continue godfathering in full view for so long.

The third thing that Miercurea Ciuc is famous for is the beer. “Ciuc” beer is possibly the most famous Romanian beer, and while most people possibly don’t realise it they are quite familiar with Csikszereda’s castle, our most famous landmark, because it’s pictured on the label of the beer. I heard an interesting rumour about that picture because it depicts the castle in red, white, and green (see below). Red, white, and green, for those who don’t know, are the colours of the Hungarian flag. The rumour was that only Ciuc bottled here had those colours and that on the beer bottled elsewhere the castle was all white. I have since discovered that this isn’t true.

Posted by Hello

[The label. A tad out of focus, sadly, but represents the way it is often perceived, I suppose. ]

This leads me on nicely to my long awaited first post about Romanian beer. I know many of you have been patiently waiting for this moment. So, here goes. The first thing to be aware of when discussing Romanian beer is that there really isn’t any Romanian beer any more. There are a number of well known brands, none of which is still owned by Romanians. The brewery here, for example, is owned by Brau Union Romania which in turn is owned by Heineken. As such they not only make Ciuc, but also Golden Brau, Silva, Silva Dark, Harghita, Gambrinus, Gosser, Schlossgold (alcohol free) and Heineken. I’ve quite possibly left one or two off that list. The other big player in the market is Miller SAB, which is some combination of Miller (US) and South African Breweries. They make, among others, Ursus, Ciucas (cunning name, huh? Like a Dutch beer called Heinekenish), and Timisoreana. Interbrew (Stella Artois) make Hopfen Konig and Bergen Beer (all in a brewery owned by Efes Pilsen of Turkey), and there’s a brewery near Bucharest which is used to make Carlsberg, Tuborg and Skol. How do I know all this intensely fascinating information? Well, I spend two afternoons a week teaching at the brewery and I learn things. It’s all very fascinating (to me at least). Like the other day I learned that while all Ciuc beer is made in Csikszereda it’s not all bottled here. Some of it is transported away by tanker and bottled elsewhere (partly because there isn’t enough bottling capacity here, and partly because it’s cheaper to transport beer than bottles of beer). I mean how exciting is that? OK, you’re right, it’s not exciting at all, but it keeps me happy.

So, in order not to bore you any further, a brief ranking of Romanian beer
1. Ciuc. Yes it’s my home town beer and yes I work there, but this is a genuine ranking. I suspect it’s all the spring water here that makes it such a delicious crisp clean pint.
2. Ursus. Just behind, but still very drinkable. For some reason when I was in Bucharest recently it was much easier to get a glass of Ursus than Ciuc, which has serious market penetration issues in the capital. Ursus is from Cluj.

These are by far the best two. Lagging far behind are Ciucas, Bergenbeer, Harghita, Silva etc. But those beers are at least drinkable and satisfying on a warm (or other) day. The only beer that I would completely warn anyone off is Timisoreana, which is absolute piss. Sorry to be so brutally frank, but there’s no other way to describe it. Given a choice between a glass of Budweiser (the American one, not the delicious real Czech one) and a glass of Timisoreana, I’m really not sure which one I’d choose. It’s that bad. I have no idea why it’s so insipid and watery, but it is. I detect the hand of Miller rather than SAB in that one.

So there you go. I hope you enjoyed this insight into the world of bere. If you want to know more about the ins and outs of the trade, just let me know and I’ll tell you things like which brewery in the Brau Union stable has a canning line, and the ins and outs of dark beer. If you choose not to avail yourself of that opportunity, your lives will almost certainly be no poorer.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Cozma-ic realignment

15 years ago this week there was a major upheaval in Bucharest. Following the ousting of Ceausescu in what amounted (despite public revolution) to an internal coup, Romania’s first democratic elections in May 1990 returned Iliescu (Ceausescu’s mate and the guy who used the revolution to gain power). Then in June there were major student led protests and riots in Bucharest against the new (in reality, old) government. Trainloads of miners led by a bloke called Miron Cozma arrived from Targu Jiu (Romania’s coal country) in support of Iliescu’s government, and broke up the protests (this is “broke up” in the fairly violent sense of that phrasal verb). The miners in this action have long been thought to have been infiltrated and under the control of Iliescu and the secret police.

In 91 the same group of miners actually brought down Prime Minister Petre Roman’s government, and then again in 99 they rioted again and this time Cozma was arrested and imprisoned for 18 years.

As I mentioned a few months ago, one of Iliescu’s last acts as president was to free Cozma, and then revoke the pardon a few days later. Well, now, on the 15th anniversary of the first “mineriada” the whole thing has blown up again. A few days ago, it was announced that Iliescu himself was to be indicted for his part in the affair, and now Cozma has been released again. (This time, as I understand it, it’s because it’s not possible to revoke a pardon once the pardoned has been released). I still haven’t worked out if Iliescu and Roman are going to be prosecuted for their acts in 1990, but they’ll probably wriggle out of it somehow. Cozma still refers to Iliescu as “Comrade Iliescu” and says he was acting under orders. It’s all very fascinating as Romania continues to go through the post-Ceausescu transition period and deals with the people who subverted the revolution.

I’m frankly struggling to follow all the ins and outs (has Iliescu really been indicted as was suggested last Friday? Will, as seems likely, Cozma be locked up again?), so if anyone more versed in post Ceausescu Romania than me (i.e. more or less everyone) would like to comment to help me grasp it, that would be great.

There is one other major post-revolutionary violent event to not be tackled, and that is the inter-ethnic clashes that broke out in Targu Mures earlier in 1990. Protests there (by ethnic Hungarian students demonstrating for a Hungarian language faculty in the university) were broken up by a nationalist Romanian group who brought in and armed peasants to attack the protesters. No-one (to my knowledge) has yet been brought to justice over that act.

[Later edit: Ah, here's a readable English language summation of the story. (Make's a fair amount more sense than the rambling attempt above)]

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The view of Hungary from here

I was talking to my students this evening (I have one class of 10, 9 Hungarian 1 Romanian, thus reflecting fairly accurately the demography of the town). The Hungarians were telling me that they thought Csikszereda will slowly become more and more Romanian as time goes on. They weren’t especially upset by this fact, just assuming it would happen. It was then that I learned the group that they reserve their dislike for is actually Hungarians. Not themselves, but Hungarians from Hungary, who (they say) come to Transylvania eager to meet their poor oppressed Magyar brothers, but who, when these poor oppressed Magyar brothers go to Hungary look down their noses at them as Romanians (say with a sneer to get the full effect). It was quite revealing.

This would explain why no Hungarian political party in Romania (that I know of) is calling for reunification with Budapest, but Transylvanian autonomy instead. In their own way the Hungarian Hungarians are doing more for Romanian harmony than any edict from Bucharest.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Nature in Romania


Romania is home to more large mammals than anywhere else in Europe. Half of Europe’s bears, one third of its wolves, and more than a third of its lynx live in the Carpathian Mountains. The mountains also host stags, wild boars, badgers, deer and foxes. Despite living in the Carpathians I haven’t seen any of the more exotic creatures on that list. I’ve seen a number of deer and foxes, and a couple of weeks ago, driving back from Targu Mures across the Harghita Mountains we had to stop while a badger crossed the road right in front of us (this was the first time I’d ever seen a badger in the wild). A lot of these animals survive partly because the mountains are so wild and uninhabited by humans and partly because they (surprisingly) benefited from Ceausescu’s patronage. Not that he seems to have been some kind of tree-hugging environmentalist hippy, more that he was keen to be the only one allowed to hunt, like some medieval monarch. Hunting by the non-friends of Ceausescu was therefore forbidden for many years, something which benefited the animal population greatly (and really he can’t have had that many friends, when it comes down to it).

When I told my students about the “roast bear” I’d seen in a restaurant in Bucharest, they said that it is still illegal to hunt bears, so they must have been imported. This doesn’t seem likely given the figures mentioned above, so they’re either poached or obtained with some kind of normally impossible to obtain licence. [I finally told my students about the existence of this blog, by the way, and they told me that I’m much more cynical in writing than I am in real life. Bastards. (That’s a joke, Laura)]

Away from the mountains, the Danube Delta is a massive draw for ornithologists, with tons and tons of rare and protected species. I’m very much looking forward to going there sooner or later (tentatively we’re planning a trip this summer). One bird that can be seen here without going to the Delta is the stork. Every village has at least one or two nests on the top of some pole or chimney somewhere. Occasionally you see them flying, these massively wide things swooping down like some kind of stealth bomber.

Oh, and there are mosquitoes too. Bloody loads of them. It is they who are likely to delay my first trip to the Danube Delta as they apparently can be brutal in those parts. And that’s for people who have a normal relationship with mosquitoes. I am apparently one of the most delicious dishes ever placed before the mosquito world, and I’m quite sure they actually travel for miles to eat at me. In fact, I suspect that I’m listed in the mosquito equivalent of the Michelin guide. It’s one of the reasons I keep moving, to try and outfox them before thy can bring out a new edition.


The market has filled up with fruits and vegetables from all over the country as if to prove that summer is really here. It’s quite appealing to be back in a country where the availability of produce is determined by the season, as it means going to the market is a new experience every time. Right now new potatoes have shown up and for the last couple of weeks strawberries have been everywhere. Now they’re starting to be cheap and yesterday I found myself in a queue at the strawberry stall as various people in front of me bought 5, 10, 20 kgs of the things. I was baffled. I mean what are people going to do with that many strawberries? I bought a single kilo and it was still a struggle for us to eat them before they went mouldy. I expressed my surprise to Erika and she looked at me pityingly. “They’re making jam. Making sure they have stuff for the winter.” It’s June! Here in the mountains the winter has only recently finished. For someone for whom advanced planning is wondering at 5pm whether I should get some beers for the evening, this level of forethought is quite incredible.

I imagine in Bucharest you can buy exotic things like pineapples and coconuts and mangoes and tomatoes in January, but here, you just get what comes. Oddly, because the market traders come from all over the country, it’s the one place in town where the salesfolk are (much) more likely to speak Romanian to you than Hungarian.

There’s a big line in picking and consuming wild stuff too – both for herbal remedies and for food. I may have mentioned the amazing mushrooms we had last autumn, and recently I had a plate of nettles (yes, nettles. Picked young and cooked like spinach. They were quite good, though a tad bitter). In other flora related news, my hay fever is brutal this year. I’m typing this through a haze of itching, sneezing, and thick-headedness.

I left England for the first time in 1987 for Valencia. While there I learned a fair amount of Spanish, including the word for carrot, carlota. Then I moved to Madrid and eventually found myself in a greengrocers asking for a kilo of carlotas. I was greeted with complete incomprehension. It was then that I discovered that the Spanish word for carrots is actually the (much more difficult) zanahoria. Carlota is the Valenciana word. Why am I telling this story? Well, I fear the same thing may be happening again. I am (painfully slowly) learning Hungarian, and among the words I have learned are those for fruit and veg. The word for carrot is, as far as I knew until a couple of days ago, murok. But then a couple of days ago, while making something from a Hungarian cook book, I came across a word I had never seen before. I checked with Erika and she told me it was carrot. It was nothing like murok. Again, it is a much more complex word, something like sargarepa. That apparently is the “real” Hungarian word for it, and the word I know is the Transylvanian Hungarian word, which is derived from the Romanian word murkov (which in turn must be derived from some Slavic language). I have the feeling that as I learn more I will find out more and more of this stuff. I imagine too that Transylvanian Romanian has some words derived from Hungarian that are not well-known in the rest of the country.

And Minerals

Well, I don’t have much to add on the mineral front, not being much of a geologist, but what I can pass on is a quite astounding piece of information I learned last weekend. Now I can’t vouch for this statistic 100%, and I can’t give you some impeccable source for it, but it was told to me by someone who I trust to not merely have made it up. The fact (assuming it is a fact) is this: That there are more mineral water springs in Harghita County (where I live) than in the rest of Europe combined. That’s right. I really need to find something official to confirm this, as it’s the kind of statistic I want to wield with impunity, dropping it in to my conversation at odd junctures to stun and amaze my listener.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Road repairs

I may have mentioned once or twice about the state of Csikszereda’s roads. Well, now, finally they are being repaired. The way they are being repaired is…well, I’ll go with interesting for now. Firstly workmen come along and choose the most damaged areas of the roads and create these large rectangular holes. They’re no longer pot-holes, because they are so extensive that you can drive down into them and along for a while before driving out again the other end. But rather than create one such hole and then fill it in with tarmac, they go round the whole town and dig the holes first. Right now, then, Csikszereda is full of these huge rectangular sections taken out of the roads. Presumably (though I fear it’s a dangerous presumption) they will come along before too long and fill them in. I don’t know if this approach is some kind of efficient method – maybe they have only one digging crew and one filling crew for the whole county and they send the digging crew on to each place a week before the filling crew. Now the diggers have moved on from here and we are waiting for the fillers. I suspect I am wrong. It sounds way too plausible.

The story of the journalists freed in Iraq gets weirder and weirder every day. I don't even understand half of it, but I suspect it will end up being one of those stories that defines the Basescu administration. Here is a post from Halfway Down the Danube that explains it better than I can right now. It's moved on a bit since that post was made too - Basescu held a press conference at which he thanked the help of Syria (well, not directly, but more or less) and said various other things, which are now rapidly being pulled apart by the media (there's something about phones which I don't quite understand). It's all very weird.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Railway children

Going down to Bucharest on one of the new cleaner-but-significantly-less-comfortable trains that they now run on the Brasov line, I was shaken out of my book-reading reverie by somebody shouting. Since the train had been a haven of tranquility until that point, cruising gently through the spectacular mountains of Predeal and Sinaia, it made everyone sit up and take notice. As I tuned in I realised the shouting was being done in English. I couldn't see the shouter but the content of his loud message implied that he had been in a queue for the toilet and someone had ignored him (perhaps he'd been in a queue of one) and nipped in before he could get to the door. Being British (as he was) he saw this lack of respect for the queue as somehow against all that was righteous and holy in this world, and so had launched into a tirade of invective shouted through the locked door. Being British (as he was) he obviously felt that this would be most comprehensible to his adversary conducted in English. I cringed as rhetorically questioned at the top of his longs whether or not the toilet goer was in fact stupid. My people. You can't take em anywhere.

On the way home from Bucharest on the Sunday, this time on a new and clean and comfortable train the likes of which I have never previously seen on CFR the Romanian railway, we found ourselves sitting opposite a nun (an orthodox nun, not that it matters). The ticket collector came round and asked for her ticket, and she patiently told him that she hadn't got one. He looked unsure of what to do for a moment, having not been trained for this eventuality, before shrugging powerlessly, turning to us and clipping the tickets which we, not being married to Christ, had actually bought and paid for. I wish he'd put handcuffs on her and led her off to the nick.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The (Bucha)rest of my weekend

Some other things I did in Bucharest:

I was driven around the city by a true Bucharest driver (you know the ones I have complained about at length). While I could see that he was the kind of driver that would have driven me insane if I were in another car, I have to say I didn’t feel worried. The driver was Adrian, my friend Adina’s husband. In typically hospitable style they took me out to a delicious dinner on Friday night [included on the menu was also something I’ve never seen before: roast bear.] and shopping on Saturday morning before beers and mici by the lake. (Mici are these turd like barbecued thingies. I’m sure they’re delicious, and you see them everywhere, but as a vegetarian they’re not really my cup of tea. Adrian couldn’t really grasp this and tried in vain to get me to have one. I’m sure the idea of not wanting to eat mici is frankly not only baffling but also somehow treasonous).

Had a beer in the Szekely Vendeglo (Szekely Restaurant) which is opposite the Hungarian embassy. Cezar and I stopped there for a bit of a laugh (it’s not like I need to go to a Szekely restaurant in Bucharest). The waitress was in traditional Szekely costume and also wore a traditional Szekely frown. She looked like she was sucking lemons.

Took a taxi. In fact I took three taxis at different times. This may not strike you as interesting but the one constant refrain you hear from guidebooks and Romanians is that you should always be very careful before taking a cab in Bucharest as they will rip you off. A friend of ours was in Bucharest only two weeks ago and the driver tried to charge her 1,000,000Lei for a 10 minute journey. (1,000,000Lei is only about $30, but it’s still a ridiculously high price for a cab in Romania). It may have been that as a native of Ciskszereda who has lived in Budapest for the last ten years her Romanian is fairly accented and he thought he could get away with it. Fortunately, she doesn’t take shit, and she is Romanian after all, so she tore him off a strip and they had a massive shouting match about it. All the taxis I took (two of them called for, one hailed on the street) used metres and were extremely reasonable.

Bucharest has an expat community. Now I know that’s not a surprise, but after spending so long in Romania without one it does come as something of a jolt. Csikszereda has one too, but it consists of me, another British guy who I’ve met once, two peace corps volunteers, the Italian guy who owns San Gennaro restaurant, and a Spanish girl. Bucharest has publications serving its expat community (like most of the world’s “expat communities” it seems to be inclusive only of western expats – the Chinese community of Bucharest has, presumably, it’s own network). I came across three free magazines in a mere four day stay, ranging from the large and glossy “Bucharest” magazine to the small, cheap and peculiar “Expat Life”, which appears to be a one man show in which some Brit rambles on inconsequentially attempting to be funny. Somewhat like an in-print version of this blog in fact. All these mags appear to be supported by vast numbers of advertisements for two things – real estate (as opposed to illusory estate) and escort agencies. Unless the expat community of Bucharest is actually filled with voracious sex-addicted property speculators, it seems that these guides are actually aimed at the tourist or newly arrived foreigner.

Meetings With Remarkable Men

...Is the title of a seminal work by G.I. Gurdjieff, later made into a film starring Terence Stamp. This post is not about either of those things, so if you’ve come here while googling them, you’d be advised to hit the back button and try the next link on your list.

On, without further ado, to me. On Saturday evening I met George Soros. In all honesty I am stretching the definition of “met” to the very limits of its endurance, but we did smile at each other at close range, and the eye contact that we held for a number of centi-seconds did include the following messages being passed. Me: I think you’re doing great work, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for you. George: And who are you? He actually shook Erika’s hand and spoke to her for a couple of minutes in case you are now imagining me watching him give a speech to a stadium filled with 50,000 people and imagining that I caught his eye, like I once did with Susannah Hoffs during a Bangles concert when I was 20.

This intensely profound and articulate connection came during a reception held in the throne room of the former royal palace of Romania (the palace is now the National Gallery of Romanian Art). It was quite definitely then grandest fanciest reception I’ve ever been to (and I have, despite my inherent scruffiness, been to a few). Catered by the Marriott (sorry, in Bucharest it’s actually called the Grand Marriott), and held in this cavernous and incredibly ornate marble-clad room. Given that the reception was being held to honour someone who has fought long and hard for a more modern, open, democratic, transparent style of government in countries throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, it was somewhat ironic that he was being feted in an ornate royal throne room while his courtiers catered to his every need and other lesser subjects scrambled to attempt to catch his attention. I’m sure the irony was not lost on him.

So, why do I respect him so much? Well, he has used his (not inconsiderable) wealth to put his money where his mouth is and truly fight for what he believes in. He has, over the course of the last 15 years donated a vast amount of money to openness, civil society, education, transparency and good governance both in the “transition” states and further afield. To give a sense of how much, one of the speakers on Saturday mentioned the sum of $120,000,000 given in Romania alone in that time. Add that to the money that has gone to Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Baltic States, the former Yugoslavia, Hungary, Ukraine, Belarus, Burma, Mongolia and Haiti (just to name the ones that I am aware of), it’s hard to even guess at how much he has given. A couple of billion? OK in order to be so philanthropic he had to actually become rich in the first place, and quite possibly the world is filled with potentially such generous benefactors who are only held back by the fact that they don’t have billions to donate. As a US citizen he even did the right thing and put millions towards the reclaiming of democracy in that country (sadly unsuccessfully). I don’t necessarily agree with all his political views – though obviously I do agree with the anti-Bush bit of it- but what I respect him for is being so committed and so supportive of what he believes. He truly puts his money where his mouth is. He was in Romania this time, for example, to help set up a project for Roma inclusion.

Despite doing all this, in Britain he is still only known as a currency speculator who somehow single-handedly brought down the pound during the Major government. He could probably turn into a combination of Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama, and the British press would still say things like “George Soros today ended the Palestine Israel conflict to great worldwide rejoicing. Soros, who is most famous for forcing the pound out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday, said that he was very satisfied.

Anyway, I think he’s great. And I’ve met him. More or less.

Erika and George


Monday, June 06, 2005


Romania's defeat on Saturday in Rotterdam to the Dutch means that their elimination from the World Cup is virtually assured. It's a shame, though to be frank, they never deserved to qualify as they only have one decent player (Cristian Chivu) and a bunch of journeymen. However, with a better draw they could have done better. England's group for example has no good teams in it and the fact that the lead is being contested by two immeasurably mediocre sides -England and Poland- is indicative of this. In that group Romania would have stood a chance, but being drawn against The Czech Republic* and The Netherlands* was always going to kill them off. I'll just have to dig out a video of the great team they brought to the 94 WC Final and remember them that way.

*Quick English Lesson. Q: In which cases do we (in English) append a "The" on the name of a country?
A: When the name of the country either incorporates a description of the political system (The Czech Republic, The United Kingdom, The People's Republic of China, etc) or when it is a plural (The Netherlands, The Phillipines, etc). I have absolutely no idea why we sometimes say The Ukraine or The Lebanon.


Even though I’ve been in Romania for nearly a year now, I really hadn’t visited Bucharest before. I’d spent a few hours here once while waiting for a train to Belgrade, but the short wander around the sights that that visit allowed was not really very interesting and nor did it make me want to come back that much. It just felt like a large, not particularly attractive, dirty city. This time however, I came for a couple of days (which turned into 4 eventually for reasons which I’ll go into later) and got the chance to see a little bit more of it.

I think the reason I didn’t like it much before was because I had limited time, I stuck to the main streets as I walked around, unwilling to get lost or just to go off course in any way. I did walk around the run-down Lipcsani district which is the one part of the old quarter that Ceausescu didn’t bulldoze, and which all the guidebooks point you towards, but aside from that I stuck to the main thoroughfares and frankly the modern buildings in downtown Bucharest are for the most part hideously ugly. One of the city’s most famous landmarks is the Intercontinental Hotel on Piata Universitarii, which I’m sure is nice on the inside, but on the outside is a monument to unsightliness. This time however, I not only had time, but I also had meetings to go to in various parts of the middle of the city which forced me (and Cezar my friend, colleague and guide) to take back streets and walk around. Now, then, I like it. Not the big buildings, not the main drags, but the smaller backstreets. There are so many trees, it’s just like walking round leafy suburbs at times. The area which we crisscrossed at length (between the British Council, the US Cultural Centre, and the Ministry of Education) is certainly like this, and was extremely pleasant to wander around. Later, after meetings were over, I wandered further afield on my own, and discovered that most areas through the curtain of high buildings lining the main strips were like this, villas rather than tower blocks, trees everywhere. Most agreeable.

Also, the metro system must be the cheapest in Europe. I bought a 10 trip ticket for 60,000 lei. That’s about a quid. Less than €2. About $2. Just over 10p a trip. You can’t buy one ticket on the tube for that kind of money let alone 10. It’s fantastic. The trains on the main M2 line are very modern and clean and nice too. (Not so in my limited experience of the M1 line that comes out of the station). The only downside is the lack of information about where you are going. You really have to have studied a map before you go into the station and work out where the end of the line is and which route you need to take, because maps in the stations are non-existent. And it’s one of these systems like Paris in which you have to choose the platform which is labelled with the terminus of the line (rather than the “eastbound” approach of London). This system works fine as long as there are maps on which you can work out if you want to go in the direction of Pipera or Dep IMGB. But there aren’t. I guess at 10p a ticket they can’t afford to put any up.

More to come…

Vadim Tudor in honesty shock

Extreme right wing racist scum bag, Cornelius Vadim Tudor of the “Greater Romania Party” retired himself after the last election and allowed his party to attempt to rebrand itself in order to be somewhat more internationally acceptable. The party’s name changed from PRM to PPRM (“Greater Romania People’s Party”). Now Vadim Tudor has returned to the fold and attempted to take “his party” back from the people currently running it and forced it to change its name back. The reason he gave for this? That voters will have difficulty recognising the name of the new party. Thus finally admitting what has been obvious all along, that he knows full well that his voters are complete and utter imbeciles.