Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Random observations on Lithuania

  • Lithuania used to have an empire which stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. That’s something I never knew.

  • In the supermarket I saw a can of something described as “Beef in its Own Juice”. What’s that then? Blood, I presume, or possibly cow mucus.

  • Lithuania is obsessed with basketball. It is way more popular than football, which makes Lithuania the only European country in which football is not the most popular sport. (I have just made that last fact up, so don’t take my word for it. I may have overlooked the Liechtensteinian love of cricket or the Albanian passion for jai alai)

  • Vilnius is a very beautiful city, with a nice wide river, a very nice old heart, and an excessive amount of churches.

  • Lithuania was the last country in Europe to submit to Christianity. I use the verb specifically because their paganism was so shocking that various crusading forces were launched against them so that they would finally accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and saviour. Given that fact it’s quite surprising that since their eventual conversion they have clung to Him quite so readily and enthusiastically.

  • The Lithuanian language is said to be the closest modern language to Sanskrit. It’s Indo-European but of the Baltic group, which means it’s only related closely to Latvian and basically nothing else. Not Slavic like its large Polish/Russian neighbours, nor Finno-Ugric like Estonian.

  • All male nouns in Lithuanian have to end in “s”. Thus there is a bankas, a baras, and various other things that end with “s”. Georgeos Bushos, for example, gets a mention in the papers. Seriously. The Australian themed bar is called Kuko-Baras (clever huh?)

  • Two famous sons of Vilnius are Adam Mickiewicz and Feliks Dzerzhinsky. Both of them were ethnic Poles born in what is now Belarus and educated in Vilnius. Mickiewicz, a great poet, is claimed by both Poland and Lithuania as their own and you would upset a Pole if you called him Lithuanian and a Lithuanian if you called him Polish. Dzerzhinsky was the founder of the KGB and is less desperately claimed. Or even mentioned anywhere. I didn't ask anyone about him, but I'm guessing Lithuanians would call him Polish and vice versa. Or maybe both nations would call him Belarussian. Either way, he's not exactly the most popular man in Lithuania.

  • Shamefully I have no recollection of the events of January 1991 when Soviet tanks killed 13 Lithuanian civilians in an assault on the TV Tower in Vilnius. I have now rectified that gap in my knowledge. (In my defence it was a time of my life when I had no TV or ready access to news, and it was apparently simultaneous with the beginning of the first US-Iraq war, so got a little buried in the global coverage).

  • Oh, and finally,

  • Lithaunia is very similar to England. Lots of interesting old buildings, a green capital, an imperial history, and above all, constant and unending rainfall

Back Home

Got home at about 2am on Monday. You'll be excited to hear that Harghita is now a bird flu zone and presumably other areas of Romania too (it would be a very odd phenomenon if the only two counties affected were Harghita and Covasna - you'd end up with Romanian nationalists pointing to this and saying something about how Hungarian chickens are dirty or something, and Hungarian nationalists positing conspiracy theories about how the State was deliberatley infecting those areas). Anyway, I did finally get disinfected. First, we went through a kind of hi-tech gate system somewhere between Bucharest and Ploiesti where the tyres were cleaned by a deep shag pile carpet, and the car itself was sprayed from all angles with a fine mist of disinfectant. Later, in Malnas village in Covasna county, we were stopped by a policeman and two smiling disinfectors, with cigarettes hanging rakishly from their lips, who proceeded to fire up flamethrower type devices and drench the car in spray. (Someone somewhere is making a killing on all this disinfectant - manufactureres, importers, distributors, whoever, it has to be the biggest boom they've ever seen). The third disinfectation station we passed near Tusnad, was less impressive as all the people (police, spraymen and hangers on) had fallen asleep in their cars and we just drove straight past.

Anyway, I'm going back down to the aiprort on Wednesday night to pick up my parents who are over to visit for two weeks, so not only will the car get lots of disinfecting, but also I'm unlikely to be blogging much until mid-June. Plus ça change.

Monday, May 22, 2006

More bafflement

Back by popular demand, the continuation of the alphabet of baffling things about Romania. I suspect it will go slowly, and possibly never get past J, but what the hell.

F is for Flu. In particular bird flu, which we have had longer than everyone else in Europe because Romania sets the trends that rest of Europe aspires to follow. First numa numa yay, now gripa aviara. Well, a couple of weeks ago, bird flu reached Covasna county, which is just south of us in Harghita (it’s the other majority Hungarian county). I hadn’t really paid much attention to it since we were moving. But on my way to the airport on Friday I drove past the first physical evidence of the presence of H5N1 on my doorstep. The decontamination teams. We passed one on the other side of the road as we left Tusnad, at the county border. They were pulling everyone driving north over to spray the wheels of their cars with disinfectant and, I dunno, checking that they weren’t transporting chickens out of the county in the hope that they wouldn’t be culled.

Between Sfantu Gheorghe and Brasov we passed another one. At the southern border to the county. I say passed, because this too was on the other side of the road checking people coming into the county. Have you spotted the flaw in this system? Bizarre, innit? Presumably (unless the all clear has been sounded by then) on my way home I will be disinfected twice. Still, it looked very impressive with all the white suited blokes flagging down cars in the middle of the night. It certainly looked like a really strong response to the disease. Shame really that they had not coordinated the direction of traffic that was to be disinfected.

I’ll come up with a “G” soon.


Lithuanians are really, really into the Eurovision Song Contest. On Saturday night I went out into the old city with Richard, an English bloke who lives here. The first bar we went to, which made its own very good beer, was dead. I think there was one other group of people in there. The second bar, a very cool and trendy place in a cellar, was completely empty. We asked the barman and he said it was because everyone was home watching the Eurovision Song Contest. I thought he was joking, but Richard assured me it probably was the case.

Eventually we spied a bar which seemed to be buzzing, went inside, and discovered that the reason for its busy-ness was that it had a big screen showing the Eurovision. People were cheering, whooping and going crazy, particularly when the Lithuanian number started up.

For any readers not from Europe, I may need to supply a bit of background here. The Eurovision song contest has been going on annually for years and years (I think I heard last night it was the 51st year). It involves every European country selecting a song to be performed in competition with every other country. When I was young this wasn’t too many countries, since the Warsaw Pact didn’t enter, since it was all too decadent or something, and anyway, there weren’t that many countries in Europe back then. Now there are bloody loads and there appears to be one more every year (as I type this Montenegrins are going to the polls to decide whether to start another one). It has always been a fairly rubbish event, that us world-weary and cynical Brits have tended to look down upon, and I honestly can’t remember ever thinking it was a worthwhile competition which one should cheer on ones favourites in. (And it certainly wouldn’t empty the pubs on a Saturday night). But since the collapse of Eastern bloc, the new entrants have certainly taken it to their hearts and really see it as a way to put themselves on the map.

The other big change is in the nature of the songs and the voting system (which may be related). At some point (possibly with advent of mobile phones) the voting went from being some kind of national juries charged with awarding the points from each nation, to being a public voting thing (I’ll leave you to decide whether this is a valuable progressive step towards democracy in everyday life or an opportunity for mobile phone companies to make money from each SMS-ed vote). In tandem with this change, the songs have more and more tended to be all sung in English (so as to appeal to a greater proportion of the pan-European voting public), and the songs themselves have become less and less important as it has become more vital to catch the eye and be memorable (especially since the audience now has to sit through so many songs). Last year, for example, the Moldovan entry (which despite the gimmick was easily the best one) incorporated an old woman wandering round banging a big drum while this mad group of nutters sang about grandma banging the drum. Last nights featured “Lordi” a group of heavy-metallers from Finland in mock horror masks. The most common eye-catcher used by many nations is to try and push the boundaries of what is acceptable in terms of having scantily clad attractive women singing or dancing around the singer in some way.

The Lithuanian entry, which had everyone so excited last night, was 6 blokes in suits doing a number about how they were the Eurovision winners and urging people to vote for them. It wasn’t a song as such, but more of a football chant. I learned later that it was kind of a jokey but deliberate attempt to subvert the format – the blokes are all TV personalities here, and they deliberately didn’t have any women on stage with them. The ended up coming 6th, Lithuania’s best ever performance, which probably says something, though I don’t know what.

The most comical part is the voting. Each country votes separately and then gives points to the top ten vote receivers there. Plus you can’t vote for your own country’s song. What this in effect means (it certainly seems from last night) is that immigrant populations sway the votes considerably. Germany, for example, gave maximum points to Turkey’s entry last night. While Russia finished second largely based on the fact that they got maximum points from lots of the nations of the former USSR which still have large Russian minorities, plus Israel. Also there is a lot of neighbourliness, with Scandinavian countries giving their top points to their neighbours, and even the former Yugoslavia putting aside the past to vote for each other in a touching gesture of post-civil war fraternity. Lithuania got maximum points from Ireland, in what I thought was testament to the Irish love of a good joke, but was told today that it’s because there are loads of Lithuanians in Ireland.

Romania, whose song I didn’t see, pipped Lithuania for 5th place. (Lot of votes from Moldova, surprisingly). Hungary didn’t take part for some reason. Perhaps a sudden rush of good taste, or a feeling of being above it all. Or maybe they just forgot to send in their entry forms this year. They were in it last year; I remember their song, which was quite a good one, though sung badly – in direct counterpoint to the Romanian one which was a bad song sung well.

Oh, and the Finnish horror rockers won by a country mile, despite not having a widely spread diaspora. Obviously the mask thing worked. Or perhaps because Finland produced most of the voting equipment that will have been used by the electors of Europe.

Friday, May 19, 2006


I can exclusively reveal that moving house is hellishly exhausting. I've never done it before, or at least not properly. All my moves have been cross border ones involving fitting all your worldy belongings into a couple of suitcases and selling/getting rid of the rest. On the couple of occasions where I have moved within cities, it has been from furnished rented places to other furnished places. (And always with the assumption that there'd be a flight to the next abode eventually anyway). It has actually been a very successful lifestyle for keeping down accumulated crap. Every year or two I could ruthlessly cull my personal property, and leave myself in a zen like state of simplicity.

But this, involved furniture, boxes and boxes of stuff, two children, and vast mountains of dust. Dust everywhere. I'm sure it was breeding. We even dusted everything thoroughly when packing it, only to find it had become even more dusty in transit.

But the new place looks great. It's still a little chaotic, mostly thanks to the fact that we don't yet have kitchen furniture at all, so all the plates etc are in boxes on the floor. We don't even have a kitchen sink, so you have to do the washing up in the bathroom (we do have a cooker and a fridge, though). [It's common practice in Romania - at least as far as I can tell - to leave nothing behind when you move - including light fixtures, sinks, taps, etc. I don't know if this is a curiously Romanian thing, because as I say I've never done this before]

Anyway, when it's finished it will look incredible. Sadly, I won't be there to witness the final stage, as I am writing this post from Prague Airport, where I am en route to Vilnius, Lithuania to do some training for a week. The last time I was in Prague airport was in 1988, prior to the velvet revolution, and it was a little different from now, I have to say. Also that was the last (and only other time) I've flown CSA, and that is very different - back then it was big hulking Russian built aircraft (I can't remember if it was a Tupolev or an Antonev), filled with big hulking blonde stereotypical Germanic communist stewardesses, who offered only two things "Beer or Vodka". Sadly, I don't have the time to go into Prague city itself, though to do so may shatter all my romantic memories of the place - ludicrously cheap, no tourists (not even any restauarants or hotels), and completely gorgeous. I storngly suspect it's not that way any more (though I presume it's still gorgeous).

Anyway, onward to the Baltic States.

[Signs off with appropriate Czech expression]

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


Sometime this week we will be moving (By sometime, I mean Satrurday. Or Sunday, if things fall behind schedule). We have been lucky in that we have had two weeks in which to renovate and redecorate the apartment that we have bought and into which we will move, while still living at the one we have already sold. Two walls have been knocked down to create a bigger living room, a bunch of tiles in the bathroom have been removed as they were cracked, and new ones purchased, we’ve decided on paint, and various items of furniture which a carpenter will go ahead and make, and the whole apartment will be re-floored with laminate. In the meantime, Erika is running around dealing with a million and one things that only a fluent Hungarian/Romanian speaker can deal with, and I am left at home babysitting and occasionally deigning to do a spot of packing.

What it does mean, though, is that I’m unlikely to be blogging much until next week at the earliest. But the new place is going to be excellent. Really. And that invite to all the people I know who have yet to come and visit me (which is basically all of you, though my parents are blazing a trail by showing up at the beginning of June), now takes on more relevance as you would actually have somewhere comfortable to sleep.

Monday, May 08, 2006


English has, I’m told, 6 words which come to us from Hungarian. One or two of these words are only used to illustrate Hungarian concepts or things – like goulash for example. The English version of goulash is, I suspect, somewhat un-goulashy, which is reflected in the fact that we have interpreted the word poorly too – the Hungarian pronunciation of gúlyas is in fact goo-yash, since that “ly” combo in Hungarian does not contain any "l" sound. English is not the only language that manages to mangle the word in this way though – Romanian also makes it sound like goulash by spelling it gulaş. Having a quick look on the web, it seems that there is some controversy about what a goulash actually is. Here is one bloke's opinion, for example.

The next one on our list of 6, is another food. Paprika. Now we tend to use it to describe the powdered pepper used to flavour dishes (such as the goulash for example), but in Hungarian it is used for fresh peppers too. The powder is called piros paprika (red paprika) which may leave you wondering what a red fresh pepper would be called. This is solved by the fact that Hungary and Hungarian speaking areas have a bewildering array of peppers, such that “red pepper” would not be a very helpful description anyway. There is the round red pepper for example, which is known as the paradicsom parika – the tomato pepper, and the long one, the not quite as long one, the fatter one, and many others beside. I usually just point.

There are a couple of military ones – hussar and sabre. Not quite sure how they are spelled and pronounced in Hungarian, but I presume hussar is more like huszar. Why are hussars so often gay, by the way? I have no idea. You’d think being cavalry soldiers, they’d pretty much be cannon fodder, and not especially gay at all. But you never hear of the glum hussar do you?

Two left, and the first is coach. Not coach in the sense of trainer, but in the sense of vehicle. Apparently coaches (horse drawn ones I’m guessing) originated in the Hungarian town of Kocs (pronounced fairly similarly to coach). Thus in Hungarian a coach (and these days a car) is known as a kocsi (from Kocs), and a driver/coachman as Kocsis (hence Erika’s family name, and that of the ever-so-slightly more famous Kocsis, Sandor of the Magnificent Magyar 1950s football team).

Finally, biro. The humble ball point pen, named after its inventor Laszlo Biro, or more properly, Bíró László. Another Hungarian word we manage to mispronounce, since it should be more like beer-o. And that’s about it, as far as I know. If you know of any others, please let me know.

As far as I know there are no specifically Romanian words in English, but since Romanian is derived from Latin, there are an awful lot of words that exist in both languages.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

May Be Cold

April was very springlike and warm. May, so far, has been cold - at least here, May 1st, we celebrated international workers day in Marosvasarhely which was much nicer - this morning that little thing over to the right showed the temperature at 6am as being -3. In May. It's not right I tell you.

Meanwhile, a picture:

It took me a while to work out just what was wrong with the name "Transilvanian Trousers Company", until I realised that even though as a noun trousers is always rendered in the plural, as an adjective (as it is here) the word is trouser (as in trouser leg, trouser pocket, etc). Shame really, because I imagine Transilvanian Trousers could sweep the entire world with their ineffable coolness.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Romanian Accent

Romanians are very cavalier with their accents. By accents here, I mean not regionally diverse ways of speaking, but diacritical marks on letters to identify pronunciation differences. There are a lot of such marks in Romanian from ă to ţ and beyond. However, they are frequently omitted in written versions of the language, which is most confusing to the foreigner.

A few days ago, for example, I wrote a post entitled Happy Paste. Now “Paste” was the way I had seen the Romanian word for Easter written, and it amused me that it was paste. But I also knew that it was pronounced not “paste” as the English word, but Pash-tay (more or less), and so it began to dawn on me that it was probably actually spelt “Paşte”. This turned out to be the case. For another example, I drove this weekend to my in-laws house in the town whose Romanian name is Târgu-Mureş. Now on road signs it is normally written as Targu Mures (or sometimes abbreviated as Tg Mures), which is not at all how it is pronounced. That a with a little hat is prounounced something like an uh, not like an a at all. It’s turgu muresh (more or less). (Incidentally, just to confuse things further, it is also sometimes spelled Tîrgu-Mureş, with that be-hatted “i” being seen these days as a Stalinist letter which is no longer welcome. I’m not quite sure what a Stalinist letter is, but maybe it launched some pogroms or something.)

When you sit down in a restaurant and peruse a menu, and happen upon something you’d like to try but are not sure of the pronunciation of, you often have to guess at the correct spelling (and hence pronunciation), since menus appear to be a particularly accent free zone. It’s all very lackadaisical. I’m sure there must be examples of Romanian words that when the accents are left off mean something entirely different, such that when you think you are ordering a veal cutlet, say, you are actually asking for a large consignment of balloons, or some such humorous error.

Contrast this with Hungarian which is obsessive about its accents. Every day I fret and worry over the fact that I have called this blog Csikszereda Musings, a heinous spelling error for it really ought to be Csíkszereda Musings, with that accented “i” making all the difference. Well, to be honest I barely give it a moment’s thought, but I am aware that it is wrong. And it is, in effect, a spelling error. I presume not including accents in Romanian is also a spelling error, just that no-one seems to care. There must be Romanians who bemoan the laziness of printers and sign makers and constantly bang on at anyone who’ll listen about how the country’s going to the dogs, and how education isn’t what it used to be, but they (the possibly mythical people I’ve just invented) don’t seem to be having any impact.