Thursday, November 30, 2006

Boldog Nevnapom

Or should that be Nevnapomot?

Anyway, today is my "name day", a fact which passes me by everywhere else but here, where these things are paid attention to. I did actually know that November 30th was St Andrew's day, but only because he's the patron saint of Scotland, and not because there is any connection between him and me.

Nobody's wished me Happy Name Day yet, so I'm doing it here to myself, in some kind of sad self-pitying way. In a minute I'll have to go and get myself a bunch of flowers (the usual nevnap present). I suppose I could combine the twin St Andrew concepts and have some whisky instead, which might be more suitable and actually does sound quite appealing.

(This post sounds terribly pathetic, so I feel I ought to point out that I am perfectly well and happy and writing this with a (small) smile on my face, so don't feel you need to email me with name day greetings to cheer me up. Not that you would anyway, since you all just don't care.)

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

I'm still here

Apologies for the huge lack of activity here of late. Been pretty busy writing stuff, driving back and forth to Cluj (for some reason the November has been marked by various unrelated meetings in Cluj), looking for work, and generally non-blog-friendly activities.

I’m hoping to make a triumphant comeback on Friday since it’s December 1st and I seemingly make all my most controversial posts on that date, and I feel that it’s a tradition that needs to be maintained. As an appetite whetter, I have just learned that the Sport Club Miercurea Ciuc vs Steaua Bucharest ice hockey match scheduled for Friday may be postponed until the weekend so as not to have it potentially stirring up trouble (It – the fixture mentioned – is basically the only semi-major sporting forum for inter-ethnic rivalry within Romanian sport. Obviously it’s not exactly Dinamo Zagreb vs Red Star Belgrade, but you know there’s no point giving people an excuse to start something)

Our new apartment overlooks the main square in the town and so this year, should I so desire, I can watch the exciting military parade from the balcony. But, on the other hand, I could do something infinitely more interesting and pressing like reading an article on performance management or watching some beans soak. I’ve heard that people in Alba Iulia who have apartments overlooking the square actually rent out their balconies for people to watch from. I’d like to try the same here, but cannot possibly imagine anyone being interested. Especially now tomato season is over.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Most famous Hungarian dies

RIP Puskás Ferenc. To most non-Hungarians I know, Puskás was almost synonymous with the nation, and for most outsiders (from footballing nations - ie most of them) he would be the first person they would mention if asked to name a famous Hungarian.

Nothing much more to add. Here's his Wiki-entry

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Ardeal Meals

I am seized by a hunger to post about food and drink here, and so to kick off I thought I'd do a little bit about meals and what they involve. As ever, I am not 100% sure if my cultural commentary is on Hungarian, Romanian, or just Transylvanian norms, so it may be up to my commenters to fill in some of the details.

Before actually getting to the food itself, then, the first thing the foreigner notices (or the first thing this foreigner noticed, to be honest), is the meal times themselves. The day begins early (at least on work days) and many people start work at 7 or at the latest 8. So breakfast is an early affair, and seemingly not very important. Many people seem not to eat it at all, and instead have a coffee and a pastry at work at sometime during the morning. The meal (really the only substantial meal of the day) is lunch.

Lunch involves soup and a main course. Always. OK, maybe not for everyone, but for most people, and for many people if it doesn't involve soup and a main course they haven't actually had lunch. My father-in-law definitely needs to have both of those two elements in order to feel like he's eaten, and not to react like Shirley Valentine's husband does in the first half of that film. It also involves palinka as a kind of appetite inducer, or something (I suspect it's just an excuse to drink palinka since there's no actual need to induce an appetite by the time lunch comes around). The other thing the outsider needs to know about lunch is that it doesn't really get eaten until 3pm. Occasionally you'll see lightweights having it at 2, but anytime before 3 is really a little bit fainthearted. This makes it apparent why the workday starts so early - you see most people actually work something like 7-3 and then go home for lunch and be done for the day. It takes a bit of getting used to, but I actually like it a lot now. In fact, I've started wondering why nobody else has come up with this excellent work-day-system.

So, there is this late lunch, and then the rest of the day is free (or you know, you fill it with the other chores of everyday life, so it's not free in the sense of you get to do whatever the hell you want, but it's not sold to the man). Dinner, such as it is, tends to be a light snack at around 8pm, just to keep the wolf from the door. This snack is usually zsiros kenyer and red onions. Zsiros kenyer is what used to be called "bread and dripping" when I was growing up, and is now almost certainly consigned to the memories of the elderly (like me) as a cholesterol cluster bomb. In short it is bread (sometimes toasted) spread with animal fat, and then sprinkled with paprika (the red powder not the peppers themselves). The red onion is peeled and chopped and the diners take bits of it, dip it in salt and eat it. It's very good, but you have to check with your partner as to whether any kissing might be on the menu for the later evening before you tuck in, as either you both eat the onion, or neither of you, or the kissing opportunity is lost.

And there you have it - basically one big meal a day and two lightish snacks. It makes me wonder how I've ended up putting on weight here.

Some of the actual foods served for lunch will follow in a later post, when I can be arsed writing it. (Tad busy at the mo' so blogging is liable to be light for the next couple fo weeks)

Friday, November 10, 2006

See that hole in the middle?

While looking for some info on this Romanian Academy yesterday, I came across the following photo, which shows the regions where Romania is the first language and divides them up into dialect. I'm posting it here because it is one of the clearest maps I've seen which shows exactly where I live - that bit in the middle which is left uncoloured.

(It came from the Wikipedia page on Romanian Language).

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Language by committee

Romania, in common with many European countries, has some form of national academy which decides on how the Romanian language should develop. Spellings get changed, new words get certified as being acceptable for use, and I don't know what else. I am told for example that the word "sunt" which is the first person singular and third person plural conjugation of the verb "to be" (As in "Eu sunt un blogger") used to be spelled sînt. Now that sounds like a seriously big change. Just imagine if one day the word "am" changed to "om" or something. It'd throw everyone into confusion.

And in fact that confusion happens here, as I learned a couple of days ago. Now she is going to school, Bogi is learning Romanian, and comes home each day with lots of phrases to practice (which to her credit she does, walking round the house commenting on what she is doing at all moments in Romanian. It's cool. She'll be trilingual in about a year at this rate). So, anyway, a couple of days ago she comes home with the words she has to practice, one of which is the word for "scissors". Her mother instantly corrects her pronunciation. Bogi, indignantly, tells her that this is the way she learned it today. A glance at her note book tells Erika that not only does she have the incorrect pronunciation but also the incorrect spelling. Patiently she sits down to help her with the correct pronunciation (the teachers, too, speak Romanian as a second language, and so are not necessarily to be trusted as to being entirely correct). However, before she does that, she just looks it up in a dictionary to be on the safe side. And, lo and behold, scissors is one of those words that has had its spelling (and hence pronunciation) changed by the Romanian Academy. I've just looked it up, myself, and can tell you that "foarfece" is the currently known spelling. The old one is something like foarfaca (though I'm doing that from roughly transcribing a version I've only heard, so it could be way off).

We learned the next day while waiting at the school gates for her to come out, that this scene repeated across the town as angry second language Romanian speaking parents worried about their childrens' educations, reacted to their little ones coming home with patently wrong information, with tirades of extracurricular support, loudly voiced concern about the quality of the education their offspring were receiving, and then shamefaced climbdowns. It also spread beyond the parents, with Erika's entire office agog at the news that the word for scissors had changed without them knowing.

I'm guessing that this kind of thing must go on all the time - native speakers presumably keep track of these changes and, while the transition must be difficult, at least are aware that things have moved on, but non-native speakers learn the language one way and unless they hear otherwise will assume it to have remained roughly as it was. Which brings me to the question - why is it necessary to have these bodies of people in dusty rooms pronouncing on what the language is, and what changes are necessary? Romanian has one, Hungarian (I think) has one, French definitely has one, German (I also think) has one. English doesn't. Yet despite that dreadfully anarchic fact the language seems to survive and thrive. Why does there need to be this rigorous control of language in certain places rather than the laissez faire approach favoured by English? (Indeed, if there were such a thing as an English Academy they would probably not have allowed me to use the phrase "laissez faire" in that last sentence.) I really don't get this need for a committee to ascertain what words or spellings or grammatical constructions people should be using. Could anyone help me understand?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

In the Kingdom of the Bland

I got a very nice email from a Danish bloke called Hans-Christian (his last name isn't Andersen, you'll be saddened to learn), complimenting me on my blog. His wife is Romanian and he'd happened across it in his webwanderings. Anyway, he linked to me here (as well as a very interesting blog from another Danish based Transylvanian), and mentioned how much he'd enjoyed seeing some music videos. Just to add to his collection then I thought I'd mention last week's (MTV) European Music Awards which were held, coincidentally, in Copenhagen. I didn't watch it, or pay it much attention, but I do know that DJ Project won the "Best Romanian Act" award, which just goes to show what a bad year it's been for Romanian pop. Last year, there were seemingly lots of catchy, fun, hummable ditties out there, whereas this year... well, let's just say there were fewer. (To be fair, it's obviously not just a Romanian thing - after all Justin Timberlake and the endlessly tiresome Red Hot Chilli Pepers seemed to carry off a number of the bigger awards).

Anyway, DJ Project, while inoffensive and fairly good at what they do, are also pretty bland and insipid. Maybe they'e great live or something, because whatever catapulted them to glory is not apparent from their big hit of this year, Inca O Noapte.

The competition was not up to much though, with the other nominees being:
(a) The dirgelike Morandi (the only good thing about this video for "Falling Asleep", their hit of this year, is a cool little effect they do (on the video, not the song) with iron filings half way through. One you've seen that, you can switch off.
(b) Parazitii, a rap band, who are kind of OK, but of whom I have heard nothing for over a year so I have no idea what they did to get nominated this time round
(c) Blondy, your basic lowest-comon-denominator-bimbo-pop-blonde-with-deep-cleavage. Still, this one is not as terrible as most of what she has done. It's at least catchy.
and finally...
(d) Simplu, whose song Imi merge bine, was easily the best piece of Romanian pop produced this year (or at least the best that I got to hear). No idea why it didn't walk away with the award.

Monday, November 06, 2006

A Dreaded Snowy Day

November 1st is the day of the dead. This is not a festival that is celebrated in the UK, possibly that's because we're an irreligious lot, or because nobody can be bothered going to the cemetery in November when it's cold and that, or because maybe Protestants don't do it that much. But here it's a big deal. Or at least it is among Roman Catholics and memebers of the Hungarian Reformed Church (broadly that means it's a big deal for Hungarians, though there are a fair few Romanian catholics in Transylvania who do it too). I'm pretty sure that Romanian Orthodox people don't do it - or at least the Orthodox cemetery in Marosvasarhely (Targu Mures) was pretty empty when we walked past it on Wednesday evening. (I hope you appreciate the restraint needed to resist the temptation there to describe it as pretty dead).

So, the deal is that you go to the cemetery and light some candles and lay some flowers on your family's various graves. Doesn't sound especially interesting right? Wrong. It's actually really quite moving. This is mostly because it's not just one or two people going to the cemetery and doing this, it's everyone. (Or at least everyone from the Hungarian community - which in Marosvasarhely means it's loads and loads of people). And because of this, you get to bump into family members you haven't seen for years, or possibly since the previous November 1st, and you do so in this environment of quiet (yet not melancholic) contemplation and rememberance. Plus all of this happens in a kind of gently festive atmosphere because of course the cemetery is packed, with everyone doing the same thing. It's nothing like the depressing and cold event that you might imagine. To cap it all off, the main action happens in the early evening (at least it does here where nobody gets the day off work) and so the massed candles filling the graveyard create a really beautiful spectacle.

Afterwards we went on to Erika's aunt's house and partook of various alcoholic beverages (all events of whatever nature here are accompanied by palinka at the very least, and usually much more besides), while catching up with the cousins. All very enjoyable and familial and communal at the same time. Organised religion is really not my cup of tea at all, and I think it has way more faults than benefits, but it does do communal ritual very well.

And winter did, as we were promised, start. It happened on Thursday night, with a 10 cm snowfall, and continued on through a freezing Friday and cold Saturday (on which day we drove home very gingerly, having not had the chance yet to change the tyres on the car). Miraculously, as we drove back from Vasarhely, through snowy and icy scenes, mini blizzards and occasionally brilliant patches of sunshine, the only place in the entire journey which didn't have any snow on it was the valley in which Csikszereda sits. It was very odd coming down off the Harghita mountain into the valley ans seeing the fields and houses without snow on them, when everywhere else it had been a fairly thick blanket.