Sunday, July 27, 2008

Going for a song

Who among us has not pondered listlessly on what a traditional Szekely peasant house looks like? Who can honestly say that they haven't lain awake at night wondering if there would ever be someone, anyone, who might assuage their thirst for this gap in their knowledge? Well, fear not because help is at hand. No longer will you need to feel that emptiness in your soul, no longer will you contemplate the days stretching unending before you without knowing what the Szekely paraszthaz resembles. Because, here, with only a mere paragraph of bush-beating to precede its unveiling, is one:The roof is shingles, and there are basically two rooms. As with all old houses round these parts there is no bathroom (as there is rarely running water).

Why, you may now be asking (having slaked your thirst for knowledge re images) is he showing us this house at this juncture? Well, it's because it's ours. We bought it this week. It's ace. I mean it's utterly knackered and would be politely described as a "fixer upper" by a British estate agent, but we fully intend to fix it up (slowly and surely bit by bit as we have the money to do so). It's in the small village of Csikbankfalva (Bancu in Romanian) which is about 15 kms from here (but on good roads). It is surrounded by 11 ares of land. I had never actually heard the term "are" before I came here, but it's always used for describing the area of properties here (and I have discovered that we do have the term in English, we just don't use it - one are is 100 square metres if you can't be bothered to click on that link).

Anyway, this week, in between apocalyptic rain storms we started cleaning out the barn - didn't I mention the barn? It has a barn. We intend to make the barn something we can live in on weekends while we use the garden, and next year work on the house. It's in better shape than the house and looks like this:As we cleaned it out, we happened upon loads of bizarre antiques which would go well in a museum (somebody suggested we should sell them on ebay). Things like old milk pails, knife grinders, various kit for weaving stuff, and a few things that I had no idea what they were. One of them was made from a hollowed out horn and had a hook on it - this turned out to be something you fill with water and hang on your belt, then you put your sharpening stone in it and when you are out in the fields with your scythe, you can sharpen it without going home. Fascinating stuff, hey? (He says, trying to wake everyone up). What would Arthur Negus make of that? (I expect Arthur Negus is dead these days, so he probably wouldn't make much of it, but what would he have made of it when he was alive? Huh? HUH?)

Oh, and it has an outdoor bread oven too. It's mint.

Anyway, our new house. I'm in Barcelona now, but I'd much rather be in Bankfalva. I'm guessing that is the first time in the history of human thought that that particular sentence has ever seen the light of day.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Corruption article

Not really my thing to just link to articles and not add anything of my own, but am a bit pressed for time, and wanted to make sure that anyone who hadn't yet seen it, has the chance to see this article by Tom Gallagher on corruption in Romania and the EU's response to it in the FT (today is the day that the report comes out, which will almost certainly contain the usual finger wagging inaction)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Modern Life is Rubbish

Recently the interphone in our building was replaced. I'm not entirely sure what the word in English is for interphone despite my native speaker status, since I've never lived anywhere in an English speaking country that needed one, but in case it's not interphone, I'm talking about the system through which a visitor to someone in a block of flats rings up to that flat, so that the resident can talk to them, make sure that they are the kind of visitor they want to have, and then press a button to open the door on the ground floor. You know what I'm on about, right?

Anyway, for well over a year now we've gone without one, since the old one had broken and nobody had thought to get it repaired. Or something. The ways of living in a block of flats are a bit incomprehensible to me - we have someone who is "responsible" for our building, whose role seems to be to pop round once a month to read the water meter. We also pay a monthly "common expenses" fee, which I assume covers things like repairs to the bits of the building which are not the individual flats, and for the salary of the cleaning woman who cleans the place on occasion. But aside from that I'm not sure how things work exactly. If the lift breaks down, for example, who does one call to get it sorted? I have no clue. For a year, in fact there was a window missing between the ground and the first floor (I think someone had nicked it - really). Obviously if you live in a climate with a winter as cold as this one, that's quite a serious problem.

So, the interphone was buggered, and the door was just open to anyone. This wasn't really a problem, except when you walk downstairs in the morning and find yourself struggling to negotiate a drunk lying on the landing, but this was a very rare occurrence. But recently, there was sudden activity, and one days some blokes came round and installed a new handset/button system in our flat (and, I assume, in everybody else's too). A few weeks later, they showed up again (not sure what they were doing in the intervening time period, but there you go) and installed a new box thingy and lock down at ground level. Then a week or so after that, the whole thing went live and the system was finally in place.

It's all very fancy - it works, for a start, which is a definite improvement on the previous system. It also has a codepad which means that one doesn't actually have a key to get in and out of the building one just types in ones code, and voila, the door opens. There are one or two little quibbles - like the fact that the ringing inside the flat is very loud, and it wakes everyone up. As we live in flat number 1, that is the one that the postman rings in the morning to get in and give everyone their mail. Obviously this wouldn't be a problem except for the fact that we have kids and its the summer holiday and they really don't need to be waking up at half past seven. So, anyway, now one of my nightly rituals is to turn it off, so that our phone doesn't ring at all in the morning until I turn it back on again.

The big flaw with the new system was revealed last Friday though. As we trundled home from work we noticed that the people who work in the shop in the next building were all sitting outside (perhaps enjoying the sun, we mused). When we arrived at our building though it became clear what was going on. There was a powercut. All the buildings in the block were out. And of course we don't have a key, we just have a code to type on a keypad which (you might have guessed) runs on electricity. So there was no way into the building...

Well, this is not entirely true, because we just called (via mobile phone) a neighbour to come downstairs and open the door for us, which we then jammed open for whoever came next. This is one of those modern-technology-saves-the-day-when-modern- technology-has-failed-you moments. There must be a word for that, since it seems like much of the world is relying on it to be the answer to global warming in some massive world-ending game of chicken (well, let's not bother trying to step back from the brink, somebody's bound to invent something soon which can reverse global warming sooner or later, so we can keep on polluting to our hearts' content)

Oh for the days of the simple key which you insert into a lock and turn.

Monday, July 14, 2008

On the Liban(on)

Slowly but surely the roads in Harghita County are being resurfaced and therefore made driveable. When I arrived here (4 years ago TODAY! bloody hell), the roads here were appalling. Potholed and virtually impassable even for gas-guzzling SUVs (not that I ever actually experimented with one, but I reckon)

As time has gone on though the county council has made a concerted effort to make destinations accessible for people, which is a nice touch. Cities and towns are a bit slower to catch up, so you can still find yourself leaving a pristine new road surface for the old style potholed track whenever you get to a town or village, but you can't have everything.

Anyway, the latest road to get the treatment was the one that runs over the mountain between Udvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc) and Gyergyo (Gheorgheni), and this weekend we drove along it to see places we'd never seen before, for fear of destroying the car. It was spectacular. The road crosses the mountain at a place called Liban, which affords great views over thickly forested mountains and hills.

Here is a map of Harghita County to give you a sense of where the road is:

Since the county has three sizeable towns of note and this road connects two of them, it seems like an important one to have had done, so presumably it will make life easier for people having to travel between the two. The bus which goes between them, for example, has always used that road and it must have been one of the most miserable "short" journeys in the country. Now however it will be almost pleasurable.

Another road which was made useable two or three years ago was the one over the Bucsin pass between Gyergyo and Parajd (Gheorgheni and Praid). I only know of a couple of important roads now that could really use some work - the one between Csikszereda and Gyergyo, and the one between Udvarhely and Keresztur (Cristuru Secuiesc)

By the way, I would have tried to show this map on Google Maps, but for some reason Google Maps hates Romania, and just has vast empty spaces where anything should be. There is nothing there north of Brasov. Absolutely nothing. It's weird. The satellite images work, though they're not especially close in, and the ones round here are all taken in the winter so you can't actually see half of the roads as they're covered in snow.

I would quite like to know what Google has against Romania and why they can't be arsed to stick a map up, though.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Racism returns to the European mainstream

What the hell is going on in Italy? Berlusconi is using his first weeks in power not only to evade prosecution in all the corruption trials he's up against, but he and his government seem hell-bent on returning the country to the days of Mussolini.

Recently, for example,
Italy's highest appeal court ruled that it was acceptable to discriminate against Roma on the grounds that "all Gypsies were thieves"
(taken from this article)

I mean...christ on a bike, this is fucking appalling (I hope you'll excuse the language, but when talking about acts as repulsive and racist as those which the Italian government is currently engaged in and engaged in supporting, strong language is unavoidable)

When an angry mob went on the rampage and burnt down a Rroma slum, the government's response was... to praise them.

This is a country in Western Europe. In the G8. in 2008. And it is being run by a bunch of vile extremist throwback bigots and no-one is saying or doing a thing about it. It's appalling.

The EU prides itself (with no little justification) on helping to rebuild a Europe shattered by war and fascism, and to ensuring that the conflicts of the past could never happen again. Yet it sits idly by while one of its core members returns to the 1930s.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Turkish Horse

A week or so ago, I was talked into going to the Turkish Horse shop with/by the wife. The Turkish Horse shop is the place where you can go and rummage through bins full of clothes to maybe find something you might consider wearing on an especially dark day in a particularly deserted part of Spitzbergen in December. These clothes (it is said) come from England, and apparently this gives them a special cachet or je ne sais quois (it is perhaps indicative of something that the only two words/phrases I could think of to use there were French and not English at all. It certainly ought to indicate that England would not be the place one would commonly go to to find stylish clothes). I may have mentioned this place before, and its intriguing business model, based I suspect on flogging off clothes donated to charity by unsuspecting people in the UK.

[I should perhaps at this juncture mention that the shop is not actually called a Turkish Horse shop, this is just me being "amusingly" daddish and perverting the Hungarian word turkáló, which is what these shops are actually called. (I think it means "rummage" or something really)]

Anyway, we went on a Monday morning and the place was packed, as that is the day of the new and exciting stock. It was a very strange experience. Mostly because people obviously take it so seriously (I've heard people when asked what their hobbies are, answer "Turkálózni" - or "Turkish Horseplay" as I would like to translate it). This seriousness is manifested by the fact that this is a shop, packed full of people, the vast majority of whom are women, and there is no talking. At all. Not a murmur, not a little side chat, not a pair of friends talking about the weekend. Nothing. It's really really disturbing. The pair of us were quite out of place actually discussing things and chatting and laughing and we got some fairly hostile glances thrown our way.

Anyway, we managed to actually get a few nice things for the family, plus I got to experience a side of local culture which I hadn't previously experienced, so it was all good, really. Can't see it becoming my hobby, though.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Tök paprikás

Yesterday I invented a new dish, which, I believe, will quickly become accepted as a new standard in Hungarian cuisine. Actually, I cannot imagine that nobody has previously hit upon this dish, so I probably was not actually the first discoverer of this, but like Columbus, I am laying claim to it anyway. (Googling "tök paprikás" brings out two links, so there is the suggestion that I am not exactly the first, but close enough - in 2008, two links is practically as obscure as to be on the dark side of Titan)

Anyway, paprikás, for anyone who doesn't know, is the true national dish of Hungarians. Goulash is all very well and that, but people don't eat it that often. Chicken paprikas (Csirke paprikás) is guaranteed to be on any menu anywhere in the Hungarian speaking world (possibly with the exception of vegetarian restaurants, though even they probably serve it as it may be an act of treason not to). Chicken is the most popular version, though there are others, including mushroom paprikas which is pretty damn finom (delicious).

Well, yesterday while in a friend's garden I hit upon the superb idea of tök paprikás. First though I will have to explain what tök is. A tök is kind of a courgette, but not really. It's a much lighter green colour, and it has a thicker skin. Even in the US, a country which seems to have thousands of different varieties of squash, I never saw the tök. Though it does resemble the summer squash quite a lot, except that it's pale green and not yellow. It's pretty good as long as you don't make the mistake of thinking it's just a light green courgette. It has a firmness and density that allows for some different options. It doesn't go quite as well in a ratatouille as a courgette for example, but for tök paprikás it can't be beat.

Anyway, I was complimenting our hosts on their tök crop, and they said, yes, but they're only small at the moment. I argued that they weren't small at all, but actually perfectly sized. Picking them late when they're massive, runs into the same problem that you get with courgettes - thick inedible skin, massive seeds that you have to scoop out, tasteless flesh. To prove that I was correct, and they utterly wrong, I offered to cook one. And thus was born tök paprikás.

Without further ado then, to the recipe for this great invention that will be sweeping the world within a few short millenia:

Finely chop an onion and slowly cook it in oil until transparent (is the verb I need here "sweat"?). Add to this some paprika (piros paprika as it is known here - the red powder made from dried and ground red peppers). Fry for another minute and then throw in your quartered and sliced tök (at this point my hosts were stunned when I didn't peel the tök, but that's people for you. Weird), some fresh dill and some salt. Put a lid on it for a while and let it cook (the tök exudes its own liquid so you don't need to add any). Stir occasionally. After about 10-15 minutes it should be done, at which point, you throw in some flour, and then some milk, stir until it has a thickish sauce. Bring it back to the boil for a minute, and Robi's your uncle. Tök paprikás. It goes well with mashed potato.

(This recipe works for any other paprikas you want to make, just substitute your ingredient of choice for the tök. I'm now trying to work out what other things would work. Aubergine wouldn't, I reckon, but kohlrabi might. As might leeks. I'll let you know.)

It may have helped that all the ingredients were so fresh (tök, onion and dill were all especially picked just for this dish and cooked within 10 minutes of their harvest). I also fried up the tök plant flowers for fun, and they actually turned out to be delicious too (though if not peeling tök was weird, eating flowers was positively certifiable).

Friday, July 04, 2008

Milking it

A couple of years ago, I pondered on the impact that EU membership would have on the small farmers of Romania. Just to clarify, the farmers of Romania are not, to my knowledge, any smaller than farmers anywhere else - many are of average height and build, while some are even quite tall. There are just rather a lot of them (farmers of all sizes) and they mostly have very small farms. In fact many of their farms would not actually be described as farms by most people and more like "having a cow or two in their back garden". In fact, I think I should probably go with smallholder, so as to not delude you as to the scale of their operations.

Anyway, I have recently learned a little bit more about what EU membership means for these smallholders (and indeed what having all these smallholders means for the EU). Specifically in the dairy sector.

You see, the way things work around here is that people in villages own a cow or two. Every morning people open their gates, and the cows wander out on to the street and follow each other and the village cowbloke who escorts them all to a field where they all spend the day quietly pondering the scenery, rambling, and painting watercolours of the tranquil countryside. At the end of the day, they are led back through the village, during which walk they all peel off and go into their own homes. Really, they do that, they don't need to be guided or anything, and the cowbloke doesn't need to recognise all the cows, they just go home of their own accord. I mean cows may not be the most actively intelligent of animals, but they are not, well, sheep.

[By the way, and I have no idea whether this is true or not, but the joke around these parts is that the one place that it doesn't work like this is in the Ploiesti area, in which everybody has so little to do, that they all take care of their own cows. Sort of a one-cow town]

Anyway, before they all go out for the day to their alfresco creche (Kühegarten?), they get milked by their owners. The aformentioned owners then take the milk to the village collection point, where it is deposited and cooled and then at some point picked up by the tanker which takes it all to the dairy. I think in the past, much of this dairy activity happened in the village itself, or at least in some villages, but with the changes brought upon by the EU, the only dairies that remain are the large ones which can afford to ensure all procedures and tests are met, and which are usually situated in the major population centres. So a fleet of tankers is despatched every morning to the collection points in the villages, where the milk is transferred to the tanker and brought back to the dairy, where it is tested and pasteurised and what have you (ie converted into good things, like butter, or crimes against humanity, like cheese).

Now this process is pretty much the only way that the old system of lots of people with few cows each can sustain itself (and not morph into the agribusiness model of very few people owning all the cows), but it obviously has a number of problems inherent in it. The main one is that it takes a long while to isolate a problem. If one cow is receiving antibiotics, for example, that cow's milk cannot be sold (because milk cannot legally contain antibiotics). But if the owner and the village vet keep it secret (because obviously you lose income for a while), then the antbiotics show up at the dairy, meaning that the whole tanker full is unusable. At that point, all of the villages on that tanker's route are under suspicion, and the next day the milk of all those villages will be checked at the collection points to determine which village it is. From that point, I guess the guilty cow can be identified, arrested, and charged, but it's at least a three-day process. The other problem is that there are an awful lot of people who have been milking cows for a awfully long time who now have to re-learn some things to ensure that the milk they obtain is cleaner (in terms of bacteria content).

I also learned that each of these producers has to have a quota to sell the dairy issued by the EU (or I presume issued more locally, under EU rules). Because of Romania's smallholding culture, there are 250,000 of these quota holders in this country. That is one half of all the quota holders in the whole of the EU. That's one of those statistics that sounds like it should be really interesting, but when you delve deep down into it, it's kind of hard to see why. A bit like this post, I fear.