Tuesday, March 30, 2010


The two stories below are connected but seem to contradict each other in some small way. See if you can spot the well hidden paradox:

1. Last week I travelled from Moscow to Krakow. There's no direct flight so I went via Warsaw. While killing time in Sheremetyevo airport waiting for my departure, I decided to purchase a duty free bottle of vodka for my father-in-law. I perused the shelves at length and eventually settled upon a bottle of Stolichnaya, primarily because it is made in Moscow and that seemed most appropriate. As is the way these days with duty free shops, it was placed - with receipt- in a plastic bag which was all then sealed up with one of those special sealing machines.

When I arrived in Warsaw though, I went through the deep pain of having my carefully selected booze snatched from me by security guards. This is not the first time this has happened to me as long time readers of this blog will know. But last time the wine was in an unsealed duty free bag, and these days I know that they must be sealed. Apparently, the guards explained to me, the sealed bag system only works if you are travelling within the EU or if you are coming from Croatia, the USA, or South Korea. And that's it. Have these countries done deals where they take EU officials round their duty free shops and show them how impossible it would be to pack liquid explosives in bottles of alcohol, and then sell it to passengers without their knowledge, and make it explode only when they'd got onto their connecting flight? It's hard to know. But it does seem like yet another load of inexplicable bollocks done in the name of "security". I wonder whether if I'd been routed Moscow-Zagreb-Warsaw-Krakow, whether I'd have been able to keep it - if so, it sounds like a very good way for Zagreb to become a major hub in Europe. I can only hope that the Polish security guards who put the bottle in the bin, retrieved it after I left and took it home. It's would be a great shame to have wasted it entirely.

2. On the same flight, my bag was checked all the way through to Krakow. As my final flight was domestic and I arrived at the large echo-ey empty warehouse that acts as Krakow's domestic terminal, this meant that my bag never went through customs at any point. In Krakow I just picked it up and walked out.

Not thinking things through

According to the survey data reported here, among the depressing findings that 91% of Romanians would like to reintroduce the death penalty and 88% think it should be a crime to criticise the Orthodox Church, is the statistic that 89% of Romanians think that anyone in favour of autonomy for Székelyföld should have their citizenship revoked. I suspect people didn't really think this through, since, you know, if you revoked everyone's citizenship round here, they'd effectively be autonomous. No taxes, no need to obey the law, etc etc. You couldn't deport them because they'd have no state to be deported to, so they'd have to stay here. In a stroke you'd effectively have created Székely autonomy. Brilliant thinking, Iosif Public.

Either 89% of people in this country are a bit thick, or the questions were skewed in such a way as to make the findings seem really newsworthy. I suspect the latter.

Monday, March 15, 2010

15th March 1848

Today is, as you may have noticed, March 15th. Not much special about that for most people, aside from that whole ides of March / et tu brute thing. But it is a big deal in the world of Hungarians, as it represents possibly the biggest day in the Hungarian calendar - the commemoration of the revolution of 1848.

Of late I've been reading a great history book called "The Hungarians: 1000 Years of Victory in Defeat" by Paul Lendvai. (The title is very apt since the history of Hungarians in Europe does seem to have been a litany of defeats - and in fact the two biggest holidays in the Hungarian calendar - today and the commemoration of the 1956 uprising both, ultimately celebrate and romanticise defeats).

The thing that really stands out about the history of Hungary prior to 1848 is that if Hungarians feel the need to hold any historical grudges, they ought to hold those grudges at two groups
(1) Their own ridiculously self-interested and anti-progressive nobility. With a few notable exceptions this group kept Hungary (and it's attendant bits) in a ridiculously backward state for centuries; and
(2) The Austrians/Habsburgs who seemingly never missed an opportunity to screw everyone over, and especially the Hungarians.

What's inspiring about the 1848 revolution which Hungarians celebrate today is that it is liberation from these very two groups that characterises the positive side of the uprising. The removal of serfdom, the emancipation of the Jews and the wresting of control from Vienna were some of the truly forward thinking things achieved by the revolution. On the negative side the leaders of the revolution, including it's most famous member Kossuth Lajos, wrapped everything up in a Magyar nationalism which ultimately led to its downfall. This was not only a political error - nothing good ever comes of nationalism, and to use nationalism as a tool or worse as a basis, always ends up badly- but it was a massive tactical error too. Rather than liberating peasants from serfdom, the sense was that it was about liberating Hungarian peasants - Romanians and Serbs and other ethnic groups within Hungary and Transylvania were not to be liberated, and so had no stake in the success of the revolution (and indeed could not have been faulted for being highly suspicious of it and fearful of its success). Austria got them to fight along with Vienna against the revolution (and promptly, when it was successfully put down, screwed them over too. The Habsburgs were equal opportunity dickheads it seems). Later in exile, Kossuth Lajos argued for a loose Danube confederation of peoples, which would have been a much better bet from the word go, but by then it was too late.

Eventually the revolution was finally put down with the support of Russia. One of the best things about Lendvai's book ( as well as it being a very even-handed and well-written history) is some little vignettes of interest - people who rose to minor prominence and/or infamy. One of these is Alexei Gusev. Alexei Gusev was a Csarist captain who realised how important the revolution was and ended up fighting alongside the Hungarians. Except that he didn't actually exist. During the time of Soviet domination of Hungary, the USSR wanted to present themselves as long time friends of Hungary - this was a problem because Hungary's most romantic historical moment (1848) was eventually put down with Russian support. In trying to form a clear revolutionary link between Kossuth and Stalin, a compliant Hungarian historian was recruited who then researched in archives and came up with the aforementioned Captain Gusev, who had rebelled against the Csar and joined Kossuth. Here was the link between the USSR and Kossuth. They even named streets after him in Budapest and other towns. Until of course it was discovered after 1989 that he had in fact been entirely made up.

But anyway, I digress. 1848. Kossuth. Petőfi. It's difficult to overstate the importance of this moment in Hungarian history, and in the Hungarian consciousness. As I look out the window today, I can see Hungarian flags all over the place. This is about the only day of the year when you see those flags here (except outside the Hungarian consulate). There will be a laying of wreaths on the statues of Petőfi and Nicolae Balcescu (who was a Romanian revolutionary leader in 1848 also, and who ought to have been listened to more by Kossuth, as much more could have been achieved)

I'll write more about the Lendvai book as I go through it. It's really worth reading for anyone vaguely interested in regional history and in particular the Hungarians' place in it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Round the Bloc

I have had a fairly long period in Romania since my last trip (without really working it out, I suspect the longest uninterrupted period in the country since I arrived), having not been anywhere since November. Not sure if this represents any major trend, but fortunately I have actually been working a fair amount during that time, but doing it online rather than in the flesh. I have to say though if one was to pick a time period in which to remain constantly in the Ciuc depression, the November-March slot would not necessarily be it. Especially not this ridiculously long, cold and snowy winter. Anyway, this period is about to come to an end next week when I depart these shores for the sub-tropical climes of ..., erm, ...Moscow.

As it happens the way things have worked out I now have a month of travel coming up, centred around a tour of post-communist Eastern Europe. Next Thursday I make the Bucharest-Warsaw-Moscow trip beloved of apparatchiks in the 1970s taking in all those amazing monuments to the beautiful architecture of the aesthetes of those times (they all look peculiarly and ironically Disney-esque to be honest, and show a great in-your-face penchant for architecturally flipping the bird at the very proletariat they were supposed to inspire)

From here...past here...
...to here
Back from Moscow at the weekend via a few days in Krakow, and then a couple of weeks later to that other city at the heart of it all, Berlin. This Bloc party is rather spoilt by the fact that in between the Russia/Poland trip and the Berlin trip, I will spend a week in Harrogate, a town which is about as far from the Communist heartland as it is possible to be. Twee-blue-rinsed-conservative-small-town-England. But still, who knows what hidden secrets Harrogate conceals beneath its genteel Victorian skirts. A gulag in which those not toeing the mustn't-grumble-except-about-immigrants party line are dunked in vats of strong tea? We'll see.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Stupid quiz

A completely gratuitous and apropos-of-nothing-in-particular quiz for your Thursday pleasure.

Translate the following. What's the link?
  1. Öreg sonka
  2. Enterrer
  3. Casco
  4. Ficat piscină
  5. Schüren
  6. Lupi
  7. Novo castelo
  8. Mlýn zeď
  9. Okuma
  10. Zapad šunka
Note: I can not actually vouch for the perfection of many of these translations, but as far as I can tell they work.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Sign of the signs

A very important addition to the Romanian road side. Particularly for people who are not familiar with the fact that driving through any village you are likely to find extremely pissed up people staggering in front of your car, just collapsing on the road in front of you, or if they're on a bike, slaloming slowly up and down the street.

Story here. Though I wouldn't trust the Telegraph's translation of the sign. As far as I know it says (quite poetically) "Tormented Citizens"

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Beer news

Romanian beer is decidedly average. The best of the mass produced stuff is Ciuc, made here (and I don't say that because it's a local product, it's just the best there is - I think it's because we have the best water)

However, as I reported some years ago there did briefly appear the very wonderful Sapte Coline.Sadly this excellent beer was only available in its home town, Iasi, and was therefore a bit niche market. (It has, I'm told by my Iasi contacts, since died out).

However, I have just discovered a very nice replacement called MaDonna brewed in Galati. As far as I can tell the brewery doesn't have a website, but there is an article about it here (in Romanian). A real Belgian style beer brewed in Romania, and available throughout the country. Delicious. I am drinking some right now as I type this, and I can thoroughly recommend it. So there you go. Good beer in Romania.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Evangelism and its discontents

Am I the only person who really really cannot stand evangelism? I'm not just talking about religion here, though obviously there are certain religious groups and people who are particularly guilty of being insanely evangelical, and in fact it seems that the very concept comes out of Christianity. I have no problem with people believing whatever they want to believe, but when it starts to be something they want to force it down everyone else's throat, it pisses me right off. Aside from the obvious - war criminals, rapists, paedophiles etc etc, I would say that missionaries are quite possible my least favourite group of people (they might be nice enough as people, but they have chosen a life which is all about looking down on others, criticising and then trying to turn them into carbon copies of themselves. Really arrogant and repulsive stuff).

The other evangelism I've become aware of of late is tech evangelism. There is much talk these days of "digital immigrants" and "digital natives", but I think it's time to coin the term "digital missionaries" (and as may be apparent from the above, I don't use that word in a positive way). I touched upon it recently when I wrote about mad Mac-o-philes (though I realise that post implied that all Mac users were fundamentalist evangelicals, which is not true. Just some of them, though seemingly a large proportion)

Of late I've been moving in newish circles of people (I mean this in the online sense of that phrase), many of whom are passionate about the use of technology in education (education is, in case you didn't know, my professional field). Now for the most part this is great - people who are trying to improve the learning experience for students, trying to help them learn more effectively and making use of many of the tools that exist. But there are a few who seem to make it their mission to criticise, belittle, patronise and ridicule those who are not using aforementioned tools (even if those people are in places where they really can't). It drives me mad. And, it has the effect of making me want to NOT want to use the stuff they peddle, just as i-vangelism has the effect of making me NOT ever want to own anything made by Apple. [Yes, I do recognise that this is my problem not theirs].

Now possibly someone will pipe up and suggest that as I keep a blog, I am - in a sense- evangelising too, but I really don't feel that I am. I obviously have opinions (as does everyone else), and I'm happy to share those opinions and bore everyone to tears with them, but whether anyone is swayed in any way by my opinions is entirely up to them (and in fact I actually presume that no-one ever is). To give an example, I am vegetarian. I've just done a search of the entire blog and I have mentioned this fact twice. Just mentioned it. No "why you too should be a vegetarian" or anything like that. We (vegetarians) are always being accused by meat eaters of being evangelical - I've never seen this, but I think the perception exists. As it goes I think there are pressing reasons why a greater number of vegetarians would be a good thing, but I'm still not really interested in telling or even suggesting to people that they should follow me on this path. I figure people think about it, (because I assume the vast majority of people have brains, and thoughts, and can weigh up various options) and make their own decisions. Whatever I happen to think of that decision is irrelevant.

I have pondered the possibility that I am using "evangelism" to mean "going on about things I don't like" and "just sharing my opinions" for "going on about things I do", but I'm pretty sure that's not it. After all, I am in favour of using technology in the classroom in a well thought out way (and in contexts where it's possible), I just don't like it when people try and make it seem that people who don't are somehow inferior and, worse, professionally incompetent.

I have the strong suspicion now that people are going to use the comments section to highlight places where I have been evangelical - but at least if that happens I might be able to more clearly define what constitutes evangelism and what doesn't. Since I think I probably haven't yet, even though, to coin a phrase, I know it when I see it.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010


I occasionally forget that I live in a microclimate. It is well known (at least within Romania) that Csikszereda is the coldest place in the country (though locally, that title is hotly contested by Gyergyószentmiklós (Gheorgheni). [In fact the official coldest place in the country is Gyergyóalfalu - Joseni - which is near Gyergyó] When I watch the weather forecast on Romanian TV, if they don't mention the projected temperature here (and they rarely do, since it's not exactly a big place), I have to take the temperature they give for Brasov, and subtract a few degrees to have a rough idea. But I do tend to forget that we really have different weather here. A couple of weeks ago, we drove over to Székelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc), and I was stunned to realise once we climbed over the mountain pass at Tolvajos-tető (no idea what that's called in Romanian, I'm afraid, I'm not even sure it has a name), suddenly there was no snow. A few patches in sheltered north facing nooks, but basically nothing. And that's just 20 kms from here. We, then at least, still had tons of the stuff lying around everywhere. It's slowly going now as it's been warmer for a week, but there's still a fair amount. Elsewhere? Not a flake.

Csíkszereda, you see, lies in a depression in the mountains. We're 700m above sea level, which means, for example, that we're way higher up than the Tan Hill Inn, which bills itself as the highest pub in Britain at 1732 feet (which in real money is just under 530 metres). However it doesn't feel like that as we are surrounded by montains on all sides, most of which are getting on for 2000m high). Thus we get our own little microclimate. Sometimes in the winter all the mountains and even nearby towns are blanketed in snow, and we've got none. Or the other way round (like now). We have very cold winters*, and pleasant summers (while the winter here is pretty brutal, we are a haven for people from all over the country sweltering in deeply unpleasant summers). Famously, you can't grow tomatoes in Csíkszereda. (To be honest this is not exactly true, because (a) obviously you can in greenhouses; (b) you can grow them outside too, they just don't get ripe; and (c) increasingly these days as the climate gets warmer you seemingly can).

[* This has been a fairly tough winter, and temperatures dropped below -30 a few times, but I have lost count of the times so far this year that people have told me about 1985 when it got down to -41. I live in a world where people measure their worth by the ability to withstand cold]

Documentary recommendation

Just watched a nearly hour long astonishing documentary made by a Romanian guy for the BBC on Romanian Rroma kids in Europe being exploited as child criminals. Well worth watching if you've a little time to spare:

Part 1 is here and after that you can follow the links to the following parts.