Tuesday, July 27, 2004


Since starting this blog somewhat randomly and thoughtlessly last week, I have spent time wondering what it should be. I have come to the conclusion (if it can be called a conclusion) that I don’t know. So, it will be a bit of everything – part travelogue (or should that be travel-log?); part letter home to friends and family; part half-baked cod sociological analysis of life in Romania; part attempted humour (of which the most part will no doubt be failed humour); and part self-analysis. In short it will be what made the Internet what it is today – a bunch of egotistical rambling bollocks. And why not? If everyone else can do it, why can’t I?

So without further ado, let the bollocks begin. This weekend we went to Maramures. The first thing one notices about Maramures is that it is so far away. Obviously this is not necessarily true for everyone, but for us in Csikszereda it most certainly is. What compounds the distance (nearly 400 km) is the fact that Romania’s roads are, to be perfectly frank, shit. So when we left for the weekend at 9.30 on Saturday morning, I wasn’t really mentally prepared for an 8 hour journey. Those 8 hours consisted of a number of stops so it wasn’t all painful bouncing up and down over potholes. But a significant part of it was. Fortunately, we were in Erika’s friend Elvira’s mini-minibus so at least we could move around a bit and stretch, unlike if we had been in Erika’s little Tico.

For those who don’t know, and really the only people who I expect to know are the Romanians reading this, Maramures is a region of the country in the far north, right on the Ukrainian border. It’s technically part of Transylvania, but it sort of gets considered separately. It was the one region of the country not conquered by the Romans and the place where the Dacian inhabitants did not come under Roman influence. It has a reputation for being very traditional and largely untouched by the 21st or even the 20th century. It has famous wooden churches and they make a lot of Palinka there. (Palinka should have accents, but I’m not sure what they are or how to find them on this keyboard). Palinka is a wickedly strong fruit brandy. It’s also called Tuica in Romanian (again with the accents).

I’m fairly skeptical about places which are billed as “traditional”, as they tend to be about as traditional as the ubiquitous “renaissance fayres” in the US. People dressing up and speaking some kind of faux-shakespearian English for the benefit of the tourists, and then going home and sitting on their leather couch watching the Simpsons and swigging a bottle of Heineken. A superficial veneer of trad culture. (Do I need superficial and veneer, or is that somewhat redundant?). “Trad arr. Disney” to coin a phrase. But Maramures really seems to walk the walk. There is a fairly strong agri-tourism business with places to stay in people’s houses and traditional food to be had, and the famous wooden churches of the region are in some cases newly built with state money, but driving around on Sunday morning it was clear that the traditional costumes sported by the people on the streets are actually being worn for the purposes of going to church and not for the benefit of us gawping tourists hoping for a glimpse of village life.

Also in Maramures is the town of Sighet. The most northerly town in the country and home to “The Memorial Museum of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance” (http://www.memorialsighet.ro), which is housed in the former prison which was home to many of Romania’s intellectual and political prisoners in the first years of the post war period. It’s a truly excellent exhibition with different displays set up in all of the cells of the prison, and a graphic reminder of the years from 45-89. The last exhibit shows the two sides of those years with a very intense photo display of contradictory images interspersed – poverty and desolation side by side with the public face of the Ceasescu era. Nicolai with foreign dignitaries – the Queen, Nixon, Kissinger, Castro, Idi Amin, et al. And the lines of people standing in the rain waiting for bread. Really powerful stuff. And for me, a good reminder that while I live in a town which is practically defined by its ethnicity, the history of Romania is not merely about the history of Transylvania and the alternating oppression of the Romanians and Hungarians. Most of the prisoners in Sighet were Romanian as were many of the resistance fighters who lived up in the mountains attempting to live free of “the revolution”. Anyone coming to Romania is heartily recommended to visit the place.

Well, that’s enough for today. Tomorrow morning we’re off to the Black Sea coast to hang out with the entire country who appear to all be on the beach right now. When I get back next week remind me to write of my trip to Poland last week, the TV channel devoted to folk songs, and the buying up of Romania by foreign companies. I'll also post photos once I work out how to do it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Transylvanian Trysts

I got here last Wednesday.  Ready to set up my new life in Csikszereda, capital of Haghita County, Romania, and one of the last bastions of Hungarian Transylvania.  It's a small town, about 40,000 people and bears all the hallmarks of pretty much every Romanian town I have seen - attractive old centre, hideous communist concrete suburbs. 
90% of the population speak Hungarian as a first language with Romanian very much the minority language.  For a speaker of neither language this presents something of a problem.  Which do I learn first?  The language of my home town or my home country?  The challenging and virtualy impenetrable Hungarian, or the more familar latin based Romanian?
Romantically, it would seem linguistically correct to select Romanian, but in fact my romantic rationale leads me in the opposite direction.  My reason for being here, and my reason for being, are Erika, and her daughter Bogi.  For that reason it will be Hungarian that I struggle with, whilke taking the occasional language-learning vacation on the warm and familiar shores of the romance language which fills the airwaves and dominates the land beyond our small pocket of Magyar-ness.