Saturday, April 30, 2005

Eye opener

My first experience of the Romanian medical system. I had had something in my eye for a few days, which no amount of scratching or rubbing or playing with my eyelid would shift. Eventually, Erika forced me to go to the hospital to see if someone would look at it (those who know me well will know that I would rather jog the length of the Danube or eat a lump of Brie than actually seek medical treatment). Fortunately there is one very good eye doctor in Csikszereda, so well-respected that people come from all over the country to consult her with their ocular problems. (As a small poor town, this is not always the case – a colleague of Erika’s commuted for an hour throughout the course of her pregnancy to see her gynaecologist because she didn’t trust any of the local ones). We had found out what hours of what days she was working at the local hospital (and not in her private clinic) and went there early one morning. The eye department was practically deserted aside from one youngish patient walking around in her dressing gown. I was a tad surprised to see Erika start asking her about the doctor, but as she was the only one around, I guess there was no choice. She led us into the consulting room and took a look at my eye. It was a bit disconcerting to have a patient look at it, but it’s Romania, and I don’t know how things are done around here (besides, I don’t really have a phobia of patients, merely of medical professionals). She told us that she had never seen anything like it before, but that there were no eye doctors in Csikszereda at the moment as they were all off at a conference in Hungary. So, she called Udvarhely, an hour away, where there was a doctor left (presumably too unimportant to go to the conference), and told them we were coming. And so Erika called work, explained she’d be absent for a while, and drove me across the Harghita mountains and the rapidly deteriorating road to Udvarhely hospital. (Romanian speaking readers will know Udvarhely as “Odorhui Secuiesc”, just to keep everyone in the loop. Not sure what it’s called in German, but it’s basically a Szekely town anyway, so they probably didn’t care much what they called it)

At that hospital, another patient came out to meet us, and we explained why we were there. She nodded and took us in to the doctor. It was at this point that I realised that these patients were not actually patients but in fact nurses, who were wearing dressing gowns because the hospitals were both so cold. I wonder if there’s a way of distinguishing them from real patients, other than the fact that they look less grey, and generally healthier. So, the new doctor took a look at my eye and explained what was wrong to Erika, who then translated. To be honest I kind of switched off after hearing the words “cyst on the eyeball” as my mind went into overdrive and my faint reflex threatened to kick in (that’s a reflex that causes me to faint, rather than a very slight reflex). But I was alert enough to hear the “it might just go away of its own accord” bit and the prescribing of some drops. This came two days before my visit to the UK, so I was wondering whether I’d have to cancel the trip in favour of some kind of ophthalmic surgery, but it seemed like I didn’t.

(I have to confess here, as the more pedantic among you may have already guessed, I don’t really know what the gradations of meaning of all the various eye related adjectives actually are – ophthalmic, optometric, optical, ocular, etc etc – and I’m just throwing them around with casual abandon)

So, to update you on my terrifying sounding eye condition. I have now had it examined by the Csikszereda doctor who has told me that it is basically permanent. I can leave it, and hopefully it won’t bother me too much. Or I can have a quick procedure, that takes only one minute, and which will basically empty it but not permanently remove it (and it will fill again) – frankly I am having to cross and vibrate my legs even typing this to try and ensure that I don’t collapse face first onto my keyboard. No permanent solution has been mentioned, but I’m guessing there isn’t one - and if it doesn’t involve lasers I’m frankly not interested, no-one, not even the most respected eye doctor in Transylvania, is sticking a knife in my eye, a la that scene at the beginning of a Buñuel movie the name of which escapes me (Un Chien Andaluz? L’Age d’Or? God knows – you know the one, man lies in a dentist’s chair, cloud goes across the moon, director cuts back and forth between the cloud slicing across the moon and a razor blade being applied to the man’s eyeball. It’s brutal.)

I tend to feel it’s bad form to end a piece of writing on a parenthetical aside (although, as you may have noticed, about 40% of what I write is just such an aside) (see?), so here is a completely gratuitous extra sentence just to finish things off with a nice clean full stop.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Circus Minimus

On Friday we took Bogi (and her friend Kornel) to the circus. I’ve never been to the circus before. Or at least I’ve never been to a traditional big-top-in-a-field travelling circus. I’ve been to Cirque du Soleil, but that’s not so much a circus as a piece of athletic entertainment for yuppies who are too scared to go to the football. So anyway, the real circus was just about as I could have imagined. A group of people in caravans show up and set up in a piece of open ground, plaster the town with posters and then drive a van round all day announcing their presence. This one was called “International Circus Columbia” which I assumed was a piece of branding, and in fact they’d be either a bunch of Romanians from Galati or somewhere, or a bunch of Hungarians from somewhere equally provincial. I also assumed they’d all be gypsies, since the travelling show image in the UK is one of a reasonably heavy proportion of gypsies, and with Romania having the largest population of gypsies in Europe, I just thought it would be the case.

Apparently not. Fairs and circuses here are not seen as gypsy things, to my surprise. And as the circus went on it became clear that the “International Circus Columbia” may well not be quite as deserving of a prosecution under the trades descriptions act as I had guessed either. While we never got to learn the nationalities of our entertainers, they were all introduced as Roberto and Antonio and Carlos Manuel and such like names. And they certainly looked South American. And they had (badly) trained llamas. So maybe, just maybe.

It was good. Not Cirque du Soleil good obviously, but also not rubbish juggling and half-arsed dog tricks as I had feared. There were one or two weak points (the knife thrower in particular was pretty pathetic, standing so close to the board he could virtually have placed the knives in it rather than throwing them) , and there was an animal section that it could easily have done without (frankly I wasn’t as perturbed by the fact that there were animals as I thought I would be, the animals all looked well cared for and healthy, but watching horses run round in circles, while maybe illustrative of fabulously trained animals, is not exactly exciting, and nor is it is so obviously skilful as watching three blokes standing on top of each other half way up a wire), but aside from that it was really pretty good, well presented and full of very impressive pieces of athleticism. (The previous is my entry in the “longest blog sentence of 2005” annual Blog awards) Particularly impressive from the point of view of all the dads in the audience was the rope climbing woman, who was not only stunningly beautiful, but also wound herself flexibly round that rope in such a way as to practically force you to imagine similar acrobatics elsewhere…but I digress.

Multitasking seems to be the order of the day too – Antonio, the bloke who stood on a plank balanced on balls and on ever higher piles of planks balanced on glasses (does that make him an acrobat?), also did a stint of horse mastery, and then reappeared at the with his two brothers to do some hanging acrobatics that involved prodigious strength and balance. The ring master also did a turn as the bloke with a pole on his head while “Miss Dorin” cavorted about on the top. The rope woman also appeared as a clown for a while and at the very beginning was Antonio’s (very) lovely assistant during his plank gig. All in all, in a two hour show there were probably only about 12 performers all together, which leads me to my next conclusion…that it’s a pretty lucrative business. There were probably about 700 people there, all of whom paid more or less 100,000 Lei to get in, coupled with the outrageous price of popcorn and candy floss and the rides on ponies at the interval, must have meant that they easily cleared 100 million lei for the night – and in a 5 day period in town they did 7 shows, which is not bad for a week’s work. I mean they have all the equipment and the animals to maintain, and have to drive around and presumably pay some kind of site fee, but even if that all sucks up ¾ of the takings, they get approx €5000 for the week’s work – and as there can’t possibly be any more than 20 people involved, this is pretty good money (well, it is in Romania at least). Mind you I bet there’s some kind of circus pimp middleman who gets a large percentage for “setting up” the venues and generally not hanging around on a wire 20 metres above the ground.

Sorry, can’t think what drew me off onto that materialistic accountancy tack. I’ll try and make sure it never happens again. Where was I? Oh, yes, the circus. A good thing, definitely. I can see why people might be tempted to run away to join them. And I’m not just referring to the opportunity of getting closer to the bendy blonde either (and anyway, I suspect Antonio has his hands on her, and I reckon he could tear me into pieces with his bare hands and feed the bits to his llamas). I wonder if they’ve a vacancy for a teacher trainer who can do a bit of cooking? Give me a flipchart or a wok and I can do things that will make the crowd gasp in amazement.

Book review

I have just finished reading a book which I wish, here and now, to recommend in the most glowing possible terms. That book is “Bury Me Standing”, by Isabel Fonseca. It is a non-fiction book, filed somewhere between anthropological study, historical account, cultural primer and impassioned plea, on behalf of Europe’s most misunderstood, misrepresented, unknown population, the gypsies.

Fonseca, an American Jew, mentions at one point how she came to be interested in the gypsies through the similarity of their European experience to that of the Jews. And in many ways the similarity in the way they have been scapegoated over the centuries is stark, and of course both populations were massacred by the Nazis. But really here’s where the similarity begins and ends. She spends time with various gypsy families throughout Eastern Europe, from Albania to Poland, describing their way of life and the values and beliefs that lie behind them. It’s really really fascinating. I can’t possibly do it justice in a few paragraphs here, but some of the things I didn’t know before reading the book include:

  • The reason that there are more gypsies in Romania than in any other country is because Romania (or rather Walachia) was the only country in the world in which gypsies were systematically enslaved. Gypsies were actually therefore imported into the country from Bulgaria during the middle ages. Hence their numbers here now. (This is a fact that it is still suppressed and hushed up in Romania, and almost nobody here knows this)

  • Gypsies* don’t really have a cultural sense of their own history. Gypsy history* tends to go back only as far as the oldest member of the family or clan group. Unlike the Jews, for example, gypsies* have no real legendary or mythical origin story – which is why nobody really knows who they are or where they originated, though it is fairly widely theorised that they originated in India. (*Obviously all statements here are generalisations and not intended to be some kind of definitive statement, but rather than precede any statement with the proviso “It is generally thought that…” or “Evidence seems to make the following generalisation roughly acceptable...” I’ll leave it to you to take it as read that I’m not actually saying “All gypsies are X” or “Gypsy people do Y”. OK?)

  • They are, however, consummate story tellers, with story telling ability being highly prized, and the story and its telling being much more important than the truth of the tale being told. So, even those older-generation histories are not especially reliable as historical documentation.

  • It’s not clear whether gypsies are nomadic through tradition or choice, or because they’ve constantly been forced to move on. Likewise, they don’t tend to work the land. Again, either by choice/culture or because with such a precarious existence they’ve not had the opportunity.

  • During communist times in E Europe, they were forcibly “assimilated” – by having the traditional family groups split up and moved into villages to live side by side with the local population. The moment the wall fell in 89/90, the long standing resentments and racism towards the gypsy populations forced to live in their midsts exploded into terrible crimes against gypsies – where entire villages spontaneously broke into mini-civil wars and attempted to ethnically cleanse themselves of the hated Roma (gypsies were murdered, their houses destroyed and burned down all while the local policemen and fire departments looked on).

  • Gypsies are (nearly everywhere) seen as thieves. I know people here tend to assume that they are and act accordingly. In Romania in 1994 for example, the author quotes the official crime figures. 11% of all (solved) petty crimes in that year were committed by gypsies. So, maybe it’s a stereotype rooted in some truth? But then you realise 11% of the population of Romania is gypsy, and then it doesn’t seem quite as clear cut.

  • Other aspects of gypsy culture that stand out are a great sense of cleanliness (again bucking commonly held perceptions) and , a deep fear of and fight against death, and a complete lack of interest in integrating into the societies in which they find themselves.

In fact it’s this last thought which ultimately left me with a seemingly unanswerable question. How exactly can the gadje (non-gypsy) population of Europe learn to live with their neighbours, when their values and needs are so different from ours? And indeed when there is really no interest on their part in integrating in any meaningful way. Communist thinking failed because it required that everybody be a contributing member of (the same) society. Capitalism is failing because it is based on greed and selfishness and nobody wants the gypsies as their neighbours. (Though the book suggests that gypsies are exceedingly successful capitalists, being experts at making bargains and deals – another source of resentment among gadje). And because of the lack of a historical mind set and a similar lack of willingness to advocate for themselves in the traditional media of our societies, there is no chance of Gypsies gaining a “homeland” as Jews have.

Vaclav Havel once said that “the Gypsies are a litmus test not of democracy but of a civil society”. I can’t help but agreeing with him. Get yourself down your nearest library and get hold of this book. It’s gripping, tragic, fascinating and depressing all in equal measure. And she’s a damn good writer.

Friday, April 22, 2005


It’s snowing here today. It had been spring, but now it feels like it’s December again. And really snowing, not messing about with a few light flakes either. There were about 7 cm on the car this morning and it’s still dropping heavily. (And it is extremely heavy snow). No idea when it will stop, but it’s 11.30 as I type this and it’s still falling as heavily as ever. When will this bloody winter ever end?

Tomorrow, it is St George’s Day. I know this not because I am English and he is my patron saint, but because there is a nearby town called St George (or actually Szentgyeorgy/Sfantu Gheorge – with the usual misspelling provisos), and they have a festival on this weekend. We are supposed to be going, but if it continues snowing like we won’t be able to or (or we won’t want to much either). I noticed when I was in England one or two shops trying to whip up support for a St George’s Day celebration of some sort. Now in principle I’ve nothing against England having some kind of national day – as far as I am aware it is the only country that doesn’t have something of the sort (whether it be independence day, or revolution day, or constitution day, or St somebody’s day), but I am reluctant to support this one as it smacks of being organised by the UK Independence Party with their “England for the English” type line. I’m also somewhat unsure about naming it after St George. I mean what did he do really? He is famous for slaying a mythical beast. You know, something that didn’t exist. The man was a genius of self-promotion. “I went into that forest over there, and there was this big dragon who was just about to come in and destroy all our lives, so I killed it for you”. And everyone believed him. Put like that it doesn’t sound that dissimilar to Tony Blair on WMDs.

Who made him Saint anyway? It was that organisation which just elected a misogynistic, homophobic old bastard who’d rather that Africans die of AIDS than use condoms to it’s highest office, wasn’t it? That’s a recommendation to be proud of. Make it Shakespeare Day and I’ll support it.

I did a quiz to find out who I should vote for in the UK election, and found out to my surprise that I am a very strong Liberal Democrat (and happily a very strong anti-Tory). I thought I would be a Green, but apparently, by the terms of this quiz I ought to vote LibDem. Surprising. Here's my results, and a link should you be excited enough by this revelation to do the same:

Who Should You Vote For?

Who should I vote for?

Your expected outcome:


Your actual outcome:

Labour -14
Conservative -73
Liberal Democrat 108
UK Independence Party -16
Green 84

You should vote: Liberal Democrat

The LibDems take a strong stand against tax cuts and a strong one in favour of public services: they would make long-term residential care for the elderly free across the UK, and scrap university tuition fees. They are in favour of a ban on smoking in public places, but would relax laws on cannabis. They propose to change vehicle taxation to be based on usage rather than ownership.

Take the test at Who Should You Vote For

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

I know what they're thinking

Been away for a while and am now back witgh yet another slice of anti-rightwing vitriol. Those looking forward to light observations on life in Romania ought possibly to come back later in the week.

Being in the UK for a couple of weeks has meant that I have been exposed to the beginning of the election campaign. As one of the vast number of “natural” labour supporters who has been completely alienated by Tony Blair and his ongoing rim job on the Bush sphincter, I am vaguely interested to see how this effects his (and his party’s) chances. The trouble is that in the UK there are very few (if any) credible alternatives. The only party that seems to be completely reasonable are the Greens, but they’ll be lucky to win a single seat. From the extreme right inwards the main parties in this election are thye BNP (British National Party – bunch of psycho Nazis), UKIP (UK Independence Party - anti European tossers), Conservatives (tory scum), Labour (or rather “New Labour”) and the Lib Dems. (Not much choice on the left then).

As the second most supported party, the Tories have the best chance of ousting Blair, but instead of trying to do so by convincing people they are no longer the scum party of the Thatcher years, they have lurched even further to the right and have launched into a disgraceful and repugnant campaign based on racism. The main problems afflicting Britain today are apparently immigration and gypsies. Their main platform is one of telling refugees to fuck off, a policy made even more shocking by the fact that their leader Michael Howard is the son of a Romanian Jew who fled the Nazis and ended up in the UK. A refugee, in other words. These days of course refugees have been rebranded as “asylum seekers” which makes them much less cuddly and worthy of pity and help. It’s no longer about what they are fleeing and instead about them coming here (and, you know, doing such terrible things as helping to fund our pensions and contributing to the nation). Plus it has the word “asylum” in it which always conjures up an image of mad psychopaths running amok. It’s sick. Anyway, all of them do it from Tony Blair to the odious BNP, but the Tories have taken it one stage further. They have put posters up (mostly in immigrant heavy districts of inner cities), saying things like “Stop Immigration” and “Whites Only” (I paraphrase, but this is essentially the message that they pass on. Especially as they are completed with the Tories’ catchphrase of the election “Are You Thinking What We’re Thinking?” – to which the answer from any right thinking person will be “No, but I know what you’re thinking you racist scumbags”).

Frankly I think they’ve made a massive mistake and that all the disaffected labour voters who would have stayed at home or registered a protest vote for the lib dems or someone, will instead be so disgusted by the vile rhetoric coming from the tories and actually vote for Labour anyway. God knows what the UK will look like if they get in. One thing’s for sure, anyone fleeing holocaust and genocide as Howard’s father did, would not be allowed in under his son’s government. Frankly, the disgraceful nature of their campaign would reach its logical conclusion with our very own Cristalnacht. It’s difficult to imagine that a party once led by Margaret Thatcher could actually get any worse, but it seems to be the case.

I blame the Daily Mail to be honest. Anyone associated with that loathsome racist rag ought to be hunted down and killed by a pack of dogs (thus giving those poor unemployed hounds something to do).