Friday, August 26, 2005

Maternity Leave

In Romania, maternity leave is two years. (It’s actually the only visible sign that Romania has ever had a government supposedly dedicated to working people). Two whole years! It’s brilliant. During the first three months off your employer has to pay you some percentage of your salary, and after that the state takes over. The 21 months of state payment of this maternity salary is done at a flat rate (currently standing at 9,000,000 old Lei – about €250 a month). Now this may sound like an absolute pittance, but for the sticks it is a pretty good deal. (I imagine for people in Bucharest it really is a pittance and amounts to an incentive to get back to work as soon as possible). Two women in Erika’s office are currently off on such leave and are earning close to what they were earning before. For Erika (and thus for us) it will be a pay cut, but that’s because she’s the boss. For most people it really isn’t one and for many it’s actually a pay raise. Probably one condition of EU accession is they get rid of such a progressive and socially liberal policy.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

A Wunch of Bankers

The bank we have been using (until now) has just started charging us to use their services. I hate banks, they act like you need to be beholden to them and that they are doing you this massive favour. Any other business treated its customers that way banks treat theirs and they’d quickly go out of business. If shops made you beg for the privilege of buying something or decided that they were going to charge people a fee for squeezing the tomatoes, no-one would go. There’s a reason why bankers rhymes with wankers.

Anyway, to get back to the point, they (and I think I can reveal the fact that it is BCR, pronounced Bay Chay Ray, and short for Banca Comerciala Romana) have created a raft of fees for various transactions. The most fascinating of these is the commission charted for withdrawing money. Everytime you withdraw money from them, the bank now pockets 0.05% of whatever it is you’re taking out. This really isn’t a vast amount of money, but it’s the principle of the thing. But there is a weird catch. They ask you if you want notes only or would be prepared to take some of the money in coins. If you take some of it in coins it remains at 0.05%. If you insist on only notes, and I swear I am not making this up, they charge 0.08%. It sounds like the kind of policy instituted one night by a couple of high ranking accountants who were high and started trying to outdo themselves. “Hey man, what do you think? We ask customers to pay extra unless they agree to walk away with 1 kilo of coins?” “Oh, like, that is so cool, dude. Let’s put it in the new policies”

We’ve moved to a new bank as of today.


It's been a bad year for flooding here (at least I hope and assume this qualifies as a bad year). As I got back from parched and burning Spain, Romania was being hit again, this time much closer to home. We drive through the village of Farkaslaka (Lupeni) every time we go to visit Erika's family, as it is just on the other side of Udvarhely (Oderheiu Secuiesc), which is the nearby town just over the mountains to our West. On Tuesday night Farkaslaka was hit by a flash flood which swept away 16 people. On the news they showed a picture of a bus in the river. Some relatives of a friend who live in another nearby village said they woke up on Wednesday morning to find two more houses than there had been previously on their land. I don't know if they started charging rent. Harghita county is in a state of emergency, and various politicians are visiting.

In another piece of news, which I cannot yet find English language information on, a Hungarian woman from Romania who has access to political power in Hungary (there are fairly lurid rumours round these parts as to what she did to get there, but not knowing what the situation is regarding libel and random bloggers, I'll steer clear of repeating them). Anyway, she has just been charged (at least in the Hungarian press) of spying for Romania. I really want to find out more about this as it sounds fascinating.

Not news, but I just wanted to point out that at Barcelona airport, which is like a vast shopping mall, they have opted to go for the standard trick at such shopping places and removed all clocks. Obviously believing that those people not burdened with time will more likely spend money and browse longer. All very well, I suppose, but it doesn't work quite so well at an airport where keeping people aware of the time is fairly important. I'd love to know how many people have missed flights there due to this, frankly, stupid arse policy.

Monday, August 15, 2005


What exactly is bandwidth? The reason I ask is that I'm here working in Barcelona and the apartment I'm staying in, aside from being very nice, apparently has free Internet access. I turned on my laptop in order to plan my workshops and there was this little blinking icon telling me that there was a wireless network in range, which I of course connected to. So here I am posting this on someone else's internet connection.

I have a firewall (whatever that is) which means I reckon I'm pretty safe from whatever unscrupulous things people can get up to on people who don't have such a thing (the little warnings that Windows gave me led me to worry that this entire network in some residential quarter of Barcelona had been set up merely to entice suckers like me into connecting to it at which point the online bandits controlling it would swoop in and steal my powerpoints on project management or organisational behaviour).

So, as far as I can tell, this is basically a victimless crime. The only thing I am stealing is this mysterious "bandwidth". Will this band now be narrow? Will some irate punter come knocking on every door in the area until he finds the thief responsible for his internet surfing experience opertaing at only 95% of full speed? Frankly no. So, there's no reason to be concerned about this, I'm assuming. (Also the network is called "3Com" which as far as I know is that company that makes post-it notes). [Rest assured I am not downloading the full Directors Cut of "Once Upon a Time in America" or something, merely checking my email and the message board I frequent.]

Meanwhile, some websites for your viewing pleasure:

First, you may remember last year my post about Numa Numa Yay the famous Romanian song which was sweeping the continent (and it appears the world). Well, that particular post is the one on this blog that gets the most hits, and I was inspired to google up why. At which time I found the following lego version of the video. Lego-zone. It's bloody brill. (Apparently the reason I got so many hits was this video of some kid in the US singing along to Numa Numa Yay -real title Dragostea din Tei- which has become what they call an Internet sensation. That video is actually here, but I reckon the lego thing is better)

On another tack entirely, if this website is to be believed, Chistopher Walken is standing for President in 2008. Better than Arnie, I suppose, though the quote at the top "If you want to learn how to build a house, build a house. Don't ask anybody, just build a house", sounds suspiciously like some half-arsed philosophy you could imagine Dubya living by. "If you want to learn how to piss of the entire world, piss off the entire world. Don't ask anybody, just piss off the entire world".
[Later edit: I have discovered that this is not actually for real and is a hoax by a bunch of hilarious pranksters called General Mayhem. Sorry for misleading anyone]

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The beach

So, Neptune. It was great. Extremely hot, contrary to popular belief. I know you hear those scare stories about temperatures below -200 degrees C, what with it being so far from the sun and all, but they're all lies and vicious rumours (probably put out by unscrupulous Bulgarian tour operators in the hope of attracting the niche SE European beach market).

I have realised that when going to the beach with a (nearly) 6 year old you need different things that you do when going to a beach without one (or presumably any child).
Essential items:
  • Sand

  • Sea that deepens gradually

  • Small but perceptible waves

  • Other attractions (crazy golf, little cars to race round in, etc)

  • Room not far from the beach

  • Shower

Non-essential items:
  • Good restaurants

  • Romantic sunsets

  • Quiet and not crowded beach

Neptune covers these bases pretty well all told. The beach was packed with half of Romania - it seems most Romanians go to the coast in the first couple of weeks of August and there really isn't that much coast to speak of anyway. I reckon the coast of Romanian can't be much more than 150KM long and at least half of that is taken up by the beachless and inaccessible Danube Delta. But that wasn't especially important as all we needed was access to the sea and enough room to stretch out a towel.

The villa that Ceasescu had built for himself between Neptune and its twin city Olimp (just to mix up the Roman and Greek classical references) was invisible behind a bunch of trees and other foliage. We tried to walk up to it but all the gates were closed and armed soldiers patrolled the grounds, leading one to wonder if they'd not yet been told of the Dictator's demise and were still wondering when he was next about to pop in for a visit. Turned out that they were there guarding one his current presidential sucessor, Basescu, who was being a good Romanian and spending his August on the beach.

We all got tanned, Bogi swam and could barely be dragged from the sea, she played mini-golf, pool, table tennis and went carting. One interesting fact: apparently walking around practically naked is totally acceptable in Romania. Toplessness seems almost obligatory (for all women, ranging from the barely pubescent to the positively aged), small tight trunks are de rigeur for men, leaving little to the imagination, but strangely the sight of a pregnant woman in a bikini was enough to garner stares and sniffy looks. Weirdos.

My girls in the sea Posted by Picasa

Iced Tea

I want to say a few words about Iced Tea. It has been brought to my attention that there are a number of people in the world who actually drink it. And indeed choose to do so. I just want to say that in case these people haven’t noticed, It’s cold tea. Cold tea. Cold. Tea. Really. Did you know that? Why, oh why would anyone drink cold tea? It’s a bit like tea, but it’s cold. I mean I’m not sure I can reiterate this strongly enough. It’s cold tea.

Tea is in and of itself a refreshing drink. I mean when it’s drunk as it’s meant to be drunk – hot. It doesn’t need to be cold to be refreshing, and when it’s cold it’s just disgusting. I guess it’s a triumph of marketing, selling cold tea to anyone, but it seems to be working. Bogi, for example, has recently been converted thanks (in part at least) to an ad that’s on right now which features an Italian woman walking round with her husband complaining about being too hot, while other men of the town gaze covetously on her heaving bosom. Her husband tries desperately to get her to cover herself until he finally takes her to a café and orders a Nestea, which she sips, allowing the drink to spill from her mouth onto the aforementioned heaving bosom. (In the mind of an almost 6 year old who is mildly obsessed by the impending arrival of a sibling, this is actually iced tea emerging from those breasts, as milk will soon be emerging, fascinatingly, from her mother’s). Now this advert manages, incredibly, to link iced tea with sex. Can two things be further removed from one another? The English, it is often said, would rather drink tea than have sex, and I suspect in many cases this is indeed true. The point of the observation, though, is to contrast the most unsexy passionless possible activity (tea drinking) with the least (sex itself). If there is one thing that could conceivably be considered even more unsexy than tea drinking it surely must be drinking cold tea. Tea. That’s cold.

Which cretin first let their tea go cold, and on picking up the cup and drinking it didn’t spit it out going “urrrrggghhhh” and instead said “mmmmm”? Really. The world’s gone mad. Mad.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Off to Neptune

And with that brief return to the blog, I'm off again. This time the three of us are heading to Neptune for the week. Yes, you heard correctly. Let me explain... Along part of Romania's coast (between Mangalia and Costinesti) there are a string of resorts built for the communist party elite, which are (for some reason) called Jupiter, Neptune, Saturn and Venus. So, we're off to Neptune tonight on the night train. Sadly, there's no resort called Uranus for me to amuse myself making not-at-all tired puns out of. Shame, huh?

In a feat of last-minute planning that will appal my father, we actually booked our train tickets this morning (getting the last seats available until the 14th) and subsequently rang round the hotels to get a room. Now that's what I call doing things in advance.

See you in a week.


Every summer, Budapest hosts a music festival on an island in the Danube. It’s called the Sziget (island) Festival, and is clearly a fairly big deal. This year’s luminaries include Sean Paul, Natalia Imbruglia, and I dunno, a bunch of other internationally famous stars. A couple of weeks ago it also came to my attention that Targu Mures also hosts a music festival – called the Felsziget festival. Now, my Hungarian is well up to the task of deciphering “Felsziget” as “half-island”, which I thought was quite a good name for a festival in the circumstances. Knowingly referencing another more famous festival while making it clear that this one would not be quite as good. Something akin to “Chipboardstock”, or “The Isle of Off-White”, or perhaps “Clingfilmtonbury”. (I’ve battered that gag to death haven’t I? I should have stopped at the first one. Or possibly earlier).

Anyway, I’ve since discovered that felsziget actually means something in Hungarian other than half-island. It means, go on have a guess, what could half an island be? Yep, peninsula. So, anyway, this festival was the peninsula festival of Targu Mures/Marosvasarhely. And it just so happened that we would be in town for this festival (which was this weekend just gone) and so could attend. Unlike the full sziget, this one featured basically bands from two countries only – Hungary and Romania. And, as far as I can tell, they were divided generationally too. I think because of the circumstances that people found themselves in during the 80s, the bands that have survived from that time are almost revered (and I mean revered in a non-knowing-post-modern-ironic kind of way). Hungarian blues singers and other old men front bands that seem to survive despite themselves (blues seems to be a very popular genre among Hungarians – or at least Transylvanian Hungarians – the 70s white version of the blues though rather than the 20s deep south lonely old black man version).

The Saturday night was the time we would be able to make it, and Bogi insisted on joining us, party girl that she is. So, after spending the day sweltering by and in the pool (the previously mentioned “Weekend” which is where all Marosvasarhelyiek* go when they’re not working), we wandered next door into the festival at around about 9.30. (I bet the real Sziget festival costs more than the 190,000 (Old) Lei per ticket that this one does (about €5)).

[*I’ve invented this word as an attempt to help myself follow the Hungarian suffix-ing system. –i means from that place, and ek/ok etc is a plural, so what I’m trying to say is the people from Marosvasarhely, but there’s a good chance that there’s no need for the plural bit at all since I had implied it in the context of the sentence and in Hungarian if it’s implied (such as with a number) you don’t need to add in the plural form. /end nerdy language bit]

We’d heard the turgid Quo Vadis from the pool (a Romanian band who seemed to do nothing but Deep Purple covers), and when we got in the first stage (which was obviously set aside for Hungarians on this day) was occupied by TankCsabda (Tank Trap), who seemed to be a rubbish (but youngish) heavy metal band of no great interest. Wandering through the people to the other stage down by the river we came across the Romanian stage featuring Holograf. A bunch of old men, but a million times more listenable than Tankcsabda. Bogi was a bit taken aback by the volume and we had to sit fairly far back for her to feel comfortable. I couldn’t work out whether the crowd were dividing themselves along linguistic lines or generational ones. Certainly the section we were in around Holograf seemed to feature most of the oldies (like us), singing along to old remembered tracks from the times that music were music and songs were real songs. There were very few of the yut dem (as I believe young people self refer).

After Holograf, the stage started getting filled up with yellow oil drums, which heralded the arrival of Sistem, the band who backed the Romanian entrant to this year’s Eurovision song contest. Basically their shtick seemed to be playing a house-y backing track with female vocals and overlaying it with lots of loud and energetic percussion. They were OK, but it gets a bit tiring after a while. They were also all hip young lads with wet-look haircuts who insisted on shouting the words “Targu Mures” after every song. You know the kind of thing “Thank you TARGU MURES!”, “It’s great to be here in TARGU MURES”, “Now, TARGU MURES, this next one is called…”. You’d think people would see through this ploy after a while and stop cheering, but nobody really did.

Back on the Hungarian stage, as we left Sistem to their geography lessons and gel-fest, it was time for Deak Bill Blues Band. Deak Bill is yet another old Hungarian man doing blues, thought this time with the added twist of being an amputee. He has only one leg and stands at the mike belting out the songs leaning on his crutch while resting his stump on the lower strut of the crutch. I was sceptical but won over by his energy and the singalong nature of the crowd. One of his songs (Rossz Ver - bad blood) was very familiar to me, which makes me realise I have been taking things in even if I do get bothered by my weak level of Hungarian. I wanted to stay for the last band, Romanian rappers Parasitii (mostly to see if they would take a chance of doing their most famous song “Fuck You Romania” in front of the semi-Hungarian crowd that this festival would throw up), but by this time Bogi was tired and noised-out. So to the strains of Deak Bill singing Hendrix’s Hey Joe in Hungarian (though it’s probably spelt Hely Gyó in Magyar), we wended our way out through the long haired crowd and home. I realised afterwards that in the two hours-ish that we wandered through the festival crowds I didn’t once smell anyone smoking marijuana. Which must say something, though I’m not sure what.

Final observation - The girls handing out free condoms had splashed over their T-shirt, which made me laugh partly because of the cunning way of spelling sex, but also because Erika's school is at, so I imagine lots of people sending emails to Erika's office asking for free johnnies. Little things please little minds.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Apres la deluge...

No sooner has Romania recovered from its second terrible flood of the year that it is sweltering under an intense heatwave. The temperatures have been over 35 every day for a week now, and old people all over the country are succumbing to the temperatures. It's actually too hot to type this, so I'm going to stop now. I'll write something this evening when it's more sane and comfortable.