Thursday, September 29, 2005

Flood season

Obviously the whole year seems to be flood season in Romania if 2005 is anything to go by. But that's your macro-flood. This week is (in Csikszereda at least) micro-flood season. This is inundation not on the river valley or vast plain level, but on a much smaller scale. Mostly confined to the individual apartment, for example. Or often one apartment and all the apartments directly below it.

This is because it's the week that the heating gets turned on. The way heating works here is that each neighbourhood has this large central factory like building in which they generate all the hot water for the whole district. For the warmer months this means just the water that comes out of the taps, but in the winter they have to up the capacity and start pumping it around the radiator circuit as well. It's not in the least bit cold yet, and in fact the last few days have been gloriously warm and sunny, but it's the end of September and hence, by some arcane system it is time to turn on the heating.

But of course when the heating is turned on after 6 months being off, during which time people have repainted their apartments or moved things around or things have rusted or even detached the radiators to clean or paint behind them, there is the very real chance that water will start dripping, trickling or in the worst case spraying wildly out of the joints or out of cracks in the piping. And so, this is the week when there are numerous cases of water dripping from your upstairs neighbours and vast amounts of work for plumbers and radiator repair men.

It seems our apartment and those above us are OK. Which is good news. Erika's school on the other hand had a problem and they got an irate lower neighbour screaming blue murder at them. I've just got back from the shop having bought him a free tub of white paint, courtesy of the school. No idea if that will pacify him, but what else can you do?

Monday, September 26, 2005

Sinking to a new low

This evening I sent my six year old stepdaughter out to buy me a bottle of beer. Which she did. I believe the next step is to send her round the corner to score me some crack.

To be fair (i.e. to make me look not quite as bad), she was going to the shop anyway, and I asked as a bit of a joke assuming that she wouldn't be able to, but then her mother affirmed that she would be able to without a problem. So, I swallowed 6 years of living in the heavily-alcohol-conscious US and promptly handed her an empty bottle to exchange for a full one. (And some money, they don't, sadly, just exchange empty bottles for full ones without accompanying financial inducements).

Bit busy this week teaching an intensive course so may be posting occasionally and at less length than normal.

Friday, September 23, 2005


I saw this story reported on the TV the other evening, but thought it so bizarre that I didn't trust my on translation of it (and thankfully there were no graphic images to accompany it). But now, I see that I did get it broadly correct. I didn't know it was a sack of grain that he had dropped on his, ahem, member, but other than that I'd got it pretty much spot on. Not much to add, but I hope I'll be able to uncross my legs in an hour or so.

Romanian music

An entirely subjective and limited view based more or less entirely on what I’ve seen on TV, since I rarely, if ever, listen to the radio.

Popular Romanian music can be divided into two categories – Romanianised western pop music and manele. Manele is this musical style which is apparently insanely popular, for no good reason. It’s the music of the barrio (or whatever the Romanian word for barrio is) and it is based (very obviously) on Turkish music. I feel I should like it just because it is a musical style beloved of the urban and rural proletariat and sneered upon by the middle classes, and being British and therefore class-obsessed, manele should trip all my right-on buttons. But, like Country and Western, I can’t get into it at all. It’s not half as good as the Turkish music it’s based on, it’s not really what anyone with any options would choose to listen to or dance to, and it has this really weird chav-ish subculture in which all the singers (it seems) are named like wrestlers – there’s “Adrian The Wonder Child” and “Sorinel the Kid” for example - and drive Mercs or BMWs.

(The middle class hatred of manele and desire to sweep it under the carpet and pretend that it doesn’t really exist led to a movement to ban it on TV for a while, which sounds incredible. Not quite sure why it provokes such a strong reaction since it’s basically just rubbish and you could quite easily ignore it by the simple expedient of not listening to it, which is the way I manage. I’ve never been seized by a compulsion to outlaw it and boycott TV channels that dare show it.)

Romanian pop music (of the Western pop music Romanianised form) I hear a lot more of because Bogi has recently discovered the delights of MTV and has been spending almost as much time watching it as she does Minimax. Most major streams of music are covered by the top bands of the moment. There are Romanian rappers, for example, and Romanian rockers (the rockers don’t tend to make it on to MTV though, just play music festivals, like felsziget, around the country). There is also a growing number of those X feat. Y type acts, reflecting this trend elsewhere.

Then there is a strand of groups that play Romanian versions of Latin American music (I think it’s part of the “remember we’re Latin” thing that is quite big in Romania, and an obvious bulwark against the “let’s try not to think of ourselves as Balkan” thing which is possibly behind the anti-manele campaigners). One of the most popular is this bloke called Pepe, who is like a much much uglier version of Enrique Iglesias. His videos always feature him being fawned over by large numbers of beautiful women, and in so doing clearly provide a public service in upping the self-esteem of the terminally ugly. “Look, if Pepe can get women, anyone can!”. One of the others going around at the moment is quite a catchy little number called Soarele Meu by a band called Mandinga, which I’ve heard often enough now to pretty much know the words to.

But the largest proportion of MTV Romania’s airtime is given over to boy bands. This is, I’m sure, as a result of the vast pan-global popularity of O-Zone and “that numa numa song” from last year. But this, to me, presents an interesting paradox. Romania is a pretty macho country and male stars tend to be pretty Male with a capital M. But boy bands, by their very nature, are made up of androgynous a-sexual post-teenage-boys, so as not to freak out the pre-pubescent girls (and the pre-pubescent girls’ parents) who are their principal target market. To give an example, one of Bogi’s current favourites is a band called 3 Sud-Est who have this current hit with “Cu capu-n nori”. It’s a bland piece of pop pap as you might expect, but the video is as camp as a row of tents. There are women in it, but it definitely looks like they’re there because videos have to have women in them. You wonder how these blokes deal with everyday life. Do they affect gruff voices and stand on the terraces at Steaua chewing sunflower seeds as a proof of their masculinity?

This brief overview has obviously left out vast swathes of musical diversity, such as some really really great gypsy music, and I really need to one day write about the baffling affinity for a band called Modern Talking who no-one else in the world seems to have heard of, but this will have to do for now.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Was the year that the following document (which on the face of it seems genuine) was written. It's about why women shouldn't represent Australia as trade commissioners.

Contains such enlightened and progressive gems as:

"A man normally has his household run efficiently by his wife, who also looks after much of the entertaining. A woman trade commissioner would have all this on top of her normal work"


"A spinster lady can, and very often does, turn into something of a battleaxe with the passing years. A man usually mellows"



Bucharest is the latest part of Romania to slip underwater, thus more or less completing the full set of regions flooded this year. Luckily this biblical cleansing of the nation has been staggered so that at least people had places to go when their area was up for being washed.

The advantage with the floods being in Bucharest for the TV stations is that their correspondents didn't actually have to leave the capital, and they could report the floods at length. (TV News in Romania is very much centred on Bucharest at the best of times - the rough equivalence is "man falls down pothole in Bucharest" = "two men savagely murdered in Craiova/Cluj/Iasi/...". I exaggerate, but not overly) Last night then we got an orgy of stories from the flooded capital, from the leaking senate bulding (pictures of senators in session holding umbrellas) to people complaining loudly about the drainage to peoples' kitchens with three inches of water on the floor. It went on for about 25 minutes of a 30 minute news broadcast.

I expect this flood to dominate the news for some more days to come. We still have to have the inevitable recriminations about the lack of drainage in the capital (which does, it must be said, seem to be a major problem), plus there'll be lots of human interest stories about a family in some suburb whose sofa was damaged beyond repair.

[A few minutes later: Just re-read this and realised it comes across as an extended moan about unbalanced TV coverage, which, while true, was not what I set out to write about. Bucharest is flooded, and seriously so, it seems. Apologies if it seems I have been making light of that fact.]

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Going to the dogs

The counterpoint of the following two sentences from
this article, is fantastic. I'm glad to see Bush is finally getting the press he deserves...

George Bush, Adolf Hitler and Nicolae Ceausescu are being used to persuade people to adopt stray dogs in Romania

"Our idea is to make people sensitive to what an animal can offer in terms of affection by showing them that even the most hated dictators on this planet received love from their dogs.

[Disclaimer added for those on the right who are determined to read everything completely literally: I do not think George Bush is the equivalent of Adolf Hitler. I just thought it amusing that this article appeared to be implying that. Apologies for not treating anyone who reads this as a complete imbecile.]

Monday, September 19, 2005

The weekend in brief and fractured form

This weekend (or this week actually) was (is) European Mobility Week, which is all about being mobile without using your car. So we chose not to go anywhere outside the city so as not to break the rules.

Actually there is a local NGO (The Partnership Foundation) who are dead good and they put on various events around town to celebrate. There was an NGO fair in the middle of town on Petofi Street* at which Erika's school had a stall, so we spent some time there, there was a bike race, there was an eco-vehicle challenge, and there was a draw-an-ecological-vehicle-on-the-road-with-chalk competition for kids. So we had a good time just walking round the town participating in an eco-festival right on our own doorsteps.

[*a word on street names - any street that is not named after a person has to be signed in both local languages. Thus we live on Fratiei/Testveriseg (brotherhood) street. For mailing purposes the Romanian name is used. The one exception to this is when the street is named after a person in which case it can't be translated. Thus the main street in town is called Petofi Street after Sandor Petofi, a famous Hungarian poet and revolutionary who died somewhere near here. The street where Erika works was called, when I moved here, Strada Florilor / Virag Utca (flower street), but has recently had its name changed to Kossuth Lajos Utca (after another famous Hungarian revolutionary). It's a game the local government play with the national one. Still, if it keeps everybody happy, and not at each other's throats, then I'm all for it. I think we're about the only town in Romania that doesn't have any street or square named after Stefan Cel Mare (Stefan the Great) either, since he is not such a great hero to the Hungarian community as he is to the Romanian, having beaten King Matthius at the battle of Baia.]

Autumn started yesterday, at about 4pm. After we had returned from the eco-events, the skies darkened and the temperature began to drop. In the early evening, Erika and I went to the cinema, and it was getting decidedly chilly. By the time we came out it was dead cold and pissing down with rain to boot. Today looks and feels like autumn. Bit of a shame, but I suppose this great September we'd been having was too good to last.

We had gone to see Mar Adentro, winner of last year's best foreign language film at the Oscars. This will give you a sense of how long films take to arrive in Csikszereda. It was something of a language challenge for me (being in Spanish with Romanian subtitles), but I was pleased at how much I understood. It was an amazing film and one I can't possibly recommend too highly. It'll be too late for anyone outside of the remotest parts of Papua New Guinea to catch it at the cinema, but go ahead and watch the DVD or download the DVIX file or whatever you modern types do these days. The acting is amazing, and the characters so well drawn. It's about euthanasia but doesn't try to make any political points, just tells a heart wrenching and moving story of people dealing with tragedy. And despite being about someone wanting to die, it's one of the most life-affirming films I've seen. Really.

The other day, Bogi suddenly had a nasty thought, and turned to Erika in a semi-panicked state: "What if the baby only speaks English?"

And finally, from the BBC, man in nylon suit starts fire. I love that story.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Remembering Virgil Sahleanu

This month marks 5 years since the assassination of Trade Union leader Virgil Sahleanu in Iasi under the apparent orders of the former manager of his employer TEPRO. It's a sad, but powerful story that probably never made it outside Romania and the Czech Republic (the company that owned TEPRO were Czech).

In 1998, TEPRO, a Romanian producer of steel tubes and pipes, was privatised and bought by a Czech company, Zelezarny Veseli, who were one of TEPRO’s competitors prior to the buyout. The parent company then allegedly started out on a program of asset stripping TEPRO, running down the factory and preparing to shut it down. Ioan Hariton, the secretary of the union which now bears Sahleanu’s name said “The Czechs took our products and stuck the Zelezarny label on them selling them as if they had produced them. Moreover, they refused orders for certain products, recommending that potential partners sign contracts with Zelezarny Vesely. They actually wanted to occupy the international markets where TEPRO was selling its products and lead our factory into bankruptcy.”

The trade union, now headed by Sahleanu, started fighting in the courts (on the basis that Zelezarny weren’t abiding by the agreements they signed in buying up TEPRO) and demanding the reinstatement of 1200 sacked workers. For his trouble Sahleanu himself was fired and had to continue fighting from outside the company. But fight he did, and successfully, winning the reinstatement of the workers, and eventually an agreement to reverse the privatisation. The company sued him and on his way to court one day he was attacked by two men and stabbed three times.

Charged and convicted with involvement in the murder were (as well as the two assailants themselves) the former manager of TEPRO, and the manager and employees of a private security firm. In addition, Frantisek Príplata, a Czech investor/businessman who was acting as adviser to the new management of TEPRO, was convicted by a Romanian court of “inciting murder”. Even after his appeal was turned down, he remained out of jail on the grounds of ill-health, during which time he fled across the border to Hungary on foot, and thence home to the Czech Republic. The government in Prague won’t extradite him, saying "Czech law forbids Czech citizens from being extradited. The only exceptions are EU countries, and Romania is not in the EU." I'm not sure what that means come Romania's accession, but I imagine Mr Priplata is a tad concerned.

Links to the latest versions of the story (and frankly from where I culled more or less all of the above information) can be found here, from Romanian Indymedia, and here, from the Prague Post.

Low Cost Romania (brief reprise)

I have just discovered that Sky Europe have won permission to fly to Bucharest and will be doing so from early December. They're only flying to Bratislava initially, but given that Bratislava is within spitting distance of Vienna it is defintely a step in the right direction, and they also fly on from Bratislava to useful places (for yours truly) like London Stansted.

This will be the first true low cost airline (to my knowledge) in Bucharest. There is something called Air Blue or Blue Air or something, but having checked out their prices, "low cost" seems to mean "not well known" in this case. There's also something called CarpatAir which flies to Italy and Germany from small airports in Romania via Timisoara, but they're not terribly cheap either.

It's good news, even though it still involves a 3¾ hour drive from here to Otopeni or Baneasa airports in Bucharest.

This isn't a very interesting post is it?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Low cost Romania

While wandering round the 'net today I came across this article on the uninteresting topic of Renault's sales in Europe. What caught my eye however, was the following sentence "The Dacia, which means "low cost", company in Romania is fully focused on the Logan model and can make 200,000 vehicles per year."

I imagine there would be a large number of Romanians who would be as surprised as I was to learn that "Dacia" actually means "low cost". There was I thinking it was an ancient region of Europe roughly corresponding to modern day Romania.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Industrial Cooking (part 2)

Last night, in our ongoing quest to prepare for the winter we made zakuszka. Lots of zakuszka. Now you may be wondering what exactly zakuszka is, unless of course you have you lived in the Balkans at some point in your life. Zakuszka is the way that Romanians, Bulgarians and some parts of Yugoslavia ensure a vegetable intake throughout the winter. Zakuszka is the Hungarian spelling, but apparently it’s not popular in Hungary, it’s just a Transylvanian thing. It’s derived from the Romanian word for the same thing, which is, I think, Zacuscă. According to this wikipedia article it’s Romanian in origin, but I reckon there’s no way that zacusca is a Romanian origin word, and it must be Slavic. (That’s what you get with Wikipedia, I suppose).

So, anyway, what this process involved (aside from creating absolute havoc in the kitchen) was first to grind up 2 kilos of red peppers - and they were a very specific type of red pepper too, kind of tomato shaped red peppers. To be honest there are more kinds of pepper available here than I’d ever thought fathomable. I guess for living in a Hungarian town this is what I should have expected, given that paprika is one of the few words in English that comes from Hungarian (the other two that I am aware of are goulash – unsurprisingly – and coach –in the sense of means of transportation, derived from the Hungarian town of Kocs apparently). But anyway, I digress.

Where was I? Ah yes, feeding two kilos of peppers through a meat grinder. Took a while. There are a lot of peppers in two kilos you know. But this was relatively pleasurable compared to the next phase which was to feed a kilo of onions through the same grinder. Because I still have this thing in my eye, I have a little bottle of fake tears that I can put in whenever it bothers me (which is less and less often thankfully). What a waste of money. Just feed an onion through a grinder and bob’s your uncle. If this were a magic realism novel rather than a mere blog, anyone subsequently eating this zakuszka would be seized with melancholy, thanks to the tears shed while making it.

So you take this ground up concoction and throw in half a litre of sunflower oil (I told you this was an industrial sized recipe) and slowly cook it for an hour. Meanwhile, you burn off the skins off 8 aubergines*. I can’t really explain this process in any other way, and I’m sure there are modern ways of achieving the same result, but basically you put the aubergines on a fire (either outside on a real fire, or inside on the gas ring) and turn them until all the skin has cracked and burned and then you strip them and chop them. (They get this delicious burnt taste). So you take these roasted(?) aubergines and feed them through the grinder too, and then mix in a large pot the onion/pepper mix, the aubergines, a litre of freshly prepared tomato juice, a kilo of soaked and cooked white beans, another half litre of oil, some peppercorns, bayleaves, salt and a little sugar and cook that “until the oil rises to the surface”. Only it didn’t really, and we just stopped after two hours. Then you stick it in jars, and steam the jars on pots of boiling water for half a hour. And that’s it.

We were at it for basically 5 hours straight, but now we have a pantry full of zakuszka (and strawberry jam) and are thus set for the winter. The kitchen looked like a bombsite though.

(*More word facts. The word I thought was Hungarian for aubergine is vinete, but it turns out that this is in fact the Romanian word that Transylvanian Hungarians use. The word that other Hungarians use is padlizsan, which is basically the Turkish word Magyarised. I can tell you’re gripped.)

Ornithological Meteorology Update

The storks were right on the money. September has been great weather every day. Long may it continue.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Racism in Romanian football

Romanian football has a serious problem with racism. This week UEFA punished Steaua Bucharest for racist chanting at their recent match with Shelbourne and forced them to play their next European match 250kms away from home. It’s shameful that it was left to UEFA to finally take some action and the Romanian FA (FRF) has never done anything about it.

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been watching a game on TV and heard fans launch into a chorus of monkey chants at one of the opposition’s black players. Because there are not that many black players in Romania, it doesn’t happen at every game, but for example one of the best players at Poli Timisoara, a Senegalese bloke called Mansour, always comes in for abuse, particularly when his team are playing in Bucharest. It’s worst at Steaua, but Dinamo are bad too.

I agree entirely with Csaba Asztalos, president of the Romanian Anti Discrimination Council in this statement "The image of Romanian soccer is in deep crisis and Steaua pays now for the FRF's lack of reaction (to racist behaviour) over the past several years," (taken from this article). In response the FRF spokesman says “these kind of actions are not a large phenomenon (in Romania soccer). It is about isolated incidents.”. Well, if the phenomenon is not widespread it is because there aren’t many black players in Romania. Ask Mansour if he thinks it’s isolated incidents.

Here is a good article about anti-Gypsy racism at Steaua and Dinamo , and in particular how it is not merely a fan-based thing. Gigi Becali (the repugnant owner of Steaua who I have dissed on this blog frequently) is one of the worst offenders. Of course this is not to say that all Steaua fans are racist, nor that racism isn’t a major issue in football elsewhere.

I can only hope that the latest UEFA action will begin a period of self-analysis by the Romanian media so that the FRF finally start to take action.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Going back in time

There are times when I realise that the place I live has some catching up to do. I no longer notice the horse carts and other aspects of rural life (and anyway, ten years ago I was living in Portugal, a country firmly ensconced in the EU by that time, and also subject to animal-drawn-transportation bottlenecks). We have a nice cable modem at home now, and so it’s easy to forget that out in the villages things are not necessarily in the 21st Century.

Occasionally though I get reminders.

Yesterday, we went to a baptism. A double baptism in fact, the recently arrived offspring of both Erika’s colleague Csilla and her sister (and one of Erika’s best friends) Meli. People flew in from all over for this event – Meli and family live in New York, a lot of old friends live in Budapest or elsewhere in Hungary. One or two live in Bucharest, and there was even a friend and her English husband who flew in from London. A fairly young and cosmopolitan bunch all in all. The event took place in their small home village of Csikszentdomokos about 30km north of here.

The Catholic church is undergoing renovation and so the mass was held in what seemed to be the town hall. This was a nice touch as it meant that rather than the priest being backgrounded by a large statue of a man writhing in agony while nailed to a cross, there was instead a rather nice mural depicting the village itself. We arrived fairly late (thankfully – it’s a bit of stretch sitting through a catholic mass in English for me, so doing it Hungarian would have made it even less appealing), but already the priest had made his mark, expelling the child of some friends of ours for being too loud. He apparently stopped the service and made some admonishing comments before telling his parents to remove him, which they did. Seems a bit un-Christian, but then I don’t suppose he gets many kids in his services (there certainly weren’t any not related to the baptismal portion of the evening at this one).

Then it was time for the baptism itself. The black clad shuffling widows filed out leaving the hall empty aside from the baptismal party. I sat back and watched as events unfolded in a detached, not really sure what was going on way. As the ceremony unfolded it became clear that the priest was a bit old school and was getting frustrated (a) at one of the babies crying; and (b) at his unfamiliar congregation not cowtowing enough to his normal dictatorial grip on proceedings. Occasionally he obviously said things that made people laugh slightly embarrassedly (as that is what they proceeded to do). At one point for example, (I learned later) he chastised many of the prospective godparents (and there were plenty of them) for not having brought a certificate proving their Catholicism. Two couples had managed to procure this certificate in advance so they became the official godparents. It’s not clear to me what this certificate involves, and whether you have to take a test. “Who or what is the third member of the holy trinity? I’ll have to hurry you.” It was all obviously a lot more hardcore than when I became a godfather last year, when I just had to show up and renounce Mal, without any of the worries about whether or not I was actually a Catholic, Christian or indeed monotheist of any sort.

It was at the end of the ceremony however that I realised something a little more earth shattering had taken place. I was watching the ranks of assembled and chastised unofficial godparents, when they all, almost literally took a step back and silently gasped. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a mass silent gasp, but I assure you it can happen. I saw it. There was a lot of shocked catching of eyes and incredulous looks. It was clear something major had happened. After it was all over I found out. Apparently, the priest had seen fit as part of his closing remarks, winding down the holy event that he had just been called upon to carry out, to add the following line (more or less, it’s a rough translation taken from several accounts, and in light of the fact that the last two words had knocked everyone sideways to the point that no-one was exactly sure what had preceded them) “Remember, that today you godparents have taken on a sacred duty, to ensure that these children remain in the arms of the church and in the love of Jesus Christ, and that all those who don’t accept the love of Jesus Christ are stinking Jews

Jesus frigging Christ. This is a man who is respected and looked up to. In a village such as this his word is practically the last word in any matter. And he’s a repulsive anti-semitic racist bigot. If I hear some random old bloke say such a thing, I’d take is as something unpleasant but hopefully isolated. But this guy… He’s a role model. He’s a teacher. He’s a counsellor. He’s probably effectively a magistrate. And he’s a racist. And not only is he a racist but he actually doesn’t hide it and comes straight out with it while doing his job. This is how I know there is some catching up to do here. This priest, it is clear to me, not only feels it’s acceptable to hold these views, but also didn’t even stop to consider that he might refrain from expounding them in front of a congregation of young well-travelled and well-educated people (or anyone really).

Frankly I’m still reeling from it.

Friday, September 09, 2005


That word (which may or may not be correctly formed or spelled) is the Hungarian verb formed out of "asphalt". And there's a lot of it going on right now.

I know I have gone on at length about the state of the roads here, but for good reason. Harghita county in particular has been a disaster area for ages, with Covasna county (the other majority Hungarian county) not far behind. But now, it seems, there is a concerted effort to repair roads. And when I say repair, I mean thoroughly repair in the sense of re-lay, not merely patch up the holes as had previously been the way. A couple of weeks ago we drove over the Bucin mountain road from Sovata to Gyergyo, which we had never before done, because it was so horribly bad. But word had reached us (and many others) that it had been repaired. And how. I never thought I'd find myself waxing lyrical about a road surface, but it was magnificent. "As smooth as skin" as someone told me, which must be the translation of the relevant Hungarian expression. It's become a tourist attraction in its own right. People just drive over it for the pleasure of it.

And now, similarly ambitious road projects are underway on the road south of here towards Brasov and the road west of here to Udvarhely. I have no idea where the money has suddenly come from to perform this expensive job, but I can only assume that the EU must have stumped up some of it. The next question is whether or not the mayor of Csikszereda (whose responsibility the town's roads are) will look at these pristine thoroughfares entering his city and feel embarrassed enough to follow suit.

And on that note, I will sign off for the day, but not before sharing with you the best website I have seen today. Rock, Paper, Saddam. Enjoy.


Romania has come in 64th (out of 177 countries studied) in the UN Development Program's Human Development Report. (Click on the link marked "Human Development Indicators" for the rankings). This is some kind of complicated index that takes into account GDP, health care, life expectancy, income, education etc.

As far as the Romanian press are concerned this means Romania is the worst placed country in Europe - though they then proceed to add the proviso "if you take out the former Soviet states and countries such as Albania and Bosnia", so it's a bit like the UK press stating that "The UK is the worst placed country beginning with U in Europe if you ignore the Ukraine". Mind you it does mean that Romania is less developed (by this measurement) than Macedonia and Bulgaria (for some reason Serbia and Montenegro is not one of the 177 countries included). Other countries which are better off than we are include: Russia, Libya, Cuba, Mexico and Brazil. Which sounds pretty bad, I have to say. Mind you, for real low results, and to make themselves feel better Romanians need look no further than neighbouring Moldova which is down in 115th place, below Vietnam, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and Cape Verde, to name a few.

Norway is top by the way. Followed by a top ten of Iceland, Australia, Luxembourg, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Ireland, Belgium, and the USA. (The UK is 15th).


Many people here had told us about this mythical land over the mountains where doctors were nice and talked to their patients as if they were human beings, but we had laughed off their fanciful stories and imagined that the positive bedside manner was a couple of decades away from Romania yet.

But pressed and cajoled by happy pregnant women who had made the trip over to Udvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc in Romanian), we finally were persuaded to make an appointment. At the very least, we were told, the doctor we were seeing had a better scanner. Last night was that appointment, so after work we set off over the Harghita mountains to Udvarhely, the most Hungarian town in Romania (98% Hungarian population).

It was, indeed, a revelation. All Ob-gyns in Csikszereda (and we have probably seen most of them) are sullen, uncommunicative, unhelpful, dour, non-committal and generally unpleasant. I have no idea of their medical abilities, but as empathetic human beings they're rubbish. All through her pregnancy with Bogi, Erika got mere grunts out of her doctor and when she finally plucked up the courage to ask "Is everything OK?", the response was (always) "It seems so". And that was it. This time around we've been a little bit more forceful, and had a slightly better doctor, but we've still got very little information handed to us, and what we have squeezed out of her has been grudgingly given. So, when Erika went into this doctor's office she expected something similar, just with a better machine.

But no. He (and his assistant) were kind, solicitous, and informative. They asked all sorts of questions, talked to her as if she were a human being (imagine that) and asked her (twice) if she was happy with the service she was receiving. Customer care! In a Doctor's office in Romania! (I know this isn't surprising to anyone else, but it was amazing to us). He even asked Erika whether I would like to come in and look at the scan too - in Csikszereda I once went in and was looked at as if I was some kind of alien (In this case I couldn't go in, because Bogi had got bored and I had gone off for a walk with her so I wasn't available to accept the invitation). Anyway, he told Erika that everything is fine with the baby, who, I can exclusively reveal is a girl (despite folk wisdom telling us all along that it was a boy). And even talked her through some of the things that other doctors should have talked us through long ago. We have a picture of her too (the baby that is).

All in all it was a great visit and has left us with the wish that we had been going there all along, and the certainty that from now on we will. The only slight drawback is that Udvarhely is over the mountains across a pass at 1000m up, and with the baby due in December, there is obviously a slight concern about conditions. But we'll have it here if need be.

All that remains now is for me to plough through the girl's name half of the Hungarian names book that we borrowed. I'd already done the boy's side and identified names that work in both Hungarian and English and which I liked. Oddly the list was littered with classical Greek and Roman names which would have been amusing, but a little unfair on the nipper. Agamemnon, for example, was there. I wonder if Medusa is on the girl's list? Or Cleopatra? Hmmm.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Who are Romanians and what do they believe?

"Romanians believe they show less positive personality traits than the “European person”. They even admit having outright negative traits such as being somewhat insensitive to others, leaning towards aggressiveness, and authoritarianism, behaving like followers rather than leaders, reacting tensely, walking on the thin line between honesty and dishonesty, being rather disorganized, idealistic, superficial and conservative."

This is one summary statement from the fascinating study Romanian and European values and beliefs: are they different or not ? which was published in June apparently but has only today come to my attention. (It's a pdf file and rather long at that, so be prepared for a wait).

The survey looks at the (self-perceived) differences and similarities between Romanians and Western Europeans, whether "European values" are respected in Romania, to what extent "non-European values" are accepted here, what Romania's agenda should be, and the perceptions of the EU, acession, and various public figures. It's all pretty interesting stuff.

There are some horrifying statistics contained therein - 38% of population believe that "Homosexuals are hardly better than criminals" for example, and 46% think "Superior and inferior races are a reality". Some surprising ones - 64% say that there are "Too many foreigners in the country at the expense of Romanians" (in truth this may only be surprising to someone like me who lives in a town with practically no immigrants). Some pleasantly surprising ones - only 42% think that there are "More lawbreakers among gypsies than among Romanians" (I would have expected it to be much higher), and at least one extremely misinformed one - 62% think that "Ethnic groups should be obliged to learn Romanian". (They ARE for god's sake! I live in one of the few towns where you could theoretically get by without learning Romanian, but everybody who wants to graduate from school, to obtain anything resembling a reasonable level of education or to be able to survive in the country as a whole must -and does- learn Romanian. It's stunning to me that there are people in this country who think that the ethnic minorities are swanning around NOT able to speak the national language.)

56% of the population are hopeful about EU accession with 39% worried, with the majority seeing that accession will bring short term drawbacks with long term advantages (that's pretty much my view too).

The best bit is tucked away at the end, where various "potential communicators" are ranked according to how aware the public are of them and how competent they are perceived. The two most competent are seen to be Basescu (100% awareness) and Jonathan Scheele (37% awareness), who is (as far as I know) the chief EU bod in the country. The least competent? Gigi Becali (94% awareness). Hah.

By the way, when reading through the list of traits of a Western European as compared with Romanians (by Romanians) it's fairly clear that most people interpret "Western European" to equate to "Western and Northern European", which is interesting. (Western Europeans are perceived as cold and reserved for example).

Anyway, probably very interesting reading for any Romanian readers, but not especially interesting for anybody else.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Crossing the border

In October I have to go to Kiev (or Kyiv, whichever you prefer) for a few days. I've just been investigating how I will get there. Now given that Romania has a sizeable border with Ukraine (in fact it has two borders with Ukraine with Moldova surrounded by the two countries), you'd think it wouldn't take that long. But you'd be wrong. Either one can go by train on a journey that takes 30 hours-ish via Chisinau (and I know for a fact that Ukraine has a different gauge railway from non-Soviet Europe and that they have to spend a few hours lifting the train off one set of wheels and putting it on another. Why they don't just ask you to get off and get on a new train is beyond me). Or one can go by plane. Via Vienna, Amsterdam or Frankfurt. I mean really. The cheapest option I've so far found involves me flying all the way to Amsterdam so as to fly all the way back again.

It's insane. Really. You'd think both countries would be united in some kind of post-2004 Orange revolutionaty fervour. But I might as well be going to Gabon for all the ease of this journey.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Salt of the Earth

Every time we go to Marosvasarhely we pass through the town of Praid (Prajad) which has at its heart a large salt mine. I didn't really know much more about it than this, and the fact that you can go there for treatment of respiratory ailments. In fact, its mere existence on our doorsteps seems to mean that if you have so much as a cough the doctors here will prescribe a week down the salt mines.

Well, yesterday we actually went there. And it is not exactly what I expected. First off, you buy your ticket to go down and then wait for a bus. I expected just to wander off down some stairs or take some kind of lift, but no, this is a bigger operation that I had assumed. So the bus shows up and you climb on and then are transported into a tunnel which descends at an angle through the mountain side for about 10 minutes, before arriving at a door, where you are chucked out. Then you do walk down the stairs and finally arrive in this vast hall. There are play areas with swings and slides and the like, churches carved into the rock, shops, cafes, a museum and a hospital. It's stunning. It smells kind of weird, like being under the sea without the drowning problem. And the salt looks like marble. It's polished and shiny and, well, marbled. It's quite amazing. Bogi loved it, running from slide to swing and angling for a game of ping pong or billiards. All of these things are there because if you go for treatment you have to spend weeks underground (well, you do come up every evening, but you spend all day every day down there so I guess they need to create something for you to do). After a while you start feeling all heavy legged. It's dead odd.

There's enough salt there to supply all of Europe for 100 years. That's what the sign said anyway. No idea what that means. Does it assume a relatively static amount of salt use continent wide? Have trends in greater or reduced salt use been factored in? If there is a future gastronomic fashion for Portuguese style bacalhau, will they have to revise that figure down to about 90 years?

I think it's probably indicative of the modern world when a salt mine has a website. It's here if you're interested. Though I ought to warn you that the translations on the English language pages leave something to be desired.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The storks are not what they seem

Earlier this week Erika got a call to see if she could help the New York Times SE Europe correspondent file a story about the floods last week in Udvarhely, and the contribution that illegal logging may have made to their severity. Anyway, she was able to fix him up with a fixer (an item of vocabulary I learned today) and he is still there having shot a film for the Beeb as well as writing a report for the NYT. So anyone with access to the BBC may still get to shortly see a report on the floods in Harghita County. I'll keep an eye out for it on the website and link if it comes up. The NYT's SE Europe correspondent (Nick Woods) lives in Ljubljana which much mean he doesn't make it over to Romania and Bulgaria that often at a guess.

We're going to have a good late summer/early autumn. I am told this is certain because the storks are still here. Apparently last year the storks left on August 20th (All of them on the same day? No idea.) But as of yesterday at least they were still in the area hanging round in those massive nests they make. I'll let you know whether this is true or nonsense as the season progresses