Monday, October 31, 2005


Cluj was nice. It has that kind of faded belle époque grandeur even though it’s pretty much falling down in places. Under the Hungarians it (Kolozsvar) was the capital of Transylvania. It was the cultural centre, the academic centre, the administrative centre. And you can see that it was once important.

It’s still one of the most (possibly still the most) widely respected university in Romania, and it really does feel like a student town. In fact the first afternoon we were there every single person I saw walking round was either a student or someone doing a passable imitation of one. The population of the city is approximately 300,000 and to this is added something like 80-100,000 every term time. Some locals we were talking to told us that in fact the plan is that in the next 5 years the student population will be increased to something like 400,000. Yes, you read that correctly. Where they will fit is anyone’s guess. It already feels like the world’s most student dominated town. And I speak as someone who comes from Cambridge.

Those unfamiliar with Romania may have looked Cluj up or see on a map that it is officially called “Cluj-Napoca”. Napoca is the name of the Roman settlement in the same spot, and it has been appended to the name (I think during the Ceasescu years) in order to remind people of that fact (you see, if it’s Roman, then it has a history that predates its Hungarian one. It’s all very forced). In fact, the city has come to symbolise the worst and most ridiculous excesses of nationalism. In the late 90s the people somehow elected this psycho idiot called Gheorghe Funar (from the revolting PRM Romanian nationalist party) as mayor. He proceeded to do petty and childish things like painting all the benches and lampposts red yellow and blue (colours of the Romanian flag), and then in the middle of town, where there is a large statue of Mátyás Corvinus, a famous Hungarian king who was born in the town, he first removed the word Hungarian from the plaque, and then decided to have an archaeological dig for Roman ruins right there in the same square. This dig necessitated the statue being hidden behind a wooden screen, and then latterly moved somewhere else so they could dig under it. Fortunately at this point the director of the National History Museum stepped in and told him to sling his hook, but this big pit still exists right in front of the statue. Basically, as with most nationalists he was (and presumably still is – while he’s no longer mayor, he’s still alive) an exceptionally childish individual. I think the brain power involved in choosing to be an extreme nationalist is such a regression of humanity that one ends up applying the retardedness to all aspects of ones life.

I have a pic of the statue which I’ll put up later in the week. However tomorrow I have to do a mad day trip to Bucharest (5 hours in 5 hours back, for a one hour meeting), so I won’t be on till Wednesday.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Whisky Robber

So, I was wandering round the Internet, reading stuff here and there, when I came across news of a book launch in the UK this week. The book that is being launched had been published in the USA last year to great critical acclaim, and is apparently a true story about an ice-hockey goalie who was also a bank robber in Budapest. Suitably intrigued I looked further into the story and discovered that this bloke is from here. Right here in Csikszereda. He’s quite possibly our most famous son, and this is the first I’ve heard of him.

So, anyway, more information. The book is called “The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber” and is by a bloke called Julian Rubinstein. The whiskey robber is actually called Attila Ambrus (or more accurately Ambrus Attila, I presume). He ends up playing ice hockey (as a goalie) for a team in Budapest, and supplements his meagre income by holding up banks. Before each hold up, he goes into a nearby bar and drinks a shot of whisky to steel himself. It sounds like the real meat of the story is partly the context in which it takes place: a Hungary in a transition from communism to capitalism. And partly the comical clouseau-esque investigation that takes place to capture him, and subsequently to recapture him as he manages to escape from prison. I have ordered it and can’t wait to read it. A real life celebrity, from right here. (To cap it all Warner Brothers have bought the film rights and Johnny Depp is lined up to play the lead)

Some links in case you’re interested:
The author’s homepage
Very extensive and interesting article on Hungarian website Pestiside

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Religious revolution?

According to this article, Romania's 1989 revolution was actually a Christian one and not a political one. This came from the mouth of one Rev Peter Dugulescu who it says here led a prayer service in Timisoara on December 22nd which was the culmination of a week of protest. Now, according to people I have spoken to, the churches provided an important meeting place and in that sense they were a central part of the revolution. Also, the protests in Timisoara that kicked everything off, were sparked by the government's decision to silence a Hungarian Reformat priest László Tőkés, who spoke out against the system, by evicting him and subsequently attacking him physically.

But to claim that this was some kind of religious revolution misses the point quite spectacularly. I have no reason to doubt the Reverend Dugulescu when he says that he led this 100,000 strong prayer service, although this fairly exhaustive Wikipedia article, doesn't see fit to mention it. However, when he says things like "America is straying from its Christian heritage and inviting punishment unless its people come back to God" it's clear he's a couple of hassocks short of a pew. Whatever his status and his heroism in 1989, sounding off that the USA should become more fervently Christian (more!) is frankly terrifying. Bloody nutter.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Romanian cycle paths

The pavement outside the building in which Erika’s workplace resides is being dug up. Nobody is quite sure why. Well, one hopes that somebody knows why, but most people don’t. We asked the workmen for example, and they said that they were told what to do on a daily basis, and not informed of the final product they were aiming for. It’s obviously very hush-hush when the people actually doing the work are treated on a need-to-know basis. (The flaw in this system became apparent last week, when they had to take up a bunch of edging stones which they had laid a few days earlier and put them somewhere else.) We asked an officious looking bloke who was hanging round watching them work – not working or supervising you understand, just the kind of person who always gravitates towards public working situations and offers advice and the benefit of years of experience standing round watching work get done by other people – and he said that he had heard that they were building a cycle path. “A cycle path! In Csikszereda! About as likely as a shopping mall”, we snorted, derisively. Mind you, the piece of pavement being replaced is only about 200m long, and given that there are no other cycle paths in the town, it is just possible that something as ludicrous as an isolated, unconnected, useless piece of cycle path is just the kind of thing that would have occurred to the mayor.

I’m wondering if the people who live in this building have complained. (I should note here, that while I don’t work for Erika, I tend to spend my days working at “the Soros” as it is known. I could work at home, but (a) Bogi gets back at about 3, and she doesn’t really understand the concept of someone being on a computer and not playing games, and (b) I find I do even less work if I’m at home than I do if I make the effort to have a shower, get dressed, and commute the five minutes to here.) This building is an interesting sociological and intercultural communication case study. You see, the thing is this: Romania is a country dominated by Romanians (unsurprisingly). They (ethnic Romanians) are the majority and they make up somewhere between 84 and 91% of the total population (depending on what the real proportion of Roma in Romania really is). But here in Csikszereda they are the minority. This town is roughly 90% Hungarian and so the proportions are almost the mirror image of the nation as a whole. This creates a certain amount of resentment among the local Romanian population, of the “here we are in our home country, but everybody speaks a foreign language” kind. Obviously not true of everyone, but of some at least.

What does all of this have to do with this building? Well, here, most of the apartments are owned by the police and the military, and hence they are inhabited by Romanians (although the country as a whole is 90% Romanian, the armed services and police forces are closer to 99% Romanian). Here in this building they reclaim their majority status and can feel like there is a corner of Miercurea Ciuc which is forever Dacian (or something). Unfortunately for them, they are forced to share their building with Erika’s school, which of course, being a school, has a large number of people coming and going all the time, most of whom are Hungarian (reflecting the make-up of the community). For the more reactionary and nationalist members of the building (and let’s not forget that the army and police force tend to have a higher wanker quotient than most other members of any society), this is intolerable and they set about asserting their authority in childish and irritating ways. Last week, for example, they locked the lift door on the third floor so that you couldn’t use it to get to floor of the school. Other times one or two of them get drunk and storm into the office moaning about people being allowed into the building without someone checking their ID. It would be funny if it weren’t so frustrating and, at times, downright frightening (one advantage / disadvantage is that the school is staffed entirely by women – meaning, I suspect, that the complainants don’t usually get too belligerent, but also that whoever is there when the drunken boors decide that today is the day to re-assert Romanian dominance can end up feeling quite shaken by the experience). Most of them are completely fine, I have to say, but the one or two who aren’t fine, are quite nasty pieces of work.

It must have really pissed them off when this street was renamed Kossuth Lajos. Maybe the pavement digging is just another step in the same process.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Adventures in language (edition umpteen)

There are a set of Hungarian words which I learned quite early on in my life here, as I heard them on a daily (often hourly) basis. I have only recently noticed their absence from my life, and have come to the conclusion that I probably won’t be reacquainted with them for another 5 years or so. These were the words that Bogi littered her conversation with, constantly and unceasingly for pretty much the duration of her year as a five-year-old. I can probably time the day she stopped at almost exactly her sixth birthday. Unbidden, she just quit and went cold turkey without any kind of help from a support group, 12-step programme, or admitting that there was higher power greater than herself.

These words are the following:
1. pisi
2. kaka
3. szar
4. purc (sp?)
5. moslek
6. ganye (sp?)

For non-Hungarian speakers, the first two you may just about be able to guess the meaning of (though possibly not the pronunciations), the third means more or less the same as the second, though possibly with the rudeness quotient ratcheted up a notch (if 2 is poo, then 3 is maybe crap). The fourth, pronounced poorts, is a slightly milder form of fart – what I would have probably referred to as “guff” when I was of the age when such a thing was the height of comic genius. The last two are a whole new level of 5 year old insult. Moslek is roughly pigswill, which I don’t remember using as a form of cutting edge debate at that time, but would have if I’d thought of it. Ganye, which is some kind of village form of the word in my dictionary Ganéj, is manure or some other form of animal dung.

But now these words are lost to me. In years to come if I should ever have cause to dredge up the Hungarian word for pigswill, it’s quite possible that I won’t be able to remember it, despite it being part of my regular active vocabulary for nigh on a year. Fortunately, going on my experience with English, the number of times I may be called on to use moslek is vanishingly small. Mind you, I have a feeling that these words and their constant overuse are not unique to Bogi, so in five years I’ll get the chance to relive this exciting toilet-word-laden period of my life. Bogi, meanwhile has graduated onto using English words to express her displeasure at events around her. The other day she remarked to me as she was playing a new computer game, “This game is shit”, leaving me torn between uncontrollable laughter, wanting to dissuade her from being quite so graphic in her criticism, and complimenting her on a great sentence (she’s recently graduated from speaking English as vocabulary to speaking it as grammar).

And, finally, having brought up Nagy Imre (the artist) yesterday, I learn that today is the anniversary of the 1956 revolution led by his namesake in Hungary. (I'm not clear whether it's the anniversary of the revolution or its brutal supression)

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Weekend cancelled

The weekend got cancelled. Well, not literally obviously, since I'm typing this at the weekend. But in the sense of our romantic trip to Sighisoara. This is because Bogi got sick. She woke up on Friday morning complaining of a headache/earache, and after school Emoke Neni (the "neni" - lady- who looks after her while we're at work) took her to the doctors and she was diagnosed with a middle ear infection. No, middle ear, not Middle Earth. Not having read Lord of the Rings nor seen the film, I am not sure what a middle earth infection would look like, but I suspect it would involve orcs.

Anyway, when we got home yesterday afternoon, the infection was in full effect. She was obviously in a lot of pain and was crying more or less constantly. When Bogi is ill, I get this wave of something that washes over me. I am not sure if there is a word for it exactly. It's a mixture of emotions - powerlessness, desire to protect and fix things, love, and some kind of realisation of her vulnerability. The best word for it might be compassion, but I'm not 100% sure if that does it justice. Most of the time, Bogi is a human being who I share much of my life with and with whom I laugh, play, joke, argue, watch TV, love, and tease. Then when she's sick, I realise how small and weak and vulnerable and, well, childlike she is. I know she's a six-year-old girl the rest of the time too, but only when she's sick do I feel it, I suppose. Kids, eh? (He adds, desperately attempting to distract attention from his unenglish, unmale, revelation of some kind of emotions, however ill-formed, patronising, and ill-expressed)

We will have the chance to have a weekend away next weekend instead, when we are off to Cluj for a conference. Cluj (Kolozsvar in Hungarian) is the only major, interesting sounding city that I have yet to visit in Romania, and I'm looking forward to it. And eventually we will do our Sighisoara weekend, but it might now have to wait until after the little one is born (she has now graduated from some kind of aerobic kick boxing routine, to doing some kind of extended stretching to investigate exactly how far she can push Erika's belly).

Since we had the day here, and since it was a gorgeous autumn day, and since Bogi, feeling much better today, was helping Emoke Neni make cakes for her son's birthday, Erika and I went for a walk along a path I'd never been on before, across the fields the back way to Zsögöd, which is a village that in effect is these days a suburb of Csikszereda. It's a really nice place, with a great Szekely church. (If I've done this correctly, and you click here, you can see some pics I took. Let me know if it doesn;t work).

We even went in the Nagy Imre gallery. This is an art gallery devoted to Nagy Imre, an artist who was born and lived much of his life in the house attached to the gallery. I knew it was there but had never actually gone before. I liked it - and much of his work, which is very local in many ways (lots of very recognisable landscapes and street scenes). There's an article about him and a couple of his paintings here, in case you're interested. (He's not to be confused with the politician of the exact same name who was prime minister of Communist Hungary in the 1950s and was leader during Hungary's short-lived anti-soviet revolution in 1956).

And finally, you'll all be happy to hear that the Ice Hockey season has started. The level of competitiveness doesn't seem to have changed much though - in Sport Club's first two matches they have won 17-1 and 15-3 "away" to HC Csikszereda (the other team from the town), while traditional rivals Steaua Bucharest have won 10-1 and 15-5 at home to Galaţi (the new team in the premier division). Possibly Progym (from Gheorgheni, about 60km north of here) will be the challengers to these two, as they have won their first two games impressively 5-1 and 13-3 at Sportul Studentesc of Bucharest. I bet you're excited aren't you? I know how much updates on the Romanian ice hockey league mean to my readers.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Around the press

A Time piece on bird flu in the Delta. (Time piece. Geddit?) This is currently accessible to all, but if this somehow starts becoming a registration accessible page, can I recommend Bugmenot, which is one of the most indispensible sites on the Internet (Gives you passwords for registration only pages).

My least favourite Romanian, the obnoxious and vile Gigi Becali, has had his assets seized. Hopefully the authorities will decide to lock him up for a while so we don't have to see him on TV for a year or so.

He gets a mention in this article too, which adds to that post I wrote a while back about racism in Romanian football. This site (Transitions Online) does go registration after a while, so you may well need Bugmenot to get in.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Some small things just to keep in touch

Winter started this week. On Monday the hills around the town were white, and on Tuesday this had become a covering of snow. It's nice now, mind you, but it's usually around 3 or 4 degrees when we leave the house in the morning.

The panic epidemic surroumnding bird flu is in full swing. Every day brings more news from the Danube Delta where the cull of chickens and ducks is in full swing. It sounds like they're killing wild birds too. I was talking to an environmental farmer last weekend says that the genetic erosion (his words) caused by the anticipated cull of poultry in the country would cause a far worse problem than not killing them and allowing H5N1 to spread. Apparently Romania, and Transylvania in particular, is home to a number of ancient poultry lines which have died out elsewhere in Europe. They will shortly die out here because they'll all be slaughtered in an anxious response to the spread of this bug. If I kept chickens, right now I'd be slaughtering, plucking and freezing all my stock, since once the flu gets here the government will kill them all anyway and I'm guessing the compensation will not fully compensate.

Csikszereda has a brand new town website, which I'm dying to share with you all, but can't as it's not officially available yet. I only know of it (and have seen it) because I know the bloke who did the coding. It's at www... no, sorry, I can't.

Amnesty International have slammed Romania and its treatment of the Roma and raised an interesting issue in so doing. From that report: "Mr Oosting also points out that once countries become member states, EU pressure for better human rights falls away." This is something that has troubled me before. It seems that being on the road to accession is quite a good spur to countries to clean up their act, but accession itself is the point when that act ceases to be actively cleaned up.

Off to Sighisoara this weekend for our annual romantic weekend in the beautiful medieval citadel to celebrate Erika's birthday. I really ought to get round to posting some pictures of the place - it has to be one of the most beautiful towns in Europe.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Romanian in schools

Last weekend at a party, my host's son, a 10 year old who has just come back to Romania after living in Budapest for a few years, performed his recently learned party piece. That is, he recited a long and complex Octavian Goga poem in the original Romanian. Romanians present (both Hungarian Romanians and Romanian Romanians) were very impressed by his ability.

Not very interesting, you might be thinking, until you realise that the reciter doesn't actually speak Romanian (or at least speaks very little). His first language is Hungarian, he spent the early part of his school years in Hungary itself, and he is now back here and in the Romanian school system. So, basically he is reciting this poem without understanding it, more or less at all. In fact, so difficult was the poem that many of the adults didn't know some of the words.

But this, it seems, is how Romanian is taught in school. Kids can go to school in their native language, so, for example, most children here go to Hungarian medium schools. But the curriculum is a national one and therefore Romanian (as a subject) is taught as if it were a first language for all. And so, you end up with impressive but flawed scenes such as the one described above. Now, I have my doubts whether kids whose first language is Romanian are getting much benefit from being able to recite by heart Octavian Goga poems, but for non-native speakers of the language it seems the pointlessness is magnified tenfold. There is no provision within the curriculum or within the testing structure for people learning Romanian as a second language. They are Romanians ipso facto they speak Romanian, seems to be the thinking. And so, every year, a large number of kids whose first language isn't Romanian fail and are made to resit their exams or stay back a year - merely because there is no official provision for their situation. It doesn't seem that difficult to create a curriculum for Romanian as a Second Language students. It would also make them much more willing to learn the language if it were properly taught. It's no wonder that when they are older and can speak Romanian well, they'd rather not because their school experience of it was so grim.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

New chain, new dog?

You may remember some time ago the bureaucratic struggles I had attaining my highly prized “Legitimaţie de Şedere” (try clicking December 2004 in that little list to the right and scrolling down). You may then imagine my lack of elation on being told that the crappy little book thing I had been issued with was being phased out and replaced with a jazzy new card.

Initially we were told that this change would happen sometime early in the year, but it kept getting put back, until finally in August the police rang and said we’d have to get it by the end of the month. Come the end of August and we call and see if it’s really necessary to do it then since it’s a holiday month and hard to organise oneselves and also we were thinking of moving and would we need a new card if we did etc etc. The police replied that in fact nobody on their list (of foreigners resident in Miercurea Ciuc) had actually bothered to do it yet, so maybe we could do it in September.

So, come the end of September, we remembered this, and had by now decided we wouldn’t be moving this year, so called to find out what we needed to do. Just show up with the old one, my passport, a receipt for a further 4 million Lei (about €120, the bloody chancers), and they would do the rest. They even allowed me to come at 8am even though the official office hours didn’t start to 9, since I was teaching that week and couldn’t possibly come at the official time. In addition to this new spirit of helpfulness, they have moved the office for dealing with foreigners round the other side of the police station and done radical things like put a coffee machine in the waiting area. The first time we saw this shockingly civilised arrangement Erika taught me the Hungarian expression which translates as “New chain, same dog”, but it seems maybe that not only has the chain been changed but also that a newer friendlier dog has been purchased too.

So, I showed up on the appointed day at 8am, and handed over my receipt, my little green book, my passport. In return they handed me two pieces of paper to fill out - some kind of application form with personal details, and another form which I had to sign to say that it was OK for them to send my personal information to Germany. So, this was possibly the reason for at least part of this insanely high 4 million Lei fee. Despite requiring this new card and despite requiring it for every foreigner in the country, the government hadn’t actually got around to buying a machine to make them. So everyone’s details are sent to Germany, where they make the cards and send them back. You’d think they could invest in their own machine. I have no idea how many foreigners there are residing in Romania but I’m going to hazard a guess at upwards of 200,000, which number, I’d say, would justify the expense involved in getting a machine. Somewhere in Germany there’s a businessman rubbing his hands in glee as he looks at this guaranteed source of income.

Anyway, I signed the form, and they took me next door to have my picture taken. And that was that. I was in and out in less than 15 minutes. On my way home I called Erika to inform her of this fact and her first words were “What went wrong? What else do they need?” being completely incapable of imagining that the process could actually have been over in less than an hour and in only one visit. So, in a few short weeks (in theory) I should have my new fancy laminated card residence permit, which presumably is so ultra modern that it can’t even be produced east of the Rhine – I have no idea what features it could possibly have that make it so hi-tech, but there you are (they didn’t take my fingerprints or a swab of DNA from under my foreskin or anything like that, so it’s not one of these biometric things that the US is pushing for in everyone’s passports). Perhaps some foreigner in another part of Romania who already has one can let me know what exactly it is I have to look forward to.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Bad Company

After my anti-KLM rant earlier this week, I thought it time to exclusively reveal some of the other major companies that have incurred my wrath and made me resolve to never use their services again. This is a list of companies that have bothered me personally rather than the usual list of companies that are run by known fascists, do cosmetics tests on animals, dissuade mothers from breastfeeding, and are in bed with the Israeli army, are into the factory farming of animals, and just generally clog up the planet with shit food and worse packaging (list available on request). It goes without saying that these companies are the lowest of the low. (Before long a comment will appear on here accusing me of being "feel-good" and "knee-jerk" because of this paragraph.)

So, anyway, companies that I want to name and shame here are:

  1. UPS. Some time ago I ordered a laptop computer over the Internet and had it delivered to a friend in the US who was coming over to visit. There wasn't much time between the order and the time of his departure, so I paid extra for super fast overnight delivery. But the computer didn't arrive. Even three days after I had ordered it overnight. It finally showed up 5 days later, after my friend had left. Obviously this meant I had to make other arrangements for getting hold of it and had to wait a while longer to receive it.

    Now, in the grand scheme of things, this inconvenience was minor and no more than an irritation. What bothered me about UPS's role in this was their refusal to offer me an apology, despite repeated complaints and requests. Also they didn't offer me a refund of the extra payment I made for overnight delivery. They refused anything. So, these days whenever I order anything online I ask the seller if they use UPS and choose not to buy if the answer is yes. Which will probablynot bother UPS in the slightest, but if they;d been prepared to just send me an email saying "Sorry, we messed up your order" I would be quite happy to use them. I'm guessing that lack of apology has cost them about $50 to this point, and will continue to do so. Hah. Take that, Useless Pathetic Scumbags!

  2. Mastercard. I have a bank accouint in the US, for which I have a cashpoint card issued by my bank in association with Mastercard. This allows (or allowed) me to access my money wherever I am, which was very convenient. But then, without warning, and for no apparent reason the card stopped working. It came while we were away for a few days, and left us with no money.

    I later discovered that this was a decision of Mastercard rather than the bank and involved them denying the use of their cashcards in Romania, through some kind of racist caricature of Romanians as corrupt thieves. As far as I can tell, this only applies to Romanians (I found I could use it in Ukraine, for example). Once again, while the policy itself is merely a minor inconvenience, the lack of warning and the complete lack of apology when I complained, was the thing that really bugged me.

    "Pissing off your customers by arbitarily fucking with them? Priceless"

I have to go now, you'll be sorry to hear, so any further vitriol aimed at unfeeling multinational conglomerates completely uninterested in the individual customers will have to wait.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The bird flu

We've got it. We (and by we, I mean the Romanian nation) have been sniffing and coughing all week, and now the doctor has confirmed that it is indeed bird flu, or, as it more commonly known to the layman H5N1.

So now, nobody's buying Romanian poultry, and all the hens and stuff in the Danube Delta region are being slaughtered. It's not clear to me exactly why this is, so I thought I would use this space to see if I could work it out. This is what I know:
1. So far bird flu has passed to a few humans, and it's pretty deadly when it does. The big fear is that eventually the virus will mutate into a form (H5N2? H5N1b?) that can be transmitted between humans.
2. To contract bird flu you have to be pretty much spending your working life knee deep in chicken shit (you can't get it from eating chicken or eggs for example)
3. Bird flu has arrived in Romania in ducks that have migrated to (or via) the Danube Delta. It wasn't some chicken who hitched a lift from Kazakhstan
4. Birds fly, and migrate, and will therefore spread the virus whatever we do (aside from killing the entire avian population of the planet)
5. The way that we have of dealing with this problem is to kill all poultry in the areas where bird flu has been found.

So, the logic behind 5 is , I presume, that by killing poultry you lessen the chances of people catching the virus, which in turn lessens the chance of it mutating into some new virulent form. Which does in fact make sense. Bit of a bummer for the people who keep chickens (the majority of whom in Romania are just normal folk with a few fowl in their back garden, and who are therefore not in any danger - if I've understood correctly), but still I guess not an especially illogical policy. I had been thinking that it was a bit futile what with the fact that birds fly around and stuff, but I do see the point behind it.

Mind you I've written all this now, so while it may have been rendered utterly pointless by me actually applying the miracle of reasoning to the sounding off I was about to do, I'm not about to delete it. So, well, here you go.

We've got bird flu. That's the extent of the value of this post. And you probably already knew that anyway.

Sorry to have wasted your time.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Kyiv (4) - a bunch of pics

Kyiv's most famous confectioner and his master work. Posted by Picasa

A cathedral with green trim Posted by Picasa

A cathedral with blue trim Posted by Picasa

That square where everyone revolted Posted by Picasa

Kyiv Richards Posted by Picasa

Main street, at the weekend when it's closed to traffic Posted by Picasa

Kyiv (3)

Other random things:

Fans of Reginald Perrin will be delighted to learn that there is a fairly expensive looking shop right in the centre of Kyiv called “Grot” (or “ГРОТ” actually, but believe me it’s the same thing)

One afternoon I came upon a platoon* of soldiers cleaning up the autumn leaves from the streets, which seemed like a remarkably good use of an army. Much better than sending them round the world to kill Iraqis or whatever my country does with its army. During their free time (which in autumn when you’re on leaf sweeping duty isn’t that much probably), the same soldiers seem to congregate in downtown Kyiv at specially set up booths where you can pay a small sum to test your punching power by wellying a leather sack as hard as possible. (*I’m not exactly sure what a platoon is and how it compares to a troop or a battalion or a division or a flock or whatever other collective nouns for soldiers there are, so I may be mistaken there)

Kyiv is one of the world capitals for sex tourism, as I was reminded regularly by the English language local press all of which seemed to have faux-shocked articles about how big a problem it is, and listing the websites one could visit to prove to oneself about how shocking it indeed is, and filling up their advertising space with escort agencies and massage salons (in one case under the charmingly euphemistic catch-all classified heading of “Acquaintances”). Given the prevailing street fashions I’m not entirely sure how the would be sex tourist goes about deciding which girls are actually on the game – while in most cities a group of girls standing around a street corner wearing the shortest possible micro skirts and knee high leather stiletto-ed boots late in the evening might be assumed to be of a certain profession, here they’re probably just waiting for a taxi.

Completely unrelated to that last paragraph, though it amuses me to deny the non-existent link in order to conjure up an image in your mind’s eye, Kyiv airport on Sunday was packed with orthodox Jews. Really. Loads of them. It was like being in Tel Aviv (well, Tel Aviv airport without the hours and hours of mental torture masquerading as security, without the interminable and insane questions “You’ve been in the West Bank? Did you meet any Palestinians there?” “What’s in this toothpaste tube?” which are all designed as a not so subtle way of letting you know that you’re not welcome in Israel and that in order to dissuade you from returning they’ll make your last memory of the country as hellish as possible.) I’m not sure if they’d all been attending some orthodox Jewish conference where they discussed the best way to get your hair into those long ringlet things, or new designs in small plastic boxes to strap to your forehead, but they were certainly out in force. I imagine the conference had been obliged to finish on Friday but all of them had been forced to remain until Sunday trapped in hotel rooms unable to turn on the TV or call room service. I know that Ukraine had a big Jewish population before Stalin and Hitler got their insane genocidal hands on it, but I wonder whether there’s much of a community left these days (or whether people have started to return).

The ones on my flight must have really suffered though. For reasons known only to themselves it seems KLM have decided to cut costs on their flights by vastly reducing the service on offer – no more can you get special food, so my orthodox companions were stymied for a kosher snack, and I was unable to eat the cheese-filled rubbish they thrust at me. Also, there is no alcohol served on KLM now (well outside of first class) – this was possibly less of a problem for the orthodox Jews, but it certainly bothered me unreasonably. Why they have done this is not clear to me – in order to compete with the low cost airlines you’d think that normal airlines would have upped their service offerings since they can’t lower their fares to the EasyJet level. But hey, maybe they’ve seen a niche waiting to be exploited in the high cost, no frills airline sector. Idiots.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Kyiv (2)

To start with, and since it’s a bit of a tradition on this blog, name 5 famous Ukrainians (my answer is below).

I like Kyiv. The Ukrainian spelling works better I think since people seem to pronounce it Kee-uhv rather than Key-ev, the way I’ve always assumed and heard it pronounced by British football commentators. By the way, and on a totally unrelated tangent, someone recently pointed out to me that football is the reason why a lot of British men have a fairly good knowledge of geography (in the capitals and other major cities sense of geography rather than the formation of U-shaped valleys sense). We know where Tbilisi is, and Liege and Malmo and Porto and Krakow and Craiova and a hundred other European cities, purely because of the club competitions. We also have a fairly good idea of Latin American geography for the same reason (we find it difficult to pinpoint Surinam or Guyana on a map of South America because they’re the countries that aren’t in the CONMEBOL qualifiers). With the recent rise of African football, I imagine that the younger generation are becoming familiar with Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon. This is why young US Americans are lagging behind in geography – not because of bad teaching but because they’re not interested in football.

But, as usual, I digress. Kyiv. Big wide 19th century boulevards flanked by large imposing buildings, in the style of Paris or Barcelona (or not really, but you get the idea). I imagine Bucharest was possibly once like this too, before Ceausescu got his hands on it. I know I keep banging on about the destruction of Romanian cities at his hands, and obviously in the grand scheme of things knocking down a few old buildings was one of the least of his crimes, but it’s just the major remnant of his regime that you can’t avoid seeing everywhere. [On another architectural note why were the years of the mid to late 20th century so godawful? Who told architects that what the world needed were large monolithic hideous in your face concrete clad monstrosities? It’s not just in the communist world either – I lived in Coventry and spent a lot of time in Sheffield, two cities greatly damaged by bombings in the second world war, and they too, were rebuilt as if by someone with a grudge against society and aesthetics. What was going on?]

Today (actually Saturday - that's when I wrote this, but haven't been online until now) I went around the city, guided ably by Tanya my host, and saw some of the sights. It’s a nice place. We went to some orthodox cathedrals, and the old bit, and the river bank, and this long winding steep street full of people selling things I didn’t want. One church I actually went into – Tanya not, because she had forgotten to bring a scarf for her head. Obviously Ukrainian orthodoxy is a harder version than Romanian since I’ve never seen women unable to enter a church for want of a head scarf at home. It throws up quite a contrast in fact as the prevailing fashion among young Ukrainian women is something which should be, but probably isn’t, referred to as “slut chic”. So you get the slightly paradoxical sight of women in miniskirts, fishnets and 10cm stiletto heels donning a head scarf in order to wander round a church and pay their respects to some saint or other. Pictures will follow (of the buildings and so forth, not the scantily clad Kyivans, you’ll be sorry to hear).

So, five famous Ukrainians. I imagine that it is a measure of my lack of culturedness that the ones I can think of are all politicians recently in the news and sports stars. Sergey Bubka, Andrei Shevchenko, Viktor Yushenko, Yulia Timoshenko and Leonid Kuchma. Last time I was in Ukraine I was introduced to a famous opera singer (not literally, but by name and reputation through a small museum in Lviv), but I have no idea of what her name was. Bit sad really. Mind you, even though I do know some Romanian writers and architects and stuff, the first five Romanians that I’d think of for a similar question would be Ilie Nastase, Gheorghe Hagi, Nadia Comaneci, Nicolae Ceausescu and Ion Iliescu, so it still ends up the same.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Small pleasures

One of the things I like to do in a new city is to work out how to get around. Above ground I find that pretty easy - for whatever reason I am pretty good at working out where I am and how to get to where I want to go on foot. I have the kind of mind/learning style that lends itself to mental cartography or something. Really, I'm much better at it than almost anyone I know. It's not an especially proud boast, but it is, I suppose, a boast. So sue me.

But one of my favourite things in a new city is to use the metro system, and work my way around underground. Last night I did just that with my first free evening. The metro station is fairly close to where I'm staying, so I wandered over to the big green "M" that I had seen hovering up a large pole. There were food stalls, bus stops, kiosks, tons of people, but nothing that I was looking for (viz: a large hole in the ground with steps leading down). I wandered for a while, following groups of red herrings disguised as people, until finally I realised that the biggest crowds were entering and exiting a nearby office building. This, as you may have guessed, turned out to be the station.

There was a huge queue for the ticket office, so I joined it. It was all very orderly and nobody pushed in at all (although a cute girl sidled up to a boy of roughly her age near the front and sweetly asked if he'd buy her token for him, which of course he did). I was a bit concerned that they would get sniffy at my large notes - the smallest one I had was a 50 hrivna note (approx $10) which I suspected would be a lot for a metro ticket - but when I got to the front I held up five fingers and gave her the note, and she took it. For some reason she actually sold me 10 tokens, rather than 5. Maybe she thought I wanted five return journeys or possibly standard Ukrainian hand gesture interpretation calls for doubling all figures thus indicated. Still, the price of these 10 tokens was only 5 hrivnas, or approximately one US dollar. Which is pretty cheap for metro tickets, in my opinion. You can't even enter the station in London for that kind of money.

The next task was to get the train. This sounds easy, but of course it's easy when you can read the map and follow the directions, but less so when you are doing it in the strange encoded world of cyrillic. So, I went down the ridiculously long escalator (it must be hell when it breaks down) for what seemed like half an hour, but was probably something like 3 minutes, and came to the signs indicating which platforms served which stations. I had previosuly looked at my map and knew I wanted to go to the main street which I knew began in Ukrainian with a Җ, so i just looked for that and then went on to the platform. Spot on, and another notch on my belt of metro travelling excitement. Trains were packed (even when i came back at around 11), but since there are always a lot of scary looking skinheaded young men in Slavic countries (as a general rule) I was not unhappy with that fact. Much better to share a carriage with tons of sweaty people than with two that you are a tad scared of.

I may just spend the weekend riding up and down the city popping out at random stations just to see what's there. After all, I still have 8 more tokens to use up.

(By the way, does getting a small thrill off using underground trains make me a metrosexual?)

Thursday, October 06, 2005


No idea if that title will come out in your browser, but it says (I think) Kyiv in Ukrainian (though it could be Russian since it seems both languages are used almost equally here).

Anyway, not much time to write much save to say that Kyiv/Kiev is big. Very big. It makes Bucharest look like a provincial city - and since Bucharest makes Brasov look like a small provincial town, and Brasov makes Miercurea Ciuc look like a remote hamlet, I think you can imagine the culture shock I am going through. Well, I'm not really because I've barely left the school where I'm working and the apartment in which i'm staying (which happens to be 100m up the road). This morning, I had a spare hour so clutching my map of "Central Kiev" I set off on a walk. After half an hour I'd barely crossed into the next grid reference. It's bloody massive. Anyway, I have some time on Saturday so will check out the interesting bits - various orthodox cathedrals, Dynamo Kiev's stadium, the river Dnipro, Victor Yushenko's skin condition, faded orange TAK! flags, etc etc.

I watched a bit of the music channel on TV here this morning, and noticed a striking contrast with its Romanian counterpart. On the Romanian version to fill up screen space for their attention-challenged teenaged audience, they invite you to SMS your name and the name of your boyfriend/girlfriend and then some random computer generated bollocks pops up predicting the chance of your relationship being "the one", purportdely based on some scientific methodology of name matching. Here in Ukraine you are invited to SMS your name and your year of birth, and the self same scientific computer analysis will randomly chuck out the amount of money you are likely to get (in the next year? in your life? its not clear to me). I'm not sure if this twist tells you anything about the cultural differences between Romania and Ukraine. (The financial gains are written out in Euros which only goes to show how much penetration the Euro has gained. When I was in Lviv in 2002 it was dollars or nothing.)

Monday, October 03, 2005


It never rains but it pours, is, I believe, the pithy saying of relevance right now. And I’m not referring to the weather, although it is apparently flooded in Bucharest again - much to my astonishment since it’s been a glorious Indian summer up here with nary a drop of rain for the last fortnight.

No, I am referring to the life of a freelance* worker. Having spent the last week doing an intensive course on intercultural communication (of which more later, when a moment can be spared), I am now preparing for a team building workshop this afternoon and then later tonight set off for Bucharest for the first leg of my ridiculous journey to Kyiv (via Amsterdam – see previous post on this subject). I’ll be home at about 4am on Monday, and then will start another intensive week-long course on educational management at about 10 that same day. For a workshy fop such as myself, it’s a daunting workload. Is this what fatherhood’s all about? Sacrificing the opportunity to arse about on the internet all day long in order to work one’s bollocks off in the name of financial security?

(Why “freelance”, by the way? Sounds like a campaign to liberate the winner of the last seven Tours-de-France. Or an offer to rid one of boils for no payment. Hmmm. I’ve looked it up in the excellent Online Etymology Dictionary and it seems like it came from a term for medieval mercenary, which I suppose I ought to have guessed.)

We took the opportunity of a free couple of days this weekend to bomb off to see the in-laws in Targu Mures, which was good. I was pressed into picking grapes (as opposed to being picked to press grapes), and found myself quite enjoying it. As a teenager I hated my occasional forays into paid fruit picking work, but maybe this was because I, a criminally under-oppressed middle class white lad who fancied himself as the Cesar Chavez of South Cambridgeshire, was working for the man. In this case I was working for the greater good of my community and family (or something) and so actually felt good about the whole enterprise. I suppose it wasn’t entirely altruistic as I do end up drinking a significant quantity of the wine that is produced from these grapes, but all the same, I feel it added to my sense that we’re all happier when doing work that contributes to something other than a pay packet for oneself and profits/share dividends for someone higher up the chain. I realise this is an old-fashioned viewpoint, but screw fashion.

After the grape and walnut picking activities were over (fresh walnuts, by the way, are gorgeous), we retired to a bar by the river where we met up with various cousins and had a beer or two. There were two blokes there who had clearly been drinking all day – seriously fucked up. I realised that I will probably never be like that again, and while I don’t exactly regret that fact (one day of drinking these days leaves me out of commission for a week), there is a certain pleasure to be had from just sitting down at lunchtime for a pint and ending up losing track of time and sanity.

The scenery right now is gorgeous. Driving to and fro across Transylvania through the multicoloured autumn leaves was frankly stunning. Having lived in Vermont for six years, I know stunning autumns when I see them, and believe me, I’m seeing one here. Hopefully all the leaves will still be on the trees when I get back from Ukraine. Transylvania must mean “beyond the woods” but I’m not sure which woods we’re beyond – seems to me like we’re in them.