Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Recycling in Romania

At first glance recycling here is practically non-existant. There are no green or blue bins for people, no bottle banks outside supermarkets, no ads urging people to sort their waste into glass, cans and plastic. More or less everything just gets thrown in the bin.

But after a while you realise there is some kind of recycling system. Glass bottles, for example, you have to take back to the shop to get new ones for (or pay an inordinate sum to "buy" the bottle along with the drink it contains). Everytime I buy beer, for example, I fill a bag with bottles, go down the shop and leave them there, while picking up an equal number of new ones (by, well, y'know, paying for the beer).

Plastic bags, are another item that get endlessly recycled. If you go to the shop wothout one, you have to pay for a new one. So everyone carries bags to the shop with them. Most people in fact secrete a plastic bag about their person when they go out, even if they're not going shopping, just in case they need to buy something.

Then there are the scavengers. Our new flat looks out on to a kind of courtyard between blocks of flats, in which are the local bins - big skips, which get emptied once a day. At any one time if I look out the window, there are normally people searching through these bins to take what can be sold on, cleaned up or generally re-used. For about the first two or three weeks of living here I found this a fascinating cultural event to observe, but now I have to confess I just find it depressing. I tend, as much as possible, to sort things in such a way as to make things that I think they will want more accessible, leaving biggish items next to the bins so they don't get covered in garbage. But I have no idea whether someone opens the bags that I just chuck in there filled with dirty nappies, bits of food, and other unpleasant detritus. I sincerely hope not.

(There must actually be some kind of plastic bottle recycling system, since one of the blokes who comes round seems to do nothing but collect them. He must be taking them somewhere and exchanging them for something, unless he's building a really really really big raft in preparation for a second biblical flood.)

Monday, June 26, 2006

How the other half lives

Last Thursday, I was privileged to take part in a ritual normally resevred for Romanians, laid on by my own trusty British Embassy.

I have previously had two occasions to deal with the Embassy in Bucharest - both times with the passport office. Now the passport office is a very nice little room, where you go along (once you've got through the security check) and deal with someone whose job is basically to help you. It is the section of the embassy specifically designed for helping British citizens in Romania, and since there are not that many of us, they seem very happy to see you and to do your bidding.

To get to the passport office you have to walk through this large waiting area, lined with chairs. The one time I had to do it before, this room was empty, and I wondered what it could be for, since the little ante-chamber of the office itself had three chairs in it, and some magazines and stuff, and this seemed like it would be enough.

Last Thursday, I found out. That large waiting area opens up into an even larger one which I had not seen before, and at around noon the day I was there it was utterly jam packed. This, then, is the visa waiting area. Romanians need visas to visit the UK. I have no idea why, since they don't need visas to enter any other EU countries (except Ireland maybe), but there you go. For whatever reason, the Uk government requires that Romanians need a visa to enter our hallowed isle, with its streets paved with gold and last night's vomit. I had two tasks to perform on Thursday - one was to apply for a UK passport for Paula, which was predictably easy and hassle free, and the other was to get a visa for Bogi, so that we all could come together as a family to the UK this summer.

The system works like this: You have to show up at 7am outside the gates of the embassy. A bloke comes out and hands out numbered tickets to all those who have done so, and that's the order you get seen in (you need to have an interview, as well as filling in all the forms, and providing the vast reams of paperwork, all in an attempt to ensure that you won't be so enraptured by a life of drizzle and binge drinking and decide to stay). Then at some stage you get let into the building (at 9 I'm guessing), and so begins the long wait.

For some lucky people there is a seperate system, known as the "drop box". This is for use by those who are deemed low risk - people who've had visas before and come back to Romania, people with work permit applications that are already totally in order (including the employer letter), and various others. The "drop box" is open from 10 - 12. I was informed on the phone that Bogi would be eligible for the drop box, though I wasn't clear why. Whatever the reason, I was profoundly grateful to not have to somehow engineer a way to be in downtown Bucharest at 7 am.

However, the drop box is not quite the simple breeze that is implied by the innocuous name. I expected (understandably given the title) that I would show up with my forms, put them in a box and then be asked to come back later when the visa had been issued. No. You have to queue up (for quite a while, possibly around an hour I was waiting) in order to give your forms to a bloke who checks that you've got all the bits and then issues you with a number, and tells you to go and pay the fee at the cashier's window. Only th cashier's window is closed and you have to wait another hour until they open it and deign to accept your flipping great wodges of cash. This whole thing took me significantly over two hours (just to make a deposit in the drop box). I was then told to come back at 4pm, to get the visa. I nipped into the passport office and was dealt with in ten minutes (remember the mission statement of the passport office is "Helping British Citizens in Romania", while the mission of the visa office is "Dissuading Romanians from entering Britain"), and left the building for my hour long lunch break.

At this point, I should make it clear that I had it dead easy. The place was packed with people, most of whom had presumably been there since 7am. They didn't get an hour off for good behaviour, they just had to sit and wait and wait and wait. The only positive thing you can say is that at least the waiting area is air-conditioned so the wait is not carried out in the 35 degree heat that was stifling Bucharest that day.

So, at 4, I rolled back up and was told to go back inside and wait. Once again I waited, along with various others who I'd seen in the drop box queue earlier. Finally at 5, my visa was ready! Only there was a mistake and in fact the visa had been issued for Erika and not Bogi (Erika already has a valid visa). I handed it back, and the bloke swore in frustration, and took it back inside. Finally at 5.30 Bogi's visa, correctly issued, was ready. There were still some people left there waiting from the morning.

In all honesty, the staff were very helpful and fair, in what must be very trying circumstances, and they must have processed 250 visas in the one day I was there, a scenario that presumably repeats regularly. I have to hand it to them, really. It's clearly the policy that's at fault, or something about the system. Why people can't just hand stuff in and then come back later, like with most visa processes is beyond me.

Still, I feel like it's worth me seeing what it is that Romanians have to go through to get a visa for my country. Thankfully, for me, the Romanian government doesn't reciprocate and insist that Brits attempting to come here are not subjected to a day spent in a small room in London first, and in fact they let us in without a single question. It's got to be tempting though.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

World Cup Fever

The first ever blog I did, before I even knew there was such a thing as a blog, or even that such a word existed (and in truth, it may not have existed at that time) was in 1998. It was called something like "Ramblings of a disenfranchised football fan", and it recounted the amusing(ish) details of my life as a football fan living in the Federated States of Micronesia, attempting to follow the 1998 World Cup, which was not televised in that country (almost uniquely I was led to believe). I suspect it has vanihsed into the periodic clean-ups of a server somewhere (it was on Geocities before Geocities was bought up by Yahoo). I certainly can't find it via any search engine.

Now, however, eight years later, I live in a country that televises every game and which does so in a very convenient time zone for TV-based match watching. And hence World Cup fever has come to our living room. Sadly there is no Romania or Hungary to cheer on, so we have to make do with spotting players with Hungarian names (yesterday's red-carded Czech defender Ujfalusi being the most obvious). The World Cup for me is all about cheering on good football and hoping that the team playing the best football wins. Hence, I am not really that patriotic, since the last time England played good football in the finals of a major championship was ten years ago now, and even then it was only one match. So far, honours in the "great football" stake have been taken by Argentina and Spain, and long may they continue to prosper (Spain will, of course, get no further that the quarter finals, because they never do).

I'll spare you all my commentary on every game, since you can read such things in about a billion other places on the Internet, but I may just pop on from time to time to rave about a performance or criticise a ref (such as the horribly biased one who handed Holland an undeserved win over the Ivory Coast). I have learned, though, through the miracle of football, that Cote D'Ivoire is "Elefántcsontpart in Hungarian, which translates, I believe, as "Elephant bone coast". Either the Hungarians took the bits that were left after the other European countries had taken all the ivory, or there is a serious misunderstanding as to what ivory actually is.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Why I hate Sibiu: Advice for tourists.

I hate Sibiu. It's officially my least favourite place in Transylvania, and possibly Romania. This is not because it is ugly - it is in fact very beautiful (or it will be when they finish messing with it).

There are 4 very good reasons to hate it:

1. It is constantly under construction. Because next year it is the European Capital of Culture it is just always being dug up. The main square Piata Mare has now been more or less finished (last year it was a total state), aside from a few buildings that are still being done up. The nearby Piata Mica, on the other hand, was a mess last year and is still a total mess now. Streets are closed, staircases blocked off, there is mud and sand and rubble everywhere. I'll be shocked if it is done by the turn of the year.

2. Connected to the above, it is a pain in the arse to drive in. There are no signs, roads are constantly being closed or blocked off, road junctions are chaotic, and basically getting from A to B can take you months.

3. It is by far and away the most expensive city in Transylvania. I suspect this is in preparation for next year when presumably the tourists are expected to flood in. "Why wait, fleece them now", seems to be the motto.

4. I got ripped off at a change place. This actually is quite important for people visiting Romania to know so I'll put in a few tag phrases in the hope that gogglers might find this info. Advice for tourists in Romania. Warning regarding money exchange in Romania. So, in Romania there are two places in which you can change money - the banks and these little change offices. The banks are pretty good, but it can take a lot of queueing and there is a bit more form filling involved in changing money there. The change places are quick easy and you usually get a similar rate to the banks. So many people use them (me included). In Csikszereda, and everywhere else I've done it, I have never had a problem and have found the system fairly easy and unstressful. However in Sibiu (and I have since learned that this practice is becoming more widespread) I was the victim of a scam. Outside the change office is a big notice with the exchange rate. In Romanian and English it says the rate at which they buy Euros/Dollars/Pounds/Forints etc and the rate at which they sell those currencies. All quite normal. However, look closely. There may also be a third column, or some smallprint which tells you a third rate. This one is not translated into any language other than Romanian. If that column says "Valute" on it, it is the rate at which they will exchange cash. The big-print rate is the travellers cheque rate and that only. Needless to say, the smallprint rate is terrible, and although there'll be a big sign saying "No Commission" you will be screwed. Big time. Be careful. If in doubt, change at a bank. They at least have to abide by a code of practice and will not try and screw you. I'm mad at myself for being scammed, and mad at the bloke who scammed me, but I know now it is becoming increasingly common in Romania to try and trick tourists this way. Don't make the mistake I did.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


On Monday I had my first contact with a Romanian lorry. Shortly afterwards I had my first contact with Romanian justice. I use the last word there in the loosest possible sense. So loose in fact, that it is actually more or less antonymical.

What happened is this: I was driving a rented car with my parents as passengers down from Brasov towards the touristed village of Bran. We drove through the village itself, noting the castle for which the village gets its fame, and all the pensions and trappings of the tourist village. Having entered the next village, Moeciu, we decided that we should turn round and head back into the village where we were intending to spend the night. I saw a driveway on the left, checked behind me, and ahead, indicated left, checked again (nothing was ahead, and there was a lorry about 50m behind me), and turned into the driveway. Just as I was halfway in, there was a huge bang and a judder. At first I thought I’d hit a pothole or something, but then quickly realized that I had been hit by something. That something was the lorry I had noticed behind me when I’d started to turn. It was a bloody massive long lorry, carrying nothing, so it was going very quickly (as Romanian lorries are wont to do), and it had just clipped the very back corner of the car, smashing the lights and damaging the bumper.

This was obviously something of a shock, and it took me a while to work out what to do next. The other driver stopped and came over and remonstrated with me – presumably for something to do, since it was clear to me even in my semi-daze at that point that he was at fault, and it is even clearer to me now that he was. (Basically, I can surmise that he thought he could get round behind me, wasn’t really concentrating, and didn’t bother to slow down in the pouring rain, and maybe I went slower than he thought I would). I called home to ask Erika what to do now and then the woman from the car hire company, who was very helpful. Having been told that I’d need to go to the police with the other driver, we eventually tired of waiting for them to show up and drove down to the village police station. This was locked up with a note on the door giving a number to call. We called, and eventually about 20 minutes later, the village cop drew up and opened the door, ushering us both inside. He didn’t look that happy at having had his evening interrupted, and then when he realized that I was a foreigner and didn’t speak Romanian his mood darkened even further. I’d been told by this time that the process would involve him taking our statements and then deciding who had the fault in the incident. Already I could sense that this process was unlikely to be based on extraneous stuff like facts and that I could be onto a loser.

I called Erika again and asked her to speak to him for me. When he asked her where she was and she said Miercurea Ciuc, I could see his face getting even more thunderous – maybe because she was too far away to come down and translate, but more likely, I suspect, because she was clearly a Hungarian*. He wouldn’t let her act as translator over the phone, so we had to find someone – the car hire woman’s brother who was in the area came down to help out. Adding another 15 minutes or so on to the time of the report and more importantly on to the policeman’s dinner time. In the meantime, the lorry driver gave his version of events – a laughable tale, given the evidence. When I heard him tell the cop that he was already passing me when I started to trun, I had to step in, and in my terribly broken Romanian started illustrating how ridiculous this story was. I even drew a picture of what it have looked like were his version true – ending with the made up phrase – Acum sunt moarta (an attempt at "Now I'm dead") – illustrated with a theatrical imaginary knife drawn across my throat.

Eventually my translator arrived and I told my side, while the cop also filled in a report – now I know that he was actually making out his version of events – before I’d even given mine. At the time I thought he was just doing some more paperwork. Sign here and here the lorry driver was asked, and then me too. Only then did I realize that what he had actually written down was that I was the driver at fault. I protested again, but he had already made his mind up – and since I was exhausted and somewhat drained from the whole process, and since he had fined me 250,000 Lei (approx 5 GBP / 7.5 Euros) I didn’t have the energy to make too much of a big deal out of it.

Now, however, I am furious. Yes, we were incredibly lucky, in that if the lorry had hit anywhere further up the car we could have been killed, but in fact it was the other guy’s fault. My crime was to be a foreigner. The police officer at Moeciu is a xenophobe and I have no problem accusing him as being such publicly (not that he’ll ever read this of course). The whole thing is a joke. He even looked at the damage on the car so he knows full well who was at fault, yet he gave me the ticket. It’s fucked up. (There is of course one other possible explanation as to why he gave me the ticket and not the other guy, but I am pretty sure that no money changed hands, so I am not prepared to make that kind of accusation. Not sure whether corruption or rampant xenophobia is the worse accusation, but anyway).

So, I’m pissed off. Pissed off at the village policemen who decided to wield his power so unjustly. Pissed off at being found to be at fault when I so plainly wasn’t. And pissed off that this kind of thing goes on all the time, all over the world, and that I just see it once in a blue moon. If I were black, this would no doubt just be another day dealing with authority.

So, in closing, I’d like to give a hearty middle finger salute to Police Office Bigot in Moeciu, and hope that one day he gets his comeuppance.

Oh, and you’ll be happy to know that we’re all fine, and there were no injuries, and the only thing wounded was my sense of fair play.

(*Obviously I have no evidence for this but subsequent events have convinced me that it is more than likely. He's probably the kind of guy who votes for Vadim Tudor, and thinks Gigi Becali is a nice bloke who's got his priorities right. Tosser.)

Saturday, June 03, 2006


For one day a year, Csikszereda is the second biggest city in Romania. That day was today, when 500,000 people descended upon us for the annual pilgrimage to Somlyo (Sumuleu-Ciuc in Romanian) (The half million figure came from the news programmes of both Duna TV (Hngarian) and ProTV (Romanian)). It's a big deal. (The biggest catholic pilgrimage in Central and Eastern Europe according to one of those stations.) My mum was actually interviewed by ProTV as they wanted to show how many foreigners came, but they didn't use her on TV - instead preferring an American, an Australian and a Brazilian.

500,000 is a lot of people in one place by the way. I once lived in a country with a population 1/5th of that number.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Pilgrimage weekend

It's pilgrimage time again in Csikszereda. As I reported last year - go to May 2005 in the archive column, and then scroll down the page for details. Sadly though today it is absolutely pissing it down. Hopefully it will clear up tomorrow so that all the Transylvanian Catholics can enjoy their annual adventure without getting soaked.

It's also the Hargita megyenapok (Harghita County Days / Zilele Harghita Judetului (sp/gr?)), which means the main square visible from our new flat is buzzing with stalls and events and people drinking Ciuc beer and eating Mici. Or at least it was yesterday when the weather was nice. Today it is deserted and decidely damp looking. Shame really.