Monday, July 31, 2006

Malpensa? Mal Experiencia more like.

The flight to Barcelona was not quite as simple as I had hoped. The first couple of legs went OK - trouble free drive down to Otopeni, followed by slightly delayed flight to Milan Malpensa (badly thought out) Airport. But from that point things started to unravel. I checked the board to find the gate for my connection and saw the dreaded word "Annulato". Now I don't really speak much Italian, but I knew what that meant. I ask at the information desk who told me to go through to the gate area and ask at the info desk there. So I did, and the woman told me to go down, get my bags, go back up to the check-in area and ask there. She thought there vwas a strike, she said. And so it proved. Once I had picked up my bag, and in so doing making a number of new friends trapped in a similar boat (the bags took an age to show up). So we traipsed off up to the check in area, and there was a massive queue of people standing dejectedly in line. So we joined.

Slowly rumours started to circulate. There was a strike at Barcelona airport. There was a strike at all Spanish airports. They would fly us to Gerona, not far from Barcelona. They would fly us to Valencia. They would fly us to Madrid and we would have to make our own way to Barcelona. Eventually a young woman appeared at the desk to make an announcement. The crowd surged forward and started shouting as one, though I have no idea what she said such was the noise and the number of people. It was obviously not good news though. More rumours filtered back. By this time I didn't believe anything.

A few minutes later though, I saw the same young woman alone elsewhere in the airport and went off to ask her. Her badge identified her as a "Passenger Assistant" which I can only assume meant she was one of the lowest paid people on the Alitalia ladder and was even more sorry for the way she'd been put in the line of fire in front of all those furious people. I patiently enquired as to the problem and learned that there was, indeed, a strike at BCN, but nowhere else. That they couldn't send us to another nearby airport since they were all over full already (this of course was the Friday of the biggest travel weekend of the year in Europe), that every airline was trying to redirect their flights to Valencia and Madrid, but that the chances of us having our plane sent there were almost nil. It became clear that at the very least I would be spending a night in Milan. One of my new-found travelling companions, an American woman named Eve, was really desperate, since her 13 year old son was in Barcelona and she was flying to meet him and then to fly home to Boston together. I lent her my phone, since hers had expired, and she made a number of probably ludicrously expensive calls to Spain, the US, back to Spain, and back to the US again. This act of kindness, however, proved to be my masterstroke. Later Eve slipped off to find out what our options were and in that patient yet pushy way that Americans excel at, managed to get put in touch with a Maria Anna who was some kind of airport supervisor. When she heard her plight, Maria Anna was distraught as any good Italian mother would be "Your son? Alone? In Barcelona? I will make you my top priority". By this time I had just learned that our options were to put ourselves on a waiting list for a flight to Valencia that night (which was already fully booked), to come back tomorrow morning and put ourselves on the waiting list for the flights to Barcelona that day, assuming the strike was over (even though they were also all fully booked - busiest travel weekend in Europe, don't forget), and, well, that was it. It didn't sound promising.

However, the Maria Anna connection was working. She agreed to put Eve on the next day's standby waiting list even though we had all been told that we couldn't go on it until the next day. Eve asked her if I could go on this list too as I had been so helpful, and it was agreed. Result.

And so it was that I found myself checking myself into an Italian hotel with a strange woman I had only just met. Seperate rooms, in case you were wondering. I know what your minds are like out there in Internet land. Had a delicious Italian dinner and crashed out. At 6.30 a.m. we were back on the shuttle to the airport as per Maria Anna's orders such that we could ensure we were all checked in and with the best chance of getting on the plane. The woman who checked us in, when asked about our chances, told us that they were basically nil since the flight was already oversold.

A while later Maria Anna showed up, having not gone home until 2am, but still looking as stylish as it is possible to do while wearing regulation Alitalia clothing, and gave us our options - there was a flight at 9.30 which would close (ie check-in would finish) at 9. Also at 9, there were two Alitalia buses leaving from the terminal to take the passengers from our plane to Barcelona (all the way to Barcelona. From Milan. On the Saturday of mayhem traffic everywhere in Southern Europe, particularly in the French Riviera which would constitute most of the route). At 8.45 we were to return to her office, and she would tell us whether she felt we had a chance of making the flight or whether we should get the bus.

After a long hour waiting we returned. Yes, things looked good, the flight hadn't yet filled, we'd probably make it. Go downstairs and find the stand by desk, and in the meantime here are two new standby boarding passes with VIP stamped on them (I'm saving mine - it'll be the last time I ever get described as a VIP).

This we did, and after a few more agonising minutes the flight closed and we were ushered onboard. On our way to Barcelona. Woohoo. I spared a thought for the others just setting off on their long bus journey, as I did a few more times throughout the day, notably as I sat on my friends' terrace, sipping wine and looking over the city that evening, wondering where exactly they'd got to by now. (Barcelona airport was still operating at less than half pace as the strike's effects wore off - luggage took over an hour to come off the plane, that kind of thing, but frankly, by that time, I didn't really care.)

And so I'm here. And the moral of this story is to be nice to people. It might pay off. If it hadn't been for Eve using my phone, I'd have been on that bus.

Oh, and by the way, that last post I wrote took ages to craft, and yet nobody mentioned how bloody brilliant it was. I mean come on people, give me a break here. Do you know how difficult it is to write all that much text in English without once using an "e"?

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A toast

I was thinking about what I could post to mark this blog's birthday (Csiki musings is two), and could think of nothing. So I thought to opt for an unusual sort of post about nothing in particular, but in an abnormal fashion. Your task, should you want to do so, is to work out what, in particular, is odd or unusual about this blog posting.

Two tours around our sun. A lot of words in that long pair of rotations. A lot of trash. A small amount of important or worthy posts, I trust. Mostly dross.

Anyway, what additional information can I impart, now that I am trying out this difficult task of inking an abnormal post in this way? Could I talk about Transylvania, again? About Romania or Hungary, or Romanians and Hungarians? Our holiday in Bulgaria? I think today I may shy away from such old topics and focus on an additional option.

And that topic, randomly, is flying. I am thinking of this topic today, as tomorrow I must fly, to Spain, to Catalunya in fact, and it will occupy most of my day. First driving to Coanda Airport (four hours), waiting for two hours, boarding, flying to Milan, waiting for two additional hours, boarding again, and finally flying to BCN (as it’s known in airport lingo). All in all a full day lost. But things start to look up – as 2007 looms (and all that that will bring about) so, too, do low cost flights. Wizz Air, to start with, in launching a flight from Hungary’s capital city to my in-laws’ town will significantly cut my to-airport-driving. In fact, in August our total family will fly to London Luton (round trip) from that handy Transylvanian town for an almost impossibly low sum. And things only look apt to pick up from this point.

OK, I’ll stop now, finish this painfully poor post, lift a glass to two anni of Csiki Musings, and toast to two additional such anni. Hasta manana.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


Firstly, because it’s traditional on this blog, name 5 famous Bulgarians.

We drove down to the Romanian town of Calarasi, which, in all honesty, is a dusty miserable hell-hole. When I see some of these southern Romanian towns, I realise that those who argue that Transylvania is a different country have a point. I don’t mean that politically or nationalistically, but geographically, and I suppose in some senses culturally (though I recognise I’m barking up a sensitive tree with that one). People here talk about Wallachia, the south of Romania, as being “Balkanic”, while Transylvania is much more Central European. When you see some of the towns south of the Carpathians it’s hard to argue with that – not Bucharest, as Bucharest is a rich city which seems to have well over half the money in Romania floating around it, but the other places. Perhaps Craiova or Pitesti are better, but certainly anywhere on the Ploiesti – Urziceni – Slobozia – Calarasi route seem like a different world from places up here.

At Calarasi, you have to get a ferry across the Danube. We drove along this potholed disaster area of a road to a massive brand spanking new ferry terminal. Which was all locked up and surrounded by “No Entry” signs. So we turned round drove back 100 metres and turned down a side track which had a few cars parked down it. This was the ferry terminal. It consists of a café, and a small caravan in which they sell you tickets. We’d seen a largish modern passenger boat on the river and wondered if that was the ferry. It wasn’t. The ferry was a flat pontoon pushed by a tug boat, owned by a logging company. This meant that although you’d got a ticket, any tractors pulling loads of logs had priority over you. Helpfully though, the guy working at the on ramp came round and told us all this before the boat arrived and told us all to just go for it as soon as the cars had come off, since that way we’d beat the tractors and guarantee our place on the boat. All told it was about an hour and a half wait/trip across the river. I guess the new ferry terminal is there as a result of EU money attempting to finance a more viable border crossing.

So anyway, we finally made it over the other side, which was actually still, just, in Romania, since Calarasi marks the place at which the Danube turns north and ceases to define the border. So we drove off the boat straight into the frontier at Silistra. If you look at a map you will find that there are only about 4 places on the border between Romania and Bulgaria where you can cross. The important one is at Giurgiu, south of Bucharest, which has some big fancy bridge, and presumably lots of modern trimmings. We had been going to go that way, but had been told that (a) the toll for the bridge was extortionate, and that (b) the border itself was packed and took ages to negotiate. So, using the trusty viamichelin website for European route planning, this option presented itself. The border at Silistra, though one of very few, is certainly not overcrowded or jammed in any way. It is (in character with its surroundings) a dusty little collection of buildings with a few indolent people wandering around thinking they look somehow official. There are two lines of cars – one EU one non-EU. This means that straight away the locals who are using the border crossing are discriminated against (the EU line is dealt with first – there aren’t the facilities for processing more than one car at a time). Once Romania and Bulgaria are actually in the EU this will at least feel a little bit more rational, but at the moment, it is dead odd. So, this scruffy bloke came round and asked where we were from and we told him half the car was British and half the car was Romanian, which flummoxed him a bit, but he directed us to the non-EU line. Then he went to the car behind (which was actually the car bearing our holiday companions from Csikszereda). Discovering that they were all Romanians he asked them for an environmental tax. Gyözö, who was driving, had noticed that no money had changed hands in his conversation with us, so did what all Romanians do when confronted with a charge they don’t believe they have to pay – he asked for a receipt. At this point such charges tend to be waived, as was the case here.

So we waited in this very short line (there were two cars ahead of us), next to a group of Rroma who were all stood under a tree milling around. From time to time they would mill too far forward crossing some invisible line and one of the semi-official blokes would come out and herd them back (and I mean herd – never have I seen people treated quite so much like animals, it was utterly shocking), shouting and arguing with them. They (we learned) had been there since the early morning waiting to cross. When we got to the passport bloke, he looked inside and seeing that we were (a) white; and (b) with a baby, burst into a “why didn’t you say you had a small baby, we could have advanced you up the line” speech at which point he saw our passports and added “and she’s a British citizen too, oh my god, you should have said, you should have said”. Basically the order of hierarchy in being dealt with was clearly EU Citizen in car > white Romanian/Bulgarian in car > white Romanian pedestrian > Gypsy. Not sure what happens if they ever got a gypsy bearing an EU passport there, I think they’d implode. Fortunately the Bulgarian side was somewhat more professional and rapid, even though we did have to pay to drive through a sheep dip and hence rid ourselves of some nasty Romanian germs.

It’s quite difficult to not find yourself comparing Bulgaria with Romania. The two countries have had their fates and their current situation linked by the EU in that they will enter the block together (this seems absolutely certain – we don’t yet know whether it will be in 2007 or in 2008 but it seems to be a given that they will enter together). When I first arrived in Romania, two years ago, the feeling coming out of Brussels was that Bulgaria was ahead of Romania, which I was told was seriously embarrassing to Romania. Now it seems Romania has caught and passed Bulgaria, and the last report from the EU suggested that Romania is nearly there, while Bulgaria has some catching up to do still (which means that either Romania’s advancement will drag Bulgaria in early, or Bulgaria’s lack of progress will drag Romania back).

First impressions driving south through Bulgaria, then, were the following:
(a) there are no people in Bulgaria. We passed through a couple of villages in which no signs of life could be determined. In a similar village in Romania there would be loads of people sitting outside cafes, returning from the fields, going to the fields, wandering around drunk, on bikes, with animals. Here nobody. But all the fields seemed remarkably well attended to, so there must be people in the country
(b) The roads are in slightly better shape on average – no terrible potholes, generally less danger of being killed either swerving to avoid some road obstacle or not swerving to avoid one. This may have something to do with (c)
(c) There is very little traffic in Bulgaria. Romania’s roads are packed with trucks, cars, horsecarts, bikes, you name it. Bulgaria was very quiet. They did have donkey pulled carts though, which I haven’t seen in Romania (though I am assured they do exist in the south)
(d) Roadside prostitution, which seems to be dying out in Romania, is thriving in Bulgaria. On one short 5 km section of road near the town of Dobrich I counted 6 women all waiting for the passing non-existent traffic.
(e) It seems desperately poor. Much poorer than Romania. All my companions commented that the villages and towns we saw all reminded them of how Romania looked 10 or 20 years ago.

We drove down to Varna, where we met the bloke I’d been emailing about the villa we’d booked, and the older couple who owned it. We then followed them down the coast to Byala/Bjala/Biala (take your pick of spelling) to the villa. Which was gorgeous. Biala is a small village with a large uncrowded sandy beach (one of the only uncrowded sandy beaches in Southern Europe in late July?). There’s significant construction going on there at the moment as the coast in general gets developed to attract tourists, but at least for now it’s a beautiful little place. It’s not far north of a slightly more developed tourist town at Obzor, but even that is not exactly overcrowded. The big thing for tourists to do it seems is to buy property – there were billboards all down the main coastal road in English advertising villas, land, and various other deals.

One day we drove down to a town called Sunny Beach (yes, in English), which turned out instead to be kind of a gated resort within a larger Bulgarian town the name of which escapes me. It was bloody horrible. Vast modern hotels/timeshare apartment buildings surrounding a large shop-till-you-drop area of restaurants, bars, clubs, the ubiquitous estate agents, and shops selling all kinds of rubbish. In the short time we walked around it I got a headache from the noise, flashing lights and crowds. This may be because I’m an old man, but I take comfort from the fact that my sister-in-law in the UK who is a travel agent, and a lot younger than me, visited the place as part of her work, and came away describing it as a “shitpit”. A succinct but very apt description, I feel.

Just a little bit beyond Sunny Beach is the old town of Nessebar, built on a island attached to the mainland by a causeway. It’s one on those UNESCO world heritage sites, but it’s been a bit overtouristified, with every gorgeous old Turkish style house occupied by a gift shop or fish restaurant. Still, it was still a nice place to wander round and take in something slightly more cultural than sun, sand and sea.

But most of the trip was just that – sitting around in the sun, on the beach, in the sea, or just in the shade back at the villa. Eating fish and salad out on the terrace, drinking Hristo’s (our host’s) potent home made grappa, basically relaxing. Dead cheap too – in 7 full days in Bulgaria we spent 100 Euros (for the 4 of us – and that included a full tank of petrol for the drive home). Dead good. And Paula managed to endure what turned out to be a 12 hour journey (when feedings, border crossings, and boat waits are factored in) in a small hot car when she was teething, without crying once. She is my hero.

My answers to the opening question (with explanations in case they’re a tad obscure – my memory is an exceedingly odd thing sometimes)
Christo – artist who covers very big things in material. Apparently this “reveals by concealing”
Georgi Markov – dissident who was killed by means of a poisoned umbrella in London. No idea why I remember this, but I do.
Hristo Stoichkov – footballer of some repute
Todor Zhivkov – Communist dictator
Mehmet Ali Agca – bloke who shot the Pope. I thought he was an ethnic Turk from Bulgaria, but seems like he was actually Turkish, so instead I’ll have…
Simeon Saxe Coburg – ex king who actually ended up being elected prime minister. I am hugely suspicious of anyone with the name “Saxe Coburg”, and while I have no idea of his record in democratically elected office, I can only naturally assume he was rubbish. Like the rest of his inbred parasitical extended family.

Bulgaria marks my half century. The 50th country I have spent time (meaning than greater than one night) in. Only another 180-ish to go.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

National Psychology

I was wondering recently about the increasing tendency in the media and elsewhere to assign psychological motivations to an entire nation. Israel is worried about its security, the USA has been mentally scarred by the Vietnam War, Tuvalu has Attention Deficit Disorder, that kind of thing. And while it’s obviously bollocks and just lazy journalism, I wondered if there was anything one could glean from this exercise.

I also have this fairly vivid memory of being half the age I am now and talking to an old Italian bloke who put forward the theory that the US was the way it was (in foreign policy) because it had a national inferiority complex and that Germany was the way it was because it had a national superiority complex. At the time I thought this was just rubbush, but as time went on I began to understand where he was coming from (I still think it’s nonsense, but its not completely baseless nonsense).

To be honest, the thing that sparked these thoughts were some comments I read about the recent World Cup and how the great success of the tournament (off the pitch at least) was enabling Germany to at last feel proud of itself again. This ties in (somewhat) with a film that was released a couple of years ago called Das Wunder von Bern about the (West) German football team’s win in the 1954 World Cup. The basic premise behind the film (and I’m paraphrasing considerably, and there is a genuine and apparently fairly moving plot that reveals this message) is that the Germans were a proud people with a strong sense of national identity, who at the end of the war had nothing left to cling to – a destroyed country and economy, national humiliation and nothing whatsoever to be proud of for being German. Then came the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, and against the odds and in the final against the best team in the world at that time – Hungary – the West German team won, giving people a reason to be proud of their country again in a completely non-threatening way (after all it was only football). The radio commentary of the last few minutes of that game is apparently hugely famous in Germany to this day.

Well it seems that Germany in particular has been the subject of the national psychoanalysis more than most places – Hitler’s rise is often painted as a historical inevitability given the national sense of injustice resulting from the post World War I treaties that Germany was made to sign. Indeed this is largely the reason that the Marshall Plan came into effect after the second war – not wishing to make the same mistake again, the US, in what remains possibly the most enlightened foreign policy decision by any nation ever, helped to rebuild (West) Germany from the rubble up.

Anyway, enough digressions, and back to the point. When I say “back” of course I mean I’m now about to touch on the point for the first time. Going back to “the Miracle of Bern”, the untold story is of the Hungarian team. Now every football fan knows that Hungary were the best football team of the 50s (just as every football fan knows that Hungary are now utterly rubbish – I notice Ujpest lost 4-0 to a team from Liechtenstein this week. Sorry, digressing again). So how did this defeat affect the Hungarian national psyche? What, indeed, is the Hungarian national psyche? You see, when you go back and take a look at the 20th century it’s hard to find a European nation that had such a bad 20th century. Like Germany, at the end of the first world war in a treaty signed in a French chateau (Trianon this time, rather than Versailles), Hungary was sliced up and fed to its neighbours. Only Hungary lost 2/3rd of its territory and millions of its people in the deal – significantly more than Germany lost, though unlike Hungary, Germany did also have colonies in various other parts of the world which it also ceded control of. The “historical inevitability” of then ending up with an expansionist genocidal maniac in power somehow wasn’t quite as inevitable in Hungary. At the end of the second world war, Hungary ended up on the wrong side of the iron curtain, unlike most of Germany, and hence not only did not benefit from the Marshall Plan, but also had to put up with communism. When Hungarians actually started protesting about this state of affairs they promptly got invaded by the USSR (and sold out by the west) and crushed even further into the dirt. In fact it’s only since 1989 that things started to get better for Hungary. All in all it was a pretty miserable century. And they didn’t even get to win a World Cup in the midst of it all. So why are we not bombarded with analytical pieces of journalism analysing the national state of mind of Hungary and how all this misery must have traumatised the Hungarians? (To be fair, I don’t read the Hungarian press, and it may be that this subject gets debated interminably there)

I do know, for example, that Hungary has a startlingly high suicide rate. One of the highest in the world as far as I know. (Also Harghita county has the highest suicide rate in Romania, but that maybe just because it’s bloody freezing for 4 months of the year, rather than because it is full of manic depressive Hungarians). Whether there is any connection between the effect on the “national psyche” of a century of desperation and the suicide rate, is of course debatable (I’d go as far as to say that there is no connection, but that’s mostly because I don’t really believe in the concept of “national psyche”).

I suspect that the reason that there isn’t much coverage of the Hungarian psyche in the world’s media is because Hungary doesn’t matter that much. It’s only the strong nations that get anthropomorphised in this way (I’m guessing for example that the effect of Versailles on the Germans wasn’t looked into until Germany started once again to assert itself). We look at the effect of the war in Vietnam on the American psyche but not on the Vietnamese. Only this morning, for example, I read about the effects of Hizbullah’s rocket attacks on the Israeli psyche, and nothing about the effect of Israel’s bombardment of Beirut on the Lebanese psyche. (I made up the Tuvalu thing in the first paragraph, you may be surprised to learn). Is this because we don’t like to present our enemies (or the enemies of our friends) in psychological terms for fear of humanising them too much?

I’ve gone on long enough, and will stop now, without ever really having made any kind of point. You’ll have to supply your own conclusion for whatever makes any sense out of this. I do have some points to make about the relationship between Hungarians and Romanians based on all this, but I will wait till I get back from holiday to do it. I bet you can’t wait, can you?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

It's Tough Kid, But It's Life

And so begins a month or so of fairly intense travelling. Erika left this morning for Barcelona, leaving me in sole charge of Paula, much to my enthusiasm and her anxiety (Erika's anxiety that is, we haven't been able to access Paula's feelings on the matter). However if I post something completely incoherent and hagard sounding on Friday or Saturday you'll know why.

She'll be back Sunday evening and then on Monday morning we set off early for a Holiday in Bulgaria (I am unable to say, think, or -apparently- write those three words without instantly breaking into mental song to the tune of The Dead Kennedys' "Holiday in Cambodia"). A week by the Black Sea, but, crucially at a slightly different point on the coastline from where we have been the last two summers, and then home again. A few days back in Csikszereda and then it's my turn to go to Barcelona for work for a week. Back again for a couple of days before a two week holiday in England (hence my recent visa experiences). It's all go.

Meanwhile, I'm troubled as to how devilishly clever those Russians are. You see, according to noted scientific expert Cornelius Vadim Tudor, they have been launching a meteorological attack on Romania - but so good at it are they that they have managed to avoid Bulgaria, Moldova and other nations nearby.

In other news of rubbish and nutty nationalists, some Romanian software company is releasing a game called something like "Kill all the non-Romanian rubbish cluttering up our country", which is nice of them. That'll improve the cause of tolerance. More worryingly, Slovakia's new coalition government includes a party headed up by a man who wants to sterilise Roma, and has referred to Slovakia's Hungarians as "Lumpen Elements" and has said that "We will get in our tanks and crush Budapest." At least CVT hasn't actually got any power, not like this bloody nutter.

[Oh, and I have no idea why the little weather tracking thing on the right appears to be switching randomly between showing the weather for Csikszereda and Targu Mures. It's a rum do.]