Saturday, December 30, 2006

The hour approaches

The following have recently (I mean in the last couple of days) appeared in the main square, finally. I wondered if anyone would ever make any kind of reference to the imminent accession, and it seems that now Christmas is out of the way, that people are starting to at least acknowledge that January 1st is just around the corner.

This one's outside the Culture House, nicely symmetrical in its bilingualism.

The next two are directly opposite outside the county council building (known locally as "The White House")

As you can see they show the happy European family welcoming Romania into their midst. At least I assume it's Romania. In fact the "blue" of the flag is so dark as to be effectively black, occasioning me to actually wonder for a while about the logic of giving people the opportunity to be Belgian. I mean they must be blue, but it's really really hard to tell.

The lampposts have all received the following decoration:
That white flag, in case you were wondering is the local one. I think it's the flag of Csikszereda, but it could conceivably be the flag of Haromszek, the old Hungarian county in which Csikszereda was.

And finally a signpost pointing west to our new home (seen from both sides so you can see there's no language bias)

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Friday, December 22, 2006

A Year in the Life

One year on... from this post and this post.

Amazing to imagine that anyone could survive for a year with me as a father, let alone anyone so fragile as a baby. But miraculously Paula is thriving. Yesterday she took her first unsupported tentative half-step. I am still achingly proud.

And I have no idea why this set of pictures ends up all the way down there. Bloody HTML. This is probably a better way of viewing them all

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Things you learn at school

In England, instead of having a tree at Christmas, they hang a large bunch of mistletoe on the ceiling.

That's what I learned last night at Bogi's class Christmas "show" (them singing songs and reading out facts like the one above).

Still, we got mulled wine when it was done, which is something that we never got when she was at kindergarten - school is obviously much more serious.

The kids also all got large presents, which consisted of boxes full of various toys, soap, and stationery all of which came from places like Sainsburys, Asda, and Superdrug (British shops, basically). When I investigated the source of these parcels it turned out that one of the kids' parents is Baptist and the parcels had come from some kind of international baptist church charity project. I have this image of well-meaning and caring people in the UK somewhere, shopping madly to try and put together a box of treats for children in poor isolated desperate Romania (that soon-to-be EU member). Still, the kids were delighted with them.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

La Dolce Vita

Harrowing article from today's Guardian about the plight of migrant workers (Romanians among them) in Southern Italy. Driving through small towns in Southern Romania you see loads of these hastily printed flyers on lampposts advertising work in Spain and Italy. I often wondered what kind of conditions the people who signed up for these deals ended up in.

Flakey weather

Something is falling from the sky. Something akin to snow. (Not exactly snow in the large white dry-ish flakes of softness sense, more like a kind of opaque drifting rain - I'm sure the eskimos have a particular name for it, but the best that English could offer would possibly be sleet, and sleet always puts me in mind of driving semi-blizzard like conditions, which this certainly isn't). There's nothing very unusual about the fact that something snowish is falling in December in Csikszereda obviously, but it is unusual in that it is the first time this year.

There have been dark mutterings for weeks now as the temperature has remained stubbornly above freezing (at least in the daytime - there've been frosts at night), and no precipitation of any kind has fallen. It's been variously touted as a sure sign of global warming, that the planet is going to hell, and that something very strange is going on. However, this is my third winter here and in the first of those it didn't snow until Szilveszter (New Years Eve) either, so in my experience this is not especially unusual at all. But to listen to the locals you'd think we were all about to be swept up in some end-of-days fiery denouement.

Nearly everyone seems to agree that it's a bad thing. I am not in this camp. For me the longer winter takes to arrive, the more likely that we will have a relatvely short winter this year. After all, if winter starts at the end of December, we can really only expect to have a maximum of four months of vicious sub-minus-thirty temperatures, which can only be a good thing (at least from the perspective of the non-masochistic). If we're really lucky, it will only be three months. I recognise that for people who make their livings out of the ski season it must be problematic, but none of the moaners who have shaken their heads darkly in my direction at this terrible snow-less state of affairs rely on having a long winter for their financial well-being. I think they just like moaning. If it were normally cold and snowy, they'd probably be complaining about that too.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Modern Post-ism

The Romanian post office is not the world's most reliable service. It is quite good at delivering mail within the country and often at surprisingly high speeds. It is also remarkably good (usually) at exporting post - a fairly large Christmas package sent to my parents' house a couple of weeks ago reached its destination in 6 days. But it really seems to have problem with mail coming in.

Postcards almost never make it to their destination - I have lost count of the number of postcards I have sent home when on some trip or other which have never made it. Is someone stealing them? And if so, why? Because they like the pictures? Is there someone, somewhere in Bucharest with my postcards and those of others like me plastered all over their apartment with which they attempt to convince visitors that they've either travelled very widely, or that they have loads of exotic wandering friends?

Letters, too, frequently go astray, and of the one magazine subscription I have from the UK, typically about one in four issues vanish. Parcels, though, never seem to disappear. This is quite odd, since I'm assuming the flaw in the system is that someone is actively nicking stuff (it can't all be getting lost - if it were there'd be a massive pile of undelivered mail down the back of someone's settee). Maybe, parcels, being parcels, and being eminently nickable are actually watched and are subject to greater outside scrutiny such that the odd light-fingered employee feels unable to siphon them off.

Perhaps it is this scrutiny that causes them to take so frigging long though. They never get here quickly. One box I received from the US took 10 weeks to get here from postmark to delivery. And it came by air, in case you were wondering. My guess is that it spent the majority of those 10 weeks in Romania, probably sitting in what I imagine is this dusty hanger in Bucharest called the parcel waiting room. Here, newly arrived packages, fresh off the plane and looking forward to exploring the sights of Romania - Bran Castle, Bucovina, the Danube Delta, Sighisoara, perhaps - are taken and asked to wait while a few minor bureaucratic details are taken care of. Their fresh faced exuberance at being in this fascinating foreign land is slowly ground into the dust as they become, with the passing weeks, increasingly disillusioned and bitter, offering up snorts of derision as new parcels arrive, eagerly looking forward to being let out in a few hours.

The Christmas presents that my family sent to us, for example, were mailed two or three weeks before I got around to sending one in the opposite direction, but somehow mine got there a week before their counterparts reached us here. Why, I have no idea. They did finally arrive though, all of them together, this morning. Maybe, there is in fact some kind of quota system whereby the sorting office in Bucharest waits until they have enough packages for a certain destination to make it worth bothering putting them on a train. "We have had this box for Miercurea Ciuc for months now, should I send it?" "Nah, wait until we have at least 5 packages for there before putting them all on together. You could easily spend 15 seconds sending that off on its own"

The really cunning thing is that you have to pay to liberate them from the post office. A little slip is stuck in your mailbox to let you know the box has come, and you must go to the Post Office and pick it up (as is quite normal in most places, especially those where a package cannot easily be left). When you go along, you have to cough up money to get it. This, I have to say, is much less usual. The sender has already paid a quite inordinate amount of money to his own post office to deliver this package to Romania, and that should be the end of the payment system. And in every other country I've lived (and I've lived in a fair few) it is. Not in Romania. Oh no. You have to pay the post office to collect the parcel. It's a great scam - I mean who's going to say no? "A birthday present for my daughter? No, you keep it.". I mean it's not like it's massive amounts of money - it seems to be a flat fee of 2.5 Lei per package (or 25,000 Lei as I still think of it, old-timer that I am) - but it's the principle of the thing. Perhaps that's why we never get any of the post cards: there's some office somewhere - the ministry of postcards - in which they all sit until such time as someone goes down and says "Have you got any postcards for me? And how much do you want for them?"

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Carrying on Ceausescu's work

During the Ceausescu years, there was an official policy of “Romanianisation” of various towns and cities in Transylvania. This was effected by barring Hungarians from buying property in the cities in question and bringing in Romanians from other parts of the country. One good example of this is Marosvasarhely/Targu Mures which went from being a predominantly Hungarian city to being around 50:50 Hungarian/Romanian today. When Erika was growing up it as more like 75:25 and when her father was young it was even more predominantly Hungarian. This much is undisputed and a matter of historical record. (And of course, before someone mentions it, there was also a similar-and worse- policy of Magyarisation in Transylvania in the late 19th Century).

Now, however, in the post Ceausescu world, this kind of divisive and oppressive policy is no longer possible. In a democracy such a policy of forced Romanianisation could not be allowed. But to imagine that it doesn’t still happen in some way would be a mistake.

Regular readers of this blog (both of you) may have noticed that I’m not much of a fan of organized religion. It’s the religious institutions that I have a problem with, not the people who attend the churches themselves, who as far as I am concerned can believe in whatever they like. In particular I think many churches (or “religious institutions”, to be more inclusive) have a tendency to encourage the use of religion as a form of nationalistic identifier. At best they do not discourage this role, and at worst they are active in seeking it out. I don’t think the institutions themselves are responsible for the conflicts in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Lebanon, India/Pakistan etc, but I also think they have contributed to those conflicts by their actions (or inactions). And so, it will possibly come as no surprise to learn that my subject for today is the role in the continuing attempts to Romanianise areas of Transylvania played by the Romanian Orthodox Church (which from this point onwards I’ll refer to as the ROC for ease of typing).

It is a well known fact in this town that if you have some property to sell the ROC will offer to buy it. This doesn’t apply to apartments so much, but houses or other buildings. Obviously they have every right to do so if they so desire, but it’s somewhat sinister when you delve below the surface. What the ROC does, as a very very rich organization, with seemingly bottomless pockets, is to make unrefusable offers to people for their property. They then use this property to house Romanians from poor villages in the back of beyond as their first step to building a new life here. Once again, not really something that can be criticized – they are after all giving people with very few chances in life a big chance. But why? Other than all church’s supposed role in being charitable, what else is behind this activity? Basically it (the ROC) acts in this way to attempt to dilute the Hungarian-ness of the city and the region in general. The objective is ultimately to create enough of a Romanian community in this area to ensure that any talk of autonomy is never feasible. They are in effect, and quite legally, carrying on the policy of forced assimilation that was in effect under Ceausescu. They are, in so doing, continuing the sorry tradition of religious institutions in other countries of acting as a conduit for nationalism. They don’t for example, to my knowledge, do the same thing in “safe seats” like, I dunno, Vaslui or somewhere. It’s just an act reserved for Székelyföld. [To give an example, the parents of a friend are currently engaged in selling their property, which is a house in the centre of town – the ROC has approached them and said “Name your price, and we’ll pay it”. This leaves them in a quandary – obviously such an offer is very attractive, but they also don’t want to facilitate this Romanianisation which they know full well is the point of this offer. They are caught between a ROC and a hard place, you might say (at least if you were as bad a punner as I)]

Likewise the tourist in Romania is liable to notice a vast number of monasteries. Some of them, like the spectacular ones in Bucovina have been there for centuries, while others have been there for a little less time. In fact many in Transylvania seem to be brand new, and I'd hazard a guess that more than half were built in the last 15 years. They are continuing to sprout like mushrooms (as the Hungarian phrase has it). They are not, it should be noted, housing vast numbers of Romanian Orthodox monks who need more and more monasteries to be monkish in. The ROC actually has problems with recruitment in general as in this case where the priest who crucified a nun was in fact some bloke who’d barely managed to scrape his way out of school, so desperate were the church for members. (I visited one of these new monasteries in Maramures, and while it was very beautiful, there was no sign of any actual monks anywhere to be seen – and tourists were allowed to visit all parts of the complex –after paying an entrance fee and a “photography fee”).

So, why then are these monasteries appearing? The cynical might suggest that their purpose is to firmly stamp the region as Romanian through and through (after all if there are so many Romanian Orthodox monasteries, then surely this must be thoroughly and historically Romania). It is, perhaps, another example of this slightly odd tendency to “Magyarphobia” exhibited by certain Romanians. That is, the fear - real or stirred up – that the Hungarians are champing at the bit to reclaim Transylvania, and that all Romania’s Hungarians are desperate to overthrow rule from Bucharest and install some form of anti-Romanian independent state.

Now, before it comes up I want to make it clear that I have absolutely no problem with Csikszereda having Romanian residents (or indeed an increasing number of Romanian residents). In fact one of the things I most like about Transylvania is this diversity of cultural influences – and one of the things that I find most tragic in the recent history of this region is the fact that by and large all the German population has left. It would be great if the influences of the groups that have made this region what it is – Magyar, Romanian, Rroma, Saxon, Schwab, Szekely, et al - could all be recognized and could create a greater whole. But this ROC desire (supported by extremist right wing shitbags such as Gigi Becali) to Romanianise Székelyföld and other Transylvanian areas is not driven by a love of diversity, but by a desire to eventually rid Transylvania of its Hungarian culture altogether (or at the very least to reduce the Hungarian influence and culture to the role of mere museum piece). It is an attempt to homogenize the nation to create a country which is entirely Romanian and untainted by “foreign” cultures. It is, in short, anti-diversity.

Monday, December 11, 2006

One down

One of these vile excuses for a human being is dead. Let's hope the other doesn't hang around much longer.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

"What is one more life thrown away in this sad and useless national tragedy?"

Yesterday I was made aware of the sad story of Malachi Ritscher. The news came through a friend who had met him and himself only learned of the story himself the day before yesterday.

Malachi Ritshcer killed himself by setting himself on fire next to a freeway leading into Chicago during rush hour a few days before the recent US Elections in protest at the Iraq war. It barely made the news anywhere. I am posting this story and the links to read it in greater detail because maybe if just one other person reads this and passes it on it will not make up for the lack of coverage, but it will at least mean his act of misguided desperation is not forgotten

I can't say this any better than it was told to me, so with thanks to David Stubbs who agreed to me reproducing his (as ever, finely written) words
One memorable morning, he took us way out of Chicago city centre, out along the riverside, a drive which took in ever-varying facet's of the city's sprawl which we'd never have seen otherwise. We drove for about an hour - he wanted to treat us to breakfast at his favourite pancake house, where I encountered one of the most impressive omelettes I have ever seen in my life, an omelette which could have housed a family of seven, let alone fed them. After that, it was a trip to his favourite vinyl/bootleg store, where I managed to pick up a copy of Stevie Wonder's long-unavailable crossover album, 1971's Where I'm Coming From.

Along the way, Malachi regaled us with tales of his life, of his incarceration following an anti-war demo in 2003 and his subsequent suit against the city, of the bizarre homemade sauce of which he was making vast quantities, and, with the Kerry-Bush election coming up, politics. He was a political guy, was Malachi but sanely, proportionately and eloquently so. He made me think a) that the USA is divided roughly 51-49 between assholes/nice guys, with the former in the marginal ascendancy (or so it felt in 2004); also that, you could travel in the US, if only for a few days, and have a wonderfully skewed experience of the place, meeting only guys like Malachi and his like - generous, politically impassioned, in the know about where to get the best breakfast.

On November 3 of this year, a few days before the midterm elections, Malachi Ritscher set himself up by the side of a Chicago expressway with a small video camera and a sign reading "Thou Shalt Not Kill", doused himself in petrol and, in the tradition of Buddhist priests in the 60s, set himself alight and burnt himself to death.

Insofar as the event was covered, it was dismissed as the actions of a fringe, raging eccentric. Malachi may have been eccentric by the noxiously centric standards of these times but he was not a madman. Whatever, this shocking story, which you would imagined would have at least been good for some sort of coverage, particularly in these news-hungry, 24 hour newsak days, managed to go effectively uncovered. I've been somewhat distracted be events recently and, to my shame, only found out about this story this evening when meeting ex-colleagues at The Wire.

I don't think I can really hope to supplement anyone's imagination, or the limits of our imagination, as to the despair, loneliness, fury, courage, misguidedness, determination that would lead a man to take their own life in such an excruciating way. But fuck it, to think that such an act could manage to go virtually unacknowledged... well, anyway, I'm raising a glass right now to Malachi. I hope he's somewhere.

The Guardian
reported it last week, and there was a longer piece in Pitchfork. But to really get the full sense of what drove this man to this act, it is worth reading what amounts to his own suicide note, from which the title to this post is taken, and his own obituary - as he says:

"He had many acquaintances, but few friends; and wrote his own obituary, because no one else really knew him."

I read this story again today, as I read it yesterday, with an incredible mixture of emotions - sadness, anger, pity, and a need to pass it on. I hope someone who reads this feels the same.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Brought to book

Like a bus, you can wait years to be tagged and then loads come all at once. And so it is, that I have once again been tapped on the shoulder and become "it". This time by Mirona at Cheezy Cheeky, to name One Book.

Now obviously I want to regale you with pages about all the fascinating books you should read, to (a) make sure you understand that I've read a lot of books; and (b) attempt to brainwash you into thinking like I do about important world issues, but this does not fit into the rules, which are as follows:
  1. Once nominated, name one book you'd recommend wholeheartedly and explain your choice within one paragraph.
  2. Nominate three people that you'll introduce to your readers in one paragraph.
  3. Let these people know that they've been tagged.
  4. Refer back to the person who tagged you, so that readers can travel back as well.

So, here goes. I've plumped, after much turmoil, for a novel. "The History of the Siege of Lisbon" by Jose Saramago (I read it in the translation done fantastically by Giovanni Pontiero). Saramago is a brilliant writer and I'd recommend all his novels, but this one in particular drew me in and turned me inside out. The story is of a proofreader who changes one word in a text about the siege of Lisbon in 1147, and the ripple effect that this act has - mostly on his own life. It is a love story, it is a study of language and its power, and it is a historical analysis of Portugal. It is, in short, completely and fantastically brilliant. And you should all go out right now and beg, borrow, or steal a copy from somewhere. It starts slowly - but this ends up being part of its charm. Believe me.

So, I'll pass this on to Romerican, who is probably too busy to read at the moment but who could maybe spare a few minutes now Christmas is nearly here; Paul, who is the Internet's most prolific Ulsterman living in Hungary; and Catherine who writes about the Balkans, music and London (not necessarily in that order).

Monday, December 04, 2006


Over two months after his death, reported by me back at the beginning of October, a British newspaper (The Independent) has finally got around to printing an obituary of Sütő András. Better late than never, though, and it is well worth reading.

The Mikulás

The Mikulás is coming. I think he's due on Wednesday. The Mikulás, in case you're not up to date with these things, is known in English as St Nicholas, and he actually comes on St Nicholas's day (Dec 6th) rather than on Christmas Eve. Anyway, the Mikulás comes and leaves sweets and fruit in your shoes. So, you can end up eating somewhat smelly apples after his visit.

Anyway, yesterday I was watching the news and they were doing some piece about Mos Nicolae (the Romanian name for the Mikulás), and were showing people shopping in Bucharest (Romanian media never bothers to leave Bucharest unless someone gets murdered) for toys and stuff. I asked Erika whether Mos Nicolae, unlike the Mikulás, leaves toys, and she explained that no, he leaves sweets and fruit like his Hungarian equivalent, but that these days both of these Nicholases have started leaving toys, spurred on by the advertising industry and a compliant media (she didn't actually say all that, I just inferred it). Ours, however, still sticks to finomsagok (sweets) and gyümölcs (fruit). In fact he even sent an advanced party this weekend, in the shape of my father-in-law who left behind various exotic fruits previously unseen in our household - a pomegranate, a pineapple, a coconut and a mango. It was all very tropical and un-Decemberish.

(He - the Mikulás, not my father-in-law - also popped up in town to deliver a pair of victories for Sport Club Miercurea Ciuc over Steaua Bucharest in the ice hockey. I went on Saturday and saw an excellently exciting match - 3-0 up, we were pulled back to 3-3 before a last minute winner sent the rink, and the town, into paroxysms of ecstacy)

So, anyway, I have been tagged by Ada to provide a list of things that I hope that the Mikulás will bring us. Obviously the whole world peace, freedom for the Palestinians, health and happiness for everyone I know, ending of dictatorship everywhere it rears its head, stuff etc etc goes without saying, and anyway, I suspect they won't fit in my (or anyone else's) shoes. I will probably be hearing news of a very interesting job possibility on or around Dec 6th, which I hope goes my way, and that can be one thing. Aside from that, I kind of feel I have everything I want. A shortish winter maybe. I'm really a tad stumped. Seems a little bit churlish to wish for material things. So you know, health and happiness in 2007 will have to do.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Happy birthday Romania

This was my third December 1st. Actually that's not close to being true - it's my 41st December 1st. It's just that until two years ago December 1st was, at most, the day you got to open the first window on your advent calendar. Now, of course, December 1st is the National Day of Romania when everybody is celebrating and wishing the nation a happy birthday. Well, nearly everyone. But rather than go into that long story again, I'll just link back to the post I made two years ago, and the one I made last year, which was just about the most commented upon post in Csikszereda Musings history.

Anyhow, there was a nice firework display on Thursday night and a torchlit thingy in the main square, which we looked out on. I think it was on Thursday because they wanted to have the celebration while all the Romanians were still here (since the holiday makes a long weekend this year, I think probably most Romanian Romanians here go home for the festival - and since the majority of Csikszereda's Romanians are not from here, and have moved here from elsewhere in the country, that means there were a lot fewer Romanians here on the 1st itself).

I had intended this post to be a thorough analysis of the movement for autonomy in Szekelyfold, but I spent hours (well tens of minutes) writing it, and it was all so confused and confusing (even more than normal) that I have shelved it for a while. Sorry. I bet you're all really upset.