Wednesday, June 27, 2007

From Székelyföld to Sheffield

At opposite ends of Europe dramatically different weather conditions. Romania sweltered yesterday in +40° temperatures (not here as such, but it did get well above 30), with the news showing that in the sun in Bucharest it was over 60°; with news reporters, from all stations it seems, frying eggs on parked cars (can't somebody find a new and creative way to illustrate the concept of really really fucking hot?); and with (again on all stations) high heeled shoes sinking into pavements.

Meanwhile back in the UK, it's really raining. And I don't mean it's just raining in the traditional daily English sense, I mean raining in the apocalyptic noah's ark sense (I may have mixed my biblical references there, but who really knows).

Here, for example, pictured yesterday, is a place in which I have spent many happy hours (and, let's face it, a fair few miserable ones too):

For those unfamiliar with this most beautiful of locations (not that there should be that many people that applies to, since being unfamiliar with this place is a bit like being unfamiliar with the Taj Mahal), this is not some expensive water polo arena, but in fact, a football stadium. Or THE football stadium to be strictly accurate.

(I believe "Time to bring on the subs" is the humorous caption you need here)

Thursday, June 21, 2007

When there in’t a ‘net

Occasionally the Internet goes off in Csíkszereda. Today is one of those days. I suspect there are places in town that have it, because these days there is more than one provider - when I first arrived here we just had Astral and that was it, so if their server went down, we lost the Internet across the whole town – this was fairly common during thunderstorms and blizzards. Today there are no thunderstorms (yet anyway, there might be one later), and certainly no blizzards (since we are in the middle of a roasting hot June), but the server seems to be down and has cut off large swathes of the town. [Obviously by the time you read this, the Internet has come back, since until that happens I can’t actually post it anyway.]

Now I am old enough to remember a time when there was no such thing as the Internet, and doing stuff didn’t involve being online. Now obviously there are things I could be doing which don’t entail being connected to the world wide web, but I can’t remember what they are. I have gone through my list of things to do and done all of the things that I can feasibly do offline, and am now waiting to go back online in order to finish them off. Some things I can’t even get started on since they necessitate me working in a place which is (I believe) actually located on a server in London. It is quite astonishing the pace at which the world has changed.

I remember when I first encountered the Internet...

[Screen goes wibbly wobbly, music effects suggest going back in time, screen clears to reveal people in unfashionable haircuts, living in a time before the invasion of Iraq, before the 11th of September 2001, to a day when Sheffield Wednesday were in the top division, when the most up to date platform was Windows 3.1, and to before the election of Tony Blair, when he was seen as someone who would be good.]

I was living on the island of Pohnpei, in the Federated States of Micronesia. I often think it’s quite odd that I was living somewhere so remote when the Internet appeared to me, but then again it is a tool which is at its best when you live somewhere remote. Like a small island in the Pacific or a small town 700m up in the Carpathians. My new boss, had (just before my arrival) signed up for something called “Compuserve” (remember them?) and through a dial up modem we could call the US and get emails. The connection was slow (I think it was 14.4kbps) and the cost of the call was such that only emails were worth bothering with. If somebody sent you one with pictures in, it took ages to get. Someone sent him that early dancing baby video thing and it must have taken over an hour to get it. Mind you, at the time, it did seem worth it - I mean it was a sort of computer generated baby, which danced. Stuff didn’t get much better than that.

One of the guys who worked for FSM Telecom was really enthused by the possibilities of this Internet stuff and how it could radically change life on an island which got three planes a week landing and every now and then a ship full of food. So he started working on it big time and soon set up the country’s own Internet server and connected it to the rest of the world by means of a massive great satellite dish set up outside the Telecom HQ. I was one of the first people in the country to get connected as he asked for 10 or so volunteers to test the whole thing out. I had the classic email address andy (at) – those were the days. (By the way that domain? Now you now where it comes from)

So all of a sudden we were connected to the world. I could do things like finding out football scores in England, or chat to people I’d never met about nothing in particular. You know the really useful stuff that has made the Internet what it is today. I even, towards the end of my stay, kept a blog before the term blog had even been invented, complaining about the fact that I was laid up with a broken leg, unable to watch the World Cup in France because it wasn’t on TV there. (The real value of the net back then in that place came when Amazon started and suddenly you could browse and order books)

Those were the days. Now everybody and her uncle is on the Internet with their myspace pages and their youtube clips, and I am now bringing up the rear, trying desperately to understand what the point of “web 2.0” is (and indeed why it is called Web 2.0 at all). I used to be hip you know. On the cutting edge of the web. Now I’m just struggling to keep up. I don’t even download music, let alone entire films or episodes of the Sopranos. Anyway, I think I’ll go out for a coffee. I believe one can do that in the real world, and you don’t even need a Second Life avatar to do it for you.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

1.4 Million

There are, it seems, 1.4 million expendable people living in Gaza. 1.4 million people who have for decades lived in unimaginable hardship and overcrowding, constantly in fear for their lives, invaded and attacked regularly by the often brutal IDF. 1.4 million people who have for the most part borne their suffering with stoicism and occasional flashes of hope. 1.4 million people who have, mostly, remained united in suffering and in common cause against the vile occupation which has held them in this state of ghetto-like purgatory, and who have remained mostly unviolent against its perpetrators (though obviously not all of them). 1.4 million people who since the Palestinian elections have found themselves attacked by the West (through sanctions) for daring to elect the wrong people. 1.4 million people who no longer only have to fear Israeli bullets and cluster bombs, but now have to fear starvation and disease, just for participating in a democracy (which is what we say we want them to do all the time). 1.4 million people who, if all of that weren’t enough now find themselves in the midst of a civil war, as finally the pressure builds up enough to shatter the unity. 1.4 million people who, as a result of that civil war, look likely to find themselves living in some kind of fundamentalist Islamic statelet. 1.4 million people who because of that are now threatened with being cut off even more, and left to fend for themselves in what increasingly looks like an utter hell hole – no food, little water, no money, no fuel, before long no electricity.

What have these 1.4 million people done to deserve this?

(Though, oddly, it now seems – if Condoleeza Rice’s speech the other day is to be believed – that in fact we can find a way to deliver aid and supplies to the ordinary people of Gaza through the UNRWA while bypassing Hamas. Now if we can do that when Hamas are in total control, why the fuck couldn’t we do it before? Is it maybe, because we were hoping to provoke this war and make this happen? Is there any politician anywhere in the Western world who gives even the slightest shit about the lives of innocent Arab civilians?)

Meanwhile, a better expressed article than I could muster from Jonathan Freedland in today's Guardian and another good one in Ha'aretz.

Friday, June 15, 2007


Sadly this year the strawberry season came and went before we even realised it had ever got going. One day they had just arrived and were selling for a pricy 8 Lei/kilo, a few days later they had dropped to the standard 3 L/kg for in-season strawberries, and then seemingly a day later they had gone back up to 7 or 8 again. Looking back, I can see that two years ago, we still hadn't made our strawberry jam by this time, so I'm not mistaken, the season was not only extremely early, but over unexpectedly fast. Something to do with the mild winter and the hot spring we've had. Anyway, no jam for us this year.

The tomatoes are in though and are bloody gorgeous. I have no idea what the variety of tomato is called that we mostly get here, but they look like tomatoes with nipples. (I tried a google image search of "tomatoes with nipples" to see if I could show you what I mean, but for some reason just ended up with lots of pictures of nipples and very few tomatoes. That's the Internet for you.) They are incredibly tasty, juicy, delicious and all in all quite possibly the best tomatoes in the world (the tomatoes, I mean, not the pictures of nipples. I'm saying nothing about them) . I would gladly eat a kilo a day. Ok, maybe not that many, but I am getting down them. (Is there any danger of overdosing on tomatoes, by the way? I know they're somehow related to deadly nightshade or something, so perhaps there is some kind of threshold which you can pass and end up killing yourself with them. If I disappear from the blog suddenly, that might be why)

On Wednesday I made gazpacho, and even though I say so myself, it was delicious. The very first time I had gazpacho many years ago, I thought the whole idea of cold soup was ridiculous verging on the inedible. At some stage in the past though I revised this view considerably and now view gazpacho as one of the finest inventions that man has ever come up with. Here, just for Marshall is the recipe I used:

Stick the following in a blender:
¾ kg tomatoes (preferably be-nippled ones, but if they are not available, any ones that weren't bought from a supermarket will probably do)
1 large cucumber (or 3 -4 small ones if those are the type you get round your way)
1 green pepper
1 small onion
2 cloves of garlic
75 ml olive oil
75 mil wine vinegar
juice of one lemon

Put lid on, blend until liquid. (You can also keep aside one tomato a bit of cucumber and a bit of pepper and chop them up small by hand and then mix them in after to give the resultant soup a bit of bite). Chill for two hours - and while you're doing that, put the gazpacho in the fridge. (Oh ho ho. I should be on telly, I really should). That's it basically. Simple as anything. You can add a little salt and pepper if you think it needs it, but it might not so taste it first.

I know, I know, it looks like I've just described a recipe for salad in a blender, but that's basically what it is. And it is 100% delicious. Trust me. I'm off now for a tomato based lunch.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Crime Scene Interruption

On my recent trip to the old country, I arranged to meet some friends in a London pub on the lunchtime of the day I arrived (taking the early flight from Bucharest meant I was able to maximise my time spent imbibing some real beer for a change). Anyway at the appointed hour, I located the pub, and wandered up to it, lifting up an annoying piece of tape that was strung across the entrance to the small street it was in, and stepped inside. I breathed in the aroma of London pub, and then noted that the place was pretty empty - there were two staff and two blokes in suits, all of whom were looking over at me quizzically. London's a fairly anonymous place, so you don't usually get that "everybody stare at the new person" vibe that you do in smaller places, plus because London is so big you also don't get empty pubs at 12.30. So, with my unerring nose for these things, I surmised that something odd was going on.

"Errm, are you open?" I asked to generally in the direction of the four starers.

"No, it's not" replied one of the blokes in the suits, coming towards me, "and you've walked straight through a 'Crime Scene' tape" (so that's what that was). He escorted me from the pub and called over the two uniformed police standing at the other end of the street from the way I came in, telling them to gently eject me and to make sure no other wandering thirsty people followed my lead.

After I was safely on the other side of the "Crime Scene: Do Not Enter" tape (I actually bothered to read it this time round), I asked one of the aforementioned coppers what was going on , to which he (somewhat patronisingly I felt) responded "I can't tell you, but let's just say somebody is very very ill in hospital". I don't really know why he didn't go the whole hog and use the word "poorly" really.

It was a stabbing, I discovered later, which is not something that often closes down streets and bars in Csikszereda, I have to say. Especially not at that time in the morning. Swings and roundabouts, I suppose. We miss out on, you know, stuff going on and that, but we gain on the people not being stabbed that much front.

I did manage to spend the entire afternoon sampling delicious beer though, you'll be relieved to know. I imagine you may have been concerned.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Taliban Paintball

There's a poster around town at the moment advertising something called "Taliban Paintball". What the hell is Taliban Paintball? Do you have to play with one hand tied behind your back and an eyepatch on to pretend like you're Mullah Omar? Or maybe fan out round the town paintballing women who show the barest hint of skin? (This being summer, that one would be a tad simple). When you capture someone you get to stick them in an orange jumpsuit and lock them up without trial for years on end? Really though, what is that? Is Taliban the new slang for edgy and dangerous? Or is it like cowboys and indians once was?

Meanwhile in Bucharest today the natural heirs to the Taliban were chucking rocks and stuff at gay people. Fundamentalist tossers. They actually make me want to believe in hell.

Friday, June 08, 2007

S-i-z-e of a toddler

(title to be read in the voice of the bloke on the cartoon in the Banana Splits. If you don't get this reference, don't worry, that's a good thing)

I was briefly in the UK last week, and while there I decided to pick up a few clothes for Paula (they are seemingly both cheaper and better quality than the stuff you can get here). However, on returning I have come to the conclusion that toddlers in the UK are huge mutants. Paula is more or less 18 months old, and knowing, as I already did, that the sizes there are massively overstated (or that there is this aforementioned race of giant toddlers crushing rusks in their bare hands, and stamping all over cars) I elected not to buy clothes that were advertised as being suitable for "18-24 months", and instead got some that were quoted at 12-18 months, reasoning that she might be at the lower end of that inflated scale by now. But no, they are still way, way too big for her. She'll probably fit into them by the time she reaches about eleven (at which time little body-suit things may even be fashionable for the pre-pubescent girl). And she's not that small.

Perhaps the UK, being that bastion of progressiveness that we know it to be, has actually, unbeknownst to me, altered its measurement system of time. Perhaps a British month is now actually made up of 64 32-hour days or something. Why do all measurements there have to be different? Why can't we, as a people, get over this clinging to the past, and get on with things? It must cost everybody a fortune to constantly have to provide conversions everywhere.

I acquired a new nephew this week and on being told of his birth had to convert his weight into a standard one in order to tell people how big he was (he checked in, prematurely, at "5 lbs 14 oz", which, in normal language, is 2.7kgs give or take a few grams). Anyway, welcome, Henry. This may be your first internet mention. I hope one day you, too, will not understand "imperial" measurements.

Then, I was at a shoe shop with my other nephew and was asked what size Paula's feet were. "20 or 21" I replied confidently. "What's that in English measurements", I was asked (I had no idea, and still don't)

And another (entirely unconnected) thing - the trouser press. What's up with that? In hotel rooms in Britain you nearly always find a trouser press. But nowhere else - I've never heard of anyone actually owning one privately, or ever seen them on sale anywhere. So why is it de-rigeur for hotels in the UK to have one in every room? And, for that matter, what is a trouser press anyway? It's like a very very big iron for lazy people. I tried to use one once, in the name of research, and it was really useless. An iron would have much easier. And more flexible because you do other stuff like shirts and that in them. But no, somewhere in history, someone decided that the trouser press is the way to go for hotels.

I feel better now I've got all that off my chest.