Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Kellemes Ünnepeket

And so on. Was intending to sign off at the weekend but got flu, and had to stay in bed (by the way, I was recently told that the official medical/scientific way you can tell whether you've got flu or just a bad cold is to imagine looking out of your window and seeing a 20 pound note (or 100 Lei, or 20 Euro or whatever) lying on the path. If you would go outside and get it, you've got a cold. If not, it's flu. Anyway, I had flu (at least by this rigorous definition) and so there was no writing a long happy christmas message, there was just lying in bed feeling sorry for myself. Anyway I wish everyone who comes across this note well and the compliments of the season and a happy new year and all of that jazz.

In addition I would like to point out that although I am the same age as the new Romanian prime minister Emil Boc, I look younger than him. This is not because I look especially young but that he looks a lot older than his years. His name is an anagram of "embolic" by the way, which means "of or relating to an obstuction of a blood vessel". Mine, on the other hand, isn't. And on that cryptic note I bid you, my reader, adieu for 2008. Have a good one.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Coalition of the Unwilling

I missed the election, being in a country which doesn’t really believe in such things, but as I understand it the results turned out more or less as expected including a record low turnout (which I expect wasn’t the supposed point of the new uninominal voting system). The PSD got a very slightly greater proportion of the votes than the others, but the PD-L got slightly more seats due to the new system. The PNL got the third most, and the UDMR were the only other party to break 5% and therefore get representation. This means that the good news is that both the PRM and the PNG, the two extremist right wing parties, aren’t in the parliament at all, which is nice.

Because of the slight disparity between popular vote and most seats, there seems to have been major difficulties in working out who gets to have first stab at forming a workable coalition, which has meant that everybody kind of milled around for a while partly attempting to seduce each other and partly trying to act strong and tough. Metaphorically waving a leg clad in a stocking and a hob-nailed boot.

The seeming upshot of all of this is that the PSD and the PDL are going to try and come up with a coalition government, with maybe the UDMR in too, though this seems debatable (I’m not sure why they would need the UDMR as they’d have close to 70% of the seats between them even without the UDMR, so why they would need an extra partner is beyond me, but I guess the UDMR made some kind of deal with Basescu or someone else in the PDL) [Note:Technically Basescu is no longer in the PDL because as President he had to resign his party affiliation, but I assume no-one really believes that he has no pro-PDL sympathies].

I can’t really see this (or any other potential coalition) lasting that long to be honest, since the three parties seem to hate each other massively, so I think the upshot is that Romania will trundle along with its leaders bickering incessantly until the global financial crisis really reaches Romania (which it sort of is about to do – I think it hasn’t yet, because we’re a bit behind), and then there’ll be no-one prepared to do anything about it. Still at least we have some palinka to tide us over.

Monday, December 08, 2008

What the Mikulás brought

Friday was the day when the Mikulás came. The Mikulás, or St Nicholas as you may know him, shows up on December 5th with various small gifts and sweets and stuff for children. [I should note here that there is some confusion over this date. Here, he comes on the 5th, but apparently in Hungary he comes on the 6th. It seems that his Romanian counterpart, Mos Niculae, comes on the 5th, so perhaps that's why the Mikulás comes then here]

Anyway, he came, as usual, and brought various sweets and cakes and fruit and stuff, and also brought me safely home from Uzbekistan and - on that day - Turkey, which is apt, since that's where he (St Nicholas) is from. The other thing he brought though was of much greater interest and value. He brought our palinka. I mentioned some time ago about the abundance of plums that we have acquired as part of our new land-owning status, and that we would be making palinka from them. Well, on Friday, Erika (and a friend, since I was unavoidably unable to be there thanks to the Tashkent fog) carted our barrels of fermenting plum mash off to the village church for just this purpose. For reasons which are unclear to me, but perhaps related to the role of the church at the heart of the community and the priest as guide to the people, the distiller had set up his equipment in the priest's garage next door to the church. And so a few hours after dropping off our plums, we had a significant quantity of delicious 53% abv palinka to our name. On Saturday evening some friends came round and we sampled it (and continued to sample it for quite a long time, to really make sure it was as good as we thought).

Yesterday morning I woke up without the merest trace of a hangover, which I take to mean that thius is really top quality stuff, since these days, I do tend to get some fairly brutal hangovers if I drink too much, and for that reason do so less and less. The fact that this palinka was able to do the job without leaving me comatose for the day is testament to the skills of our distillers. I raise a glass in their general direction! (hic)

Thursday, December 04, 2008


I am fogbound in Tashkent airport (at least I am at the moment I am writing this, when and if I finally post it I won’t be, because there is no internet here at the airport, so it will have to actually go up later)

Last night I left the hotel here at 1.30 and got to the airport in good time. After various bureaucratic procedures (Uzbekistan is very bureaucratic as that’s as good a way as any to control people), I made it to the departures lounge and sat down to sort of doze and wait. After an hour or so, a Turkish Airlines man showed up to inform us that the plane would be a little late (the actual phrase he used was “a little untimely” which was, I thought, a nicely euphemistic phrase for “late”). When pressed he confessed that he didn’t know how untimely it would be because the plane was circling above us, hoping that the fog would lift enough to let it land.

Obviously it didn’t because an hour later he appeared again, looking stressed (or perhaps “a little untranquil”) to inform us that we should all return to our hotels because the plane would not actually arrive that night and had been diverted to Ashkabad (for those unfamiliar with Central Asian geography, that’s the capital of Turkmenistan). We should come back to the airport at noon. First of all we had to retrace our steps through the bureaucracy, since when we showed up again later (feels like the next day, but technically it isn’t) we’d need to hand over all the various forms we’d presented just then – so it would be necessary to reclaim the forms (the hotel registration card, the customs declaration and various other ridiculous bits of paper). That took a while, and eventually I ended up at the Turkish Airlines office to work out what my options would be regarding onward connections from Istanbul – obviously the plane to Bucharest I was supposed to catch was out of the question, but it also turned out that by the time we eventually get to Istanbul (fingers crossed) I’ll have missed every feasible connection for the day, and I’ll have to spend the night there.

After reconnecting with two Iranian colleagues who were fogbound with me, we got back to the hotel (after taxi haggling, and the realisation, upon emerging from the terminal, that the fog was in fact very very thick – somehow that was a piece of good news, since it meant that we weren’t being dicked around for no actual reason) , had a short argument with the hotel regarding the fact that we knew the rooms had been paid for for the whole night, and yes, while we had actually checked out, that they could put us back there for a few hours, so we could have a kip (by this time it was well after 5, so everyone was a little frazzled and not really in the mood to deal with the problems caused by Uzbek bureaucracy – once you’ve checked out, you’ve checked out). They relented eventually, and I was able to sleep for about 3 hours, before getting up at 9 to sort out various problems caused by this unscheduled extra half day in Tashkent (and consequent 24 hour delay in my eventual arrival home). So, here I am, back at the airport, knackered and hoping that the plane eventually comes (the fog has lifted mostly), and that I will be able to catch a few more hours sleep on board (unlikely, I fear).

I appreciate that these destinations may sound evocatively exotic to many people (Tashkent, Ashkabad, Istanbul), but you’ll have to trust me that spending three hours at Tashkent airport in the wee hours is not in any way glamorous. However, to try and find a silver lining, there are people in this story worse off than us – the plane load of passengers who after circling Tashkent for 2 hours, were directed back to spend the night in Ashkabad (and I’m having a guess that Ashkabad airport makes Tashkent look like a comfortable and uncomplicated haven of tranquility).

In theory we take off in one more hour from now, but I’m not holding my breath.

[Update: Am now finally in Istanbul, after 5 more unexplained hours at the airport today. Rather intriguingly when they fed us at about 5.30pm local time, they decided to stick with the plan and give us breakfast, which was somewhat taking-the-piss I felt. It's not often I have breakfast with red wine]

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Romanian election is approaching, and I, for one, am as baffled as ever by the shifting allegiances in Romanian politics.

The election will take place on November 30th, which is next Sunday, and frankly an odd choice for an election day. You see, that's a long weekend, as December 1st is Romania's national day. Thus many people (one assumes) will actually be away from home (and hence the place in which they are registered to vote) either visiting family or enjoying the first of the winter snow (which I'm reliably informed is just round the corner), and not really looking to spend Sunday at home so they can vote.

This is the parliamentary election to elect a new government (but not a new president). This, at least, will presumably stop the endless bickering between the current government and the current president. Unless of course the current government get reelected (though this seems unlikely at the moment). So, here, basically is a quick primer on which parties stand a chance of having seats and being involved in coalition speculation.

Let's start with the PSD. The PSD (Social Democrats) are essentially the ex-communists. I presume by now there are some young and thrusting members who were never in the Communist Party, as they were not yet adults in 1989, but it seems like most of them were. The grand puppet master of the PSD is Ion Ilescu who was Ceausescu's right hand man, before positioning himself handily at the revolution and ending up as president following Nic's unfortunate violent death. I'm not sure what he's up to now, but his presence is still very strong around the party. The PSD are nominally of the left, but who knows what that means these days. Most confusingly they've allied themelsves at this election with the Conservative Party (PC). Obviously it's a tad confusing being English and finding an electoral alliance between the ex-communists and the conservatives, but I'm coming to terms with the idea that names don't mean a great deal (as if to prove this the conservatives were formerly called the humanist party). But the Conervatives seem to me like a trad right wing party - anti gay, in favour of "family values" whatever they are, and basically you're run of the mill bunch of rightists. No idea what the thinking behind the coalition is.

The other two major parties were allies four years ago, but now seem to hate each other's guts. There are the Democrats (PD) from which party comes the current president Traian Basescu (he's the bald bloke you see on photoshoots of EU leaders). They are kind of centrist (but to me what these days counts as "centrist" really is soft right. The party they fell out with the Liberals (PNL) who currently head up a minority government without the PD because they are not friends any more. They are to the right of the PD. Most of the last two years of Romanian politcis has been about the feud between these two, with each attempting to ridicule the other, and especially the most visible face of each party - Basescu(PD) and Tariceanu(PNL), the Prime Minister. Nobody I have spoken to thinks this election will change anything much, but at least, presumably, we'll see less of this soap opera for a while.

Those three will get most of the votes, but other parties that might get above the 5% threshold needed to get seats are the UDMR (The Hungarian Party who are big fish in my small pond), the PMR (extremist right wingers, who are thankfully on the wane) , and that's about it. Thankfully Gigi Becali's PNG party who are just a bunch of mad far right extremist "christians" are unlikely to make it.

The voting system has also changed this time. Before it was a party list system, but this time it has been changed into something called the uninominal system. This means, I think, that you actually get to a vote for a person rather than a list, which I suspect will serve to make Romanian politics even less interesting to the electorate since the candidates are so often such faceless nobodies, At least if you voted for a list you could choose policies, now they're being asked to vote for a sack of white potatoes or a sack of red potatoes. I could be wrong though, and maybe turnout will floruish with excited voters all wanting to vote for their man.

On which note, the final point for now (and I certainly hope that I get some comments here correcting what I expect to be a litany of errors), and that is the gender of the candidates. The last word of the previous paragraph was chosen carefully. Because you see there are no women. Well obnviously there are 1 or 2, but really this is about the most male election I can imagine. Today I drove from Miercurea Ciuc to Bucharest and passed loads of election posters. Tons of the things, and I saw one woman, One woman in 250 km of election advertising plastered over every billboard. It's a tad depressing. The one successful woman in the last parliament, who was elected woman of the year in the European parliament, Monica Macovei, got kicked out of the justice ministry in Romania for trying too hard to stamp out corruption.

Monday, November 17, 2008


Every now and again, the stuck-in-the-pastness of Romania* catches my attention. I've learned to overlook the horsecarts and the dingy little shops selling communist era tinned goods, and now I more or less forget that they are there. But once in a while I'm jolted back to reality.

TV Comedy in Romania is pretty ropey, and mostly of a sub-Benny Hill style slapstick, but there is one show which has always seemed to me to be a cut above. That show is called Cronica Carcotasilor. The hosts seem to be quick witted, and they lampoon most things that they see in Romania (and as an added bonus, they really rip the piss out of Gigi Becali). It does have this sort of gratuitous scantily clad dancing girls thing going on, but I figure they have to do that just to get the show on TV.

But then yesterday I caught a part of this week's show. Which they did blacked up wearing afro-wigs, and with the name cards Oblada and Obladi in front of them, and occasionally punctuating their lines with 70's style jive talk. What decade are we living in here?

Don't believe me?

The house band: The guy here appears to be, yes, I'm not joking, doing a monkey impression.

For fuck's sake.

(The really sad thing is that they probably felt they were doing this in some kind of spirit of celebration and empathy, and were not attempting to make just a bunch of cheap racist jibes)

*Because I seem to have acquired something of a reputation of being anti-Romanian among some people, I want to make it clear that I don't think this kind of thing is confined to Romania, and I'm guessing similar "jokes" have been made all over Eastern Europe this week. Which doesn't in any way excuse it.

My Day in Court

Last week I went to court. I wasn't in the dock, you'll be sorry to hear, but instead I was there as a witness. I realised that I'd never actually been in a court before, not even as a heartless gloater/ghoul/audience member (is there a word for people who just go and watch court cases?) so this was a vaguely exciting moment.

I had received my summons in the post telling me to be in Court room 100 at 8.30am in Miercurea Ciuc's impressive Palatul Justiţie, so I duly showed up there right on time, wandering through the empty hallways until I located room 100 (sadly not Room 101). The only people visible in the entire building were four members of the Jandarmerie (Jandarms?). I'm not entirely sure of the function of the jandarmerie - like many European countries Romania has a lot of seperate police forces who all seem to have slightly different responsibilities, but what those responsibilities are seems a bit vague to me. In this case the jandarmerie are obviously charged with policing the courthouse building. Anyway there were four of them hanging around, a bit bored, and three of them looked about 18 (though obviously the usual proviso applies that as I'm knocking on a bit these days, nearly all police-type-people look about 18). Since there was nothing to do they were pissing about a bit, pretending to throw one another off the balcony, until finally the older one told them to stop it as the bloke sitting on his own outside room 100 (that's me) was watching. Eventually he obviously gave them all permission to go and sit in the jandarm room or whatever it was since they all disappeared into the room opposite 100 and started listening to manele.

I had peeped into the courtroom to check I wasn't supposed to go in, but there were just two people in there looking stern, and anyway, there was a paper posted up which listed the 6 cases that morning and mine was number 3 so I figured I just had to wait. Occasionally an announcement came over a speaker which was in the corridor I was sitting in, but despite the fact that I was the only person in the area it was still entirely indecipherable. Partly this was because of the manele emanating from next door, but partly it was because it just sounded like there was some kind of mysterious and geographically misplaced peat bog lying inconveniently between the microphone being spoken into and the speaker transmitting the sounds.

Eventually the one remaining jandarm came over and asked me what I was waiting for and when I explained, he told me to go and wait in the court room (it quickly became apparent that whenever anyone bothered to go into the courtroom their case was just taken up, and then left again when they were done). So I sat down, listened to some bloke telling some long complicated story and be excused, and then it was my turn. Then of course we had a problem. This was clearly a process that had to be dealt with in Romanian, and while I can understand a fair amount of Romanian, I rarely have to use it and so my productive Romanian is, for want of a better word, shit. The judge (I think she was the judge, she was the woman behind a big desk, though she wasn't wearing some stupid wig as I have been led to expect is de rigeur for the judging profession) asked if I spoke Romanian, and I was forced to reply "nu" (I would rather have said, "well, I know a bit, and I can kind of get by in a restaurant or bar, and you know I can stick Spanish words in whenever I don't know the Romanian, but in general my Romanian is not really at an acceptable level for courtroom interaction" - but of course I didn't know how to say all that in Romanian, so I stuck with "nu").

Somehow, though, within about two minutes, and with seemingly no action on the part of either the judge or the stenographer/assistant/other woman, a third woman appeared who did in fact speak English. I can only imagine there is some kind of hidden language panic button which someone pressed and it made some kind of English language bat sign in the building, which brought her running (either that or the jandarm realised that she'd be needed and had gone off and found her)

So, we were all set - first question "Do you believe in god?" Again, I could have gone a for a long winded response to this, which would have gone all round the houses of agnosticism, but I again plumped for a simple "nu" (showing willing by not relying on the translator for all my utterances). This foxed them a little, and everyone looked uncertainly for a moment at the bible lying there, and elected not to pick it up. The interpretor (channeling the judge) then started to ask me to repeat the lines "I promise to tell the truth..." at which point I took over and finished the sentence for her (since it is well established that 62.7% of all TV programmes take place either entirely or partially in courtrooms, my lack of actual experience was more than made up for). When I finished, there was an awkward little silence, before the judge asked the interpretor to ask me to finish with the words "So help me God". Which seemed a little weird, since I'd just told them I didn't believe in him/her/it. They obviously realised this, because the next thing I was told was "and you know not telling the truth is a felony, right?", which I assured them I did.

Finally we got to the questions pertinent to the case, which were all very easy (a few months ago, I was in a small car shunt, with another car which had come from my left at a crossroads in the back alleys near the flat. As he had come from the left, I was completely exonerated since there is automatic priority from the right. He faced having his licence suspended for three months and was arguing that because the junction was a blind one, being at a buliding site, and with a van parked on the corner, he hadn't been able to see. I'm not convinced of this as a defence, to be honest, but I had been called by his lawyer to confirm this van and the building site at the corner. Which I was able to do, since they were in fact there.)

After a couple of minutes, it was all over and done with. the stenographer printed out the statement, I signed it, and I was on my way. I sort of missed the whole drama aspect of it - no defendant, no opposing counsel (in fact no counsel at all), no jury, no wigs, no dramatic summing up statements, no nothing really. Just a large and fairly impressive room, with three people in it. I think even John Grisham would struggle to make a good story out of it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


It has been brought to my attention that I erred in my last post. Apparently, I did in fact attend a wedding when I was a child - when I was 3 or 4 in fact. While the organ was playing I was heard to ask loudly "When does the film start?". I have no recollection of this wedding, though I can't think why I forgot it since it's not like I haven't heard the above story on about 329 occasions.

Friday, November 07, 2008

6 Random Things

I've been tagged, which hasn't happened for a fair few years. See what happens when you start posting again. Anyway, for those unfamiliar with the practice, someone else with a blog (who has also been tagged) then passes on the tag to 6 other people. It's a bit like toxic debt only less likely to bring the banking system to its knees. In this case my tagger was none other than Gadjo Dilo, who like me is a Brit living in Transylvania, though he is in the fancy cosmopolitan metropolis of Cluj rather than small town Hungaroworld.

Anyway, I'm charged with revealing 6 random things about myself. No idea where this will take me, but here goes...

1. I knew JK Rowling when she was at her lowest ebb. I was living in Porto, Portugal and teaching English - as was Joanne (as I knew her). There's a long story in here involving an abusive husband, her daughter and a desperate need to get some papers together to leave Portugal and move back to Scotland, but I won't bore you with the details. Except to say that the story of how somebody at what must have been more or less rock bottom could bounce back and become the richest woman in Britain is a reassuring one.

2. I once had to fly across the Pacific changing planes three times with a broken leg. At each stop (in Guam, Hawaii, and Los Angeles), I was met by a member of airport staff with a wheelchair to take me to my next gate. in each case the person meeting me was from the Phillipines.

3. I don't like cheese. Really. I know many people find that hard to imagine, but there it is. Can't stand the stuff - smell, taste, texture. Makes me want to vomit. As I like to say, oh so humorously, "all cheese is sajt".

4. I didn't attend a wedding until I was about 21, and the first (and only) funeral I went to was about ten years ago. I'm not sure what this says about me, possibly that I have no friends, and a very small family.

5. I once spent the night in a police cell in Bruges, but not because I'd done anything wrong, but because I'd been locked out of my hotel and the police felt sorry for me, and let me sleep there. (At least that's my story, and I'm sticking to it)

6. I was a vegan for 6 years and in that time I didn't have a single illness, not even a cold or a minor snuffle. Nothing. I suspect the two things are related, though I can't prove it scientifically.

I don't actually know 6 people I can tag, because I am antisocial and not really a very active member of the world of blogs, but I will endeavour to sneeze this blogovirus in the general direction of Rob at A New Habit, Marshall at Marshall Arts, Spangly Princess, and her man, The Liquidator (a fellow cheese hater), Julie, and ... well I really can't do anyone else, because it's just too unBritish to start prodding people who you don't know very well (I only really know- in the traditional pre-internet sense - two of those 5 people), and I am already feeling very resistant to the whole concept, and desperately worried that I'm going to start annoying people with this tag ("Errr, terribly sorry to bother you, but, errm, I've been tagged and the rules are that I'm supposed to tag someone in return, and, well, I don't really know you, but well, would you errmm, y'know, be tagged by me?")

The following are the rules, which I am contractually obliged to share with you, like the list of side effects at the end of a medicine advert. You need read no further, unless you feel compelled to read to the end of any document you have started.

Link to the person who tagged you. Post the rules on your blog. Write 6 random things about yourself. Tag 6 people at the end of your post and link to them. Let each person you have tagged know by leaving a comment on their blog. Let the tagger know when your entry is posted.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Peach of a Result


Never mind that in reality he won't be that much different from any other Democrat president. Never mind that millions upon millions of people voted for a ticket that included the complete barking-mad nutter Sarah Palin. Never mind that anyone who speaks even a small amount of Hungarian can look at his first name and not mentally pronounce it borotsk. Never mind that he'll be taking over a country in the middle of financial meltdown, with a horribly tarnished global reputation, that has occupying armies in two separate countries (Bush called Obama last night and said "Congratulations and go enjoy yourself". Gee, thanks George.) Never mind all this, for now. The important thing is that he won, and the Bush years are over, and the USA has elected a black president, and surely nobody could fail to be moved by the sight of African Americans who lived through segregation crying with joy and disbelief at this. Even if this just proves to be nothing more than a symbolic victory, it's a damned big symbol.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Please, please, please

Let us, let us, let us, let us, get what we want this time.

After the last two hideous nights of pain in 2000 and 2004, I cannot bear to watch it, despite all the signs pointing to a monumental, historic, fantastic victory. I don't trust the exit polls, I don't trust the Republicans to not cheat again. I'll only believe it when it's confirmed. Please. Please please please. Good times for a change.

Meanwhile, in completely-off-the-wall-nutjob news, signs are that the Rapture is approaching. But don't worry, because
The Rev. Tim LaHaye, co-author of the millennial Left Behind series, told the Wall Street Journal that he recognized allusions to his work in the ad but comparisons between Obama and the Antichrist were incorrect.

"The Antichrist isn't going to be an American, so it can't possibly be Obama. The Bible makes it clear he will be from an obscure place, like Romania," the 82-year-old author told the paper.
So, Obama is not the antichrist, who will instead come from "an obscure place, like Romania". Obscure my arse, we have two teams in the Champions League for christ's sake. That's about as high profile as it gets.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


If you do not live in the UK or do not regularly follow the news from there, you are probably unaware of the main story of global significance that is the number one headline in all newspapers, on the TV broadcasts, everywhere.

No, it isn't the US election, and no it isn't the financial crisis. It's not the earthquake in Pakistan or the US attack on Syria. Neither is it the humanitarian crisis in Goma.

It is in fact the moral outrage of the nation's shocked conscience over a prank call on a radio show. I won't go into all the details since it's not terribly interesting when all is said and done, but the upshot of it is that the pages of the Daily Mail are overflowing with outraged blue-rinsed grannies and other moral crusaders calling for the BBC to be disbanded. (These people, with no apparent irony, will also rail incessantly against "political correctness" - ie the attempt to minimise offence caused by language - but obviously making the leap and realising that there is a contradiction is impossible in these small minded little-englanders). This hysteria is being whipped up by papers such as the Daily Mail which is a newspaper of extreme ill-repute, in order to pursue their "demolish the lefty BBC" agenda.

The BBC in its cravenness has bowed to this ludicrous pressure and suspended the two people responsible, one of whom has now quit. I despair of my people sometimes.

How does this effect me, other than there being pages and pages of rubbish that I have to search through on UK based websites in order to find what's actually happening in the world? Well, the weekly podcast of the radio show in question is actually very funny - it has moments of being rubbish, and moments of cringe-inducing stuff, but in the main is a really excellent radio show. I can see how a lot of people can't stand the guy - Russell Brand - who does it, but that's kind of beside the point. Anyway, that podcast will be no more, and the amount of interesting material available from my homeland has been reduced. And all because of a bunch of braindead wankers and sheep led by the braying mouthpiece of vileness, the Mail.

Anyway, if you want to laugh at their idiocy, rather than being utterly infuriated by it, you can indeed still find amusing content from the UK on the internet - in this case at spEak You're bRanes. Highly recommended.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Four heads are better than two

So, nothing much happened at the big head-of-state clash here on Thursday. Solyom expressed support for the idea of autonomy, and Basescu said (again) that Hungarians would have as much autonomy as Romanians, and presumably he'll do as much about that as he previously has - i.e. nothing. After a couple of photo-ops, Basescu buggered off, leaving Solyom here for an extra day or so hanging out with the Szekelys. I discovered this on Friday morning when (a) because it was raining, and (b) because I needed to speak to Bogi's teacher, I drove her to school. The rain meant the traffic was particularly bad and chaotic, but it was on the way home that I attempted to drive past the town's main hotel, and was diverted (with everyone else) down some dirt track side street so as not to, I dunno, drive too close to a room which had the president of Hungary in it.

Anyway, he stuck around to dress up in local costume and look a bit if a pillock, have a chat with László Tőkés, in Csiksomlyo (for someone who's famous for being a Reformed Bishop - as ever, a smile is raised by that phrase of which I never tire - Tőkés seems to spend a lot of time hanging out with Catholics), and generally do the Hungarian tourist trail, followed daily by tour buses from all over Hungary of people wanting to look at the ethnographic museum of Transylvania and patronise their poor oppressed Magyar brothers.

Coincidentally, while I was sitting here in what became (at least for half an hour or so) the centre of post Trianon mittel-European politics, Mrs H. was off in Bratislava in which two other heads of state were hanging out. Well, the UK's head of state was, and I presume that Slovakia's was there too, since I understand if someone comes visiting you have to hang around and welcome them. Though I suppose you could leave a note on the immigration booth at Bratislava airport

Dear Betty,
Sorry I can't be here to meet you, but I've had to pop out to the Ukraine for a pint of milk. I should be back in a couple of hours, but in the meantime, let yourself in, put your feet up and make yourself at home. There's some Bryndzove halusky and some beers in the fridge, and one of my flunkies will show you how the TV works. I'll be back soon, and we can have a good old chinwag about the war and that.

Actually, she is the head of state of more than just the UK, but of loads of places, isn't she? So that means Mrs H beat me to the crown of being-in-the-place-with-the-most-heads-of-state-in-it on Thursday. Damn. The Queen alone is the head of state of 16 different places (according to wikipedia), which means that she's like some mini-walking version of the UN. I wonder if she's ever been at war with herself?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Cold Turkey on Bread

I have given up bread. Not permanently, but for the time being. I haven't eaten so much as a crumb of bread since Monday. This is quite frankly, the hardest thing I have ever given up - and I have, over the years, given up a lot of things, many of which are regarded as quite seriously addictive.

So, why, you may be asking, have I chosen to give up bread? Well, primarily it is an attempt to shed a kilo or two. You see, I love bread. I really love bread. I eat it for breakfast dinner and tea (or, if you prefer, breakfast, lunch and dinner). Bread is delicious, and filling and it can be modified in many different ways. And the bread in Romania is particularly delicious (or at least the bread here is, I'm not really sure if it's a country wide phenomenon). So, because of this craving for bread, and the advantages of having many many delicious loaves everywhere, I eat a lot. And, not uncoincidentally, I have gained a certain amount of weight since I arrived here. So, I thought I'd better cut down a little, but rather than just limit my number of slices per meal, I thought I'd go cold turkey and see how it went.

Well, it's going really hard. Every meal, I wonder to myself "Maybe I could just have one slice. That won't do any harm" I walk into the kitchen for any reason, and my eyes are drawn to the breadbasket. I crave it. Really. I am increasingly convinced that it's an actual physical addiction, since it is so strong. Even writing this is sending my stomach into rumbling overdrive, as my mind repeatedly inhales the word bread...bread...bread...

Now I;ve never heard of any ingredient in bread that would make it physically addictive, but I'm convinced there must be one. This is not just a psychological thing, this is real and physical. The few times I've stopped drinking coffee have had a similar (yet less powerful) effect, and when I gave up smoking I had nothing like this sensation.

So, can anyone tell me if I'm dreaming this, and whether there really is any addictive ingredient in bread that my body is craving? And if so, can I get a patch for it, or something? Gluten gum? A yeast patch? There must be some way of dealing with this?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Double header

There are two heads of state just outside my apartment at the moment. Is there a special term for that - a brace of heads of state? A pair? A not-very-dynamic duo? Two heads must be a mutation I suppose.

No, you did read that right, I didn't mean to say heads of cabbage or lettuce, they are definitely heads of state. They're speaking in the main square here which is right outside on the occasion of October 23rd (which is the anniversary of the 1956 revolution in Hungary as I'm sure I don't need to remind you). Anyway, to commemorate the date the presidents of Romania and Hungary are performing in some kind of symbolic Simon and Garfunkel reform in Central park hands across Transylvania type gig.

October 23rd is a good day for Basescu to reach out in tis way since it's a holiday untainted with any form of Romano-Magyar political baggage, and presumably everyone can agree on it. So, reckon it's a good thing that he's doing this. I'd have thought the president of Hungary (his name's Sólyom, by the way, but I had to look that up, since his role is more or less ceremonial) would have other commitments today, since it's such a big deal back at home, but somehow he's decided to come here instead. Anyway, I'd take picture but the batteries in my camera are out and I've lost the cable for my phone. So, I probably won't bother.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Going by the book

It is an exciting day for me. Well it's not actually much different from most other days to be honest, but I'm trying to build this up in my own mind a little. The reason is that this book is (I believe) officially published today. It's a cracking read, a real unputdownable, page-turning potboiler, and it it ought to be on everyone's christmas stocking wishlist. It's perhaps not going to win the Booker Prize, though it would be nice to be nominated.

I haven't actually seen a copy of it, and have no idea when I will (I'm supposed to be getting some, sometime), but it is out today. I think when a title of this magnitude and of this universal interest comes out, the authors are expected to do the breakfast TV shows, appear at book signings around the country and just generally lap up their celebrity status. Strangely I haven't yet been asked to do all that media-whoring. No idea why.

Seriously though, I think with every copy sold I make something massive like 70p. So go crazy, buy three or four, and with my vast royalty cheques I'll buy you a bottle of Ciuc one day.

Writing for CUP was something of a long drawn out experience with a drafting process taking in 4 different stages (ie I was sent the pages to review 4 different times) a dedicated editor, someone looking up references to check that we really did quote properly, etc etc. We started writing the bloody thing two years ago. Contrast with the process when I wrote the book pictured to the left, which was published by Polirom - a very well respected Romanian publishing company - the process of which was basically signing a contract and then letting them get on with it - someone did go through it and proof read it, I know because there were a few typos in my document that were dealt with before it emerged, but I certainly wasn't involved, and it only took them a month between getting the book for the first time and it appearing in a genuine bound-and-all copy

Anyway, I might permit myself a small glass of something to celebrate later.

Transylvania Cliche Watch (3) (and final)

Very poor showing from the headline writers after last night's game. Obviously coming up with something for a 0-0 game is too difficult for the cream of the UK's cliche-wielding hacks. There were one or two "toothless Chelsea" lines (though it wasn't toothless Chelsea so much as outplayed Chelsea). The only real contender for the crown of most badly written report came (surprisingly) from the Independent, with Jason Burt's report entitled "Drogba ankle injury drives stake into Chelsea's season" which is about as melodramatic as anything Stoker could come up with (Oh, woe, poor Chelsea, a player is out injured for a couple of weeks, what will they do with such limited resources?).

For future journalistic reference, writers from Britain need to know the following (all these mistakes have appeared this week):
  • Cluj is not west of Bucharest (or at least it is only so in the same way that Edinburgh is west of London).
  • The name of the team is not CFR Cluj-Napoca. The official name of the city is Cluj-Napoca, but the team is CFR Cluj (or, if you want to go the whole hog CFR 1907 Cluj). Just as the team owned by Italy's slimeball extremist prime minister is AC Milan, not AC Milano.
  • Steaua did not lose to Dinamo on the last day of last season to hand the title to CFR Cluj
  • Count Dracula was not a real person
  • Vlad "the impaler" Ţepeş did not do his impaling in Transylvania, as he spent almost no time here, being in charge in Wallachia, not Transylvania.
  • Maurizio Trombetta is a genius (this is not correcting a mistake, just a statement of fact)

[Oh, and by the way, the best written piece on the whole "who are this CFR Cluj team?" question, came unsurprisingly from the best UK football source, When Saturday Comes. No, I didn't write it, in case you're wondering]

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Transylvania Cliche Watch (2)

This is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel (or, I suppose, biting the neck of a giraffe), but as the game approaches, the media has struck a rich vein of Dracula references and has sucked upon them wildly. For the match reports I'm going to have a scoring system:
10 points -"XXX drove a stake through the heart of the plucky Transylvanians"
5 points - "Chelsea scented blood", "... sank their teeth into..."
3 points - all bad dracula puns (e.g. "much was at stake", "fangs a lot", "made it count", the fans were going bats", etc etc)
2 points - any mention of garlic, crosses (in a non footballing sense), coffins, stakes, blood, necks, jugulars, vampires, bats and Bela Lugosi.

Some more examples from today's previews:

"We'll put bite on Dracula boys" is the classy headline in the Daily Star, the paper that manages to make The Sun look highbrow. But in a race to the bottom, the Sun reported on the story that Chelsea brought their own food taster and that they won;t eat the food in a five star hotel (what five star hotel? I've never seen one in Cluj) with the headline "We'll Try the Stake" (it's worth clicking on that link, if only for the ridiculous picture of a punctured-neck John Terry trying to beat Dracula in goal. Oh, and the last line of the article).

Outside the British media, things are no better. Fox Sports has "Blues Go For the Jugular in Transylvania", while AFP go with "Chelsea will be hoping to sink their fangs into Cluj's jugular when they travel to Transylvania - the land of horror story icon Dracula."

It may be that CFR have decided to play this overkill up somewhat though, with Sky Sports quoting Juan Culio as telling The Sun "It is true we want to suck the life out of the big clubs. If we beat Chelsea we will all be as famous as Dracula." a quote which they probably made up (it is The Sun, after all). However it is possible that he did say it, since he is pictured in the Romanian press dressed as Dracula and renamed Draculio

And finally, the stuffy and conservative Daily Telegraph finishes its piece with the line "Cluj-Napoca is the third largest city in Romania and the capital of Transylvania, made famous by the gothic horror novel Dracula, and more recently the Cheeky Girls." That will be good news to the people of Cluj, not that they've been made famous by Romania's top university or being the birthplace of Matyas Kiraly/Matei Corvi. No it's all about the Cheeky Girls. Contrast this with the Times, who actually do a decent job of outlining the club's (and the city's) history.

Last update in the series tomorrow (time permitting)

Monday, September 29, 2008

Transylvania Cliche Watch (1)

This week sees the visit of Chelsea FC to Transylvania to take on CFR Cluj in the Champions League (Chelsea aren't actually champions, but that's the nature of UEFA competitions these days and another story about which I could rant for interminable pages. I won't, though). What this visit means though is that there will ample opportunity this week for the notoriously cliche-thirsty British press to repeatedly sink their teeth into the the Dracula vein, since they won't have much else to say about CFR Cluj (I suppose they might bring up the Cheeky Girls too, but I'm guessing it will be lots of blood sucking imagery instead). Anyway, in order to amuse I thought I would keep a watch on this.

First up this week, you might be surprised to learn, are not the tabloids but two bastions of the establishment.

The Sunday Times headlines its article "Chelsea must beware Juan Culio, the new terror of Transylvania: Argentina’s Juan Culio hopes to give the Blues a fright on Wednesday" setting their stall out early, letting you know that the angle they're taking. Then the first paragraph really takes the theme and runs with it:
LIKE all the best stories from Transylvania, the tale of CFR Cluj has a strong sense of mystery, of the unexpected. It also has its moment of shock and, at the end of the first night, even a perturbed heroine. “I didn’t believe it could be as bad as this,” shrieked Rosella Sensi, the president of AS Roma, as if she’d just woken up from a dream in which Bela Lugosi stood poised over her bedside.
Classy stuff you can see, he's really gone to town there, and actually made some serious effort to cram his Transylvanian theme into some kind of order there. Like all good writers, Ian Hawkey, for it is he, returns to his opening theme with his last sentence "Once bitten, twice shy, as they probably say in Transylvania." Ohh, very nice. Hats off to Mr Hawkey.

Next up is the BBC, who have provided a handy click through biography of the club under the heading "Who are Cluj" (by the way, that click through thing is absolutely not handy at all, is it? It's much more irritating to have to open page after page of the thing than read it all in one go, surely? Or am I hopelessly behind the web-architecture-times here?). Anyway, the scene is set with the use of a picture of Christopher Lee as Dracula on the front page, and then the second paragraph
The club hail from the city of Cluj-Napoca - the third largest city in Romania - situated in the province of Transylvania, home to the famous nocturnal blood-sucker Count Dracula, some 300 miles west of the capital Bucharest.
Now I suspect the Beeb are trying to be a bit knowing here rather than jumping completely unironically aboard the Dracula bandwagon, but that doesn't really excuse the geographically challenged nature of the positioning of the city. West of Bucharest? North would be closer, Northwest closer still. Plus it's got to be more than 400km from Bucharest. 300km west of Bucharest is somewhere like Belgrade.

Anyway, I'll be keeping an eye on the theme this week and letting you know how much Dracula (and the whole horror theme in general) gets mentioned.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

How many Romanians does it take to change a light bulb?

I have been changing light bulbs for the best part of 30 years, now, and for around 20 of those I have been the primary light-bulb-replacer in my place of residence. I have, it is fair to say, changed a fair few light bulbs in my lifetime. I have changed light bulbs in 10 countries (Romania is the 10th country I have lived in), including in an underdeveloped tropical island nation, and a place which was living under an illegal and brutal occupation in which power cuts were the norm. I include this background not to brag about my lightbulb changing past - on the contrary, I presume I have changed no more lightbulbs than most adults - but to make it clear that I have some normal levels of experience in replacing bulbs.

However, in all my years of lightbulb changing, I have never really had a problem with the assignment. Unscrew burned out bulb, screw in new bulb. It's not an especially challenging task. Except, that is, in Romania. Here it is a minefield of potential problems, and I have no idea why. When you unscrew a lightbulb here you have to be prepared for this simple act to go horribly wrong - either the bulb itself falls to pieces or the fitting does. I've unscrewed bulbs and ended up with the glass bit in my hand and the metal screw in bit left in the socket. I've unscrewed bulbs which leave behind a metal sleeve of some kind in the socket. I've unscrewed bulbs that bring with them the threaded metal sleeve that lines the bakelite fitting itself. I've unscrewed bulbs that have left the bakelite fitting (is it bakelite?) crumbling into little pieces. It's important to note here, that I live in Romania now, in the 21st century, in the European Union, not in Romania in the 1980s under a regime in which most things were made poorly.

I would say on about 50% percent of occasions when I change a bulb in this country, this simple operation goes horribly wrong and leaves me standing on a chair with a pair of pliers in danger of electrocution trying to extract something from something else that shouldn't be locked together. Truly, light bulbs and the fittings in this country are bloody awful. In all my previous years of changing bulbs I had never once had any difficulty with the act. Here, I feel grateful if it goes smoothly. Now some of the fittings and even possibly one or two of the bulbs probably predate 1989, but even the ones which I know to be new tend to suffer from the same problem. It's really, really crap. I bet most people in this country don't even know that it should be a simple task every time, hence the lack of protest movements and people out on the street with banners reading "Forget Graft, Start by Fixing the Sodding Lightbulbs" or "Hai Romania, Hai Lightbulbs"

Friday, September 26, 2008

Aj em fajn tenks

The title to this post was taken from Bogi's school notebook (or copybook as it seems to be called). She is, you see, now learning English at school - being in the third grade - I think Romanian speaking children start learning English in the first grade, but those for whom Romanian is a second language start their language learning with Romanian (for obvious reasons) and add in English as a third language when they hit 9 years old.

Now, obviously this is a bit of a waste of time for her, since she speaks English - not perfectly, and she's not that good at writing it, since she learned it from conversing with me, and more recently reading books in it - but she definitely speaks it (and while her Romanian is coming along well, her English is much better). So, because there are no real options at that age, she has to sit in an English lesson for two hours a week which is way below her. But this is fine, and while I think she finds it a bit boring, it's not the end of the world.

But yesterday evening we were enjoying the things that she has had to write down as a student in this class. The teacher obviously takes English expressions and attempts to "translate" them phonetically into Hungarian so that the kids can read them and say them. Except that this doesn't really work very well, because many English sounds don't really exist in Hungarian (and vice versa). Aj em fajn tenks is a good example. (In case you haven't worked out what it says yet, it's the standard response to How are you?) Phoneticaly translating it back into English gives us something like "Oy em foin tenks". Now, Bogi assures us that she didn't put any accents on the A in Aj or fajn, which would have at least rendered those long I sounds fairly reasonably. Áj em fájn tenks would at least have been close-ish to I em fine tenks. But that still leaves the problem of what to do with the short A and the th. You see you can't come up with Hungarian phonetic spelling of either of them, because there isn't one. A short e in Hungarian sounds like a short e in English, not like a short a. A t in Hungarian sounds like a t in English, and nothing at all like a th. So, these children are being taught some fairly deeply flawed pronunciation from the get-go, which is not really a successful way of doing it, in my opinion. The e/a thing is probably something that we can all live with, but the t/th thing, and even more amusingly the v/w thing (the number one in Bogi's book is rendered as van) will I suspect stick with them for ever, and they may never actually be able to pronounce these things well.

Now I don't think that all people ought to pronounce things in some standard RP form (for a start you'd have to work out what the standard was), but there are certain sounds that really need to be used to make sense in the language (Some Hungarian sounds are difficult for me, but i'd rather attempt to say them as they should be said, than make up some anglicised version) And Bogi can pronounce th and w perfectly well, so it's clearly not beyond the capacity of a 9 year old to deal with unfamiliar sounds (and in fact, arguably, this is the best time for them to have to do it).

Anyway, it gave us all a laugh when we read through them and it promises to make English classes all the more fun for seeing what odd ways of rendering English the teacher will come up with next. And if you ever wonder why Hungarian speakers respond to your How are you? with Oi em foin tenks, it's not because they learned their English from the Irish community of Birmingham.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Curious Case of (The Football Team From) Timisioara

Over the last few years a very strange story has been played out as regards the main football team in Timisoara. I'd give you their name, but it's all a bit confused and confusing. They are currently playing under the name FC Timisoara, but half of the problem surrounds the name, so it may not be that for much longer. But rather than be cryptic, let me try and sum it up/explain it as best I can (and given that there are bits of the story that confuse me too, that may not be that well).

A football team called Politechnica Timisoara were founded in 1921 and over the years they had a reasonably successful history, winning the Romanian cup on a couple of occasions, playing in Europe and winning games against Celtic and Atletico Madrid amongst others. In the 90s, like all Romanian football teams they ceased to be a nationalised entity and entered the marketplace. No longer linked with the Polytechnic itself, they retained the name (just as the other clubs did - CFR Cluj are not actually owned by the state railway company for example).

In the middle of the 90s they went down to the second division and in about 2000 the club was bought by an Italian businessman named Claudio Zambon (The city of Timisoara seems to have very close ties with Italy). It got relegated again, and then again to languish in the 4th division (county level in Romanian football). It was in 2001 (or 2002, stories conflict) that this story gets bizarre and confusing. Zambon, having fallen out with the local authorities and media, and who had lost all rights to the club and the name (this bit is disputed) decided to up sticks and move the club away from Timisoara all together and relocate it to a village just outside Bucharest. In the meanwhile, a former Romanian international player named Anton Dobos who had played for AEK Athens and who had bought a Bucharest based club on his return to Romania, and renamed it AEK Bucharest, decided to move this club to Timisoara, at just the time when they had been promoted to the top flight. The moved club, now called Politechnica AEK Timisoara became the de facto descendant of the original team, and the fans certainly saw it that way. (Dobos was recently in the news again as he survived a horrific car crash which put him in a coma for a while)

The new club, again renamed Politechnica 2002 Timisoara, were authorised by the FRF (Romanian Football Federation) as the official heir of the original club and could inherit the club's records, but then Zambon, who'd left Romania some time before, returned and by some sleight of hand, got this authorisation transferred to his club (still called Politechnica Timisoara even though they were playing 500km away). It seems that basically he tricked the FRF into this, and that the problem now is that the FRF are loathe to admit that they were scammed so they are sticking to their guns. I won't go into all the labyrinthine details, but you can, if you wish get a much longer version here which is written by a fan (so it's obviously a tad partial, but it does give roughly the story I've heard myself from various sources without all the detail, so I think it's fairly close to the truth).

The upshot of all the shenanigans is that Zambon took his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport which upheld his claim (mostly because it is only actually allowed to accept evidence from the national federation which was still covering up its previous errors). The CAS decreed that the Timisoara-based team were no longer entitled to use the club badge, colours, name, and even club songs (that last bit was eventually withdrawn as it was seen to be somewhat unworkable to stop all the fans singing them). FIFA stepped in and demanded that the CAS decision be respected, and thus the club were renamed Politechnica 1921 Stiinta Timisioara (and subsequently, after this was deemed not sufficiently different, FC Timisoara) and the colours changed from white and violet to white, purple and black.

At the beginning of this season FC Timisoara were docked 6 points (by the FRF on the say so of FIFA) for not changing the colours enough (violet to purple was not sufficiently different they felt, even though no-one had specified how much the colours needed to be changed). Despite this (or perhaps because of it) FC Timisoara have had a storming start to the season and would be joint top without the deduction. In the meantime the club that still plays with the name near Bucharest have gone down to the 5th level (I think, again reports conflict) which must be basically a pub league.

It should be made clear that while this case bears some similarities with the AFC Wimbledon vs MK Dons Franchise story, there are many more grey areas. It's clear that Zambon has no feeling for the club and its fans, and that the fans (who I submit are the ultimate arbitrator of which club is "real") have made it clear that they consider FC Timisoara to be the the real club and the owner of the history and the symbols. However, the club (FC Timisoara) was owned by the richest man in Romania, oil tycoon Marian Iancu, until he resigned in order to be able to pursue legal cases against the FRF in regards to the whole situation. So, they are not the small fan-funded heroic underdog fighting against injustice and for football that AFC Wimbledon are, but a slightly less sympathetic entity.

Having said this, I have always had a soft spot for the club as they are the only one in Romania who seem to have genuine fans, who show up to every home game in great numbers and sing and chant and make a show of their fandom, and I wish them every success in regaining their club and it's symbols and heritage (and the 6 points)

An English language blog about "Poli"

With friends like these

I've recently been perusing English language blogs that have the word Romania in them for research/laughs. It's quite remarkable how many of such things are written by American missionaries. What are all these people doing here? I have no objection whatsoever to people who have their own beliefs and faith, but I think the idea of travelling half way round the world in order to attempt to shove it down someone else's throat is, how can I put this delicately, fucked up.

Anyway, before I launch into my full-on anti-missionary rant, I'll take a deep breath and share one (non-missionary, but possibly just as bad) I came across yesterday. This was not a blog set in Romania, but from a Conservative county councillor from Kent, one Kevin Lynes. I don't have a great deal of time for tories, I have to say (this is a bit of an understatement), having grown up politically in the dark days of the Thatcher government, but that doesn't mean all people who are conservatives are necessarily scum, just deluded :-)

Anyway, Kevin, who seems to like to go by the name Kevin, which presumably is Tory party policy these days, in deference to "Dave" (he might go the whole hog and try "Kev" I suppose, but for now he's opted to sit on the fence between old and new Toryism and gone with Kevin. Probably quite wise. Keep your options open and all that), writes of a meeting he had with Prince Radu, the son in law of "the current King Mihai" (he's not really the king, fact fans, he's just a bloke, but let's not let that interrupt our enjoyment of Kev's insightful comments). Apparently Romania has been robbed of its national identity (as far as I can tell, this means it has been robbed of its monarchy, which I would contend is not quite the same thing). Mind you it can't harm to have people, even people like Kev, looking out for Romania, so while I'm taking the piss a fair bit, the outcome is probably not, in the grand scheme of things, a waste of time. But there were two bits of the commentary which really cracked me up (well one cracked me up and the other made me laugh in that kind of tragicomic-head-in-hands type way).

The laugh out loud bit was this: "I felt compelled this weekend to send an email to the Prince’s office to thank him for taking the time to talk to us and to commend him on his vision document. Within three hours, even with the time difference, he had replied warmly and personally to thank me for my message."

Even with the time difference? It's an email, Kev. It's not affected by time differences. Honestly. It doesn't sit in a queue waiting for the clocks to catch up, it just goes. You're going to have to trust me on this.

The other bit was this "He fundamentally could not understand why the European Parliament can discuss the shape of bananas ad nauseam, yet cannot bring itself to debate the theft of a national identity.".

The old bananas line! I thought it had died out. For those unfamiliar with the Euro-Sceptic arm of British politics and media, there was (is) this obsession with the idea that the EU tried at some unspecified point in the past to define how straight and how curved a banana could officially be. Now, I have asked many people who have said this to provide evidence that this debate actually occurred, but so far none of them have actually done so. Now the EU is very hot on documenting things, and you can be quite sure that if it really did come before the European parliament that there would be very clear and accessible records of such an event. Despite this, I have yet to see any evidence of this incredible, fantastic, self-parodic event. I would like to hazard a guess, just a hunch you understand, that IT NEVER FUCKING HAPPENED.

Aren't you glad, that given the implosion and incompetence of New Labour people like Kev are going to be running the country soon. We'll soon sort those Eurocrats out!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


In the second of our holidays this year (hark at us, two foreign holidays and owners of an out-of-town estate for weekending. Fancy bastards. But don't be fooled. I'm still, I'm still Andy from the block) we went to England (Or Inglia as Paula calls it). Now I know England is a fancy holiday destination for many people, but you'll have to take it from me that spending a fortnight in August in guaranteed grey skies and sub 20 degree temperatures is not really my idea of a well-used summer. Still...

Good things about England:
  • It's got my extended family in it
  • Ditto some friends
  • Many free museums and art galleries
  • Indian food
  • Excellent beer
  • Pubs
  • National parks
  • Pubs in national parks
  • Beautiful scenery and nice villages
  • Pubs in nice villages in beautiful scenery
  • Public footpaths
  • Walking along public footpaths in beautiful scenery in national parks with family and friends and stopping in a nice village for a fantastic pint at a great pub
Possibly there was a little bit of repetition there.

Bad things about England
  • The weather
  • The prices of everything (except for the free museums and art galleries)
  • The weather
  • Traffic
  • The weather
  • The way that public transport is designed specifically to rip off foreign visitors (you have to buy train tickets weeks in advance in order not to need a second mortgage to travel 5 miles, you have to have an Oyster card in London, blah blah blah)
    [On the other hand, foreigners don't get charged to drive on motorways - why doesn't the UK do what many countries inc. Hungary, Austria, Switzerland do and force visitors to pay a temporary road tax? It's all a bit baffling]
  • The weather
  • The quality of the food. Now this sounds like I'm out of touch a bit, but it's true - 20 years ago, food in pubs was utter garbage, but then there was this wave of change and food in many pubs became interesting and different and well prepared. Now it seems like things have slipped back again, and pub food is just bland and a bit rubbish again. Obviously you can get delicious food from any country in the world in restaurants, but outside those things have really gone downhill. Why is that?
  • Did I mention the prices? And the godawful weather?
Anyway, we had a very good trip (despite the weather/price thing). My father-in-law came along too, which I knew would be interesting since he is a man who loves to travel, but mostly, it seems, so he can remind himself how good Transylvania is and how rubbish everywhere else is. Erika took him to Barcelona about 5 years ago, and he still regales all and sundry with tales of this terrible "tapas" that he was subjected to there. I jokingly warned my mother that she ought to prepare a couple of soups to keep him happy, but then was surprised to discover that in fact he really was freaked out by a lack of daily soup in the diet (and even when we had soup, even though it was pronounced delicious, it was the "wrong kind of soup"). I'll no doubt hear this Christmas when he starts holding court after a couple of palinkas, what other things the English do wrongly (there's no room for shades of grey, you'll understand).

The second week of our stay we spent in a house in Runswick Bay in the North York Moors - an area of the country I hadn't been to for donkey's years, and one which is spectacularly beautiful (and well endowed with great pubs serving Black Sheep, a truly delicious beer - hence it ticked many of the boxes above). The heather was flowering on the moors, the weather could have been worse (though it could have been much much better, let's not get carried away), my whole family managed to make it, and we had a great time. My father in law was particularly interested in the beach and the tides. There aren't really tides round these parts - the Black Sea and the Med don't have them, and so the idea of the sea coming in and out (a total difference in height of 5 metres between high and low tide when we were there) and the wildness of the beach, was really fascinating for everyone. Also visiting a waterfall called "Falling Foss" which amused the Hungarian speakers of the party. For me it was the roads which had signs warning you of 20%, 25%, 28% and (in one place) 33% gradients which were the real trip. They make the road coming down Harghita towards Csikszereda look flat.

Some pictures:
Multi-punt pile-up.

Most English scene ever - Morris Dancing in the pissing rain
(outside Lincoln Cathedral)

Beer arriving at one of those pubs-in-gorgeous-villages I was mentioning (Beck Hole, N. Yorks)

Whitby - deeply linked through fictional character to Transylvania
(and through non-fictional character to Australia)


Arty pic, that was in no way staged. We found the stones looking like that just as the sea washed them ashore. Honest.

Runswick Bay at lowish tide

Heather on the moors

Mad half-English child ventures into icy North Sea

Alacant let go

What can I say about Alicante/Alacant? On the negative side, it's a pretty ugly place. There is a castle on a hill in the middle of the town, and there's the sea and the beaches, which lend some appeal to the place, but that aside it's just ugly modern apartment building after ugly modern apartment building.

On the plus side, the weather is great, and the food and wine are delicious. Before this trip, turrón was something I'd only had in one of those hard blocks that is common to eat in Spain at Christmas, but every meal seemed to end with some delicious new variation on the almond rich cakey type theme, or on a couple of occasions even a turrón ice cream. Alicante wine was a revelation too, as was some of the superb food we ate - one dish with spinach raisins and pinenuts was particularly superb. I also had the best Mexican meal I've eaten since I was in California. (I did do some work, too, honest).

And finally, I feel I ought to mention the hotel we stayed in - the abba centrum. It's part of a Spanish chain, and it was excellent - very high quality business hotel at an extremely reasonable price. I'm not usually one to rave about these things, but it was really good. Shame it has to be named after that mawkish seventies Swedish pop group, but I guess you can't have everything.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Le Tour du Monde

Way back when the Internet was new to me, I happened upon a website which was following something called the Whitbread Round the World Race. This was back in 97/98 for what it's worth. At that time, it was by far and away the very best website I'd ever seen - it was interactive, it was well designed and it was addictive. Every day I went back to see how far the boats had gone, which one was leading, whether they'd become becalmed in the doldrums, etc. It successfully made a sport which is completely spectator unfriendly (since it takes place in the middle of the ocean between boats separated by hundreds of miles) into one which was gripping and involving and watchable. [By the way, I remembered the name of the company which had created and designed and maintained the site - Quokka Sports - but a quick web search would suggest that they went bust once the mainstream corporate media caught up with what they were doing and copied it, which is, I suspect, how these things go. But anyway, I digress...]

Obviously things have changed on the internet, and there are now loads of well-designed and interesting sites (and a hundred times more which are neither), but I still remember looking at that site and being able to marvel at not only the content but the concept and the technology that went into the site itself. So, it was kind of a nostalgic moment when I discovered that as well as hosting me last week, Alacant was also hosting the beginning of the 2008/2009 version of this race (and there were signs and ads all round town directing one to the race village - and significantly fewer such signs directing one to the author of Csikszereda Musings, for some reason)

The race, now no longer the Whitbread Round the World race, since a not-very-good brand of beer only available in the UK was an illogical sponsorship partner for such an event, is now called, much more logically, the Volvo Ocean Race (I suppose Volvo are at least a global brand, though that's about as close a link as I can work out. The race will stop briefly in Sweden I believe, so that's another tenuous link). It starts on October 11th, but the race village opening party was on Friday, and everything's gearing up for the off - there are sponsors buildings where you can play games and look at stuff about Volvo, Puma, Telefonica and so on, should you be completely at a loose end and have finished counting the grains of sand on Alicante beach or any other more interesting activities. You can go and look at the boats, and see what kind of conditions that the race takes place under - there are 11 people on each boat, and let me tell you, they're not very big, and there are no showers, and you could be away from port for 35 days at a time, and you might even get swept overboard. I was left with the impression that the people who participate in this race are both extremely brave and somewhat mentally deranged.

Anyway, it's no longer run by the innovative Quokka Sports, but I'm guessing the website for the race will be worth watching once it gets under way. We were staying in the same hotel as the Eriksson 4 team, so I'm "supporting" them (by which I mean, I'll keep a vague eye out for their position in the race).
The race village as seen from the castle - the bit with the white tent like things at the top left of the jetty is it.

The Puma and Telefonica boats. 11 people in those things. For weeks at a time. Nutters.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Alacant post

Am currently in Alicante (or Alacant as it's known in Valenciano, the local language/dialect of Catalan) working on a European Union project. One day, before too long, I must write a post outlining why I think the European Union has an awful lot going for it, despite its (well-reported) flaws. And not just because I've been flown to the warmth of the Mediterranean coast (27 degrees today) from the grey, rainy and prematurely chilly Csikszereda (8 degrees today!). No, I have real reasons not associated with my personal comfort. Honest.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Beyond the Palin

So, to sum up:

The USA looks quite likely to elect a man as president who's main qualification appears to be that he spent part of his younger years dropping bombs on innocent people, and then subsequently got shot down and spent some time in jail (not that I want to belittle his time in jail, which I'm sure was not exactly a bed of roses - and since in the last 8 years the US has managed to acquire a reputation for torturing people, this might actually prove to be of some use to him). This man is a bit off the wall, and regularly loses his temper quite spectacularly or goes into some kind of bizarre mental loops where he says he can't remember anything and people should stop asking him difficult questions. He is also 72 years old. He looks healthy enough, frankly, but, should the worst happen, then power will transfer into the hands of...

Sarah Palin. A religious fundamentalist who doesn't believe in evolution, who thinks that the war in Iraq was God's will, and who urged people in Alaska to pray to get a gas pipeline built. Someone who claims that she is "as pro-life as any candidate can be" yet believes that gay people shouldn't get health care, and that capital punishment is a good idea (and presumably the right to life doesn't extend to Iraqis). Oh, and she thinks the environment is just something that gets in the way of making money. Drill for oil, and kill polar bears, appear to sum it up.

She is billed by the Republican party as a "typical" American. Well, you know I lived in the US for 6 years, and in all of that time, I never met anyone mad or stupid enough to believe in creationism. I never met any of these vocal but minority fundamentalist nutters who hate gays and oppose Roe vs Wade. I never met any fervent gun rights advocates, and most people I met were very concerned about the environment. She is in no way typical. She's typical of the extreme religious right of the Republican party, not typical of anything else. The only way in which she's a "typical" American is in the fact that she's white, which is presumably what they're not-so-subtly getting at here.

With this lot with the very real possibility of taking over the White House from the previous bunch of fanatical cretins, with Putin/Medvedev in charge in Russia and with bigoted warmonger Benjamin Netanyahu likely to take over in Israel before long, I reckon we're all doomed. And not because of the large hadron collider either.

Roman Conquest

Blimey. Well that was, errm, unexpected. I've never seen CFR Cluj play that well, not even last season when they won everything. Roma were pretty clueless but even so.

We'll gloss over the more important results of the night in the English second division, but for a minor competition the Champions League made up slightly for the less-than-happy night in real football.

The only downside is that I now have a "Gangster's Paradise" earworm

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


I am regularly flabbergasted at the ways advertisers find to insert naked or scantily clad young women into their work, but this one takes the biscuit.

What was the thinking that went on behind this? The anti-smoking campaign isn't working well enough, we need to attract people's attention - we need...naked women. Yes, that'll do it. This is bound to stop people smoking.

It's not, by the way, in case you were wondering, going down the well worn, and I suspect quite successful route of highlighting the link between smoking and impotence (somehow in the minds of most blokes the following thought processes occur "Suffer a slow and lingering death? Hmm, C'est la vie. But not be able to get it up? OK, I think I'll stop") No, the headline reads (roughly, and bearing in mind that my Romanian is rubbish) "Is smoking your only pleasure?" (To which presumably the answer would be "No, but it's one of them")

I think they'd have got a lot more interest if they'd put the other, secondary line at the top "Now there is help for you to quit". That, with the picture, would have had people flocking to call the number.


Time for a short Transylvanian sporting update.

Starting, obviously, with Ice Hockey, since that's what Csikszereda lives, breathes, and gets vaguely enthused by. After two seasons in which Sport Club Miercurea Ciuc have taken part in both the Romanian and Hungarian leagues, and one season in which the other team, HC Csikszereda, did the same, it became clear to everyone that Romanian teams participating in the Hungarian league got much better from the increased competition, and so to be competitive you therefore had to be taking part in Hungary too. An invitation had been on the table for the other big club in Romania, Steaua Bucharest, to join up too, but they'd always refused. This year however, having failed to qualify for the league final for the first time since ice was invented (by Gunther Eis, an Austrian physicist, in 1902), Steaua realised that they needed to be in it. However, somehow they managed to convince everyone else to turn the league into a combined Hungarian Romanian league.

With me so far? Good, because now it gets really confusing.

So there is a league (the MOL League) comprising ten teams - 6 from Hungary and 4 from Romania - as well as the three mentioned above, Romania's fourth representative are Progym Hargita Gyöngye, from Gyergyószentmiklós (Gheorgheni) (another town in Harghita County). There is still some kind of rump Hungarian league in which the 6 Hungarian teams will participate in after this league has finished, and which will be based in some way on the league positions obtained here. I'm not really sure. As for the Romanian league, I have no idea. I can't find information about any plans whatsoever, so perhaps this league will be it. There doesn't seem to have been a cup this year either, and normally the season opens with the Romanian Cup. Just to complicate matters still further, one of the Hungarian teams in the league is the reserve team of Alba Volan who actually now play in the Austrian league.

Flushed with excitement at all these incomprehensible rule changes, the Romanian clubs have gone out and brought in players of a calibre not previously seen in this part of the world. There are Swedes playing for both of the teams here, and they are supposed to be good. I haven't actually seen any obviously Swedish people walking around with broken noses - the sign of a hockey player - but I presume they are here somewhere. I'd guess they were living it up in some gated community of millionaires and celebrities, but this is Csikszereda and we don't have one. Steaua have gone one better and brought in a Canadian who once played in the NHL (the first former NHL player to have ever been signed by a Romanian team). I'm not quite sure how much this bloke played in the NHL, and possibly it was just once for five minutes at the end of the game his team was winning 7-0 at the time, but still. It's all very high powered (I'm told). The season has already begun (another sign of encroaching winter) and the Romanian teams are already all at the top of the league (albeit after only two games).

Meanwhile in football, this evening sees the debut of CFR Cluj in the Champion's League, which since I'm nominally a CFR fan, I ought to be excited about, but I'm not really. they're going to get seriously bulldozed by all three teams in the group and it's just going to be fuel for the likes of Becali and the compliant Romanian media to rail against anything that doesn't come from Bucharest. Broadly speaking football in the country (at least in terms of the media) is Steaua (with some attention given to Rapid and Dinamo, and everybody else merely obstacles between those three and each other). it's really dull, and CFR Cluj's rubbish start to the season (they've already sacked the manager who got them the league and cup double last year) means that this will be a disaster. (I ought to point out that Gigi Becali, the main reason I despise Steaua with such passion, is not in any way associated with the ice hockey team of the same name, so they are in no way as abhorrent as Steaua the football team)

Meanwhile, the League is currently being led by a bunch of upstarts from a scruffy little town (Urziceni) which is on the road towards the beach. They are managed by Dan Petrescu who used to play for Sheffield Wednesday, and so, in the absence of the "Dirty Hungarians" of Cluj ((C) the repugnant Becali family), having them at the top is the next best thing. Anyone but Steaua really.


Some small notes about this blog

You may have noticed I've been a bit more active this week. I hope to keep it up. I've also made a couple of changes elsewhere - on the right hand side, near the top, just under that Dopplr thing that takes forever to load and tells you where I am (just in case of the remote possibility that you give a shit), there's something called a Twitter feed (I think). It's basically a one sentence thing saying what I'm doing at that moment (well, or at the moment when I last updated it). The advantage of it is that I can update it by text message, so I can sort of add stuff to the blog when I'm in weird places far from the Internet. I suspect i'll get bored of it soon, but for now, it's amusing me.

Further down that column near the bottom is a representation in flags as to where the visitors for this site are coming from. I put it on a couple of days ago, and at the moment the first place appears to be a straight fight between Romania and the USA. Not quite sure why I'm getting so many hits from the US, but I do have a fair few of friends there, so I suspect that's got something to do with it.

This blog also exists elsewhere (and has done for a while) on wordpress here. I put it there ages ago, thinking I'd go the whole hog and put all of it there, since I like the way it looks more. But then I thought it was a bit unfair on the people who've been kind enough to link here to force them to change the link, so I haven't done so. It gets updated much less often than this one and with exactly the same content, so you're not missing anything.

I'm still tinkering, so expect to see a few more changes in the next few weeks. That photo I've put up is bugging me, for example, so I reckon I'll take it down fairly soon (as soon as I can locate a replacement).

Monday, September 15, 2008

Brush strokes

Yesterday I did some gardening. It's very rare that I've ever been in a position to proclaim such a thing, so I'll just ponder it for a moment...

...Ok, that's done. Yes, me, gardening. This wasn't, however, the gentle and sedate clipping the heads off roses or picking tomatoes type of gardening that my mother does, but more your kind of slash-and-burn industrial strength gardening.

On Saturday I went out and purchased a tool that is described on the box as a "brushcutter", and I suspect that's as good a description as I could come up with - basically a lawnmower for people who don't have lawns, but have brush. Serious brush. We basically have a bit of land which is covered in fast growing vegetation ranging from what I suspect are young trees to clumps of thick grass to nettle plantations to some kind of creeping vine like thing and everything in between. It's not, shall we say, suitable for golf. Anyway the brushcutter is a machine in which a two stroke engine powers a rotating drum from which two lengths of plastic wire protrude, which as you might imagine whip through the vegetation with some force. It's quite fun, though also fairly noisy and somewhat physically strenuous - my muscles are complaining bitterly this morning, and it may be that soon my arms will seize up altogether curtailing all blogging until further notice. (Nettles, by the way, are great fun to slash to death, vanishing in a deeply satisfying blur of shredded greenery. The vine thingy and the grass are much trickier, being tough and unyielding and requiring repeated butchery to cut them down to size).

As I cut, I uncovered vast troves of ripe plums. The trees which are all over the garden are heavy with fruit, and as we've been away (coupled with the whole nettle thing) , harvesting has been neglected, and so we have a garden full of plums buried in the vegetation. One branch on one tree has actually broken under its own weight which seems a bit excessive - that tree must be feeling very foolish for having miscalculated so spectacularly.

In a bit of fortuitous synchronicity, though, we had discovered on Saturday what we could do with all these plums (other than making enough jam to flood the market and bring the price of plum jam plummeting to its lowest levels since records began). It seems that in Csíkszentgyörgy (the next village, which is effectively the same village - Ciucsângeorgiu in Romanian), there is a palinka distillery. We haven't fully worked out the system yet, but it seems that it works like this. You pick your plums and stick them in barrels and mash them up a fair bit. You then leave them like that to ferment until sometime around Christmas at which point you take them to the distiller and he converts the fermented plum mush into palinka for you. (Not free I presume - I guess we either have to pay him in palinka like farmers used to pay the miller in sacks of flour, or, as this is the capitalist 21st century, possibly in cold hard cash). So, at some point in the not too distant future we will have our own palinka, which is a very exciting prospect. (Lest I get too carried away with how exciting this all is, apparently a 100 litre barrel of plums produces about 10 litres of palinka, so we're not talking about massive amounts of the stuff, but I reckon we'll be able to fill 2-3 such barrels, so it's not nothing - as people round here are fond of saying)

Our neighbour, from whose well we are at present getting water (until such time as we have our own), is 95. Yesterday she and her young (probably around 80) friend engaged me in what might be described charitably as conversation talking about Csikszereda (a full 16 km away) like it was the other side of the world. Telling me about people they knew who had been to Csikszereda and even someone they knew that lived there nowadays. It occured to me that when she was born, Bankfalva wasn't even in Romania, and I would love to sit down and talk to her and ask her loads of questions about her life and how stuff has changed, but the fact that (a) she's pretty deaf; and (b) while my Hungarian can stand up in predictable situations like in restaurants and shops, it's not even close to being adequate for the task at hand; means that the communication difficulties will probably be insurmountable. I'll have to stick to brush clearance.