Thursday, December 17, 2009

More media coverage of 1989

Obviously I could just list a bunch of articles here, but I've tried to handpick the most interesting ones

The BBC: "Eljen Laszlo Tokes - Szabadsag"
Radio Free Europe: "Ceausescu was sitting and I was looking at his testicles"
The Times: "The situation has worsened so much that many people have in their minds, in my view, a mistaken nostalgia for the Communist era"
BBC (video): "85 of the 100 richest people in Romania today are former top communists"
(That last one will soon be superseded by a much longer podcast in which John Simpson - a bit of a hero of mine - looks back to 1989 here and then to today, which will very soon appear here. I'm keeping my eye open)

And nothing to do with the 1989, but fascinating all the same, an article from Life magazine dated Jan 9, 1939. Interesting on many levels (not least for the dodgy politically incorrect style of writing). I particularly liked the picture of the "vice girl" in a headscarf, swimming costume and slippers, and the Romanian army oxen walking through Bucharest.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Climate, weather, and revolutions

Happy Anniversary
Today is December 16th, which means it's the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the revolution here, which began on this day, 1989 in Timisoara, before spreading to Bucharest and elsewhere. This is inevitably being covered by real journalists and media outlets, so I probably don't really need to go into it (and anyway, I wasn't here). Here are some of those news pieces:
I'm sure there will be more to come between today and December 25th, when Ceausescu was executed, ending the revolution (in the same sense of "end" as the war on Iraq "ended" when Bush appeared with a banner saying "Mission Accomplished" or when they pulled that statue down)

Hó Hó Hó
It's been snowing here for getting on for 36 hours now. It started sometime on Monday night (not really sure when, because you know I was all like asleep and that) and it's still going. It's not as deep as you might imagine after such an extended period, because it's not that kind of snow. I'm sure the Eskimos have a word for it, but in the less snow-based language of English I refer to it as that-light-powdery-snow-which-is-oddly-dry-given-that-it's-made-out-of-water-and-is-quite-difficult-to-make-into-snowballs-because-you-really-need-to-apply-a-huge-amount-of-pressure-to-it-to-compress-it-enough-to-stay-together-meaning-really-only-adults-or-older-teenagers-can-make-snowballs-from-it-which-exacerbates-the-already-slightly-unfair-military-strength-advantage-of-the-father-in-a-snowball-battle.

No hope
We're all going to die. Well, you knew that already I presume (if not, sorry to break it to you), but what I mean here is that as a species we might not be long for this world as we increasingly quickly destroy it. It seems likely that in the current talks in Copenhagen, virtually nothing is going to get done, with the developed world refusing to offer much help to the less developed bit (which is a little unfair, to say the least, as the less developed bit is the bit which is going to suffer the most from climate change, with some of it disappearing entirely, and it is also the bit which has contributed least to the problem), and the USA and China being particularly obstreperous in some kind of "we're determined to be the richest country when the world ends" fight-to-the-death.

Now in the grand scheme of things the amount of money that is being asked for to help out here is basically nothing. Currently on the table is an offer of $10bn a year, and there is debate over whether to try somehow to increase that to $100bn (which is very clearly the maximum it's ever going to be). Many rich countries are balking at this, and obviously it does sound like a lot of money. But let's compare it with the amount of money that has so far been thrown at or promised to the banking and financial services sector to bail them out in the wake of the credit crisis. Want to have a guess at how much that might be? Well, I'll tell you. You might need to sit down (you probably are already, but who knows in these days of iphones and the like). Oxfam estimates this figure to be...$8,424bn. Or, if you like, 84 times the absolute maximum that anyone is expecting to be promised at the current summit, and 840 times the amount that has been currently offered. As it stands the argument is whether they can come up with $40bn. 200 times less that what the banks got. (OK, the banks thing is supposed to be a one off and these are annual sums, but I think we're still looking at a massive disparity here).

So, as the sea levels rise, and the crops fail, and farmland turns to desert, and there is a massive global refugee crisis, and traumatic economic, physical, cultural, and environmental changes, at least you'll be able to go and make a deposit and know that the head of the bank will get a vast Christmas bonus. it's a comforting thought, isn't it? Isn't it?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Romanian Elections - FAQs

Idly flicking through the news today around the net (does one "idly flick through" websites or do I need a new phrase here?) it is clear to me that the way the Romanian election and subsequent mess is being presented in the foriegn, English-language press is somewhat flawed. So I thought I'd provide a handy guide for anyone who wants to read some English language coverage of what is going on here, which is not stuck in the same old "PSD-leftist communists vs. Basescu-free market superman" thing.

In order to do that I have done what any self-respecting website does and made a list of Frequently Asked Questions. And like every other self-respecting website, these are not actually literally frequently asked questions, rather questions which I have made up which I feel like supplying an entirely subjective answer to.

Q: The PSD says the election was corrupt and fraudulent. Is this true?
A: Of course it was corrupt and fraudulent. Everything in Romania is corrupt and fraudulent. Especially politics.

Q: So does that mean that Basescu didn't really win?
A: Probably not. You see it is difficult to imagine that anyone could possibly be more corrupt and fraudulent than the PSD. Ergo, whatever vote buying, electoral tourism, ballot box stuffing, figure twisting went on, it is more likely to have benefitted Geoana than Basescu. So, while we will probably never know how much scamming went on, by whom, and for whom, it seems fairly likely that the overall result is just about correct.

Q: Electoral Tourism?
A: Ah yes, a great euphemism. It means driving a bunch of voters around in a bus from polling station to polling station so they can vote a few times each. A number of such buses were stopped and the people done for this, which suggests that a number of other such buses were probably not stopped

Q: But ultimately this is a good result for Romania, right?

A: We-ee-lll, maybe. The country has been in political deadlock for months now, with no government and no prospect of one. It is difficult to see how this has changed, and in fact as the presidential election was so close, and so disputed, it is likely to have got worse. When even the IMF are reluctant to let you have a loan, you know things are really rough

Q: But that Geoana is a Communist, so it's good he lost?
A: His party was one of the parties that emerged from the post Communist rubble, through the transitional FSN government. Pretty much everyone in the FSN was fairly well-to-do in the Communist party. The PSD are very much a party of ex-communists. However, the PD-L (Basescu's party) also emerged from the FSN. In the last presidential election he (Basescu) famously said of the battle between himself and then PSD rival Adrian Nastase: "You know what Romania's greatest curse is right now? It's that Romanians have to choose between two former Communist Party members." Things didn't change this time around.

The barking mad Wall Street Journal seems to think Geoana is a Communist because he sort-of-half-wants progressive taxation, which is hardly some incredibly left-wing thing - more or less everyone has progressive taxation, and Romania is weird and arguably hard-core right wing for having a flat-tax. (Of all the odd viewpoints of the elections that I've read, that one really takes the biscuit)

Q: I'm getting bored now, can you tell me any other interesting facts?

A: Not really, except that the votes from overseas made the difference in the end - the majority of the Romanian diaspora who voted did so for Basescu, and without those votes Geoana would have won (obviously that's assuming all the votes were fairly counted, which is obviously a slightly mad assumption). There is some controversy here as the exit polls which pronounced Geoana the winner were made public before some voting had finished (particularly in North America).

Q: So, what's next?
A: The PSD are challenging the results in the constitutional court. This is bound to fail (I imagine), and so Basescu is the president. He'll have to then name a prime minister who can garner enough votes to form a government. Klaus Johannis, mayor of Sibiu, who became a kind of focal point for the PSD campaign, and even managed to get the support of the Romanian nationalist party (bizarrely since he's German), has withdrawn from this possibility. Basically Basescu has to make up with the PNL, who hold the balance of power in parliament (since it's unlikely that we'll now see another PD-L/PSD coalition for a while). How he manages this is more difficult to imagine. I suspect we'll be floating along without a government until at least the new year. Possibly February.

Happy 20th anniversary of the revolution. Can we have another one please, and get rid of all of them this time?

Monday, December 07, 2009


So, last night the election results (as determined by exit polls) went to Geoana, but then I wake up this morning and it seems like Basescu has won. Though I presume we'll have a fair amount of recounts and challenges since it was very close. Not sure what the Romanian is for "hanging chad" but I suppose I'll find out soon.

No idea how to feel about this - I think Geoana is a slimy git who almost certainly has the vampiric figure of Iliescu hanging behind him, but then again the last few months of complete political paralysis with Basescu at the helm are now presumably going to continue.

Anyway, this was all lightened somewhat by the fact that in the BBC report this morning they captioned the picture of the loser (though they were still calling him the winner at this point) Mircea Geoana as "Mercia Geoana". Mercia is of course not someone's name, but is in fact a region of ancient Britain made famous in the line "What! In Mercia?", which you will find below:

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Jött a Mikulás

Dirty Tricks

Everyone got an anonymous card in the mail this morning here, with a quote from Basescu (in Hungarian) saying that there would never be autonomy for Székelyföld. Now, I cannot believe that there's a single person in Székelyföld - either Hungarian or Romanian) who doesn't know he said that, but still I suppose it serves to remind people ...on the day before the election. There was no indication on the card of what Geoana thinks about autonomy, but obviously that's not important here (even though it was quite obviously Geoana's people who are behind the card), though if anyone thinks that he (or indeed any Romanian politician) is ever going to support Székely autonomy, they'd have to be utterly stupid.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

An authentic must-read post

Spent the kind-of-semi-official-4-day-weekend* in Budapest, enjoying a weekend with Mrs H (and without children), and generally having a good time - drank hot wine in Vörösmarty tér at the Christmas market, had an afternoon in the opulent but faded Gellert baths, ate well, and saw various friends. All most agreeable.

(*It wasn't really a 4-day weekend, but as December 1st is a holiday here for Romania's national day, and as the government - not that there is a government at the moment- is forcing public sector workers to take 10 days unpaid holiday, most places used that lonely Monday as one of their 10 days, and gave it as a holiday too)

On the way back, we were in Ferihegy airport and there was a sign advertising the "authentic" Irish pub there in the terminal. Now, at what stage does the word authentic lose all of its meaning? And have we already reached that stage? This is an "authentic" Irish pub in an airport. In an airport in Hungary. Almost certainly with not a single Irish member of staff. That looked nothing like what I imagine a genuine Irish pub to look like (see below). Which didn't even sell Guinness. I mean honestly, there was nothing that could be called even vaguely authentic. It sold beer. I guess that's about it. I think I'm going to start carrying round a marker pen and use it to cross out/highlight any uses of the word authentic I see.

(Ken Wilson tells me that he once saw outside a shop in the US the following "Authentic Antiques - Direct from the Factory")

Here is a picture of absolutely appalling quality which I took of this authentic Irish boozer

After marvelling at this masterpiece of deception, I boarded the plane and became profoundly depressed reading the newspaper which contained news that Switzerland had adopted an openly racist measure following a referendum, that with the support of a few US fundamentalist christians, Uganda is about to introduce the death penalty for homosexuals, and the analysis of the upcoming climate change debate in Copenhagen which made it clear that it was almost certain that nothing will get solved there and that we will carrying on racing headlong towards the precipice. What kind of a fucked up world is this? Makes Romanian politics seems positively bright by comparison.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The political divide

Interesting map of how the country is divided:

Orange counties voted for Basescu (basically Transylvania, Bucharest, the coast), red ones voted for Geoana (the rest of the south and Moldova). (Green ones - Harghita and Covasna, where I am, voted for Kelemen). This country is pretty clearly divided, no? (Note that a fair few of the Transylvanian counties and all of the districts of the capital didn't even put Geoana second)

Monday, November 23, 2009

The morning after...

As predicted below, the Presidential run off in Romania will be between (incumbent) Traian Basescu and Mircea Geoana of the PSD. So basically that means more of the same for Romania. Let's be honest here, electing a president from the PSD will not represent a huge change for Romania given that they've been in power for the vast majority of the time since 1989 (and before that too, since the PSD is essentially the rebranded Communist party).

One thing that is noticeable in the foreign press's coverage of this election is the insistence on calling Geoana/the PSD "left leaning" or "leftist". This is, to put it mildly, utter bollocks. The PSD are "leftist" in as much as they are made up of the old Communist party, but in any actual policy or ideas or ideology or approaches are a right wing party (with a populist streak thrown in) - to give an example, they are vehemently anti-minority, which is hardly a "leftist" position to take. Even the economic policies they espouse are basically right wing ones. So if you see a report that refers to them as "leftist" I suggest you flick v-signs at the TV or radio or newspaper which is parroting this utterly false line.

In any sane society the PSD and its apparatchiks would have vanished long ago. Corrupt, power-crazed, with a mafia-like grip over many communities. But it is just that apparatus left over from when they were all Ceausescu's mates (before they saw which way the wind was blowing and staged an internal coup under the guise of a national revolution), which has left them so strong. Many parts of the country are still very much under the grip of the local PSD office, through which all power, money and influence flows. Hence getting rid of them is incredibly difficult. Floating over this whole structure is the shadowy vampiric figure of Ion Iliescu, Ceausescu's one-time heir apparent who had fallen out of favour with the dictator, but who came back to lead the so-called revolution and subsequently occupy the Presidency for 11 of the 20 years since then. Geoana paints himself as a reformer of the PSD, but nobody really believes much has changed.

Over the last couple of days I had started to hope that maybe. just maybe, Crin Antonescu of the PNL would get enough votes to enter the second round which would at least have left people with a real possibility of something new. It was not to be however, and the PSD obviously did a good job of getting out their vote (their heartland seems to be in the rural counties of the south, most of which got higher than average turnout). There were also many cases of reported fraud, with some people being bussed from place to place to vote more than once, some dead people voting, and other cases of votes being bought.

The one positive that comes from this election is that the turnout was much higher than expected - dire predictions of 20-30% turnout were suggested but in the end the count was over 50%. Not exactly massive, but at least reasonable (and we can assume that the vast majority of these people only voted once and were actually alive and stuff). This in a country that is in such an incredible mess that, for example, my daughter will have a three day holiday from school this and next week because the government is forcing all public sector employees (including teachers) to take 10 days unpaid holiday this year to save money. When even the education of the next generation is being sacrificed by politicians, you know things are bad.

Now the horse trading begins, with both remaining candidates trying to pick up the votes that went to the others. Logically Antonescu's 20% ought to go to Basescu as those two candidates occupy similar ground politically, but with Basescu screwing the PNL over a fair few times in the recent past, there may be a doubt there. The far-right nationalist vote of Vadim Tudor and Becali (about 6% between them) will presumably go to Geoana. The Hungarians will vote (those who bother to show up) for Basescu, because while they have found him untrustworthy and that he's done absolutely nothing for the Hungarian minority in his 5 years in power, he's also not enacted policies that are specifically anti-Hungarian, while the assumption is that Geoana would. Basescu's real problem is that he's become quite a divisive figure, and it could be that those who will vote for him, already have, and those that haven't, won't.

I hope it goes to Basescu, but only on the basis that he's better than the alternative, not because I have any faith in his abilities. We now have two weeks of being reminded how bankrupt the country not only financially but also politically.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Bald men and combs

Romanian politics ought to be incredibly exciting and interesting. We've had 3 or 4 governments in the last few weeks, there is a presidential election right round the corner, the country is in the middle of a massive economic meltdown, and the country is in the grip of swine flu fear. It's also approaching the 20th anniversary of the revolution. Oh, and corruption is still totally endemic (as recently reported here on NPR, here in the Guardian, and here in El Pais)

And yet...

The presidential election is being contested between the biggest collection of nonentities and vacuous personality-free greying men you could imagine, while the most competent politicians in the country are having their political careers shattered by being proposed for the Prime Ministership, a job which is a chalice so full of poison that there is actually no room for anything else in it.

To recap, on the assumption that very few people reading this actually follow Romanian politics: Earlier this year there was a general election, which after much horsetrading led to a coalition government of the PDL (liberal democrats - party of President Basescu) and PSD (social democrats, nominally left leaning, but in fact right wing party of ex-communists). This government was led by former Cluj mayor Emil Boc. Faced with the fallout from the ongoing economic crisis, which is really biting in Romania this year, this government was pretty useless, and before long had collapsed in a hail of recriminations, with the PSD pulling out. Boc's govt soldiered on for a while as minority, but soon got kicked out in the inevitable no confidence vote.

Anyway, following this collapse, two of the three major parties (the PSD and the PNL – national liberals) along with the 4th biggest party, the UDMR (Hungarian ethnic party) came together and proposed that a new government should be led by Klaus Johannis, the ethnic German mayor of Sibiu. This seemed like an eminently good choice as (a) he is not actually part of any of the main parties, and instead represents an party which originally represented the ethnic German population of Transylvania, but he has done such a good job as mayor of Sibiu (German population something like 2%), that he was most recently reelected with something crazy like 75% of the vote, and (b) he’s obviously good at what he does.

Basescu, and the PDL, though, were having none of it, and instead the president nominated a new prime minister whose name I have already forgotten (actually true) so short lived was his government. One theory here runs that Basescu is happy to perpetuate this continued instability on the basis that it enhances his prospects of reelection. Anyway, having failed the first time when choosing a PM who wasn’t Johannis, he is trying again (and once again going against the continued will of the other 3 parties who are steadfast in their support for the German), and has now nominated Liviu Negoita. Now I have a friend who swears that Negoita is the bee’s knees and had completely revitalised Bucharest Sector 3 where he is the mayor. He must be doing something right, since like Johannis he got reelected with a huge proportion of the vote. So, here we have the PM-ship being tossed around between seemingly two really really good politicians, both of whom look like they could really help Romania, but whose national political careers are liable to get destroyed by success (I can’t really see anyone benefitting in the long term by becoming PM at the moment). In the meantime the usual cretins and non-entities are contesting the presidential election. ..

So, a brief run through of the faceless nobodies who might be president (well most of them don’t stand a hope in hell, but they’re standing anyway)

Traian Basescu. To be fair, he at least does have a personality. I’m not sure if I’m fond of that personality but it is there. I wouldn’t trust him any further than I could comfortably throw him, though his schtick seems to be entirely based on being a man of the people, “Honest Traian”. You wouldn’t buy a car from him, why would you want him as president? I still can’t really get over the fact that a couple of years ago, he was caught making a blatantly racist remark, and rather than apologising, he said it was just what everybody thought. Only in Romania.

Mircea Geoana. Representing the PSD. A Goana is a lizard in Australia, and while his name is not actually Goana, it would be fitting. I’d say slimy would be the most fitting adjective. He also indirectly played a role in the recent death of my brother in law, which while I am pretty sure he was not really to blame for, it’s difficult to get past. Plus he’s in the PSD.

Crin Antonescu. (PNL) A man whose personality and look are so unobtrusive that you wonder whether he really exists. Despite seeing his face on posters all over, if I was asked to pick him out of a police line-up I don’t think I could. He would be infinitely more appealing if he would just go with the logical campaign slogan “Crin and bear it”. Of the three main parties the PNL is the one which I have marginally more time for, so he’s possibly the best of a bad lot.

Sorin Oprescu. Independent, ex-PSD, currently mayor of Bucharest (you may by now be getting the message that the way to high office in Romania is by way of being the mayor somewhere, and that certainly seems to be the case. Basescu was mayor of Bucharest too). Can’t say much about Oprescu, just that he looks like a bit of chancer. He’s only just been elected mayor of Bucharest, so it seems a bit rum that he’s already trying to dump that job in favour of a bigger one. On top of his couple of weeks experience in charge of the capital, I’m not sure what else he’s done aside from being a PSD apparatchik.

Kelemen Hunor (UDMR – Hungarian party). Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Makes Crin Antonescu look like the life and soul of the country.

Corneliu Vadim Tudor (PRM – far right nationalists for old people and those pining for Ceausescu). Wanker, anti semitic, racist, anti-Hungarian, all round tosser and self-professed poet.

Gigi Becali (PNG – far right nationalists for disaffected urban youth). Makes Vadim Tudor look like the soul of moderation and intelligence. Complete and utter arsehole. Owner of Steaua Bucharest, and self-professed shepherd.

A bunch of others too, including Remus Cernea of the Green Party who I saw on TV the other day and who looks absolutely fantastic, and who if I had a vote I would vote for in a flash, and someone called Edouard Manole, about whom I know absolutely nothing, but whose poster I saw in Bucharest today, and whose logo seems to be the crossed hammer one which he’s obviously ripped off from the film “Pink Floyd: The Wall”. Based on that he could well be yet another far right candidate with fascistic tendencies, like Romania needs any more of them.

In all likelihood the first round will leave Basescu facing Geoana in the run off, at which point this election becomes even less interesting than it is now. The real loser will be turnout which threatens to be the lowest ever since democracy, and which, only 20 years after the overthrow of Ceausescu, and with all the problems that the country faces, is a really sad indictment.

[PS A much more interesting political analysis of the upcoming election can now be found at Gadjo Dilo's excellent blog]

Monday, November 09, 2009

The trip from hell (pt 2)

Two weeks ago, I started telling the story of my multi-legged trip across the globe. After Bucharest from where I posted that update, things got a little sticky. You see, when I checked in for my flight in Athens, I discovered that I actually needed a visa to go to Australia. It had never even occurred to me to check. I was told to go to the travel agents in Athens airport and see if I could get one. Apparently these things are possible to get online for travel agents. But the system was down, or it didn't like my name, or it perceived me as some form of existential threat to the nation. Like a cane toad or something. So having called ahead to the Australian travel agents who booked my ticket, I was advised to persuade Emirates to let me board the flight as far as Dubai, and from there we would sort it out. This I managed to do. In Dubai, I then spent hours (3+) online attempting to get my visa sorted, and eventually got an email saying that my application had been received and was a valid application (not that it had been accepted, just that I had filled everything in correctly). My Australia contact told me to assume it would be and see if they would let me board the plane. For some reason they did, and I took off for Brisbane, without knowing whether I'd actually get through immigration at the other end (once I reached Brisbane I would have been travelling for 42 hours, so the idea of being turned away and sent back was not really one I wanted to dwell on that much).

Obviously, I made it. Checking my email account later on revealed that the authorisation had come through about 5 hours into the trip, probably somewhere over Sri Lanka.

However, just to cap off the whole marathon experience, I then got busted for inadvertently attempting to bring an apple into Australia. I had forgotten it was in my bag, and a dog wandered up and sat there looking smug next to the suitcase. I was asked to open it up and there it was, a solitary, fairly wizened little apple. I was given a written warning, and told to be much more careful in future, as next time I would get fined, or something.

It was all worth it though, as I had a great time in the antipodes. I am writing this on the way home, back in Dubai airport, with only about 16 more hours to go before I make it back to my family, who I haven't seen for over 3 weeks now...

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The Melbourne Cup

I never finished writing about my mega trip across the globe, and it actually did take on some extra twists and turned before it finished, but that will have to wait for another day.

Since then I have been in Brisbane, a city which is great (so great that I get to commute to work by catamaran), but also, more of that later too.

Today is Melbourne Cup day. The Melbourne Cup is a horse race that is so culturally ingrained that some of the states here actually get the day off for it. (I actually don't know how many do, and it may just be Victoria, which is where Melbourne is). Anyway, even those that don't everybody bunks off for a while in the afternoon to watch the race. To me, it's basically just a horse race, and I don't tend to find horse racing that interesting.

However, since I'm here, I feel I need to get into it a bit, if for no other reason that then the cultural-anthropological sight of seeing an entire nation getting wasted on a Tuesday afternoon. There is, though, a better reason for getting involved. And that is that one of the participants in the course I'm training is from Melbourne, and his girlfriend is the sister of someone who owns and trains a horse in the race. He told me this last week, and while for me it was sort of one of those vaguely interesting facts, it was clearly very very interesting for everyone else. I have since discovered that this horse is the joint favourite. So, I feel I have a connection (however tenuous the my student's girlfriend's brother's horse connection may seem to you). I think the horse is joint favourite because the story is what the media tend to call a fairytale (small town farmer, has a horse which used to be a polo-refereeing horse, and which came out of nowhere, etc etc) Anyway its name is Alcopop (crap name, but you know) and I am about to head down the pub to have a bit of a flutter (the betting shop is actually in the pub) and watch the race and have the experience of being in an Aussie pub during the Melbourne Cup.

I will report later on this field mission into the equine heart of Australia

[Just back. Sadly the horse came 6th, but it was an enjoyable afternoon watching people dressed up to the nines* getting plastered in a suburban pub at 2pm]

[*Though that was actually just the women. None of the blokes seemed to have bothered]

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Onwards, upwards, downwards (repeat x5)

Currently, I am on the mother of all trips. Was in Riga (that’s Latvia in case you don’t feel like looking it up) for the last two days, and left the hotel there at 6 this morning. Flew from there to Prague at 8.15 and changed planes to Bucharest, from where I am typing this (though I can’t get online despite the promise of free wi-fi in this cafe, so I’ve no idea when this will actually be posted). I now have to hang around here for a few hours before beginning what for ticketing purposes is the second trip, but what to my body is the same trip. Flight to Athens leaves at 7.15pm, and from there I go to Dubai. I’ll be in Dubai for 6 (probably) joy-filled hours in the wee hours, before boarding a plane to Brisbane, where I will end this approximately 42 hour trip on Friday morning. It is, quite possibly, the most ridiculous trip I’ve ever taken (and I’ve lived in the Pacific, where trips were routinely ludicrous with stops at remote atolls/chemical weapons dumps). I intended to do some kind of live blog of the trip but internet access appears to have stymied that slight “can I make this trip vaguely fun” attempt. So at least you, the long-suffering reader of this blog, are spared this less than thrilling experience.

I’m not quite sure when I will actually sleep on this trip, but we’ll cross that bridge when it becomes a major issue. I will be on business class from Athens onwards, so it might be easier than the worst case scenario. On Friday I actually have to go into work in Brisbane, which will be an interesting experience, as I imagine by then I will be a gibbering wreck. Still, it could be amusing, in its own way.

My carbon footprint from all this will be larger than one of those massive meteorite craters. Sorry, world.

Monday, October 12, 2009

5 places that tourists to Romania often visit but shouldn't really bother with

1. Bucharest. Let's face it, it's a dump. OK, it has almost certainly the best nightlife in the country, and great cultural events, and reasonable shopping (by Romanian standards), and nice people. But it's a dog's breakfast of a city (and is, in fact, a city apparently ruled by swarms of feral dogs). Ceausescu absolutely devastated it, to the point where the only really interesting building is the hideous monstrosity of the Casa Poporului, Old Nic's most ludicrous folly. The traffic is diabolical and the roads are awful. I've had more than one person tell me, when they hear I live in Romania, "I hear Bucharest is a beautiful city". Where did they hear this? Or more importantly when? 1927? [To be fair, I've also heard people describe it as Europe's ugliest capital. Of the ones I've been to, I'd have to agree - though I haven't been to Tirana, Minsk, or Chisinau, and I suspect one of those might come close]. Basically, if you want to come for Romania for nightlife, then Bucharest is probably the place to go. Otherwise, avoid it.

2. Bran Castle.
Bran castle is actually quite an attractive place, in a beautiful setting. But why people flock there in their thousands is beyond me. Romania has tons more and better things to offer than it, and Bran Castle as a tourist trap is mostly notable for being a triumph of marketing. Bear the following things in mind if you are thinking of going there: (a) There was no such person as Dracula; (b) the Romanian scenes in the book of that name take place nowhere near Bran; (c) Stoker based his character on a number of different historical characters, one of which may have been Vlad Ţepeş; (d) Vlad Ţepeş may, possibly, it is speculated, have spent one night at Bran Castle. If you want to visit a relatively attractive small castle in a nice mountain pass, then Bran might be for you (though Sinaia is much better, and easier to get to). If someone tells you that it's Dracula's castle, then snort derisively and tell them to spin that line with someone more gullible.

3. The Black Sea Coast.
Awful. Rubbish-strewn, over-priced, ugly, over-developed eyesore. Just skip it. If you are here and need to go the beach, hop over to Bulgaria.

4. The spas. There are a fair few spa "resorts" in Romania, but all the ones I've been to are really really run down. They need a lot more work doing than a lick of paint. The abundance of mineral water here means that one day Romania will be the envy of Europe with its spas, but that day is a long way off. For now, they're really only of interest if you are one of the people who enjoys the whole masochistic "medicinal" spa treatment vibe thing.

5. Cluj. I want to like Cluj, I really do, but it's really never grabbed me. It's got one or two nice things to see, but as with many cities here, the whole Communist project was fairly destructive, and has left behind the sort of city centre in which you end up looking round thinking "I bet this used to be really nice". For a city with an attractive Hungarian architectural style, which is less of a mess, I'd definitely recommend Targu Mures over Cluj any day.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

5 places tourists to Romania should visit

1. The monasteries of Bucovina. Absolutely stunning places. If you have to pick only two then I would recommend Voroneţ and Suceviţa. Really you cant fail to be blown away by them. They'd be stunning if they had been created last week, but to think these paintings were done 500 years ago and have been exposed to the elements ever since, then it's impossible to fail to be impressed.

2. The Saxon villages (and especially the fortified churches) located in the old German dominated area roughly demarcated by Sibiu to the west, Brasov to the east, Sighisoara to the north, and the Fagaras mountains to the south. Again these places are incredible. Biertan in particular is just out of this world, but many of the others too are simply spectacular, and unlike anything you will find anywhere else in Europe.

3. Maramures Beautiful traditional villages, great scenery, interesting wooden churches, people wearing folk costume just because they damn well want to and not because it attracts tourists, weird stuff like the "Happy Cemetery", and possibly the best museum in Romania (The Memorial of the Victims of Communism and of the Resistance).

4. Sighisoara Arguably you could include this as being part of no.2, but I think it's worth giving a section to all on its own. Stunning mediaeval city, that would only be improved if they stopped allowing traffic up there. Wander round the German cemetery, the church, the clock tower, sit on the walls, eat a delicious meal in one of the restuarants up there and then stay in one the expertly renovated old houses in the main square. Central Brasov and Sibiu are also very nice, but something about the quiet atmosphere of Sighisoara makes it, for me, the best city to be in in the country.

5. Driving around Now there are lots of downsides to driving around in this country, not least the fact that it's really hard work (bad drivers, bad roads, horse carts, cows, drunk people on bikes, villages with no pavements so children etc are all walking on the road etc etc), but there are also a lot of upsides. These include some spectacular views and scenery, gorgeous villages, and the fact that because there are no motorways to speak of you see it all without zipping by it in a blur (that's a bit of a double edged sword obviously). I recently drove up the Bistrita valley and over the Prislop pass, for example, and it it just amazing. Then there are all the other passes over mountains (Bicaz Gorge being possibly the most incredible). If the difficult bits scare you, then perhaps get someone else to drive you. Whatever, it's worth it.

Other places which might make the list but I haven't been to them - the Danube Delta, The Iron Gates, areas of the Apuseni mountains, and more.

Next up: "Places that tourists often do go to in Romania but shouldn't bother with" (liable to be significantly more controversial)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Summer summary

I have, you will have noticed, been away from this blog for a fair while. Partly that's to do with having being working a lot, but mostly because two weeks ago, just over two weeks after suffering a brain haemmorhage and being rushed to hospital (well rushed is a massive exaggeration, this is Romania after all), my brother-in-law died, leaving me and especially Mrs Musings and her parents utterly shell-shocked.

So that's why. Normal posting will resume in due course.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My International Football Career

I am, to put it mildly, not one of the world's greatest footballers. As a child I would be one of the last people picked in playground matches, and as an adult this record has not improved much since (a) I don't play that often, and (b) I'm still crap. But, for two brief years I was, and I say this with a fair degree of certainty, one of the best players in the country in which I resided. (There is a topical point to this post, so bear with me)

For this we have to go back over ten years now to 1996 (cue twilight-zone-esque music and the wibbly wobbly blurring of the screen as the universal indicator of the flashback). I was living and working in Pohnpei, the capital island of one of the world's lesser known countries, the Federated States of Micronesia. Every evening just before sunset I'd meet up with a few people at PICS Field, which was the only football pitch in Kolonia, the main city, and play a match. Most of us were foreigners of various origins, though there were one or two high school kids who joined us. Among the regulars were a Ugandan guy named Charles Musana, and a wily veteran Ghanaian called Thomas who was over 70 and who could still play a midfield anchor role, standing near the centre circle spraying passes around with unerring accuracy. Other nationalities typically represented included Japanese, Fijian, French, Australian and US American. On one occasion we organised an island wide tournament on a weekend, and we had 5 teams that got together - three high school teams, a team of Fijians, and my team of expats, originally called "The Internationals". For reasons that I can no longer remember, we decided to organise the tournament in such a way that we started off with two first round matches (with one team getting a bye to the semis), followed by one semi final and another bye, and then a final. The flaw in this plan became obvious when we were drawn to play in the second first round match, which we won, followed by the semi final, which we also won. Meaning that we, a team of players almost none of whom were younger than 30 and some of whom, like Thomas, were much older, had to play three matches in a row in the intense strength-sapping 100% humidity that was not really conducive to running around. And to make matters worse we were facing teams of 17 and 18 year olds, who were actually getting a break between matches. However, despite our totally exhausted state we managed to eke out a final win against the Seventh Day Adventist team (the SDA school had some enthusiastic American teachers who actually trained the kids, so they were always seen as potential winners).

This epic achievement still ranks as my finest moment on a football pitch, and possibly (and without too much exaggeration) in life. A little later in my Micronesian football career, I caught my foot in a divot while playing and ended up breaking my leg, which was not such a great high point of my life, though I do like to play up the story where I limped around my house for an evening, and then drove to the doctor's the next day, before discovering that I had broken it, and being gently advised not to drive home since the pain I felt on accelerating and breaking was almost certainly caused by the fact that I had a broken leg)

Anyway, why this story and now? Well, I happened upon this story this week, which rather took me back as you can imagine. References to my former colleague and teammate Charles, "an expat from Ghana" and all the things I remember (especially the barefoot approach favoured by the kids). Good luck to the new coaches. I suspect the (obviously tongue in cheek) hope for eventual world domination in football mentioned in the last sentence maybe a little optimistic, but they might beat Chuuk one day.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

They all look the same to me

It is said that people from one ethnic group cannot tell members of another apart. There does seem to be a grain of truth in that, though if people really say they can't tell two different people apart (assuming they're not identical twins) it seems to me that they're really not trying that hard. Anyway, before this post becomes something serious, let me get onto the not-that-serious point of this post and the reason I started down this dangerous little side track. This is that I have recently become aware of a certain group of (sort-of) people which I cannot tell apart.

My daughter, Paula, is a princess. Obviously as a doting father I sort of think this anyway, but this statement comes not from me but from her. She tells me, and anyone else who is paying attention, on numerous occasions every day. She also is a big fan of other princesses. And so, on my recent trip I brought back a Disney princess memory card game (the kind of game that we used to call pelmanism until that word was co-opted to refer to prejudice against Pelmans). In this game, there are pictures of many princesses from Disney films over the years. The definition appears quite flexible, so a character could have started the film a princess and remained as one, or the character could have started the film a humble woman who lived in a menage-a-huit with a bunch of dwarves, or a mermaid or what-have-you, but finished it shacked up with a prince.

The thing is, I get absolutely trounced in this game every time. Partly this is because my short-term memory is shot to pieces through age and youthful indiscretion, partly because Paula, despite the limited attention span of a three-and-a-half-year old, seems to have the recall skills of a small, blonde, cute elephant, but mostly (I contend) because all these bloody princesses look exactly the bloody same. You pick up one card and it features some indeterminate blonde-haired pink-clothed princess. "Aha", you think to yourself, "I've seen this before", and pick up another card bearing a similar, but crucially in the context of the game, not exactly the same, image. Every time.

To be honest, there are one or two of them which I can tell from the others, but these are the one or two princesses from different ethnic groups. Ariel, for example (ethnic group: mermaids) is clearly different from the others, as is the princess (whatever her name is) from Aladdin (ethnic group: non-threatening Middle Eastern. More belly dancer than burka). But those two aside I'm lost. Why? Why do all princesses have to look the same? Is there a rule? They even all dress the same (exceptions: mermaids and belly dancers). Are there no individualists in the princess world? It's a rum do, and no mistake.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Things that irritate me about Romania

(part umpteen in an occasional, but almost certainly infinite, series)

If you try and change money here they only accept perfectly pristine mint-condition bank notes. Any rumpledness? Sorry, can't accept it. The slightest imperceptible tear in the side? Nope. Any indication that the note has in fact been used at all and has not just been issued by the European Central Bank? No can do.

Why? For the love of god, why? They're still legal tender, they're still banknotes. I'm not talking about something that's been torn into pieces and sellotaped back together, I'm talking about perfectly healthy banknotes that get rejected like they've been taken from a Monopoly set. Romania is not quite the only country that pursues this ridiculous policy, but in Europe, it only seems to be here and Bulgaria. I've asked bank employees why they refuse these notes and you either get a look that says "It's internationally normal for us to do this, you fool" (that's from people who've never travelled and don't realise that it really isn't), or "Sorry, that's just the rules. No idea why, but we've been told". It must be a national law, since it's across the board - every bank and change office follow the same ridiculously strict and unnecessary guidelines. It drives me bloody mental. (As may be obvious)

Le Tour de Ciuc

I've always been a big fan of the Tour De France. Well, I say "always", but obviously that's an exaggeration, since for many years of Le Tour, I wasn't actually born, and even when I was it didn't feature on British TV until I was in my teens (a quick check of past winners would seem to suggest I first watched it in 1983, when Channel 4 started showing it). More recently two major factors have lessened my enjoyment somewhat - the knowledge that most of the riders are on drugs, and the overshadowing of the race by the vast and obnoxious ego that is Lance Armstrong. [On a venn diagram of those two factors there is a significant overlap, allegedly]. But I still kind of get into it, despite suspecting that any results could be changed at any time in the next 6 months as someone or other gets busted.

Anyway, this weekend I was able to witness first hand professional top drawer road-race cycling. Well, maybe not top drawer, because that would be Le Tour and other major races, and probably not second drawer because that would be other races that might occasionally get a mention on Eurosport or somewhere, and maybe not even the third drawer from the top, but at least the fourth drawer down. Which on most chests of drawers is the bottom one, I guess, so bottom drawer professional road race cycling.

This was because it was the "Tour of Szeklerland" (It exists! Really! Check out the mention of it on the website of the "Union Cycliste Internationale" if you don't believe me). Pretty much every stage started and finished here right outside our apartment so it was fairly easy to keep track. There were teams from all over (well all over Eastern Europe at least - Romania, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech republic, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Turkey, Israel and probably others I missed).

Professional cyclists are fast. I mean really quite ludicrously fast. Yesterday the final stage of the race involved 17 longish (5.5km each) circuits of the town, which meant they zipped by on a regular basis, while the official cars following them struggled to keep up. The first stage of the race involved a route which took them from here up to Gyergyo/Gheorgheni, across the Bucsin pass to Parajd/Praid, down to Udvarhely/Oderhei and back here. 193 kms, and a fair few serious hills including Bucsin which is 1300m high and is a right brute even in a car. If I were to set off to cycle that route, I'd take a week off work. They did it (in the pouring rain) in under 5 hours. (Report on that stage and the others - when they are posted today I presume - can be found here) And these are the fourth division journeyman pros of cycling world. Your Alberto Contadors must be just a blur when they pass.

Sadly the little guide which we got for the race which includes the stage profiles and routes and everything doesn't tell me how the hills they climbed relate to the categories that they use on Le Tour. Bucsin is listed as being category A - does that mean it would be a first category climb? I'd really like an idea of how close the hills here which I know very well are to the climbs that they do on the telly. Yesterday morning in "halfstage 3" they did a time-trial up to the Harghita ski-resort from down the bottom here. 14 kms of cycling with an ascent of slightly over 600m. The winner took 28 minutes. That's just insane. I'd struggle to get one-quarter of the way up in 28 minutes.

For the record the winner was a bloke called Vitaliy Popkov from Ukraine. Yesterday's final stage was won by a French guy (Aurelian Passeron) who rides for the local Tusnad Cycling Team who are based here. I presume that means he sort of lives here, which means that I'll have to add him to my mental list of "foreigners living in Csikszereda". He apparently has ridden in the actual Tour de France (last year it would seem, though I don't think he finished it).

It was a good event. I hope they do it again next year.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Police 2.0

Just got back from two weeks working in Barcelona, from where comes this heartwarming story of modern day technology in action...

One of the participants on the course I was teaching was a Chinese bloke from Xi'an ("A small city. Only about 8 million people"). One day while going back to where he was staying he had his pocket picked on the Metro. He felt something but thought nothing off it until he realised, too late, that his wallet was gone. Not only was there a fair aount of cash in it but various other things which were of no little importance. He called a friend and asked what he should do, and whether he should maybe go to the police. To which his friend responded that he could if he needed the report for insurance purposes but otherwise he would be completely wasting his time.

Less than 24 hours later, though, to his (and to be honest everyone else's) surprise, the police sent him an email letting him know that they had his wallet - with everything in, including the cash - and he could come in and collect it.

Apparently two plain clothes policemen had witnessed the initial pickpocketing, and had followed and arrested the thief (with Peng's wallet as incontrovertible proof). So far, so good, but of course they also needed to reunite Peng and the wallet. A wallet which contained some forms of ID but which of course were of no great help in finding him in Barcelona (not to mention that they were all in Chinese anyway). A Chinese speaker in the Barcelona police was found, and having found his name, they eventually located him - on Facebook. From which it was a fairly quick process to get an email to him.

Not only was I extremely happy for Peng that he got all his money and cards and everything back, but I have to say I'm very impressed by the attention to detail and resourcefulness of the Barcelona police force. I guess, deep down, that it's not really all that amazing, but it is one of those things that seems very unexpected, and therefore notable.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Bobby Robson

When I was an English teacher in Porto (many years ago), me and another English teaching friend rang up FC Porto and asked if we could bring our football-mad teenage students to meet Bobby Robson, who was then managing the club. Obviously we fully expected a no, but to our surprise, the club put us through to his office and he picked up and agreed right off the bat. We got to see a closed training session in the Antas Stadium itself (the old one), and then we went down to the offices and he sat and chatted and answered all of their questions for close to an hour, before taking us on a tour of the trophy room. He just seemed genuinely happy to offer whatever he could to us.

A smashing bloke and a real gentleman. RIP

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cultural False Friends

You are probably already familiar with the ideas of cognates and false friends. Cognates are words which are related to each other in different languages. English and Romanian, for example, contain a fair few cognates, since Romanian is Latin based, and English has tons of Latin based stuff in it. English and Hungarian on the other hand have very very few cognates, because Hungarian is just bloody weird. (And because they have one of those academies which insists on creating new words for new things, they don't even have easy-to-grasp words for things like "The Internet" or what have you).

False friends, are words which you think are probably cognates, but turn out not to be. The most famous example of this is the Spanish word embarazada, which means pregnant (and not embarrassed as people tend to assume). Though my personal favourite is the Portuguese word constipação which actually means "a cold", and so (because I have a puerile mind) makes me imagine Portuguese tourists going to the chemists in the UK while on holiday and asking for medicine for their cold, and getting something else.

Hungarian to English has one or two false friends - trafik, for example, actually means kiosk or tobacconists (there must be a "My hovercraft is full of eels" joke I could squeeze in here, but I can't work out how). Akció, on the other hand, means "special offer" or "discount", and not anything like "action". (This is also a Hungarian/Romanian false friend, as you sometimes see shops here with signs in the window saying Akció/Acţiune, which makes the same error. A slightly ruder example is the Hungarian word Szakadék which means cliff or abyss, and nothing like how it sounds (which is more or less "suck-a-dick")

Between English and Romanian there are one or two which come up all the time - nervous being the most obvious. The Romanian word nervos actually means angry, and this causes people (not least me) a lot of confusion. I think the Romanian word mizerabil means something like filthy, which is also a tad confusing. Then of course there's the common menu item crap (fillet of crap, fried crap, grilled crap, etc).

But, I have come upon a new concept here, and that is the cultural false friend. There is a Romanian word imediat, which you hear very often. How long will it be? Imediat. When will you be finished? Imediat. When can I expect it? Imediat. Now, in theory, imediat is a cognate. It means, as you might expect, "immediately". It's just that in English, immediately means "right away", or "I'll drop everything and get it done right now". It doesn't really mean that in Romanian. It means something more like "soon-ish" or "when I get round to it", or "in a week or so". So, I've had to mentally redesignate it as a false friend, or otherwise it just gets too confusing, and more that that, it creates unreasonable expectations (for me).

Any other cultural false friends? Or even just amusing linguistic ones?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Paper View

I have a nascent theory of the "it came to me while lying awake one night/while I was drinking a beer" variety, that you can judge the quality of a holiday destination by the British newspapers on sale there.

The highest quality such destination is the one that doesn't actually have any British newspapers on sale at all - as that means the place doesn't actually attract enough british people to make it worth while (note: this only actually applies to holiday destinations - you can't buy English newspapers in Csikszereda, but this doesn't imply a high-quality place, merely remote and uninteresting to any outsiders)

However if the number of UK visitors does create enough demand to stock newspapers, then you can start wondering about why and how decisions are made to order which papers. In Malta a couple of years ago, for example, where I was working, the only papers available were The Sun, Mail, and Express. The three worst mass readership papers in the country. The thoroughly downmarket, Murdoch owned Sun, and the two extreme right wing anti-immigration/anti-foreigner rags Express and Mail. Frightening. What had Malta done to deserve this little slice of little-englander hell in it's corner shops and kiosks? Sure the vast majority of English people there were elderly people seemingly escaping the British winter, but not all such people are obnoxiously right-wing, surely? Or are they all in Malta not so much to get away from the weather but to get away from all those foreigners?

Thassos, which is what made me think of this half-baked nonsense in the first place, had the following British newspaper options - Mail, Express, Sun, Mirror and Times (to add to the English language newspaper options it was also possible to buy the International Herald Tribune). Not sure what message this is giving us about Thassos. That tourists there are somewhat right of centre in general (and in the case of the Mail/Express saddoes, completely off the chart). That there was no place for the middle ground Guardian/Independent reader? It's a rum do and no mistake. Wonder what you get in Chiantishire? Guardian and Telegraph?

So, I bought the Times once. I'm not proud of it since it's a Murdoch paper, but I could justify it to myself since the newspaper's online presence does boast the most consistently funny podcast that I know of - The Bugle. I learned that the Times is the official newspaper of The Ashes, whatever that means (it obviously means that the paper contained ludicrous amounts of coverage of said cricketing event), and that it's editorial team have obviously decided that the solution to all the world's problems is David Cameron. One of those "If the answer is David Cameron, it must have been a particularly stupid question" type things. It's a bit like imagining the problems of the world's entertainment industry could all be solved by James Blunt. Another bland vapid inoffensively rubbish toff.

I also bought the IHT (as we seasoned travellers know it). It's not a bad paper all round (though it does give airtime to idiots like Thomas Friedman), but why oh why do all US newspapers do this thing where they start a load of stories on the front page and then ask you to turn to another page to finish each one? It's mad. You have to go front page, page 3, front page, page 5, front page, page 3, front page, page 4, and so on for ages. What possible advantage does it serve? Why don't people complain? It drives me mental.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Greeced Lightning

Back from our too-short holiday in Skala Potamia, Thassos, Greece. Lots of sun, sea, sand and errrm, well that's it for obvious words beginning with "s", since we were in a small two room apartment with three kids. Salad, I suppose. There was a lot of salad.

You know those brochure style images of couples walking hand-in-hand down a moonlit beach? Sitting in candle-lit restaurants slowly sipping wine and eating delicious food? Frolicking playfully (yet with the obligatory hint of sex) in the foaming waves? None of that stuff happens when you're on holiday with children. Or at least not with our children. Perhaps others have some foolproof sleeping-pills-and-ouzo concoction by which they cleverly create space for themselves, but not us.

Anyway it was a good holiday and I wouldn't like my obvious need to spend a week on holiday just with Mrs Musings to overshadow that fact. The sea was perfect - warm clean clear water, gently sloping beach allowing kids to play without fear of going under, fine white sand. Food was Greek (which means fantastic). The Mythos was cold. We didn't do much besides hang around on the beach, but that was fine.

Driving to Thassos is also easier (and quicker) than driving to Croatia as we've done in the last couple of years. It's just a straight shot down to Giurgiu in Romania, across a ridiculously unkempt border post and run down bridge over the Danube (especially ridiculous given that this is a majorly important border crossing in EU terms, and beyond - the route from Turkey to the west pretty much has to go through here), across Bulgaria, and then into Greece at the the three way Bulgaria/Greece/Turkey border area. From there you hit "developed EU" and the roads are superb all the way to Keramoti, the port for Thassos.

There is a bit more too it than that obviously. For example when I say "just a straight shot down to Giurgiu" I have conveniently left out the need to get past Bucharest. This is no easy task. I asked on a Romanian forum before going for advice, and got lots of helpful answers (which of course all contradicted each other as is the way of these things). Based on that, on the way down we decided to try the "centura" (belt) which is the sort of ring-road thing round Bucharest. My god, what a road. It's more pot hole than road, has incredible traffic and baffling road rules (all the "spokes" going in and out of the city have priority over the centura, so you have to crawl across these mad, churned up junctions every couple of kilometres, dodging cars, being squeezed by trucks, just generally living on a knife edge). On the way back, as it was a Saturday, I decided to instead try out the "driving through the middle of the city" option. Arguably this was better - the roads were in better condition, the traffic was still heavy, and complex, but at least there was slightly more logic to the road junctions. On the other hand, they have obviously banned signs in Bucharest - the only directions point you to the various barrios. This is all very well if you actually want to go to cartier tineretului or wherever, but not much use for the outsider. It wasn't until I had somehow negotiated myself to the road leading out of town from the Arcul de Triumf that I first saw a sign pointing to the airport. I mean surely this is information that might be useful to people? Madness. I think it's some massive scam to try and sell more GPS systems (it's certainly the first place I've ever driven in which I've felt I could have used one. Though such is the disregard shown for out-of-towners that it wouldn't surprise me if the City Hall jammed the signal of Satnavs within the city limits).

Bulgaria, like Romania, is a bit of motorway free zone. But unlike Romania, the other roads are actually pretty good. Even roads marked as minor white ones on the map are in good shape (you'd never venture onto one you weren't familiar with here for fear of spending three hours negotiating a 10 km section of untarmacked hell). It's helped by the fact that almost nobody seems to live in Bulgaria, meaning that you only pass through a village every 20 kms as opposed to every 3 kms here. And when you do it's empty of the horsecarts, dogs, cows, drunk blokes, cyclists, children, and wandering people of all varieties that you get here. (This allows for fast driving but it is slightly disconcerting. It was almost a relief to get back to Romania and it's colourful vibrant chaotic villages on the drive home). The other border, at Svilengrad is the starkest contrast you're ever likely to see within the EU. You cross from organised, fast, clean, well-kept Greece, into shabby poverty-stricken mayhem of what appears to be a major Rroma shanty town in Bulgaria.

Finally, a recommendation. If you're ever driving thorugh Bulgaria (either from N-S or E-W or any combination thereof, and you want a place to stay somewhere in the middle, try the Shipka IT Hotel. Fantastcially helpful and friendly owners, great hotel, good value, in a really nice village at the bottom of the mountains in the Valley of the Roses. Even if you've no plans to drive through Bulgaria, then make some, just so you can stay there. We stayed there both coming and going and felt like we were saying goodbye to friends at the end.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Csikszereda: going to the Blogs

A few weeks ago, I reported on the blog competition that was going on here. Well the competition closed yesterday and the winners were announced. It turned out that I was one of the judges of the competition (I didn't know I would be when I wrote before) so I did read all of them in great depth, and they are a fantastic bunch of very different, very interesting, well written, well put together blogs.

There were 10 entrants and 6 of them would all have been worthy winners. In the end the winners were:
Under 18 category:

First place- Visit Csikszereda! This one is great and really has some superb photos on it, and has used the visuals in a very good way.
Second place- Aagota's Hometown Again very good, a nice variety of stuff and a different kind of format.

Over 18 category:

First place- Csixereda!? Another really excellent blog. Some really nice pieces of writing (and excellent English). I urge you to watch the video by local band "Los Colorados"
Second place - Ikarosz Grocery Different, varied, great design, very original. Good mixture of items

Public online vote:
A Piece of Harghita. I loved this one, and actually it was my top choice for the competition, so I'm glad it won the public vote, after being pipped in the under 18 category. Very interesting, well written, great design, I loved the way he uses video. Highly recommended.

Not to forget:
Zsu's Blog. Sadly there were only 5 awards made, and as it turns out there were 6 really excellent blogs, so this one missed out, but it is still worth your attention. Well thought out, good design, nice writing and presentation. Good use of pictures.

So, I'm actually about to go on holiday for the next ten days or so, and anyway, it's not like I've been around a lot of late, so, I'd like to recommend that anyone who is in the vaguest bit interested in Csikszereda/Miercurea Ciuc take a look at these blogs. And I'd like to urge the authors to keep at it, since they're doing a great job and they shouldn't stop when the competition is over.

To finish, shamelessly ripped from "A Piece of Harghita" a video presentation of this town. Manages to achieve in 4 minutes what I have failed to do in 5 years of incessant rambling on here

Friday, June 12, 2009

Dan the Man

(note: Football post follows. Just so you know)

Yesterday was a day I'd rather forget for rather painful/uncomfortable reasons. I won't divulge them here as (a) it wouldn't be exactly edifying; (b) it's still too raw (in a number of ways); and (c) there are some things that are best left unspoken/unblogged

So, instead, to take my mind off my current discomfort, I need to report on the shock winners of the Romanian football league this year. The town of Urziceni (Err - zee - chen) is a small dusty piece of nothingness sort of north east of Bucharest. I have driven through it a couple of times on my way to the coast, and really it's not exactly the must buzzing metropolis on the planet. It even makes Csikszereda look quite attractive and lively, and believe me, that's a difficult thing to do. The population of the town is 17,000, and it's one of those southern Romanian towns in which every lamppost is plastered with posters advertising agricultural labouring jobs in Spain and Italy. In short, it's the sort of place that people leave as soon as they can.

But miraculously, incredibly, its football team Unirea Urziceni (which roughly translates as Urziceni United) have just become champions of Romania. They've achieved this without any real star name players and without importing vast quantities of South Americans as most of their rivals have done. The town will, I think, be by far the smallest ever to host Champion's League football (well when I say host, the ground is too small, so they'll play their games in Bucharest, so it won't really exactly host CL football, but you know what I mean)

The manager who has worked this miracle is none other than Dan Petrescu, who is famous the world over for playing his football for the mighty Sheffield Wednesday (he did also play for some other minor teams, but it was his time at Wednesday which will have been the pinnacle of his career). Indeed, he hasn't yet reportedly said, but I am pretty sure he has it on the tip of his tongue "Winning the Romanian league with Unirea is the proudest moment of my career since the day I signed for the great Sheffield Wednesday". (So successful was his time in England at Wednesday and another lesser club whose name escapes me, that he had a popular TV show named after him)

Anyway, it's a remarkable achievement, and it adds to the highly amusing recent denial of any trophies or any kind of success whatsoever to Bucharest teams. Last year CFR Cluj did the double, and this year Urziceni have won the league and the cup final (this weekend) will be contested between CFR Cluj and FC Timisoara. In addition the second Champions League spot has gone to FC Timisoara after they (yesterday) got their 6 points back from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (and thus pushed Dinamo down into third place). So, all in all, ha ha Bucharest. Sadly Steaua just scraped into the last spot for the "Europa League" (the new UEFA Cup).

In other good news for Romanian football (and Romanian football managers), Mircea Lucescu led Shakhtor Donetsk to the UEFA Cup, László Bölöni won the Belgian league with Standard Liege, and little known local Csaba László (from Udvarhely/Odorheiu Secuiesc just down the road) took Hearts to a very creditable third place in Scotland. And Mircea's lad Razvan is now the new coach of the Romanian national team about which I feel very positive as I think he's an excellent coach and has to be an improvement over the rubbish, and now sacked, Victor Piţurcă. South Africa 2010 is well out of reach, but it could be a brighter future for the national team.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Fruits of our labours

As regular readers of this blog (not sure if I should go with a plural there, but what the hell) will know, last year we became landed gentry and purchased a house with a garden. Well, I say house, but I really mean crumbling-building-once-used-as-a-house. Anyway, the barn is in the process of being made into a liveable space and should be done by July, but the house is no less, and possibly more, decrepit than it was this time last year.

But, setting aside all that, last week just before I went to Prague I made a pesto almost entirely from ingredients that we ourselves had grown. I say we grew them, but it seems a little too easy. Dig up some ground, stick some seeds in and then just let them get on with it. Though it doesn't always work, of course, since we do have one patch which seems to resolutely resist producing anything worthwhile (even the weeds grow slowly there).

So, anyway, without further ado, Pesto alla Bankfalva.
You will need:
  • Large handful or two of rocket/arugula/rucola (this was one of those words I learned in other languages before English, since when I was a lad we didn't have rocket and had to make do with lettuce)
  • A couple of cloves of garlic
  • Some walnuts (about 10 per handful of rocket). Shelled, of course.
  • Olive oil
  • Salt (these last two were the ones that didn't come from the garden)
Stick everything in a blender and errm, blend, until such time as it all has become a pesto like consistency. Add olive oil as required if more liquid is required. Cook pasta, and stick some of this delicious green gold on it and mix up a bit. Et voila! Or whatever Et voila is in Italian.

Now, there may be those who are at this moment boiling with rage about the un-pesto-ness of this pesto. Pesto purists, for example, will see the replacement of pine nuts with walnuts as an act of great treason (but pine nuts are unavailable here, and we have a walnut tree, so nerr). Also using rocket instead of basil will almost certainly set some peoples' teeth on edge (but our basil hasn't grown much yet, and the rocket is almost as prolific as the weeds, so double nerr, and anyway don't knock it until you try it - rocket pesto is the business). However, it also shouldn't be forgotten that pesto purists would insist that parmesan cheese ought to be in pesto, so I think we can safely conclude that pesto purists are mentalists who would rather make their primi smell of vomit, than eat something tasty and wonderful, so discounting their views is easy.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Local News News

For many years I have been the English language voice of Csikszereda, the place that people discovered when they searched for English language information about the town. I have been contacted by ice hockey fans, by Hungarian-Americans, by people who adopted children from this area in 1990, by tourists (not so many of them, I confess), and by various others from around the world who have come across my rambling nonsense and thought I might be able to provide them with some insight into the mysterious world of the Csik/Ciuc Depression.

Now there are some problems with this obviously - (a) I'm not a local and so what insight/information I can offer is not quite as insightful as it might be (though arguably, I suppose, it could be more objective); (b) I'm a 43 year old bloke with kids, and therefore do not necessarily represent a hugely diverse body of opinion. (What do women think of this place? Young people? People with social lives? etc etc); (c) Is my opinion to be trusted? On the internet it's always hard to tell. I'm not sure if I would trust my opinion, so why anyone else should is beyond me.

But now, I can exclusively reveal, there are more English language bloggers in the Csiki-blogosphere (Blogo-depression?). These bloggers are not outsiders, but real live locals, with lives and everything. I have not made them up. They are all part of a competition being organised by the Soros Educational Center here - and are listed here (and you can vote for them too). More might be appearing in the next few days, so keep checking that page (I'm hoping that at least one Romanian (by which I mean Romanian Romanian rather than Hungarian Romanian) will join up, because that perspective would be really interesting and valuable too)

So here they all are:
Enjoy. And vote. And, if you live in the town, sign up for the contest.

In other local news news, the town's most historic newspaper "Harghita Nepe" has, as far as I can tell, vanished as a commercial entity, and been bought up by the County Council as a place where it can sing the praises of its works, and especially those of the "Dear Leader", one Borboly Csaba, whose tenure at the helm of the County Council has not so far been one of unalloyed success (and who has, it is rumoured, attempted to drag Harghita County Council into the 21st Centruy by, wait for it, signing the staff up for a Yahoo group. Rock and roll.). So, I suspect the interest in Harghita Nepe will be soon no greater than that for the Pyongyang Daily News.

Monday, June 08, 2009

1930s redux

Been away in Prague for a week, of which more later, but have woken up this morning to some really scary and appalling news from all over Europe - not least in this corner of it. The EU, which was, in large part, formed to prevent the rise of fascism again in the continent, seems now to be a venue for the resurrection of that disgusting ideology.

I'm sure there is much wringing of hands all over the Net regarding the two MEPs that have been elected from the extremist BNP in the UK. And so there should be. Also, regarding the rise of the extreme right in Holland, Italy, Austria, Finland, etc etc. (All over Europe in fact).

Here in Romania, the extremists (PRM) won 2 seats with 7% of the vote, which is pretty shit, and especially when you see that the two people they'll send are life-long tosser, anti-semite and Ceausescu's poet, Corneliu Vadim Tudor, and in second place egomaniac nut job with a Jesus complex and owner of Steaua Bucharest, Gigi Becali. The latter of those two is more of a joke figure than anything to be really scared of, but it remains to be seen how actually being elected to something will go to his head. It's certainly difficult to see him enjoying his time in the European parliament - after all you don't get on TV very much and you have to spend time with a bunch of foreigners. I anticipate he will set new records for non-attendance.

But it's in neighbouring Hungary where things like the success of the BNP and PRM really pale into semi-insiginficance. Hungary in which the right wing "populist" (populist being a codeword euphemism for racist) Fidesz party got a massive 56% of the vote. (Fidesz being a party which desperately reaches out for the votes of the far-right, pandering to the anti-semitic, anti-Rroma views of the extremists and not distancing itself from any of these, cutting deals with various neo-nazi parties down the years). Now, the government in Hungary is massively unpopular, and it may well be that a large proportion of those 56% come from people who are voting for Fidesz just because they are the only real opposition, so let's not jump to too many mad conclusions from that performance.

But we can and should draw a lot of conclusions from the rise and rise of the nazi Jobbik party who picked up an absolitely terrifying 15% of the vote. 15%. A party who are allied with what can only be described as a fascist vigilante movement called the Magyar Garda, a bunch of black booted thugs with fascist emblems and a suspicious salute whose self-proclaimed role is to protect people from "gypsy crime". A party whose members make statements implying that sterilising Rroma woman would be a way to control the population. A party who play up anti-semitism (Hungary, by the way, seems to be the only country in Europe where anti-semtism still seems to be an acceptable, almost mainstream, viewpoint). Indeed one of its new MEPs, Krisztina Morvai, who seems to have been on a campaign to charm and convince journalists in the Western European press that she and her party are not a bunch of disgusting extremist scumbags, only last week made some incredible anti-semitic comments on an internet forum.

Really. These people are utter scum.

Is Europe fucked? Is facsism really back? Is this the beginning of the new 1930s? We've got the economic depression, we've got the rise of nationalisms, we've got the apparently electable extreme right neo-nazi parties. It scares the living shit out of me, to be honest. I mean I don't think that the European parliament will be the venue for this new fascist rise (the PRM is going to have a hard time dealing with Jobbik, for example, as the PRM hates Hungarians. Likewise the Italian Northern League is hardly going to get into bed with the PRM since half their current rhetoric is anti-Romanian), but in general there really feels like there is a tide of really disgusting views sweep[ing over Europe.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Crete is the word

So, I'm in Crete. Crete is ace. Crete is the word, as they should have sung (not that Greece in general is in any way shabby or unpleasant, but Crete's got it all).

Some things you might or might not know about Crete.
  • It is the home of the Minoan civilization, which was around bloody ages ago (even before I was born). Yesterday we went to Knossos which is the home of the most famous Minoan palace. This palace was built (most of it) between 1700 and 1400 BC. That's a long time ago, and it was massive. It still is in fact, and it took ages to wander round. Here's the wikipedia article should you be so inclined. I won't go into details about it, since you can read it all there if you want to, but it's really impressive. The bloke most responsible for excavating it, Arthur Evans, reconstructed some bits of it, which seems a tad controversial, particularly since he really didn't know what it was really like when it was still standing and he just basically guessed and stuck rooms on where he thought they should be. Still, I guess it's better than just digging it all up and shipping it to the British Museum.
  • The palace, having so many rooms, may or may not be also the site of the "labyrinth" which housed the minotaur. (With all due provisos about the fact that the minotaur is a mythical character etc etc and so on)
  • Crete was also the home of Deadalus and Icarus as well as being the birthplace of Zeus (with all due blah blah etc you get the picture)
  • Cretans seem like very nice people, despite the fact that in American English (as far as I can tell) the word cretin is pronounced the same way as Cretan, which seems a little bit rude. But in spite of this slight on their intelligence, they seem very friendly.
  • Samaria Gorge (into which we ventured on Saturday) is said to be the longest gorge in Europe (though this expert local disputes this). We managed to see it the worst possible way, by just deciding to do the first 3 km or so and then going back to the car. The first 3km, though, are straight down hill, for about 6 or 7 hundred metres, which we then of course had to climb back up again. Still it was good exercise, and it was spectacularly beautiful
  • The food on Crete is absolutely superb. And by absolutely superb I mean really amazingly wonderfully beautiful. Everything is so fresh and delicious. It's such a great change from home (I apologise to Hungarian and Romanian readers of this blog, but really food from pretty much every country on the Mediterranean sea walks all over yours. No offense. It walks all over English food too if that helps make you feel any better.)
  • Chania is a great little town. Until a week or so ago, I'd never even heard of it. Now I'd like to live in it.
  • Crete is so full of archeological sites that one day we found ourselves in Gortyna, the Roman capital of Crete, most of which is just a bunch of rubble lying in an olive grove. You can just wander around in it, tripping over columns and trying not to step on bits of pottery.
  • Did I mention the food?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Most Dangerous Place in Europe

is, it would seem, Romania.

Take a look at the map here:

(Slightly bigger version can be found here)

Now, what this shows is the level of risk of death due to natural disasters. Green areas are lower risk, red areas are higher risk. Look at where the red bit of Europe is (Basically Albania and Romania). (I think if you look at the bigger map, you can just about make out that Bucharest is a huge angry red spot in the middle of a fairly orange country. I take it this refers to the expectation that there will, before too long, be a devastating earthquake in Romania, and Bucharest will likely suffer more than everyone else)

Taken from here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Facts about Munich

Six things you might not have known about Munich:
  1. In Spring they have a mini-version of the Oktoberfest called the Frühlingsfest. It's in the same place as the bigger version, and only has one beer tent, but compared to my recollection of the Oktoberfest (which to be fair was 19 years ago, when I was young and somewhat less wary about my overall consumption as I am these days, so my recollections are liable to be of fairly mixed usefulness) it seemed much better. It was, for the most part, a Bavarian event, filled with your genuine Muenchners, as opposed to the Oktoberfest, which seemed to be an Australian/New Zealand event as much as a German one. Regardless as to the accuracy of this impression, there is something uniquely appealing about an event so unconcerned with modern-day health concerns that the only size of beer that can be purchased is a one litre mug.
  2. Bavaria (or possibly just Munich) has a "strong beer season". (I swear I am not making that up). This season runs from Ash Wednesday until Easter, which you'll note is not a million miles removed from the season often called Lent by some people. I'd like to think that Lent is the season when one is expected to give up normal strength beer in Bavaria, and thus strong beer season was born. Bavarians are, in fact, fairly devout Catholics, so they presumably do recognise lent in some form or other. But it might explain one or two things about their own brand of Catholicism - When the current Pope (who is, you see, a Bavarian) says something like "Condoms cause AIDS", we might cut him some slack and see it as a result of his Lenten diet of large mugs of viciously strong beer, rather than a theologically highly developed philosophical outlook. Or maybe not.
  3. In the Marienplatz, the central square in the city, is a fancy clock (a glockenspiel in fact) which three times a day does this elaborate 10 minute bell ringing thing, involving the small mechanical puppet based reenactments of various important scenes that are vital to Bavarian culture. In one of these, a knight clad in blue and white stripes wins an epic contest against a knight clad in red and white stripes. This fantastic vignette repeatedly reminds us all (tourists and Bavarians alike) of the gloriousness and importance of the FA Cup Semi-final of 1993. You can see this at aboout 2.15 into this video.
  4. Rumours that have sprung up around the coincidence of my visit immediately preceding the sacking of Jurgen Klinsmann are not to be taken seriously. And anyway, was he actually sacked or did he take a dive?
  5. It is forbidden to build anything higher that the twin towers of the Frauenkirch in Munich. These towers, which are more or less in the middle of town, survived the second world war, when pretty much everything around them was flattened. From that moment an unwritten rule appeared which said nothing could supersede them. Sadly, being unwritten it was ignored at some point and there are therefore two buildings that broke it, but after that there was a referendum which made the unwritten rule, written.
  6. One of the beers that I tried (and tried, tried again, just to be sure I really did like it as much as I thought I did) was weissbier. Not like the first time I'd ever had weissbier, but anyway. Weissbier means "white beer", and oddly you can (and I did) also get something called "dunkel weissbier", which means "dark white beer". It is extremely good, if a little oxymoronic in name.