Wednesday, December 08, 2010


Somehow the sight of people selling out their (apparently deeply held) principles is worse than the sight of people who you knew had no principles acting as you expected them to.

So for example, in the UK the Tory/Lib Dem coalition is carving a swathe of destruction through the land - slashing benefits, creating massive levels of unemployment, making higher education only available to the wealthy, while at the same time offering tax cuts to the rich and to massive companies. The tories I expect this from. It's who they are, it's what they do. A war on the poor is pretty much both their modus operandi and raison d'etre (if I may mix languages). However, from the Lib Dems is somehow much more disturbing - the policies would be wrong and heinous whoever was behind them, but somehow to see a bunch of politicians who claimed to be progressive and let's say "social democratic" completely dump their entire ideology in the space of a few weeks in power is really disturbing. I know power corrupts, but I had no idea it corrupted this quickly.

And so it is with the current rabid US reaction to wikileaks. Now the US has always had this very absolutist view of freedom of speech. I have American friends who can and do argue very eloquently and very persuasively that freedom of speech is an absolute and should be inviolable. (Personally I've been a little somewhat less absolutist about it, perhaps a result of having grown up during an age (in the UK) in which "No platform for fascists" was a part of my political make up). And to be honest, I respect that deeply held principle and all it stands for, even if I've not been 100% in agreement.

But the last couple of days have seen the deeply unedifying spectacle of a US government (and indeed a vaguely liberal US administration - in theory anyway) trampling all over the first amendment in a desperate attempt to silence wikileaks. Pressuring web hosting services, paypal, credit cards, countries and everyone it has some vague influence with to cut them off. It's truly disgusting. Politicians there are even calling for the assassination of Julian Assange. Really. It's utterly shocking and appalling. Difficult for me to imagine myself saying this, given the alternatives, but I hope this whole sorry mess brings down the Obama administration. Any government which has so lost sight of its guiding principles deserves to fall.

As an aside, did you know that you can no longer donate to wikileaks via visa or mastercard, but you can still use those cards to donate to the Ku Klux Klan? What kind of fucked up world is this?

Anyway, as so often these days, Johann Hari in the Independent has said everything I wish I could have articulated about wikileaks.

The past two days have done one thing at my end - they have made me want to donate money to support the work that wikileaks are doing. Though craven and pathetic companies like Visa and Mastercard and Paypal are no longer ways of doing that you can do it via bank transfer and some other methods.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

To the Manor Osborne

I know someone who, because of depression, hasn't been able to work for years. Some days he is OK, some days not. There is no way he can hold down a normal job, because there are days he just can't get out of bed. He lives in London and can barely scrape by on the welfare payments he is able to claim. He can't afford to go out with friends or do anything that most of us take for granted. Now Gideon "George" Osborne and the government of old Etonians and assorted other people who have no idea what life is actually like for poor people, have decided that he should lose his right to incapacity benefit (unless he can manage to be classified as "seriously disabled", which sounds like a physical definition rather than a mental one). His story is not in any way unique. In crafting a budget which they claim to be "fair" and "progressive" they have in fact attacked the poor of Britain in a way that even Thatcher might have balked at.

Benefit fraud costs the UK taxpayer something like £1bn a year. Tax evasion is thought to cost in the region of £40-70bn a year. Which one is the government targeting?

I'm sickened by these scum. I urge everyone to read this fantastic and savage piece by Johann Hari in today's Independent. It says everything better than I ever could. This is war on the poor, pure and simple.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Emerging from hell

Like most of the planet, I assume, I spend much of the last 24 hours or so gripped by the scenes from Chile, and moved very deeply by the whole event. Watching every miner appear, hug their families and some of the rescuers and be cheered by the crowds of people, never failed to get to me, even after I'd watched practically the same scene several times. How those miners survived, particularly in the first 17 days when they were sort of presumed dead and they were completely alone living on a spoon of tuna and a drop of milk a day, is amazing. The rescue effort, too, was astounding and incredibly admirable. And even the personal, hands-on involvement of the Chilean government was impressive (I have no time for Mr Piñera's politics, but he and his mining minister and everyone else involved have definitely done fantastically well here).

All in all, I have been moved to tears, riveted and totally impressed with everything that has happened on that mountain. Who knew that watching a wheel turn very slowly pulling a cable upwards for 20 minutes at a time could be such gripping TV?

However, it has brought home to me that by the standards of much of the world's population I am weird. Because two themes that have been rammed home again and again by the miners, by the rescue team and by everyone else strike no kind of chord with me at all.

The first is religion. Now I get that the majority of the population of the planet believe that all the stuff that happens is somehow controlled or ordained or just watched over by some kind of unearthly power. I even understand some of the reasons why people might feel this way and want some kind of non-worldly force to cling to at times. But (and again I know here that I'm in the minority) I just cannot understand the repeated thanking of God on emergence from that hole in the ground. Partly because it seems actually disrespectful of the incredible rescue effort - God didn't get you out of there, I want to shout, these amazing engineers and workers and safety experts and drillers and paramedics and psychologists and designers and everyone else involved got you out of there. Hard work, creativity, perseverance and human endeavour got you out. Those people who you are hugging and who are clapping your rescue - it was them. Not some mysterious otherwordly force. And, while we're at it, you did it too. Your survival is primarily down to you, and your fellow trapped miners. Your resilience and strength and bloody mindedness got you through this.

The other reason why I don't really get it is that if God got them out, in the face of all the evidence of the human rescue effort, then surely that means God trapped them there in the first place. I know logic doesn't really enter into faith much, but ... (and here I shake my hands around the keyboard and take on a facial expression of total speechless bafflement). It really does surprise me every time.

The second big theme that emerged (and you can see this on that picture up there, that the miner pictured is wearing a T-shirt, which, along with its obligatory "Gracias Señor" slogan also makes clear reference to the Chilean flag) is that of national identity. Now this one is likely to be even more controversial than the religion one, since at least there is a sort of ongoing conversation about religion and belief, and everyone knows that there are differences of opinion, but what is national identity? I don't get it. Really, I know to most people it's like the air you breath - there, necessary and entirely self explanatory - but I've never understood it. [I should point out that if the miners were going to thank Chile or God, I'd rather they thanked Chile, because at least I can see that people and expertise and equipment from Chile along with the Chilean state itself, did get them out]. But what does it mean to be Chilean? What does it mean to be English, or Hungarian, or Romanian? I still don't really know. I ask people here, and here in Csikszereda, national identity is a really big deal, and as I ask them I get a few reactions. First there is complete bafflement that I've asked that question. This is often followed by a sort of "Well it's self-explanatory, surely?" type response. And when I say that no, it really isn't, I get a lot of confused half answers (this is not really anyone's fault, because they haven't thought about it before, and it's a difficult question to answer). Eventually, people sort of resign themselves to "well it must be about language" - mostly because when it comes down to it language is really the only major thing the differentiates Hungarian Transylvanians from Romanian Transylvanians. But in Chile's case it can't be language. They don't speak Chilean, and in fact they speak the same language as pretty much all the countries around them.

As I say, it baffles me. I mean I know all the arguments about identity and belonging and I've read "Imagined Communities" and all that. But I still can't really "get" national identity, on a personal deep empathetic level. I understand it intellectually, sort of, but not really on a deeper level.

And so I watch miners coming from out of (a real earthly) hell, and thanking God and singing the national anthem and I am left utterly moved by the human aspect. the relief, the families, the love, the sense of community of rescuers and rescuees, the joy and the happiness, and yet utterly unmoved by the religious/national aspect.

And, I do know that this makes me weird, and not them.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Clowntime is over

Norman Wisdom has died. One of the people who has actually made it into the blog before: There's probably some "Mr Grimsdale" type line that I could use here to conclude that otherwise meaningless comment into something with gentle pathos, but so unfamiliar am I with Mr Wisdom's oeuvre that it's beyond me frankly

Frost last night. Bollocks. It's too soon for winter for me.

This blog post can safely be ignored.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Katalin Varga (film review)

So a couple of weeks ago we watched Katalin Varga, a film made by a British director, set near here and filmed in Hungarian (mostly) and Romanian.

There are actually quite a few similarities between this film and "Along the Enchanted Way" (which I just reviewed here), though they may not be immediately obvious. Essentially both are clearly made (written/produced/directed etc) by Britons who obviously came to Transylvania and fell in love with the whole mediaeval vibe thing here - the scything, the horse carts, the natural beauty, the wildness, all that stuff. This is overt in Blacker's book, and perhaps less so in Strickland's film. However, so lacking in action and events is much of Katalin Varga, that you can only assume that it must have been a vehicle for Strickland to indulge his desire to show long slow shots of Transylvanian landscapes, and storks lazily flapping over remote villages, and men in fields cutting hay, and horsecart journeys across wide open fields with mountain backdrops.

In addition both feature very much a local cast of characters - "Enchanted Way" with your actual real people, though some are pseudonymised, and "Katalin Varga" with local crews and actors (and as I mentioned here, some of whom are actually based in Csikszereda).

There are two major differences though. Firstly that Katalin Varga is fiction (at least I bloody hope it is), and secondly that while life in these pastoral villages in "Enchanted Way" is idyllic and romantic and somehow beautiful, in "Katalin Varga" it's nasty, brutish, and short.

It's difficult to describe the plot of Katalin Varga at all without giving half the film away (primarily because very little actually happens in it), so I won't bother trying. It's mostly filmed in Covasna county (in the town of Kommando/Comandau in case you're interested), and I guess it is somewhat atmospheric. But because the film appears to be actually a showcase for the scenery rather than the scenery forming a backdrop for the film, and because I live here and see all this scenery every day, I have to say it left me feeling a little bit ...well, bored, frankly.

But, I guess this is my problem rather than the film's. I've just started reading another book "Blue River, Black Sea" by Andrew Eames, in which he says, while he's explaining what brought him to this part of the world:
The final catalyst for the book was a trip I made to Transylvania, where I stumbled into an almost medieval landscape that I never dreamed still existed in Europe, of scything farmers and their fruit-collecting children, of horses and carts, of wells in the villages, wolves in the woods and bears in the hills. The storybook detail was captivating. The storks on the chimney stacks, clapping their beaks when their youngsters stood up. The chicks in homemade chicken runs on the roadside verges. the little smoking huts in every yard, breadmaking ovens for summer use. And the daily cow parade, when all the villagers' cattle brought themselves back from the fields punctually at milking time and wandered down the main street until the reached their owners' houses, where the gates would be standing open to welcome them home. Transylvania seemed a mythical place, one where you literally didn't count your chickens until they hatched, and one where you made sure you made hay while the sun shone
And he's right in that very evocative and very real description. That is, more or less, exactly how it is. And it is beautiful. But somehow living here, I have sort of forgotten. I no longer notice any of these things, so utterly normal are they. And that does make me slightly sad I think, that I live in this place which to an outsider seems almost impossibly exotic (in a very retro sense of exotic), but which has ceased to make me swoon on a daily basis as it obviously did Eames, and Blacker, and Strickland.

I haven't really reviewed "Katalin Varga" have I? To sum up, beautiful and evocative and atmospheric if you don't live in Transylvania, with a fairly slight (and very dark) plot.

[By the way, Katalin Varga, is actually the name of a famous Transylvanian woman who led a miners' movement. I presume the choice of her name for the lead character of this film is significant in some way, but I'm not sure what the significance is]

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

(Girl)friend in a koma

I went to a christening on Saturday, in which we (and a whole host of others) became godparents (I can only assume that the two actual parents have concluded they will just have the one child, as they must have godparentised pretty much everyone they know). It was a much better priest than the last one I saw christen a baby in this part of the world, but he’d have had to go some to beat that racist old bastard. (In truth he seemed like a nice bloke, for a priest, etc etc. He didn’t care that I, for example, am not, nor have any intention of ever being, a Catholic. Though he was apparently told that I am Anglican which is a little bit weird to me – in these parts you are what you were “at birth”, not what you actually decided to be once you were old enough to actually have an opinion of your own. Not sure if he’d have been more challenged to learn that I am actually a godless heathen rather than, as advertised “an Anglican”)

Anyway the post church bit party, featured the massed ranks of godparents (there were 11 of us for the record, I may have exaggerated a little for effect in the previous paragraph, but that’s still a fair number. An entire football team of godparents), and an absolutely (and dangerously) delicious apple palinka which I could have drunk all night, so smooth and tasty was it. As it was the few that I did have, were a few more than I should have had, as I discovered when staggering home.

During one (relatively sober) conversation with a fellow godparent, she used a word which I wasn’t really familiar with, to describe our relationship. As she had no idea of the English term for it, I called upon Bogi (my 11-year old stepdaughter, and occasional translator) to provide some help. “Koma?”, she said (for that was the word we were struggling with), “It’s, errm, someone you go to the pub with”. As a lapsed language teacher, I find this kind of circumlocution is very laudable, and I was proud of her way of coming up with a way of explaining something she couldn’t really translate. However, it turned out that this was a fairly loose translation, and in fact koma, in this instance at least, means the relationship that two godparents of the same child have with one another. I’m 99.9% sure that we don’t actually have such a word in English, so I could hardly fault her, and if it turns out that my komas become drinking buddies, then I shall not be complaining. (It also of course gives me a great opportunity to use a not-at-all-forced title for this blog entry)

We don’t have a word for that do we? Perhaps it’s that British way of remaining as distant as possible from people in case we suddenly end up with obligations or the necessity of a relationship. There is a slightly sickly expression “A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet”. I suspect the standard English version is “A stranger is someone you might not like, who you haven’t met yet”. And of course, we act accordingly.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Along the Enchanted Way (book review)

William Blacker is an Englishman who lived in Romania for 8 years from 96-04. This book is part travelogue, part autobiography, part love story and part elegy for a dying way of life. It takes place partly in Maramures in the village of Breb, not far from Sighet, and partly in the village of “Halma” in the Saxon lands. Halma is not its real name, as Blacker elects to keep the village anonymous for fear of what might happen there if he names it (I have a pretty good idea of which village “Halma” actually represents, but I’ll not speculate here).

The first half of the book mostly takes place in Maramures, where Blacker delights in the lifestyle of the Romanian peasant. He lives with an older couple, almost as their son, and learns the ways of the country – sharpening his scythe, cutting the grass, dealing with the seasons, travelling to market, wearing local clothes, drinking copious amounts of horinca (Maramures version of palinka). He bemoans the fact that this lifestyle is not long for this world, as modernity creeps along the valleys and through the forests, but marvels in it and delights in it and the discovery of this lifestyle existing in late 20th Century Europe.

Simultaneously he is falling in love with a Gypsy girl in “Halma”. This is the love story part of the book, though in fact the passion he has for the village life in Maramures comes through much clearer than the passion he has for Natalia. Perhaps it is a reluctance to expose his true feelings or just his Englishness coming to the fore, but it’s hard to really feel that he is actually in love with her. He just seems somewhat interested. This to me was the weakest point of the book. Almost like it’s a section he has to tell to make the story hang together, but he does so reluctantly and without any great willingness to do so.

The second half of the book sees Blacker move away from Maramures and take up residence in Halma with Natalia’s sister Marishka. This section of the book deals with the challenges and difficulties they face as well as describing the community problems that exist – a nearly extinct Saxon population, reduced to just one or two older people, with the village now taken over by Romanian and Rroma families (and a single Hungarian, Blacker’s new “father-in-law”). For me this was the most engaging part of the book, as the inter-group prejudices and struggles come to the fore, and Blacker is sort of forced into the role of reluctant peacemaker and champion of the downtrodden.

It is a fascinating book, and is beautifully written. The slow and easy pace of the Breb sections, matches the life of the village, and in a sense this is the love story of the book. As the action intensifies in Halma, the pace of the writing picks up too. He describes wonderfully and with a great deal of gentleness the peasant way of life, in an almost bucolic writing style, if there is such a thing. It’s clear he see the Maramures village life as something beautiful and is deeply saddened by its impending passing, which may (or may not) mean he is slightly guilty of overromanticising it, but that, I suspect is a subject for another blog post...

Monday, September 13, 2010

Small coincidences

Couple of little coincidences happened this week. Firstly I was sitting in the garden reading William Blacker's "Along the Enchanted Way" (review will follow later this week), when he describes how in Maramures (where he lived in a village) peasants often speak to their horses in German (rather than Romanian). The example he gave was zurück when they want the horses to go backwards. About half an hour later, a guy from the village shows up to take away some construction rubbish (rubble, etc) from the mess that constitutes our garden at the moment. He has a horse and cart to do this job, and lo and behold but as he tries to persuade the horse to go back and take the cart closer to the pile, there it is... "zurück". So Hungarians speak German to horses too.

Then on Saturday night we watched Katalin Varga, a film that was made not far from here a couple of years ago by a British director, with local actors (also a review to follow). As I stood in the Orange shop to pay my phone bill, who should stand behind me in the line but the guy who plays Gergely, a fairly important character in the film (I can't really say much more for fear of giving too much away). And then after that I come to the office and there sitting next to me is another guy who was in the film playing one of the police.

It's a fascinating life I lead, and no mistake

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Before the fall

It feels like summer didn't happen this year. May and June were appalling weather-wise, and I spent July and August out of the country working. And now it's September and all of the signs are that winter is on its way
  1. The storks have gone*
  2. People have started harvesting potatoes
  3. We picked a barrel full of plums off the ground in the garden this weekend (we measure plums in barrels because that's where they make their transition from small fruits to delicious winter warming palinka)
  4. It's already pretty cold (though thankfully not yet as cold as it was in England 10 days ago when I was freezing my arse off)
  5. Trees have started changing colour
  6. The kids go back to school next week
  7. The ice hockey season starts this evening with Sport Club playing Steaua. On September 7th! Ice Hockey! Bloody hell. (Apropos of which, I've just discovered a new English language Sport Club blog)
See what a rural nature-based life I lead? Apart from the ice hockey and school bits obviously.

Thankfully here we don't have the arrival of Christmas decorations in the shops until much much later in the year (unlike the UK where apparently this year they started in August), but it does feel like we're on the slow slide towards winter. I like autumn, really, and it's especially beautiful here in Transylvania, but it just feels too early. I'm not ready for this yet, I need to have a summer first. Please.

(*Storks seem to be the primary measure of weather and seasons here. In addition to their arrival and departure dates being of interest, this year, I'm told, the early summer was so rubbish that their eggs didn't hatch, and so they laid a second batch. These did hatch, but the resultant young are not big enough to fly south for the winter, so they will stay here and die. This tragic tale would be more convincing were I to have seen any of these poor doomed orphan storks anywhere, but I haven't, so I'm not sure whether it's of any validity)

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Greet Expectations

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that there are very few places in the world where the act of greeting someone on the street is as complex and fraught with difficulties as here in Csikszereda.

Let's start with Hungarian, to get us going. Now in Hungarian there are many ways of greeting someone, many of which are entirely dependent on a perceived or actual relationship between greeter and greetee.

Informally, you can go with szia or szervusz, unless of course you are greeting more than one person, in which case it is sziasztok or szervusztok. Apparently szia is slightly more informal than szervusz, but this is not something I've ever really encountered. You can also, as I may have mentioned before, actually use hello.

However, even if you know the person, you have to be a little bit careful with such levels of informality, because saying it someone to whom you ought to be granting some form of respect (older people, VIPs, etc), could cause offense. Even if you don't reckon they've earned that respect. To an older woman, for example, you are supposed to go with Csókolom which is sufficiently respectful for that group. (However, I occasionally worry that if I offer a Csókolom to someone who is younger than me, or around the same age, or just marginally older, but who seems "obviously" older, I risk causing age related offence).

To an older man, or someone you don't really know (assuming they don't fall into the "older woman" category), you need to offer some form of good morning/day/evening etc. This would be jó reggelt (good morning) or, gussied up a bit, jó reggelt kívánok (I wish you good morning - it's not clear what else you might be doing with your "good morning" if you're not wishing it, but there you go). Others include jó napot (good day) and jó estét (good evening). OK, so far so good, but then you have to remember that what you might consider the morning is not necessarily the morning to a Hungarian (nor to a Romanian for that matter, but we'll come to that). Say jó reggelt at 11am, and you are looked at like you are mad. In villages it's even worse, because the morning very definitely seems to finish at 9am. A 9.15am jó reggelt would probably get you kicked out of the community for being a lazy good-for-nothing who didn't actually wake up at 4 to feed the chickens (or whatever it is that people do at 4am)

It's been 6 years now, and I still mix some of this stuff up. Yesterday I was going to pay the phone bill and saw someone I sort-of-half-knew, and offered a cheery szia. The moment it left my mouth I knew that this was almost certainly a jó napot situation and that I had erred. The really tricky thing is that if you are greeted first you don't necessarily respond in kind, like you do in English. Children (especially polite ones) tend to Csókolom all adults, and I may have inadvertently confused one or two kids in my early days here by offering the same greeting back.

OK, so that sums up the greeting challenges in Hungarian, but here of course there is another level of difficulty - the fact that some people you meet aren't actually Hungarian, but Romanian (this being Romania and all that). Thankfully, Romanian doesn't seem quite as complex as Hungarian in this regard. Here in Transylvania there is the use of szervusz (though I am sure it's not spelled like that by Romanians), but apparently that's only here, and not elsewhere in the country. Then there are the various good (insert period of day) greetings, in which like Hungarian, there is a "different" understanding of what constitutes "morning". I said bună dimineaţa (good morning) to two Romanians I met in England a couple of weeks ago (at about 11am) and they laughed as if I was an idiot, and said "Dimineaţa?" with heavy emphasis. You can just about get away with the bună bit on its own most of the time (you couldn't just say any more than you could just say "good" in English).

The extra level of challenge here is knowing who you should greet in Hungarian and who in Romanian. Obviously if you know them well, it's no issue, but sometimes you sort of half know someone, but can't actually remember what their first language is. There are two Romanian blokes who live in my building for example, but I am always confusing them with a Hungarian bloke who also lives there, and so I frequently guess wrong (and I never seem to learn).

The only one I always get right is my own slightly pathetic little rebellion against organised religion, whereby I always offer a cheery jó napot kívánok to any Orthodox priest I walk past on the street (knowing full well that he must be a Romanian), and a similarly breezy bună ziua to Catholic priests (knowing full well that they must be Hungarians). I like to think it throws them a little, and it makes me feel vaguely smug for a nanosecond, so that's a result in my mind.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Words don't come easy

When Bill Bryson moved back to the US (to live not far up the road from me, in fact) he wrote a book of his experiences as a long time expat returning to his home country, called "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" (I think). Anyway, one of the most memorable bits for me was his comment that there were words that he wasn't sure of the American English for, having not needed those items when he was growing up (I think he left the US when he was 19). I don't have the book in front of me, so I can't vouch for this quote exactly, but the one that sticks in my mind was him going to a DIY shop (or Hardware store as it would have been) and asking "I need some of that stuff you fill holes in walls with. My wife's people call it Polyfilla". with the guy responding "Ah you mean spackle"

My problem is similar only at least Bryson had words which he knew in English, just in a different version of English. I have words which I only know in foreign languages. The first one of these to cross my consciousness was rucula, which was a delicious salad leaf I first encountered in Spain. Later I learned the Italian (rucola) and then arugula which I'm not even sure what language it is in. Finally I discovered that in English it is called "rocket", which frankly is a bloody stupid word. This comes about mostly because I am knocking on a bit and in my day fancy vegetables like rocket were not available in England. Salads had iceberg or cos lettuce in them, and that was your lot.

But there are also words which I still have no idea of in English. Yesterday we went out and picked some mushrooms and wild fruit, most of which I have no idea of what they are in English. The most commonly picked wild mushroom round here seems to be the rókagomba, which translates literally as "fox mushroom". I have no idea what it's called in English, though I am sure it's not fox mushroom. There are also the csirkelab gomba ("chicken leg mushroom" which to me looks a lot more like coral), the galambgomba (pigeon mushroom) and various other evocatively named edible mushrooms. Last night I had a delicious mushroom omelette made of fox and bear mushrooms (rokagomba and medvegomba).

We also picked a lot of szamoca - these are small wild fruits of the strawberry family. They may actually be known as wild strawberries in English, but I'm not sure. And a fair few afonya, which I do know because I used to pick then in England growing up (bilberries in case you're wondering. NOT blueberries as many dictionaries will tell you).

Away from food, like Bryson, I have some difficulty with some construction words too, mostly because I obviously have never done any construction/DIY work in England (I'd never done any anywhere to be honest until I moved here). However, for whatever reasons, it seems like most words used for such items here tend to be Romanian rather than Hungarian (I mean by everyone). So for example there is this material called gips carton (Everybody calls it that but it must be a Romanian word rather than a Hungarian one). I can't even describe what it is exactly, but it is a sort of board material that is not wood, but is strengthened in some way. The inner walls of our renovated barn are made of it. God only knows what the English is for it. There is also a kind of thin wood that you use for the walls of sheds and similar called (something like) lumberia (again that must be a Romanian word).

So if you ever see someone in a branch of Jewson or somewhere looking a bit lost and asking for some gips carton or lumberia, before idly speculating whether it would be possible to pick fox mushrooms in the woods over there, then it's probably me.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Picking a team

At this time every 4 years I like to hunker down and gorge myself on as much football as possible. I've never exactly been a fan of England despite that being my country of origin, but then I've never been much of a one for any sort of national identity anyway. The fact that many of the England team are quite obviously utter wankers is not terribly helpful in convincing me otherwise.

Also, Romania, my chosen home are not there because they are utterly rubbish at the moment, and neither are Hungary, who at least would garner local interest were they there, but they've been shit ever since the 50s.

So, who should I support? Here is a site which has some complex formula to tell you which country ought to get your support (Ghana, apparently). I would be very happy were an African team to win, and Ghana are the most likely to do OK, it would seem.

But I have to have arbitrary criteria. Algeria have one good thing going for them - the presence in their squad of ex-Sheffield Wednesday defender Madjid Bougherra. But the best option is Honduras. Yes, they did have a very dodgy coup last year, which is not exactly what one looks for in a nation (I'm not sure how they come 3rd in that site above given that to be honest), but there are some reasons to support them (these may not convince you but bear with me)
  1. I have seen them play. I have only seen 3 international matches in my life, so this is something that sets them apart - two when I was working as a steward at Wembley and saw England play Scotland and then Columbia three days later in something called the Rous Cup, and the other as a paying customer in Washington DC in a World Cup qualifier a good few years ago - The USA vs Honduras. It was a great day out and Honduras surprisingly won 3-2 with a great performance. I distinguished myself by chanting "You're not singing any more" in the face of a baffled and rather initimidated teenage girl, which is not exactly my finest moment.
  2. Their captain is called "Guevara". Need I say more?
  3. They wear blue and white stripes. There is no better footballing strip than the classic blue and white stripe. And this is objectively and unargaubly true. But Argentina's light blue and white doesn't cut it. You need royal blue.
So support Honduras. They won't win, but they will deserve to.

Once they get knocked out though, I'm going for Spain. Don't think they'll win either, but I'd like them too.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

That time of year again

This Saturday is the Pünkösdi búcsú the biggest pilgrimage in Eastern Europe, where Hungarian Catholics from wherever you might find Hungarian Catholics (ie Hungary, mostly) descend on Csikszereda to be pious or some such.

A couple of years ago my friend Denes made a video of me covering it which was almost shown on Duna TV (Hungarian channel), but ultimately wasn't. Anyway here it is (again):

Part 1:

Part 2:

Any TV people who actually want to use this should contact Denes via the you tube page :-)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Whinging Poms

Or is it whingeing? The Internet seems divided.

Last week some friends and colleagues ran what I can only describe as a fantastic week-long programme here on arts/crafts/folk traditions. Participants from all over Europe attended, met people working on traditional folk arts and crafts, observed them in their work and also participated themselves and practised what they had seen. Among other things this involved weaving, linen work, traditional wood painting, folk dance from all over Transylvania, making (and playing) traditional local musical instruments, riding on horse carts, visiting museums and art galleries, and many more. As a bonus they even got taken bear watching one evening (and saw 10 bears). One Polish guy in the group said he'd always dreamed of driving an old Dacia, so he got that chance too. They stayed in a fabulous local inn which is located in an old water mill, with accommodation in renovated traditional local peasant houses. The food at this place is plentiful and delicious, and is accompanied with lashings of palinka and wine. All in all it was the kind of week that would cost an absolute fortune if arranged through a travel agent/tour operator, but the people in this group got the whole thing completely funded through the European Union's lifelong learning programmes. Including their travel and everything else.

Everybody was incredibly impressed, happy, delighted, overwhelmed, and full of nothing but heartfelt praise for the experience.

Everybody except one person that is. The one English person on the course seemed to delight in moaning about anything and everything. First of all she had an allergy to paprika. Now this she stated on the form before coming, so every meal the group had was absolutely and perfectly paprika free. Timea, the female half of the couple that owns the watermill-pension who does all the cooking made sure of that (and as you can imagine in a Hungarian context cooking paprika free is quite a challenge). But the English woman insisted that she thought she could detect paprika in her food and got very upset and demanded to see the kitchen. Eventually she reduced Timea, who is the sweetest most caring person you could ever meet, to tears. Then she complained that they hadn't seen enough "Romanian" (as opposed to Hungarian) folk culture - though of course they had all received tons of information before coming to let them know what to expect, to talk about the unique character of this region, and to generally ensure that no-one would have unmet expectations. (Obviously if they had been driven to Bacau or Piatra Neamt or somewhere similar where they could have experienced something more "Romanian", she would then have complained about the distance).

But these are fairly small things. The thing that has really made my blood boil is that on Friday evening when I met the group I asked her how everything was going and she said everything was fine, great, it was a wonderful week etc. However, now, via email she is sending in another great litany of complaints. My favourite being that there were things at breakfast that English people wouldn't eat. Now I have eaten breakfast at this place and there are plenty of things to eat, and if you don't want to eat szalonna, for example, you really are not likely to go hungry. I don't eat szalonna, but I manage to put on weight every time I eat there. Plus, when you travel, you get things that you don't normally eat for breakfast. It's normal is it not? And she wasn't a first time traveller by any means.

I think the thing that really pisses me off is that to my face she told me that everything was great and now back in the UK she is shooting off cowardly emails complaining about ridiculous trivia which marred her experience. An experience which to everyone else was a wonderful amazing life-enhancing experience. An experience which was, let us not forget, entirely and absolutely free.

They say we are nation of whingers, grumblers, and complainers. I didn't really think this was entirely fair until now. It's really pissed me off.

[Now I of course, have whinged and griped about her, so I am obviously a product of my culture just as much as she is.]

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Politics week - Part 3: Hungary

So, the UK now has a Tory prime minister and basically a Tory government. (On a side note, I discovered yesterday that I am older than both halves of Britain's new conjoined prime-ministers. This is obviously the next stage in feeling ancient, after many others - being older than some professional footballers--> being older than all tennis players--> being older than all professional footballers--> and now being older than not just the PM but the mini-me version too). Who knows how it will all pan out, but looking at the cabinet it looks very dicey. Have you seen Michael Gove's views on education for example? Shudder)

And Romania has a government which seems destined to shatter even the Thatcher government's worst excesses. See Bogdan's comments adding to my post on Monday for more details.

However, these two countries pale into insignificance when we look at Hungary. Like the UK, Hungary also recently had a general election, and like the UK it previously had a very unpopular sort-of-but-not-really-left-wing-party in power. However, whereas in the UK the mainstream right-wing party didn't really take full advantage of this, in Hungary they (FIDESZ) swept to power with a huge majority. Now as I think I've said before I think FIDESZ are a pretty dodgy bunch, with a number of dodgy people involved (not least their leader Viktor Orbán).In common with many other mainstream right wing parties they tend to play the "we're not racist, but" game - not being openly racist or having openly racist policies, but not really speaking out against racism (and as we'll see in a couple of paragraphs time, there is a lot of racism in Hungary that really needs to be spoken out against).

In theory FIDESZ's election ought to be reasonably good news for people round here since they do tend to go in for the "let's support our poor oppressed Magyar brothers isolated from us by the evils of Trianon" rhetoric, and in previous periods of government they funded a fair amount of activity here in Székelyföld. Though with Hungary as bankrupt as everywhere else in Europe seems to be, such financial support looks a bit further off this time. There is a suggestion that as they have such a huge parliamentary majority now which allows them to alter the constitution, that they will resuscitate the attempt in 2004 to award Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians from outside Hungary. Personally I think that if they do, everyone here ought to reject it, since (a) in theory now both countries are in the EU there is basically no difference which passport you hold; and (b) it seems like it would just play into the hands of hardcore nationalist Romanians who think Hungarian Romanians should "go back" to Hungary. I can imagine it might open doors for Hungarians in Ukraine or possibly Serbia, but for people here it just seems like a poisoned chalice. Still it's not really for me to say. The other possible effect it might have here would be to shake up the Hungarian Romanian political scene, since FIDESZ created and supported the MPP, a party which appears to have all but disappeared recently, and which provides a more right wing nationalist alternative to the nationalist soft right RMDSZ (UDMR) party which represents the Hungarians in Romania (and hence runs essentially a one-party state here in Harghita County). Who knows what will happen there. [One question that does arise with the possible award of Hungarian citizenship to Hungarians from outside Hungary, is that anyone taking the passport will have to have a vote in Hungarian elections, and of course those that accept the passport will likely to be predisposed to the party that gave it to them, which means that one could see the whole thing as a cynical vote buying grab]

The really big disaster of the Hungarian election though is the rise of Jobbik. Now people on the left often (and occasionally with good reason) get criticised for calling anyone on the right a "fascist" or a "nazi", and it is clear that these terms are extremely overused. But Jobbik are genuinely a Nazi party. By that I don't mean they have strong views on immigration or integration a la Le Pen or Bossi for example. By that I mean they are openly anti-semitic, vehemently anti-Rroma with the threat of violence against that community never far from the surface, aggressive, racist bastards. They even have their own paramilitary force the Magyar Gárda, who have been likened to Hitler's Brownshirts. (As an aside you will see from that article, FIDESZ have been pretty complicit in Jobbik's rise).

In this election Jobbik got 16.67% of the vote, which translates into 47 parliamentary seats (just under 7% of the whole). Next to figures like that Thatcherite politics in Romania and the UK seem like merely a small problem.

The only positive to come out of the election (and I mean the only positive) is that a 4th party (basically a green party) called "Politics can be different" (LMP) got 7% and 16 seats.

Some references in case you want to immerse yourself further in this deeply depressing set of results:
Hungary Lurches to the Right (Der Spiegel)
"Hungary has turned into a grubby hive of nationalism" (Der Spiegel)
Hungary party to follow European extremism's move away from fringes (Guardian)
Head of far-right Hungarian party Jobbik vows to wipe out ‘Gypsy crime’ (The Times)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Who is David Cameron anyway?

Bit busy today so the Hungary section of politics week has been put on hold. However, the UK now has a prime minister and I thought it would be worth highlighting some of the things he has done and positions he believes in, especially as regards foreign policy (which gets less press attention in an election).

Now I could take the approach of going on about what kind of leader I think he will be or whether his background qualifies him to have any say on the lives of normal people, but I'll resist that temptation and just stick to some of the things he has actually said and done:
  1. In the 80s he accepted an all-expenses paid "sanctions-busting" visit to apartheid South Africa. (Link here). As far as I can tell from searching the web, despite a lot of pressure, he has not actually apologised for this.
  2. He is a member of an organisation called "Conservative Friends of Israel" a lobby group which promotes the occupation and is vehemently anti-Palestinian. (Watch the Channel 4 Documentary - Dispatches: Inside Britain's Israel Lobby)
  3. In the European parliament he has aligned the Tory party with a disparate group of homophobes, anti-semites and other extremists (including a Latvian party which celebrates the SS) (Link)
  4. He voted for the war on Iraq (though he's not exactly alone in this)
So, from a foreign policy perspective that's the new Prime Minister of the UK. Doesn't look that good does it?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Politics week - Part 2: the UK

It's been a big week in British politics. But I reckon it must look dead weird from an outsider's perspective. Partly because of our weird electoral system through which the number of votes and number of seats are not really linked, and partly because when this system delivers a "hung parliament" (ie no overall majority for any party), this is such a rare event that it seems to send the whole system into craziness. For most countries (in Europe at least) the idea that after an election you have a period of horse trading and coalition talks is so utterly normal that the last few days of frenzy in the UK must seem really bizarre.

Anyway, to sum up what has happened so far. Firstly everyone lost in the election last week. The Labour Party (or New Labour as I still like to think of them in the vain hope that somewhere deep in the party lies the hope that they will one day return to actually sticking up for working people) got summarily kicked out of government and lost a huge number of MPs. The Liberal Democrats, the third party, who suddenly as a result of the introduction of presidential style debates, were thrust into the limelight and briefly saw the possibility of being the second biggest party (at least in terms of votes) slipped back to pretty much where they were before (more votes, fewer seats, go figure). And the Conservative Party who were the primary opposition to a massively unpopular government, with a hugely disliked prime minister, and with vast amounts of media support for their campaign couldn't even get a majority, which goes to show how even now many many people still hate and distrust them (me included). They did get the most votes and the most seats, but frankly in the circumstances it was as bad a performance as Labour had in 1992.

So no-one won, and now the media is in a frenzy of speculation and, in many cases, blatant attempts to influence the outcomes of negotiations. The vast majority of newspapers in England are rabidly pro-Tory, and they have been flip-flopping madly as things change. Yesterday Gordon Brown was a squatter who needed to resign immediately, and then when yesterday he did announce his resignation this was suddenly a shabby act of treachery of something. In addition the TV is increasingly pro-Tory. Rupert Murdoch's Sky News is extremely biased (and their chief newsbloke Adam Boulton yesterday was hilariously called on his Tory bias yesterday by Alistair Campbell - Blair's former spin doctor/spokesman - causing Boulton to blow up in highly amusing apoplectic rage). It is fairly widely accepted that Murdoch has done a deal with Cameron and the Tories that if they get elected they will savagely cut the BBC thereby leaving Sky with a greater access to the market. Hence Sky and Murdoch's papers - the Time and the Sun being even more rabidly right wing this year than ever before. However, in a perhaps desperate bid to suck up to the Tories and hence not be cut too much, the BBC has also lurched to the right, and their chief political journalist Nick Robinson is unfailingly pro-Tory in everything he says and anti even the prospect of anybody else having a say in government. (His latest disingenuous wheeze, in common with his right-wing brethren, is to suggest that if we end up with a Labour prime minister who is not Gordon Brown, then that's an unelected PM. But the system doesn't actually elect a PM ever, it elects MPs, and the leader of the party with the most MPs is the PM. No-one has ever elected a PM in the UK, despite the new presidential style of the campaigns).

The there are these shadowy "markets" which apparently are going up and down every time anyone sneezes. So ubiquitous have they become in the post-election commentary that one wonders why we even bother to have elections in the first place. Let's let the markets decide, since the media seem to want to let them anyway. Never mind that the markets are a completely indeterminate entity, and that essentially they are made up of a bunch of global gamblers and speculators who spend all day every day betting on stocks and currencies, but who manage (in a really neat trick) to be both gamblers and bookmakers (and yet somehow respected for all that). The only people who care what the markets "think" are the markets themselves and the compliant media.

What the election has delivered is the possibility, however small, of actually having a sane voting system in the UK in the future, one in which everyone's vote counts for something. I am not holding my breath for such an eventuality, but it does now seem to be at least on the agenda.

Aside from the need for a new electoral system, I'm torn on what I think the outcome of this election should be. I am instinctively and deeply anti-Tory. In fact I firmly believe that anyone who was alive and in any way politically conscious in the 80s must for ever distrust and despise them, and never ever vote for them. I cannot ever see myself voting Tory - and I don't believe they have or will ever change. Anyone who remembers the 80s and would vote Tory has either been lobotomised or should be. In the current circumstances with a large budget deficit to deal with, they just be rubbing their hands with glee as (at least in their minds) they have an excuse to make savage cuts in the welfare state. Thankfully we don't have a majority Tory government who would by now already have started dismantling the NHS, education system, and any other troublingly beneficial services.

However, they did get more votes than anyone else, and they ought to be able to have first crack at forming a government. This they have done, and by the end of today they may even have managed it. If they don't and can't put together a workable government then we have to see what other alternatives there are. The press would have you believe that it's Tory or nothing as they are the "winners" in the eyes of most of this band of chancers, but the mainstream press are, for the most part, a bunch of scum who actually care not one jot for democracy, while all the time protesting that they really ONLY care about democracy. From time to time I even get this feeling that from a long term perspective it might even be better for them to form a minority government (or one propped up by the Lib Dems) so they can piss everyone off and get kicked out again when the next election comes round in a few months. But then even that short period of power would result in the destruction of lives, communities and basic human rights, so I can't give in to that one. But then again, I wonder if coalition of Labour and the Lib Dems (with a savage right wing press against them) will not be even more unpopular, and lose even more badly next time round, thus delivering an unchecked Tory government free to launch into its attacks on the country.

It's a quandary and no mistake. But despite the uncertainty (which is not really a big deal, whatever the markets and the press think) actually might make UK politics better in the future.

I really really hope so. Meanwhile if you think that a better voting system is necessary and important, then sign up here:

This post could be pages and pages longer than this, but I already feel I've rambled way too much.

[Tomorrow's edition of politics week features Hungary. And if you think things are bad in the UK and Romania, then they are nothing compared to that country]

Monday, May 10, 2010

Politics week - Part 1: Romania

It's going to be politics week on Csikszereda Musings (taking over from the last few weeks during which there were clearly a series of "no activity at all weeks" on this blog).

I'll get to the UK election later this week, but I'll start with Romania. Now Romania's economy is pretty bollocksed (as I believe the technical macroeconomic term has it), and some months before Greece made headlines and made it fashionable the country took a large IMF loan in order to try and bail out the system.

As ever one of the conditions from the aforementioned IMF was that the country had to reduce its budget deficit. So last week, the plan was announced, and quite frankly it's the shittest most ridiculous plan in the history of rubbish plans. Basically it is that state sector employees take a 25% pay cut and pensions and other welfare are cut by 15%.

Let's start with public sector pay cuts. Public employees in Romania are not, frankly, overpaid as it is. Nurses, for example, earn an absolute pittance. Every hospital experience I've had here (either as patient or visitor) I've been absolutely blown away by the commitment and dedication of the nursing staff despite them being paid pretty much the minimum wage. If they're taking home much more than €250 a month I'd be utterly shocked. Meanwhile they are working inside hospitals plastered with posters advertising nursing jobs in other European countries where they will earn 10 times as much. Teachers too, especially those at the early stage of their careers earn basically the square root of fuck all. I'm quite sure that this low pay culture is reflected in most other public service occupations. How shall we deal with debt crisis? Oh let's cut further the pay of those who already earn virtually nothing in the first place.

Pensioners are about the only group in society who make public sector employees look well off. Pensions are very low, and with inflation relatively high, I have no idea how most pensioners will be able to survive a 15% cut in their income. The vast majority of them are pretty much barely making ends meet on a month to month basis anyway. At least from the government's point of view pensioners can't strike, so perhaps that's the motivation.

So what should Romania do instead? If we assume that it must abide by the IMF's requirements (I'm not sure we should assume that, but let's just run with it), obviously money has to be found somewhere. Money either has to be cut from something or raised from somewhere. Cuts seem not what Romania needs right now, with the country's infrastructure in a complete mess, and stuff needing to be done in pretty much every area, and the aforementioned poverty-line existence of nurses, teachers, pensioners, etc etc. Obviously there are large stacks of cash that get siphoned off between being earmarked for public works or what have you and actually being spent, and this would be one area that could profitably be dealt with. Actually have a serious effort to deal with some of the worst corruption, but obviously politicians, as some of the primary beneficiaries of this money leak, are not so willing to go for that option.

The other blatantly obvious place to raise more money is in the taxation system. Romania is one of the few countries in Europe or the world to have a flat tax system. Not only is there a flat tax system but it's pegged at a very low 16%. There is a staggering amount of inequality in Romania, and a better more progressive tax system seems like it would not only raise money but actually make the country a fairer place in general. People earning up to €10,000 a year (a fortune in Romania to be honest) pay 16% as now. Over 10,000 and you start paying 30%, over 50,000 and you start paying 50%. It's not that difficult, you wouldn't punish people who can't afford it, and you'd raise money to start getting the deficit down (and in the grand scheme of this you are not suddenly making Romania less attractive to investors, since what I've just suggested is fairly close to what everyone else has). If you could combine this with a serious anti-corruption effort then suddenly things get better without forcing nurses to go overseas to work so they can eat and pay the gas bill, and without creating an underclass of pensioners.

But no, the government have spoken. Wankers. I have the feeling that this is now going to make the economy worse, since the public sector workers will now all go on strike (and with good reason) and thus, effectively increase the problems. Good work Domnul Basescu, you stupid stupid bastard.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Stories from the apocalypse

If you rely on the UK media for your news you may be under the impression that the current volcanic dust problems are affecting (a) holidaymakers who can't go on their trip; and (b) the arrival of exotic fruits and the subsequent trauma of the English middle classes. (Honestly I'm not making that up).

However, as I have spent some time over the last few days in the company of people who have been genuinely affected by the wrath of Eyjafjallajoekull (when my 4 year old daughter writes to me on messenger I'm sure that's the word she usually types, which means she's been warning me of this event for some time, which is a bit freakish), I do know that there are some actual stories of hardships beyond the awfulness of not being able to buy pineapple at Waitrose. These are all people I've met in the last couple of days (mostly on my non-flight on Thursday), or who I know or am connected to in some way.

1. The British man and Romanian woman who were flying out to their own wedding in Bucharest (should have been today - Saturday) along with assorted relatives. I have this image of a church full of people in Bucharest standing around even now looking at their watches and muttering "I knew it wouldn't last" to their neighbours.

2. The Egyptian guy who was flying home to Cairo via Bucharest. He is now stuck in the UK with a soon to expire visa and no money whatsoever. With this promising to go on for some time there are increasing number of people in a similar situation. If you've nowhere to stay, no money, no way of getting home aside from by plane...what do you do?

3. The Cypriot businessman who lives in London and who has a factory in Romania. he was flying over to sign all the cheques to pay his workers. He needs to be there to do that, and no-one else can do it. So a large number of people who were not even flying anywhere have a massive problem.

4. Someone I met in Moscow a couple of weeks ago whose visa expires today, and who was due to fly home yesterday. I suspect Russian visa officials will not be terribly sympathetic.

5. Daughter of a friend who is stuck in Bangkok with no money, dodging riots on the streets.

So, what all these things remind me is that (a) my situation is not terrible in the grand scheme of things. I miss my family (and I'd like to think they miss me), and really really want to be home. But I have somewhere to stay, access to some money, and time to work out other options; and (b) anyone complaining they can't buy a fig wants shooting.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Ash Thursday

So, today I have managed to check off the "get delayed by volcanic ash" item from the "Things I must do before I snuff it" list. It hadn't been very high up that list to be fair, but I thought today was an opportunity too good to miss. Only comes around every 200 years apparently. Bastard has to be today.

However, I feel I have to use an opportunity here to praise Tarom and their rep at Heathrow Catalin Zlota. Now as we all know airlines don't actually have any obligation to help passengers in a situation not of their making, such as weather, and less commonly vast clouds of volcanic ash floating over from Iceland. And in fact nearly all the airlines around basically told everyone to go home and come back tomorrow, whereas Tarom gave us food tokens and actually put us all in a hotel (from where I write this), with dinner and breakfast. I was chatting to a couple of Alitalia staff (it was a long day) and they said that as far as they could tell not only were we the only passengers to get this treatment, but Domnul Zlota was the only airline rep who was out working with his passengers.

I get the impression that Tarom doesn't get much respect in Romania, but it should. I have always found it a reasonable airline (in European airline terms), and the staff are always friendly and helpful, and today's events have reinforced and extended that feeling. No idea whether I'll feel this way tomorrow after the ash has delayed us for another day, but so far, they and specifically Zlota are doing a great job.

Unexpectedly positive post perhaps. Especially in the circumstances where I really really REALLY want to go home.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


The two stories below are connected but seem to contradict each other in some small way. See if you can spot the well hidden paradox:

1. Last week I travelled from Moscow to Krakow. There's no direct flight so I went via Warsaw. While killing time in Sheremetyevo airport waiting for my departure, I decided to purchase a duty free bottle of vodka for my father-in-law. I perused the shelves at length and eventually settled upon a bottle of Stolichnaya, primarily because it is made in Moscow and that seemed most appropriate. As is the way these days with duty free shops, it was placed - with receipt- in a plastic bag which was all then sealed up with one of those special sealing machines.

When I arrived in Warsaw though, I went through the deep pain of having my carefully selected booze snatched from me by security guards. This is not the first time this has happened to me as long time readers of this blog will know. But last time the wine was in an unsealed duty free bag, and these days I know that they must be sealed. Apparently, the guards explained to me, the sealed bag system only works if you are travelling within the EU or if you are coming from Croatia, the USA, or South Korea. And that's it. Have these countries done deals where they take EU officials round their duty free shops and show them how impossible it would be to pack liquid explosives in bottles of alcohol, and then sell it to passengers without their knowledge, and make it explode only when they'd got onto their connecting flight? It's hard to know. But it does seem like yet another load of inexplicable bollocks done in the name of "security". I wonder whether if I'd been routed Moscow-Zagreb-Warsaw-Krakow, whether I'd have been able to keep it - if so, it sounds like a very good way for Zagreb to become a major hub in Europe. I can only hope that the Polish security guards who put the bottle in the bin, retrieved it after I left and took it home. It's would be a great shame to have wasted it entirely.

2. On the same flight, my bag was checked all the way through to Krakow. As my final flight was domestic and I arrived at the large echo-ey empty warehouse that acts as Krakow's domestic terminal, this meant that my bag never went through customs at any point. In Krakow I just picked it up and walked out.

Not thinking things through

According to the survey data reported here, among the depressing findings that 91% of Romanians would like to reintroduce the death penalty and 88% think it should be a crime to criticise the Orthodox Church, is the statistic that 89% of Romanians think that anyone in favour of autonomy for Székelyföld should have their citizenship revoked. I suspect people didn't really think this through, since, you know, if you revoked everyone's citizenship round here, they'd effectively be autonomous. No taxes, no need to obey the law, etc etc. You couldn't deport them because they'd have no state to be deported to, so they'd have to stay here. In a stroke you'd effectively have created Székely autonomy. Brilliant thinking, Iosif Public.

Either 89% of people in this country are a bit thick, or the questions were skewed in such a way as to make the findings seem really newsworthy. I suspect the latter.

Monday, March 15, 2010

15th March 1848

Today is, as you may have noticed, March 15th. Not much special about that for most people, aside from that whole ides of March / et tu brute thing. But it is a big deal in the world of Hungarians, as it represents possibly the biggest day in the Hungarian calendar - the commemoration of the revolution of 1848.

Of late I've been reading a great history book called "The Hungarians: 1000 Years of Victory in Defeat" by Paul Lendvai. (The title is very apt since the history of Hungarians in Europe does seem to have been a litany of defeats - and in fact the two biggest holidays in the Hungarian calendar - today and the commemoration of the 1956 uprising both, ultimately celebrate and romanticise defeats).

The thing that really stands out about the history of Hungary prior to 1848 is that if Hungarians feel the need to hold any historical grudges, they ought to hold those grudges at two groups
(1) Their own ridiculously self-interested and anti-progressive nobility. With a few notable exceptions this group kept Hungary (and it's attendant bits) in a ridiculously backward state for centuries; and
(2) The Austrians/Habsburgs who seemingly never missed an opportunity to screw everyone over, and especially the Hungarians.

What's inspiring about the 1848 revolution which Hungarians celebrate today is that it is liberation from these very two groups that characterises the positive side of the uprising. The removal of serfdom, the emancipation of the Jews and the wresting of control from Vienna were some of the truly forward thinking things achieved by the revolution. On the negative side the leaders of the revolution, including it's most famous member Kossuth Lajos, wrapped everything up in a Magyar nationalism which ultimately led to its downfall. This was not only a political error - nothing good ever comes of nationalism, and to use nationalism as a tool or worse as a basis, always ends up badly- but it was a massive tactical error too. Rather than liberating peasants from serfdom, the sense was that it was about liberating Hungarian peasants - Romanians and Serbs and other ethnic groups within Hungary and Transylvania were not to be liberated, and so had no stake in the success of the revolution (and indeed could not have been faulted for being highly suspicious of it and fearful of its success). Austria got them to fight along with Vienna against the revolution (and promptly, when it was successfully put down, screwed them over too. The Habsburgs were equal opportunity dickheads it seems). Later in exile, Kossuth Lajos argued for a loose Danube confederation of peoples, which would have been a much better bet from the word go, but by then it was too late.

Eventually the revolution was finally put down with the support of Russia. One of the best things about Lendvai's book ( as well as it being a very even-handed and well-written history) is some little vignettes of interest - people who rose to minor prominence and/or infamy. One of these is Alexei Gusev. Alexei Gusev was a Csarist captain who realised how important the revolution was and ended up fighting alongside the Hungarians. Except that he didn't actually exist. During the time of Soviet domination of Hungary, the USSR wanted to present themselves as long time friends of Hungary - this was a problem because Hungary's most romantic historical moment (1848) was eventually put down with Russian support. In trying to form a clear revolutionary link between Kossuth and Stalin, a compliant Hungarian historian was recruited who then researched in archives and came up with the aforementioned Captain Gusev, who had rebelled against the Csar and joined Kossuth. Here was the link between the USSR and Kossuth. They even named streets after him in Budapest and other towns. Until of course it was discovered after 1989 that he had in fact been entirely made up.

But anyway, I digress. 1848. Kossuth. Petőfi. It's difficult to overstate the importance of this moment in Hungarian history, and in the Hungarian consciousness. As I look out the window today, I can see Hungarian flags all over the place. This is about the only day of the year when you see those flags here (except outside the Hungarian consulate). There will be a laying of wreaths on the statues of Petőfi and Nicolae Balcescu (who was a Romanian revolutionary leader in 1848 also, and who ought to have been listened to more by Kossuth, as much more could have been achieved)

I'll write more about the Lendvai book as I go through it. It's really worth reading for anyone vaguely interested in regional history and in particular the Hungarians' place in it.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Round the Bloc

I have had a fairly long period in Romania since my last trip (without really working it out, I suspect the longest uninterrupted period in the country since I arrived), having not been anywhere since November. Not sure if this represents any major trend, but fortunately I have actually been working a fair amount during that time, but doing it online rather than in the flesh. I have to say though if one was to pick a time period in which to remain constantly in the Ciuc depression, the November-March slot would not necessarily be it. Especially not this ridiculously long, cold and snowy winter. Anyway, this period is about to come to an end next week when I depart these shores for the sub-tropical climes of ..., erm, ...Moscow.

As it happens the way things have worked out I now have a month of travel coming up, centred around a tour of post-communist Eastern Europe. Next Thursday I make the Bucharest-Warsaw-Moscow trip beloved of apparatchiks in the 1970s taking in all those amazing monuments to the beautiful architecture of the aesthetes of those times (they all look peculiarly and ironically Disney-esque to be honest, and show a great in-your-face penchant for architecturally flipping the bird at the very proletariat they were supposed to inspire)

From here...past here... here
Back from Moscow at the weekend via a few days in Krakow, and then a couple of weeks later to that other city at the heart of it all, Berlin. This Bloc party is rather spoilt by the fact that in between the Russia/Poland trip and the Berlin trip, I will spend a week in Harrogate, a town which is about as far from the Communist heartland as it is possible to be. Twee-blue-rinsed-conservative-small-town-England. But still, who knows what hidden secrets Harrogate conceals beneath its genteel Victorian skirts. A gulag in which those not toeing the mustn't-grumble-except-about-immigrants party line are dunked in vats of strong tea? We'll see.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Stupid quiz

A completely gratuitous and apropos-of-nothing-in-particular quiz for your Thursday pleasure.

Translate the following. What's the link?
  1. Öreg sonka
  2. Enterrer
  3. Casco
  4. Ficat piscină
  5. Schüren
  6. Lupi
  7. Novo castelo
  8. Mlýn zeď
  9. Okuma
  10. Zapad šunka
Note: I can not actually vouch for the perfection of many of these translations, but as far as I can tell they work.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Sign of the signs

A very important addition to the Romanian road side. Particularly for people who are not familiar with the fact that driving through any village you are likely to find extremely pissed up people staggering in front of your car, just collapsing on the road in front of you, or if they're on a bike, slaloming slowly up and down the street.

Story here. Though I wouldn't trust the Telegraph's translation of the sign. As far as I know it says (quite poetically) "Tormented Citizens"

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Beer news

Romanian beer is decidedly average. The best of the mass produced stuff is Ciuc, made here (and I don't say that because it's a local product, it's just the best there is - I think it's because we have the best water)

However, as I reported some years ago there did briefly appear the very wonderful Sapte Coline.Sadly this excellent beer was only available in its home town, Iasi, and was therefore a bit niche market. (It has, I'm told by my Iasi contacts, since died out).

However, I have just discovered a very nice replacement called MaDonna brewed in Galati. As far as I can tell the brewery doesn't have a website, but there is an article about it here (in Romanian). A real Belgian style beer brewed in Romania, and available throughout the country. Delicious. I am drinking some right now as I type this, and I can thoroughly recommend it. So there you go. Good beer in Romania.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Evangelism and its discontents

Am I the only person who really really cannot stand evangelism? I'm not just talking about religion here, though obviously there are certain religious groups and people who are particularly guilty of being insanely evangelical, and in fact it seems that the very concept comes out of Christianity. I have no problem with people believing whatever they want to believe, but when it starts to be something they want to force it down everyone else's throat, it pisses me right off. Aside from the obvious - war criminals, rapists, paedophiles etc etc, I would say that missionaries are quite possible my least favourite group of people (they might be nice enough as people, but they have chosen a life which is all about looking down on others, criticising and then trying to turn them into carbon copies of themselves. Really arrogant and repulsive stuff).

The other evangelism I've become aware of of late is tech evangelism. There is much talk these days of "digital immigrants" and "digital natives", but I think it's time to coin the term "digital missionaries" (and as may be apparent from the above, I don't use that word in a positive way). I touched upon it recently when I wrote about mad Mac-o-philes (though I realise that post implied that all Mac users were fundamentalist evangelicals, which is not true. Just some of them, though seemingly a large proportion)

Of late I've been moving in newish circles of people (I mean this in the online sense of that phrase), many of whom are passionate about the use of technology in education (education is, in case you didn't know, my professional field). Now for the most part this is great - people who are trying to improve the learning experience for students, trying to help them learn more effectively and making use of many of the tools that exist. But there are a few who seem to make it their mission to criticise, belittle, patronise and ridicule those who are not using aforementioned tools (even if those people are in places where they really can't). It drives me mad. And, it has the effect of making me want to NOT want to use the stuff they peddle, just as i-vangelism has the effect of making me NOT ever want to own anything made by Apple. [Yes, I do recognise that this is my problem not theirs].

Now possibly someone will pipe up and suggest that as I keep a blog, I am - in a sense- evangelising too, but I really don't feel that I am. I obviously have opinions (as does everyone else), and I'm happy to share those opinions and bore everyone to tears with them, but whether anyone is swayed in any way by my opinions is entirely up to them (and in fact I actually presume that no-one ever is). To give an example, I am vegetarian. I've just done a search of the entire blog and I have mentioned this fact twice. Just mentioned it. No "why you too should be a vegetarian" or anything like that. We (vegetarians) are always being accused by meat eaters of being evangelical - I've never seen this, but I think the perception exists. As it goes I think there are pressing reasons why a greater number of vegetarians would be a good thing, but I'm still not really interested in telling or even suggesting to people that they should follow me on this path. I figure people think about it, (because I assume the vast majority of people have brains, and thoughts, and can weigh up various options) and make their own decisions. Whatever I happen to think of that decision is irrelevant.

I have pondered the possibility that I am using "evangelism" to mean "going on about things I don't like" and "just sharing my opinions" for "going on about things I do", but I'm pretty sure that's not it. After all, I am in favour of using technology in the classroom in a well thought out way (and in contexts where it's possible), I just don't like it when people try and make it seem that people who don't are somehow inferior and, worse, professionally incompetent.

I have the strong suspicion now that people are going to use the comments section to highlight places where I have been evangelical - but at least if that happens I might be able to more clearly define what constitutes evangelism and what doesn't. Since I think I probably haven't yet, even though, to coin a phrase, I know it when I see it.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010


I occasionally forget that I live in a microclimate. It is well known (at least within Romania) that Csikszereda is the coldest place in the country (though locally, that title is hotly contested by Gyergyószentmiklós (Gheorgheni). [In fact the official coldest place in the country is Gyergyóalfalu - Joseni - which is near Gyergyó] When I watch the weather forecast on Romanian TV, if they don't mention the projected temperature here (and they rarely do, since it's not exactly a big place), I have to take the temperature they give for Brasov, and subtract a few degrees to have a rough idea. But I do tend to forget that we really have different weather here. A couple of weeks ago, we drove over to Székelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc), and I was stunned to realise once we climbed over the mountain pass at Tolvajos-tető (no idea what that's called in Romanian, I'm afraid, I'm not even sure it has a name), suddenly there was no snow. A few patches in sheltered north facing nooks, but basically nothing. And that's just 20 kms from here. We, then at least, still had tons of the stuff lying around everywhere. It's slowly going now as it's been warmer for a week, but there's still a fair amount. Elsewhere? Not a flake.

Csíkszereda, you see, lies in a depression in the mountains. We're 700m above sea level, which means, for example, that we're way higher up than the Tan Hill Inn, which bills itself as the highest pub in Britain at 1732 feet (which in real money is just under 530 metres). However it doesn't feel like that as we are surrounded by montains on all sides, most of which are getting on for 2000m high). Thus we get our own little microclimate. Sometimes in the winter all the mountains and even nearby towns are blanketed in snow, and we've got none. Or the other way round (like now). We have very cold winters*, and pleasant summers (while the winter here is pretty brutal, we are a haven for people from all over the country sweltering in deeply unpleasant summers). Famously, you can't grow tomatoes in Csíkszereda. (To be honest this is not exactly true, because (a) obviously you can in greenhouses; (b) you can grow them outside too, they just don't get ripe; and (c) increasingly these days as the climate gets warmer you seemingly can).

[* This has been a fairly tough winter, and temperatures dropped below -30 a few times, but I have lost count of the times so far this year that people have told me about 1985 when it got down to -41. I live in a world where people measure their worth by the ability to withstand cold]

Documentary recommendation

Just watched a nearly hour long astonishing documentary made by a Romanian guy for the BBC on Romanian Rroma kids in Europe being exploited as child criminals. Well worth watching if you've a little time to spare:

Part 1 is here and after that you can follow the links to the following parts.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

I'm trying to run a hotel here

This is typical. Absolutely typical... of the kind of... ARSE I have to put up with from you people! You ponce in here, expecting to be handwaited on hand and foot while I'm trying to run a hotel here! Have you any idea of how much there is to do? Do you ever think of that? Of course not! You're all too busy sticking your noses into every corner, poking around for things to complain about, aren't you? Well, let me tell you something - this is exactly how Nazi Germany started! A lot of layabouts with nothing better to do than to cause trouble! Well, I've had fifteen years of pandering to the likes of you, and I've had enough! I've had it! Come on, pack your bags and get out!
-Basil Fawlty
Last weekend, Mrs H decided to take me away on a romantic weekend as an early celebration of my birthday. We went to one of Romania's top spa hotels, which has 4 stars (how do these star rating work? Is it self-assessment, or something more complex? I'm never really sure).

Anyway, the whole weekend was very enjoyable, and romantic, and celebratory. Though sadly this was despite, rather than because of the hotel itself, which was, to be honest, utterly farcical rather like a 4 star, large chain, Fawlty Towers. Much of the weekend was spent laughing about the whole incompetence of the experience.

We were booked in on a special Valentine's Day weekend package (though we actually went a week after Valentine's Day, but the package was still available). This included a number of extras. Chocolate, champagne and a rose in the room, romantic aromatherapy bath for two, breakfast in bed, etc etc

Some "highlights" of this experience:
  1. The rose in our room was dead. And I don't mean it had been cut and put in a vase, I mean that it had been cut and put in a vase some days (possibly weeks) earlier.
  2. The breakfast in bed involved extremely cold coffee, the wrong food, and no cutlery. We called to ask if we might get a knife and fork, perhaps, and a little while later there was a knock at the door, and when I opened it, the apologetic waiter bustled past me and handed the cutlery to Mrs H - who was sitting, naked and uncovered, in bed. (He did have the presence of mind to apologise and say "I'm not looking")
  3. The special romantic aromatherapy bath took place in the "wellness centre". the room was absolutely brilliant and I wish I had got a picture. It was in a curtained off area of the treatment area. I think I've mentioned before that "spas" here are not into all that relaxation stuff that tends to be part of the "spa experience" in the US and increasingly other places, rather they are the sort of health concentration camps beloved of Victorian Britain. So this romantic bath took place in what was basically a hospital room, with a large plastic tub in the middle. To make it a bit more conducive for its Valentine inspired purpose, some strings of cheap red heart shaped balloons with "I Love You" written on then had been hung from the ceiling. And there was CD player with soothing music. That's it. It was still not exactly the most romantic place I've ever been, and in fact would not really make the top thousand. It would, however, probably make it in the top ten of most comical places I've been, and the top 50 of least romantic places I've ever been.
These problems were all, as you can see, actually pretty amusing in their own way, and as we're not exactly the world's sappiest couple, they didn't really dampen our weekend, as much as provide us with a selection of amusing stories to tell on our return to the real world.

One or two other things were a little bit more annoying, however. The hotel website clearly advertised that there was a swimming pool, something which we were both quite looking forward to. We looked everywhere for this mysterious swimming pool, but it was not to be found anywhere. When questioned, the staff looked a bit sheepish and confessed that actually there wasn't a swimming pool at all. In addition, it was all but impossible to get a drink of water in the whole spa area. This seemed a bit off to me since there were saunas, steamrooms, a hot salty bath, massages etc going on, and you'd think that water to drink was a fairly essential commodity. But no. Even the taps in the sinks in the changing rooms were turned off. The only real option was hanging around the "snack bar" for 15 minutes while someone was found to serve us, and buy a bottle of mineral water at (wait for it) a 2000% mark-up (from the retail price I pay for the same water in the shops).

It was, in short, the Eastern European customer care experience writ large. The hotel was nicely renovated, well decorated etc. but the details were, shall we say, not really taken care of. At all. The attitude often seems to be "We've done the place up, and it looks really good. Isn't that enough?"

So anyway, I complained, and received a couple of emails telling me how sorry they were (and they've now removed the phantom swimming pool from the website), but not really satisfied my complaints (in fact, each new email that arrives makes me more pissed off for what it doesn't say and the apparent lack of understanding why I might be a tad peeved about this).

[Since I often seem to be read as having some kind of nationalist agenda vis-a-vis Hungarian/Romanian issues, I'll point out here that while the hotel is in Romania, it's in a very Hungarian town, and is actually part of a large Hungarian chain of hotels. I wondered whether I ought to keep the actual name of the hotel out of this, but in the end, have decided that there is really no reason why I need to protect them from anything, since I am increasingly regarding them as a bunch of dishonest chancers who really couldn't care less, so I feel my message of (extremely) limited reach can go ahead and warn people away from the Danubius Hotel Sovata/Szovata. Based on this experience, I'd go as far as to warn people off any of the hotels in the Danubius chain]

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Is there a Monoathlon?

To my surprise I have found myself getting into the Winter Olympics of late. Partly because this is because we have a genuine bona fide local hero(ine) to watch competing. This is Eva Tofalvi who is a biathlete and, despite the Romanian biathlon team having barely a ski to rub together, has done superbly well. She's finished 14th, 19th, 11th, and 24th in the individual events she's been in, and 10th in the relay, which is a great set of results.

Biathlon, by the way, is a great sport. I've really enjoyed watching it. It's a race where every now and again they have to stop and shoot targets and then do extra bits of racing every time they miss one. It's a fantastic spectacle, and I reckon all races should have this extra bits tacked on. Formula One, for example, would be improved immensely if the drivers had to parallel park 5 times every 15 laps, and if they made any mistakes they'd have too do an extra lap, while horse racing could have a stop every mile during which jockeys would have to find some oats and feed the horse. No idea why these sports don't learn from the biathlon's greatness. I've even got into cross-country skiing (though it lacks the crucial penalty bit of the biathlon).

What baffles me is the fact that it seems like the sports which are most popular to watch in the Winter Games are the ones which are most tedious. Ski-jumping, for example, is incredibly tiresome. I also find the whole bobsleigh/luge thing to be as fun as watching paint dry (they used to have a little frisson around the possibility of crashing, but now that someone's gone and very publicly died doing that, this pleasure has gone out of the window). The less said about figure skating the better.

I haven't managed to point you in the direction of the biathlon in time, I'm afraid as I think they've now finished all the races, but watch out for it on Eurosport or similar in the future.