Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Notes from the new front line

The flag debate drags on and on and ...

Political capital is made by both sides in perpetuating it. Easy to whip Romanians into a fury over this treacherous irredentist piece of cloth, and easy to whip Hungarians up into a fury over attempts to ban it.  It is, obviously, a complete non issue, especially at a time when people have far bigger problems to worry about.  But, hey, it's an easy distraction for politicians and media to indulge in.  In both countries.

Yesterday I saw a job advert from the US Embassy in Vienna asking for a Hungarian/Romanian media analyst.  A full time position to monitor the media in both countries and report. If the CIA* are now taking an interest in this, it must mean they are at least slightly worried.

(*It wasn't technically a CIA job, but this hardly seems like a consular need)

This is how it starts though.  Times of great economic stress lead people to seek an easy outlet for their worries/fears/concerns/anger.  In some countries it's immigrants.  Here it's Hungarians (and in Hungary it's dragging up Trianon again).  It will probably blow over, but it's as depressing as fuck though.  Depressing that the electorate in both countries can't just say to their political leaders "No, for fuck's sake, they're not the problem.  You are."

See? Incontrovertible proof
On Tuesday there was a Szekely flag raising ceremony in the main square here.  We've never had one there before, but there are more Szekely flags flying now than there ever were before, and whoever is making them, is doing a tidy business.  Oddly they scheduled the ceremony for exactly the same time as the start of the biggest and most important ice hockey match of the season. And as you will from this scientifically accurate venn diagram I've just made up there's a pretty big crossover between people who would like to attend a ceremony raising the flag and local ice hockey fans. Anyway, the mayor (who I may have mentioned before is something of a  dick) made some speech saying that Hungarian ought to be mandatory in this town.  Which I guess means I need to leave.  This blog will probably have to be closed.  Nonsensical bluster of course, but he managed to get the Romanian press up in arms, so I guess he feels it was worth it.

Anyway, HSC Csikszereda (the ice hockey team) won, you'll be glad to know, and are now in the playoffs and about to face Nove Zamky of Slovakia, with either DAB or Miskolc (both from Hungary) awaiting the winner. It's been an excellent and highly competitive season for the MOL league, and I've thoroughly enjoyed it.  The final of the Romanian championship will follow, and given all this flag and attendant other nonsense, I fear that is likely to be less fun as it will imbued with lots of heavy meaningfulness and the whole sporting contest element will be somewhat lost.

Finally, here is a video aimed at helping Romanians speak Szekely.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Emigration (brief reprise)

There's a weird new thing connected to emigration.    Let's call it voluntary superficial auto-Magyarisation.  It works like this:

Under the new Hungarian constitution, people who can prove Hungarian ancestry can obtain citizenship and a passport.  I suspect I've mentioned this before. In the 2011 census, there were 1,237,746 people who identified themselves as Hungarian in Romania, and the law is basically aimed at them, should they want to claim "their" Hungarianness. Now there are some people who were very enthusiastic about this, and went ahead and did it pretty fast.  There were others who were entirely unenthusiastic about it, and think the whole thing is ridiculous (most people I know fall here, to be honest).  And of course there were those (lets face it, almost certainly the majority) who sort of couldn't really be bothered to form an opinion and certainly couldn't be bothered to go through the process of doing it.  I'd honestly be surprised if as many as 10% of Romanian Hungarians were in the first category there.

But, aside from some form of desire to have a document validating your own imagined national identity, there is, it turns out another reason to get a Hungarian passport.  And that is that it is a great aid in emigration.  Firstly it circumvents certain country's restrictions - the UK for example, allows Hungarians to come and look for work, but does not allow Romanians the same rights.  The UK is not alone in this.  Secondly, and increasingly importantly, as borders are opening to Romanians at the same time as anti-Romanian sentiment is building, it confers a certain neutral identity.  Meaning that it's easier to get by in a Western European country if you have a Hungarian passport than a Romanian one. Romanian looking for a job/place to stay/etc? Tough.  There may not actually be signs saying "No Romanians" but they are there inside the Daily Mail addled brain of some.

So, pretty much everyone from these parts who wants to go abroad (or has to - see previous post) will first go through the motions of getting their Hungarian passport. It's relatively easy to do and it makes life easier once they leave. It's not right, but it's a fact.

But now the odd bit. There are increasing numbers of Romanians who are doing the same thing.  By Romanians in this context I mean people who would identify themselves as Romanian, who have Romanian names, and who speak Romanian as a first language.  They would not have featured in that 1,237,746 mentioned before.  But they come from Transylvania, and pretty much everyone from Transylvania has both Hungarian and Romanian ancestry. So, they look back through their family tree, find a Hungarian ancestor, go to the consulate (which is here in Csikszereda, hence how I find all this out), and Bob's your uncle.  Or Laszlo's your uncle.  This trend seems to be on the rise, as news reaches us here of all the Daily Mail headlines and horror stories about how Romanians are treated filter through.  So there we are: voluntary superficial auto-Magyarisation. I sort of quite like it.  It somehow serves to subvert both (a) the racist attitudes of some in the West; and (b) the motives of FIDESZ in Hungary in making this constitutional change in the first place.  I mean I wish people didn't need to do this, but as a way around the fact that the world is ultimately a bit of a shit place filled with some shit people, it works in quite an amusing way.  

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Who are the Székely? (2)

Some time ago (by which it seems I mean 7 years.  7 bloody years!) I wrote a post entitled "Who are the Szekely?", which was an attempt to fill in a bit of the back story of the Székely people who inhabit this area.

Anyway, I'm not about to update that one, but I thought that now, having lived here for a while now, I could add a little, which is to say to give you a bit more on the less historical, more opinionated front. It's also going to be packed full of generalisations, so hopefully you, the reader, can take this with something of a pinch of salt as a matter of course rather than me having to suggest you do so at every paragraph break

Here are three reasons why you may have heard of the Székely:

  1. In Dracula, the eponymous anti-hero is a Székely. Albeit a dead one. An undead one, I guess.
  2. New king of comedy in the English speaking world, Mexican American stand-up Louis CK, is actually named Louis Székely   He chose to go by CK as an approximation to the pronunciation of Székely. It's a pretty loose approximation. But closer than Zek-kelly or whatever i imagine he got called a lot.
  3. They have a flag and it's suddenly got everybody upset and zzzzzzzzzzzzzz
4 Yorkshiremen Szekely bacsi
That's about it.  But actually they are an interesting bunch. They're kind of hardcore Hungarians who see themselves as somehow more than just Hungarian, and better than just Hungarian and purer and more down to earth than just Hungarians.  And on some level other Hungarians see them in this way as well.  They are, in short, the Yorkshiremen of the Hungarian speaking world.  (I realise not everyone will get that analogy, but trust me it's spot on). Go through the following list and tell me its not a great analogy. 


Food and drink: They enjoy their food. And their drink. And food in this case is pig. There are other foods, but essentially if it's not pig it's not really food.  Pig and potatoes. The attitude towards food can be summed in the common name for Hungarians from Hungary - Tápos Magyarok. Google translate doesn't work on this - I've just checked.  Essentially it means "Hungarians who eat processed food" (or even more specifically, "Hungarians who eat those pellets you feed to chickens")

The drink that goes with this food is mostly palinka.  Double distilled, "tiszta" (clean) hard spirits. Harghita county in particular is awash with mineral water, but it's sort of a side issue.  People do drink beer a fair amount too, but again, beer is not really a drink.  One popular Székely saying goes:
"Egy sör nem sör, két sör fél sör, három sör egy sör"
or, translated: A beer is not a beer, two beers is half a beer, three beers is a beer. Which obviously makes no sense, but basically, as I'm sure you've gathered, it basically means drinking one beer is a waste of everyone's time.  You need to drink at least three.

Another popular saying which goes even further is the following:
A sör nem ital, az asszony nem ember, a medve nem játék
Which translates as "Beer is not a drink, a woman is not a man, and a bear is not a toy".  The second bit could also be translated as "a woman is not a person".  Whichever it is it brings us on nicely to our next sub heading:

A bicska, yesterday
Sexism:  The Székely culture is, let's say, a pretty macho one.  Like all macho cultures women basically run everything, just by doing all the actual work while their menfolk talk about how hard as nails they are. Basically speaking though it's a fairly old-school sexism, whereby the man of the house is the man of the house, and the whole system is very patrilineal and patriarchal.  Rather than an aggressive woman-hating sexism. All real Székely men carry the famous "bicska" a pocket knife, which is used for absolutely everything.

Also, on the plus side,  as the previous saying will point out it's quite a place for...

Self-deprecation: The whole "a bear is not a toy" line is quite knowing in its own way.  "We're real men.  But you know, don't try and take on a bear".  Hungarians in general tell jokes about the Székely as the people with the different logic (in the way that Brits joke about the Irish, the French about the Belgians, etc etc).  But no-one tells more Székely jokes than the Székely themselves.  About 50% of all jokes told here (and trust me there a lot of jokes told here) begin with the words "Székely bacsi..." ("The old Székely man...").  They are proud of this alternative view of the world.

Strong accent: They have a really thick accent, especially in villages. The other day I saw an item on Romanian TV about which places in the country were cheapest for certain things.  Harghita County was named as the place where (surprisingly) potatoes and pig meat of all kinds was the cheapest.  They interviewed some bloke in the market here as part of the show, and he spoke Romanian in one of the thickest Székely accents I've heard.  It was superb. (I hear Hungarian spoken in a Székely accent all the time, but hearing Romanian in the same accent was brilliant. )

Careful with money: There is a certain amount of caution when it comes to matters financial round these parts. Lidl is seen a luxury outlet here and people don;t shop in it because it's too expensive. While there is a strong sense of self-hood, of "national" identity, to the point where people (especially now this whole flag farrago has blown up) are talking the talk about buying locally and supporting Székely businesses and producers and not buying stuff from beyond - but when it comes down to it, they will end up getting whatever's cheaper.  (Though that doesn't mean just the cheapest, they are sticklers for good value, so it is more like some kind of mental calculation of an equation which takes in longest lasting as well as price. A calculation which seemingly comes naturally.)

Conservative: New stuff is treated with suspicion. Occasionally I will find to my excitement that there is something new in the shops, something exotic like basil, for example, or tofu. I know that it will be there for a short time only before the shop stop bothering to sell it as nobody buys it. If it's not from here and part of the deep rooted culture it is regarded with deep suspicion, and eventually, if sampled it may -in certain cases- be pronounced "good, but not as good as (something from here)". Politically they're dead conservative too. All the various Hungarian parties that come and go have as a common feature an inherent conservatism (with variation coming in the level of Hungarian nationalism)

"Pure Hungarians": They tend to see themselves as both slightly separate from Hungarians and also as a sort of pure Hungarian, somehow carrying the ancient traditions of the Magyar tribes and retaining them. Some can still write and read in runic script, others will tell you that they represent the heart of Hungarianness (that Tápos Magyarok thing is not just about food, it has a deeper symbolic meaning). To some degree, this view is shared by Hungarians who sort of revere the Székely (while at the same time looking down on them as peasants).  It's a curious thing.

The only big differences I can see between the Székely and Yorkshirefolk is that while Yorkshire is in England and is therefore central or peripheral (depending on whether you come from Yorkshire or not) to the whole concept of England, Székelyföld is not in Hungary, and is therefore not quite as integral to Hungary. Also, because the Székely have this strong sense of nationhood, which is possibly even greater than the sense of Yorkshirehood, they not only have the flag (which, contrary to current Romanian news reports, they have had for donkey's years) but they also have a national anthem.  Yorkshire does not (unless you count On Ilkley Moor Bar T'at). God knows what's going to happen when the Bucharest media get hold of the fact that there is this anthem, but I guess we'll see.

Now, just one more time, before you reach angrily for the comment button, I know this is a horrendous set of generalisations.  Obviously not all ... blah blah etc etc and so on and so forth.  If you are a Székely, I'm not being critical.  If you are from Yorkshire, the same. My own parents are from Yorkshire (though my dad also has some suspicious Derbyshire connections that we don't like to talk about), and my own children are from Székelyföld. I like you and your ornery, curmudgeonly, tight-fisted, conservative, self-important, self-deprecating, "real salt of the earth" ways.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Imaginary horses

A bit of road where horses are actually banned
Yesterday I read a number of articles in the British press stating, without doubt, that a new law in Romania had been introduced banning horse (and donkey) carts from main roads. This, apparently, is the reason that everyone's rushing to get their horse slaughtered and subsequently sold on to British supermarkets as burgers.  Then I drove home, along a main road, passing two horse carts as I did, before arriving home turning on the BBC news and discovering that I must have been hallucinating since there are no longer horses and carts on Romanian roads.

I have no idea who is feeding this story to the British media but it's about as dependable as a Tesco value burger. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Flogging a dead horse

Spot the difference
Britain is in crisis mode with shock and disgust being expounded in equal measure, over the fact that a large amount of cheap meat products (burgers, frozen lasagnes, etc) have been found to contain horsemeat. Now the trail of this meat is being followed and it is (as far as I can tell from this weekend's revelations) being laid  at the door of Polish and or Italian organised crime syndicates, or Romanian abattoirs who've been mixing meats together. Either way, it's obviously about foreigners or foreign meat.

Now the two main angles that this story seems to have taken so far are (a) the horsemeat thing; and (b) the foreign meat/crime thing.  I would argue that there is actually an interesting and even shocking story waiting to be told, but it remains to be seen whether we actually get told it.

But first, let's look at the stories that are being told.  The first one, the disgust at eating horsemeat is a bit odd to me.  Now I don't eat meat, so I'm a little biased here, perhaps, but I've never really understood why it is that some animals are food and some animals are not. If you're going to eat mammals, what's the big difference between horse, cow, pig, dog, lamb, cat or aardvark? I don't get it. Obviously a lot of people do eat horse, and I'm sure it tastes fine if you like that sort of thing.  Why it's somehow disgusting and inedible to people who were happy imagining that their burgers were made purely out of cow, is sort of beyond me.

The crime angle is a bit more interesting, I suppose. The idea that the mafia are able to make so much money out of substituting horse carcass for cow at some point along the supply chain is quite intriguing. But you know organised crime gangs are responsible for a lot of stuff, most of which is significantly worse than this (and I imagine significantly more lucrative than this)

But what should be of interest to people (and I'm guessing it won't ever really be the main story, because there are too many vested interests) is the fact that meat has this complex a supply chain in the first place. Broadly speaking if you buy cheap meat, whether it's in burgers, sausages, frozen ready meals, or whatever other form, then you're buying something that comes from an unknown source.  It might be loads of bits of meat from various different places - from a Polish abattoir, mixed with something from Romania, for example and which is mixed up and sold on through various different middlemen before it ends up in Tesco or McDonalds or wherever.  I'm also using the word "meat" loosely here.  It's not the kind of meat you'd be eating if you could see what it was anyway.  Those cuts of meat are sold as they are, because people will buy them.  Your burgers and so on are made from the bits of meat they can't otherwise sell. The bits of carcass and skin and offal and hair and feet and arseholes and everything else that is otherwise unsellable.  All of that ground up (or "mechanically reclaimed") and then formed into your big mac or whatever else it is.  If you're eating that stuff, that is indeed what you are eating.  Complaining that it comes from a horse is missing the real point spectacularly. You should be complaining about which bits of the horse are in it. 

As a vegetarian I tend to be painted as some kind of hair-shirted evangelical nutjob.  I don't think I am one of them at all. I do get that people enjoy eating meat. But if you are going to, really, I think you need to pay a little more attention where it comes from and how it's been processed

(Supply chain udpate: "It came from abattoirs in Romania through a dealer in Cyprus working through another dealer in Holland to a meat plant in the south of France which sold it to a French-owned factory in Luxembourg which made it into frozen meals sold in supermarkets in 16 countries." That comes from this article which also makes the shocking claim that horse carts have been banned from the roads in Romania. Despite all evidence to the contrary on the actual roads themselves)

Friday, February 08, 2013

Nothing to see

Romania this week has been rocked by scandalous and shocking internet & media based inter-ethnic conflict.  Or so we are told.

Regional flag in Neamt. Somehow not so scandalous
What actually has happened is that because the country is in a total mess, the government have decided that they need a distraction to take people's attention away from the fact that they have no money and no food, and have thus manufactured these scandals to this end. Firstly Antena 3, a TV news channel which is actually a simple mouthpiece of the ruling PSD party, was shocked and traumatised to discover that if they visited the website of the Covasna County Council, and clicked on the button marked "Hu" (and didn't then click back on the one marked "Ro") that they could pretend that the site was only available in Hungarian.  Then later, someone somewhere complained about a regional flag that was being flown over some city hall or other.  No matter that every city hall or public building in the country tends to fly 2 or 3 flags - the Romanian one, occasionally the EU one, and more often than not the one representing the county or city. When this happens in Neamt or Golj or somewhere, nobody obviously cares, but when it's in a predominantly Hungarian area its a clear and terrible indication of irredentism (this is the favoured word of Romanian nationalists who think because they have committed a 5 syllable word to memory they have gained some kind of intellectual gravitas).  Then, apparently the Hungarian ambassador made some private comment regarding autonomy, which he frankly should have kept to himself, but there we go.

Unfortunately the Hungarians tend to respond to all this dog whistling and also are up in arms and happy to keep the story going.  I presume the PSD/USL were banking on this when they started all this shit up.  Anyway, there is genuinely no story and all these angry people on both sides need to just realise why it is that these stories are in the press at all.  That is to (successfully it seems) distract people from actual real important issues.

Meanwhile, a long article has appeared in the New York Times about Sport Club, the hockey team here, and how it represents some kind of "Mes Que Un Club" FC Barcelona style hold out against Romanian cultural imperialism or some such shit.  Massively overegged, and I assume will serve to offer even more ammunition for Ponta and co in their efforts to take the country's attention away from anything that actually matters.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Hard ideas in simple language

Explaining complex ideas in the thousand most common words in English. It's not easy. But here you can try

Here's my effort:

Some people live here. They have been living here for many many years, but they speak a different tongue from the other people who live here. This causes many problems, though it is not really clear what the problem is. Somehow the people from the big group which has the power find it very bad that the other group speak their own way. In the past, the smaller group of today were the bigger group and they had the power and they also got angry with the people who speak the other tongue. Maybe in the days to come people might even be nice to each other. 

But I doubt it.