Tuesday, August 24, 2004

More Language

I have recently learned that Cseszni (pronounced "Chesney") is one of a number of Hungarian words that could be translated as "fuck". Those English readers who remember wonderful one hit wonder Cseszni Hawkes with his hit "I am the One and Only" will realise how apposite this is.

A Romanian word for the same verb sounds a lot like that appendage that you have at the end of your legs. This explains why the national sport is Fotbal (sp?) rather than something more akin to futbol. God only knows what they´d make of the Hogmanay tradition of "First Footing".

The Catalan word for Octopus (at least on menus) is Pop. This amuses me as I have a very small mind.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Is it busking?

The first time I encountered those people who, ahem, earn money through the practice of standing very still while standing on a box wearing a costume was in Barcelona. I remember being quite stunned to see this guy in a toga raising quite large sums of cash by the simple process of merely standing there. I wouldn´t say I was impressed as such, but I was intrigued by the inventiveness and creativity of his approach. Here was a way of busking that didn´t involve any talent whatsoever. (Hands up all of you who made a mental comment regarding the lack of talent of buskers who play instruments/juggle/dance etc.)

But that was ten years ago, and since that first sighting the practice of dressing up and not moving has spread around the world. While the late 80s and early 90s were characterised by bands of faux-Peruvians playing pan pipes in town squares the length and breadth of the world, the 21st century equivalent is the performance art statue. And once again Barcelona is leading the world. These days the entire length of the Rambla is taken up with elaborately dressed individuals standing shoulder to shoulder competing for smaller and smaller offerings as people become more and more cynical about the practice. A critical mass has been reached and surely the practice must implode or start receiving EU subsidies to survive.

These days, of course, wearing a bed sheet and a crown of olive leaves and standing on a milk crate just does not cut the mustard. With such ferocious competition, today´s hopeful has to look ever more inhuman. These days there are gargoyles rubbing shoulders with Lenins. Cartoon characters and angels. they are covered in some kind of all over body paint and are, it has to be said, pretty amazing creations. It looks horrifically unhealthy, and ridiculously hot. I am sure most of their money is made through sympathy. "Look at that poor bastard wearing a full on suit of armour and covered in gold body paint in this 35° heat. That´s got to be killing him. Maybe he can buy himself a cold drink at the end of the day". In this way, this modern day phenomenon has moved from busking to a kind of middle class begging. Make yourself as uncomfortable as possible in the hopes of attracting sympathy cash. How long before we get method actors on the streets of popular tourist destinations, slowly starving themselves for their art?

Wednesday, August 18, 2004


Just a quick post to let people know I am alive, working hard, and enjoying my brief sojourn in Barcelona. It´s more expensive than it used to be here (but perhaps that´s because I´m coming from Romania, where stuff costs nothing), everything now is written in Catalan (much more than I remember), so I have yet another language rattling around my brain. As with Romanian it´s the words that are significantly diferent from the other romance languages I know that stick in my mind. Thus in Romanian the word for ´without` (fara) is memorable to me precisely because it is so unlike sem, sin, sans, senza etc. In Catalan it´s the word for ´with` (amb) that sticks. I haven´t yet been brave enough to go up to someone in a bar and ask "Tens foc?", but I dream of that day.

The haircut of choice for young Catalan men seems to be a very short cut with this ridiculous little long bit at the back. I have christened it the "mulletito" but it might have a different name.

It´s also ludicrously hot and humid. But we´re having fun.

Hasta Luego

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Catalan Hiatus

I am off to Barcelona in a couple of hours to spend two weeks + working, hanging out with Erika on the shores of the Meditteranean, visiting friends, eating tapas, and drinking cava and carajillos. This blog will probably remain un-updated for the duration. I know how sad that must make you all.

My media

Television here is an interesting experience. We have about 4 Hungarian language channels (including “Minimax” the Hungarian cartoon channel, which if Bogi had her way would be on al day long – and as I write is one right now, showing Dr Bubo, a cartoon about an owl who is a Dr.). The majority of the rest are Romanian – including one which shows subtitled soap operas all day long – American in the day, Brazilian in the evening. There are the standard international cable offerings like MTV and Eurosport – both in Romanian, but understandable to the likes of me because of the limited nature of their content. We have two English language channels. Euronews and Animal Planet. The latter is seemingly 24 hour a day programming about Australians capturing snakes and crocodiles. I am not sure quite why anyone would want to watch more than one of these programmes, but presumably they do. The former, Euronews, is a strange one. I am not sure if you’ve ever seen it, but it seems to be a round the clock ad for the European Union with some news thrown in. Each half an hour begins with 10-15 minutes of news, followed by 5 minutes of sport, 10 minutes of something called “le mag” in whi9ch arts and culture are covered, and finishing up with a two minute slot called “no comment” in which pictures from one of the days news stories are shown without any form of commentary, and the weather, in which the entirety of Europe is covered in about 2minutes. And then it all repeats again. It’s bloody awful. I’d actually rather have CNN, and that’s saying something. The best bit is the no comment section when you don’t need to listen to the inane simplified “newsround” style “Japan is a country in East Asia and Oil is black stuff that comes out of the ground and is very important for modern life” interventions of the newsreaders. It’s also depressingly pro-Israel (or at least anit-Palestinian) for some reason. No idea who owns it.

Romanian TV looks very much like the standard southern European fare. Copious amounts of football (after the US, this a great feature), and lots of variety shows in which scantily clad women dance around suggestively and to no apparent purpose as redoubtable post-communist women sing songs from the old country. There are lots of cheap C-movies bought from the US and shown mostly with subtitles but occasionally with dubbing. One channel seems to take such crap US films, dub them into Hungarian and then subtitle them in Romanian. I can’t watch it for fear of upsetting the fragile balance between languages barely holding on inside my addled brain.

So for English language stimulation I have the choices of “the news for simpletons”, “Bruce the snake hunter”, sub Blue-Lagoon 2 movies, and MTV. There is a certain amount of stimulation in watching Kelis sing “trick me once, won’t let you trick me twice”, but it’s not exactly an intellectual stimulation.

In Bucharest airport I have come across an English language newspaper called “The Bucharest Daily News”. It’s fascinating. Fascinatingly bad. It makes Euronews look like it is presented by Umberto Eco. It’s not clear who it is aimed at to be honest. Any native English speaker would have their brains instantly turned into polenta (Romania’s national food – appetisingly translated on one menu I saw as “corn mush”). While any Romanian who wanted to learn about life in his or her own country would only subject himself to this lightweight pap as a method of practising their English. So I have to assume that it’s for the non-English speaking expat community of Bucharest – those who don’t speak Romanian, but who speak some English. But they do cover an inordinate amount of news and sport from the UK (though the focus is primarily Romania), so I can only conclude that either the British expat community of Bucharest is either exceptionally stupid or willing to be patronised beyond any normal level.

Another paper I have seen at the airport is “Gardianul” which appears to be an exact copy of the “The Guradian” in the UK – down to the fonts, the style, the banners, the fowm, everything. It is either a Romanian language version of the original Guardian or such a blatant and extreme rip-off as to be comical.

I am anxious to get a reasonable and failry constant internet connection so that I can actually follow world events

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Random moments

Erika got a tax bill today. It was sent by recorded mail by the tax office a couple of days ago, but it was issued by that office two months ago. Because she is late in paying the bill (i.e. it is two months since it was issued) she has to pay a fine too. This might seem unfair to most of us. Well, it is unfair, after all. She just shrugged and said, “This is Romania – there’s nothing I can do”

I have discovered that the Hungarian word for cheese is sajt. There may be nothing interesting in that you might think, but in fact this word is pronounced like “shite”. Well, at least shite uttered in a light Belfast accent. Those of you who know me and of my huge aversion to cheese (or satan’s jism, as I prefer), will understand how enjoyable I feel this fact to be. Want some shite with that? Fancy a shite sandwich? Shall we go to McDonalds for a shiteburger? The humorous anti-cheese possibilities are endless.

One or two people have asked how you leave comments on this blog. (Honestly) Well, you click on the bit where it says “0 Comments” at the bottom of the post in question, and then you’ll have the option of adding one of your own. I realise I’m setting myself up here for a severe ego-trashing. Right now I can imagine that the lack of comments is down to the inability of people to contribute. Now I’ll have to assume it’s down to disinterest.

I am within days of posting photos – sorry it’s taken so long, but I’m a little slow, and using the computer for a length of time beyond about 7 minutes is regarded as unnecessarily long and boring by Bogi, and I am often forced from the seat in favour of devoting my attention to her rather than this boring screen.

Update from an earleir post: One of the villages we passed through on our abortive trip down the Csango valley was partially buried in a landslide later that day. As of yesterday, Comanesti was still closed due to the floods.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Driving in Romania

When you are driving in Romania you have three major things to contend with. The first already mentioned in these musings is the state of the roads, with pot holes everywhere. The second is the presence of rural life. By that I mean that the roads are occupied by a large number of horse drawn vehicles, slowly travelling between villages carting loads of hay or wood or on one memorable occasion a policeman sitting in an armchair. Another aspect of rural life is the herds of cows and sheep and goats and stoats wandering across or down the roads. I haven’t actually seen any herds of stoats, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.

The greatest hazard of all, though, is none of these, but is in fact drivers from Bucharest. Let me explain, lest you think I am being prejudiced against my new nation’s capital. There you’ll be, barrelling on at 90kmh along a country road, on the lookout for potholes or random livestock, when out of nowhere a large car will appear in your rear view mirror and before you know it zoom past you at least twice your speed. Or you’ll be in a line of traffic, crawling along behind a horse drawn haywain (is that what a haywain is?) when a car will start passing everything in the line regardless of how far ahead can be seen, beeping its horn to let you know to make room as he inevitably has to duck in to the line every couple of seconds. Or you’ll be driving along and ahead you’ll see a car on your side of the road but coming the other way, passing a lorry, or a reasonably paced car, or just in some cases for no reason at all. You’ll flash your lights, beep your horn, and he will be the one that gets upset at this. The one thing that all these cars will have in common, is the “B” at the beginning of their number plate indicating that the car is registerd in Bucharest. I feel that the roads would be much safer here if that discreet license plate “B” could in fact be a large neon sign placed on the top of every such car, just so you know that a lunatic driver is coming.

The Bucharest driving syndrome is not a rule that holds true 100% of the time, I have to point out.. Not all bad drivers are from Bucharest (a significant proportion seem to come from “AG” – Arges, apparently, though I have no idea where Arges is). And not all drivers from Bucharest are bad – but the number is so high that when you see a Bucharest driver travelling at a reasonable pace and overtaking others in sensible places, you feel like pulling them over and congratulating them for their concern for the safety of themselves and other road users. Except that then you’d almost certainly discover that it was a rented car, and that the driver was from somewhere else entirely. I know it sounds like this might be an exaggeration; but really, good drivers from Bucharest are like rare jewels. And this is entirely my own theory borne out of my own experiences and observations, not some Transylvanian prejudice passed down like folklore.

God knows what traffic is actually like in Bucharest where nearly all the drivers will have that warning “B” attached. The concept frightens the hell out of me.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Adventures in Language

Language learning (#1 in a series of many)

Language is coming slowly. I’ve never tried to learn two simultaneously before, and it’s proving a challenge. But fortunately they are sufficiently different (ie completely and utterly unrelated), that they are at least not interfering with each other. The biggest problem created by the two together so far has been pronunciation – an ‘s’ in Hungarian for example is pronounced ‘sh’, whereas in Romanian (assuming no accents) it is pronounced ‘s’. So I’ve found myself lisping Romanian, when I should really have been sybillating. Or something.

The other difference with my previous language learning experinece has been the context. As a good Englishman I have previously started by learning the basics of my natural over-politeness – please, thank you, sorry, excuse me, etc. The rest can follow from those important beginnings. In Hungarian, in which language I am at least partly (in truth not very) responsible for a 5 year old child, my language foundation has taken on a different focus. So already I know the Hungarian words for “stop it!”, “be careful!”, “now!”, “enough”, and, of course, “no!” . Passively I have learned things like “Do it again”, “Your turn”, “Put me on your shoulders” and “put me down”. I do know thank you and recently learned sorry, but am still in the dark as regards please and excuse me. The other half of my context means that I also know the words for I love you, sweet, beautiful, wonderful, etc etc. So basically I am learning Hungarian for romance and child rearing. It’s a specialised field of foreign language learning, and one in which I maybe will write a book one day. Or not, as is much more likely. Bogi’s English is progressing in much the same way, with a series of commands such as “Come here”, “Wake up” and “Stand up, please”. She also liberally scatters her commands to me with Romanian, assuming that since I speak some strange foreign language that I will probably understand any such languages. Just now as I was typing this, for example, she wanted me to come and do something with her and said “Andy, hi. Hi!” (I’m not sure of the spelling of “Hi” but it is apparently Romanian for “Come on!”)

My Romanian, so far, remains at the level of menu reading and basic greetings. For example, I know fairly randomly, and unexpectedly for a vegetarian, that “frogs legs” are “pui de balta” in Romanian. Which I am pretty certain translates as “chicken of the water”. I did see a menu item today that was translated into English as “greaves”. As I have no idea what “greaves” are, save that they are quite possibly an item of animal haunch popular at the table of Henry VIIIth, and are probably now referred to more prosaically as drumsticks or shin or something, I was not able to memorise the Romanian original.

My favourite words so far in both languages –
Hungarian: Krumpli (potatoes)
Romanian: Crap (carp) – this leads to such interesting menu items as “fried crap” and most intriguingly “fillet of crap”

More fascinating facts from my language learning experiences as and when I come by them. I bet you can’t wait. (Wait is another word I know passively in Hungarian)

The Csango Valley

The Csango valley lies between Csikszereda and Moldavia in the Carpathians. A 20 km drive east of here leads you over a pass and into this mysterious place. It is mysterious because it is fairly isolated and because the people are somehow different from those around them. They speak a kind of combination Hungarian and Romanian with a whole bunch of their own words thrown in. They have different traditional costumes and dances from the Szekely and the Moldavians who they lie between. Hungarians say they are Hungarians who have been Roamnised by Romanian domination, while Romanians say they are Romanians Magyarised by Hungarian domination. They themselves will just say “we are Csango”. Thez have names like “Peter son of Peter son of the Peter with the one ear son of the tall Peter”.

When we set off for the beach we took a route that led us through this fascinating valley. As we climbed out of Ciskszereda,the skies were darkening and as we descnded into the valley it had begun to rain. And what rain. It poured down. Rain like that I don't remember ever seeing outside the tropics. As we got further down into the valley, passing through towns that had once, 1000 years ago formed the border between Hungary and Romania (or what passed for those countries anyway), passing old and quite beautiful barracks and military offices, the rain kept falling. We were headed for Comanesti, the Moldavian town where the valley ends, so that we could turn south and go towards the coast, where hopefully this insane rain was not an issue. In one village a group of Csango had gathered to watch a river rise with the torrents of water flowing down the stream that had become a major river. In a valley like this one, with steep sides and many stream and tributaries flowing into the valley floor, rain of this intensity was a particular problem. They stood there in their ponchos, still drenched and soaked to the skin, watching the bridge which we crossed getting closer and closer to the surface of the muddy and branch strewn water. We kept onwards.

We went through a town whose main street was under water, making guesses as to how and where the water was at it’s shallowest. We weren’t the only car heading this way, so we knew it was possible, but as with all roads here there is a constant danger of potholes – and a deep one could have spelt the end of our trip. So we crawled at a reasonable pace (for fear of stalling) through the impromptu river, and eventually cleared it and went on our way.

A few kilometres later, we came to a second street underwater. Except at this one there were a line of stopped cars – including landrovers and other vehicles purportedly able to cope with anything. I don’t know if you have ever seen or heard of a Daewoo Tico, but it is not one of those vehicles. We’re basically talking about a Korean-Romanian Fiat Punto, only slightly smaller. So we stopped, and watched the river (formerly a street) rise. The guy in the landrover turned around and came to us and told us that this road was closed for as long as the rain lasted (which seemd like it meant for a few weeks at least) and that we ought to turn around now and get out of the valley before tne bridge we had previously passed got washed out and we were condemned to spend our intendedbeach holiday soaked to the skin in the Csango valley. We turned and drove like the clappers back through the nearly washed out street that we had previously come through, and our hearts beating to the bridge, at which the villagers were frantically doing somethingh sandbags which appeared to be diverting the water over the road and away from the bridge in some effort to save it I presume. However, we (and this is the important bit) made it. 140 kms after setting off we were right back where we started from in Csikszereda.

The next day after we had finally made it to the beach, we heard (through the miracle of mobile phone technology) that the valley had been totally closed, and that a 7m high level of water had been reported in Comanesti, the town we had never reached. That seemed a tad high, but I guess it was possible, given the level of rain we had encountered up to that point. We merely had to concern oursleves with how deep we were able to get into the Black Sea before the “Salvamar” people angrily whistled us for being out too far. (This was at basicaly chest high level.). The Black Sea coast and its gorgeous beaches will have to wait for a future update, as I am now off to bed.