Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Apologies for absence

My current work schedule involves me spending 8 hours a day hunched over a keyboard typing material for an Educational Management CD Rom, and hence I am not especially desirous of spending my free time hunched over a keyboard typing up amusing slices of life in the eastern Carpathians. Plus my eye's playing up again (it's dust season in Csikszereda). Hence the current lack of activity on this blog. Soz.

Still, to keep you going here are a couple of pictures from last Saturday, from the village of Piricske overlooking the town and across to the mountains on the other side.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Odds and Sods

Paula is three months old today. This is big news for a couple of reasons. Firstly we can tell people that she is three months old. Secondly, I can't believe that she is already 1/4 of a year old. How did that happen? She's even grown out of some of her clothes. Thirdly and most importantly, three months appears to be the cut off point for the period of fear. What I mean is that whenever you look on a website for questions regarding baby health, it basically tells you lots of details about what the problem could be, but then says "If the baby isless than three months old see a doctor - IMMEDIATELY" . So it feels good to know that she's made it to three months and any infection panics like the one we had 6 weeks ago when she had to go to hospital, are now much more handleable (by her, and consequently by us).

It's spring. More or less. The weather has warmed up considereably and now is only negative at night. In the daytime for the last week or so it has been really quite nice. There's still snow everywhere, but it just looks dirty now, and drips everywhere.

As the snow has subsided, the true horror of the roads has become apparent. Pot holes have been a fact of life ever since I moved here, but they were small insignificant potholes - at least in comparison with the ones we have now. So bad are they, that they are beginning to spark protests (this is apparently very unusual in this town). We had posters on our road last week, and now this website has appeared. Basically people are getting at the mayor and the town council, and quite reasonably it would seem. For now, though, I avoid driving if at all possible. We must be the only town in Europe in which it is quite reasonable to commute in a four wheel drive SUV. (as opposed to anywhere else aside from remote hamlets or farms, where ownership of an SUV is a gas guzzling dick extension for the terminally inadequate).

Football Fever

Football fever is gripping the nation. This is because both Rapid (hooray) and Steaua (boo, hiss) have reached the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup. However, in a cruel twist of fate, the two have been drawn to play each other in the quarter final, meaning that rather than an exciting European away trip to Gelsenkirchen or St Petersburg or, errrm, Middlesboro, they don’t even get to leave Bucharest to play the tie. On the one hand this means that there will be at least one Romanian team in the semi final, so there is that advantage, but on the other it means that the excitement of European football is heavily diluted.

All the TV channels have been wall to wall football since even before the games last week in which Rapid (hooray) put out Hamburg, and Steaua (boo, hiss) put out Betis. Following the two wins, though and the subsequent quarter final draw, it has been never ending. I presume this will go on at least until the semi-finals, and should one of them actually make it to the final the networks will implode in an orgy of happiness and self-congratulation. It’s got to be rough if you don’t like football. Or possibly worse still if you support Dinamo. Basescu has been in on the act, showing up to watch a couple of the games in person, and then at the weekend inviting all the players to the Cotroceni Palace for a little get together.

Now, I have to say that the apparent interest and national feeling for Steaua baffles me. Even now, they are taking the lion’s share of the media coverage, and it seems from what I can gather that they are supported by most Romanians. Yet, when you look at their past (and even their present) it’s a wonder that they are not utterly despised by most of the country. To explain: Steaua were the team patronised by Ceausescu. They won most of the championships during his rule, got all the good players, and presumably got the benefit of a surprisingly large amount of refereeing decisions. (Romanians may be interested to learn that there are two things non-Romanian football fans know about Steaua – the European Cup win of 1984, and the whole Ceausescu/Securitate* connection). If I were Romanian I would hate Steaua passionately, and no amount of fawning media coverage would make me change my mind. Indeed, I do hate Steaua passionately, and I’m not even Romanian and didn’t know life under Ceausescu.

OK, you might be saying, Ceausescu’s dead, Steaua must be allowed to have a clean slate and be judged on their present day merits. Well, you might be right, but Steaua are now owned by today’s most repulsive man in Romania, Gigi Becali. He’s not Ceausescu, I’ll grant you, but given enough power I reckon he’d do a similar job. Why do I feel such disgust towards this man? Well he’s a fundamentalist bigot for a start (he once said that he had nothing against Jews as long as they converted to Christianity), and an egomaniac of the highest order (last year he commissioned a painting of the Last Supper with the Steaua team replacing the disciples and him in the Jesus spot). His money comes from dodgy dealings with the army (ie he buys stuff off them cheap, and sells stuff to them expensively – like a small scale Dick Cheney). He is on TV all the time, and for some reason then media seem to love him. He has openly expressed support for an extremist right wing Romanian organisation called Noua Dreapte, which is in favour of a return to the years between 1941 and 1944 when Romania was ruled by the fascist Antonescu* and his Iron Guard.

So, I, and any other neutral football fan from outside Romania, will obviously be supporting Rapid. They are the third club of Bucharest, and are so very definitely an underdog. They have a nice manager, Razvan Lucescu, who always comes across as an affable good bloke whenever I see him interviewed. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching them and willing them on as they have surprisingly beaten Feyenoord, Rennes, Shakhtar Donetsk, Hamburg and others. But above all, their hardcore fans are less obnoxious than Steaua’s, they are not owned by Gigi Becali, and it would make Nic and Elena turn over in their graves. Go Rapid!

PS One of the rumours surrounding the Ceausescu years is that after the 1984 European Cup final which Steaua won on penalties from Barcelona, the goalkeeper Ducadam refused to hand over the car that he won for being man of the match to Ceausescu’s son. In return for this act of defiance, the securitate broke his hands (obviously a big deal for a goalkeeper), and he never played top level football again. The official story is that he contracted some kind of blood disorder, and that is why he retired from the game. I have no idea which of these two stories is true, but the very fact that the first one exists and is believed by many will give you some idea of the way this country used to be run.

* Note that a number of factual errors have been pointed out to me in the comments below.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Who are the Szekely?

I was searching through Google News to see whether any English language media had reported anything about the whole March 15th thing here, and there really wasn’t a great deal, but I did notice a repeated misconception about who the Szekely are. At least two reports essentially equated the Szekely with the Hungarian population of Romania, which is definitely not my understanding of the situation. And given that I’m married to a Hungarian Romanian who is not a Szekely, I reckon my understanding is correct. So anyway, I thought I’d do a bit of research and try and fill in the gaps in my knowledge about who the Szekely are and let you know what I found out. After all, I did choose a Szekely themed URL for this site when I set it up, so I really ought to have a clue who they are.

The origins of the “Szeklers” (this is the German word for the group, and apparently seems to be the official English language version too, though I reckon outside of Hungary, Romania and ethnographic faculties of universities, there are about 3 native English speakers who have even heard of the Szekely) are not certain. Some say there are basically a subset of the Magyars who came to Europe from Central Asia however many hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Others that they are not originally Magyar, but from other places – they could be Turkish, Scythian or Hittite, for example. One thing that aids the Turkish theory is the fact that ancient Szekely writing is runic.

Anyway, what ended up happening is that the Szekelys, warriors like the Saxons, were assigned to the border regions of the Hungarian empire, with them basically lining the Eastern Carpathians (the Saxons took the Southern Carpathians). Transylvania for many years was known as the “union of three nations” – three areas ruled by the Saxons, the Szekely, and the Hungarian nobility. Anyway, what this means is that while there’s no obvious ethnic difference between the Szekely and the Hungarians, and they both speak the same language, and both are predominantly Roman Catholic, it is more or less considered these days that the Hungarian speakers of Harghita, Cavasna and part of Mures counties are the Szekely, and the Hungarian speakers in the rest of Transylvania – Cluj, Targu Mures, Maramures, Oradea, Timisoara etc are Hungarians (and not Szekely). The Szekelys in general seem much more traditional and have held on to their folk culture very successfully.

I also discovered that there is another group known as the “Szekelys of Bucovina” who were descended from a group of around 1000 Szekelys who fled Szekelyföld in 1764 after the Austrians massacred around 400 Szekelys at Madefalva (Siculeni in Romanian) a village about 5 km north of here. They ended up in Bucovina (the other side of the mountains from here). One of the villages there they named “Istensegíts” (God Help Us), which gives you a sense of their flight. Their population grew to about 13,000, but after Bucovina became Romania they felt increasingly isolated, and eventually under some deal between Hungary and Romania (in 1941? This isn’t clear to me) they were all evacuated and used by the Hungarians in an attempt to Magyarise the area of Vojvodina (now in Serbia) (ie they were settled there to change the demographics of the area). This was fairly shortlived as Hungary ceded control of the area in the Second World War, and they were once again forced to flee. They eventually settled in Tolna county in Hungary where they live to this day.

So there you go, some background and information about the Szekely, so that if ever you encounter an article like this one, you can feel informed enough to think to yourself "Actually it's not true to say Romania's ethnic Hungarians, also known as Szeklers," and feel all smug.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

March 15th (Part 2)

Just came home from a little tour of the festivities, which basically involved a lot of speeches outside the city hall. Couldn't understand the full text of the speeches, but the themes were all about reaching out between communities in the spirit of brotherhood (In one ten minute spell, I must have heard the word "testveriseg" (brotherhood / fraternity) about 7 times. I think most of the real nagy sajtak were just over the mountain in Udvarhely though so ours was a fairly subdued affair. They even had László Tőkés at their do. (The Bishop from Timisoara who sparked the 1989 revolution which brought down Ceausescu. Because he is a bishop for the Hungarian Reformed Church, whenever they refer to him in print in English he is referred to as a "Reformed Bishop", which amuses me greatly)

The City Hall - notice both Romanian and Hungarian flags

Petofi Sandor - poet, revolutionary, and now, statue

Nicolae Balcescu - also adorned in flags and wreaths

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The World in Csikszereda

It's not often that your town gets to host a World Championships in something. Well, it probably happens daily if your town is New York or London or somewhere, but if your town has 40,000 residents and is buried in the back end of the Carpathians, it seems like it would be particularly rare, to the point of being never. But this year alone (and may I remind you it's only mid March), we have hosted not one but TWO World Championship events. In January, Csikszereda was the venue for the World Junior Short Track Speed Skating Chamionships, while starting today is the World U18 Ice Hockey Championships (adds, in barely audible whisper, Division III). [You may notice a common theme to those two events, and I'm not just referring to the age group.]

Anyway, in January, the town, the rink and its next door hotel, the Fenyő, was witness to a susprising number of foreign visitors (i.e. more than one), with Japanese and Koreans wandering round the Profi supermarket (for some reason the world of Short Track Speed Skating is a very East Asian dominated sport). This week we don't have any East Asians, but we do have New Zealanders, South Africans, Israelis, Turks, and Bulgarians (as well as the Romanian squad, but I'm assuming many of them are from round here anyway). Now, you may be thinking that these nations don't have a particularly strong tradition of ice hockey, but that's just splitting hairs because you're jealous of how the world's attention is focussed on the Vakar Lajos ice rink, Miercurea Ciuc, this week.

The publicity for this event has been virtually non-existent, though, which is a pity. This may be because the tournament was supposed to take place in Israel, until the ice-hockey powers that be decided to shift it because of security concerns (perhaps they also discovered that Israel happens to be built in a desert). Then it was moved to Bucharest a month ago, and sometime in the last couple of weeks was shifted again to Csikszereda. I've seen precisely two posters advertising it, and both of those were affixed to the door of the rink itself. But hopefully the word will spread (it usually does since there's so little that goes on here normally), and the crowds will flock to the ice rink and watch the cream of the world's U18 talent (Division III).

I, as Csikszereda's official English language representative on the Internet, have been inundated with emails from proud or anxious parents trying to find out more news from this strangely obscure venue. Well, when I say inundated, I mean one bloke from New Zealand has written.

Anyway, it is my avowed intention to go down and watch a game or two, and revel in this feast of Ice Hockey

Friday, March 10, 2006

March 15th

Next Wednesday is March 15th, which is a big day here, and this year promises to be a bigger day than normal. March 15th is the national day of Hungary ( I think, though I’ve also heard it referred to as the national day of Hungarians living outside Hungary.) Anyway, it’s marked on all the calendars, and for many here it’s an official holiday. It’s a bit nationalistic, but then all national days are a bit nationalistic, and so in essence it’s not greatly different from December 1st.

This year, however, some Hungarian nationalists have taken it upon themselves to make trouble. They have organised a rally in Udvarhely (Oderheiu Secuiesc) to proclaim the independence of the Szekely region and launch some kind of autonomous entity that presumably will exist only in their heads. This event (as I understand it) has been championed by the Mayor of Udvarhely, who has just been described to me as a Hungarian version of Vadim Tudor (leader of the extremist Romanian nationalist party). [Udvarhely, by the way, is the most Hungarian city in all of Romania, being 98% Hungarian].

Now, frankly, the best way to deal with this kind of provocative rubbish is to ignore it. A few hundred blokes gather in a field, proclaim independence and drink palinka, and go home feeling proud of themselves while the world pays them no attention or at best laughs at their delusions of grandeur. But this, sadly, will not happen next week. Because of course, never shy of taking an opportunity to make himself look important, and full of hysterical rhetoric, Vadim Tudor has sent out a call for action from proud Romanians everywhere, and asked for 100,000 people to descend on Udvarhely to stage a counter demonstration. (Romania has a less than proud tradition of violent outsiders being bussed in to start fights and suppress dissent – In the early months of the post-Ceausescu regime, a group of miners were bussed in by Iliescu (allegedly) to violently bust up a student protest; and in 1990 in Targu Mures a Romanian nationalist group stirred up anti Hungarian feeling in the villages and bussed in an angry mob to attack a group of Hungarian students demonstrating for a Hungarian language faculty, resulting in riots and deaths)

And thus, the situation could become tense, and, in the worst case scenario, violent. And once again the fact that broadly speaking Hungarians and Romanians live together fairly successfully and without rancour, will be obscured by a bunch of nationalist scum – Vadim Tudor will get his publicity, as will the Szekely Autonomists, and everyone on the extremes is happy. Everyone caught in the middle gets screwed. Of course the media will be complicit in the whole affair and will send camera crews to whip the thing up even further. And while it won't start a civil war, it will put the cause of equality and understanding back a good decade. Nationalists, eh? Wankers, all of them.

Wih luck it will be a completely freezing day - two days ago here it was -24 again, only to be back up to zero again the following day, which is an insane temperature swing - and everyobody will stay home and the camera crews can just film the normal people of Udvarhely celebrating their national day with no politics attached.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Pushchair wars

It's an insanely warm 12 degrees at the moment. We are not even the coldest place in Romania at the moment (if the TV weather is to be believed it's only 7 in Iasi and Cluj. Losers.) We grabbed our chance and went on an expedition into the town with the little one - along with every other parent in town, desperate to get some fresh air into their offspring. It's like a pushchair trade fair out there today, with baby bottlenecks at all the gaps in the snowbanks where you have to cross the road. The small wheels on ours were not quite the thing for the conditions and I found myself coveting the massive 4WD style wheels on some of the newer models, although I imagined they'd be a bastard to carry upstairs if, like us, you live in a buliding without a lift.

With the temperature so warm, the snow is melting rapidly forming impromptu lakes on all the pavements, apart from on the hills, where there are extemporaneous rivers instead. It is so warm that it is possible to make and throw a series of snowballs barehand and not end up with chilblains. Now that is warm. I didn't even have to wear a coat. I suspect we are just being warmed up (ha) for another batch of sub minus 20 temperatures and a few more metres of snow, but for the time being we can just bask on the balcony in our shorts.

Heavy Tools

There has been a growing tendency in Csikszereda to name shops and other businesses in English. I was told that this was because it avoided the dilemma of using both Romanian and Hungarian. You see, if your shop has a Hungarian name, you also have to use the Romanian one, and vice versa – all üzlets are also magazins, and all restaurants are also vendéglõs. You can get around this limitation by using English or some other non-local language, and negate the need to translate anything.

However, I suspect that many of the new places, such as the “Office 1 Superstore” are actually chains that exist beyond the limits of Harghita County, and are thus named in English purely because it’s fashionable and modern and westward looking and all that. A new restaurant (or “Restaurant & Pizza” as it has cunningly labeled itself) has just opened on Petofi street, called “Bandido’s”, thus being fantastically international. A Spanish word with an English grammatical form taken from German (that ‘s bit, otherwise known as the saxon genitive). I’m hoping it serves high quality Mexican food, but I strongly suspect it will be pizza, pasta, burgers, csirke paprikas and mamaliga, and so merely add to the number of restaurants serving “international food” with some Hungarian and Romanian options thrown in to appease the local palates.

This Anglicization does lead to some odd names though. A few weeks ago, for example, a clothes shop opened in the middle of town called “Heavy Tools Clothing Division”. This too, must be a chain of sorts since it is way too fancy looking to be purely a Csiki business. A mischievous part of me would really like to go in and tell the manager what slang meaning “tool” has.

March 1st

An English friend who is married to a Romanian woman sent me a message on March 1st to remind me that it was Marţişor. Marţişor is the first of March, and functions as a kind of Romanian Valentine's Day, when men give little red and white brooches to the women they know. He was anxious that I should be reminded so that I wouldn't commit the ultimate faux-pas of not giving my loved ones these tokens of my affection. I had to admit I'd never heard of it so I checked with Erika, who informed me that it's a Romanian thing and Hungarians don't do it. Which let me off the hook, but made me imagine that it must be hell for Romanian teenage boys going out with Hungarian girls (or just hoping to be noticed by them). If you give the subject of your attention a Marţişor brooch, you just know she's going to turn around and tell you she's not Romanian and she doesn't do that (thus crushing you, her emotionally fragile suitor). If you don't, she's going to ask you why you didn't and don't you love her and tell you I'm sorry it's over (ditto). It's difficult enough being a teenage boy and knowing that you will never understand how girls' minds work, without throwing in an added inter-cultural counndrum.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Despatches from the front line

It snowed last night, quite a lot, as you might be able to tell. I have to say though that they did a good job of cleaning up. I guess it was all part of the war on snow.

Here you can see some of the troops doing battle in their brave and unending fight against the snow that is an enemy of freedom and right-thinking people the world over.

And here are some apples, for no reason.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

200th post

Just to take my mind off my impending dotage, I thought I'd write my 200th post on this blog. Not sure what the average word count per post is, but it's an awful lot of meaningless drivel. I'm not about to stop now, though, so here are some other small things.

Last night Romania got snowed on, seemingly everywhere, though perhaps not at the coast. On the news, of course, all the talk was of the fact the capital was paralized. Intrepid reporters had gone out of the front door of their TV stations and were filming traffic moving slowly. It was gripping TV, as you can imagine, and once again served to give the impression that anything beyond the county of Ilfov (the county that surrounds Bucharest) doesn't actually exist.

This morning with the capital's 5 cms of snow still the talk of every TV station, the government had promised a "War on Snow". I swear I'm not making that up. What excatly does a war on snow look like? It's an intriguing concept. However, rdiculous, though, it is in some ways a nice way to highlight the ridiculous use of the phrase "A War on XX" which is so in vogue these days. It all started with the War on Drugs, but reached it's nadir with the "War on Terror". The principle weapon in the war on terror is (it seems) fear, which is blackly ironic to say the least. Strangely, real wars are no longer actually called wars anymore - the War on Iraq was never called that by any English speaking media outlets that I saw. It's a War on Language, I reckon.

Meanwhile, have a look at this picture, which I am reliably informed was not photoshopped.. Now, I don't tend to trust anything that FoxNews says, since I regard it as extreme right wing bullshit, for the most part, but I never really thought they'd stoop to this level. I suppose I should be grateful they were even having a debate. I wonder what the "yes" camp had as arguments? It will increase the share price of weapons dealers? If everyone's dead it will make the country much easier for our boys to control?

And finally

Before I sign off, and to take my mind of the idiots who run the world, a short Paula update. She seems to be recovering, though there are still occasional coughs, which send us into a panic. We even took her out for a walk on Sunday, which was an exciting moment - the temperature had cracked zero for once and we seized our chance. Just in time it seems, since it's got cold again. Yesterday she had her first vaccinations. Not quite sure whether there's still a real danger that children will contract diphtheria, but if there is, she won't be the one to get it. The next big worry is mumps, which is currently running rampant in Csikszereda. If Romania offers MMR you don't get it till you're one anyway, so this could be our next panic. With Bogi venturing each day into the mumps factory that is her kindergarten, we are daily inviting those vicious germs in our home. We must declare a War on Mumps (TM), and we must start now.

Getting on

Tomorrow, Thursday March 2nd, 2006, I will turn 40. There’s absolutely no logical reason why this should be a big deal - after all today I am on my 14,609th day, tomorrow will be my 14,610th. But somehow it is, and it has slowly been impinging on my consciousness over the last couple of weeks. I am quite sure that actually having the birthday and being 40 will be absolutely no different from any other year, and in that respect I’ll be glad when tomorrow finally comes and I can once again resume being only vaguely aware of my age.

Some interesting facts about the number/word “forty”.
  • My mobile phone’s predictive text function suggests “empty” when I try to write forty. I’m not sure if there’s anything I can read into that.
  • The number forty is the only number in English in which the letters are in alphabetic order when it is spelled (ie Y is after T is after R is after O is after F). No other number has this quality. Go on, try it out if you don’t believe me.
  • That’s all I can think of right now.

In more positive news I have worked out that I am immortal, which is actually quite depressing sounding, but at least means that turning 40 is completely meaningless. I have come to this conclusion with the help of Zeno. You see when I was young it was a well known fact that life expectancy for men was 70. Slowly, this number has crept upwards until it has reached the current figure of 75 for British men. Zeno’s paradox is of the hare and the tortoise – the hare cannot ever catch the tortoise because we can look at the chase as a series of events. The hare starts from A and the tortoise ahead of it from B. The hare takes a certain period of time to run from A to B. That time allows the tortoise to move on to C. Then the hare runs from B to C, in which time the tortoise has moved on to D, etc, etc, and the hare never actually catches the tortoise. The same works for my age. When I was born I was scheduled to die at 70, but when I reach 70, I will be rescheduled to die at 78 (let’s say). By the time I get to 78, I'll have gained a few more months, and so on. Hence I am immortal.

I remember when my dad turned 40 (this in itself is a statement which reminds me of the encroaching years) and he received a card from a friend “welcoming” him to his “fifth decade”. I, too, will in less than 24 hours be embarking on my fifth decade. Blimey.

Anyway, I’ve ordered my zimmer frame and booked myself into a hospice, and I’ll be sitting in front of the TV in my slippers complaining about the music that kids listen to these days if anyone needs me.

"XXXX", as the Romans might have said. Or older Romans at least - young hip ones, apparently, would have been more likely to say XL, which coincidentally will probably be my t-shirt size by tomorrow.