Monday, May 28, 2007

Farewell for another year, Búcsú

Well, it was hot for the pilgrimage. Very very hot. And since the culmination of the event involves climbing up a fairly steep slope in order to take part in the mass in the saddle of a hill, it was quite brutal. Pilgrims are not necessarily athletes, and there were some people who really looked like they were suffering (a couple of very overweight blokes I saw looked like they were about to keel over even before the climb started). At the top, the bloke who was speaking over the PA system pre-mass kept telling people to respect the sanctity of the event and to please not take all their clothes off. But not that many people were paying attention, or at least, they felt the statue of the virgin would understand their need to cool off a tad.

The mass was a bit of a laugh because the priest giving the sermon was such a grumpy old sod. Here he has 400,000 people all there ready for him to fill them with passionate love of the catholic faith and joy at being in the presence of such a huge communcal gathering. But no. Instead he goes off on one about how people (ie his audience) were coming for the wrong reasons and young people were just there to do drugs and party wildly for the weekend and that all those listening were in fact a bunch of miserable sinners who all ought to be seriously penitent and then some.

I guess I really just don't get this strand of guilt and abuse in the Roman Catholic church (and in many others it has to be said). What does it say about human nature that so many people in the world are Catholics? Are we really all just a bunch of masochistic vagrants who are desperate to be taken in hand by a strict father figure who'll give us a metepahorical seeing to with his belt? I suspect I'll never understand humans.

To some extent he wasn't wrong though (though he might need a sense of humour transplant) - this supposedly sacred experience does have all sorts of other extraneous bits attached. Many of these pilgrims, it is true, did not actually come for the opportunity to be especially holy in any way. Yes, there are a bunch of young people who show up and camp out on the hill and have a weekend party (though I suspect most of them who do are fairly religious and partying is done in a low key and catholic way), and yes there are many for whom the weekend is less about religion and more about Hungarian identity and nationalism (witness the presence at this year's event of László Tőkés, who is pretty much the accetable public face of Hungarian nationalism in Romania, but who is a bishop in the Reformed Church - why was he at an RC mass?).

If the priest had been that fussed about people not according the pilgrimage its proper respect, he should have made a point about how it wasn't supposed to be used for nationalistic purposes. But he didn't. Funny that. Not that the church (any church/mosque/temple/synagogue) is ever guilty of siding with nationalists, obviously, no sirree.

The town is still full of cars registered in Hungary - I think today (Monday) is a holiday in Hungary, so people are taking their time going home. Overheard in a cafe yesterday:
Group of young Szekely blokes: Welcome! Where are you from?
Older couple: Debrecen, in Hungary.
Szekely blokes: And you speak Hungarian? Wonderful. You speak it so well.

(This references the possibly apocryphal but often told story about Hungarians from here going to Hungary and having people surprised that they speak Hungarian "so well". The conversation above was all light hearted, though, and ended up with the groups joing for a beer together)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Csikszereda's annual moment in the sun

Once again it's that time of year, the weekend when Csikszereda briefly takes centre stage and becomes the most vibrant city in Eastern Europe. Well that may be overstating it a tad, but having half a million people descend upon a town of 45,000, is a big deal whichever way you slice it. It is, as I was told last year, the biggest pilgrimage in Central and Eastern Europe. Already the town is filling up with Magyarorszagiak (people from Hungary) on safari, come to see in what squalor and poverty their poor cousins live. "Look Istvan, they don't even have Tesco here".

Here are the things I wrote a couple of years ago at my first experience of the event - before and after.

I don't want to overstate how big this whole thing is, because, y'know I'm not all that into hyperbole and exaggeration, but it's really really a big deal (I think in Romania as a whole it's hardly commented on, and probably very little known outside the Romanian Roman Catholic world - I remember seeing a news report on Pro TV last year on the day itself but aside from that it basically is a non-event). People come from all over the world. Obviously this creates some problems within the town, in coping with all these vast numbers of people. This afternoon, for example, my father-in-law is arriving by train. I am going to meet him at the station and bring him back to our house, but I am already planning to do so by walking to the station and coming back in a taxi - experience has taught me that once you drive anywhere this weekend you will never again find a place to park.

The big news is that I am going to make a film about it. Well, to be honest, my friend, neighbour and director/producer/editor/cameraman Denes is going to make the film, I'm just going to be the front man. I have no idea what will happen with this film, which is planned to be the first of a number of films of life in Csikszereda based loosely on the blog, but we'll see. If we can't flog it to anyone I'll end up just posting it here I suppose. This new creative direction for Csikszereda Musings comes through what I imagine is a very modern new way of building relationships. You see, Denes (or Gömbi báci as we knew him for a while in our house, named after his dog Gömbi) is my neighbour, who lives across the hall in our apartment building. We were on friendly terms, exchanging hellos and brief chats in the hallway, but we were eventually connected properly through this blog, when someone he knows in Paris pointed it out to him, and he began reading it, quickly connecting it to that strange English bloke who lived across the hall. So there you go - want to connect with your neighbours but are not sure how? Then start blogging and hope they find you through Google or some other convoluted method. O r you could just go and knock on their door and say hi. I suppose.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


In many underground systems of the world, when you get to the platform there is a screen which shows you the amount of time you'll have to wait until the next train comes. In Bucharest (where I am today), there is a screen showing you how long it has been since the last train left. Why? What bloody use is that?

Monday, May 21, 2007

The price of abstention

As you may be aware, on Saturday there was a referendum in Romania as to whether to impeach President Basescu. This measure was supported by pretty much every political party bar his own, and it failed spectacularly. Basescu got 75% of the vote (or technically the answer "no" to the question "do you want to impeach him?" got 75%, which is not exactly the same thing)

This huge defeat to the sponsors of the referendum was, however, not as conclusive as it might have been (though to my mind it is pretty damned conclusive) because the turnout was only 43% of the electorate. Harghita County (i.e. here) registered the lowest turnout of any county in the country. Now, those who lost in this election are coming out and assigning a reason as to why so many people didn't vote. It shows that they don't care enough about Basescu to vote for him, was one thing I heard, for example.

This is why not voting is a mistake. It allows people to assign you a position. Those 57% who didn't vote? "They tacitly supported us, and that's why they didn't show up". There are of course numerous reasons why people don't vote, many of them very valid. Here are some.
  • I couldn't be bothered to get off my lardy arse.

  • I think Basescu is as corrupt as the rest of them and see no reason to support one or other side in this ridiculous charade

  • I don't support him, but I can't bring myself to vote for a measure sponsored by Iliescu/Vadim Tudor/Marko Bela/Tariceanu (delete as appropriate)

  • I don't support him, but I can't bring myself to vote for a measure sponsored by the PSD/PRM/UDMR (delete as appropriate)

  • I do support him, but I can't go against my party's line, so I'd rather not vote at all*

  • This whole argument between Basescu and Tariceanu is a complete waste of time. I'm not going to dignify it

  • I have much more important things to do with my Saturday than voting (this was almost certainly true in many rural areas since this is a very busy time of the year agriculturally and polling booths were only open in daylight hours. It seemed counties containing big cities had higher turnout than those that don't)

[*This reason by the way is the one that it is suggested to me which is the reason why Harghita and Covasna had the lowest turnout across the country - that is that people here typically vote UDMR (and vote as the UDMR tells them), but that the UDMR were telling them to do something they didn't want to do. So rather than go aganst the party, they just didn't vote. Even then, though, the graph on this page shows that 58% of UDMR supporters voted "No", and I read somewhere else that Covasna, although it had the second lowest turnout, was the most pro-Basescu county of the whole country. (Anyone know where I can get a detailed breakdown of the turnout/vote?)]

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Bilingual Stirrings

Paula is starting, slowly, one word at a time, to speak. She has had one or two words for a while now - one of her first words, for example, was to point very firmly at something which caught her eye and say “Né!”. This is the Hungarian word for “Look!” and sounds not unlike “Ni” - thus for a while she was very much the “baby who says ni”. But anyway, I digress.

So, post né! and a long drawn out, occasionally whiny A-ny-u-ka, she was being quite slow to utter things. This apparently is quite common in bilingual babies who are getting input in more than one language - they take longer to start using the words. She was up to speed with all the other developmental milestones which parenting websites offer up, but speaking was (and is) lagging a tad. But recently the words have started to come - there’s now a very definite “köszi” (thanks), and something which sounds like “this” but is very likely “tessek” (among other things, “here you are”), and a few others. But a couple of days ago we were standing (or I was standing, she was in my arms) at the kitchen window looking for dogs outside (She loves dogs. And pigeons. All animals probably, it’s just that in downtown Csikszereda, dogs and pigeons are broadly speaking the only obvious non human options). As we stood and looked, there round the corner came a dog. Quick as a flash, her arm extended, and her finger pointed quivering at this sight. “Look!” she cried excitedly. In English. Not only had she come up with her first recognisable English word, but she had correctly surmised that she needed to use it with me, and nobody else, and had managed to do that all in the split second of intense excitement at seeing yet another scruffy mongrel. The human brain is an amazing thing.

I’m not sure how long it will be before she learns that an English speaking cockerel goes “Cock-a-doodle-do”, since at present they very definitely say “Kukuriku”, which is what those odd magyar cocks say. (More animal noises in different languages can be found here).

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Wednesday weak

I have nothing much to post, except to pass on this great link to a piece about searching for painted eggs among the Ukrainian community of Romanian Bucovina. And to report on the frozen saints (as mentioned a couple of days ago), who must have been on holiday this year. It turned out to be the hottest three or four days of the year so far - reaching 30 degrees at times, which for Csikszereda is August temperatures, not May. We're all doomed I tell you.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Random links, tags, and swearing

While I think about all the things I should write about (the Basescu suspension, more on Autonomy, the Rosia Montana gold mine, blah blah etc etc and so on and so forth), I instead will fill in the morning with a couple of unrelated and trivial observations and links

Firstly, from this weekend's Guardian, a piece about tourism in the Saxon area of Transylvania, and more specifically the village of Viscri. It's actually the second article in two years about Viscri (here's the first) so someone in that small village must have some kind of hotline to the paper. It's all a bit suspicious if you ask me.

Ages ago I was tagged to write something about a favourite computer game. Since I rarely have time for computer games - the other day I managed to spend the day watching a DVD in small bite sized pieces while Paula slep fitfully in my arms, the first DVD/video/film I've watched for ages, such is the lack of actual time to do these things - I can't really comment on anything very modern, but I do remember playing Football Manager on the ZX Spectrum for hours and hours back in the day, and playing it on that link brought back one or two vague flashbacks of those far off days. You try telling kids today that computer games used to be issued on cassette and they won't believe you. Before that I remember that magazines used to print the BASIC code for you to type in your own games. None of this DVD stuck to the front cover nonsense. (Thanks to 200 percent for the link)

Romania got creamed in this weekend's Eurovision song contest, which I didn't watch, and I haven't heard the entry (of anyone I think) so god only knows if it was deserved or not.

And finally, for today, a great language resource - The Alternative Hungarian Dictionary, from which you, the non-Hungarian speaker, can learn useful expressions which will either endear you to Hungarians, or earn you a smack in the face. I am familiar with quite a few of them, including all of the ones which involve equine genitalia (a very popular swearing device in Hungarian, for some reason), and some which are not included at all, but quite a few were entirely new to me. My favourite, I think, being Paksi mogyoró, which literally means "hazelnut from the town of Paks", but idiomatically would best be translated in English as "clingon". The site suffers somewhat from not rendering accents well (the Romanian dictionary from the same site is almost unreadable, so poorly does it deal with diacritical marks).

Friday, May 11, 2007

Frozen Saints

It was cold yesterday, much colder than it has been for ages. I went out for a bike ride in the afternoon, and actually needed to work harder just to stave off the chill. Then Erika mentioned that she thought that it was one of the frozen saints' fault.

The frozen saints "Fagyos szentek" are Pongrác, Szervác, and Bonifác (and possibly Orban). I'm still trying to work out what those names translate as in English, without much success, but since they're Saints, they must have equivalents - Bonifác is, I believe, "Boniface" and Orban "Urban" but I have never heard of anyone actually called these names, so probably Pongrác and Szervác are even more obscure.

Their relevance to the weather is that in May there are 3 or 4 days which are (according to folk wisdom) always cold - and in fact it is advised that you don't put your crops/plants that could be damaged by frost out until after the last of them has been and gone. These days are the saints days of Pongrác, Szervác, Bonifác, and Orban. But having done a bit of checking it seems like the first three are actually May 12th, 13th and 14th (ie not yesterday but this weekend). More details (in Hungarian). Orban is on the 25th.

So now you know. If tomorrow is cold it's the fault of that bloody St. Pongrác. Who, having done a bit more googling, seems like he might actually be St. Pancras. One of those saints (perhaps the only one) who is more commonly known as the name of a railway station. In fact, until that moment I hadn't stopped to consider that there was someone around once who was called Pancras. Amazing what appears when you start aimlessly looking stuff up.

Thursday, May 10, 2007


I'm in the middle of writing a long (long) post about nationality and nationalism and identity and all that stuff for my extremely occasional series about Szekely Autonomy, and hope to have it done soon, but in the meantime, I was thinking about the UDMR (political party representing ethnic Hungarians in Romania), and what their purpose is.

You see, in broad terms, I don't really get it. I can see one or two benefits in their existence (which I'll get to in a minute or two) but in general I think they can act (on a national level) against the interests of the Hungarian community rather than for it.

Let me try and explain. Locally, they hold a fair amount of power - county and city authorities in Harghita and Covasna and probably elsewhere are typically run by the UDMR with a virtual lock on power. But why? The Hungarian electorate will tell you that they need to stick together in order to ensure that local government is not taken over by Romanians with a Bucharest agenda. Which, to en extent, makes sense. But as a single issue party (yes, they have economic policies, and so on, and are technically not single issue, but people vote for them not because of their policies on investment or what have you, they vote for them because they are the UDMR and "we have to stick together"), it's a little bit odd to have them in power for years and years.

[At this point I have to say that I think it's quite impressive and amazing that the UDMR has managed to position itself as the sole representative of the entirety of all 1.6 million (ish) Hungarians in Romania, with no major internal political ructions. I mean if I were Hungarian Romanian, who would I vote for? The UDMR is basically centre-right on most things, and I'm not really a big fan of what economic policies they do have - and the fact that they are aligned with the UK Tory party in the "European People's Party–European Democrats" grouping in the European Parliament is all I need to know about their political leanings outside of the national question]

On a national level, I think (aside from one crucial element) their role is even less clear. Their existence actually ensures that the bigger Romanian parties need say or do nothing to appeal to Hungarians. There's no votes in reaching out to the Hungarian population so why bother doing it? If the UDMR ceased to be, or ceased to play on the national stage, presumably the bigger parties would want those votes - 7-8% of the population is a huge voting block, and would represent something that would hugely benefit whichever party could best attract them. Look at the work that parties in the US do, for example, at attracting the various ethnic minorities. Likewise they (the UDMR) don't actually have to achieve anything for people to continue voting for them. They are, in effect, acting against democracy to some degree.

The only way that it does actually work is the way they put forward a candidacy for the presidency, who (obviously) picks up the statutory 5 or 6 % of the vote in the first round and then those votes can be "sold" to whichever of the runoff candidates promises more to Hungarians. (Though once elected there is nothing to ensure that the president will actually do anything for that community)

The exception, the positive side to their existence mentioned above, is presumably unintended. That is, that by controlling the balance of power, they can ensure that the odious PRM are not part of the government. That at least appears to have been the primary function of the (national) UDMR over the past ten years. They become part of the coalition, the coalition does nothing particularly to support or promote the rights of Hungarians, but at least the government doesn't actively target them (as it presumably would if ever Vadim Tudor or Becali or any of those other vile wankers ever got a sniff of power). So, yes, they do have a function, and an important one, but is that all there is to it?

I'd be grateful if anyone out there more clued in than I could offer any suggestions as to what the real purpose of the party is, and what they actually achieve on a national level (other than the above "not being the PRM" acheivement)

Monday, May 07, 2007

Someday a real rain will come

So, the title of most famous living Hungarian, vacant since Puskas died last year, has now been won by Nicolas Sarkozy. I know that Sarkozy is Hungarian in name only (and even that should really be Sárközy), but since he thinks of immigrants as scum I think one should constantly remind him that he is one himself (even if he was the son of an aristocrat, and not some poor marginalised Algerian in the banlieues). Though I can't help thinking that before long, there won't be a Hungarian in the world who wants to be linked in any way to him. He promises to make the Bush presidency look like a model of enlightened decency and respect for human and civil rights.

While we're on the subject, how come much of the English language press refers to him as "centre right"? I know the centre has moved to the right, but surely not as much as to allow some hard-line right winger who actively courts Le Pen's supporters and openly wishes that the immigrant scum be washed off the streets of Paris with a high pressure hose to be considered "centre right"? He's a French Travis Bickle. Except rather than trying to kill the president he tried to be one - and succeeded.

Chicken Varicella

Varicella is not, as you may have thought, a type of pasta. It is in fact more commonly known (in English at least) as chicken pox. Varicella is just the official name of the virus. Although to be more accurate the virus is actually known as "Varicella-Zoster" which sounds less like a pasta and more like a ski resort in Switzerland. Interestingly (or not), in Hungarian it is known as Bárányhimlő which means "lamb-pox". The reason it's called chicken pox in English is nothing to with chickens, just that it was perceived as a small and decidedly un-deadly version of smallpox, and the humble chicken seemed to fit the bill. I'm assuming it got named after a cuddly little fluffy lamb in Hungarian for the same reason. I'm afraid I have no idea as to what it is called in Romanian. Perhaps hamsterpox or something.

Anyway, cuddly and fluffy it may be by name, but cuddly and fluffy it isn't necessarily by nature. Paula has had it since Thursday and this weekend has been extremely unpleasant for all of us (her particularly). Not only does she have a raging fever, but she is covered from head to toe in itchy spots which are driving her mad (and, indirectly, us too). In my investigative reading of anything I can find on the internet which might suggest ways of reducing her irritation, I have discovered that there now exists a vaccination for Varicella, which she could have had from 9 months old. I bloody wish she had, and that we'd known about it. Let this post be a strong piece of advice for all parents to go ahead and get your child vaccinated. Even if it's not offered as a semi-compulsory jab in your state health system, it must be possible to buy the vaccine and have a nurse administer it. Do it. Believe me. It cannot be worth watching your own child attempt to tear her hair out in anger and frustration and exhaustion (did I mention she hasn't slept either?), and to actually wonder, in all seriousness, whether it is possible to buy a baby sized straightjacket to stop her scratching.

One of the more intriguing things about using the internet as your primary resource for health tips is that it throws up all sorts of contradictions - especially across languages. For example, all English language websites I have found recommend a cool bath as a way to ease the itching. Whereas Hungarian ones say you shouldn't have baths, only showers. We've noticed this before, but it seems particularly pronounced in the case of chicken/lamb pox. The most baffling thing is that apparently calamine lotion, which is used worldwide for the treatment of chicken pox sores (and many other dermatological needs), is actually banned in Hungary. There's something about it causing infection - even though everywhere else in the world people are slathering it all over their pus-y and blistered children. It's quite quite bizarre. (Fortunately it is not banned in Romania, so while Erika is nervous about putting it on - having read all this anti-calamine propaganda - we have managed to get some and are using it)

Friday, May 04, 2007

Out and about in Karachi

Most of my time in Karachi was spent cooped up in the 5 star Pearl Continental Hotel which was all very well, but I got a bit stir crazy at times. However we did get out on one or two evenings to see some of the sights and sounds of the city (traffic jams mostly). One evening, for example, after a very nice dinner at a kind of stylised "village house" (I think the place may have been called "The Village") next to the sea, we stopped off at the beach on the way back to the hotel. Even though it was 10pm-ish the place was still very lively, with stalls selling food, people with balloons, camel rides etc. It was all very upbeat. Then, to my surprise, our group was approached by a heavily made up bloke in a dress who started imploring us in Urdu (I'm not sure what we were being implored to do, not speaking Urdu, but we were certainly being implored). He/she was quickly joined by a couple of others, who carried on with the coy flirty looks and gravelly voiced begging. It was all quite odd. I mean not that transvestitism is odd as such, but that it was there in Pakistan, in this fairly Islamic country, which is currently undergoing a lot of division between Islamic fundamentalism and the rest. It seemed like a precarious existence being a "eunuch" which appeared to be the word used. (Here is a short article about the Hijras, and a longer site all about the history etc)

The other big trip was to go out on a boat in the harbour. We had to get permission from the navy or someone, as we would be sailing past their ships, and we were told we could not bring cameras (though I kind of wished I had, since nobody checked), and then we were bussed off to the docks to start bargaining (not that I was involved in bargaining, that was the role of the course participants who'd organised this whole maritime shindig). This took a while, and involved us sitting in the back of a car, with our very worried host. Before travelling to Pakistan, my colleague and I had to fill out a form called a "Risk Assessment" which basically involved signing a piece of paper saying that we understood that Pakistan was possibly dangerous and that we could get killed or kidnapped or something. Our local contact, who was coming with us on the trip, began to get very concerned that this boat trip wasn't covered by the risk assessment we had signed, and that we were possibly taking too big a gamble by putting ourselves in the hands of some nefarious looking boat captain and sailing on a rickety wooden boat into the middle of the bay. By this time, though, it was too late to back out, and we all boarded and set off, watching the sun set over the rusting hulks of metal common to most harbour areas, while the Muezzin drifted across the water. It was all very enjoyable - and to cap off a fine evening, we were not kidnapped, murdered, sunk, boarded by pirates, or any of the other dire possibilities that we faced. Though I did get a severe case of diarrhea from something we consumed while on that boat. I strongly suspect an Al Quaida (bacterial) cell.