Monday, September 29, 2008

Transylvania Cliche Watch (1)

This week sees the visit of Chelsea FC to Transylvania to take on CFR Cluj in the Champions League (Chelsea aren't actually champions, but that's the nature of UEFA competitions these days and another story about which I could rant for interminable pages. I won't, though). What this visit means though is that there will ample opportunity this week for the notoriously cliche-thirsty British press to repeatedly sink their teeth into the the Dracula vein, since they won't have much else to say about CFR Cluj (I suppose they might bring up the Cheeky Girls too, but I'm guessing it will be lots of blood sucking imagery instead). Anyway, in order to amuse I thought I would keep a watch on this.

First up this week, you might be surprised to learn, are not the tabloids but two bastions of the establishment.

The Sunday Times headlines its article "Chelsea must beware Juan Culio, the new terror of Transylvania: Argentina’s Juan Culio hopes to give the Blues a fright on Wednesday" setting their stall out early, letting you know that the angle they're taking. Then the first paragraph really takes the theme and runs with it:
LIKE all the best stories from Transylvania, the tale of CFR Cluj has a strong sense of mystery, of the unexpected. It also has its moment of shock and, at the end of the first night, even a perturbed heroine. “I didn’t believe it could be as bad as this,” shrieked Rosella Sensi, the president of AS Roma, as if she’d just woken up from a dream in which Bela Lugosi stood poised over her bedside.
Classy stuff you can see, he's really gone to town there, and actually made some serious effort to cram his Transylvanian theme into some kind of order there. Like all good writers, Ian Hawkey, for it is he, returns to his opening theme with his last sentence "Once bitten, twice shy, as they probably say in Transylvania." Ohh, very nice. Hats off to Mr Hawkey.

Next up is the BBC, who have provided a handy click through biography of the club under the heading "Who are Cluj" (by the way, that click through thing is absolutely not handy at all, is it? It's much more irritating to have to open page after page of the thing than read it all in one go, surely? Or am I hopelessly behind the web-architecture-times here?). Anyway, the scene is set with the use of a picture of Christopher Lee as Dracula on the front page, and then the second paragraph
The club hail from the city of Cluj-Napoca - the third largest city in Romania - situated in the province of Transylvania, home to the famous nocturnal blood-sucker Count Dracula, some 300 miles west of the capital Bucharest.
Now I suspect the Beeb are trying to be a bit knowing here rather than jumping completely unironically aboard the Dracula bandwagon, but that doesn't really excuse the geographically challenged nature of the positioning of the city. West of Bucharest? North would be closer, Northwest closer still. Plus it's got to be more than 400km from Bucharest. 300km west of Bucharest is somewhere like Belgrade.

Anyway, I'll be keeping an eye on the theme this week and letting you know how much Dracula (and the whole horror theme in general) gets mentioned.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

How many Romanians does it take to change a light bulb?

I have been changing light bulbs for the best part of 30 years, now, and for around 20 of those I have been the primary light-bulb-replacer in my place of residence. I have, it is fair to say, changed a fair few light bulbs in my lifetime. I have changed light bulbs in 10 countries (Romania is the 10th country I have lived in), including in an underdeveloped tropical island nation, and a place which was living under an illegal and brutal occupation in which power cuts were the norm. I include this background not to brag about my lightbulb changing past - on the contrary, I presume I have changed no more lightbulbs than most adults - but to make it clear that I have some normal levels of experience in replacing bulbs.

However, in all my years of lightbulb changing, I have never really had a problem with the assignment. Unscrew burned out bulb, screw in new bulb. It's not an especially challenging task. Except, that is, in Romania. Here it is a minefield of potential problems, and I have no idea why. When you unscrew a lightbulb here you have to be prepared for this simple act to go horribly wrong - either the bulb itself falls to pieces or the fitting does. I've unscrewed bulbs and ended up with the glass bit in my hand and the metal screw in bit left in the socket. I've unscrewed bulbs which leave behind a metal sleeve of some kind in the socket. I've unscrewed bulbs that bring with them the threaded metal sleeve that lines the bakelite fitting itself. I've unscrewed bulbs that have left the bakelite fitting (is it bakelite?) crumbling into little pieces. It's important to note here, that I live in Romania now, in the 21st century, in the European Union, not in Romania in the 1980s under a regime in which most things were made poorly.

I would say on about 50% percent of occasions when I change a bulb in this country, this simple operation goes horribly wrong and leaves me standing on a chair with a pair of pliers in danger of electrocution trying to extract something from something else that shouldn't be locked together. Truly, light bulbs and the fittings in this country are bloody awful. In all my previous years of changing bulbs I had never once had any difficulty with the act. Here, I feel grateful if it goes smoothly. Now some of the fittings and even possibly one or two of the bulbs probably predate 1989, but even the ones which I know to be new tend to suffer from the same problem. It's really, really crap. I bet most people in this country don't even know that it should be a simple task every time, hence the lack of protest movements and people out on the street with banners reading "Forget Graft, Start by Fixing the Sodding Lightbulbs" or "Hai Romania, Hai Lightbulbs"

Friday, September 26, 2008

Aj em fajn tenks

The title to this post was taken from Bogi's school notebook (or copybook as it seems to be called). She is, you see, now learning English at school - being in the third grade - I think Romanian speaking children start learning English in the first grade, but those for whom Romanian is a second language start their language learning with Romanian (for obvious reasons) and add in English as a third language when they hit 9 years old.

Now, obviously this is a bit of a waste of time for her, since she speaks English - not perfectly, and she's not that good at writing it, since she learned it from conversing with me, and more recently reading books in it - but she definitely speaks it (and while her Romanian is coming along well, her English is much better). So, because there are no real options at that age, she has to sit in an English lesson for two hours a week which is way below her. But this is fine, and while I think she finds it a bit boring, it's not the end of the world.

But yesterday evening we were enjoying the things that she has had to write down as a student in this class. The teacher obviously takes English expressions and attempts to "translate" them phonetically into Hungarian so that the kids can read them and say them. Except that this doesn't really work very well, because many English sounds don't really exist in Hungarian (and vice versa). Aj em fajn tenks is a good example. (In case you haven't worked out what it says yet, it's the standard response to How are you?) Phoneticaly translating it back into English gives us something like "Oy em foin tenks". Now, Bogi assures us that she didn't put any accents on the A in Aj or fajn, which would have at least rendered those long I sounds fairly reasonably. Áj em fájn tenks would at least have been close-ish to I em fine tenks. But that still leaves the problem of what to do with the short A and the th. You see you can't come up with Hungarian phonetic spelling of either of them, because there isn't one. A short e in Hungarian sounds like a short e in English, not like a short a. A t in Hungarian sounds like a t in English, and nothing at all like a th. So, these children are being taught some fairly deeply flawed pronunciation from the get-go, which is not really a successful way of doing it, in my opinion. The e/a thing is probably something that we can all live with, but the t/th thing, and even more amusingly the v/w thing (the number one in Bogi's book is rendered as van) will I suspect stick with them for ever, and they may never actually be able to pronounce these things well.

Now I don't think that all people ought to pronounce things in some standard RP form (for a start you'd have to work out what the standard was), but there are certain sounds that really need to be used to make sense in the language (Some Hungarian sounds are difficult for me, but i'd rather attempt to say them as they should be said, than make up some anglicised version) And Bogi can pronounce th and w perfectly well, so it's clearly not beyond the capacity of a 9 year old to deal with unfamiliar sounds (and in fact, arguably, this is the best time for them to have to do it).

Anyway, it gave us all a laugh when we read through them and it promises to make English classes all the more fun for seeing what odd ways of rendering English the teacher will come up with next. And if you ever wonder why Hungarian speakers respond to your How are you? with Oi em foin tenks, it's not because they learned their English from the Irish community of Birmingham.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Curious Case of (The Football Team From) Timisioara

Over the last few years a very strange story has been played out as regards the main football team in Timisoara. I'd give you their name, but it's all a bit confused and confusing. They are currently playing under the name FC Timisoara, but half of the problem surrounds the name, so it may not be that for much longer. But rather than be cryptic, let me try and sum it up/explain it as best I can (and given that there are bits of the story that confuse me too, that may not be that well).

A football team called Politechnica Timisoara were founded in 1921 and over the years they had a reasonably successful history, winning the Romanian cup on a couple of occasions, playing in Europe and winning games against Celtic and Atletico Madrid amongst others. In the 90s, like all Romanian football teams they ceased to be a nationalised entity and entered the marketplace. No longer linked with the Polytechnic itself, they retained the name (just as the other clubs did - CFR Cluj are not actually owned by the state railway company for example).

In the middle of the 90s they went down to the second division and in about 2000 the club was bought by an Italian businessman named Claudio Zambon (The city of Timisoara seems to have very close ties with Italy). It got relegated again, and then again to languish in the 4th division (county level in Romanian football). It was in 2001 (or 2002, stories conflict) that this story gets bizarre and confusing. Zambon, having fallen out with the local authorities and media, and who had lost all rights to the club and the name (this bit is disputed) decided to up sticks and move the club away from Timisoara all together and relocate it to a village just outside Bucharest. In the meanwhile, a former Romanian international player named Anton Dobos who had played for AEK Athens and who had bought a Bucharest based club on his return to Romania, and renamed it AEK Bucharest, decided to move this club to Timisoara, at just the time when they had been promoted to the top flight. The moved club, now called Politechnica AEK Timisoara became the de facto descendant of the original team, and the fans certainly saw it that way. (Dobos was recently in the news again as he survived a horrific car crash which put him in a coma for a while)

The new club, again renamed Politechnica 2002 Timisoara, were authorised by the FRF (Romanian Football Federation) as the official heir of the original club and could inherit the club's records, but then Zambon, who'd left Romania some time before, returned and by some sleight of hand, got this authorisation transferred to his club (still called Politechnica Timisoara even though they were playing 500km away). It seems that basically he tricked the FRF into this, and that the problem now is that the FRF are loathe to admit that they were scammed so they are sticking to their guns. I won't go into all the labyrinthine details, but you can, if you wish get a much longer version here which is written by a fan (so it's obviously a tad partial, but it does give roughly the story I've heard myself from various sources without all the detail, so I think it's fairly close to the truth).

The upshot of all the shenanigans is that Zambon took his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport which upheld his claim (mostly because it is only actually allowed to accept evidence from the national federation which was still covering up its previous errors). The CAS decreed that the Timisoara-based team were no longer entitled to use the club badge, colours, name, and even club songs (that last bit was eventually withdrawn as it was seen to be somewhat unworkable to stop all the fans singing them). FIFA stepped in and demanded that the CAS decision be respected, and thus the club were renamed Politechnica 1921 Stiinta Timisioara (and subsequently, after this was deemed not sufficiently different, FC Timisoara) and the colours changed from white and violet to white, purple and black.

At the beginning of this season FC Timisoara were docked 6 points (by the FRF on the say so of FIFA) for not changing the colours enough (violet to purple was not sufficiently different they felt, even though no-one had specified how much the colours needed to be changed). Despite this (or perhaps because of it) FC Timisoara have had a storming start to the season and would be joint top without the deduction. In the meantime the club that still plays with the name near Bucharest have gone down to the 5th level (I think, again reports conflict) which must be basically a pub league.

It should be made clear that while this case bears some similarities with the AFC Wimbledon vs MK Dons Franchise story, there are many more grey areas. It's clear that Zambon has no feeling for the club and its fans, and that the fans (who I submit are the ultimate arbitrator of which club is "real") have made it clear that they consider FC Timisoara to be the the real club and the owner of the history and the symbols. However, the club (FC Timisoara) was owned by the richest man in Romania, oil tycoon Marian Iancu, until he resigned in order to be able to pursue legal cases against the FRF in regards to the whole situation. So, they are not the small fan-funded heroic underdog fighting against injustice and for football that AFC Wimbledon are, but a slightly less sympathetic entity.

Having said this, I have always had a soft spot for the club as they are the only one in Romania who seem to have genuine fans, who show up to every home game in great numbers and sing and chant and make a show of their fandom, and I wish them every success in regaining their club and it's symbols and heritage (and the 6 points)

An English language blog about "Poli"

With friends like these

I've recently been perusing English language blogs that have the word Romania in them for research/laughs. It's quite remarkable how many of such things are written by American missionaries. What are all these people doing here? I have no objection whatsoever to people who have their own beliefs and faith, but I think the idea of travelling half way round the world in order to attempt to shove it down someone else's throat is, how can I put this delicately, fucked up.

Anyway, before I launch into my full-on anti-missionary rant, I'll take a deep breath and share one (non-missionary, but possibly just as bad) I came across yesterday. This was not a blog set in Romania, but from a Conservative county councillor from Kent, one Kevin Lynes. I don't have a great deal of time for tories, I have to say (this is a bit of an understatement), having grown up politically in the dark days of the Thatcher government, but that doesn't mean all people who are conservatives are necessarily scum, just deluded :-)

Anyway, Kevin, who seems to like to go by the name Kevin, which presumably is Tory party policy these days, in deference to "Dave" (he might go the whole hog and try "Kev" I suppose, but for now he's opted to sit on the fence between old and new Toryism and gone with Kevin. Probably quite wise. Keep your options open and all that), writes of a meeting he had with Prince Radu, the son in law of "the current King Mihai" (he's not really the king, fact fans, he's just a bloke, but let's not let that interrupt our enjoyment of Kev's insightful comments). Apparently Romania has been robbed of its national identity (as far as I can tell, this means it has been robbed of its monarchy, which I would contend is not quite the same thing). Mind you it can't harm to have people, even people like Kev, looking out for Romania, so while I'm taking the piss a fair bit, the outcome is probably not, in the grand scheme of things, a waste of time. But there were two bits of the commentary which really cracked me up (well one cracked me up and the other made me laugh in that kind of tragicomic-head-in-hands type way).

The laugh out loud bit was this: "I felt compelled this weekend to send an email to the Prince’s office to thank him for taking the time to talk to us and to commend him on his vision document. Within three hours, even with the time difference, he had replied warmly and personally to thank me for my message."

Even with the time difference? It's an email, Kev. It's not affected by time differences. Honestly. It doesn't sit in a queue waiting for the clocks to catch up, it just goes. You're going to have to trust me on this.

The other bit was this "He fundamentally could not understand why the European Parliament can discuss the shape of bananas ad nauseam, yet cannot bring itself to debate the theft of a national identity.".

The old bananas line! I thought it had died out. For those unfamiliar with the Euro-Sceptic arm of British politics and media, there was (is) this obsession with the idea that the EU tried at some unspecified point in the past to define how straight and how curved a banana could officially be. Now, I have asked many people who have said this to provide evidence that this debate actually occurred, but so far none of them have actually done so. Now the EU is very hot on documenting things, and you can be quite sure that if it really did come before the European parliament that there would be very clear and accessible records of such an event. Despite this, I have yet to see any evidence of this incredible, fantastic, self-parodic event. I would like to hazard a guess, just a hunch you understand, that IT NEVER FUCKING HAPPENED.

Aren't you glad, that given the implosion and incompetence of New Labour people like Kev are going to be running the country soon. We'll soon sort those Eurocrats out!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


In the second of our holidays this year (hark at us, two foreign holidays and owners of an out-of-town estate for weekending. Fancy bastards. But don't be fooled. I'm still, I'm still Andy from the block) we went to England (Or Inglia as Paula calls it). Now I know England is a fancy holiday destination for many people, but you'll have to take it from me that spending a fortnight in August in guaranteed grey skies and sub 20 degree temperatures is not really my idea of a well-used summer. Still...

Good things about England:
  • It's got my extended family in it
  • Ditto some friends
  • Many free museums and art galleries
  • Indian food
  • Excellent beer
  • Pubs
  • National parks
  • Pubs in national parks
  • Beautiful scenery and nice villages
  • Pubs in nice villages in beautiful scenery
  • Public footpaths
  • Walking along public footpaths in beautiful scenery in national parks with family and friends and stopping in a nice village for a fantastic pint at a great pub
Possibly there was a little bit of repetition there.

Bad things about England
  • The weather
  • The prices of everything (except for the free museums and art galleries)
  • The weather
  • Traffic
  • The weather
  • The way that public transport is designed specifically to rip off foreign visitors (you have to buy train tickets weeks in advance in order not to need a second mortgage to travel 5 miles, you have to have an Oyster card in London, blah blah blah)
    [On the other hand, foreigners don't get charged to drive on motorways - why doesn't the UK do what many countries inc. Hungary, Austria, Switzerland do and force visitors to pay a temporary road tax? It's all a bit baffling]
  • The weather
  • The quality of the food. Now this sounds like I'm out of touch a bit, but it's true - 20 years ago, food in pubs was utter garbage, but then there was this wave of change and food in many pubs became interesting and different and well prepared. Now it seems like things have slipped back again, and pub food is just bland and a bit rubbish again. Obviously you can get delicious food from any country in the world in restaurants, but outside those things have really gone downhill. Why is that?
  • Did I mention the prices? And the godawful weather?
Anyway, we had a very good trip (despite the weather/price thing). My father-in-law came along too, which I knew would be interesting since he is a man who loves to travel, but mostly, it seems, so he can remind himself how good Transylvania is and how rubbish everywhere else is. Erika took him to Barcelona about 5 years ago, and he still regales all and sundry with tales of this terrible "tapas" that he was subjected to there. I jokingly warned my mother that she ought to prepare a couple of soups to keep him happy, but then was surprised to discover that in fact he really was freaked out by a lack of daily soup in the diet (and even when we had soup, even though it was pronounced delicious, it was the "wrong kind of soup"). I'll no doubt hear this Christmas when he starts holding court after a couple of palinkas, what other things the English do wrongly (there's no room for shades of grey, you'll understand).

The second week of our stay we spent in a house in Runswick Bay in the North York Moors - an area of the country I hadn't been to for donkey's years, and one which is spectacularly beautiful (and well endowed with great pubs serving Black Sheep, a truly delicious beer - hence it ticked many of the boxes above). The heather was flowering on the moors, the weather could have been worse (though it could have been much much better, let's not get carried away), my whole family managed to make it, and we had a great time. My father in law was particularly interested in the beach and the tides. There aren't really tides round these parts - the Black Sea and the Med don't have them, and so the idea of the sea coming in and out (a total difference in height of 5 metres between high and low tide when we were there) and the wildness of the beach, was really fascinating for everyone. Also visiting a waterfall called "Falling Foss" which amused the Hungarian speakers of the party. For me it was the roads which had signs warning you of 20%, 25%, 28% and (in one place) 33% gradients which were the real trip. They make the road coming down Harghita towards Csikszereda look flat.

Some pictures:
Multi-punt pile-up.

Most English scene ever - Morris Dancing in the pissing rain
(outside Lincoln Cathedral)

Beer arriving at one of those pubs-in-gorgeous-villages I was mentioning (Beck Hole, N. Yorks)

Whitby - deeply linked through fictional character to Transylvania
(and through non-fictional character to Australia)


Arty pic, that was in no way staged. We found the stones looking like that just as the sea washed them ashore. Honest.

Runswick Bay at lowish tide

Heather on the moors

Mad half-English child ventures into icy North Sea

Alacant let go

What can I say about Alicante/Alacant? On the negative side, it's a pretty ugly place. There is a castle on a hill in the middle of the town, and there's the sea and the beaches, which lend some appeal to the place, but that aside it's just ugly modern apartment building after ugly modern apartment building.

On the plus side, the weather is great, and the food and wine are delicious. Before this trip, turrón was something I'd only had in one of those hard blocks that is common to eat in Spain at Christmas, but every meal seemed to end with some delicious new variation on the almond rich cakey type theme, or on a couple of occasions even a turrón ice cream. Alicante wine was a revelation too, as was some of the superb food we ate - one dish with spinach raisins and pinenuts was particularly superb. I also had the best Mexican meal I've eaten since I was in California. (I did do some work, too, honest).

And finally, I feel I ought to mention the hotel we stayed in - the abba centrum. It's part of a Spanish chain, and it was excellent - very high quality business hotel at an extremely reasonable price. I'm not usually one to rave about these things, but it was really good. Shame it has to be named after that mawkish seventies Swedish pop group, but I guess you can't have everything.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Le Tour du Monde

Way back when the Internet was new to me, I happened upon a website which was following something called the Whitbread Round the World Race. This was back in 97/98 for what it's worth. At that time, it was by far and away the very best website I'd ever seen - it was interactive, it was well designed and it was addictive. Every day I went back to see how far the boats had gone, which one was leading, whether they'd become becalmed in the doldrums, etc. It successfully made a sport which is completely spectator unfriendly (since it takes place in the middle of the ocean between boats separated by hundreds of miles) into one which was gripping and involving and watchable. [By the way, I remembered the name of the company which had created and designed and maintained the site - Quokka Sports - but a quick web search would suggest that they went bust once the mainstream corporate media caught up with what they were doing and copied it, which is, I suspect, how these things go. But anyway, I digress...]

Obviously things have changed on the internet, and there are now loads of well-designed and interesting sites (and a hundred times more which are neither), but I still remember looking at that site and being able to marvel at not only the content but the concept and the technology that went into the site itself. So, it was kind of a nostalgic moment when I discovered that as well as hosting me last week, Alacant was also hosting the beginning of the 2008/2009 version of this race (and there were signs and ads all round town directing one to the race village - and significantly fewer such signs directing one to the author of Csikszereda Musings, for some reason)

The race, now no longer the Whitbread Round the World race, since a not-very-good brand of beer only available in the UK was an illogical sponsorship partner for such an event, is now called, much more logically, the Volvo Ocean Race (I suppose Volvo are at least a global brand, though that's about as close a link as I can work out. The race will stop briefly in Sweden I believe, so that's another tenuous link). It starts on October 11th, but the race village opening party was on Friday, and everything's gearing up for the off - there are sponsors buildings where you can play games and look at stuff about Volvo, Puma, Telefonica and so on, should you be completely at a loose end and have finished counting the grains of sand on Alicante beach or any other more interesting activities. You can go and look at the boats, and see what kind of conditions that the race takes place under - there are 11 people on each boat, and let me tell you, they're not very big, and there are no showers, and you could be away from port for 35 days at a time, and you might even get swept overboard. I was left with the impression that the people who participate in this race are both extremely brave and somewhat mentally deranged.

Anyway, it's no longer run by the innovative Quokka Sports, but I'm guessing the website for the race will be worth watching once it gets under way. We were staying in the same hotel as the Eriksson 4 team, so I'm "supporting" them (by which I mean, I'll keep a vague eye out for their position in the race).
The race village as seen from the castle - the bit with the white tent like things at the top left of the jetty is it.

The Puma and Telefonica boats. 11 people in those things. For weeks at a time. Nutters.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Alacant post

Am currently in Alicante (or Alacant as it's known in Valenciano, the local language/dialect of Catalan) working on a European Union project. One day, before too long, I must write a post outlining why I think the European Union has an awful lot going for it, despite its (well-reported) flaws. And not just because I've been flown to the warmth of the Mediterranean coast (27 degrees today) from the grey, rainy and prematurely chilly Csikszereda (8 degrees today!). No, I have real reasons not associated with my personal comfort. Honest.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Beyond the Palin

So, to sum up:

The USA looks quite likely to elect a man as president who's main qualification appears to be that he spent part of his younger years dropping bombs on innocent people, and then subsequently got shot down and spent some time in jail (not that I want to belittle his time in jail, which I'm sure was not exactly a bed of roses - and since in the last 8 years the US has managed to acquire a reputation for torturing people, this might actually prove to be of some use to him). This man is a bit off the wall, and regularly loses his temper quite spectacularly or goes into some kind of bizarre mental loops where he says he can't remember anything and people should stop asking him difficult questions. He is also 72 years old. He looks healthy enough, frankly, but, should the worst happen, then power will transfer into the hands of...

Sarah Palin. A religious fundamentalist who doesn't believe in evolution, who thinks that the war in Iraq was God's will, and who urged people in Alaska to pray to get a gas pipeline built. Someone who claims that she is "as pro-life as any candidate can be" yet believes that gay people shouldn't get health care, and that capital punishment is a good idea (and presumably the right to life doesn't extend to Iraqis). Oh, and she thinks the environment is just something that gets in the way of making money. Drill for oil, and kill polar bears, appear to sum it up.

She is billed by the Republican party as a "typical" American. Well, you know I lived in the US for 6 years, and in all of that time, I never met anyone mad or stupid enough to believe in creationism. I never met any of these vocal but minority fundamentalist nutters who hate gays and oppose Roe vs Wade. I never met any fervent gun rights advocates, and most people I met were very concerned about the environment. She is in no way typical. She's typical of the extreme religious right of the Republican party, not typical of anything else. The only way in which she's a "typical" American is in the fact that she's white, which is presumably what they're not-so-subtly getting at here.

With this lot with the very real possibility of taking over the White House from the previous bunch of fanatical cretins, with Putin/Medvedev in charge in Russia and with bigoted warmonger Benjamin Netanyahu likely to take over in Israel before long, I reckon we're all doomed. And not because of the large hadron collider either.

Roman Conquest

Blimey. Well that was, errm, unexpected. I've never seen CFR Cluj play that well, not even last season when they won everything. Roma were pretty clueless but even so.

We'll gloss over the more important results of the night in the English second division, but for a minor competition the Champions League made up slightly for the less-than-happy night in real football.

The only downside is that I now have a "Gangster's Paradise" earworm

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


I am regularly flabbergasted at the ways advertisers find to insert naked or scantily clad young women into their work, but this one takes the biscuit.

What was the thinking that went on behind this? The anti-smoking campaign isn't working well enough, we need to attract people's attention - we need...naked women. Yes, that'll do it. This is bound to stop people smoking.

It's not, by the way, in case you were wondering, going down the well worn, and I suspect quite successful route of highlighting the link between smoking and impotence (somehow in the minds of most blokes the following thought processes occur "Suffer a slow and lingering death? Hmm, C'est la vie. But not be able to get it up? OK, I think I'll stop") No, the headline reads (roughly, and bearing in mind that my Romanian is rubbish) "Is smoking your only pleasure?" (To which presumably the answer would be "No, but it's one of them")

I think they'd have got a lot more interest if they'd put the other, secondary line at the top "Now there is help for you to quit". That, with the picture, would have had people flocking to call the number.


Time for a short Transylvanian sporting update.

Starting, obviously, with Ice Hockey, since that's what Csikszereda lives, breathes, and gets vaguely enthused by. After two seasons in which Sport Club Miercurea Ciuc have taken part in both the Romanian and Hungarian leagues, and one season in which the other team, HC Csikszereda, did the same, it became clear to everyone that Romanian teams participating in the Hungarian league got much better from the increased competition, and so to be competitive you therefore had to be taking part in Hungary too. An invitation had been on the table for the other big club in Romania, Steaua Bucharest, to join up too, but they'd always refused. This year however, having failed to qualify for the league final for the first time since ice was invented (by Gunther Eis, an Austrian physicist, in 1902), Steaua realised that they needed to be in it. However, somehow they managed to convince everyone else to turn the league into a combined Hungarian Romanian league.

With me so far? Good, because now it gets really confusing.

So there is a league (the MOL League) comprising ten teams - 6 from Hungary and 4 from Romania - as well as the three mentioned above, Romania's fourth representative are Progym Hargita Gyöngye, from Gyergyószentmiklós (Gheorgheni) (another town in Harghita County). There is still some kind of rump Hungarian league in which the 6 Hungarian teams will participate in after this league has finished, and which will be based in some way on the league positions obtained here. I'm not really sure. As for the Romanian league, I have no idea. I can't find information about any plans whatsoever, so perhaps this league will be it. There doesn't seem to have been a cup this year either, and normally the season opens with the Romanian Cup. Just to complicate matters still further, one of the Hungarian teams in the league is the reserve team of Alba Volan who actually now play in the Austrian league.

Flushed with excitement at all these incomprehensible rule changes, the Romanian clubs have gone out and brought in players of a calibre not previously seen in this part of the world. There are Swedes playing for both of the teams here, and they are supposed to be good. I haven't actually seen any obviously Swedish people walking around with broken noses - the sign of a hockey player - but I presume they are here somewhere. I'd guess they were living it up in some gated community of millionaires and celebrities, but this is Csikszereda and we don't have one. Steaua have gone one better and brought in a Canadian who once played in the NHL (the first former NHL player to have ever been signed by a Romanian team). I'm not quite sure how much this bloke played in the NHL, and possibly it was just once for five minutes at the end of the game his team was winning 7-0 at the time, but still. It's all very high powered (I'm told). The season has already begun (another sign of encroaching winter) and the Romanian teams are already all at the top of the league (albeit after only two games).

Meanwhile in football, this evening sees the debut of CFR Cluj in the Champion's League, which since I'm nominally a CFR fan, I ought to be excited about, but I'm not really. they're going to get seriously bulldozed by all three teams in the group and it's just going to be fuel for the likes of Becali and the compliant Romanian media to rail against anything that doesn't come from Bucharest. Broadly speaking football in the country (at least in terms of the media) is Steaua (with some attention given to Rapid and Dinamo, and everybody else merely obstacles between those three and each other). it's really dull, and CFR Cluj's rubbish start to the season (they've already sacked the manager who got them the league and cup double last year) means that this will be a disaster. (I ought to point out that Gigi Becali, the main reason I despise Steaua with such passion, is not in any way associated with the ice hockey team of the same name, so they are in no way as abhorrent as Steaua the football team)

Meanwhile, the League is currently being led by a bunch of upstarts from a scruffy little town (Urziceni) which is on the road towards the beach. They are managed by Dan Petrescu who used to play for Sheffield Wednesday, and so, in the absence of the "Dirty Hungarians" of Cluj ((C) the repugnant Becali family), having them at the top is the next best thing. Anyone but Steaua really.


Some small notes about this blog

You may have noticed I've been a bit more active this week. I hope to keep it up. I've also made a couple of changes elsewhere - on the right hand side, near the top, just under that Dopplr thing that takes forever to load and tells you where I am (just in case of the remote possibility that you give a shit), there's something called a Twitter feed (I think). It's basically a one sentence thing saying what I'm doing at that moment (well, or at the moment when I last updated it). The advantage of it is that I can update it by text message, so I can sort of add stuff to the blog when I'm in weird places far from the Internet. I suspect i'll get bored of it soon, but for now, it's amusing me.

Further down that column near the bottom is a representation in flags as to where the visitors for this site are coming from. I put it on a couple of days ago, and at the moment the first place appears to be a straight fight between Romania and the USA. Not quite sure why I'm getting so many hits from the US, but I do have a fair few of friends there, so I suspect that's got something to do with it.

This blog also exists elsewhere (and has done for a while) on wordpress here. I put it there ages ago, thinking I'd go the whole hog and put all of it there, since I like the way it looks more. But then I thought it was a bit unfair on the people who've been kind enough to link here to force them to change the link, so I haven't done so. It gets updated much less often than this one and with exactly the same content, so you're not missing anything.

I'm still tinkering, so expect to see a few more changes in the next few weeks. That photo I've put up is bugging me, for example, so I reckon I'll take it down fairly soon (as soon as I can locate a replacement).

Monday, September 15, 2008

Brush strokes

Yesterday I did some gardening. It's very rare that I've ever been in a position to proclaim such a thing, so I'll just ponder it for a moment...

...Ok, that's done. Yes, me, gardening. This wasn't, however, the gentle and sedate clipping the heads off roses or picking tomatoes type of gardening that my mother does, but more your kind of slash-and-burn industrial strength gardening.

On Saturday I went out and purchased a tool that is described on the box as a "brushcutter", and I suspect that's as good a description as I could come up with - basically a lawnmower for people who don't have lawns, but have brush. Serious brush. We basically have a bit of land which is covered in fast growing vegetation ranging from what I suspect are young trees to clumps of thick grass to nettle plantations to some kind of creeping vine like thing and everything in between. It's not, shall we say, suitable for golf. Anyway the brushcutter is a machine in which a two stroke engine powers a rotating drum from which two lengths of plastic wire protrude, which as you might imagine whip through the vegetation with some force. It's quite fun, though also fairly noisy and somewhat physically strenuous - my muscles are complaining bitterly this morning, and it may be that soon my arms will seize up altogether curtailing all blogging until further notice. (Nettles, by the way, are great fun to slash to death, vanishing in a deeply satisfying blur of shredded greenery. The vine thingy and the grass are much trickier, being tough and unyielding and requiring repeated butchery to cut them down to size).

As I cut, I uncovered vast troves of ripe plums. The trees which are all over the garden are heavy with fruit, and as we've been away (coupled with the whole nettle thing) , harvesting has been neglected, and so we have a garden full of plums buried in the vegetation. One branch on one tree has actually broken under its own weight which seems a bit excessive - that tree must be feeling very foolish for having miscalculated so spectacularly.

In a bit of fortuitous synchronicity, though, we had discovered on Saturday what we could do with all these plums (other than making enough jam to flood the market and bring the price of plum jam plummeting to its lowest levels since records began). It seems that in Csíkszentgyörgy (the next village, which is effectively the same village - Ciucsângeorgiu in Romanian), there is a palinka distillery. We haven't fully worked out the system yet, but it seems that it works like this. You pick your plums and stick them in barrels and mash them up a fair bit. You then leave them like that to ferment until sometime around Christmas at which point you take them to the distiller and he converts the fermented plum mush into palinka for you. (Not free I presume - I guess we either have to pay him in palinka like farmers used to pay the miller in sacks of flour, or, as this is the capitalist 21st century, possibly in cold hard cash). So, at some point in the not too distant future we will have our own palinka, which is a very exciting prospect. (Lest I get too carried away with how exciting this all is, apparently a 100 litre barrel of plums produces about 10 litres of palinka, so we're not talking about massive amounts of the stuff, but I reckon we'll be able to fill 2-3 such barrels, so it's not nothing - as people round here are fond of saying)

Our neighbour, from whose well we are at present getting water (until such time as we have our own), is 95. Yesterday she and her young (probably around 80) friend engaged me in what might be described charitably as conversation talking about Csikszereda (a full 16 km away) like it was the other side of the world. Telling me about people they knew who had been to Csikszereda and even someone they knew that lived there nowadays. It occured to me that when she was born, Bankfalva wasn't even in Romania, and I would love to sit down and talk to her and ask her loads of questions about her life and how stuff has changed, but the fact that (a) she's pretty deaf; and (b) while my Hungarian can stand up in predictable situations like in restaurants and shops, it's not even close to being adequate for the task at hand; means that the communication difficulties will probably be insurmountable. I'll have to stick to brush clearance.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Bosnia Meg

It was quieter this morning, my local noise polluter only indulged in a sport of impromptu hammering at 6.53 and then stopped soon afterwards. So, it may be time to briefly (you'll be delighted to learn) relate some points of limited interest about our recent trip to Croatia. We once again went to Brela as last year, and as I've already written about that (and it hasn't changed much), I won't bore you with any more. I also wrote (at length) about the trip to get there through Romania, Hungary and Croatia.

This year we chose to take a different route, and eschewing the easy-breezy motorways of Hrvatska, went via the most direct route: Csikszereda - Timisoara - Belgrade - Sarajevo - Brela. Now we had been specifically warned off travelling through Bosnia with reports of terrible roads and lack of infrastructure. Everyone I asked for recommendations looked at me with an exaggeratedly raised eyebrow and an "Are you sure you want to drive through Bosnia?"

Before reaching that dangerous land though we first had to go through a minor (but potentially disastrous)mechanical failure that mercifully becalmed us not in the middle of Bosnia or even in Deva or somewhere, but still within the safe confines of Szekely Land, where we have people we know who could help out (and they did - hugely). So after a short but worrying break wondering what Plan B was of 5 unscheduled hours in Székelykeresztúr (Cristuru Secuiesc), we were back on the road.

We had hoped to get to Timisoara by mid afternoon to spend the time with some friends, but obviously that didn't happen, so we just had to get the benefit of their munificent hospitality for a few short hours before collapsing exhausted. The next morning it was up and on to the former Yugoslavia. We reached the border on the road from Timisoara to Belgrade and it was there that we encountered our second problem of the trip - the car insurance green card that we had purchased for just this international out-of-the-EU eventuality was shown by a smirking Serb border guard to not actually include Serbia. So we had to buy insurance at the border - for €135. For about 4 hours of being in Serbia. Were we annoyed by this eventuality? Somewhat. I was even tempted to use exclamation marks there to underline the upsetting nature of the whole experience.

Anyway, we swallowed our irritation, bought the bloody insurance, and trundled onwards towards Belgrade. I have very few skills of which I can be proud, but one of the ones which I do have is the uncanny ability to navigate my way through unfamiliar places. Give me a map for a few minutes pre-arrival so I know roughly what I'm heading for, and then let me loose. Thus it was that through the chaos of downtown Belgrade after crossing the Danube that I amazed my passengers and the car following us, by exactly getting onto the road we wanted to be on leaving the city, without backtracking once and despite the fact that there wasn't a single sign to be seen anywhere. I might be crap at most things, but if they made urban navigation an olympic sport I could be in TeamGB (TM) at the 2012 Olympics.

Onto a motorway (our only one of the trip) and into the top end of Croatia, before cutting south into the badlands of Bosnia. The first bit we were in was the "Republika Srpska" and it did look a bit trashed up to be honest, with loads of still gutted and burned out houses. It kind of oozed post war poverty, and to add to the feeling it had started raining the moment we crossed the border from Croatia at Slavonski Brod. The road was fine though, the only slight difficulty being that the road signs were all in Cyrillic (unlike Serbia, for example), as some kind of continuing statement of non-Bosnian-ness. As soon as we saw the first minaret as we approached the non-border between the two semi-partitioned bits of the country, the sun came out and the rebuilding seemed to have come on much further. I presume, though don't know for sure, that the Muslim-Croat bit of the country has been getting aid from various sources since the war and the Serb bit less so (and perhaps the burnt out houses were previously owned by ethnically cleansed Muslims anyway who understandably weren't that desperate to move back in). Anyway, it was quite a contrast in the two regions.

However, despite the dire warnings of people from all over the place the roads in Bosnia were perfectly fine. They don't have motorways (but then neither does Romania for the most part), so everything is single lane winding roads along gorgeous valleys - you can't go fast, but in scenery like that who'd want to? The roads themselves are perfectly fine and comparable with the better ones in Romania. (As we approached Sarajevo, mind you, we did actually find ourselves guided onto a brand new motorway, causing Erika to bury her head in her hands and mutter about the shamefulness that a country so recently torn to pieces by civil war should have managed to get itself together enough to start work on infrastructure projects that Romania still talks and argues and does bugger-all about. Someone is getting very rich off the mysterious Bors-Brasov motorway, but there is precious little evidence of anyone actually doing any work).

I did my 21st Century Magellan bit in Sarajevo again, skipping through the city with ease and finding our hotel on the first go. We then wandered into Bascarsija, the old bit of the city, and had a delicious Turkish style dinner, with copious beer, before retiring. The next morning we saw it all again in daylight and without the beer. All very attractive and like a mini-version of the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. We then headed off along more gorgeous valley roads to Mostar. Mostar was even more war ravaged than Sarajevo (and of course Mostar was a city ripped apart by its own residents who now still live side-by-side, which is not exactly the case in Sarajevo), but it seems to have a lively tourist industry going on centred on the old town and the famous bridge which was recently rebuilt and reopened (luckily from a distance and from on it, you can't see that the keystone is carved with the words Red Bull on the outside).

From there it was on to Medugorje for the Catholic members of our party to get their religious kicks. Medugorje being a place of pilgrimage since the 80s when a group of teenagers started chatting to Mary of an evening. Not a local resident called Mary, you understand, but the mother of Jesus - that Mary. Anyway, I discovered that one of them is still having a chinwag with her every year and she does this kind of annual message thing, rather like the Queen at Xmas, or the headmaster of a school at the beginning of the academic year (to choose a topical analogy). No idea what she says, but it seems to be of the "Greetings my children, keep going to church and you will find my son in your hearts" variety. Because the place is so new (or at least it is as a tourist destination) it's not really very interesting to the non-follower, being essentially just a huge great modern church stuck in the middle of a nondescript village which is now filled with loads of shops selling religious paraphernalia and kitsch (though I didn't see anything quite as fantastic as the Jesus-on-the-cross snowstorms or the moving eye pictures of h(H)im with his crown of thorns and everything - look his eyes are open, no closed, open, closed - that they sell at Bom Jesus in Braga, Portugal.)

From there it was on through the world's most laid back border crossing (Bosnian guard on deckchair cleaning nails with large knife grunts and moves head very slightly to indicate "go on", followed by Croatian guard who does actually check that you have things that look like passports from a distance before waving you through similarly) and down to the sea at Makarska. It was a great drive, honestly, and tons more interesting than the faster "zipping through Croatia by motorway" approach. (And if your ever need to drive through Bosnia, it's completely fine and extremely pleasing on the eye).

See, I'm back to my long winded and tedious best - it's like I never went away.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Driller killer

This morning was hell. One of our neighbours decided to start doing some drilling work at about 7 o'clock. In any normal country this would be a situation in which you would feel completely justified in calling the police and having them tell him to show some respect for those living around him (though the apartment in question is next to ours, I have no idea who it is as they have a different entrance to the building and a different set of stairs, landing, etc etc). However, for understandable recent-historical reasons the idea of grassing up your neighbours to the authorities is pretty taboo here, so I didn't. Plus it would have taken energy I didn't have, so I instead resorted to just lying in bed wishing that he would be electrocuted by his drill, and then latterly (and in an indication of how knackered I was) falling asleep and incorporating the torturous noise into a dream . Luckily not a dream of dentists or trepanning, but one in which I was staying in a good hotel and someone in the next room was drilling and so I went all the way to the other side of the hotel grounds to locate the customer service people and tell them how pissed off I was, and being able to tell them "Listen, you can even hear it all the way over here". (They gave me a free dinner as a way of making up for the disturbance, which was fair I thought)

Still it's not the best way to wake up. It's bad enough struggling out of sleep thinking of all the unending lists of things you have to do that day, but to wake up and wish painful and juddering electrical death on someone you haven't met (or even, I dare to suggest, someone you have) is not a great frame of mind in which to start the day.

In other recent flat related irritations news, just between our two recent holidays (to Croatia and the UK, since you ask), we had a three day window at home. There was a paper affixed to the door of the building warning us in both Hungarian and Romanian that the hot water would be turned off on one of the days as some repairs were done. Since we don't use the hot water from the central system, but instead have our own gas heater, this was of no great concern to us, so we did nothing about it. In the morning in question, the taps were empty. All of them. Nothing, not a drip nor a drop of water could be found anywhere. I went back outside to check the notices, and discovered that overnight some bureaucratic scamp had been by to cross out the word "hot" in both languages and write in (in pen) "cold" instead. Oh, how we laughed, and didn't get at all annoyed at this little prank, no sirree.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


So, I'm back from my holiday and have decided on a slight change of direction for this blog. Or more like a return to its original direction,which was kind of directionless in the first place. By which impenetrable sentence I mean that, my initial idea was for this to be a place where I could file my rambling thoughts, many of which would be thoughts about what it's like to live where I do in Romania. As time went on, I have kind of got distracted by the latter, and began to feel like that was probably the main "purpose" of the blog, which in turn meant if I didn't feel like I had much to say about the whole "living in Romania" bit, I wouldn't write anything at all.

So anyway, my intention is to be somewhat more active than I have been of late, and not to feel limited by some internally imposed boundaries. Not that I'll disregard the "living in Romania" stuff since, after all, I do, when it comes down to it, live in Romania, but that I'll just ramble on aimlessly and to no great literary value about some other subjects too. So, lucky you.

I'd start now, but I got up at 4 o'clock yesterday morning, drove to an airport, flew to Budapest, and then got an overnight train to Csikszereda (all the time accompanied by justifiably tired and fractious children and a remarkably calm and patient wife) , before going straight to work to write an article and a conference proposal and to catch up on my email, so I'm a bit buggered to be honest, and my opinions on Sarajevo, Sarah Palin and, errm, saracens will have to wait.