Monday, March 30, 2009

Ceausescu's excrement

I'm in the UK this week, and probably not likely to be here much, but I just wanted to mention that on Saturday night just after I arrived there was a documentary on BBC2 about Ceausescu, which was a bit less fascinating than I hoped, but still had some interesting nuggets of information. Chief among which was that Nicolae employed someone to destroy his excrement so that foreign agents couldn't get hold of it and analyse it to check on the state of his health. How do you destroy shit? Blow it up? Fire it off into space? Throw it against a fan? Flush it down the toilet?

He also insisted that Romanian TV never filmed him doing anything normal - like eating, drinking, wiping sweat off his brow, coughing, that kind of thing.

I'd tell you to watch it on BBC iPlayer (the title of the programme was "The Lost World of Communism"), but because nothing in the world makes sense you can only watch BBC iPlayer in the UK (which also happens to be the only place in the world that you can actually watch the programmes on TV in the first place - go figure). I believe you can trick the BBC iPlayer into believing you live in the UK, but it's beyond my technical abilities, so I've never done it, and can't pass on the way of doing it to you. But if you manage it, let me know.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Putting on the breaks

OK, so I’ve had a go at Hungarian TV and its love of dubbing, and now it’s the turn of Romanian TV. Not for dubbing (they don’t, they subtitle *roars of approval*), but for the advertising breaks. It’s not so much the content of the adverts themselves, which are rubbish, but no different from anywhere else (loads of really crap ads for things you don’t want, with one or two funny ones mixed in as well as the standard highly produced ones telling vomit-inducing sweet little stories to a cutesy indie backdrop for mobile phone network providers), as the length of the advertising breaks themselves.

In the UK people typically use the ad breaks to nip to the toilet and have a slash. Or, occasionally, go and put the kettle on. In a football match for example, you might make trip to the fridge to get a bottle of beer. All these activities are doable within a normal sized break, allowing one to settle back down in one’s chair just before the action restarts. In Romania, you can not only go to the toilet, you could run a bath, lie in it for half an hour until the water gets too cold, get out, shave, trim your nose hairs, get dressed, go to the kitchen, cook a large dinner, go out and buy a bottle of wine, invite your friends round, eat the dinner, play scrabble a couple of times, and then clean the house from top to bottom, before settling back down – and you’d still have time to make serious inroads into A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu (to be fair you probably wouldn’t get past the first book of the three, unless you were a really fast reader) before the programme restarts. It’s insane. I have no idea how people stand for it.

Not only are the advert breaks interminably long, but they are also placed in such a way as to really really disrupt the film or whatever you happen to be watching. Some exciting, nerve-wracking piece of the action? The crux of the plot, in which the dying old men begins to explain what has gone before? The moment when the hero is halfway through cracking the code? This is when the ads cut in. By the time the film returns whatever tension has been built up has gone, and to be honest you’ve forgotten what the film was about in the first place. Not only that, but on a number of channels they’ve decided that the best time to have one of these endless breaks is 5 minutes before the end of a film. I actually, out of interest, timed all this the other day – just before the end of a film on Pro TV, the ads cut in. The break was 22 minutes long. 22 fucking minutes. Twenty-fucking-two fucking minutes. Then the film came back for the denouement – 4 minutes. But if you’ve got that far in a film, you really need to watch those last 4 minutes. And that of course is what they’re counting on, that you will have to wait and wait, and started plucking your own eyes out in frustration until you get to watch the conclusion which you knew was coming anyway.

The concept of the half-time show in football is unknown here. There is no half-time show. There’s just 15 minutes of adverts. The broadcast stops when the ref blows his whistle and restarts when the match does. No half-time analysis, no highlights, no review of the action. I have no idea if they have any of that stuff at the end of the game, since I have never bothered staying on the channel that long. Perhaps after the obligatory 30 minutes of ads, they do actually have a post-match analysis. But I’m not waiting around for it.

And finally, he says, taking a deep breath before launching into the last element of this angry angriness, many of the channels have this weird propensity to do a kind of mini-skit as the link between the programme and the ads. I have absolutely no idea why, unless it’s just to add a further minute or two on to the break. National TV have this odd “fat policeman walking down a catwalk” thing going on, which I guess (though it’s difficult to really know) is supposed to be amusing. It’s not. Not even the first time you see it. It’s just bizarre. Prima, on the other hand, have this protracted thing with loads of blokes sitting in a company boardroom when two sexy window cleaners appear and put on a little dance. Why? Who the fuck knows.

So, I’ve given up. From now on I have resolved only to watch films and shows of interest on one of the State TVR channels, since they at least never put breaks in the show itself. They do have a lot of ads between shows, but at least the programme is left untouched. (They also show the best programmes anyway, so this is no great hardship)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Between the Woods and the Water

Ages ago, a friend of mine urged me to read “Between the Woods and the Water” by Patrick Leigh Fermor, which is the second volume of a three part book describing the author’s journey walking to Istanbul (from the Hook of Holland) in the 1930s. I had understood that the book was written in the 30s and therefore assumed it was really difficult to get hold of. However last time I was back in the UK I noticed it in a bookshop, bought it, and discovered that it had actually been written and published in the 80s.

So, anyway, my knowledge about the back story to this book is a bit limited because I haven’t read the first one of the series, just this one, the second of three (and I think I understand that the third has still to be written). This book begins with the author crossing the Danube from Slovakia into Hungary, and finishes up with him, again on the Danube, at the “Iron Gates” in southern Romania. In the meantime he crosses Hungary and spends most of the book in Transylvania - hence the reason it had been so highly recommended to me.

As I understand, the 18 year old Fermor set out to walk as much as possible all the way (only accepting lifts in really foul weather), and (I think) to mostly camp out as he did so. However, somehow he has managed to hook into a network of mittel-European aristocrats and he in fact seems to stay far more often in opulent luxury than he does under the stars. I have to confess that my inner class warrior was greatly challenged by this, and by the idea that here we are in the 30s and Fermor is able to put off his Sandhurst/Oxford schooling and take a proto-gap year staying with counts and other landed gentry as he goes. But, pretty quickly, I found myself discarding this struggle and instead allowing myself to be carried along on the enthusiasm, incredible range of knowledge, and wonderful writing style that Fermor has. It is, I’d say, impossible to do otherwise. He’s an absolutely superb travel writer and manages to effortlessly weave into his story vast tracts of history, observations on people and fascinating conversations, as well as seemingly being able to recognise and catalogue every tree and bird that he passes as he goes. It’s an epic achievement. He does all this with such infectious enthusiasm and such conciseness, that I am left somewhat in awe (He manages, for example, to sum up the historical Hungarian/Romanian debate over the history of Transylvania in two pages. Something it has taken me 4 years of writing this blog to not even come close to managing)

Indeed it is one of those books which leaves the reader wishing he had a fraction of the skill that Fermor has in conjuring things up so effortlessly. I have, at occasions in the past, allowed myself a small passing fantasy that I could one day take some of the bits of this blog and form a narrative out of it that might make a reasonable book in the “A Year in Provence” mould, but after reading this book, I feel that I couldn’t even start to do justice to such an endeavour. Perhaps I need to re-read “A Year in Provence” which memory tells me did not quite demonstrate the same level of literary mastery, so that I could remember you don’t have to be an absolutely superb (and absolutely superbly well-informed) writer to get such a thing published.

What’s even more incredible that having walked through this world in the 30s as a late-teenager he doesn’t end up writing the books until fifty years later, based on his notes and memory. I can only observe that this is a man with a superb memory and amazing notes.

After what sounds like a spectacular summer in Transylvania, he eventually crosses the Carpathians and ends up at a place called Orşova on the Danube. To be honest this area of the country had never really crossed my consciousness before – we know someone from Drobeta Turnu Severin, but aside from that it was just that bit of Romania near Serbia that was further east than the Timisoara-Belgrade road/rail link. But he makes it sound incredibly spectacular and worth visiting – the Iron Gates (Porţile de Fier / Vaskapu) in one direction and the Kazan in the other, which are both fast moving narrows (relatively speaking) of the otherwise (by this point) incredibly wide river. Off Orşova he describes the fascinating island of Ada Kaleh, which was kind of a last remnant of the Ottoman empire, mostly Turkish in population (though politically part of Romania). As I was reading I was mentally making plans that this must be the next place in Romania on my visiting wish list. And then you reach the epilogue in which he bemoans the fact that it’s all gone now, thanks a hydroelectric dam constructed as a joint project by the Romanian and Yugoslavian governments in the communist era. Crushing. (Though Mrs H has been since then and hiked around the valleys and canyons nearby and she says it’s still incredibly spectacular)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Muddy ethics

Vármező (Campul Cetatii) is a small village of no great interest (mostly famous among vaguely local people as being the location of one or two well-known trout restaurants) on the intermittently rubbish road between Sovata and Reghin (see map, up there ---^)

We went there not because we have an insane desire to visit obscure and out of the way places, but because Erika's cousin's daughter and her boyfriend live there (my first-cousin-one-removed-in-law?) and work in the local pension. On Friday night a chance online-bumping-into-one-another on Yahoo messenger (I think) and before we could think it through for too long we'd made a reservation at the pension and were working out when to leave in the morning.

The place they work at and that we stayed at is called History which is an odd name for a pension, but there you go. (Erika thinks that it's a dodgy translation of something that would be better rendered as "Reminiscences" or something). The off-season rate was an extremely reasonable rate of 99Lei for the room (in which all 4 of us could comfortably sleep). It was, with no shadow of a doubt, the best hotel room I've stayed in in Romania. Not that I've stayed in that many, but I have done a fair few. Really well designed and well furnished, and the restaurant is superb too. So, if ever you're looking for a place to stay in an out of the way village in the middle of nowhere, then this is the place for you.

We also, as this is the role of my firstcousinonceremovedinlaw, borrowed three ATVs and went out with them. I would have said rented, but family connections and all that meant that we didn't actually pay anything for the privilege. Now here I have to confess some slight moral quandary. You see, I hate ATVs. (By the way, by ATV here I mean "All-Terrain Vehicle" rather than the ITV Midlands TV channel from the 70s). I think they probably trash the environment, and they certainly cause a lot of noise pollution which can be very irritating if you're off out for a nice quiet walk in nature. I feel the same way about snow mobiles - you're off out for a nice walk in beautiful scenery and then someone comes zooming past on some ultra-loud monstrosity. Now, we weren't disturbing anyone's weekend nature ramble, partly because almost no-one in Romania actually goes walking in nature just for the sake of walking in nature (I mean some people do really get out there and out into the wilderness, but the kind of leisure area in between hardcore hiking and sitting around at home is, broadly speaking, unoccupied), and partly because being "mud-season" it's really unpleasant to walk anywhere much.

However the fact that it was muddy, must also mean that we were churning stuff up more than usual. We did stick to the forest roads used by loggers, so in fact we didn't tear up anything that wasn't already being torn up in a much worse way by dirty great trucks lugging out half the trees. In the grand scheme of things then, we weren't really ruining the environment to any great degree (at least relatively), but on a think global, act local basis, I have some serious qualms.

But you know when you're zipping along a muddy road with your three year old daughter wedged between your legs shouting "woohooo" and laughing uncontrollably, it's pretty hard to be that self-flagellating.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Spring springs

Spring made a brief appearance here back in early February, decided it didn't really like being out so early and went back in to hibernation for a while. This Saturday, March 21st, the date when it's actually supposed to show up in the temperate northern hemisphere it decided once again to poke its nose outside and have a look-see. It did so in a very flamboyant way, unusual for this normally reticent season, which prefers to dip its toe into the year bit by bit*. Last week there was more snow and some fairly cold nights (and by fairly cold here I mean sub -10). On Saturday, though, we headed up to spend the weekend in Vármező (Campul Cetatii), a small village in the middle of nowhere, of which a little more later.

There is still a lot of snow on the mountains on the way, and even as late as Friday night it had been snowing in Sovata/Szovata, the nearest place of any size to our destination. But on Saturday morning it was sunny and crisp and beautiful. We chanced upon a meadow full of snowdrops, and by a stream there were as-yet-unblooming crocuses (or is the plural croci?). The next day (yesterday) they had all burst into purple and orange life. Then on our way home we saw a stork. There is no clearer sign of spring in Transylvania than seeing a stork. So all is good. Spring has sprung, and I imagine fauna all over the region are frantically trying to get off with each other (I'm imagining that this is what is happening, not actually conjuring up scenarios in my own fevered perverted imagination, just in case you wondered)

In other nature news, there seems to be a glut of eagles this year. Driving along, you see loads of them, sitting in the still bare trees by the roadside, floating lazily over the fields, swooping menacingly. When I say eagles, I mean birds of prey really, since most of them are not, I think, actually eagles, but some kind of hawks, or buzzards, or what have you. I think the technical ornithological way of distinguishing them is that eagles are "really fucking massive" whereas other birds of prey are just "very very big". I presume this means that there are also loads of mice and voles and shrews and that, but I haven't actually seen any of them. Or it could just be that the smorgasbord of small rodents was laid on last year, causing all these young raptors to make it through their first year, but now having feasted heartily last year, this year will see slimmer pickings and they'll all start buggering off to somewhere with more food in it (or die).

*I understand that winter hates mixed metaphors, so I'm attempting to force it to stay away with all that. It's not that I'm a bad writer, at all , no sirree.

[A few short hours later after posting this... It's only frigging snowing now.] Bloody weather.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Sign of the Times

Setting: The playground in the local park. A 10-year old boy has just heard me speaking English to my daughter and has bravely approached me to practice his language skills

Kid: Are you English?
Me: Yes I am.
Me: (Knowing the answer but wanting to encourage this active learner) What about you?
Kid: I'm from here.
Kid: Do you like football?
Me: Yes - and you?
Kid: Of course. Which team do you support?
Me: (Knowing that the next utterance is about to be met with a blank look) Sheffield Wednesday
Kid (blank look)
Me:(helpfully) They're in the second division.
Kid: (blank look)
Kid: But which of the four big teams do you support?
Me: (unhelpfully because I know very well what he means, I just can't bring myself to let this go) Which four big teams?
Kid: Chelsea, Man United, Arsenal and Liverpool
Me: (honestly) None of them.
Kid: (blank look). (Decides to press on regardless) No, which one of them do you like?
Me: None of them. In fact I dislike all of them.
Kid: What about in the Champions' League. Which one of them do you want to win?
Me: None of them. I want all of them to lose.
Kid: (slightly puzzled) But you're English.
Me: (Thinks: Well I loathe Arsenal with every fibre of my being. I deeply detest Chelsea. I despise Liverpool and I abhor Man United. But I don't think this will be understood and at this age he probably doesn't actually need to know a bunch of synonyms for "hate") I suppose the one I hate least is Man United.
Kid: You like Man United?
Me: Well no, but if they play Arsenal or Chelsea or Liverpool I'd want them to not lose. (Realising this is just making life much too confusing and is only going to dissuade kid from speaking English at all. Plus at 10 he doesn't need to know that being a football fan is actually all about misery, despair, and hatred. Decides instead to slightly change subject) Which one do you support?
Kid: Chelsea. I hope they win the Champion's League this year.
Me: Good luck with that. I hope Porto do.
Kid: (Blank look)

Weird and unfriendly

So, just to follow up on my last post, Solyom did end up coming, but he travelled by car (obviously as an EU citizen Romania can hardly stop him from travelling), which is a fair old drive from Budapest and back. He attended the ceremony at Nyergesteto along with various other Hungarian political figures (Marco Bela, Tőkés László etc), in what was basically a blizzard. He described the revoking of his permission to fly in as "weird" while a Hungarian government spokesman went as far as to call it "unfriendly".

Weird that a few short months ago all was sweetness and light between the governments of Romania and Hungary and now, coincidentally when the populist PSD are in the government, things have got a whole lot frostier.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The perils of translation

The president of Hungary, Laszlo Solyom, was due to visit here this weekend, as part of the March 15th (national Day of Hungarians) celebrations. Some of the most well-known battles in the 1848 uprising (which March 15th commemorates) were fought in this region, and there are therefore some important monuments and events that happen round here. He planned to fly in today to Targu Mures/Marosvasarhely, then helicopter down to Csikkozmas just south of here for one of these events, before high tailing it back to Budapest to take part in whatever celebrations go on there.

However, now, as far as I know the trip is off, and it seems the cancellation is down to some translation issues (plus some populists seizing a chance to make political capital out of shit stirring). Solyom was officially invited here by the president of Harghita County Council, and as protocol demands, the Hungarian government sent word to the Romanian government that he planned to visit and set out his itinerary. Now the original invite was in Hungarian, the diplomatic letter between capitals was in English, and the Romanian media and various members of the PSD (part of the governing coalition) are reporting its contents in Romanian. But somewhere along the line what came as an invite from the "Local government of Harghita County" has turned into the "Self-government of Harghita County". This has caused the aforementioned shit-stirrers to get all righteously het up and cancel permission for his plane to land, thus sparking something of a diplomatic incident. They were even whining on TV last night about how he would be flying in on a "Hungarian Air Force" plane - which is of course true, but then all presidential aircraft are actually officially air force planes, including Basescu's (and most famously "Air Force One" in the US), it doesn't actually mean he's coming in on some heavily armed fighter jet. Also they have concluded that he was coming to make a speech in favour of autonomy for the Szekely - on what basis I'm not sure, since nobody knows what the contents of his speech were going to be, but the PSD lackey on TV last night was reporting this as fact.

I have no idea if the translation issue was an honest error in Budapest or Bucharest, or a purposeful bit of shit-stirring by someone in either one of those two capitals, but it's certainly caused a stir. Hopefully it will all blow over in a few days, and the good relations between Budapest and Bucharest can resume, but if the PSD (nominally a left wing party, but in fact a party who love playing the nationalist anti-minority card) have anything to do with it, I suspect not. (And then of course if FIDESZ come to power in Hungary next time out, which the polls suggest they will, this trans-Transylvanian sniping is going to ramp up a few more notches).

[Slightly later update: In this article , Smaranda Enache, who is by far and away the most believable and worthy politician (of any party and any ethnic origin) in Romania, says that the translation issue is an honest mistake because of how Hungarian renders the idea of local government ("önkormányzat" being most directly translated into English as self-government)]

Friday, March 06, 2009

Aye, there's the dub

Hungarian TV is dubbed. Not all of it obviously, some of it is originally in Hungarian anyway, but foreign language films and series are dubbed into Hungarian. Hungarians are extremely proud of their dubbing industry, and claim it to be fantastic. This may indeed be the case – it’s obviously better than the Polish/Russian dubbing industry which involves the original backing track being muffled a little and one bloke doing sort of a consecutive interpretation job over the top – regardless of what gender, age, species etc the speaker is supposed to be. It does seem also to be superior to the Spanish dubbing system.

The Hungarian dubbing factory seems to employ a large number of dubbers, many of whom do really pretty good accents which seem to stay quite close to the original (the bloke who dubs Thomas the Tank Engine, for example, seems to have managed somehow – at least to my ears – to have come up with a kind of Hungarian Scouse accent). (It doesn't always work flawlessly though, even on kids TV - the woman who dubs Dora the Explorer - who in her Hungarian incarnation teaches English whilst conducting her adventures mostly in Hungarian - for example,seems not actually to speak English rendering her pronunciation extremely amusing and/or cringe-inducing)

My problem is that saying that you are the world’s best dubbers is akin to saying that X is the world’s best instant coffee. It may be true, and you may even be proud of it, but ultimately it’s pride in an excellent version of an inferior product.

Based on my experiences as an action researcher in both teaching English and watching TV (by which I mean I have done both of those things a fair bit, and thought about this from time to time when I''ve got nothing much on), I have long held the theory that countries that dub their TV are significantly worse at speaking English than countries that subtitle. Obviously dubbing/subtitling is not the only variable here, but it is my submission that dubbing is a significant one of the variables. The Portuguese (subtitlers), for example, speak much better English than the Spanish (dubbers). They also speak much better English than the Brazilians who speak the same first language, but who are also dubbers. (There is a stress-timed/syllable timed variable here, which cannot be discounted, but I think it does not account for the whole difference).

Note: This theory excludes my own monolingual countrymen whose language skills are not noticeably improved by the fact that we subtitle and don’t dub, but I’d say that this was because if we import CSI or Desperate Housewives, we don’t need to do either, and if we were actually watching French films three times a week, or daily doses of Venezuelan Telenovelas, we would, I believe, through language exposure be better at those languages. Well, not Venezuelan because that’s not actually a language, but you know what I’m saying here.

Hungary is, according to a Eurostat survey a couple of years ago, which I am unable to locate at the moment, so you’ll have to take my word for it, the most monolingual country in the EU. Bearing in mind that the EU also includes Britain and Ireland, this is a pretty poor show. (I suspect that the numbers of immigrants in the UK and Ireland skew the figures considerably and Hungary really is not quite as bad as to be behind us, but even so the figures show something). Yes, Hungarian is a language which is radically different from English, for example, but then so is Finnish and Estonian and they’re up among the top countries. I’m also fairly certain that Hungarian L1 speakers (for those not familiar with the jargon, L1 means first language) in Romania speak better English than those in Hungary (and this is on top of the fact that Romanian Hungarians have to be functionally bilingual anyway because of the need to speak Romanian. English is, for most people here, a third or fourth language). Romanian TV? Subtitled.

So, join with me in SOD (Subtitling Over Dubbing). We can change the world. There is the minor problem of what to do with the obviously very talented people who are employed in the Hungarian dubbing factory should anyone pay heed to this message and throw off the shackles of voiceover, but there is enough work, I hope, in the cartoons/childrens programmes end of the market (I think subtitling TV programmes which are aimed at children who cannot be expected to be able to read subtitles would be a bit much, I’m not that hardcore of a SODomite. There are branches of our movement who believe that even shows aimed at the very young like In The Night Garden, ought really to be subtitled as it would (in their words) “encourage the lazy little bleeders to learn to read as well as to pick up a second language”.

In the meantime, I’d really like to discover that Albanians of a certain age all speak English with Norman Wisdom’s accent.

Monday, March 02, 2009

"Act your age, not your shoe size"

So sang Prince once, some years ago. Well, he probably sang it more than once, like whenever he did a concert and that, but anyway.

As of today and for the next year, I can take this advice and apply it since the two things have coincided like some kind of other thing when two things coincide. Like, er, an eclipse or what have you.

Despite possible evidence to the contrary I haven't actually started drinking yet. Honest.