Saturday, June 04, 2011

Bucharest redux

Many many years ago, when I was keen and enthusiastic and actually used to write things in this blog, I wrote about my first real trip to Bucharest, here and then again here. Well since that time I haven't really spent a great deal of time in the nation's capital, coming on average once or twice a year for a day or two max. And though I was sort of partially complimentary on those two posts, I had also had some fairly bad experiences (once trying to drive through the city, which is an act I wouldn't wish on anyone, even my worst enemies. I don't think I have many worst enemies - is that something I need to cultivate do you think?), and I also get highly frustrated with the political and media system in Romania being so ludicrously Bucharest-centric (not that I expect it to be Ciuc-centric, but it would be nice if there were to be some acknowledgements from time to time that there is life outside the capital's ring road. This in turn sort of naturally predisposes me against the place, as does the entirely natural envy/resentment of the capital city that every normal person should have in any country.

But now I am back here, and this time for two whole weeks, by far the longest time I've ever spent here. Not that I've had the chance to see and do much as I've been working flat out all this last week. But now it's the weekend and I intend to sleep,laze around all day, doing sod all, go out and experience something of the place. Well, at least after I've written this.

So, stuff that's notable about Bucharest (as far as I have seen this week)
  1. You can buy things. I know you can buy things in most places, but you can buy a wider range of things in Bucharest than you can in somewhere like Csikszereda. To give an example, there is a supermarket just round the corner from the apartment I'm staying in. In that supermarket you can buy things like the ingredients for sushi, or Thai curry paste, or y'know, shit like that. This is very definitely a step up.
  2. As a corollary to that there are restaurants and interesting bars and things. Within 3 minutes walk of my front door here there is an Indian restaurant, a Lebanese place, a Tapas bar, and a Szechuan restaurant. In Csiksereda foreign food is basically Italian or, if you want to be very generous in your description, a Mexican. (But I'm talking seriously generous. Unreasonably generous)
  3. Life is lived on the street much more here. You walk around the city and there are groups of people standing around outside every shop, or just outside houses having loud conversations. I sort of thought it was a cliche that the south of Romania was more Mediterranean and Transylvania more Germanic, but it's actually pretty true in some ways. It does feel like a different country (and I don't just mean to Szereda where the language and stuff is different, but to other cities in Transylvania too)
  4. Traffic in Bucharest seems not as bad I had imagined. I mean I haven't been driving, so perhaps I don't get an accurate picture, but it just seems like a normal big city to me for the most part (the sort of image I had was of near permanent gridlock and really aggressive drivers)
  5. However, the problem with cars here is one of parking. I am told that there just aren't enough parking places in the city, but frankly as a pedestrian it's a right royal pain in the arse, because you can barely walk on the pavements anywhere as there are cars parked on every free bit of space. So you have to walk on the road all the time and then other drivers honk at you for being there. It's really really fucking irritating and it makes me want to key every badly parked car (though if I were to do that it would take me about half an hour to walk one block). If there isn't enough space find someway of limiting the number of cars in the centre of the city. Others cities seem to be able to manage it. If it means banning half the cars one day and the other half the next, then do it. The problem is that drivers here are somehow seen as more deserving than anyone else. I really don't know how people stand it living here. It has driven me mad in a few days, in a year I think I really would snap and start genuinely vandalising cars.
  6. They still have this ridiculous thing on the metro whereby the clock at the end of the platform tells you how long it is since the last train left. This is taking pointless nostalgia to ridiculous levels. Someone assured me yesterday that they have changed this on some stations and they now say when the next one is coming (like someone finally realised that this information might be of slightly more interest), but I have yet to actually use one of these possibly mythical stations
  7. The supermarket mentioned in (1), is called "Mega Image". This is a chain of supermarkets throughout the city. It is a very good supermarket, but it's a really fucking stupid name for a supermarket. What kind of coked-up focus group came up with that? "It'll be great, just think - Mega - punters love mega-stuff. And Image - that's brand conscious right there" "But wouldn't it be better to have a name that at least sounds like it might be a supermarket?" "Hell no, Mega Image is perfect"
  8. Stuff here is expensive. Really expensive. Some things cost the same, but a lot of things seem to cost significantly more. You'd think given distribution costs and economies of scale that things would be cheaper. But no. I guess people charge what they can get away with.
So there you go. Bucharest. That's all you need to know, frankly. Anything else you might read about the city on the internet is just people's opinions. Whereas my opinions, being mine, are actually facts.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A story

This is an entirely fictional post about a made up country which is not in any way based on reality, no sirree.

Let's imagine there is a country. We'll call it Morania. This country has a number of ethnic minority groups living in it, but the vast majority of the population are Moranian. One of these ethnic minorities is particularly sizeable, making up well over 5% of the total population of Morania. We'll call this group Gamars.

One of the Moranian majority's complaints about the Gamar minority is that they never really see themselves as Moranian and cling very tightly to their sense of ethnic identity (as Gamars). This is a not unreasonable observation in many ways, and while the Gamars are more or less integrated into society they keep a certain amount of separation from the Moranian majority. One good example of this would be that Gamars have been very involved politically in Morania, but always within the context of their own ethnic Gamar party.

One way in which there really does seem to be a clear integration is in sport. Many Gamar athletes have represented Morania at their chosen sport, and this is never seen as odd (by either group). Indeed, a number of Moranian national sporting heroes are from various different ethnic groups (including the Gamars).

So, to get to our story, there was this Gamar sportsman, who was really beginning to make a name for himself, and he became an integral member of the Moranian national team for his age group. There was no conflict in his mind in being part of the Moranian team, even though he regarded himself as Gamar. So successful was he that it would be no great exaggeration to suggest that this athlete was possibly the best in the particular Moranian national side he played for. Recently there was an international tournament in which Morania participated. The National side did extremely well, and finished better than anyone expected before the tournament began. Our hero performed out of his skin and did remarkably well, in one or two games carrying the team to victory, and always being the best player in the squad. Everybody around the team was congratulating him and remarking on what a great player he had become. It was clear to everyone at the tournament (both in the Moranian squad and in the other squads) that he was one of the best players at the tournament, and certainly the best Moranian player.

However at the end of the tournament the top player on each team was given an award. For the Moranian squad this award (to everyone's surprise, even the recipient's) was given to another player - of Moranian ethnicity. Afterwards, members of the team's management and those responsible for making the award approached our hero and said (effectively) "Sorry son, that's just the way it's got to be". It was made very clear to him and others around that he had deserved the award but that the people responsible felt that the award needed to go to a Moranian player.

It would be (if this story were in any way true of course) be a very upsetting tale, which would really go to show how even in areas of better integration between Moranians and Gamars, there are still a number of problems. And also would show how this barrier between the two communities is not merely something which the Gamars have erected. Luckily however, I have just come up with this story off the top of my head.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Romanian Education System (2)

OK, part 2 of my searing expose of the problems in the Romanian education system.

This one is the really BIG one. Money.

Romania doesn't have much money to go round. The government has recently signed up to an IMF loan with all the conditions that this usually implies (cuts, cuts, cuts). However, rather than making some sensible economic decisions like having a progressive tax and actually collecting taxes from rich people (and really doing something about corruption and tracking down the billions that vanish every year into personal bank accounts and expensive cars) it has launched into what can only be described as a war on the poor. That sounds melodramatic, perhaps, but take a look at the things proposed so far: Close half the hospitals, cut public sector pay by 25%, cut pensions by 15%, make it easier for employers to sack workers, raise the retirement age by 5 years (women) and 2 years (men), cutting quarter of a million public sector jobs, raise VAT by 5% points to 24%. Not all of these things can or will happen, but it's pretty clear which sector of the population that the Basescu / Boc government wants to attack to get the money from to pay the IMF. And it's not the well-off.

Anyway, inevitably the education system is another victim of these attacks. Not only are teachers salaries being slashed, but it seems that there is basically no money for anything else either. Basescu made a speech last year in which he praised Romania's vast diaspora, mostly working as agricultural labourers and construction workers in Spain and Italy for(a) leaving the country and not burdening the Romanian state with their needs; and (b) sending money back to bolster the Romanian economy. So possibly his plan here is to make this some kind of semi-compulsory national service, sending every able bodied young adult between 20 and 30 abroad to pick strawberries and send their earnings home. In such a scenario educating the population is really just a waste of money, since you don't need to know much to be an indentured peasant.

To give some examples of the lack of money in state education, it has become the norm for us (as parents) to be tapped up for money to support the school at every opportunity. I thought that's what our taxes were for, but I was obviously mistaken. At the beginning of the year, we're asked for money to buy books, or furnish the classrooms, or replace the one computer in the classroom or various other things. (At Paula's kindergarten, also part of the state education system, all parents are asked at the beginning of the year to donate 10 rolls of toilet paper, 4 of kitchen paper, two bars of soap and a packet of serviettes).

Now that they're 11 (apparently) Bogi's class gets various responsibilities thrust upon them. They have a class president and a treasurer and I don't know, possibly a witchfinder general to boot. Anyway, Bogi got elected (meaning nominated and appointed before she know what was happening) as the treasurer. This means that basically all the kids contribute some money (from their parents obviously) at the beginning of the semester and she takes care of it and has to buy things when the need arises (this as you can imagine is a shit job - you have to account for every bani, you have to chase your classmates up for their contributions, you have to keep very accurate records, and you have to do all the shopping and carrying stuff to school).

Now you may imagine that this is money that gets used for parties or excursions, or some special events for the kids. No, it's money that is seemingly used to top up the various classroom needs that ought to be covered by education funding. At christmas for example, Bogi was charged with going to buy coloured cardboard so the kids could make cards.

This reached its nadir a few weeks ago, when Bogi mentioned that she needed to go out and buy a battery. A single AA battery. I asked why, and she said it was because the clock in the classroom had stopped and needed a new battery. I lost it. Thankfully not at Bogi herself or not in any way that made her think I had lost it at her. But at the system, the school, the teacher, the whole bloody ridiculous, messed up, collapsing, desperate, stupid, backward, crappy system that valued education so little that when the battery in the classroom clock ran out the kids had to replace it. It was an epic rant, which I cannot possibly do justice to here, but if it had been videoed I feel quite sure could have been a YouTube hit.

How the hell is this country going to move forward if there is so little money for education that people are scrapping around to buy paper and batteries and soap to keep their child's school from falling apart?

And rich people pay 16% tax. It's absolutely scandalous.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Romanian Education System (1)

I have three major things I want to say about the Romanian education system, of which this post is the first. Up until this year I have been only partially aware of some of the problems that exist within the system, because until this year my daughter Bogi was in the first 4 grades. You see there are 3 major and clearly separate bits in the system. Grades 1-4, which are essentially the equivalent to primary school in the UK, where you basically have one teacher (or in some cases, Bogi's included, a team of 2) for more or less every subject with one or two exceptions. Then grades 5-8, in which you start doing more subjects and having specialised teachers. Finally there's grades 9-12, in which you are studying towards your school leaving exams and so on, and preparing (in some cases) for university. [Switching schools at either one - or both - of the two milestone points above is fairly normal, and often unavoidable]

Now, there might be a few problems in grades 1-4, but like primary school it's sort of not desperately important in the grand scheme of things. School at this age, in a sense, is about learning how to read and write and to be part of a class, and a few other basic skills. It seems to work pretty well in my experience.

But now Bogi is in Grade 5, some of the real problems with the Romanian education system have become increasingly apparent. The first of these is this:

Pretty much everything you do in these 4 years garners you a grade. This is a score out of 10. All these marks get tallied up and they count towards the final grade that you end up with at the end of the 8th grade. This grade is extremely important as it basically selects which high school you end up going to. Good grade -> good high school, Low grade -> not such a good high school. There is an exam at the end of the 8th grade which goes towards this too, but the whole system is terrible.
  1. It means that kids are under constant pressure from the age of 11 onwards. Pressure comes from teachers, parents, and of course the students themselves. They are constantly being reminded about how important these grades are. Getting a 7 one day, for example, is seen as a disaster
  2. The (effective) streaming of kids at the age of 15, is counter to everything I believe about good education practice
  3. The whole thing makes school about competition. There are a limited number of places available in the "best" high schools, so not only are you striving to get one of those places, but you are also on some level trying to squeeze out your classmates. (Not consciously I am sure, however)
  4. It means that everything is geared towards grades and marks, and not necessarily towards learning stuff
  5. All the evidence is pointing towards the idea that grading and testing does not aid learning (in general), and certainly not in the case where everything is graded
Just to add another layer of idiocy to this, not only do you get these marks in the academic subjects but you even get them in things like "gym" (or what we used to call PE). Now, I am fully in favour of kids doing PE and that being part of the curriculum, but grading them on it? It's absolutely mental.

Just to be clear, when I say that these are failings of the Romanian education system, I am not comparing this with other education systems. To my knowledge the UK education system also has major problems these days with an obsession with grades, and standardised tests, and for all I know has a very similar system. I'm just saying that this (as the first of my major complaints) is a huge problem in Romania. [I'm pretty sure that this kind of thing doesn't happen in Finland - the gold standard of global education systems[1]]

I want to be able to tell my daughter that if she gets a bad mark it doesn't matter. I want her to learn from the experience of turning in something that doesn't meet her own standards (as opposed to the state's). I want her to learn stuff at school, and to be aware that this is the purpose of it. And I want her to have fun, and enjoy her childhood. But the system is telling her something different. The system is making her beat herself up, and cry when she doesn't get a 10, and ask to stay up until 10pm or beyond, or ask me to wake her up at 6 so she can do more homework before she goes to school. And while we try and protect her from the system, and make sure she understands that it is not the most important thing in the world, and while she is bright and pretty good at all her school subjects, so it's not like she's being penalised in terms of her future by the system, I do feel like it is a really really bad way of educating kids.

Footnote (I know, look at me and my mad & fancy HTML skillz)
Some links for stuff on Finland's education system 1 2 3

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Singing in tongues

Look! I exist! I blog. Therefore I am?

It has come to my attention that more and more Romanian pop bands/singers/"projects"/entities of the sort entitled "DJ X feat. Flange" are singing their ditties in English. This is a great pity for a number of reasons:
  1. They almost invariably sound absolutely terrible. This is nearly, but not quite, universally true for all bands. Sing in your native language, and it sounds good. In English (unless of course that is your first language) and it nearly always sounds like vomit-inducing pap. To give the worst example, I really truly advise you NOT to click on this link and hear the absolute awfulness of "Lovely Smile" from late last year. If you ignored me and are now cleaning up this morning's breakfast, well, you should listen. The only non-native speaker of English and get away with it is Shakira, and she gets away with it because, well, she could get away with more or less anything I think.
  2. Romanian is a language that really works well in song. It's a great shame to sing in simplified sickly English when something about the rhythms and rhymes of Romanian make it such a good language for songs.

Yet despite these compelling reasons (yes I know that's only 2, but 2 is a number), more and more bands are opting for the Euro-beat stylings of songs about lahv and sexy gaehls. It's quite depressing and has meant that recently I have switched radio stations in the car to one that plays a slightly older mix.

Now, it's quite possible (if indeed anyone happens across this blog after so long away) that someone is going to point out that for a Romanian band to make it big (or at least sell a few records in Belarus or Latvia) they have to record in English, but I would counter that by pointing out that the biggest and most successful Romanian record of recent times (and quite possibly ever in history) was Dragostei din Tei (which you may know as "that Numa Numa Yay song") , which was sung - yes - in Romanian. So ha. That's stumped you, no doubt.

In an interesting aside (well interesting to me, at least), while Romanian is a language which sounds really good in song, yet Romanians seem hell bent on singing in English, Hungarian, which really isn't a good language for singing, seems to go the opposite way around. Very rarely do Hungarian bands sing in English (in fact I only know of two examples, the utterly risible Speak, and the really very amusing and good "Hello Tourist" by Emil Rulez - and the latter is in English for a good reason). Indeed not only do Hungarian bands not sing in English, but they actually go the extra mile and translate English (and other) songs into Hungarian and repackage them. Which is taking the dubbing obsession a stage too far.

As an aside to that aside, while Hungarian doesn't really work in song to my mind (or to my ear), it works absolutely superbly in poetry. Something about the staccato rhythms of it really make poetry sound fantastically rhythmic and intense. You don't even need to know a word of Hungarian to appreciate it in my opinion - listen to this Petofi Sandor poem, for example, or this by Arany Janos

Monday, February 28, 2011

Look! A blog post!

February 28th is National Face Painting day in Romania. This annual event commemorates the time in 1474 when Stefan Cel Mare came home drunk and fell asleep on the sofa, and while he slept, Mrs Cel Mare invited some of her friends round and they painted his face in a series of vivid images, reminiscent of those on the Bucovina Monasteries. Modern day face painting rarely depicts the banishment of the Jews and Muslims to hell, but instead tends towards lighter, less controversial imagery.