Sunday, February 26, 2006

Lines on a map

As you drive north from Bucharest, not far past Ploiesti, you pass a large ugly sign by the side of the road which indicates that you are crossing the 45th parallel. I have to confess that the first time I saw this my internal reaction was “oooh, big wow, the 45th parallel” (I think making sarcastic remarks to yourself is probably the first sign of madness). Later, though, I realized that the 45th parallel is in some cartographical respects a big deal, being exactly half way between the equator and the pole. While the sign itself will never fill me with enthusiasm (many roadside markers in Romania, this one and all county boundary markers included, are a triumph of brutalist sculpture - ugly in-your-face concrete and steel monstrosities), the fact that I cross this significant line on my world every time I go to and from the airport does serve to add a little zing to an otherwise flat and featureless section of the road.

Maybe my interest in this derives from the fact that I was born on the Greenwich Meridian. Well, I was born in a town that lies on the Greenwich Meridian, at least. I have no idea whether the hospital is on the Meridian, and I imagine it is extremely unlikely that I crossed from the Western Hemisphere into the Eastern at the same moment as I emerged from the womb. In fact, in comparison to the 0° line of longitude the 45° line of latitude is actually more impressive – being defined by its distance from the equator and the pole - actual geographically defined reference points - rather than by being on a line with the London hill where the Royal Observatory happened to be built.

I cannot, however, hold a candle to these people at The Degree Confluence Project. This is a site where people armed with hi-tech handheld GPS devices travel to the points (on land) on the earth where the lines of latitude and longitude cross, tell how they got there and take pictures of it. I cannot decide if some of the tales are exaggerated or even made up for effect, but if not then there are some seriously obsessive people out there. The person visiting one of the closest to me here - at Răstoliţa in the Mureş valley actually decided to drive there all the way from Kosovo.

Not sure what brought all this to mind today, especially since I haven’t driven down to (or back from) Bucharest since November. But anyway.

Miercurea Ciuc, in case you are wondering, is at 46:22:01N 25:48:34E. I didn’t know that off the top of my head, I got it from
this map.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Expat musings

What is an expat? And, am I one? I did after all, get nominated for a "best expat blog" award. These thoughts came to me this weekend as I found myself in a workshop attended by some members of Bucharest’s “expat community” and some Romanians – mostly, like me, from outside the capital. I didn’t exactly feel a part of either group, but felt I had more in common with the latter. And on this evidence I’m glad that I don’t have an expat community so I don’t get to listen to whining complaints all day about how much Bucharest/Romania sucks.

This is not to say that I haven’t been in such communities before (though I have tended to distance myself from the “I hate this country” brigade), and I understand the bond that people have when they’ve uprooted themselves and come to live in a foreign country, had to deal with the same bureaucratic quirks, looked for apartments etc. It’s natural that these communities are formed and start feeding off each others’ irritation with the fact that Romania is different from wherever they’ve come. But it does look odd, at best, from the outside (as I felt I was on Sunday).

So, what is an expat? In its simplest definition it is “A person living in a foreign country”, which definitely makes me one. But in itself that definition doesn’t really sum up the way the word is used. Indian immigrants living in the UK, for example, are never referred to as expats. By the same token, Israel has managed in its own inimitable way to create a bunch of expats out of people who have lived in the same place (East Jerusalem) all their lives and have just ended up being victims of a de facto annexation (it’s true, the Palestinians of East Jerusalem are regarded as being from the West Bank and only have resident alien status in the place they were born – even if they have lived in the same house all their lives.)

So, if this definition doesn’t work, what does? The Wikipedia entry, has it that there is a difference between an expat and an immigrant, that “immigrants (for the most part) commit themselves to becoming a part of their country of residence, whereas expatriates are usually only temporarily placed in the host country and most of the time plan on returning to their home country” Now I have no plans of returning to my home country. I’ve been out of it since 1988, and see no reason to go and live there now. But likewise, I’m not intending to take up Romanian citizenship any time soon either. It’s perfectly possible that I will live the rest of my days in Transylvania, but it’s also possible that we will move on and live somewhere else. So, I’m not entirely sure if I see my place in that definition.

In the way I’ve heard it used, it tends to refer to someone from a wealthy country living (however temporarily) in a less wealthy one. When I lived in the US*, the word expat didn’t really come up. In the Federated States of Micronesia, or in Thailand it was clear that I was one. Here in Romania I guess I am one, although absent a “community” of expats it feels a lot different. It’s almost as if to be an expat you have to hunt in packs. Would I have been more likely to have gained Expat status in the US if I’d lived in Florida or Southern California, where there are loads of Brits, rather than small town Vermont?
(*Note cunning reference back to Wikipedia article)

To me, also, it has a slightly negative connotation, conjuring up, as it does, the people who sit around the pool at the British Club, Abu Dhabi, complaining about their maids, or the anglo population of the Costa Del Sol, eating fish and chips and watching Sky News . Immigrant doesn’t have the same negative connotation (except for extreme right wing Daily Mail readers, to whom immigrant is code for all the racist drivel they want to unload but can’t due to the terrible restrictions of “political correctness”)

But there have always been gradations of meaning to describe migrants. The people who used to be refugees are now called “Asylum Seekers” at least in the British press. This cunningly distracts attention away from the situation they are fleeing and puts the emphasis on the country in which they are seeking refuge. With the additional benefit to the anti-immigration brigade of including the word “asylum” which conjures up subconscious thoughts of mental patients. And then of course there is “emigré” a term which seems only ever to refer to Russians, but which apparently means “One who has left a native country, especially for political reasons” according to the dictionary. Which makes me an emigré since I first left the UK to get away from Thatcher (and, obviously, the weather). Then there is “sojourner” which is someone living somewhere temporarily. And of course, diaspora, which until recently I’d only heard in reference to Jews, but then saw something about the Romanian diaspora not so long ago. Does this make me part of the British diaspora?

Personally, I think I’m going to self-define as an emigrant. Romania is my tenth country of residence, and I think it’s more relevant that I left my home country than exactly where it is I have settled, and for how long. All, I can really say is that I’m glad I’m not an expat, or, more accurately, I’m glad I’m not the expat I once was.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Move along now, nothing to see here.

Back from a quick visit across the Carpathians to Bucharest, but since I didn't get home till about 3am, I'm a bit spaced out today, and not really able to craft the post I want to about one of my experiences there, so instead I'll regale you with some mere trifles

I came a creditable, but distant, second in the AFOE "Best SE Europe weblog" to Dragos's @rgumente which has been around longer and is a lot more "bloggish" and deserving of the award. Felicitarii to Dragos, and gratulalok from Ţara Secuiesc. If you'd like some reading from the region, I'll recommend taking a look as well as at Catherine's Illyrian Gazette which was also nominated. I haven't had the chance to look at the other two, but will do soon. I came nowhere in the best expat weblog one (I have questions about what "expat" actually means, but maybe I'll come back to that later)

The Ice Hockey final is going very badly. Steaua Suki (as they now seem to be called) are 3-1 up in the best of 7 series, and are likely to wrap the thing up in the next game in Bucharest. They don't deserve it (a) because they get only half the number of fans to their games as we do - and that's from a huge city whereas we're in a small town; (b) the decisions have tended to favour them (two disallowed goals in the last two games may have turned both of them in their favour; and last but not least (c) Steaua are owned by the foulest most repulsive man in Romania, that corrupt, racist, bigoted egomaniacal cretin with a Jesus complex, Gigi Becali. The only man in the country who can make Vadim Tudor look like a well-rounded and balanced individual.

In a couple of weeks I'm heading off to Germany to buy a car. I'm not the buyer, I'm just accompanying a friend who is, on some kind of spring road trip. I anticipate lots of crazy hollywood style episodes and adventures, possibly culminating with us driving off a cliff into the Grand Canyon (or Turda Gorge, at least). It's because second hand cars in Germany are reasonably priced, whereas in Romania they are insane - in Bucharest I saw a 20 year old Oltcit driving around with a sign in the window offering it for sale at 1500 Euros. You've probably never seen an Oltcit, unless you've lived in Romania, but trust me, a new one would be barely worth that. There's a 1992 Opel Astra on our street for 4000 Euros. I mean really. It's utterly insane. Even with flying out to Munich, accommodation for a night or two, all the petrol and road taxes involved in driving home, and the tax you have to pay to the Romanian government to import it, you still end up about 1000 Euros up on the deal compared to Romanian second hand prices.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Wisdom of the Ages

It is a well known fact that Norman Wisdom is incredibly famous in Albania. Norman Wisdom, in case you are not Albanian, is a British “slapstick comedy actor” and music hall style comedian. He was popular (though I’m not sure how popular) in the UK in the 50s and possibly early 60s. To people of my generation, though, he is actually more famous for being famous in Albania than he is for his body of work – of which, as far as I’m aware, I have seen precisely none. Apparently, Enver Hoxha was a big fan and thus the legend of Pitkin was born. (Pitkin is, I think, a character he played in one of his films). Ask any Albanian over 30 about Pitkin and they’ll wax lyrical for hours. (I have never actually tested this, but I am reliably informed that it is the case. In some kind of hands-across-the-Balkans gesture of friendship/publicity stunt a few years ago when the England football team came to Tirana for a match, they brought Wisdom with them, and the stadium rose as one to salute the octogenarian star.)

Recently I have discovered that Wisdom, here known simply as “Norman”, is very popular in Romania too. Perhaps Ceausescu was introduced to him by Hoxha at a dinner party or at a conference of slightly maverick communist dictators. I think his popularity may be slightly less than in Albania (I have never seen a Norman film on Romanian TV, and in Tirana, if the slightly mocking media reports filed by British journalists are anything to go by, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t an entire channel devoted to his oeuvre.)

This places Norman firmly in the category of strange and somewhat obscure things that Romanians get slightly wistful about. Another is Bollywood movies. As far as I can ascertain, western films were to all intents and purposes banned during the Communist years, but when the cinemas had no propaganda films or reworkings of Tolstoy to show, films were imported from India to fill in the gaps. In fact, they still seem to be relatively popular, possibly for nostalgia reasons, and one or two of the TV channels regularly show them – though they have been shunted out of the cinemas by endless violent Hollywood action films.

Another very odd one is Smokie. I would have imagined (if I’d ever bothered to think abut it) that Smokie were only known and barely remembered by British people of between about 35 and 45. For those that don’t know, they were a 70s group of long haired blokes who sang poorly written ballads in a kind of sub-Rod Stewart gravelly voice (I was going to refer to them as a proto boy band, but even at the height of the popularity I seem to remember they looked at least 30 – at least when the young me saw them on Top of the Pops). I had, of course, entirely forgotten about them, and would have been quite happy had it stayed that way. But then, a few months ago I was at a party, and suddenly one of their tunes came on. “Good God,” I thought, “this takes me back. I wonder who put this on and why”. And then I noticed that the whole room was singing along to it. More or less everyone – old, young and in between. I also need to mention here that over half of the people at this party didn’t speak any English at all. Yet here they were singing along to the frankly rubbish mid 70s soppy ode to personal tragedy “Living Next Door to Alice”.

But remarkably that was not to be the end of my moments of jaw dropping amazement that night. Far from it. The turgid drone reached its chorus, and as the last line of said chorus drained away “And for 24 years I’ve been living next door to Alice”, the room, as one, punctuated the line with (in English) a group shout of “Who the fuck is Alice?” That moment, I’m quite sure, will live with me for ever. This was a party in a village to celebrate a baptism, not some group of post-modern irony obsessed lovers of retro-chic. The guests were of all ages, and many walks of life. If you’ve never seen an old Transylvanian villager with few teeth and no English whatsoever, jump to his feet and shout “Who the fuck is Alice?”, well, frankly, you haven’t lived.

I have since found out that actually this version of the song was actually a recorded one, and was released by Smokie themselves, some years after their initial fame – in the 90s sometime I think- with the extra shouty bit added in by fat and rubbish racist comedian Roy “Chubby” Brown. I missed it by virtue of being out of the reach of English novelty records at the time, but clearly much of Europe was infected. Asking around I have discovered sightings (soundings?) of this oh-so-hilarious update being sung by the general public from Hamburg to Istanbul and beyond.

But, Smokie’s insidious reach extends beyond even this reworking of their most famous hit. They are known for other of their songs which don’t even have added sweary bits. I am, frankly, baffled by their appeal. It’s a rum do, and no mistake.

Oh, and in case you don't believe me about Albania,
here's a BBC piece from the time of that football match I mentioned.

Friday, February 17, 2006


Today Bogi went to school (not actually school as she constantly reminds me, but ovada - kindergarten) in fancy dress. This is something which is happening all over town round about now and it is due to Farsang. I've looked up farsang in our Hungarian-English dictionery and it is translated as "carnival", but to my mind carnival is a last-day-before-lent thing, and as far as I know lent isn't starting for a couple of weeks yet. Erika thinks farsang, by contrast, is an entire period of partying that runs from Epiphany (Jan 6th) to the beginning of Lent. It is, I'm told, a big village tradition when everyone parties and wears traditional costume/fancy dress/something unusual, but since we don't live in a village (and Erika didn't grow up in one), she's not really sure what it involves. So I'll have to do some asking around. These days, at least in Csikszereda, Farsang seems to be a time when all the schools have fancy dress days, and also evening fancy dress balls for the parents (which are actually cunningly disguised fundraisers). Having a very young baby means we have an escape clause, but apparently next year (when Bogi really will be at school) we'll have to go.

Anyway, here's a picture of Dr. Bogi this morning. The hat is not a feature of Transylvanian doctors, but part of one of her friend's costumes which by this time had migrated to her head.

Right now according to the little thing on the right it's 2 degrees. That's PLUS two degrees. Spring is here! The first time since it has been over zero for well over a month. Brilliant. I have to go to the balmy sub tropical climes of Bucharest this weekend, where it must be getting close to ten. Time to get out the shorts and t-shirts methinks.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Googling for Hungarians

When I was in Kiev a few months back, I realized that all web addresses are in Roman script. Now this may not be much of a revelation, I’ll grant you, but I was intrigued to imagine that while I’m guessing much of the older generation in countries that don’t use the same alphabet as I do have very little understanding or recognition of the Roman letters, the younger, Internet savvy generation, probably have to have. And not just the ones who have learned English either.

I was reminded of this the other day when I was searching for something on Google, but unusually (in fact maybe uniquely) I was looking up something in Hungarian. It was then that I realized that the way Google works in English may not be quite as successful in Hungarian. If I type an English word into it, I know Google will find all the instances of that word in its database. Exactly that word. But in Hungarian, a word will vary in its spelling depending on its role in a sentence and whether it has suffixes stuck on it. If I type in “tojás” (egg) for example, it will presumably return all instances of the word tojás. But, if tojás is the direct object of a verb (as in “I boiled an egg”) it will be “tojást”, or, as far as a search engine is concerned, a completely different word. And that’s just one possibility. For place names the range of possibilities is endless. Off the top of my head the name of this town could be rendered as Csikszereda, Csikszeredán, Csikszeredában, Csikszeredára, Csikszeredába, Csikszeredát, Csikszeredához, Csikszeredával, Csikszeredábol, Csikszeredárol, and almost certainly loads of others depending on whether you’re in the town, going to the town, coming from the town, or just hanging around in the general vicinity of the town.

I checked this out on Google, as I suspected that they may have worked something out for this – after all even in English you get plurals which are in essence different words – and it seems they have. They claim to use something they call “Stemming technology” (isn’t that what George Bush wants to ban?) to ensure that different variants of the same root word are recognized when you search. I wonder if this only works with English or it somehow crosses languages. Or if uses a different Magyar version of stemming technology? If not I fear there are a lot of searches that may miss their targets. But how does stemming technology work – is it a piece of software that guesses which words have the same roots? So if you type in station you might get hits for both stationary and stationery? And if not, then presumably the groups of related words have been programmed by someone.

If not (or before the miracles of stemming technology) I’m guessing use of a search engine is/was quite a different skill for a Hungarian than it is for me, for example. Thinking about it occupied my brain for a few minutes anyway, and now, thanks to the miracles of the internet, I've shared that inner monologue with all of you. My generosity knows no bounds.

Some new favourite Hungarian words: Kinel, which is a question word meaning (something like) “at whose place?”, and which is amusing because, well it sounds like “kinel”. It may be only British readers who see why that’s remotely amusing to my puerile mind, but if you are really interested I’ll explain it in the comments. And Prezli, which means “breadcrumbs" and is amusing basically because it is pronounced exactly the same as the surname as the singer of Heartbreak Hotel, and one or two other songs. It amuses me to think of Elvis Breadcrumbs. Not sure why, but there you go. Hungary even has it’s own Elvis figure, a bloke called Fenyö Miklos (Nicholas Pine-Tree), who is very big on the rubbish variety programmes shown on New Years Eve circuit.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Vote for me

I have been nominated for two (count em) awards in the 2nd Annual Blog Awards at "A Fistful of Euros" - Go to this page and vote for me (or vote for someone else if you prefer). (I'm entered in the categories "Best Expat Weblog" and "Best Southeastern European Blog")

A Fistful of Euros (or AFOE as they tend to refer themselves) is a pretty big deal out there in the blogosphere*, so I am dead chuffed about this.

Oh, and since I'm highly unlikely to actually win, here's my acceptance of nomination speech:

I'd like to thank all those who nominated me for these prestigious awards. I'd like to thank Erika for her tireless support and my children, step and non-step for allowing me to type things once in a while. I'd also like to thank everyone who reads this blog and has helped to make it what it is today - a rambling, incoherent, mess of half formed opinions, rumours presented as fact, thoughts on the human condition as it pertains to life in a small town in the Carpathians, and generally random observations - without anyone actually reading this thing, I may have given up long ago. So give yourselves a hearty pat on the back, and let that be a warning to you all. In addition, I'd like to thank anyone who has ever put up with me in person.

[*Frankly I have no idea whether AFOE really is a big deal in the Blogosphere, but it does seem to be a fairly heavily visited website and at some stage, all hyperlinks lead to AFOE. What I know about blogging, the blogosphere and such like things can be summed up in the fact that I have absolutely no idea what RSS is. Or why something called Moveable Type is infinitely better than Blogger. Or many other well known facts to the more savvy blogger.]

A Statement from the Vice President’s Office

There has been a lot of criticism of the Vice President’s actions in the shooting of his friend Mr Whittington. The incident was a regrettable one, but unfortunately this kind of collateral damage is an unavoidable consequence of The War on Game ™ . Those who are criticizing the Vice President would presumably be happy to see world literally overrun by quail and their ilk.

Others have tried to cast doubt on the hi-tech weaponry used in The War on Game ™. They have suggested that these weapons are not as surgically precise as we have said since Mr Cheney could not discern the difference between a grown man wearing an orange vest at point blank range and a small brown bird. Once again, it is clear that these nay-sayers are only out to give succour to the enemies of America in this time of great hardship for the nation as a whole.

Finally it has been reported that the Vice President had not actually obtained the necessary authorization for his brave and personal contribution to The War on Game ™. This lack of authorization in the form of a stamp issued by the UN Security Council Texas Parks and Wildlife Department does not in any way deligitimise the very vital mission that the Vice President had embarked upon. The suspicion remains that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department had members who were in cahoots with some, as yet unidentified, pheasants.

Once again the Vice President would like to remind the press that America is engaged in a battle for its very survival. If The War on Game ™ is lost thanks to the desire of a few deluded individuals who feel that exposing our tactics to the enemy is “in the national interest” , then he hopes that the American people will do their duty and rise up and refute their actions. The Vice President is a vital front line defence in The War on Game ™ and we would do well to applaud his actions rather than condemning him.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Health and the lack of it.

I started writing something about our adventures last week, but in all honesty it’s still a little too fresh in my mind, so I really can’t do so in a way that’s either funny or not traumatic (for me).

The long and the short of it is that last Thursday Paula was diagnosed with viral pneumonia. She and Erika had to spend five l-o-n-g days in the hospital. They gave her drugs, they took blood from her, they did loads of things which are difficult enough for a toddler (or even me) to cope with, let alone a 6 week old, and yet she did just fine.

So instead of writing of my trauma and fear and all that stuff, and hence reliving it, I thought I’d discuss the Romanian health care system. Now in the last 7 weeks Erika and Paula have spent a total of 10 days in hospitals – 5 days for happy reasons and 5 for the pneumonia. Thus I have also spent a considerable time in hospitals too. (I use the plural because Paula was born in Udvarhely (Odorheiu), but treated last week here in Csikszereda.)

Hospitals here really look like hospitals. I mean dingy, grey, concrete corridors lit with fluorescent tubes. No comforts (though there was a kind of torn up couch in the visiting area of the pediatric section of the hospital here.). The food is rubbish. At the hospital here, Erika and Paula shared their room with a small brown mouse. So, the initial impression is not exactly positive.

But there are good points too. The most obvious one (to me) is that there is no desperate profit motive driving most of the decisions. Paula was born perfectly normally and she and Erika stayed 5 days in the hospital. A friend of Erika’s had a baby around the same time in the US and despite having to have a caesarean (not a planned one either) she was in and out in two days. Now it’s nice to get home to your family and all that, but I reckon the system whereby money is not a factor in decisions related to health is a better one. A much better one. This time around the moment the doctor had examined her, they were admitted immediately (and there was no question that Erika would be able to stay with her in the same room), and she was kept under constant observation until she was really ready to go home.

Now there are some things in life that “the market” does a fairly good job of regulating and ensuring needs are met efficiently. But there are other areas, like health care and education where it really doesn’t. The US is a great example of this. It probably has the best health care in the world (in terms of doctors, equipment, modern well equipped hospitals etc), but has a terrible system of access to that great health care. And if people are being kicked out of hospitals two days after having a caesarian, there’s got to be some flaw in the system. There is a famously held belief that the best health care system in the Americas is that of Cuba. (I have no idea what this means – how do you measure best health care system? – to me the best health care system would be a public health based one in which fewer people got sick in the first place. And, since it seems to be necessary whenever you write anything on the internet, I am not therefore saying that Cuba has a better political system than the US. OK?).

Having lived in the States, I never had any major issues with healthcare, but I did spend days and days on hold on the phone trying to ensure that everything that insurance companies were supposed to cough up on my behalf was coughed up. There seems to be a suspicion of the idea of people actually getting the treatment they need. The insurance companies press doctors into shifting the sick out as quickly as possible. And when it’s all about profit and money and shareholders and all that, that’s inevitable. And when it comes down to it, despite the mouse, and the ugliness, I’d rather my family were treated in a hospital in which they will be kept under observation as long as is necessary.

In case this is seen as “yet another” Anti-American post, I think it’s pretty bad in the UK too. The NHS used to be the envy of much of the world, but then Thatcher came with her peculiar brand of anti-compassion, and then she was followed by that neo-liberal lying scumbag Blair, and now we have this half arsed system attempting to be “efficient” and “responsive” and (of course) offering “choice”, all of which seems to mean that once again people (sick people) are treated like figures on a balance sheet rather than being given the treatment they need.

The other major issue regarding healthcare around the world is the flow of qualified professionals from poorer to richer countries. British doctors go to work in the US. Hungarian doctors go to Western Europe. Transylvanian Hungarian doctors have gone to Hungary – they speak the language, and the money and conditions are better. I presume some doctors from other parts of Romania go to Germany or France or somewhere. And are replaced by Moldovans? The people in these wealthy countries who protest about immigration ought to have their bluff called. Don’t let the teachers and doctors and nurses in and see how they like it then.

No idea where I’m going with all this (I bet you can tell can’t you?), so I’ll wind up by reassuring you that Paula is on the mend. Still coughs occasionally and has lost some weight through it all, but is improving daily. And we have the doctor’s mobile number in case we have an emergency. And she’s looking cuter than ever.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Half way through a long and difficult to write post about the big health scare of last week. Maybe I'll get it done tomorrow sometime.

So, to tide you over here are a few titbits of news (did you know, by the way, that the US word is tidbits which reflected a nineteenth century US desire to purge the language of what can only be described as rude syllables? You may have thought that the Victorian era of prudery was a British phenomenon, but it apparently was worse over the Atlantic. This is also the reason why a cockroach is a roach, a cock is a rooster, and nobody titters in the USA)

The final of the Romanian Ice Hockey Championship starts tomorrow. As I reported last year, the final is always between Sport Club Miercurea Ciuc and Steaua Bucharest. This year we have home ice advantage (meaning that if the match goes to the full 7 games 4 of those games will take place here). I'll keep you updated on the outcome of an event which grips Csikszereda and leaves the rest of the country completely unmoved. Though these days they do show it on Pro Sport TV)

Last week JK Rowling visited Romania, presumably to help launch the Romanian translation of her latest book. There was a charity dinner to which parents could bring their children to meet the authoress - for 1000 Euros a ticket. I have no idea how any Romanian can come up with 1000 Euros for a dinner. (Aside from those members of the PSD who have suspicious relatives leaving them large sums of money in their wills). Just think if I'd known way back when when I knew JK (or Joanne as she was then) what having dinner with her would one day be worth. I even babysat her daughter once - that kind of insider stuff would fetch a small fortune these days.

It was -32 again this morning. When will this bloody winter ever end?

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Sweeping it under the carpet

No posts for a few days - a situation which I will be in a position to explain in a day or two. For now, I can say that the big scare we had has receded somewhat, and in the official colours of scares authorised by the Department of Homeland Security we've probably been lowered from a Magenta to a Puce, or something.

Anyway, lets talk about the news that is gripping the country. That of the acquittal of Christopher VanGoethem, US Marine, on charges of negligent homicide (and adultery). So let's review the facts: In December 2004, VanGoethem, a Marine in a plum job at the US Embassy in Bucharest, was driving home from having sex with his girlfriend, a secretary at the embassy (VanGoethem is married), jumped a stop sign and rammed into a taxi, killing its passenger, one Teofil Peter (who happened to be, before his untimely demise, bass player in Romanian rock band "Compact"). Breathalysed at the scene, VanGoethem was discovered to have a blood alcohol level of 0.09 (over the limit in more or less every country in the world that I'm aware of), and hours later tested at the US Embassy to still have a level of 0.02 (still way above the limit in Romania which is 0.00).

The next day, VanGoethem was whisked out of the country to be tried by a US Military court. That court has just returned a verdict of not guilty on charges of negligent homicide and adultery, but has found him guilty of obstructing justice (he phoned his girlfriend afterwards to try and make their stories fit), and has dished out the very very harsh punishment of a letter of reprimand.

That much is beyond dispute. The trial is the thing that seems, well, let's just say, dodgy. The defence's case seems to have rested on not having any proof that Teo Peter was actually in the taxi (despite the fact that firemen had to cut his mangled body out of the mangled wreckage), and that the road junction was so confusing that he couldn't possibly have negotiated it successfully (this is a major road junction in a major European capital city, which tens of thousands of people manage to negotiate successfully on a daily basis). Miraculously this outrageous bluff seems to have been successful - due mostly to the fact that the prosecution were completely hopeless, and didn't even bother to counter these rizla-thin arguments. They didn't even call the taxi driver to the stand.

As you might imagine, this has not played out very well in Romania. Romania, let us not forget is a fairly pro-American country in European terms. They're a member of the so-called "Coalition" in Iraq, and as far as I can tell, this status is not a heavily criticised one in public opinion. The governments of the two countries seem to get on fairly well, and the US are about to open some kind of military base here (but they never used the country as a site for their ongoing torture of random Arabs and other Muslims, that's just a vicious rumour). The TV News a couple of days ago could talk about nothing else but this slap in the face and how the whole nation has been spat upon by the US Military justice system. In this respect, I think that the fact that this guy was famous and not Gheorghe Nobodyescu has had a positive effect - no-one is prepared to let this be swept under the carpet. The government has offered Peter's family money to pursue a civil case, and everyone is anxious to be seen to be upset by this. (The most nauseating thing on TV was seeing VanGoethem's mother interviewed outside the courtroom talking about how much her son has suffered and how glad she is that this is over and how she feels that she understands Peter's family since her family has gone through so much in this case too. Now, I presume VanGoethem has suffered - after all he killed some innocent bloke who was just going home one night, and I have to assume that he (VanGoethem) is a normal human being who feels guilt and compassion about the results of his negligence, but for someone in his family to play that card is, to say the least, obscene.)

This story has no media coverage whatsoever in the US (outside of the Stars and Stripes, the military paper), but tons and tons here. As PR it is a huge gaffe of vast proportions. You'd think someone could have had a word with the court and said "Listen guys, I know we normally brush these things under the carpet, but this time, we have to show that we care about justice, because the whole country of Romanian is watching us, and we want to keep them onside". But no, they just whitewashed the whole incident. Nice going, guys. Good work.

Better written English language blogs on the same subject:
Claudia at Halfway Down the Danube and Soj at Flogging the Simian .

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

No Joke

When I wrote a couple of days ago that the pissed up US Marine who rammed into and killed a Romanian rock star might get a slap on the wrist or a severe ticking off, I was exaggerating for effect. I mean I did assume that in reality he'd get at least a short jail term or something. But, seems I was actually not wrong. "...the jury recommended VanGoethem be given a letter of reprimand." A letter of reprimand? Jesus H Christ.

-6 degrees this morning. We are seeing an exponential rise in temeperatures (last 6 days at 8am: -32, -30, -28, -25, 19, -6). I think mathematically that means tomorrow will be something like +22.