Romania


Some time ago (10 February) I posted that I had ‘found’ and subscribed to the Oxford English Dictionary ‘Word a day’. A little later I completely ‘lost’ the urge to write – not only blog posts, but stories, poems, even trying to complete my first ever ‘novella’. There has been one exception: I’ve been writing letters, handwritten with a fountain pen, to distant friends and relatives, something I’ve not done for decades.

Not ‘writers’ block’

This loss is the first time it has happened to me in almost 60 years of writing, first earning my living at it as a journalist or copy-writer, later – much later – beginning to blog and write fiction, both for ‘fun’. It was not so-called ‘writers’ block’, the urge to write but losing inspiration; just no urge to write at all with the exception of the letters.

This morning, opening ‘Word a day’, I discovered a word I did not know – kakistocracy – and that jump-started me to write this post. I know only two countries well enough to apply this word to their Governments: the UK and Romania. The word means “government by the least suitable or competent citizens of a state”. Some of the recent utterances or actions of both Governments could hardly better prove the point.

Whether this reawakening of my muse extends beyond this post is yet to be seen but I have an idea tumbling about it my head, prompted by a member of our writers’ club – in turn prompted by my letter writing – who suggested each member should write a letter to someone. My idea is to write ‘a letter to a stranger’, someone who may not exist. If this gets me going I’ll surely post it here.

Word a day

I have been disappointed with the ‘word a day’ more than once recently, when the word was Indian or even Chinese. Oxford English Dictionary? And I do wish when a quotation is given, to illustrate use of the word, the source is given.

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Only two weeks ago I posted
about Latvia’s 100th birthday. Today (1 December 2018) we celebrate the 100th birthday of Romania – when Transylvania and Banat came together with ‘The Principality of Moldova and the Romanian Country‘ (difficult to translate not to be clumsy) to form Romania. Since then, of course, the meddling of politicians has taken away parts so the northern part of Bucovina became part of the Ukraine and Basarabia became the Republic of Moldova; as so often when outside politicians (usually from the USA and us, the UK) mess with other countries we are still suffering as a result of this meddling, with trouble in the Ukraine and in the Middle East.

In my 100th birthday post for Latvia I suggested seven things which many people might not know about that country. I wonder if I can do the same for Romania. I’ll try, though a couple might be contentious.

Seven things you may not know about Romania

  • Currently about 9 Romanians leave their country every hour in the hope of finding a ‘better life’ elsewhere. The population has been reduced from 23,210,000 in 1991 to 20,170,000 last year. Most of the people leaving Romania are young and highly qualified or skilled, which we and other ‘western’ countries benefit from. There are, of course, also a significant number who do not mind getting their hands dirty (sadly often ‘exploited’ and not given a fair wage), doing jobs which the indigenous population shy away from; again we benefit.
  • Although the oft quoted “Romanian is the second language in Microsoft” may be a myth the American software giant certainly employ a lot of Romanians and established two of their global business support centres in Romanian cities. I can tell you from personal experience the country produces wonderful doctors too.
  • Romanians have an amazing ability to learn other languages. This is only in part (I think a small part) due to nobody wanting to learn Romanian (unlike me). An example is my wife who, starting from just nine words of English when she arrived here in 2004 by 2006 had a command of English sufficiently good to become a fully qualified teacher in UK and began to teach her subject, history, (and others) in high school.
  • Romanians who live in the countryside or buy from there know what fruit and vegetables should taste like. I will never forget when I first tasted a carrot freshly dug, or a bell pepper freshly picked, a tomato or the sour cherries known as ‘visine‘. If you avoid the supermarkets (I’d better not get started on that! – despite the ‘organic’ nonsense now being overtaken by the equally ridiculous ‘bio’) you can still have that taste today. The only equivalents we can find easily in the UK are bilberries from the Yorkshire moors (equally good as their Romanian equivalent, afine) or wild blackberries (mure in Romanian).
  • Although the belief of many Romanians that Henri Coanda invented the jet engine cannot really be supported he certainly did describe and point to practical applications in aviation of what became known as the ‘Coanda effect‘, which we see (or hear) when we fly on commercial aircraft today, when the ‘flaps’ are extended on landing and takeoff.  It is also used in fighter aircraft to allow them to fly at a slower speed. The international passenger airport serving Romania’s capital was renamed from ‘Otopeni’ (a nearby locality) to ‘Henri Coanda’ in May 2004.
  • Although Romanian Nicolae Paulescu developed an extract from a pancreas which, injected into a diabetic dog, normalised blood sugar levels when the Canadian team which received the Nobel prize for the ‘discovery’ of insulin were only just beginning its development, he was not included in the prize. A former head of the Nobel Institute, Professor Arne Tiselius, later admitted he should have been.
  • Just a personal view, of which anyone who has been reading my blog for any length of time will be aware, although many tourists will head for Transylvania when visiting Romania, the area in the north of Romania known as the Bucovina is more interesting, has at least equally beautiful landscapes and delicious food but old traditions are generally better kept. But if you want to see them you should visit soon – they are already less well preserved than when I first arrived in Romania in 1993.
Photo of a small piece of the soda bread, on a floral paper napkin

I didn’t expect to be writing a post about soda bread so I didn’t take a picture of the loaf. Only today, when I found that it was delicious when a day old I decided to post, by which time this was all that remained.

It is well-known that ‘Irish’ soda bread is good only on the day it is made, or so I have always understood (and that has been my experience). Consequently, I only made it when we had an ‘out of bread’ emergency, as yesterday, with no time to make a more conventional loaf (shop bought bread in the UK is not good, even in my opinion expensive ‘artisan’ loaves. I’ve been spoiled by German breads).

Because there are only two of us I always struggled to make a small enough quantity to eat on the same day (I hate discarding food but the birds were happy).

As Wednesday is one of our ‘veggie days’ we decided yesterday to eat an avocado each followed by ‘iahnie’ (pronounced, roughly, yak-nee-ay), a puree of butter beans for us but of the much larger ‘boabe’ (bwar-bay) beans in Romania, with bread. It’s usually flavoured with garlic, maybe other things like herbs.

No bread so I made a soda bread (but not the ‘real’ one as it calls for buttermilk, which I did not have). We ate it straight out the oven – the iahnie is cold. As usual we had some over so it was put in a bag, hot, still steaming when broken, with the idea of giving the birds a feast today. But, guess what, it was soft and absolutely delicious today when we ate it for our lunches. Poor birds!

Here’s the recipe I made:

250g wholemeal bread flour
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp salt
200 ml full-fat milk
Juice of a lemon
1 tsp honey

Mix the dry ingredients well in a bowl. Pour the lemon juice into the milk (it’s magic!). Stir in the honey till dissolved. Make a well in the flour etc, pour in the ‘artificial buttermilk’ and mix with a spatula till the ‘dough’ is ‘together’. Shape into a round loaf, put on a floured baking tray (I use coarse semolina), cut a deep cross in the top and put in the oven preheated to 180degC (that’s my fan oven; I guess 200degC for ‘conventional’ oven). Bake for 30 minutes or till it sounds hollow when rapped on the bottom.

Note. This made a very ‘sloppy’ dough, difficult to handle and shape, so next time I’d add a bit more flour.

 

Finding 3 VHS tapes featuring aspects of my teaching of English in Romania a quarter of a century ago (post on 8th August), together with meeting two of my former pupils, were definitely the highlights of this summer’s visit to Romania. If another project comes off there will be another highlight but ‘Murphy’ being as he is I will only post about that if it comes to fruition.

However, after finding the tapes while clearing my parents-in-law’s attic I was disappointed not to find two books I had hoped were there. After clearing the attic we set about a store room at our small apartment nearby and another couple of ‘gems’ emerged from 14 years of dust.

Enlarging English vocabulary

A picture of the opening pages of the book, generously inscribed by Gheorghe, “To my friend Roger Livesey. My greatest thanks. If you had not helped me this book would not have appeared. Iași, May 21st 2000.One was one of the books I hoped to find in the attic. Titled Everyday topics it was written by my good friend Gheorghe Stan, Head of English at Liceul National in Iași when I taught there. Its declared aim was to  provide a larger vocabulary for intermediate and advanced learners of English. I may well have been able to find a copy of this book at a second hand book dealers which abound in the university city of Iași but, not teaching English any more, I wanted only the copy Gheorghe presented to me with its generous inscription. I was delighted to find it.

An ecumenical English course

Picture of A leaflet about thr course showing Students with (then) Archbishop Daniel, with me on his left.

A leaflet about thr course showing Students with (then) Archbishop Daniel, with me on his left.

Another ‘gem’ was a complete English course I wrote for an ecumenical project set up by the then Archbishop Daniel, now Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church. The students came from many different east European countries. Mostly beginners, the idea of the course was to enable them to describe their church, both in a spiritual and a physical sense, in English, quite a tall order as they came only with their own languages (or some also with Russian) – Albanian, Armenian, Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, Kazahkstani, Kyrgystani, Latvian, Russian, Slovakian, Ukrainian and, of course, Romanian – from many different backgrounds and several different churches. It was a wonderful few weeks with many social events between lessons.

I had taught on a similar course two years previously but in 2003 I was course director and wrote all the lessons, so finding them (around 50 overhead projection transparencies) was particularly interesting.

Love letters and all

A final collection of ‘gems’ was cards, photos and letters to Petronela from the beginning of our relationship, including the first ever letter I wrote to her, before our relationship began.

Well worth choking on the dust of so many years of hibernation!

With Paula, my pupil a quarter of a century ago, in her home in the beautiful Bistrița valley

With Paula, my pupil a quarter of a century ago, in her home in the beautiful Bistrița valley

After a seven and a quarter hours drive, including a couple of stops, I’m back in the city, Romania’s second largest city (after the capital) in terms of population – Iași. I’m not happy.

Iași is not a bad city as cities go, but I would not choose to stay in it, nor any other, for any length of time in the summer. The things which would attract me, the theatre which is also the opera house and the philharmonic hall with its superb resident orchestra and choir, have no programme in the summer.

Bucovina

The summer is a time to spend in the beautiful countryside of northern Romania, for me the area known as ‘the Bucovina’ – basically the ‘county’ (județ) of Suceava – and the neighbouring ‘county’ of Neamț, where we have just spent a few days. The motivation to visit there was two-fold: to take Petronela’s parents to visit three monasteries in Neamț ‘county’ – Neamț, Agapia and Varatec (my favourite) – and to visit another former pupil from 24 years ago, Paula (see post, post and post).

Highlight of the trip

Paula lives in the beautiful valley of the river Bistrița, so after visiting the three monasteries, staying two nights near Agapia, we continued south to the large lake of Bicaz, then turned up the Bistrița valley to Vatra Dornei, staying a couple of nights in Broșteni and visiting Paula and her family in Borcă. Needless to say, the highlight of the trip for me was the visit to my former pupil, now a teacher of English in Broșteni.

Varatec monastery – my favourite

Petronela and me at the Varatec monaster

Petronela and me at the Varatec monastery

The Varatec monastery is not one of the famous painted monasteries of the Bucovina; apart from it being a particularly beautiful monastery tended by its resident nuns, not monks, it has fond memories of taking Petronela’s grandmother there for Easter (whatever your faith, or none, the night before Easter Sunday at a monastery is an experience not to be missed if possible).

If you are just having a holiday in Romania there is little reason to stay in a city. None of them other than Bucharest is so large you cannot stay in a bed and breakfast outside the city and go in to visit places of interest, eg the open air museums with their collections of traditional houses or those castles which are within the cities, eg the ‘cetatea’ in Suceava, Bucovina, or the old city within Sighișoara in Transylvania. Even Sibiu has lost its charm for me, the craftsmen and women with their wares around the large central square in the 1990s being completely replaced by bars and restaurants.

Transylvania and the Dracula nonsense

Don’t be misled by the concentration on Transylvania; parts of Transylvania are certainly beautiful but what drags so many tourists there is the myth of Dracula but, for example, Bran castle near Brașov has little if anything to do with the real ‘Dracula’, Vlad Țepeș, who in turn has nothing to do with vampires, and the Dracula hotel at the top of the Tehuța pass between Bistrița and Vatra Dornei is even more of a nonsense.

The decorated monasteries

Of course if you visit Romania I would say ‘a must’ is a visit to the decorated monasteries of the Bucovina but be careful; everything around them and within them is unjustifiably expensive. The most renowned, Voroneț, is not for me the most attractive – I prefer Moldovița or secondly, Sucevița.

Humor monastery

An attempted visit to one of the less renowned, Humor, on our way ‘home’ was abandoned when we saw the entrance price and the levy to take a photograph (I visited it more than once many years ago when there were no charges). Having said that, Humor is one where the external images are best preserved despite being one of the earliest to be decorated. It is also perhaps one of the most interesting (just Google ‘monasteria Humor’ for more details why), but in my opinion that does not justify being ‘ripped off’ (the craft items on the stalls around are also overpriced and the genuine items mixed with a lot of rubbish from maybe China and India). There are no entrance charges or fees to take photographs in the Neamț monasteries.

Bureaucracy – Romanian + EU

Apart from visiting Petronela’s parents in Iași city, we unfortunately need to spend a time here to attempt to complete various ‘administrative’ tasks which can only be completed in a city, in our case only in Iași. Despite Romania being one of the best internet connected countries in Europe, there is little you can do to tackle the formidable bureaucracy on line, made all the worse by Romania now being in the European Union.

Sitting in the sun 460km from Bucuresti, in my favourite part of Romania known as the  Bucovina, it is difficult to believe what we saw on television last evening – some events at the protest meeting in Piata Victoriei, ie outside the Romanian Parliament. Someone, little doubt a Government Minister, ordered in the ‘Jandamerie’ – a kind of police army seen, eg, in France or the USA but of which we have no equivalent in the UK.

It had to be the same person who ordered the ‘jandarmi’ to be equipped with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon and give them leave to attack the unarmed crowd, not only young men protesting peacefully but women with children and elderly ladies.

https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=429475440791862&id=302902656782475&_rdr

Diaspora

Many in the crowd were ‘diaspora’, people who emigrated to work in another country who came back to register their protest about the corruption rife in Romanian politics. They were swelled by many many still living and working in the country; the crowd eventually probably numbered about 100,000.

No words necessary

Of course you have to be careful of ‘fake news’; not every picture circulating on internet is from last night’s meeting, probably circulated to cast doubt on the truthful ones. But there is no doubt about others showing the violence with which the jandarmi attacked their own people.

“Why do they not refuse to do it. Do they not have mothers, brothers and sisters, even children?” I asked. A large salary, and an enormous pension I was told. Of course some are just sadists.

Romanians are wonderful people but as far as the authorities are concerned if  there’s the most difficult solution to a simple problem you can be pretty sure they will apply it. Being in the European Union has given the bureaucrats another million reasons to make almost anything as difficult as possible. After a week of wrestling with this amazing bureaucracy, to the point where I was tempted to give up and go home early, along comes a young man who arrives when he says he will, does the job quickly and efficiently and the cost at the end, very reasonable, was at the bottom of his estimate range rather than the top. Details at the end of this post.

Missing books

It began with a search for two books in the attic of my parents-in-law, where some 14 years ago I had stored a lot of ‘stuff’ and hardly approached it since. The books: proceedings of a conference in, if I remember correctly, USA and Mexico simultaneously, on using internet in English teaching, at which I presented a paper from Romania, Bucharest, at around midnight – very unusual in the mid 1990s; the other book was about English idioms, by George Stan, head of English at Liceul National in Iași where I was teaching at the time – a great guy who gave me a really generous acknowledgement in the book for my editing of it.

Sadly, neither book was there. Most of the ‘stuff’ was now junk but I was excited to find three ‘gems’ – three VHS tapes, one labelled ‘An English Nativity Play’, another ‘Școala nr.1 (School no.1) Suceava/email project’, the third was a recording of a show celebrating 8th March (1998) at a different school.

First tape

Petronela’s parents have a working VHS player and with some trepidation I put in the first of the tapes and pushed ‘play’. I was taken back to Christmas 1994 and the nativity play was as I hoped, that performed by my students at School No.1 in Burdujeni, Suceava; it was also broadcast by a local tv station on Christmas Day itself. The angel who brought the good news to the shepherds I met about a week ago though she is now a lawyer in Baia Mare – Anca, who I wrote about in my previous post. Other former students who I hope to meet over the next 2 or 3 weeks also feature in the play.

Second tape

The second tape was a presentation of some of the email projects (my conference paper was about these) done by the same group of students, who eventually named themselves the ‘Allstars’. The presentation was to an American couple who delivered ‘obsolete’ IBM laptops to Romanian schools. I used one, eventually two, in email projects as part of my English teaching, linking up with, eg, schools in Vancouver and Northumbria, UK – no Windows, but using MsDos.

Third tape

The Allstars also formed themselves into a Leo Club, 'adopting' a special needs class (the Bunnies) in another school. Here they are shown on a picnic the Allstars organised for the Bunnies


The Allstars also formed themselves into a Leo Club, ‘adopting’ a special needs class (the Bunnies) in another school. Here they are shown on a picnic the Allstars organised for the Bunnies

The third tape, the recording of an 8th March Show, I will not try to insert here as it is almost 1 hour long and only a small part towards the end is a performance for which I was responsible. This performance is by a special needs class in School No. 11 which became ‘The bunnies’ and incorporated the song ‘Heads, shoulders, knees and toes’. They did their own email project with a special needs class in the USA and were ‘adopted’ by the Leo Club formed by some of the students at School No.1. When I get back to UK and on my Mac I should be able to extract the relevant part and do a post about that.

The efficient Romanian

I’ve been able to post the recordings on Youtube, and so hopefully within this post (I’ve never attempted such a thing before – it seems to be working). I cannot cut out the ‘rubbish’ at the start of each till, again, I get onto the Mac at home but after a few seconds the actual film should appear.

I’ve been able to do this only due to the great service from one Romanian young man. Following a phone call he collected the VHS tapes Monday lunchtime, transferred to DVDs and delivered them early Tuesday. The cost? About 1/25th of the cost of transferring the one tape of our wedding (also VHS) to DVD in the UK.

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