Romania


The Library

They were surprised to find a library in the castle. They had almost not come in; the entry fee of 40RON (about £8) for the two of them would usually have put them off but it had begun to rain heavily and the car was quite a walk away so they made an exception even though it was near to closing time.

There did not seem to be the usual supervisor in each room and when Smaranda saw a lot of books on shelves in a distant darkened room she hurried towards them. Libraries, particularly old libraries, had a special fascination for her as a history teacher.

I don’t think you should go in there,” Michael, her English boyfriend, cautioned. “That red rope across the doorway obviously means we’re not supposed to go in there. Anyway, it’s too dark to see much.”

I’ve got that little torch on my keyring so I just want to see what books they’ve got. They all look super old. I’m going in.”

Michael reluctantly followed.

It doesn’t look as though any of the books have been moved for years,” said Smaranda. “I can hardly see any of the titles,” she added, wiping a finger along one row of volumes.

Hey, there’s one here called Wallachia,” she called. “Oh, another has the word Vrăjitoariei on the spine, and here’s one titled Strigoi.”

I don’t know any of those words,” answered Michael.

Oh, it’s really exciting. Wallachia is the southern region which joined with Transylvania and Moldavia to become Romania. Vrăjitoariei is witchcraft and strigoi are spirits which can transform themselves into horrible animals. I’ve never seen a Romanian book on witchcraft or strigoi before, though of course we studied the history of Wallachia at university so I’ve seen plenty of books on that.”

I’m surprised you haven’t heard of vrăjitoariei before; you’re always complaining about how superstitious we Romanians are. As for strigoi, I thought you knew Latin pretty well: striga – evil spirit. Pretty much the same in Romanian, strigă. Strigoi is plural though sometimes used as singular too.”

Smaranda pulled out the volume titled Vrăjitoariei and was enveloped in a cloud of dust. When she was able to catch her breath she opened the book at a random page and called out excitedly, “This chapter seems to be full of vrăji – spells – mostly to cure all manner of ailments.”

She continued to leaf through the pages. “Good heavens, there’s a spell here to stop Jews killing new-born babies! What’s that about?”

“I think you should put that book back right now and we should leave. We’re not supposed to be in here anyway.” Michael sounded worried.

Smaranda ignored him and continued to turn the pages. ”Oh, there’s a spell here to summon a strigă. It says it’s only to be used on the eve of St. Andrew’s day or the eve of St. George’s day. Isn’t that odd? It’s St. Andrew’s day tomorrow I think, thirtieth of the November, isn’t it?”

I don’t know, St. George’s day is in April but I can’t remember the day.”

Shame on you, he’s your patron saint! Anyway, I’m going to try this one, the spell I mean.”

I think you should just put the book back; anyway, you shouldn’t mess about with such things, though of course I don’t believe a word of it.”

Oh, it says the spell needs a fire so that’s no good.” Smaranda sounded crestfallen, then suddenly shouted excitedly, “You’ve got a lighter, maybe that will do. Let me have it please.” Michael reluctantly  handed it over.

I don’t know whether I can get this right. It’s very old Romanian language: it reminds me of trying to read Ion Creangă’s ‘Childhood Memories’ but it seems even older.

I gave up with that having not understood a thing,” Michael said sullenly; he was proud that he’d mastered reading and speaking modern Romanian, though he still had difficulty writing it.

Smaranda clicked the lighter and with the flame in front of her began to chant some words, reading from the book.

Michael understood not a word.

§

He saw it first.

A pale light behind Smaranda which began to swirl around, as though stirred by an invisible spoon, until it began to take on a recognisable form, vaguely human but as it became more recognisable, hideously distorted, limbs sticking out in unnatural directions and a face like a foam latex mask pulled in all directions around a mouth open in what seemed to be a scream, though inside just black, as though it had no end.

A wild eerie shriek behind her made Smaranda turn around, just in time to see the horrible form solidify into an owl. She had time to recognise a barn owl, often wrongly known as a screech owl because of its call, before the bird flew onto her shoulder.

No sooner had it landed than Smaranda shrieked loudly herself as she felt a sharp pain in her neck. The owl spread its wings and flew around and around her head, shrieking continuously till the shriek turned into a scream, familiar to many Romanians as the cry of the fattened pig as its throat is cut to kill it for winter meat.

At the same time the owl began to take the form of a much distorted pig then alternate between pig and owl, each transformation being more horrendous than the previous one.

Finally it was the owl which settled on Smaranda’s shoulder again, sunk its beak in the bloody gash it had made previously, its breast pulsating like a fast beating heart. Smaranda became ever more pale before dissolving into a vague distorted form resembling the strigă which Michael had first seen.

Michael tried to grab Smaranda’s hand to pull her from the room but there was nothing of substance to hold on to.

One of the strigoi began to fly faster and faster around Michael’s head, alternating between the vague distorted form of the strigă and a pig, which soon settled into the form of a boar which sank its fangs into Michael’s chest.

§

The police forensics team, called in the next morning, were baffled. The male, with two deep incisions near to the heart, had clearly died from them almost instantly but there was no weapon.

Even more baffling was the body of the young female. She had obviously died from exsanguination but there was not a sign of blood on the library floor.

A lighter lay near her right hand and a book near her left.

The policeman examining the body called out “This book is open, she seems to have been reading it. It’s open at a chapter titled Vrăji. Anyone know what that means?”

No one did.


This is the first time I’ve tried this. Usually in the writers’ club we each read our own contribution. So here is me reading the above story. I’ll get better!


I don’t usually pick up on the theme often given as a writing prompt at our writers’ club, Writing on the Wharfe, preferring to write about whatever comes into my head. This time the given theme of ‘libraries’ appealed. It gave me an opportunity to explore Romanian legends less well known than Dracula and vampires, which are more modern anyway.

You can blame another blogger and a writers’ club member for the above story. Ailish, whose first novel I sort of reviewed here and here, planted witches in my head; Jo – whose stories I always enjoy when read in the club, surprisingly even the horror stories as it’s not a genre I usually enjoy – has somehow got me trying to write ‘horror’.

Notes:

In the past there have been trials of ‘witches’ in Romania, similar to those in Aberdeen described by Ailish Sinclair in her novel The Mermaid and the Bear. Gypsies and Jews seem to have been particularly targetted in Romania.

True screech owls are confined to the Americas. Barn owls, plentiful in Europe, make a screeching sound rather than the ‘tewit tewoo’ usually associated with owls.

I really like the ancient Romanian female names so chose one for this story. The founder and ‘leader’ of our writers’ club has another, Ruxandra, so I never shorten it to ‘Ruxi’ as most club members do. Another I like a lot is Ilinca.

I enjoy today, International Women’s Day, as I have many more female friends than male ones and always have had.

So, to all you ladies who follow my blog or happen upon it accidentally

Have a great day and keep on pushing for women to be treated equally to men in absolutely everything.

There’s still a long way to go!

Women’s Day

I first heard of ‘Women’s Day’ when I arrived in Romania on 8th March 1993, but it was not about ‘International Women’s Day’; Romanians have been celebrating women on 8th March for longer than that.

I soon learned that in the part of Romania I was visiting for a six month voluntary project (which turned into 11.1/2 years!) had a rather different tradition to the rest of Romania.

The 1st of March is widely celebrated as the day of Marțișori, (and the first day of Spring) when small tokens with a bow of red and white threads are exchanged. However, the way I learned this when I arrived in Bucovina was that the women gave the men Marțișori on 1st March but the men gave the women Marțișori on 8th March, almost always together with flowers and often with another gift.

If you’re interested you will find an earlier post about the day and the tradition

here.


Apologies – this post is much later than intended. Internet has gone crazy, dropping out every couple of minutes. A trip to the local supermarket for two or three items was equally crazy: usually almost deserted at opening time the car park was full. I can only only assume people were ‘panic buying’, which does not help at all of course.

A Yorkshire tea tin, a beer mat from a Yorkshire brewery, Timothy Taylors in Keighly, and a Royal Doulton ‘Yorkshire Rose’ cup and saucer.

Some might say the Yorkshire Rose china, from Royal Doulton, is too fine for Yorkshire tea, but we can be posh tha knows

This is the first Yorkshire Day (today) for several years for which I’ve been in Yorkshire. I and Petronela have been in Romania, specifically in or on the way to the Romanian Bucovina.  My ‘heart’ is divided between the two, so much so that I have said that when the time comes I want half of my ashes scattered in each place.

It’s odd to me that although quite a few of my short stories and ‘poems’ are set in or inspired by Yorkshire, my first attempt at a longer tale is set in London, but a London of over a half a century ago. My most recent visit to London was several years ago and the experience resolved me never to go again.

I’m in no way a patriot. I’ve never felt a strong urge to say I’m English, nor British, though I do have some satisfaction in being able to say I’m a tyke. I drink Yorkshire tea or Yorkshire beer and although I’m not a ‘city person’ I enjoy an occasional visit to its largest city – Leeds. I think the Yorkshire moors are heaven on earth and appreciate the dry humour of Yorkshire folk.

So , today, here’s a toast – to me, in true tyke fashion:

Eres t’ me ‘n my wife’s ‘usban’,
Not forgettin’ missen

and a motto

Eat all, sup all, pay nowt
‘ear all, see all, say nowt.
Un if tha iver does owt fo nowt
allus do it fo thissen

My spelling of the dialect.

Standing among Romanians queuing to vote in the EU election in Leeds on Sunday I could only feel ashamed at the turnout in the UK election for the EU parliament on the previous Thursday.

Photo of Romanians queuing to vote in EU election in Leeds

Romanians queuing in Leeds to vote in EU election and re corruption

Only a little over one third of British voters turned out to vote.

I have not been able to find out what percentage of Romanians living in the UK turned out but it doesn’t really matter; it was almost certainly well over a third but more important were the problems put in their way: long queues to vote with polling stations closing at 9pm leaving thousands unable to vote despite queuing for hours.

I believe that was a deliberate strategy on the part of the Romanian authorities, dictated by the leader of the ruling party, the PSD; it is not for the first time that it has happened.

It reminded me of my early days in Romania, shortly after the ‘revolution’, queuing for sugar, perhaps butter, only to find that after a few hours in the queue there was no more; sometimes it had never existed!

Photo of Petronela just after joining the queue at about 2pm

Petronela joins the end of the queue at about 2pm

Personally, I joined the Romanians in Leeds in the first place to support my Romanian wife Petronela but also to show support for the wonderful Romanians who endured the insult from the Romanian authorities with their usual good humour. They have an amazing ability to turn disaster or tragedy into stand-up comedy.

They were not slow to show their appreciation of this crazy Englishman joining them either (nor that I could speak their language).

Six and three quarter hours in the queue

Photo of inside voting area at about 8.40pm as Petronela is about to vote

Once inside the voting area the reason for the long wait became clear – one table of officials writing everything by hand for three separate votes. Photo as Petronela waits to vote at about 8.40pm

We joined the queue at 2pm. My wife was able to vote at 8.45pm – six and three quarter hours in the queue. For certain there would have been a hundred or two waiting to vote when the polling station closed 15 minutes later. There were many thousands left in the same situation in other UK cities and many thousands more in cities throughout Europe.

At least one good result

Nevertheless, there was at least one good result. Romanians were not only voting for members of the EU parliament but also (putting it simply) whether corrupt members of their government should escape prosecution. Shortly after the vote Dragnea, the leader of the ruling party, the PSD, who had become as close to a dictator as makes no difference, was in jail.

Leaving the queue behind, still largely good humoured though just beginning to chant “We want to vote” (in Romanian obviously), I had even more reason to feel ashamed to be British. On our way through the city centre to catch a bus we had to negotiate a group of well-heeled hooligans embroiled in a street fight. Fortunately the police quickly intervened and we were able to pass safely.

Many of us British do not appreciate how lucky we still are to live in this country despite the nonsense which our politics have become. Let’s show appreciation by using our right to vote, hard-won by so many, next time we have the opportunity.

PS. I do not intend to return to posting regularly about political issues but just had to record last Sunday’s event.

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.

RomFlag

The Romanian flag


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.

 

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