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!

Advertisements
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.

I have never seen Romania so green, so beautiful, but it is a beauty only skin deep. Beneath the surface disasters are happening. We left Yorkshire with an extraordinary summer, weeks of sunshine with little rain, a situation rarely seen before. As we ventured further south east, through Germany and Austria, the heat was still evident but more and more rain, often torrential.

The incredible rain clouds in front of us, as yet in sun, as we reached the outskirts of Iași. The downpour, more violent than any power shower I have met, turned on just as we reached our destination, outside Petronela’s parents’ home.

The incredible rain clouds in front of us, as yet in sun, as we reached the outskirts of Iași. The downpour, more violent than any power shower I have met, turned on just as we reached our destination, outside Petronela’s parents’ home.

We, the human race, are destroying our life as we have known it. Fifty years ago I was writing, as a journalist, about the dangers of ‘global warming’ though few wanted to listen then. Not enough are listening now to those far better qualified than me, especially ignored by the most powerful ‘world leaders’.

Forest destroyed

Swathes of forest have been felled in Romania and it continues so the natural protection against excessive run-off from the mountains has been and continues to be removed. The effects are clear to see: excessively swollen streams and rivers, moving swiftly to sweep away anything in their paths, including bridges and complete houses and causing wide-spread flooding. And for what? Money, of course.

But not money for the general population, money for a few and mostly for foreign investors. Something like 58% of Romanian land, among the most fertile in Europe, has been sold to large foreign corporations from other countries In Europe but also from as far away as the Arab states and China. This is ‘globalisation’ – stealing from the poor to make the rich more obscenely richer. The fat cat politicians pat their back pockets stuffed with Euros, Dollars, Sterling and other currencies, weeping crocodile tears to swell the already swollen rivers.

The immediate effect on our trip

The final good sleep in our tent, at the excellent Warnsborn camp site at Arnhem, Holland.

We have not escaped. Our tent, resistant to 3,000mm water pressure, did not resist the torrential downpours and for the first time ever we have been woken up in the night to find ourselves wet. We ‘escaped’ at 2.30am on two occasions to sleep in the car and on one occasion where it was clearly going to rain we did not bother to erect the tent – with front seat backs fully lowered Dusty provides a reasonable sleeping position but far from ideal, so until we reached my ‘honorary grandmother’s’ house near Câmpulung Moldovenesc we had not had a good night’s sleep since leaving Holland.

New tent!

Having had an interrupted night with heavy rain in Atea, close to the Romanian border at Petea (a great ‘camp site’ which I’ll talk about sometime later), we ordered a new tent online from a Romanian supplier to be delivered to Petronela’s parents. We’re now waiting for delivery. It claims to have 5,000mm water pressure resistance so with any luck it will resist whatever the weather throws at us till we return home.

Idiot Romanian politicians

If the destruction of the environment was not enough, watching Romanian tv is equally horrific: a Prime Minister who doesn’t know what capital she is in (when I lived here I could stop any high school student, probably any primary school pupil, and ask for the capital of any country and they would answer correctly). Then we’ve had the Minister of Agriculture publicly comparing the incineration of pigs to Auschwitz! The only conclusion we can come to is that people like this are put into positions of ‘authority’ to be easily manipulated.

Some things good to finish

First, the people! Warm, friendly, amazingly hospitable. How on earth they have ended up with a Goverment made up with many idiots or corrupt politicians is almost incredible. Part of the answer is without doubt that so many of the young well-educated, well qualified of the population have left the country.

Second, the food. Tomatoes, giant tomatoes which taste like nothing found in UK. Not from a supermarket but grown by people in the country. Then there’s fresh sheep’s cheese, caș, again made by the country people not in any factory, and together with something I cannot translate, urdă, made by heating the wey after making caș and skimming the solids which come to the surface. When made well it is wonderfully sweet and creamy. That was my lunch and I could live on these three foods with a little home-baked bread, made with flour again from the country.

That is not to say I do not enjoy anything else; I could fill many posts of 1,000-2,000 words just to list the dishes I most enjoy – ciorbe (sour soups), plateau țarănesc (a pile of pork, beef, chicken, lamb from the gratar – grill, which we ate with my former student, Anca, yesterday (see below) and of course, borș (borsch – not the Russian borsch known in UK made with beetroot) made by ‘mama’, which greeted us when we arrived yesterday evening.

Anca

Me with Anca at the

With Anca. Petronela took the photo. Plateau țărănesc (or what remains) in front of us.

One of the highlights of my visit will be the meeting yesterday with my former student Anca, who I have not seen since she was a young teenager. A wonderful four hours with a youngster who has grown to be a successful lawyer and a beautiful woman. I wrote in the past about her finding me through Facebook and our meeting yesterday was everything I expected other than it was too short.

Through her initiative I have contact with other former students from the same class and I intend to meet with as many of them as possible, those who have remained in the country, despite the weather as it is which might limit access to some parts of the country.

Rest after 2,700 km drive

Today I am resting – sleeping, eating and writing this post – after driving about 2,700km (1,800 miles).

Later, I will attempt to write a haibun for each day since leaving UK; at the moment they exist as only rough notes scribbled among the ‘adventures’, mostly down to the weather.


PS. We have today, having access to television news, been following the situation in Athens. I am without words, remaining only with tears.

Calming fish in the Medical Physics department

I didn’t think I was going to post again until the New Year but, having had a visit to hospital yesterday (no, not a new problem) I just have to say something, and pose a question.

First, the staff – from receptionist to radiographer, they are truly delightful. I have said that in the past about the staff at Airedale hospital, where I’ve been an inpatient more than once and outpatient more times than I can remember over the past three years, but the same is true at Bradford Royal Infirmary where I was today. Not an inpatient,  just there for a bone scan, the fourth one I’ve had.

Jolly Scottish radiographer and Jamaican goat curry

Previous to that experiences, not on my own behalf but as a visitor, they were not happy ones. My elderly mother was the patient and visiting her was a depressing experience. When I had to to be taken to A&E (Accident & Emergency) three years ago I was, frankly, rather frightened from my previous experiences visiting my mother. However, because of where we live I did not and generally do not go to Bradford, only for the type of scan yesterday. I had the same jolly Scottish radiographer as previously and because for some reason this time he mentioned goat curry made by his Jamaican mother-in-law, he had me reminiscing about my visit to Jamaica years ago.

All this was before the scan, for which you must lay perfectly still for an hour or so while ‘Hawkeye‘ (that’s the name of the scanner, which made me laugh) looks for gamma rays from your bones, blood system having been injected with a radioactive potion a couple of hours before. Something new was after the hour I was stretched out on the ‘table’ he asked me to “sit on the camera” – to get a different view of my pelvis.

 

I couldn’t get WiFi working in the Medical Physics department where the scan was done so spent much of the waiting time in the magnificent new ‘reception’ area – bright, cheerful and more like a shopping centre (mall) – Marks & Spencer Simply Food, Costa coffee shop, newsagents and hospital restaurant – than a hospital. I managed to get WiFi there, partly in the restaurant eating an excellent leek and potato soup, so spent much of the time ‘chatting’ to a dear blogger friend far away.

My question

Which brings me to my question. When our National Health Service is so strapped for cash as repeatedly reported now, nurses underpaid and both patients and visitors ‘ripped off’ with crippling parking charges (luckily I can park some distance away and walk to the hospital) – should what clearly had been a very substantial sum of money be spent on the reception area? Maybe the respective NHS Trust had been as wily as the authorities in the Romanian city of Iasi, where commercial interests were allowed to develop a modern shopping ‘mall’ if they paid for restoration of the nearby magnificent ‘Palace of Culture’ museum. I don’t know.

I cannot decide on my own answer to my question. I understand the reasons for making such reception/waiting areas more bright and cheerful, and it certainly made the experience of visiting hospital better, but would the cash be better spent on medical facilities or staff? What do you think?

I’ve said it before: Bradford, my home city, has become what to me is the biggest ‘slum’ in Europe. Because on Tuesday I went to Leeds, vibrant, fun, smiling people (bit about that on my post of 14 September) I decided as I needed to visit my bank yesterday I’d go to Bradford where there is a branch. I wish I had not.

In the Bronte village of Haworth in February

I’m not going to post any pictures of the city, they would be too depressing. It’s been turned into a city of ghettos, many of poverty. The much vaunted ‘new’ shopping centre, full of the usual chain shops has, appropriately I suppose, the most boring architecture imaginable. The major shops having moved to this centre, the previous shopping streets are filled with empty, deteriorating premises. It’s all reflected in the faces of the weary, hunched over figures on the streets.

All this in what was a magnificent Victorian city, built by the wool barons to demonstrate their wealth.  Vestiges of the old city remain, including the magnificent city hall, but most of it has been allowed to deteriorate. If you look above the tired shop fronts you can still imagine the superb local stone architecture that was.

It’s no coincidence that the ghettos have something like the highest incidence of uninsured drivers, the highest incidence of deliberately provoked ‘accidents’ to seek compensation and some of the worst driving you will experience anywhere (as I experienced only yesterday and but for extreme vigilance I would now have a buckled front wing).

Some jewels

There are a few jewels, for example the Alhambra where I was introduced, as a child, by my grandmother to ballet, opera and pantomime. I don’t go any more, crossing the city to reach it is too depressing. Another once magnificent building, St George’s Hall where I was introduced to live symphony concerts, is a sorry sight and another smaller concert venue, Eastbrook Hall,  where I think I heard Eileen Joyce play, has long gone, only a facade remaining. Another former jewel which I used to visit frequently, the national media museum, following a threat to close it because of falling attendances (not surprising as you had to go to the depressing city to visit it), has been ‘taken over’ by the London Science Museum. It would have been better, as I said at the time, to move it intact to Leeds, somewhere near the superb Royal Armouries museum. Attendance would have soared. Now, for ‘culture’, I’d go to Leeds.

There are many more jewels in the surrounding vast Bradford Metropolitan District, the World Heritage village of Saltaire where I spent my childhood, the Bronte village of Haworth, Ilkley Moor and others, but the disaster of the city is slowly but surely creeping out to consume them.

Antidotes

What a difference in a similar city in one of Europe’s substantially less wealthy countries, Iași in Romania. So one antidote to the Bradford visit was to look at some pictures taken in the city when we were there this summer.

The restoration of the buildings which declined in communist times is not finished yet but there’s enough to make it a happy place to visit, bustling with culture and, soon, the swarms of young people will be boosted as the new university year begins.

Back to the Chevin (pub!)

A final antidote to the Bradford visit, a climb up to the Chevin (see my post a few days ago) on a superb autumn day this afternoon. Only high enough today to have a drink in the Chevin Inn which boasts it has the finest views in Yorkshire from the garden. I think I’d argue with that but the views are certainly superb. Viewed with a pint of Timothy Taylor’s (local brewery) Landlord bitter in front of me and, for Petronela, a not so local cider, with a packet of crisps, it’ll do. Enough to obliterate memories of Bradford. Fortunately I wrote about that visit to the city before setting off on our 2.1/2 hour walk.

 

Former headmaster Dumitru Bunea with a portrait of founder of the school, M Kogălneceanu

Former headmaster Dumitru Bunea with a portrait of M Kogălneceanu, who founded the school in  1831 in a former ‘palace’

Two important things to do today, in the morning resolution of some medical problems, in the afternoon visiting the museum at the high school where Petronela (my wife – P from now) and I met, Liceul Agricol M Kogălniceanu, Miroslava. Succeeded with both.

A high school in a heavenly setting

How did I become a teacher at Miroslava? Living and teaching at the time in the city of Suceava, I was invited on a British Council course for Romanian teachers of English and there met a teacher of English from the Informatics high school in Iași (about 100km away). She persuaded me to come to Iași once a week and teach there. Someone else mentioned to me the beautiful setting of the Miroslava school so one day I climbed the hill, 7km from the city centre, to have a look. The high school is an agricultural high school, so apart from general education students can be educated to be vets, food technicians and other profiles, caring for animals in the school farm, raising crops on the school’s 100 hectares of agricultural land, caring for the orchard and vineyard, even keeping bees. That was so when I and P taught there; it may have changed somewhat now.

Wandering around, admiring the park, the orchard, the vineyard and what seemed to be an old, rather run down ‘palace’, all of which seemed to make up the school, I met someone who turned out to be the the deputy headmaster, explained I was a native speaking English teacher. He took me to the headmaster, Dumitru Bunea, who quickly persuaded me to teach there too (they had no English teacher, in fact no member of staff, including the head, spoke English). The ‘bait’ was that I could have a room in the ‘camin’ (the student hostel) and eat in the school canteen in return for teaching. As I was at the time a volunteer, so no income, I ‘bit’!

As usual on this blog, click any picture in the gallery below to see the pictures larger as a slide show

A unique museum

The headmaster, not only a history teacher like P but a dedicated historian, had some time before began to collect agricultural implements, many brought by students from the surrounding villages, with the idea of making a museum in the school. This expanded into collecting traditional items of clothing, pottery, etc. As the collection grew, including pre-neolithic artifacts to relatively recent things (eg from WW2), some of the best were donated to the city’s museum of culture (Palatul Culturii) and many duplicates donated to surrounding schools to make their own museums.

There is now an extensive collection at the school though it does not have the money to house and display it as it would wish. The village mayor had acquired European funds to do this but the city reappropriated these funds so the project is now in limbo. As Mr Bunea is now retired, getting this project off the ground again is even less likely. This is really sad; if I won a big, big prize on the lottery I would certainly finance it.

Although I visited the museum, of course, during my time teaching at Miroslava, I never had a a really good look, particularly to discuss it with the man who created it – Mr Bunea. It was an enormous pleasure, and honour, to do that today over more than four hours.

A further honour was to be invited to sign the ‘Carte de onoare’, alongside personalities from all over the world and in many languages.

Busy day and temperature is climbing again (29-30degC). Escaping to the cooler climes of the Bucovina tomorrow for a few days, looking for a possible place to move and visiting friends.

The moment I cross the border into Romania I feel better, particularly if I cross in the north east of the country. This route takes me most directly to where I say I was ‘reborn’ – the Romanian Bucovina – via Maramureș, the two areas of the country where tradition is best preserved. They border the Ukraine, the part which was Romania until Churchill and Stalin gave it to the USSR. I’ve been there when I was chucked out of Romania for some minor misdemeanor (probably not renewing my visa in time, but that’s another story). It’s still very Romanian and I found most people spoke Romanian as well as Ukrainian.

In the past, when I lived in Romania, in the early years I had to leave Romania every three months then come back to renew my visa. Usually I chose to go to Budapest and crossed the border at Oradea, a busy crossing. Since returning to the UK I’ve preferred, when driving, to cross in the north east. Two years ago I crossed at Valea lui Mihai, a quiet crossing point.

The route

Google map of route from Petea to Iasi

This year I chose a crossing a little further north, at Petea, taking the 19 from the M3 from Budapest, well signposted for Satu Mare and Romania, as although it seemed to be a bit busier it was quite a few kilometers less to get onto the 18 road taking us through Maramureș and Bucovina – not the quickest route to our final destination, the city of Iași, but the most spectacular. Via Bistrița would be quicker and we’ll almost certainly return on this route knowing of the roadworks on the 18.

The Romanian border police have an excellent website which shows the actual waiting time at each crossing.

We did get ‘lost’ a couple of times negotiating Satu Mare to get to Baia Mare. The first was in Satu Mare itself, as so often the case, having been well signposted suddenly you reach a T junction with no sign. We turned the wrong way. Second, after leaving the town there was a sign indicating the route for heavy vehicles so we didn’t take it. When we reached a village with a typical Romanian country road it was clear we should have done. No big deal, it just took a little longer.

Roadworks

The road works on the 18 mountain road, which began on the climb to about 1,000 metres then descent (I think 26 hairpin bends) of the Gutai pass on the 18 between Baia Mare and Sighet, this year made it all the more adventurous (as logged on my Facebook ‘diary’ Dusty2Romania). At the top of the pass is a ‘han’, an inn, Pintea Viteazul, good for a break and something to eat. We ate a ‘ciorba’, a soup. Later I saw that this renowned inn is for sale, for €300,000.

For kilometer after kilometer there was a giant hole about every 100 metres, to take a very large ‘tube’ (1.5-2m diameter) to take water from the mountain under the road, rather than washing the road away as in the past. Some of these holes would have accommodated the Dacia Duster.

The right ‘lane’, which we are on, has been excavated to put a layer of stones then asphalt. The left ‘lane’ has not. Often it was a single ‘lane’, sometimes with traffic lights, sometimes not. More fun, especially when some drivers ignored the red light.

 

As I wrote in the ‘diary’, roadworks like those between Sighet and Cîrlibaba in UK would surely have led to the road being closed. In Romania no, particularly as it gives the only access to many villages along it. It was always an ‘adventure’ to take this road but at the moment more so. When complete much of the ‘adventure’ will have gone, though it will still be a spectacular route.

Camping Borșa

We camped for the night in the village of Borșa on a small campsite (Camping Borșa – they have a website) at the base of northern Romania’s highest mountain – Pietrosul Rodnei, 2,303 metres.

A few kilometres more and there’s the Prislop pass, 1,416 metres high. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it when we traversed it in the camper two years ago, in fact we slept a night at the top, but it had been dug up this year.

Continuing to Iacobeni you meet the major highway E58, a good road immediately climbing the Mestecăniș pass,1,096 metres, then down through the town of Câmpulung Moldovenesc to Gura Humorului, where you’ll find two of the famous ‘painted monasteries’, Voroneți to the right as you enter the town and Humor from the town centre to the left. In and around Câmpulung and Vama we have many friends, mostly deriving the projects I did in this area in the 1990s. We did not stop as we’ll be going back there.

The E58 goes to Suceava city but shortly after Gura Humorului we take the 2E towards Fălticeni but bypassing that we turn south on the E85, the major north-south highway from the border with Ukraine at Siret (where I spent my first 6 months in Romania in 1993). I drove this road many times, to the capital București, in my first six months in Romania. After several kilometres we turn east at Moțca, another good road, the 28E through Pașcani to Târgu Frumos, where we pick up the E58 again all the way to Iași.

I can’t explain why I feel so much better after entering Romania. Although the hot weather has something to do with it, it’s not just that as it was similarly hot in Hungary. It’s something spiritual.