Csíkszereda Musings

My life in and around Csíkszereda, also known as Miercurea Ciuc.

Archive for the ‘romania’ Category

Corruption article

Posted by Andy Hockley on 23 July, 2008

Not really my thing to just link to articles and not add anything of my own, but am a bit pressed for time, and wanted to make sure that anyone who hadn’t yet seen it, has the chance to see this article by Tom Gallagher on corruption in Romania and the EU’s response to it in the FT (today is the day that the report comes out, which will almost certainly contain the usual finger wagging inaction)

Posted in EU, romania | 1 Comment »

Milking it

Posted by Andy Hockley on 4 July, 2008

A couple of years ago, I pondered on the impact that EU membership would have on the small farmers of Romania. Just to clarify, the farmers of Romania are not, to my knowledge, any smaller than farmers anywhere else – many are of average height and build, while some are even quite tall. There are just rather a lot of them (farmers of all sizes) and they mostly have very small farms. In fact many of their farms would not actually be described as farms by most people and more like “having a cow or two in their back garden”. In fact, I think I should probably go with smallholder, so as to not delude you as to the scale of their operations.

Anyway, I have recently learned a little bit more about what EU membership means for these smallholders (and indeed what having all these smallholders means for the EU). Specifically in the dairy sector.

You see, the way things work around here is that people in villages own a cow or two. Every morning people open their gates, and the cows wander out on to the street and follow each other and the village cowbloke who escorts them all to a field where they all spend the day quietly pondering the scenery, rambling, and painting watercolours of the tranquil countryside. At the end of the day, they are led back through the village, during which walk they all peel off and go into their own homes. Really, they do that, they don’t need to be guided or anything, and the cowbloke doesn’t need to recognise all the cows, they just go home of their own accord. I mean cows may not be the most actively intelligent of animals, but they are not, well, sheep.

[By the way, and I have no idea whether this is true or not, but the joke around these parts is that the one place that it doesn’t work like this is in the Ploiesti area, in which everybody has so little to do, that they all take care of their own cows. Sort of a one-cow town]

Anyway, before they all go out for the day to their alfresco creche (Kühegarten?), they get milked by their owners. The aformentioned owners then take the milk to the village collection point, where it is deposited and cooled and then at some point picked up by the tanker which takes it all to the dairy. I think in the past, much of this dairy activity happened in the village itself, or at least in some villages, but with the changes brought upon by the EU, the only dairies that remain are the large ones which can afford to ensure all procedures and tests are met, and which are usually situated in the major population centres. So a fleet of tankers is despatched every morning to the collection points in the villages, where the milk is transferred to the tanker and brought back to the dairy, where it is tested and pasteurised and what have you (ie converted into good things, like butter, or crimes against humanity, like cheese).

Now this process is pretty much the only way that the old system of lots of people with few cows each can sustain itself (and not morph into the agribusiness model of very few people owning all the cows), but it obviously has a number of problems inherent in it. The main one is that it takes a long while to isolate a problem. If one cow is receiving antibiotics, for example, that cow’s milk cannot be sold (because milk cannot legally contain antibiotics). But if the owner and the village vet keep it secret (because obviously you lose income for a while), then the antbiotics show up at the dairy, meaning that the whole tanker full is unusable. At that point, all of the villages on that tanker’s route are under suspicion, and the next day the milk of all those villages will be checked at the collection points to determine which village it is. From that point, I guess the guilty cow can be identified, arrested, and charged, but it’s at least a three-day process. The other problem is that there are an awful lot of people who have been milking cows for a awfully long time who now have to re-learn some things to ensure that the milk they obtain is cleaner (in terms of bacteria content).

I also learned that each of these producers has to have a quota to sell the dairy issued by the EU (or I presume issued more locally, under EU rules). Because of Romania’s smallholding culture, there are 250,000 of these quota holders in this country. That is one half of all the quota holders in the whole of the EU. That’s one of those statistics that sounds like it should be really interesting, but when you delve deep down into it, it’s kind of hard to see why. A bit like this post, I fear.

Posted in EU, romania, transylvania | 2 Comments »

Random thoughts

Posted by Andy Hockley on 14 April, 2008

I’m just back from England, where I attended the annual IATEFL conference in Exeter with Erika and something like 1600 other people. It was a good trip, though I wasn’t feeling at my best, since the cough I had a few weeks ago turns out to have been pneumonia (or at least some similar non-specific lung inflammation, of similar levels of intensity). I am waiting today to have another delightful visit to Csikszereda’s hospital so that I can work out whether or not more treatment is necessary (this possibly will involve spending a few nights in the aforementioned building while I get regular injections of antibiotics and/or monitoring of rampant blood pressure which has risen in accompaniment of the lung thing. So if I don’t post anything here for a while it is likely because I am stuck in hospital and hence offline.

One of the things that I have complained about often in Romania is the fact that people are so incredibly nesh here. If I dare to take Paula out in 20 degree temperatures without a hat, I get older people especially looking at me like I’m inhumane and ought to be arrested. You see people wearing cotton wool in their ears just to keep the draughts out (and also sounds and other such troublesome things). But I think there has to be some kind of happy medium between the approach to temperature in Romania and the approach to temperature in England.

To set the scene we flew into Luton last Sunday in the middle of a raging blizzard. In April. In southern England. No idea what’s going on. Anyway, it only really snowed on that day, but the temperature never really got very warm – most nights there was a heavy frost, and the daytime temps never rose much above 7 degrees. But in the midst of this hardly summery weather people walked around wearing not much more than their underwear. Mostly these people were teenagers, and especially teenage girls, it is true, so one can put some of this masochistic lunacy down to the vagaries of fashion, but it is a fashion which seems remarkably long-lasting. Whenever I go back and find myself wandering round an English town of an evening I usually find myself marvelling at the lack of warm clothing on those out carousing. This year, if anything the phenomenon has either got worse, or prolonged exposure to Romania has made me more sensitive to it. Perhaps I am becoming assmiliated and before long I, too, will be tutting concernedly at parents whose children are not buried in a vast heavily-lined, multi-layered, all-over burqa; wearing large clumps of cotton wool in my ears; and furiously closing every window in the train.

Posted in romania, travel, uk, weather | 4 Comments »

Zero Summit Game

Posted by Andy Hockley on 2 April, 2008

Bucharest is being flooded with loads of violent, aggressive and corrupt criminals. Any sane immigration policy would have kept these people out of the country and turned them back at the airport, but Romania instead is welcoming them and even cleaning up the city before them to make their stay a happier one. “How many deaths are you responsible for, sir? Certainly, of course you may come in”

I’m talking of course of the various world leaders converging on Ceausescu’s delightful Palace of the People to talk about expanding NATO or not expanding it or (in the case of Greece) to once again get pissed off about Macedonia being called Macedonia. Bush, Brown, Sarkozy, Putin. They’re all here (I think Putin isn’t here yet, but he’s on his way).

In order to welcome these people (and I use the word reluctantly) the city has been tarted up a bit (new pavements have been laid, stuff has been painted, and the stray dogs have been … well, I’m not sure what has happened to the stray dogs, have they been rounded up, shot, shipped off to somewhere else in Romania, painted a more pleasing colour? It’s not clear to me). Roads have been closed all over the city – even to pedestrians, and schools and various organisations have been given the week off, so that the children and employees don’t upset Laura Bush by being dressed better than her. One of the airports has been closed so that all the fancy aeroplanes can park there for the week, while the other one just has fewer flights, and heavy security. I think if I lived in Bucharest I’d be tempted to go out and demonstrate against all this stuff even if I didn’t have any axe to grind with NATO.

Maybe they’ll organise a trip for the assembled dignitaries to the airport at Constanta which was used as an impromptu torture camp by the US and its allies in its euphemistically named “extraordinary rendition programme”. Allegedly.

Posted in rants, romania | 7 Comments »


Posted by Andy Hockley on 14 March, 2008

All of Romania was this week in thrall to Costel Busuioc, the “Pavarotti of the Banat” who won some kind of talent contest on Spanish TV caled Hijos de Babel. Every news programme on TV led with the story, and all managed to get an interview with Mr Basil himself (Busuioc means basil – the herb, I mean)

It is a pretty heartwarming story though – he works on a construction site in Spain (as do hundreds of thousands of other Romanians) and his wife and kids live back here in Romania in a village somewhere near Timisoara. Anyway, his boss heard him singing while he was doing the plastering or something and told him he had a good voice and should enter this competition. He did so (I think with the support of what sounds like an extremely understanding boss), and immediately was successful. he then had to learn how to sing “properly” or something, as well as taking some language lessons to help him with the singing. In the end on Wednesday night he was crowned champion after singing Nessum Dorma – mostly through getting top marks from the public phone in vote. (And since the Romanian community is not exactly widely loved in Spain, this is really positive on many levels). I saw him interviewed and he seemed like a really humble down-to-earth bloke. He once tried to enter a singing competition in Lugos (the closest town to his village) but he was turned down for not having the right qualifications. I presume he didn’t finish school or something. Not quite sure how big a show Hijos de Babel is in Spain, but anyway.

I’ve been meaning to post for a while on the two oddest/most ridiculous programmes on Romanian TV, so since we’ve started on the TV theme, I will do so now. The first of these is this programme in which a camera follows around the young (model?) bride of this fairly old but very wealthy bloke (well late middle age at best). Her name is Monica Columbeanu and the programme seems spectacularly boring. Take someone who has quite possibly the most boring life imaginable (albeit in very high-class surroundings), and make a show about her life. I have no idea if anyone actually watches it. I recently discovered that Mr Columbeanu actually owns the channel on which the programme airs, so this possibly explains the existence of this show.

The second, which I suspect is not actually an original Romanian idea, is called “Test de Fidelitate”, in which a suspicious wife gets the TV station in to set up a situation in which her husband is left alone with a woman (in a place with a hidden camera) who attempts to seduce him. When he falls for it, the wife rushes in and clouts him about the head with her handbag (metaphorically, at least). It’s baffling. I mean to an extent it’s a brilliant TV idea, it’s got all the elements of a successful show – sex, betrayal, anger, the opportunity to gawp at others’ misfortunes, etc. But why would anyone decide to go on this programme?

Posted in romania | 4 Comments »

Please note: Bucharest to be closed

Posted by Andy Hockley on 4 March, 2008

At the beginning of April I need to fly to the UK. In these days of cheap flights in Europe and various options, this should be no problem (well, once I’ve driven at least 3 hours to my nearest airport). However at the beginning of April Bucharest is hosting a NATO summit, and in a spectacularly over the top and disruptive move the government has decided to close both of Bucharest’s airports for the 3 days of the summit. How utterly ridiculous is that? What a complete waste of time. I’ve read that they are expecting to redirect flights to Constanta and Timisoara. Now as it goes Constanta is not that far from Bucharest in Romanian terms, but Timisoara is something like a 12 hour train journey. I’ve never heard of another country doing something so short-sighted and ludicrous as this. (Of course the airlines are not stupid and flying out of other Romanian airports at that time is correspondingly expensive).

Still, it’ll be good for the environment I suppose. Wonder when the person responsible for this will start using that as an excuse?

Posted in romania, travel | 3 Comments »

A Sense of Humor

Posted by Andy Hockley on 7 December, 2007

A few weeks ago during my lengthy blogless phase, Erika and I went to a meeting in Iasi (in Moldavia in the east of Romania). I’d been to Iasi a few times before, and I like the place – it has a very interesting history, and seems to be in many ways the traditional centre of Romanian literature and “high culture” (along with another city the name of which escapes me which is actually now in Ukraine). On this trip, though, while we did get to sample the delicious Sapte Coline, we managed to get out of the city and take a trip to visit a couple of the famous painted monasteries of Bucovina.

On the way from Iasi you actually get a further sense of how Romania plays host to many different ethnic groups – we drove through one town that has a significant Lipovan community (Russians who I’d thought only really live in the Danube Delta), another that contained more of the amazing houses that wealthy Rroma build, and a third which actually is a Polish town (dating back from when a group of them came to that town to mine salt some centuries back).

Eventually we reached Bucovina, which is an area very reminiscent of Maramures, very beautiful houses, traditional lifestyle, gentle rolling hills etc. We headed for Gara Humorului, and thence to the village of Voroneţ , which is the location of one of the most beautiful of these monasteries.

Voroneţ is an amazing place. I’d seen pictures, but seeing it in the flesh (as it were) is pretty extraordinary. This is a monastery which was painted on the outside 400 years ago (so that the congregation who couldn’t fit in the church would get a kind of picture of what was going on inside. A kind of 17th century close circuit TV.) Nothing so amazing about that, perhaps, except that all these years later through 400 years of weather, the paintings are still there.

Latterly, after a huge and amazing Moldovan lunch, we also visited a similar monastery at Humor (hence the post title – I presume you didn’t really think I’d forgotten to put the “u” in did you?). That one was less impressive, but still fascinating.

Not much I can add, really, so I’ll do so through pictures:

Voroneţ monastery in all its finery. It wasn’t very sunny, I’m afraid, otherwise you might get a better impression of the vibrant colours

Plato and Aristotle, not characters often featured in biblical texts, but important because they were seen as vital pieces of the European (and hence Christian) tradition

One whole wall of the church is given over to this epic mural showing this kind of red chasm running between the people who’ve made it into heaven on the left and those who haven’t on the right. Here we see Moses attempting to persuade the Jews ands the Turks over that line. Not very PC I’m afraid

Not quite sure exactly what is going on here, but I think that little white bloke emerging from the child’s mouth (you may need to click on the picture to be able to see him) is supposed to be his soul

Here we see the signs of the zodiac. Apparently these monks/priests/whoever were not averse to throwing in any other superstition that came to mind. Or perhaps it was just a ruse to keep the punters coming. Yes, yes yes, we’ll save your souls and tell you your horoscope. Two for the price of one.

A more modern hand painted mural in the village of Voroneţ. Wonder if this one will last quite as long?

Posted in romania, travel | 2 Comments »

Train travel in Romania

Posted by Andy Hockley on 7 December, 2007

You may be wondering why, after a short silence, I posted two things yesterday within about ten minutes of each other. This is because I was stuck on the train journey from hell, and had lots of time to write blog posts. Bucharest to Miercurea Ciuc is approximately 250kms. Yesterday by train it took me 12 hours from getting on a train in Bucharest’s Gara de Nord to stepping off the train in Csikszereda station. That’s not terribly fast. I am a pretty even tempered person, but towards the end of this marathon I felt like I was about to explode (not helped by the fact that the train I was on was like an oven, and nobody would let me open a window since the biggest fear of any Romanian is that of drafts. If a future president wants to whip up support for an invasion of Moldova or somewhere, he or she would only need to imply that the government of that country were planning on exposing Romanians to cold drafts of air, perhaps by installing fans on the border. Forget WMDs.

Anyway some tips about travelling on trains in Romania

Different train types: There are a number of different types of trains in Romania. The lowest level is the “P” which stands (amusingly) for “personal” These trains are old, rickety, and stop everywhere – even in the middle of fields in the middle of nowhere. Above this are the trains marked “A” on the timetable – Accelerat. Slightly faster than Personals (they only stop at every second hut), they actually appear to be dying out to be replaced by ever increasing number of “R” trains – Rapid. These trains are often actually very new and modern stock. Clean, fast-ish, and with fully functional heating/air conditioning, many people will rave about the “blue arrow” for example, as being the evidence that Romania (and the CFR) has entered the 21st century. You should be careful though – these modern trains have absolutely no leg room and have obviously been designed for amputees or 4-year old children. Anyone taller than 5 foot/1.5 metres will find their journey to be painfully uncomfortable. On arrival you will need at lest 20 minutes of exercises in order to be able to fully uncurl your body. The Personal trains, despite other drawbacks are much more comfortable. Finally there is the Intercity “IC” trains, which combine the best bits of the rapids (fast, clean, functioning systems) with the advantages of the personals (legroom and comfortable seats). Sadly there are very few such trains, and there is a corresponding price hike for such things.

Heating on trains: You will quickly become aware that in winter the trains are seriously overheated (and in summer they’re just hot anyway). The heating is cranked up to the max (actually that implies that there are settings beyond “on” and “off” which I suspect there aren’t), and you will sweat buckets. You will of course want to open a window. This will either prove impossible (since most of them apparently don’t open) or will create huge problems (as everyone will complain). Romanians hate cold air, or drafts of any kind. Take a look at old people in the winter and you will often note that they have cotton wool in their ears as a further barrier to the evils of drafts (or of hearing anything). Opening a train window is like standing up in the carriage and saying that you a paedophile. Erika tells me that this is because people were cold and shivering for so many years under Ceausescu that they cannot forget and would rather swelter in stinking trains than be reminded of that time by feeling a breath of air. Which actually seems quite logical, although even young people who cannot possibly remember that time do it too.

(By the way, on our summer holidays I worked out what the British equivalent to the fear of cold is – it’s the fear of too much sun. While I was panicking around Paula, making she had sunscreen on and trying to keep her in the shade for a while so she didn’t get sunstroke, everybody else was relaxing without a care. If I dared to take her out without a hat in a temperature of 15 degrees though, I’d be lynched on the street by concerned mothers. I can safely say though that the British fear of sun is not brought about by too much of it)

Getting up when it is your stop: You will notice that people stand up and put their coats on and take their luggage to the door of the train about 10 or 15 minutes prior to the arrival of the train in their station. I have no idea why, but rest assured you do not need to do the same. If people want to stand by the door, with their coats on (in the sauna like conditions) that’s their business.

Platform/Train incompatibility: You will often notice that the vertical distance between the train and the platform (if there is a platform at all) is quite large, and will necessitate some climbing skills to get in, and an abseiling rope to get out. On Wednesday when I arrived in Bucharest this was reversed and we had to climb up out of the train. Here you can endear yourself to people by offering assistance. The elderly in particular will need to have some aid in getting up and down.

Tickets: I’ve noticed recently that people seem more and more to be buying tickets and not “discreetly” slipping the ticket inspector a small bribe instead. I don’t know whether there’s been some kind of crackdown. For Rapid and Intercity trains you will need to have a seat reservation.

Dangers: I’m told that theft is quite common on trains, and you have to be alert. I have to say I’ve never actually experienced this, but I’m told it’s true, so take this with whatever pinch of salt you need. Sitting near the door of the train, with your bags on the luggage rack is reckoned to be the biggest danger – the thieves get on, grab your bag and jump off just as the train sets off.

Other annoyances: Trains stop for no apparent reason in the middle of nowhere for ages, and you never get any info. This is often because much of the network is single track only, and there are certain places where trains pass each other. If you are on time and the train coming the other way is late, you have to wait until it comes. Thus creating a knock on effect around the system. In this way, trains are very often late. Personal trains are particularly susceptible to this since the thinking appears to be that if you are happy to take a personal you are happy to sit around for ever in a field somewhere.

Remember, despite how I felt last night at about 10pm when I had been travelling for 11 hours, CFR does not actually stand for Complete Fucking Rubbish.

Posted in romania, travel | 9 Comments »

Election news

Posted by Andy Hockley on 27 November, 2007

Excellent news in Sunday’s European parliament elections, with both Vadim Tudor’s bunch of far right extremists and Gigi Becali’s even nuttier bunch failing to get enough votes to get into Strasbourg. Turnout was pretty low, except amongst Hungarians it seems, who turned out in enough numbers to support both the UDMR list and “reformed bishop” Tőkés László (standing as an indepedent) in enough numbers to get them both representation. In Csikszereda, the figures showed that Tőkés actually did slightly better than the UDMR in the towns, but was outvoted in the outlying villages, which might have some significance (Tőkés tends to be somewhat more nationalist in his rhetoric than the UDMR).

Anyway, it was a good result all round really. Vadim Tudor has even quit the leadership of the PRM, but he has done before, so I suspect his slimy loathesome presence has not entirely vanished from the Romanian political scene.

Posted in politics, romania | 1 Comment »


Posted by Andy Hockley on 9 October, 2007

I have been busy which is the reason why this blog has seen nothing but lots of tumbleweed spinning across it for an extended period. Since I’m freelance, this is a good thing, but I do miss the actual writing every now and then (I still compose blog posts in my head while I do other things, but they’re now all stacked up and mixed together).

However, I do have the time to mention this shop which has opened up round the back of our flat. It advertises “English clothes” with the names of various English clothes shops on the outside (Next, Marks and Spencers, etc etc), and the note “second hand clothes from England”. What’s particularly interesting about this shop (since nothing I’ve told you so far is), is the business model it uses. You see they get a load of these second hand clothes in over the weekend, stick them all in bins all round the shop and then sell them for 11Lei per kilo. On Monday. Then on Tuesday the price drops to 9 Lei/kg. On Wednesday it’s 7, Thursday is 5 and Friday it’s 3. So if you want the pick of the stuff you have to go on Monday and pay more, and if you just don’t care you can pay next to nothing on a Friday. No idea what happens on Saturday when the shop is closed. I hope they give what’s left to charity, but I fear that they just send it on to another shop somewhere else in Romania to go through the system again (I’m fairly sure that this shop is not unique to Csikszereda).

We went in once (on a Monday), just to have a look, and it was mayhem, but the clothes were pretty pants. And I don’t mean that literally. They also hadn’t seemingly been washed at all, which meant rooting through the bins was even less appealing than it might normally have been. What really intrigues me is where they get the clothes from in the UK. Are they just stuff that has been left over after jumble sales, or stuff that has been given to charity, or do Oxfam shops clear out their shelves after a while and sell truckloads of clothes to this company for them to drive across Europe and flog to the Romanian public? I’d love to know. I really hope that there isn’t someone making a tidy profit on what people have given away for charity, but some part of me fears this is the case.

Posted in romania, uk | 4 Comments »