From Adorable Alphabets to Poorly Considered Karaoke Fantasies
As I am working towards my goals of reading a French and a Chinese book this year, I read a few articles on how to
study languages. (I hoped some reader would share their study tips in my last post but I guess this blog has so few readers no one answered. So I had to look for study ideas elsewhere.)
One article pointed out the difference between having a vague idea of studying some language and having more measurable goals as to what one wants to do with that language. I gave this a lot of thought.
Turns out I have definite ideas of what I want to do with the languages I am studying or want to study. Maybe I did need to write them out. Thus, for my future reference, here are the reasons for learning my target languages:
Romanian: to read one Romanian book every year, for ease in travelling and for less laborious reading. Basically, Romanian is a jokey and warm language that boosts my self-esteem; I just want to have more of it in my life.
Chinese: to read at least one Chinese book every year, for ease when travelling in Taiwan. I also want to read more comic books from Taiwan and Hong Kong. As well, I want to write more beautifully in Chinese, maybe hiring a tutor to help me with Chinese calligraphy. I want to write a lot of letters in Chinese to my friends in Taiwan.
Japanese: to read the occasional Japanese book or article on cultural topics that interest me (mostly onsens, food, games, arts, crafts and literature). To be able to understand my favourite Japanese tv shows and movies without subtitles. To be able to research new onsens for subsequent trips.
French: to read one French book every year and to read a few nineteenth and twentieth century novels or other books in the original. I also found French very useful when travelling in Tunisia, so I want to be able to use it in other Francophone African countries like Senegal and Rwanda. I want to read more French and Belgian comics. Of course there’s also the extensive travelling in France I want to do and possibly living there.
Spanish: so much great Spanish literature to read in the world! Plus, Spanish is just a fun language to speak. One of my goals is to spend the Mexican Days of the Dead in Oaxaca with a family there. Then there is a personal research project I want to do in South America.
Italian: for reading more Italian comic books, some literature and mostly for ease of travelling and of travel research. I also want to rent apartments there for month-long trips. It would be nice to have long conversations about Italy with my future neighbours.
German: because I want to live and work in Austria. I also want to read some German literature in the original language and I want to play boardgames in the original languages.
Russian: for speaking and some reading. I suspect there’s a whole world of cool, wacky children’s literature I need to read in Russian. I want to watch Cheburashka without making up my own dialogue (my Cheburashka DVD set only has Japanese subtitles).
Swedish: I want to read all of Tove Jansson’s books in the original language, as well as any biographies. Also, I want to travel to Sweden. Hopefully I’ll find more reasons to study Swedish once I start learning about the culture.
Inuktitut: mostly I want to learn to write in their cool alphabet. I don’t know any Inuit people, but it would be cool to try some out when I visit Iqaluit. Plus, I believe that one should speak the language of the country one is in. Canada has a lot of aboriginal languages yet all the annoying white people here snarl “Speak English!” to poor immigrants trying their best to speak English, when really English is not the original local language. Ideally, Halq’eméylem would be better for my needs but I like the Inuktitut alphabet so much.
Taiwanese: for speaking when I visit Taiwan. I also want to learn at least one Chinese dialect to see if it’s really a dialect or if it is a separate language. Plus, Taiwanese sounds so bad-ass.
Cantonese: to order dim sum in Richmond for starters. Also, to watch Hong Kong movies in the original, to chat more when I visit Hong Kong or when I meet grandmothers at friends’ houses here in Vancouver. Chinese grandparent types have lived through an amazing and dramatic century – they must have incredible stories.
Hungarian: like with Swedish, I hope that I’ll find more reasons to study when I start studying Hungarian. Mostly, I want to be able to have conversations when I travel to Romania and Hungary (Hungarians are such nice people), and especially to be able to do research on Romanian history.
Kinyarwanda: for travel when I go to Rwanda. I want to ask questions and be a good enough listener so I can understand the stories about life in Rwanda and the genocide. I bet too that there are some great etiquette lessons the Rwandans have, which, once I learn what they are, I’ll write about.
Amharic: also for travel. Plus, I want to learn the Ge’ez alphabet. Again, I want to be able to listen better to conversations and to meet the people who don’t just speak English. We’re also lucky in this part of Canada because we have a lot of Ethiopians. It would be nice to understand Ethiopian songs too. I can’t sing but I have a secret fantasy of going into an Ethiopian karaoke bar and wowing everyone. If there are karaoke bars for Ethiopians.
Arabic: mostly I want to conduct some history research in Syria. Maybe once I know a little Arabic, I would find some good literature to read in the original language.
Finnish: for ease of travelling and it is the language of the country where Tove Jansson was born and where she lived. Now that I have started studying it, it turns out Finnish is incredibly beautiful and melodic. No wonder they and their Baltic neighbours are such good singers. I want to trill like those Finns. There are also more and more Finnish comic books I am discovering that I want to read. Another reason I want to study it is because, like Hungarian and Estonian, it is not in the Indo-European language group.
Norwegian: I want to travel there. I also had a Norwegian penpal who sent me a book on his country and in the book it said that by law every library in the country must own a copy of every Norwegian book. With a government that supportive of Norwegian writers, they must have a few good ones. I want to read these authors in the original.
Dutch: I love travelling to the Netherlands and I loved Flanders. I want to chitchat more in Dutch/Flemish with the people there. I also want to research a WWI topic.
Estonian: because it’s another beautiful, trilling language. Mostly my goal is to learn from cover to cover the one Estonian textbook I started. I have no hope of speaking Estonian when I am not travelling there. But I can read and master this one book.
Tackling Language Study
Today is the day to start working on my goals of reading a Romanian book, a Chinese book and a French book. I want to do this every year for the three languages I am most advanced in my language studies.
For French, this project is straightforward. Read the book, look up words a lot at the beginning and slowly begin looking up fewer words. I figure I’ll remember the verb conjugations as I get further into the book. The book I picked is a Turgenev novella; last year, my friend D. suggested reading a book in translation to start with as translations are easier.
Chinese is slightly more complex. The biggest problem is that I recognize a lot of characters but I can’t remember the strokes for writing them. Since I am starting off with a children’s book (I haven’t been immersed in Chinese written culture since 2002), I figure I can zip through the book and then spend the rest of the year working on rote memorization by re-writing the characters over and over again. Ideally there is an app to keep track of this – we live in the future now so I can advance beyond actually writing out by hand on paper. If not, I’ll recycle the backs of ads and on junkmail envelopes.
Romanian is where my language studies get really difficult. According to Anglos, this is my first language. But I grew up in North America and spent nearly my entire 1-12 education in English-speaking Canada (aside from kindergarten in Romania, some sort of schooling in Austria and a few laughable months in China). I have never studied Romanian grammar. I can barely understand dialogue on Romanian television and especially not on news reports. My job for six months on a visit to Romania was to provide comic relief on radio for 100,000 listeners with my poor reading of Romanian news.
The Romanian book I want to tackle is a history of my ancestral village Tibru, written by the priest there. He autographed my copy and sent it through my parents to me. I have never met him. I am pretty excited about his book though.
Tibru is a village in Transylvania, more specifically in Alba County. It is about half an hour from the county capital Alba Iulia, tucked in a valley high up between two hills. The village got electricity and phone lines in the late 1970s and running water only in the last five years or so. Being in a valley, the village is long, with to churches and a picturesque, almost gothically spectral cemetery near the upper end. Each property is fronted with a tall wall and wooden gate that encloses a courtyard and a house and barn. Some houses, like my grandparents’, have vineyards at the back stretching up the hillsides. There used to be houses with thatched roofs but those were gone on my last visit in 2007. Between my grandparents’ house and the cemetery is a cottage-sized boulder in the middle of the road where my mother played as a child. I remember a werewolf neighbour when I was a child.
With Tibru’s location in what was once the Austro-Hungarian empire and later near one of Romania’s most historically important cities, the past has bestowed some drama for those curious about its local history. The priest’s book will clarify some mysteries for me. How old is Tibru? If it existed back then, what effects did the Mongol invasion have on my patch of Romania? How devastating was the Black Death in these parts? Just what happened in Tibru during the late eighteenth century revolt led by the Romanian peasants Horia, Clo?ca and Cri?an? Was Tibru always a Romanian village or was it Hungarian?
The tricky thing about reading in Romanian is that I don’t know how to study it. I am so poorly equipped with the grammar, I recognize grammar structures but I can’t replicate them on my own. My vocabulary remains at a kindergarten level. Yet, I can’t see myself writing Romanian words over and over like I do with Chinese characters I am trying to remember. One thought is to write out the book in a notebook, with one line in Romanian and a translation below in English. Certainly that’s not something I want to do for every book. But maybe to start off with that might be good. (Then too I would have an English translation to let friends visiting Tibru with me read and I can pass on a digital copy to the priest for his use.)
Is anyone reading this who has suggestions? How are you studying foreign languages? And if anyone has advice on how I can get WordPress to show the accent marks on Closca and Crisan’s names above, that would be most welcome. I keep updating WordPress but it refuses to let me use accent marks.
*Hopefully in a few years I can pick Spanish again and eventually add more languages. One day, my wish is to read a book every month in a different language alongside all the English language books I read. German, Italian and Japanese shouldn’t be too far off in the future if I apply myself. Then there’s my budding interest in Finnish and Dutch, and my longtime interest in Swedish too. Not to mention the other languages in which I eventually want to hobnob (Kinyarwanda, Inuktitut, Cantonese, Norwegian, Amharic, Arabic, Russian, Taiwanese and Estonian). I may have to learn Czech too to watch some Czech cartoon DVDs I got in Japan. Or maybe the Japanese subtitles will eventually get me through the cartoons.
American Guy Learns Romanian
Thursday November 25th 2010, 1:11 pm
Filed under: Romania
Via Kit, some funny American called Sam R. learned Romanian for seemingly no reason but to learn our language. He recounts the process in 37 easy steps.
- Step 11: So that’s why I say different numbers sometimes. I always meant to look this up some day.
- Step 19: Isn’t Suprize, Suprize the show where diaspora Romanians are reunited with the families they abandoned back in Romania? Where these people have been living in Ohio or something but are “too poor” to phone mom once in a while so some TV chick has to buy them a ticket home for a surprise meeting on TV? Also, I am ok on the icon quota for my place, but I am behind on the lace.
- Step 20: The last time I was in Romania, I had no idea what prices I was being charged. It felt like when I was in Tunisia and realized Arabic numerals here look nothing like Arabic numerals in Arabic countries. In both Tunisia and 2008 Romania, I was at the mercy of shopkeepers as I held out both palms filled with money and let them pick out what money they demanded.
- Step 26: Yes, I tried reading some Romanian fairy tales and the violence is certainly more bloody than what Wile E. Coyote could handle. Must make us Romanian kids immune to creepy shit that would make kids here have nightmares.
- Step 29: This is why I wish sometimes I grew up in Romania. I could sure use some righteous scolding on people here. Ok, I already do, but if only I could get out of my car and give those stupid poser truck drivers a piece of my mind.
- Step 34: Not yet at this step. I could barely manage telling “thank you” and “good night” apart in Saint Petersburg a few months ago.
- Step 36: I am Transylvanian but they don’t believe I am from there. The closest I ever got was being mistaken for a German.
A Movie Chick with Hobbies & the Destruction of Romania
Sunday November 29th 2009, 9:43 am
Filed under: Film
I always complain that women in movies are boring. They never have any interest in their careers or they always complain about their jobs. Or they sit at home all day, magically well off. They never even seem to have hobbies. What dullards. I sure would get bored if I faced a lifetime of staring across the breakfast table at them as they droned on about the challenges of being boring.
I don’t really buy into movies like 500 Days of Summer because I have no idea why the guy was so into the title character, a girl called Summer. I had some vague idea that she was aesthetically pleasing to those of us who are into the female form, but she seemed pretty boring otherwise. She must’ve been somewhat interested in Italy because she talks about having done an exchange program in Siena. I think she read interesting books and maybe dabbled in the arts. But really, were those real hobbies or just more of her hipster posturing? After watching that movie, I understood that movie chicks have no hobbies yet the directors and script writers simply figured that pretty equals interesting. I understood that what was seriously lacking in movies was women with hobbies.
So last night we watched The Brothers Bloom. Boy, did I ever meet my movie chick match. The heroine had nothing but hobbies: playing the harp, the banjo, the guitar, the piano, the accordion, and the violin, rapping, DJing, breakdancing, juggling (including chainsaws), riding two-storey unicycles, doing karate, skateboarding, doing gymnastics, photographing and playing ping-pong. The last hobby she takes up in the movie is blowing things up.
Which is where the destruction of Romania comes into the story.
The character in The Brothers Bloom, let’s introduce our Penelope, lives in New Jersey in a very large house. Only the house exterior is actually Romania’s Peles* Castle. Peles Castle is in Sinaia, in the Romanian mountains:
View Larger Map
The 160-plus room castle rests on a site chosen by King Carol I de Hohenzollern near the border of the then-Romanian country (Transylvania still belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Castle building began in 1873 and finished ten years later. Unfortunately, Penelope’s latest hobby has dire consequences for Romania’s foremost tourist spots. Peles Castle is, however, one of two famous sites in this film. The other, Constanta’s** Casino:
View Larger Map
Though the 1909 Casino (moonlighting as a Saint Petersburg locale) escapes Penelope’s latest hobby, its interior is shabby, as if Penelope has passed through. No matter which way we look at it, Romania doesn’t make it through this one intact, not even with its name: Peles is a New Jersey mansion and the Casino is in Russia.
I was pretty jealous when Prague got away with being Prague and Penelope spoke Czech. It might be asking too much for her latest hobby to have been learning Romanian too.
*I still haven’t had a chance to figure out how to return the accent markings to this blog. Peles should have a comma under the S, so that you pronounce it as Peh-lesh. Read more about it on Wikipedia or this Romanian tourism site. Lots of images at the official site.
**Also missing an accent mark, this time a comma under the last T. The pronunciation is Kohn-sta-n-tsa.
Let Them Eat MazÄƒre
Tuesday May 20th 2008, 10:26 pm
Filed under: Romania
Romania has made it on the English news, in Reuters’ Oddly Enough section, making even the front page of our white trash suburb Surrey’s daily throwaway paper. Apparently municipal elections are coming up on June 1 and anything goes in Romania’s crazy political scene:
- Parading an elephant on the street – ConstanÈ›a candidate Victor Manea’s nickname is “The Elephant” – and claiming the animal only eats peas (or maz?re, Romanian for peas and the incumbent mayor’s last name).
- An Arad candidate has adorned the city with banners of himself at the centre of his “disciples” at the Last Supper.
- The BistriÈ›a candidate, Gelu Dragan, instead has images of a finger wrapped in a condom to illustrate that he will protect against corruption.
- In Navodari, the candidate had his name stamped to supermarket eggs.
I asked my dad what other craziness is happening that the English media may not have yet stumbled upon:
- Candidates are plastering poster upon poster, each trying to obliterate their opponents’ posters.
- In Comuna Batrina, a locality composed of four villages in Hunedoara county, out of its population of 160, half are mayoral candidates.
- Also in ConstanÈ›a, a candidate rented twenty buses to take voters on a vacation to Bulgaria. The potential voters had no idea who paid or for whom to vote but were thrilled to have the free trip.
My dad promised to look up more election craziness for me. May as well add to the Romania’s reputation for the quirky.
Romanian Traditional Wear
I recently discovered the Urban Style blog, full of photos of what cool young things from BucureÈ™ti are wearing. Not as much colour as I would wear, despite a few winter coats and tights on the brighter side of the palette, yet, I grew up knowing that Romanians have fashion sense (even the men – I don’t care what you say, MaikoPunk). Canadians in your ugly fleece, goretex and soccer mom Lululemon ensembles, look over this blog, then burn your wardrobe.
Fashionable as they are, however, young Romanians just wear western clothes. Someone could drop off a dozen Romanian teenagers in any North American neighbourhood and, aside from the better combinations and colour choices, you’d think they were just regular Anglo-Saxon kids.
Yet amid all the fashion that could be anywhere, there’s this super original dude:
Let’s see: he’s got his traistÄƒ (Romanian woollen bag), his black cÄƒciulÄƒ on his head, a vest, and his traditional straight shirt (with what looks like a belt).
Dressed in the most Romanian of Romanian peasant wear, all that’s missing are the opinci.
From the footwear page on the Eliznik Balkan Folklore site:
Opinci are made of a single rectangle of cow, ox or pig hide gathered round the foot in various ways. Two main types are found in Romania but with numerous zonal variations…..Opinci were tied to the feet using one or more nojitÄƒ (narrow strips of leather or strings made of goats or horsetail hair which is usually died black although white is used in Moldavia)…..Many 18th and 19th century pictures show Romanian peasants wearing opinci, though by the 20th century this form of footwear had become less common. F B Florescu, in her book on Romanian opinci said that this form of footwear had completely disappeared by 1957 (Florecu 1957).
As the next photo attests, we can exhibit our Romanian-ness by wearing our opinci:
The poster reads “Remain Romanian in Europe [i.e. the European Union].” It’s a political poster for the Partidul NaÈ›ional ÈšÄƒrÄƒnesc CreÈ™tin Democrat (the PNÈšCD, or the National Peasant Party-Christian Democrat). The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada’s Romania Country Fact Sheet has this to say about the party:
The PNÈšCD is a successor to the National Peasant Party which was founded in 1869. It was banned under the Communist regime in 1947, but remerged in 1989, at which time it refused to work with the National Salvation Front (FSN) due to the FSN’s high concentration of former communists. The PNÈšCD has undergone numerous splits and mergers. Following poor results in the 2004 election, the PNÈšCD merged with the Union for Romanian Revival (Uniunea pentru RenaÈ™terea RomÃ¢niei, URR) and formed the Christian Democrat People’s Party (Partidul Popular CreÈ™tin Democrat, PPCD) which promotes a centrist platform. The party’s leader is Marian Petre MiluÈ›.
But back to the Urban Style dude: he is one cool kid. More Romanian young people should emulate his example and stop being so ashamed of being Romanian. If someone sees this dude on some BucureÈ™ti street, give him a pat on the back from me.
Thursday March 13th 2008, 10:41 pm
Filed under: Romania
What’s not to love? We’ve got stuff stretching back to pre-Roman times – the most famous being the Dacian Sarmizegetusa – to cool medieval (that’s Bran above, close to the city of BraÈ™ov), eighteenth and nineteenth century dwellings and official buildings to awesomely picturesque Communist-era beauties.
Yup, you heard me right. I happen to like the Communist buildings.
I was reminded of what glory we Romanians must share with the world, when I read Kit’s post on BucureÈ™ti’s hugging apartments. I have to politely disagree with commentator and designer Iancu* – this is not an abomination.
Here’s a cute little house from somewhere along the Prahova Valley**:
Not only is this single-family home on a coquettish slant, check out the medley of grey walls, white details and green trim, the masterful sense of asymmetry, and those three round windows softening the angular lines of the entire building. I would also like Martha Stewart types to make note of the pine branch hanging on the middle window. This is a great Christmas decorating idea we saw all over Romania.
Let’s move on to the great works: apartment buildings.
From afar, this is what you get:
But it’s not all grey.
They may look the same all over the country to the untrained eye. Yet, strangely enough for those of us who are North American and are used to our architectural individuality being quashed by strata bylaws and landscaping municipal ordinances, these buildings fully celebrate the dwellers’ particular quirks. Here you see two BraÈ™ovean neighbours, the ones in the upper righthand corner, have enclosed their balconies which were, as the other balconies show, originally uncovered.
Similarly, a few hundred kilometres away in Alba Iulia, here’s a seemingly similar facade:
There’s the old-fashioned balcony enclosure, followed by a Termopan balcony, then an almost completely closed-off balcony with a spunky diamond-shaped window, and finally, more Termopan at street level.
This photo shows even more variety:
The best thing about Romanian apartment blocks are the grape vines:
In the summer, those vines flourish with leaves and sour curlicues, shading the apartment during abysmally hot Romanian heat waves. All neighbours, sometimes many storeys up, can harvest the grapes outside their own windows.
Or, if you’ve got a roamer of a cat, how about constructing a ladder to the third floor for it?
It’s also pretty exciting on the inside of these buildings. For example, an exciting door off the stairwell:
Inside is probably last summer’s pickled vegetables, jars of homemade jam, and the odd bottle of plum brandy. Truly a place where you wouldn’t mind being stranded in case of a zombie invasion.
You definitely want to watch your step as you walk down these stairs – the steps vary in size. But this way, thinking about the process of walking, that putting one foot in front of the other, one can appreciate the act of living and its simple attendant details. We have it so easy here in Canada, we tend to take much for granted.
But you also want to watch your step as you gawk at the unexpected beauty:
What icy beauty!
Romanian cities still follow the model of residential zoning mixed with commercial zoning. Need a loaf of bread? Just run downstairs. Ran out of sugar for the cozonac? You can buy it from Mariana’s counter. Every apartment building has stores attached to it.
Here’s a neighbour that turned their living room into a coffee shop, complete with extensions poking out of the main apartment:
Alba Iulia now even boasts townhomes:
Unlike what you’d find in Canada (where you can’t even hang a bird feeder on your balcony or repaint your house another shade of white), Alba Iulia’s townhouses come in an assortment of colours. You can also bet that in two years when I next visit Romania, the white houses will sport new colours to match the owners’ wives handbags.
I am a little snarky about property rights – our strata council threatened to ban gnomes. Suddenly, those weird little garden statues obsessed me and I want to defy any anti-gnome legislation by cluttering our balcony with as many gnomes as possible. I have a model to work from:
*I’ll have to keep an eye on Iancu’s blog. Nice stuff. More photos of BucureÈ™ti, please.
**If any Romanians read this, please let me know if this was in Sinaia or farther along. I edited my photos about two months after passing through and I can’t recall the exact town.
Update: Not only does Kit’s building squashing happen in Romania, it happens in Paris too.Â Polly-Vous FranÃ§ais shows how the Ã‰glise St. Thomas d’Aquin got squashed, or rather “Tetris-ed into the landscape.”
Romania Not on the 40 Top Friendly Countries List
Monday March 03rd 2008, 3:12 pm
Filed under: Romania
…according to Anthony Bourdain, in a blogpost about his recent, evidently unfavourable look at Romania on his tv show:
But to describe Romania as particularly friendly? Not really. Iâ€™ve been all over the world. Over 50 countries. On the friendly scale? Romania not exactly in the top 40.
He also complained about the food and the bad service. While the service has a way to go, I was amazed how good it was when I visited a few weeks ago. I’ll concede that he may have a point with the fear of cameras:
WITH cameras–asking if we could shoot was an invitation to either an instinctive â€œNOâ€ or an invitation to gouging. As waiters and hosts it seems, work on salary–rather than tips, no one really seemed to care about more business, promoting their business or even making more money. People are still uncomfortable in general about being filmed. Understandable, given Romaniaâ€™s history that many would be reluctant to have their picture taken–as this rarely led to anything good back in the bad old days.
We had a similar experience photographing this weird menu in Cluj:
The cranky chick you see in the photo about to open the door began yelling at us moments after this photo was taken. Who did we think we were and why were we taking photos. We didn’t tell her that we mostly wanted to photograph item 14 on the menu (the mysterious Chinese pizza), but I told her that we’d delete the photo (and I immediately told Matt not to in English). For twenty minutes afterwards, I regretted not letting my Romanian sailor’s language come out when I had the chance.
Should filming make Romanians ecstatic? Maybe it would have good publicity for the store, what with getting a mention on the internet. Personally, I am a food snob. I even refuse to eat at so-called sushi places that are owned by Koreans. Why would I eat at a Chinese place run by white people who’ve never left Europe? In a way, this bitch had the right to protest our photographing; unfortunately, it just made me more determined to piss her off.
Is this nasty fast food worker indicative of most Romanians? Of course not. It’s easy for the west to point out that Romanians are photography jerks, that they should lighten up. Perhaps in the west, we’re a lot more accustomed to being narcissistic, despite the media catching us at inopportune moments with cellulite, illicit lovers, collapsing noses, bad fashion, and female moustaches. Why can’t those other people just get used to having cameras shoved in their faces?
Certainly there have been a few filming scandals lately in Romania. More recently, people have discovered that you can’t really trust anyone with your photos. Last year, two young Alba Iulia women made the news when, after a falling out, one put on the internet the nude photos she took of the other girl. Most well-known is the deceit used by the Borat crew to satirize Kazakhstan, while using Romanian villagers as the butts of the joke. Sure, all the lowest common denominator Americans thought the filming was actually done in Kazakhstan, but for the Romanians slapped with names like “the Village Rapist” and “the Village Whore,” it wasn’t pleasant. Also at stake is the fact that the Romanians pictured in the film happen to be, I was told, ethnic gypsies – in Romania, a group of people often vilified and made the subject of other jokes on this racial pecking order. A few years ago, while wandering around Alba Iulia, I saw a horse, photographed it, then was accosted by a stream of gypsies from the house behind the horse.
“Who do you think you are? What newspaper are you working for?” They yelled at me.
I apologized and asked them what they were talking about. I explained I was merely a Romanian-Canadian visiting my home country and how, in Canada, young women go through a stage in their development where they like horses, starting with plastic My Little Ponies and extending into horse literature (beginning with, but not ending at Black Beauty), and that that was why I was taking a photo of their very lovely specimen.
Finally, the gypsies became my friends for the next few minutes, I took their photos on and off the horse in their yard, answered questions about whether or not the teeth in my mouth were all my own, and whether or not I would consider marrying the young bearded bachelor little brother. They explained to me that journalists have a bad habit of photographing, then captioning the photos with “human misery” or “uncouth barbarian thieves.” Sure, quite a few gypsies are unfortunately involved in the darker trades, but there are also others who go about their lives on the legal side of the law. My brief gypsy friends were understandably miffed that I might be one of the jerks who would go on to proclaim them unfit morons staining the neighbourhood. On a more international scale, the western media often accompanies stories on Romania with the grubbiest, most miserable-looking “ethnic type” they can muster, fuelling the idea Romania is a Stalinist backwater and hiding the fact that the most beautiful women in the world come from Romania.*
Poor Romania. Always in the West’s dung heap, never to be recognized as a cool place regardless of how many more castles and ruins we have than the Czech Republic or Hungary. Anthony Bourdain is just another white person who’s entirely missed out on Romania. In a way, I think Romania is the Philippines of Europe: most travellers who head for Asia, immediately think of Thailand and a long list of countries, at the end of which may lie the Philippines just a smidge above Mongolia; likewise, many people just read the papers and think the Philippines is all slums and terrorists, not friendly folks who’ll pay for your jeepney fare and invite you to parties to have first pick of the lechon. It just seems as if the west is hell-bent on ignoring the Philippines and Romania as much as possible unless there’s a negative story tied to it.
I’ve extended so many invitations to friends to visit Romania. My parents are there, I tell them, you already have a place to stay. Free food, free transportation, castle ruins you can just wander into, strangers sharing their moonshine with you. It doesn’t matter with what I try to bribe foreigners. None of them want to visit. Sometimes my friends get caught up in Scotland, or they make it as far as Budapest. None has made the step to discover Romania or even shown they really care. Though I am offended that my friends have refused mine and my family’s hospitality, I console myself that Romania doesn’t really need another spoiled westerner who’ll complain about the plumbing. Perhaps Romania is better off with only having rugged visitors who’ve seen worse and can appreciate that Romania has much to offer. I’ll try to keep thinking that Bourdain’s arrogance will serve us some good.
In the big picture, Bourdain went for a tourist experience and got it. He didn’t go with a Romanian, he stayed in hotels, went to restaurants.
The way to visit Romania is not by “surface tourism” (staying in hotels and eating at restaurants). You visit Romania and stay in people’s houses. I avoid most restaurants in Romania unless they are the street mititei truck stops in DeduleÈ™ti.
Even there, one has to carefully select the mititei. You visit each stall, see how long the mititei have been on the fire, then ask the mititei cook to grill you up some fresh ones. Ideally, mititei should not be well done.
Otherwise, I avoid restaurants in Romania. They’re for tourists who have no access to Romanian kitchens. I prefer my mother’s cooking far too much to ever be disloyal. The only exceptions are when family friends make something traditional, like the Transylvanian dill-and-cheese crepes.
As for the few tourist traps that there are in the country, too bad for you if all you’re after is Dracula. (And most westerners know of only the fictional Irish Dracula.) It serves you right for wanting a pre-packaged itinerary like you do in London or Paris. In Romania, you need to do a bit of homework, get out to the smaller cities and towns, and keep your eyes open for all the castles and forts along the way.
PS Mr. Bourdain and the suckers who eat them at Vancouver’s rip-off places, crepes anywhere – except for Romania – suck. Even in France. Sorry to disappoint all of you that think otherwise: our crepes are soft, not crispy like yours; they taste marvellous because we use vanilla in the batter; and we don’t hide the flavour behind a screen of what you call “whipped cream.”
* Yes, this is a fact. There is a scientific study somewhere out there, but I don’t have the time to look it up now.
Child Discipline, Romanian Style
Tuesday January 08th 2008, 1:27 pm
Filed under: Romania
On my last night here in Romania, I realize that, aside from miscellaneous historical facts, I haven’t learned any new Romanian words. Except something I learned from a fast-talking sassy friend of ours.
A few nights ago, this young single mother’s two-year-old threw a temper tantrum in front of the guests. So, raising her hand, she says:
“Vezi sora ta?”
Which translates as “Do you see your sister?”
My mom never threatened me that way before she slapped me.
After a Five-year Absence…
Sunday January 06th 2008, 8:45 pm
Filed under: Romania
…Romania has sure changed a lot.
I was last here in March 2003, when I wrapped up a six-month visit. Back then I was amazed that even little provincial Alba Iulia, my hometown, had a store where you you could wander around picking up the merchandise – older, Communist-era stores had everything behind counters so you needed to approach a surly clerk for help – and that the shop displays were starting to look more affluent too.
Back then I was thrilled, too, that locally-based chains began to appear: when it comes to eating, it turns out that it is nice to not always have to wonder if what you’re ordering will be ok.
And toilet paper! No holes in it, nor did it look like some poor grade half-processed sandpaper.
Here’s what I’ve noticed in as of 2007:
- New money: not easily missed, a few zeroes have disappeared off our currency. Lei are divided into bani, and I had only ever heard my parents talking about bani, the mythical, Communist-era cents. Lei now come with coins! Mind you, the coins are simple, with little thought put into the design. Obviously the government expects inflation to make them obsolete again, so why waste time on putting pretty pictures on the coins? Worse, though, about the new money is that I can’t understand the prices. Ask for a price and people swing between the new numbers (say, a 14 lei bus ticket) and the old numbers (the same ticket is 140,000 lei). I never know what to pay.
- Returning migrant workers: at least one in three families have someone working abroad where conditions are better. Many families were split up in the early Noughties as people of all ages went to Italy, Spain, Britain, Germany, etc. to work both legally and illegally in agriculture, mining, construction, and the service industry. (The news in the West mostly reports on the gypsies abroad, but ethnically and culturally they are more visible and provide more sensationalist reportage. However, they are probably a minority in terms of the entire Romanian migrant population.) Romanians are starting to realize that conditions abroad, sometimes with 12- to 16-hour days and low pay, just keeps them alive, providing few savings. Others have managed to save money and have returned to start their lives anew in Romania.
- Immigrants: some people, however, are not returning to Romania. My parents keep mentioning people who realized, hey, I like Spain, Spain seems to like me ok, why don’t I sell my house in Romania and stay here? Thanks to the EU, now they can make that decision.
- Malls: when even Alba Iulia has a mall, now that must be making smug capitalists everywhere sleep better at night. I suspect the costs are still beyond most incomes. Pretty places, mind you. Luckily, there are a few homegrown stores among the influx of foreign companies.
- Job creation: not just in the malls, where I met a nutritionist actually almost practicing her trade. If I stayed here longer, I would probably find more evidence than just the service and retail industry.
- Shell gas stations: they are gone. The Russian Lukoil bought them. Or was it Petrom? Also, I thought there were more MOL stations here before (MOL is a Hungarian gas company).
- Book stores: ugh! The books look prettier, but Romanian culture is the loser in this globalization battle. Aside from a tourist section with a handful of coffee table books on Romania, a classics shelf with the canonical Romanian writers, and a trickle of contemporary Romanian authors, there is nothing about Romania. It’s all about the West now (with the odd Murakami novel thrown in, but he’s very washed-down Japanese anyhow) . Sure, I am glad that Romanians can be aware of what’s happening abroad. But this is coming at the cost of learning anything about our country. I am relieved that I stocked up on books about Romanian culture, language, customs, superstitions and literary analyses years ago.
- Museum improvements: I’ve only had the chance to visit four museums so far, but the Brukenthal has catalogues now, Alba Iulia’s Muzeul Unirii now has changing exhibits, Bran Castle has better security and an exhibit on its 20th century owners, and PeleÅŸ Castle has not crumbled since 1994 when I was there last. The latter may not seem like much, but considering that so many shady deals happen there between tourists and security guards, I can breathe a sigh of relief. Kudos to Romanian and Russian tourists for knowing to take photos without the flash. American tourists are destroying Italy and probably the rest of Europe; luckily, we have no American tourists.
- Credit cards: there are so many stores in which you can use them! However, between my parents warning me that I and twenty generations of my descendants will be robbed blind, and the fact that I had no idea credit cards came with PIN numbers, I haven’t been able to use one. This cost me a DVD on Transylvanian fortified medieval churches.
- MuÅŸchi Å¢igÄƒnesc: they’ve ruined my favourite deli meat! “Gypsy muscle” is now a greasy slab of tasteless nondescript meat! My parents reassured me that in the countryside there’s still real MuÅŸchi Å¢igÄƒnesc because they’re still slaughtering pigs the old-fashioned way, EU be damned.
- Old folks: you rarely see little old women in black kerchiefs around any more, even in the villages.
- Thatched roofs: two of the last houses with thatched roofs in my grandparents’ village have disappeared, foundations and all. The only evidence they existed is that I have photos of them from every single previous visit to Romania.
- Transylvanian fortified medieval churches: not really new, since they were constructed centuries ago in response to the Mongol invasions. But I just discovered them. I had visited some before I knew what they were. Now I have to read up on them, re-visit them and suck in their aura as I imagine the terrified medieval population of Transylvania cowering around. Plus, a tourist map gave me the idea of a late summer church-to-church tour by bike.
- Good customer service: wow. Was that a smile? Must be all the Romanians returned from working in Italian restaurants.