Wednesday, 28 November 2007

British rail...

Tada... always great to wake up to yet another announcement of astronomical rail fare increases and predictions going all the way to 2014.

They must be very busy anyway at the moment, clearing leaves on tracks that seem to stop trains dead in their tracks. Or on their tracks rather... Never heard of this before had contact with the UK rail system, although I grew up in a very leafy part of the world.

Every autumn, leaves on tracks are a nightmare for the train system here... with posters explaining the delicate quantum physics of the phenomenon at major rail stations. Somehow, unless these leaves are particularly different, we should do remakes of the great westerns in John Ford's inimitable style. With one minor change. Instead of blowing tracks up in the film for a train holdup, the baddies could just gently sprinkle some leaves on the tracks. Done.

Also, funding for the continuing engineering works are good to have... We shall continue paying for something that lasted more than 5 years now on a short section of tracks leading to London. If we divide the distance with the time it took them to repair tracks, it equates to about 3 inches per week. Amazing speed. Good work takes time.

Every time there is a debate about how it was underfunded during the Thacher years. Well, compared to what? Would not like to calculate the funding received by the rail system in Romania for several decades, as it would be a very tiny amount. Somehow, I grew up with a rail system where making 600 Km long journeys even across mountains was a reliable affair, with maybe a 20minute delay at the most. Trains being constantly canceled due to not being able to find a driver for the whatever train journey was never heard of. And yes, they were very leafy tracks... still, the old locomotives and carriages managed to cross the Carpathian mountains even, regularly, and reliably.

Something tells me that pouring money into the rail system is not the answer... and there is a strong human factor that needs to be rectified a bit...

If we had any doubts, at least now we know: for all this quality rail system, that on a 40 mile distance can not ONCE arrive on time, will be paying much more.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Under invasion

Well, today again the day started with a BBC rant on the terminal danger immigration presents to British society. Again, immigrants are not only a burden on the National Health Service (where more then 2/3 of nurses are foreigners, but this statistic is always left out) and transport system, but also schools.

To make it even more of a balanced and open debate (yes, this is sarcasm), Oxford University is planning to have a debate session with such illustrious personalities as the leader of the British National Party, a debate on freedom of speech.

Considering the BNP's track record, we could also have the freedom of speech to state what they really are as a party and what would be the most favourite book their members could read - ah, but it would be by a German, hence foreign author, so...
Enough people have suffered and died for freedom of speech, so to have a debate with those public figures on that particular topic is an absolute disgrace.

But after all, have heard it all - any speech from those political celebrities can be read exactly as something encountered in 70s/80s/90s and even present Romania, just replace some keywords with any text editor and you got yourself a very up-to-date speech from people who share the BNP's vision on exactly what should immigrants to (or more importantly, what should be done to them).

When Gordon Brown says, British jobs for British people, then what does expect from media hype or someone from BNP? But at least they can now talk about their freedom of speech (and their wonderful interpretation of it) at Oxford University. Let's give them a reputable and respectable forum...

Monday, 26 November 2007

The safe world...

After 25 million people's very personal details were lost by the UK Government on CDs, just wondering how safe this ultra-safe world they paranoically want to build is.

These are the guys that want to introduce ID cards with biometric data and pretty much everything stored on every person. This will increase security and safety. Oh yes, and when my biometric data will be lost on CDs and cracked by some techies for identity fraud, then the thinktanks will issue me... another fingerprint? another iris? will undergo plastic surgery? It is forgotten detail that hacking into that database will mean life-long exposure and no way of altering the very data that identifies me for authentication purposes.

But I am sure that regulations and rules will be respected with the same strictness and personal moronic interpretation as some staff at the airport did the other day. They were told to randomly check 1/3 of passengers's shoes. What do they do? Not random checks, that is too complicated and yes, they have to learn to count. Preferably to large numbers with many digits. Difficult.

Much easier it is to have one of 3 queues continuously checking our shoes, while the other two didn't. We could have picked the latter, but queue was shorter where there was more hassle, oddly enough.

Ah well. This is the wonderful interpretation of random checks.

I trust we shall see similar epxressions of genial thinking from the very people that continuously make our everyday life safer ;-)... So safe, that children's stories are being censored for passages that are a health & safety problem... that give kids some ideas that could lead to accidents. There were passages taken out of a book because the writer made the kid climb on a ladder. When it was changed to climbing on a pile of cans of paint, that was acceptable.

I wish I was making this up... If we want to beat the US in the health & safety and oh yes, security paranoia, then UK is the place to live.
Reminds me a piece of news a few years back.

A cemetery in Northern England got vandalised overnight. They called the police. It turned out, it wasn't vandalism. The caretaker has knocked over the older graves' headstones as he considered them a health & safety hazard.

There is something deeply symbolic about a society knocking over its own headstones...

Sunday, 25 November 2007

...and into the present

After a short break, and having finished the 'memoir' section, it is time to move the viewpoint to a different time and location.

There are some great parallels between the world I left behind and the one I live in - after all, homo sapiens does have some universal traits...

So the upcoming entries here will be more musings on, and contemplations of, the more 'historical' democracies and oh yes, that so-called free world.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

17. Choice - Part 3

The fundamental mistake committed by those dictators was the sharp contrast between the surreal realities they tried to create and any sane thought process - the contradictions between words and tangible facts became too obvious.

Those countries now learnt lessons – and my home land joined the learning process. We, and now also they, live in the world depicted by Philip K. Dick’s The Mold of Yancy... where there is freedom of expression and total freedom of thought, but one-track minds follow set trends, set planes of existence, seeing no alternatives. All the more tragic, as they really have countless choices.

Romania is still a land of paradoxes of the most thrilling kind... paradoxes visible to anyone with at least one open eye, during a simple train journey or cab ride... Signing some EU papers was the start for a long process that is still in its embryonic state after 16 years from the Revolution, a process of real change at the level of the person on the street.

Every visit back home, while going through the whole process of touching the reality I no longer belong to, a reality saturated at the same time with disillusionment and hope, with absolute extremes of deep poverty and stratospheric wealth, throws me into a schizoid state of mind. State of soul, rather.

There are people who welcome you with smile and who unconditionally, as we say, would sell the skin off their back just so that they can truly welcome the visitor they love with all sorts of earthly goodies... Then there are other people who welcome you with the fake smile and dangerous ambitions fired up by your visible wealth... There are streets filled with people who still can not bring themselves to dishonest ways of making money. There are other streets that can only be frequented safely by ‘people’ who never made an honest dime in their life and never will...

Heavy mists of anger also descend on me when I watch the new self-obsessed cliques of power being incapable of using the riches of that land for economical benefit...

They are very good at exploiting the resources for their private purposes, but not for building wealth in and for the country. Natural resources of immeasurable value are left to sink into oblivion and, again, entropy slowly destroys them. They have the Danube Delta, the Black Sea, countless mountains resorts of astounding beauty, but in desperate need of modernisation. They have volcanic lakes, geothermal phenomena like Lake Sovata, which is unique in Europe... They have countless naturally sparkling mineral water sources with proven medical benefits or some just acting as pure fizzy refreshments... There are rivers and lakes for fishing and relaxation... Come on, modernise those resorts, exploit, in the good sense of the word, your treasures, bring in the crowds of tourists that were still flocking to Romania in the ‘70s and ‘80s... Instead, apart from turning a few ski and Black Sea resorts into havens for the closed circles of power for their own debauchery, all are falling apart, metaphorically and above all, literally. Casinos are built, while castles and palaces crumble. Illegal hunting and fishing and tree cutting goes on and on, while beauty disintegrates and falls into such an unsound state that even major tour operators have taken off their list certain destinations in Romania.

Seventeen years after the Revolution, international tour operators actively discourage tourists to go to the Black Sea - and quite rightly so, as this many years after the Revolution Romania finally manages to destroy via ignorance priceless gems of its natural assets, making them not just shamefully shabby, but downright dangerous for the visitor. This happens while other countries like Bulgaria become tourist and real estate havens – clearly, there is something special about the Romanian ultra-corrupt, totally egocentric and power-drunk ‘high society’.

Behind all that façade, there is a struggling nation that is trying to find again its morals, still doubting whether it’s even worth doing that - or whether morals even have a place in that world, whether values are still values or just ballast that is slowing them down in making a quick buck.

So despite all this, whenever I go back, I still think that I am going home - and could not, would not imagine myself dying in a foreign land... But at the same time, I can not imagine myself live in my home land. I am still waiting for the moment when the average, decent person will earn a comfortable, decent existence, reaching a state where he/she no longer has to know what it is like to be put down every minute of his/her life by people who never knew in their life one honest and honourable moment.

No aristocracy started with wealth acquired via honest and/or moral means... It just took them time to turn themselves into nobility, after generations and generations of exploitation, killing, conquering and stealing. Romania’s old aristocracy fled when the Communists came, some returned and reclaimed their properties, most stayed and still wisely stay away from that land that is trying to find its way among too many and too sudden possibilities. Among too many ghosts.

Evolution will take place on all levels. Time, perhaps, cures everything.

Still, I wonder whether I really wish those people, known and unknown faces, to evolve towards what the fervent imitation of the West they dreamt about will really bring into their lives. I wonder whether parents will be afraid of hugging their kids. Whether health & safety worries will make them knock over old and deemed to be ‘unstable’ headstones in cemeteries, as some administrator did in England - there is something deeply symbolic about a society vandalising its own graves...

I wonder whether they’ll need “Mind the step” signs at the bottom of every staircase. Whether they will bend their own language out of shape to avoid any gender-specific verbal constructs, just to be politically correct. Whether they will use dozens of chemicals on every surface of their homes, to sterilise them against those lethal germs that will undoubtedly kill them and their kids as soon as they touch a bathroom tap or kitchen table... Whether they will exchange their glorious cuisine for a diet of burgers and vitamin supplements...

I wonder whether they will also end up substituting the genuine freedom of thought they dreamt about and fought for with something that resembles all that on the surface – and whether in actual reality, the vast majority will be driven and manipulated towards having virtually the same thoughts, opinions, tastes... They now face countless choices, after being squeezed into a confined space of life-threatening, but simple dilemmas.

I just hope, that good old dusty hope again, that they know enough about a previous, basic, in all manners rudimentary existence - so that they can teach their kids about living life on a plane that is located somewhere between the organic, humble simplicities and unconditional copying of everything the ‘West’ throws at their senses.

I hope for those valleys, hills and planes to be populated again with people who feel good in their skin, who regain their true identities and feel free (and above all, able) to make genuine choices in their lives.

If and when that happens, after the post-traumatic stress syndrome of the market economy that hit them slowly fades, the faces one sees on the streets, overworked, blasé and disillusioned faces will change, will be again luminous with self-confidence - and will have reasons to smile again at each other... and even at the stranger that I’ve become.

Friday, 16 November 2007

17. Choice - Part 2

So in many ways, no matter how odd it sounds, I am grateful for the first almost 19 years of my life spent in darkness of all kinds. It made me appreciate the small things in life, in absence of anything else. In a society where perfect paranoia meant perfect and life-saving awareness, ‘them’ wasn’t just a psychotic and delusional term, but a tangible reality one wished to avoid at all costs - so one learnt how to see through most kinds of manipulation. It taught me that I can only rely on myself – and after the everyday reality kept punching me from left and right, still the only choice was to pick myself up and carry on. Cautiously, but with determination - otherwise the system would have won.

It also made me able to look at things from a radically unusual vantage point – and see the parallels, often disturbing ones, between a world that defined my childhood and another one trying to define the rest of my adult life. For a while, I thought that certain things were localised geographically and historically, but it was a learning experience to find that many of those facets of a society are universal. It was spine tingling to see Tony Blair’s government introducing a ban on any demonstration within a radius of 1000 yards around the Parliament. To see 1.1 million people demonstrating in London for a good cause, more precisely, against a bad one – and being ignored completely. To watch carefully timed paranoia-inducing revelations in the news, 24 hours before very controversial proposals in the Parliament – just to pull in some sympathetic thoughts for some legislation that came straight out of Stalin’s cookbook, but was introduced in a so-called democracy. To hear about laws on holding people without trial for extensive periods of time, all for the ‘greater good’. To replace the Cold War that became obsolete to the great sorrow of those who used it for great manipulation tactics on the ‘free’ side of the Iron Curtain. Replace it all with the ‘War On Terror’, which is the Holy Grail for any manipulating politician trying to induce paranoia – now we have an enemy that is once again faceless and non-localised in geographical terms. But this time, that enemy is not tied to any political regime... so its exploitation, for introducing downright totalitarian legislations masquerading as democratic measures for preserving our safety, can now go on forever.

It is interesting and chilling to find the parallels... but maybe those can only be found easily by some who have seen those lines thankfully not leading to infinity. Thankfully intersecting a more sane plane of existence sometimes, with the exception of a few remaining countries living their days under totalitarian terror of one colour or another.

It is also puzzling, how the free world managed to gradually cultivate nations of people fundamentally incapable of existing without minute by minute, inch by inch help from somebody or something. Such a radical change is already happening to the new generation in Romania. It is a change from a world where you had to keep all your senses sharp and your wit in top shape, to a world where you have the right to sue someone for not putting up a sign for minding your step.

My home land has gone through at least these, most undesirable, unavoidable changes... While the economic and financial picture is still dire, the new society is rapidly becoming what the for so long elusive ‘West’ has been for such a long time already. A society where, on the surface, the Nanny State (and where else more evident, than in the UK) takes care of every thought, aspect, step, diet, sight and sound, just to make one’s existence as comfortable as possible... while making the majority downright incapable of thinking for themselves and really making choices.

Stalin and his apostles didn’t want thinking subjects – the new democracies in their countries have similar fears, but manage to educate the people into the state of being ‘comfortably numb’ via gentler means...

Thursday, 15 November 2007

17. Choice - Part 1

For me, there was and still is a clash between personal interests and the larger picture... More than half of my high-school class who I graduated with in 1990, seven months after the Revolution, haven’t returned to my home land... Not to live there, anyway – we just spend a few weeks here and there, just to recharge emotional batteries with the voices and faces of people we know, with the smells of the battered forests and colours of those summer evenings and winter mornings.

It was a choice between having a life where, apart from obvious economic benefits, people do not make you feel like a third-rate citizen in your own home, do not turn everything that is still good in you against you... and a life where, again, apart from economic and professional shortcomings, the myriad of everyday immoral moments pile up to make it all truly intolerable for us...

Since I left, I no longer have the moral grounds to even fantasise about how I would live my everyday life there if I were working there in a normal job that I managed to obtain via normal means (and not baksheesh-filled envelopes). But I do know, based on my first 19 years in Romania, that I would put up with any economical misery there if the old oppression would not have been replaced with a new one, an old constrained world with a new one where, without any political ideology, I would still feel truly insignificant, even undesirable, all the new layers of power being preoccupied purely with skinning me to fill their own pockets...

It is a bizarre feeling - not really having a home, an unconditional, permanent, stable, reliable home. Transylvania feels like home as long as one doesn’t interact with the new powers, the new and freely flaunted chauvinism directed against any ethnic minority, especially Hungarians. Decent people becoming corrupt and going through shocking personality changes due to a combination of total disillusionment and financial struggle... it really isn’t a nice sight. In Hungary, the Transylvanian immigrants are not exactly liked either, due to them driving salaries down and apparently taking jobs for lot less money than the locals. Again, not exactly home... despite them being the ‘mother country’. Then the UK, well, obviously not really a home in the way this kid understood home, even if latter meant sitting in the dark during power cuts.

I’ve become a tourist in my homeland. I fly home, poor kids and men spot me from miles away as a ‘wealthy’ foreigner. They offer to carry my suitcase and are really insistent in helping me, I always ending up spending long minutes in order to convince them to bug off. Long minutes filled with guilt-generating duality... on one hand, knowing very well that they really, really are desperately poor, but fearing that I could be suddenly contributing to statistics of stolen luggage or muggings.

I look out for older taxi drivers touting at the airport, listen to their intonation, the accent, do they speak a more educated Romanian... I try to find clues via both rational and utterly subjective, ‘sixth sense’ means as to what category would they belong to... Are they poor, but honourable and will gratefully accept my pitifully generous rounding up of the agreed sum by a few dollars or euros? Or will they represent serious danger - financial or, as some less fortunate discovered, physical danger.

Whenever I chase away the kids who keep asking for some money in exchange of me letting them carry my bags, whenever I ignore or very ostentatiously tell off touting cab drivers triggering my mental ‘what if’ alarm systems, whenever I look with despise at the street traders trying to talk me into seriously dodgy currency exchange deals, I, to this day, can’t do it with the comfortable sense of superiority and nonchalance of a ‘western’ tourist.

I am from and of that land, I have spent many years dreaming - not of wealth, but just normality, not abundance, just sufficiency... not maximum, just a decent minimum. An unexpected and unpredicted turn of fate has given me qualifications, experience, and money, oh yes, money - to finally buy, oh yes, buy things I could only dream about... modest dreams, modest things. Jorge Luis Borges said, money is the most abstract thing... it only and purely means possibilities, as it is up to you how you spend it and what you spend it on...

Still, that land, which has seen poverty of dimensions only vaguely sketched by our BBC documentaries and exploitatively ‘exotic’ shots of urban or rural Romania, orphans and street kids, makes me think twice whether I need something or not. And it comes before the want. Can’t help it.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

16. Study - Part 3

The old line from one of Neil Simon’s comedies was perfectly applicable to those winters: the radiators were the coldest objects in our rooms... I used to enjoy the power electronics lab sessions, where we measured short circuit currents of large electrical motors... and in a lab with 6 degrees centigrade in December, I could get gloves off and have my hands warmed by the buzzing, about to burn down coils of a motor.

Then in spring, exactly as our residence hall rooms used to, the amphitheatres and seminar rooms turned into ovens, baking us with the power of human stupidity controlling the heating budgets... We used to put books, bags, fire extinguishers in the windows, so that we could keep them open and hoped that the draft would alleviate a little bit the heat from the radiators bursting with newly found energy, after all those months of deep hibernation. Once, during a lecture, a foam extinguisher got knocked down from the window by the wind raging outside. It perfectly fell on its head, released its load and sprayed vast amounts of white foam over the screaming, fleeing students – but we all had one heck of a laugh, seeing the lecturer’s face (who was also the deputy Dean) when he saw our benches covered with white foam. Then we fetched the cleaning staff who could not believe their eyes when they entered our amphitheatre...

Priorities of course did matter already in that new Romania... Heating was not as important as installing at enormous cost a tiny private TV station on the top floor of the building, partly owned by the University... It never took off, never obtained licence, but it swallowed huge funds while thousands of students were frozen stiff in their double jumpers and coats, trying to take notes with hands wrapped in gloves... This was, already back then, a very accurate small-scale manifestation of how the country operated, the only priority having been the making of quick profit (or at least dreaming about it), no matter what the human cost was.

If freezing in the residence halls and laboratories was not enough for one to get a deep sense of just how the new country appreciates those who were loudly proclaimed as the ‘young titans’ who will build the new world, then the decline in the food quantity and quality was perhaps helping... Again, there were no real economic reasons (apart from the educational system plummeting to the bottom of the Government’s priority list, while they were too busy robbing the country blind). It was just a result of steady mismanagement and incompetence. During my first year at University, the studentship not only covered three canteen meals per day and the residence hall rent, but also left some money in our pockets. With inflation, this changed rapidly to a situation where the studentship could only cover a lunch and the rent... just about. While this was an economical phenomenon, the rocketing prices came with plummeting food quality.

It came to a point where friends and acquaintances in the army had immensely better food served than what we got in our canteen. This was a situation completely reversed in comparison with the reality under Ceausescu. The food was truly dire and came in small portions, making us hungry again within a couple of hours... This was not exactly riveting, considering that we needed to generate body heat and use brains for another 6-8 hours that afternoon... We packed sandwiches, as buying snack food all the time was out of the question with the prices rocketing. I ate the lunch in the canteen, it was still at least a warm cooked meal, but what a yucky meal... Whenever trucks filled with cabbages arrived, we knew we were in for a few months of cabbage soup followed by mashed cabbages and some meat molecules mixed with it, day in and day out, until the stock either terminally rotted in the cellars or ran out.

Still, during our spins and whirls and dangling off bus handrails (a.k.a. windsurfing) of the student years, the everyday reality faded a bit, softened... Not because we were not keeping an eye on the post-revolutionary press and events, watching as the white hot zeal cooled like a continuously and inevitably slowing lava flow, but because there was still some naiveté in us... Many of us thought that by 1995, when we were supposed to graduate, the smaller world around us would be somewhat settled and radically different from the one we just kicked right onto the pages of history books in those last few days of 1989... We had the feeling that maybe, by the time we get our diploma, there would be a country that can offer more than everyday dark surreal and actually need us and our diplomas.

Of course, the reality re-entered our field of vision with great detail and with one whopping great close-up in the last few months before the final exams. It became obvious that, in a country where all layers of political and economical power were occupied or at least managed by utterly self-obsessed and surreally corrupt new elite, nothing really changed. We could say anything, write anything, finally... but corruption, frustration and ultimately disillusionment have taken the place of post-1989 utopian visions.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

16. Study - Part 2

The enthusiastic and eager-to-learn student generations arrived every autumn to conquer rooms in those soon-to-become-caves-of-ice residence halls. Yes, conquer - as I can’t find any other word for the process of being able to get hold of a key to a room with three, then later overcrowded rooms with six or seven room mates... There were no lists, no assigned rooms and beds, just a designated day of accommodation hell.

I used to travel up to Kolozsvár at dawn or stay overnight somewhere, then queue up before the Sun started to show up above the hills... By the time it paid us a visit, we were a compact mass of young and shivering human bodies, all pressed together, all waiting in front of a residence hall assigned to our faculty, expecting the administrator with his entourage to turn up few hours later... When he finally did make an appearance, the crowd, more exactly the first couple of hundred luckier students, pushed their way in, up the stairs, got stuck in front of the first floor reading room where the God of Beds was starting to wield his powers with a ballpoint pen.

We were reduced to a truly animal state, the crowd was so desperate and tightly compressed that I recall us in the middle asking the lads towards the margins of the human conglomerate to tell us what time it was... We really could not free our arms sufficiently to check the time or have something to eat... I had a small water bottle in one pocket, a sandwich and some chocolate in the other. I could have considered myself lucky, together with the others stuck inside the building, close to the administrators all-powerful ballpoint pen, since we had the chance of getting a room, ideally with a list of preferred room mates, within a few hours. Others often ended up having to come back next day, then rooms ran out and anybody still not in possession of a key had to consider privately rented accommodation in the city. Latter was more expensive by an order of magnitude...

Getting a key early, among the first few hundred young titans thirsty of knowledge (but at that point, just desperate for an affordable bed and a roof), had other advantages, too. We could immediately proceed to the hardly luxurious accommodation and start scavenging. Since many rooms were lacking basic furniture due to summer chaos when things got stolen, we could end up being very characteristically the internal decorators of residence hall rooms... We used to do this by gathering shelves, beds, tables and chairs from whatever room we could find, combining all the elements into one rudimentary, but extremely pleasing arrangement where we imagine the four of us managing to study for a year. Then did it all over again the next autumn...

One lad, who remained our room mate through the whole five years of University, used to have his parents come up from a nearby town and bring his stuff... so he never needed to go back home and hoist in his survival kit bit by bit. This also meant that he was always the one who stayed behind in the successfully conquered room, keeping an eye on it, making sure subsequent scavengers, progressively running out of places to gather the bare essentials from, do not end up breaking into our room and gutting the place. It has happened many times, not to us thank Heavens, but to others on the same corridor. So these were a few days of utter paranoia – then, on our return, came the relief of finding the same smiley face in the still intact room, him very happy to see us ending his lone vigil, greeting us like some returning conquerors equipped with our essential gear sufficing for the first few weeks.
Numbers of students kept going up, the available residence halls stayed the same...

So by the time we were in the 5th year of our studies, knowing by then how to oil the administrative machinery to get our room back the following autumn via that Romanian universal lubricant, the obligatory baksheesh, many others had to stay in rooms of 7-8 people. They used to escape to packed libraries, parks or just the flat rooftop of the residence halls, depending on the weather, whenever they had to do any homework or studying. It was impossible to co-exist in a tiny room with bunk beds, trudging over each other like minute but studious elephants... Exam sessions were impossible even for us, who survived those years with slightly more sanity by having kept a status quo of four people in our room, achieved via regular bribes to the administrator... So some of us who lived a bit closer always used to escape home, returning only for the exams. Otherwise we definitely would have killed each other after four weeks of intense exam preparations, enduring everybody’s highs and lows, some doing partying when others were trying to sleep for an upcoming gruelling day...

The lecture theatres, laboratories and seminar rooms were not better either when it came to heating and general conditions for studying. After the Revolution, Universities hadn’t exactly received floods of funds, so rudimentary equipment, antediluvian valve oscilloscopes that needed two heavy-set lads to hoist them from one desk onto another, demonstration kits made by enthusiastic assistants during the 60s and 70s - these were our main tools in the labs. In the lecture theatres, the main instruments of our learning were not really the pens and notebooks, but the thickest jumpers and socks we could find... Sitting for 6-8 hours at a time in literally freezing rooms was highly educational, so was taking notes in gloves in the winter - the winters of a new Romania where, this time without any political or actual economical reason, the bare essentials, like that of heating a classroom, were still considered to be ultimate luxury.

Monday, 12 November 2007

16. Study - Part 1

The first five years after the Revolution were spent by me with being swallowed by the blissful whirls of the student years. Not that there was much partying involved, as 38-40 hours of courses and lab sessions with countless seminars haven’t left much energy in me by the time I managed to get to the residence halls...

We used to call the process of getting there windsurfing, because we rode on very seldom occurring, hence totally packed buses that carried us uphill, buses so packed that most of the time we were holding on to any of the vertical metal bars we could grab with our hands inserted between tightly compressed bodies, bellies and thighs and hips... And while we were just about standing on the edge of the bus, with doors left open, with our face in the wind, leaning out, pushed outwards by the human body amalgam bulging from the metal box, we looked like some windsurfers... and it was great fun in -20 degrees centigrade.

Exactly as in the years of the communist energy saving measures, which were meant to be just another form of psychological oppression, the free Romania continued to apply absurd principles when it came to administrating something as simple as heating. The residence halls where I stayed were still ice cold during the winter and we spent the nights in sleeping bags covered with duvets, wearing woolly hats. The rooms could get so cold during the bitching cold winters that we often found water frozen solid in the glasses left on the table near the window.

In spring, before the new fuel quotas were set for the heating centres, the heating centres were again, as in previous decades, burning all the fuel left over due to some idiotic (and no longer ideological) energy saving measure. So in March and April windows and doors were left open to create some draft - but even so, many of us had to escape downtown from the overheated rooms...

What made these oven-like residence halls even more ironic during the spring months was that during winter the administrators often had to resort to draconian measures to control the use of electrical gizmos, having to confiscate the electrical heaters used by us due to the fact that the wiring of the buildings could not take the load.

The normal fuses would have melted, but of course, as each of the 30-odd rooms per floor had 1-2 kilowatts going into often improvised heaters, we had to get inventive. In the boys’ residence halls, we mostly used 60mm nails instead of the fuses, the girls used several hairpins... The smell of burning plastic insulation, as even the wires in the walls heated up, was a sure sign that soon the whole thing was about to go South, turning the climate of the rooms into something from the deep North... The mains supply usually survived a few days, then the main distributor panel went up in flames in each residence hall.

I lived on the ground floor where the main distribution panel was tucked away in a small unlocked room - the shrine of electricity... This was our only hope of having some elements of 20th century existence come, in the form of light and civilised temperatures, into our rooms... When it all burnt down, it took them a couple of weeks to replace the entire thing and also fix the wiring that burnt out in the walls... They had a routine by then, no reprimands, just firm promises of confiscating all electrical heaters and radiators. So we always hid them, waited for the ice cold few weeks to pass and we were back to Las Vegas mode... until it all burnt down again. Considering how much we drove the system outside spec, with the utterly awful quality wiring having been replaced with similar crappy wires made of aluminium, it all managed to take quite a bit of desperate abuse from us.

A few times, just hours before the predictably smoky (but temporary) dramatic exit of all power, the mains voltage dropped so low due to the terminal overload that we could put our hands on the otherwise dangerously hot heaters, could see the filaments glowing faintly as pale red spirals in the light bulbs... Funniest of all were the very old valve TV sets with their stone age voltage regulators. These kept painting a smaller and smaller, fainter and fainter monochrome rectangle on the screen, then it all turned into a palm-sized grey blob in the middle of the screen. At that point, we usually gave up watching the psychedelic TV show caused by our criminally improvised, but desperate heating solutions combined with criminally incompetent administration of the campus...

They never learnt... and kept rewiring the whole blooming thing, cursing and abusing the students. Of course, only verbally, as we would have seriously kicked their heads in, unless they came with serious police commandos... Still, there was no change in the central heating. A few hours of lukewarm something flowing through the radiators, then nothing... and I said hello to my breath, when it became visible again. Somewhere in somebody’s newly liberated post-Revolutionary head, it all seemed cheaper to replace burnt down fuse panels and miles of wiring, than giving proper central heating to the ‘future of the country’.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

15. Exchange - Part 4

Before the collapse of the stage props that Ceausescu put up and kept standing for decades, people self- or at least semi-consciously used various escapism methods to soften the assaults on senses and reason... I don’t think it is an accident that after the Revolution safely packed those very stage props away (with the exception of a few quickly being re-used by the new governing powers...), people in vast numbers averted their gaze from the terrestrial, but seemingly otherworldly and quasi-chaotic reality unfolding around them, looking towards outer space... Also, instead of sustaining their efforts in attempting to find order in the new chaos around them, they projected their mind quests to outlandish realms.

This wasn’t just a resurrected avalanche of curiosity in science-fiction of various kinds... It was an almost pathological curiosity aimed at paranormal phenomena, the occult, UFOs, collective delusions... The number of articles and specialised magazines even, seminars, clubs, societies established around these areas were simply difficult to count or follow. Within months, vast numbers of people were diving head first into the new pool of sometimes valid, most of the times wildly aberrant studies, articles, talks, presentations, pseudo-documentaries on these subjects.

These topics were there, equally accessible or open for debate, before the Revolution... but somehow, now led to an explosion of interest, often downright fanaticism, directed at them. Only after the Revolution did so many crop circles allegedly turn up on the fields of Transylvania and the South... Only then did UFOs in great numbers decide to travel across the gulfs of Cosmos to catch us in our post-Revolutionary state of stupor. People embarked on trips into dark forests and climbed mountains to observe the visitors, exchanged notes between the newly established network of UFO spotters. Ghosts, for some reason lying dormant during the Communist decades, came out in masses and started haunting old palaces, even country houses...

I doubt all this is a coincidence, as there is no temporal or socio-political factor that could explain why it only happened after the radical changes. Having seen the ramifications and the gradual return to normality after a few years, most of those clubs and magazines and entire topics sinking to appropriate levels of non-significance, being buried under layers of grey oblivion, personally I think the entire phenomenon was one of the many manifestations of the post-traumatic stress syndrome experienced at a national scale in the Romania of the ‘90s.

There are theories about the number of UFO sightings rising to unprecedented levels in the US, in strict correlation with certain vacuum-creating social and/or political changes, as if they were an expression of a collective psyche starved for meaning, signs, genuine beliefs... all being replaced with the paranormal and the occult in the minds of many. I still believe, that a similar phenomenon took place in the Romanian ‘90s... A desperate need for clear signs, directions, promises, guidance has been projected into another sphere of preoccupations and mind quests. If the reality wrapped around the fragile new everyday existence could not and did not provide answers, people found answers ‘out there’. Or at least they found more questions, but the latter did have the secondary reward mechanism of showing them: there are things way beyond their understanding, all governing their existence, but it is pointless to even try figuring them out. Seek solace in these thing that make the continuous everyday absurdities around you seem insignificant in the ‘big picture’ of the Universe you thought you caught a glimpse of...

Others sought answers inside them – answers to the bigger questions they were asking without realising they were asking them. They sought a power to cope and order, via more inward directed explorations... thinking that new psychobabble, new ‘self development’ was the answer. People, who flooded the city life with countless mushrooming seminars on self-help, positive thinking, new age techniques, Amway direct marketing, neuro-linguistic programming and heck counted what else, were tapping into the same psychological needs as the UFO seekers and paranormal ‘experts’ were. In this case, the answers to all the new things people could not cope with or assimilate, lied within. Stay positive. Have sunshine in the mind. Try certain ‘new’ meditation techniques... Help yourself. Anybody can become a diamond. Anything and everything is possible, just think positive. Anything less than 100% is sabotage. There is no try, only do. Ad infinitum. Ad nauseam.

Again, the myriad of societies and clubs gradually faded into oblivion after a few years. Either people realised that nobody was turning into any kind of ‘diamond’ via reciting positive mantras in the bus queues or while trying to pay the electricity bill... or simply re-focused on the problems at hand, whether they felt they can cope with them or not.

Both outer space and inner universe gave countless promises of answers to the crowds of people plunging into either one of them... and it was gradually time to seek actual answers or at least pose some meaningful questions.

It all may sound overblown for someone comfortably wrapped in the fibres of a social order, an economic and political system that has had its last radical paradigm shift in a distant past... But this really was a change where people had to realise: they have no competences for handling the aftermath, an alien reality is being unleashed on them. Still, to this day, they are trying to switch from a kafkaesque to a borgesian Universe, trying to find their way through a labyrinth with no centre...

Saturday, 10 November 2007

15. Exchange - Part 3

Unfortunately, one of my friends became an example of how extreme people’s reactions can be to everything around them taking a leap into a seemingly non-deterministic, completely unpredictable Universe they are not equipped to cope with. From a normal person, a passionate collector of music and a complete cinema fanatic, he metamorphosised into a deeply paranoid individual. His reaction to the sudden uncertainties, many of them menacing and out of control, was to become suspicious of everything and everybody... exactly when no longer had to watch what he said to whom.

While he changed jobs and became a TV broadcaster making documentaries on various social and scientific subjects, he developed a complete system of delusions. First, the freemasons were hunting for him. Then, it all developed into a fixation with UFOs and extra-terrestrials, then the source of his paranoid delusions moved back to Earth: he dived in an ocean of paranormal phenomena that were out there to threaten his life. He re-arranged his flat into energy zones, placed on the floor strange concoctions that made me fall over most of the time when tried to get in and out of his living room filled with his music collection. Those odd concoctions were meant to protect him from negative energies... Others were there to focus positive energy into jugs of water that he later drank...

There is nothing worse than a high-IQ mind going delusional as it is able to imagine way too many strange things and see way too many non-existent connections between those bizarre things... His paranoia, combined with complex delusions, eventually led to a state of affairs where he could no longer communicate with others and barricaded himself in his world. Not a dangerous lunatic, just an anti-social one. When the millennium came, he was terrified of a predicted end of the world arriving finally after so many failed attempts. I watched him cranking up the pace of building his collection of films and music. He was hoping that he could be one of the few survivors dubiously predicted by somebody and that he could bring some of mankind’s values into the ‘new cycle’. He used to send me emails and attachments of his (always) amazing music catalogue, telling me that he held 1.57% of the world’s music. How he worked it out, it is beyond me. I guess I would have got very worried if my mind actually managed to work out his calculations...

When the non-scientific multitudes of various ends of the world did not happen after the millennium either, he, being an engineer, started to focus on more scientifically plausible ways for this world going south in some mega-cataclysm. Years later, he finally found one: climate change – the perfect scenario, satisfying the remains of his pragmatic, logical mind and also his entire paranoia complex.

While watching the sad transformation of that warm person, I admittedly thought that the process was something purely brought on by his mind alone, as something that was meant to happen at some point anyway. Probably closer to the full reality though are my thoughts that tell me: his deplorable personality changes that came after the Revolution, after the demise of institutionalised terror, after the times where paranoia was a survival mechanism, were brought on by the traumatising change in our society. Some reacted to it in this way, some minds just folded over, curled up, started to see threats in everything while a dark, but predictable reality with preset daily routines of mind-numbing monotony changed to pure chaos, spinning out of control.

There was order in his paranoia, in his delusions, in his imagined dangers and threats... An order that his mind desperately needed, while trying to deal with a complete and total reality shift around him.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

15. Exchange - Part 2

Theatres, cinemas, concert halls, orchestras, well, anything cultural, have also been exposed to the laws of the new economical reality. Stable state funding, meaning an automatic coverage of expenses and salaries regardless of the number of tickets sold, is just a distant memory that often seems as unreal and dream-like as many other things from the Ceausescu years. But ironically, it is exactly this area where those years, despite all their oppression, had beneficial effects compared to the jungle capitalism that suddenly burst through the cracks of the terminally aged pavements and road surfaces of the new Romania.

Libraries could fill their shelves with (not black-listed) books from funds which were simply there during the Regime... Plays and concerts could be organized with programmes of non-censored works in mind... Now everybody, in order to survive, has to focus on number of tickets sold... Theatre companies are sliding into desperate commercialism mixed with enthusiastic experiments in the avant-garde. Concerts feature a veritable salad of movie tunes mixed with some movements from here and there, seemingly picked from some ‘best of...’ list of catchy classical tunes...

Plays are staged with naked actresses as ‘novel’ versions of classics, cabarets go on stage with populist, tragically desperate, primitive and above all, sleazy humour...
Bookshops, ironically, enjoyed during the Regime happy days of packed shelves, piles of uncensored classics and carefully vetted translation of foreign authors. Crowds filled the confines of those shops all the time, rapid fingers flipping through many pages, sampling, picking, choosing, paying affordable prices... All this has changed, like everything else destined to feed the mind and soul. Gradually many bookshops, privatised of course, started to disappear and office equipment shops opened in their place, all showing new priorities and new profit making possibilities. The few surviving, struggling book stores were and are selling extremely expensive books, imported ones sporting astronomical price tags due to the currency exchange rates... We started to call them, like many other shops filled with goods that are only affordable for the new dubious elite, museums... People walk in, have a look, wander out and resume their pedestrian existence.

Local film festivals, like Alter-native in my home town, struggle every year to find sponsors despite steadily growing success, increasing quality of submitted works and the growing attendance of the public... Quality magazines struggle for survival despite the number of readers, ultimately die out purely due to funding re-prioritisation and their place is taken by acres and waist-high piles of cellulose sporting titles like ‘Crime and rape’...

When people buy some ‘must have’ items, like mobile phones, and replace their rusty, disintegrating communist-era cars with extraordinarily expensive new ones, pay back the loan with huge interest due to high inflation and medieval greed of the banks, then still somehow manage to pay off the bills, they have no money left for culture and arts... Therefore a commercialisation of the cultural scene, combined with an essentially poor potential audience, led to the characteristic post-communist (anti-)cultural phenomenon witnessed there.

Inevitably, nostalgia of the past era has turned up... In still freezing homes, in any one of the concrete deserts cut off from the electricity grid after tens of thousands of families could not pay the bills any more, not 6 months, not one year, but ten years after the Revolution that brough all this new freedom and new captivity into their lives, minds assaulted by yet another promising tirade of yet another Government decided that all the oppression of the old Regime was bearable compared to this.

Moral survival, the abstract concept of freedom of speech and many such luxurious things, were overtaken by the need for physical survival on the priority list in the minds of people who thought that the new Romania would no longer face them with such challenges. The ability to voice an opinion without the risk of being arrested is something that pales in significance, when compared to the ability to feel that your work can sustain your family and that you can afford some heating in your home in January...

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

15. Exchange - Part 1

The most difficult few weeks and maybe months were those of the realisation: the great myriapod that devoured on those streets all that was Old had to dismember itself into individual human particles, united by a bond lot softer than that of the zeal which managed to overthrow the Regime... We had to individually come to terms with the new, everyday, plain existence – and this was not easy to digest.

People hoped for new politicians that could speak the truth, but those present on the TV screen in the early days, those days of euphoria, slowly got eroded pixel by pixel, being eventually replaced by a new breed of universally recognisable liars.

Those from ethnic minority background hoped that all of their basic rights would become finally reality. But within three and a half months from the Revolution we got ourselves a bloody reminder, on the streets of my hometown, that freedom for us would always mean a continued struggle to humbly ask and ask again for basic rights. Ask in such a way that the orchestrated pogrom seen after 15 March 1990 would not be triggered again by the fascist elements of the new Romanian political scene. The extreme right flourished, hate spiralled out of control, freedom meant anybody could do anything to anyone...

We exchanged a world of constant terror with a reasonably free one, but for many, the former oppressed world equated to stable jobs in which they could spend their years and decades until they retired. It also meant certain housing, usually in those concrete boxes, but it was still housing... It meant a comfortingly absurd and fictitious economy where salaries and pensions covered the expenses of a modest existence. True, an unimaginably monotonous existence - but that monotony, for many, meant predictability and stability.

So in the mid-1990s when I was finishing my University studies, many people already suffered of that strange, apparently inexplicable nostalgia that the West looked upon with surprise. It surprised them whenever some ex-Communist country voted back into power some faces from the dark past they tried so hard to kick into oblivion just few years before... It was a nostalgia linked to a regime that gradually softened in the memories of people who were suddenly assaulted by feelings and states of minds never before encountered by them. Worries about jobs. Worries about whether the inflation goes even more surreal and next month the salary will be barely enough to pay the heating bill... Worries about whether basic things will be affordable few months later.

Kids have seen their parents work hard and try to have an ordinary life in the free world where the paint on the new street signs, that replaced the ones with names of old Communist ‘heroes’, have barely dried. The promises, according to which this inevitable transition phase would not last too long, kept coming and coming... Years went by, while things got more and more difficult for those who just wanted to put in a day’s work and get a salary which was hoped to allow them to afford not the luxuries of the new elite, but at least the plain trivia of their new, free life.

Once again, economy looked glitzy and healthy on a grand scale. It certainly looked buzzing in statistics reported to the EU - and indeed, we had an extremely fast growing demand for mobile phones, new cars, new trendy clothing. The reality was and is less glitzy. Those reports never talked about the ways in which many cancelled their landline subscriptions and bought a pay-as-you-go mobile, as the latter was cheaper than the ludicrous line rental for their old phone. They never reported how cars were and are bought on loans sporting scandalous interest rates... or just what sacrifices people make to afford imported goods needed by their new everyday life.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

14. Revolution - Part 3

Music was pouring out of shops, all sorts of companies appeared overnight, produced and sold top-quality pirate editions of so many albums we were previously spending years to find in any decent quality. These companies and shops started out by first selling cassettes then moved on to pirate CDs... Tens of thousands of films on pirate VHS tapes were pouring out of other suddenly appearing shops - some were arranged in the owners’ houses, paper signs were pointing people to the new musical or visual heaven established here and there for starved ears and eyes. Video clubs turned up, within a month we saw arranged even in the theatre of puppets in our street, boasting a large TV set on stage and everybody queued for tickets to see some movie.

Few hours of TV were replaced with both national TV channels going round the clock with absolutely anything and everything they could dig up to broadcast. Then more and more local TV stations surfaced, people initially using the relay stations to plug in things from improvised local studios, broadcasting endlessly... They turned the quiet, languid ethers so far mostly perturbed by loud propaganda stormy with new images and sounds. In the first few months, before anybody even thought of copyright or selective broadcasting or quality, people inundated the atmosphere above us with broadcasted images from their cherished, painfully acquired videotapes with films, concerts, shows and sights most people could only fantasise about before. I recall those first few days of non-stop broadcasting, an insane storm of visions and sounds, an electronic euphoria satisfying an immeasurable hunger...

People suddenly discovered new needs. New hungers. New drives. New obsessions. An asexual society turned into a porn party, suddenly having nudist riverside areas, having nudism in non-nudist swimming resorts, porn magazines taking up every visible inch of the newsagents’ windows, hardcore films shown in the middle of the day. This carried on in a quite uninhibited fashion, until the Romanian Orthodox church freaked out and tried to introduce some rating system and watersheds. It took them many years... Even when they achieved it, adult films were shown after the watershed, then repeated during a daytime slot the next day – just one example of how Romania applied new rules in an illogical manner that was all too well known for us by then.
The one political Party was replaced by all the possible parties talking about all the possible and ludicrously impossible things, all bringing new thoughts, new terminology, left and centre and right and extreme right, new sides, new voices, new ambitions, new contradictions... and new lies.

The few shops with depressingly few things exploded into rows of shops. People were selling anything and everything, cut doors and display windows in the walls of their houses or ground floor flats, put up signs to attract people to buy whatever they started suddenly selling, selling, selling. First food and drink, then cigarettes and flowers, then clothing, then imported clothing, second-hand this and that. Private pharmacies, private dentists, private surgeries turned up everywhere. Within four months, I counted 6 pharmacies, 3 dentists and 2 private clinics opening just in our street.

The dream of making money, real money and not just some symbolic currency in a symbolic economy, overtook people’s minds. Pyramid schemes flourished, Amway arrived, held seminars all over the place. “Anyone can be a diamond”, “just stay positive, you can achieve anything”... All was achievable via trying to sell grossly over-priced silly products, recruiting friends and relatives to join the grand scheme that brought maybe not immediate, but soon-to-be-admired riches.

Nothing has started to change, with dizzying speed, into everything... an indiscriminate, unfiltered, uncensored, uncontrolled everything.

Going back to school, after that special and surreal Christmas, continuing my final year in high-school, preparing for the gruelling baccalaureate and the even scarier entrance exams for the University I planned to go to... It all replaced the surreal euphoria of those few days with a new version of reality I could not have imagined before, a reality where torn symbols and ripped flags and statues lying horizontally could not magically remove all the mundane realities of the Era that has performed a hasty and bloody exit before Christmas.

Monday, 5 November 2007

14. Revolution - Part 2

In many ways, that Revolution was exactly like an explosion... instantaneously destroying a world of musts and don’ts, leaving behind it a momentary vacuum of what-nows and where-tos. Then that void sopped up indiscriminately everything, filling it with confusing multitudes, superficial plenitudes, fragmented beatitudes... And after the whirlwinds of the debris absorbed from the ‘West’, it took many years to settle all that blustery chaos into a new reality that, to some extent and very gradually, started to show some degree of sense.

Instead of having pressure, constraining and restraining pressure, applied on all surfaces of our small world, the blast removed all those pressure forces. Everything around us not just expanded, but also, no longer being pushed under ground by those forces, burst to the surface... Latent tensions, antagonisms and hidden evil have all victoriously liberated themselves together with all that was the long-awaited Good. We have only known tangible dark fascism from books, but we were about to experience it on our streets. We only knew Mafia from films, but we were about to see it taking over every inch of our reality.

Still, we’ve gone from a Universe governed by simple, predictable Newtonian mechanics to something that finally started to be ruled by plurality-ridden, complex and confusing quantum mechanics. Before the changes we had just a few things of this and that... We were being deterministically limited to very specific choices and possibilities, just a small sphere of maybes outside which we could not venture, maybe only in our fantasies...

The past meant no trends for kids, as there was really just one thing to wear in school and just very few things you could find in shops outside school. No charts, as there was just the music we could get our hands on via people like those bearded, music-fanatic magicians I met in my young life... and then we made up our own mind on what we liked. No pressures to be somebody as there were really only those few possible futures for us...

And then suddenly, literally overnight, over noon to be precise, all those very certain limitations and very limited certainties of our present and future existence vanished, got demolished, executed, torn, ripped in one shouting and flag waving and bullet-dodging Bang.

Where we had only some virtually underground religious and spiritual life, we now had everything rushing into the vacuum created behind the still reverberating explosion. From Buddhism to Baha’i, from Satanism to New Age, all possible religions and sects and quasi-religious trends put up tent, metaphorically and literally, on our streets. Everybody was converting everybody to anything and everything. Teenagers gathered in half-demolished church buildings, set up Satanic sects just to try out what they saw on some album covers and concerts snapshots. One of my friends was dreaming about travelling to Tibet, no matter what, wanted to abandon his education, planned to skip his Baccalaureate. The most distant and most exotic lands, sights, thoughts and imagined realities have become suddenly the most attractive – and all felt tangibly close.

Where we had one haircut and one uniform, we had now all the trends from all the decades of the whole wide world. Kids went to school in customised leather jackets covered in chains and heavy metal rock symbolism. By summer 1990 most ended up sporting ultra-long hairdos, listened to all the possible music at all possible volumes while blasting death metal to New Age through any speaker they could install, segregated into groups with over-emphasised identities flaunted via clothing and behaviour. When the first Nike shop opened in Bucharest, the first shop of genuine ‘Western’ sports equipment, a student colleague of mine with already well-off parents bought a return plane ticket to Bucharest so that he could be among the first lads who wore genuine Nike trainers...

Where we had desperately few papers and magazines, we had an outburst of zillions of things printed about everything, copied, invented, put together from other things, news, photos, articles, translations of articles, flimsily printed, distributed, sold, sold, sold...

Sunday, 4 November 2007

14. Revolution - Part 1

By the end of the 1980s, the level to which the Regime cranked up suffocating measures of control was unbearable. Then, just when we really started to think nothing would ever change, to believe that we are so stuck in a bizarre present that an elusive tomorrow would never arrive, the Revolution came...

It started as a small, stubborn demonstration by a Hungarian reformed pastor in Temesvár (or Timisoara in Romanian), called László Tőkés - then it steadily grew, ignited by the 19 December most of the Transylvanian cities, spread across the Carpathian mountains, reached Bucharest - and the rest is really history from then on.

Although we heard via those banned radio stations what was happening in Timisoara and later in other towns, we saw our town centre quite unexpectedly attracting a few dozen, then hundreds, then tens of thousands of people... Then we heard the gunshots that killed seven people in my town... and eventually heard and felt the rumble of the tanks, as the old streets and houses resonated with that infernal, universally recognisable sound of Power...

I was at home, being idle just after lunch, chatting about something I can no longer remember, sitting in my parents’ room. Our neighbour, my first cousin’s wife, ran in shouting at us to turn on the TV, turn on the TV, it’s all over... In the middle of the day, instead of the invariable nothingness of static noise, there they were in the main news room of the TVR1 station... Not the usual newsreaders who the previous evening were still busy denying that the last Ceausescu rally drowned in shouting and general chaos – but instead, some guys in sweaters and jeans and torn shirts, sweaty and out of breath, shouting and wildly gesticulating in front of the camera... I can not remember what they were shouting, all I knew then that it meant the End of something I could not imagine ever ending.

22 December 1989 brought euphoria, tides of people on the streets, brought smashing and tearing of portraits, ripping of the communist emblem from the national flag that, with a whole in its centre, became the symbol of the Romanian Revolution.

I remember the layers of smashed glass from the framed portraits covering the streets, people ecstatically destroying with hands and teeth and feet the symbols of the Golden Era now gone, destroying books about the Party, shouting endlessly from the back of trucks, as if it needed any more emphasis, shouting “Down with Ceausescu”, “Down with Communism”... Indeed, the dominant direction that objects symbolising the old Regime took was down, as everything spiralled downwards during those few days, into a maelstrom of mass annihilation - statues, portraits, display panels and signs and flags and furniture thrown from the rooms of former Power into the streets. All were devoured by this insatiable, noisy, but benevolent giant myriapod set out to devour every hateful last crumb of what was hopefully gone forever.

Not much later, just after the Army has finally won the battle against the resisting forces of the Securitate, after He and She were executed hastily, after there was nothing left to smash and trample on and rip to pieces, there was the calmness of gathering strength. A calm after all that tearing and ripping, a tranquillity of catching breath after all that shouting and running and waving and laughing, laughing, finally properly laughing... And there was the quiet retreating for private thoughts after all that gathering and hugging... and asking the question: “what next”...

I really felt strange after those days. Christmas was coming, the first free Christmas when there still wasn’t much to put under the tree - but after all those years of not having much, we felt we had everything suddenly, not tangible everything, just plain and still almost incomprehensible vastness of everything.

I’d give all the subsequent Christmases with their increasing pile of Earthly goodies and tangible realities for that one Christmas of invisible everything... because everything did seem possible, and disillusionment (or inevitable Eastern European reality) came way too soon.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

13. Realm - Part 3

There was a more indirect defence of the realm, too... namely the defence of minds that might have been exposed to something opposite to what they were indoctrinated with (successfully or otherwise). Maybe such exposure led those minds to perhaps not just thinking dangerous thoughts, but making bodies attached to those minds do things, latter bringing down the Regime. Again, on our level, these measures translated into suitably surreal manifestations.

Travel to the ‘West’ was something only privileged, trusted people could undertake - sometimes even celebrities the country wished to ‘export’ and turn into lamentable puppets showing what amazing things the ‘East’ can produce. Not sure how easy it is to explain how a kid my age really, truly believed that he’ll never see in reality what lies beyond the Iron Curtain. After all, while listening to those dangerous radio stations, learning languages which allowed me to listen to BBC World Service, reading and setting up cinema nights in my head on dark evenings with no TV worthy of watching and the electricity cut, projecting the mental images I concocted from books and tales, even the fellow communist countries were difficult to experience for real.

Our passports were not really ours. They were held by the Securitate and released to us from time to time, whenever my parents applied for travelling to neighbouring Hungary. Then after lots of application forms that were covering the lives of several generations of our family in order to assess whether we could be trusted with even seeing the reality in the more ‘westernised’ Hungary, we could pick up the little green books. The fact that my parental grandfather was bourgeois because he had a few employees exquisitely hand-polishing antique furniture was never a huge plus for us... But up until the mid-80s, we managed to get our passports every few years and we paid short visits to folks on the other side of the border. “Even the grass is greener here” said one old chap, while leaning out of the window of the exasperatingly slow train that finally crossed the border and was rolling in the incomparably more liberal Hungary...

Hungary produced, printed, and imported many things that were banned back home, so if we picked up any of those banned books or records, our return trip often did become a trip of fear - but never guilt. Depending on the mood of the customs officials, who also had the important role of not letting subversive material enter the country, in the event of unlucky discovery of certain blacklisted things, we could end up with some shouting for show (after paying him off with Western goods bought in Hungary) or serious aggro.

Then in the mid-80s, our applications were being declined many times, a fact we first put down to the general tightening of the Regime in those years. After the Revolution, it turned out that the real reason was a Securitate file about my Dad who always watched his mouth carefully, except during fishing trips with his trusted colleagues... One of them was an informer – ironically, this was the other Hungarian ethnic that my Dad trusted the most. It just shows that we never had a predictable logical rule about who and why turned into a servant of the Regime... Nothing happened of course, apart from a file being opened and him being more ‘watched’ – but one tangible consequence was that allowing my Dad and his family to visit Hungary has immediately become a no-no. Hungarian ethnics were anyway more ‘watched’ than Romanian population... After all, we had access to Hungarian media full of infinitely more outspoken and dangerous ideas, plus they were often criticising what was happening to ethnic minorities in Romania.

I recall that we had to apply for a few minutes of international phone connection, simply dialling another country was impossible. We waited for hours and hours until a lady eventually rang us and established the call. Then she kept listening to every word spoken by us and our relatives talking from the other side of the Hungarian border, every minute entertaining herself by inserting a stentorian comment on how many minutes we have left. After all, any of these conversations could have been apparently dangerous to the country... It also wasn’t an accident that obtaining a phone took people 8-10 years or more in some cases. This wasn’t due to insurmountable technical difficulties, but having direct electronic connection between people, in the days before internet, was not desirable. Phones were just extra danger and extra hassle, abominations that needed to be randomly listened to by the Securitate... We worked out their rota, as we had characteristic crackling and noises turn up on our lines, then disappearing after a while, with a period so precise and predictable as the Moon phases... showing the perverse fact, that these weren’t random paranoia-inducing acts by the Securitate people.

Friday, 2 November 2007

13. Realm - Part 2

Such indirect measures of defending the clearly astounding values of our society were softer versions of the surreal comedy unleashed every time the country wished to train its youth for the hands-on defence of the realm.

High-school kids, girls and boys alike, were commandeered from our schools to the shooting grounds on the slopes of the hills that surrounded our city. This usually happened on sufficiently autumnal days to make the experience rainy and cold and overall miserable. But hey, it was a fun day out, a break from school, the chance to play with real guns. Well, guns that used to be real during the mid-to-late 1950s, but were rendered tragicomically surreal compared to what the decadent imperialists would have attacked us with.

The officers proudly showed us the arsenal, usually after at least three hours of waiting for anything to happen, just to illustrate the sharp organising skills of the glorious Romanian army. After the demonstrations of once-upon-a-time effective weapons now stuck in some strange time warp, we could get our hands on them and every kid was given four bullets at a time to practise shooting.

The targets, this I clearly recall visually, were unfortunately planted 50 meters away by some military or civilian person thoroughly permeated by large amounts of vodka or something functionally equivalent. Whenever I ended up towards the middle of the group that had to lay down and aim, I had to first count what position I’m lying at... then count the targets in order to find the one that was mine. The sorry target was often off by as much as 30 degrees relative angle compared to the one that I, and any sober person, would have considered to be in front of me. The Romanian army version of ‘in font of me’ led to situations where I had more holes in the target cardboard than the number of bullets I fired. Others may have not counted carefully which exactly was their target... so I had to conclude every time that my aiming, and hence certainly realm-defending skills, were absolutely superb.

The bullet casings had to be passed back to the soldiers who handed them out previously, and the little metal cylinders were carefully counted. Now those so-called ZB museum guns, that were still used by the army as main weapon, had the habit of spitting the casings in random directions at random distance. Hence often kids ended up with some casings going missing in the chaos of getting up, running to cardboard targets, marking them by circling the holes with pencil. Whenever any went missing, we had to form a line and comb the whole bloody (well, thankfully only muddy and brown) field until we found the missing casings. After these repeated search parties, with invariantly screaming and shouting officers pointing out to us that we really were a bunch of idiots, we always ended up having boxes of ammunition left over after the target practice – and we had to use them up. The absurd logic of the impossible army meant that the officers would have received a grilling from their superiors, if the inventory showed that somehow the kids did not practice enough and left so many bullets in the boxes. So we were given handfuls of the stuff, were allowed to shoot in whatever way we wished, just have fun and never mind counting the casings...

How we never killed anybody by accident, it really is beyond me. At the left edge of the shooting range there was a flaky fence that had more of a symbolic role than any real function, especially when considering the size of the slugs flying out of those guns. Beyond this fence, which was only held together by socialist revolutionary spirit, villagers were taking shortcuts over the hills so that they could end up in the outskirts of our city for some shopping. A soldier in a watch tower was supposed to raise and lower a flag depending on the absence or presence of some civilian walking past the shooting range filled with kids having too much fun. Well, he was supposed to, but often we were the first ones to notice some colourful human shape moving in the distance, while we were working out which misaligned target to shoot at.

After we survived the occasional training in the dubious art of defending our realm, those of us who may have been suffering of terminal naiveté would have developed the distinct sense of heroic usefulness, or even more importantly for the Regime, a delusion of useful heroism.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

13. Realm - Part 1

The factory where my Dad worked produced, among other things, photocopiers. These were the first models made in the country, based on local design and locally imitated from locally reverse engineered Rank Xerox machines. The monochrome quality of the pages that came out of the copied copier machine was truly akin to some psychedelic painting. Sheets that would have been pictures in desperate shades of grey had their overall artistic effect ruined by some text, or whatever that only resembled the original document, overlaid on top of them. But in order to be able to photocopy something, one had to go through serious checks by someone who was the administrator of that sorry machine. After all, photocopiers were the main tool for anyone wanting to produce subversive propaganda material.

This paranoia of course extended to more animate things, namely us. We had to be careful not to walk in a large group, because anything above 10 people in one cluster could have been considered a demonstration. Many times we got challenged when we went out with schoolmates to see a film. Usually some ordinary character started to orbit around us to find out what we were talking about, sometimes asked us where we are going and why. After all, it was the city centre and where else would subversive adolescents stage a demonstration, flexing the awesome counter-revolutionary muscles that a group of a few kids possessed, maybe all leading to a collapse of the regime... If only... Clearly, this wasn’t meant to be some protection measure against a genuine threat to the Regime, just something devised to make us feel watched all the time.

Of course, the world lying beyond the Iron Curtain was there to ‘get us’ via various means. Somehow the decadent imperialist West managed not only to produce immense wealth compared to our fictional riches, but in its spare time it also spent many hours devising ways to spy on us. Of course, they needed to, we had just too many genii running our country and industry. So paranoia was something that we inhaled every day, we could taste it, smell it – and this particular variety of paranoia had the metallic taste of the ironic, mixed with mouldy darkness and a slight acidic aftertaste of the absurd. It wasn’t the plain salty paranoia of others deducing your thoughts, it really was about the invented, and to some extent genuine, fear of the Regime facing the menacing imperialist World ‘out there’.

In the era of spy satellites and ultra-modern technology, every military building and army barrack was a taboo for anybody with a camera - and this applied to even a 13 year-old kid like me, equipped with my first fully manual Russian camera. I had to be ultra-careful not to take pictures in these areas marked by big signs that were showing a camera crossed out with blood-red lines. The absurd idea of a Western spy coming to a town and having to take pictures of these military barracks, so that some force plotting against us could use that information for some totally defeating stratagem, well, was truly ludicrous...

But back then I also had to realise just how resourceful the Western spies had to be, as I found out with great hilarity that one of the major rail junctions close to my home town, called Kocsard (or Razboieni in Romanian) was not shown on normal civilian maps. It had such a strategic importance that it became a non-existent spot on the map – while both military personnel and civilians travelled through that point on countless journeys. The station and the village did not exist. They could not exist for any spy who decided not to use one of many satellites and instead, came to some bookshop in the country in order to try to buy a local map as key input for some awesome imperialist stratagem. Hopefully, I imagined, he also closed his eyes when he came through the same area with the only main international train route that sliced Transylvania in two, heading down to Bucharest, across the Carpathian mountains. If he were asleep, then he could not see the chaotic bundle of rail tracks, as if drawn by some crazed hand in a fit of dementia on grainy grey paper. That spy obviously never smelt the stinking toilets that never needed a sign, as I always found them purely based on my sense of smell. He never saw the crowds, crowds that wobbled, as if under the influence of some strange drug, from platform to platform, every time announcements of an incoming train randomly changed the platforms numbers.